Author:
Tartu Ülikool

Doctoral defence: Helle Kaasik “Sacred medicine from the forest: chemical, psychological and spiritual aspects of ayahuasca”

On 19 September at 16:15 Helle Kaasik will defend her doctoral thesis “Sacred medicine from the forest: chemical, psychological and spiritual aspects of ayahuasca” for obtaining the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (in Religious Studies).

Supervisor:
Associate Professor Lea Altnurme, University of Tartu

Opponent:
Professor Andre van der Braak, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Holland)

Summary
The thesis studies use of psychedelic plant brew ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is traditionally used in Amazonian indigenous rituals and as a sacrament in syncretic religions from Brazil. It is also used over the world in neoshamanic rituals. This interdisciplinary study approached ayahuasca from chemical, psychological and spiritual aspects, also considering sociocultural view. Chemical analyses of 102 brews showed that in indigenous and Santo Daime samples, the amounts of active substances were moderate and correlated with each other. However, in some European neoshamanic brews, the concentrations of psychedelic DMT were high, and traditional plants had been replaced by other plants or chemicals. The study used psychological tests and questionnaires (30 users + 30 controls), and interviews with 63 ayahuasca users. The users who participated in the psychological study were found to be mentally healthy and cognitively normal. As compared to the control group, their depression and anxiety were lower, and satisfaction with life and happiness about life were higher. The spiritual background of the participants was varied and often related to ‘new spirituality’. Ayahuasca rituals were often a part of their spirituality and a source of spiritual experiences. The experiences included e.g. perceptual changes, visionary journeys, healings in the body, contacts with spiritual beings, transformations, and mystical experiences. Some participants had developed an ongoing relationship with the plant as a conscious, sacred, wise and healing spiritual entity. The majority of the participants reported benefits of the practice, but a few described adverse outcomes. Ritual use of ayahuasca has a social dimension. Shared beliefs around the practice are largely rooted in new spirituality. Beliefs affect interpretation of the experience: e.g. suffering during the session is understood as a lesson or message from the sacred plant. Such interpretations help to make sense of the experience. However, some beliefs may restrict interpretations or enable the facilitators of the ceremony to deflect their responsibility. Ritual use of ayahuasca is a challenge to mainstream views about psychoactive substances and their users. The study contributes to the discussion about such practices in the society.

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