TRANSCRIPT – Western Shamans, Sacred Tea Servers & Charlatans | Rak Razam

Rak Razam
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LL: Hello beautiful visionaries, this is Lorna Liana here for another episode of EntheoNation. And I’m here today with Rak Razam who is a world’s leading experiential journalist who writes about the emergence of a new cultural paradigm in the 21st century. He’s the author of the critically claimed book, “Aya Awakenings: a shamanic odyssey” as well as the companion volume of interviews called “The Ayahuasca Sessions”. He is also a frequent lecturer on ayahuasca, specifically speaking about the shamanic revival that is sweeping the west. He wrote, produced, and co-directed the groundbreaking, new visionary documentary “Aya Awakenings”, and he leads ayahuasca retreats in Peru. We will be including all the links to all the work that Rak has been doing around the shamanic revival in our show notes.
So Rak, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m very excited to talk to you about this phenomenon that I have seen accompany the shamanic revival that’s sweeping the west, which is the explosion of western ayahuasqueros.
RR: Thank you Lorna. It’s a pleasure to be here.
LL: So I’m going to confess, I’m a little old school and I’ve spent a lot of time in the jungle with elder indigenous shamans who have spent a lifetime studying plant medicines, going through rigorous tests in their shamanic training of avoiding drinking water for an entire year, okay? To standing a river all day and more, more trials of character and knowledge and endurance. And I’ve heard accounts by trusted and respected sources that some of these indigenous curanderos are capable of curing serious diseases like diabetes and cancer.
So when I see this explosion of ayahuasqueros, which I would kind of lump into two general categories; one category being the travelling mestizos that have a fraction of the training but the elders have received, but who are travelling around North America and Europe doing ayahuasca ceremonies and charging about $200 per person and making $30,000 per ceremony and just kind of like going on tour like rockstars. So that would be the first group. And the second group would be westerners that have even less training than these mestizos who I see are serving ayahuasca and charging money for it, sometimes to pay their rent.
Now among the tribes that I’ve spent time with there are initiations you have to pass before you’re even qualified to serve ayahuasca and other plant medicines. And on a more personal note, I believe that if you serve another person ayahuasca, you do take on the responsibility of that person’s emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. So it’s a pretty big responsibility. And so I don’t really see these rockstar mestizo shamans available to support many of the people that they serve after that ceremony’s over, because they’re on tour. And then I also have some serious misgivings about the capacity of some of these western ayahuasqueros to appropriately handle a situation if someone that they serve has a psychotic breakdown. So I’d love to hear what your thoughts are about this phenomenon.
RR: Well that’s a – there’s a lot of questions there Lorna, and they’re very good ones and they do cut right to the quick of what is happening in the west as the global shamanic resurgence, as I call it, is rolling out and we’re reclaiming this modality of not just ayahuasca – there are many different types of western neoshamans working with psilocybin mushroom with ayahuasca with DMT, so the cactus. It’s very true. A lot of the things you said are very true, but I think the devil is also in the details.
So number one, you have to look at the power dynamics and what is happening. So in many parts of South America the tradition of ayahuasca and plant-based shamanism was in danger of dying out, even up to a decade ago or so. Until the westerners came with their money, and they made this profession of shamanism a very dynamic profession that was paid very well.
LL: So until the westerners came with money, then they actually contributed to the resurgence of ayahuasca as a tradition in these countries? Did I understand you correctly?
RR: Basically. Basically, here’s the thing: the path to become an ayahuasca shaman takes decades, as you were saying. There are as many deprivations and many, it’s an austere path which is very difficult. It requires isolation away from the world, it requires a rigorous diet, which can be very difficult and many practitioners who are shamans now, started out on that path when they were young children. They were groomed for many, many years by their elder shamans, by people who saw they had the energetic potentials and it meant, basically, a lifetime of sacrifice. And so it was a very hard path that not many of the younger generation were wanting to follow, until the westerners started to come, looking or ayahuasca and bringing the money with them to make it a very tradable commodity.
