I wasn’t planning to be here. I wasn’t planning to come to this conference because I’m running out of fuel. You know, a new organ is failing every few months. So I’m kind of feeling that I should probably stop walking around the world doing so many things—working, writing, talking to different groups. So I thought I would retreat, you know, like the Hindus. They have a period of their lives for learning, a period for serving, and a period to prepare for dying. And they take that really seriously, and sometimes they put aside many years for that last stage, because it is said in Eastern culture sometimes that the day of your death is the most important day of your life. It is a gateway you need to know how to cross. So that was my mood because my mobility is failing, not only walking, but also when I’m sitting down for a long time, you know, everything starts to fail. Also my voice; it has to do with my Parkinson’s. And I thought the message of life was stop it, but the organizers insisted so much that I ended up coming with a feeling that this might be my last conference. You never know. But that’s my current mood.
So maybe because of this significant occasion, I chose a significant topic: the relevance of ayahuasca to the problems of the world. We know what’s the purpose, what’s the use of ayahuasca for people, for communities. But maybe the community of the world needs ayahuasca as well. Maybe society can be fixed, and ayahuasca is a tool for fixing it. That’s the topic I chose. And I guess I don’t need to explain here the recent problem in the world. The problem is everywhere. I was part of something called the Club of Rome, which still exists. I was part of the American branch, and it was one of the first organizations to deal with world problems. But that’s how we would call it, the world problematic. And this problematic was understood to be a set of aspects within a complex reality: seemingly independent aspects where when you try to fix something, you unfix something else. And when I would attend the meetings of this group, I felt something was lacking. The attitude was too engineering-based, too specific about financial players and productive players. But where’s the human factor here?
You can read once again the history of philosophy and religion and exchange the word sin for a more modern term like loss of mental health, loss of conscience.
So not so long ago, I published a book on the ignored root of all our evils, of all our problems. It’s like people didn’t understand what’s the actual gist, what’s the core of our problems. Everything else is just symptoms. It’s like we wanted to ignore it. It’s not common in academia to even utter this concept. And then there are other concepts that are already obsolete because the first theory of the evil in the world we could say is the original sin. The evil in the world derives from the sin, and the sin is, was for the ancient cultures, what we would call today sickness or the disease. You can read once again the history of philosophy and religion and exchange the word sin for a more modern term like loss of mental health, loss of conscience. So the notion of sin is a little old fashioned for us, probably, but it is interesting the notion of the original sin that was so cultivated by Christianity.
The idea of original sin is something underlying the common root of all other sins, and the text from Genesis where this comes from speaks in symbols. Not in rational language. And symbols are like dreams. They are multi-purpose; they could mean this or that. They could mean many things. There’s this scene in Genesis in which God was strolling in his garden, and he saw Adam and Eve. They had covered their genitals with vine leaves, and God knew they had sinned. So it looks like the original sin might have to do with whatever’s underneath the vine leaf. But it’s never said explicitly. It looks like this is unsaid because they also present the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, the famous apple. And this would be the sin of wanting to know something that belongs to the gods, the ultimate knowledge of good and evil. That’s what Adam and Eve wanted. So these two concepts are confused, and the knowledge of good and evil has actually been a key concept throughout our history. It looks like we declare it to ourselves; we already know what good and evil are, and we have spent our whole lives trying to be good and, of course, trying not to be evil.
So we should try and see how this concept fits with sexuality. Because we are clearly in a civilization, in a culture, actually all the cultures in the civilized world are cultures that have turned against nature. They have turned against the most natural thing within us, which is the pleasure principle. We are animals. It’s not that we’re just animals, but we’re also animals, and for a long time we lived as if we weren’t. It is as if we had lived thinking we were angels. It’s like in theater, in tragedies, they wouldn’t represent people doing certain things such as eating. Everything performed on the stage was virtuous and hero-like. We would represent ourselves as heroes without realizing maybe to what extent we had criminalized the serpent in us. According to the myth in Genesis, the serpent is the devil, but in previous myths the snake is related to nature and to the great mother goddess aligned with nature.
Same as we mistreated the earth and the plant species and the animals, we have also mistreated our own body and our own nature, particularly our instinctive nature.
