Feeling-thinking with the Plants: Ayahuasca healing, research and cognitive justice
“I noticed I have a tendency to be in my head too much”, she told me. “My mind is always racing, always thinking about something. Its exhausting. During my ayahuasca experience, there was a moment where I noticed that my mind had stopped” “What did that feel like?”, I asked. “Oh, it was wonderful! The first thing I noticed was that my anxiety was gone. I felt at peace and very blissful. The second thing I noticed was my body. I could feel myself inside my body, and being comfortable in that space. I realized how disconnected from my body I was, living so much inside my head… drinking ayahuasca has reminded me about the importance of connecting my mind with my heart.” “During this ceremony”, she continued in a later part of the interview, “I also thought a lot about indigenous people, and about the loss of their culture and the destruction of their land… I was very sad, but it also inspired me to be more involved in these issues… I got a strong sense of feeling that we are not separated from each other, that we are not separated from our land… these are problems that affect all of us in very tangible ways”.
Epistemologies of the South
Why does one write, if not to put one’s pieces together?
From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces: it teaches us to divorce soul from body and mind from heart.
The fishermen of the Colombian coast must be learned doctors of ethics and morality, for they invented the word sentipensante, feeling-thinking, to define language that speaks the truth.
-Eduardo Galeano, “Celebration of the Marriage of Heart and Mind” (1989)
“Feeling-thinking”, (Sentipensamiento in the Spanish original) is a term collected from the popular wisdom of the fishing communities of the Colombian Caribbean coast by the sociologist Orlando Fals Borda (2009) and popularized by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1989), among others.
To “feel-think” is to think with the heart, thought connected to feeling: a fully embodied emotional, intuitive, and rational cognitive process that stands in stark contrast with the disembodied, abstract detachment of cartesian rationalism, the modality of thought that has prevailed in the west since the enlightenment. The term has been further developed by Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar (2014) in his notion of Sentipensar con la tierra, “feeling-thinking with the earth”, to encompass a process of holistic thinking that goes beyond the individual body to include the rhythms and feelings of the body of the earth.
Arturo Escobar is an influential thinker within a framework that is gaining a lot of traction in the Latin American social sciences, as evidenced by its central place in the program of the last Congress of the Latin American Association of Anthropology, held last June in Bogota. This framework is known as Epistemologias del Sur, or Epistemologies of the South, as proposed by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura da Sousa Santos (2011). At the core of the Epistemologies of the South, is the need to reframe the pressing challenges faced by the modern world –ecological devastation, social inequality, cognitive injustice–, from a radically different variety of perspectives, in light of the continued failure of the dominant streams within eurocentric academy and politics to do so.
This framework aims to bring to the forefront of academic debate and political and social engagement the infinite variety of worldviews and realities that make up the life experiences of people in the “global south”, systems of knowledge that have been largely suppressed by the dominant logics of neoliberal capitalism, extractivism, colonialism or patriarchy –some of the components that form the ideological corpus of the “global north” — and its universalist aspirations.
In short, to give visibility to the fact that the understanding of the world is much broader than the Western understanding of the world, and that solutions to modern problems might not be found exclusively within the confines of western epistemologies. Furthermore, it is the realization that potential solutions are already abundant: it isn’t so much about imagining new ones, but about listening to the voices of the people who still remember how to live in harmony and balance with each other and the earth.
‘‘There is no global social justice without global cognitive justice’’
One of the most relevant aspects of this framework is the acknowledgement of the immense damage that has resulted from the systematic suppression of indigenous (and other non-hegemonic) systems of knowledge over the past centuries, and in some cases, their systematic destruction. This is a process that da Sousa Santos terms “epistemicide” and identifies it as a cognitive injustice: an unjustified lack of ‘‘equity between different ways of knowing and different forms of knowledge’’ (237).
The author makes the case for the recovery and promotion of the knowledges that, despite centuries of colonial suppression, have nonetheless resisted and survived. The goal is the creation of an “ecology of knowledges”: a horizontal dialogue where all knowledges are considered and valued, particularly around issues where indigenous perspectives and experience are vastly more useful, in practical terms, than the ones that are produced in eurocentric academy.
