The overlap between the fields of health and spirituality is well illustrated by traditions of entheogenic healing, and in particular the transnational sociological trend of ceremonial ayahuasca drinking. Entheogenic healing is a concept that derives from the term “entheogen,” coined by scholars to convey the sacramental nature of traditional shamanic practices using psychoactive plants (Ruck, Bigwood, Staples, Ott, & Wasson, 1979). Ayahuasca is a decoction characteristically prepared from a boiled mash of a jungle liana (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a common admixture leaf (Psychotria viridis). The unique pharmacological synergy between particular chemicals in these plants produces a profound altered state of consciousness in humans. Ayahuasca is most commonly consumed in ritual contexts, both in traditional Amazonian indigenous practices and, of late, in various (post)modern syncretistic spiritual or hybrid healing practices. This chapter briefly reviews the renaissance of interest in the potential therapeutic value of substances known as psychedelics or entheogens1, and explores the concept of entheogenic healing with examples from various forms of ayahuasca drinking. It covers traditional and modern practices of using ayahuasca in ritual contexts—including indigenous Amazonian traditions and more modern hybrid forms, such as syncretistic Brazilian ayahuasca churches—to diagnose and treat illnesses. It considers the importance of ritual, especially the element of music, for ayahuasca healing. Finally, it looks at addiction as a type of psychospiritual illness for which entheogenic healing with ayahuasca may be particularly well suited.
that resulted in strict prohibitions on any kind of use of these substances or their natural plant forms, making even controlled scientific research impossible and putting psychedelic medicine into a period of quiescence for over two decades, (Sessa, 2005). In the 1990s, the curiosity of a small number of maverick researchers about substances such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and psilocybin led to a renaissance in psychedelic research on humans that continues to gather legitimacy and momentum today. For example, organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Heffter Research Institute actively promote and fund research programs that adhere to rigorous scientific methodology.
Psychedelic medicine may be broadly defined as the therapeutic use of a pharmacological agent from the class of substances that includes: lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD; peyote cactus, or its alkaloidal constituent mescaline; psilocybin or mushrooms that contain it; and DMT or harmala alkaloid/DMT combinations,constituents of ayahuasca (Winkelman & Roberts, 2007). Medical uses of other substances that are pharmacologically different from the “classical” psychedelics just listed—such as ketamine or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)—are sometimes included in the category of psychedelic medicine. The therapeutic context of psychedelic medicine—both in the 1950s and 1960s, when the use of these substances was first being explored, and in recently revived research programs—is generally a clinical setting operating within the paradigm of western psychotherapy. Examples of the kinds of illnesses for which researchers are investigating medical treatments with psychedelic substances include addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, cluster headaches, depression, palliative care, and post-traumatic stress disorder (for specific examples, see: www.maps.org/research).