Backs crack as spines elongate and align (enlightenment does not come without proper posture). Altars are being set up on sleeping bags - small wooden Buddhas are placed on mats and black obsidian stones are caressed as nine o’ clock approaches. “This one really calms me down if things get rough” the lady seated across from me says to her neighbor, a smorgasbord of rocks littered around her. Amulets are fingered and hands placed palms up loosely on laps. Chakras blink silently around the room.
The ayahuasca ritual has its origin in Amazonian Peru and Ecuador and consists of drinking a tea prepared from the vine banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of psychotria viridis. The implementation details vary between different groups and tribes, but there are similarities. The ceremony is conducted by an ayahuascero, or a shaman - a position that requires several years of training. There are several claims online of the ritual being at least 5000 years old. It oozes exotic ancient wisdom.
We sit in a circle with the shaman at the head of the room. One by one, we are to go around the room and state our name and a word of intention - something to focus on if the medicine leads us too far from our objective for the night. For the most part, it’s as though the thesaurus entries for ‘compassion’ and ‘grace’ were handed out before we started. There’s a smattering of benevolence, empathy, yearning, and tenderness. Someone says ‘nirvana’. Another - ‘lethani’. I choose ‘stillness’.
This isn’t really about what happens under the influence of ayahuasca. Suffice it to say that there are colors and fractals and the entering into of other dimensions. There are points where I am me, I am my mother, I am my manager, and I am a wolf. For a brief period, I am Tim Kaine. I will be laid bare, curled and whimpering in the fetal position. But this is not about that.
Perhaps it’s the nature of seeing fractals for several hours, an unending stream of pattern within pattern within pattern, that makes it easy to visualize oneself as the latest incarnation of a process that has evolved over centuries. The singing of the icaros and the shaking of the shakapa connect me to a culture exquisitely foreign to my own.
The effects of la medicina gradually ebb away. “Sit up straight” says the shaman. We shuffle upright, seated with legs crossed. “We’re going to chant om three times” she says. I open one eye in what I can only describe as a suspicious manner. After we chant om, the shaman sings a sanskrit hymn known as the Gayatri Mantra in a very American accent. I open the other eye in an even more suspicious manner.
At this point it should be mentioned that I am the only brown person in the room (everyone else is white), though another will join for the second night of the ceremony. Certainly I’m the only one of South Asian origin. I’m Hindu. Not exceedingly so, but I know of and pray to a few gods. Growing up I was taught certain sanskrit prayers and I say them to this day. Like many people, I have wavered in my faith and even today if someone asks me whether I truly believe, I will pause, make a confused-emoji face, then say “Agnostic?” while shaking my head at the same time. Even so, I suspect that the anthropological links between a psychedelic Amazonian ceremony and Hindu prayer are tenuous at best.
Certainly the ayahuasca ceremony itself isn’t immune to change - the details of the ceremony vary across cultural groups and there are Christian influences on the ritual among the indigenous people of the Amazon. This isn’t the theft of the Koh-i-Noor, nor is it wearing a sari on Halloween. The shaman has, from what I gather through whispers and eavesdropped conversation, spent many years training in Peru. The people are friendly, accepting, and hug each other for unreasonable lengths of time. It is a sacred space and a feeling of reverence lingers in the air.
The textbook definition, says Ta-Nehisi Coates, of cultural appropriation is “actively profiting from an experience while denying the experience actually exists.” The days of overt colonialism are over, both in Peru and in India. Yet for all the show of ceremony and courtesy, there is an arrogance at play here. It allows someone to say: “Here is an ancient culture. Here is another. I will mix the two for that is my right.” And by doing so, there is nothing left of the nuance, the beauty, or the flaws of either culture’s philosophy.
Who profits, then? There are times during the ritual that one is scared to do the most basic of things. A cup of tea is leagues away and the mere act of sitting up is daunting. “Just say ‘help’ and our angels will come to you” says the shaman, referring to the facilitators. I can see them now, gliding through the spectral landscape, in robes, beautiful and white.