Interview Jeremy Narby, part 1 of 4October 2007 phone interview with Jeremy Narby
By Izmar Verhage (www.izmarmusic.com)
October 2007 phone interview with Jeremy Narby
By Izmar Verhage (http://www.izmarmusic.com)
I: Alright, so explain to us what ayahuasca is in layman's terms.
J: Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant mixture that the indigenous people of the Western Amazon concocted centuries ago, if not millennia ago. It is an extremely powerful hallucinogen that tends to unleash all kinds of vivid imagery in the mind, and at the same time constitutes a kind of botanical mystery, in that it is a necessary combination of plants, one of which is a bush that contains a substance called dimethyltryptamine, which is also produced by the central nervous systems of mammals, and in particular by human brains. But this hallucinogenic substance is inactivated by a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase. So, you can boil the leaves of the bush and make a tea and drink it, and even though it's full of this dimethyltryptamine, you will not experience any hallucinations or visions.
The people in the Amazon figured out a long time ago that you can combine these leaves with the vine called ayahuasca, which has the same name as the mixture. The bark of this vine contains several substances that inactivate the stomach enzyme, the monoamine oxidase. So they're combining a brain hormone, which is strongly hallucinogenic but orally inactive, with monoamine oxidase inhibitors. This allows the hallucinogenic substances contained in the brew to get through the gut into the blood, and from there up into the brain. So, this is actually a sophisticated designer drug, as one could call it, or plant combination, if you object to the word 'drug'.
What is striking about it when seen like that, is that it is also neurologically compatible. In other words, when you consume ayahuasca, you are not introducing into your brain a substance that is foreign to human chemistry. In fact you are raising the level of a hormone that is already present in the brain. When you take ecstasy for example, the MDMA molecule, it's something that gets into your brain, but that is not part of natural chemistry. As we know, hallucinogenic molecules work like keys that fit into locks. The locks are the receptors on the surface of our brain cells. I think what you get with other, synthetic hallucinogens, is the feeling that your locks have been played around with keys that didn't fit exactly. What is striking with ayahuasca once you've had the experience is that the next day you actually feel better, not worse.
Now, getting away from this kind of scientific understanding, ayahuasca is a very complex thing. I mean, yes, it's a plant brew, it's a shamanic plant brew, it contains hallucinogenic molecules, as we've just discussed, but it's also one of the primary tools for knowing the world in the view of Amazonian indigenous people. From afar you could say: "So what, this bunch of barefoot Indians in the forest they're just hallucinating, and they're crazy enough to believe that hallucinogenic plants are a way of knowing the world," and you can just leave it at that and forget about it. But if you're going to climb down from the pedestal of cultural arrogance and take other cultures seriously, no matter how radically different from our own, on their own terms, what the indigenous people of the Western Amazon say, is that right at the center of how they know about plants, animals, life, the cosmos, you name it, are these shamanic plants.
How do they know anything? Their shamans take these plants, which are not just ayahuasca, but also tobacco and toé and others, and in their visions learn about the essences of life. So one could compare ayahuasca to a microscope. In other words, if you ask a scientist how they know about plants and animals, they'll point you to the biologists, and you'll ask the biologists how they know and they'll point to their microscopes. They say: "This is how we get our knowledge. We work with these tools and we go under the surface of things and we see that all beings are made of cells and that there's a hidden unity under the surface of diversity." Well, that is exactly what Amazonian shamans say. They say: "We take our psychoactive plants, and then we go under the surface of things, and we see hidden unity below the diversity."
So, ayahuasca is I think very precisely described as a key tool for acquiring knowledge, according to Amazonian epistemology.
I: Did you come across any recreational use among indigenous people?
J: Not really, no. In fact, it's widely considered to be an awe-full (Jeremy's spelling, Izmar) experience. It puts the fear of god in you. Taking serious ayahuasca, or taking ayahuasca seriously, is a scary, somewhat dreadful, albeit ecstatic and life changing experience. I think that most indigenous people, just like anybody else when they actually get to that place in the session where they're going to swallow the brew, have a sense of dread, because you never know just how it's going to happen. You might be confronted with all kinds of demons and fluorescent serpents that scare the pants off you.
I: Getting back to something you said earlier, I find it interesting that you compare ayahuasca to the microscope, as in general it is considered to be a tool for healing.
J: Well, a microscope can be a healing tool. You were asking for a description for a layman. Using the microscope metaphor may be a reduction, as you point out, but it's meant to put the emphasis to somebody who is completely unfamiliar with ayahuasca. The microscope is the basic tool of science, so it has been for the last 350 years. Then there are all kinds of variations on it and disciplines growing out of it. It's the sine qua non of doing inventory science of the living, for all knowledge, including healing knowledge, diagnosis, whatever. I think the analogy is pretty exact with ayahuasca - it's about how you get knowledge. Knowledge about what? Well, about many things, including healing.
