The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca: The healing effects of symbolic and mythological participation

by Paul Hessell (Creative Commons)

by Paul Hessell (Creative Commons)

The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca: The healing effects of symbolic and mythological participation by Justin Panneck first appeared in the Psychedelic Press Journal.

Mythology and alchemy are significant aspects of humanity that have been lost in the modern world but carry important messages and tools for integrating various levels of the unconscious as well as engendering purpose and enhancing creativity and spirituality. Ayahuasca, and other entheogens (such as psilocybin, LSD, and Salvia divinorum) may serve as psycho-enrichment technologies that enhance cognition, boost creativity and spirituality, and create harmonious relationships with others. The use of ayahuasca in a ritual setting has been found to stimulate optimal living through the integration of mythological, alchemical, and archetypal motifs into daily life. Ritual use of ayahuasca may include a shamanic (healer–patient) interaction or an organized religious group – such as the Santo Daime church, the Barquiña, or the União do Vegetal, each of which represent a type of collective shamanism.

Based on my extensive interviews with multiple seasoned Santo Daime church members, and my 5 years of experience with Daime rituals, I propose that ayahuasca used in these ritual settings is further parallel to Victor Turner’s (1967) three phases of ritual experience: separation, liminality, and reaggregation. Examining these motifs and stages allows individuals to understand themselves in much greater depth; the dissolution of negative patterns and behavior, or trauma, etc.; and the further stimulation of positive changes in ‘beingness’.

Liminality is a term from twentieth-century anthropology that was coined by Victor Turner to describe a journey through the world of mythology, representing a key phenomenon in spiritual and psychological transformation. Limen in Latin translates to ‘threshold’, and may be applied to certain states experienced by individuals as they pass over from one stage of life to another. Palmer (1980, 5) described that during the liminal stage, or the ‘between stage’, one’s status becomes ambiguous; one is ‘neither here nor there’ but remains ‘betwixt and between all fixed points of classification’. This is the marginal zone where many of our great writers, critics, and artists have experienced glimpses beyond the social borders, from within the deep, foamy mythological waters of the collective unconscious, where the whisperings of ethereal minds have wrought a blooming magnitude of progressive ideas and forms.

 

Healing effects of symbolic and mythological participation

Throughout the spiritually thematic ecstasies and illuminations witnessed during ritual ayahuasca sessions, individuals gain access to a sort of ‘mythic consciousness’ that, from a neurophysiological perspective, may be typical of accessing ancient parts of the brain (such as the ‘R-complex’ or reptilian brain, as MacLean [1990] described the basal ganglia); and from a more transpersonal and psychodynamic approach, the depths of the unconscious, further reorienting deeply embedded primitive belief structures. Often, images can be so vivid and poignant, despite how unique or grotesque they may be, that a deep chord is struck in the psyche. For example, during one of my ayahuasca sessions with the Santo Daime church, I recorded the following in my journal:

There was one rather ghastly vision of a dead body in a glass capsule that had just rolled over toward me – its eyes open; its body morbidly white, although tinged with frigid, cobalt blue, greyness, and dull olive tones. The whole scene appeared to be something that was ‘hiding’ underneath a structure of some sort, as if something was ‘swept under the rug’ and now it was being unearthed, examined and disposed of.

What symbolic message could this represent? I immediately thought of my scatological tendencies, bad eating habits, a few other unmentionables, and the obstinacy of my full creative expression. Whatever its symbolism, I found the vision poignant. This image closely resembles the oft-repeated mythological ‘death metaphor’, and may represent a critical stage in my personal growth process as my old paradigm was ‘dying off’ to be replaced by the birth of a new paradigm. These visual narrations may sometimes be referred to as a metaphorical parable, not unlike parables in the Bible: an image is presented from which the experient takes away a moral lesson (Shanon 2010).

It is thus important to incorporate, or at least consider, mythological motifs and symbols – perhaps through synthesizing the landmark works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, calling attention to ancient wisdom and further interpretations of the mysterious depths of the unconscious. This may help to stimulate a paradigm shift in the way we view and assess self-knowledge and other information, moving toward a type of ‘mystical-metaphorical’ orientation that may better serve our needs as we become an increasingly complex society fraught with increasing levels of stress and psychological ills. Everyone maintains the desire to tell their own story, which is the point of mythology; and in that process, life gains significance. As Moerman (2002, 150) puts it, ‘Meaning affects life, life affects meaning [and] as people create stories from their lives, restructure the flow of life into meaningful objects, they are able to relieve much distress, suffering and many physical problems’.

