Listening to Ayahuasca by Rachel Harris
Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD and Anxiety (New World Library, 2017) is the fruit of 10 years of research by Rachel Harris with the plant entheogen ayahuasca. Echoing the alchemical complexities of the Amazonian plant brew itself, her book synthesizes the multiple guises in which she has approached its therapeutic possibilities: as a clinical psychologist, a vicarious conversationalist, a hunter of data and an increasingly experienced journeyer with a genius for interpreting her trips within the framework of her therapeutic expertise.
Harris is co-author of the largest study on ayahuasca use in North America, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2012. She has quizzed shamans, scientists and all manner of folk who have attended ayahuasca ceremonies – a total of 2,267 ceremonies, to be exact – in her pursuit of a very high level of familiarity with the spirit vine. Adroitly and accessibly, she marshals the insights gained from her study within the expansive personal and psychotherapeutic learning curve on which ayahuasca has taken her.
There is great potential for a work which draws on so many different ways of approaching ayahuasca – many acutely scientific, others poetically deciphered from the heady imagery of the trips themselves – to result in a disjointed narrative. It is the key ingredient of Harris’ approach – listening – which ensures that this is never the case.
She is unwaveringly in command of her subject matter, but ducks gracefully out of the frame throughout the text: it is Grandmother Ayahuasca, speaking through Harris – and her research, and the study participants – who is foregrounded as the true voice of this book. Indeed, ayahuasca itself has inspired Harris’ research on a fundamental level; not only insisting on the study (“Do the research”) but specifically naming Lee Gurel as an ideal collaborator for Harris to seek out. Gurel goes on to become the study’s co-author.
This marks the beginning of an intensive period of stage management delivered by Grandmother Ayahuasca. She closely superintends the crafting of the study, even redirecting the focus of Harris’ comparison between the spiritual after-effects of attending an ayahuasca ceremony to those of attending the Catholic retreat used as the non-psychedelic, “respectable” control group: “I was in the outdoor shower of my rustic Maine cabin washing my hair. I wasn’t even thinking of the research study when I heard her voice say, ‘The two groups are the same.’”
The result? A recalibration of the data, and each experience revealed to be an authentic spiritual practice, with equivalent positive results. (Interestingly, Harris focuses on the “spiritual experience” to “avoid academic debate on what constitutes a mystical experience.”) When Harris goes on to struggle with the composition of Listening to Ayahuasca after the study’s completion, she is treated to a literal burst of divine inspiration from the vine:
“I moved from the ceremonial space to the sofa in the next room. I was happily settling into my new digs when my mind started racing with sentences. At first I thought, ‘I’ll remember this when I get up in the morning.’ This was quickly followed by, ‘I’ll never remember any of this.’ In a huff, I got up to write.”
This careful, not always initially cooperative, negotiation exemplifies Harris’ approach to her own journeying and the visions and corresponding life changes reported by her study participants. These include navigating debilitating depression, anxiety and abuse, giving up problematic drink and drug use, gravitating towards positive relationships and coming to terms with deep-rooted personal trauma. Harris’ premise that ayahuasca is providing guidance is nuanced, rather than evangelical.
Her grounding in clinical psychology helps her to make sense of ayahuasca’s messages to others, and to carry out its instructions. The dextrous discussion of the importance of integration is one of the most thought-provoking intersections explored between western psychotherapy and ayahuasca. She engages ardently with representatives of the indigenous cultures in which ayahuasca has a 4,000 year history of use. But her ultimate focus is on understanding how its increasing numbers of North American disciples can apply its benefits to their Western psychological architecture i.e. in the urban contexts they must return to.
Listening to Ayahuasca is a testament to the life-affirmation that can come from working with the medicine. But Harris does not shy away from delving into the thornier issues incumbent in its aggressively enthusiastic uptake by the West. These include the difficulties in applying quality control to shamanic credentials and the sacrament itself, and the “shadow sides” of the developing culture: the possibility of sexual assault and the potential for colonial-style profiteering (someone from the U.S. even cheekily tried to patent the Banisteriopsis caapi vine in 1986!)
Harris invites cultivators and curanderos, anthropologists and consumers to illuminate the evolving and uncertain landscape of ayahuasca’s globalization. Anyone who is considering drinking ayahuasca – and, in particular, anyone whose conception of it has thus far been derived from the mainstream media – will find Listening to Ayahuasca didactic, eye-opening and helpfully disruptive. This book demonstrates abundantly that shifting into listening gear is the best possible prelude to holistically welcoming the cultural complexities and therapeutic possibilities of the “drug of choice in the age of kale.”
Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD and Anxiety (New World Library, 2017) is available as an ebook / paperback from: https://www.listeningtoayahuasca.com/