A Deep Dive With Ethnobotanist Sarah Wu Into Ayahuasca’s Global Growing Pains

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Photo Credit Pinterest Shaman Art

The word ayahuasca spills mysteriously from the lips, not unlike the incantation of a magic spell. And while you may not understand exactly what it is or the nature of its unique magic, ayahuasca — a sacred medicinal Amazonian brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine — is as close as it has ever gotten to being a “mainstream” topic of conversation.

We should state that despite our deep dive into this unique ritual, we are, by no means, advocating the use of it or any substance. We’re not doctors or experts over here; we’re seekers.

But ayahuasca is such a hot topic right now, you could say it has become the pumpkin spice latte of the psychedelic plant world. Chances are, you at least know someone who knows someone who has “done it,” and at this point you might even be wondering if you should give it a try. Though the ingredients of the brew are found in the Amazon jungle, people all over the world today are seeking out the ayahuasca experience as a way to deepen a sense of self, to expand their understanding of the world, to address deep-seated personal trauma, and even to treat conditions like depression and PTSD. Ayahuasca has been used as sacred medicine for longer than we can wrap our heads around, but its newfound popularity in the modern, global market comes with a price — for the plant, the users, and the healers.

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In recent years, its popularity has exploded, thanks to a growing list of high-profile users that includes a who’s who of Hollywood stars; climbing depression rates that have shot up nearly 20 percent over the past decade or so (they’ve risen ten-fold since the 1950s); and a robust wellness industry that, for better or for worse, embraces any sexy “new” mind-body-spirit intervention and launches it to the front pages of self-care blogs.

Understanding Entheogenic Plants

Psychedelics, otherwise known as entheogenic plants, can open us up to having life-changing, soul-shaking experiences: trips, as they are called, because these experiences seem to take us elsewhere. Ayahuasca takes its users on a particularly intense trip to an otherworldly realm. The hours-long trip is a journey that should be guided by a shaman or guide, lest you lose your way. The trip is not for the queasy; latrines are usually close by to accommodate the involuntary “purge” of vomit and excrement that occurs after consuming Ayahuasca.

Punta Mona Costa Rica Sarah Wu BeLatina
Sarah Wu Director and Educational Curator – Punta Mona, Costa Rica

As the educational director of the Punta Mona Center for Regenerative Design and Botanical Studies, a co-producer of Costa Rica’s Envision Festival, and a well-regarded herbalist with nearly two decades of experience, Sarah Wu is one of the global community’s greatest resources when it comes to understanding what role ayahuasca can play in our lives, in mind, body, and spirit.

Wu feels that its introduction into the edges of mainstream culture can be a life-changing blessing for some — as long as the rest of us don’t blow it. She gave us some sobering perspective on ayahuasca’s recent popularity. 

In an ecological and anthropological sense, ayahuasca was never meant to be a global phenomenon — it only grows in certain regions — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it shouldn’t be used by the global community. Why is ayahuasca making so many headlines these days? What’s behind its relatively sudden upsurge in popularity? 

With this current “awakening” which we can attribute to many different things, people are feeling the call of their indigenous selves. Remember that we all, every single human was indigenous to somewhere at some point, going back through blood. Because we have systematically destroyed indigenous cultures, being that there are so few left on the earth right now, we romanticize and look to them for this lost connection. We want what they have, because we have been emptied of our origins. 

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Photo credit Pinterest Ayahuasca Vine

This is one of the biggest issues we face as a global society. Let’s step back a few thousand years — or may I venture to say a few million — and reflect first on our origins as Homo sapiens. We developed our cultural perspectives and relationships with and because of the natural world around us. What we experienced on a day-to-day basis with our family members, tribe, and bioregions (plants, animals and ecosystems) led us to develop, over time, explanations for these experiences. These belief systems and experiences were held in place, relative to the bioregion. We didn’t venture very far. Each bioregion holds a pharmacopeia of medicinal plants, mushrooms and animals that sustained us for hundreds and thousands of years. This included entheogenic plants. You can do a review of all intact traditional cultures from around the globe and see that they all had various ways of inducing trance and visions, which transmitted messages to us from something within and beyond ourselves. 

