Alcohol Is a Spirit: Healing Addiction in the Native American Church

The word Spirit, the “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” comes to us via the Latin spiritus, “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” and is related to spirare “to breathe.” Its plural form, spirits, or a “volatile substance,” is an alchemical idea, and it was only in the 1670s that it usage narrowed to its present meaning: “strong alcoholic liquor.”

Yet lurking within our modern, dry categorization of strong alcohol as “spirits” this original sense of animating power remains firmly entrenched. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff put it, a good sherris-sack “Ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” Not only that, it breathes courage into the soul, it “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm, and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage, and this valor comes of sherris.”

This is the language of spiritual inspiration, not mere infatuation with a physical effect. Perhaps we should take ourselves at our word. What if alcohol really is a spirit? What is approaching it as a spirit is an effective way to heal addiction to alcohol?

In a recent interview with Erik Davis on his program Expanding Mind, our discussion turned to the nature of addiction and the healing potential of traditional, and psychoactive, plant medicines such as ayahuasca and peyote.

To illustrate these plants’ mysterious capacity to cleanse us of addictive patterns, I disclosed an experience I’d had not so long ago, one which ended a couple of decade’s long fierce attachment to red wine.

Indeed, I loved read wine. Holding a wine glass was like cupping a rosy heart in my hand, transparent, almost pulsing, catching the light like blood. Ancient, celebrated by song, wine even had its own deity! A good wine tasted of the roots of the Earth, of her fruit, even the sunshine, and its relaxation was, to quote the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, “Ambrosia!”

Although I knew full well my life had been fraught with addictive struggle, I hadn’t ended that particular love affair. When I did, it was with a finality that will endure until my dying breath.

It happened deep in the ocean of an ayahuasca ceremony. Accompanied by the otherworldly, Asiatic tones of the Shipibo icaros of the Amazon rainforest, I had found myself in deep trance, holding my water bottle and praying for the health of the waters of our planet: thanking the ocean for giving birth to us and sustaining us, apologizing for our contamination of her precious being.

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of something dark flickering over my right shoulder. My hand, like a cat’s paw, shot back and, seizing whatever it was, thrust it into the water bottle.

“Okay,” I said to myself, sitting there bemused in the dark, “I’ve just gone and trapped a spirit in my water bottle. Now what do I do?”

I directly knew I needed to go outside and toss out the water, dispersing the spirit back to the elements. Getting up, I carefully walked through the crowded room, slipped out beneath the stars, and scattered the water.

Returning to my seat, charmed, I asked, “Okay, what was that all about?”

I then saw it. The dark, flickering thing had been the spirit of red wine, and the entity had been feeding off of my energy like a succubus. I thought of all the evenings I had hastened home from a long day of work to relax into the amber red cave of her intoxication, reading my books, disappearing from my family, escorted into a sodden sleep by her liquid embrace. She had been a dark lover.

And I was done with her.

Returning home, I emptied my house of my stockpiled bottles of organic red wine, and wondered to myself, “How am I going to do this?” I was already aware of a hollow yearning within myself, one I would never feed again, left gasping for air in the dust. I felt a smidgen of dread in my soul. So many years seeking solace in the opiate embrace of red wine, could that yearning ever fade away?

Well, it did. So clean was the excision of the spirit that some nights ago, watching an Italian priest pour himself a well-deserved glass of red wine across the table from me, I felt not a trace of yearning arise in my being.

After relating this story, I received this message:

I have had a complicated relationship with alcohol for years. Just last night I was alone and decided to have some beers while watching hockey. I ended up drinking too much. It hurt my work production today and I decided to go and do some errands. That’s when I heard you talk.

Hearing you tell your red wine entity story was the second thing that was hugely helpful. The first was that over the weekend I had a powerful dream. I was in a big, old library with the comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, who is sober and in his mid-forties like me. Greg was guiding me through the shelves and we were looking for a spirit.

At one point, he disappeared and it was just me. I knew the spirit was just around the corner and suddenly I was terrified. I let out this huge scream that scared the crap out of my wife. She said it sounded as though I was going to attack something.

This dream really rattled me. Then yesterday I didn’t plan on drinking but I just did. Then I heard your red wine story and I immediately knew that there is a spirit of alcohol that feeds off my energy.