Many individuals who ingest ayahuasca may find themselves in an ‘archetypal transformation’ similar to what Joseph Campbell would call the ‘hero’s journey’: an exploration of the unknown that many individuals undertake, whether or not they are aware of it – although it is this awareness of a ‘heroic journey’ embedded in mythological themes, that has a tendency to enrich the ‘life adventure’. The prominent feature of this journey involves a ‘deconstruction’ and ‘resurrection’, resulting in an entirely new outlook on life. For example, encounters with Jesus Christ during altered states of consciousness (ASC) are particularly notable since his death and resurrection provide a particularly profound dramatization of this motif.

In their book, The Stormy Search for the Self, A Guide to Personal Growth Through Transformational Crisis, Stanislav and Christina Grof summarized the hero’s journey by asserting, ‘One receives a yearning or “call” from the forces of the unconscious; undergoes lonely separation from family and beliefs; is initiated and transformed by jarring, painful interior and exterior life events; and is finally reborn, re-integrated body, mind and spirit, and returned to life as a new being with mature gifts and understandings’ (1992, 5).

Grof and Grof (1992) also referred to this process as the biographic matrix of illness–crisis–breakthrough that is evident in many myths, including Jonah and the Whale, the resurrection of Persephone by Zeus, or in the myth of Orpheus, where ‘the skills of an exceptionally gifted and enchanting artist are combined with a wanderer between the worlds who is able to speak nature’s tongue’ (7). Grof and Grof further highlighted how Plato discussed four types of ritual madness, whereby one is caused by the intervention of gods, including the prophetic rapture to Apollo, the artistic inspiration by the Muses, and the ritual ecstasy of Dionysus, the latter of which his student Aristotle referred to as catharsis – a purging or purification.

These ancient myths are not unlike the experiences witnessed during the ritual use of ayahuasca (such as Turner’s three-phase model already mentioned), where one wanders ‘between worlds’ often experiencing a type of temporary ‘madness’ (illness/separation), as well as a breakdown of identity (crisis). Eventually, the experient develops a macrocosmic kinship, or connection to nature, as well as rapture, inspiration, and ecstatic spiritual communion (liminality), which is then followed by catharsis and purification (reaggregation).

It is important to identify the relationship between mythology itself and the mythical-religious phenomena experienced through ayahuasca consumption, as the world of myth appears to be imbued with a common story that we all share as humans – recipes for the successful development of Self. Michael Meade (2010, 81) wrote, ‘Myths are intended to break the spell of time and release us from the pressures and limitations of daily life’, while the psychiatrist Rollo May (1991, 45) suggested that ‘Our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. The person without a myth is a person without a home… To be a member of one’s community is to share in its myths’. Joseph Campbell (1968, 47) summarized the importance of myths:

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. What we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive. That’s what all these mythical clues help us to find within ourselves. Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is.

Shanon (2010) wrote extensively about the relationship between ayahuasca and myth, asserting that they ‘are causally, not only conceptually, linked. If myths were discovered by their originators through the use of substance-induced altered states of consciousness, then the world of myth is actually the world of ayahuasca. I tend to believe that this is indeed the case’ (395).

Thus, it can be seen that through the ritual use of ayahuasca, ASC forges access to pre-modern myth and culture, which present important formulas for not only overcoming human issues, but also integrating life’s obstacles into daily life – living the true mysteries and forging them into personally meaningful and deeply healing conditions. In fact, there appears to be a consensus emerging regarding these mythical-religious concepts and interpretations among those who have experienced entheogenic substances (Ghasemi 2010). In the course of these experiences and encounters with transcendent states of existence, individuals can discover mythopoetic concepts of traditional scriptures to be more relevant than modern psychological concepts in explicating the nature of the experience (Smith 2000).

Tupper (2002) described entheogens as tools that promote a type of spiritual and existential intelligence, given that they facilitate awareness of a mythical-religious component of human culture, thus engendering an appreciation of the irreducible and mysterious dimensions of life. Ghasemi (2010, 5) posits that ‘entheogens restore a primitive form of perception of which the myth itself is the principal collective manifestation’, the central idea of which was suggested by Ernst Cassirer in his book, Language and Myth, which introduced a level of perceptive experience as the origin of the myth. It is Ghasemi’s belief, based on these Cassirerian notions of perception and myth, that ayahuasca reproduces the cognitive parameters that shape such a mythical perception.

