One of the most common questions asked by those seeking out an ayahuasca experience is whether it is necessary to drink with an indigenous ayahuasca shaman or a Western one. As mentioned in our article about the necessity of travelling to South America to drink ayahuasca, the answer to this is probably not cut and dried.
There are likely to be major difference in terms of services offered, experience gained, and fees charged. Comfort and security provisions may differ vastly, language barriers could pose problems, and cultural norms and attitudes can lead to different expectations.
Although tempting at times, trust should not be automatic just because you trust one tradition more than another, or because you can identify more with one kind of shaman.
There are some important considerations for choosing an appropriate shaman, whatever their nationality or location:
Not all traditional shamans are integral
In the West, there is a lot of glorification of South American shamans. Westerners tend to want to seek not only healing but a peak experience, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, when it clouds judgment or leads to dangerous oversights or assumptions, there is.
If you have done any level of research on the world of ayahuasca you will probably have come across a few stories of severe misconduct in the jungle. Although there are many integral, wise and caring shamans out there, there are plenty that are not.
A Peruvian face and body adorned with traditional ceremonial clothing and the ability to sing icaros passed down through history are certainly attractive, but they are not necessarily the full story.
Having said that, word of mouth may be able to point you in the direction of a reputable shaman who is caring and knowledgeable; someone who is able to lead you through an authentic and deeply healing experience that will be complemented by traditional services in a traditional environment.
Corruption is rife in so many industries
As is the case with any industry, corruption is all too easy. It says something that ayahuasca consumption is even classed as an industry these days. Corruption in the ayahuasca world is often due to fixation with money, but it can also happen for other reasons, such as control or domination.
Stories of jungle retreat centres ‘losing’ or taking advantage of Western attendees are more common than they should be, as are tales of people dying at the hands of unscrupulous shamans who gave them brews with dangerous admixtures (such as datura, or toe).
Where indigenous peoples may have experience or tolerance to such plants, Westerners simply may not be able to handle them. There are real risks involved, and they should be carefully considered.
Language barriers and cultural understanding may cause problems
Another common problem is that indigenous shamans do not always understand, or do not take the time to find out about whether their Western attendees have contraindicated health conditions. One example would be SSRIs, which can be incredibly dangerous when combined with ayahuasca. Indigenous shamans used to serving Westerners may know about such issues and be equipped to handle them, but this is not guaranteed.
Communication is important in the run up to a ceremony or retreat, and arguably during it too. Your shaman may not speak your language, and vice versa, making it difficult to determine what your experience is likely to constitute. How will you integrate your experience after ceremony if you can’t understand your shamans language?
When choosing a centre or shaman for your ayahuasca experiences, carefully check for integrity and a solid reputation. Do so by asking the kind of questions that satisfy your concerns, and make sure this is still happening after money has changed hands. Look out for the level of interest shown with regards to your own health, and most importantly, carefully study reviews. Word of mouth from a trusted source is ideal.
Western shamans are not always appropriately trained or experienced
There has been a huge upsurge in the number of Western shamans running ceremonies and retreats throughout the West and sometimes beyond. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but again – it really depends on several factors.
Perhaps your shaman is somebody who has been to a few Peruvian retreats and taken it upon him or herself to spread the word and make the medicine more accessible to non-indigenous people. It may be that the intention is genuine, but that can be difficult to discern. Sometimes the intention is egotistical and delusional. Sometimes, when services are executed with integrity, it is a blessing.
In today’s world, being a shaman is trendy
Being a shaman is trendy these days, which in itself can be a problem. There are many people who seem to want the trimmings of recognition, admiration and even validation from their peers, and they often want a shortcut to that. Putting in years of effort in terms of training and/or experience is not a prerequisite for all. On top of that, it’s all too easy to lie about both motivation and credentials. It is a common complaint that ego is running rampant in medicine circles, and shamans are certainly not immune to that.
This is an entirely unregulated ‘industry’ and given that in most Western countries it is illegal, regulation is unlikely to happen. Besides, who would be in a position to regulate it anyway? This makes it a minefield to navigate, and your only guides are your powers of critical thinking and discernment. Gut instinct will get you far, whereas face value assessments may not.
So many are eager to bestow self-professed Western shamans with virtues and abilities they have never demonstrated possessing. When someone steps up to the plate to serve ayahuasca, it is often assumed that they have courage, knowledge and experience. Courage they may have, but that alone doesn’t mean much.
Drinking ayahuasca makes you vulnerable
When drinking ayahuasca you are putting yourself in a very vulnerable position; your safety and wellbeing may be entirely in the hands of a total stranger. Therefore it is crucial to ask yourself whether this shaman is physically, mentally and emotionally capable of handling any issues that arise in ceremony or within your own physicality or psyche.
Even if it appears that they are, what it is about them that makes you think so? It is very easy for them to play up to a reputation willingly projected onto them. A few white garments, feathers, rattles and drums do not make an integral shaman.
As is the case when selecting a South American shaman, you should be checking for the same things:
Do they meticulously check your history, health and mental state?
Is their attitude caring, even after you’ve paid your deposit?
Have they made provisions for your safety and comfort?
Do they demonstrate ability, integrity and common sense?
Are they open and honest about their experience?
Are they highly recommended and by who?
How much are they charging for their services?
The last question on that list is a tough one to find an appropriate answer to, as it does depend on various factors, from costs to the organisation (which can be extensive) to the amount and quality of services on offer.
Western shamans may be putting in a lot of time and effort sourcing and brewing medicines, creating programs and finding safe and convenient locations to serve you. They cannot and should not have to do it for free, but by comparing similar services offered by other groups, you can better gauge what is appropriate.
As always, when making a decision on which kind of shaman to drink with, be sure you’re asking the right kinds of questions and reading between the lines, especially with regard to actions. If you are looking for a retreat centre, feel free to check the DMT Times events listings. Note that it is impossible for us to guarantee the authenticity or reputation of such centres, so as always, please conduct your own research.