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“In the end, ayahuasca is always a great teacher.”

In his books on ayahuasca Arno Adelaars is very close to a scientific approach, but he enjoys being in the centre of the Amazon rainforest and experiencing it himself just as much. Azarius interviewed him in the Amsterdam Hortus Botanicus greenhouse about his new book and the huge demand for ceremonies. ‘A society in which kids believe milk comes only from a carton, needs wisdom from the jungle.’

When Arno first drank the South American beverage ayahuasca over 20 years ago, he knew right away: ‘this is for me’. After countless sessions where he, in his own words, faced all his demons, a Columbian shaman inaugurated him in the ayahuasca tradition.

It’s not sure whether or not he can call himself a shaman, but with his long grey hair and friendly voice he does strike you as one. During the interview, he regularly points out a special tropical plant to tell a historical anecdote or botanical story.

What does ayahuasca mean for shamanism?

I know a shaman who says: ayahuasca is the umbilical cord of the universe. Until you’re born, you’re nourished by your mother, but it’s actually the primeval mother, because it’s all connected to the beginning. If you cut the cord at birth, you’re temporarily without nourishment. By drinking ayahuasca, you reconnect with the original source. There are endless variations of this story, but in the end, ayahuasca is always a great teacher.

Ten years after your German book ‘Ayahuasca – Rituale, Zaubertränke und visionäre Kunst aus Amazonien’ there’s finally a revised English version. What has changed in the meanwhile?

Ayahuasca has quickly become a global phenomenon. It’s used all over the world for therapeutic purposes or personal development. You can participate in ceremonies in South America but also less obvious places such as Nepal en Taiwan.

Is this a good or bad development?

Because the demand is high, so is the supply. That’s not always a good thing. In Iquitos, the centre of Ayahuasca tourism in Peru (an hour away from Lima by plane and you’re in the middle of the jungle) there are about 150 lodges. On the internet you’ll find the most amazing pictures of older men and women of the local tribes that guide you in your ayahuasca ceremony. In reality their American staff – psychotherapists and yoga teachers who often don’t even speak Spanish – won’t let them talk to participants. And the Shamans believe the tourists have no interest in their stories; they just want to buy a rug or ornament. And that’s the exchange between two cultures. I think that’s tragic.

Is your book aimed at spreading knowledge on how it’s done properly?

There are different ways within ayahuasca shamanism, linked to certain people or areas of the Amazon forest. Poor people that can’t afford medical care go to the shaman. That’s why there’s an unlikely concentration of shamans, including ayahuasca ceremonies. It was important to me to document that enormous variety. Even within one culture, one shaman can have very different techniques compared to the other.

For example, in Peru many shamans are hostile to each other. Most protection during ceremonies is aimed towards other shamans. There’s heavy competition; it’s really a misconception to think that shamans are super pacifists.

What’s the most well-known shamanistic style?

That style is called ‘vegetalismo’ and originates from the area near Iquitos. It’s the style of the mestizos. These are Indians that no longer belong to a particular people. They’ve reinvented their cultural identity.

How does the shamanistic use differ from the way the Santo Daime church uses it?

Santo Daime has given a modern twist to the shamanistic use. The Santo Daime founder had a vision in which the goddess of the forest told him how it should be done. Personally, I think he had a massively inflated ego.

I was under the impression that your ego shrinks through ayahuasca?

For some people. For others, the ego becomes enormous. Albert Hofmann once said: psychedelics give you the means to hear God. If God was a transmission, you suddenly have a radio to listen to him. Yes, you’re a child of God, but once you start talking like you’re the child of God, you’re all wrong. There is static on your radio.

Is that a danger of ayahuasca? To get such weird ideas?

This applies to all psychedelics, but especially to ayahuasca. That’s why proper guidance is very important. People regularly return from Peru damaged by improper guidance.

What is wrong guidance?

Women that are raped during the ceremony, by the shaman or his assistant. But it’s also possible to have energy stolen. The blame usually lies with the ayahuasca tourists themselves. They take a fat wallet to a country where half the population lives below the poverty threshold, to ask what they should do with their lives. This is asking for trouble. Shamans are often described as beings transcending humanity, some sort of demi gods, but actually they’re just people. The same thing happened in the 70s and 80s with gurus in India.

What is proper guidance?

One where the most important part is safety and a positive impact on all participants.

How do you view the future of ayahuasca?

I would compare it to magic mushrooms. Barely anyone knows how the Mazatecs did it. Knowledge of its original use has been lost. Instead a new way of using it has emerged, fitted to western needs, from recreational to therapeutic use. The same thing could happen with ayahuasca.