And at some point we became Homo sapiens and then Homo sapiens sapiens. And maybe we were a little arrogant, and we stressed that we were men of reason rather than beings capable of love, rather than beings capable of animal wisdom. In the oldest peoples, the “pre-civilized” peoples, the indigenous peoples, animals are sacred. The soul is an animal. In the Egyptian civilization, the gods have animal heads. Amongst the Babylonians and their massive sculptures, the gods also have animal bodies. So something happened at some point when animals were criminalized—we thought less of them. Same as we mistreated the earth and the plant species and the animals, we have also mistreated our own body and our own nature, particularly our instinctive nature. And we could say this is in the core of the original sin, the idea that we are evil. That because of the mistake Adam and Eve made by eating the forbidden fruit, because of this unforgivable original sin, of disobeying the will of God, all of the descendants of Adam and Eve have to suffer and undergo this sentence and this punishment.
Ancient theologians rejoiced thinking about the great suffering of humans to alleviate in some way this great crime, a crime committed by Eve actually, rather than Adam. Because in the myth, of course, she is the one that offers him the famous fruit; she’s a little closer to carnality. Well, this theory of the original sin has some valid things, though, because the evil within us is passed onto generations. Wilhelm Reich actually updated the idea of the universal plague, but the idea of a genetic transmission should probably be abandoned. Only strongly orthodox Christians preserve this vision that children have to be baptized to rid them of the devil that lives within them because they belong to this punished human species.
The second theory about the gist of the evil in the world is probably the Freudian one. Rather than a precise formulation written in the works of Freud, it’s a more like the coloring and the nuances in many of his works. It’s kind of the backdrop. It’s like we are animals in a cage. We are instinctive beings that needed to create this police-based society to watch that we behave and that we do the right thing. Well surprisingly Freud got this very ancient Christian idea that we are not good, that we are half-good, half-evil. So Freud took this idea and reached the conclusion that because we’re only half good, we need judges and prisons and police. We need to step behind the line, not overstep our marks; we need to protect ourselves from our evilness, which is a tendency we need to watch for.
It’s curious how this idea of the original sin snuck into Freud’s philosophy when he accepted this notion. Although Freud thinks it’s tragic that because we are not completely good, we need to create a repressive culture. And by creating this repressive culture, we condemn ourselves to neurotic suffering. There was no way out of this situation to the mind of Freud.
Then there are many terms used when some of the problems of the world, like violence, domination, for instance, are discussed. And in feminism they started to use the word patriarchy and the patriarchal order. That’s what all cultures and all civilizations have applied in different ways. And in our culture, based on the Greeks and Romans, this is summarized in the patria potestas law [Latin: “power of a father”]. So the father is the owner of the wife and the children. In many literary works to the times of Shakespeare, the fundamental conflict was that the father wanted to marry his daughter to someone, and she had free will and then conflict appeared. It’s like there was some order imposed by society that gave this authority to the father. So not only the children had to go through the parents, but there was this ownership relationship between them.
So when there is this property relationship between humans there is an implicit slavery and depersonalization. This idea of patriarchy was rooted in feminism until Riane Eisler, in a famous book called The Chalice and the Blade, said that the patriarchy was the common evil of society—that it was not bad just for women, but that it was a problem for men, starting with children.
So there is a repressive order in the patriarchal order in which the father somehow gags or muscles the wife, the woman. The masculine gender has taken political expression away from woman, looking down on her and disregarding her, making it that nobody would hear her.
And she can be exploited as well. The less a person, the less the value of a person, the more they are enslaved. And this has been true in many cultures. Even a great culture such as the Greek culture, disregarded women to such an extent that they preferred homosexual love. Homosexual love is good. But as a cultural thing, having all young boys wanting love affairs with those of the same sex reveals that women were not considered to be peers and could not be loved deeply to the same extent.
And for a long time I discussed patriarchy, but over time I kind of changed my diagnosis, my vision on the problem of the world. And today I say that the problem of the world is the patriarchal mind. And by that I mean something analogous to the patriarchal family. There are two orders of repression in the patriarchal family: the repression exercised by the father or the authority on the woman, and then there’s the authority, the repressive action on the children. These operate with a different nature. And they are related to our neurobiology because we are somehow three-brained beings. We have this intellectual brain, our gray matter. We have a reptilian brain, as they call it, the primitive brain similar to a reptile’s brain. And then we have a brain we share with mammals in general. And this mammal brain is the maternal brain because mammals are the real inventors of love. Mammals are the ones that have a mother, and it is in mammals where we see this phenomenon that children have a slow development within the womb of the mother, the arms of the mother, always close to the mother. And human beings take a long time to be autonomous.
