By John Kendall Hawkins
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
- The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966), inspired by Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead
I was recklessly musing about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and how, there but for the disgrace of God, and Barack Obama, they would have gone to Ecuador and been on the lam, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — legends in a lot of minds, including their own. But now, with Lenin on the loose, they would have seen la caca hitting el abanico in Quito and thought: Yanquis have arrived to abbotabad us and we must huyeron por todos lados. In other words more familiar, Butch and Sundance panicked, and hied to hide in the jungle of writhing anacondas. “That way,” pointed a future ‘espalda mojada’ (wetback), seizing a proffered C-note from the nice Machine-Gun Man with No Eyes. The chase was on.
Recently, I butched and sundanced my way through the thickets and vines of When Plants Dream by Daniel Pinchbeck and Sophia Rokhlin, until I came to what I was looking for in the clearing of an appendix: The How-to of cooking up some ayahuasca stew and of determining if it’s right for you. I mostly enjoyed the narrative trek through vistas I might never have considered — histories, cultures, exotic rituals of the Amazon — and their depiction of the shamanistic plant culture revealed and the return of the psychedelic experience to the mainstream.
Coincidentally, when this book popped up in my email from Penguin Books, I was (and am) enrolled in a free online science course, What A Plant Knows. Taking the course and reading When Plants Dream, reminded me of my early undergraduate days at an evangelical college in the Boston area, where my Biology 101 class was taught simultaneously in gospel-speak and the scientific method. I learned along the way that the scientific method was only included for accreditation purposes. I truly got into the spirit of the biblical interpretation of biology, egged on, out of class, by Bobby Dylan’s foray into the waters and fires of rebornation. Those lines from “Precious Angel” still kill me: Can they imagine the darkness….
Reading When Plants Dream felt like it was suffused in cultural darkness, or rather like it describes an escape from the darkness the Digital Age has wrought, rather than a committed movement toward any kind of enlightenment. In an era when going without the internet and text-messaging for a couple of weeks might lead most people to a hallucinogenic experience (in the vacuum opened up by the absence of electro-stim), Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer the reader an introduction to an experience with forces that, by the end, they describe as the potential salvation of the human race against itself. We’ve been hollowed out by technology, they contend, and we need a new consciousness, and ayahuasca, “a living intelligence,” can help with the quantum paradigm shift ahead.
When Plants Dream is a short, easy-to-read book (218 pages) that is sectioned into four parts: The Queen of the Forest (ayahuasca is felt as female); On Curanderismo (shamans and their link to an alternate cosmological consciousness); The Vine Spreads (ayahuasca’s impact on medicine, religion and the law); and, Ayahuasca Today and Tomorrow. It is a well-researched book, with many judiciously chosen excerpts from leading proponents of the altered consciousness experience, including Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), Benny Shanon (The Antipodes of the Mind), Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent), and Michael Harmer (The Way of the Shaman), among many others. It’s rich, but intense reading, covering aspects of everything the subtitle of the book suggests — Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin discuss the Amazon Rainforest milieu in which the ayahuasca vine thrives. The authors remind us that the forest encompasses seven countries, including Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It covers the size of the continental United States. It’s called the ‘world’s lungs’, due to the vast proliferation of photosynthetic foliage. Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim that there are still tribes in the forest who have not met ‘outsiders’, and that you could get lost in its lush underbelly and never be seen again.
What exactly is “the bitter brew”? Where does ayahuasca come from? The word comes from Quechuan, one of the oldest indigenous languages of the Amazon. The word breaks down into “aya,” meaning body, soul, or deceased; and “wahska,” meaning rope or vine. Thus, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin write, ‘ayahuasca’ is often translated as “vine of the soul” or “rope of the dead”. Its “double-helix-shaped curlicues” might vaguely attract the attention of a tourist also interested in the Human Genome Project (HGP) and its implications. You could see how a bit of mysticism would be built in to the stew-driven proceedings.
They write, “The psychoactivity of ayahuasca kicks in 30–45 minutes after ingestion” and “The brew is a famously intense purgative. For most, it causes shivering, sweating, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.” Reading this, I recalled a time I was carried out of a junior high school on a stretcher with severe food poisoning, double-helix turds coming from the out-hole, everything I’d ever eaten coming out the in-hole, and was having assorted gothic hallucinations. Holy shit, I wasn’t sure I could travel to the Amazon to experience the equivalent of said-same. Still, I read on. And, I guess, I probably would have tread on, if I’d gone there to relieve my blues.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin admire the work of Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire. Pollan has boldly pronounced that our plants call the shots, and we obey. Did bears shit in the woods of Kazakhstan? You bet they did, and it’s a good thing, too, because they carried, in their turds, the first bitter apples from Central Asia all the way to Europe, sweetening as they came by natural selection, and delivering up from apple Eden what you might call the Almaty Whitey. Anyway, you can see how this symbiotic relationship works for Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, as they see ayahuasca not merely as an object to be devoured, but as a “kind of intelligence … trying to communicate with us, coming from the heart of nature.”
In the chapter, “The Yagé Organ,” the authors relate the strange ayahuasca correspondence of two famous American writers, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsbetg, who had separately ventured to Columbia to experience the psychedelic brew. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night, who hailed from a pampered mighty whitey clan, trekked to the Amazon not long after he’d accidentally shot his wife dead in a famous William Tell debacle (immediately ending his heroine addiction). “Unable to kick his junk habit, guilt-ridden, crestfallen and junk-sick,” the authors write, “Burroughs traveled down to Colombia in search of yagé [ayahuasca]. He had heard that yagé was ‘the ultimate fix’ – as well as a miracle cure for [his heroin] addiction.”