As an example, Arturo Escobar lays out the case that most, if not all, of the resistance movements that have actually succeeded in stopping –or at least significantly challenging– the profit-driven agendas of extractive industries, have all originated from and been led by indigenous peoples. He argues that, in terms of social transformation and self-emancipation, the knowledge originated by the territorial struggles of populations who are at the frontlines of ecological devastation is much more useful, appropriate and sophisticated than other forms of knowledge, since it originates from the lived experience of people who are fighting for basic human rights, and imminently and immediately confronted with the inter-related crises of climate, food, energy, poverty, and meaning (2016:18).
In an even more fundamental level, it is knowledge that is produced by people who still feel-think with the earth. People who, for the most part, still make decisions that are informed by holistic thinking, decisions that include the wellbeing of the community of human and non-human persons that inhabit the land, as well as the rights of the earth.
Amongst the vast number of things that western men and women can learn from indigenous and traditional peoples, it seems that nothing is more important and urgent than to re-learn how to live in harmony, balance and reciprocity with our own selves, with others, and with the earth as a whole. It’s becoming evident that a pure rational understanding of the global crises that we face, or of the need for systemic change, will not suffice. Rationality will take us only so far. In fact, says da Sousa Santos, nothing short of “a crucial epistemological transformation is required in order to reinvent social emancipation on a global scale”. But what would such a crucial transformation in the way that we perceive, construct, and gain knowledge about our world look like?
In the beginning of this piece, I paraphrased a fragment of one of the interviews that I’ve gathered over the last few months at The Temple of the Way of Light, a well-known ayahuasca retreat center in Peru where I am currently working. These interviews will form the backbone of a comprehensive qualitative study –in collaboration with ICEERS and the Beckley Foundation– assessing the promising therapeutic value that ayahuasca may hold for people suffering from anxiety, depression, trauma or grief, experiences of affliction that appear to be ubiquitous to western and westernized societies.
Although the study is ongoing and data preliminary, the centrality of some of the themes that arise in the narratives is so striking, that I have few worries about biasing the study by sharing small parts of it. For many of the people who attend workshops at the center, ayahuasca seems to be playing a big role in connection and reconnection, in all levels of experience: reconnection with Self, reconnection with the body, connection with others, connection with the land, connection with the earth. When prompted to elaborate on what it means for them to reconnect with themselves and their bodies, often times the same imagery is used: reconnecting the brain with the heart, reconnecting the mind with the feelings, reconnecting rational thought with emotions. A remembrance of a feeling-thinking way of being in the world.
Furthermore, it seems that for many others, ayahuasca facilitates also a reconnection of the thinking mind with the feeling heart and the organic, living Earth. It appears to increase empathy for others, human and non-human alike, and to inspire people to reconsider their relationships and connections with their families, communities, societies and environments. It facilitates the remembrance of a feel-thinking-with-the-earth consciousness that emphasizes the importance of maintaining a healthy social ecology.
In fact, this is not, by any means, a “new” discovery. More than 40 years ago, North American anthropologist Janet Siskind noted that a substantial percentage of the adult male population of a Sharanahua community in the Peruvian amazon drank ayahuasca twice a week. They did so, she observed, in order to become of “one heart” and to better share resources and cooperate with each other (1973).
My personal feeling is that there may be something about this that is irreducible to psychological or psychotherapeutical frameworks. It feels more like a fundamental epistemological shift that allows people –even if for a flashing moment– to experience themselves and the world in a holistic, interconnected way that feels novel yet familiar. In short, a remembrance of a feeling-thinking, embodied and interdependent cognitive process that is the birthright of all human beings in this planet. It is a modality of experience that, in the west, has been largely suppressed by a patriarchal and technocratic culture that glorifies the mind over the body and thought over feelings. This is something that indigenous cultures have been trying to show us and to help us remember for centuries. So how do we frame such an epistemological and cognitive “archaic revival” within the limits of our systems of knowledge?
Steps towards an ecology of knowledge
As an ayahuasca researcher, I feel that it is necessary to look for inspiration for our work within frameworks and schools of thought that are not only more diverse than the ones that dominate Eurocentric theory, but also incredibly relevant. These are some of the reasons why gatherings that incorporate a wide range of perspectives and epistemological frameworks –active attempts to advance such an “ecology of knowledge”—are so important. Symposia such as the one organized by Bia Labate and Alhena Caicedo during the IV Congress of the Latin American Association of Anthropology, addressing the social uses and political economy of ayahuasca, are increasingly “sharing voice” with indigenous experts and Latin American researchers, in a field that is largely dominated by euroamerican voices.
