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The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca: the Healing Effects of Symbolic and Mythological Participation

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The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca:
The Healing Effects of Symbolic and Mythological Participation

Justin Panneck is a faculty member for Colorado Technical University and holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Walden University. He conducted a recent case study on the spiritual experience of practitioners in the Santo Daime Church. Based on his ayahuasca visions, Justin wrote and published a fictional book entitled The Knight of Dark Wood: The Last Tree Whisperer, which includes themes related to mythology and consciousness. He has spoken at several conferences in San Francisco on a topics related to Jungian psychology, archetypes, mythology and plant-based visionary states. He lives in Portland, OR.

The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca:
The Healing Effects of Symbolic and Mythological Participation

Mythology and alchemy are significant aspects of humanity that have been lost in the modern world but carry important messages and tools for integrating various levels of the unconscious as well as engendering purpose and enhancing creativity and spirituality. Ayahuasca, and other entheogens (e.g., psilocybin, LSD, salvia divinorum, etc.) may serve as psycho-enrichment technologies (PETs) that enhance cognition, boost creativity and spirituality, and create harmonious relationships with others. The use of ayahuasca in a ritual setting has been found to stimulate optimal living through the integration of mythological, alchemical, and archetypal motifs into daily life. Ritual use of ayahuasca may include a shamanic ritual (healer-patient) or an organized religious group, such as the Santo Daime church, the Barquina, or the União do Vegetal (UDV), the latter 3 of which represent a type of collective shamanism.
Based on my extensive interviews with multiple seasoned Santo Daime church members, and my 5 years of experience with Daime rituals, I propose that ayahuasca used in these ritual settings is further parallel to Victor Turner’s (1967) three phases of ritual experience: separation, liminality, and reaggregation, where liminality involves a journey through the world of mythology, representing a key phenomenon in spiritual and psychological transformation. Examining these motifs and stages allows individuals to understand themselves in much greater depth; the dissolution of negative patterns and behavior, or trauma, etc.; and the further stimulation of positive changes in “beingness.”
Liminality is a term coined from twentieth century anthropology by Victor Turner, where limen in Latin translates to ‘threshold,’ and may be applied to certain states experienced by individuals as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another (Palmer 1980). Palmer describes that during the liminal stage, or the ‘between stage,’ one's status becomes ambiguous; one is "neither here nor there," and is "betwixt and between all fixed points of classification (5). This is the marginal zone where many of our great writers, critics, and artists have experienced glimpses beyond the social borders, from within the deep, foamy mythological waters of the collective unconscious, where the whisperings of ethereal minds have wrought a blooming magnitude of progressive ideas and forms.


Throughout the spiritually thematic ecstasies and illuminations witnessed during ritual ayahuasca sessions, individuals gain access to a sort of “mythic consciousness,” which from a neurophysiological perspective may be typical of accessing ancient parts of the brain (e.g., the R-Complex); and from a more transpersonal and psychodynamic approach, the depths of the unconscious, further re-orienting deeply imbedded primitive belief structures. Often, images can be so vivid and poignant, despite how unique or grotesque they may be, that a deep chord is struck in the psyche. For example, during one of my ayahuasca sessions with the Santo Daime church, I recorded the following from my own journal:
There was one rather ghastly vision of a dead, morbid body in a glass capsule that had just rolled over toward me—its eyes open; its body morbidly white, although tinged with frigid, cobalt blue, grayness, and dull olive tones. The whole scene appeared to be something that was ‘hiding’ underneath a structure of some sort, as if something was ‘swept under the rug’ and now it was being unearthed, examined and disposed of.

What symbolic message could this represent? I immediately thought of my scatological tendencies, bad eating habits, a few other unmentionables, and the obstinacy of my full creative expression. Whatever its symbolism, it was quite poignant to me. This image closely resembles the oft-repeated mythological “death metaphor,” and possibly represents a critical stage in my personal growth process as my old paradigm was “dying off” and being replaced by the rebirth of a new paradigm. These visual narrations may sometimes be referred to as a metaphorical parable, which are not unlike parables in the Bible: an image is presented and the experient takes away a moral lesson (Shanon 2010).
Therefore, it is important to incorporate, or at least consider mythological motifs and symbols, perhaps through synthesizing the landmark works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, calling attention to ancient wisdom and further interpretations of the mysterious depths of the unconscious. This may help to stimulate a paradigm shift in how we view and assess self-knowledge and other information to a type of “mystical-metaphorical” orientation, which may greater serve our needs as we increasingly become a more complex society wrought with increasing levels of stress and psychological ills. Everyone maintains the desire to tell their own story, which is the point of mythology, and in that process, life gains more significant meaning. As Moermann (2002) stated, “Meaning affects life, life affects meaning [and] as people create stories from their lives, restructure the flow of life into meaningful objects, they are able to relieve much distress, suffering and many physical problems” (150f).
Many individuals who consume ayahuasca may find themselves in an “archetypal transformation” similar to what Joseph Campbell would call the “Hero’s Journey,” which many individuals undertake, whether or not they are aware of it. Although it is this awareness of a “heroic journey” embedded in mythological themes that has a tendency to enrich the “life adventure.” The prominent feature of this journey involves a “deconstruction” and “resurrection,” which includes an entirely new outlook on life. For example, encounters with Jesus Christ during altered states of consciousness (ASC) are particularly notable since his death and resurrection provide a particularly profound dramatization of this motif.
In his article, The Stormy Search for the Self, Grof (1991) summarized the hero’s journey by asserting, “One receives a yearning or ‘call’ from the forces of the unconscious; undergoes lonely separation from family and beliefs; is initiated and transformed by jarring, painful interior and exterior life events; and is finally reborn, re-integrated body, mind and spirit, and returned to life as a new being with mature gifts and understandings” (5).
Grof (1991) also referred to this process as the biographic matrix of illness–crisis–breakthrough, which is evident in many myths, including Jonah and the Whale, the resurrection of Persephone by Zeus, or in the myth of Orpheus, where “the skills of an exceptionally gifted and enchanting artist are combined with a wanderer between the worlds who is able to speak nature’s tongue” (7). Grof further highlighted how Plato discussed four types of ritual madness, whereby one is caused by the intervention of gods, including the prophetic rapture to Apollo, the artistic inspiration by the Muses, and the ritual ecstasy of Dionysus, the latter of which his student Aristotle referred to as catharsis—a purging or purification.
These ancient myths are not unlike the experiences witnessed during the ritual use of ayahuasca (e.g., Turner’s above 3-phase model), where one wanders “in between worlds” often experiencing a type of temporary “madness” (illness/separation), as well as a breakdown of identity (crisis). Eventually the experient develops a macrocosmic kinship, or connection to nature, as well as rapture, inspiration, and ecstatic spiritual communion (liminality), which is then then followed by catharsis and purification (reaggregation).
It is important to identify with the relationship between the mythical-religious phenomena experienced by ayahuasca consumption and mythology itself, as the world of myth appears to be embedded with a common story that we all share as humans—recipes for the successful development of Self. Michael Meade (2010) wrote, “Myths are intended to break the spell of time and release us from the pressures and limitations of daily life…”, whereas the great psychiatrist, Rollo May (1991) asserted, “Our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. The person without a myth is a person without a home…To be a member of one’s community is to share in its myths…” Joseph Campbell (1968) summarized the importance of myths in the following excerpt:
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. What we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive. That’s what all these mythical clues help us to find within ourselves. Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is. (47)

