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.

The work
I met maestro Juan Flores in 2004, when studying Vegetalismo, a traditional medical system that works with plant sentiences to address illness and other imbalances. From breast cancer recovery to restoring back a sense of inner wholeness, I have witnessed the varied range of action of this shamanic oriented tradition. Moreover, through the years, my path as a person, a woman, mom, teacher, and healer have enormously expanded and deepened through the ways Juan holds. And I’d like to share this with you.

The journey
I am inviting a group of 8-10 women to join me in Lima in the second week of August. We’ll leave early next morning to Pucallpa and into Mayantuyacu, Juan Flores’s center. We’ll return to Lima after twelve full days at the center.

Please, note that I will be traveling with my 8 year old daughter, who has always come with our groups in the past. I invite mom’s with children 6 and older to join as well. We will first go through what this entails together, assess whether this is possible in your particular case, and then commit to follow safety guidelines.

Preparation:
For those interested, we would first assess together whether this journey is a good fit for you through one or two personal interviews over Skype or in person. Then, you will receive material to read in preparation for the journey, and we’ll work individually on setting an intention for the work. What I call, “directing the arrow of your prayer.” We will also have one or two Skype conference calls with the whole group once it is established in order to get to know each other and start building the group container.

Immersion:
The general structure of the work is the following:
Individual meeting with the maestro to discuss your health concerns and intention
Plant work: Ceremonial purge(s); medicine work every third day; individual plant diet depending on your health condition (not in isolation)
Processing group work with Susana every other day plus individual consultations as needed
Teaching sessions on Vegetalismo practices with the maestro (1-2 during our stay) and walks in the jungle to identify trees with one of his apprentices
Preparation of remedies with Susana
Swims in the pool or waterfall, natural steam baths by the boiling river, and walks in the jungle ad libitum

There is no daily planning, as activities will depend largely on the energy of the group (this is deep intense work, women!), and there is a rhythm that the center provides as well, in terms of meals and ritual work.

Accommodations at the center depend on availability (other groups or individuals there, besides our group). We will be assigned individual or group accommodations by the center itself, though there is usually flexibility to meet personal needs as well.

Integration:
Integrating and implementing the insights and experiences gained during the journey in your current life situation is not easy, in my experience. There will be guidelines for integration before we leave the center.

In addition, we’ll do one or two Skype conference calls in order to follow up with this, as well as an individual integration session with me after we arrive.

About the guide

Susana Bustos, Ph.D., works as an integrative counselor, healer, professor, and independent researcher on entheogenic shamanic traditions of the Americas. She works also as a devoted mom for her beautiful daughter for over 8 years. Since 1999, Susana has been studying Vegetalismo with different healers, and was ritually granted to carry the Asháninkan lineage of her maestro Juan Flores in 2012. Susana offers workshops and lectures internationally. She holds an integrative private practice in Berkeley, California.

Contact information
Susana at drsusanabustos@gmail.com; (510) 689-7597.

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

Chavin de Huantar Pilgrimage May 30th to June 13th 2017

chavin-san-pedroChavin de Huantar is the lodestone, the morning star, the birthplace of the great spiritual and indigenous consciousness of the Andes, and South America as a whole. A ceremonial complex at 10,425 feet above sea level, located at the confluence of the Mosna and Wacheksa rivers and at the geological and cultural crossroads between the mountains, jungle, and sea, Chavin flourished as a sacred site for 500 years (800-300 BCE), as a place of pilgrimage, healing, and oracular activity.

Chavin is no ruin, however. Beneath the superficial ravages of time, its ceremonial heart remains intact. Facilitated by the sacred plants that were integral to its cultural awakening, it is possible to conduct a sort of “shamanic archaeology,” encountering the realm of visions and healing within its great portals, labyrinths, plazas, and before the Huaca, nicknamed the Lanzon, that still abides in the center of the site.

CHA8 Continue reading “Chavin de Huantar Pilgrimage May 30th to June 13th 2017”

Sacred Soil — An Indigenous, Pre-Colombian Technology That Might Just Save Our Planet

biocharThis video, recently completed by anthropologist Frederique Apffel-Marglin, explores a type of soil throughout the Amazon Basin, known as Amazonian Dark Earth. This soil, over 8,500 years old, is still fertile today. Indeed, it is considered to be the most sustainable soil in the world. It gave rise to a complex and populous Amazonian civilization, the first in the Americas. With the demographic collapse that happened with the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century that saw 99% of Amerindians die, the knowledge of this soil has been lost. Amazonian Dark Earth can at once address deforestation and food sovereignty as well as mitigate the climate crisis thanks to the biochar that it contains. It is full of ceramic shards which come from offerings to Earth Beings, providing us with an alternative to relating to the earth as an inert mechanism to be exploited for the sole benefits of humans.

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.

Ceasefire: Ending Our War upon Bacteria

B7_gut-bacteriaBacteria are wondrous critters. They fix nitrogen in the soil to nourish plants, populate our intestinal tract so we can digest our food, and convert our milk into cheese. Yet, like the uncounted billions of stars in the night sky, their cosmos is vast and mysterious beyond our reckoning. They populate every nook and cranny of Mother Gaia, from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the most abysmal depths of the ocean trenches to deep into the core of the Earth. They even ride the clouds. Within your own body, at this very moment, more E. Coli bacteria are thriving than the entire number of human beings who have ever lived!

