As an alternative path to wellness, shamanism has become a topic of great interest to Westerners in recent years, largely fueled by a rising curiosity in the Amazonian shamanic brew, ayahuasca. Stories of the profound and positively life-changing effects of ayahuasca are to be found in all corners of popular media, and due the acclaim and attention this medicine is receiving, even major news organizations are comparing ayahuasca to medical cannabis.
“Globally, as more and more people seek reconnection with original nature and their true identity, they are participating in ayahuasca healing ceremonies… The ability of indigenous science, traditional Amazonian medicine, and ayahuasca to assist people in attaining insight, balance, and wellness has been proven on countless occasions.” – Jonathon Miller Weisberger, Rainforest Medicine
An entheogenic rainforest medicine and powerful agent of conscious awakening, ayahuasca, or yagé, has for perhaps thousands of years been a tool for guidance, connection and spiritual renewal for many indigenous peoples of South America. A miracle of ancient jungle chemistry, it is a complex brew of sacred plants that is traditionally served at night time in ceremonial reverence to the spiritual realms, sentient energies and other-worldly beings that become accessible to the drinker when the psychedelic potion kicks in.
“The principle of the reality of spirits has been tested and supported cross-culturally by shamans for thousands of years. Once one understands that spirits exist, much that appears impossible to outsiders is really quite understandable and even may be subject to replication.” – Michael Harner, Cave and Cosmos
The experience of drinking ayahuasca is not to be taken lightly, and although it will be a positively life-changing experience for most, the journey itself is often a harrowing process of deep personal introspection where one is challenged to see through the contrived egoic illusions that mask the timelessness of our souls.
“Visionary plant medicine in its ceremonial context is a portal to unseen realms, one that was made known in order to help the temporal maintain its connection to the eternal.” 
In such a vulnerable state of consciousness, intensely confronting personal pain, anguish and suffering, a proper ayahuasca shaman is like a lighthouse at the far side of a turbulent and stormy sea, guiding one back home to safety and protecting one along the rocky shores of self-discovery.
Good Masters Are Hard to Find
Author and conservationist Jonathon Miller Weisberger lived for many years in the jungles of the upper Amazon amongst the Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani peoples, engaging in conservation and territory demarcation projects, intensely studying plant medicines, and learning the complex and mysterious spiritual science and cosmology of the Secoya yagé drinkers. For years he has facilitated profound cultural exchanges between elder Secoya shamans and Westerners, helping to transmit their dying ancestral knowledge and message of compassion on to those of us in the world most in need of spiritual healing and renewal.
In his book, Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science in the Upper Amazon, he likens the mind-bending realms of yagé to a celestial university, calling this ancient science “the original education system of the inhabitants of the Amazon region.” 
“When adhered to correctly, this system’s curriculum provides a complete development of all the aspects of the self – intellectual, physical, and spiritual.” 
He notes that the word shaman has a multi-layered meaning, encompassing many cultural healing and spiritual practices, and that therefore a distinction should be made between a shaman and a shamanic practice. Shamanic practices might include drumming, journeying, chanting, singing, dieting, or meditating, etc., with the intention of inducing trance-like, transpersonal states of consciousness where one’s spiritual and energetic makeup can be accessed, manipulated and refined. A shaman is someone who has chosen a life path of spiritual development and service to others, achieving extra-ordinary sensitivity to nature and subtle energy, and continually expanding their knowledge of nature and spirit to help move others forward on the path to health and balance.
“In the most traditional setting, a shaman is someone who has achieved spiritual mastery… someone that has dominion over life and death, someone who can choose the moment of their death… someone who has developed themselves to such an extent where they have achieved spiritual sovereignty, and they can communicate with immortals, supernatural spirits…” [Source]
A Unified World View and Way of Being
According to Miller Weisberger, many of the people we might consider to be shamans wouldn’t think to call themselves that, both out of genuine humility, and in the mindful interest of not creating separateness between themselves and anyone under their guidance or influence. This humble attitude is symptomatic of one of the most basic accomplishments in the spiritual development of a true master: the dissolution of ego.
They are deft in the use to traditional tools and techniques to facilitate a proper healing ceremony. The most iconic being incenses, tobacco, leafy broom rattles or chacapas, and icaros, which are sacred songs or melodies of the medicine used to affect and direct the visionary quality of the experience.
“Through ayahuasca music – songs, chants, and whistled tunes – a subtle form of control develops; important elements of the vision progress and establish their own key melodies. Each natural object, be it animal, plant, stream, or even rock, has its own melodic progression. By means of these sequences, one can examine or enmesh himself within that object for a detailed examination of its nature and properties.” – Manueal Córdova-Rios, Rio Tigre and Beyond
Just drinking ayahuasca doesn’t make one a shaman, and a true ayahuasquero is a combination of things, including the embodiment of a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and insight. Miller Weisberger likens their sacred role in facilitating personal transformation with ayahuasca to that of a pilot, or an astronaut, who undergoes extensive on-going training to be able to navigate their craft on its journey, then provide a safe return home. True plant masters embody perhaps millions of years of human experience in the pursuit of spiritual wisdom, which is reflected in the quality of their actions, of which healing and guiding others through suffering is paramount.
“The native men and women who safeguard the knowledge of the vine and of the spirits it is said to reveal are the curanderos and curanderas – or as the West would call them, shamans. Their role has been that of healer, priest and traveler between worlds, acting as intermediaries between the spiritual dimension and this world on behalf of their patients.” – Rak Razam, Aya Awakenings
In the following interview, Jonathon Miller Weisberger talks about the role a shaman plays in an ayahuasca ceremony and the cultural significance of many of the items and techniques they employ:
Plant medicine shamanism is one of humankind’s most intriguing mysteries, as it offers perhaps the most compelling evidence of our innate ability to interact with the subtle spiritual energies that enliven all things.
Opportunities for Westerners to experience ayahuasca are growing, and in places like Iquitos, Peru, it has become its own tourist industry, openly advertised by anyone who has a space to use, and access to the medicine or the plants to make it. There is even a growing ‘underground’ of providers of this medicine in the United States and Europe, in spite of its legal status, and people who cannot afford to travel to the jungle of South America are participating in ceremonies with anyone who can provide the medicine.
Sadly, the Amazon rainforests and cultures are being slashed and burned in service to the Western consumer, and the traditional spiritual science of ayahuasca is fading fast as the medicine is “passing to the West, in a new form of syncretic ayahuasca use that is developing among interested people the world over.”  While the medicine becomes more available, the cultural knowledge of how to properly use it is being watered down and lost, and the race is on to save these medicines and their sacred traditions for future generations.