Subscribe to newsletter
By subscribing you agree to with our Privacy Policy.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Featured art by Luis Tamani

In previous blogposts, we shared about the history of Ayahuasca, the increasingly popular Amazonian brew known for its powerful psychoactive properties. We have seen how this traditional medicine, made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub, has has been used for centuries by indigenous tribes in the Amazon, for a variety of purposes. In this article, we will focus less on the history or the cultural and social context of the different uses. Rather, we will explore one of the most common tropes in the plant medicine world: Can Ayahuasca really change the world?

The Psychedelic Paradigm Shift

One of the founding fathers of the modern psychedelic movement, Stanislav Grof, gave us one of the most often repeated analogies about the importance of psychedelic medicines in the modern age. Psychedelics could be for psychiatry, Grof famously said, what the invention of the telescope was for astronomy. He maintained that psychedelics could be nothing short of a paradigm-shifting revolution in mental health: the sort of tool that would allow medical science much needed fresh insights into the nature of the mind. Psychedelics would be revolutionary for psychiatry not only for their therapeutic potential, but also for their capacity to allow us to journey deeper into the depths of our psyche, and map out uncharted territories of the human mind. With a better understanding of our own inner lives, and the psychodynamic and cognitive mechanisms underlying our conscious experience, we could also get better at understanding why and how things go sideways with our mental health, and develop better and more effective interventions to help those of us struggling mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Research Insights and Therapeutic Potential

Research into ayahuasca has shown promising results in treating mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and PTSD. In this article we won’t dive too deep into the technicalities of the current research— we can leave that for another time (I promise!). Suffice it to say, that even though the research is new and preliminary, and based mostly on observational settings, it is indeed promising, validating the lived personal experiences of tens of thousands of people around the world whose lives have been made significantly better by this remarkable brew and the people who know how to work with it. It isn’t, however, by any means a silver bullet or a magic pill that will forever solve any and all mental health issues or have an inherent positive impact on a societal or cultural level.

Considering the Risks

Together with the self-evident and widespread potential benefits, there are also certain risks that need to be taken into account. Although much more research is still needed, it is generally thought that certain psychiatric diagnoses can exacerbate the risk of difficult experiences that would require a more lengthy and resource-intensive integration process. This is one of the reasons why it is important to make sure that we are drinking ayahuasca in a reputable place with solid medical and psychological screening processes in place conducted by competent medical staff. The psychological and physiological effects of ayahuasca can be complex and sometimes challenging, but generally beneficial in the long term, if done responsibly and consciously.

Ayahuasca's Societal Impact: Beyond Hyperbole

If we are earnestly asking the question, “Can Ayahuasca Change the World?”, the first thing that we need to so is to avoid hyperbole. In the same way that ayahuasca is not a magic pill for our individual mental health, ayahuasca is not a magic pill for our social, cultural and environmental ills. In our fast paced modern world, we often time tend to ignore social determinants of health, or the many ways in which individuals and communities are in interdependent relationships. The health of a society and the state of a culture are crucial factors for the wellbeing of the individuals who form that society and create and are created by that culture. And it is precisely here that ayahuasca can be of immense value: its potential to change the world lies in its ability to foster a deeper connection with oneself, with others, and with the environment. To allow us to see in better detail and resolution those connections that often remain hidden, between individuals, communities and environments.  

Personal Healing and Its Ripple Effects

Ayahuasca appears to be capable of reliably providing people with remarkably profound experiences. These experiences, if properly integrated, can be extremely meaningful for us, leading to important improvements in the quality of our life and the quality of our relationships. Through our own deep personal process with the medicine, and by consciously applying those experiences and insights into practice, we can create tangible, positive changes in the ways we show up in the world. When enough people take responsibility for their own lives, this inevitably impacts their immediate surroundings, which could lead, down the line, to a more empathetic, compassionate, and environmentally conscious society.

And although ayahuasca is often imbued with mysticism, and forever tied into animistic cultures that regard the plants as being highly intelligent, intentional beings, this insight doesn’t require us to assume some higher purpose or to take a leap of faith into an intelligent design or a bigger plan. What I mean is, that even though many people might resonate with the view that the plants themselves are calling us to work with them, we don't necessarily have to spiritualize or mystify ayahuasca to explain how and why it can have a positive impact on the world at large— to effectively change the world.

Rather, we can think of it in terms of ripples in water, like the effect that we would see if we dropped a pebble on the smooth surface of a pond. The pebble would sink, but the ripples would continue to expand outwards, reaching far and wide beyond the initial point of contact. Leading with this analogy, we can say that every individual who drinks ayahuasca is like a little pebble. Each individual person that chooses to do the work needed to heal, to grow, and to let go of ways of being that are not serving them anymore, ripples outwards into the wider net of being of which we are all part.

Our healing and growth will impact the way we relate to others, helping heal those relationships and, perhaps, inspiring family, friends, co-workers, and anyone who might cross our path to seek their own healing and growth too. Like smiling to a stranger on a crowded subway, who might in turn smile to another stranger and so on and so forth, we never know how far the impact of our actions can go, even for something small as a smile. Can you imagine the impacts of numerous people working through childhood traumas, addictive behaviors, or unhealthy relational patterns? Beyond the invaluable benefits to our own personal lives, we never know whose lives we might be impacting down the line.

