Global Ayahuasca
Wondrous Visions and Modern Worlds
Alex K. Gearin



Twelve strangers sat in a large hut listening to the Shipibo healer Maestro Juan talk about the curative properties of ayahuasca. They had come to the edge of the Peruvian Amazon during the winter of 2019, arriving from Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand on a pilgrimage to transcend the modern world and find healing with an Indigenous psychedelic brew. Juan, wearing a t-shirt with an illustration of angels circling heaven by the nineteenth-century French artist Gustave Doré, was smoking a thick wad of hand-rolled mapacho tobacco while passionately telling us about tiny, invisible people who live deep in the rainforest, protecting an area where the powerful noya rao medicine plant grows. When its miraculous seeds fall into the river, fish quickly eat them and jump into the air, becoming colorful birds. “Ayahuasca is similar. It’s not as powerful as noya rao, so you can drink it,” he explained, adding, “Ayahuasca brings you into a new dimension where you can transform.”

As we sat in the large maloca, where we would all drink ayahuasca that evening, I noticed a thin layer of dirt covering the floor which had drifted in through the transparent mosquito netting. At the center of the maloca was an old tree trunk that towered some twenty-five feet and helped to hold up the thatched roof. During the evenings, the tree framed the guests’ ayahuasca experiences as a potent symbol of nature stretching out across the ceiling. Sitting at the base of the tree, Juan continued to captivate us with stories. He was highly respected among the hundreds of annual guests to the center. Across the twenty-six ceremonies I attended there, many regarded him as its most powerful healer. His songs carried an unmistakable passion and joy, and guests frequently reported stronger visions when receiving an icaro song from him.

After listening to Maestro Juan’s stories of healing and plant dieting, one of the guests asked how she could heal herself with ayahuasca. He responded in Spanish, relayed through a live translator into English:

If your spirit is too polluted, then you will not see visions, or you will only see horrible, scary visions. The plants teach us special songs when we diet them. When we drink ayahuasca, our songs transform us into birds, plants, many things, and we clean your body so you can see beautiful things.

During the next three ceremonies at the retreat, all the healers and guests drank ayahuasca as usual, including Juan, but he stopped singing healing songs to each guest. Instead, staying alone in the middle of the maloca, he sang protective songs to fortify the space so the other healers could safely work on the guests without needing to defend themselves from external sorcery attacks. Given that Juan was a favored healer, many guests were disappointed and found themselves tuning in to his icaros even when a different healer was directly in front of them providing a one-on-one curing song.

Singing in the middle of the maloca, dressed in a full-length, white cushma robe, covered in the rainbow colored patterns that many see on ayahuasca, Juan was encountering a challenge that was remarkably foreign to the guests. The social dimensions of Shipibo sorcery are a cosmos apart from the “ego dissolution” and “becoming one with nature” narratives that their guests tended to share about their ayahuasca experiences. Indigenous approaches to the brew, in turn, are equally foreign to the mystical experience depicted by Gustave Doré on Maestro Juan’s casual t-shirt.

Juan remained in the middle, but his protective songs had distinctly changed in a manner that generated confusion among the guests. His emotional and vocal tones dropped from a confident and loud cadence to one that was distressed, quivering, and weak. He breathed heavily between verses as if the air filling his chest was thick with affliction. Each song descended into a realm of agony and despair and then slowly returned to an assured beauty and grace. It resembled how healers in the Putumayo region drank yagé (ayahuasca) and sang songs that were “stimulating and soothing turmoil at one and the same time” (Taussig 1987:440). Juan was being almost consumed by distress, breathing in strength and singing to guard against the attacks of an overbearing force. His brother-in-law left the guests on the outer perimeter to sit with him and sing an icaro to boost his spirit. But the struggle continued across several ayahuasca ceremonies.

The guests spoke privately between the evenings, wondering what was wrong with Maestro Juan. They never asked him directly. I did not feel comfortable explaining what was happening. Later, Juan described to me the sorcery he had experienced during those ceremonies.

