During the years that Susana and I have spent studying and training in the Peruvian vegetalismo, a mixed-race healing tradition that combines indigenous shamanism with Western elements such as Catholicism, we have come to appreciate the paradoxes that indigenous medicine comes wrapped in for Westerners. Among them is the distinction between curing and healing of disease, concepts which, as in Venn diagrams, overlap yet remain experientially distinct. The thrust of modern Western medicine is to “cure,” from Latin cura “to care, concern, trouble,” by either managing disease within, or excising it from, the body, and disease is usually considered cured when symptoms abate. In indigenous styles of medicine, which give equal importance to curing as the West, healing, from Old English hælan “to make whole, sound and well,” may also involve searching out the hidden origin of the disease in the body/mind. In this healing quest, a cure may be found, and may not. The valence of the disease, however, will change. In such cases, it is the entire self that is engaged in unraveling a disease’s enigma, and the body is the laboratory wherein the cure can be found. As a consequence, such healing is often idiosyncratic, because each body’s laboratory is unique.
Paradoxically for Western medicine, if disease is cured shamanically, the medications used (which in vegetalismo is a complex synergy of plants, the shaman’s icaros – or sacred songs – and the ecology of the healing locale itself), will often elude scientific researchers in search of a “silver bullet” molecule. The medicine may be frustratingly non-exportable – its efficacy may vanish as soon as it is separated from the culture that gave rise to the healing in the first place.
In my view, the plant medicines used in the Amazon, among which the visionary plant ayahuasca is only one, facilitate healing, but do not necessarily do the ultimate trick of curing. Whether it is worthwhile to cure a disease without healing the conditions that gave rise to it is not much considered by Western medicine, but if a disease is bringing an urgent life message to the patient, it may be folly to suppress its teaching. This, of course, is a paradox for many Westerners, who prefer the freedom, as Robert Bly once put it, to stagger from Burger King to Burger King over taking full responsibility for their spiritual, psychological and physical conditions.
Unlike hamburgers and pharmaceuticals, Amazonian medicines are more akin to allies to be won in a battle of the soul. In this way, a patient seeking healing in the vegetalista tradition has much in common with the Native American on a vision quest or the Buddhist monk withdrawing into the forest to practice meditation.
During our recent stay at an Amazonian healing center outside of Pucallpa, Peru, I often caught sight of the figure of Rolf, seated in meditation and swathed in veils of steam arising from the geothermally-heated water flowing below him.
With the support of his partner, with whom he runs a school of Ayurvedic studies, Rolf has done the unthinkable. He had set aside the medications Western medicine now prescribes to suppress symptoms of HIV and is seeking healing under the guidance of the curandero, or traditional healer, Juan. Despite the iron wall of opposition from his physicians, Rolf is committed to the proposition that HIV can be cured in the body using traditional medicine.
Not that Rolf is a reckless character, or is disregarding his body’s needs. Quite the opposite, he is a quiet, gentle man who worked as a banker for many years and is now grateful to the HIV virus. “My idea was: I’m staying in the bank until I’m 65 and then I retire,” he confessed, “without too many other exciting events happening in my life. Ultimately, I didn’t want to be here on this planet. The HIV basically taught me different.”
His calling, peculiar as it is, he chalks up to the fact that, “Some people immediately go to the doctor and take whatever the doctor is prescribing them, but for me that is the unnatural way. Some people might question things like drinking ayahuasca, they would think it was way too weird.”
In my eyes, Rolf came to represent a now rarely practiced, but time-honored, approach to healing: that of the vision quest, where the “goal is to get back inside nature to hear her original medical voice.” Even today, healers in the Amazon, rather than maintaining an objective distance from their object of study, use their own body as their research laboratory to “diagnose and cure illness through subjective links between themselves and nature. They present their own bodies, and they heal by the actual health emanating from their being. Training is literally death, rebirth, empowerment” (Grossinger 2005).
Such training is often a calling, not a rational decision, involving as it may reckoning with serious disease within oneself. To heal, whether under the guidance of a mature shaman or not, is an initiation in the healing path itself. I was moved, therefore, to interview Rolf, not only to document what is his process of healing HIV, but also to give a snapshot of what such a healing apprenticeship within the vegetalista tradition of Amazonian shamanism looks like.
Rolf’s treatment is not his first immersion in vegetalismo. A year previous, he had worked with another curandero in the area of Iquitos, who stated outright that he could cure HIV, and initiated Rolf into the synergy of diet, purge, and work with the psychoactive brew ayahuasca, which constitutes jungle medicine.