Many of the experiences of participants from my past interviews with over a dozen Santo Daime church members (Daimistas) were saturated by old and new mythological motifs – including Mary; the Divine Mother; Jesus; images and symbols of death; sensations of being in the womb, pre-birth or post-death states (all three of which may often be referred to as ‘the Void’), as well as animated trees and plants, which have a voluminous array of weighted mythological significance (such as the inoteca or ancient ‘sky rope’ connecting heaven with earth, symbolizing the marriage of feminine and masculine, mind and body, mother and father, and so on). Newer related emerging themes may relate the marriage of advanced civilization (father) with nature (mother) – that the two can and should co-exist, rather than endure as a source of negative tension. This theme most likely refers to an emerging return of ‘the feminine’ – a notion that I have heard repeatedly over the years from a variety of spiritually minded people.

These newly emerging mythological themes are often noted during Daime sessions, in both my own and my informants’ accounts – such as, for example, Gaia as a living entity combined with Christ consciousness, which may be referred to as the ChristGaian paradigm. In a Daime concentration ritual I attended several years ago, I was presented with a startling and transformative vision of what appeared to be an ‘alien machine-god’ churning out boundless strings of DNA code, as if it were the ultimate Creator. This may represent an amalgam of personal and cultural messages buried within the depths of my unconscious mind, which perhaps surfaced either to highlight the impersonal automation of modern life or to convey more personal spiritual messages. For example, the deep impact of this animated mythological communion (AMC), as I have come to call it, was a realization that the Divine is within me.

Personal and cultural interpretations of these types of image, if deciphered on a regular basis following ayahuasca sessions, may lead to an enhanced relationship to the unconscious mind. This is the essence of ‘living the mysteries’: to know and exalt one’s self as a center of the mysteries as well as an author of one’s own unique adventures. This is at the heart of the myth of the Holy Grail, as well as the alchemical lure of turning base metals into gold – a psychic projection toward aligning mind and body to uncover the spiritual center.

In terms of cultural interpretations, could this vision represent a mythopoetic teaching to remain aware of the destructive effects of industry (machines) on the planet? Could it represent the near-future event horizon of the merging of humans and machines – another interpretation of the marriage of ‘mother’ and ‘father’? Or could it be the classic deus ex machina, the mythological machine whose arrival indicates that the end of the world as we know it is nigh?

Among other important and meaningful themes is that of Christ, which may be particularly healing given its significance for religious experients. That is, when ayahuasca drinkers – especially within a ritual context bound to Christian ideologies (such as Santo Daime) – come into direct contact with Christ and then enter into a supreme Christ consciousness, they become transformed: they may come to feel a deeper understanding of the story, its meaning and significance – from the profession of rapture, to sacrifice and salvation, death, and then rebirth. It is as though the participant has entered into the story and become the central actor – a profoundly moving phenomenon that appears to transcend ordinary boundaries and limitations, permeating and eliminating the now trivial and petty annoyances that once served as the basis of stress. The pivotal theme in Christ consciousness that experients enter into, especially during Santo Daime rituals, is the notion of salvation, translated in this context into the release of an undesirable state or condition (such as old cultural or religious paradigms, negative behaviors, or traumas) and toward redemption, healing, and health through release and transformation.

In some, this newfound spiritual joie de vivre may initially provoke spiritual crisis, which can be challenging if the culture and/or social group in which one lives does not support such spiritual rapture. Once an individual is able to successfully integrate their teachings and newfound sense of self, an appetite for life itself becomes apparent, as told through the myth – most notably that of the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey is not unlike the story of the ayahuasca seeker, involving a similar sequence of events: their calling for a new paradigm, alternative healing, or spiritual wholeness summons an open door to the Holy Grail in which lies the bittersweet prima materia or medicine; it is cooked or amalgamated (the medicine is ingested); and then inward they fly, to fight their inner demons, attempting to overcome their challenges, and then finding light, love, and gold within their hearts (that is, finally embracing the Holy Grail). Following their own illumination and self-transformation, the initiate may then proceed to transform their families and communities, if they so desire, thus enhancing society around them.

Joseph Campbell (1968, 52) touched on this relationship between self and adventure when he asserted, ‘The adventure is symbolically a manifestation of his character. Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in situations that will evoke your higher nature rather than your lower one’. What is also particularly transformative and healing about an AMC is that it seems to represent an emerging new paradigm and sensitivity for the ritual – something of which has been lost. Indeed, Campbell (1968, 54) expressed regret for the loss of myth and ritual in the modern Western world:

The ritual has lost its force. The ritual that once conveyed an inner reality is now merely form. We live in a demythologized world [which] is why many… are so attracted to these myths – they bring… messages.

