The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook: The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca Journeying by Chris Kilham. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions; 2014. Paperback, 231 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58394-791-3. $16.95.
The remarkableness of the ayahuasca experience has jumped out of its Amazonian source, reaching the world’s peoples in their own lands as well as in the proliferating shamans’ backyards.
Ayahuasca is the name for both the indigenous Amazonian vine Banisteriopsis caapi (Malpighiaceae) and the psychoactive multi-plant admixture that is famed throughout Amazonia, and now, in many other lands and countries. The ayahuasca vine is being cultivated in new farms, pounded to smithereens by traditional muscle, or chopped irreverently in a chipper-grinder to make the pungent, swampy drink. The vine is the source of the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that make the psychoactive compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT), found in the other plant component(s) of the ayahuasca admixture, orally active. Beyond the jungle and escaping the traditional, as ayahuasca takes hold in the West, new admixtures of DMT-containing plants and chemicals — “pharmahuasca” — have arrived, even including a palatable chocolate confection.*
The recognized religions of the sacramental brew, Santo Daime (a term that refers to ayahuasca1) and União do Vegetal (which means “the union of the plants”2), are both spreading. The United States and Europe have growing numbers who are singing their ritual songs at their diverse centers, with presiding itinerant maestros and numerous Westerners enlarging memberships. So the magic of the brew spreads and claims new aficionados, despite its bitterness and attendant purging, its levitating energetics, and often-difficult experiential passages. Not for everyone, for sure!
To me, as a psychiatrist familiar with the actions of psychoactive drugs and their effects on the human mind and psyche, there is only one explanation for the significant increase in ayahuasca use: the realms of mind that are accessed are transcendent, unpredictable, fantastic, and potentially transformative.
There is pleasure, as well as potential difficulty and upheaval, in changing and leaving our ordinary mental states. Attachments, desires, ignorance, and hatred are removed for a beyond-CinemaScope experience of what appear to be other worlds. But these are our own idiosyncratic worlds, accessible to no one else, however many uniformities of this particular mind-altering experience there may be, such as voyaging through fractal universes. However valuable the guidance of a shaman or a facilitator may be, in the end the ayahuasca realm is ours alone. In this sense it is a remarkable, validating example of the possibilities for personal experience.
The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook is the psychedelic equivalent of a Lonely Planet® guide, and, in fact, it feels and looks like one. But, in this instance it is a guide to the “innerverse” and how to make that journey as smooth as possible by avoiding the Scyllas and Charybdises that stalk the unwary traveler upon his/her embarkation onto the high seas. In an everyhuman style, Kilham enthusiastically guides the reader on how to pick a shaman, discriminating between the deep, indigenous workers of ‘huasca lands and the phonies out for the dollar opportunity; how to understand the ayahuasca brew itself by asking the appropriate, self-protective questions about its admixture, the attendant ceremonies, and rituals; and the culminating integration process following an experience that sets a changed self back on Mother Earth.
Clearly Kilham likes the stuff and preaches (with caveats) to the masses to get on board — which, as noted, they are doing, local drug laws notwithstanding. There is a real business going down in the humid zone, and beyond. Kilham gives his view of the healing potential of La Medicina with statements like, “I personally have found that ayahuasca has the capacity to rip my heart wide open and fill me entirely with pure love.”
It is in his thorough explication of the possibilities of the ayahuasca journey, taken from the deep space of his own experiences, that there is the most value. Kilham lays out the experience from start to finish, beginning with the purging and getting stuck in what he aptly calls the “toilet vortex.” It is especially his descriptions of the broad range of experiential possibilities, the phenomenal world of the inner journey, that make this little book so precious.
Kilham emphasizes the unique superiority of ayahuasca as a psychedelic experience as much as possible, extolling its virtues over all others, without a hint of the controversy he is stirring:
Even if you are familiar with other psychedelic agents, you have not taken ayahuasca. The medicine is of an entirely other order of potency, depth, and efficacy, from a healing standpoint…. Many people who have previously experienced LSD, magic mushrooms, or peyote assume that they have a good idea of what to expect. This is only partially so…. As with all the psychedelics, you will find yourself in a state of non-ordinary reality. After that, all bets are off. Ayahuasca is of a whole other order of intensity and thoroughness…. I can say that ayahuasca possesses unimaginable oceanic powers. La Medicina is a living, conscious spirit with unlimited depth and energy.
