Ayahuasca and Animism – A Cure for Modern Materialism?
Patrick Smith, Contributor
Widespread and systematic destruction of our ecosystems; exploitation of the Earth’s resources; factory farming of animals; unashamed bigotry – these are the hallmarks of the modern human race.
Part of the problem is our materialistic view of the world that not only denies the inherent life and spirit in other beings, but also gives us the illusion of being above the laws of nature.
Yet we have a unique chance to learn from the wisdom of people who have maintained connection to nature for their entire existence. Ayahuasca, a plant medicine used by countless indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, is rapidly increasing in popularity in the Global North. And with it comes the opportunity to shift our perspective.
This ancient psychedelic brew is a mainstay of dozens of South American cultures, most of which employ some form of animist spirituality that carries a deep and innate connection to nature, animals, and self. The ayahuasca ceremony can be a powerful gateway to animist principles.
Ayahuasca has the power to transform individuals in many ways. But could it also help break humanity out of its materialist prison? Or are we already too far gone to be saved by a perspective shift, no matter how sudden or revelationary?
Materialism and the Root of Our Problems
The philosophy of materialism has been the predominant worldview in the Global North since the mid-1800s. It suggests that everything in the world is material – purely mechanical and physical. There is no such thing as ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, and any illusions of consciousness or free will you might possess are merely ‘epiphenomena’ of matter; irrelevant and arbitrary spin-offs from physical reality that can be eliminated from the equation.
This philosophy had some inevitable consequences towards the end of the 19th century; religion started to lose its popularity, materialist scientists started to take up positions in the highest echelons of society, and many of us stopped worrying about the consequences of our actions on other living things (after all, there’s nothing special or sacred about consciousness).
Within the same era where materialism was gaining control in the Global North, we were also buying into another dangerous philosophy. It’s a philosophy that is so subversive that it has never been named. Daniel Quinn explains it best in his book Ishmael – and he describes those of us that buy in to this philosophy as ‘Takers’ (which is almost all of us in current Western society).
The story that this philosophy tries to sell us is that it is in our nature to be disconnected from nature. It states that there is something deep in our human foundations that means we are blessed to be the Kings to rule over all other beings, and at once doomed to be forever separated from the glorious and effortless hum of natural law.
According to this philosophy, we are reduced to an unhappy conqueror sitting atop a mound of carcasses in a barren wasteland – and there’s no way we can ever be anything else.
This somewhat defeatist (and highly flawed) philosophy has sunk its teeth deep into many parts of society – to the point where many people are not even aware that they possess this dogma. When we are forced to confront our greed, exploitation, or cruelty, we so often retreat to this comfortable ground of ‘Taker’ philosophy: “We are separate from nature, and therefore immune to its laws.”
The ways in which this philosophy has damaged both humanity and the planet are too wide-ranging and tragic to name. By removing ourselves from the cycle of sustainability and connection of nature, we ‘Takers’ have embraced excess, destruction, and conquest. Paired with the materialist notion that consciousness is just an illusion, we are left with a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of ruin.
So what can we do in the shadow of this immense and faceless evil?
The first and perhaps most important step is to acknowledge our own materialist dogmas, and embrace a philosophy that puts humanity right back in the mix of the natural world. A philosophy that holds consciousness as the most fundamental aspect of reality, rather than just a meaningless mirage.
To do this, perhaps it’s time to look towards our siblings of the Amazon who have held animist traditions at the core of their existence since their inception.
Animism as the Answer
The concept of animism is purely anthropological. This is because it is a term invented by Western anthropologists, upon encountering the long-held spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples across the world. There was no word for animism before this because there was no need for one; the people who practiced forms of animism had held those worldviews as the most fundamental aspect of their existence. Just like how we don’t have a word for the ‘Taker’ philosophy that we cling to so dogmatically.
The difference between the animist belief and the dogma of ‘Taker’ philosophy is that animism makes intuitive sense. Although it can take many different forms, and a solid definition is hard to find, animism generally entails a belief that everything in the world – people, animals, plants, rocks, the weather – has a spirit, motivation, and experience.
A helpful way of thinking about animism is that everything in the world is just a human in a different guise; a human soul wearing a different suit, temporarily. This is reflected in Amazonian shamanism which often involves shape-shifting – human shamans can move between bodies, animals, and plants, in order to heal sickness or banish malevolent spirits (Riviere, 1994).
In animist traditions, humans are by no means separate from nature. In fact, some even assume that humanity is central to nature. The Barasana people of the Amazon consider themselves responsible for the maintenance of nature, and say that “Without people, the forest would be chaos” (Davis, 2019). Although this may sound a little egotistical, it’s closer to the truth than our current ‘Taker’ philosophy that asserts we are totally disconnected from the natural order of things.
This is not to say that animist cultures are perfect. Many shamans regularly practice sorcery; inhabiting the bodies of animals to carry out murders and violence (Whitehead & Wright, 2004). Domineering attitudes still abound, with some people still considering themselves as more worthy of life than other beings. Misogyny and homophobia can be regular occurrences in some Amazonian cultures.
Yet, these cultures are almost never exploitative to the extent that we are. They very rarely destroy their land, over-fish their rivers, or grow vast acres of monocrops. They often understand and accept the concept of sustainability in a much more fundamental way than we do. They can be very keenly aware of the damage they are capable of doing to the world; the Maori, for example, must repent for the hurt caused to any worldly being, even including the wood they carve, or the stone they split (Harvey, 2005).
