Over time, there seems to be an ever-increasing popularity in ayahuasca, and as a result an increase in the numbers of people who seem to fetishize ayahuasca culture and ayahuasca ceremonies. By fetishization, I am referring to people posting pictures of themselves wearing ceremony clothes on Instagram and Facebook, the ways in which ayahuasca is talked about in online discussion groups, and how people think about talk about ayahuasca in general.
The topic of fetishization and its potential harm and the shadow quality of it is important to look at, because this trend and tendency distracts people from the deeper work and the more serious nature of the work with ayahuasca and really makes the work seem more like a circus than a serious healing path. It’s a trend that has people focus on the wrong things—the outward appearance of being connected to ayahuasca, rather than the inner experience of being in dialogue and learning from this amazing plant teacher.
What does “fetishization” mean, especially in the context of ceremony?
I first heard it used as a descriptor by a musician who was a mentor of mine, who described people’s obsession with him and other musicians as “the fetishization of musicians and celebrities.” My understanding of the term refers to the quality of obsession about a particular person, thing, activity, etc., that people tend to fall into—or simply obsessive fandom. A fetish in this way can be seen as anything we are “irrationally” devoted to that becomes our identity.
The problem surfaces when our fetish becomes our identity, and in the process of becoming our identity it also robs us of our uniqueness and creates a dichotomy between others and us. In other words, it becomes like a dogmatic religion for us-and in this case The Holy Church of Ayahuasca and other Psychedelics, and a byproduct is the belief that ayahuasca and other psychedelics is the ONLY way to connect spiritually and heal—and we then start proselytizing to others.
Or we feel we have to wear our ayahuasca uniform: Shipibo jewelry, Shipibo design shirt, aya earrings, and so on, as a way to prove we are hip and cool and connected to ayahuasca. When we become attached at the level of obsession and fetishization, especially to the outer expressions of our connection to ayahuasca, we lose perspective and become blind, like others in heavily structured religions.
Furthermore, our focus becomes on taking on some imaginary identity of ayahuasca person rather than who we are in the other areas of our lives—just normal people doing our best to walk our talk and be happy.
To be clear, I am specifically pointing to the ways in which people fixate on the details of ayahuasca ceremonies—such as wearing special clothing outside of ceremony, spending lots of money to acquire special mapacho pipes and showing them off to others, buying all sorts of ancillary ayahuasca objects that they think go along with ayahuasca ceremonies without understanding how those objects or things work within a ceremonial context, and this includes getting a special ayahuasca name such as “Rainbow Walker” and requiring people call them those new names outside of ceremony, and a variety of other forms of ayahuasca fetishization.
Fetishization can also occur when people are obsessed with talking about ayahuasca and talking about how many ceremonies they have been to, all the famous people they have sat with, and all the cool places in Peru they have visited, ayahuasca centers, and so on.
These outer accomplishments do not mean much, however. A person can do all the travel in the world, go to the most remote parts of Peru, and not change their lives unless they do their personal work and return to earth.
The bottom line is that dressing a particular way, having to externally show the world you are cool, thinking that buying a particular sacred item will somehow give you magical powers, or needing to show the world how connected to ayahuasca you are, has nothing to do with the healing path, or with anything other than serving the ego mind.
In fact, people who fetishize ayahuasca risk falling into the dangerous trap of falling victim to being gullible to the influence of others. They also risk being naïve by not being open to seeing the full picture of ayahuasca culture—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
There is also a high degree of magical thinking that goes along with fetishization. Magical thinking boils down to thinking that owning a particular object or spending a lot of money to attend a specific ceremony will then mean they are then a ceremony leader or have access to secret information, when these things are all earned over time and require a path of hard work.
An ancillary topic, worthy of another discussion is how fetishization is also a form of cultural appropriation. In this case, many ceremony people, and those fall into the category of fetishizing ayahuasca use tools, symbols, art, icaros out of context or without permission.
Furthermore, there is a propensity to romanticize Peruvian ayahuasca culture in particular, without a deeper understanding of the cultural struggles, along with some of the shadow sides of ayahuasca ceremonies in South America—including the exploitation of tourists, manipulative practices by ceremony leaders, exploitation of women, and lack of care to participants, to name a few.
*A caveat, we are not suggesting there is not a time and place to wear and work with sacred objects and wear sacred clothes. Dressing up for a ceremony and wearing objects that feel celebratory, or used for protection, or put you in a strong state are all encouraged.
For example, I have special ceremony clothes I wear because they help me feel more connected to ayahuasca and focus on the work I am doing. You will never see me posting pictures of me wearing them, nor would you ever see me wearing them outside of a ceremony. They are for my personal healing, and are personally meaningful to me, not as part of my obsession with ayahuasca.
The last set of problems with the fetishization of ayahuasca I want to explore is that most of the folks who spend their time obtaining ayahuasca items, posting online about their groovy ayahuasca experiences, and perhaps arguing with others about obscure details about ceremonies to look smart and be cool online, do not tend to work with ayahuasca and sit in ceremony often. It is like someone who reads a lot of books and talks a lot about being in a romantic relationship, but do not date, nor have they been in a committed relationships.
In this way, the work of ayahuasca happens in actual ceremonies and in the integration of actual ayahuasca experiences, not in one’s imagination. Ceremony is a relationship with the medicine and requires you dialogue with the medicine—just like other forms of relationships where you need to actually interact with the other person, not just talk about interacting with them. The work, in this case, happens with your butt in the seat, going through your actual ayahuasca experience, with the challenges, emotions, thoughts, and physicality of the ceremonies.
Our hope is that we all are able to walk this path humbly and without needing to put on a show for anyone else. Our hope and prayer is that by sitting in circle, being vulnerable, drinking the medicine, we can all learn to shine brightly and not need to wear a fake mask, and all get beyond the trappings of fetishization of ayahuasca, so we can own and express our unique gifts into the world.