Remembering Wholeness: Ayahuasca and the Structural Violence of Modern Life

Posted: July 20, 2018
Category: From the Web

Ayahuasca Modern

"Why does one write, if not to put one’s pieces together? From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces: it teaches us to divorce soul from body and mind from heart. The fishermen of the Colombian coast must be learned doctors of ethics and morality, for they invented the word 'sentipensante', feeling-thinking, to define language that speaks the truth." -Eduardo Galeano, Celebration of the Marriage of Heart and Mind (1989).

“Feeling-thinking”, sentipensante in the Spanish original, is a term gathered from the popular wisdom of the Colombian Caribbean coast. Sentipensar means to think with the heart, to think with our feelings. Similarly, as a play of words between the word for heart, corazon, and the word for reason, razonar, co-razonar means “to co-reason with the heart”, as proposed by the Tseltsal Maya of southeast Mexico.

Anthropologist Arturo Escobar suggests the dominance of rational, abstract thought has marginalized and made invisible other sources of knowledge, such as those based on the wisdom of the body; our intuition and emotions; and our spiritual, mystical, or dream-related experiences. I would include ecodelic and psychedelic experiences, such as those often experienced with ayahuasca, as encounters that can provide more immediate ways of approaching reality, precisely because these experiences transcend the mediation of abstract reflection. 

Ayahuasca Modern LifeBeyond the individual, “feeling-thinking” emerges by stepping out of our socially and culturally imposed isolating exile in hyper-individualism, rather experiencing oneself to be woven within an interdependent and interconnected social ecology.

“We teach what we need to learn and write what we need to know,” says feminist writer Gloria Steinem. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the same is true of our focus on research and of the methodologies we choose to use. For me, ethnography is a vehicle for self-knowledge; an interview is an opportunity to connect intimately with someone else, and participant observation is a daily practice, such as yoga or meditation. I believe that any research project is inherently autoethnographic, even biographic.

I arrived to the Peruvian Amazon 18 months ago to live, work, and do research at the Temple of the Way of Light, a healing center near the city of Iquitos. The workshops and retreats offered there emphasize ayahuasca, contextualized within the Shipibo medical practice, as a vehicle for personal healing and transformation. In collaboration with ICEERS and the Beckley Foundation, we have been carrying out an observational study in the last two years, examining the therapeutic potentials that ayahuasca offers to those experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma, or grief, and as a valuable practice to enhance our well-being.
We have been… examining the therapeutic potentials that ayahuasca offers to those experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma, or grief.
The results of the quantitative study are very promising; over the last year, I have been conducting interviews for a qualitative study, fleshing out the numbers with the narrative voices of the participants themselves. The following paragraph is a paraphrased fragment from one of these interviews. I feel that it illustrates well a central theme that emerges from many of these narratives: healing as the process of recognizing all the dimensions of being and knowing from which we have separated, and the subsequent remembrance of the intrinsic link between body, mind, spirit, society, and environment.
I noticed I have a tendency to be in my head too much”, she told me. “My mind is always racing, always thinking about something. It’s exhausting. During my ayahuasca experience, there was a moment where I noticed that my mind had stopped”.
What did that feel like?”, I asked.
Oh, it was wonderful! The first thing I noticed was that my anxiety was gone. I felt at peace and very blissful. The second thing I noticed was my body. I could feel myself inside my body and being comfortable in that space. I realized how disconnected from my body I was, living so much inside my head . . . Drinking ayahuasca has reminded me about the importance of connecting my mind with my heart.
“During this ceremony”, she continued in a later part of the interview,
I also thought a lot about indigenous people and about the loss of their culture and the destruction of their land . . . I was very sad, but it also inspired me to be more involved in these issues . . . I got a strong sense of feeling that we are not separated from each other, that we are not separated from our land . . . These are problems that affect all of us in very tangible ways.
Unlike many of the people I interview, I did not initially arrive at the center looking for “healing”. However, living and working there implies that, sooner rather than later, the confrontation with oneself is inevitable. The intense work with ayahuasca and the beautiful complexities of living in a community of people committed to healing and growth ensured that many of my own disconnections, alienations, fragmentations, and anxieties were brought out into the light.

Discovering in myself many of the experiences and patterns that I observe in and hear from people who come to “heal” has forced me to constantly keep asking the same questions: What do we mean when we talk about “health” and what does it mean to be healthy? 

ayahuasca-question-optAccording to the official definition of the World Health Organization, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not only the absence of diseases or illnesses”. In addition to the inclusion of the psychological and social dimensions of well-being, the Pan-American Health Organization also includes an ecological dimension, an acknowledgment that human health depends on environmental health.
The words “health” and “heal” are etymologically related to the word “whole”.
In the English language, the words “health” and “heal” are etymologically related to the word “whole”. The three terms derive from the proto-Germanic hailjan: literally, “to make something whole”. In Spanish, the word for health, salud, comes from the proto-Indo-European siH-u: “whole”, and the word sanar, “to heal”, from the word seh-no: “to bind, to unite”. These terms are also cognates to the Sanskrit सर्व (sárva), the ancient Persian haruva, and the ancient Greek ὅλος (hólos). All three are translated as “whole”.

From the Greek hólos we have the term “holistic”. We often refer to “holistic health” to designate medical concepts or practices, oftentime categorized as “alternative” for the simple fact that they transcend the purely biomedical, that is to say, the hegemonic. The idea of ​​”holistic health” is a linguistic redundancy, although the distinction is necessary as a contrast to the often incomplete and reductive vision of health offered by the dominant model.

