Ayahuasca Insightfulness

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Ayahuasca Insightfulness

Paloma David Velásquez 12229431


Dr. Carolina Ivanescu (University of Amsterdam)

Second Reader:

Dr. Ulrike Popp-Baier (University of Amsterdam)

Thesis Submitted to the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam

In Partial Fulfillment of the Research Master’s Degree in Theology and Religious Studies




1 Introduction ... 4

2 Ayahuasca insightfulness? ... 9

2.1 Theoretical framework ... 11

3 Methodology ... 17

3.1 Narrative research ... 17

3.1.1 Narratives as Integration ... 18

3.2 Erowid experience vaults and digital humanities ... 20

3.3 Qualitative analysis and concept coding ... 22

4 Findings ... 25

4.1 Group ceremonies ... 29

4.1.1 General features ... 29

4.1.2 Ayahuasca tourism: the story of Marisa ... 31

4.1.3 The traditional shaman: the story of Dillon ... 40

4.1.4 Psychological insight: the story of The Doctor ... 49

4.2 Individual practice ... 53

4.2.1 General features ... 53

4.2.2 Individual practice: the story of Figment ... 57

4.2.3 The attainment of psychedelic gnosis: the story of Vegan ... 62

5 Theoretical reflections ... 68


5.2.2 Personal and interpersonal insights: ... 83

5.2.3 Mystical and psychedelic noesis: ... 87

5.2.4 Hermetic gnosis and psychedelic gnosis ... 89

6 Ayahuasca Insightfulness ... 94

6.1 Narratives, ineffability, and integration ... 95

6.2 Ayahuasca tourism, individual practices and a contemporary cultural dialogue .... 95

6.3 Factual information and ayahuasca knowledge ... 96

7 Epilogue ... 98

Acknowledgments ... 99

References ... 101

Erowid experiences ... 107


1 Introduction

Ayahuasca from South American Spanish, from Quechua ayawáskha, from aya 'corpse' + waskha' rope.' (Stevenson, 2010a)


Translated as "father."

Title for the ayahuasca shaman within the Colombian yagé tradition1.



ənˈdɛːrəʊ, Spanish kuranˈðero | noun (plural curanderos feminine curandera | ˌkjʊərənˈdɛːrə, Spanish kuranˈðera | ) (in Spain and Latin America) a healer who uses folk

remedies. ORIGIN Spanish, from curar ‘to cure’, from Latin curare.

(Stevenson, 2010b)

The amazon's traditional psychedelic brew goes by many names, Natem, Caapi, Yagé, and Ayahuasca, which means "the vine of the souls" or "the vine of the dead". The brew contains


about the rainforest. Ayahuasca is a remarkably complex substance that relies on two significant attributes to deliver its psychedelic effects: on the one hand, the Psychotria Viridis or chacruna leaf contains the psychedelic compound DMT, and on the other, the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi or yagé contains MAO inhibitor enzymes, which allow the DMT to be active when consumed orally. Among the thousands of Amazon species, indigenous people discovered a unique and unlikely combination between two botanical components, creating a psychedelic brew sacred to them and their traditional medicine. Ayahuasca is a significant discovery utilized by the Amazon peoples, which required immense knowledge about the rainforest's botany.

However, much of the knowledge produced by indigenous communities has been subject to appropriation, as the history of the Amazon cannot be grasped separately from the Americas' colonization history. Official records trace back the discovery of ayahuasca to western explorers and botanists such as Richard Spruce. In this colonial version of history, indigenous peoples and their knowledge are only objects to be discovered.

In that line of thought, an eagerness to find new treasures has shaped the Amazon's history and ecology. From the mythic quests to find gold rivers in the 16th century to the rubber boom of the 20th century, extractive economy has exploited and enslaved hundreds of indigenous peoples (see also Domínguez, Camilo, and Augusto Gómez. "La economía extractiva en la Amazonia Colombiana 1850-1930"). Today's deforestation crisis, related to the extraction of precious timber and the appropriation of deforested territories for cattle, is an inheritance of old relationships with the land that still conceives the Amazon as an uninhabited space full of natural wealth and resources. The world's economy has built a relationship with the rainforest under exploitative terms, where indigenous pieces of knowledge and their ritual practices are objectified and analyzed as Walter Mignolo would say, "in the literal laboratories of the natural sciences, and the metaphorical laboratories of the social sciences" (Mignolo, 2009, p. 170).

This broader context surrounds ayahuasca. The brew has a long history of use by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin but was used particularly during colonial times to resist and contest the settler invasion. For most indigenous people in Latin America, colonialism came first and foremost in the shape of religion, specifically Spanish Catholicism. The Amazon was no exception to this. Ayahuasca was preserved and used to exercise indigenous identity and perceived as a repository of cultural memory for the Amazon peoples (Leiva et al., 1991).


The next excerpt depicts an instance of ayahuasca shamanism as a means to resist settler cultural invasion. It comes from an interview with a shaman from the Sibundoy Valley, the geographical node between Andes and Amazon, which is home to some of the most prominent shamans in Colombia:

When I was born, they gave me three drops of ayahuasca. We told people that it was in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son, but it is

the name of the Sun, the Moon, and the Tiger in reality. That is how ayahuasca painted my blood."2 (Pinzón et al., 2004, p. 146)

As the previous passage shows, the ritual use of ayahuasca in this area was influenced by the dominant Catholic religion while acting as a space to contest and resist the colonial apparatus.

The previous statement beautifully depicts the disguise of indigenous ritual practices using catholic motifs as a way to preserve silently their identity: giving three drops of ayahuasca in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to conceal it was given in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger.

From colonial times until today, the relationships weaved around the brew still replicate asymmetric dynamics. As the popularity of ayahuasca increases in the West, a decolonial approach is essential to the future of research, since failing to recognize indigenous perspectives as equally valuable to the discussion in the appropriate use of these substances would only deepen the colonial wound where these plants are interwoven.

Psychedelics, on the other hand, are currently undergoing a renaissance in scientific research.

After decades of taboo, a resurgence in the interest in the study of these substances is taking place most notably in the fields of psychiatry (see: Robin L Carhart-Harris et al., 2017), neurology (see: R. L. Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2019; Timmermann et al., 2018), psychology (see: Kaelen et al., 2018; Watts et al., 2017), anthropology (see: Labate, 2014; Labate &


organizations and associations such as the Mind Foundation (based in Germany), the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies MAPS (founded in the United States), the Open Foundation, and the Amsterdam Psychedelic Research Association APRA (both established in the Netherlands).

Contemporary medical approaches to ayahuasca and other psychedelic plant medicines focus on research for its potential to treat some of the most pervasive illnesses of our time, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction (see: Frecska et al., 2016; Palhano-Fontes et al., 2015), and while psychedelic plant medicines still have most of their potential to be tapped into for society's benefit, present-day psychedelic studies are at risk of replicating harmful colonial behavior with the territories and communities from which the plants originate (Fotiou, 2019).

The study of psychedelic plant medicines should be interdisciplinary, and the humanities have the task at hand to reflect on the body-politics of knowledge (Mignolo, 2009) and help give voice to traditional and indigenous ethnomedicinal systems to create a renaissance free of damaging colonial appropriation and silencing.

Previous research on ayahuasca has been extensive; most notably, it has focused on the therapeutic uses of the brew (Labate & Cavnar, 2014), the challenges it poses to contemporary study of religions (Hanegraaff, 2011), its uses for the treatment of depression (Palhano-Fontes et al., 2015) and its placement within a larger context of an exchange between Amazonian shamanism and the world (Labate, 2014).

Considering the previous points made, the research question that gives birth to this project is twofold: What kinds of insights can be found in reports of ayahuasca experiences, and how are they related to the setting in which they occur?

Before the present work, the author researched traditional and urban uses of ayahuasca in Colombia, using an anthropological perspective. That is why the reader will find fieldwork notes and references to this previous endeavor throughout this work. As mentioned earlier, several disciplines have researched ayahuasca in the past decades; however, the truth is it is a complex phenomenon challenging to approach as it involves several layers of complexity, on both an individual/psychological level and a collective/anthropological level.


In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional anthropological tools such as fieldwork and ethnography were not available. Nonetheless, the hyperconnectivity of today's world provided the necessary resources for carrying out research. This work is situated within the cultural exchange between the Amazonian tradition and the West, and it uses as primary sources anonymous 'trip reports' of ayahuasca experiences taken from the drug library Erowid.


2 Ayahuasca insightfulness?


| ˈɪnsʌɪt | noun [mass noun] the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something.

An accurate and deep understanding.

(Stevenson, 2010c)

"In an important way, shamanism is a quest for knowledge and knowledge of the sort they seek is power."

(Langdon & Baer, 1992, p. 42)

The psychedelic brew ayahuasca is famous for its rich bodily experience, which alters the mind relying on emetic and purgative effects. An example of an ayahuasca ceremony might go as follows3:

"As you carry your luggage down an open road, you will wonder why you are there and why you are about to drink a mind-altering substance in the outskirts of a South American city. The muddy uphill road leads to a maloka4 where a group of men play the guitar around a fireplace, awaiting the rest of the participants to arrive.

At midnight, the taita will commence the ceremony. Attired with feline fangs, colorful robes, and a feather crown, he will greet everybody and ask who is drinking for the first time. A few people will raise their hands, and the taita will pay extra attention to them during the night.

Then, a bottle of a murky ochre liquid will appear in the center of a thoughtfully decorated

3 Based on fieldwork notes 2016 – 2020. It depicts an example of a ceremony within the Colombian contemporary yagé tradition.

4 Traditional ritual hut.


table, with burning candles and some religious items syncretic of indigenous traditions and catholic features. In the same spirit the shaman wears ceremonial attire, the maloka will be decorated with pictures of fierce-looking tigers, the art of ayahuasca visions, feathers, candles, and a penetrating smell of incense.

Then the ceremony will begin. The shaman will start chanting and calling his ally spirits, among which there are his ancestors, the wind, water, rivers, fire, and earth. However, he will be chanting in an undiscernible language only understandable to him and those initiated. As he chants, he will be praying and cleansing the space by shaking the ritual rattle called waira and blowing smoke over the bottle of ayahuasca. The participants listen carefully, astonished, embellished, expectant. Maybe a little suspicious and anxious, perhaps even a little hesitant.

After some minutes, the chanting stops. Then the taita asks for everybody to stand up and approach him in an orderly fashion. Everybody stands up and queues to receive a cup of a dense dark liquid. When your turn arrives, the shaman utters undistinguishable words on the cup as if he were conjuring some blessing; you receive and drink.

All participants wait for it to "kick in," they all sit quietly waiting for the spirit of ayahuasca to arrive. The shaman will be the first one to break the pervading silence inside the hut. As the fire roars, seized by the brew's purgative effects, the first ones will leave the circle to look, maybe desperately, a discrete place to purge. Ayahuasca is finally here, and there is no going back.

You will notice something is different when you hear a distinct buzzing in your ears. Suddenly the previously invisible soundscapes will flood your hearing, and you will notice how loud crickets, frogs, and other insects are. The discomfort of purging will begin as you face profound


of liberation might ensue. The shaman will chant along, and you will dance away your apprehensions, knowing the most challenging part is over. Then the sun will rise, the night has been dark and challenging, but you are now imbued with a sense of beauty toward your surroundings and a sense of awe and reverence to the wonder of existence."

2.1 Theoretical framework

The previous excerpt depicts an instance of a ceremonial consumption of ayahuasca. Even though traditional ceremonies might follow a similar structure, every experience with ayahuasca is highly subjective and highly personal. Moreover, this work rests on the idea that ayahuasca experiences can provide a kind of intuitive insight into the nature of things.

Benny Shannon has done extensive work on the phenomenology of ayahuasca experiences and has worked on the epistemic status, meaning, and proper interpretations of ayahuasca visions (Shanon, 2002, 2014). The author couples ayahuasca visions with personal psychological insights, metaphysical ideations, and spiritual or religious sentiments. According to the author, people who partake in the brew feel they have gained significant knowledge and understanding (Shanon, 2010).

Shanon's work argues for a noetic (regarding knowledge) quality in ayahuasca visions claimed to carry a special significance and articulate meaning that cannot be acquired otherwise (Shanon, 2010). In the same reasoning, the author reviews anthropological instances of indigenous communities referring to ayahuasca as a school, a source of knowledge, and a foundation of culture. In his work, Shanon addresses different types of knowledge claimed to be acquired, two particular categories of interest here: psychological knowledge and metaphysical knowledge.

According to the author, the first one concerns acquiring personal insights, self-understanding, and interpersonal empathy. Individual reports describe psychological insights as capable of bringing novel inner comprehension on personal, interpersonal, and collective levels.

Secondly, Shanon found metaphysical and philosophical ideations in the reports of individuals who had no background in philosophy or a prior concern for the field. For Shanon, the root of such ideations is the experiential and intellectual impression stemming from ayahuasca visions


where meaningfulness underlies everything. The author argues further that animism appears to be at the very heart of the experience where practitioners claim to have witnessed the all- pervading life underlying their surroundings (Shanon, 2010).

