New Film Is Both A Mystical And Scientific Study Of The Ayahuasca Experience

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by Guy Crittenden

on November 11, 2014

From inside his simple home, beside an altar decked out with shamanic items and bottles of ayahuasca brew, Peruvian shaman Ronald Rivera sits discussing his background in magical healing practices that are familiar to South Americans, but until recently almost unknown in the rest of the world.

“I am an ayahuascero,” he announces, sitting on the floor beneath a traditional Shipibo patterned wall hanging, while drawing heavily on a cigar made from sacred mapacho tobacco and shaking a rattle.

This scene is from anthropologist and filmmaker Seti Gershberg’s new documentary Ayahuasca Nature’s Greatest Gift. The film is the second part of a longer documentary project he calls The Path of the Sun, the first installment of which is another documentary entitled Q’ero Mystics of Peru (available at the same website).

The first film takes viewers on a tour of the lives and mystical teachings of the Q’ero people. These are the folk who live in remote areas of the high Andes and consider themselves descendants of the Inca. Their way of life revolves around a philosophy of interconnection and mutual obligation. A tradition of Ayni (sacred reciprocity) keeps everything in harmony, shamanic despacho ceremonies venerate Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Apus (the mountain spirits).

In the second film, the recently released Ayahuasca: Nature’s Greatest Gift, Gershberg takes his audience down from the cool Andes mountains into the steamy rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon where his focus is on the curanderos (shamanic healers) whose spirituality and healing practices center on ayahuasca –– the increasingly popular “teaching plant” brew that’s also considered one of the world’s most powerful hallucinogens.

The value of Gershberg’s background as both an anthropologist and shamanic guide is evident throughout the documentary. He probes some of the challenging questions confronted by people from technocratic societies when they encounter both the therapeutic and magical properties of the shaman’s brew.

[Ayahuasca is the name of both the vine from which the brew is made –– in combination with DMT-rich plants such as chacruna –– and the brew itself.]

It seems there’s no shortage of films about ayahuasca these days. Many, such as Keith Aronowitz’s Metamorphosis and Richard Meech’s Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul (which is currently available on Netflix), follow western (I know, South America is in the west!) travelers as they visit various retreat centers in search of spiritual insight or healing (for physical illnesses like shingles, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, etc., and/or psychological afflictions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcoholism, and drug addiction). Most of these ayahuasca tourists end up receiving a combination of both, as the plant shows them the powerful connection between the mental, physical and spiritual dimensions.

In Ayahuasca Nature’s Greatest Gift, Gershberg mines an information vein that hasn’t fully been exploited. For example, Austin-based filmmaker Mitch Schultz’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule also explores ayahuasca tourism, but takes things into an almost purely clinical setting. It focuses not on ayahuasca, but on its active psychotropic chemical, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is injected (in the film) into patients in a controlled lab setting.

After arriving in Peru on 11/11/11, Gershberg spent two years studying shamanism and filming The Path of the Sun series. Ayahuasca Nature’s Greatest Gift bounces between vivid footage shot in the Amazon –– highlighting the jungle in all its glory and shamans in their ascetic stilt houses –– to static shots of North American experts, whom Gershberg appears to have caught at the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychedemia conference.

We’re treated to fairly robust interviews with the likes of renowned ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna (brother of the late psychonaut Terence McKenna and author of the recent book Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss) and Steven Beyer (author of Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon).

“I tried to make [the film] for a broad audience,” Gershberg told me via Facebook. “One that is open to new ideas.” He continued, “I also wanted to emphasize the therapeutic aspects of the plant and the realities of Amazonian travel. I am an advocate, but also a realist, and I know…that a lot of people out there have some ideas that I think are not so responsible about the medicine, the culture, etc. I want to influence the general opinion of a larger audience in a positive way.”

As the film’s website extols, it delves into 30 subtopics that cover everything from the practical explanation of how the “tea” is made, its history, usage, rituals and so on, to its power to engender both physical and supernatural transformational experiences. It also tidily explains the role of the curanderos (shamans) and their icaros (sacred songs). When the film focuses on the medicine’s therapeutic value, it’s discussed in welcome terms of its potential integration with western medicinal modalities.

Near the end of the film, Dennis McKenna promotes the idea that a new dualistic healing could be in the making. Giving up on the United States, where there persists a ridiculous confusion of ayahuasca and other plant entheogens with narcotics (ie. the “War on Drugs”), McKenna envisions Peru, and other Latin American countries where the plants are legal, hosting research centers and treatment clinics where doctors and people trained in shamanic methods could work together symbiotically on patients with a wide range of issues.

The film also discusses the benefits and risks of the booming ayahuasca tourism industry, the associated dangers of its charlatans, and the general dangers found in travel to third world countries.

