“The New Paradigm”
Yesterday marked exactly a year since Ayahuasca Healings submitted to the DEA their petition for exemption from the Controlled Substances Act. The cover letter, dated April 4, 2016, sets the tone for some of the backpedaling that will follow:
At the outset, petitioners wish to admit that they were previously mistaken about the current state of the law regarding Ayahuasca…This misconception has since been corrected, and Petitioners offer their sincere apologies for any prior conduct which the DEA believes might have run afoul of its regulatory agenda…[AHNAC 2016:1]
The petition process has been developed by the DEA for groups wishing to claim exemption from the Controlled Substances Act in order to practice their religion, under the standards set by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment to the Constitution. Much of AH’s petition seeks to describe Ayahuasca Healings as a religion, and to their credit, the group’s creativity shines through. However, there are some inconsistencies, or to be more generous, selective eclecticisms, that an anthropologist might pick up on, even if the DEA doesn’t.
“Petitioners derive their religious beliefs directly from the shamanic, animist religions of the Amazon,” they write on page 4, yet in the next paragraph, they write:
Petitioners believe that the ritualistic use of Ayahuasca as a sacrament…allows those who partake in the Ayahuasca ceremonies not only a glimpse of the spirit world, but of the Great Spirit that permeates and unites all of creation…[AHNAC 2016:5]
The Great Spirit, however, is a deity of some Native North American peoples, not Amazonian. I’ve seen nothing in my studies of the myth and history of the Western Amazon, where ayahuasca shamanism has its roots, that indicates a belief in one supreme deity, other than the Christian god.
The eclecticism of course doesn’t end there. Under the heading “Belief in supernatural entities,” they list their deities: Mother Ayahuasca; Father San Pedro; Great Spirit; tens of thousands of angels as well as the archangels Rafael, Gabriel, Azrael, Raziel, and Uriel; the “Ascended Masters” Buddha and Jesus— and of course, “aside from Great Spirit, Mother Ayahuasca, and Father San Pedro, the most important supernatural entities in Petitioners’ belief system are the animistic spirits: ‘The animal spirits, plant spirits, mountain spirits, and spirits of all that exists around us…’” (AHNAC 2016:13). They claim an Amazonian lineage for the sake of legitimacy, but in keeping with other neo-shamanic movements (see my definition in post 4), their beliefs are in fact an amalgamation of romanticized tropes from both the Amazon and Native North America with a strong dose of Eastern religion and medicine—and in this case, occult or New Age Christianity.
When it comes to clergy, however, all “Medicine Men/Women…have undergone long and extensive training with curanderos in the Amazonian jungles…” (AHNAC 2016:10). It’s not clear who led the ceremonies in Elbe, and how long or extensive their training really was. Certainly Shackman and Trinity lack the years of ascetic apprenticeship and suffering that any Amazonian shaman I know would demand of an apprentice. With regards to the retreats that Trinity ran in Peru under the AH banner, reports indicate that staff members were, at best, inexperienced. In one case:
When one of Trinity’s ayahuasca “healers” herself got sick and left, Trinity quickly promoted one of the assistant chefs to the position of “ayahuasca shaman,” [the lodge owner] said. [Capps 2016:n.p.]
Such practices would have been particularly problematic after the two indigenous shamans reportedly left halfway through the second retreat, scandalized by the behavior of Trinity and staff.
However, perhaps the biggest hurdle that AHNAC faces is proving the sincerity of their religious beliefs. Under section IIB, “Petitioners’ belief in their religion is sincerely held”:
B1. Petitioners’ religion was not created as an ad hoc justification. Petitioners did not invent their religion; they learned it from its traditional practitioners in the Amazon, and founded AHNAC in an effort to bring their religion to the United States…Petitioners herein aver that they would not, did not, and cannot imagine anyone adopting their religion merely for the sake of being able to ingest Ayahuasca legally. [AHNAC 2016:13]
Unfortunately for AH, public reports suggest the opposite. An AHNAC insider is quoted as saying “I always felt it was understood, though never mentioned, that the primary reason for calling it a religion was for legal purposes.” One retreat-goer, again in Peru, has publicly claimed more than once that Trinity is not, shall we say, a religious man:
…Trinity actually believes, “Religions are bullshit!” How do I know of this [sic], because I personally heard him say it in the common space within the Peru retreat? [sic] And I can’t argue with him in some respects, but then again, I’m not trying to establish a retreat in a foreign country on false pretenses on religious grounds either! [Thomas 2016: n.p.]