The question of whether moments of insight are factually correct is relevant in order to contrast on the one hand, the type of knowledge attained through a moment of insight in ordinary states of consciousness and their relation with factual truths and on the other, ayahuasca claims of knowledge. The recent work by Ruben Laukkonen (2020) on the mechanics of insights is useful as the author allows to discuss the contrast between claiming the visions' content is factually correct, and claiming the visions acquire important meaning for those who partake in the brew.

Other authors have addressed the relationship between knowledge and the alteration of consciousness, specifically regarding the attainment of metaphysical insights. In his text, Hanegraaff (2008) discusses the concept of gnosis within the framework of three types of claims for attaining knowledge: reason, faith, and gnosis. Verifiable claims of knowledge belong to the category of reason, philosophy, and the scientific method. Non-verifiable but communicable claims belong to the realm of religious faith. And finally, ineffable, non- discursive, non-verifiable claims of knowledge are categorized as belonging to gnosis: ecstatic experiences able to reveal a transcendental salvational understanding about the true nature of the self or the universe.

Gnosis (gnōsis) as a concept is found in the study of hermetic writings where a hierarchy of knowledge levels acknowledged a type deemed to be the highest and most profound, attained only during an ecstatic or altered state of consciousness. Gnosis hence describes the highest form of trans-rational knowledge available to hermetic devotees (Hanegraaff, 2008). After careful analysis of the Corpus Hermeticum, Hanegraaff criticizes previous scholarship made


Following the same lines, Partridge (2018) tackles the notion of psychedelic gnosis to point to a sort of "gnostic impulse" within psychedelic culture. The author argues thinkers such as Ginsberg, Huxley, and Leary frame psychedelic experiences as an awakening of the mind to eternity and an exposure of the self to a new understanding of reality: A new sense of reality that tends to be countercultural in western societies as they challenge reified systems of meaning. In the same text, Partridge argues that Hanegraaff has also referred to psychedelics as providing gnosis in a hermetic sense (2018, p. 14).

Correspondingly, the author also tackles the notion of technologies of transcendence to contextualize psychedelic substances. The term was inspired by Eliade's discussion of techniques of ecstasy with the critical turn that is principally informed by Michael Foucault's discussion of technologies of the self. According to Partridge, for Foucault, the subject is not an independent source of meaning but is constructed by discourses, institutions, and power relations. Foucault insisted that no autonomous, transcended subject operates apart from this context: the subject and its identity are historical and cultural constructions. In his later work, nonetheless, Foucault is drawn to give a different weight to the agency of the subject in constructing its individuality, thus coining the term technologies of self as practices and techniques by means of which individuals actively create their own identities (Partridge, 2018).

This discussion is highly relevant here because it situates the practitioners, and their experiences, as not independent from cultural and historical frameworks, while at the same time giving subjects techniques and technologies for the relative independent construction of identity. Partridge (2018) understands psychoactive substances as subversive technologies of transcendence, alluding directly to the opening up of spaces for novel understandings of the self and the world.

Such an argument is compatible with Hartogsohn (2018), for whom psychedelic substances entail meaning-enhancing properties as they enrich the perception of significance, which causes things to appear dramatically more meaningful. Hartogsohn argues such augmentation as the cause of psychotherapeutic insights, creative breakthroughs, and mystical-type experiences. The argument is well-matched with Partridge’s because psychedelics can be understood as distinct meaning-making spaces capable of providing and integrating new worldviews.


The experience of enhanced meaningfulness tends to subvert established systems of meaning, which is why the psychedelic experience per se tends to be countercultural in the West. The sense of a 'fog of illusion' being cleared, giving way to a more authentic version of reality, is what gives the psychedelic state a sense of gnostic redemption (Partridge, 2018, p. 13). The author argues further that psychedelic states are states of knowledge and insight

The different insights a particular practitioner can draw from a psychedelic experience are mainly informed by the cultural context in which the subject is situated and their cultural background. That is why Partridge's words need to be understood as referencing a specific population, as the use of entheogens by indigenous groups is part of their worldview, which means it is not countercultural but culture-formative.

Following the previous argument, a cultural and historical contextualization of the subject criticizes directly perennialist interpretations of the psychedelic experience. Several psychedelic advocates argue that such an experience introduces the subject to an objective ontological reality accessed by pure experience (Partridge, 2018). Such a perennialist perspective (see Richards, 2015) correlates aspects of psychedelic visions with themes of major religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, arguing furthermore, they are stemming from the same core experience of transcendence.

Psychedelic experiences approached as a kind of religious experience, should be wary of such a stance as it would be in danger of falling into the highly criticized approach to religious experiences as sui generis (Taves, 2009). A cultural and historical approach, on the other hand, attempts to explain how the subject builds reports as a discourse. In particular, Ann Taves (2009) begins her discussion by changing the notion of religious experience for experiences


previous experience with the substance (set), and (2.) the socio-cultural environment, and immediate surrounding of the experience (setting).

Ido Hartogsohn's work on the impact of larger social, cultural and historical forces that shaped the psychedelic experience in the 20th century is relevant as the author expands the concept of setting as going beyond a psychedelic experience's rooms to reach historical dimensions (Hartogsohn, 2017, 2020). Following that line of thought, we take Losonczy and Mesturini's work on the relationships between Amazonian ayahuasca shamanism and the global north (Losonczy & Mesturini, 2010, 2014). The anthropological perspective of Losonczy and Mesturini frames ayahuasca experiences with the larger cultural and historical context of ayahuasca tourism. A framework complemented by the recent work of British neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris, who has worked extensively on psychedelic's sensitivity to context, from a neuropharmacological perspective conscious of cultural dynamics. (Robin L Carhart-Harris et al., 2018).

To recapitulate, in this section, we have tackled different aspects of the problem at hand:

Shanon (2010) has coupled ayahuasca experiences with noetic qualities, capable of inducing psychological insights and metaphysical ideations in those who partake in it. The mechanics of insight as developed by Laukkonen (2020) in regular states of consciousness are relevant to tackle psychedelic moments of insight.

The word gnosis used in hermetic philosophy to categorize the highest form of knowledge has been argued by Hanegraaff (2008) to be the product of an alteration of consciousness or ecstatic state, thus pairing a relationship between altered states of consciousness and states of knowledge. The concept has since migrated to psychedelic studies and it is used by Partridge (2008) to explain that psychedelic states of consciousness can be approached as states of knowledge, insight, and significance hence coining the concept of "psychedelic gnosis", relevant to approach the claims of knowledge analyzed here.

And finally, to prevent research from falling into perennialism, special attention should be given to the historical, cultural, and environmental aspects that might influence the contents of a psychedelic experience, for which the conceptual tools of set and setting are relevant, as


construed by Hartogsohn (2017, 2020), Losonczy and Mesturini (2010, 2014) and Carhart- Harris (2018).

