Monday, December 10, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca (Part Six)

Interviews with Shamans 
Iquitos contained so much human driftwood that there was ever some new freak to be met, with a strange tale to tell and a still stranger outlook on life.
Fritz Up de Graff, Head Hunters of the Amazon (1926)
Every week about 1,000 Americans fly into Iquitos, Peru. That doesn't include the Norwegian Americans and Romanian Americans and all the other people who aren't local so they must be some other kind of Americans. About 150,000 tourists per year. About a third of them are here exclusively to take ayahuasca. Those drug tourists all need a shaman to conduct the so-called ceremony of getting violently ill and hallucinating. Without a shaman, the trip could be one way. It costs a great deal of money to have the experience of drinking ayahuasca, so the added expense of a shaman is just a little more of the same, part to the business. Like anything else, one gets what one pays for. One hopes for an alta mesayoc, a knowledgeable Andean shaman and hopes not to get a bajo mesayoc, a shaman who doesn't know his business well. Involved with the “ceremony' is sometimes an ayahuasquero, the brewer, as it were, or Ayahuasca, a second in command. My sort of girlfriend's father is a bomanuna, a Shipibo shaman, and long time expert well respected in the field. Maybe he's one of the best. The others would be bancos, mestizo shamans of the highest order. But there is no regulatory body in the business, and one learns mostly from word of mouth. The centre piece of the ayahuasca drinking is the shaman, and it is he who decides how much and what kind of ayahuasca to prepare, sometimes amarillo, or yellow stuff, sometimes azul or blue, which is green, and sometimes green, or it can be black, which is old, thus expensive, old growth vine, rare now because of the volume of vines gone through with so many tourists gobbling it up. My favorite, looking back to LSD in the sixties, would have to be lucero, shineshine ayahuasca; but I am also keen on the idea of truneo, thunder ayahuasca. It's up to the shaman, the ones I know having private stands at their dwellings.

Most people taking ayahausca probably don't know the first thing about shamans, and they probably don't know much more about why they would want to go to one. Below we'll look into both and try to come up with something better than “Whatever, dude.” One would think those seeking enlightenment would be at least curious about some basic facts about the nature of how they intend to get it.

The term "shamanism" was first applied to the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighboring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. The word "shaman" originates from the Evenk language (Tungusic) of North Asia and was introduced to the west after the Russian forces conquered shaman Khanate of Kazan in 1552.

The word "shaman" is based upon the Evenk language word "šamán". The Tungusic term was subsequently adopted by Russians interacting with the indigenous peoples in Siberia. ... The word was brought to Western Europe in 1692 by Dutch traveler Nicolaes Witsen who reported his stay and journeys among the Tungusic- and Samoyedic-speaking indigenous peoples of Siberia in his book Noord en Oost Tataryen. Adam Brand, a merchant from Lübeck introduced the word to English speakers in 1698.

[S]hamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.

One can, of course, consult a shaman, give him a significant amount of money, get enlightened, and catch the next plane out without knowing anything about anything else at all. But they won't know anything about shamans. Visions, maybe; but understanding, not so much. The dilettante needs know nothing more than himself, and even that only slightly so long as he can brag about the uplift of his “ceremonies” in the Amazon rainforest with an authentic person. The vision thing, you know.

Unlike foreigners, the shaman does not drink ayahuasca and hope to see the visions. The shaman sings to the plants his sacred songs called icaros. The plants hear the icaros and can tell how much love and desire to heal others the shaman has. It is the “doctores” that decide to come and work with the shaman. The power of the shaman is not in the shaman. It comes from the spirit of the plants or the “doctores.” It is the power of the “doctores” that make it possible.

There are probably many serious people who don't know about shamanism and who don't care about the reasons one would take this jungle drug. I have never met one, but there are probably zillions of 'em out there. Mostly not, though, and one might do well to wonder just who they are and why they take ayahuasca at all. A bit more about shamans, and then we can look at some of those people who use them.

The shaman or curandero shakes the shacapa, made from a corriza plant whose leaves are dried and gathered into bunches used as rattles making a drumming sound during the ceremony while the shaman sings icaros in advance of drinking ayahuasca. Then begins the mareado, dizziness caused by drinking the ayahuasca. Leading to burracheira, the consciousness change brought about by ayahuasca drinking.