Is this so strange? Do we not call distilled alcohol “spirits”? Don’t we celebrate so, from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to the Captain Morgan rum ads, where a piratical, intensely colorful, mischievous spirit manifests like a jinn in the company of young drinkers at a party?

From an indigenous perspective, it isn’t odd at all. As anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin points out, among traditional cultures,

Concerted actions between humans and certain non-humans that have been crucial for human welfare and carried out over long periods of time have given rise to entities, or rather beings, who embody those concerted actions. For example, the soil becomes Mama Allpa, a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience and responds to the actions of humans. In modernity the soil has become a “natural resource” bereft of agency, sentience and understanding.

If this has been characteristic and true (the enthnographic records clearly indicate it is) for human culture for thousands of years, why should we be an exception? Why should alcohol, to whom we do indeed offer up a steady stream of addict’s prayers and offerings, not be an entity in its own right?

My own innate resistance to this concept, which I presume is shared with most of my readers, is actually a product of my own historical conditioning, As Apffel-Marglin points out regarding ancestral practices of making offerings to the Earth,

The Reformers in 16th century Europe called such rituals “magic” due to their insistence on the total separation between humans, non-humans, and the religious, namely a God removed from the material world. For the Reformers, agency, voice, and meaning became exclusively human attributes. Ever since the Reformers’ separation between matter and spirit, such rituals of regeneration could only be understood as humans representing symbolically or metaphorically the non-humans who became passive and silent.

Does not her argument, which applies to all concerted action between human and non-human agencies carried out over long periods of time, apply equally well to alcohol? Are we really justified in claiming that all the spiritual manifestations of alcohol are mere representations of something actually inert and without sentience?

For “passive and silent” alcohol is not, not by a long shot.

This essay is not, by the way, an argument for a ban on alcohol or any other consciousness altering substance. It’s a call to get our relationships straight with them, which indigenous peoples can teach us a lot about. Whatever our take may be on the metaphysics of indigenous world views, their efficacy is undeniable.

Wine with admixtures was once used medicinally in medieval Europe, tobacco and coca in indigenous ways are sacred plants which allow us to commune with divinity and heal, and if I’m ever seriously injured, please give me a preparation from the opium plant! Opium, according to the indigenous ancient Greeks, is sacred, a gift to humanity from Prometheus. I have entire faith in its curative properties.

By treating our plant allies with respect and veneration, we protect ourselves. A quick glimpse at any tobacco addict, who believes tobacco a mere “natural resource” and consumer product, is sufficient to support that argument!

II

Philosopher Simon May in his work Love: A History offers a definition of love that relates profoundly to healing:

Love, I will argue, is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life. It is a rapture that sets us off on––and sustains––the long search for a secure relationship between our being and theirs.

If we all need to love, it is because we all need to feel at home in the world: to root our life in the here and now; to give our existence solidity and validity; to deepen the sensation of being; to enable us to experience the reality of our life as indestructible (even if we also accept that our life is temporary and will end in death).

This is the feeling I call ‘ontological rootedness’––ontology being that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and experience of existence. My suggestion is that we will love only those (very rare) people or things or ideas or disciplines or landscapes that can inspire in us ontological rootedness. If they can, we will love them regardless of their other qualities: regardless of how beautiful or good they are; of how (in the case of people we love) generous or altruistic or compassionate; of how interested in our life and projects. And regardless, even, of whether they value us. For love’s overriding concern is to find a home for our life and being.

Is it possible to love the Earth with such rapture, such a sense of indestructible grounding, that certain places––a river, a moor, a forest, a desert––give us “ontological rootedness,” a home for our life and being? Would we not make pilgrimages to these places, immerse ourselves in them whenever possible, and find healing and renewal in them? I think so, and it follows that spiritual practices grounded in “ontological rootedness” in the Earth and the cosmos can heal conditions like addiction. Certainly, my own long-standing alcoholism, as I must now call it, was healed in through that rootedness.

The healing arose in the midst of crisis: separating from my beloved wife, struggling with the traumas and ancestral suffering inherited from my original broken family, I asked my spiritual parents Ann Rosencranz and Bob Boyll, to lead a series of sweatlodges for me so I could pray for guidance and healing.

