What the shaman is up with these people?
A recent article in the Times on ayahuasca highlighted a growing phenomenon on the use of this drug and a rue seed alternative sweeping the high-end community.
In a world increasingly dominated by screen time, not dream time, its not surprising that many people, having binged on yoga, are turning to a more dramatic catalyst for inner growth.
It’s said to be a spirit-enhancing, mind-altering, insightful experience leading to profound revelations and improved relationships.
It first came to our attention when a wealth advisor commented to us about a client who makes frequent trips to the rain forests and Peru. How often can someone visit Machu Picchu and travel the Amazon? And why is she so thin? Now it’s being alluded to at family meetings during sharing time as life-changing, with details provided in private conversations for the curious.
Talk of “journeying” and “shamans” – with offers to join in – are also pervading summer downtime at second homes and on the beach.
“Just try it once; it won’t hurt, we’ve done it many times; wait until you meet our shaman!”
Among upscalers, it’s hard to resist invitations from higher-caste friends to join in, given the dullness and intensity of corporate life and the opportunity to bond with the wealthy.
Lines in the sand
Right now lines in the sand are being drawn between family members who use or want to use the drugs and those appalled at the naiveté and self-serving justifications of the proponents. The former group usually has several heavily-invested participants who have journeyed multiple times, swear to its therapeutic benefits, and swear it is safe and non-addictive. In fact, advocates assert ayahuasca cures addiction (attested to by Lindsay Lohan, no less), as does the rue herb.
Dissenters are depicted as closed-minded and rigid for suggesting that users are simply drug-seeking under the guise of a spiritual or therapeutic experience. Those in recovery are dismissed as overbearing scolds and misguided for questioning the legitimacy of the claims and objecting to participation by next-generation family members. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to counteract the momentum of the one-two punch sales pitch of the devotees and purveyors of these drugs.
What is really going on? What is the attraction?
Using drugs to gain insight into personal or relationship concerns and enhance spirituality has a great deal of appeal, particularly after years of failed therapy. Many inheritors have been on a life-long search for ways to overcome chronic dysthymia, attachment disorders and anxieties stemming from poor parenting and an inability to connect with others. With a full understanding of the risks, experimenting may lead to insight for some people. However, after doing so once or twice continued use can easily transition into drug seeking – using for the sake of using. As psychologist Terry Hunt says, “Once you get the message, hang up the phone!”
But that’s not happening.
All the perks without the stigma
Now at later stages in life, a “spiritual person” comes along offering a supposedly safe, therapeutic herb that provides a heavy-duty escape from reality – the first time they feel like real people. It’s an experience they want to repeat over and over again, and share with others. For many who experimented with hard drugs (or wanted to) in their younger days but are stuck settling for a few cocktails, glasses of wine or Xanax, journeying is the high they are seeking without the stigma of LSD, PCP, or MDMA. They consider themselves on a spiritual journey, the perfect antidote to the ennui of the affluent lifestyle. And what’s the going price? As much as $2,500 per day for a house call – drugs (whoops, herbs) included.
‘Have I told you lately that you’re crazy?’
Inspired by an article in a NYT Sunday Review with the same heading: “Have I told you lately that you’re crazy?”, it’s time to present an alternative view, examining the very real risks and potential damage from using these drugs.
“It’s safe!” (Not!)
Ayahuasca is said to be a psychedelic affecting dopamine receptors in particular and can penetrate deep within the brain. It causes many users to vomit, which is why a rue seed herb is offered as an alternative, particularly to newcomers. The latter is a stimulant, acting on the limbic system (the reactive, fight-or-flight, primitive area of the brain) and depressing the executive control area of the brain. It also causes altered visual perception and gait. Alcohol is given to help bring users down off the high. Both last for six hours or more and require oversight by a “minder” – often the shaman – to make sure the user does not wander off or trip out.
We are talking about heavy-duty drugs. Like LSD, ayahuasca has the potential to create flashbacks. The larger problem is that stimulating the limbic system while deregulating the executive frontal lobe can lead to impulsive decisions and destructive communications. There are also reports of disorganized thought process from multiuse. But hey, what’s more important than expressing feelings and acting on gut instinct? For vulnerable people, taking these drugs even one or two times can lead to a marked personality change (e.g., blowing up a Type-A personality).
Take them 10, 20, 50 times and it’s a recipe for permanent brain alteration, even for the most resilient.
“It’s a tea or herb concoction.”
These drugs are described in medicinal or culinary terms – tea and herbs – to overcome the stigma associated with hard drugs. However, when any mind-altering drugs are ingested, the body converts them into molecules that pass through the brain barrier and react with brain cells.
- The brain does not distinguish between ayahuasca or rue seed and meth, cocaine, PCP or LSD – the reaction is similar. Nor does it care whether you got them from a dealer, an ostensible healer, or the Pope.