The visionary attacks arrived in storms, teeth, spikes, many things. . . . They try to weaken us to make the visitors [pasajeros] think we are not strong healers. But I showed my power [koshi]. I swallowed tobacco smoke and my body turned into a boat. I threw a net over the dark energy and returned it to the sorcerer.

When confronted by grotesque or malicious visions, the healers responded by attempting to “dominate” (dominar) them through songs, spirit helpers, aromas, and, most important, a vital and destructive energy called nihue in Shipibo. The goal was to overpower and banish the malevolent energies or challenging visions. Juan later told me that he was struggling during those ceremonies because jealous rival healers outside the center had been magically attacking him. The other healers at the retreat corroborated his story. It was the same sorcerers who were telepathically spying on the retreat center and who had directed criminals to physically rob Juan. Several weeks earlier, he was driving on the dusty roads between the retreat center and the city to transport a reasonable sum of cash to the local bank, only to be confronted at gunpoint and mugged.

Financial instability and ambient poverty were the norm where Juan and the other healers lived in the sprawling urban landscape surrounding the retreat center. He resided in a dilapidated wooden dwelling. And, like the other healers at the center, Juan was motivated by the Shipibo ideal of onanya joni or “wise person,” which involved an ability to guarantee food, safety, and wellbeing for children and generosity and care to extended family and outsiders (Espinosa 2012:458). For Juan, this meant earning enough money to send his children to local universities and to buy small dwellings or plots of land. When we met, his sole means of earning money for several years was by drinking ayahuasca and performing healing songs to hundreds of international guests annually.

Eventually, these ceremonial sorcery attacks stopped, and Juan reverted to his usual upbeat performances revered by the visitors. The guests typically did not believe in sorcery and often ignored any sign of it. They came to heal themselves, learn about their own spiritual interior, and transcend “modern” problems with shamans seen to be relatively uncorrupted by the ills of civilization. The guests never learned about the thieves or Juan’s struggles with brujeria during those ceremonies. Instead, some of them benefited therapeutically from his visionary descent into an affective underworld by interpreting how the vocalizations in his songs shaped their own ayahuasca experiences.

Mark, a social worker from New York, said that Maestro Juan’s struggling songs inspired an awareness of how he himself lacked emotional vulnerability due to the physical and psychological abuse to which his father had subjected him. During Juan’s sorcery defense songs, Mark was confronted with surreal visions of insects and angry images in his childhood bedroom. He described experiencing an “ego death” after surrendering to the darkness and allowing the pain in, which included purging into a bucket and finding relief in “letting go of the past.”

In contrast with the Shipibo healers’ approach to “dominating” challenging or afflictive visions, the guests usually attempted to “let go” and permit disturbing experiences, which sometimes landed them in overwhelming territory. Expressions of distress were common in the ceremonies. Along with vomiting, other types of purging and externalization included crying but rarely screaming. The “let go” approach reflects the wider psychedelic therapy maxim which suggests that healing is achieved not by resisting but instead by moving in and through the darkness, however terrifying (Richards 2016:35; Pollan 2018). Mark described receiving healing by surrendering to Juan’s musical journey—letting go into pitch-shifting vocalizations that cycled through an affective landscape of suffering, strength, and tranquillity.

While Juan was singing in a visionary realm that is experienced as social among local healers and sorcerers, Mark was experiencing a private inner world of psychological symbolism that required decoding and integrating into daily reality afterwards. At ayahuasca shamanic tourism, different ontologies sit side by side, sometimes interacting in a therapeutic relationship, other times unable to reach across the vast differences that separate them.


