Ayahuasca, the Scientific Paradigm, and Shamanic Healing

Stephan V. Beyer, PhD, JD

Abstract: Current scientific research focuses on what the sacred plants can do for us: heal our wounds, cure our addictions, and expand our minds. This paradigm sees the sacred plants as useful prepackaged collocations of active molecules. But in indigenous cultures, shamans heal because they are in a personal and mutual relationship with the healing spirits. In such cultures, when the sacred plants are used, encounters with the world of the spirits are not visits to the therapist; they create a relationship that entails obligations as well. In this view, the sacred plants are autonomous others who are not means to our ends, but rather ends in themselves. This presentation explores whether our understanding of the sacred plants is enhanced by viewing their uses—like vision fasts or dreams or talking circles—not as conventionally therapeutic, but rather as a sacred shamanic ceremony that has its own often unforeseen purposes, which may not be to heal us, or to heal us in ways we do not expect.

Stephan V. Beyer, PhD, JD, has doctoral degrees in both religious studies and psychology, and has taught as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Graduate Theological Union. Expert in both jungle survival and plant hallucinogens, he lived for a year and a half in a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas, and has undertaken and helped to lead numerous four-day and four-night solo vision fasts in the desert wildernesses of New Mexico. He has studied the use of sacred and medicinal plants with traditional North America herbalists, in ceremonies of the Native American Church, in Peruvian mesa rituals, and with mestizo shamans in the Upper Amazon, where he received coronación by banco ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho Jurama. Steve has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Shamanic Practice, and currently serves on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service. He is the author of Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, among other books.

Also available on
Help translate and caption videos on