Considering the previous points made, the research question that gives birth to this project is twofold: What kinds of insights can be found in reports of ayahuasca experiences, and how are they related to the setting in which they occur?

The two main concepts of the research question are insight and setting. The emphasis on this last concept finds its weight on the knowledge that ayahuasca experiences have a particular ritual space in which they take place. Being immersed in a shamanic ritual setting has a distinct impact on the experience (and its report) as it might provide a symbolical framework in which subjects can situate themselves and make sense of the event. Hence the contrast between different types of settings will be emphasized in the findings section.


3 Methodology

3.1 Narrative research

As storied accounts of first-hand ayahuasca experiences comprise the research data, a narrative approach was chosen as methodology. Psychedelic experiences translated into storied accounts can be understood as a meaning-making process where practitioners engage in remembering, ordering, and making sense of their embodied experience. It is paramount to differentiate between the narrative account that stems from the ayahuasca experience and the actual psychedelic experience, which involves the live stream of consciousness, perceptions, and bodily sensations.

While experiencing is a constant temporal flow from an individual's standpoint and cannot be directly studied, an experience is an intersubjective articulation that can only occur after the practitioner has stepped out of the experiencing stream. Actively experiencing and reflecting on experience are different activities (Yamane, 2000). If the experience becomes a written narrative, as is the case with the reports analyzed, such accounts can be studied.

The narrativization of a psychedelic experience is an exercise in assimilating what happened during the altered state of consciousness by taking meaningful information from the event back into ordinary consciousness employing written or oral language and storytelling. Narrative research takes the stance that people engage in meaning-making processes by crafting stories about their lives by connecting events in the manner of a plot (Josselson, 2011). This process is no different from integrating a psychedelic experience into day-to-day life by remembering, organizing, and making sense of what happened once a practitioner returns to waking consciousness, reflects, and writes about it. Yamane (2000) argues that existing social or cultural structures predispose people to experience certain emotions, sensations, and bodily states in culturally inscribed ways. There is no such thing as unmediated experience: the cultural system in which we participate affects how we experience the world. Experiences themselves are not raw, devoid of socially transmitted images, languages, or present themselves


uninterpreted. As argued previously, psychedelic experiences carry the two significant components of set and setting on top.

Consequently, the meaning is not inherent in an act or experience but is constructed by social discourse (Josselson, 2011). Narratives become a social performance co-constructed in the act of being told: the sharing of such stories helps reinforce the meaning of the events recounted by the storyteller (Adler & McAdams, 2007). Therefore, ayahuasca narratives are positively affected by cultural, environmental, and subjective factors, mainly the experience's cultural and ritual surroundings intersect with the practitioner's intentions and expectations. Narrative research applied in this context (McAdams & McLean, 2013) implies that the storyteller filters and selects by relevance the intersecting elements of the experience (internal and external) and creates an emplotment where they can draw a meaningful (semantic) conclusion from episodic information.

Narrative research traditions can be understood as belonging to one of the following forms of hermeneutics: the hermeneutics of faith, which aims to restore meaning to a text, and the hermeneutics of suspicion, which attempts to decode disguised meanings (Josselson, 2011).

The contrast between the hermeneutics of restoration (faith) and the hermeneutics of demystification (suspicion) refers not to a property of texts but the stance of the interpreter:

whether he or she conceives the interpretative process as being one of distilling, elucidating, and illuminating the intended meanings of the informant or of discovering meanings that lie hidden within a false consciousness (Josselson, 2004).

3.1.1 Narratives as Integration

It is essential to introduce a relatively new term in psychedelic studies called "integration" as


of reality5. According to that definition, narratives about psychedelic experiences become an expression of integration since creating a story transforms episodic memory into an object that conveys semantic meaning.

Following the hermeneutics of restoration, ayahuasca experiences are approached here as accounts of highly subjective states of consciousness turned into narratives as part of the practitioners' meaning-making processes. The point of the hermeneutics of faith is to understand the practitioners' subjective world and, in that sense, does not go after historical truths or an accurate reconstruction of events, but rather how events become meaningful for the individual.

Dan McAdams research on narrative identity (2013) created a series of constructs applicable to life stories, of which the concept of meaning-making understood as "the degree to which the practitioner learns something or gathers a message from an event (…) from no meaning to learning a concrete lesson to gaining a deep insight about life." (2013, p. 234), is rather useful for this research.

When applied to narratives about ayahuasca experiences, these constructs imply, firstly, that the very act of translating the psychedelic experience into a story belongs to a meaning-making process, and an integration process. Secondly, the notion that the experience pertains to a kind of knowledge, insight, or "lesson" goes to the core hypothesis of insightfulness. Hence, crafting a story about the event is already a meaning-making process that might incorporate, additionally, the description of an insight prompted by the experience. In other words, if ayahuasca experiences indeed pertain moments of insight then, crafting a story aids the practitioner integrate the newly found meaning.

5The definition is taken from https://www.ayaresearch.com/psychedelic-integration. Accessed October 2020.


3.2 Erowid experience vaults and digital humanities

The primary source of the 'trip reports' is erowid.org6, a website founded in 1996 and run by a couple under the pseudonym Earth and Fire. The website has been used for the academic analysis of the alteration of consciousness; more precisely, the field of anthropology has carried out research using digital tools to study online drug communities. That is the case with the work by Berning et al. (2017) which used more than twenty thousand reports of drug experiences integrating ethnographic tools with computational methods and data analysis.

According to the authors, Erowid started as a database dedicated to publishing unbiased information about psychoactive substances. Today the site includes scientific resources, information regarding altered states of consciousness, and reports of user experiences (2017, p. 22). These reports are submitted anonymously under a pen name, then they undergo a process of selection and editing by the members of the website who then publish the reports.

The Erowid Experience Vaults holds an enormous account of drug experiences with various drugs, including stimulants, sedatives, psychedelics, vitamins, and many other substances. The storied accounts can be filtered using specific tools the website provides, including attributes such as the year the narrative was submitted, the type of experience, and the substance used. A total of 36 reports were selected for this project using the filtering tools to gather trip reports of ayahuasca consumption. The selection criteria were guided mainly by the type of setting in which the experiences took place, namely group ceremonies and individual practices. Twenty- six reports took place within traditional ceremonial settings, whereas ten reports related to individuals who partook in the brew individually in their private homes.

Berning et al. (2017) has drawn attention to the fact that there is a higher number of reports of ayahuasca consumption within a traditional context, which suggests this setting is still quite


of 2020, compared to the hundreds of reports of traditional ritual consumption here represented as more than half of the dataset.

