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Drinking The Spirit

by Terrence Moon / Illustration by Sasan / 04.12.2013

Figures in white robes line up at the altar, waiting for the medicine to be administered. The nauseating stuff burns one’s throat like rancid miso soup – dark, viscous, vile and bitter. Nearby, in the city, lemmings stand in similar queues, waiting outside nightclubs for their weekly brain-cell cull. But we’re out in the South African countryside and our ritual is of a slightly different nature.

Ayahuasca is a plant-based brew that contains one of the most potent hallucinogens known to man: Dimethyltriptamine (DMT). For centuries the indigenous inhabitants of South America have used this for healing and divination. The ritual usually takes place deep in the jungle, under the guidance of a Shaman and a sky full of stars.

It’s easy to see why the idea of this mystical medicine has become so popular amongst cultural voyeurs, psychonauts and new-age health freaks. The religion of our time – buying shit – is unable to give us what our predecessors once gained from organised religion. Capitalism and consumerism have drained the spiritual integrity from our lives, leaving us depleted and empty, desperately searching for meaning in the most unexpected of places.

Tonight, a small crowd has congregated just outside Cape Town for the Santo Daime ceremony, which is a syncretic blend of Catholicism, Shamanism and new-age paganism. Whilst the ceremony is more Christianised than it is Shamanic, the medicine that’s ingested – the Daime – is the same Ayahuasca brew administered in the Amazon. Instead of the jungle, however, the Santo Daime ceremony happens in a church; and hymns, rather than ancestral songs, are chanted throughout in order to guide and contain the process.

The rest of the attendees know each other well. They’re a new-age crowd that meet every other weekend, living from sweat lodge to vision quest, perfecting the art of vegan cooking and cultivating wisdom as regards the best places to buy wholesale incense. A brunette’s wrinkled face bears the markings of hardship and trauma – she’s here to confront some of the memories that have haunted her since childhood. An elderly man and his wife are alternative medical practitioners. They’ve brought their eloquent 19 year-old son, who has participated in the ritual as a family tradition since the age of 11. A coloured teen has joined us from a nearby informal settlement and has brought his elderly mother in the hopes that the Daime will help to cure her terrible cough. Another youth – a recovering addict who dropped acid once too often – is here because the ceremony itself (sans Ayahuasca) brings him peace and spiritual communion.

After choking down the Daime we begin to recite the hymns – enchanting melodies accompanied by beautiful Portuguese verse. Eventually we’re instructed to dance, by shuffling as a group to the right and then to the left. Gradually, the dance becomes more exuberant as a fervour-like state entrances us. The hymns create an eerie ambience of religious zeal and brainwashed cheerfulness, which, at times, makes it difficult to discern the hallucinogenic properties of the Ayahuasca from what might just be the initial stages of insanity, triggered by consecutive hours of repetitive song. Yet there’s something alluringly primal about the syncopated beat of our feat against the ground and the unified sway of bodies that shift the group from side to side.

Six hours later the dancing is called to a halt and I can feel the blood pulsating through my legs. But rather than abating the way that they would after a long walk, these vibrations escalate in intensity and diffuse upward until my entire body is at their mercy. A wise comedian once said that “all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration”. The juddering tremors grow more powerful as my body slips out of sync with my external reality. I’m effectively vibrated into another plane of existence – a world that pulsates at a less familiar frequency. It resembles a desert and before me stands a majestic cactus with an unblinking eye in its centre; the holy being communicates without speaking and I sense that this divine presence is not of our world.

The spirit of the Daime represents all that is and everything that is not: a hallucinatory manifestation of rational thought’s inability to grapple with our own existential condition. I offer my ego in sacrifice and experience the essence of my humanity being opened-up for contemplation, like a deck of cards. From this new perspective all of my psychological nuances and neuroses become clear. The reasons for my existential angst and lack of purpose become momentarily uncomplicated, as if years of therapy have been squeezed into a single moment of metaphysical insight.

Psychoanalysis is an abstract word-game that can take years to have any real effect. By contrast, Ayahuasca renders the subconscious more tangible. One is able, quite literally, to schedule a meeting with one’s personal demons and gods. Those who are able to identify the symbolic meaning within their own hallucinatory landscape are thus faced with the exciting possibility of actually engaging with and transforming this world. This holds untold potential for survivors of trauma, whose recovery process often requires that they revisit and come to terms with the disturbing memories that haunt them.

But is Ayahuasca really the panacea for the maladies of modernity? Since the 1970s, the indigenous rights movement has finally started to gain some of the recognition that it deserves. It seems likely that the rising popularity of Ayahuasca is just a part of our broader obsession with all that is ancient and indigenous. Is Ayahuasca just another insignificant fad, like sliced bread, Chinese tamagotchis or ‘The Secret’?

For indigenous South Americans, Ayahuasca is more than just a vogue: it’s an important cultural and religious ceremony that has been practiced for centuries. Perhaps the brew’s mystical properties are genuine; perhaps it does truly connect us with the wisdom of our ancestors. On the other hand, this might just be a custom that we have idealised in a desperate attempt to access more meaning than what can be purchased at the mall.

Is an ancient tradition more meaningful than a modern one? Is something less authentic if its significance has simply been imagined? The hallucinatory insights enabled by the vine make such questions naive, effectively blurring the line between what’s real and authentic on the one hand, and what’s contemporary and illusory on the other. No matter how one interprets the practice itself, experiencing Ayahuasca makes it hard to believe that we’re not a part of something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes, this in itself provides the lifeline that one needs in order to survive the emptiness of our consumerist culture.

* Illustration © Sasan

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