WHY DOES AYAHUASCA HAVE SO MUCH THERAPEUTIC POTENTIAL?
Ayahuasca has become a substance of the public domain in recent years. Known by all kind of people, from Hollywood actresses to housewives or CEOs of well-known companies that have heard intriguing stories and become motivated to try it out the possibility of a transforming experience for themselves. Further, a dangerous tendency of psychedelic tourism and a spread of pseudo-shamans that run ceremonies of this ancient medicine as easily as selling bibles door to door also exists.
Certainly, Ayahuasca taken in a traditional context, has enormous therapeutic potential. Let’s analyse this potential from a neurological, psychological and spiritual perspective.
First, it is important to mention that, as the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) documents, Ayahuasca has demonstrated amazing effectiveness in dealing with depression, addictions and various illnesses, coming to the fore as a super-medicine for the mind and spirit, a master key for integral treatment or healing for the body and mind.
It says this, along with appropriate warnings that the Ayahuasca experience involves certain risks and presents greats difficulties for those searching for a kind of catalyst to transform their lives. As is popularly said, only what is hard work is really worthwhile, and those who seek a miraculous cure without doing their part or deciding to face their own demons and adopt a honest attitude towards life, are enlisting themselves only to be shaken, or even worse, to live a beautiful hallucination that they will become confused with a mystical experience that will fragment the psyche, leaving the individual in the depths of Samsara.
To understand the effects of Ayahuasca on the brain, we can refer to the Canadian national broadcaster documentary. Seeing this news piece showed the discovery that Ayahuasca activates the neocortex, the area of the brain that is associated with the highest brain function; the one that distinguishes the human being from other animals. This is also the area where decisions are made. In parallel, Ayahuasca activates the brain amygdala – an area, so to speak, linked to instinct and the primitive brain- where early emotional memories are stored including traumas or the loss of a loved one. Finally, Ayahuasca also activates the insula, which apparently serves as a bridge between our emotional impulses and our ability to make decisions.
If we analyse this neural activation map generated by taking Ayahuasca, we see an amazing articulation in several parts of the brain, ideal in producing a response of psychological healing and also possibly a immunomodulatory response. Let’s see why this happens. As the video tell us, decisions are a powerful emotional component and significant events in childhood create an imprint or pattern that act as a short-cuts or a circuits that lights up generally. For example, if ever we were attacked by a dog, it’s probable that our brain, in order to defend itself, then reacts with adrenaline and cortisol in response to all dogs (a fight or fight response). This gets accentuated if several events occur that repeat this threat – this could include interacting with other dogs, even if they don’t have any intention to attack us, or even just thinking about dogs. By repeating these events -even if they are generated by the effect of an non-existent threat- the connections related to this reactive circuit become stronger, joining proteins and forming a kind of neuro-scar. The effects of a trauma can be devastating for the immune system, putting it in a permanent stress state that wears down the response of lymphocytes – the cells responsible for eliminating external pathogen agents.
The interesting thing about Ayahuasca is that it activates emotional memory where traumas are stored. It activates the centre where decisions are made and, at the same time, the area of the brain that makes connections. According to researchers, this allows traumatic memories to be re-written and re-evaluated in a conscious act led by the neocortex. Meaning that all the right places in our brain are activated for us to create new connections, and these work as an underlying structure, an operating system that rules our behaviour. The ancient beverage is a powerful psycho–technology to reprogramme our brain. And if we consider that stress contributes to exacerbate many diseases, the healing potential isn’t limited just to psycho-therapy, but can be also be directed at treating all types of conditions, liberating a good neurochemical response.
A psychological aspect with certain spirituality is that Ayahuasca, especially in a shamanic, context builds a mythopoetic, something similar to the archetypal hero’s journey to the underworld. When confronted with the cosmic horror of this combination of plants and its powerful psychoactive effect, the person having the experience also enters to what is known as the “mysterium tremendum”, a numinous region in the depth of the psyche. It is an essential part of the narrative we repeat -of the mythical- that the hero must go through a crisis to find and fortify his identity. Generally, the hero must face his darkest part, descend to the underworld and (symbolically) die to gain all his strength back and fulfil his destiny. In the words of Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey reflects a movement of external realities towards an inner dimension, “from the scene of secondary side effects the world, to the area of psyche where difficulties really reside”. This epic model can be applied to the majority of us, with our small dramas. Ayahuasca and the psychedelic experience generally constitutes a little death, a fractal or a glimpse of what dying is.
We’re used to labelling things as good or bad and, so everything that makes us feel wrong is quickly repelled -the dizziness or obsession itself for the divine-. But, how can we change something that it so rooted if we don’t shake off the structure itself on which it’s built? I once heard that “health is movement” and, so, the real illness relies on what is stagnant. A complete (and healthy) person should see the worst demons go through their body and mind; a parade of shadows passing through. Our fear, then, doesn’t need to be about being ill or about experiencing something “bad”, but rather can be about not be able to see and bring up our old pains, traumas and ghosts, letting them flow through our body and fulfil their journey. In this sense, Ayahuasca can be a catalysing experience of this psycho-physical irrigation movement. What the experience asks from us is to let all the energy of the plant work according to the intention that we’ve set in motion so that we can step aside in some way.
Distending, so that the numinous wind, like the breath of the shaman or the oldest breath of the spirit over the primordial water, can open a wedge in our behaviour, pulling out what has to come out and paving the way for the new.
Lastly, it is also important to warn that some spiritual masters consider that psychedelics, despite their medicinal potential, are shortcuts to a spiritual path. And, as stated in the phrase, “there are no shortcuts to God”, the one who seeks the work of consciousness must work hard without accelerating their process or without having a “quantum leap”, a miracle or any other quick-fix. This is what many qualified people point out. Hence perhaps it is advisable to use this beverage of Amazonian origin as a medicine, not as a magic ladder (the name Ayahuasca means “vine of the soul” or “vine of death”, is perhaps better used to go down and see what is in the depths of our psyche, rather than to climb up to heaven for an “expresso shot” of samadhi). The reader will work it out for themselves.
Alejandro Martinez Gallardó
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