Pubdate: Sun, 09 Sep 2007
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Clover Stroud


The Chattering Classes Are Heading to the Amazon in Search of 
Esoteric Highs. Are Shamans the New Shrinks?

At a dinner party in Gloucestershire, Lucy, a mother of three, is 
regaling her guests with details of her last trip abroad. She has 
honeyed limbs and high-maintenance hair, suggestive of regular villa 
breaks in Ibiza or Tuscany. But earlier this year, as a 40th-birthday 
present to herself, she went to Brazil for a 10-day guided retreat in 
the Amazon, where she underwent a series of plant rituals involving 
the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. "It was as far removed from 
taking normal party drugs as you can imagine," she says, eyes 
glittering. "It was frightening and extraordinary."

Lucy's experience is symptomatic of a collective search for a 
complete wilderness experience as a panacea for our troubled souls. 
"I went to the Amazon because I felt my whole life needed shaking up, 
and I just didn't know how to do that in England. I had everything I 
wanted, in terms of a stable marriage, lovely kids and a nice home, 
and although I knew I shouldn't feel dissatisfied, I did. I wanted to 
reconnect with myself and the way I live before I got much older."

Deep immersion in a faraway jungle is the latest fix for those stuck 
in the cultural, spiritual or personal malaise that besets many in 
the 21st century. Having an extreme psychological experience such as 
ayahuasca at the same time makes it all the more desirable. The 
Brighton-based writer and therapist Ross Heaven, author of Plant 
Spirit Shamanism, has been leading trips into the Amazon for 10 
years. "In the 1990s, only real new-age devotees had heard of 
ayahuasca, but the sort of person going on retreats has changed 
dramatically," she says. "I'm taking a trip in October that will 
include account managers, business professionals, a media figure, a 
conventional doctor and a nurse. People are getting turned on to the 
fact that in the Amazon we can learn something about the wisdom of 
native culture and the psychological healing aspects of the plants 
there, while also gaining from personal exploration and creativity."

It was inevitable that we would find a faster, harder, more esoteric 
replacement for yoga. As eastern mysticism starts to look a bit, 
well, pass?, people are looking elsewhere for their spiritual kicks. 
They now have a desire to immerse themselves in an extreme 
environment, which is why the Amazon has never been as hot as it is 
now. Sting and Madonna first swung our global eyes to the rainforest 
in the 1980s. But then we forgot about it as we turned our gaze back 
to organic vegetable boxes and carbon footprints.

Now, once more, the Amazon is gripping our attention: the interest in 
ayahuasca is emblematic of a growing fascination with tribal life. A 
rumbling collective disquiet suggests that we've got it all wrong, 
and that it is those naked men in the jungle   whom we might once 
have dismissed as savages, or patronised by buying their handcrafted 
tables for our fashionable lofts   who have actually got it all 
right. Could it be that such tribes might hold a key to global 
salvation? Shamanism and ayahuasca are slipping into the spiritual 
dialogue of the chattering classes where once there was ashtanga and kabbalah.

Bruce Parry has done a brilliant job of bringing these wild worlds 
into our sitting rooms, and in doing so has scored a hit for the 
notion of the noble savage who can teach us how to coexist with the 
planet. "We shouldn't romanticise these tribes, but they do have a 
great way of living with the environment, which we can learn from," 
he says. "This is all in vogue because we are so worried about the 
way our individual morality is going. They have a much more sharing community."

It is clear that these tribes, living in genuine harmony with their 
environment, possess a spiritual enlightenment that we, watching Big 
Brother in our centrally heated houses, can only dream of. And the 
growth in the psycho-spiritual healing industry suggests there is a 
huge market for lost souls in need of spiritual TLC. Going to the 
jungle to reconnect with the natural world is an obvious extension of 
this, but it's hardly new. Ayahuasca has been used by Amazonian 
tribes for 10,000 years. It is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which 
means it causes your body to receive a chemical compound it would 
normally screen out. It is prepared   ideally by a friendly 
indigenous shaman   by boiling and blessing the stems of 
Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of Psychotria viridis, which is 
rich in the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine, to produce a 
bitter-tasting liquid that induces a trip lasting several hours.

The clinical psychologist and shamanic healer Silvia Polivoy 
established Ayahuasca Healing, her retreat in the Amazon, in 1997, 
when only a handful of companies offered such services. Now, there 
are more than 40. She moved into transpersonal therapy after becoming 
frustrated by the limitations of conventional psychotherapy. In some 
circumstances, she says, a session of ayahuasca can have the same 
effect as years of therapy.

There is a romance to the idea of the wild, exotic spiritual healer, 
but the practice of shamanism is not confined to the Amazon. Google 
"shaman" and you'll probably find there's one living next door to 
you, or running a workshop in your local community centre. In 
America, there's even an International School of Shamanism, with a 
decidedly western-sounding board of directors and a trademarked name.

Inevitably, with increasing numbers of people travelling to the 
Amazon to experience ayahuasca and find the shaman to guide them, a 
new tourist industry is forming around the cult of the noble savage 
who can hold our hand as we hurtle towards environmental and 
psychological meltdown. Isn't there a danger that in attempting to 
connect with the mystical, we will destroy it? And isn't there 
something patronising about using our wealth to purchase the secrets 
of indigenous tribes, belching out tons of carbon as we go?

Genuinely losing it in the jungle is a pretty terrifying thought. But 
if there's hot and cold running water and a masseur and chef on hand, 
well, that's a different matter entirely. However, according to Tahir 
Shah, who experienced the plant in decidedly nonluxurious 
circumstances in Peru while researching his book Trail of Feathers: 
In Search of the Birdmen of Peru, you can't really have a chichi 
ayahuasca experience. "The point of ayahuasca is that it completely 
undoes you. I was in total darkness in a longhouse in the deep 
jungle, and had to crawl through mud to the water's edge, slipping 
and sliding like a pig in filth. I crapped and threw up at the same 
time, my eyes blinded by colours. I thought I was dying. And that's 
the whole point."

But practitioners argue that the growing interest in shamans and the 
plants they work with is symptomatic of the fact that a collective 
consciousness is working together to seek out a redemptive future for 
the planet and mankind. They claim that the spirit of ayahuasca is so 
strong, so extraordinary, it is creating its own calling   just don't 
mention carbon footprints.

Polivoy is philosophical about the environmental damage caused by 
flights to her retreat, but admits that western culture could be as 
well served by using its own rituals and working with its native 
plants. Maybe we would be better off drinking a potion made from tree 
bark and magic mushrooms and taking part in a Morris dance, which, 
after all, is closer to our spiritual roots. It's unlikely, though, 
that Lucy would want to entertain her dinner party guests with 
details of that trip, isn't it?
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