Ayahuasca: A Strange Brew
Can a psychotropic jungle potion cure the existential angst of the McMansion set?
By Gina Piccalo
In an affluent corner of encinitas, just north of San Diego, a young medicine man named Lobo Siete Truenos sits cross-legged on the polished wood floors of a backyard temple. Here in this suburban sanctuary, behind the gates of a faux-Spanish villa, just past the manicured lawn and an artificial lagoon, he’s carefully unpacking a collection of stones, feathers and oils that he’ll use for an all-night spiritual odyssey that will kick off after sunset.
If all goes as planned, Truenos’ nine participants—all seeking his psychedelic “doctoring”—will sip a murky, foul-tasting potion and then wait, eyes closed in the dark, for it to take effect. Wooziness may be followed by nausea, then probably vomiting. For many, a kaleidoscopic array of geometric patterns could emerge. Others may be greeted by friendly plant-like creatures, gnomes, elves or even a giant anaconda—known by indigenous tribes as Mother Ayahuasca, omniscient ruler of the plant kingdom—who communicates telepathically. And the really lucky ones may be treated to a cinematic review of their lives, each scene illustrating a moral failing.
“It’s a deep process,” Truenos says, as he places his precious stones on a tapestry woven with wild serpentine patterns. “It’s certainly not a game. It takes a lot of purifying to serve this medicine.” Truenos, 34, is precise about his tools because, when they’re correctly assembled, they constitute what he calls “the fire altar of the eagle and the condor.” But these instruments are just supporting players for the evening’s star attraction, an inky fluid that Truenos has stored in three plastic drinking bottles.
This liquid is known variously as hoasca, yagé, caapi and daime, but in the U.S. it’s most commonly called ayahuasca. (The word, which comes from the ancient Incan language Quechua, means “vine of the spirits” or “vine of the soul.”) Tribes of Central and South America—Shipibo, Kofan and Tukanos among them—have used the drug for hundreds of years or more in their spiritual practices. In Ecuador, Brazil and Peru, the drug is legal and attracts many pilgrims to ayahuasca ceremonies every year.
The brew was introduced to pop culture in 1963, when Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs published their collected correspondence on their ayahuasca experiences in “The Yage Letters.”
In the U.S., ayahuasca remained for years a largely underground phenomenon that, like peyote and psilocybin mushrooms, attracted a following of academics, journalists, psychiatrists and other soul-searching intellectuals. Now, thanks in part to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, ayahuasca (pronounced EYE-yah-WAH-skah) appears to be gaining in popularity. East Coast writers have generated interest among the intelligentsia, and online head shops are selling ingredients for making the ayahuasca brew. At the same time, some scientific studies suggest that ayahuasca has legitimate uses as an alternative psychotropic medicine that can abolish depression, cure addiction and improve brain function.
For ayahuasqueros such as Truenos and the eclectic mix of button-down professionals and New Age acolytes joining him on this night, the potion may be a conduit to higher consciousness. Who exactly are these psychotropic explorers? Truenos won’t reveal much about them, except to say that the owners of the home in which they are meeting are retirees (young ones, it appears) and that participants typically include doctors, lawyers, celebrities, New Age healers and academics. They’re working folks, he says. “People from all walks of life.”
For them, the vision-inducing elixir made from Amazonian jungle vines and leaves opens doors to parallel realities where mystical creatures reign. Because ayahuasca must be exactingly prepared and administered to achieve the desired benefits, a cadre of itinerant shamans such as Truenos has emerged, roaming the U.S. to host marathon candlelight ceremonies in yoga studios, private homes and remote open spaces, and charging as much as $200 a person for each session.
The concoction itself is said to taste so vile that most people fight their gag reflex to swallow it. Devotees liken the flavor to forest rot and bile, dirty socks and raw sewage. Vomiting is so common that indigenous shamans often refer to the ceremony as la purga, or the purge. And ayahuasca can severely test the commitment of its followers: The potion often reveals its celebrated wisdoms only after repeat encounters. The payoff, adherents say, can be life-altering. Debilitating illnesses such as chronic depression or addiction may disappear after just one session, some say. Others say they shed their egos for a night, finally seeing their lives with a startling clarity.
