In the Amazon jungle, a new vision of self

Q & A | published in Real Change on Aug. 25th, 2010
Interview with: Adam Ellenbaas

Author Adam Elenbaas drank a psychedelic brew called ayahuasca. And what he experienced changed his life.

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Sometimes, you come across a word or a phrase and you think, Well, what does that mean? Here’s one, glimpsed in a book publicist’s email, that piqued my curiosity recently: “psychedelic memoir.” Did it mean that licking a page would cause you to start hallucinating? I couldn’t figure it out. But after reading “Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayuhuasca Vision Quest” [Tarcher/Penguin, $24.95] by Adam Elenbaas, now I know. It’s a memoir that, in its recollections of the author’s plant-induced visionary states, explores how his psyche, his sense of self, became reordered, transformed.

For Elenbaas, this reorganization came as the result of drinking a plant brew called ayahuasca. Used by some native tribes in the Amazon jungle during spiritual ceremonies, the plant opens a doorway to the consciousness, leading to visions of … Well, having never done it, I can’t say. But Elenbaas, who, at the book’s writing, had taken it some 35 times, saw serpents and hornets and vast rivers. But perhaps more importantly, he saw his past, one that had been imbued with liberal Christian teachings, passed along by his parents, a Baptist minister and his wife, as well as the fundamentalist parishioners he encountered in his late teens and 20s. And in these visits to what had gone by, he garnered the tools to prepare for how he could recast his life, move it from one based on addiction to one based on expanding his consciousness. In “Fishers of Men,” this quest for opening his mind and heart gains balance through scenes that artfully dramatize the inner conflict caused by his Christian upbringing and the intensity of ayahuasca ceremonies.

All of which provided a great bedrock upon which to base a conversation. So, with me unable to make his recent reading at East West Bookshop, Elenbaas, a cofounder of the website, chatted with me over the phone. In those 40 minutes, we talked of visions, of rebellion, of consumerism and of seeing Jesus.

I know this is the kind of question that can’t be answered easily, but what prompted you to take ayahuasca the first time?
Obviously it’s hard to capture the story quickly because it’s the story of a vision quest, a coming-of-age story. So it’s the culmination of growing up in the sort of Christian fundamentalist, evangelical environment. I think my coming-of-age story is atypical in that it involved a rebellion that was, at first, religious in nature, and from there it nosedived [into] the typical themes: the sex, the drugs, the rock-and-roll, the overindulgence, the hedonism, the substance abuse.

So then, I had a chance encounter with psychedelics. And I didn’t know really what psychedelics were. I sort of had this incredibly — I don’t know — catalyzing, life-changing, intensely introspective evening on mushrooms. I had locked myself into my bedroom, realizing that I had serious drug problems and didn’t like my dad and didn’t like the church and I was confused. I was presented with this paradox: How did this simple plant/drug — which I’m hesitant to call these things now — get me to see so many things that I’ve been repressing? And that question led me, believe it or not, into an exploration of my own spirituality.

So, that quest led me to drink ayahuasca.

So let’s break apart the story and touch upon some of the words. What is ayahuasca?
Ayhuasca is a tea that’s made in the jungle from a vine of the forest and a leaf of the forest. These two ingredients are cooked together in a cauldron, and they’re made into a tea. And this tea is intensely psychoactive, visionary, psychedelic — whatever you’d like to call it. It definitely expands the senses, it expands the mind. Simultaneously it’s a purgative.

So, the point of an ayahuasca ceremony, in the traditions of the jungle, [has] been always to take the substance with a shaman — who also takes the substance — go into a visionary experience of your life, of the jungle, of the world you live in. And when you have that experience a tremendous amount of light is brought in to illuminate the spaces of your subconscious or your psyche that are in some way trapped in delusion, or lies, or arrogance. The experience brings you into an incredibly powerful understanding of who you are and where you’ve come from, and it shows you the truth of whatever it is you’re not really comfortable with, at which point you’ll generally purge or you’ll scream or you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. And this intense experience lasts maybe six hours. At which point, when you’re done, you really do feel as if you’ve achieved six years in psychotherapy in six hours.

