Sacred Brews, Secret Muse

The following is an article by Vine of the Soul: Encounters with Ayahuasca director, Richard Meech, that was published in The Globe and Mail on 1/30/10.

There’s an uncanny similarity between James Cameron’s tree deity and the Amazonian “vine of the soul.” If you haven’t seen Avatar yet, you must be living on a different planet – clearly not Pandora, where James Cameron’s blockbuster unfolds. His 3D extravaganza has pushed hot buttons from the U.S. military to the Vatican, as well as soliciting political criticism from both left and right.

The film’s effect has even thrown some fans into a downright funk. A thread in one Avatar forum, titled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” has been visited by hundreds of moviegoers, some describing suicidal thoughts, others offering helpful tips for managing in the real world.


If Pandora is just a product of an active imagination, why such extreme reactions? Could it be that the Canadian producer/writer/director has tapped into a zeitgeist that longs for a deeper connection to nature and a re-enchantment with the natural world?

After seeing the film twice, I believe Mr. Cameron may have had help with his vision of life in another dimension, where the blue-skinned Na’vi maintain a direct communication with all biological life through a visceral connection with the tree deity Eywa.


My suspicion is that he has heard about the use of ayahuasca among indigenous people in the Amazon, our closest relative to the luxuriant, bioluminescent jungle of Pandora.

Ayahuasca ceremonies have migrated in recent years from South America to North America and Europe as Westerners seeking healing and spiritual awakening discover the traditional medicine, raising legal issues about the classification and use of the psychoactive substance as a medicine, drug or religious sacrament. I’ve recently finished a documentary film about this very subject, following characters as they enter the world of ayahuasca in Peru and their North American hometowns.


In the Amazon, ayahuasca is a sacred medicine, a tea brewed from plants shamans have used for centuries for healing to enter the spirit world and communicate with other life forms. The thick woody vine spirals skyward to the forest canopy like the staircase inside a Na’vi Hometree. The literal translation of ayahuasca is “vine of the soul,” echoing the Na’vi “Tree of Souls.” Both plants – our vine, their tree – allow initiates to connect with ancestors and plug into the living biological matrix that sustains all life.


One of my documentary subjects, a naturopathic doctor, described her ayahuasca experience this way: “I could feel plants quivering. I could feel everything breathing; I could even feel the Earth groaning. I could hear every single bird and had this blissed-out insanely powerful connection with the Earth … It’s one thing to intellectualize something, it’s another thing entirely to touch it, and to experience other, bigger energies that are intelligent.”


In Avatar, the blinding psychedelic flashes that signal the transfer from protagonist Jake’s human psyche to Na’vi consciousness are similar to how people in ceremonies describe the energetic shift as ayahuasca takes effect – a visual cue that consciousness is expanding and the mind is prepped as both receiver and generator of a different reality. The ayahuasca experience is like dreaming while you are awake; in effect, you become an avatar.


I am not the only one to wonder about Mr. Cameron’s possible ayahuasca influence. As L.A. blogger Erik Davis notes at, “if there is an aya -Avatar connection, it would explain one crucial way in which the film differs from conventional ‘noble savage’ mysticism. Rather than ground the Na’vi’s grooviness in their folklore or spiritual purity, the film instead presents the vision of a direct and material communications link with the plant mind. Which means that Eywa (aka Aya) does not have to be believed – she can be experienced.”


In the film, the Na’vi hold ceremonies huddled around their great tree and enter into communion with ancestors or Eywa herself by physically attaching their long braids to the glowing tendrils that hang from the branches. They immediately feel the healing energy flowing through all living things.


In ayahuasca ceremonies, participants sit in a circle and drink the brew that transports them to a similar realm. Starting with the physical act of taking nature directly into their bodies, many report an egoless merging with one’s surroundings, coupled with feelings of love for all creation. In religious terms, it would be a mystical experience, a direct encounter with the divine. “It’s very much like being held to the bosom of the mother of everything,” another character explains in my documentary.


Part of what Mr. Cameron has done with Avatar is to reawaken an ardour for the beauty and mystery of nature at a time when many people feel our planetary ecosystem is most under threat. That he has chosen the precarious Pandora/Amazon as his location and the indigenous relationship with a sacred tree/plant as the spiritual heart of his story reveals that his concerns have never been too far from our own world.


Indigenous people have always revered their sacred links with the natural world. The relationship always begins with plants, the most humble of nature’s creations – but also the most powerful, for life cannot exist without them. Learning through them is a pan-human cultural tradition that goes back thousands of years.

In the end, it may just be that Avatar will get us all listening again to the plant world around us.


Richard Meech is a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker.