It’s the evening of January 25, 2007, and I’m hosting my first Ayahuasca Monologues storytelling event to a packed room at Eyebeam Atelier in New York City.
On stage, Breaking Open the Head author Daniel Pinchbeck, who semi-popularized the hallucinogenic tea ayahuasca within the spiritual counterculture, brushes aside his disheveled hair, asking in a voice barely audible from laryngitis, “How many of you here have tried ayahuasca?” Out of 220 people, only nine hands lift in the air, and they are mostly the featured storytellers (including myself) that I’ve directed for the show that night.
Cut to February 2012, and the mega-celebrity, Jennifer Aniston, best known for playing perky girl-next-door Rachel in Friends, is tipping a bowl of ayahuasca to her lips in Universal’s newest romantic comedy Wanderlust. In just a few years, the once secret “shamans brew” of the Amazon has snaked its way into the popular consciousness, including the entertainment industry with cameos in the TV shows Weeds and Nip/Tuck and now the movie Wanderlust. But the question lies: can Hollywood portray this ancient medicinal, psychonautic elixir with the maturity and complexity necessary to address its multifaceted experiences?
The movie itself spins a bubbly tale of a New York couple (Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd) who – jobless and unable to afford their high-priced West Village apartment – flee to an intentional community (not commune) in rural Georgia. As Seth, the smarmy neo-shaman community leader states, “We use ‘intentional community’ because when you hear the word ‘commune,’ you think of a bunch of hippies smoking pot and playing guitar.” The movie then trots out a series of sixties commune clichés – prancing nudists, tie-dye shirts, free love, and, yes, hippies smoking pot and playing guitar.
This sets up a number of enjoyable, easy jokes, but the clichés become more trite, and somewhat worrisome, when Aniston ingests ayahuasca. The experience starts out plausibly enough when Paul Rudd complains that the strange dark brown tea handed to him “reeks like cat butt.” Ayahuasca’s bitter, rotten-coffee taste is something you never forget. But, the Wanderlust gathering looks more like a backyard party than a traditional ceremony.
In the Amazon, shamans usually sing healing songs called icaros while cooking what they consider to be a sacred mixture. They believe ayahuasca to be a spirit or divine being, composed of two different plants – one containing the psychoactive chemical DMT (dimethyltryptomine) and the other, the double-helix shaped vineBanisteriopsis caapi.
Ceremonial participants normally prepare days (sometimes weeks) in advance by abstaining from pork, red meat, sugar, chocolate, cheese, alcohol, and sex as a way to clean out their system beforehand. Shamans hold opening prayers and ask that everyone stay inside a circle or the maloca (ceremonial center), so they can maintain a container for “the healing energies” of the ceremony to flow and to protect from interference from what they consider negative energies or entities. They sing icaros through most of the ceremony, and will often help journeyers through difficult passages by chanting the songs, blowing cleansing tobacco smoke on them (it’s different than tobacco sold at 7-Eleven’s in the US), or waving feathers to clear out unwanted energies.
In Wanderlust, members of the intentional community don’t follow any dietary restrictions; there is no trustworthy shaman or guide (just Seth with his dubious motives), no singing, no healings, and probably worst of all, no set container for participants to find support when difficulties arise. This is, by far, the sloppiest group ayahuasca ceremony I’ve ever heard of.
In record timing (just a few minutes), the ayahuasca kicks in for Aniston (ayahuasca usually takes between 30–45 minutes). She embarks on a chaotic trip full of flashy, confusing images. In one quick-edit sequence, she is suddenly perched on top of a tree, singing R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” I soon realize the filmmakers are treating ayahuasca like the stereotypical acid trip.
In fact, Aniston herself conflated LSD and ayahuasca in a Chelsea Lately interview. When Chelsea Handler asked Aniston how she prepared for her LSD scene, Aniston answered, “I’ve never done LSD so I just kind of imagined every greatest fear that I could have.” She never mentioned that it wasn’t acid she takes in the film but rather a medicine that Amazonian healers and shamans have used for centuries to treat illness and disease.
Those who have tried ayahuasca know very well that it is no tune-in, turn-on, drop-out-of-trees kind of drug. I’ve never met anyone who ever wanted (or probably was able) to climb anything taller than a chair on this powerful, consciousness altering substance. Often with the intensity of the journey, it’s a titanic struggle just to sit up.
But Aniston is right about the fear. Often anxieties, sickness, or dark energies (as shamans might call them), seem to rise to the surface to be released during ceremonies. This often comes in the form of purging, whether from throwing up or defecating, or in some more “volcanic” cases, both at the same time.
Surprisingly, this ancient ayahuasca healing modality has proven effective in some cases where Western medicine failed.
In Black Smoke, author Margaret DeWys describes how “the spirit vine” cured her of terminal breast cancer; Reality Sandwich web-magazine contributor April Blake writes about Shipibo ayahuasqueros curing her brain tumor, and National Geographic adventurer, Kira Salak wrote about how overcoming a “devil” in an ayahuasca vision vanquished her life-long struggle with depression in what has become “the most popular article the magazine has ever published, bringing in 20 times more reader response mail than any previous article.”
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