This episode, I speak with Sophia Rokhlin, an author, speaker and nonprofit organiser whose work with engaged botany and ecology bridges the worlds of indigenous ecological knowledge and Western science.
We discuss the popularisation of Ayahuasca, the importance of integration and harm reduction, and some of the economic, social, political, cultural and environmental impacts that Ayahuasca use is having on its societies of origin and beyond.
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Sophia holds a BA in anthropology and religious studies from The New School and a M.Sc. in Ecological Economics from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB).
She is a Program Coordinator at the Chaikuni Institute and currently directs the sustainable ayahuasca cultivation program at the Temple of the Way of Light, a traditional plant medicine retreat center in the Peruvian Amazon.
She is a co-author of When Plants Dream: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance (Watkins, 2019) on the global spread of ayahuasca. She has worked with several psychedelic harm-reduction programs such as KosmiCare, and is a member on the Ayahuasca Community Committee for the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines.
NN: Sophia, thank you so much for joining me today in conversation, I’m delighted to be talking with you.
SR: Yeah, it’s such a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
NN: The first question is a bit of a big one, and it is where do you think we’re headed as a species?
SR: Oh, okay. Great, perfect. Deep plunge, nine o’clock in the morning in New York City, I’m ready for it. Well, where are we headed? Assuming that time is linear, or our perspective of it is, I think that we are in a phase of growing up, kind of that terrible moment when we realised we’re about to get kicked out of the house and we are not able to just hang out in our parents’ house anymore, and we now need to be responsible and grow up. And I think that you know, we have a choice really when we will leave the house or whether we will be kicked out of the house.
And, what we have along the way is all of these education through thousands of years of working in altered states of consciousness, hundreds of years of developing technologies and tools and now we’re actually going to go from playing with these things and writing about these things in our little school girl notebooks to actually applying them and really setting out to the great task of healing our world, which is going to be nothing short of miraculous. But a miracle is kind of our great initiation and we can expect nothing less of ourselves.
NN: So for that to happen, and this is something that keeps popping up in terms of depending on which side you sit of the divide, more towards the side of courage and hope and the belief in a possibility for a step change in how we are a species, how we organise ourselves and interact with the living world of which are part. There’s that on the one side, the hope and the courage and yes, a vision as possible and then on the other side, I’ve met quite a few people who are a lot more resigned to the impossibility or their perceived impossibility of the task and I wonder what you think is necessary for this step change, these miracles you nicely encapsulated to take place? How many of us and which among us in terms of level of power.
So I’m thinking here like on a meta level, you’ve got the political structures, economic structures, et cetera. And then people at grassroots who are really galvanising themselves towards change. How many people across these different structures of society need to be able to make a change for the rest to benefit from that? Because I don’t think everyone’s going to make the choices or are able to make the choices necessary for the change that needs to come. I’m kind of winding my way here with words but I’m hoping you’re getting my meaning.
SR: I guess I get your drift, I mean, again, most of my work and my thinking is shaped from the work that I do with indigenous communities in the forest. And there’s a reason why I hang out with them, I think because I’ve seen, physically really felt the scale of environmental devastation and degradation and there’s something that happens when you walk into a monoculture palm oil forest, an oil palm tree forest. And it’s probably one of the illest things you can possibly imagine, it’s green, but there’s nothing alive. It’s all these trees are arranged in some sort of a phantasmagoric military form.
So, I felt that and I remember for years I actually grieved really what is happening there from the oil spills and from the extraction and for myself I’ve only experienced alienation and abstraction from my environment in the form of depression and anxiety and even mild forms of eating disorders and post traumatic. Most of us, in the West, I feel at the risk of making a generalisation. It’s these illnesses exist on kind of epidemic proportions and so the healers that I work with in the Amazon, mostly the Shipibo people, they’re a tribe of 35,000 people, they recognise all of these illnesses as manifestations of something, a larger symptom of being separated from earth and these are just different faces or different symptoms of that issue.
So having said that, I’m also very privileged to be able to see kind of a bizarre thing happening where I am able to interact with people from many walks of life, right? Many different strata, as you say, working in the spheres of technology, entrepreneurs, people owning publicly traded, I mean big businesses, who have found themselves to also similarly be struggling with these issues, just existential on we anguish, whatever and coming down to the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca in hopes of recalibrating, what it is to be human and what their job is and what their role is.
