The first time Adam Elenbaas tried hallucinogenic mushrooms, he thought he'd just get high — "and have fun, like smoking pot." Within minutes, he was sure he'd lost his mind. As he freaked out, friends helped him through the night. "Afterward, it was really obvious to me: No wonder this stuff originally came from shamans and rituals and traditions. This stuff is psychotherapeutic. You need a container for this," mused Elenbaas, a Midwestern Methodist preacher's son who had been battling depression. He resolved to make a spiritual odyssey out of what for others might just be a drug binge.
Aiming to do this in "a safe and ancient place," Elenbaas ventured to Peru, where the plant-based hallucinogenic brews known as ayahuasca are shared as sacraments in tribal rituals. It rocked his world.
Surrounded by indigenous Amazonians, he saw Jesus. "He wasn't the guy I grew up fearing. Even if Jesus never existed at all — I believe he did exist — then my mind showed me not to be imprisoned by the stories of the fundamentalist culture I grew up in," asserted Elenbaas, who will discuss his book about the experience, Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, August 9.
Not just a physical experience, ayahuasca is "about learning to walk a disciplined and ethical life-path," Elenbaas said. "When you enter an ayahuasca ceremony, whatever is being repressed — all the pain and baggage of not just our lives, but of the species and of the planet — is felt all the way down to the bones. It's not a joyride. It's scary and extremely challenging. And when you get to the point where you feel it's your fault, or you feel it's someone else's fault, you can't handle the 'drug trip' anymore and you purge. You vomit or defecate or scream or laugh or cry," explained the author, a holistic nutrition counselor who works with fellow psychedelics advocate and author Daniel Pinchbeck at the web magazine Reality Sandwich. "Poisons are literally drawn out of your body and mind."
Elenbaas wrote his book because "I realized that there was no story and no fiction or mythology more interesting to me at the moment than my relationship to Jesus, the Christian Church, myself, the ayahuasca tradition, and my dad."
And although "ayahuasca tourism" is thriving as more and more Westerners visit South America to briefly sample the experience that changed his life, Elenbaas warns against treating the brew and its ilk as sheer entertainment. "Psychedelics as medicine need to be understood. ... I don't see a place for their use recreationally — just my opinion. I think recreational use, or legalization efforts toward that end would be a step backward. However, the shamanic use of ayahuasca for therapeutic and religious purposes will be legal eventually. A lot of work will need to go into that process, but I hope it happens." 7 p.m., free. BooksInc.net