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Experiences of Encounters with Ayahuasca: the Vine of the Soul_Kjellgren et al_2009

Experiences of Encounters with Ayahuasca: the Vine of the Soul_Kjellgren et al_2009

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Experiences of Encounters withAyahuasca"the Vine of the Soul"
Anette Kjellgren, Ph.D.*; Anders Eriksson, M.Sc.** & Torsten Norlander, Ph.D.
Abstract—Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew used by the indigenous populations of
Amazon. Theaim of this qualitative study was to gain insight into the experiences of western users of ayahuasca, aswell as to ascertain the experienced meaning that participants felt by their participation. Twenty-fivepeople from Northern Europe with experiences of group sessions with ayahuasca wrote anonymousdescriptions of their experiences. The Empirical Phenomenological Psychological method was used for
analysis. The
in 33
into six getieral
motivationand aim, (h) contractile frightening state (c) sudden transformation of the experience, (d) limitlessexpansive states with transcendental experiences, (f) reflections, and (g) changed woridview and neworientation to life. These themes provided a new structure, called the transcendental circle. Participantsreponed many positive psychological and physical improvements that indicate that ayahuasca couldbe of potential interest in the development of new medicines and therapie.s.Keywords—altered states of consciousness, ayahuasca, personal development, psychedelic medicine,spirituality
Research about psychoactive substances have beenfar from mainstream since the 1960s, but there is currentlyrenewed interest in the USA, the UK and Spain for this typeof research within the areas of psychotherapy and treatmentof post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression,pain, abuse, and other destructive behaviors, as well as inthe treatment of terminal cancer patients {Morris 2008).Such a psychoactive substance is ayahuasca, used by theshamanistic indigenous poptilations of the Amazon basin for
•Associate Professor. Department of I^ychology. Karlstad University.Karlstad, Sweden.•* Lecturer, Department ofPsychoIogy. Karlstad University, Karlstad,Sweden.•••Professor. Departmest of Psychology, Karlstad University,Karlstad, Swedes.Please address correspondence and reprint requests lo AnetteKjeilgren, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Karlstad University, SE-65188 Karlstad. Swedes; email: Anette.Kjellgren@kau.se
Jouma! of Psychoactive Drugs
309ceremonies with healing and ritual aims (eg. Dobkin de Ríos& Runurill 2008; Luna 1986). The word
comesfrom the Quechua language and can be translated as "thevine of the soul" or "the vine of death." This brew is alsoknown by several other names such as,
yage, hoasca
Ayahuasca brew (or tea) is a mixture that is preparedby boiling at least two different plants together in water forseveral hours. Sometimes other plants can be added. The hal-lucinogen dime thy ltryptamine (DMT) is part of the drink, acomponent that comes from the leaves of the
bush. In addition, the drink contains a monoaminoxidase(MAO) inhibitor from the vine
Banisteriopsis caapi.
ThisMAO inhibitor causes the DMT to become psychoactive inan oral infusion (McKenna 2004; Riba et a!.
Callawayet al. 1999). Without the inclusion of this enzyme inhibitor,the gastro-intestinal enzymes would metabolize the DMT sothat no psychoactive effect would result. Other combinations
Volume 41 (4), December 2009
KjeUgreQ, Eriksson & NorlanderEncounters with Ayahuasca
of plants containing DMT and MAO-inhibitors as well asadditional plants can be used.Ayahuasca is used as a legal psychoactive sacrament inBrazil within the religious organizations of Santo Daime.Uniäo do Vegetal, and Barquinha (Luna 2()08a: Luna &White 2000: MacRae 1998; Grob et al. 1996). The use ofayahuasca within these churches has been examined byGrob (1996). da Silveira (2005) and Santos (2007) andtheir colleagues; psychiatric evaluation, personality tests,and neurophysiological evaluation of
members revealedhigh functional status and discovered no negative effectsamong the ayahuasca users. Significantly less use of alcoholwas found among young people tied to the ayahuasea-usingchurches (Doering-Silveira et al. 2005). There are somestudies showing that ayahuasca can have a therapeutical!ybeneficial effect on alcoholics and other abusers of chemicalsubstances (McKenna 2004; Grob et al. 1996).Ayahuasca has become popular for both religious andspiritual purposes in the USA and interest in Europe is alsoon the rise. This interest has created a phenomenon some-times known as drug tourism (Winkelman 2005: Dobkinde