Ginsberg traveled there years later and set up a correspondence with Burroughs that became The Yagé Letters (1953). Ginsberg describes his phantasmagorical experience to his favorite junkie,
I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet and porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death – got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe …
It kind of enriches one’s perspective on Ginsberg’s later Howl, in which he looks around and sees the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness.
If you go to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, you’re going to want to find a curanderismo (shaman). “The word ‘shaman’ originally comes from the reindeer-herding nomads of the Siberian steppes,” the authors write. They’re social roles are ancient — they’ve been healers, mystics and even “dark” sorcerers. “Today,” write Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, “the various roles originally belonging to the shaman are divided into the functions performed by the artist, novelist, priest, scientist, doctor, psychologist and gardener.” But, paradoxically, these same modern cultural practitioners of altered states, are the ones most likely to hop on a plane to seek out forest healers to replenish their exhausted digitlized spirits. The pair claim, “There may be more ayahuasca practitioners now than ever before in history.”
To further clarify the role of a shaman in contemporary life, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin argue that the “archetypal path of the shaman resembles, in some ways, the hero’s journey outlined by Joseph Campbell … or like the training of the Jedi from Star Wars or the rebels from The Matrix.” The authors want to connect back to the counterculture psychedelic experiences of the 60s, and write, “According to the media hype, ayahuasca is for our time what LSD was for the 1960s: A mind-opening, catalysing, transformative agent that changes the world as it awakens and heals people.” But while this is true, the authors don’t emphasize enough the power and impact of the internet, and its paradigm-shifting influence on all aspects of our lives.
The third part of the book, The Vine Spreads, discusses the influence of ayahuasca, and the psychedelic experience in general, on other areas of our lives — medicine, religion, and law. “[T]here is increasing evidence that the methods used by curanderos have efficacy for many conditions that Western medicine cannot cure.” We seem increasingly more willing to trust such alternate approaches to healing chronic conditions — they cite breast cancer — that are resistant to Western medicine. And, “As we leave behind the antiquated parts of religions based on ancient text and received wisdom, we can access a new form of experiential mysticism based on the gnosis attained in visionary states of consciousness.” Laws, too, they suggest, are beginning to accommodate the growing desire for psychedelic experiences.
The authors like to play up the practical benefit of ayahuasca. “Shamanism is not essentially concerned with ‘enlightenment’ in the Buddhist sense or ‘beatitude’ in the Christian sense: shamanism is about knowledge – of the unseen worlds – and power, which can be used to heal, harm or transform.” The psychedelic experience should enhance your ordinary life somehow — maybe as depicted in the film Limitless. “The psychoactive effects of DMT [ayahuasca’s main compound] can be directly accessed by smoking a powdered extraction from the plants – the ‘business man’s trip’, which sends users on a 10-minute plunge into another reality that some find harrowing and others delightful.” What’s more, “Business Insider pronounces it ‘the latest craze among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’”. What could be more ominous or depressing? Imagine watching Jeff Bezos puke in some back alley junkie jungle to gain enlightenment during his lunch break. Hmph.
One interesting side note in the book is the allusion to the film Avatar, which the authors raise in the context of its background story. In the film, there is an important tribal tree called Eywa, which, according to Pinchbeck and Rokhlin is “uncannily close to ‘Aya’. The story told by the film bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history, caused by the fossil-fuel company Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2000. In 1964, Texaco discovered substantial oil reserves in the remote Ecuadorian Amazon.” No lessons have been learned: destruction of the world’s lungs continues apace. A deleted scene from the film, “Eye of Eywa,” depicts a hallucinatory experience.
Full disclosure: I have no ayahuasca experience. However, in my undergraduate college years, I have eaten magic mushrooms and downed mescalin, and, under the influence of the shrooms went to a drive-in with some buddies and hallucinated to The Life of Brian and Altered States. I have grooved under the influence inside a cathedral. And I have had a multitude of naturally-occurring hallucinations, aural and visual. Though I don’t expect to get around to trying ayahuasca soon, I am open to the experience, and could certainly see how it might be beneficial, while also am keenly aware (following an opiated-pot session gone bad) of how these enlightenment things can go dark. The authors wisely urge full caution in their appendix how-to.
While Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer plenty of factual information and anecdotes to help newbies and veterans of psychedelics decide if they want to seek out and try ayahuasca, there are many other places to go to understand the dimensions of the proposed self indulgence. There’s appropriate shamanistic music available to get the right ambiance going. More importantly, I found ayahuasca feed at Reddit very useful, as it has a lot of personal tales of encounters with DMT that are fresher than what a published book can offer. It also has a great deal of information about users, abusers and shamans.
Overall, When Plants Dream is a useful introduction to what Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim is a “renaissance” in psychedelic experience-seeking. But maybe more important than anything, if maybe a bit too late, is the enthusiasm it expresses for seeing things through the ‘eyes’ of plants. We need that need that ‘view from the perspective of others’ now more than ever. Personally, I believe that if we must go extinct as a species, as we seem determined to do, that we head not in the direction of man-machine AI systems, but toward the development of photosynthetic people — chloroplasts added (along, if you don’t mind, a dash of THC), and at life’s end, instead of wasteful cremation, we smoke ‘em cause we got ‘em. Excuse me while I light my spliff.
Too much Cheech and Chong, I guess.