Moving ahead to the present day, because of extensive mono culturing, that is the elimination of heritage and the homogenization of culture into cookie cutter realities, ecosystems are being destroyed and in turn we have eliminated our bioregional connection to place and the connection with plants and animals. Entheogenic or psychedelic plants and experiences come to people when they most need it. I believe everyone desires connection to something larger than themselves, especially when our mortality becomes apparent or the world feels too heavy and disconnected around us. 

And I think that is the biggest thing, disconnection, being treated as a machine in the great cog of production and consumerism. This belief system, along with the industrial revolution and exploitive development, is slowly crumbling before our eyes. We are more than a collection of parts going through mechanical motions; we, including plants, animals, and even broader ecosystems have a life force that is interconnected. We can only be detached for so long before we feel the call back to our origins. Medical and religious dogma only provide so much relief, and they often don’t answer the bigger questions, the eternal question of why are we here, to the individual question of why did this happen to me. Entheogenic experiences alleviate those fears and uncertainties by offering us a glimpse at the answers, and when treated as a sacrament, a deeper look into the state of reality and our role in life.

What are your concerns with the rising popularity of ayahuasca?

It is a huge concern that the plants that constitute the ayahuasca formula are now so popular. I believe people need entheogenic experiences to facilitate healing globally. But I do believe that it is unethical to be taking these plants from the wild. There is a strong movement now in the herbalism community to not take from the wild. Our wild places are suffering and need our positive input, either by strictly conserving what is there or by actively reforesting and replanting — in other words, wild crafting, giving back to all we have taken, making up for the wrongdoings of past and current generations. Taking plants from threatened ecosystems like the Amazon is unethical in every way. We need to be growing these plants if we want to partake in them. I worry that we will see the extinction of the ayahuasca plants in my lifetime if the popularity increases. 

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Photo Credit Pinterest Ayahuasca Flower

What people experiencing these plants have to remember is that they too are living, sentient beings who have a right to life. They are not for us to exploit and use as we see fit. People wanting to “wake up” and “find healing” have to humble out a bit and know that healing is never achieved, and that the commodification of anything living is ultimately an injustice enacted upon all that will cause the user to suffer in kind. 

What are your suggestions for people who might read an article about ayahuasca on a trendy site and think, Oh I should try that? Where is a good place to start? Would you recommend they go to the jungle for their experience or seek out something underground in their community?

What I would instead recommend to people wanting entheogenic experiences is to mindfully and ritualistically experienced psilocybin mushrooms. These are easy to grow and provide levels of experience just as deep as ayahuasca when done with the specific intention for healing and awakening. Check out the work being done by MAPS

I would also encourage people to, instead of venturing into the depths of the jungle, find the sacred in their own bioregion. To sit with and feel the magic and the pain of the land that they are around each and every day. Find and feel that there is no holy land, no promised land, that each square inch of land, the land right below their feet is hallowed ground. Of course, there are some places more “charged” places like Sedona, Machu Picchu, and all the other “hippie” or spiritual seeker pilgrimage sites, but we can’t forget that this is one Mother Earth.

In addition to psilocybin, as a way to temper the explosive growth of the vine, are there any plant medicines that people who live in the United States have access to that might play the same role in spiritual and physical healing? Is there anything in temperate zones that are comparable to ayahuasca or could at least be used as an alternative?

I love mugwort, artemesia vulgaris. This is a subtle entheogenic plant that makes waking hours more lucid and dream state more vivid. It is gentle yet potent and widely available. I like subtle plants like rose and lavender, which have deep psychospiritual activity, just not visionary. If people want visionary experiences, they have to be ready for what they may see. 

Since the reality is that supplies are limited, do you think that its uses should currently be limited to people who need the plant as medicine — that is, people experiencing clinical depression, PTSD, anxiety, or trauma rather than opening it up to people who are hoping to deepen their sense of self?

Yes, I say leave certain medicines for the sick. (A non-entheogenic example would be Chaga mushroom: its popularity will see it to extinction.) Ayahuasca is not a plant for the well. I again would encourage people who want to have entheogenic healing experiences to look to psilocybin because it is so easy to cultivate and not at all threatened. 

And with ayahuasca, I would suggest to never push to have the experience. I would say, if it comes to you, then be open. 

I know you’ll have a lot to say about this, but since ayahuasca has become more visible in media that reaches the general public, do you have any concerns over misuse among unqualified healers or people who aren’t actually ready for it?

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Photo Credit Jamie Ducharme, Boston Magazine


It is a slippery slope for the facilitator or shaman of the experience. Money and fame are tempting, cardinal sins from some perspectives, Greed and Hubris. All humans are subject to these feelings and desires, some more susceptible to the negative side of that. The title “shaman” doesn’t mean you are immune. And many people now are also calling themselves shamans, perhaps without the realization of the weight of responsibility that it carries. Not everyone can hold a safe container for people having intense experiences. Things can go wrong. Demons are released. I have seen a lot of negativity coming from people having unconfined ayahuasca experiences and I had a friend die during a journey. 

I do not feel there is anything wrong with certain non-indigenous people offering sacred plant medicine like ayahuasca; when the medicine calls to you, you answer. Being a person of mixed ethnic origin, growing up in the Untied States, I don’t have a sense of place or ethnic affiliation that feels deep and true. I see myself as a planetary herbalist.

Ayahuasca Shaman BeLatina
Photo Credit Zoe Helene Soplar Estella Amazon by Tracey Eller for Cosmic Sister

I learn from the ecosystem, I learn from cultures and historical accounts globally, I use plants that are local and are somewhat ethically and organically grown. I do sometimes take from the wild, but always in very small quantity and with a deep understanding of the bioregion. I don’t try to make any of it “mine.” In reality, the plants belong to no one, they only have longer relationships with certain cultures. 

Some people are not ready, information and experiences can not be forced, especially to those who are dealing with mental illness or addiction. You can tip the person into another state of disease with entheogenic experiences, especially if they are not being held in a safe “container,” having someone present to guide them, or the tools for reintegration. I feel the latter is the most critical piece. Once you are “awake” what do you do with that? Go back to the default world, knowing how messed up everything is and feeling helpless? People need to be able to “return” with a sense of connection, great and small, also knowing that their sphere of influence may not change things, and things won’t change overnight. People can easily fall into a deeper state of depression or despair. 

What I have also seen is a level of addiction to the experience. Where people are receiving messages and visions and they become attached to that reality, they sometimes have a hard time interacting in the day-to-day, they become detached from life and unable to fully function. We have to remember that the plants are living sentient beings with their own personalities. They can take advantage of us. I believe that as we are experiencing entheogen, they are also experiencing what it is to be human, and they can find those of us who are more susceptible or weak and in some ways possess us, use us. Plants are never mal-intentioned, but they are sponges for energy, and when the “wrong” or a negative intention is there, they can take this on. This intention includes how they are cultivated. The best example is the addiction and perverse cultivation of sacred tobacco.

To follow that point, can ayahuasca be a plant for everybody if they’re open to it? Or even if they’re not open?

I believe not. There is no universal panacea, the panacea is for the individual to discover. We are all unique, individuals with our own individual constitutions. Ayahuasca is a purge, it can be very depleting and dangerous for some body types and conditions. Our modern society loves the thought of the miracle pill. Once we get over that, we can find tools for wellness all around us.

Mind-Body-Spirit connection is the only way to find a state of balance or wellness. Again I don’t believe healing is ever achieved. As we live, we are in a constant state of slow decay, making our way back to the soil over time. We can ease this process with vital food, vital water, low stress lifestyle, love, connection, inspiration, etc. We have to know that we are not machines here to produce and consume at our own expense for the benefit of a few. 

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