So I’m of the belief, I’m of the optimistic belief that the critical mass will have some sort of an impact. And I think that if people who are in positions of power and in business really do take their personal healing seriously, not as some sort of a navel gazing spiritual where we would venture but actually saying transformation must come from within, how I’m I supposed to impose an ecological outlook on people out there If I can’t have it within myself. And that’s my hope and that’s what I do because I think that there’s nothing else to do and I think that grief and despair have their place and mourning has their place but the communities that I work with have suffered, far longer and far more acute cases of oppression and just despair then we in the West certainly have. And they’re happy, they laugh and they take care of each other and sometimes in there’s a community called Asháninka in Brazil, and they punctuate their expressions of grief with “So Alegria” “To happiness” Because it must be happiness, yeah it’s like a political mandate to be happy.
NN: It’s really is quite a stark contrast that I’m imagining as we’re speaking this, because it’s true like in the West I find it very easy for us, speaking just from personal experience to distract ourselves and to enjoy comfort like it’s so easy to ignore uncomfortable feelings, feelings of despair, feelings of grief, when there’s so much with which we can just numb and I wonder like that in contrast with people who have experienced first-hand their whole lives be absolutely devastated through the encroachment of their homes, through deforestation, et cetera. What is it do you think that exists within the fabric of these cultures that people that you work with, that allows them to find this path to happiness to live with this intention or this … I don’t know how easy it is to access this sense of happiness but this closeness to it in a way that we’ve kind of numbed ourselves? What is it about a population who’ve experienced so much grief and despair that still allows them to reach out for the joy and the beauty? And what can we learn from them?
SR: Always at the risk of romanticising and simplifying. I would say their connection to the land, I would Yeah. I would say it’s really when people and it’s notable actually working with communities who have been displaced or dispossessed from their territories and people who still have memory of the tree where their grandmother was hit in the head by a coconut, or where the river where their children played, there’s a sense of unity and connection to place, and I can’t help but feel that as long as that connection and even if it extends to maybe not from that specific ancestral territory, but to the land, similar flora and fauna, and land that people maintain a sense of their sanity.
Because again their cosmovision, right, everything from their conception of time, everything from their articulation of language, how they understand the body to work, all of these things are hinged upon their place and this long sort of story woven through of oral history that relates back to creation and where creation began. And for all of these people, it’s funny, there’s a trope throughout the Amazon Basin, I guess anthropologists might notice it more but in people’s native tongues, their name, like how they named themselves is usually like, God’s people or our people. Like they are the chosen ones so everybody feels like they’re the chosen one and they’re given land and that creates a sense of place and meaning and their only meaning in life is really to just dwell and steward that land.
Whereas, speaking for myself the path of finding meaning in this culture, holy smokes, there is like we are helpless because we’ve made everything so complex and so abstract and it’s just like being a gardener as a profession is not really, too celebrated but I would I urge everyone to recalibrate that and kind of celebrate the gardener once more.
NN: As you were speaking, I was having images in my mind. So we both spent time in Gracia and in Barcelona and one of the things I like is looking out and seeing people milling around. But what I’ve noticed more and more recently, is the lack of variety in life forms, that sounds so sci fi, but things like if I look out for birds, it’s almost all pigeons and if I look out for four legged creatures it’s almost all dogs…
SR: There’s lots of dogs in Gracia, yeah.
NN: Lot’s of dogs but even in comparison to when I was living in London, I had this tiny little handkerchief sized space of a garden and there would be squirrels and there’d be finches and there’d be sparrows and occasional foxes, and there’d be cats and that’s a little bit more diverse, but it makes me think of if you’re in a city or if you’re a city dweller, and you’re in a space in which what you experience is really a pared down version of the variety of life, then of course we’re going to have a pared down sense of the complexity of the richness I kind of want to say of what we belong to. And I think that’s one of the things that for anyone who spent time outside of the city and if you have the fortune of experiencing the jungle, you really realise just how varied and rich and extraordinary this is, and I think we’ve lost that sense of wonder. What do you think?
SR: It’s quite interesting yeah, a friend of mine once phrased it like something to the effect of we’ve unconsciously migrated to human ghettos, these cities really are just concrete human habitats and I can’t help but absolutely feel that way. But I will say in Gracia and in Barcelona in general, something that’s truly dying, how do I say this, there is a dying geometry or form is the public plaza. Growing up, being in Barcelona for me and just spending time there having that place, those public plaza spaces really, which is really just sort of you could even extend it on to just say you know it’s like an extension of a lot that all the kids play in or you see this in indigenous hamlets as well. There’s always one place that from all angles everybody can migrate towards, just like kind of central congregation place.
And for me, growing up, living in Barcelona briefly was a revelation, seeing that there were places for these kind of like temporary autonomous zones almost. And you even see the punks in Gracia will throw Molotov cocktails into Starbucks developments there. I remember this happened when I was there and they vehemently opposed to the Disney vacation of these spaces. Yeah, but I mean absolutely it’s more … I would say Barcelona is uniquely like colourful and special and human and diverse as far as cities go. And I’m in New York City now so my circuits these days has been New York to the Amazon, New York to the Amazon and it is a different kind of quiet here.
It’s a quiet that makes you go a little bit crazy whereas when I’m blessed to be at the Amazon, it’s a silence within, there’s no radio, there’s no texting none of that stuff I barely have internet connection when I’m there. But there’s sort of the orchestra of the forest prevails in the quiet of nature itself. So it’s an amazing thing to have a meditation practice, actually and compare my meditations here and my quiet New York apartment where I hear the radiator tingling against the wall. And the forest and that whole orchestra of beings that are kind of accompanying me in my stillness.
NN: That’s such a vivid way to describe it.
SR: I really, yeah, and I really without sending a troop of carbon emitting planes into the Amazon, because that’s also a wonderful sort of contradiction that I live with flying over there all the time. There’s something about being in the Amazon ecologically and existentially speaking, it’s the most biodiverse place on earth, in one hectare of land, which is I guess, 2.5 acres for American listeners, we have more plant and animal species than in all of the North American continent combined, which is far more bio diverse than Europe today. So it’s just this like, existential orgasm profusion of life. And to just be there, it’s funny, I think I’ve had healers make jokes that all of the animals are a bit more quiet when a new batch of gringos come off and you see them, well, they’re all kind of pale and lanky and like uncomfortable but within two or three weeks of spending time there and people really unwind and something different happens.
They’re no longer so annoyed by the mosquitoes, they’re not telling the birds to shut up outside, it really is a different frequency that happens. And I do believe that the animals actually begin to come closer and they start to check things out. We want to know what’s going on with you. But at first, we’re quite scary when we’re fresh off the boat or like this weird, curmudgeon cold kind of creatures that come from cities.
NN: So I want to talk a little bit about the work of your different backgrounds. So you’re intersecting areas of botany and ecology, indigenous knowledge and Western science and I’m curious to ask what are some of the most surprising insights that you’ve encountered in your work in those different fields?
SR: Oh, that’s great. So I mean, I’ve increasingly been working through applied ecology and botany which is basically having basic knowledge of these fields, going and trying to express them with indigenous communities that I work with and then saying, “Oh yeah, that’s so and so.” Kind of drawing parallels and third understanding. So for example, there is a plant that we work with a lot in Amazon tobacco, you may have heard of it and the variety of tobacco that we smoke in the North is actually called Nicotiana Tabacum, and the one that’s used in South America is Nicotiana Rustica. So it’s actually has a much greater, it’s a higher nicotine alkaloid concentration. So if you smoke it you will get knocked onto your bone. But we see throughout the Americas actually tobacco has been used very centrally in prayer and like water quenches thirst or like food nourishes, tobacco has been used as a tool of prayer, it really did at some point figure that prominently into our everyday use.
And when I work with communities in the forest, there a lot of a lot of the times we have Westerners come and they say, “Why is everyone smoking, it’s so bad for you.” And all the elders are smoking like chimneys. And tobacco if I ask them, “Why are you smoking, Mapacho, we’ll call it.” They’ll often say, “Mapacho is used to keep spirits away, it’s used to keep negative energies at bay.” So they’ll plant tobacco in like a perimeter around their households and if you approach it from an ethnobotanist or a botanist perspective, you see that tobacco is actually an insecticide, it’s a pesticide, so it keeps the insects away.