Shanon (2010) wrote extensively about the relationship between ayahuasca and myth, asserting that “the two [ayahuasca and myth] are causally, not only conceptually, linked. If myths were discovered by their originators through the use of substance-induced altered states of consciousness, then the world of myth is actually the world of Ayahuasca. I tend to believe that this is indeed the case” (395).
Thus, it can be seen that ASC through the ritual use of ayahuasca, forges access to pre-modern myth and culture, which present important formulas for not only overcoming human issues, but synthesizing life’s obstacles into daily life—living the true mysteries and forging them into personally meaningful and deeply healing conditions. In fact, there appears to be an emerging empathy regarding these mythical-religious concepts and interpretations among those who have experienced entheogenic substances (Ghasemi 2010). In the course of these experiences and encounters with transcendent states of existence, individuals will discover mytho-poetic concepts of traditional scriptures to be more apropos than modern psychological concepts in explicating the nature of the experience (Smith 2000).
Tupper (2002) described entheogens as tools that promote a type of spiritual and existential intelligence, given that they facilitate a mythical-religious component of human culture, which he believes accounts for why the use of entheogens often engenders empathy with the irreducible and mysterious dimensions of life. Ghasemi (2010) posits that “entheogens restore a primitive form of perception of which the myth itself is the principal collective manifestation (5),” the central idea of which was suggested by Ernst Cassirer in 1925, who introduced a level of perceptive experience as the origin of the myth. It is Ghasemi’s belief that given these Cassirerian notions of perception and myth, ayahuasca reproduces these cognitive parameters that shape this mythical perception. Many of the experiences of participants from my past interviews with over a dozen Santo Daime church members (Daimistas) were saturated by old and new mythological motifs. These included Mary; the Divine Mother; Jesus; images and symbols of death; sensations of being in the womb (often referred to as “the Void”); as well as animated trees and plants, which have a voluminous array of weighted mythological significance (e.g., the Inoteka or ancient “sky rope” between heaven and earth, symbolizing the marriage of feminine and masculine, mind and body, mother and father, etc.). Newer related emerging themes may relate the marriage of advanced civilization (father) with nature (mother)—that the two can and should co-exist, rather than endure as a source of negative tension. This theme most likely refers to the “emerging return of the feminine,” a quote that I have heard repeatedly from a variety of spiritually-minded people over the years.
These newly emerging mythological themes are often witnessed during Daime sessions, both from my own and from my informants’ accounts, such as, for example, Gaia as a living entity combined with Christ Consciousness, which may be referred to as the Christ-Gaian paradigm. In a Daime concentration ritual I attended several years ago, I was presented with a startling and transformative vision of what appeared to be an “alien-machine-god” churning out boundless strings of DNA code, as if it were “The Creator.” It is my belief that this could possibly represent an amalgam of personal and cultural messages deeply buried within the depths of my unconscious mind, which surfaced to possibly reveal either emerging modern conditions, or even personal spiritual messages. For example, the deep impact of this animated mythological communion (AMC), as I have come to call it, was a realization that the Divine is within me.
Personal and cultural interpretations of these types of images, if deciphered on a regular basis following ayahuasca sessions, may lead to an enhanced relationship to the unconscious mind. This is the essence of “living the mysteries”—to know and exalt one’s self as a center of the mysteries as well as an author of one’s own unique adventures. This the myth spun by the Holy Grail, and the alchemical lure of turning base metals into gold—a psychic projection toward aligning mind and body to uncover the spiritual center.
In terms of cultural interpretations, could this vision represent a mytho-poetic “teaching” to remain aware of the destructive effects of industry (machines) on the planet? Could it represent the near-future event horizon of the merging of humans and machines—another interpretation of the marriage of “Mother” and “Father”? Or could it be the classic Deus Ex Machina, the mythological machine whose arrival indicates that the end is nigh as we know it?
Other important and meaningful themes include that of Christ, which may be particularly healing given its translation to experients. That is, when ayahuasca drinkers, especially within a ritual context bound to Christian ideologies (Santo Daime, et al.), come into direct contact with Christ and then enter into a Supreme Christ Consciousness, they become transformed and consequently come to feel they understand the story, the meaning, and the significance—from the profession of rapture, to sacrifice and salvation, death, and then rebirth. It is as if the participant has entered into the story and become the central actor, which is a very profoundly moving and emotional phenomenon that appears to transcend ordinary boundaries and limitations, permeating and eliminating the now trivial and petty annoyances that once served as the basis of stress. The pivotal theme in Christ Consciousness that experients enter into, especially seen during Santo Daime rituals, is the notion of salvation, which bears its translation into the release of an undesirable state or condition (old cultural or religious paradigms, negative behaviors, traumas, etc.) and toward redemption, healing, and health through release and transformation.
This new found spiritual joie de vivre may initially create spiritual crisis in some, which is not particularly productive if the culture and/or social group in which one lives does not support their newly-forged spiritual rapture. Once an individual is able to successfully integrate their teachings and “newly-found” self, an appetite for life itself is beheld, as told through the myth—most notably that of the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is not unlike the story of the ayahuasca seeker whereby the following sequence of events often occur: their calling for a new paradigm, alternative healing, or spiritual wholeness summons an open door to the Holy Grail in which lies the bitter-sweet prima materia or medicine; it is cooked or amalgamated (the medicine is ingested); and then inward they fly, to fight their inner-demons, attempting to overcome their challenges, and then finding light, love, and gold within their hearts (i.e., beholding the Holy Grail). Following their illumination and self-transformation, they may then proceed to transform their families and communities, if they so desire (i.e., boon to society).
Joseph Campbell (1968) touched on this relationship between the Self and the adventure, when he asserted, “The adventure is symbolically a manifestation of his character. Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in situations that will evoke your higher nature rather than your lower one” (52). What is also particularly transformative and healing about an AMC is that it seems to represent an emerging new paradigm and sensitivity for the ritual—something of which has been lost. Campbell (1968) added to this notion an excerpt regarding the loss of myth and ritual in the modern Western world:
The ritual has lost its force. The ritual that once conveyed an inner reality is now merely form. We live in a demythologized world [which] is why many…are so attracted to these myths—they bring….messages. (54)

