Part of my research for Ecstasy and the Dance Culture concerned the use of Ecstasy for spiritual purposes. Not only do ravers often experience a spiritual uplift, but I interviewed a rabbi and three monks who made occasional use of Ecstasy as an aid to meditation or prayer. One was a Soto Zen abbot of about fifty who teaches Buddhism in Switzerland. His own first spiritual experience was induced by taking LSD while at university, and he believes that most of his students came to Buddhism as a result of drug-induced 'openings'. The rabbi, a respected middle aged writer who I interviewed in a London synagogue, went as far as to say that "The major world religions have become spiritually sterile. The best chance a young person has to find a spiritual experience nowadays is through drugs like LSD and Ecstasy".
One of the monks was a Benedictine of about forty who started using Ecstasy in the USA before it was illegal, and still does so two or three times a year when prayer is difficult "To open up a direct link with God." He later persuaded me to write a book on the use of psycho-active drugs for spiritual purposes. As a result, I eventually found myself on the back carrier of my friend Arno's bike riding along the canals of Amsterdam. Arno had travelled to Peru where he spent time with a shaman who used the plant drug ayahuasca, but was now visiting an Amazonian church near his home in central Amsterdam.
We were on our way to a service of the Santo Daime, an unorthodox Brazilian religion which makes use of ayahuasca, where we were greeted by a Dutch woman in her early fifties. Arno had told me good things about her: after being diagnosed as having an incurable brain tumour, she had travelled around Europe and then South America in search of cures until she reached Mapia, deep in the Amazon rain forest, to seek help from the Santo Daime. They taught her how to use ayahuasca as a medicine which she brought back home and drank every night while playing tapes of their hymns. Two years later, her cancer apparently cured, she founded the Amsterdam church which she now devotes her life to as 'madrinha' (spiritual leader), providing care and support for members. Here she was, and my immediate impression was of a very special person: sensitive, strong and warm; someone I could entrust myself to even in a vulnerable state of mind.
As the congregation of over a hundred arrived, I was surprised to see that they looked like respectable Dutch office workers. Most were between thirty and fifty and two-thirds of them were women. But the most surprising part was the uniforms worn by the initiates. The men reminded me of sheriffs with their black trousers, white shirt and a brass star embossed with a flying eagle, while women wore calf length heavily pleated dark blue skirts, white shirts and black bow ties.
Chairs were neatly laid out to face a central altar, a table displaying an incongruous collection of religious ikons including a double barred crucifix, a statue of Mary and star of David besides a twisted piece of vine which I learned was ayahuasca. Men and women sat on opposite sides facing each other, with senior members at the front around the altar.
Some services involve dancing, a simple side step shuffle to the rhythm of the hymns, but this was to be a 'healing ritual' where we would have silent meditation. The madrinha briefed us: we should allow the energy to flow through us freely without crossing arms or legs as that may block the flow. Vomiting was regarded as a purification and so should not be held back; helpers would provide buckets.
We were each told precisely where to sit, then the service began with a few 'Our Father's and 'Hail Mary's in Dutch. It appeared to be lead by the elders around the altar rather than anyone in particular. Prayers were followed by hymns accompanied by a guitar and other instruments brought along by the congregation. The simple repetitive tunes were sung with great gusto in Portuguese, more like sea shanties with a bouncy lilt than the Catholic hymns I was brought up with. We didn't kneel, but there was lots of standing up and sitting down.
We had hardly settled into the singing when it was time for us to receive the sacrament. We got up in line and, just like going up to the altar to receive Holy Communion, followed a prescribed route to a side table behind which a Brazilian elder stood in uniform. He held a jug of dark brown liquid as thick as tomato juice, and as each person approached, he glanced up at them before pouring a judged dose into a glass. I was given an average half-tumbler which I accepted with a formal gesture and although it smelt bad and tasted worse, I forced it down.
Back in my seat (by defined route) I sat through more and more hymns until the time came for silent meditation. The first thing I noticed was that I yawned and yawned again, then when I leaned back and closed my eyes I saw flowing geometric patterns. But that was about all. After half an hour everyone stood up and started to move out of their places, and my first thought was: "Well, this must be the end. Pretty weak stuff, but I suppose it might impress someone who's never had a psychedelic before."
But I was wrong. We were getting up to take another dose, and this time the drink was darker. The taste was also stronger, so much so that I gagged. As I glanced up, penetrating eyes met mine and left me in no doubt that I must swallow the lot. And so I did.
Back in my seat, I looked around at the room full of straight-looking people dressed up in thirties uniform, standing in neat lines after drinking this foul tasting psychedelic tea... it was too much and I got the giggles. My immediate neighbours were either on another plane or politely refused to notice, but my friend Arno leaned over to me and whispered that he had once had the same problem and got over it by turning his mirth into a beatific smile.