Sweatlodges recreate the beginning of time. They are oriented to the sacred directions, and their construction is modeled after the turtle from which the native name for the Americas, “Turtle Island,” originates. Within the lodge, enclosed in utter darkness, the stages of the coming of the Sky Woman to Earth and her first healing are recounted as the ritual progresses. The water, falling upon the super-heated red glowing stones, explodes with the sound of distant thunder as the steam heats the interior to a degree so hot it can be barely endurable. Songs are sung and prayers made, and as the peyote medicine used sacramentally by the NAC moves the participants into a state of permeable consciousness, healings of the body and mind, teachings, and atunement to the cosmos occur.

There are four stages to the ceremony, which can last for many hours, but a sense of chronological time is lost in that womb of the Earth.

When the ceremony concluded, and most of the participants had crawled out into the sunshine, I remained behind with Bob. I asked him if I could take a vow upon the stones, who are held as ancient beings of great wisdom. Boyll told me, “You can do whatever you want.”

Addressing the stones, I forswore all alcohol, an addiction I had never managed to fully kick, for the following year. At that very moment, a hue and cry went up outside the sweatlodge. Bob looked out the flap and reported to me, “An eagle just sailed over the lodge.”

I was astonished. Bald eagles were unheard of in that part of the California mountains, such a place being far from their usual range. Afterwards, the locals told me it was the first sighting of an eagle that they had had the entire time they had lived there.

I felt as if Zeus had sent down an eagle to confirm my prayer. If my own sense of the sacredness of my vow before the ancient ones hadn’t been sufficient to hold me to it, this sealed the deal. My prayer had been heard and ratified. I had barely a withdrawal symptom, and I have lived free of alcohol ever since.

Mayantuyacu Retreat June 18th to 26th 2020

Juan and Susana

Dear Friends, for fifteen years I have been accompanying committed men and women into the heart of the Peruvian rainforest to work with Asháninkan healer and teacher Juan Flores Salazar at his Mayantuyacu center. This 2020 journey is inspired by the vision of hope and renewal this beginning of a decade brings.

I am inviting a small group of men and women committed to their inner paths to an immersion in nature, with nature, and through nature; individuals willing to support the co-creation of a safe and solid container for each other; and who are ready to go deep into their own healing, blind spots, and overall growth. I will be accompanying and facilitating the process all the way through.

Please see the full invitation by clicking the link below!

Susana Bustos, Ph.D.

Mayantuyacu Retreat 2020

The Scientific Evidence that Enchantment in Nature Heals Us

I want to share excerpts from two articles recently published by the Sierra Club, “The Science of Awe” by Jake Abrahamson and “Outdoors for All” by Richard Louv. These essays explore this extraordinary power of awe/enchantment in Nature to heal us, physically, psychologically, and spiritually:

“Scientifically speaking, the state of awe, an emotion that, psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.

IT WAS ONLY 11 YEARS AGO that psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying. “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, “awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation… Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” Continue reading “The Scientific Evidence that Enchantment in Nature Heals Us”

The “Shamanic” Invasion — On the Encounter between Amazonian Shamans and Western Apprentices

Jacques Mabit

This from Jacques Mabit, the founder of Takiwasi and a pioneer among those Westerners who have apprenticed in the ayahuasca tradition. Mabit is unique in that he has lived in South America for decades and so is deeply informed of the inside workings of the world of Amazonian vegetalismo. Noteworthy here is his discussion of the “well-developed art of seduction” that we Westerners are virtually defenseless before, which have led to virtual cults surrounding certain Shipibo shamans. Western apprentices of these Shipibo shamans now utilize the same “darts” to seduce their followers here in the West.

In the small haven of the High Peruvian Amazon where I have lived for almost 20 years, I am seeing a growing wave of Westerners eager to approach the practices of traditional Amazonian medicine. Having myself been one of the initiators of this movement, I cannot help but oscillate between satisfaction and fear in the face of this enthusiasm for what is now known as “shamanism”; a very inappropriate term from an anthropological perspective. The progressive realization that Westerners have of the serious deficiency of sacredness in their everyday lives, and the audacity of some, take them to the other side of the world in search of a renewal of their spirituality that seems to bring hope. At the same time, the Westerners’ capacity to transform everything they touch into a commercial product, including spirituality, has something terrifying to it. We are currently witnessing a massive landing of people from countries in the North of the world coming to the most isolated corners of the forests, mountains and deserts of Peru, and to many other places, to discover the “shaman” that is still “pure”, and who can reconcile them with themselves. It is here that things get complicated in a particular way, after the movement began in the opposite direction with the shifting of “shamans” to Europe, and white people presenting themselves as initiated and capable of substituting indigenous teachers.