Roberts (2013) believes that it is appropriate to view mystical experiences as “novel information-processing programs that allow the mind to invent new solutions, to see things from a fresh perspective (17). What’s more, as Roberts claims, there appears to be a paradoxicality in mystical experiences, where conflicts between opposite ideas appear to be reduced and reframed as reciprocal components of a greater whole, each as part of a more complete understanding. This theme of the “pairs of opposites” is a significant aspect of myth and mythological themes, and is present in the experiences of many ayahuasca drinkers, which carry over into such applications as more effectively managing conflicts in relationships, or understanding the intentions and behaviors of others more deeply, or even transforming the way in which ayahuasca drinkers feel about themselves, their community, and the world around them.

The Ayahuasca Ritual as a Modern Alchemical Healing Paradigm

Earlier it was noted that the Christ-Gaian paradigm can be likened to the “marriage” between “mother and father,” and may also refer to the merging of masculine and feminine qualities, such as the sky and the earth, or the “bridge” between spirit and matter, the latter of which Jung and Wolfgang Pauli so desperately tried to seek. In ancient alchemical texts, this is often referred to as the “alchemical wedding,” or opus alchymicum. In works of alchemy, an unconscious projection of this individuation process, which is seen to occur among ayahuasca drinkers, begins with an unconscious content (referred to as prima materia in alchemy) and ends with the realization of the Self symbol. The Self symbol can be equated to the much sought after “Philosopher’s Stone” (lapis philosophorum)—the prized goal of alchemy. Legend has it that this Philosopher’s stone heals all disease, grants immortality, and transforms base metals into gold. This “Self symbol” was what Jung referred to as the goal of individuation and what compensates the Christ symbol, further symbolizing the union of extreme opposites—of matter and spirit (Jung 1968).
This alchemical process is seen in the spiritual works of the Santo Daime ritual, where participants are put in touch with the “God” or “Christ” within themselves, which is parallel to the philosopher’s stone that alchemists sought, or in other myths, the Holy Grail. The important consideration here, as Chalquist (2010) noted, is to “stir” the myths back into life, which can be accomplished by a method similar to psychological diagnosis, whereby symptoms are matched to syndromes. In the case of the Santo Daime, symbolic events (e.g., Christ Consciousness, encounters with Mary, etc.) could be matched to mythological themes. Jung labeled this type of work amplification, which is similar to translating an unknown word in a text, where the more profound the association, the greater degree of validation. Jung and Joseph Campbell believed that myths and archetypal motifs stirring from the depths hold up mirrors of symbol and image to reflect what the culture of a given time does not see about itself; and like dreams, myths seek to rebalance the collective psyche by revealing its blind spots (Chalquist 2010).
As a result of “resurrecting” these mythological motifs, including the encounters with Jesus Christ, Mary, the Divine Mother, and other spirits and/or spirit guides, ayahuasca drinkers (especially as confirmed by my Daime informants) experience a deep, divine connection resulting in a spiritual transformation. It is this experience that appears to be a special privilege to its participants that creates a psychological and emotional uplift, gets them in touch with living mythological parables (AMC), and then creates a rejuvenated and whole individual. This further enables not only effective coping strategies for continued daily and life stressors, but the opportunity for living an optimal and meaningful existence.

