Feb 28, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Shamans, Psychedelics, and One Man's mystical Journey in the Amazon to Find a Miracle Cure

There was a time when James Freeman seemed to have had it all. The 20-year-old Freeman was born into an upper class rich family in a small town near Boston in the US, and was a typical privileged, well-educated white male who went to an exclusive affluent private prep school and pretty much had everything he wanted handed to him on a silver platter. He doesn’t really seem like the sort of person who would have any worries about life, his future bright and laid out for him, but there were demons swirling in the back of his mind that began to come to the surface to send him down a path he never imagined he would take, and lead him onto an adventure into uncharted jungles, encounters with shamans, and a journey to the edges of human perception. 

At some point during his prep school years, Freeman began to spiral into a deep depression. He lost his will to do the things he had once enjoyed, found himself sleeping his days away, and he lost his grasp on his direction for his future. His days became listless, his grades slipped, he dumped his girlfriend, and he further tumbled into an abyssal depression from which he could not claw his way out. He was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and he sought treatment, but medication and even electroconvulsive treatment did nothing to help. He felt like he was living in an abyss, his life hopeless and with nowhere to escape from the constant despondency that was now hanging over his life like a dark cloud. He was often haunted by suicidal thoughts, and would say of this time in his life:

I can’t tell you the reason, or even the day I knew something was wrong. You hate yourself. And you hate yourself for hating so much. I had tried all sorts of pharmaceuticals, fish oils, exercise, electroconvulsive therapy, ketamine treatment, trans cranial magnetic stimulation, and of course a host of other alternative treatments—I was completely convinced that only a miracle could help me. It’s difficult to accept this is where I am. I feel like I need to create some sort of meaning to happen.

He would find that meaning by chance while flipping through a National Geographic magazine, where he came across an article on a South American psychoactive and entheogenic brewed drink called ayahuasca. Made by the prolonged heating or boiling of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub, along with various other plants or herbs depending on the regional recipe, the concoction is made into a sort of tea, and has been used by indigenous First Nations peoples from contemporary Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador for centuries as part of various shamanic rituals, ceremonies, vision quests, and for therapeutic purposes. Indeed, evidence of ayahuasca usage dates back at least 1,000 years. The active chemical in ayahuasca is DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which alters a person’s perception of reality, way of thinking, sense of time, and emotions, as well as causes profound visual and aural hallucinations, and by many accounts allows communication with the spirit world and other dimensions, making it perfect for exploring the outer fringes of consciousness and allowing for shamans to do their mystical work in the tribes that practice the brew’s consumption. 

In recent years ayahuasca has left the confines of tribal use to make its presence known in the modern world for both recreational and therapeutic use, and the article Freeman read mentioned reports that indicated possible uses of ayahuasca for the treatment of conditions including depression, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. it was this that caught his attention. Freeman decided that he had nothing left to lose, and so made sudden plans to go off to the jungles of Peru in search of a shaman and a miracle cure in ayahuasca. He also made a somber pact with himself that if he could not cure his depression within 10 months, then he was going to take his own life. This would mark the beginning of his strange adventure. 

Freeman arrived in Peru with very little money in his pocket and very little idea of what he was doing. Here he found himself thrust into a new world, surrounded by a language he couldn’t speak and a new exotic culture he could barely understand, about to embark on a journey into a world few Westerners truly comprehend. Undaunted by his imposing quest, Freeman went about looking for a shaman to guide him through the process of finding his elusive cure, and he found one in the form of a man called Guillermo, but this one was dropped when it came to light that he was perhaps responsible for the death of a tourist who had insisted on taking Ayahuasca even though Guillermo had strongly advised against it. He then met American named Ron, nicknamed the “Gringo Shaman,” but he would prove shifty when it turned out he was into cock fighting and his dealings with ayahuasca driven solely by profit. It would seem at first that his mission was perhaps misguided and doomed, but his luck was about to change.

