Chapter 10: Altered States of Consciousness

How does your state of mind impact your spirituality?

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10.1 States of Consciousness

Please read through and take notes on the following material:

10.2 Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca, also called la purga, is a brew made from the ayahuasca vine, chacruna leaves and the leaves of various plants and shrubs indigenous to the region. It is a hallucinogen that has been used for attaining ASC during healing rituals in various indigenous Amazonian cultures. It is a hallucinogenic with evidence of healing qualities, but is very potent. Inappropriate use of ayahuasca can cause severe psychological side effects and in some cases even death.

Use of ayahuasca has migrated out of the Amazonian cultures over time to various religious communities in Brazil and South America, such as the Santo Daime followers in Brazil. Increasingly there are also people travelling from North America, Europe and Australia to South American countries like Peru to ritually consume the drug, where the use of the ayahuasca brew for healing is still practiced. This is becoming problematic, since the plant is over-harvested and is destabilizing the fragile Amazonian ecosystem. There are also reports that ayahuasca tourism is becoming a driver of trade of jaguar body parts, since they are being sold to tourists to supposedly enhance the ayahuasca experience.

Another major problem with ayahuasca tourism surrounds the guidance of appropriate consumption of the substance. Religious specialists guide the use of ayahuasca and other powerful substances to ensure a proper and safe experience for the believer taking part in the ritual. Increasingly more tour guides have completed short programs for distributing ayahuasca. This is problematic, since the skills passed down to religious specialists over multiple generations are bypassed for a quick lesson and can lead to more people becoming sick from the substance and even dying. The podcast in the optional resources section discusses some of these issues surrounding ayahuasca tourism.

10.3 Possession in Voodoo

Haitian Voodoo ceremonies are highly secretive and are typically not open to outsiders of the religion. While there is no central authority who defines or regulates the religion, the word “Bembe” is often used to refer to a religious service performed to connect with the loas. These ceremonies are led by the religious leaders (oungan/priest or manbo/priestess) whereby the leader ritually invites a loa to join the ceremony. The group will always offer the loa’s favorite items (including food, drink, tobacco, perfume, etc.) as a ritual sacrifice to the loa.

Practitioners know that the loa is present in the ceremony when the leader of the ceremony changes her or his behaviors and starts to behave like the loa. It’s believed that the loas possess the bodies of the participants and, as a result, the possessed person will start to exhibit the behaviors that each particular loa is known for. Anthropologists refer to this as an “altered state of consciousness” during which a participant will change their pattern of perception in order to experience the ritual in a spiritual manner.

There are stories of Voodoo priests or priestesses who, for example, have ingested excessive amounts of alcohol during the ceremony when possessed by a loa who likes to drink. But, in spite of taking in so much alcohol, they report feeling completely sober after the loa has left their body.

10.4 Spirit Possession

Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following material:

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Bibliography

Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press, 2010.

Fraser, Barbara. 2017. “The Perils and Privileges of an Amazonian Hallucinogen”. Sapiens, August 3, 2017. https://www.sapiens.org/culture/ayahuasca-tourism-amazon/

Labate, B. and E. Macrae. “Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil.” (2014).

MacRae, Edward. “Santo Daime and Santa Maria — The licit ritual use of ayabuasca and the illicit use of cannabis in a Brazilian Amazonian religion”. International Journal of Drug Policy 9 (1998): 325–338. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0955-3959(98)00045-0.

Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions. Temple University Press, 2010.

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About

“States of Consciousness” is by Robert Biswas-Diener and Jake Teeny is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available in the Licensing Agreement.

“Mary, Mary” is written and produced by Aaron Mahnke for Lore. Copyright © 2015–2020 Aaron Mahnke and Lore. All rights reserved.

This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Madlen Avetyan edited by Amanda Zunner-Keating for Los Angeles Valley College. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles