Santo Daime is a spiritual movement that involves the taking of Ayahuasca, a psychoactive drink made from several South American plants; it’s to be taken as an entheogen with other practitioners in a controlled setting. Santo Daime has been practiced since the 1930s, originating in Brazil. It includes facets of many different religions but does not adhere to any particular one. People of all denominations are welcome, and within the Santo Daime movement one can find elements of Spiritualism, Mediumship, Catholicism and Shamanism to name a few. I spoke with Georgy Pancharian who lives in Peru and has been working with the Santo Daime movement for the past four years.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN AYAHUASCA CEREMONY AND A SANTO DAIME CEREMONY?
Ayahuasca ceremonies are typically held in the dark with a shaman who plays music and guides the ceremony through music. One of the main differences is that in the Ayahuasca ceremony you are more on your own, there aren’t really any rules so, for instance, you can spin out on a vision and lose yourself and not be able to find your center. In Santo Daime we have the lights on and in the center of the room is an altar, so when you do start to spin out, you open your eyes and are brought back again to the center. We also have a hymn book and sing certain hymns and perform regimented dances; so, these are other grounding factors. There is more regimen to the practice and we call it ‘work,’ because we take the medicine, Ayahuasca, with the intention of getting certain work done. Also, with Santo Daime there isn’t a shaman leading the ceremony. Part of what we believe is that all people are equal and that no one person is a guide or leader; it’s more of a shared experience that way. But both of the ceremonies have similarities and are very spiritual in nature; the plant is thought to have guiding spirits and one can be in touch with spirits through the use of the medicine. In fact, Santo Daime also believes in mediumship.
What happens when you ‘lose yourself?’
Well it is definitely a part of what you’re supposed to do when taking Ayahuasca, to lose your sense of self or ego and that’s an important part of taking it. But you want to be able to work on things that come up for you and to do that it helps to come back to a center, your center. Otherwise you can just get lost in visions and not come back with much insight.
What are the stages of a typical trip on Ayahuasca?
You usually bring a sleeping bag or something comfortable with you, and there is usually a puke bucket and tissues because physical purging is usually a part of it. Then, there is a part where everything you have buried is brought to the forefront of your mind. For instance, you may have thought you were a nice person but you’ll be confronted with your judgmental nature, your anger, anxieties and petty annoyances. As you can imagine, these can be very challenging things to confront. Following that, sometimes your mind will get stuck in a loop on a certain problem that needs to be addressed. So, then there’s the point of facing your dark side, then the accentuation of your faults or problems, then towards the end you feel a release of joy. You experience a sense of God in a new way.
Have you ever had a very frightening or bad trip on Ayahuasca?
I went with a friend to a ceremony a little over a year ago, and up to that point everything in my ceremonies had been rainbows and butterflies; this was my first dark experience after four years of taking it. After I took it and sat down, I closed my eyes I saw some scary, wild, vivid visions and then I started to feel a spiritual attack. I saw a vision of the friend I came with going up to the altar and taking something that didn’t belong to him. And dark spirits, I counted three of them, communicated to me that because my friend had done this I would be killed. I panicked. I could feel the three spirits hovering above me; then one of them blew a powder at me, and when it did I slowly started to feel the life force leave my body. I opened my eyes and the room was completely black, and the music had started. I felt like I was dying and didn’t know what to do. I told another friend next to me that I needed to go outside to talk with him. I stumbled outside and explained to him that I had had a terrifying experience because the friend I came with had stolen something from the altar, which made the spirits very angry with me. My friend just looked at me and said, ‘That didn’t happen, what are you talking about?’ At first I was so sure that this ‘memory’ was real, but then I came to understand that those spirits had implanted it in me and that it had never actually occurred.
My friend suggested we go back inside and pray, and in the Santo Daime we pray often with the rosary. I went back inside and sat down to pray and couldn’t remember how to. I called out to the spiritual guides whom I usually call out to and nobody was there. I had never experienced that before; I was now completely disconnected from any positive divinity. I motioned to my friend that I needed to go outside again, and we did, and I just told him, ‘I need to be cleaned up, they did something to me and I feel like I’m dying.’ At that moment the shaman came outside and saw that I was suffering so went inside and got his tools, which consist of a fan made out of specific leaves and a fat tobacco cigar; with the cigar and the tobacco smoke he was cleansing me. It was so bizarre because I kept feeling a pressure on the right side of my head, and he was wiping away from the spot where I felt this pressure. After about five minutes with him I felt completely cleansed from whatever those dark spirits had done to me, and was able to go back in to the ceremony and have a good experience. It also affected the house when I got back home: the internet was out, the water wasn’t working, the electricity was out; it affected the energy field around us. As a result I ended up consulting a psychic, whom I have known for many years; I asked her why this had happened. She assured me that it wasn’t a karmic thing, it wasn’t specific to me, but that there were spirits already in the temple and because I was so wide open the spirits came to me. I just found it so amazing that they were able to implant that memory in my head.
Music seems to be an important part of both ceremonies, how does the music factor into the ceremony?