Rolf now sees such statements, possibly meant to lure in the ayahuasca tourist dollar, as “dangerous, because you give someone hope, and if that hope doesn’t get fulfilled, the disappointment is bigger. That is exactly what happened. It was a very strict diet, with meditations, but I came back and the test results were worse.”
The diet, one of the lesser known elements of Amazonian healing, required withdrawal into isolation and virtual fasting while drinking medicines prepared from the plants sarsaparilla, uña de gato (cat’s claw), and purging with the bark of the ojé tree and the emetic huancahui (also known as yawar panga). His final nine days were spent in bed. “I couldn’t leave my room, everything was brought to me. I couldn’t talk to anyone.”
Yet, despite the absence of a cure, there were other important healing outcomes. Rolf’s energy was restored to a post-HIV level, and he found his medications functioned better. He was visibly healthier, his skin clean and eyes clear, to such a degree his friends were initially pleasantly shocked by the visible change in his aspect. All of this Rolf attributed to the strictness of his diet. Beyond his feeling of internal integration, his perspective had also changed. Being cured of HIV was no longer tantamount – healing the conditions that had allowed HIV in his body was. Although he had come to recognize the limitations of the curandero he was working with, Rolf was convinced that Amazonian shamanism was his path.
“Love was missing,” said Rolf, reflecting on the curandero’s conduct toward his patients and his lack of veneration for the plants. Under the guidance of his current curandero, Juan, Rolf has begun apprenticing in the vegetalista’s communion with plants. “Before, I didn’t relate with the plants, but now when I drink my tamamuri, I light a mapacho cigarette and blow smoke on them first.* There’s some sacredness going on, which gives me a deeper sense of connecting to my heart.”
Previously, Rolf also felt disconnected from his own healing process. “It was a very passive time. I had my little cabin, I drank my drink everyday. I stayed alone and had my diet of two fish and bananas with no salt. This time I’m much more active.”
Not only is Rolf, at Juan’s recommendation, not living in isolation, but he is engaging in active work with the visionary plant ayahuasca, which for Rolf is now key: “During those ten weeks of strict diet I did not attend any ayahuasca ceremonies. In the few ayahuasca sessions I had with the previous curandero, there were very few visions and much more purging going on.”
Due to the catalytic and pedagogical nature of visionary plants, working with ayahuasca, in tandem with other healing plants, is allowing Rolf to take on the role of “a healer for myself, and possibly to learn how to help other people in their own healing process. This may be part of my healing.”
“There is no evidence that Juan can cure HIV,” he said, “and I had to ask myself, why am I not just taking the Western medications and, like many people, being happy with it? They have a few side effects, but you can have a natural life span. I realized that I need a method that can bring me to a deeper healing, not just of the virus but also of what my being, my soul, my whole existence means.”
Rather than treat HIV as an enemy to be vanquished, Rolf has made it his ally: “The virus is guiding me toward, ‘This is where you need to bring healing to yourself.’ And I still don’t know if I will be delivered of the virus.” He paused, and then added, “That’s almost beside the point.”
In Rolf’s work with ayahuasca, a word which translates from Quechua, the language of the original Incans, as “the vine of the spirits,” one can see the delicate balance between visionary experience and healing work in the Amazonian tradition. Whereas some healers rightly emphasize purging in treatment of serious disease, it can be at the cost of developing insight into the etiology of the disease on the part of the patient – an insight that traditionally was reserved for the shaman alone.
On the other hand, the Western fascination with visions can divorce them from the reality that Amazonian healing works on the level of the body. Much of Rolf’s struggle during ayahuasca sessions has been with fear of an overwhelming, dark, otherness, as the plants in his body have found their alignment with his condition and begun flushing him out.
Orchestrating such a delicate balance of forces is the responsibility the shaman, who uses icaros, or healing songs, to activate the healing power of the plants used in treatment. Without his icaros, the plants such as tamamuri, came renaco, and chiri sanango that Rolf are taking would lack the vitality to be effective in his treatment. The vitalizing agent is the indigenous communion with what are conceived of as the spirits of the plants. When asked by a researcher if there had been any scientific studies of the plants he uses for healing, Juan answered, “All the plants that we are taking, I have already processed through my body. If it’s passed through my body, it’s good to share. The laboratory is my body, yes?”
Due to Juan’s focus on healing, visions occur more as benchmarks at his center for traditional medicine than as the menu of the day.