When a Westerner and an Amazonian or Mestizo shaman meet, it is not just two people coming face to face, it is two cultures discovering each other, and finally, confronting each other. Continue reading “The “Shamanic” Invasion — On the Encounter between Amazonian Shamans and Western Apprentices”

The Immolation of Notre Dame and Why We Might Want to Give Her Back to Nature Again

There is an old paradox discussed by Heraclitus, that great ancient philosopher of impermanence, called “The Ship of Theseus.” It poses this question: “Consider a ship that has, over its long lifetime, had every part replaced during its repair so that not even a single nail from its original construction remains. Is it still the same ship?”

There have been many solutions offered to this puzzle down through the centuries, and I can’t think of a moment where it’s more relevant to our generation than with the burning of Notre Dame. Already the international community is rallying and pledges towards its rebuilding are flowing in. The French president says that it will be “more beautiful than ever.” Yet will it be the same cathedral? Will it be Our Lady? Or will it be a replica, such as the pseudo-Cave of Lascaux, the reproduction of the original Paleolithic temple created to protect the original from destruction by tourist hordes? Beautiful, yes, but not the Cave.

Of course, our own bodies contain not a single molecule of our original version while purportedly containing atoms that once helped embody Shakespeare, Hitler, and Alexander the Great’s mortal frames, so from the perspective of this radical impermanence, all things really are essentially empty and utterly interconnected. Yet it’s impossible to shake that sense of continuity, of the accumulation of something called a “soul,” that remains the Ship of Theseus, even after all its timbers, ropes, and sailcloth have been replaced. It’s the “aura,” as the philosopher Walter Benjamin called it, which is accumulated through time and which cannot be replaced by “mechanical reproduction.”

The outpouring of grief over the immolation of Notre Dame is because, I believe, millions of us venerated Her as not just the heart of France, but as “ensouled.” For many of us, regardless of religious background and creed, She was a living being who we loved, with whom we had a personal relationship that has graced our existence.

I would like to share a story of Notre Dame that I hope will illustrate why. Continue reading “The Immolation of Notre Dame and Why We Might Want to Give Her Back to Nature Again”

Not Merely Human

One can get the sense from reading ancient Greek mythos that they had a tragic view of human existence, yet that would be a mistake, for the ancient Greeks also had an open door to redemption that we no longer have.

One of the strengths of the Greek perspective on the human condition, I think, is they didn’t make it all human. Instead, the psyche is sometimes a battle ground for archetypal forces, and there is no clear demarcation between the human and the more-than-human and other-than-human.

Continue reading “Not Merely Human”

Can a Myth Transmit Accurate Knowledge from 10,000 Years Ago? Yes.

Myths are time capsules designed to weather a voyage of centuries, even millennia.

As philosopher David Abrams has commented, “Oral cultures preserve verbal knowledge by constantly repeating it. Practical knowledge must be embedded in spoken formulas that can be easily recalled––in prayers and proverbs, in continually recited legends and mythic stories…without writing, knowledge of the diverse properties of particular animals, plants, and places can be preserved only by being woven into stories.”

Yet, how accurate can the transmission of knowledge of animals, plants, and places be over the centuries? Can it be accurate enough to reach back as far as 10,000 years ago to the end of the last ice age? Can we read in them a record of when the seas began to rise as the ice caps melted with the warming climate?

It’s an awesome prospect. And, yes, according to researchers, we can — with remarkable precision.

Science journalist Jeff Goodell’s recent book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of Civilized World, looks both at the probable geological origins of the myth of Noah’s flood in the Old Testament and the far older tales preserved by the Aboriginal Australians which can be argued to reach back all the way to the end of the last ice age.

Continue reading “Can a Myth Transmit Accurate Knowledge from 10,000 Years Ago? Yes.”

Journey to the Heart: 12-Day Amazon Plant Medicine Retreat For Men at Mayantuyacu Dec. 28th to Jan. 9th

Juan Flores

Join your guides Robert Tindall (author of The Jaguar That Roams the Mind) and Brian James (yoga teacher & musician) on a special men’s retreat at Mayantuyacu, located deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle and situated along the sacred boiling river, for a 12-day Ayahuasca & Plant Medicine Retreat. Mayantuyacu is a centre dedicated to the study of sacred plants and preservation of indigenous knowledge and is home of the Asháninkan curandero, Maestro Juan Flores.