To be complete, depending on how much the layman wants to know, one could emphasize the whole purge aspect of it. Before it actually gets into your brain, it gets into your body. It gets into your guts first of all. In the language of the Ashaninca, the indigenous people I lived with, it's called kamarampi, from the word 'kamarank', to vomit. It also contains the word serpent. So, if you ask the Ashaninca 'What is ayahuasca?’ in their language the word is serpent vomit. You know, it's a thing that makes you vomit, and see serpents. In fact you can vomit serpents. That's what it is. So it cleans your body effectively, often through both extremities. And meanwhile what they say is that no matter what's going on in your brain and you may be hallucinating this or that, meanwhile the ayahuasca is going to places in your body where you have energy blockages, trauma or illness and bringing healing light, unblocking arteries, things like that. They say that the purge itself cleans the mind, but it also cleans the body.
To be really complete, and not too western... I mean, the point is that westerners are among the least sophisticated people in the world when it comes to knowing how to use plant hallucinogens, for historical reasons. The people in the Amazon who have been using these plants for millennia, and who have not been interrupted, or not too badly, by monotheism and conquistadors and what have you, they have been keeping a deep shamanic tradition going, uninterrupted, in the rainforest for a very long time. To illustrate how they consider ayahuasca, it doesn't come into anybody's mind to drink ayahuasca and to remain silent. In other words, the songs that the ayahuasca shaman sings are fifty percent of the experience. The songs can heal, the songs help communicate with the entities that the shaman perceives inside your body and around us, the songs can guide our minds as we're having visions, the songs themselves are also tools for knowing.
I: You're talking about what are generally called icaros, right?
J: That's right. And this is where the microscope analogy breaks down. It may be a central tool for knowing the world, but ayahuasca is not a microscope. It is a plant mixture that gives visions, but getting knowledge from ayahuasca visions involves more than just swallowing ayahuasca. You know, it's a profession called shamanism, and that profession centers around music in fact.
I: Yeah, just getting visions seems already a hard task for many.
J: Yes, having visions is a talent. Some people have it naturally, they don't have to do anything and they see a lot of stuff, and other people are just out of luck. It's like being tone-deaf or something. Once again the analogy with music works. People are born with musical talent, but you can also enhance your musical talent by practicing. But some people are born tone-deaf and they'll never play the piano well.
I: On a totally different note, what do you make of the notion that the brain seems to block DMT once it has entered?
J: What do you mean? When you smoke DMT?
Because that's one of the striking things. The difference between DMT as a smoked substance and DMT as something that gets into your brain via ayahuasca, is that with ayahuasca the experience lasts 3 hours, and with DMT it's more like 3 minutes.
I: I meant something else. A common fact is how easily the blood-brain-barrier lets DMT through into the brain. Nevertheless, once it's in there, the brain seems to prevent more DMT from entering it.
J: I don't know about this, so I can't comment on it, I'm sorry.
I: Okay, so this was for the layman. How about another description, this time geared towards people with various psychedelic experiences, perhaps including smoked DMT, but not oral DMT.
J: Let me think about that for a second... Well, I have dabbled with different experiences, including smoking DMT, and taking LSD, and psilocybe mushrooms, and so forth, although I certainly don't claim to have an encyclopedic experience. Moreover, at this point in my life I'm just not really interested in anything other than plants, like ayahuasca, psilocybin and hemp, and also of course wine and tobacco. The thing that is striking about ayahuasca is that the experience is not like a kind of film on another planet, as smoked DMT can be. [Izmar laughs] It's very organic. You have the impression of being touched with an old wise intelligence.
J: Well, we are in the realm of hallucinations. You have no material proof of anything that you experience or feel. At least, that's how it is for me. I go into ayahuasca sessions with a question about my life, or about how to write a book, or something like that. It's like being in the presence of a very wise, old master, and you just climbed the mountain, and then suddenly you're imparted with these films about yourself, about the path you're on. Often you come across as being pretty stupid in your little life. You know, when you're in the presence of the master you know you're pretty stupid and you're kind of self-centered and you have your little things. But, as you receive that information, even when it's information that you don't want to hear because it's kind of painful, you know it's real. You really know at the moment, and you know the next day, and you know for the next twelve months that what you saw is real.
It's like going to a really good psychologist or psycho-analyst. You spill your beans, and then this wise psychologist says "Well, listen, you could look at it like this," and you think about it and you say "Yeah, that's right, I hadn't thought about it." And it can be more complicated, and ayahuasca has been called the worst of liars, and you have to learn to make a difference between insights and your own projections... You know, nothing is simple. But, getting back to your question, I think good quality ayahuasca administered by a talented ayahuasquero can take you into a place of organic vision. I think this is a biological hallucinogen. It has the intelligence of life in it, the correctness, the ethics even.