When that happened, many people jumped on the ayahuasca bandwagon, even in countries like Peru and throughout South America. There are many practitioners now who are not fully trained shamans or curanderos who are putting up their singles and offering services with ayahuasca because it is a booming industry. And so that type of energy around the ayahuasca culture and the industry of ayahuasca as a spiritual business, that has carried over in the west as well. I do believe that there are, I was told when I first when down to Peru many years ago, that basically something like – to use a generalize statistic – something like 10% of the people experiencing ayahuasca were seekers instead of perhaps thrill-seekers, and were people that felt a calling on the path of ayahuasca that they wanted to stay with it. That they had this type of relationship with ayahuasca where they felt that they had the potential to be healers, or they had a calling to be a healer, and they wanted to work with a modality of ayahuasca and bring it back to their homes and their communities in the west.
And that is a very honorable goal to have and in doing so they’d had to re-enter the western civilization and the fact that we have money-based economy, not a cooperative economy, it’s very much entrenched in capitalism and consumerism. And so the ayahuasca circles, even though they still have a tribal and community approach as you say, circles in the west are done for money, just like they’re now done for money in South America as well. It used to be that an indigenous shaman was told by spirit that they could not refuse to serve someone or to help heal someone who was in need of healing, even if they didn’t have any money. It was an energetic exchange that could be met, and it wasn’t about money, it was about the fact that they’re in service to spirit and to healing, but of course the shaman also needs to have food on the table and to have a place to conduct ceremonies in.
So there’s always been a reciprocation or an understanding of supporting the shaman in supporting the village. Now what I’m finding that the issue is in the west is that ayahuasca is coming in, it’s being commodified to a degree. I would say a vast majority of western practitioners are integral people who are choosing to do the healing because they believe it is of service to the tribe. And they are doing that to the best of their ability within the capitalist structure underground that they still have the right integrity of approach, they understand the sanctity and the sacredness of the medicine, they want to help people with their healing in ceremonies and introduce them to ayahuasca and help them, essentially.
And some people, on top of that, may be pursuing the money more so than the healing. And that’s just a statistical sort of fact within, I guess culture, and within tribes, and within people. It’s not just happening in the west, that type of attraction to money is also happening in indigenous cultures as they chase the tourist dollar as well. So basically what we’re seeing is these incredibly psychoactive medicine that can help reveal and heal and find spirit within yourself, is getting turned into a commodity. And this is what happened with every single other sacred substance that the west has encountered over the last few hundred years, all the way back to tobacco, magic mushrooms. It’s like everything that we’ve encountered that was sacred, we have turned into something profane because we have not had right relationship with it.
So I think that this generation of people engaging with the shamanic path, indigenous people take decades! I mean it’s at least 20 years to become a shaman. So we’re seeing the first five or 10 years of western practitioners, and it’s exponentially growing incredibly fast, and there is a boom and bust cycle happening within this and I think it will regulate and it will find right balance and it’s a process we’re going through. But it’s like this is the generation which is bridging the gap and is reconnecting. It’s like they’re kickstarting the shamanic meaning and the shamanic energy back into western culture and they’re having to do it under the control mechanisms of capitalism and working within the system we’ve got, even though there’s the potential within entheogens in general, to change the consciousness of individuals within the culture, which may change the culture on that.
So it’s a complicated scenario and a lot of the things you mentioned are very true, but I would say the devil’s in the details and that there, you know, hopefully the community will learn enough to self-regulate and to police a lot of the practitioners and make sure that they’re integral as well.
LL: Yeah I mean, yeah you’re absolutely right, “the devil is in the details” because you need to look at the skills, experience, and qualifications of the person who is actually serving you that medicine. I think just a history of serving ayahuasca for 10, you know five, 10 years is not necessarily the same as receiving dedicated and rigorous instruction from an elder, from a master ayahuasquero on a daily basis. And so that’s one of the things that’s really missing when I see some of the western ayahuasqueros serving. Sure they’re serving and holding space, but they’re not necessarily increasing their knowledge of the plants, unless you were to rely entirely on apprenticeship with the plant teacher herself. Which on one hand I would not discount, as one works with plant teachers, as one works with ayahuasca, I truly do believe that you, deep in your knowledge from your direct experience working with the plant spirit. But you don’t have an 80 year old curandero also teaching you the different ways to prepare the plants and in all the subtleties of working with the plants, that sometimes you can only really get when you’re in the jungle, when you are in the forest ecosystem.
RR: Well that’s very true. And you know, at the core of that, this is what even the shamans themselves say is that ultimately, how did they learn their knowledge originally? it’s like the plants told them. It’s that the whole practice of preparing for training to be a curandero involves isolation from the higher vibrational energies of the world to achieve the sensitivity to be able to listen and hear the call of the plants. Like they’re always on, but the vibration of our consciousness, especially in the west when we’re orientated towards the ego and to more sort of “beater” consciousness levels of actions. And we’re always on screen, and we’re always fragmented. And the level of consciousness we reside upon is not the level of consciousness which can hear the call of nature.
And so a lot of the dieta’s and the isolation of the people training to be curandero involves stripping them back, through their diet and through their isolation, to be sensitive enough to hear. And then when they do, ultimately the best and single most core teacher is the plants themselves – and in this case ayahuasca – can teach you the icaros, the songs and teach you about the other plants. And that is possible for the westerners to get that one-on-one download but they need to establish a very secure relationship with the spirit of ayahuasca and they need to be dedicated to it.
And they are almost forcing themselves into a sort of power lunch where they really have to – it’s a very western way of doing it yet again. It’s like, “Let’s cram 20 years worth of preparation and knowledge into, at best, maybe a year or two’s worth of practice in the jungle. And then let’s go back and call ourselves,” – this is the thing: they don’t call themselves shamans and they don’t call themselves even neoshamans. They’re just basically facilitators and practitioners who are usually, they say, are providing the space. They can hold the space, they can protect that space from any outside entity intrusion, and if we’re lucky…
LL: Can they really? Can they really? That’s the question. [Laughs]
RR: Well to varying degrees, and unfortunately you sometimes only find out that they can’t hold that space when something goes wrong, when some type of energetic disturbance happens or people might find after a ceremony that they have some unwanted passenger or occurrence that happens. And I think basically you have to, just like they say with shamans in the Amazon, it’s like going to your village – or sorry, you’re local suburban doctor, the GP, General Practitioner. It’s like you can always get a second opinion, or you should shop around until you find a doctor that you find is listening to you and you feel like you have a rapport with and you’re comfortable with and you can trust and open to. Because there are many different shamans and there are any different western shamanic practitioners, and just because they have the medicine and say they can hold a ceremony, a) it doesn’t mean they can, and b) it doesn’t mean that they’re the right person for you because it’s a very intimate situation you’re putting yourself in and you need to be able to trust that you can open up on that level and find the person that works for you.
LL: I completely agree with you too because I think there’s certain protocols around being a space holder that need to be universal. For example: screaming at somebody before the ceremony is over is not a good indicator that the person is qualified to hold that space or is walking the talk. Cause I find that if you do step into the role of being a facilitator, in a way all of a sudden you have to walk your talk because it’s such a different level of responsibility. So on one hand, if you’re a participant and you’re going for healing, it’s almost like you can let all of your stuff out when you’re going to the healing. Because if you’re holding that space, then it’s really upon you to be a person of integrity and to keep your ego in check and to not get all freaked out about money and ceremonies.
The unfortunate thing that I think has really given to the side effects of the commercialization of ayahuasca or commoditization of ayahuasca in the west the energy of the money exchange has really changed a lot of – it changes the energy of the ceremony. I mean having drunk a lot of medicine in Brazil, for example, where the model is much less shaman-centric, and much more community-based. I almost never have to pay for participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, and the energy’s just totally different than having to pay $200 per, just to participate, to one person.
In Brazil for example, you have your churches, you have your tribes, and typically, within a church their members pay monthly dues. And then if you’re a newcomer then you could expect to dink for free, or for a marginal fee, to cover the cost of toilet paper and candles and things like that. But it’s the members that are covering the cost of the production of the ayahuasca and the operational expenses of the space. But that’s very much a different model. So I would contrast the experience or the feeling that I get when the money element is removed from the ayahuasca experience, which is probably the – which is the main reason why I stopped drinking with groups in the west.
But I wanna take you to a really important question, pertinent to this discussion, which is “Okay, so many of these facilitators do have a role, in that they are the ones that are opening the door to the ayahuasca experience for people that simply will never go to the jungle, ok? So they are serving a valuable role or purpose. Now do you have any advice on assessing the skills, experience, and qualifications of a western ayahuasca ceremony facilitator so that you know that the person is a good person for you to drink with?
RR: Yeah I think it’s a bit of a challenge in many ways because in many parts of the west ayahuasca ceremonies are still an underground modality. I know that articles that make New York Times and LA Weekly is almost describing it as a sort of lifestyle choice and a new sort of fad that essentially, it’s not always, it’s something that is overt and you can perhaps Google and do a background reference check on who the facilitator is and what their experience is.
So if you find yourself looking for, and finding an in into an ayahuasca community, I think you need to ask the others in that community about the practitioner and it is okay. It is definitely part of the path or the course to ask questions and to want to know what their experience is. You would want to know where they did train or how they received their initial experiences with ayahuasca, how long they trained for, what modality they specialize is? Did they do any indigenous learning, you know, learning in indigenous settings or have they just learned in the west? I guess, do they make the brew themselves? Do they import the brew? What are the other admixture plants in the brew? Do they use Toé or anything like that, which can be sort of controversial in brews?
LL: Toé is datura right?
RR: That’s correct, that’s correct. It’s used even by indigenous curanderos, but it’s usually very sparsely used because it’s very powerful psychoactive and it can really sort of send people on very powerful journeys that are a bit too much really.
LL: Or even result in death, so I’ve heard.
RR: It can, but I mean responsible use, it is one of the power plants as well. But since it is so powerful that it needs to be used responsibly and in the right way. And even not with that, but with other things like, are they stacking the deck with the brew to put more chacruna or more of sort of the tea component in there for visionary component. Is it really, is it aligned with healing? Is it there to facilitate the healing? Do they know, not just how to hold space, but do they have any songs? That’s one of the key things; do they have any of the icaros, the power songs, which aren’t just singing to bide the time and to fill the space, they’re actually healing mechanisms in themselves, which call in the spiritual vibrational codes of the plants or of the entities that they’re calling in to work on behalf the healing of the patients. Do they have that level of expertise?
And you know, on some levels it’s okay if they don’t because as I said, people are still learning, and number one that seems to be an urgency around the globe because people have heard about ayahuasca and they understand it is a very powerful healing agent, which does work. And so it seems like this generation is really, at the minimum, holding space for the medicine to do the work in a safe container of the ceremony. Many western practitioners that I know would even have recorded music on, which I find it’s not the best case scenario, but it’s like if they’re setting up the [mezan] scene and the elements they need to hold ceremony, if they’re holding the elements they need to hold ceremony and putting those together, they’re basically trusting that the medicine itself is going to be doing the healing. Most of the western practitioners I know don’t call themselves shamans because they know they’re not really healing. It’s the medicine of ayahuasca working with the synergy of the patient that is together facilitating the healing in a safe space that the facilitator is holding and making sure is going to be a container for that ceremony.
LL: I think one key piece too to really, that would be an indicator as to the level of experience of a medicine server in the west is whether or not they’re having an interview with you before they serve you, especially around your health conditions and whether you are on any antidepressants that are considered to be SSRI’s.
RR: That’s definitely, that should go without saying, but it shouldn’t go without being said. You’re right I mean, and there are organizations like the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council, the ESC, which are instigating standardized duty of care sort of rules and consensus sort of agreements between practitioners and lodges in Peru. And just an understanding that people who are doing ayahuasca need to know that there are certain fundamental safety issues and standards like, as you said, a screening process looking at the medical conditions of people wanting to do ayahuasca, blood pressure is another issues, but definitely things like SSRI’s which can contraindicate with ayahuasca and be quite deadly.
People need to know any of those preconditions and things like that, people need to be screened. And also psychological evaluations, people really need to be seen. Just because they’ve heard about ayahuasca, it doesn’t mean it’s actually right for them because it is such a transformative and powerful and full on experience. As well as the physical purging, are people ready to face their demons? Are they ready to really – do they really want to be healed or do they expect to passively sit back and treat ayahuasca like a new drug? It’s like are they ready for that engagement because it’s really forcing them to really look at themselves deeply.