When I asked Rolf about the visionary contents of his ayahuasca ceremonies, he related an experience in that otherworldly landscape of spirits integral to the practice of vegetalismo that seems particularly illustrative of the plant’s catalytic power. When the body is prepared properly, then the visionary experience is an act of healing.**
Moving beyond the sense of terrible otherness he had confronted repeatedly, he entered more deeply into his core self. “I felt very safe, and I could observe everything. Things were done to me, but I wasn’t taken over. Initially, I felt soothing vibrations in the body, really feeling my entire body vibrating. At some point I could see, feel, how my body turned into a grid, and how that grid was very gently expanding, and showing me how this grid was part of a bigger grid.”
Anthropologist David Lewis-Williams, best known for his work in reinterpreting the Paleolithic cave art of Europe, has come up with a rough-hewn model to explain the stages of visionary experience, based both in cognitive science and anthropological work, including Reichel-Dolmatoff’s among the Tukano Indians of Colombia.
Following the stages of what Lewis-Williams (2002) calls the “intensified trajectory” of human consciousness, Rolf passed first through the initial stage of entoptic phenomenon – associated with “geometric visual percepts,” such as “dots, grids, zigzags, nested catenary curves, and meandering lines”*** and entered the second stage of construal, where the interpretive faculty of the mind struggles with the significance of the imagery:
“Everything is part of this grid,” he continued. “I have a feeling that in future sessions they might show me this grid is something far more than I see and feel my body to be. At other times, when I’ve seen that grid, I’ve also seen liquids running through it.”
Finally, entering the third stage of the intensified trajectory, which Lewis-Williams mistakes for “hallucinations,” Rolf moved beyond the ordinary constraints of the human mind. This stage is often entered as a spiritual landscape at the end of the entoptic tunnel.**** Such visions are considered to have significant diagnostic and problem-solving potential in Amazonian medicine: “This all happened when I was lying down, and then I sat up and observed myself. I was thinking, ‘this body is new’, everything felt completely different. Any limitations I impose on myself are limitations of the mind. Also that the virus doesn’t belong here, the virus is about accident, it got there because of low self-worth and having desires for sensations. I saw because the grid is so loose, anything can be taken out, and anything else can be put in. It’s like a membrane, through which things can be easily exchanged, rather than having the virus locked in the body. The most amazing thing was my mind wasn’t chattering, like, “Yeah, don’t think you can get rid of the virus…” It’s the mind that can destroy many things, if you have those fearful, worrying thoughts. There was a feeling of total peace, calmness, centeredness, including the thought, ‘Even if I have the virus, I can live my life from this place of peace.’”
“So it would be better to have the virus and this calmness and insight than to not have the virus and be frantic?” I asked.
“That’s the ultimate healing. All diseases come from the mind, and here my mind felt empty. It really felt empty. Every step was peaceful, with total awareness of what I do. I was also very tired, because I had to sit there for three or four hours.”
Unlike the common image of hallucinations imposing themselves upon a passive recipient, healing work in visionary states requires a far more active, inquiring state of alertness than is usually maintained even in ordinary, waking consciousness:
“You have to stop that chattering mind, because many things your mind can’t explain anyways. Juan told me about learning from the plants – you don’t sit there like a schoolboy. Instead, you have to find the way that they communicate with you. It’s good to learn about not seeing things as your mind sees them, because at times the mind comes from a place of fear. That last ceremony, I didn’t feel limited. I did some yoga postures, and I thought, ‘I can do any posture. It’s my mind that’s limiting me.’ Some postures there might be a physical limitation, but if you open your mind to them, there’s no reason you cannot achieve them. I became really clear how the mind is the culprit.”
Rolf is now midway through his healing process, and will soon begin drinking the barks of the chulla chaqui caspi and ayahuma trees. The ayahuma, in particular, is known among the Ashaninca as a very powerful, ancient healer, who is connected with the spirit of the water and the animals of the water. When I asked Rolf to describe the action of the healing plants upon his system, he said, “I don’t know if you can put it into words, because it’s an energetic cleansing. I still envision that the DNA has to be rewritten, a reprogramming has to take place.”
If Rolf is right, Amazonian medicine has been way ahead of the biotech companies for thousands of years. The proof of the curative efficacy of Juan’s treatment will come in mid-October, after Rolf has returned to his home in Amsterdam and waited a month to be tested for HIV. It won’t be too surprising if he is cured; we have already documented one curandero’s successful removal of a brain tumor that Western medicine had been powerless to achieve (Tindall, 2008). But Rolf is no longer staking everything on a cure, tempered as he is from his previous disappointment. “It might take another twenty years,” he said, “but I’m not only here for my own healing, that would be too selfish. It might be the healing happens through helping others.”