1994). People from industrialized, westem nationstravel to the Amazon in order to come in contact withtraditionally used Indian drugs in the hope of acquiring anauthentic experience (UHely & Belhassen 2005). Even theBrazilian ayahuasca churches have expanded their work toNorth America and Europe, and are attracting ever morepeople (Csordas 2008; Dobkin de Rios & Rumrrill 2008;Doering-Silveira et al. 2005).Generally, ayahuasca
taken during group ceremonies,which are usually led by an experienced person in the fieldor a shaman. A typical ayahuasca ceremony is not onlycharacterized by the brew's tremendously hitter flavor, butby lively, beautiful visions and visual effects. Other aspectsare purely physical and tend to begin with a peculiar feelingin the body approximately 30 minutes after ingestion. Thisfeeling can he described sometimes as an intemal inva-sion, or as Shanon (2002: 56) has stated: "The sensationis of something heavy and viscous crawling through one'sinner part, pressing and eventually taking possession ofone's entire body." Frightening and terrible psychologicalexperiences which participants describe as difficult innerbattles are also common at the start of the ceremony. Itis not uncommon that one believes one is about to die oris in the process of going insane. This initial phase oftenculminates with vomiting. The entire intestinal track canempty not only because participants experience vomiting,but also intense diarrhea. After this cleansing, a change inthe character of
experience is often described: after thisintense discomfort is over, a sense of euphoria, wonder anddeep peace are reported. Sometimes, this state is filled withvisionary experiences of various kinds. An ayahuasca ses-sion usually lasts approximately six hours.There is
evidence that the use of ayahuasca is addic-tive (Gable 2007). perhaps partly due to the tremendouslybitter taste and the side effects of nausea, vomiting, anddiarrhea. Shanon (2002: 56) reports: "The taste of Ayahuascais the worst that they ever come across in their entire lives."There is little risk of physiological or psychological damage.No physical damage or increased cardiovascular risk hasbeen found (Gable 2007).
search on the word "ayahuasca" in Medline, PsychlN-FO and Biological Abstracts in December 2008 resulted in164 matches, which indicates a certain amount of scientificinterest in this subject. Despite comprehensive searches inscientific databases, few phenomenological articles havebeen found in terms of psychological experiences. However,a classical work that provides a fundamental phenomeno-logical description of the ayahuasca experience is the bookwritten by Shanon (2002). Several other descriptions are al.sofound (Luna 2008b; Luna & White2000;Luna & Amaringo1993),as are a number of Internet sites where experienceswith ayahuasca are discussed (e.g., www.Erowid.com; www.ayahuasca.com). Against the backdrop of a description ofayahuasca's impact as both terrifying and very difficult toendure, with both vomiting and frequently residual diarrhea,it appears strange that this brew seems to present such anallure to westerners that they voluntarily drink it.The aim of this qualitative study is to gain certaininsights into those experiences that westerners who haveparticipated in group ceremonies with ayahuasca have had,a.s well as to ascertain the meaning that those pariicipantshave derived as a result of their participation in these cer-emonies.METHODParticipantsParticipants were recruited through three contact peoplewith knowledge of persons who had participated in aya-huasca sessions; these contact people were from an earlierpreviously-established network (Kjellgren & Norlander2001). A total of 25 people from northern Europe filled inand returned a questionnaire asking about experiences con-nected with participation in ayahuasca group sessions as wellas certain background data. The average participant age was43.56 years old (SD =10.39), nmging from ages 22 to 63.On average, they had participated in ayahuasca ceremonies17.00 times (SD =
ranging from 1-70 times). Thegender distribution was 11 men and 14 women. The coun-tries in which the respondents had participated in ayahuascaceremonies included: Brazil, Peru, Ecuador. Spain, Belgium.Holland, England, and Denmark. The average lapse of timesince last participation in a session was 310.21 days(SD =700.42). Participants consumed fewer cigarettes (numbers:M = 2.20, SD = 5.79), beer (cans: M = 0.80, SD = 2.21),wine (bottles: M = 0.32. SD = 0.59), and spirits (centiliters:M = 0.00, SD = O.(X)) compared with the average Swedishpopulation over the course of one week.