Roberts (2013, 17) suggests that it is appropriate to view mystical experiences as ‘novel information-processing programs that allow the mind to invent new solutions, to see things from a fresh perspective’. What’s more, he claims, there appears to be a paradox in mystical experiences: conflicts between opposite ideas appear to be reduced and reframed as reciprocal components of a greater whole, each as part of a more complete understanding. This theme of the ‘pairs of opposites’ is a significant aspect of myth and mythological themes, and can be observed in the experiences of many ayahuasca drinkers – the insights from which lend themselves to such applications as more effectively managing conflicts in relationships; understanding the intentions and behaviors of others more deeply; or even transforming the way in which ayahuasca drinkers feel about themselves, their community, and the world around them.

 

The ayahuasca ritual as a modern alchemical healing paradigm

Earlier, it was noted that the Christ–Gaian paradigm can be likened to the ‘marriage’ between ‘mother and father’; it may also refer to the merging of masculine and feminine qualities (such as sky and earth), or to the ‘bridge’ between spirit and matter that Jung and Wolfgang Pauli so earnestly sought. In ancient alchemical texts, this is often referred to as the ‘alchemical wedding’ (opus alchymicum). In works of alchemy, an unconscious projection of this individuation process, which is seen to occur among ayahuasca drinkers, begins with an unconscious content (the prima material, in alchemy) and ends with the realization of the symbol of the self – which in turn can be equated to the prized goal of alchemy, the ‘philosopher’s stone’ (lapis philosophorum. Legend has it that the philosopher’s stone heals all disease, grants immortality, and transforms base metals into gold. Jung (1968) referred to this ‘Self’ symbol as the goal of individuation, as what compensates the Christ symbol, further symbolizing the union of extreme opposites – matter and spirit.

This alchemical process is seen in the spiritual work of the Santo Daime ritual, where participants are put in touch with the ‘God’ or ‘Christ’ within themselves – equivalent to the alchemists’ philosopher’s stone, or to the Holy Grail in other myths. The important consideration here, as Chalquist (2010) noted, is to ‘stir’ the myths back into life; this can be accomplished through a method similar to psychological diagnosis, whereby symptoms are matched to syndromes. In the case of the Santo Daime, symbolic events (such as Christ consciousness, or encounters with the Virgin Mary) may be matched to mythological themes. Jung labeled this type of work amplification – similar to translating an unknown word in a text, where the more profound the association, the greater degree of validation. Both Jung and Joseph Campbell believed that myths and archetypal motifs stirring from the depths hold up mirrors of symbol and image to reflect what the culture of a given time fails to recognize about itself; thus, like dreams, myths seek to rebalance the collective psyche by revealing its blind spots (Chalquist 2010).

As a result of ‘resurrecting’ these mythological motifs, including the encounters with Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Divine Mother, and other spirits and/or spirit guides, ayahuasca drinkers (especially as confirmed by my Daime informants) experience a deep, divine connection resulting in a spiritual transformation. It is this experience that appears to be a special privilege to its participants: it creates a psychological and emotional uplift, as well as putting them in touch with living mythological parables (AMC), resulting in a rejuvenated and fully integrated individual. This further enables not only effective coping strategies for continued daily and life stressors, but also offers an opportunity to live a harmonious, productive and meaningful existence.

 

The Entheonet: A modern analytical tool for ASC-induced mythological participation

Over the last decade, many have become increasingly and globally connected through the internet, whether through social networking, email, blogs, or video-sharing applications. In fact, technology is widely used in educational settings, as well as a myriad of scientific and medical applications, aiding humans in expediting analysis, learning, teaching, and so on. Technology could be seen then as a shared-distributed cognitive tool that encompasses far more data and more efficient analysis than the human brain is capable of performing. What is particularly fascinating about the modern day age of computers and the internet is that they tend to dissolve barriers and provide a greater capacity for connection as well as the dissemination of cultural artifacts, images, data, etc.

One particular aspect of the internet to note is the far-reaching distribution of images – such as those found through Google Images, a search engine that allows individuals to search almost any conceivable image or symbol. I believe that applications like these can serve as a shared-distributed cognitive tool to aid the entheogenic or psychonautic explorer with the identification and analysis of mythical images and symbols as experienced, for example, during ayahuasca-induced visionary states. I have come to call this peripheral entheogenic aid the ‘Entheonet’ – a notion deriving from my own experience using Google Images to search and identify various motifs and symbols that were particularly meaningful during my visionary states on ayahuasca, mostly from Santo Daime sessions. This could be likened to a ‘trail of bread crumbs’ whereby single images are pieced together to construct a more meaningful gestalt, leading to various resourceful texts related to spiritual and psychological development.

