Western (mis)understandings of “Ayahuasca”: Related impacts on drinking experiences, culture & insights from Amazonian Eco-cosmology and Ecopsychology
If Western multiculturalism is relativism as public policy, then Amerindian perspectivist shamanism is multinaturalism as cosmic politics.
– Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
This paper was written in the summer of 2020 for a Master’s level course about Ayahuasca.
Like the lights by which we see, the cultures in which we live compose the backgrounds and frames of our experiences. As a result, cultures and the impacts of their paradigms often go unexamined. Nevertheless, the features of a culture live in and through its members, implicitly impacting their ontologies, metaphysics, practices and lifestyles. Over the last three decades, practices of drinking “ayahuasca” outside of the Amazon and in Western countries have become increasingly widespread, popular and diversified. Ayahuasca practices in the West range from organized churches to large and small groups participating in a variety of ceremonial traditions held by either a traveling or relocated Amazonian shaman, or by Western “neoshamans” (Gearin & Labate, 2018, p. 11) to people drinking on their own at home. Western culture is notoriously critiqued for being patriarchal, capitalistic, ego- and anthro-pocentric, science-obsessed and reductive. These characteristics and others undoubtedly mediate both ayahuasca drinking experiences for Westerners, and the research and related findings in scientific, anthropological, sociological and psychological studies on the subject.
I begin this paper by shining a light on the often unrecognized yet significant impacts of Western culture in the experience of Western ayahuasca drinking practices. I follow with an exploration of how ayahuasca is related to in Amazonian contexts and how relationships with ayahuasca are embedded within the larger frame of Amazonian eco-cosmology. In unearthing the disconnections between Western ayahuasca practices and its roots in the Amazon, I posit that a willingness to let go of traditional Western metaphysical assumptions and paradigms might be a valuable tool for Western practitioners. I conclude by suggesting that an openness to engaging with the themes of Amazonian eco-cosmology through the theory and practices of ecopsychology could be of benefit to multiple aspects of the ayahuasca experience, including the Amazon and its inhabitants, Western individuals and broader communities, plants, the planet and perhaps even the cosmos.
Western definitions of ayahuasca often refer to two component plants commonly understood to make up the brew — Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis (namely the ayahuasca vine and common admixture plant chacruna). The reduction of ayahuasca to its basic plant components reflects materialist, science-oriented, reductive and objectifying biases. However, much of the academic literature in the field and many experienced practitioners in the Amazon and in the West understand ayahuasca as “a result of the interaction — and not just the sum — of two drugs” (Calavia Saez, 2011, p. 132).
Beyond questions of definition, in “La Dieta”: Ayahuasca and the Western Reinvention of Indigenous Food Shamanism, Gearin and Labate (2018) explain the ways in which ayahuasca rituals in the West are ‘reinvented’ in the context of globalization and operate within the bounds of Western metaphysical ontologies. While some semblances of Amazonian practices show up in the west (namely the ceremonial leader(s), the brew itself, the icaros and the use of tobacco), the seeming similarities that Western ceremonies bear to Amazonian ones are likely only surface deep. The cosmologies, broader cultural practices, sets of relationships connected to the plants and the reasons for drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon have either been lost or intentionally left behind with the advents of colonialism and globalization (Gearin & Labate, 2018, p. 186).
Despite a wide breadth of practices in the Western use of ayahuasca, one very common theme is the central focus on an individual’s mental health and psychological and spiritual healing (Gearin & Labate, 2018, p. 186). Many Westerners experience ayahuasca as a psychedelic or a medicine that heals depression, deconstructs the ego, casts light on personal shadows and opens portals to spirituality. The effects and functions of ayahuasca for Westerners as opposed to Amazonians who traditionally drink ayahuasca for purposes of hunting, war, seduction, interspecies and cosmic communications, (Calavia Saez, 2011) as well as for territory stewardship and community health (ICEERS, 2020) are remarkably divergent.