Juan and Mark’s different yet entangled relationships to ayahuasca captured my attention and created a rare sense of ethnographic astonishment that left a lasting impression. Such ethnographic contradictions, however, would appear relatively unimportant from the perspective of a historically popular approach to studying ayahuasca experiences. Psychologists, scientists, anthropologists, and others have fiercely pursued universal and shared aspects of ayahuasca reports at the expense of appreciating their remarkable specificities. This has resulted in a number of grand theories that define the visionary worlds as displaying, among other things, universal geometries and animal figures (Naranjo 1973); the fundamental structure of DNA (Narby 1998); the ecological wisdom of natural evolution (McKenna 2005); and the monistic views of perennial philosophy (Shanon 2002:164). In the 1970s, pioneering anthropologist of ayahuasca Michael Harner generated a list of “common denominators” of Indigenous visions induced by the plants. These included the soul separating from the body; visions of snakes, jaguars, demons, and deities; visions of distant persons and places, including cities and landscapes; and visions of unresolved crimes and sorcery attacks (Harner 1973:158–172). Reflecting broadly, he concluded with a call for more comparative studies to elucidate the “nature of the yagé-induced experience” (173). Similarly, while considering research about Indigenous and non-Indigenous ayahuasca experiences, the writer Peter Stafford concluded, “[T]he near-universality of many yagé images suggests that the B-carbolines are a good deal closer than other psychedelics to being a ‘pure element’ in a Periodic Table of Consciousness” (1992:351). What is important and astonishing, according to these researchers and writers, are the transcultural commonalities or universally shared aspects of ayahuasca experiences. But as a trained anthropologist, I cannot help but ask, What about all the differences? What about how ayahuasca can take vastly different forms mixed across varied ontological points of view, including animal, plant, machine, and humanoid?

First, this research quest towards universality is a feature of the global psychedelic therapy renaissance, which can be traced to its religious roots in the perennial philosophy (Richards 2016:10–11; Langlitz 2013:16). A multifaceted version appears in a brilliant study of ayahuasca by cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon (2002) published at the turn of the century. In The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, Shanon eruditely presents a wealth of insights about the cognitive nature of ayahuasca. But he is highly critical of those anthropological studies and social scientific arguments that demonstrated visionary experience shaped by society, history, or culture. What appears interesting about his discomfort is precisely its nuance. Shanon was partial to how the mind is developed in cultural and social contexts, but he nonetheless quickly criticized anthropological analyses and their apparent distortions of the real questions about ayahuasca.

Apparently, before he had learned of Indigenous ayahuasca visions, his own visionary experiences replicated them. Shanon’s desire to focus on commonalities of ayahuasca experiences at the expense of differences is both personal and disciplinary when he argued that “the real mysteries of ayahuasca pertain to the mind, not society or culture, and hence they primarily pertain to the province of psychology—more specifically cognitive psychology . . . not anthropology” (319). Outside its brilliant and treatise-like contributions, perhaps the most striking flaw in Shanon’s book is the claim that biographical materials are virtually absent in ayahuasca experiences.

As demonstrated in Global Ayahuasca, the biographical side of life has appeared, quite routinely, across ayahuasca narratives in Indigenous Amazonia, neoshamanic Australia, and corporate China. This includes vivid scenes of mundane elements at home and work; seeing neighboring cities, streets, and family scenarios; purifying the senses for a successful hunt or visualizing a new model of the self to bring tact to business decision making. But this ocular refraction of the ordinary is accompanied, most significantly, by widespread reports of extraordinary experiences of colorful otherworlds, strange dimensions, and more than anyone can imagine. Such wondrous expansions beyond the imagination have summoned a scientific quest for recognizing coherence in the alternate worlds of ayahuasca, but awe and wonder can also be humbling; not simply towards the mystery of ayahuasca, but also the so-called parochial qualities of social and cultural life that it embodies, displays, and brings to light.

Leaving aside how to measure the relevance of ayahuasca to psychological studies compared to anthropological studies, there is reason to unsettle an analytic focus on commonalities in the visionary experiences. A very large and diverse array of ayahuasca experience reports have now emerged across the planet. While there are similarities in how the brew modulates the brains and minds of individuals from different societies, to foreground this similitude at the expense of the cultural and historical contexts that also “modulate” its “effects” risks ignoring the details that are especially important to most ayahuasca drinkers. The brew’s capacity to shapeshift to place-based ontological worlds is partly why it has become so compelling. Darpan, a pioneering Australian facilitator, explained during a retreat in 2012, “The brew takes on the mythological templates of the person who holds the cup.” When the visionary experiences include features of the lifeworld and cosmology of the drinker, then they can take on special meaningfulness or even healing potency. However, there is a sense among some perennialist researchers that ayahuasca experiences shaped by social and historical context are somehow less significant and less “ultimate” compared to the intense, ego-dissolving mystical experiences of clinical books.