As a website, Erowid expresses a larger socio-cultural context of drug consumption and drug cultures in contemporary mass media. As Manning (2013) sharply pointed, the use of the internet has changed the former asymmetries involved in exchanging information, by decentralizing sources and disassembling power structures. In other words, websites such as Erowid allow for a counternarrative to official drug education in a new mass media controlled by individual users. According to the author, the internet brought about a shift in power- knowledge relations by altering the traditional linear communication models where official drug agencies had relied on messages about abstinence, based on the 'War on Drugs' discourses.

New user-generated media destabilizes these traditional hierarchies by advocating in favor of libertarianism and the autonomy of individual consumers. (2013, pp. 128–129).

The Erowid Experience Vaults were chosen as sources of data because they provided individual narrative accounts of ayahuasca experiences in different cultural contexts, which proffered a window into particular meaning-making processes.


3.3 Qualitative analysis and concept coding

Coding is the action of separation, sorting, and systemization of data, and it means attaching labels to segments of information. In other words, it distills and sorts data, as well as gives a handle for making comparisons with other segments of information (Charmaz, 2006). Narrative research can be used in tandem with coding strategies with the aid of the qualitative analysis software Atlas.ti (Friese, 2014), for which this particular project utilized version 8.4.4.

The concepts developed for coding were established using the research question; hence the data was coded using deductive coding: An initial codebook was sketched in the early stages of data analysis, paying particular attention to moments of perceived insight and the context where those moments occurred. Moments of insight were coded using INSIGHT and GNOSIS, respectively; the former addresses moments of psychological insight and the latter instances of supernatural insight. The context of the experience was coded using SET and SETTING concepts, where the codes of MUSIC and HEALING emerged as the coding process progressed.

The main concept codes were:

1. GNOSIS: The perceived apprehension of metaphysical or transcendental knowledge through the ayahuasca experience. Applied to supernatural claims of knowledge or

"deep spiritual realizations".

2. INSIGHT: Perceived understanding of the self or psychological insight. Applied to personal/interpersonal claims of knowledge.


4. MUSIC: Music in a ritual setting is characterized by coming from the shaman and it is a vital part of the ritual and the shaman's expertise. In an individual setting, music comes from artificial media and it might resemble a sort of soundtrack.


- Electronic music - Recorded - Environmental soundscapes

- Traditional music - Instrumental - Live

5. SET: The set comprises the personality, preparation, expectation, and intention of the person having the experience.

6. SETTING: The physical, social, and cultural environment in which the experience takes place.


- Ayahuasca tourism: This is the larger socio-cultural phenomenon of ayahuasca tourism in the Amazon, which might act as a broad type of setting.

- Traditional shaman: A ritual setting is characterized by a shamanic framework with an experienced guide who uses ritual devices such as music, incense, tobacco smoke, chanting, rattles. It might include other supporters or facilitators who might aid practitioners during their journey.

- Individual practice: This setting usually includes a brewing process. As the practitioners rely on themselves instead of a shaman to produce the brew, this frequently leads to the appearance of ayahuasca analogs. The individual setting also includes urban landscapes, computer screens, streaming videos, recorded music, interaction with social media, etc.

A narrative approach was applied to each report in tandem with concept-coding. Once finalized, Atlas.ti offers several analysis tools, such as code co-occurrence and network explorers, which allowed the detection of relationships between codes. Concretely, each code was retrieved and read transversally for commonalities between reports, which allowed for


individual narratives to stand out as representative examples of the main codes. A total of five narratives were chosen for an in-depth analysis.

However, in order to represent the other narratives, the use of word clouds proved to be useful.

The retrieved codes were filtered by the author (by clearing repeated words such as prepositions) and were used to create abstract representations where the most frequent words conveyed in size their importance. This too will be expanded on in the findings section.


4 Findings

Ayahuasca experiences comprise a complex entanglement of internal psychological elements with environmental attributes that together create a myriad of events that include mystical-type experiences, near-death experiences, emotional breakthroughs, psychological resolutions, challenging experiences (also known as "bad trips"), encounters with intermediary beings, among many other unpredictable events.

In contrast, the narrativization of an ayahuasca experience utilizes cultural concepts (and religious ones) to translate the complexity of the experiential flow into a coherent story that conveys meaning to both the practitioner and their audience. Practitioners build narratives considering their cultural background, intentions, and previous beliefs in a dialogue with the surrounding cultural framework of the ceremony.

The present chapter is comprised by two main sections in which we dived the narratives by the type of setting in which they took place. The first section concerns narratives of ayahuasca experiences within the context of a traditional ceremonial setting. The main codes of which we will see exemplary narratives are the following: first, "Ayahuasca tourism" the story of Marisa, a yoga instructor from New York who travels to the Amazon to partake in ayahuasca. Second

"traditional shaman" the story of Dillon, a narrative about a one-on-one ceremony with a Peruvian shaman. And third, "Insight" the story of The Doctor, the account of a man who has a moment of psychological breakthrough during an ayahuasca experience.

The second section encompasses narratives within the context of individual private consumption of ayahuasca. The principal codes with which we are going to see exemplary narratives are first, "individual practice" the story of Figment, a man who drinks ayahuasca on his own without the guidance of a shaman, and second, "gnosis" the story of Vegan, a man who claims to have attained transcendental knowledge.

A contrast between environment and personal background is found in reports stemming from a traditional ceremonial setting, with western practitioners as storytellers. In these narratives there is a curious dialogue between the practitioner's cultural background, and the foreign


setting filled with cultural diversity and novelty. This dialogue impacts the narrativization and the making sense of the experience as the practitioner absorbs the cultural references of this new context and integrates them into their previous mind-set.

Conversely, the aforementioned dialogue is absent in narratives stemming from individual practices since the experience takes place in the practitioner's private environment. Instead of cultural otherness to frame the experience, these reports might resemble a sort of echo chamber between the psychedelic experience and the practitioner's already familiar references. There may well be allusions to eastern traditions, famous psychedelic-advocates' ideas, and occultural references in these reports.

As stated before, the process of telling a story about a psychedelic experience is part of the integration of an episodic memory of complex experiencing into a narrative that conveys semantic meaning. By telling a story and conveying meaning to others, the practitioner is conveying meaning to themselves. As will be shown, the meaning-making processes implied in this narrativization include, on some occasions, a new personal perspective on life or belief- structure that can be called insightfulness. Psychedelic experiences are often described as moments where things, actions, and memories appear imbued with enhanced meaning, and the mind connects new concepts into new ideas as the senses become overwhelmed in colors, sounds, and sensations. Once the practitioner has had time to digest the experience and word it, cooking it from a raw experiential flow into a cohesive narrative, can the experience acquire the semantic structure that is this paper’s source of data to analyze.