Both drugs have major impacts on the body and mind – that’s why the shaman babysits users.
No, ayahuasca and rue seed are potent drugs, regardless of how they are described.
“It’s a permitted spiritual practice, exempt from drug laws.”
That’s the line for first-time initiates who may be concerned about getting into trouble with the law. Passing use off as spiritual – and therefore legal – is bogus unless the participant is a member of a recognized religious group authorized to use ayahuasca in ceremony. Promoters tend to skip over the fact ayahuasca is a controlled substances and is therefore an illicit drug. (One reason why users go to South America.) The rue seed alternative in its various forms, flies under the DEA radar for now, although a very potent drug.
The real measure of addiction is whether drugs impact brain cells in the pleasure center (dopamine, serotonin receptors) limbic system and frontal lobe. As discussed earlier, since the reactions when taken are similar to other drugs that alter the brain, the conclusion is that ayahuasca and rue seed do indeed modify cell structure, unless proven otherwise. Take them enough times and there will be significant and permanent alterations. By the way, anticipating the next journey, common among many repeat users, is indicative of addiction.
It acts like other mood-altering addictive drugs, so why take the risk?
Prospective participants are told shamans are therapists. Some even come with university degrees (but no credible credentials or license certifications). It’s a two-for-one deal. But wait! What kind of therapist prescribes the same treatment to every patient after a five-minute conversation and then drops fame-names of clients as a selling point.
That’s not a healer, that’s more like a sales pitch.
Don’t ask, don’t tell approach to medical issues
A lot of these insight-seekers are not young people. (Many would be eligible for social security if they had ever worked.) Some have heart problems (e.g., a-fib, weak valves, high blood pressure, etc.). But why take a medical history, that’s so allopathic! Just crank that old beater up to 120-130 BPM for a few hours. And then “journeyers” wonder why their meds don’t work or they are at the Mayo clinic for major surgery. (Note to advocates: This is another criterion for addiction – taking a drug that you know could give you a coronary or a-fib problems and doing so anyway.)
Inexcusable in so many ways.
“It cures addiction.”
The first question to ask anyone touting this cure is “Show me your supervised drug screens!” because addicts are notorious liars. Both ayahuasca and rue seed act on the very areas of the brain affected by use of alcohol and other drugs. Actually, rue seed triggers intense cravings for anyone in remission from a substance use disorder. So no, it does not cure addiction and is just another form of addicts tripping out on a mind-altering substance.
This is the most bogus of all claims: giving someone addicted to controlled substances another psychoactive substance to cure addiction.
“It cures depression.”
How about encouraging participants to stop taking their antidepressants because their un-medicated self is just fine? Then they wonder why family members stop visiting and friends are so busy. You can be sure participants did not discuss this “cure” with their psychiatrists or other prescribers.
No, you are not fine!
Apparently, parents are advocating multigenerational use to become closer to their children. Whoa. What a way to avoid the hard conversations about the multiple marriages and being too self-absorbed for effective parenting. Get high together and all is forgiven.
- And who doesn’t want to take parent-approved heavy drugs? Come on down!
Talk about playing with fire! Many adult children are in families with histories of alcoholism and drug dependence. Prolonged and intense use of any drug can trigger the addictive gene, despite apparent parental immunity.
Does it get much crazier?
Alternatives to seeking meaning and improved relationships through drug use
Participants are reported to say things like “I was never able to talk to my sister about our differences until we went on a journey together for six hours.” Well, did you ever try? Spend six hours with any competent therapist (yes, they do exist) and you will likely explore in depth any ill feelings between relatives or friends – and actually remember the conversation and what happened during the session. Moreover, drug-induced insight does not necessarily lead to behavioral change (e.g., more time with and an improved relationship with the sister).
Do no harm
It seems every few years, a new mind-altering phenomena spreads like wildfire through trust-funders and the newly-minted affluent. Remember Swami Rama, the Rajneeshee, Ram Dass, cults, EST? The list goes on and on. These guides to enlightenment are completely unregulated and hold no licenses yet are purporting to fix major trauma and behavioral health issues. The first rule of any healer is to do no harm. From observation and reports, the harm done to some participants far outweighs any asserted benefits: destroyed relationships, distorted thinking, drug cravings, and untreated depression. Keep at it and we are likely to see drug-induced psychosis.
Unfortunately, the wealth and prestige of many of these journeyers keeps them insulated from contrary opinions and negative feedback on personality changes or distorted thinking. Like any good addict with unlimited resources, they have little incentive to stop. Contradictory information isn’t going to change their minds, but it should give pause to anyone thinking about joining the club. Perhaps by alerting family offices and advisors to this very underground and growing phenomenon, proselytizing can be minimized and support provided for the contrarians who are telling their friends and relatives, “YOU’RE CRAZY!”