The Amazonian brew ayahuascais not an ordinary medicine. It can literally shake the walls of the Western paradigm with profound internal insights, alongside extraordinary sensory experiences. The states of consciousness that ayahuasca and similar psychoactive substances inspire would likely disorient a classical Western cosmologist.
The paradoxical world revealed to us by emerging scientific inquiry appears to have a lot in common with the ayahuasca experience. In fact, there is a curious string of understandings running through quantum physics, computational science, biology and narrative theory that can help us understand the process of healing with plant medicines like ayahuasca. Firstly, we need to conceptually shake the old paradigm walls a little bit.
The Mind after Matter Thesis
The predominant paradigm in Western society holds that your physical existence precedes your conscious existence. There was a big bang, followed by the gradual compounding of atoms into molecules, tissues, organs, organisms, complex organisms (humans) – and that the random by-product of that physical process is that you have a series of chemicals that enables you to think, feel and perceive (your conscious experience). This view is very pragmatic, particularly if you are looking to understand and predict the behavior of unconscious particles.
An emerging and opposite perspective is that your conscious existence precedes your physical existence. That the culmination of a precursory, conscious will (call it energy, intention, or “God”) created the structure by which directed energy wasable to construct itself into the impression of a physical reality and manifest the world around us.
Make no mistake – the two perspectives are useful for completely different things. The first is very good at answering “how” things happen, while the second is better at answering “why” things happen. We know the building came to be because someone built it with bricks (how), but it also exists because someone wanted to live in a home (why).
An Emerging Picture of the Mind-Body
The science of quantum mechanics has done a good job at challenging the traditional model. In the famous Double Slit Experiment, light appeared as both a wave and a particle, seemingly depending on whether it was being observed or not. This fundamental problem raises big questions. If an electron (one of the smallest building blocks of life) changes its form from wave to particle based on whether it is being consciously observed or not, what else might conscious observation be influencing?
Studies in biology reveal that we are not simply the victims of our DNA or biological blueprint, but that our actual perception of our environment affects our bodies. In scientific terms, our perception prompts the utilisation of proteins from the repository of our genetic information.
If we accept Bruce Lipton’s thesis inThe Biology of Belief, this may mean that we can alter our susceptibility to supposedly inherited diseases by becoming conscious of our perception to our environment. Stress prioritises adrenaline over our immune system (with good reason), however the causes of stress may be largely subjective.
Computer coding offers another example of how conscious thought may precede the material universe. Random number generator algorithms produce statistically significant deviations in their outputs, seemingly based on the conscious intention held by their human operators. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program has developed a ‘modular model of mind-matter’ to account for this phenomenon. Someone thinking that a set of data should produce more 1s than 0s, or more 0s than 1s, or no bias either way, can result in differences in the ‘random’ data, aligning with those intentions.
If we can shape physical particles, our biological bodies and even automated machines just by thinking – how far do the boundaries of our conscious capabilities extend?
Our age-old assumption that mind and matter are isolated and separate is exactly that – an assumption. The nature of the relationship between your subjective (internal, spiritual) world and your objective (external, material) world lies at the very heart of the paradigm-shifting experiences of ayahuasca.
The question then emerges: are we physical beings having a spiritual experience, or spiritual beings having a physical experience? When it comes to maintaining physical health or biological homeostasis in our bodies, this contrast of worldviews comes to a head. The historic view in the West is that our diseases are purely physical, caused by external factors (bacteria, viruses, genetics) mostly beyond our control. An emerging picture suggests that physical diseases may interrelate or be caused by “dis-eases” on a mental, emotional or spiritual level. In this model, just like with physical pain, any mental, emotional or spiritual pains (such as anxiety, depression, rage, indifference, upheaval, trauma) act as red flags to draw our conscious awareness to the part of ourselves that is searching for healing.
When approached in this manner, everything becomes a portal to the story behind the pain. Where does the dis-ease originate? Why is it there? What am I ignoring? Simply masking the physical symptoms (with anti-inflammatories or antidepressants) would not get to the cause of the dis-ease. This new model necessitates an entirely different approach to healing, one that honors our mind-body’s natural propensity to heal.
Healing Reactions and Retracing Ourselves
Dr. Lawrence Wilsonargues that deep or true healing involves a process of seemingly getting worse before we get better. To be precise, he suggests that when deep mind-body healing is taking place, ‘healing reactions’ occur and symptoms can flare up. It is a healing model that utilizes the metaphor of a sine wave. The idea is that we start in a position of health (0 on the graph), and are then traumatized by a toxin or infection (physical) or a mental or emotional situation. Ideally, we should then move through a series of steps (to complete the sine wave) in order to fully resolve, regenerate and restore mind, body and spirit. This is the natural process by which we heal ourselves.
The up part of the sine wave represents inflammatory response – our body / mind / spirit mobilizes its forces to fight off and overcome the toxin or situation. This might take the form of white blood cells, purging a toxin, or being overcome with tears. The down part of the wave represents the regeneration period – a quieter time when the body / mind / spirit sends nutrients to the damaged area to rebuild, restore and regenerate tissue. This might take the form of rest or sleep, and is abetted by healthy diet, quiet, loving nurture or time in nature.
Arriving back to equilibrium after the full cycle represents healing and the restoration of balance. But what happens if we get “stuck” and don’t make it through the wave sequence? The need for retracing (revisiting this healing process intentionally) arises. It appears that this might be required if we suppress physical symptoms for the sake of short-term productivity, or suppress emotional reactions to avoid feeling them, or fail to learn from a particular recurring situation in our lives.
Given this understanding, it is no wonder that when we first engage with our mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, we find the experience overwhelming.
We are raised in a paradigm that almost completely ignores our need to work through our traumas if we are to remain balanced and functional. Instead, unequipped to navigate these cycles, we suppress and postpone until we are subject to a mind-body intervention so great that we can no longer ignore what our body, mind and spirit are telling us. Many people, or probably most people, have been carrying a lot of unprocessed baggage for a long time.
Freedom and its Opposite
Assuming that we are not individuals with self-destructive intent, why do we engage in behavior that is harmful or suppress healing that is natural? It would be fair to look to our habits, forged in our upbringing, shaped by societal convention and operating almost automatically, as the source of our imbalances. Our question then becomes how to engage with and change these habits in order to act in accordance with our best interests.
But it requires more than simply changing habits, we need to realize that one of the core assumptions of Western cosmology is that the only way to produce changes in your internal environment is to manipulate the elements in your external environment. To find happiness, you must accumulate X or achieve Y. What we realize with time is that we seem to have very little control over our external environment. I cannot control who my parents are, what the president is doing, where our economy is going, or how my colleagues are acting. If my wellbeing is contingent on these externalities, then surely I am doomed to suffer whatever fate I’ve been dealt? Furthermore, we might fall under the belief that a particular externality prompts a particular emotional or physical response. Which begs the question: if you cannot control your external environment, and your external environment forces a corresponding response from you, how can you claim to be free?
When we recognize that our freedom lies between the external stimulus and our response, the power in every situation shifts completely. Mindfulness (being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it) holds the key to recognizing how we are responding – with our thoughts, words and deeds – and changing it. All in all, when we view freedom in this way, we shift from victim mentality (I need to control the things that happen to me or else I have no say in my experience of the world) to response-ability (my experience is contingent on my interpretation of the events around me, an interpretation built upon assumptions that are malleable).
Ayahuasca and Similar Plant Medicines
So, we’ve established that our consciousness may have far more influence over external reality than we initially imagined. We’ve also established that if our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing are all intertwined, then simply popping physical tablets is not likely to get to the actual root of dis-ease. We then looked at the retracing model to understand how our healing is mismanaged when symptoms are repressed. Finally, we looked at the concept of freedom, tracing our tendency to mismanage our natural healing to the poor habits formed in a society that teaches its people not to take true responsibility for their perception of the world.
When we start to work with our emotions and our narratives about ourselves, we are trying to broaden our own perspectives. To allow a suppressed emotion to be experienced, we need to expand our capacity to feel. To discover an assumption, we need to expand our view to see it.
When we work with psychointegrative plants, such as ayahuasca, we tap into an altered state of consciousness quite different from our normal waking state. We are able to view situations, process experiences and feel emotions that we have become habitually blind towards. In this way, we are given the opportunity to integrate aspects of ourselves that we continually put on hold and “carry” with us.
The experience allows us to recognize the assumptions in our behavior and in the subconscious narratives of our lives. It can also help us release the emotional energy that has been blocked when we hide from our capacity to process those emotions. The profound states of consciousness provide the impetus to make changes in our normal everyday consciousness.
I truly believe that direct access to our subconscious and the expansion of our emotional capacity constitutes the foundation for conscious healing work with ayahuasca. The brew represents one of many recognized practices for engaging with our thoughts, emotions and lives from a distanced perspective. In addition, the experience of altered consciousness that is shaped by ayahuasca often profoundly shifts our understanding of the world around us, as well as how we can relate to it.
It is important to appreciate that ayahuasca is only one of the paths up the mountain. Meditation, affirmations, hypnosis, travel, psychotherapy, the arts, physical exertion and other psychoactive preparations are all means of expanding our capacity to integrate our experiences. Plant medicines, like all powerful spiritual techniques, require intentional integration. Ayahuasca cannot create sustained changes unless complemented by a practice that routinely equips you to engage with your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. The real trick is to live a life where you are able to meet your humanness without creating additional baggage for later healing. Old habits must give way to sustainable new ones.
It appears to me that ayahuasca does not heal you, but it facilitates a space where your mind-body exercises its own healing ability. The emerging mind-body sciences suggest that no one can truly heal you; they can only assist in creating the conditions under which you heal yourself. Therefore, the greatest gift you could give yourself is the realization that the healers, friends, plants and family that informed your journey may all show you, whether they intend to or not, the power you have always had to make the changes you want to see in yourself.