While Facebook posts (like the one above) and online reviews hardly meet the burden of proof for legal or moral judgment, when it comes to the underground world of ayahuasca in Drug War countries, these sorts of fora are the community’s main way of self-policing. On the other hand, AH’s grandiose ambitions and business practices speak for themselves, and are the basis for a good deal of backpedaling and obsequiousness on the part of the Petitioners in their petition to the DEA:
Petitioners humbly acknowledge that some of the materials that have been published by AHNAC may be interpreted as ‘marketing’ efforts…Petitioners admit that they went overboard in their efforts at propagation. [AHNAC 2016:11]
The Petitioners offer to give the DEA the right of pre-publication review and authorization of any materials written or produced for the website. They insist they have decided to focus all their energies on creating a center at Elbe, and have abandoned the idea of starting numerous new centers. Later, they go even farther:
Petitioners hereby reiterate their sincere desire to be within the law and the good graces of the Government, and aver that they will modify their behavior and circumstances in whatever way DEA deems necessary for them to qualify for an exemption under RFRA… [AHNAC 2016:16]
In other AHNAC news:
Despite their stated commitment to the Elbe site, AHNAC has given up their lease on the land which, according to Atlas Obscura, is being run as a mountain resort now. On August 12, 2016, Trinity announced that he would be signing a 5- or 10-year lease on property in Mexico, the new home for the Ayahuasca Healings movement. The next day he announced that he would be “finally” stepping into the role that he has been called to for so long—that of ceremonial leader. On September 2, he issued an important update via the Ayahuasca Healings website: Instead of opening up a retreat center, he would be turning the land in Mexico into a clinical research center,
to scientifically study the effects of Ayahuasca on the brain and body. This decision in the long run, will benefit and support this movement on a larger scale…The Clinical Research Center will also support everything we are doing to bring Ayahuasca to America, which ultimately is still our focus and will support that especially in regards to our petition for Religious Exemption from the DEA. [de Guzman 2016:n.p.]
Never mind that numerous well trained researchers on at least 3 continents have produced volumes of research on ayahuasca and its effects, much of which has already found its way into court records in support of the UDV case.
Finally, as noted in their DEA petition, AH has been (or will be?) rebranded as Heart Energy Medicine Native American Church. Information on an affiliated media company and shaman school, co-founded by Marc Shackman, can be found here and here.
Ayahuasca: The New Paradigm
The discussion heretofore paints a picture of inconsistency, impulsivity, perhaps even immaturity—criminal behavior by no means, but neither is it the sober, intentional, and organized approach to creating a new religion that we might like to see from an individual or group who intends to take on a responsibility as great as serving ayahuasca. However, from the point of view of indigenous rights, the real kicker is not AH’s claims to an Amazonian lineage, however shallow those claims may be; it’s not their New-Age eclecticism, with which they have thoroughly modified this tradition (even the “purest” Amazonian shamanism is eclectic by nature); the real kicker is the fact that Trinity and the rest don’t even plan to practice Amazonian shamanism. They have a “New Paradigm” that they are bringing to the Western world that improves on the old Amazonian methods and structures. Their new paradigm leaves indigenous shamanism behind completely, to replace it—and its practitioners—with a new and improved version.
Trinity first shares his vision that ayahuasca is meant to save the Western world from itself:
I’ve been shown by Mother Ayahuasca, there is a new way of bringing Her to the world, that is needed to help us through our modern-day way of thinking, and our current problems and challenges in the world…So, what I will be sharing with you, is what’s been taught to me as the “New Paradigm of Ayahuasca”. And it is how to share this medicine in the best way, for our modern day problems and consciousness...
The Old Paradigm Vs. The New Paradigm of Ayahuasca
The Old Paradigm of Ayahuasca, which is how the medicine has been shared for thousands of years, is very earthy, masculine, and dense. It’s very much about physical healing, and going into the shadows of our consciousness, into the dark, scary places, to heal what we need to. It’s difficult, challenging, intense, purgative, and yes, very powerful. This is the way the jungle shamans, the Shipibo, and many other tribes, have worked with Ayahuasca in the Amazon, since its inception as a medicine. This is the tradition of the medicine – its roots…And I give SO much thanks, gratitude, respect, and reverence for how this way of working with the medicine, has brought us to our current level of consciousness. But we need a new way of working with the medicine, to take us to higher states of consciousness. To the next level in our collective evolution This is where the New Paradigm of Ayahuasca comes in. The New Paradigm is all about love, light, the Angels and Archangels, the Ascended Masters, Sacred Fires, and through our joy, through love, through the heart, illuminating, cleansing, and purifying what no longer serves. It’s about the Feminine energy, the Divine Mother, and about healing through an enjoyable, blissful, heart-opening experience. It’s about the gentle, soft, loving compassion and grace of a child in its Mother’s arms. It’s about healing through an experience that is so much more easy and enjoyable. [de Guzman n.d.a.:n.p..]
