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Extract from the book Ayahuasca, rituals, potions and visionary art from Amazonia
the book about ayahuasca

What are visions?

Visions are commonly thought of as highly individual affairs. As a rule, no objective worth is ascribed to them and they are therefore approached skeptically. Perhaps the visions of Hildegard of Bingen and other mystics are familiar, yet they have long been rejected in both secular and ecclesiastical quarters as exalted ravings. The message spread by the old German chancellor Helmut Schmidt - “Anyone who has visions should go to a doctor!“ - illustrates exactly what we generally think.

Notwithstanding this fact, visions are highly popular today – among economic functionaries, politicians, and advertising executives, oddly enough. The former German president Roman Herzog formulated it in this way: “Visions are strategies of action – that's what distinguishes them from utopias.“ Even ads for the luxury car brand Mercedes appeal to the subliminal power of their potential buyers' emotional needs with the slogan: “Be a realist. Remain a dreamer.“

“The only true realist is the visionary.“ Federico Fellini
The reinterpretation of traditionally marginalized “visions“ as farsighted political, economic, or psychological strategies of action and marketing may be interesting, but it is less pertinent in the current context. When we speak of visions here, we are dealing with culturally transmitted drug experiences; more precisely, with sustained, clearly experienced inner images that are induced by ayahuasca and shared worldwide by the indigenous peoples of Amazonia and the inhabitants of industrialized Western nations alike.

In speaking to experienced ayahuasqueros it had been impressed upon me that ayahuasca is not a drug but a medicine. “A drug gives you an instant reward, some kind of gratification… but latter you pay with a headache, a hangover the next day, or worse, dependency and addiction… Traditionally medicine doesn't give you an instant reward. You may be gratified eventually, but you will have to pay first. Ayahuasca is such a medicine.“ (Sting)

Yet skeptical questions are provoked precisely by visions under the influence of entheogens (described repeatedly and gladly by the media as being “high on drugs“): Is the inebriated experience real or simply an individual phantasm? Are such “inner images“ transculturally significant and socially relevant? Can individuals derive functional strategies for dealing with everyday existence from them? Or to put it more simply: How are they relevant to daily life? It remains to be clarified to what extent the oft-cited “escape from reality“ - the popular quotation from Baudelaire's Artificial Paradise – or the widespread catchphrase “do drugs make you more creative?“ are misunderstandings.

Those who bravely venture forth into the invisible topography of inner worlds, and who then wish to convey their undreamt-of experiences to the inexperienced, encounter incredulous, skeptical jeers in response: They have slipped unsuspectingly into role of a naturalist who first reports back to the Old World about an Australian platypus or a Latin American violet-ear hummingbird. The scientific community once knew nothing of a furry, beaked, egg-laying aquatic animal that defends itself with a venomous spur (thus appearing to unify a number of different animal classes), nor had it encountered a tiny, gem-colored animal with an invisibly fast wing beat that resembles an insect more than it does a bird. In the meantime we know that these two animals do indeed exist, and – inspired by our belief in the inexorable march of progress – we distance ourselves from our ignorant predecessors.


Yet the public reaction against everything that eludes our knowledge and critical understanding remains remarkably unchanged. Respected critical media such as Der Spiegel often use headlines like TRIP TO HELL, when describing reports from inner space.

Evidently today's reporting on the “topography of the unconscious” is beholden to the same rules as those in the time of la Conquista, the conquering of the New World in the sixteenth century. The objectivity repeatedly invoked by scientists and journalists (of both sexes) is more problematic than it is assumed to be, particularly when not only Western but also indigenous perspectives are supposed to be faithfully represented:

That is not hocus-pocus, but rather primeval knowledge of the secrets of the human soul and living nature. For we cannot attain everything through the intellect. The greater and richer realm, the realm of decision and peril, lies beyond the sphere of our thought. The shaman must venture into this other realm. Therein lies his aptitude, and in exercising it he courts great danger. (Lissner)

The statements of Spanish missionaries and contemporary journalists alike appear in a very different light when indigenous explanations are considered. The DMT-containing snuff powder yopo and the ayahuasca potion – so the indigenous people assert – lull the intellect to sleep in order to reveal the true essence of reality. The ego adapted to everyday consciousness must die so that the “doors of perception” can be opened. What is more, according to the indigenous testimonies it is plant spirits, gods, and goddesses that they encounter in the state of inebriation.