The Entheonet: A Modern Analytical Tool for ASC-Induced Mythological Participation Over the last decade, many have become increasingly and globally connected through the Internet, whether through social networking, email, blogs, or video-sharing applications. In fact, technology is widely used in educational settings, as well as a myriad of scientific and medical applications, aiding humans in expediting analysis, learning, teaching, etc. Technology could be seen then as a shared-distributed cognitive tool that encompasses far more data and more efficient analysis than the human brain is capable of performing. What is particularly fascinating about the modern day age of computers and the Internet is that they tend to dissolve barriers and provide a greater capacity for connection as well as the dissemination of cultural artifacts, images, data, etc.
One particular aspect of the Internet to note is the far-reaching distribution of images, such as those seen through Google Images, a search engine that allows individuals to search nearly any image or symbol that can be conceived. I believe that applications like these can serve as a shared-distributed cognitive tool to aid the entheogenic or psychonautic explorer with the identification and analysis of mythical images and symbols as experienced, for example, during ayahuasca-induced visionary states. I have come to call this peripheral entheogenic aid, the Entheonet. This notion comes from my own experience using Google Images to search and identify various motifs and symbols that were particularly meaningful during my visionary states on ayahuasca, mostly from Santo Daime sessions. This could be likened to a “trail of bread crumbs” whereby single images are pieced together to construct a more meaningful gestalt, leading to various resourceful texts related to spiritual and psychological development.
Thus, archetypes could be viewed as “information generators,” or concrescences in the form of symbols or images that reveal specific information with various meanings: a critical stage within spiritual development; a lack of integration of some aspect of the self; overbearing ego or vanity; etc. During ASC the unconscious mind is being accessed in ways not normally executed in normal states of consciousness, as deeply buried information is presented in a more poetic and mythical modality.
Throughout my years of Daime service, I have encountered many visionary states that at first seemed puzzling and foreign. Using a variety of “Boolean operators” within the Google search engine, however, I was able to discover, much to my astonishment, that many of them were referenced in a variety of religious, mythological, alchemical, and spiritual texts, often ancient and sometimes based in a pre-civilization era. This led me to discover many writings on the subject of spiritual and psychological development, which reinforced my own development and further galvanized my enthusiasm for the “adventure” and lure of the “mysteries.” I came to realize that this was not only what Jung discussed regarding the collective unconscious, but also what the ancient alchemists and many other religo-mythical texts had referred to as either the philosopher’s stone or the Holy Grail, which, again, is analogous to the “spiritual center” that lies within one’s self. That is, if the story of the ancient alchemists converting various common metals into precious gold is properly deciphered, herein lies the notion a common goal of humanity—to find the “spark” of life (e.g., individuation, reconciliation, metaphysical significance, unitive consciousness, spiritual evolution, etc.).
This very notion of the realization that the Fountain of Being is within, as individuals center and open their hearts to find rapture for themselves, their family, community, and the earth (Gaia), has profound implications for the healing process, as one becomes aware that they are part of the mystery—that they are consequential, and authors of their own unique journey toward self-fulfillment, development, and individuation. Thus, I became aware that the Daime sessions I attended were much like attending a “mystery school,” where information about the world and self was readily accessible.
Having a greater capacity to reveal meaning and connection, one may feel an enhanced noetic understanding of how “things work,” and further begin to experience what Jung described as synchronicity. This process can be seen as a development of what I have come to call MAPS, or Mythic Associations, Patterns, and Symbols. Therefore, through a technological aid such as the Entheonet, a steeper gradient is setup whereby the interpretation of MAPS are reinforced by adding personally and culturally relevant meanings and then synthesized into one’s continued spiritual and psychological development. Thus, the Holy Grail is re-discovered and the experience of being alive is beheld!

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968. Print.

Chalquist, Craig. A Brief Mythology of Petroleum., 2010. Web. 9 June, 2013.

Ghasemi, Nima. “The Origin of Myth in the Original Form of Perception: An Inquiry Into the Cassirer’s Concept of Pure Experience of Expression.” Shahid Beheshti U. 2010.

Grof, Stanislov. The Stormy Search for the Self. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1991. Print.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

May, Rollo. The Cry for Myth. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print.

Meade, Michael. Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul. Seattle, WA: Greenfire Press, 2010. Print.

Moerman, Daniel. Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect.’ Cambridge: University Press, 2002. Print.

Palmer, Richard. “The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics.” Proceedings of the Heraclitean Society: A Quarterly Report on Philosophy and Criticism of the Arts and Science 5 (1980): 4-11. Print.

Roberts, Tom. The Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens Are Enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2013. Print.

Shanon, Benny. The Antipodes of the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Smith, Huston. Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. New York: Putnam, 2000. Print.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967. Print.…...

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