The naturalistic philosopher Chris Letheby (2021:221) asked whether Shanon’s claims of cross-personal and cross-cultural commonalities in ayahuasca visions were false and simply the result of cultural transmission and interpretive bias. But searching for the fundamental nature of the visionary experience beyond the so-called “prosaic explanation” of culture (221) is but another iteration of diminishing attention to the relational meaningfulness that ayahuasca embodies and lives with, through, and as—including when ayahuasca is encountered as a caring plant spirit or as an odd disclosure of the naturalistic universe. Ayahuasca has attracted people from distant corners of the planet precisely because of its adaptive ontological capacities.

This inverted focus of moving away from universalist notions and towards the thick world of particulars not only throws into relief the infinite complexity of ayahuasca experiences, it also allows us to better understand the impulse to locate universal features. Healers, shamans, priests, and psychonauts have all attempted to define ayahuasca’s miraculous worlds. Scholars, too, strive to identify their common elements. However, I argue, this effort can never be simply intellectual or objective. When researchers demonstrate the “common denominators” of ayahuasca experiences, they work to cultivate a shared mythos that can locate the self’s interiority in a broader and sometimes planetary vision of humanity. If religion or spirituality is the glue that binds the social (Durkheim 2001), an evolutionary cognitive system to promote human cooperation (Watts and Turner 2014), or an antistructure and critical reaction against social norms (Turner 1995), then any attempt to define the perennial aspects of ayahuasca experiences is a social and political project as much as it is phenomenological. My approach, however, is less ambitious and more ethnographic. It veers away from the essential to consider the rich specificities of ayahuasca experiences and their unique refractions within different social and ontological worlds.

The perennial philosophy and its shuffle towards universality has profoundly informed psychedelic science and psychedelic therapies. But as Nicolas Langlitz indicated (2013:16), twentieth-century social scientists and humanities scholars demonstrated an opposing thesis. Anthropologists showed how contexts, beliefs, languages, and histories had an impact on the experiential properties of consuming ayahuasca (Langdon 1979; Luna 1986; Taussig 1987; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1997); peyote (Wallace 1959; Calabrese 2013); iboga (Fernandez 1982); and psychedelic chemicals in laboratory settings (Langlitz 2013). Writing with the Peruvian artist and shaman Pablo Amaringo, Luis Eduardo Luna concluded in Ayahuasca Visions that “cultural traditions play an important role not only in interpreting and imprinting meaning upon visions but also in shaping visionary experience” (1999:43). From living among the Siona in Putumayo Colombia, Esther Jean Langdon suggested that cultural meaning can provide the necessary grounds for navigating visions well:

The yagé experience is not one of individual random visions or free association of the unconscious while under the drug’s influence. It is, rather, an ordering of the induced visions into culturally meaningful symbols and experiences, thus gaining increasing control over the visions and events occurring. (1992:53)

Ayahuasca experiences can be many things. The experiences, like the person who undergoes them, are not cast outside society’s worlds but can refract what is at stake on the ground in these contexts. A vegetalismo shaman who serves ayahuasca to global visitors in Iquitos Peru described to Evgenia Fotiou how some foreigners are disappointed when they do not have shamanistic experiences typical of Indigenous Amazonian peoples; however, “the spirits will come and teach you through the metaphors and dreams that you [already] know well,” the shaman explained (2014:167). The Shipibo healers I met near Pucallpa were well aware that ayahuasca means something quite different to them compared to the international guests they treated. Enhancing social perceptions, whether analogically or relationally, is an interesting feature of ayahuasca practice. This includes among the “horizontal” social dimensions of ayahuasca shamanism (Hugh-Jones 1996) but also among the different long-term ayahuasca drinkers I encountered across the planet. By contrast, scientists were more likely to arrive with entrenched perennialist-mystical views—whether from biology, psychology, Huxley, or Eliade’s shamanism research. Therefore, they could perhaps especially benefit from appreciating how ayahuasca experiences entangle different places and social worlds, precisely because this entanglement is where life becomes meaningful.