Having traveled to Peru myself and drunk ayahuasca in three ceremonies with shamans (which you can read about here), I was interested to learn that the number of shamans working with tourists is only a small subset of a much larger group dispersed widely throughout the region, ranging perhaps into the thousands. Many are located in remote villages where they serve as both priest and doctor to their small communities.

This is probably one of the best films a person could watch if they’re considering participation in an ayahuasca ceremony for the first time. It covers all the basics and also delves into some of ayahuasca’s mystical dimensions. The film also explains a key detail missing in some other documentaries: the fact that traditional Amazonian shamans, such as those of the Shipibo tribe, drink ayahuasca themselves rather than giving it to the “patient.” This allows them to see, via the plant, into the person before them and diagnose the affliction. Then, they devise a treatment plan that might include consuming medicines made from other medicinal plants, of which there are hundreds in the Amazon (which has been called “nature’s pharmacy”).

In mestizo shamanism (as Beyer points out) this often includes the shaman sucking out magical darts on the understanding that most illnesses are the result of a brujo (dark sorcerer) attacking a person via other dimensions. In Singing to the Plants, Beyer goes into great detail about how these darts are stored by the shaman for later use, or spat out, or fired back at the sender. Most curanderos in the Amazon basin are like “guns for hire” who can use their skills to treat afflictions this way or attack enemies (eg. a man who is caught stealing another man’s girlfriend). This state of affairs stands in stark contrast to the aspiration of many New Age seekers hoping to drink ayahuasca in order to encounter the divine. That is not to say an encounter with the divine isn’t possible, but it isn’t the guaranteed outcome of the ceremony as some believe.

Both the filmmaker and the various experts in the film handled the challenging question about what is really going on when a participant enters a “visionary state.” Though this issue is handled fairly, an all-too-common, almost comically schizoid discussion over the matter surfaces.

In order to overcome the North American (and international) fear and misunderstanding about psychedelic plants, there’s a lot of investment these days in clinical trials to prove their medicinal value, as most are currently prohibited substances.

There are plenty of articles and video clips on the internet that show how entheogens affect the brain, with MRI pictures of different areas of synapses firing off. The argument can be made that these kinds of scientific views fall short of explaining what’s happening on a level of human consciousness and energy vibration. Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments, for example, suggest consciousness exists both inside and outside the brain, which he theorizes is more like a transceiver of information than a repository of memory.

[If you want to go deeper, check out Sheldrake’s book The Science Delusion –– called Science Set Free in the United States –– which outlines Sheldrake’s notion of morphogenic fields. Two other books will rock your world by linking quantum physics with strange concepts about consciousness: Ervin Laszlo’s excellent Science and the Akashic Field and Amit Goswami’s intriguing work, captured in The Quantum Activist, which is both a book and documentary.]

Ironically, it was books and films based on science that led me to take shamanic spirituality seriously. In Ayahuasca Nature’s Greatest Gift, when Dr. Steven Beyer wears his anthropologist hat, he talks candidly about how the plants want us to discover them, so they can help and heal us. He talks in ways (as does McKenna) that suggest he believes in the spirit world accessed by the curanderos. But he only goes so far, and almost appears to catch himself when he refers to the plant’s power to trigger “hallucinations” –– a term that implies the visions come entirely from the human mind (namely, the “unconscious”) as some kind of temporary psychotic dream.

All of this suggests to me that perhaps a third documentary needs to be made in The Path of the Sun series, delving more explicitly into the potential that entheogens are not only medicines, but portals to real “otherly” spiritual dimensions.

About Seti Gershberg

Seti Gershberg is an anthropologist, filmmaker, photographer and student of shamanism, who originally hails from New York. He moved to Chicago in 1999 and quickly became established as a featured video artist and photographer in the city’s thriving electronic music and emerging art scene. Gershberg, a former artist in residence at the The Chicago Art Department, performed with musicians at numerous festivals including Lollapalooza where he and Dj Mixmaster Mike from the Beastie Boys collaborated.

Gershberg has lived, studied and practiced with the leaders of  Q’ero community, an Andean people who believe they are the direct descendants of the Inca. He has also worked with a number of Curanderos from several areas within the Peruvian Amazon including Pucallpa, Puerto Moldando and Manu.

Gershberg has been a featured guest on a number of radio stations and podcasts including WKVMR, KNCO, Planet Radio, The Pursuit Podcast, and Raising Miro on The Road to Life. He is a speaker at events and conferences and has given lectures on the topics of plant medicine and the Andean mystical arts. His work has been included in events organized by ICEERS (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education and Research) and The ESC (Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council) International. Gershberg also guides mystical journeys to Peru.

Guy Crittenden is a writer with 25 years experience in newspaper and magazine journalism, focusing on environmental themes. He writes and speaks regularly on spiritual topics and plant entheogens. He lives in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. Contact Guy at gcrit*AT*rogers*DOT*com.