As Richard Doyle writes,
While contemporary biomedicine often has recourse to the use of confined spaces and proximate and invasive technologies that scan, regulate, and feedback—the MRI, the pacemaker, the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor—the linguistic roots of the concept point less to a technique than to an itinerary: what had been broken, fragmented, partial, separated, and alienated becomes somehow reintegrated into a whole. Suddenly, in being healed, there are not only parts but also the Whole—multiplicity, manifested, becomes integrated into a unity.
Although neurochemical theories of mental illness still dominate psychiatric practice, it is increasingly evident that an approach to symptoms, and not to the roots of the problem, does little to really help “heal”. It is also important, for example, to recognize the growing evidence pointing to structural changes in the brains of children and young people who suffer traumatic events. The essence of trauma, as Gabor Mate argues, is not in the traumatic event itself, but in the subsequent disconnection from oneself, the separation from the body and the emotions that follow the event. The focus of the healing work thus changes from “how do we alleviate the symptoms”, to “how have we separated and how do we reconnect?”

In addition to biographical events, many experiences of mental or emotional suffering  originate or are exacerbated by the lifestyles imposed by the structural violence that sustains late capitalism. These include ideologies and practices such as patriarchy, extreme individualism, and hyper-consumerism. Trying to adapt to certain social and cultural norms of modernity always implies a certain level of alienation and disconnection. 

ayahuasca-alienation-optimziedRecently I have personally been feeling a constant pressure in the chest and in the mouth of the stomach and I find my jaw constantly tense. It is mainly somatic, but it has evident psychological and social dimensions. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes really debilitating. It is a set of experiences that some clinicians would likely label as an “anxiety disorder”, a mental health diagnosis that often carries with it a prescription for anxiolytics to help suppress the symptoms.

Working with ayahuasca, however, I have chosen the opposite way. Instead of suppressing my anxiety, I have started to unearth the roots of my discomfort, diving into the abyss to find the origins of that disconnection. With the help of the Shipibo healers, I have been remembering how to feel without rationalizing or evading, remembering how to be in my body, identifying and naming some of the various sensations and emotions as they arise, something that somewhere down the line I forgot how to do. With the help of the healers and the plants, I am remembering to feel-think-with-my-body.

I have learned that my “anxiety” is not only mine; it does not reside in my brain alone, as approaches assume, but is an individual manifestation of the much wider, systemic structural violence of modernity, enacted in the violence with which I often treat myself. I find that I often submit to a self-generated stress that emerges from a fixation with “self-realization” and other abstractions that generate anxiety whenever I feel that I’m not doing everything that I can to get aheadThis happens when instead of writing, working, being of service to other people, or advancing some other quantifiable aspects of my life, I choose to “waste time” on pleasurable, social, or recreational activities.

Byung-Chul Han calls this “self-exploitation”, a logical consequence of neoliberalism and extreme and competitive individualism. Exploitation often leads to rebellion. Yet in modern times, when oppression is institutionalized and often invisible, there are not always immediately visible oppressors against whom to rebel. The body and the spirit, seeking liberation, rebel against oneself. The connected becomes disconnected and translates into eating disorders, anxiety, depression, or the all-pervasive addictions to junk entertainment, social networks, or pornography. These technologies provide temporary relief as faint simulacra, connection yet never satisfying our craving for those lost connections.

In my case, I learned to value this “anxiety” as a manifestation of the wisdom of feeling-thinking. My physical body is telling me, very loudly, that my thoughts and actions are misguided, emerging from a fragmented being-in-the-world and dictated by a hyperrational “culture of the self” that values, above all, ​​self-sufficiency, economic independence, and individual happiness and fulfillment. Yet the cost of living according to this cultural ethos is too high. We run the risk of becoming alienated, not only from our own body and heart, but from our communities and our environment as well.
To be whole, we cannot commodify our relationships to the extent of alienation.
The epidemics of disconnection that we are experiencing in the West are not only from our own selves. We humans are social primates. To be whole, we cannot commodify our relationships to the extent of alienation: we need real, fulfilling and intimate connections with others. Last January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a state minister to confront the sweeping epidemic of loneliness, a risk factor to health greater than obesity, which has prompted researchers and governments to consider social connection as a public health priority. 

Ayahuasca Social ConnectionMany of the people that I interview express the importance of feeling part of a group committed to the process of healing and growth. Their experiences with ayahuasca happen within a context where all the participants share deeply personal, intensely emotional, and sometimes transcendental experiences. In a few days, a group of strangers creates an atmosphere of empathy and mutual responsibility that connects everyone through ties of reciprocity. These are experiences of true community that many of us have lost in our daily lives, carving our way forward in liquid and increasingly competitive and emotionally numb societies.

To describe their experiences, the people I interview often use (and remember) a feeling-thinking and language, reconnecting the brain with the heart, reconnecting the rational mind with the sensitive body, knowing oneself to inter-exist woven within an interdependent network that includes not only other humans, but also forests, rivers, plants, animals, and mountains.

And I write “remember”, because this experience of an enchanted and interconnected world that is populated by sentient, intelligent, and communicative beings to whom we are intimately related, is much more than the primitive ontology or the failed epistemology of pre-scientific societies: it is the birthright of each and every being on this planet. This is something that many indigenous cultures and peoples, despite a history of genocides and the systematic fostered by “rational” thinking, have tried to help us remember for centuries. As a teacher from another tradition and another plant once told me: “for you urban beings, the main value of these master plants is to alphabetize you about the interconnectedness of the natural world of which you are part”.

Returning to the quotation of Galeano at the beginning of this article, I feel the same. This is why I do what I do, why I do research, why I write. This is why I try, maybe, to teach something, that is to say, to learn something, to put all of my own pieces together.

By Adam Andros Aronovich, M.A. - July 11, 2018