This time the effect was stronger and I had to hold onto the back of the chair in front when we stood up. I also felt more nauseous, and I hastily got out of my seat to avoid disturbing my neighbours. I threw up a little bit, but stopped the flow: my mind wanted to 'let it all out' but my body refused. I felt rotten, not helped by my insight that this inability to vomit was a metaphor for being unable to let go emotionally. I had a block which I hung onto for fear of what lay beneath, and knew that I had to let go to overcome that fear. The harder I tried to vomit, the more my body resisted.
I desperately wanted to lie down but that was clearly not appropriate. At first I felt resentment for this restraint since I held the belief that psychedelics were to do with letting go and exploring. On reflection later, however, I understood how this formal, controlled setting was a way of combining and directing the flow of energy by focusing attention on the ritual. The discipline provided a secure setting in which to allow the congregation to go deeply into their own religious experience, while discouraging individuals from flying off into other realms.
As I still could not let go, I made the best of it by observing the scene. [Being on the men's side] I was facing the women, and saw that many of them glowed with beauty and inner joy. Some were apparently miles away, perhaps having deep spiritual experiences. A few looked upset (one had tears rolling down her cheeks) and were being attended by helpers who cared for them with obvious love and devotion, being supportive without interfering. Then I focused on the madrinha who radiated energy and health. It was clear that she was not blocked like me and could not possibly have cancer... then she caught my eye and I looked away in shame.
The Santo Daime religion emerged from the Brazilian rain forest to the Amazonian town of Rio Branco in the 1930s, and reached the cities in the eighties. The founder was Raimundo Irineu Serra, a remarkably tall black man, whose occupation as a rubber tapper in the twenties brought him into contact with indigenous people and their use of ayahuasca, a 'magic potion', valued both as a medicine and to make contact with plant and animal spirit entities seen in visions. The contents vary, the mix used by the Santo Daime consisting of the bark of a vine, Banisteriopsis Caapi, which contains harmine, and leaves of a plant called Psychotria Viridis (referred to as the Queen Leaves) which contain dimethyl tryptamine or DMT. Separately, each component has an unpleasant taste and little effect, so it is often asked how on earth did primitive people discover the magic effect of using them together?
Irineu was brought up a Catholic, but he was also influenced by Spiritism (a religion based on the spirits of plants and animals that is still widespread in Brazil), and by the native Indian beliefs, possibly handed down from the Incas. His visions were of the Queen of the Forest, a white woman clad in blue and indistinguishable from the Virgin Mary, who told him that his task was to found a new religion making use of ayahuasca. She appeared to him many times, instructing him how to use the ayahuasca tea as a sacrament, and guided him through the political hurdles in establishing the church in the Amazonian town of Rio Branco. In addition to visions, Irineu 'channelled' hymns containing teachings which formed the doctrine of the new religion. The word 'Daime' (Portuguese for 'give me') occurs in so many of the hymns that the religion became known as the Santo Daime. Members also use the word Daime to mean their sacramental form of ayahuasca.
The doctrine of the church, as revealed in the hymns, include beliefs from every religion in Brazil. The predominant theme is that the spirit of the ayahuasca vine is a teacher, but hymns also consist of prayers to the Queen of the Forest / Virgin Mary and the Christian God. Some hymns refer to reincarnation and salvation but the religion is mostly concerned with enlightenment in the here and now:
I have come to receive the teachings
That are in the Holy Daime
I have come to release the power
That is deep within my mind
The church spread, particularly amongst poorer Brazilians attempting to settle in the rain forest. However, it was harassed by the authorities to the extent that in 1981 Irineu's successor, Sebastiao, decided to leave Rio Branco. [I can't find more details of this at present] Like Moses, he lead them on an arduous journey to a site deep in the jungle where they could practice their religion as part of a community lifestyle. Their ashram-like village is called Ceu do Mapia (Heaven of Mapia) and now has about 700 inhabitants who live a simple, ecologically-sensitive life without money, electricity or running water.
Mapia, and Sebastiao's magnetic personality, held a romantic appeal for city dwellers including some well known Brazilian TV stars. The result was that the Santo Daime acquired a glamourous, fashionable image in the second half of the eighties, resulting in rapid growth and the establishment of new churches in all the major cities. The Mapia nucleus, who were poor and mainly illiterate, found themselves outnumbered by sophisticated city people which caused inevitable friction. Many of the newcomers were involved in New Age spiritual practices and personal development workshops, but Sebastiao managed to include these new methods in much the same way as Bhagwan Rajneesh incorporated them into his teachings. (Incidentally, both Bhagwan and Sebastiao died on the very same day in 1990.)
Popular enthusiasm was followed by disillusionment and a media backlash, with scandals about members being brain washed and cheated of their money. In 1987 the Brazilian government held an enquiry into the use of ayahuasca by the Santo Daime and another church, the União do Vegetal which is even more widespread in Brazil. The Federal Drug Council concluded that, in the context of its use in religious rituals, ayahuasca was a positive influence in the community, encouraging social harmony and personal integration. "The followers of the sects seem to be happy and tranquil people. Many ascribe to the religion and to the tea reintegration with their family, renewed interest in their work, encounters with the self and with God." As a result, the churches have government approval to use ayahuasca, just as the US government allows the Native American Church to use cactus containing mescaline.