So just bridging that definition between a fly and a fairy, right? Or this kind of these little understandings kind of have a dual meaning actually, and you see that maybe we don’t see that it keeps the bad spirits away but we see that it keeps the bad insects away and it has that effect generally. So, I mean, that’s what I’ve loved looking at and trying to articulate and translate is that a lot of these indigenous articulations of how plants work and how people work with plants actually have some sort of a scientific significance and that’s how we, people who aren’t trained in the animistic kind of romanticists worldview can be acquainted with plants and can develop our own understandings with plants.
And I have much more, there’s one other thing I would love to share which is about this practice called the diet, the dieta. And dieta it means just a diet in Spanish, but the Shipibo will call it sama and sama is a practice that’s observed pretty much throughout the Amazon basin by different indigenous communities and it’s sort of an ascetic act of abstention and isolation for the purposes of developing personal strength for example, becoming a better hunter or a better lover or imagine that expansion packs, like you will do a certain diet to get a certain new personality trait, right? I think of it like a software add-on actually.
And so you go into the forest and you spend time in isolation there and you will work with a certain plant and these plants are called master plants or teacher plants. So it’s not just any grass but it’s really, usually there are plants with mild psychoactivity but generally they’re just kind of very impressive looking on the outside. And so, through fasting really so no oil, no salt, no sugar, no sex, no music, nothing pleasurable whatsoever. You are basically not even drinking water for 14 days for a month and even the great masters used to do it for over a year actually, they’d spend time alone in the forest doing this kind of wasting away and taking only the small quantities of plants. And this is actually what I’ve come to understand as an empirical method of scientific investigation, whereby you are sort of creating a container in your body. Think of it like a laboratory, you’re emptying everything out. You’re saying, “Well, if I have this, I have that psychological effect, if I have this, I have this physiological effect.”
You begin to slowly discover what these personalities or the properties, the chemical properties are of the plants. So basically, I mean, people didn’t just brazenly start munching on whatever wishes they found in the forest. I believe that this is how they learned, what plants work and what other and from that learning they learned how the other plants worked, if that makes sense. So for me just to zoom out and to put that knowledge into context, it points to it and it’s an entirely different epistemological method of deriving knowledge. So in our culture, we’re reading, we’re writing, we’re getting on stage, whereas everything is outwards. But what we see here is actually a method of learning whereby you are going as inwards as possible, and actually deriving extremely useful and fundamental information about the elements.
NN: Such an interesting way to put it as well. I think often, when we think about other indigenous practices, that use these sorts of experiences and rituals to discover or unlock knowledge, it’s very easy to find it quite alien and so the idea of being creating a laboratory within oneself. You recently wrote a book with Daniel Pinchbeck called, “When Plants Dream: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance”. There’s many questions I want to ask you about this but one of the first ones that comes to mind is around this renewed excitement and interest in both public and scientific in psychedelic experiences, research application and one of the things that personally I keep coming up against is the fact that we can find indigenous psychoactive plants in most parts of the world.
So for instance, in the UK, there’s an abundance of a particular kind of magic mushroom, I think it’s Psylocybe Cyanescens that you can forage and feel and it’s really plentiful if you know where to look from October to February to get your hands on it. And yet time and again, I encounter people who will get access to and flyover specific Ayahuasca bruise and try and recreate these sorts of ceremonies. So the rituals surrounding it that are not indigenous to the land where it’s being flown to and personally, I find that incoherent and there’s something about it that troubles me at the same time realizing that if we want access to these things and we don’t want to fly to create footprint, this is a method from which to do it. So it’s a complex issue. But I guess what I’m asking is, why is it you think that so many of us in Western cultures have gravitated towards and latched onto Ayahuasca in particular, or Iboga or peyote, these more exotic forms of accessing self-knowledge? What is it about it that so seductive?
SR: Yeah, it’s a great question. I tend to be on your side when it comes to having mixed feelings about doing ceremonies with exotic plants abroad and seeking salvation and some sort of a portion from the other side of the world, it’s true there’s something quite absurd about it but when I look at it from the place of understanding our greater cultural longing to experience catharsis and initiation, and these are things that we very, very conveniently eliminated from our experience and sort of in the global north, let’s say.
So I mean, even death, it’s like hidden, we don’t think about it but we’ve lost all of our rituals, we’ve lost all of our coming of age, we’ve lost all of these sort of ordeals that kind of put us, that mark our place from one phase to another phase and as a result I find that we have this slow drip of existence that lacks any sort of deeper cultural meaning or celebrations really, birthdays we just go get fucked up and forget about it right but that really active joining together, it’s kind of taking a head count of your community knowing who’s there for you. I think that that’s a very human thing. And so these plants that you mentioned, peyote, iboga, Ayahuasca sometimes people call them or ordeal medicines or entheogens, so entheogens just roughly translate to generating the divine from within, entheogen.