Scholars in the psychedelic humanities have demonstrated how intercultural features can shape the contents of psychedelic experiences, sometimes in quite sharp ways (Roseman et al. 2021; Roseman et al. 2022). David Dupuis undertook an ethnography of a shamanic tourism center in remote Peru that is run by a French physician cum Catholic priest working in collaboration with Indigenous healers. Dupuis illustrated how the visiting participants from France, North America, and elsewhere learned to perceive the sensory and affective dimensions of their ayahuasca experiences as “demon infestation” (2022a). Considering how beliefs from Catholic theology and Amazonian shamanism combined together within an ayahuasca ritual setting—which included icons of Christ, The Virgin, and Saint Michael, along with aromatic perfumes, tobacco smoke, holy water, salt, and exorcism prayers—Dupuis examined what he termed “the socialization of hallucination.” Contextual and religious features helped participants navigate visionary experiences of fear, guilt, disgust, relief, joy, and appeasement as tensions between good and evil. These social factors, he suggested, educated attention in ways that informed the experiential properties of ayahuasca experiences. “The symbolic knowledge acquired by the participants, the iconographic elements surrounding the visionary experiences, as well as verbal and ritual interactions appear to be the main operators of a ‘socialization of hallucination’” (634). Dupuis has also undertaken research on ayahuasca experiences in contrast to how patients navigate psychosis and schizophrenia (2021b). As ethnographers and theorists, however, we should be sensitive to the medico-pathological language of “hallucinations,” given that many ayahuasca drinkers would find it inappropriate; some would find it offensive. While the medicalization of ayahuasca is a remarkable and valuable endeavor, it is just one register.

Opting to stay closer to the grounds of my participants, I approach their ayahuasca experiences as special kinds of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, thinking, feeling, and encountering. This seems more accurate to what they mean when they describe their “song-paths,” “visions,” or “journeys.” Keeping medical terminology in check also enables a more granular appreciation of how ayahuasca takes on a life of its own in the broader social worlds of those who consume it. In my research, notions of ayahuasca visions and journeys were crucial concepts for understanding the presence and absence of ayahuasca in the everyday lifeworld.

Thus Global Ayahuasca finds itself in much longer anthropological traditions. Moving beyond studying “traditional” societies or “urban subcultures” as if they were bounded by their own differences, it grapples with place-based, visionary frictions and intersections in the commercial expansion of ayahuasca across the planet. During the two decades since Shanon published The Antipodes of the Mind, the brew underwent a dramatic global flight to very different social contexts, particularly across South America, Europe, North America, and Australasia, but also in parts of Asia and Africa. These contexts provide a vast novel terrain of empirical perspectives on the experiential properties of ayahuasca usage. If Clifford Geertz (2000) is correct when calling anthropologists “merchants of astonishment,” then we should expect anthropology to have an equal if not greater purchase—compared to cognitive psychology or any other discipline—at grasping the wonder of ayahuasca.


Ting Ting related to me how drinking ayahuasca in mainland China (at a first-tier city) had helped her overcome family trauma and advance her career. She grew up in a small rural city and moved to a large city in her early twenties with the hope of making a successful IT career. But this was not the only thing urging her to the metropolis. Before she left home, her father had been diagnosed with a terminal disease and given less than two years to live. “I went to [the city] for work,” she said, but also admitted, “Deep down I knew I was leaving because I couldn’t bear the situation.” A decade after her father died, she drank ayahuasca in a group setting in China, trying to heal what she described as the deeply embodied shame and sadness of neglecting her family during those difficult years. During the ayahuasca session, she cried for several hours and vomited a few times. “My body had been carrying a massive emotional burden,” she later explained. “After all the crying and the insights during the process, I felt so light in my jaw and neck and that’s usually where the stress is centered.”