The shaman accompanies himself with a shacapa as he sings icaros, magical songs meant to please the spirits he will encounter in his session to heal the ill, whether they have the usual parasites or are cursed by some evil spirit brought about by a bruha, or evil shaman often hired by a nasty neighbour or relative to cast a spell. The shaman sometimes literally blows smoke up ones arse, smoke from the sticky black tobacco from the Amazon, mapacho, as he takes on the role of tabaquero during the ayahuasca “ceremony,” as bashful drug-using yuppies are so intent on calling it. From thereon, it's a mighty hour or two of puking and shitting and hallucinating. To a large extent, the city of Iquitos lives from this attempt by the alienated, if not simply bored, Modernist tourist looking for a better life of the mind. The locals seldom touch the stuff, thinking of it as jungle behaviour they hold in disfavour. Hippies love it. And they pay big bucks for it, too. Shortly we can turn directly to shamans, the professionals of the ayahuasca trade. But first, let's look at why anyone would pay much money to fly from home to spend time in a swelteringly hot jungle to vomit and hallucinate and be with physically sick people who are if not deeply traumatised at least emotionally crippled and in need of treatment for serious mental health problems. What makes this more attractive than the same time and money spent at a luxury time-share condo in the Caribbean? I think it's the bragging rights.
For most, there is little to no moral gain in a sunny vacation filled with eating too much, drinking colourful cocktails, laying naked on the beach reading romance novels, and having sex. Regardless of the money involved, it's a working-class time. It's for boring and uneducated people who watch too much television. It's for beer drinkers. Drinking ayahuasca? That's sophisticated. But why would one go to the jungle to take drugs illegal at home? If one is sophisticated, one knows that illegal drug-use is for the lowest of the low in our societies; but to take therapeutic medicines of the natural and organic type, that is the height of sophistication. Assuming, of course, that one is in need of medication in a life of “whole food” and daily exercise at the yoga centre. The generally fit, very healthy, superemely affluent person who wants to take drugs in the jungle has to be somehow sick enough to justify this drug-using, and since most things go so well otherwise for such as can manage a luxury retreat at an Amazonian lodge, the sickness one needs healing must be invisible, must be a sickness of the supersensitive soul who cannot bear life among the beer-drinking louts of the Middle America. Poor things, they need healing. They need ayahuasca therapy. And better than all other things, one can go to the Amazon jungle, the “lungs of the earth” where one can live with ancient jungle tribal people unimpacted by civilization and its corruption. One can live with authentic people who are in a state of harmony and balance with nature. One can have visions of the Mystik, and one can live quite nicely in a luxury resort secure in the knowledge one is protected by armed men who will shoot robbers on sight.
People so traumatised by super-affluent life in the Modernist suburbs hardly need the further trauma of being robbed at gunpoint by drunken and vicious victims of Western imperialism. One goes to the healing centres of the Amazon jungle not to witness brutality and sickness but to be moral and to find oneself and heal and to become more spiritually aware. Losing an arm to a man with a machete is not on the agenda. Edgy, but safe. Then one goes home and shows off the photos oneself posing with naked natives in the selva and talks babble about visions and healing and spews confessions to anyone willing to listen. It's moral therapy. Stocicism? Too male. Christianity or Judaism? Too working-class and boring. Zen Buddhist retreat in California? Too last year. It's ayahuasca healing therapy today. It's the latest thing in new.

The therapeutic mode of relations has become so "natural" to us as American consumers that Hallmark recently announced it is producing a new line of over 500 different cards containing messages about recovery from various addictions or traumas and epithets about feelings themselves. "In this dysfunctional world, it's nice to know I have someone I feel functional with. Thanks for understanding," one reads. "Anger is a powerful thing. It can start out so small, can take on a life of its own," another card says.

Annalee Newitz.

But enough about me, let's talk about my inner pain.

Because the public exposure of inner pain can count on the affirmation and support of today's culture, more and more people identify themselves through their addiction, syndrome or physical illness. As Miller remarks, "In a world where unadulterated heroism is harder and harder to define, let alone accomplish, the syndrome memoir turns simple survival into a triumph." Illness as a fashion statement is emblematic of this new cultural outlook that attaches so much significance to emotional survival.
On the face of it, the tendency to inflate the problem of emotional vulnerability and to minimise the ability of the person to cope with distressful episodes runs counter to the therapeutic ideal of the self-determining individual. In reality, though, the rhetoric of therapeutic self-determination never granted individuals the right to determine their lives: self-discovery through a professional intermediary is justified by the assumption that individuals are helpless to confront problems on their own.

I come from a family of “red legs,” referring to those who had no shoes to walk through the snow, my mother as a girl walking barefoot till she was 12. among other and perhaps more serious ills, my mother died of cancer without complaint while she worked to support her family until her colleagues could not stand the sight of her emaciation. Would she have been a kinder, gentler lunatic had she drunk ayahuasca and healed her inner daemons? Didn't work for my psychopathic father who was married to her. He just got rich as he got sneakier. Somehow, then, I am less than sympathetic to the inner pains of the affluent ayahuasca-drinking drama queens of Modernity. That's me, though in this large world, there is also at least another.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Sally Satel, co-author of One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance, “Therapism is a philosophy, a way of life, that views humans as centers of fragility. It believes that vast segments of the population under duress are in need of experts –such as self-esteem educators, traumatologists, crisis counselors – to take them through the vicissitudes of everyday life.”

This infantalisation of the masses is wonderful for those who make a living at the public expense as social workers and in other “helping professions.” That people are infantalised and debased as free people is of little import, so it seems. For those with sufficient money at hand and a need to show off their cool, if Oprah Winfrey is off the air, there is the cool alternative of flying to a remote little city in the Amazon jungle to stay at a state of the art lodge, luxury living, where one can imbibe ayahuasca with a “healer” who will guide one through the process of... healing.

That great American philosopher Bob Dylan wrote that “some of us are prisoners and some of us are guards.” Dylan goes on to state that sometimes he thinks the whole world is one big prison yard.* As we know from the Stanley Milgram experiments at Yale (1968) if one is a “guard” then one is uncontrollably violent toward ones victims, unthinkingly brutal and even sadistic. So, if one is not a victim, one must be a guard, at least in some deep metaphorical sense that is real enough to warrant action in public to distance oneself from 'guardness' and to merge as seamlessly as possible with the convict population, a rather difficult trick to pull off if one is super affluent. Hence, the invisible suffering of the soul in need of healing.

*Bob Dylan, “Ballad of George Jackson.” (1971)

Beginning mainly in the 1970s, "12-step" group recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and other therapeutic groups for people suffering everything from alien abductions to spousal abuse have proliferated and diversified.

It's a little earlier than that, in fact. We can see that with the end of the War of 1812, New England merchants, no longer living in enforced idleness returned with a greater passion to making money and doing business of all sorts, leaving their wives and daughters at home to continue embroidering. These women of the upper class were as intelligent as their husbands and fathers but were banned by law from the professions, from engaging in “manly” activities, i.e. from working for a living. However, being intelligent and bored they found themselves in a position to attend ladies' universities rather than to simply sit at home; and thus, having studied and then finding themselves still sitting at home they took their skills and energies to a hidden marketplace, that of northern negro ghettos and to churches advocating abolition of Negro slavery. Thanks in large part to affluent, bored Christian housewives in New England, Negro slavery was indeed abolished in 1865. And then the ladies went back home to wonder what happened that Negroes were emancipated and yet the ladies themselves were stuck in the parlour knitting. It took a generation and the great movement of educating young ladies to mobilise these often childless women to action. When they moved, they moved into a profession they made for themselves: Social Work. Babysitting adults. The profession of Social Work was born, and it continues apace today, no longer a hobby of rich ladies in Boston but a profession open to almost all.
It's now a truism that the higher the level of education and the greater the income women have the fewer children that will have-- often to the point of no children at all. Most Modernist men, making money and engaged in competitive endeavors, couldn't care less so long as the sex remains on tap. And so, rich, bored, and energetic woman turned to those “children” they could tend to without having the burden of children themselves. i.e. they turned to recently emancipated Negoes living in near-by poverty-stricken urban centres. The rich lady could go downtown, lecture the poor about their filthy habits, call it a profession, do good deeds, and return home in the evening feeling satisfied with life.

We are still twelve steps away from Alcoholics Anonymous. To cut this short, Modernity intervened in the lives of the working class. Capitalism began to take place on a wider scale in an otherwise rural nation in America, and people began to have cash to spend and goods to buy, things such as automobiles and telephones. Men-- and women-- were suddenly, for the first time in history, free to come and go as they pleased, regardless of distance. They were no longer stuck at home, on the farm, in the village. There was, at long last, more to life than simple misery and death at its end. The average woman could, should she choose or need to, find work in a factory, freed from domestic labour, cash in hand, free to be. More or less.

With mobility and cash, with cars, trains, planes, and bank accounts, thence the horror of collectivist everywhere in the Modern world, the rise of the nuclear family, mother and father and the children able to live apart from the extended family, sometimes a continent apart. But, what about the quality of life?! What about “community”? What about the alienation?

The rich in the Modern world looked on the freedom of the lower classes with horror, seeing a proliferation of poor people breeding in a Malthusian frenzy, adding ever more imbeciles to the already large population of people they don't like. What the world needs is not more poor people but more smart and wealthy people. Unfortunately, as we know, the richer and more educated one becomes, the few children one will likely have. To address this problem, Frances Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, created the Modernist science of the old Spartan habit of selection of the fittest, helping nature along in creating a better class of people: Eugenics, or “good life.” We know where that lead in Germany, and we see it leading many today to something similar, to devastation of whole populations of the “unwanted.” Not more babies, but better babies. And them are us. We are special. If we are traumatised by this cruel life, we deserve the healing available to us in the Amazon jungle. We have everything else, why not healing at a luxury resort in Iquitos, Peru where we can drink ayahuasca and puke on each others shoes while we have visions of our perfection? We are the best, and we can be better, even healed. But social workers? No, that would be for poor people. The wealth require something more up-scale, further out of reach than the average beer-drinking suburbanite can grasp, and something moral as well.

You're just nobody if you aren't a victim somehow-- unless you are one of the prison-guards of life. i.e. a capitalist, a sadist and a brute and a philistine. If you are a wealthy or even well-off European, then you are of course a racist, but redemption is available if you are traumatised by life. You can then go from being a prison-guard to being a prisoner free in his or her own mind now healed, or at least “in recovery,” the scars never really healing, always there to show to skeptics who might wonder about the victim claim.

We are special, and thus we do not go to boring churches and sit with boring people listening to Christian superstition. We are post-Modern and we believe in science and Gaia. Church? NO WAY.

People have a general tendency to form groups, though I am an exception to that, due, no doubt to the fact that I am a fascist. I am also stupid, demonstrably so in that I wrote a book, What is Fascism? in which I obviously misunderstand the entire the subject. But most people are not fascists, and they mostly belong to groups of some sort, often in the past being a church group, now about the last group any self-respecting intellectual would admit to. Yes, I am also a pseudo-intellectual, again having written a book about intellectuals in which I learned nothing of my subject. I do know however that during the early 20th century there was a movement among Protestants in America to join the larger group of European intellectuals who had moved on from the stuffy and unscientific Christianity of previous times to a new and improved Christianity, in advance, of course, of abandoning Christianity in favor of scientfic ecology, the religion founded by German biologist Ernst Haekel in the 1860s. I know that Walter Rauschenbusch (B. 1861 – D. 1918) successfully imported some aspects of the German Revolution into American Protestantism, his creation, now not so well-known, The Social Gospel, a blend of socialism and Christianity, inevitably, less gospel, more social, till now, and for some time, all socialist, no gospel. And still, people form groups. But in an age of free movement, the group is dispersed, alienated, and binds itself not as a collection of like-minded people socialising in sacred places, but as a group of like-minded people-- socialising in sacred places! The psychic pain victims of Iquitos, Peru!

Smart women with nothing to do but babysit the poor who hate them find themselves childless with increasingly effeminate men who don't care. Everybody wants to be scientific, which Christianity ain't so much, and with all that money floating around, why not go to exotic land and get real, authentic, group healing in the jungle doing something almost no one else has even heard of? Drink ayahuasca in the Amazon. It's so much cooler than a 12 step programme with drunks. And who cares about their boring and stupid confessions anyway? The special person's pain is so much worse. It's psychic. People should know about it.

Many therapists or leaders of group therapy programs report that people come to them seeking help because they are having feelings and memories that they cannot explain or identify. Most of these people are socially functional, productive workers who nevertheless feel that something is not right. Although they are leading the kinds of lives they have been taught should [give] them satisfaction, they are still for the most part unhappy, lonely or anxious. Perhaps they are unable to feel anything at all, or at least anything that they can recognize as a genuine emotion. Therapeutic culture attempts to help people like this by encouraging them to enter into situations (like the therapeutic group or individual session) where they feel safe enough to reveal to others the contents of their consciousness. Therapy teaches its participants how to experience transference, or a psychological bond, with someone or a group they can trust. Often, especially for people who have been abused as children, the therapeutic relationship is the first relationship in their lives in which they are able to trust anyone at all with their private thoughts and feelings.

Yes, until recently people used to live their lives in quiet desperation, but now one can do so much more. Now one can fly to the Amazon and tell ones fellows about ones psychic pains in a luxury resort.

Part of what the process of transference enables is self-recognition and self-consciousness. When the therapist or the therapy group asks a person who believes she may have been an incest victim what she is feeling about her family, or what she fee ls about her childhood in general, suddenly her emotions and memories are no longer private or secret. By articulating to other people what is going on inside her own mind, she learns that feelings and memories which once seemed indescribable or unspeakable are in fact concrete and real. Getting a sympathetic and non-abusive response from other people allows her to realize that she is not alone....

People mostly do not like to be alone, but neither do they like being around a bunch of drunks. For the “spiritual” person who doesn't believe in the boring stuff of Christianity, and who still longs for a communion of souls that a church or A.A provides, there is church without church, religion without God, and enlightenment that God only wishes he had. But, stuck in a capitalist world, what does one do? One can become a Communist.

As numerous leftist critics have argued, part of the purpose of a dominant ideology (i.e.: what Gramsci calls "hegemony"), or that set of beliefs sanctioned by a given culture's ruling classes, is to convince a mass of people that they must behave in a particular manner. Usually, they are encouraged to behave in a way which will ensure that the ruling classes remain in power. ... In the ideology of capitalism, buying and selling commodities should make everyone happy and everyone equally prosperous. However, it is clear that not everyone is satisfied with the way capitalist culture arranges material reality. Some people are very wealthy, but many people are very poor. But as the Marxist tradition teaches us, it is not the poor, but capitalism and capitalists which create poverty and unemployment. ...

I hope that you are beginning to see a pattern of contradictions emerging here. While both the people in therapy and the impoverished are undeniably experiencing some form of anguish, those in therapy are told that it isn't their fault, while those in poverty are told that it is. ... However, it is only when therapeutic recovery culture is wedded to a Marxist account of economics that our responses and suggestions to both groups of people cease to contradict one another. Therefore I would argue that what therapeutic culture asks of its participants is not entirely unlike what Marxist or socialist theory asks of its adherents. ... Most importantly, one is asked to place blame where blame is due.

Class-consciousness, in Marxist theory, is a combination of (therapeutic) emotional awareness and communal action. ... Class-consciousness is a feeling of community, or a kind of group transference, but it is also a moral injunction to pick one particular community with which to experience that feeling of trust and intimacy: the community of the oppressed.

Annalee Newitz.

Yes, one could become a Communist, group therapy as gulag therapy. Confess your political thought crimes and feel so much better when you're shot for it. Or confess your sins in a dingy room full of drunks and wish you were anywhere else and with people who had some sophistication. Or one can drink ayahuasca in the Amazon where people have a lot of money and can afford to hallucinate at a luxury lodge with people of their own sort. Don't spend time with losers like Bill W. who get drunk, piss themselves, and puke on their shirts and hallucinate about pink elephants when you can spend quality time with winners who puke on their shirts and shit themselves and hallucinate in style about anacondas for the sake of personal enlightenment in the Amazon.

Bill W.? The local priest? The Political Kommissar? No! Ask the shaman from California. You're special!

Shamans. Up next.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

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