It's the evening of Jan. 25, 2007, and I'm hosting my first "Ayahuasca Monologues" storytelling event to a packed room at Eyebeam Atelier in New York City. On stage, "Breaking Open the Head" author Daniel Pinchbeck, who semi-popularized the hallucinogenic tea ayahuasca within the spiritual counterculture, brushes aside his disheveled hipster hair, asking in a voice barely audible from laryngitis, "How many of you here have tried ayahuasca?" Out of 220 people, only nine hands lift in the air, and they are mostly the featured storytellers (including myself) that I've directed for the show that night.
Cut to February 2012, and the mega-celebrity, Jennifer Aniston, best known for playing perky girl-next-door Rachel in "Friends," is tipping a bowl of ayahuasca to her lips in Universal's newest romantic comedy "Wanderlust." In just a few years, the once secret "shamans brew" of the Amazon has snaked its way into the popular consciousness, including the entertainment industry with cameos in the TV shows "Weeds" and "Nip/Tuck" and now the movie "Wanderlust." But the question remains: Can Hollywood portray this ancient medicinal, psychonautic elixir with the maturity and complexity necessary to address its multifaceted experiences?
The movie itself spins a bubbly tale of a New York couple (Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd) who -- jobless and unable to afford their high-priced West Village apartment -- flee to an intentional community (not commune) in rural Georgia. As Seth, the smarmy neo-shaman community leader states, "We use 'intentional community' because when you hear the word 'commune,' you think of a bunch of hippies smoking pot and playing guitar." The movie then trots out a series of '60s commune clichés -- prancing nudists, tie-dye shirts, free love and, yes, hippies smoking pot and playing guitar.
This sets up a number of enjoyable, easy jokes, but the clichés become more trite, and somewhat worrisome, when Aniston ingests ayahuasca. The experience starts out plausibly enough when Paul Rudd complains that the strange dark brown tea handed to him "reeks like cat butt." Ayahuasca's bitter, rotten-coffee taste is something you never forget. But the "Wanderlust" gathering looks more like a backyard party than a traditional ceremony.
In the Amazon, shamans usually sing healing songs called icaros while cooking what they consider to be a sacred mixture. They believe ayahuasca to be a spirit or divine being, composed of two different plants -- one containing the psychoactive chemical DMT (dimethyltryptomine) and the other, the double-helix shaped vine Banisteriopsis caapi.
Ceremonial participants normally prepare days (sometimes weeks) in advance by abstaining from pork, red meat, sugar, chocolate, cheese, alcohol and sex as a way to clean out their system beforehand. Shamans hold opening prayers and ask that everyone stay inside a circle or the maloca (ceremonial center), so they can maintain a container for "the healing energies" of the ceremony to flow and to protect from interference from what they consider negative energies or entities. They sing icaros through most of the ceremony, and will often help journeyers through difficult passages by chanting the songs, blowing cleansing tobacco smoke on them (it's different than tobacco sold at 7-Elevens in the U.S.) or waving feathers to clear out unwanted energies.
In "Wanderlust," members of the intentional community don't follow any dietary restrictions; there is no trustworthy shaman or guide (just Seth with his dubious motives), no singing, no healings and, probably worst of all, no set container for participants to find support when difficulties arise. This is, by far, the sloppiest group ayahuasca ceremony I've ever heard of.
In record timing (just a few minutes), the ayahuasca kicks in for Aniston (ayahuasca usually takes between 30-45 minutes). She embarks on a chaotic trip full of flashy, confusing images. In one quick-edit sequence, she is suddenly perched on top of a tree, singing R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." I soon realize the filmmakers are treating ayahuasca like the stereotypical acid trip.
In fact, Aniston herself conflated LSD and ayahuasca in a "Chelsea Lately" interview. When Chelsea Handler asked Aniston how she prepared for her LSD scene, Aniston answered, "I've never done LSD so I just kind of imagined every greatest fear that I could have." She never mentioned that it wasn't acid she takes in the film but rather a medicine that Amazonian healers and shamans have used for centuries to treat illness and disease.
Those who have tried ayahuasca know very well that it is no tune-in, turn-on, drop-out-of-trees kind of drug. I've never met anyone who ever wanted (or probably was able) to climb anything taller than a chair on this powerful, consciousness altering substance. Often, with the intensity of the journey, it's a titanic struggle just to sit up.
But Aniston is right about the fear. Often anxieties, sickness or dark energies (as shamans might call them), seem to rise to the surface to be released during ceremonies. This often comes in the form of purging, whether from throwing up or defecating, or in some more "volcanic" cases, both at the same time.
Surprisingly, this ancient ayahuasca healing modality has proven effective in cases where Western medicine failed. In "Black Smoke," author Margaret DeWys describes how "the spirit vine" cured her of terminal breast cancer. Reality Sandwich web-magazine contributor April Blake writes about Shipibo ayahuasqueros curing her brain tumor, and National Geographic adventurer Kira Salak wrote about how overcoming a "devil" in an ayahuasca vision vanquished her life-long struggle with depression in what has become "the most popular article the magazine has ever published, bringing in 20 times more reader response mail than any previous article."
These tales may seem strange, or like mere hallucinations, until, well, you've tried it. A common joke I tell at talks and book readings is that skeptics and atheists are just "one cup of aya away from a religious experience." I'm often asked if drinking the tea is taking the easy way out. To be honest, I don't think there's anything easy about battling your fears on ayahuasca. I have also only been asked that question from those who have yet to try it. Perhaps that's why so many journeyers compare the vine to the red pill in "The Matrix." It opens your reality to things you never thought possible. It certainly did for me, including curing the severe panic attacks that had plagued me since childhood.
Of course, since that first Ayahuasca Monologues in 2007, awareness of the spirit vine has spread across the Northern Hemisphere. At our most recent Monologue event in NYC, when author Daniel Pinchbeck asked the same question, "Who here has tried ayahuasca?" more than half of the 300 attendees in Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom raised their hands.
I find it unfortunate that the U.S. government still considers the most powerful healing medicine I've encountered as a Schedule 1 banned substance. But as more people have their minds opened and bodies healed from the medicine, we'll continue to witness it more and more in the mainstream.
Perhaps Aniston's "Wanderlust" adventure will turn people on to seek the medicine in the Amazon or elsewhere where it is legally available. However, there is a danger in portraying ayahuasca in a completely flippant manner. My hope is that nobody encounters a ceremony as reckless as the one portrayed in the movie. Whether or not you believe in energy, sacred healings or intervening spirits, one thing is for sure: If you enter an ayahuasca experience without the proper care, the joke will likely be on you.
Jonathan Talat Phillips is author of 'The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic' and co-founder of Evolver.net and Reality Sandwich.