September 3, 2016

This is your brain on Li-Lo: Ayahuasca in the Twenty-First Century

The genie is out of the bottle, tweeting about the next shamanic bodywork leadership seminar, and the bottle; well, check and see if it isn’t in the back of your fridge by the vegan TV dinner. 

"The genie is out of the bottle" [Photo: Pinterest]

Who would have ever imagined that ayahuasca, the enigmatic jungle potion William S. Burroughs once referred to as “the secret”[1] and whose very botanical identity was a matter of debate through the mid-twentieth century[2] would, within a matter decades, become a household (or at least, yoga-mat) word; the subject of hundreds of scientific, anthropological, and medical studies; a magnet for international tourism; the motor behind a global religious diaspora, and the victorious plaintiff in absentia of an historic Supreme Court case?

The rhyme “herbal brew”/“bamboo” in Paul Simon’s 1990 ayahuasca-inspired song “Spirit Voices” already rings of kitsch, but there is still something, if not fresh, then at least compelling about Sting
in his biography Broken Music,[3] revealing that “ayahuasca has brought me close to something, something fearful and profound and deadly serious.” But by the time Lindsay Lohan confides to a reality TV host in April of 2015 that ayahuasca helped her “let go of past things… it was intense,”[4] Burroughs’s “final fix” has finally entered the realm of cliché.

How did this happen? What is the special appeal of this bitter Amazonian brew in the post-post-modern global village toolbox of self-realization? How has it fared in the bustling marketplace of New Age spiritual entrepreneurism and on the battleground of the War on Drugs? And what does it all mean for the multiple, religiously and socially diverse communities and individuals who consume ayahuasca, as well as various ayahuasca-like analogs, around the world?

We can think of the global ayahuasca expansion of the past two decades as a kind of second wave to the psychedelic revolution, following upon that other, “fantastic universal… inevitable… high and beautiful wave,” Hunter S. Thompson describes as cresting in the mid-1960s only to crash so quickly, and so disappointingly:

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back

"Wave of the Future"

Will the “re-traditionalization” of global neo-ayahuasca ceremonies provide adequate social controls and ideological coherence to ensure that this “second wave” psychedelic revolution doesn’t crash and dissipate somewhere between the headwaters of the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef? Will the contradictions of the modern self and the temptations of capitalism undercut the radical vision of individual and planetary healing that some neo-ayahuasca enthusiasts prophecy? Will ayahuasca become another battlefield casualty in the global War on Drugs, or will legislation evolve to protect ayahuasca as a religious sacrament, as a medicine, as a tool of experiential freedom? We don’t yet have all the answers to these questions, but the authors of this book are on the crest of the wave, and if anyone can see ahead to the far shore, it is they. 


Excerpted from: "Ayahuasca in the Twenty-First Century: Having it Both Ways"[6], in:

edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Clancy Cavnar & Alex. K. Gearin

 Related links from this blog:
Agony and ecstasy in the Amazon
Return of the secret shaman
Dream tobacco
The cheerful pessimist
 Chronicle of a death foreclosed 
Between the cross and the Pleiades

[1] Burroughs, W. S., & Ginsberg, A. (2006 [1963]). The yage letters: Redux. San Francisco: City Lights Books
[2] Schultes, R. E. (1957). The identity of the malphigaceous narcotics of South America. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 18, 1–56.
[3] Sting. (2005). Broken Music: A Memoir. New York, NY: Dell, p. 18.
[4] Morris, B. (2014) Ayahuasca: A strong cup of tea. The New York Times, June 13, p.  ST1.
[5] Thompson, H. S. (1998 [1971]). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York, NY: Random House/Vintage Books, p.  68.
[6] Shepard, G.H. Jr. (2017). Ayahuasca in the Twenty-First Century: Having it both ways. In: B.C. Labate, C. Cavnar & A.K. Gearin (eds.), The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies. New York: Routledge.


  1. Glenn, thanks for the great post and interesting read. When Lindsay Lohan is jumping on the bandwagon, that's a sign things are getting problematic. How long before Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus follow?

    1. Dear Kevin, Yes, and indeed Lindsay Lohan may be the least of our worries. Ayahuasca has entered the mainstream and this is raising lots of interesting questions and dilemmas that echo in some way the "psychedelic revolution" of the 60s. The book takes an honest and yet respectful at all these issues. In any event, fascinating times to be alive. Thanks as always for your comments, Glenn

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    1. Thank you for the comment however please refrain from posting commercial links on this blog. Thanks!

  3. Glenn, good point. When celebrities start taking ayahuasca it is just a sign of how mainstream it has now become. This has also happened with Salvia divinorum and Mitragyna speciosa. I'm just afraid that a crackdown from authorities is more likely than acceptance.

  4. The genie is out of the bottle…What’s next? Ayahuasca birthday cakes?

    Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead knew the cake was dosed with 800 hits of LSD. But he ate some of the frosting anyway because it looked good.

    A video interview with Jerry about the birthday cake.

    1. Somehow I don't think ayahuasca birthday cake will ever go over (or down...) very well. But that's a great acid birthday cake story from Jerry Garcia! What a concept: "Play for your life". Thanks for sharing, Glenn.

    2. So what do we learn from that?
      Mafiosos do like good music. ;D