At a dinner party in Gloucestershire, Lucy, a mother of three, is regaling her guests with details of her last trip abroad.
She has honeyed limbs and high-maintenance hair, suggestive of regular villa breaks in Ibiza or Tuscany. But earlier this year, as a 40th-birthday present to herself, she went to Brazil for a 10-day guided retreat in the Amazon, where she underwent a series of plant rituals involving the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. “It was as far removed from taking normal party drugs as you can imagine,” she says, eyes glittering. “It was frightening and extraordinary.”
Lucy’s experience is symptomatic of a collective search for a complete wilderness experience as a panacea for our troubled souls. “I went to the Amazon because I felt my whole life needed shaking up, and I just didn’t know how to do that in England. I had everything I wanted, in terms of a stable marriage, lovely kids and a nice home, and although I knew I shouldn’t feel dissatisfied, I did. I wanted to reconnect with myself and the way I live before I got much older.”
Deep immersion in a faraway jungle is the latest fix for those stuck in the cultural, spiritual or personal malaise that besets many in the 21st century. Having an extreme psychological experience such as ayahuasca at the same time makes it all the more desirable. The Brighton-based writer and therapist Ross Heaven, author of Plant Spirit Shamanism, has been leading trips into the Amazon for 10 years. “In the 1990s, only real new-age devotees had heard of ayahuasca, but the sort of person going on retreats has changed dramatically,” she says. “I’m taking a trip in October that will include account managers, business professionals, a media figure, a conventional doctor and a nurse. People are getting turned on to the fact that in the Amazon we can learn something about the wisdom of native culture and the psychological healing aspects of the plants there, while also gaining from personal exploration and creativity.”
It was inevitable that we would find a faster, harder, more esoteric replacement for yoga. As eastern mysticism starts to look a bit, well, passe’, people are looking elsewhere for their spiritual kicks. They now have a desire to immerse themselves in an extreme environment, which is why the Amazon has never been as hot as it is now. Sting and Madonna first swung our global eyes to the rainforest in the 1980s. But then we forgot about it as we turned our gaze back to organic vegetable boxes and carbon footprints.
Now, once more, the Amazon is gripping our attention: the interest in ayahuasca is emblematic of a growing fascination with tribal life. A rumbling collective disquiet suggests that we’ve got it all wrong, and that it is those naked men in the jungle — whom we might once have dismissed as savages, or patronised by buying their handcrafted tables for our fashionable lofts — who have actually got it all right. Could it be that such tribes might hold a key to global salvation? Shamanism and ayahuasca are slipping into the spiritual dialogue of the chattering classes where once there was ashtanga and kabbalah.
Bruce Parry has done a brilliant job of bringing these wild worlds into our sitting rooms, and in doing so has scored a hit for the notion of the noble savage who can teach us how to coexist with the planet. “We shouldn’t romanticise these tribes, but they do have a great way of living with the environment, which we can learn from,” he says. “This is all in vogue because we are so worried about the way our individual morality is going. They have a much more sharing community.”
It is clear that these tribes, living in genuine harmony with their environment, possess a spiritual enlightenment that we, watching Big Brother in our centrally heated houses, can only dream of. And the growth in the psycho-spiritual healing industry suggests there is a huge market for lost souls in need of spiritual TLC. Going to the jungle to reconnect with the natural world is an obvious extension of this, but it’s hardly new. Ayahuasca has been used by Amazonian tribes for 10,000 years. It is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which means it causes your body to receive a chemical compound it would normally screen out. It is prepared — ideally by a friendly indigenous shaman — by boiling and blessing the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of Psychotria viridis, which is rich in the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine, to produce a bitter-tasting liquid that induces a trip lasting several hours.
The clinical psychologist and shamanic healer Silvia Polivoy established Ayahuasca Healing, her retreat in the Amazon, in 1997, when only a handful of companies offered such services. Now, there are more than 40. She moved into transpersonal therapy after becoming frustrated by the limitations of conventional psychotherapy. In some circumstances, she says, a session of ayahuasca can have the same effect as years of therapy.
There is a romance to the idea of the wild, exotic spiritual healer, but the practice of shamanism is not confined to the Amazon. Google “shaman” and you’ll probably find there’s one living next door to you, or running a workshop in your local community centre. In America, there’s even an International School of Shamanism, with a decidedly western-sounding board of directors and a trademarked name.
Inevitably, with increasing numbers of people travelling to the Amazon to experience ayahuasca and find the shaman to guide them, a new tourist industry is forming around the cult of the noble savage who can hold our hand as we hurtle towards environmental and psychological meltdown. Isn’t there a danger that in attempting to connect with the mystical, we will destroy it? And isn’t there something patronising about using our wealth to purchase the secrets of indigenous tribes, belching out tons of carbon as we go?
Genuinely losing it in the jungle is a pretty terrifying thought. But if there’s hot and cold running water and a masseur and chef on hand, well, that’s a different matter entirely. However, according to Tahir Shah, who experienced the plant in decidedly nonluxurious circumstances in Peru while researching his book Trail of Feathers: In Search of the Birdmen of Peru, you can’t really have a chichi ayahuasca experience. “The point of ayahuasca is that it completely undoes you. I was in total darkness in a longhouse in the deep jungle, and had to crawl through mud to the water’s edge, slipping and sliding like a pig in filth. I crapped and threw up at the same time, my eyes blinded by colours. I thought I was dying. And that’s the whole point.”
But practitioners argue that the growing interest in shamans and the plants they work with is symptomatic of the fact that a collective consciousness is working together to seek out a redemptive future for the planet and mankind. They claim that the spirit of ayahuasca is so strong, so extraordinary, it is creating its own calling — just don’t mention carbon footprints.
Polivoy is philosophical about the environmental damage caused by flights to her retreat, but admits that western culture could be as well served by using its own rituals and working with its native plants. Maybe we would be better off drinking a potion made from tree bark and magic mushrooms and taking part in a Morris dance, which, after all, is closer to our spiritual roots. It’s unlikely, though, that Lucy would want to entertain her dinner party guests with details of that trip, isn’t it?
Jungle fever: The chattering classes are heading to the Amazon in search of esoteric highs. Are shamans the new shrinks?
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