And so through these ordeals, there’s nothing pleasant about ayahuasca, iboga or peyote, specifically there they make you feel nauseous and uncomfortable. Most likely you will wonder why the hell you are there, why you did that to yourself? But I have an elder who put it best when he said that, he’s a Native American elder and he said, “Your medicine, white people medicine makes you feel good and then makes you feel like hell, our medicine makes you feel like hell and then makes you feel good.”
NN: Yeah, definitely rather the latter.
SR: Yeah, it kind of gets right to it. So, and it’s true I think that there is something that makes us fundamentally remember wholly we’re humans and this is the experience and just to shake us out of this complacency or this monotony of everyday life that we’ve, of the safety, of the sort of the simplicity and the ease that we’ve created, buffered, by the way through the pursuit of technology, and design, and all of this stuff.
Everything we do is to … The tool in itself very fundamentally is something that will take away a level of engagement with your environment. It’s a lever, it’s a fulcrum, it’s something that just makes a step easier. But in the development of all of these tools, some of them for the better, but I think, I’m quite like a Luddite in some senses. I think that we’ve really, really lost what it means to touch the earth and to be human and so, for example, now we see with the mainstreaming of psychedelics, people will suggest that you know, “Do you micro dose ayahuasca, what if we could make ayahuasca without the vomit?”
And to me that entirely misses, I don’t know if there is a point but if there was a point, I would say that we’re missing it, because it is through that difficulty and that pain and the purge and the discomfort and all of these things that we actually find revelation and we earn a sense of change. And, what we’ve been doing with psychopharmaceuticals and through technology and all this stuff is just making things easier, just taking a pill and kind of willing it away and to an extent it does, but fundamentally humans are meaning making machines, we tell ourselves stories. And as long as our story doesn’t change and the story that we tell ourselves about our lives doesn’t change, I don’t think that we can genuinely transform. And so what these medicines help us do is revisit our past actually, there’s a huge aspect of iobotic biographical memory recall, which is significant with the use of three of these plans that you mentioned.
And it really is about re filing the cabinets and saying, “Oh, now I’m not you know, I’m ready to let that story go, I’m ready to let the trauma go, I’m ready to let whatever go.” And that’s really how I sense the transformation begins. I realised I was like generalising technologies here, maybe I’m in a bit of a mood, I think I miss the forest today. But you get what I’m saying I’m even thinking of a technology is like a shovel, like a tool that just kind of like we’re not digging with our hands anymore, there’s like this metal tip and just it’s a different gesture and it’s a different experience and good for some things, but I think maybe we should throw the spade aside sometimes and just eat some dirt.
NN: Well, I think also there is this sense of wanting to avoid discomfort at all costs and I think one of the things that I notice with the ways in which we use technology is that although it can move us out of a sense of anxiety or stress in the short term, so say for instance, you’re feeling upset about something, so you whip out your phone and you go on social media, you get your nice little dopamine hit, and for the time being, you’re distracted. So there’s that sense of temporary relief, let’s say. But it adds to this kind of ambient sense of restlessness which I think obscures something deeper, which is this need, like you’ve mentioned, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel a sense of meaning, of connectedness with a wider experience of life, which I think is inhibited when you’re separated from the seasons, let’s say.
I’m not saying that we should all go live in tents because I really would not enjoy that apart from for certain seasons of the year. But to have more of a permeability between the environments that we’ve created for ourselves and the environment from which we arise. And so, one of the things I want to explore with you is, I’m kind of going to take us down a slightly different track here is that when people open themselves up for threshold experiences, initiatory experiences where we’re potentially confronting something very traumatic or difficult, one of the things that is really important, of course, is to be able to process the stuff that comes up so that we’re not just sitting with an open wound, allowing anything to come in and not actually working with the healing process itself. So I wonder, with your work, because you work on this particularly, which I think is fascinating, you work on the harm reduction aspect of psychedelic experience. Can you tell us a little bit about why you came to engage in that work and why it’s so necessary.
