In 2008, Dr. Gabor Maté had just published In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, his groundbreaking book based on the 13 years he spent working as a physician in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
During that time, and then while researching the book, he became an expert on addiction. But when Hungry Ghosts was released, he received letters from around the world asking him for advice on a related subject about which he concedes he knew nothing: ayahuasca.
Maté had heard of the mixture—a powerful hallucinogen based on a plant indigenous to the Andean region of South America. But, like the vast majority of professionals who practise western medicine, he had quickly dismissed the idea it might hold practical applications for a patient’s health.
“Now I felt obligated to experience it myself,” he said in a telephone interview. The same year, a shaman was visiting Vancouver from Peru. Maté met him outside the city and asked the man to lead him through an experience with the drug.
“It put me in touch with a deep love that I both wanted and had been running away from all my life,” Maté told the Straight. “I saw how deeply beneath the usual conscious mind the plant could help you penetrate into yourself.”
He got to work putting together a team with which he could continue working with ayahuasca.
“I could see, right away, why they [readers of his book] were asking me,” Maté said. “I could see how deep it takes you into your psyche and beyond your psyche, actually, into some deep truths—sometimes very painful, sometimes very beautiful, but always potentially very edifying.”
The Path of the Shaman, a documentary directed and produced by a pair of B.C. filmmakers, Todd Harris and Christina Gooding, will explore Maté’s work with ayahuasca and how it is used to help people manage struggles with addictions and mental-health challenges, as well as chronic physical ailments. The film will also follow "Dave", who goes by the name Ronin Nai and who leads people through their experiences with ayahuasca. Nai was once a student of Chinese medicine and today practices vegetalismo, a strain of the indigenous Shipibo tradition that focuses on the healing properties of plants.
“Our society is sick; our society is depressed; and mass parts of the population have huge traumas,” Dave says in a media release. “We don’t love ourselves. That’s the root of it.”
Maté described ayahuasca as an “antidote to western psychological distress and cultural alienation”.
Twice a year, he travels outside of Canada (where the drug is illegal) and helps run ayahuasca sessions with groups of North Americas. Rather than something like a weekend retreat, Maté said those sessions are designed to be long and intensive.
“The whole idea with ayahuasca, originally, in the jungle, in the shamanic setting in which it evolved, was not that a bunch of strangers would get together for one night and drink their stuff and then go home,” Maté explained. “It was in the context of a culture, a shared culture. And the shaman himself was part of that culture.
“When you’re dealing with a Western group, none of that is the case. So we thought we would develop a setting in which people become, as it were, a village for a week, where they really get to know each other deeply.
The documentary has been under production for three years and now is using a crowdfunding campaign via Indiegogo in the hope of raising at least $50,000 the team requires to complete principle photography, editing, and distribution.
Maté maintained that there is much that Canada’s health-care system ignores in relation to connections between the mind and the body, and that in doing so it often fails to address the causes of a problem’s tangible symptoms.
“About how mind and body can’t be separated, about how a healer has to heal or at least be aware of the need for their own healing before they can heal others,” he said. “About how addictions and other mental-health problems or, for that matter, physical-health problems, are manifestations of deeper problems.”
The Path of the Shaman will explore those connections, he said, and how ayahuasca can help access them to reach a problem’s roots.