With that kind of reputation, ayahuasca has predictably intrigued celebrities known for charting the supra-conscious: Oliver Stone, Sting and Tori Amos have sampled it and openly discussed their experiences. “It’s quite an ordeal,” Sting told Rolling Stone in 1998. Amos talked on BBC Radio 4 in 2005 about how she envisioned having a love affair with the devil during one ayahuasca encounter.
In Peru, ayahuasca ceremonies are so common that the nation’s tourism bureau tracks the number of visitors seeking the sacred brew. But no one needs to travel to Peru to experience ayahuasca in 2008. A community, shepherded by ayahuasca shamans, has begun to emerge in the United States. It initially established itself in New Mexico. And now—in an act of psychedelic entrepreneurship and under the aegis of his spiritual and religious society, Aurora Bahá—Truenos is bringing the ayahuasca ceremony to Southern California.
Ayahuasca traditionally is made from the boiled or soaked bark and stems of Banisteriopsis caapi—also known as the ayahuasca vine—in combination with the leaves of Psychotria viridis (a bush that contains the alkaloids needed to produce ayahuasca’s psychoactive compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT).
But ayahuasca is no recreational drug. Unlike a drag on a marijuana joint or a snort of cocaine, even a single encounter with ayahuasca can be life-threatening under some circumstances. It poses serious risks when taken with certain medications, such as SSRI antidepressants; reputable shamans strictly prohibit the use of the beverage by anyone taking these drugs. Some also demand abstinence from alcohol before a ceremony. A Canadian woman, albeit with advanced diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease, died in 2001 after an ayahuasca ceremony. An autopsy gave the official cause of death as fatal nicotine poisoning due to tobacco mixed with the ayahuasca preparation, an unusual method of brewing the drink. But ayahuasca’s supporters consider the risks associated with the brew easily avoidable with strict adherence to their shamans’ orders. The rewards, they say, are worth the risks.
“It’s totally new, unlike LSD, unlike [psychedelic] mushrooms, unlike anything else,” says artist Joel Harris, a Santa Clarita native who first heard about the brew from his roommate in the U.S. Marines in 1998 when they were stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. A couple of years ago, Harris says, he sold his possessions, decamped to Peru and took up ayahuasca as a quasi-spiritual practice.
“It brings your awareness to a place where it’s understood that you are connected to everything on Earth,” he says. “If everyone had a chance to do ayahuasca, the entire reality would shift and we would be living in peace.”
Journalist Erik Davis, a longtime chronicler of emerging religious practices and author of the 2006 book “Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape,” gives Harris’ comments more context. “For a variety of reasons,” Davis says, “with some negative side effects, ayahuasca has been able to enter into Western culture in a way that preserves a ritual format and a spiritual intention and gives it a much more potentially transformative effect. Psychedelic mushrooms can take you just as far out, but the way they’ve been adapted by Westerners has been more informal, which means they have the potential to be used in much more erratic ways.”
New York writer Daniel Pinchbeck brought ayahuasca to the attention of liberal thinkers, detailing his mind-blowing journeys with the brew (and numerous other hallucinogens) in a pair of books: 2002’s “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism” and 2006’s “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.” “When I published my first book in 2002 and I spoke to audiences, 50% to 80% of the people hadn’t heard of ayahuasca,” Pinchbeck says. “Now everywhere I go, everyone is familiar with it.”
Truenos, a former comparative religion student and computer engineer, is relatively new on the ayahuasca circuit. And he’s unusually candid about his practice compared with other ayahuasqueros. Most established ayahuasqueros operate in secret, speaking in code on the phone for fear of attracting too much scrutiny from the authorities. Federal law classified one of ayahuasca’s components, DMT, as a controlled substance in 1970. However, Truenos suggests that he does have the U.S. Supreme Court to fall back on, at least for the moment. In February 2006, the court ruled (in Gonzales vs. O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal) that practitioners of the U.S. branch of the Brazil-based Christian spiritist group União do Vegetal—which uses hoasca, the traditional brew that others call ayahuasca, as a sacrament—have the right to legally consume the beverage under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That law aims to prevent the federal government from “substantially burdening” a person’s free exercise of religion, the court said.
Truenos took the court decision as a green light. He and his wife, Gabriella, have been leading ceremonies for several years. They haven’t consulted attorneys; instead they take their orders from the “Creator,” he says.
“We have been operating completely above the radar because we understood that in this country, if any church is given protection or recognition by the government, that recognition or protection is given uniformly, or it’d be unconstitutional,” Truenos says.
And now the couple, who sometimes live in Austin, Texas, have become a pair of jet-setting ayahuasca missionaries. Tonight’s ceremony in Encinitas was preceded, Truenos says, by a few days of “doctoring” in the Bahamas. After the gathering they’ll be off to minister to wounded souls in Topanga Canyon on the occasion of the winter solstice.
As Truenos sees it, the legal decision by the nation’s highest court, the media’s percolating interest and his rising profile as a shaman are all part of a grand supernatural plan. The Divine Mother, he says, is laying the groundwork to prepare the developed world for “the great coming of age of humanity.”
With his scruffy beard, long white robe and skullcap, Truenos looks a bit like a post-conversion Cat Stevens. He speaks in the colorful, metaphor-rich language of Native American tribal elders. With just an hour to go before tonight’s ritual, he explains his reasons for going public with his practice. “The medicine wants to be properly represented,” he says, delicately placing the containers of murky ayahuasca on a sacred mat, a tapestry woven by Peruvian women during an ayahuasca ceremony. “It wants to be known in an integral way.”
All this heavy-duty mysticism is more than a little incongruous amid the nouveau wealth of Encinitas. But he deflects any suggestion that by “doctoring” the wealthy he’s neglecting the needy.
“We live in different times than our predecessors,” Truenos says. “There has been a promise throughout every culture that there would be a moment in humanity’s history where we would have social and economic justice. One of the things the fire altar states is that this day that has been promised has arrived, and so with it all of the various hallmarks are sure to be emerging in humanity. This includes a spiritual solution to humanity’s economic problems so there isn’t a disparity between the poor and the wealthy.”
This sort of response is typical of Truenos, who gives few straight answers about his background but plenty of mystic filigree. Indeed, over the course of several conversations, his story became increasingly fluid, evolving with every telling. The covenant of his spiritual society, Aurora Bahá, a baroque document posted at www.aurorabaha.org detailing the tenants of his faith, is also ever-changing. Though he established his society’s covenant in 2005, he said it “continues to go through revisions.” What Truenos will reveal is that he was born in the Dominican Republic, is of Lebanese, Basque and Taino descent and has lived in the northeastern U.S. He prefers to keep his birth name private. He left home at 15, he says, because of “a spiritual crisis.” A “personal crisis” followed at 23, after which he returned home to attend engineering school at Clarkson University in upstate New York. His adopted name, Lobo Siete Truenos, means Wolf Seven Thunders; medicine men in northern Mexico gave him the name “Lobo,” he says. Truenos was introduced to ayahuasca in 2001, and after a series of ceremonies, he journeyed to Peru to be closer to native ayahuasca culture. Later, by a strange confluence of events he declines to detail, he became a voting systems supervisor for New Mexico during the 2004 election.
In any case, his life as a bureaucrat ended abruptly. In 2005, he established Aurora Bahá, which shares some principles, such as spiritual unity and the unification of mankind, with the Baha’i faith. However, Aurora Bahá is independent of the Baha’i organization, which has about 5 million members worldwide. Now Truenos has devoted his life to holding ayahuasca ceremonies wherever he is called.
“What ayahuasca provided to me, initially, was a sense of connectedness that I didn’t even realize I was missing,” he said during an interview several weeks before the Encinitas ceremony. “That connectedness to all life, to all things, an opportunity to know myself more deeply as a mirror of my most inner tendencies and motivations and intentions. It’s very profound in that way. It also gave me a direct avenue for receiving answers to questions that I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
He believes that, in addition to carrying out the will of the Divine Mother, he has been tapped to help fulfill a prophecy that has been expressed by all the world’s religions. That prophecy will see the indigenous peoples of North and South America united, he says.
“This could never be a recreational compound,” says Dr. Charles Grob, head of adolescent and child psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. “It’s too unpredictable and dangerous.” But Grob, one of a handful of scientists who has studied ayahuasca, thinks there may be some legitimate medical uses for it. In 1993, he led a team of researchers that conducted the first medical study of its long-term effects on 15 members of the Brazilian ayahuasca church União do Vegetal. The team found that some church members experienced remission of their addictions, depression or anxiety disorders without recurrence. In the same study, published in 1996 in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, pharmacologist J.C. Callaway discovered an increased density of serotonin reuptake sites in the blood platelets of habitual ayahuasca drinkers, suggesting an antidepressant effect similar to what is now achieved by prescription drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft.