Thus, archetypes could be viewed as ‘information generators’ or concrescences in the form of symbols or images that reveal specific information with various meanings: a critical stage within spiritual development; a lack of integration of some aspect of the self; overbearing ego or vanity, etc. During ASC, the unconscious mind is being accessed in ways not normally possible in normal states of consciousness, as deeply buried information is presented in a more poetic and mythical modality.

Throughout my years of Daime service, I have encountered many visionary states that at first seemed puzzling and foreign. Using a variety of ‘Boolean operators’ within the Google search engine, however, I was able to discover, much to my astonishment, that many of these visions were referenced in a variety of religious, mythological, alchemical, and spiritual texts, often ancient and sometimes based in a pre-civilization era. This led me to discover many writings on the subject of spiritual and psychological development, which reinforced my own development and further galvanized my enthusiasm for the ‘adventure’ and lure of the ‘mysteries’. I came to realize that this was not only what Jung discussed regarding the collective unconscious, but also what the ancient alchemists and many other religious-mythical texts had referred to as either the philosopher’s stone or the Holy Grail – which, again, is analogous to the ‘spiritual center’ that lies within one’s self. That is, if the story of the ancient alchemists converting various common metals into precious gold is properly deciphered, herein lies the notion of a common goal for humanity: to find the ‘spark’ of life (be this viewed as individuation, reconciliation, metaphysical significance, unitive consciousness, spiritual evolution, or in other terms).

This very notion of the realization that the Fountain of Being is within – as individuals center and open their hearts to find rapture for themselves, their family, community, and the earth (Gaia) – has profound implications for the healing process, as each individual becomes aware that they themselves are part of the mystery; that they not only have influence, but are authors of their own unique journey toward self-fulfillment, development, and individuation. Thus, I became aware that the Daime sessions I attended were much like attending an ancient mystery school, where profound understandings about the world and self were shared.

Having a greater capacity to reveal meaning and connection, one may feel an enhanced noetic understanding of how ‘things work’, and further begin to experience what Jung described as synchronicity. This process can be seen as a development of what I have come to call mythic associations, patterns, and symbols (MAPS). Therefore, through a technological aid such as the Entheonet, a steeper gradient is set up whereby the interpretation of MAPS is reinforced by adding personally and culturally relevant meanings and then synthesizing the whole into one’s continued spiritual and psychological development. Thus, the Holy Grail is re-discovered and the experience of being alive is beheld!

 

References

Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cassirer, Ernst. 1953. Language and myth. New York: Dover Publications.

Chalquist, Craig. A brief mythology of petroleum. Available at http://www.chalquist.com/petroleum.html (accessed 2013 Oct 18)

Ghasemi, Nima. 2010. The origin of myth in the original form of perception: An inquiry into Cassirer’s concept of pure experience of expression. PhD diss., Shahid Beheshti University.

Grof, Stanislav and Grof, Christina. 1992. The stormy search for the self: A guide to personal growth through transformational crisis. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Jung, Carl Gustav. 1968 Man and his symbols. New York: Dell.

MacLean, Paul. 1990. The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York: Springer.

May, Rollo. 1991. The cry for myth. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Meade, Michael. 2010. Fate and destiny: The two agreements of the soul. Seattle, WA: Greenfire Press.

Moerman, Daniel. 2002. Meaning, medicine and the ‘placebo effect’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Palmer, Richard. 1980. The liminality of Hermes and the meaning of hermeneutics. Proceedings of the Heraclitean Society: A Quarterly Report on Philosophy and Criticism of the Arts and Science 5: 4–11.

Roberts, Tom. 2013. The psychedelic future of the mind: How entheogens are enhancing cognition, boosting intelligence, and raising values. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

Shanon, Benny. 2010. The antipodes of the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Huston. 2000. Cleansing the doors of perception: The religious significance of entheogenic plants and chemicals. New York: Putnam.

Tupper, Kenneth. 2002. Entheogens and existential intelligence: The use of plant teachers as cognitive tools. Canadian Journal of Education 27(4): 499–516.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The ritual process. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

 

Justin Panneck is a faculty member for Colorado Technical University and a PhD candidate in Health Psychology at Walden University. He has conducted a recent case study on the spiritual experience of practitioners in the Santo Daime Church. Based on his ayahuasca visions, Justin wrote and published a fictional book entitled The Knight of Dark Wood: The Last Tree Whisperer (Xlibris, 2010), which includes themes related to mythology and consciousness. He has spoken at several conferences in San Francisco on topics related to archetypes, mythology and plant-based visionary states. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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