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs
Volamc 41 (4), December 2009
Kjellgren, Eriksson
NoríanderEncounters with Avabuasca
A questionnaire was constructed which elicited back-ground data as well as answers to three questions about theirayahuasca experiences:
Í1 )
Explain if you had a special goalor aim in participating in the ayahuasca session, (2) Can youprovide a description of what you went through, and anally,(3) Can you explain how this experience has impactedyour life. Participants were guaranteed full anonymity. Thequestionnaire was constructed in accordance with Swedishethical guidelices for psychological research.
Through a previoasly used neiwoik of contacts (Kjellgrai &Noiiander
Norlander. Kjellgren & Archer 2001) 30 ques-tionnaires were distributed to three ctmtact people who were intum given the task of sending these questionnaires further,accompanied by postage paid reply envelopes, to peoplewho participated at least once in an ayahuasca group ses-sion. From a total of 28 distributed questionnaires. 25 wereretumed by post within a two-week period. Data collectiontook place in January and February of 2008.
Proce^ing the Data
The Empirical Phenomenological Psychological Meth-od (EPP-method) devised by Gunnar Karlsson (1995) wasused in processing the data.
EPP-method comprises ananalysis in five steps:
This stage involved reading respondents'descriptions carefully until a substantial understanding,overview, and "sense" of the material was obtained. Theaim of this reading was to distinguish relevant psychologi-cal phenomenon. The reading excluded the aim of testingvalidity or any specific hypothesis.
Step 2.
In the second step, the text was divided intosmaller so-called meaning units (MUs). This division isnot based upon any rules of grammar, but entirely uponthe content the researcher discovers and at places wherea suitable shift in meaning occurs. An example from onerespondent yielding two MUs:
"Ayahuasca has shownme how everything is interconnected" and "2/ this has mademe more empathetic andwise.
This step yielded a total of468 meaning units.
During the third
each MU was transformedfrom the language of the respondent to the language of theresearcher. This transformation follows no specific rules,however everyday language is preferred to psychologicalterminology. The purpose is to make the implicit and under-lying meaning of a phenomenon visible and explicit. Thetransformed MUs from above:1/The respondent perceivesthat ayahuasca has shown how everything is interconnected;
The respondent experiences getting more empathetic andwise due to ayahuasca sessions.
Step 4.
In the fourth step, the transformed MUs weresynthesized into categories or situated structures. A total of33 categories were generated. An attempt to describe andanswer the questions "how" the phenomenon expressesitself (noesis), and "what" the phenomenon is (noema) werefocused on during categorization. Each category illustrateda special perspective of the phenomena studied and wasdescribed by a synopsis. The categories or situated structureswere developed during processing whereby repeated con-sultations of raw data continued in a hermeneutic manner.
During this final
the categories were movedinto more general themes or typological structures. Thiswas done through a procedure whereby the three authorsindependently organized the synopses into general themes,then jointly compared their results (which were strikinglysimilar), and finally agreed on the themes. The level ofabstraction was decided upon, according to the principlethat clarity should be attained without excessive detail.The purpose was to reflect at a more abstract level. Thethemes included categories that denoted various aspects ofthe experience of participating in ayahuasca sessions, forexample: motivation and aim; sudden transformation ofthe experience; changed worldview and new orientation to
To monitor the reliability of the study results, theNorlander Credibility Test (NCT), designed for phenomeno-logical analysis, was used (Edebol, Bood & Norlander 2008;Aseniöf et
2007). It was conducted by randomly selectingfive of the 33 categories. Thereafter, four of the MUs wererandomly .selected from each of the five categories. Thematerial was then given to two independent assessors. Theirassignment was to put the twenty MUs into the five differ-ent categories. One of the tests yielded an 86% agreement,and the other test yielded an 80% agreement. The overallagreement was thus 83%. According to Karlsson (1995).high validity is ensured by following the stages of the EPPmethod.
During the course of the study six themes emerged,each assisting of seveialcategories:(a)moti\'aionandaim.(b) con-tractile frightening state, (c) sudden transformation of theexperience, (d) limitless expansive states with transpersonalexperiences, (f) reflections, and (g) changed world view andnew orientation to life. The six themes recurred on a regularbasis throughout the study and constitute a timeline. We wijlfirst discuss each theme separately and then describe thelinks between the different parts of the timeline and howthose links develop into the transcendental circle.
Motivation and
AimThis theme describes various aspects of participationas well as motives for participating in ayahuasca sessions.Each of the participants underscored the importance of hav-ing an aim, and noted that participation was well thought
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs
Volume 41 Í4), December 2009

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