Devil-concepts were first introduced by Christian missionaries, and are entirely foreign to the myths of the pagan cultures we have to thank for the complex recipes and ritual use of ayahuasca. This is confirmed by the relevant scholarly entry in the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum: “The concept of nature spirits was simply transferred onto that of the Devil, as the nature spirits were unpredictable and dangerous” (Klauser)

Time and again, ethnologists are confronted with this Christian valuation. Hence in 1901 Waldemar Bogoras – a researcher on Siberian shamanism – was still obligated to ask the serving Baptist pastor for permission to participate in a shamanic séance during his field research among the Inuit on the Alaskan island of St. Lawrence. He was granted it, but he “had to promise that none of the natives would take part in the fiendish sport” (cited in Halifax 1982).

Shamans through time

Likewise, the ethnological literature on shamanism was deeply informed by psychiatric definitions resembling the assertions of Fray Pedro de Aguado cited above – only in this case the “pernicious inanities, which they regard as true revelations” were blamed not upon the Devil, but rather upon the neurotic and psychotic disposition of the shamans. “There is no good reason or excuse not to regard shamans as seriously neurotic or even psychotic,” declared the esteemed French ethnopsychiatrist Georges Devereux in 1956 (cited in Narby and Huxley 2001).

Today it is undisputed that platypuses and violet-ear hummingbirds really do exist. Anybody who still doubted their existence would be liable to expose themselves to ridicule. Yet when we are dealing with comparably astounding reports of experiences from invisible inner realms we still come up against a skeptical contempt that is entirely socially acceptable. In the twenty-first century – a time of global interconnectedness – can we still afford this ignorance toward experiences that have been shared for centuries (if not millennia) in the traditions of millions of people from the so-called Third World, and that have also been exerting a substantial influence upon Western travelers for some six hundred years now? Where does the historical background of this deep-rooted skepticism lie?

The Historical Background

The following explanatory comments are offered in the spirit of greater intercultural understanding. The skeptical and negative valuation of visions has a long tradition in the West. It has its origins in Christianity, which was declared the state religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century CE. The conversion of the pagan peoples from polytheism (the veneration of many goddesses and gods) to monotheism (the belief in one single god, who tolerates no foreign gods beside him) fundamentally changed attitude toward nature. Monotheism prohibited all cultic or ritual veneration of nature – its plants, animals, and forces – and demanded in its place the exclusive worship of a god “who created all things.”

The belief of other peoples in gods and goddesses was not only called into question but disqualified as devil worship. Visionary perceptions were declared deceptive and confusing for the mind. Even empirical observation of nature was subordinated to blessed faith in the autocratic claim to power of the one true god.

In the time of the Reformation Calvin ranted against artists and their imaginative creations, claiming they “drag God's Majesty through the filth with improper and shameful fancies.” The distrust of nature worship and visionary realms was re-endorsed during the Enlightenment and adopted wholesale by modern science:

Despite its claim to exclusive validity the positivist language of the natural sciences is not suited to express the shamanic experience, as it excludes the entire mythological domain. It is in its nature to ignore spiritual or psychic dimensions and declare them irrelevant. (Storl 2005)

No wonder, then, that the healing of body and spirit by ayahuasqueros is still met with deep cynicism, as is the veracity of inner images produced by ayahuasca, the soul-expanding psychoactive potion made of jungle plants reverentially referred to by indigenous Amazonians as “plant teachers.”

The key to this continuing distrust lies in the claim to exclusive validity of monotheistic ideology – a claim that the scientific worldview has inherited. This worldview differs fundamentally from the relativistic perspective of indigenous peoples, who not only concede to others the right to have their own gods, but also accept different healing methods as equally valid.

