“The Archaic Revival is a clarion call to recover our birthright, however uncomfortable that may make us. It is a call to realize that life lived in the absence of the psychedelic experience upon which primordial shamanism is based is life trivialized, life denied, life enslaved to the ego and its fear of dissolution in the mysterious matrix of feeling that is all around us. It is in the Archaic Revival that our transcendence of the historical dilemma actually lies.”
― Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge
It’s a word that remains unfamiliar to most, shrouded in mystery and the Victorian notion of primitive; unknown, dangerous, demonic. Treatment of the substance in mainstream media is sparse and almost uniformly cautionary, with articles largely made up of reports of deaths in connection with the shamans who administer the mixture. It is referred to as a “drug”, a word which conjures up the forms of junkies, droopy eyed no-hopers, perverts and freaks.
Outside of the forms of media littered with advertisements for Roombas, facelifts and designer brands however, there is a different story being told, one that hearkens back to the prehistory of our species, a tale of realms unimaginable, of the journeys of heroes through the dark nights of their souls, of healing body and mind. It is a story of the native people of the Amazon, their history, their memes, their way of knowing.
Ayahuasca is a chemical mixture, a brew of sorts, made from the combination of the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi and the leaves of the Chacruna plant. It is a synthesis of Mono-Amine Oxidase Inhibitors, found in the bark of the Caapi vine, and N,N, Dimethyl-tryptamine, or DMT, a molecule found endogenously in the biochemistry of most living things and a naturally occuring substance in the human body.
It is the reaction between the MAOI from the Caapi vine, and the DMT in the Chacruna plant that produces Ayahuasca. The MAOIs alter the functioning of the body to prevent the liver and stomach from immediately breaking down the DMT, allowing it time to cross the blood-brain barrier, and also extending the duration of the DMT to several hours.
What is fascinating about this mixture is that out of the thousands of individual species of flora that occupy each square kilometre of the Amazon rainforest, pre-literate tribesmen, the same people the mainstream consider to be “savages” (although you can be sure the nomenclature will be more politically correct), managed to isolate these two complementary plants while avoiding the countless toxic and inactive species that populate the area.
These tribesmen and women have a rich oral history and tradition surrounding the use of psychoactive plants in the form of shamanism, a practice which is believed by many eminent scholars to be the soil from which all modern religion has sprung. The shamans speak of the spirit of the vine, Mother Ayahuasca, as a healing force, an almost Gaian mind of sorts concerned with an image of mankind as a co-partner with nature. They tell stories of group-mind experiences, of feeling oneself as a jaguar slinking through the forest, of strange oozing matter that when sung into being can reflect the contents of mind.
If all this sounds a little too far out for your tastes, try another metaphor. We can look at shamanism as the first attempt at psychology made by sentient people. What we may be looking at here are not necessarily phenomena of teleportation or telekinesis in the physical sense, but rather psychic phenomena in the sense that these experiences may be indicative of processes of the human nervous system and brain. The gods and demons referred to by the medicine men of the Amazonian basin may be archetypal psychological processes given form, representations of anger, lust, love, joy and so on, experienced visually and sensorily in addition to the usual emotional impact.
The catalyst for these bizarre states of consciousness experienced by those who take Ayahuasca is the neurotransmitter DMT, which as previously mentioned is produced naturally by the human body.
For those unfamiliar with the effects of DMT, it is a short acting psychedelic (from the Greek, “psyche”, mind, and “delic”, to manifest) that produces an experience of unity between self and cosmos. The basic sensation of “self” and “other” is replaced by a unity, or more aptly, a non-duality. One feels as if they are lifted up out of the everyday world of sensory experience and into spaces crawling with geometric forms, patterns of intricate Paisley arabesques, fluorescent and iridescent and shifting. Many people report experiences of contact with beings, entities, or minds that inhabit these spaces, the most notable example being Terence McKenna’s self transforming machine elves.
As strange as all that may sound, it shares similarity of structure with what we traditionally call the “mystical” experience, the experience spoken of by our most cherished religious figures such as Gautama Buddha, Christ and Krishna. More recently, men like Alan Watts, Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) and Eckhart Tolle have given us accounts of this way of experiencing oneself that seem to correlate almost perfectly to the psychedelic experience.
