Friday, June 15, 2012

Cultural Boomerang - Welcome to the Liberal Authenticity Trip

"This is Abraham Lincoln's axe. Last week the handle fell off and I had to replace it, but this is still Lincoln's axe. Oh, and the blade broke off yesterday so I had to put a new one on, but essentially, this is still Abraham Lincoln's axe."

                           Harry Anderson, Night Court

Ok, the above quote might lead you to believe that this is going to be a review of Jonah Goldberg's amazing new book "The Tyranny of Cliches", since he's been using Anderson's old axe joke as an apt analogy on his book tour. We'll have a review up soon enough, so if you want to change the channel, this is going to be a Meg episode - no one is going to blame you (if you get that reference, you can either be proud or ashamed of yourself. I'm your blogger, not your priest).

I usually don't preface my blog posts with disclaimers. I usually just plunge the knife in deep and gag you before you can say "Et tu, Brute?", but, in this case, a beloved friend and a dear relative have dabbled in this stuff, and they are neither silly, destroyers of cultures, nor moral monsters. This piece is about a collective anthropological phenomenon, and not an indictment of the people about whom I care deeply. If anything, I have to thank my friend and my relative for sparking my aging memory regarding something I had not thought of since I was in university and my wife was still taking a lunchbox to school.

Ever hear of ayahuasca? I'm not going to bore you with the pharmacology. Suffice it to say that it's a plant-based hallucinogenic-ingested tea with purgative properties used (not exclusively) by the indigenous peoples of of the Peruvian Amazon. It's all the rage these days, with the New Age crowd and drug tourists willing to pay out hundreds and even thousands of dollars to puke their guts out and experience hallucinations they believe will give them insight and guidance from the spirit world. Others just want to trip out.

It's use was first recorded by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century. It's commonly believed that it's a ritualistic sacrament presided over by a Shaman that dates back thousands of years - and this is where the problems start. New Agers and the holistic gang like to harp on about its ancient origins, but this is a source of much contention amongst the Indiana Jones crowd. Apart from it's mention by the Spanish, there is only speculation on just how old the use of this stuff is. Bowls and clay figures dashed with red paint have been discovered by archaeologists in regions of the Amazon. They posit that the bowls could have been used during the ritual, and the red paint on the figurines could represent the user's existential state of being. Bowls and figurines are not uncommon finds in dig sites anywhere in the world, so to buy into the theory, you have to be looking for proof to fit your thesis rather than letting the artifacts suggest a thesis.

I first heard of ayahuasca in 1993, when researching how European missionaries integrated existing customs used by indigenous peoples around the world into the rituals found in a traditional Catholic mass (you'll often see statues of the Virgin Mary in some of the ayahuasca hot spots). When my professors found out that I didn't think this was always necessarily a bad thing if not done by the tip of a sword, they looked at me the way my baby nephew does when I make a sillly face that he first finds amusing, but then it slowly begins to horrify him. Anyway, after a bit of verbal fencing, I eventually dropped it and went and got drunk instead - and stayed that way until about 8 years ago. But that's another story.

Let's rewind to the 1960's, when a generation of young people decided to tear down what was once considered good and decent, and proceeded to spend the better part of a decade trying to fill the spiritual void they created with something else. Something more exotic; something more "authentic".  Hippies flocked to Peru after hearing about a hallucinogenic happy meal that transported the local Peruvian Amazonians to new levels of spirituality, healing, love, and wisdom. It sparked what's now commonly referred to as "drug tourism". I'm not saying that people then or now endure the dangers of the Amazon just to get high, but because you are altering your conciousness by ingesting drugs, you are, by nature, a drug tourist, regardless of your motives. Some of the first westerners in the '60's to experiment with ayahuasca were actually met with bewilderment by the locals. Even as late as 2006, as documented in a National Geographic article, a lady who went Shaman shopping in Peru was told

"You're going to pay someone to give this to you? You crazy white people!'”

Indeed they do - pay that is. Google ayahuasca and you'll find a Chinese food menu of hot spots throughout North America where you can pay up to $2000 for the experience with a genuine bonafide Shaman - or are you really?

These people are not taking part in a Shamanistic ritual, because there are no Shamans in Peru. They're buying a commodity that has no semblance to what it once was.

Shamans are found exclusively in parts of Russia and Northern Asia. Now, anthropologists are generous with the term, and though there is a bit of intellectual tension within the community about this, it is generally tolerated that in certain tribal settings outside of this area, the term Shaman can be used to describe a spiritual leader, but there are caveats. The spiritual leader must perform a specific set of functions and the term must not be completely alien to the people using it. The word shaman was never used by the Peruvian Amazonians before the 1960's. It was imported to them by Westerners who didn't know any better. They already had terms for their spiritual leaders.  Curanderos is one them, but that doesn't really roll off the tongue - neither does ayahuasqueros. The correct term is "quasi-shamanist", but the hippies who started arriving in droves in the 1960's wanted to see a real, in the flesh Shaman. Hey, folks from Peru gotta eat too, and if you got the coin, you can call them Shapoopie! if you want. Now, there was a vague Spanish word "Chaman" that fit the bill. No surprise that the word morphed into shaman to meet the demands of the tourists. It's good business.

In fact, it started becoming such good business that the Board of Tourism in Peru - in conjunction with their major newspapers - decided a few years back that it would be great for the economy if they filled said papers with nothing but stories of ayahuasca miracles, UFO sightings, and other supernatural phenomena.  You know, to grab that international travel niche market. I'm not making this up. 