The intention of this pilgrimage is to give us men the opportunity to touch the core of our experience together: the wounding, passion, bliss, and fear of it all.

We men are carrying around a massive amount of shadow materials right now. In this retreat, we create together a container that is safe, immersed in the life of the rain forest, and held in a strong prayer. By peeling back that tough guy persona we men have to wear, we can be actual warriors instead, having the courage to finally bring forth our deeper selves. A lot of it comes from authentic listening, both to one another and to the medicine. As Christ put it in the Gospel of Thomas, where he says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” Continue reading “Journey to the Heart: 12-Day Amazon Plant Medicine Retreat For Men at Mayantuyacu Dec. 28th to Jan. 9th”

Healing the Eye of the Cyclops

The clash between the Cyclops and Odysseus is, in its unique way, the strongest analog to a cave painting that exists in the literature of the West, containing, as it does, a sacred space where indigenous vision is transcribed for future generations.

Indeed, in the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops, one touches the fire-blackened floor of the Paleolithic hunter’s cave, so primordial are its elements. Containing as it does a ritual blinding with a wooden hunting spear, a master of animals figure, and an underlying concern with the problem of eating and sacrifice, its provenance is clearly in the prehistoric storytelling repertoire.

Yet it is possible to discern the outlines of a fragment of myth, or mythologem, in the heart of the struggle between Odysseus and the blinded Cyclops. This struggle seemed to capture Western civilization’s emerging violent rupture with its native self—and, within the symbolic language of oral literature, to presage dire consequences. In short, it appeared to have all the characteristics of a prophecy, a vision much like the Hopi of the two roads of humanity: “those who know they belong to the Earth” and those who seek material, individual gain in a condition of spiritual disunity.

The uniqueness of the fragment of myth preserved in Homer’s Odyssey lies in its depiction of the break between the indigenous and newly emerging modern mind. Continue reading “Healing the Eye of the Cyclops”

Neurodharmology

You probably won’t be finding any of this in your Zen master’s upcoming teishos, but it is nonetheless worthwhile to get caught up on recent neurological studies of meditation and its impact upon the brain, an organ which has revealed itself to be far more plastic, adaptive, and regenerative than was ever suspected in those golden years of brain science that brought us the frontal lobotomy.

There are a number of good books on the subject now, but I particularly enjoyed James Kingsland’s Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment. Kingsland, a science journalist for the Guardian, writes with classic English skepticism while simultaneously embracing his own dharma practice and arguing for the deeply transformative affect of meditation practice on the fundamental neurology of the brain.

Kingsland’s approach is to travel back in time and, drawing upon modern scientific evidence (which has been “enhanced enormously through the use of new brain-scanning technologies such as fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging”), envisage that neurological transformation as it unfolded in the brain of Siddhartha Gautama based upon the colorful accounts in Buddhist scripture.

Continue reading “Neurodharmology”

Awakening from the Dream of Imprisonment

Once upon a time, in a land so far away it now borders of the realm of story, there was a ten-year boy who was abandoned in a children’s shelter.

That distant land was the United States, the era was the 1970’s, and I was that child. Children’s shelters in the U.S. were, and probably still are, the equivalent of minimum security prisons. They are run upon the same principles, and the shelter I was left in was adjacent to the actual juvenile halls. The only difference was we could walk out the doors and jump the fence — although when I contemplated escape over the chain link to the roaring highway below I knew I had nowhere to go.

That story of induction, culture shock, torment, and loss of identity I’ve written about elsewhere. Incarcerated for the crime of coming from an unstable household, not for criminal behavior, I was that middle class kid who fell into the subterranean world of the criminal class. Continue reading “Awakening from the Dream of Imprisonment”

Congressman McClintock Denies California is Burning

In an astonishing bit of pseudo-scientific sleight of hand, Congressman Tom McClintock effectively denies our beloved California is burning, and that it is going to keep burning for the foreseeable future.

How?

He does it by denying Humanity’s hand in shaping the climate. Ever since Alexander von Humboldt’s scientific explorations in the late 1700’s, it has been clear that our conduct shapes the health of our ecosystems. This is an absolute no-brainer.