Freeman eventually would meet the shaman called Pepe, who lives in the remote village of Shipibo and who took him under his wing. The two then ventured into the Amazon jungle looking for the plants they needed and forged an unlikely friendship in the process, with Pepe teaching him the ways of shamanism and ayahuasca, special songs to speak to the plants referred to as icaros, and how to prepare himself for the spiritual journey and deep introspection he will have when he imbibes it. Pepe would also tell him that the secret to making the ayahuasca tea came from the plants themselves, and that the plants communicate how to make a healing brew of them. They spent quite some time out in the jungle, living off the land, and when it came down to the moment of truth there was some trepidation. After all, the concoction is infamous for being foul tasting, causing violent vomiting, and for being dangerous if taken in the wrong dosage, and there have been plenty of horror stories of some unprepared, misguided tourist losing their mind or even dying from taking it. The effects can also be powerful, overwhelming even, with sometimes what one seeks not necessarily being what one wants to see. There is a reason that early Spanish conquistadors called ayahuasca “the work of the devil,” and so even after coming all of this way, Freeman was not a little nervous. He would say of his first time taking it:

It was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Then it’s just you, the sounds of the jungle and the mental clock ... tick, tick, tick. I’m having horrifying nightmares, people I love are dying, speaking a demonic language, it’s like having an exorcism performed on me.

For the next 120 days, Freeman would remain in isolation during his spiritual quest, which is what Pepe told him was necessary, drinking ayahuasca and eating nothing but rice and fish. As he got skinnier and his body wasted away, he felt his mind opening up in ways he never knew possible, his previous life being stripped away, and he felt as if his brain was being somehow reprogrammed. He also saw his whole life flash before his eyes, even moments he had long ago forgotten, and when the isolation period was over he faced the last part of the process, a cleansing ritual that involves being buried for seven days with just enough air to breathe through nose holes. When he finally emerged from the earth and his surreal experience, he would claim that he felt invigorated and that the whole new world he had explored had opened his mind and alleviated his depression, saying, “I’m becoming stronger in a way a didn’t know possible.” In the end, he would claim that his journey had been a resounding success. It would not go as well for Pepe, as although there are plenty of hucksters out to make a buck off of giving ayahuasca to tourists, his village frowned on teaching their ways to an outsider and banished him. Ironically, Pepe would end up living in the city, impoverished, estranged from his people, and ironically forced to sell ayahuasca on the street to tourists to make a living, while Freeman would tour around making talks at seminars on the use of it. 

The whole story of Freeman and Pepe’s journey was made into a 2016 documentary film called The Last Shaman, directed by Raz Degan. The film follows Freemen on his adventure and also talks about the spiritual aspects of the brew, its possible pitfalls, and the danger that the burgeoning ayahuasca craze and tourists it is bringing in are causing to the region and its people. Degan has said of this: 

The medicine is being exploited, misused, and sold as a cure all. It takes eight to 20 years for the vine to grow, and the demand will soon succeed the supply. The local people who have been using the medicine traditionally for centuries will soon no longer be able to afford it. Not to mention every other Westerner who drinks a cup or has a ceremony three times is becoming a shaman who serves medicine in their backyard. Ayahuasca is not a joke. I have sat in more than 200 ceremonies with more than 50 different shamans, and I have seen it all. People should take this far more seriously. This is not a recreational drug, and there is definitely cause and effect involved. For every cup drank in the West, there is some tree falling down in the East. 

Ayahuasca shines a light to help you recognize that which you already know. The spirit of the plant connects to your own spirit. Ayahuasca is a mirror to the transformation of the individual. It unveils the truth of your hidden emotions and helps you remember that which you are. Like anything, something so pure can be tainted, though the essence of its very nature will always remain. I attempted to share my experience of what goes on in Peru around the ayahuasca business. I would tell anyone interested in the medicine, watch the film and do some research. There is great potential in ayahuasca for amazing transformation, though everything comes at a price.

It seems to be a noble endeavor, but the film has also attracted its share of critics and poor reviews. Freeman has been accused of romanticizing the whole process and of endorsing eschewing traditional medical treatments for depression in search of a mystical cure that has not been scientifically shown to be effective. Indeed, the film includes not one medical expert, not related to him anyway, willing to endorse any of what follows or transpires as his supposed “cure.” Critics say that the documentary gives false hope and sends people in need of real help down a path that could lead them to being ripped off by charlatans at best, and making their problems worse or even dying at worst. It is also accused of having the opposite effect of what it is trying to achieve by explaining the dangers of over tourism to the natives’ ways of life, since by drawing attention to ayahuasca it serves almost like an advertisement for it all, more infomercial than documentary. Film critic Scott Douglas does not mince words when he says of it:

Freeman’s participation in the tourist industry that has arisen in the wake of ayahuasca’s increasing social prominence is contributing to a growing threat faced by practitioners of traditional native healing techniques and the indigenous cultures in which they operate — a danger he acknowledges while failing to recognize his own role as part of the problem.