And they learn from the mother things such as the maternal ability. We learn to be mothers or to be maternal and recognizing in others a different self, so to speak. We learn to be empathetic to the extent we have received maternal love as well. There are many studies, famous studies you might know, for instance, about raising monkeys with a fake mother made of wire with a bottle or with a fake mother with fur on top. So these monkeys raised with the wire figure, with this unreal mother, wouldn’t have this maternal ability when they grew up; on the other hand those monkeys who had fur to cling to, a tactile stimulus, this feeling of presence something closer to the feeling of a mother, they could give better mothering when they grow up.
I don’t want to linger on that much, but we have this maternal brain, and this more aggressive or predator brain that has definitely prevailed in the development of our patriarchal civilization, a more instrumental brain we could call it. The more loving brain that takes care has been covered and overlapped by this patriarchal culture. And then we have this organic and instinctive brain that it is loaded with this very unconscious criminalization. It’s as if we had been lobotomized, and we could no longer feel the difference except for probably our friends get bored with us because there are people who you would say are not alive, and often the growth process in life is about going from this death in life induced by culture to discovering that life is so much more.
So if the problem of the world is that a part of us, a part of our brain, a part of our mind, which is of course related to our brain, if we have become isolated beings and when we say “I” we are only referring to an island within ourselves. It’s our rational mind that says “I” and disclaims our maternal, caring part, our empathic part, and disclaims most of all our instinctive part. If we are like that, we are beings living in just a room of the house rather than the whole house, then we can say that there is a repression, which is acted by our intellectual mind, on the maternal part and on the instinctive part.
And moving on to ayahuasca, I don’t know how many of you have heard about my experiments that were performed in Chile in the 1960s when I gave harmaline to a number of volunteers to know what would be the effect of harmaline without knowing anything about indigenous cultures.
And it has also been called to my attention that there were many reports of indigenous peoples and even travelers and botanists like Koch-Grünberg, reports of explorers and anthropologists, that are so similar in so many ways to those reports of ayahuasca communities, that one could wonder if they see so many jaguars because they have the cultural expectation of seeing jaguars. And if the famous snake appears in visions because it is part of the culture as well. Supposedly the experience of ayahuasca has snakes in it?
And this experiment turned out to be really interesting because people who didn’t know anything about that in the beginning—there was a group of 30 people who didn’t know anything about the indigenous peoples, and they didn’t know what they were taking either. They would just take a wafer. And they would start seeing birds and snakes and typical indigenous images of ayahuasca, which are depicted in the ceramics of the South American peoples.
And I wondered, I asked myself at that point if maybe there could be some telepathic operation running between these indigenous cultures and the people I was listening to. And I ended up convincing myself that this was something like what Jung called the archetypical world. And that these elements like the tigers, the snake, the birds of prey, the eagle, the vulture, are like different aspects of the mythical dragon, and the dragon has a very ambivalent nature. Chinese dragons are good, are celestial forces blessing. But Mesopotamic dragons are very dangerous, and European dragons are even worse. So Western dragons, we could say, are those fire-breathing beasts like the ones St. George would fight. They are kind of personifications of the ego.
But what’s striking about ayahuasca is a change of attitude toward the animal.
But it is as if the dragon has both aspects: he is the guardian of a treasure, but you could also find him as an evil or degraded form, like a force that wants to hoard everything, like in the Hindu myth that tells that before there was life on earth, the dragon of the sky had it all contained inside, and then Indra, the king of gods, speared the dragon and made all the water rain over the earth, and the cycle of life started.
I think the most striking phenomenon in ayahuasca is not just the appearance of the animal aspect, the personification of the primitive, which appears not only in these animals, but it’s also there in all sorts of symbols to do with the animal world, spiders or bears; we can all have an animal that we feel closer to. But what’s striking about ayahuasca is a change of attitude toward the animal.
I don’t know whether you know stories such as the ones I heard when I was in Putumayo studying these stories of people who come to heal themselves with shamans —people who come from an urban environment, or people who used to come, because I’m talking about back in the 60s when I was out there. The shamans used to say that they didn’t know as much as their parents used to know and a lot less than their grandparents used to know. So they felt they were part of a culture that was disappearing. But when they received the people who came to them, white people who came to them from urban environments, they used to tie them to a tree or else, in the panic of the vision, they could run away and get lost in the jungle and that could be very dangerous. So some people have had that experience of facing really appalling, scary threats, and they find that in the end the animal turns out not to be the enemy, but rather a sacred animal.
I got to witness a very interesting experiment made by someone who was well known in the world of the psychedelia in the 60s itself. I don’t know if any of you is familiar with Leo Zeff, somebody with whom I trained in psychedelic therapy. When I gave him ayahuasca that day, it wasn’t really ayahuasca; it was harmaline with a bit of LSD. It sort of opens up the visionary potential of harmaline, a bit like DMT actually. So I gave him this combination, this cocktail, and at a certain moment he was thinking of his wife, and then he was thinking of a woman with whom he had a conflict, and she got transformed into a kind of a personification of evil, this woman so problematic in his life. And then she got transformed into a huge snake that threatened to eat him up. And I luckily had read some shamanic stories. I told him, would you dare allow yourself to be eaten, understanding that this was a dream-like process just to see what happens. So he allowed himself to be swallowed by this kind of python, and he allowed himself to be digested and he felt transformed into the snake. And the snake was God itself. Very rarely have I witnessed such a huge transformation in somebody’s life. As I saw in a space of about five minutes, and I mentioned this here because I think it’s revealing about the essential potential of ayahuasca: to decriminalize the instinctual life.
If we reject, if we criminalize our inner snake, our reptilian brain, our instinct, this cannot happen without a profound act of un-love towards ourselves.
We have transformed some animals into terrible animals, but clearly the terrible is a part within ourselves. But there is the potential of recognizing another type of animality that is sometimes called a power animal or a sacred animal. I don’t think that this is a strange phenomenon of ayahuasca, because one of the pillars of psychotherapy was the Freudian ambition of decriminalized instincts. It’s not usually achieved. Other things are much more easily achieved. The depth of the original sin leaves a really deep imprint in us. So we feel bad because we carry a life of instincts. So it’s quite rare to have this phenomenon, which we sometimes easily see in ayahuasca. One of my first voluntary subjects, a woman, came across a Siberian tiger, a white tiger, and the tiger then became her guide. She’s now older, she’s my age, and she still feels that the tiger is her spiritual guide.
Oh my god. I only have three minutes left. Okay. Let’s see if in this three minutes I can share with you everything I wanted to.
If we reject, if we criminalize our inner snake, our reptilian brain, our instinct, this cannot happen without a profound act of un-love towards ourselves. So this process of re-converting a dangerous animal into a sacred animal means that we recover the love for ourselves. We believe we love ourselves. We sometimes think we love ourselves a little bit too much. The Christian culture wants to make us so self-sacrificial and good that it makes us feel since childhood that we are being selfish if we insist on our own wishes. In most religions, the concept of self-love has disappeared. Only those who start out on the journey to self-knowledge start to see how much they hate themselves. They despise themselves. We need to wake up to self-knowledge to realize how appallingly we have stewarded ourselves, how much we have despised ourselves. Only through self-knowledge can we discover how much we reject ourselves, and once we realize that we can start repairing that, healing that through therapy.
When you drink ayahuasca and you have this phenomenon of conciliating yourself with the animal, what happens then is that you recover the love for yourself. There’s a problem in understanding how Christianity, which was so powerful in the world and which insisted so much on the commandment of love, as it’s called, hasn’t managed to originate, to create a peaceful kind civilization. Quite the opposite. It is an increasingly violent civilization. And I think this is the key. That Christianity mandated the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself”, but it ignored that we don’t love ourselves because we’ve been led to believe that loving ourselves is selfish. This is a blind spot in our cultural history that ayahuasca is here to repair without having to undergo long fervent analysis. That’s how we can explain the amount of devotion in ayahuasca. The love of ourselves is the root of what I call the tree of love. It’s like we had in our belly the love for ourselves.
With love for oneself there comes devotion and even love for the other. It is impossible to love the other if you’re not anchored in the love for yourself, and if you cannot love yourself, if you have the burden of the original sin that makes you feel bad, guilty, and full of blame. It might not be a bad thing that I’m running out of time because I was about to start on a harder subject, which is the recovery of intuition. We live in the rational mind. We aspire to understand mysteries. We aspire to knowledge. The psychedelic interest is focused on the irrational mind, but at the moment, the world is ever so scientific, and I think that the psychedelic world is falling into the same sin of arrogance that science has, believing that science is wiser than poetry and myths.
This talk was originally presented at The World Ayahuasca Conference in Girona, June 2nd, 2019. It was simultaneously interpreted by Bea Acedo and Miquel Àngel Abadías and transcribed by Shelby Anderson.
You can read about Dr Naranjo’s life and work here: Remembering Psychedelic Therapy Research Elder, Dr Claudio Naranjo.