SR: Yeah, my work with psychedelic harm reduction has taken sort of various forms. I guess I started working with Boom Festival actually. So Boom, is a … I don’t know if you know of Boom, it’s an enormous psytrance festival, I think they’re 35,000 ish attendees and I think there’s like, only 11% of people there are not on drugs approximate. So many people are going there for the first time having these incredible experiences, taking tons of drugs that they don’t know anything about really. And our goal really working with cosmic care is to mitigate any sort of harm and really make sure that people have a place to work through difficult experiences.
So we like to discern between a bad trip and a difficult trip, because a bad journey implies book closed, that’s it, this is terrible, I derive no value from this whereas a difficult experience when shared with people who are caring, who are helping you weed things out, who are helping you to sort of translate your visions and your experiences and kind of apply it to the greater picture of your life or even somebody to just sit with you. I worked as a sitter at these festivals with really somebody who’s … It’s a pretty varied job, actually but basically you’re not expected to psychoanalyze anybody, it’s just to have somebody to be present with you during these difficult times and I found that work to be some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Yeah, because I myself I’m quite a psycho, not myself, and I’ve had some of the darker journeys of the night and just to build empathy and these experiences and know that “Hey, I’ve been there before, let’s work through this.” And I did get better from it actually, is extremely helpful.
And then my work at the temple. So I work at a retreat centre in the Peruvian Amazon called the Temple of the way of light, abbreviated as the temple and it’s an ayahuasca retreat centre, and we work with Shipibo healers and we see around 800 guests a year. So it’s quite a lot and we have people going through very intensive experiences and part of the keystone work that we do and I think what’s so special about coming to the jungle is really people’s commitment to integration. They’re not going in for a weekend and then going to work the next day, which I’ll note is a privilege by the way, to be able to fly to the Amazon, I acknowledge that and I also recommended it if you can, or if anybody is kind of making ceremonies, just to have space to really integrate is crucial.
And so a lot of the work that we talk about at the temple actually has to do with integrity. So, we’ve recently been doing these retreats with a man named Richard Condon and Richard is a master of ontological inquiry and we do these workshops together with Ayahuasca, talking about integrity. So what does it mean to be a person of your word? And it seems very fundamental and very basic, but when you start to work with psychedelics and you start to work with visionary plants, let’s say, we start to get these downloads, right? I need to do this, I’m going to start this business, I’m going to apologize to my mom, I’m going to bla, bla, bla with this whole list of million and one things we need to do, and very often because we don’t have integrity, really, we just don’t do them, hence the sort of archetype of who’s a hippie, who doesn’t make anything happen, right?
It’s because we haven’t been trained to be people of our words. And so that’s a lot of the work that we do these days and we’ve had really amazing results with really asking how are we going to apply these lessons to our lives when we come out, how are we going to start that business, how are we going to heal that relationship? So as the founder of the temple, Matthew says, “There is no integration without integrity.” And I really like that, I find that that component is not really spoken about in the integration side of things. But yeah, it’s extremely important and we also see in the United States and even abroad actually in London, there’s a great psychedelic society. These sort of peer to peer facilitated groups that are attempting to create culture within and places for people to talk about their experiences and it’s an experiment but I find that many people feel very comforted knowing that there are a couple of others out there who are ready to just hold you in your process of realizing your dreams.
NN: So let’s dig into that a little bit. Because I know it can be quite tricky when you come out of a context in which you’re supported and you’re facilitated, to then stay in connection with things that you’ve experienced that you’ve learned the insights that you’ve encountered. What are maybe one or two of the practices or tools that you found to be helpful in cultivating a sense of integrity to enable people to really enact the visions that they have, that they get given or their experience in these psychedelic experiences, these healing experiences?
SR: Hmm, great. So these are actually not very practical, they’re very practical, if you have an ambition or a vision, writing it down and creating actionables, right? So what is the first step to doing this and not saying large da, da, da but really email so and so by this date. It’s funny because when people are asked to put the pen to the paper and do that, people get really anxious and nervous and suddenly they have 101 excuses why they can’t do this or why bla, bla, bla and it’s amazing just to watch the monkey in the cage, kind of asking to get out and be free. So that’s one of the exercises that we’ve been experimenting with and I found that personally, tremendously useful and simple.