It's a mess, and I don't think those who are partaking in this ritual truly appreciate the gravity of what they are doing, and have done, to a culture.

Let me explain it like this, and remember, I am NOT making a point about religion.

Suppose there was no such thing as the Vatican with dioceses and arch-dioceses throughout the world. Pretend you'd never heard of it. Imagine there was a little spot in Rome with a few small gathering places called "churches" that practiced something called the "Catholic mass". There's something known as Gregorian chanting, and at one point during the ritual, there is something called "communion". Word starts to spread that during this "communion" thing, a guy called a "priest" magically transforms a piece of bread into a deity. Trippy! When you eat this magic bread, you are ingesting a God. So, now, imagine you're a New Ager and this mystical experience with incense and smoke and chanting really calls to you. You want to receive Communion and be one with a greater power (this is not much different from what happened with ayahuasca so stay with me).

So you go to this mysterious Rome place, with cash, and ask the locals where you go to do the Communion thing. Naturally, they are baffled. You can't just take Communion, they tell you. You first have to go through a process that for many starts at birth, called "baptism" - but you are insistent, and you have money. This little Rome place is very poor, so they take you to a priest. The priest lets you sit in on the mass (warily, mind you) and lets you take Communion. There are people flinging a weird smoke maker that smells like a bonfire, and wait a minute...there's WINE. Wine that is transformed into the life essence of the Deity when he was amongst the living. You go back the next day with even more cash so you can drink the wine. Well, that's not something the tribe usually allows, but again, they're poor, and they're pretty sure you're probably going to go away soon anyway. So you take Communion again, and you drink the wine. A little too much of the wine. The chanting, the frankincense - you feel elevated.You have become one with a deity! Then you leave, and life goes on for this poor little tribe who call themselves Catholics.

But you tell your New Age friends, and they want to experience "communion" too, so they start to swarm to poor little Rome with cash, also demanding they be allowed to take "communion." Tourists are travelling to the middle of nowhere at great risk and expense asking to see a "communionist." The locals are at a loss. The priests need to preserve the sanctity of the mass, so they splash water on your forehead, and then you must sit with the priest in a dark box and "confess" - a sort of soul cleansing. This is getting better by the minute for the new age, spiritual traveler. The priests can't handle the crowds, so they start ordaining people to dispense the communion and wine. There was never a person called a communionist in the 2000 year history of this tribe, but there is now. Frankincense is expensive, but the tourists want it, so the locals throw something together that sort of smells like it. The communion wafers are very rare and expensive, but there are hundreds of people coming through every week, so they make do with whatever they can find. So many years have passed at this point that now Rome is entirely focused on the influx of people that have and are inundating their little village.

The Gregorian chanters are all dying off, and there is no one to teach the intricate viva voce method to pass on the tradition, so they just get folks to dawn robes and start chanting gobbledy gook (this very same thing happened to the chanting heard during ayahuasca rituals. The language died, and the chant was reduced to little more than a performance enhancer).

Fast forward a couple of decades. There are no more priestsv- They got so busy with the tourists that no one was available to teach the important theological ideals vital to these Catholics, so now, there are only "communionists" - a term coined 20 years ago by outsiders who now insist it goes back thousands of years. Mass no longer truly exists, it is now only a ghost of what it was. There are no more homilies, no more Our Fathers. Confession is now called "the cleansing"; rosary beads are worn around the neck with their meaning and sacred prayers long forgotten; communion wafers are just pita bread; the wine has been "fortified" to, again, enhance the experience (yes, I know the dozen theological caveats this raises, but as I said, I'm not trying to make a point about religion).

Worst of all, these "communionists" have taken the show on the road - for profit.

This is what has happened to the tribal peoples of the Peruvian Amazon. New Agers, hippies, and stoners who meant no harm flocked to the Amazon seeking spiritual fulfillment, and, slowly, over the course of 50 years, launched a wrecking ball that turned a sacred ritual into a circus side show. This is what is so damned dangerous about the "a bit of this and a bit of that" quest for spriritual fufilment.

It's an extension of neo-paganism of sorts. New Agers have made a soup out of all things mystical in their quest for enlightenment, and have sullied very old and ancient traditions in the process. Take Kabala: People say they practice Kabala. Did you know a Rabbi has to have studied the Talmud for at least 40 years before being allowed to delve into Kabala because it is so abstract and complicated? Yet Madonna claims it's some kind of religion she follows after taking a weekend course. There is no Book of Kabala. Just like people have no idea of the difference between rebirth and reincarnation. New Agers have unintentionally done more damage to the customs and traditions of indigenous peoples around the world than the supposed horrors of McDonald's built in third world countries that they are always screaming about. Does anyone else see the irony in the fact that the Dali Lama globetrots in a private jet, giving countless media interviews and being treated like a rock star?

I know. You can say "What about the Church?", "What about the Big Corporations"', "What about the one percent?" Those are things about which we can have a morally seriously argument another day. Today I'm asking: what about you?

Hey, if you want to trip out with the pseudo-quasi-shamanistic dude who's performing in a town near you, knock yourself out. If you want to hang with a mysterious French doctor who has an army of lawyers surround him when the press gets too nosy, have at 'er. But, luckily, there are still places deep withing the Amazon where the ayahuasca ritual is still performed by a genuine ayahuasquero. Please have the decency to leave them off your "to do" list when you travel.