And then, what is the duty of care and integration and after care and follow up? And that is a very much needed integration as a concept. We need to be helping people make sense of these experiences, make sure that they are able to go back into the world and to lead a life which is integral, having integrated their experiences. Like it will change them, and they might not be able to go back to the world they left.
LL: So what do you suggest a person do if they have a bad experience and the shaman or facilitator who served them the ayahuasca isn’t actually available or capable of supporting them? Where should that person go?
RR: Well see this is why it’s so valuable to, as you said, like you were saying about the churches and how they’re more community driven. I see the current hierarchical ceremony style of a centralized shaman or practitioner in the west as just a transition point. Because I say the community model, the network sort of centric model, is the way forward. A lot of people who originally come in through ceremonies that are led by a single facilitator and stay with the medicine path, will eventually find their other tribe mates or their vine tribe – people they drink with – and their little family of people that they do this with and eventually they will get to a point where it’s a best case scenario is to be planting your own ayahuasca, growing your own ayahuasca, making your own brews, and establishing a personal relationship with the medicine for your personal use of you and your friends. And in that case you take the money out of the equation, and you have the safety net of other people you can trust and you can open up with, you can go further with, you can support each other spiritually.
And so even if you don’t have that at the outset when you go into an unknown spiritual community like an ayahuasca community, whoever you go in through or whoever you know, or even people you resonate with in that community, you need to support each other and you need to then be able to follow up outside the ceremony with each other. Because as you say, many of the practitioners, many of them are local to their environments` and their towns and cities where they live and they can be contacted. But some of them are coming through and travelling to areas where they are facilitating ceremonies and they’re gone again.
LL: And they don’t wanna be found because in the United States it’s still a Schedule I drug, even though the UDV was able to have in the Supreme Court, ayahuasca as a – the right to use ayahuasca as a religious right. They were able to win that right in the Supreme Court, but a lot of these people who are serving ayahuasca are not members of the UDV and so they are using disposable cellphones and going by anonymous handles and so it can be very hard to reach them.
RR: This is the whole problem of the 40 plus years of the war on drugs that it hasn’t been successful for anyone but the criminals to make money off and to endanger people’s lives with diluted products cut with bad medicines. But even with a good medicine like ayahuasca, it forces people who want to participate and to utilize the healing properties of this sacred medicine, it forces them to use subterfuge and go underground and create conditions which may not be the most optimal for the support and safety of people in the long run.
And so I think there is movement of ayahuasca seekers around the world that are not doing this recreationally, they’re doing as a spiritual reconnection for physical healing, for connection to the spirit, and as the community grows we really need to basically, we need to get political I guess, on some level. We need to be standing up for our rights that this, in America where you have the Constitution and the freedom of religion is meant to be an essential tenet. This is such a religious experience and I think that one of the reasons why it doesn’t come up in the courts very often even though occasionally travelling shamans from South America get busted in the States, they get released and they don’t want to face this in the courts because they know this is an archetypal religious freedom issue and that eventually we are going to have to stand up for ourselves.
Because we know, if we don’t stand up for our rights, the government takes them away. And this is, it’s so primal. It is so primal, a visionary entheogenic experience like ayahuasca, that people who have undergone it have very in built faith and a burning fire that they know they’ve had a spiritual experience, and they know this is at the heart of religion. And so how can this be illegal if it’s done in the right certain setting in the right way? This is a very primal and sacred human experience which must be – we mustn’t even ask them for permission – this is something which is our god-given right. I mean this connection to nature and to great spirits, it’s like it’s something which we need to stand up for, else it’ll be taken away.
LL: So how, so I’d love to ask you, if you were an individual that felt strongly called to hold a medicine space as a facilitator, then what advice would you have for them to prepare themselves for this responsibility, both personally, spiritually, and legally?