Of course, it took climate science a while longer to understand the more subtle details, such as how the European Medieval warm period and subsequent Little Ice Age (which Congressman McClintock describes below) had clear human causes: the native peoples of the Americas conducted a continent-wide summer burning of forests before the arrival of Columbus, and all the released carbon actually warmed the entire planet! Thus, those vineyards in Greenland. The subsequent Little Ice Age was triggered because, with the extinction of 95% of the native population of the “New World” the burning ceased and global temperatures plummeted. Thus, ice-skating on the frozen Thames and famine stalking the land.

Here is how Congressman McClintock turns this careful scientific research upon its head:

Thank you for contacting me regarding global climate change.

I firmly believe that the United States should not hamstring its economy in an attempt to combat global warming.

The Earth’s climate is constantly changing and has been since the planet formed over four billion years ago. We know that during the Medieval warm period, from the 10th through the 13th centuries, wine grapes were grown in northern Britain, and Iceland and Greenland supported a thriving agricultural economy. We also know that during the Little Ice Age that followed, the Thames River froze solid every winter and advancing ice sheets destroyed many towns in Europe.

Simply adding more regulations based on suspect science will not change natural climate patterns. Such regulations will, however, devastate our economy and make America less competitive with nations like China and India, who refuse to strangle their economies. For these reasons, I will not support them.

Sincerely,

Tom

“Natural climate patterns”? “Suspect science”? Particularly disturbing is Tom’s total lack of familiarity with the famines that regularly devastated Europe — it’s as if we either happily drank wine or enjoyed frosty cones, oh, even though admittedly we did lose a couple of villages to advancing ice sheets… Congressman McClintock is oblivious, or lying, about the human cost of climate change in exchange for short-sighted economic growth.

Thomas Jefferson, who mistrusted merchants and their loyalty to money, believed that our country would be at its strongest and its liberty best kept by a population of farmers, men and women who raised their own food, lived in close contact with the Earth and its climate, and who heeded scientific discoveries to improve their happiness and prosperity. For Jefferson, happiness only arose from connection to the Earth.

He also said, “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.”

I recommend to Congressman McClintock that he take a page from Jefferson’s book.

Predatory Animism

In the mid-1500s, a German seafarer named Hans Staden encountered a Tupinambá chief in the Amazon rainforest who was eating a human leg out of a “great vessel full of human flesh.”

Holding the limb to Staden’s mouth, the chief invited him to try it. Staden replied, “Even beasts which are without understanding do not eat their own species, and should a man devour his fellow creatures?”

At that, the chief took a bite and turning Staden’s argument on its head, replied, “I am a tiger; it tastes well.”

Such accounts serve, as anthropologist Carlo Fausto reminds us, that not all native cultures practice a “loving animism.” Indeed, sometimes, their practices are “better understood as a predatory animism.”

In our thirst for a meaningful relationship to the cosmos, one with a nourishing spiritual dimension, it’s easy for us Westerners to romanticize indigenous cultures and their “animistic” world views.

As I once heard the Apache writer and shaman, Martin Prechtel, say: “How can you be lonely or depressed when you wake up in a cosmos where you’re surrounded by companions and friends?” He meant a sentient world, filled with life that sings in our ears and stirs our hearts with messages from beyond the merely human.

More popularly, Disney’s Pocahontas sings,

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

It can come as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that the “animistic” worldview can also be predatory, a thing practiced “in darkness and secrecy” as in Amazonian shamanism. Or in broad, consensual daylight, as among the warring Plains Indians of North America, whose torture of captured members of rival tribes would have made the Spanish Inquisition blanch:

“Indian torture rituals had a purpose beyond inflicting excruciating pain. The majority of tribes believed that all humans went to the same idyllic afterlife in the exact physical condition in which they had died. This breathtaking arcadia, bursting with ponies and game and populated by unlimited comely maidens, was a literal Happy Hunting Ground. But if the ghostly warrior had no eyes or tongue with which to see this paradise and taste its fatty meat, if he had no feet with which to chase the game, no hands with which to draw back a bowstring no genitalia with which to satisfy his carnal desires, then one man’s heaven had become another’s hell. This belief was universally accepted among the tribes.”

You can imagine the practical implications of such a cosmovision, although fine details such as punching a hole in the living war captive’s bladder and urinating or defecating in it might elude you.