I: What do you think is striking about ayahuasca in comparison to the classic psychedelics, such as LSD?
J: Well... as usual, this is very complex. Low dose LSD is something completely different from high dose LSD. I've had, I guess, relatively high dose LSD experiences that are weird. They're kind of, as Terence McKenna called them, psycho-analytically grating.
I: Psycho-analytically what? [This was a phone interview with not the best of reception]
J: Grating, like a cheese-grater. You know, grate, when you take Parmesan cheese and you grate it...?
I: Ah... that grate.
I: [laughs] Great...
J: Psychoanalytically grating.
I: Yes, taking bits off, and disassembling...
J: Yes. My experience has been: if you take strong LSD with regularity, you suddenly find that you're not on the same wavelength as most people most of the time anymore. And it takes a while to get back to "normal". Meanwhile this other place you're in is more weird than it is organic. You have to get back to a place where you feel like at ease with yourself, and with others and with society and so forth. You've been jolted.
I have found, I mean I don't think that everybody's going to find this, but once again I'm answering your question as in what I find striking about it, I have found that ayahuasca takes you close to death. That's what aya-huasca means in Quechua. The etymology of ayahuasca is 'vine of the dead', it takes you close to the dead, the spirits, to contemplating your own death, that kind of experience - by no means entertainment. And then it brings you back to life, you feel happy to be alive. You feel a desire to be close with people, help people, you feel a desire to be close to nature. It doesn't push you away from society and people and other beings, but it brings you closer and deeper.
I don't think it's guaranteed that it's always going to do this for all people, but if you read the book 'The Antipodes of the Mind' by Benny Shanon, who has interviewed, classified, and categorized the ayahuasca experiences of several hundred people, these things that I'm talking about are fairly common.
I think it's interesting that the vine-mixture of the Amazonians somehow is more real than the synthetic stuff. I have not taken ketamine, but I've spoken with people who have taken ketamine and who are enthusiastic about it, and they say they go to parallel worlds somewhere out in the cosmos and so forth. But then when you say "So, what's it like? What can you bring back from that world?" they start talking what sounds like gibberish. This doesn't mean they don't go to parallel worlds and that those worlds don't exist in some dimension, but it certainly means that coming back and living down here and making sense down here, downloading something from that level, is really hard, whereas with ayahuasca, to me it's usually easy. It's like this swift organic thing, it takes you over to the other side into this sort of scary realm of visions, entities, plants that talk, dead people, whatever. In indigenous Amazonian terms it is the tool that allows you to get over the species barrier; you can actually talk with plants and animals in your visions. And then you come back the next day, you're back in your body, the plants stopped talking to you, but you've had conversations with them all night. You know they're sentient beings, you know that in normal consciousness there's this barrier between you and the other species, but you've experienced transcending it.
So you may talk a little gibberish and you may go and see your friends in the big city and say you were talking with trees all night and they'll think you're a little bit nuts. But in fact, once you learn to be a bit discreet with what you experienced, still this is not going to take away your experience of having communicated with plants. Next time you go for a walk in the park, you'll look more fondly at the grass you're walking on. That's a good thing.
I: How would you compare ayahuasca with ayahuasca analogues, such as the combination of syrian rue with jurema?
J: I have no experience with it, I have not taken ayahuasca analogues.
I: But the DMT you've smoked, it came from jurema or what?
J: I think that the DMT that I've smoked was synthetic DMT. When I smoked DMT, the next thing I know I was on this sort of Felix the Cat planet. Everything was yellow, there were these sort of little munchkin entities chanting in a sort of merry-go-round. Then after about a minute the light started fading, the colors went from yellow to red to brown, and then it was over!
That's my trip report, and my comment is "So what?" What did I learn from that? Maybe there is a planet somewhere, the Felix the Cat Yellow Planet where everybody's chanting and singing, but, you know, for the moment I don't have much use for it.
I: I do, actually.
J: Oh okay, tell me.
I: For me the crazy entities tend to be metaphorical images of parts of myself. The entities I have seen were actually telling something about me that was very deep. I knew what they were talking about, and I was listening to one of the songs I made, and they were commenting on it. They actually represented one of the deepest parts of my heart, saying all these things that you know deep down inside, but that are very hard to admit and bring into practice in everyday life.
J: Well, that's extremely interesting, and it also casts some light on my Felix the Cat Planet. I hadn't thought of it like that. If that's the case, then one difference between ayahuasca and smoked DMT is that ayahuasca definitely shows you a lot of stuff that is outside of you. It shows you about plants, animals, other people, your life from above, but it can also show things inside you.
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