The chattering classes are heading to the Amazon in search of esoteric highs. Are shamans the new shrinks?
by Clover Stroud
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007
At a dinner party in Gloucestershire, Lucy, a mother of three, is regaling her guests with details of her last trip abroad. She has honeyed limbs and high-maintenance hair, suggestive of regular villa breaks in Ibiza or Tuscany. But earlier this year, as a 40th-birthday present to herself, she went to Brazil for a 10-day guided retreat in the Amazon, where she underwent a series of plant rituals involving the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. “It was as far removed from taking normal party drugs as you can imagine,” she says, eyes glittering. “It was frightening and extraordinary.”
Lucy’s experience is symptomatic of a collective search for a complete wilderness experience as a panacea for our troubled souls. “I went to the Amazon because I felt my whole life needed shaking up, and I just didn’t know how to do that in England. I had everything I wanted, in terms of a stable marriage, lovely kids and a nice home, and although I knew I shouldn’t feel dissatisfied, I did. I wanted to reconnect with myself and the way I live before I got much older.”
Deep immersion in a faraway jungle is the latest fix for those stuck in the cultural, spiritual or personal malaise that besets many in the 21st century. Having an extreme psychological experience such as ayahuasca at the same time makes it all the more desirable. The Brighton-based writer and therapist Ross Heaven, author of Plant Spirit Shamanism, has been leading trips into the Amazon for 10 years. “In the 1990s, only real new-age devotees had heard of ayahuasca, but the sort of person going on retreats has changed dramatically,” she says. “I’m taking a trip in October that will include account managers, business professionals, a media figure, a conventional doctor and a nurse. People are getting turned on to the fact that in the Amazon we can learn something about the wisdom of native culture and the psychological healing aspects of the plants there, while also gaining from personal exploration and creativity.”
It was inevitable that we would find a faster, harder, more esoteric replacement for yoga. As eastern mysticism starts to look a bit, well, passé, people are looking elsewhere for their spiritual kicks. They now have a desire to immerse themselves in an extreme environment, which is why the Amazon has never been as hot as it is now. Sting and Madonna first swung our global eyes to the rainforest in the 1980s. But then we forgot about it as we turned our gaze back to organic vegetable boxes and carbon footprints.
Now, once more, the Amazon is gripping our attention: the interest in ayahuasca is emblematic of a growing fascination with tribal life. A rumbling collective disquiet suggests that we’ve got it all wrong, and that it is those naked men in the jungle — whom we might once have dismissed as savages, or patronised by buying their handcrafted tables for our fashionable lofts — who have actually got it all right. Could it be that such tribes might hold a key to global salvation? Shamanism and ayahuasca are slipping into the spiritual dialogue of the chattering classes where once there was ashtanga and kabbalah. Continue reading