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Amazon communities pandemic

How Ayahuasca Communities Are Adapting during the Pandemic

14.08.2020

(Ayahuasca Communities during a Pandemic Series | Part 1)

It’s no doubt that 2020 will be remembered for the rapid and abrupt arrival of a pandemic that, in a matter of months, impacted the whole world. What remains to be seen is how communities will be forever changed and what adaptations or changes to how we live will remain with us.

Ayahuasca communities, for example, now span the globe. While most of the physical brew is sourced from Amazonian countries, practices have expanded and communities linked to ayahuasca can be found in most countries, with a concentration of retreat centres and businesses in places like Iquitos, Peru, serving international visitors. The globalization of these practices has led to the formation of informal and formal networks – all of which have been impacted by the pandemic.

ICEERS seeks to support the community by providing a bird’s eye perspective on trends, movements, and the bridge between traditional practices and emerging ones. After the pandemic hit, we took the time to speak with a handful of individuals involved in communities, or who are well acquainted, located in Europe, North America, Central America and South America. We wanted to learn how ayahuasca communities are adapting.

This is the first in the series of posts (read Part 2 | Part 3) where we will share reflections on what we heard from the community. It’s important to note that all interviews were anonymous (and thus we remain vague about locations of individuals) and that we were looking to identify trends rather than to make any conclusions.  We encourage critical thinking and for readers to draw their own interpretations.

 

Communities are diverse yet all face economic impacts

There have been economic ramifications for facilitators, community organizers, retreat centres, and indigenous communities. Let’s look at a few examples.

Some ceremony facilitators travel from place to place, supporting communities in different countries and continents. We spoke to one woman, for example, who was impacted by the sudden lockdown and shutting of borders and found herself stranded for over two months. Eventually, she was able to return home to face a new reality where she no longer can count on the income provided by offering her services. She’s concerned about the future, yet also spoke with hope and determination.

There were several other cases of people who were stranded in other countries and luckily many have now found their way home. The closure of borders, however, will continue to impact how ceremonies are conducted, and for communities that host traveling facilitators may be without gatherings longer than communities with locally based healers or ceremony facilitators.

Lastly, in the case of international communities that revolve around local leaders, churches, or other kinds of centres, in-person ceremonies were paused once lock-downs began. Because of government orders to enter confinement or practice social distancing, ceremonies ceased being held, which would have had an economic impact on organizers, particularly those who maintain properties or buildings dedicated to hosting their communities.

In the case of retreat centers, primarily in South America but also in other regions, who faced a sudden interruption to their operations, leading to the cancellation of many retreats. These centers are facing significant financial pressures. For example, many have permanent staff and overhead costs that need to be sustained.

One center manager that we spoke with shared that they were looking into refinancing or collective financing processes. Future planning is difficult in a context where it’s unclear when retreats will begin or how many people will be able to be at each center at a given time. Many retreat centers located in the Amazon have been significantly impacted because they cater to guests from Europe and North America. The person we interviewed said that even if all goes well, it will take at least two years to recover from this interruption.

Several retreat centers have launched crowdfunding campaigns, asking supporters for assistance so they can continue to pay local staff. The impact of the pandemic on those who work at retreat centers cannot be underestimated and has surfaced concerns about the fragility of local economies that have built up around ayahuasca.

 

Strengthening community bonds

As for communities with sustained members and well-established nuclei, several people shared how there is a clear awareness that collectively we are living through very important, albeit delicate, times.

One person explained how they felt responsible for caring for their community and enabling mutual support. Members of these communities have stepped up to offer financial support, where they have been able, to support both their local communities and to send resources to indigenous teachers and their families.

Some community leaders also provided one-on-one support, dedicating time to those most in need. Some of them have thus assumed a role of healers beyond their usual role in face-to-face ceremonies. A few facilitators described how through this process, they came to see where their skills were lacking and have taken steps to improve and to seek additional training.

Some groups who were confined together continued to hold small ceremonies, which enabled more intimate work. One community leader also shared that the process led to a deepening of the relationship within the community as well as with the land. They took time and energy to start gardens that will provide local food. They are now thinking about hosting more community-centered activities and even opening their land to volunteer programs to cultivate the land, so that they can offer local food during retreats.

Interviewees also mentioned what they sense to be an even greater desire for people to work with plant medicine, to be in spiritual communities, and to get out of the cities and into nature. For retreat organizers, these are things they are taking into consideration, as they look to offer extended retreat formats and ongoing community building outside of ceremony.

 

Smaller ceremonies and using technology

Despite enforced quarantines and social distancing measures, many of these communities have grown closer through mutual support and the role of facilitators in bringing people together in new ways. And, as can be expected, innovation has taken place.

Teleworking has surged during the pandemic as have all other kinds of online offerings, from yoga, to medication, concerts and art exhibits, as well as church services and family gatherings. In this context it is perhaps not surprising that a new type of ayahuasca ceremonies have also emerged: online ceremonies.

In our interviews with people who facilitate ayahuasca ceremonies we identified two formats for these kinds of offerings, although others may exist. The first type was organized by the international Santo Daime community. Their churches were closed due to the pandemic so they began to hold meetings and ceremonies through video conferencing. Each group of participants (in most cases there were small groups of 2-5 people, and occasionally someone on their own) had access to their own sacrament (daime). They followed their hymn books and sang together.

According to one of the leaders of one of these communities, “the ceremonies at a distance are very nice, but the problem is always the quality of the connection, which is not good all the time.”

The second kind of gathering we learned about was that of a community in Catalonia, Spain made up of people who are part of a community association. This experience was reported on in detail the publication Cáñamo. Participants had access to ayahuasca, a psychiatrist was on-call to respond in case of challenges, and participants all had previous experience. At the time of our interviews, over 125 people had participated in ceremonies organized in this way.

Several key issues arise when considering safety and well-being of participants during online ceremonies, such as how to ensure adequate screening, support during the sessions, addressing audio and visual elements to ensure a smooth experience, and lastly the important element of integration and ensuring post-ceremony support. The leader of this community points out that this format was a possibility because previously ceremonies used digital technology (computer and sound systems), and were held in an interior space that was equipped for this purpose. It is evident however that this format leaves out important elements of face-to-face ceremonies and the end of strict confinement has also meant the end of this format for ceremonies for the time being.

From a traditional perspective this format has its limitations. Ceremonies held by videoconference do not attend to fundamental aspects of ayahuasca practices, such as the consecration, cleaning and protection of the space, the blowing of tobacco or agua florida. The intentional use of songs and music is also limited and the ceremony leader cannot connect in the same way into what is happening for each individual and in the space and modify the tone, volume, rhythm and intention of each song.

 

Uncharted waters…

No one expected this pandemic and there is in fact so much that is still unknown. However, it does appear that social isolation and confinement has the opportunity to lead to stronger communities, thoughtful acts of reciprocity and mutual aid, and adaptation. An important opportunity is how we re-think how Amazonian communities will benefit from the globalization of ayahuasca and how to offer sustained support as they struggle to survive economically, culturally, and physically during this pandemic.

More on this topic: Part 2Part 3

Image: Amazon river flowing through the Amazon rainforest, by NASA. Source: Wikipedia.

Categories: NEWS , Ayahuasca
Tags: ayahuasca , community , pandemic