Shamanic Pharmacology and the Wisdom of Experience

Publié le par ati dion

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Almost seventy years since Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD-25, inaugurating the rediscovery of consciousness expanding substances in the West, the wise application of psychedelics yet escapes recognition in most of the modern world. One of the first scholars to shed light on the matter by illuminating the original context of visionary medicine was Gordon Wasson, who began publishing on the use of psilocybin mushrooms among the Mazatec people of Oaxaca Mexico in the early 50s. Inspired by a mystical experience in which he saw God in the company of a medicine woman named Maria Sabina, Wasson went on to write extensively about the traditional use of psychoactive plants. Research on the use of plant sacraments like peyote, ayahuasca, and iboga corroborate much of what Wasson outlined about the role of visionary plants in tribal culture. The well-read scholar should now be aware that what modern society has come to dismiss as mere hallucinogens are frequently elements of shamanic medicines used to both cure disease and obtain information from the supernatural realm.


LSD therapy enjoyed considerable success in psychiatry before it was nationally prohibited in 1970 and all authorized scientific investigation ceased. The last two decades have enjoyed a cautious resurgence of studies on mind-altering drugs. John Hopkins University now informs us that smoking cannabis is the single best preventative measure for Alzheimer’s disease. Research at Harvard confirms the efficacy of psilocybin to treat cluster headaches. It is promising that these dynamic medicines are finding their way back into the laboratory, but it should also be noted that such discoveries pale in comparison to the traditions of holistic healing developed by plant shamans over the last several millennia. Throughout history medicine men and women have taken responsibility as doctors for entire tribes, and today terminal cancer patients, severe drug addicts, and more are finding their way back from shamanic ceremonies healed from what western medicine couldn’t treat. It is important to realize that much of the healing ability of shamans comes from information derived from the visionary experience, such as what other medicinal plants are appropriate for an individual patient. Even the most comprehensive clinical trials will always overlook such learning experiences, likewise any role the spirit world might play, while testing only for the immediate curative properties of chemicals.


To help us move toward a deeper understanding of shamanic plant medicine, I would like to engage a widely held misconception about ayahuasca and related medicines while putting attention on the indispensability of experience and traditional wisdom for learning about consciousness expanding plants. Ayahuasca tea is often made from the combination of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna leaves (Psychotria genus); though a wide variety of admixture plants are preferred in different circumstances. It is widely held that ayahuasca vine and chacruna are individually inactive, only potent when mixed together. Thusly, it is held up as a great mystery how ancient rainforest dwellers might have discovered such combinations among the millions of plants that grow in the Amazon. The simple explanation is that both and likely all medicinal plants are individually active as long as they are properly prepared. Yet moreover, indigenous shamans when asked how they know the properties of so many plants answer consistently and without ambiguity that the plants told them. Most disregard the straightforward explanation yet the acquainted continue to be mystified by the prodigious knowledge shamans possess.


The pharmaceutical principle that purportedly demonstrates why combinations such as ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaves work together and not separately is based on the relation of a digestive enzyme called monoamine-oxidase to alkaloids known as tryptamines. Monoamine-oxidase (MAO) is normally present in the stomach and intestines where it aids in the breakdown of such substances as aged food and stimulants, also tryptamines. Many well-known psychedelic alkaloids are tryptamines such as psilocybin, LSD, and the various dimethyltriptamines (DMT). Harmala alkaloids such as those present in ayahuasca vine act as monoamine-oxidase-inhibitors (MAOIs). By deactivating MAO enzymes, ayahuasca vine and other MAOIs tend to potentiate the action of oral tryptamines dramatically. For example, the peak of a psilocybin mushroom experience normally begins to level off immediately, the rate of digestion by MAO having caught up to the rate of psilocybin’s passage into the bloodstream, but a full inhibitory dose of harmala alkaloids can prolong the peak of a mushroom experience for up to ten hours, having halted the action of MAO completely. It has become well established that pure crystalline nn-DMT, by contrast to psilocybin, is only orally psychoactive in combination with MAOIs, since nn-DMT is broken down too rapidly in the presence of MAO for it to have a chance to reach the brain at all. It is held, therefore, that DMT containing plants, such as chacruna, are only orally effective in combination with sufficiently strong MAO-inhibitors like ayahuasca vine.


With respect to an ayahuasca analogue made form plants found in North America I can speak most definitively. The visionary mixture with which I am most well researched and experienced is the brew sometimes called juremahuasca made from syrian rue (Paganum harmala) and jurema preta (Mimosa tenuiflora, Acacia tenuiflora, or Mimosa hostilis). Though syrian rue and ayahuasca vine feature a slightly different set of alkaloids as well as a difference in character which might best be described as a desert spirit by contrast to a rainforest spirit, they are practically identical in pharmaceutical function. Both contain harmala alkaloids and are strong acting MAO-inhibitors. Jurema preta, like chacruna, is a potent source of few alkaloids other then nn-DMT and is ritually mixed with syrian rue as chacruna is with ayahuasca vine. By the same principle that precludes the exclusive activity of vine and chacruna leaf, it is said that jurema is not orally active in the absence of MAOIs. Provably, boiling DMT containing herbs in combination with adequate harmala alkaloids produces beverages with all the visionary qualities the plants are known to have, while boiling such plants by themselves produces non-visionary tea. One too many assumptions is made, however, in extrapolating that DMT containing plants thus require separate MAOIs to experience their effects, as the case of jurema preta makes clear.


Jurema preta, known as tepescohuite in southern Mexico, is not the most subtle tree. While its leaves and branches resemble a typical wattle or acacia, its bark is strikingly pink, an oily outer layer that peels cleanly from the white hardwood beneath. Toward the base of the trunk the bark approaches light violet, transitioning into dark purple as one reaches the roots, where the sticky-gooey bark continues to peel readily off the hardwood of the roots proper. Tepescohuite is tenacious, extremely fast growing, and thorny, occupying dense regions between Mexico and Brazil. During the day, the thin, oily and astringent leaves extend bipinnate to 180 degrees on both sides of the stems, while at night they fold closed in a gesture suggesting retirement for sleep. On the coast of Oaxaca where I have harvested myself, I found the soil beneath the trees scattered with colorful reptiles and quartz crystals, large butterflies and elfin insects filling the whole area with an aura of enchantment. Rather early in my relationship with these potent purple phantoms, I began to wonder if the visionary properties of these auspicious trees might not be accessible in some other way besides extracted or combined with MAOIs. Simply being in the presence of tepescohuite seems to affect a subtle head change, and anyone with a natural proclivity for communicating with plants is bound to notice from the get-go a distinct telepathic presence. The well-known shamanic preparations of jurema preta utilize the root bark in combination with harmala containing plants; else the extract is smoked, snorted, or injected intravenously so as to bypass MAO in the gut. Because the primary psychoactive constituent of the plant is nn-DMT, it is presumed non-orally active when used without MAO-inhibitors.


Leading entheobotanist Jonathon Ott put it succinctly enough when he said: “It isn't so much that I ‘seem to think’ that Mimosa [tenuiflora] is active without MAOI added, but rather that I know this, having felt it in my own body in the only valid scientific analysis I know: the psychonautic bioassay.” So have I, and so have uncountable curanderos through the ages. Simply chewing the raw bark is a perfectly viable means to achieve third eye vision, and a common traditional method of preparation is simply to soak the material in cold water and then drink it; a decedent of the Zapotecans in Oaxaca Mexico told me so, showing surprise at the idea of an any more elaborate preparation. The tea thus taken has all the visionary power of smoked DMT, a longer duration, and ayahuasca-like purgative properties. In fact, the only way I know to render the root bark inactive is to kill it, for example, by boiling it in water. Perhaps the first scholar to challenge the inaccuracy, Jonathon Ott proposed a tentative theory to the effect that the raw form of the bark contains, in addition to nn-DMT, various tryptamines with the nn-DMT molecule as the base but with the attachment of additional chemical groups that resist breakdown by MAO for adequate time to facilitate assimilation (somewhat like the difference between psilocin and psilocybin but pertaining to internal rather then external preservation). A compound meeting that description was recently isolated from mimosa tenuiflora and named yuremamine, though its mechanism of action remains to be proven. While science plods along in these discernments, the misconception that jurema preta is individually inactive because it is DMT-based persists in much publication.


Based on my study of jurema preta, I would boldly extend the hypothesis that chacruna and other traditionally employed DMT source plants are perfectly viable raw as well. Unlike mimosa tenuiflora, a low percentage of alkaloids in psychotria viridis are actually beta-carbolines (typically viable MAOIs; the class of indole alkaloid that includes the harmalas). I have only encountered one reference to the use of pure chacruna for visionary medicine, used in a combination of cold water infusion and bath water, but neither have I found any clear contradiction to my theory, such as an unsuccessful bioassay with a strong chacruna infusion or a definitive word from a native. Regardless, there is no doubt at all that syrian rue and ayahuasca vine are individually active, despite much hearsay to the contrary. Indeed, such claims are in pointed incongruity with the active tradition of ayahuasca use. Western pharmacology has largely interpreted the function of the harmala containing plants to be little more then the catalyst of orally active DMT, but it is no coincidence that the vine is considered the foremost power in every native tradition and that ayahuasca teas containing vine and admixtures are always named for the vine, never the tryptamine component. Shamanic rituals often employ ayahuasca vine by itself; so Amazonian hunters use it to gain the prowess of the jaguar.


From a strong dose of syrian rue, I first simply notice that I'm feeling particularly clear headed, perhaps in spite of a little nausea, that my normally congested thought patterns are beginning to dissolve into non-ego oriented lucidity. Before I know it, my mind has utterly transcended mundane preoccupations and is souring the cosmos in even contemplation of eternity, animals develop greater affinity for me, and plants seem ready to teach me. As the effect of syrian rue takes hold in the mind, one begins to get the sense of the plant’s personality and role. Abnormally meandering thoughts begin to feel guided and arranged by an intent present in or coming through the plant to communicate an integrated higher wisdom. I’ve found that at a certain dose of syrian rue, a startling open eye visual phenomenon begins involving a sort of light tracer that reacts to the movement of my eyes, but I’m still not sure what it is I’m seeing at this point, and I find it takes the addition of a only a moderate amount of an admixture like jurema preta to make the vision clear. Amazonians offer the classification of ayahuasca vine as ‘la fuerza’ (the force) and chacruna leaves and similar admixtures as, ‘la luz’ (the light). Still, many report visions from use of the ayahuasca vine alone, and some tribesmen have even expressed perplexity that one might not, asserting that they only add chacruna to make the brew ‘sweeter.’ In any case, the addition of tryptamine containing plants to harmala based tea certainly removes any ambiguity regarding the visionary quality of the medicine, but in this regard I only refer to ‘visionary’ in sense of third eye sight. Regardless of the precise quality of extra-visual perception they might provide, the notion that ayahuasca vine and syrian rue are not profoundly illuminating, entheogenic, and consciousness expanding on their own is malarkey.


How the notion became popular that such shamanic staples as ayahuasca vine and syrian rue are independently inactive is a mystery to me. It is as though a conglomeration of white coat types got far too publish-happy without ever having ingested a respectable quantity of the remedy they profess to know, typical enough of western medicine I suppose. To say nothing of the anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-bacterial, anthelmintic, anti-protozoal, anti-oxidant, and general potentiating properties of ayahuasca vine and syrian rue, which could easily be sufficient to inspire a medicinal custom in themselves; the proof of these plant’s potent psychoactive properties is only a dose away. Admittedly, the effect of MAOIs can be somewhat subtle at the minimum dose required to potentiate DMT, and it is often assumed erroneously that higher doses are redundant, but a good dose like ten grams of syrian rue or thirty grams of ayahuasca vine, raw or decocted, will surely end anyone’s doubts. Harmala plants invoke a process of holistic cleansing, ego-dissolution, engagement with a wisdom teacher, and a broad opening of the mind and senses; not to mention the telepathic properties (for which the harmala alkaloid harmine was originally named telepathine).