What we seem to have in the form of Ayahuasca is a key of sorts to unlock the doors of perception, to allow ourselves to feel as our saints and gurus have without decades of meditative practice or the study of esoteric tomes in some dusty cult library. It appears to be a microscope through which we can examine the content of the human mind, the processes of the psyche, and the nature of our relationship between what we consider to be ourselves and what we consider to be other.
The question is, if so, so what?
Here to help me answer this burning query is Julian Moran, who runs, with his wife Angela, the Refugio Altiplano healing centre just outside of Iquitos, Peru.
Hi Julian, good to have you with us, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you came to be involved in working with ayahuasca?
I studied Anthropology at the University of Western Australia.
There was one unit called Psychological Anthropology which investigated different cultures and their use of substances. I was fascinated to read about American indians and peyote, and ayahuasca in South America. This lead to finding Terence McKenna and his work, and Food of the Gods really consolidated my interest, however at the time I was young, and had my own debilitating problems so a trip to South America simply wasn’t an option.
My interest in plant medicines never really ceased though. I started working with magic mushrooms, and reading everything I could on entheogenic practices around the world. This led to an interest in the potentiality for entheogens as the catalyst for evolution, as per McKenna’s ‘Stoned Ape Theory’, and then, for the resolution of my own problems and my personal evolution. I was also fascinated in the role that entheogens may have played in early religion.
After knowing about ayahuasca for 10 years, I was finally pushed by my then fiancee to take the journey. I had the money and the time on account of a redundancy, and no longer had any real excuses not to go. The calling had been there for many many years. I finally contacted Refugio Altiplano, and was relieved when Scott Petersen returned my email, advised me he could accommodate me, and that a bilingual secretary would collect me from the airport.
From the moment I committed to the trip, things started changing.
I started having very vivid dreams, and I genuinely felt as thought I had initiated some kind of ‘sequence’ of sorts. This ultimately made more sense once I arrived for my 12 nights, which was to include 8 ceremonies with the ayahuasca. This was in September 2013. During a ceremony in October 2013, I had a vision of a project relating to ayahuasca, that I felt drawn to pursue. I returned to Perth, in Western Australia, and I did so.
The result was the enlisting of two producers to help develop a TV show on the topic of psychedelic medicines. I went back to work for 6 months, and then the project necessitated a trip back to Peru. I went on a Jungle Tour with Peter Gorman, and as I was already in Iquitos I decided to return to the Refugio for 6 nights. It was during this stay that I came in to the awareness that it was very important that I return to manage the business; it simply would not have survived otherwise.
From this point onwards, it was really a game of chess. I needed my now-wife to want to move to Peru, and I had to get the trust of the owner.
Thankfully, Angela had already wanted to travel to Peru for her own independent experience, so I simply encouraged her. The owner was thankful for the approach and the offer of help, so discussions progressed seamlessly. I started managing the reservations and updated the website, and before too long we were on the ground. By this point, I was very close to the staff and had built good relationships with them. They were supportive of me, and have been receptive to my management of the business.
So for those of us who are unfamiliar with the concept of psychedelic medicine, what is it that the medicines do and what drew you to this area of healing over any other?
The term ‘psychedelic medicine’ implies that the healing potential contained within the psychedelic experience is one of ‘medical’ value. Of course, historically, the stipulation that psychedelics are ‘medicine’ was not one that needed to be made, as this was common knowledge throughout a large expanse of human history and has been lost to our cultures only in the last two millennia.
Users of ‘psychedelics’ have for a long time understood them to be medicinal in nature, however this is in vast contrast with the popular consensus relating to the term ‘psychedelics’. Essentially, what we are talking about when we speak of a psychedelic is a substance that produces a psychedelic, hallucinogenic, or ‘entheogenic’ effect within the user which has the potential to be ‘medicinal’. Our usage of the term ‘medicinal’ means that they are better off having had the experience, as it may contribute to their ongoing health and wellbeing.
The truth is, the states of mind that are accessible via ayahuasca are to a certain degree accessible via extensive meditation or yoga or fasting or other natural means. The reality however, is that ayahuasca is extremely fast, efficient and effective, in producing states that can otherwise take decades to generate. I don’t consider this to be a shortcut, but I do believe the plant medicine is available to us for this very reason, and that it exists to speed up our psychological and social evolution.