And what if, in October, Rolf finds he has not only experienced healing but is also cured of HIV? Will he be ignored by the medical establishment? Or will there be a sudden influx to the Peruvian Amazon by researchers from pharmaceutical companies and entrepreneurs in the holistic health field, who will throw around money or invite Juan to travel abroad with his cures?
An ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin discovered when he documented another Amazonian healer successfully curing severe Type 2 diabetes (Plotkin, 2000), such medicines are not easily removed from their matrix: the jungle and the shaman’s intimate communication with the plants (Tindall, 2007). Without the potentiating power of the icaros and vegetalismo’s communion with the innate intelligence of healing plants, researchers will scrutinize Juan’s medicines in vain for that “silver bullet” molecule they can patent, reduce to a white powder and make a fortune on. One must ask, if Juan chooses to travel out of the jungle and share his medicinal techniques, would it turn out as culturally dislocated as the vanquished warrior shaman Geronimo selling souvenirs of himself at the World Fair?
Without comprehending the vegetalista tradition from within, which requires a long arduous apprenticeship such as Rolf is taking his first steps in, there will be little bridging of this rich medicinal practice into the West.
Tests after Rolf’s return from the healing center show that he was not cured of HIV. In fact, his CD4 levels are lower and his viral load levels higher than they were after his initial treatment, and he is dealing with infections that indicate his immune system was overtaxed during his months in the jungle. Rolf is now recuperating on mild doses of antibiotics.
The events and interviews documented in this article occurred during our visit to the healing center when Juan was in residence, and at the time of our departure, Rolf’s treatment appeared to be well underway. Around the same time, however, Juan also left for Canada, leaving Rolf’s care in charge of his youthful apprentice.
Under the new dietary regime established by Juan, salty foods, even sugary deserts, began appearing upon the table. When questioned, Rolf was assured that the dieta antigua, eschewing salt, spices, and fruit, much less processed sugar, was no longer necessary. Rolf gave in, because he needed some salt to keep up his strength, but with some reservations, since it had been the dietary component of his previous treatment that had been so restorative to his health. Shortly after Rolf’s partner Coen, a practitioner of ayurvedic medicine, arrived, something more ominous appeared. Rolf developed an infection in his leg.
The days that followed Coen relates with gallow’s humor: the shaman’s apprentice, lacking adequate direction to treat Rolf’s leg injury, which was oozing puss and displaying holes the size of gunshot wounds, kept switching from one medicinal plant to another. Rolf kept hobbling down the steep slope to participate in ayahuasca sessions every few days, supported on the arm of Coen.
Both men knew that one takes one’s life into one’s hands upon catching that boat upriver in the Amazon, and that shamanism often works on the brink of paradox, yet the treatment, to which Rolf remained unswervingly committed, was now felt as a purgatory. Observing the signs that Rolf’s immune system was weakened, Coen lived in fear that toxemia might carry Rolf off in a day. Coen confessed, “I prayed harder than I’ve ever prayed in my life.”
Rolf’s condition, as is often the case in the jungle, was not viewed as cause for alarm upon Juan’s return. As Coen paced the floor, the curandero lingered in the compound below for a day before making his appearance in Rolf’s cabin. Juan’s mere presence restored calm, however, as he proceeded to apply a Western medicinal salve to the open wounds. He assured Rolf the infection was actually a sign of the disease leaving the body. The salve was effective in bringing down the swelling, and Coen thought, with some irony, it would have been effective much sooner if Juan had been in active communication with his apprentice.
Juan invited Rolf to stay for another month. Even at that stage, Juan may have been incorrect in his evaluation of the progress of Rolf’s treatment, however, if Rolf’s most recent tests are an indicator of its efficacy.
As veteran observers of the practice of curanderismo, we had already become alarmed from a distance. In our previous experience, we had observed that the therapeutic container was critical to allowing the catalyzing work of the plants to succeed. For example, in documenting the healing of Carolina, a patient with a brain tumor some years earlier, we had observed that, “Healing comes from re-embedding the patient into a living cosmology, a hierarchy of being that supports and gives meaning to their process of living and dying” (Tindall 2007). In the secure container provided by the jungle setting and the curandero’s attentions, we had watched as Carolina radically opened herself, allowing the healing power of nature, which is the basis of the curandero’s art, to permeate her.
A tough city girl from Santiago, Chile, Carolina found herself, in the midst of her treatment, spontaneously hugging the trees in the jungle. As I had speculated at the time, “Her embracing of the trees in the forest probably did as much to heal her as any of the plants she drank or any of the rituals conducted by the curandero. I dare say it fulfilled one of the deepest needs of our souls: to live in a reciprocal universe, a benevolent order in which, when we call out, we are resoundingly heard. This, I now believe, is the true basis of shamanism” (Tindall 2007).