The yage letters

The Image Worlds of Ayahuasca

Participants in an ayahuasca ritual wish one another una buena pinta - “beautiful images.” This is not a wish for the experience of a superficially entertaining, colorful jungle movie, but rather for the realization of meaningful experiences and insights - “realization” in the sense of an experience felt to be true and real.

One important remark in advance: Ayahuasca does not inevitably deliver beautiful images and elaborate three-dimensional visions. Quite the opposite! Often the jungle medicine conveys radical insights in a purely emotional manner, free of any visual phenomena. Others see the abstract, geometrical tunnel and diamond patterns or complex picturesque visions typical of DMT. According to a rough approximation made by experienced (predominantly male) shamans, ayahuaqueros, and ritual leaders, sixty percent of ritual participants discern the effects of the jungle medicine on a purely emotional level, while twenty percent report geometric structures, and the remaining twenty percent experience complex pictorial visions.

The inebriating effects of DMT are essentially determined by two factors: firstly, individual biochemistry, in which the enzyme monoamide oxidase (MAO) plays a major role; and secondly, one's psychological state. Someone with great fear of a possible loss of control can suppress the effect for an astoundingly long time.

Western authors have described their experiences with yagé not only as a rush of colors, whirl of images, and flood of visions, but also as an insight into cosmic planes of meaning and an unveiling of hidden levels of existence and cores of being. In a letter from Pucallpa, Peru, dated June 10, 1960, Allen Ginsberg described one of his ayahuasca visions in the following way:

… after an hour… I began seeing or feeling what I thought was Great Being, or some sense of It, approaching my mind like a big wet vagina – lay back in that for a while – only image I can come up with is of a big black hole of God-Nose thru which I peered into a mystery – and the black hole surrounded by all creation – particularly colored snakes – all real. (Burroughs and Ginsberg 2006)

The correspondence between the two famous heroes of the Beat Generation, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), has gone down in the history of literature under the title of The Yagé Letters. Their descriptions brought the mysterious jungle liana to the attention of many adventurers, and they were also a substantial influence upon the literary treatment of such visionary experiences. It is also possible they were known to the famous pop musician Gordon Summer – better known under his stage name Sting – who at the beginning of his autobiography Broken Music describes in detail visions he experienced in an organized Brazilian ayahuasca church: “This sensation of connectedness is overwhelming. It's like floating in a buoyant limitless ocean of feeling… “ (Sting 2003).

Time and again the relevant literature testifies to astonishingly realistic three-dimensional visions, in which jaguars, iridescent boas, ethereal plant spirits, and glittering crystal palaces play a dominant and recurring role:

My consciousness suddenly encompasses the entire jungle… I absorb the forest into myself, I am the forest. I feel it in me. I glide abruptly over to a new dimension of sensation. I float. I go for a walk behind my closed eyes… I see thousands of snakes leaving my body. (Sombrun 2005)

Alice Walker's book

The bewildering frequency of the said motifs – irrespective of cultural background – has even become the object of scientific investigation, thanks to the cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He questioned more than 150 people from Latin America and Western industrial nations concerning the content of their ayahuasca visions – men and women with varying social backgrounds, hailing from rural as well as urban milieus, who could draw from just one to more than forty experiences. In addition he analyzed literary and anthropological reports of visions, as well as paintings inspired by ayahuasca experiences. He determined that nature motifs were the most commonly occurring of the visionary contents mentioned by all respondents:

Snakes, predatory cats, and birds are by far the most frequently mentioned. That's also the case from respondents whose proven personal and cultural background is urban, who don't come from the Amazon region. (Shanon 2000)

Visions of sumptuously decorated palaces also count among the motifs most frequently mentioned by all groups questioned – these will occupy us further as we deal with the question of culturally specific differences and universally valid vision contents. On the basis of the remarkable correspondence of ayahuasca visions irrespective of cultural background, Shanon asks whether these commonalities point to transpersonal information storage in the human subconscious. Consequently he dedicates an in-depth analysis to the similarity of Jungian archetypes with the visionary content (Shanon 2002). Evidently the brew of the jungle liana and its DMT-containing additives hold a universal image file of the rainforest that is accessible to people of the Western urban jungle, even if they have never lived in the rainforest of the Amazon.