Thanks, old man. I’ll take it from here.
From the point of view of indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights, AH’s “New Paradigm” represents a complete divestment and dispossession of indigenous culture from its proper owners. This attitude is beyond cultural appropriation; it’s more like cultural expropriation.
The thing is, this attitude is rampant throughout the neo-shamanic scene—Trinity is just the only one bold enough and rude enough to say it out loud, much less to publish it on his website. Anti-indigenous attitudes and the re-shaping of ayahuasca practice are common: The old guys in the jungle don’t sing pretty, they’re always smoking tobacco, they hit on the girls. Yes, this is true. They do all this. But does that give a bunch of entitled gringos (“Travel the world for years while your remote team does all the work!”) the right to avail themselves of a hard-fought, hard-won cultural birthright? Not according to this anthropologist it doesn’t.
Culture, especially indigenous culture, is not an unlimited resource ripe for exploitation. It is not the product of unbridled creativity, as is culture in the West. It is the product of generations of very close interaction with a particular environment. By interaction, I’m not talking skiing, surfing or rock climbing. I’m talking about getting out several days a week to walk the hunting trails, or till the soil and pull the weeds in the garden, so that your children don’t starve—and doing that year in and year out for your entire life. I’m talking about giving up everything from food to sex in order to purify and prepare your body in the search for toxic plants with which to treat the children’s intestinal parasites, exacerbated by overcrowding in state- or mission-sponsored population centers—or in the search for medicines with which to treat the latest European-induced epidemic disease.
Indigenous culture is not an unlimited resource; it is not the product of unbridled creativity. It is the product of very close interactions within a small group of people—the extended family. Amazonian shamanism is driven by the quest to keep the family, especially the tender children, alive, happy, and functional. The quest is supported by a very specific cultural, economic and intellectual milieu, in which the community has enough resources for one of its members to withdraw temporarily from productive activities in order to learn how to suffer on behalf of his or her people. Amazonian shamanism as we know it today is a response to centuries of colonial violence; to the mass genocide of the population through warfare, slavery and disease; to the loss of knowledge that accompanied the deaths of knowledgeable elders. Amazonian shamanism as we know it today is a survival strategy for dealing with an extremely difficult physical environment and an extremely difficult and rapidly changing socio-political environment. Just because they’ve chosen to share it with you doesn’t mean it’s yours for the taking.
Indigenous culture is not an unlimited resource—especially when it relies so heavily on specific forms of biodiversity, as does Amazonian shamanism. The exploding gringo demand for ayahuasca, both in the tourist centers of the Amazon and the export markets of the North, is driving up the price of the vine, which in turn is driving the overharvesting of the vine in the wild. B. caapi can be, and is often, grown in cultivation, but currently not in quantities equal to the demand. This situation threatens to deprive the Amazonian people of access to a core cultural commodity. Access to genetic resources (i.e. plants) is a matter for international scrutiny and negotiations–though in this case, the existing treaties are insufficient to the task at hand.
One of the bright lights of the ayahuasca tourism boom has, up to now, been its corollary effect of stimulating interest in traditional culture among young Amazonians. The destitute poverty in which shamans had, previously, been confined by their profession was one of the factors driving young people away from the apprenticeship process (the asceticism of apprenticeship is apparently the other major deterrent). However, with tourism came relative affluence, greater prestige, and growing interest among young people (Proctor 2000). Now, gringo-owned and operated retreat centers have relegated indigenous shamans to the position of hired help, and increasingly, gringo shamans replace indigenous ones altogether. Trinity explains why:
In the past, for previous Ayahuasca retreats that we would run, we brought the Shipibo, the old traditional jungle shamans, to lead our ceremonies.
Because I knew that many people who are looking into the medicine, wanted that.
So I would bring these jungle shamans to lead our ceremonies, even though I honestly didn’t really like the way those ceremonies were led that much. They didn’t resonate with me, since I’ve sat with other people who’ve lead ceremony, that were so much more powerful for me than any Shipibo ceremony I’ve been in.
I realized, I can not do that…
So, I’ll say it clearly, from now on, the Shamans that I have leading our ceremonies will not be the jungle shamans that many of you think you want.
Why? Because there is a new way of working with the medicine, that is MORE powerful.
And most importantly, more ENJOYABLE.
Why would you suffer through a difficult ceremony if you don’t have to? If you can have the same depth, or even deeper level of transformation, from a ceremony that is so much more peaceful and enjoyable.