In Europe, too, there is the danger of the church being portrayed as a dangerous cult, indoctrinating their followers under the influence of a mind-altering brew after being persuaded to make donations. Unlike a cult, the organisation is not secretive nor does it ask followers to give up their normal life, and the guru they are devoted to is the Daime rather than the human head of the church, Padrinho Alfredo. A lot of money is raised to support Mapia and to pay for padrinhos and madrinhas to visit Europe, but there are as yet no signs of exploitation or extravagant living.
In 1994, an American research team compared members of the União do Vegetal, who had been drinking ayahuasca for at least ten years, with matched controls. Users scored significantly higher in a number of psychological tests: they tended to be successful people and many claimed they were more confident, happy and calm than before they joined the church. However, these benefits may have less to do with ayahuasca than the churches themselves whose devoted members care for one another, providing a rich social life and spiritual support.
Apart from those exceptions in Brazil, DMT is prohibited all over the world. In Holland, the police actually raided a service and took away a sample for analysis. But instead of being charged with being in possession of an illicit drug, they were prosecuted under the Public Health Act for the tea containing too many bacteria! In Italy, Germany and Japan the police have also taken samples for analysis but made no charge. Followers have told me the reason is that they are 'protected', but an alternative explanation may be that the tea contains no DMT: an experienced research psychologist tells me that the effects I observed could have been produced by harmine alone.
Over the past two years, branches of the Santo Daime church have been established in Japan, the USA, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, France and now Britain. Some members regard the expansion in Brazil as a prelude to becoming a world wide religion. Could the Santo Daime become as popular in the nineties as Eastern religions in the sixties?
Certainly there is a lot going for the Santo Daime as a religion of our time. Its origins in the rain forest, the use of a traditional sacred plant medicine and the ecologically aware lifestyle of the Mapia community paint an attractive image, one of being uncorrupted and in touch with nature. Its holistic viewpoint accords with the prevailing New Age philosophy where physical, psychological and spiritual well being are seen as one. It has incorporates shamanism and the 'Goddess'. It allows for individual spiritual experience 'in the here and now'. But most of all, it brings people into contact with the divine far more rapidly than the established European religions. A cynic might add that it is the religious equivalent to fast food, providing spiritual nourishment without thorough preparation.
However, it is not an easy path. Rather than having a blissful time, ayahuasca makes most people feel nauseous, and only a small minority persevere. The Daime is said to seek out emotional blocks which are revealed on vomiting, forcing one to confront them. Geraldine, the Dutch madrinha, vomited and cried for the first six months and still winces with disgust at the taste. As in psychotherapy, awareness of blocks and even insight into their causes is no quick fix and often reveals deeper problems. On the other hand, there is the tantalising expectation of visions and deep mystical experience.
I have now taken part in ten religious rituals using ayahuasca. I felt uncomfortably nauseous in seven of them, twice felt nothing and only once had an enjoyable experience. That was in the União do Vegetal in Salvador when I had a vision: I was in a forest where I was 'introduced' to the spirits of the trees and plants, and they accepted me into their world. Once in the Santo Daime, also in Brazil, I went out to vomit when I was overcome by an strong flow of energy that connected me to a higher plane, but it merely came and went as waves without providing any useful insight for me to learn from.
One of the three Dutch churches consists mainly of ex Sanyassins, followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh. A follower told me that the Santo Daime included all Bhagwan's teachings within the framework of a ritual setting. A typical Dutch member would be a woman in her forties who used to be involved in personal development and joined the church after her marriage broke up. Many were brought up Catholics which they had rejected in favour of Buddhism or other Eastern religions, and later found that these too were unsatisfying. "When I came to the Santo Daime, it felt like coming home. I thought that I had got over Christianity, but its in our roots. This path is based on acceptance, not rejection, and allows one to build on all that one has learned." A Dutch elder explained: "You can make fast progress, but its too tough for many people. The Daime forces you to face yourself with nowhere to hide, and most people are not prepared for that."
I interviewed first timers after the first official service to be held in London. A 52 year old shiatsu practitioner exclaimed: "This is the way to do psychedelics!" Although he had no visions and only the slightest closed-eye images, "like an acid trip that never got off the ground", he felt uplifted and free to share the service as a group celebration. A designer of 25 said he felt the flow of life force in every cell of his body, but the formality of the ritual put him off coming again. A shopkeeper in her forties who regarded herself as an atheist told me she felt very little, but simply knew that God existed. A massage trainer of thirty felt extremely nauseous and swore "Never again", but next day, after only three hours sleep, she felt "crystal clear, full of energy and gave a wonderful class." I have also felt surprisingly good after nauseous nights on ayahuasca.
Is the Santo Daime a model for religions of the future? It certainly has great appeal, especially to the growing numbers who have a yearning to make sense of spiritual experiences encountered on psychedelics. I believe that the Daime can provide insight into oneself which is the basis for an effective holistic spiritual and psychotherapeutic path. But this may be the problem: quite apart from the taste and nausea, how many people are really prepared to confront and deal with their inner problems?
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