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    Perspectives on Safety and Ceremony during a Pandemic


    (Ayahuasca Communities During a Pandemic Series | Part 2)

    This post is Part 2 in a series exploring the impact of the pandemic on ayahuasca communities (read Part 1 | Part 3). 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 or are well acquainted with communities in Europe, North America, Central America and South America.

    All interviews were anonymous, therefore geographic details are left vague in order to preserve anonymity of those we spoke with. Our goal was to learn how ayahuasca communities are adapting in order to better inform our activities and to help the community gain perspective.


    Plant medicine ceremonies in uncertain times

    The global pandemic brought with it something that no one could have anticipated – the sudden prohibition of gathering in community and holding space for work with plant teachers. Although we still don’t know how governments will continue to respond, the current situation seems to hint at a future where authorities respond to successive waves of outbreaks by requiring varying levels of social distancing, quarantine, or other public health measures to stop the spread of the virus.

    We spoke with several community leaders about how they planned to approach restarting their community ceremony work. In this post we’ll provide a bit of insight into the different approaches people are taking. Others have already shared protocols and practices to take into consideration when hosting ceremonies (see for example Entheonation’s well-researched and informative open letter), so the intention of this post is not to provide an overview of the potential risks presented by ceremonies.

    In speaking to facilitators, we encountered many different opinions about the virus and about how to conduct ceremonies in this new context. Some community leaders reported feeling very cautious, while others expressed the opinion that the pandemic has been exaggerated. However, despite diverging opinions about the nature of the pandemic, there was a consensus that the role of the facilitator is to take care of everyone, regardless of perspectives about the pandemic and varied government responses.


    Diverse perspectives on hosting gatherings with safety

    According to some of those we spoke with, it is better to avoid getting into debates and to put in place all the necessary security measures for protecting the health and safety of participants. One individual said: “For example, people may not take physical distancing too seriously, but this must be a decision agreed on by each and every participant. If some people want to hug, we will not say anything, but at the same time we will not encourage them to forget the rules, and we will invite them not to exert peer pressure on anyone. We must prepare everything so that they are safe from infection, but if they then freely decide to be close to each other, it will also be fine.”

    One facilitator from the USA, for example, told us that they had planned to restart the ceremonies by putting in place a variety of protective measures for their community. But as everything has progressed, they have modified their strategies. They told us that initially they had planned to ask participants to take a COVID rapid test (IgM-IgG), which gives results in 7 to 15 minutes and detects exposure to the virus within the last few days.

    However, after some reflection she changed her mind. “The point,” she explained, “is that I don’t know if I want to be in a position to do these tests on people. In fact, in our region there are now large infection centers in areas where people from our community go to work. So, if someone works in a very affected area, even if the test says they are not infected, this is no guarantee of anything. And I don’t want to go into that. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t want to carry that responsibility.”

    They decided to hold off on restarting ceremonies until safety can be guaranteed and also out of consideration for the plants – considering that if a neighbor became concerned about too many cars in one place, they could draw the attention of the authorities.


    The need for healing, faith, and community

    Among considerations for safety in the face of the virus, community leaders also feel motivated by the desire to create spaces for healing at a time when many people have experienced loss, stress, and isolation.

    One facilitator who lives in the Pyrenees noted that, while those around them have fared well, people living in cities faced many more challenges. The first people they’re wanting to invite for ceremonies are those needing the most support and their plan is to host them for a few extra days following the sessions.

    She said: “The most important thing for their processes and their healing is to walk in the forest and to be close to nature, connecting with the world in which we live. Harmony and healing is about connecting with sacred nature.”

    When asked what the ceremonies will look like in the “new normal” this facilitator explained: “Our community is small, we all know each other very well, and we don’t make any money from this, so there will be no specific variation. We will be very careful, but we will continue to do the work, singing and dancing, and everything will be as we have always done.”

    She explained her perspective on the importance of faith in times like these: “When living stories like this pandemic, our immunity is faith. Either you believe it or you don’t. Either you believe that all this is part of a spiritual evolution or you don’t. I never play dumb with health, but I also know that we are protected by spiritual forces. In our forest we only have clean air, the nature we have is our vaccine. We have to let our little community come and breathe; this is all we need.”

    While these perspectives on faith and hope are widespread, others spoke to the importance of not “spiritually bypassing” and facing the grief, loss, and challenges that so many are experiencing rather than side-stepping them.


    Individual and collective responsibility

    Safety in ceremonial contexts is a shared responsibility – this was the perspective shared by another facilitator we spoke with.

    He said: “Beyond the concrete measures that are decided upon, the important thing is that the facilitators understand at all times that people’s health is their own responsibility. That is why it is convenient to apply all measures to guarantee people’s safety, and then give them space to also make decisions on their own.” According to him, participants should be encouraged to take care of their own safety and to be aware of not endangering others with their actions.

    Within contexts that differ so much from region to region, country to country, it’s important for ceremony leaders to know and follow the guidelines of their respective jurisdictions. In many cases, depending on the laws of each country, ceremonies operate in legal gray areas, and may even be considered prohibited by governments. Taking care to not attract unwanted attention is considered in decision-making by community leaders.

    The importance of this issue was articulated in a protocol for ceremonies that one Dutch group has been developing: “Because of the contact we have with each other, we run a relatively high risk within this setting. It is also possible that if it turns out that the virus has spread through the ceremony, extra research will be done by the government, with all the (legal) risks this entails. Finally, the media could label the ceremonial work as super-spread events, which could lead to negative publicity for the plants.”

    As with many things at this time, there’s no one way for communities to approach organizing and hosting ceremonies during pandemic times. In speaking with a handful of facilitators, we found that there are two areas in which they all agreed. First, there was consensus about the need to care for the health of all community members, and secondly, the importance of protecting and honoring the well-being of the plants themselves.

    While some governments are reopening and lightening restrictions, other places continue to be on lockdown. This means that travel to Amazonian countries to work with ayahuasca will not be possible for the foreseeable future. In Part 3 of this series, we will explore how lockdowns and border closures are also affecting how people outside of the Amazon are sourcing ayahuasca for their ceremonies.

    More on this topic: Part 1 | Part 3

    Image: “Jungle”, by George Hodan. Source: Public Domain Pictures.

    Categories: NEWS
    Tags: ayahuasca , community , pandemic