Perhaps even more unpalatable than Freeman’s inflated sense of self-importance is director Degan’s propensity for over-stylization, a quality ill-befitting a documentarian. Many of Degan’s scenes are clearly choreographed rather than captured, and he inserts hallucinatory sequences most likely intended to evoke Ken Russel’s Altered States, but which more closely align with the episode of South Park in which the boys trip on cough syrup while trying to come up with story ideas for their school news show. Degan’s lack of objectivity as a documentarian, coupled with his beautifully rendered but structurally irrelevant shots of Freeman drifting down Amazonian tributaries in native canoes, result in a film that feels more like a travelogue advertising ayahuasca tourism than a documentary about depression — and by the time he gets to Freeman’s contrived and obligatory happy ending, the filmmaker’s strained seriousness is overshadowed by his diminished credibility.

While I recognize and advocate for the validity of hallucinogens as a potentially effective treatment for clinical depression, the pat justifications and tone-deaf oversimplification espoused by Freeman and Degan are likely to do more harm than good. In the end it’s a film so blinded by its own misguided sense of self-importance that it does a disservice to its subject while simultaneously failing to adhere to the central tenets of documentary filmmaking.

At the same time, the film has been embraced by those who extoll the benefits of ayahuasca treatment, and who insist that if done right it can open doors that regular, traditional treatment cannot. To them the documentary is a great way to raise awareness of this mysterious treatment that many may not have ever heard of before. So is it a dangerous path that shuns medical expertise or is it some kind of miracle cure that could help people for which all else has failed? Another way of thinking could be that perhaps more mainstream methods and ayahuasca are not mutually exclusive, and could perhaps peacefully coexist with each other. Australia-based psychotherapist Sean O'Carroll has said of his own ideas and experiences on this:

I am still a psychotherapist. I am also regularly in therapy myself. It’s often powerful, healing work, and an absolute privilege for the therapist. But it takes time, costs money, and—for many clients—is difficult. If there were a way to bypass the work of therapy, and achieve the same ends—or greater ends—more cheaply, more effectively, and perhaps even more beautifully, then I’d be first in line. Is ayahuasca an alternative to therapy? Or do these experiences relate to each other in some other way? It’s taken me a few years to gain clarity around this question. In the ayahuasca community I have encountered those who speak of therapists as though they prey on the weak, benefiting from their misery, while contributing to locking them into their stories of stuck-ness and separation. To some, this is an attractive conspiracy that has a certain resonance with other conspiracies of insidious power structures that inhibit the Great Awakening. Some of these same people see ayahuasca as a panacea—a cure-all—for the ills of contemporary society. In the medicine community there often seems to be a simplistic assumption that ayahuasca can have only a good impact on the individual or the collective, but my own experiences tell a different story, and perhaps a more nuanced one.

For the most part I too think it is a great gift to human consciousness. But I wonder how many people, lured by the easy promise of bypassing the hard work involved in addressing real developmental or relational issues, return to the medicine only to drift further from a solid foothold in the everyday world. It is in the “everyday” world, after all, that we must ultimately find or create meaning through relationship and expression. In so far as both therapy and ayahuasca enable us to become whole, to give and receive love more readily, and become more complete members of the earth community, I’d say they are aligned. But what each of these activities offer on the path to wholeness is quite different, and while there are clearly things that ayahuasca can offer us that therapy cannot, the same is true in reverse. It would be a mistake to think that ayahuasca replaces or makes redundant the work of therapy. I want to re-emphasise that I do not seek to generate fear around the phenomenon of ayahuasca, nor to suggest that its use is inherently dangerous or misguided. On the whole I think its emergence is a blessing and an opportunity for humanity. Rather, I am seeking to introduce some discernment in the use of—and “pushing” of—ayahuasca, and also to explore the place of ayahuasca alongside something like regular psychotherapy. I do not feel that I have all the answers, but I do feel that I can ask some well-informed questions.

It remains to be seen just how effective the use of ayahuasca is for treating these sorts of ailments, or just how much validity Freeman's assertions contain. It is an area that is still very much debated and scrutinized even as people with no hope left fly off to the Amazon looking for their own miracle cure. Are there mysteries in that vast expanse of jungle that hold some key beyond known science, or is this just folly and wishful thinking? For now it seems as if any true answers there are remain out in that dim, uncharted wilderness, embraced by local traditions but still skirting the periphery of what we know. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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