This was the delicate container we were apprehensive hadn’t been established for Rolf. Upon Rolf and Coen’s departure from Peru, Juan himself recognized that Rolf’s healing process was not yet complete. Although Rolf wished for the plants to continue their work in his body, his condition was such he went in for testing sooner rather than later. Since the dire results came back, Rolf has managed to take the outcome philosophically and with a sense of humor.
Although a cure has eluded Rolf, in our conversation over Skype, as he dabbed at the puss flowing from his eye, he told me he is still grateful for the experience: “Healing has taken place. I feel more peaceful, balanced. What I have learned is to find that silent place within me, where now by just focusing on my breath I can access this place. I have a bigger need to spend time in silence, quiet.”
He also added, “I can imagine more benefits emerging once my body is back to regular health. I have no severe health issues, but many little ones, including feeling depressed. I expect another shift once these complaints are gone – right now I’m just busy with my body.”
Rolf is also asking, however, “If Juan communicates with the plants, how could it not have been clear my treatment wasn’t working? I made my decisions from hope, my drive to get rid of the virus. I am very confused how the Maestro couldn’t have known.”
Rolf and his partner are keeping in mind that their effort was a pioneering one. Unlike the many reports of successful cures of cancer using indigenous medicine, there are none of cures for HIV: “The virus may be stronger than the healers think – it’s cleverer than a cancer. If it were easy, many more people would be going to the Amazon.”
When and where the circumstances will arise to effectively address the treatment of HIV through vegetalismo again is anyone’s guess. Nor is the game over with for Rolf, for whom an analysis of the outcome of his treatment based in the effective cause alone may be too limited. Significant long term benefits may still be in the offing. As was observed above, the practice of shamanism often involves death, rebirth and empowerment.
Certainly, Rolf’s faith in the healing potential of plant-based shamanic practices remains unshaken, as well as his commitment to his work: “More than ever I know my work is in the healing profession.” Perhaps Rolf is right. Perhaps serious disease, when all is said and done, is our final wake up call, even a merciful avatar: “I always thought if I hadn’t gotten HIV, I would’ve gotten something else, something to kick my ass,” said Rolf. “It was needed for me to wake up. And since the HIV, my life has become more colorful and intense. Not always pleasant, but certainly more intense and I’m saying “Yes” to life much more than I used to.”
What can finally be said about Rolf’s plunge into Amazonian medicine is it was truly healing, if not the cure he secretly desired. While his viral load is now undetectable, and his CD 4 levels keep improving, Rolf says he’s “energetically a LOT better!!!” The outcome, by the standards of vegetalista medicine, was true: Rolf continues deepening and being nourished in his relationships with plant medicines, and now finds Maestro Juan visiting him during ceremonies. Rolf’s healing continues along this mysterious, winding road of shamanic medicine.
*South American black tobacco, which is 18 times stronger in nicotine content, is used extensively as a medicinal plant in the Amazon, both for cleansing and as “the director of other plants.” A shaman blows tobacco smoke over remedies in order to potentiate its healing powers.
**It’s good to remember that ancient and indigenous cultures do not separate the act of seeing from experiencing. For example, seeing “in Greek as well as Latin – when the verb occurs in an emotionally charged context – always means more than just ‘to observe’ or ‘to witness’ something; it means ‘to experience,’ ‘to be involved in a meaningful event’” (Luck 2001). Seeing into something, therefore, is a participatory and potentially investigative act.
***Such visionary patterns occur in Amazonian Shipibo art, which originate in what their shamans claim are the energetic signatures of each living thing – and which are necessary to access in a work of deep healing.
****Think of Alice falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Dobkin de Rios, M., & Rumrill, Roger. (2008). A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, p. 76.
Grossinger, R. (2005). Planet Medicine: Origins. (Vol. 1). Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, p. 97.
Luck, G. (2001) “The Road to Eleusis.” American Journal of Philology 122:1, 135-138.
Lewis-Williams, D. (2002) The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 125.
Plotkin, M. (2000) Medicine Quest. New York: Viking. Xi-xvi, 203-206.
Tindall, R. (2008). The Jaguar that Roams the Mind. Vermont: Park Street Press, 183-199.
Tindall, R. (2007). Mark Plotkin, the Shaman’s Apprentice, on Indigenous Healing and Western Medicine. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from http://www.mariri.net/rainforest-blog/?p=14.