Ayahuasca is indeed a remarkable, awful-tasting but psychedelically delicious concoction. How disparate tribal folk from various parts of South America put it together from so many vascular plants that grow in Amazonia undoubtedly will remain a mystery. Further ethnological and archeological research will be needed to even approximate its origin.3,4
The late and missed silver-tongued Pan, Terrence McKenna, shaped a view that is intriguing but probably incorrect in its hypothesis, namely that DMT and its source are responsible for all of the psychoactivity of the ayahuasca brew. McKenna posited that the vine provided the MAOI but was itself inactive. Through endless trial and error — they must have chewed on everything — the indigenous peoples somehow finally put the two together, which on their own did not produce the psychoactive experience. For those living within the extraordinarily varied botany of the Amazon with over 80,000 known plant species, this would have been ultimate synchronicity.
Alternatively, the shamanic view has been that the ayahuasca vine itself, B. caapi, creates the capacity for plant divination when imbibed that enables recognition of the properties of diverse species, including the psychoactive, and that was how the two were put together. This was a common practice and myriad ayahuasca and other admixtures were made based on intimate knowledge of the plant world and an insatiable curiosity to experience it.
To demystify a bit, DMT-containing snuffs have been found in 2,000-year-old ritual objects for the nasal intake of Anadenanthera spp. (Fabaceae). It was apparently discovered that the intranasal route produced a visionary DMT/5-MeO-DMT experience. 5-MeO-DMT is a potent, fast-acting derivative of DMT, which activates serotonin receptors and is four to 10 times more potent than DMT.5
The snuffs came from a widespread and perhaps well-traded source; the trade routes crisscrossed a very inhabited and organized pre-Columbian continent. This gave rise to many indigenous snuffs with different names but similar experiences. The knowledge of this alteration of consciousness was widespread, but apparently was not used in the Amazon itself.
Dating the first use of the ayahuasca vine is more uncertain but it is considered ancient and certainly arose many hundreds of years ago, most likely in the Napo River region of Ecuador and Peru, and as a vine-only practice. High doses produce a sedating effect, generally mild, but psychoactive. There seems to be little basis for attributing a dissociative effect. But the vine had widespread use in shamanic circles and knowledge of it clearly was diffuse. It was a source plant for divination and combining with other plants, including in the making of snuffs.
Unlike the McKenna proposition for inactivity, it is claimed by those deeply familiar with indigenous peoples’ practices that the DMT source plants have other psychoactive effects when taken orally, apart from the effect the DMT would produce when combined with the ayahuasca vine. Several hundred years ago, in relatively modern times, it would seem, the two came together. The main DMT source used for potent brews has been Psychotria viridis (Rubiaceae), but other plants are also added to the ayahuasca vine to produce modern two-plant hallucinogenic mixtures. DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are widely represented in the plant world and are naturally occurring in tiny amounts in human brains, hence, quite likely, are the basis for our predilection for grand psychedelic journeys on large exogenous amounts of the stuff.
All of this extols the genius of the plant explorers of the South who knew their world by examining it and tasting it, no doubt with some attendant negative experiences and poisonings. To them, we and Chris Kilham are deeply grateful.
—Philip E. Wolfson, MD
San Francisco and San Rafael, California
- Santo Daime doctrine. Frequently asked questions. Santo Daime website. Available at: www.santodaime.com/en/asks/#01. Accessed October 23, 2015.
- Welcome page. Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal website. Available at: http://udvusa.org/. Accessed October 23, 2015.
- Highpine G. Unraveling the Mystery of the Origin of Ayahuasca. São Paulo, Brazil: NEIP; 2012. Available at: www.ayahuasca.com/ayahuasca-overviews/unraveling-the-mystery-of-the-origin-of-ayahuasca/. Accessed June 8, 2015.
- Torres CM, Repke DB. Anadenanthera: Visionary Plant of Ancient South America. New York, NY: Routledge; 2006.
- Shen HW, Jiang XL, Winter JC, Yu AM. Psychedelic 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine: metabolism, pharmacokinetics, drug interactions, and pharmacological actions. Curr Drug Metab. 2010;11(8):659-666. Available at: