Are Spirits Real?

Sooner or later, everyone working with ayahuasca has to come to terms with this issue. Who, or what, are those beings we’re seeing in ceremony? What do ayahuasqueros mean when they talk about spirits; the spirit of ayahuasca, for example, or los genios of the plants? What does Santo Daime mean when it speaks of spirit possession, or of hymns transmitted by spirits? Are spirits ‘real,’ in the sense of independently existing entities—or are they the ephemeral projections of our own minds?

How we answer these questions impacts our work with ayahuasca, influencing how we navigate within ceremony and the extent to which we employ protection. Opening the door to the spirit world reveals many possibilities, not all of them benign. Brujeria, sorcery, is a well-known phenomenon in Amazonian plant medicine. As a friend put it, “You may not believe in spirits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in you.”

Are spirits real? The question itself implies a particular worldview, with ‘reality’ referring to the tangible, sensory 3-D experiences we share with everyone else. (At least, we assume we share it.)

Although the entities we encounter through ayahuasca can be seen, heard, sensed, and sometimes even smelled, they don’t have tangible manifestation. Ephemeral and shape-shifting, they lack the coherence we associate with physical reality. And the modern world takes material existence as ultimate proof. In addition, ayahuasca visions are not generally correlatable with the experience of others: they exist within an individual’s unique reality, and are therefore not objectively provable.

I’ve encountered a similar discussion within Tibetan Buddhist circles around the Six Realms of Existence as depicted in the Wheel of Life. Birth and rebirth can take place as a god, animal, hell being, human, demi-god or hungry ghost, as influenced by karma. Do these realms manifest in physical reality? Or are they allegorical, appearing as temporary states on this planet, or as states of mind within an individual?

I believe it was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who said something like: “Sure, you can view places like Bosnia or Rwanda as Hell Realms. But it would be a mistake to think that these are the only ones that exist.” In other words, don’t use psychological interpretations to minimize the larger truth.

Anyway. In either case here, be it Buddhist or Amazonian, how do we balance the contemporary scientific-materialist worldview with personal experiences of a potentially deeper nature? How do we reconcile the modern paradigm with the transcendent understandings ayahuasca can instigate? To hold both worlds in balance, respecting each reality while clinging to neither, is an act of equanimity worthy of a meditation master. It takes a spacious view to embrace unique and apparently conflicting possibilities without getting lost in contradiction.

Coming back to the spirits seen with ayahuasca—whether they appear as buzzing insects, doctorcitos, star beings, Mother, Snake or Jaguar—let’s look at the continuum of possibilities that lies before us, from material to spiritual:

  1. We can define these beings as hallucinations, “the perception of something not present” triggered by ingesting a chemical substance. The implication that an hallucination is imaginary and thus not real is an unsatisfactory solution to which no ayahuasca drinker I know subscribes. The experiences are too authentic, too meaningful, to dismiss in this fashion.
  1. We can view spirits through a psychological lens, as aspects of our personality; either sub-personalities, or simply our wishes, dreams, hopes and fears—the contents of our sub/unconscious projected out onto the glorious inner screen of our vision. Our inner worlds are rife with possibilities.
  1. We can treat spirits as externalized manifestations of the archetypes that all humans share at the collective level: Healer, for example, or Mother, or Star Beings. Carl Jung’s understanding of archetypes, developed through extensive personal work, was that such autonomous beings “have a life of their own.”
  1. We can expand our worldview to accept spirits as intelligent, independently existing beings who only become visible to us through certain states of consciousness. It’s not uncommon for people to see plant teachers, doctorcitos and healing spirits operating during ceremony. This is the traditional perspective of the vegatalistos, curanderos, and ayahuasqueros, both indigenous and mestizo, who have worked with ayahuasca and teacher plants for centuries. Personally, I’m inclined to respect their reports, which are remarkably consistent across cultural and linguistic divides.
  1. We can do a mix-and-match of the above, choosing whatever fits personally or in a particular situation. Different cultures perceive and describe these events differently. Spirits as metaphor, spirit as symbol; as psychological or chemical or real—a great deal has to do with the way we hold and balance internal and external realities. And when we’re in the realm of subjective vs. objective realities, we should acknowledge the degree to which quantum physics has blown a hole in these dichotomies.
  1. Last and perhaps wisest, we can leave things as a Mystery. The urge to define reality, to pin things down to a single definition, is very much a left-brain endeavor, one perhaps flawed from the very beginning. As all psychedelics show us, multiple realities can and do exist.

As César Calvo writes in his masterful Amazonian novel The Three Halves of Ino Moxo: “. . . things are not only truly real, or only mere illusions. There are many categories in between, where things exist: many categories of the real, simultaneously and in different times.” He goes on:

. . . the light of the oni xuma [ayahuasca] is black. It doesn’t explain. It doesn’t reveal. Instead of uncovering mysteries, it respects them. It makes them more and more mysterious, more fertile and prodigal. Oni xuma irrigates the unknown territory: that is its way of shedding light.

I love this image, the ‘black light’ of ayahuasca that fertilizes the mystery rather than ripping it apart. Trying to understand reality exclusively with the analytical mind is a sad and limited enterprise.

One of the many gifts that ayahuasca brings is how it opens us to new possibilities. Freed of mental calcifications, we are catapulted into realms vaster and more strange than we’ve seen before. Returning, we’re not the same. We know there is more; that this material plane is “one of the several masks of the same reality,” as Calvo has it; that life is far more mysterious than we ever dared imagine.

2 comments… add one
  • Honk May 2, 2018, 8:08 pm

    Nice overview/perspective — full of insight. Thanks.

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