The Epigenetic Influence

One of the more tangible ways to visualize how ayahuasca can have a major positive impact in the world, relies on our growing understanding of epigenetics, a relatively new field that maps out the relationship between our genes and our environment. Simply put, epigenetics is the study of how our behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work.

For many decades, many researchers and laypeople have held a deterministic view of genetics, meaning that they understood genetics to be an almost unmovable biological law: if it's coded into our DNA, we are predisposed to exhibit or manifest a particular trait. Furthermore, we know that changes in our DNA are irreversible. On the other hand, epigenetic changes do not change our DNA sequence, and they’re are often fully reversible; our body can learn and re-learn how to read a DNA sequence many times over, depending on our environment and our life experiences, impacted by things like stress, trauma, uncertainty, or love, acceptance and feeling safe.

We can see that our environment doesn’t exclusively relate to the landscapes we inhabit or the social structures that we are part of. It also includes, for example, whether we grew up on a stressful household or in a state of constant emotional insecurity. Our environment includes factors such as the relationships we had with our primary caretakers, and the relationships that our primary caretakers had with their own caretakers, and so on ad infinitum. These is what is called, for example, generational trauma, epigenetic imprints based on the environments and stressors experienced by our parents and grandparents, way before we were born. There is a sort of a cellular memory that is not only a metaphor but a tangible and quantifiable change in the way that our bodies decode and interpret our DNA. Like a light switch that turns on and off, some of our genetically imprinted traits can only manifest under certain environmental traits. And this is where we get to reclaim our agency: to make the changes needed to ensure that we turn certain switches off — and make sure they stay that way, for the sake of our children and their children.

How many of us have gone through life carrying heavy weights that don't necessarily belong to us? Inherited behavioral patterns, ancestral traumas, faint memories and imprints of past events that continue to have an impact in the present moment? “Oh, you’re just like your father, and his father before him”, or, “oh, I carry this deep sadness through my maternal lineage”. Although often times encapsulated in the world of metaphor, these expressions might be more than narrative devices. Ways of being and behaving in the world may very well exist outside of the realm of language, influencing how our bodies decode information based on our past experiences, and the past experiences of those who came before us. The good news is that these things are not necessarily genetically determined, although genetics may play a part. At the margins of the dance between nature and culture, there is enough room for us to make choices, to take action, to unmoor ourselves from the inertia of the past.

Furthermore, we carry a big responsibility towards our ancestors, and, perhaps more importantly, our descendants. This is the magic of the vertical axis of healing: if the ripples on the surface of the pond extend outwards, horizontally, touching the people we share life with, epigenetics is one of the vehicles through which healing ripples up and down. Up, by healing and letting go of inherited traumas imprinted into our genetic lineage by events in the distant past, and down, by making the choice that the chain of transmission ends with us. And isn’t that the most beautiful gift we can give our children and their children? To unburden them of grief that doesn’t belong to them? To give them the gift of not inheriting unexamined ways of coping with life in unhealthy ways?

In summary, there are multiple ways in which ayahuasca has the potential to impact the world significantly. As a vector for deep personal healing and transformation, it can help us work out our own stuff so we can enact better ways of showing up in the world, for ourselves and everybody else. Individual psychological healing and spiritual growth are important, but they are not the whole picture. As relational beings, embedded in mutually responsible relationships, we are always in dialogue and conversation with each other, everyone who is directly or indirectly part of our lives.

For ayahuasca to truly have an impact in a wider scale, something that we could consider as “changing the world”, we would have to take into account a complex interplay of legal, ethical, and cultural factors. The fact is that psychedelic plant medicines are still ilegal and stigmatized in most of the world, limiting their availability for people who might need them. Furthermore, as we pointed out before, ayahuasca is not a panacea, a magical social cure that will propel humanity into a new golden age or bring forth a utopian society. We can strive towards that vision, but we still need to do the heavy lifting, starting from the immediacy of our own lives and our immediate relationships. Step by step, ripple by ripple, we could create a more conscious and empathic society that honors all life in this planet.

Conclusion: A Vision for the Future

Although attitudes in academia seem to be changing quite rapidly, the methodologies of science work slowly and methodically. It will probably take many more years for the medical establishment to incorporate practices like ayahuasca into the mainstream medical models, in ways that include and honor indigenous wisdom, biomedical science and psychological practice. Furthermore, ayahuasca has to be able to accommodate a variety and diversity of spiritual orientations, as these dimensions are inseparable from the experience itself. It sounds like a promising future, and it very well may be, but its still just a vision.

The main take away, I believe, is that we don't have to wait for a more enlightened future when people have better access to powerful psychedelic plant medicines as part of a more human-centric healthcare system. We can start here and now, with our own lives, taking responsibility for our own healing and passing that forward to the people in our lives. ‘He who saves one life is like he’s saved the whole world”, teaches the Talmud. And when it comes to ayahuasca, we’ve seen that its particularly true: each life that is touched, each trauma that is worked through, each child that won’t have to carry with them the grief of their forefathers— its already a major change in their own world, a change that will continue to ripple outwards bringing light and medicine to every relationship it touches, horizontally and vertically, hopefully inspiring others to do the same and keep the waves of medicine expanding outwards and inwards for the benefit of all sentient beings.

No items found.

Take the next step

Ready for your life-changing journey?