Where were you when you did it the first time?
So the first time that I did this I went to Iquitos, Peru, which is now becoming — I think of it now like the bar from “Star Wars” where all the crazy creatures are hanging out — home to a plethora of interesting, shamanic weirdos and freaks and healers and sages and spiritual seekers coming from all over the world. So I went to Iquitos with a young shaman — who was actually American, who had apprenticed with two indigenous healers — and went into the jungle, 24 hours upriver and drank in three ceremonies in the middle of the Amazon.

Earlier you mentioned the word “drugs” and said you’d hesitate to even use the word anymore. What did you mean?
The 1960s are what most people think of when they think of psychedelics, so they’re quick to say these things are drugs: I just want to make a distinction because anything that’s used without a sacred intention, to me, can become a drug. So ayahuasca can become a drug, LSD can be a drug, marijuana can be a drug. People can use these things compulsively.

But psychedelics in general, they kind of have a bad rep because in the 60s there was a lot of stuff going on: civil rights, rock-and-roll, feminism. But you also had assassinations, people destroying property and violent protests, as well as peaceful protest. You had people so angry with the established traditions that they kind of threw up a fist of anger towards them. So in many ways psychedelics are associated with destruction, anarchy and things that are not really shamanic at all. I’m not saying there’s not a place for revolution, but it’s not fair to call ayahuasca a drug simply because psychedelics are associated with a very violent, rebellious, tumultuous time. That’s certainly not a tradition that they share in the Amazon. It’s part of their culture and a serious medicine practice, and it’s rigorously intense. It’s not something you would toy with or do on your own.

But I do hear of people who do it on their own.
Well, there’s no ayahuasca or shamanic police running around making sure that people don’t abuse these things. And I’m not even suggesting that people can’t do these things on their own. Most of the time when people have a desire to do something as serious as ayahuasca, even if they do it on their own, there’s usually some kind of good-hearted intention. I don’t think it’s safe. I think it’s actually a little foolish. Because all we need is for some young people to have some pretty serious psychological trauma or breaks from reality. I worked at a residence, [with] almost a hundred adult schizophrenics, for the past couple of years, and knowing that many of their stories and their breaks came through heavy abuse, and mixing and matching and experimentation with drugs — to me, it really was confirmation that these things, however they’re used, whatever new traditions and expressions we come up with for something like ayahuasca, it’s not safe [to do alone].

You mentioned challenges in this practice. What would some be?
[Philosopher Emmanuel] Kant said, “[Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.]” Ayhuasca definitely imparts this weird paradox, that the world is absolutely relative. Which means that there is a moral law. There is a spiritual listening that must take place all of the time in order to be in right relationship with the planet, with each other. But that that relationship is dependent upon your listening, which is an action that means responsibility every moment. And once you understand that, every moment requires us to listen and be in right relationship with the universe. So our principles aren’t going to send us somewhere good or bad after we die, but our ability to listen, that dictates whether or not we experience heaven or hell, right now. In our lives, in our communities, in our relationships and so forth.

So the difficulty of having a personal ayahuasca practice is that it means eliminating relationships that are toxic. It means changing your eating habits, it means not being dependent on sugar and caffeine and processed food. For me, it was definitely not placing sex at the center of romantic relationships. And those principles, they’re always being evolved and changed every movement.

Secondly, how do you work it into culture: We live in a culture that is essentially consumer based: Is there something in it for me? Or can this enhance my image? So what ayahuasca is up against is: How can you explain to people that healing, and doing this kind of work, even though it’s difficult, is ultimately liberating and provides more happiness and more well-being than its competitors? Because we live in this sort of competitor-based model, what will happen is ayahuasca, like anything else, will be stamped on a t-shirt and sold. I mean, with the world filled with consumerism, we have to learn the old medicine paradigm: You take something that tastes terrible, but then later you feel better. The consumer paradigm is: take something now that’ll make you feel great, and later you’ll feel terrible.

How many ayahuasca ceremonies have you participated in?
I guess over the past five years it’s been like 80.

You mentioned how you can take medicine and it tastes terrible and then you feel better. So how does it taste?
Oh man, it’s rancid. Some people don’t mind it, but I think it’s terrible. It’s like mud mixed with battery acid and pee. [Laughs.] It’s really, really awful. But you know, it also feels really earthy. Like when you burp it up, you literally feel like you’re burping up a tree or something.