The work of Cleve Backster with plants and polygraph machines has revealed and made popular surprising evidence that plants have sophisticated intelligence, efficient means of interspecies communication, and a wide range of emotional activity. Little do most of us realize that shamans have been communicating with plants for millennia, learning healing songs from them, in the Amazon called ikaros. Ayahuasca vine is said to be first and foremost a teacher, known to impart telepathic wisdom about, for one thing, whatever food or medicine it is combined with. Jeremy Narby’s research on the traditional use of ayahuasca makes a strong case that this information is derived through direct interface with DNA, observing also that many visions described by ayahuasqueros depict cellular life much as biologists with microscopes do. Many shamanic traditions especially that of ayahuasca involve divining which other medicinal plants a particular patient needs. Ayahuasqueros are respected for the number of ikaros they know, that is the number of plant medicines they are proficient in using, and ayahuasca teas are prepared with a great variety of additional plants depending on the purpose of the occasion.


So, not only does ayahuasca vine potentiate the properties of plant medicine in general, as in its MAOI activity, it can even facilitate direct communication with other plants and in particular the learning of their medicinal properties. Opening and cleansing diverse perceptual channels and clearing all obstacles to the metabolism of tryptamines, it seems ostensible that practice with the vine can only lead to the discovery of such especially strong ‘light’ plants as chacruna. Indeed, there are many plants potent in DMT and other psychoactive alkaloids besides chacruna in the Amazon, and few of them have traditions of use exclusive to that of the vine in regions where the vine is also local. Knowledge of the independently powerful ayahuasca vine surely leads to the discovery of visionary admixtures local to the shaman. For further consideration, while gathering jurema preta root bark, I noticed that the trees were often entwined branch to vine with passionflower, a pleasant though weaker MAOI. You could break of a branch to throw into your pot and have to pull the two apart to prevent the natural synergy. It would stand to reason that plants are not designed to obscure their medicinal properties. For those with the wisdom and humility to talk with her, mama earth is an open book who loves you.


Rather then elucidating the raw vs. cooked properties of jurema preta, scientific investigation has done little but to suggest retrospectively some tentative explanations for what is experientially clear: that jurema preta root bark is perfectly active raw but non-active when boiled in the absence of a separate MAOI. The precise reason, except in as much as essential alkaloids are apparently broken down or dissolved, is not yet elucidated by science. Traditional ayahuasca mythology, by contrast, offers interesting clues. “Huasca" means vine or rope and the prefix “aya” suggests "of souls,” “spirits" or "of the dead." Primary to the shamanic experience is perception of the soul realm, dream-time, or astral plane. Here the experience of contact with dead relatives is not uncommon even for novices, and accounts of shamanic mediation of deceased spirits are frequent even in Biblical history. I hypothesize that after death communication is one of the particular specialties of the ayahuasca vine, as concretized in its functionality with other plants. For example, the living jurema preta tree is perfectly prepared to affect you, but when its bark is boiled and, among other changes, its living enzymes killed, the plant loses its oral-activity unless combined with a potent MAOI. Pharmacologically, boiling jurema results in the reduction of a delicate balance of alkaloids to more or less pure nn-DMT. If crystals are memory systems then nn-DMT is the immortal spirit of jurema preta. After death, jurema’s vision can only be unlocked by a plant with the rope-to-astral power of ayahuasca.