Narratives in the dataset fit a threefold structure. They all begin with the practitioner’s expectations about the ceremony and the ingestion of the psychedelic brew, followed by the description of their experiences and visions (which comprises a diverse set of sceneries of


Further contextualizing the process of creating a narrative of a psychedelic experience, written language entails specific difficulties. The following fragment describes the implicit process a practitioner undergoes prior to creating the story. The experience itself is challenging to describe in words, and ineffability is an aspect these experiences share with classic mystical experiences:

(…) as I have reflected on the experience over the past month, new memories have resurfaced from the time fog. I have slowly been incorporating them into a somewhat coherent flow of events that I can now

make more sense of. With that said, everything I am now about to say is deceiving. It has been ‘dumbed down’ into a scope that is understandable

and workable by my small mind. The worlds in which I entered exist at a point beyond human understanding. I had no concept for and lacked the cognitive capacity to conceptualize the Beings that existed in that place.

(Dillon, 2008, p. 3)

In the previous excerpt, the practitioner describes how as they have "reflected on the experience over the past month", they have been slowly incorporating the flow of experience "from the time fog" into a coherent succession of events that they can "make sense of". They even prevent the reader by stating their report might be "deceiving" as it has been "dumbed down" into a manageable story suitable for their waking state of consciousness. Dillon, as the practitioner calls themselves, claims that the worlds he experienced are beyond human understanding, and they lacked the cognitive capacity to conceptualize the intermediary beings they encountered.

The difficulty of translating the experiential flow into a coherent story is almost all-pervading in the dataset. Some describe the narrative as "the tip of the iceberg," the experience being, in fact, impossible to describe. Additionally, when it came to spiritual experiences, elements such as "deep spiritual realizations" were reported alongside the claim to mnemonic inability to hold on to the information received.

Whereas in some narratives, the language was said to fail as the experience in itself was beyond comprehension, some others decided to keep aspects of their experience a secret, stating that no one would believe what they found out anyway:


As I finish this report I know that there is a lot missing, a lot unsaid, things which I unintentionally left out and things I could never even put to words.

(Q, 2001, p. 4)

The following sections display the first-person perspective of a set of chosen narratives deemed salient and worthy of individual narrative analysis while referencing the other reports using word clouds. Two main sections comprise this chapter: the first half describes and analyses the stories of three practitioners who partook in ayahuasca within a traditional ceremonial setting.

The second half describes and analyses the stories of two practitioners who partook in ayahuasca in the context of individual practice. The primary attribute that contrasts these sets of stories is the setting in which they took place.


4.1 Group ceremonies

4.1.1 General features

The traditional setting for the consumption of ayahuasca is a group ceremony led by a shaman who sings Icaros, uses rattles, smokes tobacco, smudges with incense, and is the one in sole control of the brew. The word cloud above (word-cloud 1) was made utilizing the narratives that took place within the context of a group ceremony to create a picture using the most frequently used words. As seen above, the words Shaman, Ayahuasca, and Ceremony were the most prominent. However, the picture is enriched by the details in words around them: "singing songs," "candles," "cleansing," "medicine," "smoke," "tobacco," "sacred," "Amazon,"

"facilitators," "blankets," "spirit," "beautiful" and "madness." Together they comprise the general landscape in which these experiences took place by depicting the most persistent elements. The word-cloud above is meant to transport us into the abstract setting of a group ceremony.

Apart from the elements we read in the word cloud, which comprise the setting's environmental elements, these narratives had an additional attribute: the interaction with a collective. The community, the facilitators, the practitioner’s peers, and other non-specialists relate to each

Word cloud 1 Setting: group ceremony


other in the ritual space. In the following sections, we will see how in some instances, peer support was present in helping, for instance, the storyteller with the individual meaning-making process. In other instances, the interaction with others in the ritual space triggered new insights and ideas. Group interaction is an aspect of the relationship between the practitioner and the setting, being the shaman central as he engages in performative activities such as chanting, cleansing, smudging, guiding, and overall directing the ceremony.

The coding exercise in Atlas.ti revealed different types of group ceremonies which are here divided into two main categories: ayahuasca tourism, which comprises narratives of practitioners from western backgrounds who went to the Amazon rainforest, and ceremonies led by a traditional shaman. Even though these categories appear to be quite close the difference points to the setting's scale. The first one addresses the bigger sociocultural setting behind a ceremony: people worldwide who travel to the Amazon to partake in the brew.

The ayahuasca tourism section below considers the cultural frictions embedded in that interaction. Conversely, the traditional shaman section analyses the environmental setting, which explores the interactions between the practitioner and the shaman's performance.

Even though there is evidence of a couple of ceremonies guided by non-traditional or western shamans, we will not analyze these instances further because there are no consistent practices or solid traditions within those settings that the researcher can point at, except for the source of the music. The dataset showed that live instrumental music is almost exclusive to the realm of the traditional (Amazonian) shaman (see network 1 below), and it is closely linked to his healing practices. Ceremonies guided by Western shamans share the use of recorded music with the individual consumption of ayahuasca.


4.1.2 Ayahuasca tourism: the story of Marisa7

"(…) maybe this is what happens when the North meets the South and the Amazon and New York City try to join forces." (Marisa S, 2010, p.


Marisa came from New York. She went to the Peruvian Amazon to teach yoga to "a group of artists, writers, and seekers" within the context of an ayahuasca retreat run by a Peruvian shaman she calls "Maestro." This section will focus on Marisa's story as her narrative exemplifies Ayahuasca tourism's sociocultural setting, characterized by including individuals from several different cultural backgrounds who travel to the rainforest looking to partake in ayahuasca within a traditional context.

The table above (table 1) shows the total narratives that took place int this context (nine in total). The narrative by Marisa S, entitled "The Resolute Path of the Root Chakra," turned out

7 Marisa S. "The Resolute Path of the Root Chakra: An Experience with ayahuasca (exp85981)". Erowid.org. Jul 8, 2010. erowid.org/exp/85981 – Accessed spring 2020.

Table 1 Ayahuasca tourism - Atlas.ti project results


to be the most relevant for analysis, with 27% of the total number of references and quotations alluding to ayahuasca tourism. Marisa's story is approached from two angles: the context in which she finds herself (an ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon) and the content of the visions she experienced.

Marisa arrived in a remote location in the Amazon, and as soon as she touched the "red muddy soil," she was greeted by the retreat organizer with a blunt "So you're drinking tonight, right?".

According to Marisa, the host was in charge of many people, including international travelers, a Hollywood crew, a shaman, guest speakers, and authors. It was the grand opening of the ayahuasca retreat in which she would be a yoga instructor. The people who attended were described as artists, scientists, and writers, tattooed, dreaded, pierced, clean-shaven, and freshly showered people from all sorts of backgrounds, all having in common the desire to partake in the brew.