I am drawn to plant medicine as a result of the extensive healing that I personally received relating to depression, grief and alcoholism, as well as the changes I see in others on a regular basis. I applaud those who attempt to resolve their issues by solely natural means, but would encourage them to consider plant medicine as equally natural. The preference here is in the safe avoidance of pharmaceutical medicines, which seem to address the symptoms of illness rather than the underlying causes.
In a similar vein to Terence McKenna’s Botanical Dimensions project, it seems you’re conserving psycho- and physio-active plants at a garden at the retreat. Could you tell us a little about this project?
The previous owner and Head Shaman at Refugio Altiplano was as a Healer and Herbalist. In constructing the center, he created a botanical garden with over three hundred and fifty medicinal plants. The garden remains today, and includes many plants that are used in mixtures offered to guests in addition to the ayahuasca treatment. The ayahuasca, even at low doses, increases the patients’ receptiveness to healing modalities and the medicinal qualities of specific plants. As we continue today with the work that was started in 1996, it is our intention to maintain, improve, and expand our botanical garden over time.
Is the ayahuasca more commonly used as a singular experience or as an ongoing treatment?
Throughout the world and certainly in the Peruvian city of Iquitos, it is possible to experience ayahausca on a singular basis in the form of an isolated ceremony.
At Refugio Altiplano, we feel it is far more effective for ayahuasca to be used as part of a ‘program’. We have a three-night minimum stay which includes two ceremonies, however the vast majority of our guests join us for a twelve day retreat, which includes seven ayahuasca ceremonies. This allows for optimum reception of the medicine, and enough space and down time for the integration of the experience.
As there is a percentage of people who approach the medicine with certain levels of subconscious resistance, it can take some time for them to ‘break-through’ in to the healing space. It is for this reason that we consider this work to be part of a ‘process’, rather than one-off experience. Similarly, our approach is holistic, incorporating shamanism, natural medicine and ayahuasca in a healthy natural jungle environment. It is this combination that allows our programs to consistently produce positive results in our guests.
What kind of safety precautions are necessary to work with the medicine?
There are four areas that need to be observed when working with ayahuasca;
- The shaman should be reputable, operate with the highest level of integrity, and be trusted to have the patients’ best interests at heart.
The brew should be authentic and absent of any dangerous admixtures. It should be dosed responsibly.
The ceremony should be supervised and attended by sober support staff in the case of emergency.
The participant should be absent of any medical condition or taking any medication that is known to conflict with ayahuasca.
Providing these four criteria are met, the participant will be safe. The decision to take ayahuasca and introduce this medicine in to one’s life is a deeply personal decision, and not one that should be taken lightly. In order to avoid any psychological difficulty resulting from the changes in perception that may occur while under the influence of ayahuasca, it is recommended to be aware of the potential implications to your life and embrace it with a high level of maturity and openness.
Do you find the dosage administered is relative to the subject in terms of body weight, physical fitness and psychological stability?
There does not appear to be any relationship between an individual’s tolerance of ayahuasca and their body weight, fitness, metabolism or psychological strength. It is for this reason that we start all guests on an ‘introductory dose’, regardless of their experience with other psychedelic substances. This is another reason why we encourage people to work with us over the course of several ceremonies, so their optimal dose range can be determined safely and cautiously.
I have witnessed those who approach the medicine with high levels of resistance to experience blockage and some difficult in penetration, however this is extremely subjective. It is often somewhat amusing how little ayahuasca a physically large person requires in order to have profound experiences. It is also worth noting, that even with the consistency of the medicine ensured, an individual may experience very different effects from one night to the other – including those that are more or less powerful, and in some cases devoid of ‘visions’.
Have you had to contend with adverse psychological reactions to the medicine, i.e. freak outs/bad trips, and if so how did you go about it?
It is not uncommon for people to have difficult experiences with ayahuasca, however these same experiences are often later reflected on as being the most important and most beneficial to the patient. Ayahuasca brings the sub-conscious to the forefront, which allows repressed memories, trauma and emotions to be dealt with. It is this exact mechanism that makes ayahuasca an effective modality for healing. These experiences are not what I would call ‘bad trips’, which is a term negatively associated with the psychedelic sub-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. A ‘bad trip’ can be on the whole avoided by observing tried and true strategies relating to set (state of mind) and setting. I am also of the belief that the ritualistic and ceremonial format of a traditional ayahuasca ceremony instills a sense of sanctity or sacredness that can in itself calm the patient and make them feel more at ease.