“I was suffering from severe depression,” says Xthas Hoy, 32, a high school math teacher who says he has taken ayahuasca hundreds of times in the nine years since he has joined PaDeva, an ayahuasca church with Wiccan and pagan influences in New Mexico. “I went through the entire pharmacy, everything from Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Xanax and Prozac,” Hoy says. “Within hours of the first time I drank ayahuasca, I’ve never had a recurrence again. From that moment on, there really was no question that this was my path.” (Hoy is now a priest offering ayahuasca ceremonies for a suggested donation of $75 to $300 per person.)
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, counters that ayahuasca’s effectiveness in treating depression isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Science shows, he says, that any serious jolt to the system—shock therapy included—can bring the mind out of depression. That doesn’t mean ayahuasca treatment is the wave of the future.
Nor are ayahuasca’s quasi-religious effects any great revelation, Shermer says. History is rife with strange rituals believed to inspire divine intervention. “In a way, the ayahuasca phenomenon taps into a lot of what religion is. There’s the social aspects of religion, and then there’s the transcendent, spiritual aspects to it.” There’s no reason, he says, that ayahuasca wouldn’t trigger feelings of transcendence any more than deep meditative prayer. “The monks used to self-flagellate to change their brain chemistry.”
But all the medical skepticism in the world may not counteract the upsurge in grass-roots interest in ayahuasca that the Internet has propelled in the last five years. The Burning Man-friendly social networking website Tribe has its own ayahuasca subgroup. Erowid, a sort of Wikipedia of psychedelics, tells visitors everything they need to know about the brew. And aspiring ayahuasqueros can order Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis directly from the online head shop Azarius for about $22 to $30 per 50 grams.
Among the more outspoken academic ayahuasca converts is British journalist and author Graham Hancock, who was researching a book on human origins (“Supernatural: Meetings With the Ancient Teachers of Mankind,” published in 2006) when he stumbled on what he perceived to be uniform patterns in the cave drawings of primitive man. He came to the conclusion that the phenomenon was inspired by the sudden discovery of hallucinogenic plants. This led Hancock to ayahuasca, which he says he has taken 26 times since 2003; he credits it with improving his life.
Still, Hancock tempers this praise with a warning. “It is extremely powerful,” he says. “Its effects can be deeply disturbing, and there may be some short-term trauma, almost like a post-traumatic shock disorder, with coming to terms with very disturbing insights about yourself.”
So what has it done for him? “I’m a better husband and father,” Hancock says. “My behavior is much more examined.”
Inside the Encinitas backyard temple, Truenos pulls out two feathers and an eagle’s wing. The red-tailed hawk feather represents love and laughter, he says. The pheasant feather stands for mercy. And the eagle’s wing is used to fan ayahuasca drinkers who are “having a hard time” during the ceremony. He stresses that these feathers aren’t artifacts—they’re medicine. “It’s more than symbolism,” he says.
Truenos’ ceremonies borrow heavily from indigenous practice. To prepare for his ayahuasca drinkers, he pulled an all-nighter, clearing the ceremonial space of negative energies with tobacco smoke. He had already soaked and boiled the plants down to the dark essence of ayahuasca.
Now that the fire altar is ready, he leaves the temple to eat a plate of fish and rice in his guest quarters. The ceremony participants will arrive soon, and he seems to be psyching himself up. Truenos mentions a recent private ayahuasca session in which a participant experienced “a trust crisis,” refusing to believe Truenos could heal him. Mother Ayahuasca admonished the man for such self-delusion, leaving him writhing on the floor, wracked with emotion.
Despite this harrowing episode, Truenos believes ayahuasca’s dark reputation is exaggerated. It is transformative and healing, he says, a cure for the “cancer of indifference,” a remedy for our “failures in integrity.” But it’s even more than that. “Some people,” he says, “need to be frightened by the way they live their lives.”
Gina Piccalo is a Times staff writer. Contact her at [email protected].