Ting Ting had many visions the first few times she drank ayahuasca. They included seeing the inside mechanism of clocks working at a fixed pace with black and yellow snakes swarming in unison with the cogs; being a soldier in Ancient Egypt and ready to fight against demons; seeing dozens of red lanterns floating up to the sky, each with a face on it of someone she loved or someone she despised; and swimming free in a cosmic pool and gazing at the wondrous horizons of life. The recounting of these experiences each finished with her describing a comparatively mundane interpretation of how the vision provided psychological insight. She related to her visions like cryptic texts that needed to be decoded. The snakes, she explained, were, like her, “sensitive to changes, sounds, and disturbances” and were “alert and ready”; being a soldier was a sign of her “resistance towards facing the pain”; the vision of lanterns taught her to “let go of other people’s opinions easier”; and she emerged from the cosmic pool “a new person, without armor or weapons. I felt reborn, confident, and ready for anything.” Overall, she sensed that her ayahuasca sessions helped her forgive herself—and that this had positive repercussions for her job as a manager in a big IT company. “What I learned from my father’s death is that you will not feel shame if you try your best to take care of someone or do something good.” Reflecting on her ayahuasca sessions, Ting Ting added, “After releasing the pain from my body, I became more comfortable with myself. My colleagues appeared more open to my ideas because I can manage my body language and expectations better now.” Healing her spiritual body with ayahuasca, she explained, improved her management techniques.

Using the Amazonian brew to improve workplace abilities and status was shared by other participants at the retreats Ting Ting was attending. The organizer of these sessions described his approach as secular, therapeutic, modern, and different from the Indigenous traditions of the Amazon rainforest. The evenings of drinking ayahuasca were not ceremonies or rituals but were specifically called “sessions” and “processes” to express a secular mindset. A large portion of those who attended the mainland China retreats were young Chinese entrepreneurs and corporate managers. Some purchased expensive packages in which the sessions were accompanied by parallel workshops, including coaching, breathwork, ecstatic dance, and meditation events.

The activities were led by an energetic European man, let’s call him Luke, who has a background working in the Chinese corporate sector and embodies its smooth style, slick appearance, and rational confidence. He had been drinking ayahuasca for sixteen years and been on more than ten trips to Peru and Brazil to learn from Indigenous specialists. His approach to serving the brew is shaped by a corporate coaching philosophy he developed called Bridging the Gap. Here, healing and enlightenment are pursued through trying to bring a coherence between an inner self, called the Monk, and an outer self, called the Suit, thus forming an enlightened “Suited Monk.” Ayahuasca sessions helped the participants discover and perceive their “blind spots” and the emotional barriers and attitudes that were stopping them from achieving personal and professional goals and, ultimately, a more unified self.

During the morning before an ayahuasca retreat in China, I accompanied Luke in his car to buy vegetarian food for the guests. The restaurant was on the other side of the large (first-tier) city, so we had ample time for an interview. We were weaving through a shiny labyrinth of new roadways, many of them suspended off the ground, while passing opulent business towers and a city rapidly under construction. With one eye on the road, the other on the GPS system, and his mind sharply on his ayahuasca business, he said the Amazonian brew was not a holy savior but a powerful tool that worked best for his clients when integrated with other healing and coaching modalities. A truck passed by hauling an expensive sports car. “Check it out. It’s an Aston Martin,” he said. We sped up to get a better view. “It’s the model James Bond drives,” he added. Later on during our drive, he described the challenge of designing ayahuasca sessions for his clients in China.

To bring the plants [ayahuasca] to the modern world, sometimes it needs to be translated. If you start talking to a manager from a company who is very square-minded about power animals and mariri, he is going to think you are crazy.