Ayahuasca is not necessarily going to be comfortable; in fact many people have expressed that it is the discomfort itself that allows for healing to occur. Having said that, a qualified shaman will have dealt with most circumstances likely to occur within the scope of an individual’s experience, and are equipped to help them through it. Feelings of being overwhelmed are not uncommon at certain stages of the experience, but they are essentially nothing to be afraid of, or deterred by.
We ensure our guests feel safe and secure while in our care, and it is through that elimination of any unnecessary fear that allows them to surrender to the experience, and essentially stop resisting.
Could you describe some of the outstanding positive experiences you’ve seen unfold at the centre?
I have seen people with clinical depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and eating disorders leave the center healthy and without suffering or reliance on pharmaceutical drugs. The center itself has a historical reputation for dealing with extensive physical illness, including cancer and Parkinson’s, and I look forward to witnessing the resolution of these issues myself, however my personal experience has been in the realm of mental illness and some digestive an immune system conditions.
Ayahuasca is a gateway to healing for a wide range of mental and emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual conditions; it seems as if there is really no limit on what can be accomplished within this treatment. That said, the healing itself depends greatly on the dedication and the intent of the individual and the consistency of the medicine experience. Despite the temptation to describe ayahuasca as a ‘cure’, I would not.
It facilitates healing but it is a unique and subjective experience. It is an incredibly powerful tool for healing, self-discovery and essentially unleashing the ‘shaman within’.
Do you think psychedelic medicine can offer anything that traditional Western medicine can’t?
Ayahuasca produces an altered state of consciousness.
This non-ordinary state is often the source of information, understanding, and awareness for an individual that can help them resolve their own problems. Western medicine does not acknowledge these sorts of states as being useful, nor do they recognise an individual’s relationship with their soul or self as being relevant to healing.
The alliance of Western therapy and ayahuasca treatment could potentially be a powerful combination in the resolution of a wide range of personal and societal health problems. I look forward to a future whereby the integration of these presently polarised perspectives are free to be used in conjunction with one another. Current research, as well as extensive anecdotal evidence suggests that once a patient commences ayahuasca treatment, their reliance on pharmaceutical drugs in the future will diminish. To me this is a very clear indicator that our present symptom-diagnosis-prescription paradigm is not solely the most effective or broad ranging form of treatment available.
Ayahuasca is renowned for allowing an individual to address the root cause of a problem, not just the physical, mental and behavioural manifestations of it.
Ayahuasca seems to dissolve the hard and fast division between subject and object, self and other. Do you think this experience of feeling or sensing that “you” are, at a fundamental level, not separate from your environment is lacking in the West, and if so, in what way?
I believe our basic ideas about who we are and how we should live in the West have encouraged a sense of separation from ourselves and our environment, and that we as a people have reinforced this sentiment over the course of many years through our schooling, our language and our authorities.
Many people feel lost, because they don’t feel that they know who they truly are. This disconnection from their higher-selves is often a source of discontentment, and may contribute to the problems that they ultimately seek to resolve via tools such as ayahuasca.
I suspect that a population that is in-tune with themselves, and in-sync with their environment, would be entirely problematic for societies that derive financial security from the exploitation of natural resources. Having worked in mining and resources for many years, I am aware that this sort of dialogue simply does not exist, and could not exist within the framework of what they are trying to achieve commercially.
Themes commonly experienced with ayahuasca include universal oneness, connectedness, and unity with all things. While these ideas are reminiscent of ancient religious teachings, they have lost footing in our urbanised and fast paced modern life. The current political, economic, and ecological climate reflects policies and expression of separatism, and a demarcation from the notion of unity.
What kind of an effect does ayahuasca have on a community?
Ayahuasca has the potential to help individuals resolve their personal problems, and become more positive and productive members of society. The collective impact of a population of happier, healthier and more adjusted individuals is immeasurable.
However, there are certainly a range of impacts in communities such as Iquitos, where ayahuasca has had both positive and negative impacts on the local economy, employment and tourism. It presents a wide range of challenges, and as it is an ancient practice that is not regulated; there are two schools of thought as to whether this is a good thing or not. Certainly any unchecked influx of commerce in to an area can create problems – as we have seen with scam shaman and charlatans.