And I would also say peer to peer accountability, having friends and saying, “Hey, this is my goal, can you keep me accountable for this and can you check in with me about this?” And really, saying, “I promise to do this.” And understanding that your word is on the line if you don’t, and we are only as much as our word really and it’s kind of harsh. It’s saying if you fail-
NN: It’s really practical.
SR: Yeah, it’s harsh. It’s like if you fail, if you don’t do this, you’ve broken your word and it’s been tarnished almost like there’s points taken off and that’s just one way to look at it and I think some people would disagree with it, some people would find it too rigid but I think in terms of just building more efficiency and integrity in the work that we do, which is so important ultimately, because I find that if we’re not actually doing this psychedelic work to contribute to something greater, then I feel that it’s just another … Especially with Ayahuasca and these plant medicines, just another kind of extractivist past-time, that’s a pleasure that’s not going to contribute to the real transformation that we need here on earth and that’s my view and that’s the view of my colleagues.
And that is a bit of my fear, GQ recently published an article about micro dosing, I mean, who isn’t these days but something like your boss is going to love this new drug habit or something, and it’s all about micro dosing, and it’s just such an exceedingly mediocre use for these substances really and I understand that in some cases it’s useful but for that to be really the angle that’s highlighted by mainstream media is predictable and a bit disappointing but I really hope that the people really do start to do the very tough work with maybe taking thresholds doses under those guidance of people who know what they’re doing. I mean, I’ve seen people go off the deep end and it’s not pretty and that’s where respecting and working in reciprocity with I believe indigenous people who have been working for hundreds if not thousands of years with these plants comes in.
NN: I wonder if you’ve noticed any themes in terms of the insights that people coming to the temple, come away with, Is there a set of themes that you see cropping up again and again?
SR: Definitely, for sure, as I mentioned earlier, these I call them like nebulous diseases, right? So depression, anxiety, these are the major ones that we see people coming in with and very often we find people just reviewing their relationships actually. So not their career, not their ambitions, not the thing out there but actually the things right here, the things that are very close to the heart and sometimes that takes digging in and remembering unsavoury moments or kind of difficult times and really making peace with people that we’re not at peace with. It’s very and we’re very … Which is kind of cute in a way, it just makes us, it reminds me we’re such little mammals we really just care about community and our people and even though we pretend we don’t even though we forget we do, people around us and our loved ones are very important to us and those networks of connection are extremely important.
So yeah, usually it’s almost challenging to ask people to not be on their phones for a few weeks, because, they come and they’re like, “I need to text to my mom, I need to call da, da, da, da, I haven’t spoken to my sister in 10 years and we need to make peace.” These sorts of things happen very often which is very beautiful, which is very inspiring so, yeah, just being better people, basically.
NN: And so from that foundational sort of social aspect, what would you say are some of the more economic and political and cultural and environmental impacts that the use of Ayahuasca, the working with Ayahuasca is having on society? So both the societies of origin, as you mentioned the Shipibo people working to facilitate these transformation experiences, mostly for Western people coming in and then the cultures beyond that. So the Western cultures to which a lot of these attendees return, what are some of the biggest impacts Ayahuasca is having?
SR: It’s a great, great question, that’s like the question I suppose. Well, let’s see, let’s start from the south and move north. So in the Amazon Basin, we have two plants that are part of the Ayahuasca preparation. So the Banisteriopsis Caapi which is a woody vine, and chacruna, typically, it’s these two plants that are combined together. So the question … The plant of concern here is Banisteriopsis Caapi, which is this woody liana that takes anywhere from five to 10 years to grow to maturity to harvesting maturity.
So predictably with the increased demand for local consumption and for export of Ayahuasca, we find wild Ayahuasca populations diminishing rapidly. We see Ayahuasca plantations coming up, which actually isn’t such a dismal site actually, because Ayahuasca again, it’s a vine so it likes to grow on other plants. So in the future, it’s kind of a blessing in this sense, I actually see it as it is a wonderful potential in the future of farming Ayahuasca can actually look like farming, fruit trees and farming used for hardwoods. So you can really integrate it into a very biodiverse plot, but in any case, I myself have met with several people, healers, indigenous elders, just people who make money from Ayahuasca in the region of Peru and Nikitos that, say they need to go farther and farther out into the forest and they’re paying higher and higher prices for Ayahuasca.