Attempts to find shared understandings or recover original intentions and meanings related to ayahuasca practice across Western and Amazonian cultures are uncommon. Some scholars point to a phenomenon of mutually beneficial misinterpretations between Western practitioners and indigenous Amazonians, covering over deeper divergences for the purposes of surface level agreements and ongoing exchange. (Gearin & Labate, 2018). For Westerners, it appears to be important to maintain some connection to the ‘authenticity’ of the indigenous practice while also maintaining some connection to the modern and rational worldview. That is, while many Westerners are drawn to ancient practices, they are also attached to, if not identified with, their own ontologies and their abilities to make sense of their experiences and practices surrounding ayahuasca. Simple and reductive equations are often made — like the connection of soul loss to PTSD (Gearin & Labate 2018). Through the “scientization” (ibid, p. 189) of ayahuasca, Westerners may explain the lifting of depression as a serotonin rush induced by the brew rather than the removal of attacking spirits or magic darts; the experience of ego death as the dissolution of the default mode network brought about by the physiological effects of ayahuasca on the brain.
Some facets of Amazonian shamanism — such as psychic attacks and black magic are simply unpalatable to or inconsistent with the Western conception of the “spiritually virtuous Indians” (ibid, p. 193). These elements of Amazonian shamanism are either completely disregarded, unexamined and unseen by Westerners, or else explained away. The above equations and selective ways of seeing help the Western mind surrender into the magical phenomena of ceremony while holding onto Western rationality and worldviews. What is lost, though, is closer contact with an experience of ayahuasca as it is related to and experienced in its indigenous context. The limited, if not negligible connection to ayahuasca’s origins and the eco-cosmology of the Amazon begs the question of whether practices of ayahuasca drinking in the West lose some of the potential that is available through indigenous ways of relating to “plant teachers” (Luna, 1986, p. 13). As I will unpack further below, relationality and identifying plants with human qualities (i.e. teachers) are central themes in Amazonian definitions of “ayahuasca”.
Western Ayahuasca Ceremonies: A cross-cultural buffet
Due to both the diversity of ayahuasca practices in the Amazon and intersectional and intercultural realities of globalization, there is no single ayahuasca tradition or practice to point to in the West. Two common traditions in the West are Vegetalismo and Santo Daime. Vegetalismo is a lineage of Peruvian shamanism connected to the Shipibo-Conibo and Mestizo people of the Amazon; the exact origins and antiquity of the lineage are contested in the field. (Gearin & Labate, 2018) Santo Daime is an ayahuasca church originally founded in 1930 which mixes Amazonian Shamanism, Afro-Brazilian influences and Catholic culture (MacRae, 2004); since its inception, the church has expanded into distinct lineages. Beyond Vegetalismo and Santo Daime these are many more lineages that have been adopted and adapted over time, across spaces and under various cultural influences. Many Westerner-oriented retreats are sold as ayahuasca retreats and include the use of a variety of plant medicines stemming from different lineages (e.g. kambô, huachuma, rapé), as well as local indigenous customs, other foreign traditions and new age practices.
Weekend retreats in North America can include a focus on “ayahuasca ceremonies,” yet also incorporate traditional First Nations ceremonies such as sweat lodges, drum making, Vajrayana Buddhist and Qi Gong practices, somatic psychotherapy exercises and other psychedelics. “Shipibo-style” ayahuasca ceremonies often include songs and energy work practices, like Reiki, from a multiplicity of cultures and wisdom lineages. All this to say, the practices of drinking ayahuasca in the West tend to be varied integrations of multiple spiritual traditions, traditions which have intermingled with ayahuasca through the process of globalization and the influences of Western culture.
Ayahuasca, in Amazonian contexts
Westerners have been writing about their experiences and studies of ayahuasca in the Amazon since the mid-nineteenth century (Gearin & Labate, 180). Many studies point to the inseparability of ayahuasca from the broader context of Amazonian eco-cosmology. While there are some limitations around the ability of anthropological studies to fully comprehend and translate the depths and intricacies of Amazonian cosmology, at this time, these studies comprise our primary source of information on the subject. I will note some of the limitations inherent in the studies prior to presenting scholarly theories on Amazonian cosmology.
The first limitation is that the very notion of a “pan-Amazonian cosmology” neglects to account for the multitudes of distinct linguistic and cultural groups that inhabit the Amazon, therein reducing nuances and likely missing some fundamental meanings. The very concept of a single cosmology to span a wide, populous and ancient geographic area is in itself a Western imposition.
