The Healing Paradox: Ayahuasca and Misconceptions of the Jungle


The surge of Western interest in the potent South American psychedelic brew called ayahuasca is bringing great healing and controversy.

The healing path is an onerous one. Whether fighting off or recovering from a physical illness, or working through mental or emotional issues, healing is most often a long process, and a heavy one at that. For some, it can lead back to religion, or the guidance of spiritual teachers. Some may seek solace in yoga or meditation practices, art, hobbies, or traditional therapies, while others seek the help of a different kind: the South American jungle medicine called ayahuasca.

It’s difficult to describe the powerful encounter ayahuasca delivers, even to those who have experience with other psychedelics more common in the U.S. such as mushrooms or LSD. Ayahuasca contains DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) and is considered the most potent hallucinogenic on the planet. But it’s more than that; it’s described often as “Grandmother”—as in a spirit who becomes present within you, guiding you through brutally raw self-reflection and healing. It is not a party drug, nor is it therapy in any traditional sense. But it is something unforgettable and often life-changing.

In recent years, ayahuasca has become quite popular with Americans, no doubt a result of our disconnected lifestyles, our back-and-forth states of physical and mental health. We oscillate between binging on junk foods, drinking too much alcohol, trading gym night for Game of Thrones. In retribution, we may switch to chugging down shots of wheatgrass, ditching empty calories, and being first in the yoga class queue. But neither of these lifestyles are the ideal; it’s a healthy balance we seek, one where playfulness, and sometimes even reckless behaviors, are brought into alignment with rigidity, discipline and a commitment to doing the right thing for our bodies and spirits. It’s no wonder we also have some of the highest anxiety and depression rates in the world.

Or, perhaps it’s a little bit of our First World boredom that sends us clamoring into buggy jungles in hopes of shamanic encounters and realignments on the ethereal plain. And there’s no question that a trip into the South American rainforest will be life-changing—psychedelic in its own right. But have we romanticized the culture and the medicine into dangerous territory?

A recent Men’s Journal article told the story of a young American seeker who went to Peru to drink ayahuasca after viewing a documentary film on the subject. What happened to Kyle Nolan is every parent’s worst nightmare: The 18-year-old reportedly died after an ayahuasca session and his body buried in the jungle by the shaman. It’s believed Nolan did not receive “pure” ayahuasca, and it was the inclusion of another powerful herb called toé that may have caused his death. And while ayahuasca-related deaths are in fact rare, the cases of faux shamans taking advantage of Westerners are becoming less so. Rapes, molestations, extortion and other behaviors we’d sooner attribute to unstable Americans are now commonplace in ayahuasca tourism regions. Westerners unable to handled the medicine or improperly guided by shamans during the ceremonies have inflicted wounds on themselves, become mentally deranged and even committed suicide in the aftermath of sessions. Should we be shocked?

One of the common (mis)conceptions about tribal cultures is their absolute purity and innocence—a belief that their simpler, shamanic ways of living somehow also equal immunity from greed and negligence. But it’s simply not true. Native Americans, for example, were slaughtering each other long before British settlers arrived and added to the bloodshed. And tribal wars have been common throughout history, all over the planet, including the beloved jungles of the Amazon. Still, we dub these cultures as quaint, which has erroneously come to mean infallible.

Do we travel to the jungles for healing because we must or, simply because we can? While our interest in ayahuasca is certainly an economic boon to low-income communities in countries including Peru, Colombia and Brazil, what do we really know about the long-term impact of the medicine on non-native people? Healing of any kind is a process. And when working with a potent psychedelic, the reverberations of a single session can be felt for months, even years after. It’s not exactly something that can be fully understood overnight. And it’s this desire to understand the experience that can send Westerners back to the jungle repeatedly to try and find the answers.

Granted, great healings do occur under the guidance of legitimate shamans. But they can also happen under less exotic setting, too. It is perhaps our reasons for seeking healing in the first place that will influence the experiences we ultimately receive. That’s not to say innocent people like Kevin Nolan deserve to die, but it can explain why we’re seeing a greater number of incidences like that occur; romantic impulses to venture thousands of miles into harsh environments for something that’s reportedly going to heal us, is not exactly the definition of responsible.

In our efforts to unAmericanize ourselves, we’re, in true American fashion, co-opting something that doesn’t really belong to us. Still, just like eating chocolate or drinking coffee isn’t necessarily a bad thing, despite our losing sight of  their exotic origins, ayahuasca clearly has benefits most of the time. But do we want that relationship to be like the exploitative practices and sugar-laden junk-filled candy the world’s top chocolate makers are known for? Or, can we adopt a Fair Trade, organic approach to shamanic medicine and usher in healthier connections? One thing is certain: no matter what your ultimate goal is, venturing into dark and dangerous jungles is always best approached with extreme caution.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Howard G. Charing

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.