Marisa went to teach yoga and meditation in the retreat but found out that the local shaman was against those practices. According to Marisa, the "Maestro" believed these forms of spirituality were empty. "Yoga and yoga teachers were looked down upon," according to her, for going against the shaman's belief structure, which Marisa described as harsh and survivalist.

She hoped, however, that the shaman would realize that yoga could be complementary to his work.

She partook in ayahuasca on two different occasions. Her first experience took place as soon as she arrived at the retreat, and in her own words, it was a fairy tale. She described blissful moments of allowing herself to be embraced by ayahuasca until she "remembered being One."

Her second experience was much more confrontational and challenging and proved to challenge her values. We will analyze both ayahuasca experiences in relation to the


her foam mattress while a chorus of frogs, insects, and "machine elves" surrounded her silence, she arrived at the "Source of Being":

"The peak brought me to the Source of Being. The face of a female deity, large and hovering, made of swirling geometric patterns and neon pinks, greens and blue, welcomed me home. Oh yeah, I'm here. I've followed my symbols, my clues, and the scent of myself, back to my Self. I remember now. It's all the One. I am the One. Life is a game of make-believe, where I

forget the aloneness of the One through splintering into fragments of self- illusion, only to eventually remember again. I've remembered before and will forget again, and on and on (…) Spiralling in and out of knowing and

being One, I let go into aya's embrace". (Marisa S, 2010, p. 4)

Even though she describes her experience as taking place "in the middle of nowhere," her peak experience is one of being "in and out of knowing and being the One." She claims to arrive in the "Source of Being" in an interaction with a female deity who welcomed her home. She describes having followed the scent of herself until reaching her Self in the game of make- believe that life is, where she will remember and forget the true nature and source of being again. All is the One; she is the One.

As Marisa stayed longer in the retreat and prepared for the next experience, her interaction with the local shaman would become conflictive. Feelings of being in a hostile environment filled with cultural differences, would pervade her story from then on. On occasions, she would wonder if she did not have any sense of fear about "drinking a repulsive mind-altering brew and being left alone in the jungle" to survive by herself. Phrases such as "what if I get eaten by a jaguar or bitten by a deadly spider or squeezed to death by an anaconda or choke on my own vomit" makes her narrative appear apprehensive.

Such feelings comprise Marisa's set: how she felt, what she thought of her surroundings, whether she felt safe in them. As we read in the previous passage, her narrative describes different fears, from being eaten alive by deadly Amazonian creatures to being in the middle of the jungle drinking a hallucinogen. Nonetheless, despite the fact of feeling somewhat


unprotected and challenged, she had the conviction and belief that "the universe [was] taking care [of her]."

As stated above, her relationship with the shaman is one of conflict. She describes a harsh person filled with "shamachismo," whom she perceives as having complete disregard for the comfort of the practitioners in the retreat, and who downplays her beliefs by being against the practice of yoga in the retreat center. Marisa describes the shaman's opinion about Icaros, yoga, and meditation as "small therapy for Westerners." She felt "no sympathy or nurturing in his expressions." Marisa had a sense that the Maestro did not care about anyone's journey, however horrific or beautiful:

"(…) what about at least a little bit of initial guidance through these uncharted realms before pushing us out of the nest and into the jaguar's gaping mouth? I know Maestro doesn't want to be a guru, but wouldn't it perhaps speed up this process of Self-discovery if we at least had a tour of

the area first before being abandoned?" (Marisa S, 2010, p. 3)

Marisa's setting was very challenging. She felt unprotected by the shaman, daunted by her surroundings, and even abandoned and thrown into "the jaguar's gaping mouth." In her story, she would describe not being aligned with the shaman's values and methods of "eliciting spiritual transformation," which were described as survivalist in contrast with her "gentle and nurturing approach." Despite her first ayahuasca experience being positive, her feelings of general discomfort would impact her as her time in the retreat went on.

Marisa's description of the retreat included chefs, jewelers, laundry services, and a pool in


through the arts of yoga and meditation, and of seeing love as the ultimate reality, I certainly had moments of What the F*$#? when it came to

Maestro's methods and teachings." (Marisa S, 2010, p. 5)

Marisa's story is one of cultural shock. Her belief structure was at odds with her surroundings and with the local shaman in particular. The previous excerpt is one of the most interesting in Marissa's tale as it depicts the complex cultural interactions implicit in the sociocultural setting of ayahuasca tourism in the Amazon. Marisa, a yoga instructor from New York, describes a form of spirituality that centers around "relaxing and letting go" through "the arts of yoga and meditation" and seeing "love as the ultimate reality," a belief structure which found no commonalities with the shaman's "methods and teachings." This structure would be challenged further in her next ayahuasca ceremony.

Her second ayahuasca experience takes place after she has spent some time in the retreat. It is shaped by challenging feelings, which leave her with a sense of existential crisis where she states having lost "her meaning." Her discomfort with the shaman's methods will be part of the context of this experience. In here, the setting of cultural shock feeds feelings of uneasiness in the practitioner, thus set and setting amplifying each other.

As the sun went down, Marisa sat and waited for the "vile solution" to arrive. She drank some amount, but her cup was half full. She felt dubitative about drinking the whole cup, but she said to herself, "Don't be a wuss, you have to drink it all." She struggled, but she managed to drink the whole dose. Since Rob, the retreat coordinator, translated the words from the shaman and said, "you must go into your fears," Marisa prepared herself by taking a deep breath and proceeded to dive into "the abysmal depths" of her being. According to her story, her mind

"went into hyper drive," and she lost her sense of self for 5 hours in what felt a "voyage of despair."

Her second ayahuasca experience is written off as being very challenging, both mentally and physically. An experience so strong that it challenged her belief system and left her with a sense of existential despair:


"My journey had reminded me of the complete and utter meaninglessness of all of existence, besides the meaning that we give it. Where before I could

understand that and feel confidence and purpose in the thought of the individual giving life its significance, now I felt cheated, like I had truly wanted all of this matter to matter for something, and in the end didn't. I

felt that the cosmos had held me naked and upside down by my feet, pointing and laughing with a big F*** You at all I held to be true and

sacred". (Marisa S, 2010, p. 7)

As has been shown up until this point, Marisa arrived in the Amazon with a definite set of values and ideas which were confronted by difference: how challenging the environment felt, how Amazonian shamanism disregarded her approach to spirituality, and finally by the ayahuasca experience that, far from confirming her beliefs, disputed them. In this second experience, she feels the cosmos has fooled her, and she now doubts everything she considers true and sacred.

