Anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis recently gave a talk at Medellín’s fantastic science museum Parque Explorer and myself and science journalist Ana María Jaramillo managed to grab some of his time to discuss altered states of consciousness and cultural diversity.
If you’re not familiar with Davis’ work, his TED talk on ‘Cultures at the far edge of the world’ is a great place to start.
It was a particular pleasure to talk to Davis in Medellín, because he has had a long connection with the city, previously holding a post at the Botanic Garden, and has extensive experience of Colombia.
His book, One River, discusses his time in Colombia as a student of the legendary botanist and explorer Richard Evans Schultes who was the first to scientifically describe numerous psychoactive plants and substances – including the famous psychedelic of the Amazon peoples – yagé or ayuhuasca.
Our interview is in two parts, and this first part will cover how mind-altering substances integrate with culture and Davis’ own experience with psychedelics. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss diversity of human cultures across the world.
Ana María: I’d like to know how cultural context transforms the effect of a mind-altering substance. For example, is there a difference in experience between someone who takes yagé in a traditional context and someone who takes it outside the ritual, for recreation.
I think it makes a profound difference. Just speaking of psychotropic plants and preparations, everybody who has seriously studied them has always looked at what’s called ‘set and setting’. The ‘set’ is the mental set that you bring to the experience and the setting is the physical ambience in which you experience the explosion of consciousness. Part of the ‘set’ is your own cultural predispositions to the experience
I remember noticing this very much so in Haiti when I studied voodoo. It was just astonishing to witness voodoo acolytes in a state of trance, possessed by the spirit as they saw themselves, handling burning embers with impunity. And when I say that I’m not indulging in some kind of New Age mysticism, I just saw people walking around with burning coals in their mouths, and I can assure you that I would have burnt my tongue terribly whatever the circumstance.
People often ask me, when you were studying voodoo did you become possessed? But the idea was ridiculous to me. If you listened to what I was saying about it, or anyone else was saying about the really unique richness of the cultural experience, it’s just not something you can just try on like a cloak. You can’t just go down to Haiti, put down your money, or put down your soul, and suddenly become a voodooist.
It just has to be something in the very fibre of your being when growing up. Similarly, I think that the set and the setting in which indigenous people in the Amazon experience these substances is probably very unique and it’s also not uniform in any one culture. I remember once when I was with the Cofán and we had taken yagé in a very traditional context and afterwards I turned to the people I had been up all night with and said “I don’t know about you guys but that stuff scares the hell out of me” and they said “scares us too!”
So I think the experiences are idiosyncratic but also culturally specific, that’s my sense of it. But I don’t pretend to be any kind of authority. It’s mainly just based on my own experience, other people might disagree.
It’s interesting how these things change though. I find it fascinating that there is this ayahuasca phenomenon, it’s literally sweeping Europe and sweeping the United States. I meet young people who take ayahuasca and they speak so positively about the experience whereas I remember the whole point of ayahuasca was facing down the jaguar, being ripped away from the tit of jaguar woman. That was sort of what its point was.
I think our reaction to these substances can change over time too, almost as age cohorts move though. I’m someone who’s very happy to say that not only did I used psychedelics and enjoyed them but that they changed my life. I don’t think I would speak the way I speak, write the way I write, synthesise information the way I do, understand those notions of cultural relativism as reflexively as I do, if I hadn’t taken psychedelics.
I often think it’s interesting that if we look at the social changes of the last 30 years – everything from new attitudes towards the environment, new sense of the holistic integration of the Earth, women going from the kitchen to the board room, people of colour from the woodshed to the Whitehouse, gay people from the closet to the alter, that we always leave out of the recipe of social change that millions of people all around the world lay prostrate before the gates of awe after having taken some psychedelic.
We came out of a place with profound alienation of our cultures, experimenting with psychedelics in a very fresh way – there was not a lot of expectation. We rediscovered lots of new drugs and just tried them on ourselves so there were a number of things we could say we were the first to take. Not that I want to dwell on that, but the idea that were trying to find some idea of what it means to be human.
And also cultural relativism and just the idea that other peoples of the world aren’t failed attempts at being you, that comes powerfully from the psychedelic experience. I one point I remember I took some big heroic dose of some drug, I can’t remember exactly, San Pedro I think, and I was stopped by my friend just before I could send a telegram to my professor at Harvard that was going to say ‘Eureka! We’re all ambulatory plants!’ I don’t think that would have really got me too far.
That said, I found that psychedelics were extremely useful to me when I was young, when I was trying to de-construct the world that I had been born into but didn’t necessarily want to live in. And then as I carefully constructed a world, became married, became a father, developed a career, created a world, I found psychedelics profoundly disorienting and not very helpful.
Vaughan: Do you think the kind of disorientation you mentioned also happens on a cultural level? I’m very struck by the fact that many Western cultures are officially hostile to a lot of psychedelic drugs and yet there are many traditional cultures which have used them for thousands of years. I’m interested in that process of integration.
I think that’s a key point. For whatever reason, people in the West define drugs by culturally routed moral and legalistic opinion and therefore the drugs we habitually use we dismiss with euphemisms. So we don’t use caffeine we have a ‘coffee break’, or we’ll have a ‘cocktail party’ or a ‘quick smoke’. The irony is, is that the drugs we do choose to use, by chance turn out to be pharmacologically some of the most powerful and arguably some of the dangerous. Obviously, tobacco being the first to come to mind.
What you see in indigenous cultures by contrast, and lots of people have written about this, is that they seem to recognise that the desire to periodically change consciousness is an acceptable desire and the ethnographic record says it’s so ubiquitous in the human record that you have to see it as a basic human appetite. But they also recognise that the pure effects of these substances can be profoundly disquieting and so they insulate that possibility in a protective cloak of ritual.
Of course, they use their drugs in natural forms – again, I’m not speaking with hippy ethnography – but it’s just a more benign way of taking any drug. And that doesn’t mean that they only use these drugs for ‘culturally useful purposes’ – that was a sort of wonderful puritanical rap laid on us by anthropologists in the 70s who wanted to say it was OK for Indians to take drugs but not us because they don’t really have fun when they use drugs. That’s just not true. The Yanomami love getting high – that’s what they do all day long.
But there obviously seems to be great lessons in that because we remain tormented by drug problems that don’t go away. Andy Wild wrote a long time ago that there’s no such thing as a good or bad drug just good and bad ways of using drugs.
The interesting thing about these substances is not the pharmacological effects but the question of whether they are helpful to you. Do they help you understand something about your life and destiny and your sense of being in the world? I think with psychedelics that they can be profoundly useful but there like a telephone call – once you get the call and get the message you can hang up as Ram Dass famously said.