It is well known that mushroom tea must be steeped, because boiling mushrooms will destroy their experiential properties. How is it then that the assumption of jurema preta’s oral inactivity become commonplace when proof to the contrary is as simple as trying it raw? Is it just too bitter? For one thing, I think it’s fair to say that Western culture tends to give far too little consideration to the consequences of cooking things. It has occurred to few of us that we are the only species on the planet that ritually destroys the living enzymatic content of most of our food before ingestion. At minimum, cooking reduces vitamin and other nutritional content to a great extent and eliminates all living enzymes, a certain quantity of which is absolutely vital for digestion. The profound properties of only raw psilocybin mushrooms, jurema preta, and others plants suggest to me that the food-killing paradigm could have even graver consequences, perhaps removing us from health regulating mechanisms and primary perceptions innate and enjoyed by rest of the biosphere. If this is the case, the harmala containing plants could prove a crucial tool for transcending the consequences of our cooking proclivities and consciously reconnecting us with the living earth.


More generally, the error in reasoning that led to the assumption of pure mimosa tenuiflora’s oral inactivity is fairly plain to see in retrospect. The science proved that pure nn-DMT is only orally active when MAO is inhibited. It was a reasonable hypothesis then that therefore plants in which nn-DMT is the primary alkaloid are only functional in combination with their harmala containing counterparts, yet it was clearly non sequitur by way of a logical proof. Obviously, the pharmacological analysis failed to account for the possibility of alternative MAOI mechanisms in the raw plant, for one thing. What makes this otherwise forgivable oversight troubling was the abject failure to compliment scientific analysis, often biased by patterns of removed linear thinking, with the evidence of disciplined self-experimentation and the testimony of well-practiced natives, with the benefit of which the faulty conclusion could never have become so widely circulated. Focused study of the chemistry and pharmacology of visionary plants is an interesting approach to the time-honored sacraments, worth expanding, but is in no way sufficient to supplant the accumulated knowledge of tribal shamans. Even the experiences of neophytes with what we would do well to realize are conscious teacher plants are probably more generally informative then any kind of conventional experimentation, just as a conversation is almost certain to be more revealing of human character then any number of brain scans.


Conscious of the profound healing qualities of visionary medicine, I certainly hesitate to criticize the resurgence of academic interest in shamanic sacraments, which appears to be the forefront of the well-intentioned effort to bring the benefits of traditional plant medicine to Western culture. Yet when I see, for example, the CBS news expose on the iboga extract centered on how early scientific studies such as tests on rats and mice indicate that ibogaine could prove effective as a broad spectrum treatment for addictions, I want to puke. The video barely acknowledges the traditional context of the plant’s traditional use in Gabon Africa, and far from crediting tribal shamans with sophisticated knowledge of iboga’s medicinal action it implies that our only indications of the plant’s efficacy are the results of recent clinical trials. The reporters claim outright that no long term studies on the use of this plant exist yet, perpetuating ignorance of the many generations of effective application within the Bwiti and Fang tribes. Once again, even the accounts of modern drug experimenters reveal far more than all the laboratory experiments performed up to this point, to wit the many people who have actually achieved a remedy for the near impossible affliction of opiate addiction. Conservatives and even Albert Hoffman in the 60s lamented the escape of LSD and other psychedelics from the laboratory into the hands of popular culture, but the truth has to recognized that objective science is hopelessly out of its element in engaging the transcendental teacher plants; individual practice with shamanic sacraments is really the only way to learn from them, else listening to the songs and stories of those that do. We ought to let the indigenous be our guides in the many respects their wisdom far surpasses ours, but instead the prejudice of primitivism holds sway, and we continue in our blind and self-destructive relationship with mother earth, oblivious to the healing wisdom she offers us with every fresh sprout. It is of the utmost importance that we overcome our ethnocentric vanity in order to become aware that shamans and their tribes have a vastly more profound understanding of spiritual healing then most of us have yet guessed exists, as well as the contentment of a felt awareness of the divine on earth, available to all the humans humble enough to learn.


Publié dans ON SHAMANISM

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