After the ceremony she describes feeling lost for some days, daunted by the meaninglessness of life when she meets Taka, "a soul-brother." She recalls sharing her experiences with him and how he helped her through his care and compassion. "In a short exchange, he began to give me back my meaning," she states, enough to start recovering and join her peers in going to an Amazonian school to help paint and clean the space for the local children:

"Service, karma yoga, doing for others without expectation, and openhearted generosity began to restore me even further. Seeing the joy on the school children's faces as we came together to make their surroundings


travellers of this hapless journey we cling to and call life". (Marisa S, 2010, p. 7)

Finally with those words, she ends her story. The idea of acquiring an "expanded focus"

through "being blown apart" or having a challenging experience would have caused her to now see the world differently and "include more of [her] real self, shadow and all." Marisa slowly picked up the pieces of herself that were scattered by the ayahuasca experience, and by being put in a position of having to reconstruct her meaning, she found a new sense of self by "doing for others" and reconnecting via having a "greater patience and compassion" with other humans or "fellow travellers."

Marisa's narrative ends on a reconciliation with the shaman who, according to her, finally allowed the travelers to practice yoga in the ritual space. She reflects on the retreat as a community of people from different parts of the Earth who gather around healing. "If we were as varied as the rainbow spectrum," she says, talking about the diversity of the retreat members, then the shaman in her eyes represented the "blazing fire of the red, root chakra" which Marisa relates to the Earth, and other concepts such as "survival," "body," "pain" and "instincts." The rainforest as a setting: analysis of Marisa's narrative

Marisa's tale is one of cultural shock. Her story described the lack of compatibility between her beliefs and those of the shaman. The rainforest appeared to be a hostile place, ideologically, culturally, and environmentally.

Marisa's relationship with the shaman is entirely worthy of analysis. She is faced with the fact that the shaman does not align with her values; he is against the practice of yoga inside the retreat. When she states how shocking the shaman's general rejection of her spiritual practices is, we could hypothesize she is approaching the shaman's environment with a consolidated set of beliefs, which she considers to be fundamentally compatible with other spiritual practices.

When the shaman expresses his dismissal of the foreign practices, she appears troubled and describes how her approach to spiritual awakening is "much more gentle" in sharp contrast with a survivalist's harsh "DIY" spirituality of hard confrontation to catalyze transformation.


She concludes her story by reconciling the shaman's image, whom she makes sense of through the concept of "root chakra," which in her perspective is the Earth's instinctual energy.

The fact that "an eclectic group of seekers" found themselves in a retreat in the Amazon rainforest, which offered ayahuasca alongside teaching yoga and meditation, is a glimpse of a much larger reality of how ayahuasca is intertwined in a global market of spiritualities and new age practices. The brew is consumed alongside other exotic and detraditionalized spiritual practices, which are believed to be fundamentally compatible.

Her first experience with ayahuasca is described as one of oneness, where she "remembers"

her divine nature. Marisa has just arrived in the retreat, and, as she states, she did not have much time to "decompress," providing the context and setting of this experience. It is very suggestive that she had an experience of "remembering" she is "the one," and everything is "the one," as it would seem a confirmation of her beliefs. Interesting about her tale is that this claim appears to be a transcendental experience of oneness and gnosis. Regardless of whether there are authentic and unauthentic mystical experiences "out there," the word "remembering" gives the sense of the practitioner confirming her pre-existing beliefs in what she thinks she is supposed to feel in these states.

After interacting with the sociocultural setting, her subsequent ayahuasca experience is challenging both mentally and physically and leads to a sort of crisis of meaning. As we read, she felt as though the universe had laughed at her by tearing apart her personal transcendental framework. However, how did she gain her "meaning" back?

On the one hand, she had peer support. She had the chance to talk about her experience with a fellow practitioner which is very important because the group ceremony allows for moments


way she regains meaning: she does by helping others. This is explicitly related to the setting in which Marisa is drinking ayahuasca. She is in the daunting Amazon, where she feels uncomfortable, and it is in the interaction with this environment –cleaning and painting a school for indigenous children- that she reconstructs her meaning around the idea of cooperating and supporting others. The idea of an insight being correlated with an experience's context happens in this case after the ceremony and during a phase were the practitioner seems to be trying to make sense of the event, and it is by interacting with her environment that she gains insight in having compassion for "the fellow travelers of the hapless journey we call life."

The practitioner considered both her first and second ayahuasca experiences as essential and meaningful. They were integrated into her conclusion as she understands, on the one hand, the importance of community in the restoration of meaning through peer support and giving to others. And on the other, the importance of "knowing how to be alone" in the memory of "being the One", unaccompanied.

The challenging experience and "the slow process of re constructing meaning," point to a exigent episode both mentally and physically, which shatters the practitioner's previous belief system (already defied by the setting) and brings about a new one by picking up the pieces and building a new sense of self, which includes different, previously unrecognized values: "I now saw the world from an expanded focus, as if being blown apart caused my peripheral vision to expand and include more of my real self, shadow and all."

Marisa's experience leaves questions about the relationship between psychedelics and the placebo response, also known as the meaning response. The pondering about placebo and psychedelics' stems from the relationship between expectancy, religious beliefs, and psychedelics' disposition to augment or magnify environmental elements and psychological makeup. Nevertheless, this analysis falls out of the scope of this work.

In contrast, her second experience compels us to look into psychedelics' ability to challenge established values and the subsequent engagement in meaning-making processes to integrate the experiences further and create a new perspective that includes insights learned. This will be expanded on in the theoretical discussion.


4.1.3 The traditional shaman: the story of Dillon8

Dillon arrived in the Peruvian Amazon to partake in what he thought was a "genuine pagan"

ritual with a shaman and a hallucinogenic brew who could throw him to otherworldly realms. He had considered himself an atheist for some time before traveling to Peru, and now he was looking for an experience that would put him closer to transcendence. "I entered the room and took my shoes off," he narrates while remembering the mischievous smiles of the villagers who greeted him goodbye before going to the ceremony. He was escorted by Moses, his guide, and link with Don Jorge, the shaman.

As it is shown in table 2, out of 13 narratives that included interaction with a traditional shaman, Dillon's narrative titled "The Swish of the Schacapa" turned out to be the most representative one, with 21% of quotations and references to such an interaction. Dillon's experience is characterized by being directed by the shaman's performance with the practitioner's heightened sense of hearing. Thus, Dillon's experience is the chosen narrative to depict the interaction between the practitioner and the shaman and the presence of live music in the ceremony.

The story begins as the shaman, "Don Jorge", sat in front of him, illuminated by the light of

Table 3 - Traditional shaman - Atlas.ti project results

Table 2 Setting: traditional shaman - Atlas.ti results




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