Many of the Amazonian animist cultures also incorporate ayahuasca into their traditions. The plant medicine, made by combining several plant ingredients into a symbiotic brew with potent psychedelic effects, is used by shamans as a route into the unseen world. This is the only real duality present in animist traditions; the idea that our world is divided into the seen and unseen, and the shaman is capable of peering into the void.
Although ayahuasca traditions in Amazonian shamanism are diverse, ayahuasca is generally seen as an embodiment of the concepts of animism; drinking this very special plant medicine brings the subject into direct contact with the spirit of the forest. The shaman is given a vivid and very real knowledge of the interconnectedness of all beings, and sees the fundamental yet vast consciousness present in every human and non-human entity.
As Westerners have started to discover the profound healing properties of the ayahuasca brew, we also have the potential to come into contact with these animist traditions and worldviews.
Could Ayahuasca be a Route to Animism for Westerners?
So is it as simple as giving ayahuasca to as many Westerners as possible, and waiting for a critical mass to leave their jobs in fossil fuel companies to start planting trees in Brazil?
Unfortunately, we know that’s a pipe dream.
The main problem with the idea of ayahuasca as a panacea for our philosophical stuntedness is that the psychedelic experience is heavily dependent on set and setting.
A narcissist can sit down to drink ayahuasca and come out with an even stronger love for themselves. A bigot can take ayahuasca and leave with no improvement in compassion or empathy. There are countless ways in which we can drink ayahuasca without encountering the concepts of animism that are so key to ayahuasca’s roots.
The very concept we have of the psychedelic experience in the West is a barrier for us to really grasp the lessons of animism. For one thing, our reliance on materialist science means that many of us think the psychedelic experience can be explained by the activity of neurons in the brain. This is just another attempt at denying the primacy of our own subjective experience, and convincing us of a materialist explanation for consciousness.
Similarly, the Western concept of tripping leans heavily on the idea of ‘ego dissolution’. This is the term for losing your sense of self, forgetting about your individuality, and becoming one with the universe. Yet we view it as a fleeting experience, and we are quickly coddled by a solid sense of separation once the substance wears off.
Unsurprisingly, Amazonian shamanism doesn’t have a word for ego dissolution, and there is no evidence that it’s even a concept (Gearin, 2019). In animist tradition, there is no distinctly separate ego to dissolve – you are already a part of everything, and although you may experience an expansion of your connection to other beings, it won’t be a surprise to have your boundaries erased and for the illusory nature of other-ness to be revealed.
Really, the best chance Westerners have to encounter the concepts of animism in the most visceral way possible is to take ayahuasca in an indigenous setting. To travel to the Amazon, find a shaman with a good reputation, and pay them for a ceremony.
Although this is impractical, and likely impossible for most of us, it’s the ideal situation. Second-best may be to attend a retreat center run by an indigenous shaman, or a smaller local ayahuasca circle with indigenous input.
Even these second-best approaches are lined with hazards. The Westernization of ayahuasca really illustrates how afraid we are of confronting animistic wisdom, and challenging our materialist ‘Taker’ philosophy. Many people prefer to remove or minimize the traditional elements of the ayahuasca ceremony – diminishing the role of the shaman, ignoring the source of the brew, or monetizing the vulnerable open state it can produce.
It’s important to reflect on the way that Westerners are viewed by animist cultures. Amazonian peoples call us things like “Owners of Objects”, or “Bringers of Merchandise”. The Asháninka people of Peru and Brazil call Westerners “White Vampires”, and believe that we come from underground to harvest their fat, which we take back to our sub-terrestrial domain where we refine it into a fine oil that we use to run our machines (Narby, 2019).
That’s not too far from reality; except now instead of harvesting natural resources for our machines, we’re White Vampires harvesting ayahuasca for our high-end luxury retreats.
Facing the Consequences
No matter how hard we believe otherwise, we are all subject to the laws of nature, and we are all a part of the ecosystem of the Earth. We will face the consequences of our actions no matter how dogmatic our beliefs in our superiority.
All we can do right now is enter the world of ayahuasca with respect, receptivity, and a desire to break out of the materialistic, anti-nature paradigm that we have trapped ourselves in. And, perhaps, pray that ayahuasca is sympathetic to our ignorance.
To learn how you can use plant medicines to discover the concepts of spiritual animism, sign up to the EntheoNation Plant Medicine Course.
About the Author
Patrick Smith is a PhD biologist who has been writing for psychedelic publications for the past 5 years. He currently writes for EnthoNation.
Davis, W (2019) The Forest Within. Talk at the World Ayahuasca Conference, Girona, Spain.
Gearin, A (2019) From Jaguars to Ego Death: Some Thoughts on Ayahuasca Medicalization. Talk at the World Ayahuasca Conference, Girona, Spain.
Harvey, G (2005) Animism: Respecting the Living World.
Narby, J (2019) My Life as a White Vampire: Gringos, Amazonians, and the Antidote of Reciprocity. Talk at the World Ayahuasca Conference, Girona, Spain.
Quinn, D (1992) Ishmael.
Riviere, P (1994) WYSINWYG in Amazonia. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Vol. 25
Whitehead, NL & Wright, R (2004) In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia.
**Featured image by Pablo Amaringo.