Yet, leave it to the ancient Celts of Ireland to take predatory animism to the most refined artistic heights. As avid head hunters, their records and tales are filled with accounts of magically animated severed heads. Perhaps the most haunting and moving account is from the tale of Donn Bo in the Battle of Allen, from the Yellow Book of Lecan.

A battle was fought between Fergal, king of northern Ireland, and King Murchad of Leinster, whose territory Fergal invaded. The Leinstermen were victorious, and Fergal and many of his followers were killed. At the feast held after the victory, the king asked that someone should go to the battlefield and fetch a man’s head, for which he would pay a rich reward.

A man named Baethgalach went to where King Fergal lay, and as he drew near he could hear a voice commanding the musicians and poets on the battlefield to make music and to sing for their lord. Then came music unsurpassed in sweetness, and the head of Donn Bo began to sing for Fergal.

Don Bo was a youth famed for his skill in story-telling and song, who had been unwilling to sing for the king on the night before the battle but had sworn to make music for him the following night, no matter where they might be. Baethgalach asked if he might take the head of Donn Bo to the hall, and the head consented, if he promised to bring it back afterwards and lay it on his body.

The head of the minstrel was carried to the feast and placed on a pillar in the hall. All recognized Donn Bo, and grieved for the loss of the finest minstrel in Erin.

Then the head turned towards the wall where it was dark, and sang a lament, and so sweet was the song that none could refrain from weeping. Afterwards the head was taken back and replaced on Donn Bo’s body, and because saint Columcille had promised the youth’s mother that he would return to her unharmed, it was joined to his body again.

Plant Medicines, Mythology & The Hero’s Journey: A Medicine Path Podcast

Yoga teacher, musician and artist Brian James, who has been exploring the intersection of music, yoga and shamanism for over 20 years recently spoke with Robert, In this conversation we talk about our explorations of indigenous healing traditions of North and South America, including work with ayahuasca and peyote, and get into a discussion about mythology and the hero’s journey.

Listen here:

The truly perceptive man must know that where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world

There was a time when scientists weren’t ashamed to go on record contemplating the meaning of the cosmos as revealed through the scientific method, and one of the great practitioners of this genre was Loren Eiseley. While waiting to take my daughter to school this morning, I came across this passage in his book, The Unexpected Universe, published in 1964 — one year before I was born.

Here is the kind of mythopoeic perception that Eiseley was capable to bringing to phenomenon that are now treated as mere cold facts:

A few days ago I chanced to look into a rain pool on the walk outside my window, and the beauty and the strange rhythm of the extending and concentric wavelets entered my mind. I saw that I was looking symbolically upon the whole history of life upon our globe. There, in a wide, sweeping circle, ran the early primates from whom we are descended; here, as a later drop within the rim of the greater circle, emerged the first men. I was the mammoths pass in a long, slow, world-wide surge, but the little drop of man changed into a great hasty wave that swept them under.

There were sudden little ringlets, like the fauna of isolated islands, that appeared and disappeared with rapidity. Sometimes so slow were the drops that the pool was almost quiet, like the intense, straining silence of a quiescent geological period. Sometimes the rain, like the mutations in animal form, came so fast that the ripples broke, mixed, or kept their shapes with difficulty and did not spread far. Jungles, I read in my mystical water glass, microfaunas changing rapidly but with little spread.

Watch instead, I thought, for the great tides — it is they that contain that planet’s story. As the rain hastened or dripped slowly the pictures in the little pool were taken into my mind as though from the globe of a crystal-gazer. How often, if we learn to look, is a spider’s wheel a universe, or a swarm of summer midges a galaxy, or a canyon a backward glance into time. Beneath our feet is the scratched pebble that denotes an ice age, or above us the summer cloud that changes form in one afternoon as an animal might do in ten million years.

This is mythopoeia. All of this from gazing into a little pool pelted by drops of water! It’s as beautiful as Shakespeare (who Eiseley loved as a gift from his father), and captures the exquisite drama of the human adventure in ways that few scientists’s writing can now do.

Eiseley concludes, “The truly perceptive man must know that where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world of which we learn only through devised instruments. Through such instruments measuring atomic decay we have learned to probe the depths of time before our coming and to gauge temperatures long vanished.”

How akin Eisley’s “Where the human eye stops, and hearing terminates, there still vibrates an inconceivable and spectral world” is with W.B. Yeats’ “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

The Elusive, Creative Genius of the Dolphin

Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t the only artist or scientist to believe it was a “huge error” when the Renaissance came and “put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries,” leaving a barren landscape with “no more room for mystical creatures” behind it.

