The Ayahuasca Sessions by Rak Razam
Originally published in 2010 ‘The Ayahuasca Sessions – Conversations with Amazonian curanderos and Western shamans’ is by Rak Razam. Razam is a journalist, author of ‘Aya: A shamanic odyssey’ and editor of ‘The Journeybook: Travels on the Frontiers of Consciousness’. This book is a transcription of interviews he conducted with shamans, many of whom he talks about in his book Aya.
Rak Razam describes the rise of the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca as one in a series of booms that have occurred in South America. Firstly rubber in the nineteenth century, then oil in the twentieth, and now ayahuasca. With ayahuasca tourism on the rise, the curanderos and curanderas, or to the Western mind ‘shamans’, are in high demand. In the past, South America was exploited for raw materials, its people treated as tools for this endeavour. Ayahuasca, however, is no simple raw material exported to fuel the West, and the shamans who wield the plants are not simply the West’s tools. Rather, the shaman, the plants and the land are a potent trio, purporting to have the power to transform the West just as much as the dollar transforms their indigenous culture. Razam interviews a fascinating collection of individuals from this world, creating a window into this ever changing frontier.
“The mysteries of ayahuasca are infinite, but the vine wants to be engaged. It strikes me as no coincidence that the world gets just what it needs when it needs it. When the counter-culture embraced LSD in the 60s it opened the mind; ecstasy unblocked the heart for the rave culture of the 90s, and now the jungle medicine ayahuasca is standing ready to rebalance the soul for a new generation of seekers in the 00s.”
The interviews are split into four categories; the first of which are the Indigenous Curanderos. For instance, Guillermo, who came to the fore after participating in a film by Frenchman Jan Kounen; and, Elias Mamallacta, who is against charging money for curing and who comes from an Ecuadorian tradition of curanderos. Female shamans, curandera, are less common than their male counterparts. This collection includes several however, and opens with an interview with Adela Navas de Garcia. She discusses beginning the process of becoming a curandera after falling ill when she was a teenager, and being cured by ayahuasca, even though it was usually prohibited in that area for a woman to drink. From there on in she followed the healing path. This is one of a number of ways the indigenous people become shamans, another being through hereditary lines. Sara Alicia Ferreira Yaimes, a tabaquera, “a healer that works with the spirit of the tobacco plant itself” (59), was taught by her mother for example.
The second section is dedicated to the Western Shaman. These are the individuals who have travelled to South America and learnt the way of the plant. For instance, the Peru-based shaman from the midwest of the United States, Ron Wheelock. Asked if his plant mixture was a science, Ron replies: “Alchemy. Alchemy, yeah, it’s early science. You’re mixing alkaloids from various plants” (124). A new schema of approach is undoubtedly moving in together with the more traditional, but this isn’t necessarily undoing the outcome of curing with ayahuasca. Carlos Tanner, from Massachusetts, is an apprentice to a curandero called Don Juan Tangoa Paima. He appears to have the desire to continue the way by not charging people “because it’s a really important part of the healing process and its also really important for the students who are here” (115). Within the transformation of new approaches, there is still the unfolding of the old.
In the third section, the collection feels like it takes you a step further back from the indigenous use of ayahuasca, in that it deals with Ayahuasca Workers. These include the aforementioned French film-maker Jan Kounen, who wishes to film spiritual reality; Alan Shoemaker who founded the Amazonian Shaman Conference and runs a tour company; and, an ayahuasca drinker-seeker named Chuck, who facilitates ceremonies and translates for tour groups. This is perhaps the hardest section to read in that one realises the necessity of money exchange with the arrival of tourists, spending money and staying for only a short time. Rightly or wrongly, it breathes a certain type of life into those parts of the jungle that tourism’s gaze falls upon. The sense of traversing a lofty rope must never seem so far away when dealing with the vine and one’s role with this atmosphere, and this comes across in the interviews. A very interesting conversation with Dennis McKenna is also in this section, As well as an extensive passage on ‘The Experiment at La Chorrera’, he discusses the interest of “Big Pharma” in the Amazon.
Seeds is the final section and deals with a number of ayahuasqueros, young seekers, students and an apprentice. Along with Carlos Tanner, interviewed previously and who became the program director for the Wind Spirit Centre, which trains Westerners in the art of being a Peruvian curanderos, and interviews with some of their students. This section has the added delight of a freer breeze running through it, a wonder reverberates among those interviewed between ayahuasca and the people who employ it. Elsa, for example: “…every time I take ayahuasca I’m more amazed at the depth of the culture the Shipibos have and their perception of existence” (235). One has the real sense of deepening cultural bridges from The Ayahuasca Sessions and this manifests in an appreciation that lines the whole book; appreciation for the vine, the environment, the peoples, the cultures and the way. With this juxtaposed against discussions over the negative, like loss of tradition and the impact of money, the reader gains an insightful multilple perspective. Ultimately, The Ayahuasca Sessions is a fascinating glimpse into a world of change.