Nevertheless, personal visions and those portrayed in literature draw not only from genuine individual experiences but also from the oral or written reports of others. The powerful influence of such reports is manifested in Alice Walker's 2004 novel Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. During her spiritual quest the protagonist has a number of ayahuasca experiences with other Americans. The leader of the rituals “did not want to tell them that their first image, after fully receiving the medicine, would in all likelihood be of two gigantic, entwined, perhaps copulating snakes.” The same image emerges again later:

Everybody told me I would see dragons. But I just saw really big snakes. A couple of them, she added. Wrapped around each other… It is what human beings have been experiencing for thousands of years since. Grandmother Yagé is a medicine of origins and endings… That is why Grandfather reptile always appears. (Walker 2004)

This resonates clearly with the popular investigation of the Swiss-Canadian ethnologist Jeremy Narby (who admittedly takes up thoughts already published in 1975 by the McKenna brothers, Terence and Dennis, in The Invisible Landscape). In The Cosmic Serpent Narby compares the double helix of DNA with his exceedingly three-dimensional vision of two mutually entwined snakes. Indigenous ethnic groups of the Amazon traditionally interpret this motif as the bond between two ingredients of the “bitter potion,” corresponding botanically to the harmaline-containing ayahuasca liana Banisteriopsis caapi and DMT-containing additives such as chacruna or Psychotria viridis. It is no coincidence that the vision described by Walker touches upon this motif. In her acknowledgments the African American author (a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple) refers explicitly to Narby, who “conferred important insights upon our time” with his anthropological study.

The Cosmic Serpent

Let us linger a little with Jeremy Narby. His case is a prime example of the failure of scientific objectification in the concrete situation of fieldwork. At the beginning of his interviews with the Asháninka in Peruvian Amazonia in 1985, the anthropologist asked himself whether he really understood what his informants meant when they kept describing ayahuasqueros as sources of knowledge, and ayahuasca itself as “jungle TV”: “You can watch pictures with it and learn something” (Narby 1999).

Indeed, as a scientist educated in the West he feared that an overly subjective examination of indigenous hallucinogens would inevitably lead to problems for his scientific studies: “For me, in 1985, the ayahuasqueros' world represented a gray area that was taboo for the research I was conducting” (Narby 1999). However, when using this approach he increasingly came up against a barrier in the course of his botanical studies. For in order to understand the object of his interest, he had to drink ayahuasca, as an informant unequivocally declared to him. This informant offered him an exchange of knowledge: Narby was to acquaint him with the rules of accounting for the purpose of marketing indigenous botanical products, and in return he would grant him insights into their “occult science” with the help of an ayahuasca experience. Eventually the ethnologist overcame his scruples and let himself get involved in that incalculable adventure of self-awareness with the “bitter brew”:

These enormous snakes are there, my eyes are closed and I see a spectacular world of brilliant lights, and in the middle of these hazy thoughts, the snakes start talking to me without words. They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions. (Narby 1999)

The intensity of his visions baffled the anthropologist, in part because of this “people's familiarity with a reality that turned me upside down and of which I was totally ignorant” (Narby 1999). They also inspired him to write a comparative study that has appeared in many languages and editions, in which he demonstrates parallels between the insights into molecular structures won through ayahuasca visions and the double helix of DNA in biochemistry. The work has garnered much attention – despite skeptical commentaries on the part of established scientists: “You mean Indians claim they get molecularly verifiable information from their hallucinations? You don't take them literally, do you?” (Narby 1999).

Carried over to the realm of intercultural understanding, the calculation of profit and loss customary in the economic sciences runs as follows: If we recognize non-European concepts of reality and relinquish autocratic claims to power, then we gain mutual respect and thereby avoid war, oppression, and poverty. If, on the other hand, we insist on the continuing claim to exclusive legitimacy of Western models of reality, then we disregard non-European concepts of reality and thereby promote oppression and poverty, which inevitably leads to rebellion against Western mights and war between the poor and the rich. We have the choice…