The fact is, you don’t have to do it the old way anymore. The dark, dense, masculine, difficult, purgative experience in the shadows… Experiencing Ayahuasca does NOT have to be like that.
And I can no longer invite you to come to a ceremony led by a jungle shaman, because it is just not in integrity for me to do so. [de Guzman n.d.:n.p.]
It’s all about the new paradigm, baby. It’s all about feeling good.
No, we are not all Native American.
If AHNAC really wanted to convince the DEA of the sincerity of their beliefs and of the legitimacy of their connection to indigenous religion, such public statements are not the best way to go about it. Neither is Marc Shackman’s statement to Atlas Obscura regarding the (legitimate) Native American Church’s rejection of their activities: “’What we really are is an indigenous world culture church,’ Shackman says. ‘We fall under Native American church because we’re in America and that’s the indigenous culture in America.’” No matter that neither Shackman nor Trinity are native, or American. Shackman is from England, and Trinity is a Canadian of Filipino descent.
Atlas Obscura writes:
Native American Churches who reject groups like Ayahuasca Healings, [Shackman] says, are “not in touch with their traditional religion,” which he believes would not see a separation here.
“We do not expect all native peoples to approach us with such a transcendental perspective, and view us all as one spirit. There are always a few haters,” he says. “You can’t make everyone happy.”
As Trinity described in his “New Paradigm” of ayahuasca, these non-indigenous people think they can do “indigenous” better than the real Natives.
I’m at a loss for words.
Next stop: ONAC
Citations and links (in order of appearance)
AHNAC. 2016. “Ayahuasca Healings Native American Church Petition for a Controlled Substances Act Exemption Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Accessed at https://heartenergymedicine.blogspot.com on March 5, 2017.
DEA. n.d. “Guidance Regarding Petitions for Exemption from the Controlled Substances Act Pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Accessed at http://www.bialabate.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/DEA_Guidelines_for_Petition_for_Religious_Exemptions_to_CSA.pdf on March 5, 2017.
Capps, Reilly. 2016. “Cult leader or religious savior? This pro-drug exile is being called both.” The Rooster. Accessed at http://www.therooster.com/blog/cult-leader-or-religious-savior-pro-drug-exile-being-called-both on March 3, 2017.
Laskow, Sarah. 2016. “In 2016, the ‘First Legal Ayahuasca Church’ Got Shut Down. Was It a Scam—or a New Religion?” Atlas Obscura. Accessed at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/in-2016-the-first-legal-ayahuasca-church-got-shut-down-was-it-a-scamor-a-new-religion on March 3, 2017.
Thomas, Clifton G. 2016. “My Ayahuasca Healings Retreat: A Cautionary Tale.” Facebook. Accessed at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1019591274765819/permalink/1161198403938438/ on March 3, 2017.
de Guzman, Trinity. 2016. “Ayahuasca in Mexico – Important Update.” Accessed at https://ayahuascahealings.com/ayahuasca-mexico-update/ on September 13, 2016.
Heart Energy Medicine. 2016. Facebook profile. Accessed at https://www.facebook.com/pg/heartenergymedicine/about/ on April 5, 2017.
——— n.d. Home page. Accessed at https://heartenergymedicine.com on April 5, 2017.
de Guzman, Trinity. n.d.a. “What is Ayahuasca? How can it help you?” Accessed at https://ayahuascahealings.com/what-is-ayahuasca-how-can-iowaska-help-you/ on April 4, 2017.
Li, Lorna. n.d. “Travel the World for Years While Your Remote Team Does All the Work – Trinity de Guzman.” Entrepreneurs for a Change. Accessed at http://www.entrepreneursforachange.com/25/ on May 25, 2016.
Opray, Max. 2017. “Tourist boom for ayahuasca a mixed blessing for Amazon.” The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jan/24/tourist-boom-peru-ayahuasca-drink-amazon-spirituality-healing on Jan. 24, 2017.
Wikipedia. 2016. “Nagoya Protocol.” Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagoya_Protocol#Access_obligations on April 5, 2017.
United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. n.d. “About the Nagoya Protocol.” Accessed at https://www.cbd.int/abs/about/ on April 5. 2017.
Proctor, Rachel. 2000. “Tourism Opens New Doors, Creates New Challenges, for Traditional Healers in Peru.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 24(4):14-16. Accessed at http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/tourism-opens-new-doors-creates-new-challenges-traditional on Nov. 8, 2013.
de Guzman, Trinity. n.d.b. “8 Day Ayahuasca Retreats in the Sacred Valley, Peru.” Accessed at http://ayahuascahealings.com/ayahuasca-retreats-peru-sacredvalley/ on April 4, 2017.