Without the music you can kind of spin out into other things. There’s potency to each hymn, the hymns in Santo Daime were created by spirits. They weren’t created the way a musician would create them. The way you can tell when a hymn is received is that you will remember the words and the way they’re sung, forever. I was in one ceremony with just four of us participating, and two of the people were married and were going through a divorce, so there was a lot of grief there. All of a sudden the husband slammed against the wall and started having a very bad experience. The shaman went over to him and started singing a song and it totally smoothed everything out and made everything peaceful. There are some songs whose purpose is to bring the medicine up and the majority of the room will go through cathartic purging; then there are other hymns that smooth things out.
Ayahuasca seems to have gotten a lot more attention over the past few years. Do you notice a difference with a larger spectrum of people being more knowledgeable about it?
Yes, but unfortunately now in South America there are many people posing as shamans who are into the Ayahuasca tourism. These fakes just want to make a buck off of some unsuspecting tourist and one can’t be sure of what is in the medicine. Ayahuasca is sacred work and must be done by a true shaman who makes it himself by traditional methods which have been passed down over time, or one can go to the jungle and make it with the people who know how, so that he knows the people who harvest it and the intentions and prayers they put into the making of the medicine. Because it is such a spiritual plant it’s very important to the participants’ experience what kind of spirits will be attracted to the medicine during the ceremony. So, it’s critically important if you’re going to do this to make sure of your sources and do it with somebody you trust, because Ayahuasca leads to very intense experiences: a bad experience could scare you away from the medicine for the rest of your life, conversely, a good experience could add value, grace and insight to you for the rest of your life.
You mentioned mediumship earlier. In the ceremony do you purposefully seek out spirits with whom to communicate?
We believe that the plant has a certain spirit associated with it that brings light and healing to each person who drinks it, and it’s said that once you drink it it’s with you forever. I think all of us are mediums because we’re all spirits in our human forms, but we’re spirits first. There are definitely other spirits around us, and singing certain hymns while in the Ayahuasca ceremony will sometimes connect you with them. For instance, once I was singing a hymn and noticed that my voice started to change. After the ceremony a friend came up to me and said, ‘Wow, there was something else with you. I sensed a male presence.’ Since I was singing a hymn written by a male spirit, I wondered if he was coming through the song. So in that way, I think we connect with spirits and that is definitely a part of the Santo Daime tradition. When singing you think of the spirits who the songs are about and you can invite them to come through you. I never had it or allowed it to happen until I had that one dark spiritual attack. After that, I felt my mediumship open up.
In the Santo Daime certain works open you up to suffering spirits, and you invite them to come into you for healing so you can help guide them to the light. When a spirit comes into someone the person might start shaking or crying; when you watch these things happen to others, as a guardian you know that it’s not that person who is going through the emotions but the spirit who is working through them. The spirits who often come through are holding on to a lot of sadness and anger. Some people might call these dark spirits demons. But I believe all beings are both dark and light. The demonic spirits I believe are just not as aware of the light that’s inside of them. Basically, the spirit shows up for healing, you take the medicine, Ayahuasca, which opens your mind allowing you to see the light. Then, you help the spirits toward the light. There is a belief that many of our ailments, both physical and mental, are influenced by outside forces or spirits. Spirits can come to you because you somehow open the door for them. If you are suffering in some way, a spirit who is suffering in the same way will bond with you, thus compounding your suffering. And so when I look back at the ceremony where I doubted my friend and felt that I was being attacked by negative forces, I wasn’t being honest with him about my true feelings. I started to have judgmental thoughts about him and those judgmental thoughts opened the door for a spirit to come into me and add more judgmental thoughts. Now, the way I can tell when a spirit is with me or not is when I’m experiencing joy. Because I believe the natural state of a human being is to be happy. We naturally have joy, love, and hope in our hearts and when we don’t there’s something else influencing us. You have to get clean and strong with your thoughts so that when spirits come to you you will be able to guide them to the light. Every learning experience I’ve had helping spirits to the light has helped me more clearly see the light as well.
Have you witnessed spiritual possession in these ceremonies?
I once witnessed a friend go through a possession and exorcism. She had thousands of female spirits concentrated in her womb that were from a concentration camp and had gone through all sorts of sexual torture. One voice that spoke through her sounded so demonic, angry and full of sadness. The person who was guiding her was talking to the dark being and asked it to look inside of itself and asked, ‘What do you see?’ And the being just growled out, ‘black!’ As he kept talking to the being it said, ‘brown,’ until the shades gradually became lighter and the being was eventually able to see the light. All beings come with a guide and so when these misguided spirits come to you, you can ask their guides to help them, ‘What do I need to do to have this spirit go with you now to the light?’ Even the most horrifying experience can be taken as a gift. You feel a great sense of love, peace, equality and harmony when you’re in ceremony and you know that you have helped someone who has been suffering, and in so doing it has helped your own suffering. For instance, I had another friend who in the past struggled with addiction and attempted suicide with an overdose. He went to rehab and cleaned up then came to the ceremony for healing because one dark spirit kept coming up, something that had been with him for a long time. But doing the work he had done, this spirit turned into one of his strongest and most positive guides; now it guides him in his life instead of trying to be destructive to his life.
Interview with Georgy Pancharian by Emma Kathan.
Digital Art by Mitch Cichocki.