How do you think our society would look if ayahuasca was legal and as accepted as, say, alcohol?
The legality of substances in Western society is, contrary to popular belief, not based on scientific or medical research, or their impact on individual or societal health. This is particularly true of the class of ‘drugs’ known as psychedelics, of which ayahuasca is a member.
Sadly, addictive and destructive and sedative substances such as alcohol are culturally pervasive and essentially endorsed by government and law makers. A Western society that acknowledged the benefit and healing potential contained within the ayahuasca experience would look very different. Ultimately, the ayahuasca experience is about surrender, it is about facing fear and looking at oneself critically and objectively with a desire to change.
Alcohol elicits a lack of inhibition in the user, and perpetuates and exacerbates their existing belief systems – which are invariably egoic in nature. While I support the safe and supported use of ayahuasca globally, I am an advocate for its use within a traditional context, in a controlled environment with trained professionals.
While it remains illogical for DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca to be both a naturally occurring brain chemical and illegal, its synthetic form I believe is unlikely to routinely produce the same long-lasting positive effects that are generated within an authentic ayahausca experience. Essentially, this is not a substance (read: experience) that I believe can be ‘prescribed’ by a physician operating within the current medical framework. Their referral to indigenous shaman and professionals is certainly the preference.
You’ve recently been interviewed by the mainstream media in Australia, what was your experience like and do you feel the reporting was fair and balanced?
I feel as though the mainstream media feels a responsibility or obligation of sorts to present alternative healing in a particularly disparaging and condescending way.
While I have found that the content of interviews to be mostly reflective of my comments, they are rarely published without sensationalist headlines designed to capture the attention of a population that has been conditioned to be wary and defensive towards any healing modalities that fall outside of the presently accepted ‘norm’. In the response to various articles and interviews, the public comments indicate very high levels of prejudice, ignorance, and an overall lack of education towards certain substances.
I actually believe that when some are faced with evidence that suggests that ‘psychedelic drugs’ can resolve drug addiction for instance, cognitive-dissonance kicks in and their ability to reason with logic and sense dissolves very quickly. In many cases they are confronted with realities that conflict with beliefs they have held for decades, beliefs that they see as crucial to the maintenance of a stable society.
Would you like to see information about ayahuasca spread to the world, and if so in what way?
As ayahuasca is an old South American tradition and it is currently being re-discovered by the West, there is the tendency for it to be discounted as a new ‘fad’. I really believe that this form of treatment is extremely valid, and useful as a tool for recovery, perhaps in conjunction with others, for people in need. Its ‘popularisation’ or use by celebrities etc is not at all the point. This is not an experience one has in order to emulate another.
It should be a conscious decision to enter an altered state of consciousness, so that you may learn what you need to know in order to be healthy, and a more complete human on this earth. I think ayahuasca needs more intelligent spokespeople from within the scientific and medical communities in particular, who are willing to acknowledge that the recovery rates using standard methods for treating the ailments we are discussing here, are simply not high enough for them to ‘rest on the laurels’.
We are already seeing a targeted misinformation campaign being levelled at ayahausca, so I would encourage people to share their experiences and come out of the ‘psychedelic closet’.
If there’s anything you’d like to communicate to the people of the world, what would it be?
The earth secretes certain substances through plants that have in some cases, been classed as illegal.
I would encourage people to recognise that these same substances routinely outperform pharmaceutical drugs in the treatment of mental illness, addiction and behavioural problems (to name a few). This class of ‘drug’ known as psychedelics are non-addictive and non-toxic. It is my belief that they exist here for the sole purpose of healing, and elevating the thinking of the human species to new heights of consciousness.
Healing can come from within, and plant medicines are a viable mechanism to bring this about.
They have a lock and key relationship with the human brain, and in the case of ayahuasca, this too is where the active chemical DMT is produced. I would draw the audience’s attention to these wise words from Terence McKenna and Albert Einstein, respectively:
“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
Well ladies and gents, I think I’ll leave that to speak for itself. Many thanks to Julian Moran and his wife Angela for their hospitality and thoroughness in answering these questions, and best wishes for the future.
Interested persons can contact Julian at the addresses listen on the Refugio’s website, www.refugioaltiplano.net, where you’ll also find information regarding the ceremonies, travel arrangements and so on.