January 9, 2015 – Book review of The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook by Chris Kilham, a backpack guide to the healing powers of the sacred Amazonian plant brew. Includes an interview with the author.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with ayahuasca was through William S. Burroughs. That is to say, several years ago I read The Yage Letters, which was Burroughs’ collected correspondence with poet Allen Ginsberg as he traveled to the Amazon in search of the elusive “final fix.”
Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about the powerful and mysterious plant-derived brew that goes by many different names. And while all accounts verify that you will, indeed, find the high that Burroughs was looking for through ayahuasca, others suggest there’s much more to glean from the experience; that the plant offers one enhanced self-awareness and even spiritual enlightenment.
Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years. Over that span, he has become one of the foremost advocates for the healing benefits of the ayahuasca space, and has recently compiled a comprehensive introduction to the experience in The Ayahuasca Test Pilot’s Handbook. Kilham approaches ayahuasca from a perspective of ultimate respect, and often refers to the plant brew by its most reverential and descriptive name, La Medicina. For Kilham and many others, ayahuasca has been so positively life-changing, that he felt compelled to write the backpack guide so that others may also safely and effectively wade into the healing waters of the ayahuasca experience.
Kilham’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Though knowledge of ayahuasca and its use as part of the South American shamanic tradition has been well-known in select circles for many years, it’s been a relatively recent development that the Sacred Vine has found a much wider and receptive audience. As public awareness grows, so has the ayahuasca tourism industry in places like Iquitos, Peru, and experienced ayahuasca journeyers like Kilham feel a responsibility to make sure that people know what they’re getting into. In the event that this is the first time you’ve read about ayahuasca, a recent Newsweek Q&A with Kilham is a good primer to what goes into the brew and what you might encounter—both physically and otherwise—when you enter the ayahuasca space.
Known as The Medicine Hunter, Kilham has made a career out of traveling the world investigating the medicinal qualities of plants. As he describes in the Handbook, Kilham has been familiar with ayahuasca since reading about it in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he drank his first cup after realizing that he was having a difficult time overcoming the grief related to the passing of his mother. The first set of ceremonies helped him not only overcome that grief, but replenished his emotional energy and allowed him to reconnect with himself and loved ones. More than 80 ceremonies later, Kilham approaches ayahuasca as a way to stay balanced, and now incorporates meditation into the ceremony, which he says has helped him navigate the unpredictable psychedelic waters of the ayahuasca space as well as gain him even deeper access to the consciousness-expanding qualities of the plant.
Kilham’s extensive first-hand experience and his affable nature make him the ideal spokesperson for ayahuasca. As he describes it, the topic compels people to talk and ask a lot of questions, and his many conversations over the years revealed some common questions that weren’t being answered by the literature on ayahuasca up to that point. While there have been plenty of great books written on the topic, Kilham couldn’t find any that presented the information people were looking for in an accessible format, and he recognized a need for the Handbook.
Taking readers step-by-step through the process of ceremony, from the botanical basics of the brew to an orientation of the ceremonial space to sharing some of his most memorable journeys, Kilham’s book offers everything short of the experience itself. He also offers invaluable advice on how to differentiate between good shamans and bad shamans, and—most importantly—the medical risks one should be aware of before embarking on a journey. As he notes, the negative stories surrounding ayahuasca often involve either shady shamans or journeyers who don’t fully disclose what medications they might already be taking. In this regard, Kilham demystifies the less understood aspects of ayahuasca, and his book serves as an antidote to some of the ignorance associated with the plant and its purpose. Kilham is also quick to point out that while he fully endorses the safe and reverent use of ayahuasca, anyone considering drinking it in the United States should be aware that the brew is currently classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In addition to being illegal, Kilham emphasizes in the book that setting (specifically, in the Amazon under the guidance of a trained shaman) is a major factor in determining whether or not one has a beneficial experience. While he acknowledges that it is possible to reap the emotionally-cleansing benefits of ayahuasca without being in the Amazon, the brew seems to be its most effective when paired with the natural setting and traditional rituals of the shamanic ayahuasca ceremony.
Personally, reading Kilham’s book made me even more interested in experiencing ayahuasca first-hand. While the Handbook answered pretty much every question I had about the experience, I still realized I was trying to answer the question, “Is ayahuasca right for me?” To help me figure that out, I spoke with Chris at length about his spiritual approach to the plant as well as the logistics of traveling to the Amazon and making sure you’re in safe hands. I found Chris’ responses to my questions so helpful that I thought they might help others, too, so I decided to turn the transcript of our conversation into the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast, which you can listen to and download above.