Dear Editor: In response to the front page interview story on the psychoactive brew ayahuasca, I would like to add several thoughts based on my experience as a child of the '60s who now works in the field of chemical abuse and dependency. If you think this is going to turn into a "Just Say No to Drugs" letter, I can assure you it's not.
I believe in expanding consciousness, in pressing outward on the apparent boundaries of our perceptions and understanding. I really like the way Adam Elenbaas presents the vision of "listening" and "empathy" and becoming aware of the "story" that everything around us--people, nature, our cities and our artifacts--carries within itself, and how we have the capacity to become aware of these stories if we stop focusing on the surface of things. And, like many readers of Real Change, I deplore with Elenbaas the commodification, commercialization, consumerization of our culture. I want to be part of a movement that restores humanity.
My problem is that I'm skeptical of substances as the way to expand consciousness and restore humanity. In the interview, Elenbaas says that six hours under the influence of ayahuasca was more beneficial than six years of psychotherapy. But he is also very careful to underscore the point that drinkers of ayahuasca traditionally are in the company of a shaman who presumably helps guide the experience in a truly spiritual way. He says that using a psychoactive substance like ayahuasca for the purposes of expanding one's consciousness is very different from using it as a "drug." And he notes that using the substance by oneself or in indiscriminate combination with other substances can lead to traumatic breaks from reality. He knows that because heavy substance abuse is what landed a number of people in the psychiatric group home he has worked in the past two years. We don't know from the article whether ayahuasca is addictive, but many of us know how debilitating addiction is, whether it is to legal substances like alcohol, nicotine and prescription medications (or oil and plastic, junk food, "reality" shows and video games) or illegal substances like heroine and meth. Another caution I would like to add to this list of cautions: over-reliance on substances can distract you from your important relationships and your mission in life, whatever that mission is.
I don't agree with Elenbaas that drugs have a bad name because they're mixed up with '60s era violence and anarchy. In fact, the '60s have a bad name because they're mixed up with the drug movement. In my view, wide-scale use of drugs beginning in the late '60s or early '70s is one of the things that derailed the great political movements of the '60s: the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-war movement. The other phenomenon that derailed those movements is the streak of assassinations that denied us our leaders: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and others--in Seattle, Edwin Pratt. How many of the era's great jazz and rock musicians, too, had their consciousness raised by substances only to be left with ravaging monkeys on their backs?
And so I add another idea for how to raise consciousness, this one substance-free: reading, writing, studying, questioning, discussing, listening. Finding out all we can about subjects that are of interest to us and that we believe might help us and our fellow human beings to greater consciousness, greater humanity. Studying religion. Studying science. Studying nature. Studying politics. Studying people -- in the most empathetic spirit possible. It takes longer than six hours to experience the benefits of these activities, but the benefits come, and they are truly wonderful.
Mary Paterson Seattle, WA