The second limitation acknowledges the indelible impacts of violence, colonialism and missionary activity on Amazonian people and their cultures over the last half a century. The violent forces of colonialism, capitalism and missionary activity have undoubtedly erased significant local knowledge through the murders and oppressions of its keepers. The many forms of violence introduced to the Amazon by Western culture undoubtedly influenced the people and traditional practices that survived. The cultural and religious influences that descended on the Amazon have generated a “colossal mixing,” (Gearin and Labate, 2018, p. 180) now reflected in Modern ayahuasca practices.
A third limitation relates to the basic and paradoxical challenge of communication across cultures of divergent ontologies. Given the contrast between the urbanized Western world and ecological environments of the Amazonian jungle, a shared understanding of cosmologies “will likely remain an exotic and unachievable ontological alterity.” (Gearin & Labate, 2018, p. 194; Calavia Saez, 2011) In The Cosmic Serpent, Narby writes, “[t]he academic analysis of shamanism will always be the rational study of the nonrational — in other words, a self-contradictory proposition or a cul-de-sac.” (1999, p. 18) Narby goes on to share that through immersive experience, he found the ‘non-rational’ descriptions of the Quirishari people he was living with were validated and verifiable, experientially. As a result, he “began to trust the literal descriptions…even though I did not understand the mechanisms of their knowledge.” (1999, p. 28) Narby’s ability to bracket his cultural paradigm and enter into local ways of knowing has significantly contributed to dialogue in the field and is an inspiring example of the potential for anthropology to mitigate its own impacts. Those who study ayahuasca can import less of a Western lens by valuing, practicing and upholding knowledge gained through direct and relational experiences.
Holding awareness of these limitations, I have chosen to write on this topic because my own experience of being introduced to literature about Amazonian culture and eco-cosmology has significantly impacted how my relationships with ayahuasca, the Amazon and its inhabitants (including plants, animals and people) and the environment at large. So, with an approach of cultural humility and the above limitations in mind, I will draw on literature in the field which points to some overarching characteristics and themes that persist across a diversity of Amazonian cultures. (Hornborg, 2001)
The Nature of Ayahuasca: Beyond a Brew
The term ayahuasca, while commonly used in the West, is not a commonly accepted term within the Amazon. Literature in the field (primarily with a socio-cultural rather than scientific orientation) recognizes that “[a]yahuasca is ontologically slippery and ambiguous.” (Dev, 188) Across the Amazon, brews that contain the component plants (often referred to in the West as ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaf) are neither homogenous in composition nor are they known by a single name. Rather, the ‘ayahuasca brew’ is known by a wide variety of names, undergoes different preparations — ranging from raw to cooked and fermented, and may contain a wide variety of admixture plants and processes, including offerings, song and prayer. Ways of working with the plants tend to be more fluid than fixed. The entire medicine practice is evolutionary “…because it is constantly being regenerated…it doesn’t proceed by isolating substances and poring over their different properties, but promoting what could not be described more accurately than as a dialogue [emphasis added] between the different individuals of the universe.” (Calavia Saez, 2011, p. 135)
Not only is the preparation of the ayahuasca brew commonly understood across communities of skilled practitioners (both Western and Amazonian) to be akin to an alchemical process, ayahuasca herself is experienced by those who study and work with her to be much more than that which is discoverable by modern science in the brew. Laura Dev, an attendee at the 2016 World Ayahuasca Conference, captured and categorized fourteen distinct perspectives in response to the question “What is ayahuasca?” (2018, p. 189)
Rather than reduce ayahuasca to a single definition, Dev suggests the term “boundary being,” pointing to ayahuasca’s capacity to facilitate bridge-like connections and communication across “disparate communities” of people and between people and plants. (Dev, 2018, p. 188) In a similar vein, Calavia Saez (2011) writes: “[s]trictly speaking, ayahuasca isn’t anything, or, to put it this way, it is nothing special… indigenous ayahuasca organises networks: networks of shamanic information, of commercial or martial relations, of images of the other, of psychoactives.” (p. 143) Calavia Saez describes the different types of communication − inter, intra-species, as well as spiritual and cosmic exchanges that ayahuasca facilitates. Put another way, he writes, “ayahuasca is a type of alloscope, if this is what we want to call an imaginary instrument capable of producing understandable images of the other — be the other cosmological or sociologic — this way giving a cause and a key to communication.” (2011, p. 141) According to these descriptions, ayahuasca might be better understood as interstitial tissue — a connective and supportive in-between structure that facilitates exchange and provides nutrients to the body, vital to its functioning yet a barely visible substructure.
