Reaching Into the Universe

On ayahuasca and spiritual bypassing

Ayahuasca necklaceISE2 only touched on the issue of spiritual bypassing briefly, but that was enough to remind me that I've been meaning to write about some issues in modern ayahuasca use. In short, spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual concepts to avoid dealing with your shit. Examples include rationalizing issues away with ideas such as "it's all an illusion anyway" or ignoring things by telling yourself, "God will handle the details." Similarly, it is dangerous to believe that ayahuasca practice alone will cover all your bases. This also applies to work with other plant medicines such as mushrooms.

Ayahuasca is powerful in so many ways—from physical and psychological healing to spiritual development and more—that it can be tempting to think of it as all-powerful, or at least close to it. When I first saw Ken Wilber categorize ayahuasca as an Upper Left quadrant practice I resisted at first—after all, ayahuasca is a powerful practice that has positive impacts in all four quadrants. But then again, so does meditation.

The parallel extends into, for example, the criticism that UL practice alone is not enough to address injustice in the Lower Left quadrant: all the meditation in the world doesn't wake an ancient Chinese monk up to the fact that his culture is horribly sexist. Similarly, years or decades into ayahuasca practice, curanderos regularly get into trouble with scandal around sexual misconduct and ego issues around money, power, and fame. Just like the eastern gurus we've read about in the papers for decades.

So I had to accept that, in this respect, ayahuasca is more similar than not to meditation practice. Something I hear from people who work with plant medicine is, "The plant takes me right where I need to go, even if it's not where I want to go," but I think this is a function not just of the plant but of the individual working with it and that person's willingness to go where they need to go. The people who say things like that tend to have some experience (often plenty) delving into their uncomfortable places; some have even reached an attitude of fearlessness and eagerness toward shadow work. Of course plant medicine takes them to these places when they need to. But not everyone shares these experiences. Many find their resistance to doing their work still intact even after multiple ceremonies. Sometimes the plant tries to take them where they need to go but all they get is a tummy ache from resisting and they wonder why the plant didn't work for them.

This is why it can be so valuable to work with ayahuasca within a traditional lineage, such as the Shipibo or other tribes, or a community such as the Santo Daime. A teacher or community that has been there before can guide you around and through such traps. Often they are also better able to see our shit than we are. If working with a group is not feasible, supplement your ayahuasca practice with regular shadow work: engage with a psychotherapist, trusted spiritual teacher, integral life practice group, whatever works. But do it, and do it with a guide or teacher at least until you have enough experience under your belt to continue on your own.

As a nondual practice, ayahuasca will not solve your shadow problems unless you take it there intentionally. Ayahuasca seems quite comfortable with shadow and darkness. It is a common mistake, especially among a certain kind of California New Ager, to assume that "there's nothing but the light."

As an UL practice, ayahuasca will not solve your LL cultural problems, although it can help if you are able to help yourself, if you direct it there and have LL tools under your belt to help you.

As a spiritual practice, ayahuasca will not solve your psychological and other problems unless you are ready and able to go there. The more skillful you are with your own psyche outside of ayahuasca, the more you will get out of your ayahuasca experiences.

In the words of my grandma, a woman who trusted God deeply but never forgot her own responsibility, "God helps those who help themselves."