In demonstrating appreciation by paying for the ritual-brew, do users inadvertently contribute to its desacralization?
In recent years, a psychoactive plant brew hailing from the Upper Amazon known as ayahuasca has undergone a boom in production and consumption across the world.
Ayahuasca is an admixture typically made by boiling the bark of the monoamine oxidase inhibiting (MAOI) Banisteropisis caapi vine, with the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing leaves of Psychotria viridis, often known by its Quechua name chacruna. When combined with an MAOI, DMT produces psychoactive effects on the user.
Traditionally, indigenous pan-Amazonian tribes consume what’s colloquially known as “the medicine” in a ritual context, following a particular diet in preparation for the ritual, and drinking during auspicious seasons with specific intentions guiding their visionary journeys. From brujeria (witchcraft) and devising hunting strategies, to the healing of physiological and psychospiritual ailments, the spiritual technology of ayahuasca has been utilized as a tool.
However, as the use of ayahuasca extends beyond Amazonian ecosystems, new users craft new stories to make sense of the strange brew.
Mainstream media coverage on the ayahuasca phenomenon by CNN, Vice and The Guardian range from sensational to skeptical. Reading most of these articles, it’s clear journalists tasked with translating this phenomenon to the masses only skim the surface, usually sticking to a first-person narrative of a ceremony they attended. Contingent information about ayahuasca is typically limited to peppered-in references of the brew’s Amazonian origins – generally overlooking the dynamic of the brew’s migration and its implications on either side of the bridge. The New York Times very neatly categorized their big story on the ritual brew in their Fashion/Style column.
Most of these mainstream media stories emphasize the brew is for ‘healing’. This focus on the healing, therapeutic potential of the medicine is also celebrated on the ground in the circles of ‘transformational’ festivals, ecovillages, neo-shamanic Burning Man attendees and even a blossoming generation of social entrepreneurs.
If ayahuasca is used as an apolitical, visionary agent by the Amazonian tribes who have mastered its preparation and administration, how did it gain the blanketed reputation as a purely love-and-light healing elixir in the West?
Like other psychedelics, ayahuasca is a ‘nonspecific amplifier’ – a substance that alters cognitive functions and perception while drawing on ‘latent’ psychological material in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. A study published by neuroscientists in Brazil find drinking ayahuasca can increase EEG and theta brainwaves, with participants reporting an increased sensitivity to subconscious activity.
By enabling access to subconscious territories of the mind, ayahuasca particularly helps us to kink out psychological knots, leaving many with a renewed and inspired outlook on life. It is imperative to point out that this deep-sea diving into the psyche should be done under the supervision of an experienced scuba diver, AKA a thoroughly-trained shaman.
The trending emphasis on ayahuasca’s healing capacity has become part and parcel of its identity amongst urban users. The understanding isn’t that ayahuasca can facilitate healing, but that it is healing.
Is this love-and-light story we give ayahausca actually symptomatic of its commodification?
A curious paradox emerges: in trying to demonstrate our value for the ritual, we may inadvertently contribute its degradation.
The process of value creation necessarily involves devaluing things that surround it. By privileging some things – identifying them as useful for cultural, material, or spiritual purposes – everything in which that valued thing is embedded becomes of secondary importance.
For example: let’s say I am harvesting truffles to sell at the market. I go out to the woods with dogs and begin to excavate the earth in search of these highly-valued commodities. In excavating the earth, I rip apart the mycelial networks, dig up flowers, destroy beds of moss, and disturb/devalue the ecology that supports the truffles’ existence.
Stay with me.
The basic process of commodification can be broadly understood in three steps:
1) ecological relationships are categorized and simplified, obscuring complexity
2) the invention of an exchange value occurs (e.g. this rose costs $7.00)
3) social relations underpinning the production of said commodity are the ‘masked’
Now, ayahuasca is not a clear-cut commodity. As a psychedelic, it evades neat packaging and widespread commodification due to its unpredictable effects – but that doesn’t mean it is immune to trends of commodification. Let’s map the steps above onto the ayahuasca phenomenon:
1) In isolating the desirable aspect or ‘utility value’ of a thing or experience, we assign it value. In the case of ayahuasca, this looks like isolating the ‘healing’ dimension of the ritual-brew, whilst obscuring the potions’ psychoactive and cultural complexity.