It turns out, if we just look around, we find that we are sharing the planet with numerous species that can justly be described as “mystical,” as belonging to an order of being that we fantasize of encountering on distant planets in the depths of outer space — yet we are simply too human-centered to recognize it! As primatologist Frans de Waal recently asked, “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”

The verdict appears to be “just barely,” and we’ve only begun to scrape the surface of the intelligence of the cosmos. Continue reading “The Elusive, Creative Genius of the Dolphin”

Aotsi Tsinane: Women’s Retreat at Mayantuyacu, Perú with Susana Bustos, Ph.D. August 7th to 20th

Juan FloresFor over ten years I have been accompanying committed men and women into the heart of the Peruvian rainforest to work with Asháninkan healer and teacher Juan Flores Salazar. This year I have felt a deep calling to focus this work just on women and their paths, or aotsi tsinane, in Asháninkan language. That’s the reason I am inviting you to a second iteration of this journey in August 2018. Continue reading “Aotsi Tsinane: Women’s Retreat at Mayantuyacu, Perú with Susana Bustos, Ph.D. August 7th to 20th”

Sacred Soil: Biochar and the Regeneration of the Earth, Is Now in Bookstores!

sacred-soil-coverI would like to share with you that yesterday marked the release of our book, Sacred Soil: Biochar and the Regeneration of the Earth!

A collaboration between a clean technology scientist, an anthropologist working among native communities in the high Amazon, and a budding novelist and student of mythos (guess which one I am!), Sacred Soil takes a multidisciplinary approach to the phenomenon of biochar soils — an elixir for the Earth that can contribute significantly to the restoration of the planet to pre-Industrial levels of atmospheric carbon by 2050, as well as helping us “go native” to our planet again!

U.C. Davis anthropologist Stefano Varese calls it a “jewel…a breath of pure utopian air” and Daniel Pinchbeck calls it “A visionary manifesto and a pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to how we can heal our connection with the Earth;”

Ian Baker, in his Introduction, states, “The highly qualified authors of Sacred Soil show us a way forward toward restoring our garden planet, shifting the Earth’s carbon balance from the oceans and the sky to the soil and living vegetation, where it can nourish our hearts, blood, and bones and ensure our collective thriving. It is up to all of us to act on this knowledge.”

I pray this work not only makes an empowering and enduring contribution to the revisioning and retooling of our planetary relations with all species that so many of us are working so hard to achieve, but that it is also nourishing for the heart and imagination of its readers.

Perhaps the finest review I received for Sacred Soil came from my Dad in the Native American Church, Bob Boyll, who told me after reading an advance copy that it gave him hope for the future. I know my prayers for my daughter Maitreya’s generation are woven into this book. Please, buy it and spread the news!

Sacred Soil

Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

persephone page 13

The loss of the daughter to mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy. It was expressed in the religious mystery of Eleusis, which constituted the spiritual foundation of Greek life for two thousand years…

The separation of Demeter and Kore is an unwilling one; it is neither a question of the daughter’s rebellion against the mother, nor the mother’s rejection of the daughter… Each daughter, even in the millennia before Christ, must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger, the reconciliation with her lost self.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

One definition of “myth” might be: “A once sacred narrative which has lost its original context.” Like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck on the high seas, we encounter fragments of myth, such as in Hesiod’s Theogony, drifting about detached from their original cultural setting and so read them as curious stories, quaint remnants, or illogical accounts of the cosmos.

What is lost in such fragments is the original wholeness of mythos, symbol, and ritual within which the myth had its transformative power. Continue reading “Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries”

Three Must-View Ted Talks on the Bio and Ethnosphere

biomimicryDr. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist, molecular biologist, disciple of the great Richard Evans Schultes, and founder of Amazon Conservation Team, gives an eloquent, deeply informed, and passionate apologia for the rights and incalculable worth of the uncontacted peoples of the Amazon rainforest.

To understand how bio and cultural diversity are intimately entangled as living, vital forces that shape our lives, we must understand the culture of Humanity in all its extraordinary diversity and imperiled circumstances: the “ethnosphere,” as anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer as Wade Davis calls it.

Janine Benyus’ concept of biomimicry has galvanized scientists, architects, designers and engineers into exploring new ways in which nature’s successes can inspire humanity.