The next day, shortly after the retreat had finished and everyone had left, Luke sent a message to the attendees: “Dear All. Just a reminder. Today payments have to be settled!” while sharing a video of his co-facilitator, a psychotherapist from New York, standing in an expensive hotel lobby and walking backwards in slow-motion while flicking money, 100 RMB red notes, into the air. When I asked Luke how much money he made from his special business, he pointed to the fact that he drove a cheap car. He embodied an authentic passion for the brew and for helping others that seemed to be facilitated by his own ayahuasca drinking.

Whereas the guests who were attending the Shipibo ceremonies with Juan in remote Peru were searching for a break from the stresses of modern life, the ayahuasca sessions in China were directed at cultivating an enlightened self that is equipped to excel in a competitive capitalist world. The Indigenous Amazonian brew had been reinvented into a nominally secular practice that aligned with the values and mindsets of clients in corporate China.

Several years beforehand, I was conducting a large study in Australia on the uses of ayahuasca among neoshamanic and New Age spirituality groups. Towards the end of interviewing an Australian, I asked a range of quantitative questions as usual, including his level of income, but this time it triggered discomfort. He replied, “Why do you want to know my income? That goes completely against the spirit of aya.” When I told this story to Luke in China, his response highlighted a vastly different image of ayahuasca. He replied, “Money is a tool. It’s not good or bad. It’s neutral. It can be used in positive or negative ways. . . . Ayahuasca is also a tool. It can be used for good or for bad.” To many Australian drinkers, such an instrumental and depersonalized view of ayahuasca as somewhat similar to money would be profane and sacrilegious. In Australia, ayahuasca is a sacred nature spirit who has an awkward relationship to money. Emails that request payment for a retreat often avoid words such as payment, bill, cost, or fee but instead include wording such as “the exchange for this ceremony is $250,” “donations starting at $200 are welcome,” or “an investment of $1,600 will gift you this remarkable opportunity.” Some retreat services only required a donation to attend. But they were rare. Conducting the retreats was typically not a lucrative enterprise in Australia. Only a few of the twelve ceremony facilitators I spoke with managed to earn above the average national salary doing this. Here, the spirit of ayahuasca and Indigenous wisdom were perceived to transcend the disenchanted world of money, materialism, and modern life. Similar to New Age depictions of Gaia, ayahuasca is a sacred plant spirit who dwells in a pristine world of nature beyond the many ills of civilization.

The strict visa and travel restrictions of Australian society have made it difficult for Indigenous healers to visit from places like Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. This has promoted a relatively insulated space of ayahuasca creativity in Australia when compared to the historical flow of Amazonian healers to Europe or North America. The retreats in Australia attracted people interested in New Age spirituality and wellness, nature and environmentalism, mental health science and therapy, and the arts. At the turn of the century, in the early years of the movement, it was mainly just “psychonauts” who embodied a critical view of mainstream society that was amplified by the inner radiance of taking different psychedelics. Embodying this critical edge, during the year 2012, the most prolific ceremony facilitator in the country, Darpan, described ayahuasca’s mission to me. His description mirrors a broader style of speaking that he and others took to microphones at psychedelic music and arts festivals and on local podcasts such as Rak Razam’s “In A Perfect World” show designed to “anchor the vision and spark the new paradigm alight.” Darpan said,

We’ve become so specialized and compartmentalized in this rational, logical Western dreaming that we have become disconnected from our larger multidimensional self, and ayahuasca is about reconnecting us. . . . Ayahuasca has come out of the jungle into the Western psyche to invite the Western psyche back into the garden. Come back into Gaia, back into Eden, back into oneness, back into connectivity and symbiosis and synergy with the plants, with Mother Earth. So, that’s what I feel she’s coming to the West to do.

Terence McKenna, the American countercultural icon of psychedelics in the 1980s and 1990s, not only provided Darpan with his initiatory ayahuasca bottles but also inspired his critical cosmological views of society. In McKenna’s influential rap, “culture is not your friend” (St John 2024) and Amazonian shamans, with the help of ayahuasca, can pull the curtain aside to see beyond the mirage of culture. These attitudes were widespread among those who were first to explore ayahuasca sessions into Australia.