RR: Well number one, if they have that calling they presumably have a relationship with ayahuasca that’s not just a delusional construct of their mind, but they’re feeling like they have a good reciprocal relationship and they’re putting that into practice and they’re engaging with dieta and being, you know, approaching the medicine in a sacred way. They’re learning from it, they’re pacing themselves, and they’re not throwing themselves gung-ho into going, “Oh my gosh I’ve been called by ayahuasca and I’m gonna go out next week and hold a ceremony.” I mean it’s something very sacred and it is such a, as you say, an important responsibility. It’s like in the west if you choose to be a doctor and that takes seven to 10 years of medical practice.
I mean you may have knowledge along the way, but you can’t legally call yourself a doctor until you’ve gone through all the right hoops. In this sense, I think we’re seeing this generation, they’re going through the first few stages of this call to action of the shaman’s path, and they are facilitating and they are learning and they are growing, and it’s still gonna be this generation. It’s gonna take a few years to a decade or so before people mature enough to be able to have the full gamut of skill base to be a practitioner. So I would say to people on the path, listen to your heart, listen as integrally as you can. Get feedback from your peers, don’t fear it. Start off on the path, but go slowly.
Go slowly and sit in ceremony with yourself and then maybe sit in ceremony with a few close friends and how space for that. And build up, and don’t focus on the money, focus on being in service. Focus on how you can help people in your community and maybe organize co-ops and models of cooperation and community support within which you can sidestep the money. You can do it as a – you can’t be doing it for the money. You’ve gotta be doing it for the community. That’s one of the definitions of a shaman is that they are in service of healing for their community, and that’s the role they play in their community. And so we can’t be falling into the western trap of commodifying these substances and just charging money for them. We must be practicing the art of healing, and it needs to be done in a slow and integral way.
LL: Thank you so much for those very wise words. I really appreciate you sharing with us your experience. We’re about at the end of our segment here, and I’d love to leave you with the last question: what do you think we need to do to evolve ourselves forward and awaken as a human species?
RR: Okay, number one – I think I said it a bit earlier in the interview – the really core think we need to do is listen and open our hearts. We need to be hearts-centric – I’m not saying just give away the mind, but the mind needs to be working in synergy and in balance with the heart. Nature gave us an amazing repertoire of abilities; we have the imagination, we have the intellect, we have the intuition, we have the ego, we have all these capacities of the mind. And then we have the heart. And it’s no use just using one hemisphere of the brain to go out and see the world and to think it’s something we can conquer and we can take resources from and we can distance ourselves from.
And we have both an ecological crisis and a societal crisis we’re facing on planet Earth at the moment. And it’s not going away, in fact it seems to be exponentially getting worse. In times of crisis we also have an opportunity to change and to transform. And I believe that the plants like ayahuasca and the entheogens are coming back into the western understanding precisely at this time because they are needed. There are many other pathways to self-awareness and awakening, but I don’t think we necessarily have time on the planet. We need to plug in directly to the main frame and to remember what right relationship is. And you can’t just remember intellectually that right relationship.
It’s like falling in love; you need to be open. You can describe love to someone and they can understand it, but to feel it is another thing entirely. So what these plants are doing is they’re healing us and they’re cleansing our bodies and they’re not the answer, they’re just the doorway they’re asking us to walk through. They’re asking us to go back to the garden, to go back to nature with our western understanding and our minds, but to have it in service and sort of in right balance with our hearts to be able to feel nature, to be able to listen to nature, to be able to work with nature to be a better species. To be a species in service to the great whole and to fully awaken.
LL: Thank you so much Rak. How can we best stay in touch with you?
RR: You can find me at That’s or Aya – And I’m looking forward to meeting you all. I am doing these regular ayahuasca awakening retreats down in Peru every three months or so and you can find information about that on the website and I look forward to, well yeah, being part of this global shamanic resurgence.
LL: I look forward to one day meeting you in person too Rak. Maybe that’ll happen in Peru. [Laughs]
RR: I would love to Lorna. That’s be awesome!
LL: Yeah, or I’ll take you to Brazil. How’s that? Join me on a trip to the Brazilian Amazon and I’ll show you what’s going on in the other side of the Andes. It’s amazing.
RR: That sounds like a date. Let’s do it.
LL: [Laughs] Alright, take it easy. Buh-bye!
RR: Thanks Lorna.