Part of the challenge surrounding the definition of ayahuasca in the literature is yet another symptom of Western culture’s tendency to isolate and objectify objects of study, to “know” them through a scientific lens and therein to flatten them. While often taken for granted in the West as the way, the scientific mode of inquiry is, to be sure, a specific discipline and construct; there are other ways of seeing and relating to the world(s) around us, ways which illuminate alternative understandings and novel categories of being. In contrast to the deep dualism found in Western ontologies — e.g. subject and object, good and evil, life and death — Amazonian cultures and cosmologies hold a more holistic, perspectival frame. “For Amazonian Indians, to know is to personify rather than objectify, and an object is merely an ‘incomplete subject.’” (Viveiros de Castro, 1999 as cited in Hornborg, 2001, p. 134) As Calavaia Saez and Dev both propose, we might see something like ayahuasca as a part of a larger whole and derive meaning from how a being co-exists within larger environmental and relational contexts.
Common Themes in Amazonian Cosmologies
Perspectivism, animism and food shamanism are three interrelated themes that are commonly named as central to Amazonian (eco)cosmology. (Gearin & Labate, 2018; Hornborg, 2001, Viveiros de Castro, 1998) This section is a brief introduction to these themes and is by no means an in depth or an exhaustive review. Whole papers, or books, could be written about any one of the topics below. My purpose in introducing these themes is to reveal how distinct the Amazonian frame is from modern Western thought, and later to explore the potential for connections between the orientation of this frame and Western drinking practices.
Hornborg (2001) and Viveiros de Castro (1998) identify perspectivism as a central theme of Amazonian cosmology. It is relevant to note that while identifiable, by its very nature, Amerindian perspectivism, the animism and food taboos that follow “resist” the logic of Western epistemologies (Viveiros de Castro, 1998, p. 469; Narby, 1999). While practicing cultural humility and taking seriously the caveat that given our circumstances, Westerners are likely not grasping the whole, we can attempt to relate to the themes.
Perspectivism, distinct from relativism, is “the recognition that any particular perception of the world is contingent on the vantage point of the beholder.” (Hornborg, 2001, p. 133) That is, what we see and how we see it depends on our positionality in a larger system; perspective shifts as positions and forms of embodiment shift. Each of the “gods, spirits, the dead, inhabitants of other cosmic levels, meteorological phenomena, plants, occasionally even objects and artefacts” hold their own unique views of the Other beings around them (Veveiros de Castro 470). To illustrate the concept, the same building may look small to me from my seat on a high-flying airplane but large to me while standing on the sidewalk. Perspectivism imbues beings other than humans with the ability to see, experience and hold a perspective.
Closely related to perspectivism, another key notion in Amazonian eco-cosmology is animism, the extension of the human spirit to certain beings that are not human persons. Inherent in both perspectivism and animism are sentiments of respect and autonomy for non-humans as Others with “[t]he capacity of conscious intentionality and social agency…” (Viveiros de Castro, 1999 as cited in Hornborg 134). In addition to inhabiting the positionof other beings as in perspectivism, to practice animism is to grant Other beings with wills, intentions and subjectivities as real as those of humans.
Contrary to Western evolutionary mythology in which humans are seen to have evolved, in a forward direction, away from other animals, Amazonian mythology holds that “the original common condition of both humans and animals is not animality but rather humanity…. ‘the common point of reference for all beings of nature is not humans as a species but rather humanity as a condition’ [emphasis added]” (Descola 1986 as cited in Viveiros de Castro, 1998, p. 472). The ability of indigenous Amazonians to recognize the natural boundaries of their own perspectives (as one among many perspectives, not to be confused with a singular reality) and to extend legitimate ways of perceiving to other species indicates a deep level of empathy and connection with other-than-human beings (Hornborg 2001).
Related to both perspectivism and animism, food taboos are another key element of Amazonian cosmology. In Amazonian cultures, specifically among Makuna people, food mediates not only the health of the individual but also balances the larger cosmic order. The role of the shaman is to proactively maintain health for individuals and the cosmos at large by working with food in various ways (including songs, prayers and magical acts) before it is consumed. Food is understood to “contain regenerative forces of the cosmos…” (Gearin & Labate, 2018, pp. 181–182) Food taboos and related shamanic practices assist in “the cosmological regeneration of the environment.” (Ibid) Not only do food restrictions and related shamanic practices maintain the sanctity of animals as “ex-humans” (Viveiros de Castro, 1998, p. 472) and in that protect existing humans from spiritual attack, they contribute to the maintenance of human personhood. That is, human status is not taken for granted as given and inevitable but understood as an “achievement” (Gearin & Labate, 2018 p. 178), a status cultivated and maintained through food restrictions and various other practices.
Conclusion/Potentials for Reconnection
As the literature describes, indigenous Amazonian ayahuasca practices are land-based and encompass much more than most of us who drink in the West are likely to even glimpse. Beyond Western dualisms, Amazonian practices include hunting, sorcery, black magic and love magic, cosmic food webs, authentic and dialogic relationships with the land, nature, the cosmos and much more. On a panel at the World Ayahausca Conference: Micro-Event in May 2020, Miguel Evanjuanoy Chindoy, an indigenous leader in the Putomayo region of the Amazon, spoke to connecting with territory, or the land, as the central reason for drinking yagé in his community. He went on to explain that from the connection with territory comes the community’s healing and from the community’s healing follows individual health. When ayahuasca drinking practices intersect with an individualist Western culture, when we approach the practice of drinking with scientific and psychological paradigms, when the brew is flown around the world on the wings of globalization, the practices become ungrounded.
Throughout this paper, I have highlighted the disconnections between Western ayahuasca practices and Amazonian eco-cosmology. My point in highlighting these disconnections is not that we attempt a return to Amazonian eco-cosmology — a morally debatable and impossible task — for reasons outlined above. The observable disconnections in the adaptations of ayahuasca practices within Western culture are a symptom of a much larger pattern of disconnection, a reflection of extractivist, materialist, individualist and reductive tendencies pervasive in Western economies and ways of being. These ways of being have ushered the world into a climate crisis, genocides, structural racism and have brought many Westerners into spiritual impoverishment. The lack of meaningful connections between people, the planet, animals, plants, ancestors, spirit(s) and the cosmos in the West are arguably at the root of the psychological ailments (sometimes referred to as a profound sense of disconnection) that bring many Westerners to ayahuasca ceremonies in the first place. There are, however, connections between the broad themes of Amazonian eco-cosmology and the emerging Western practice of eco-psychology. What follows is a very brief introduction to ecopsychology and some potentials for connection to Western ayahuasca practices that could be explored in a later paper.
Connecting the field of human psychology with ecology, ecopsychology is “the study of connection, of the interrelationships among all forms of life and the physical environment.” (Conn, 1998, p. 180) From an eco-psychological perspective, the health of the individual is inextricably linked to the health of the surrounding systems, including other individuals, communities, other species, land and ecosystems around them. In this view, wounds are symptoms of disconnection from the natural world. In this model, health can be recovered by consciously affirming and strengthening our connectivity to the natural world and those around us through specific practices (Ibid, p. 182; Lassman, 2016).
While unpacking the topic and practices of eco-psychology is beyond the scope of this paper, I sense that eco-psychology offers a way for Western practitioners (neo-shamans and ceremony participants alike) to integrate ayahuasca experiences and teachings. Integration, also a topic beyond the scope of this paper, is a major challenge for many Westerners. After an ayahuasca ceremony that opens the gates of perception, many struggle to connect the cosmic and expansive ceremonial experience with their lived experiences of daily life, a life lived in a culture that reduces psychedelic experiences to unrealistic hallucinations. Beyond supporting post-ceremony integration for Westerners, I believe that a turn toward ecopsychology might also mitigate the impacts of Western culture within the ceremony itself. Because eco-psychological frames and practices expand perception and experiences of self beyond individualism and dualism into interconnection and intersubjectivity, the teachings of ayahuasca might come through less muddled and be more transformative for ecopsychologically-oriented practitioners.
Finally, a connection to ecopsychology would also be likely to increase a sense of social responsibility and commitment to social justice among Western practitioners. If, from an ecopsychological perspective, we can see how environmental degradation is self-degradation, if we can interpret the fires in the Amazon as the lungs of the earth being on fire, if we can listen deeply to the plants, the earth and each other, we can be hopeful about the possibilities of reconnection, reconciliation and environmental restoration. While it was also beyond the scope of this paper to unpack the social and environmental injustices that have accompanied the globalization of ayahuasca, they are major and many. I strongly believe that those who have benefitted from drinking ayahuasca have a responsibility to show up in allyship for the Amazon, its people and the environment at large. Taking seriously the perspective and practices of ecopsychology, specifically of deepening interconnected and non-dualistic experiences, may support Westerners in having more integrated experiences with the beautiful medicine that is ayahuasca, and with the support of that medicine to co-create a more just and connected world.
Calavia Sáez, O. (2011). A vine network. In B. C. Labate, & H. Jungaberle, (Eds.), The internationalization of ayahuasca (pp.131–144). Zurich, Switzerland: Lit Verlag.
Conn, S. A. (1998). Living in the Earth: Ecopsychology, health and psychotherapy. The Humanistic Psychologist, 26(1–3), 179–198. doi: 10.1080/08873267.1998.9976972
Dev, L. (2018). Plant knowledges: Indigenous approaches and interspecies listening toward decolonizing ayahuasca Research. In: B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds), Plant medicines, healing and psychedelic science: Cultural perspectives (pp. 23–47). Cham, Switzerland: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76720-8_11
Gearin, A., & Labate, B. C. (2018). “La dieta”: Ayahuasca and the Western reinvention of indigenous Amazonian food shamanism. In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), The expanding world ayahuasca diaspora: Appropriation, integration, and legislation (pp. 177–198). New York City, NY: Routledge.
Hornborg, A. (2001) Vital signs: An ecosemiotic perspective on the human ecology of Amazonia. In Sign Systems Studies, 29(1), 121–152.
ICEERS. (May 31, 2020) World Ayahuasca Conference Micro-Event: Restream [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLLatjgzZJM
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Luna, L. E. (1986). Vegetalismo: Shamanism among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon. Almquist & Wiksell International.
MacRae, E. (2004). The ritual use of ayahuasca by three Brazilian religions. In R. Coomber & N. South (Eds.), Drug use and cultural contexts “beyond the West”: tradition, change and post-colonialism (p. 27–45). London, UK: Free Association Books.
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Viveiros de Castro, E. (1998). Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(3) pp. 469- 488. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3034157
 The term “ayahuasca” first appears in quotes to signal that the term holds many different meanings for different people and lacks a single referent. Although this term will be used through the paper, this paper is in part an exploration of the definition of the term itself.
 Icaro is a Quechua word to describe songs that are sung in ceremony, understood as tools for healing.
 For the sake of simplicity, I use the term practitioner to refer to Westerners who work with ayahuasca — from participants to neoshamans, encompassing a wide range of experience and depths of practice
 My relationship with ayahuasca has developed experientially over many ceremonies in the span of six years within a neo-shamanic, Shipibo-style community in North America.
 In this paper, I present not an exhaustive but a selective list. Whole papers could be written about any one topic. My purpose in reviewing some of these themes is to reveal how distinct the Amazonian frame is from modern Western thought, and later to explore continuities between the Amazonian frame and the emergence of ecopsychology.
 Ayahuasca is commonly, though not universally, referred to and experienced as a spirit with feminine qualities.
 The practice of food restrictions, taboos, diets or dietas may share the most amount of overlap with Western ayahuasca practices though food taboo practices are commonly understood in the west as a way of differentiating between the sacred and the profane (add source).
 Yagé is the local name for ayahuasca in Evanjuanoy Chindoy’s community
 In my personal experience, issues of social justice and responsibility, especially as they relate to the Amazon and its people, are rarely discussed in the ceremony communities.