2) At some point in time, the exchange value of one ceremony in the Global North was set at approximately USD 180/night.
3) Few shamans in urban ceremonies explain the supply chain of growing, harvesting, preparing, transporting, and selling the admixture – not to mention the people responsible for the manual labor mediating all of these steps.
It’s no surprise here that ayahuasca is undergoing a process of commodification. Whether it’s journey to industrialized regions is inspired by people recognizing a lucrative business opportunity, or a more divine motive inspires its migration beyond the jungle, the way people exchange value around it is changing.
According to Dr. Kenneth Tupper, elders of indigenous spiritual traditions have condemned monetary exchange for ceremonies . Prior to a globalized financial system, ‘primary capital’ like a chicken, a bundle of tobacco, or even manual labor would serve to complete a cycle of reciprocity between the shaman and the participant in a ritual . Yet, enmeshed in an increasingly globalized financial paradigm, and faced with dispossession from ancestral lands and property enclosure from agribusiness, Amazonian shamans are often left with few options but to use money.
As ayahuasca migrates across borders, the need to use an internationally-recognized and transferable expression of value – digital or fiat currency – comes into play. Strangely, in attempting to appreciate a spiritual technology and broaden its accessibility, we pigeonhole it into a classic trend of commodification.
I once heard High Times journalist David Bienenstock explain the shifting dynamics from the informal production of cannabis, to the large-scale corporate wave of interest co-opting the formally unregulated economy. When small-scale cannabis farmers are confronted with competition by mega-corporations, the question emerges: to integrate and adapt, or reimagine the way cannabis is traded?
Historically, our appetites for psychoactive plants like coffee, sugar, tea, and opium have shaped civilizations – setting the blueprint for the stimulant-shaped modern industrial society we live in today . Psychoactive plants have shaped social ecologies, and economies.
In a world of increasingly inequitable wealth distribution, ecological catastrophe at our doorstep, and political parties with a myopic obsession to infinitely bolster economic growth, it becomes increasingly clear the only way we will solve our issues is by redesigning value exchange. The current system of capital accumulation and ecological degradation will not change until we transform our means of i) understanding value, and ii) exchanging value.
So, say it with me: let’s not let capitalism transform ayahausca. Let’s make sure ayahuasca and other entheogens play a role in transforming capitalism.
The Benefit of Confrontation 
Psychedelics, and ayahuasca in particular, have been said to rehabilitate materialistic behavior. I’ve met an ex-hedge fund manager, and a real estate mogul who have reprogrammed their profit-maximizing attitudes after transformational ayahuasca ceremonies. A litany of celebrities have joined climate justice movements after their encounters with the medicine.
Ayahuasca has a particular effect of recalibrating people’s hierarchy of values, morally and economically. Many claim to have a renewed appreciation of wilderness after ceremonies.
In studying the dynamics of value exchange with ayahuasca serving, perhaps there’s something to learn about the nature of commodification itself. And by adopting a more critical perspective to the new healing ‘brand’ pegged onto the ayahuasca medicine and ceremony, maybe we can nip some of our old habits in the bud.
Because the real trouble of claiming that ayahuasca’s net effects are always and inherently about love, light and therapy – which again, is possible – is that it relinquishes responsibility from people who need to know how to navigate areas of the mind unknown.
I once asked a teacher of mine in the Ecuadorian Amazon how to navigate dark visions. I repeatedly had the image of a big, black boot stomp my colorful pintas into obscurity. To this he responded “you must go through the darkness. Yin yang ciao.”
In order to recalibrate our deeply-seeded patterns of commodifying sacred nature, we’ve got to call as we see it. We’ve got to go through the darkness and confront the issue. How do we ensure the use of ayahuasca in the industrialized North doesn’t turn into another neo-colonial form of exctractivism?
Perhaps answers about how to compensate ayahuasqueros in a way that transcends capitalist dynamics won’t happen overnight. What we can do is intentionally and actively begin to ask these questions, and recognize that ayahuasca isn’t a just a healing commodity, but appreciate it wholly as the complex, powerful, and enchanting botanical technology that it is.