As we continue to unravel the therapeutic mechanisms of these inherently mysterious experiences, it is important to acknowledge that scientific knowledge has its limits. As stated by da Sousa Santos, the epistemic diversity of the world is infinite and no general theory can hope to understand it. On issues such as territorial struggles, resource management or Amazonian medical systems, indigenous forms of knowledge must be fundamental aspects of our ecology of knowledge. They have a clear advantage in informing and describing the various practices and phenomena involved. It is knowledge that is generated, and has been generated for generations, by people who still inform their lives by feeling-thinking-with-the-earth.
In the closing chapters of her latest book, “No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics”, Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein addresses one of the basic premises of the Epistemologies of the South: what we are lacking in order to face pressing challenges are not alternatives, but alternative thinking of alternatives – including the remembrance of a pre-industrial epistemological lens.
“It is this imaginative capacity”, she writes, “the ability to envision a world radically different from the present, that has largely been missing… There are specific cultures and communities –most notably indigenous communities—that have vigilantly kept alive memories and models of other ways to live, not based on ownership of the land and endless extraction of profit. But most of us who are outside those traditions find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix –so while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, imagining something else entirely is distinctly more difficult” (2017:220),
Much has been said about the messianic impetus that many people who work with ayahuasca adopt or promote. It is unlikely that ayahuasca will save the world. However, this is not only about ayahuasca: it’s about whole systems of knowledge and the ways of being in the world that they entail. At the very least, ayahuasca, the people and the traditions that know how to use it, appear to be powerful allies in the imperative quest of the west: to clear the layers of hardened bark from our feeling hearts and sprout the dormant tendrils and vines that connect us with the rest of our vast, sentient, intelligent, communicative and intentional world. As a teacher from another tradition, and of another plant, once told me, “for you urban beings, the main value of these medicinal plants is to alphabetize you about nature.”
And, as LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a powerful Lakota elder told Naomi Klein in Standing Rock, this is precisely the incredibly important role that indigenous people and indigenous systems of knowledge are playing in these difficult times: “To help humanity answer its most pressing question: how do we live with the earth again, not against it?” (2017:225).
As ayahuasca researchers, social activists or human beings, sharing voice with indigenous people can’t be reduced to a mere token of our appreciation for their resources and medical systems. If we want to truly understand both the dangers and opportunities that lie ahead, their voices are not only important, but essential.
De Sousa Santos, B. (2011). Epistemologias del Sur. Utopía y Praxis Latinoamericana /Año 16. Nº 54 (Julio-Septiembre, 2011) Pp. 17 – 39
Escobar, A. (2014). Sentipensar con la tierra : Nuevas lecturas sobre desarrollo, territorio y diferencia, Medellín, UNAULA.
Escobar, A. (2016). Sentipensar con la Tierra: Las Luchas Territoriales y la Dimensión Ontológica de las Epistemologías del Sur. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana. Vol. 11:1. Pp. 11 – 32.
Fals Borda, O. (2009). 1925-2008. Una sociología sentipensante para América Latina. Victor Manuel Moncayo Compilador. Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores y CLACSO. 492 p.
Galeano, E. (1989) El libro de los abrazos. Siglo Veintiuno de España Editores S.A.
Klein, N. (2017) No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics. London: Allen Lane. 288 p.
Siskind, J. (1973). “Visions and Cures among the Sharanahua”, in M.J. Harner (ed.), Hallucinogens and Shamanism. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 28–39.
Adam currently lives the Peruvian Amazon, working as Research Coordinator for the Chaikuni Institute and the Temple of the Way of Light. He is interested in the socio-ecological dimensions of mental health, and the potential role that ayahuasca and other psychedelic medicines play in the emergence of holistic and interdependent epistemological frameworks. He is currently leading the qualitative part of a joint study between ICEERS, the Beckley Foundation and the Temple of the Way of Light, assessing the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for various western aflictions. In addition, he is an active member of the Medical Anthropology Research Center in Catalunya, Spain, and has written for various publications around the world.