The retreats grew in popularity and became increasingly more mainstream during the 2010s, attracting people unfamiliar with Terence McKenna and words like “psychonaut.” While the practice turned primarily into a healing phenomenon, the view of ayahuasca as a powerful spirit that resides beyond the problems of society persisted and maintained its critical potency. For those in Australia—and certainly in other non-Indigenous contexts—their mental, physical, and spiritual sicknesses were perceived to have resulted from conditions of modern life and its spiritual rupture from nature. Ayahuasca bridged the restless urban spirit through inner worlds of natural purification and visionary wonders. Sarah, a white, forty-year-old ayahuasca drinker, explained to me in the hills of northern New South Wales,

My first ayahuasca experiences were really painful. My spirit was trapped, hidden, in work routines and so many empty days, weeks, years; back when I was chasing a salary or a better job with a higher status. I was actually depressed then but I didn’t realize it until ayahuasca ripped it all away and showed me divinity.

Sarah told me how ayahuasca inspired her to quit her high-paying job in the finance sector to become an artist, so she could “give to the world instead of taking from it.” Profound experiences with the brew can have an enduring quality. Drinkers in Australia usually cherished a few key visionary experiences which they continually shared with other confidants over the years. Describing her most treasured experience, Sarah commented, “The vision was so fine and pure. I had to let go of so much social programming that was inside me, then she lifted me to see the beauty of the rainforest, the music and smell of nature held me, they were inside me.” In Australia, ayahuasca and the spirit of Mother Nature embodied pure benevolence. The natural purification of ayahuasca and her capacity to inspire vivid visions provided an antidote to Sarah’s disenchanted world of “social programming” and corporate work.

What can we make of these three very different ethnographic vignettes of ayahuasca in Peru, China, and Australia? The examples demonstrate a set of different relationships to ayahuasca that also depict different tensions regarding money. Maestro Juan’s encounters with sorcery and invisible thieves during his difficult ceremonies cannot be separated from the broader challenge of fulfilling his family obligations and achieving onanya joni or “wise person.” In his urban context—which is subject to scarcity and ambient poverty—money can easily become a measure of envy and invite risks of sorcery. The ambiguous nature of ayahuasca opened Juan to perceiving sorcery attacks from local curanderos connected with armed thieves, but it also provides him with the means to protect himself from such pathological incursions.

In the Australian example, ayahuasca invigorated meaning for Sarah to counter the depression and disenchantment of “chasing a salary” in society. She retreated from the city into nature to evoke a sacred and healing spirit that she contrasted against the meaning crisis of working in the finance sector. Ayahuasca, here, was not ambiguous but purely benevolent and largely beyond society and its focus on money. In the Chinese example, ayahuasca was depersonalized into an ambiguous tool in a nominally secular relationship that provided psychological development for Ting Ting. It also imparted a greater sense of mastery over her career goals. Ayahuasca and its visions were cryptic texts or imagery about a self that was seeking its own reinterpretation. Money was not deemed profane in this context. It was a tool that can create negative or positive consequences depending upon how the person uses it.

In Australia, most ayahuasca users would likely view the nominally secular visions in China as a departure from the brew’s true spirit. Employing ayahuasca to improve business success is less a retreat into nature than an exaltation of capitalism and modernity. Conversely, the Shipibo approach of encountering sorcery attacks would, in turn, appear impossible or symbolic from the secular viewpoint of corporate Chinese ayahuasca users. Numerous other differences exist between these three contexts, including between what visions are actually seen in parallel to what ontological arrangements they appear within. To develop a theory of “common denominators” across ayahuasca experiences may be interesting but it could easily distort what actually makes the brew meaningful to those who drink it. Therefore, I take a different angle and use ethnography to triangulate different kinds of ayahuasca drinking, including how the brew is spoken about and lived with in different places, in order to better get at the visionary meaningfulness.