So that’s … And there are not, I would say, equal efforts to replant Ayahuasca at the rate that it’s being extracted. So that is unfortunate and needs to be addressed and just spoken about more broadly. So, Carlos Alvarez Suarez is doing amazing work reporting on that. And locally now, just from a perspective of commerce and tourism, if thousands, unknown thousands at this point of people flying into the Amazon basin for I’d say minimum two weeks, a week, two weeks, and they’re drinking Ayahuasca and they’re stimulating the local economy, they’re going to cafes, they’re paying the airline, they’re doing all of the things along the way. And what’s most interesting here is that they’re paying indigenous communities for their traditional practices, right? So some people articulate this as a form of actual spiritual extractivism they call it, so you’re paying and you’re extracting the knowledge and bringing it back and going to Burning Man and holding ceremonies for $10,000 or whatever.
But I would actually argue that it’s a bit more nuanced than that, because what we see in the Amazon is communities actually getting an opportunity to make a livelihood from an activity that isn’t destroying their land, which is major, I mean-
NN: And there is preserving their cultural traditions also.
SR: Exactly, yeah, right. Exactly. So that’s really the thing to think about here is that we see in the Amazon, perhaps obviously, you have extra, you can work in an oil company, maybe you can work for timber. Generally the riches are the land and it requires kind of destroying the land in order to make a living. So it is quite interesting to see communities and their work being celebrated through these networks of commerce. And I think that there can be and there will be more sophisticated evolutions of exchanging value in this region. What I mean is we’re not just paying for Ayahuasca which seems very kind of crass or blunter. There’s something fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of paying for something sacred, right? This is like an age old conundrum that people have worked with.
But the temple has a nonprofit organization that we work with very closely called the Chaikuni Institute and all of the temples profits go towards Chaikuni and Chaikuni is working on reforestation, intercultural education programming, sustainable Ayahuasca harvesting and supporting environmental struggles and environmental justice work. So-
SR: I think that these kind of networks of reciprocity, yeah it is, it really is. And to me that’s the potential that this stuff has, not just cold, hard cash but actually working together really and in new ways that the world has never seen before. Truly we’ve never seen it before in the jungle.
NN: Yeah, and it’s inspiring to think that there’s a way in which people can align economic interests with environmental interests and our desire for growth because I think this is another thing which is so fundamental is, it’s very easy to say, well, it’s fine and good to want to grow spiritually or psychologically or emotionally or however it is, but you’re not allowed to do X or Y because it’s going to pollute the environment. It’s such a complex system and so I think finding ways to make all of those things work together, where possible is probably the best way forward. I’m conscious that we’re coming to time on this and I’m curious is to ask what one insight or advice you might give to people listening in terms of how to maybe relate more deeply with themselves and get themselves out of the more nebulous issues that you mentioned before. So if people are feeling depressed or they’re feeling anxious or they’re feeling disconnected, what might you suggest for them as a starting point?
SR: Let’s see. I mean, I immediately go to the plants.
NN: That’s okay.
SR: Yeah, it’s like let’s see if I’ll do something off brand here but no, I couldn’t do it. Yeah, I mean, for me something that I quite often do is go to botanical gardens, actually, I’ll say a little bit more about this, but go to botanical gardens and just relate to the plants, learn about them, read those that … I spend an afternoon alone at the botanical garden and read the little plaques and all of the work that the botanists have put in there and learn a little bit about our evolution with plants and purchase a plant care for a plant and if you can, I love herbalism walks, herbalist walks, and just seeing, going for a walk in the woods with some sort of a witch and seeing the different stories and tales that people have about the plants. For me, it’s just like the plants are my buoy or my life safer because they just help me realise that this whole amazing experiment of life is so much more complex and so much greater than our tiny little experience of it.
And just to be able to relate to them in some way, I’m not hugging them, I’m not licking them. It’s nothing crazy, it’s just from an evolutionary perspective revering these fellow beings on our journey through evolution and seeing how they’re doing and understanding well, human experience is very strange and putting things into perspective that way. And again, it’s really all about building perspective for me, any of this depression, any of this anxiety, it all happens when we’re too concerned with ourselves really and too concerned about our own stories with the exception, of course of being anxious about ecological devastation, which is a different flavour. But even then just shifting it into perspective and saying, “Look, we’re all experimenting.” And I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with humans, I don’t think so, I think that there’s just a much bigger picture and we’re yet to see what that picture and that story is looking like.