So you’ve done it four-score times. Can you describe part of a vision?
Because I grew up in the Christian church, one of the first visions that I had was of Jesus. In that vision I sort of found myself in the water and I didn’t really know where I was, and there were all of these Greek columns everywhere, and there were stars — of course this was all fluid, moving and spectacular. And I saw a figure walking on the water and I knew right away that the figure was Jesus. I distinctly remember that my immediate reaction was of childlike excitement, but at the same time I realized that he was not at all who he had been made out to be by my Sunday school teachers. He looked like a very strong, powerful, incredibly enlightened human being.

And then — It’s very hard to describe how conversations happen in visionary experiences because oftentimes they’re wordless. But as he looked into my eyes, I started saying, “Thank you,” and I could not stop, playing out this “It’s Jesus and I’m not worthy,” which was very much a part of my evangelical upbringing. And Jesus said, “Don’t make me into a false idol. You have to love yourself and you have to love other people.” It was just a very powerful vision, at which point I started vomiting.

So let’s talk a little bit about Christianity. Growing up, did you feel Jesus was made into a false idol?
Well, yes and no. My father and mother were really progressive, liberal Christians. So, they really weren’t into the sort of Jesus cult where you’re never really going to be as good as Jesus. Yet growing up in an evangelical church it was around all the time, because in churches you just have a mishmash of people with various backgrounds and various bents. But as I grew older and I rebelled from my father and from the church because it was, “OK there’s many paths to God,” and when my Dad had an extramarital affair I thought, “Many paths to God? Well, many women.” My rebellion to go into the fundamentalist, Pentecostal, ultra-evangelical stuff was where I probably picked up most of the conditioning that put Jesus onto a pedestal.

You were also smoking a lot of marijuana during that time.
That’s the funny part. [Laughs.] I don’t know how to explain this, but the great thing about a lot of conservatives is that they’re really rebellious. Which I think will ultimately serve them, because I met so many ultra-fundamentalists and ultra-Republicans in college who are now so liberal, because their rebellion — this angry attitude — was at the core of their fundamentalism. So I think the hardcore evangelicals who are of the more rebellious bent, they smoke pot as a sort of opiate or as a painkiller or a sort of hip, intellectual alternative to just drinking.

A while ago here in Seattle, someone came to a yoga studio and spoke about “sacred plant medicine.” And the place was packed! Does it seem like excitement about ayahuasca is growing?
Definitely. Something I’ve heard a number of shamans say is this beverage is really conscious. One of the weird parts of drinking ayahuasca is that you take it and then all of a sudden, the beverage feels like it’s some kind of incredibly large cosmic serpent that’s moving around inside of you and helping to heal you. I’ve heard the shaman say this plant, it’s emerging into the greater global conversation because we need help. I think that’s why it’s becoming popular: because it’s incredibly powerful, it’s incredibly healing.

It’s illegal to use ayahuasca in the U.S. though.
Ah yes, it is. But it doesn’t stop people of course. There’s at least five, six, seven ceremonies happening every month in major cities all over the U.S.

You’re in one of those major cities right now.
Yeah, I’m in New York City.

And in your book you described all sorts of visions. So, are you sitting on a bench?

What do you see?
I’m looking at a yoga studio across the street, and trees, and blue sky, and buildings, and parked cars, and people walking.

Now, do you think it would have looked the same if you had not done ayahuasca?
I wouldn’t say that they look any different necessarily. Everything feels — I don’t know the best way to put it. It’s that you develop a sense of empathy. So when you’re looking at a car, you have an understanding of the story of cars, where they come from, and you see back into the history of man needing to build cars. If you look at the building, you perhaps start to see more of the story of buildings, the rust. You understand rust and decay, and maybe not just on a building, but on bodies and in physical objects, and you start to understand change and impermanence. And you see people walking down the street instead of seeing strangers. You see commonality. You see a 70-year-old woman who’s not wearing anything that attractive, but she looks like maybe the years have taught her how to walk in a way that she looks really comfortable with herself.

I mean, even those are just superficial judgments. But the point is just that you see your relationship to everything, and you see the relationship of everything to you and to this moment and to the place you live, and the connections become a lot more beautiful.

All right. Anything else you’d like to convey?
Well, the one thing that is important to remember about ayahuasca is that it’s a spiritual practice for many people right now, and it’s important people should not romanticize this as this “in thing” and think of the Discovery Channel and going tribal. That’s really not what ayhuasca is.

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