Bacteria can also have a fearsome bite. Bacterial pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, leprosy, plague, gonorrhea, tetanus, and typhoid are among the scourges our species knew all too well until the medical revolution of the mid-20th century, when antibiotics made their first miraculous appearance. For the generations that have grown up under their protective shade, it is easy to forget that a doctor’s first line of defense against an infected wound was once a scalpel or amputating saw, not a pill. No longer can a mere nick upon the chin while shaving carry us off by blood poisoning. No longer is it fatal to be in the same room when a stranger coughs.

There is no doubt that the advent of antibiotics was an extraordinary medical advance. Indeed, so pervasive and profound was the impact of antibiotics during their heyday that in 1969 the Surgeon General of the U.S. trumpeted that, “It was time to close the book on infectious disease.”

He could not have been more wrong. Continue reading “Ceasefire: Ending Our War upon Bacteria”

Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island

buffalo ancestors

You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.

Spoken by a Crow elder to Gary Snyder.

Joseph Campbell, whose resonant interpretations of world mythology left such a mark upon the arts and spiritual imagination of the previous century, once offered four functions for any culture’s mythological system. “Mythology,” in this case, does not mean “outdated” or “pre-scientific,” but rather it means the interface of stories about the nature of existence that any culture must utilize to navigate through an ultimately unknowable cosmos. These stories we use to orient ourselves fall into four categories, or “functions,” according to Campbell:

1. The Mystical Function, expressing our awe of the universe; 2. The Cosmological Function, explaining the shape of the universe; 3. The Sociological Function, supporting and validating a certain social order, and 4. The Pedagogical Function, giving direction for living one’s life within the overarching meaning provided by a mythological system.

Apparently, this works by the trickle down effect. Authentic mystical visions of the highest attainable truths are given symbolic form and then stepped down, systematized, and eventually harmonized into the daily life of a society. This was the idea behind Plato’s Republic as well as the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, in whose cathedrals we can see an entire cosmovision realized in stone.

Yet, as we know, myth can not only point to eternal truths but also be a system of control imposed upon a population. Folk sometimes imagine the sociological function has to do with “socializing” at church or the temple, but it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s the aspect of mythic systems that supports and validates the social order — and like the tradition of sati, where a Hindu widow would throw herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death, it can actually be a fairly nasty piece of work. Continue reading “Revoking the Myth of 1492 and Reclaiming Turtle Island”

Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals

Sacred spaceAnimistic perspectives, which hold the cosmos as “a being to whom prayers and offerings are made, who is endowed with understanding, agency and sentience, and responds to the actions of humans” are often dismissed as primitive, even as “incompatible with an impersonal regard of objective reality.” Yet this account of a healing of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (the consequence of severe rattlesnake envenomation), within the shamanic traditions of the Native American Church and the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon, reminds us of how profound healing can be when it arises from indigenous perception of a sentient, living cosmos. It also demonstrates the diagnostic and healing capacities of shamanic traditions utilizing psychoactive plants, capacities sometimes beyond the reach of Western science.

SNAKE MEDICINE: HOW SHAMANISM HEALS

Our Native Mind

A snake which gets wounded heals itself. If now this is done by the snake, do not be astonished for you are the snake’s son. Your father does it, and you inherit his capacity, and therefore you are also a doctor.
– Paracelsus

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in the universal animation of nature, souls, and supernatural beings. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity”, yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men” (Tyler, 1871: 381).

Such paternalistic Victorian views towards animistic perception continue to hold sway in the popular mind, although a far more sophisticated understanding of indigenous perception has since developed, such as expressed by prehistorian Jean Clottes:

Traditional people, and I think the people of the Paleolithic had two concepts that change our vision of the world: the concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means the categories that we have, man, woman, horse, tree, etc., can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of spirits. A shaman, for example, can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit of supernatural spirits. When you put those two concepts together, you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now (Herzog, 2010).

Scholars in recent decades have proposed different schemas to distinguish the nature of the modern and indigenous experience of the cosmos.

Fig 3_1 (2)
Figure 1. Richard Tarnas’s primal and modern worldviews (Tarnas, 2006: 80)

Philosopher Louis Dupré depicts modern consciousness as a sudden, radical departure from tens of thousands of years of human culture, where “The divine became relegated to a supernatural sphere separate from nature”, and it “fell upon the human mind to interpret the cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be given as intelligible” (Dupré, 1993: 3). Cultural historian Richard Tarnas, who likewise sees the modern mind as an arrogation of interpretive power by the individual self, gives this model in figure 1 above to delineate the two forms of human apprehension.

Medieval scholar and fantast J. R. R. Tolkien, (whose mythopoeic works are our great modern guides to the indigenous mind of Europe) clearly had such a distinction in mind when he explained to C. S. Lewis:

You look at trees, he said, and called them ‘trees’, and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a ‘star’, and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, ‘tree’, ‘star’, were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was ‘myth-woven and elf patterned’ (Carpenter, 1979: 43).

For Tolkien, unlike Tyler, such an aboriginal worldview is neither prerational nor delusional. It is a form of human inquiry that satisfies a desire for sophisticated interaction with the cosmos, about which he stated “The magic of Faery1 is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these is the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living beings” (Tolkien, 2002: 113). Continue reading “Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals”

The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades

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The winding path that led to this essay, just published in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, began with the traditional lore of an Ashaninkan shaman working in the Peruvian Amazon. It may be the first significant discussion of Homer’s Odyssey in the light of contemporary knowledge of sacred plant medicines, indigenous ways of knowledge, and shamanic practices to appear in decades.

Towards the end of our year long investigation into the healing practices of the vegetalistas, as the indigenous and mestizo practitioners of rainforest medicine are known, we engaged in a plant dieta under the direction of one of the informants in Susana’s dissertation research, the curandero Juan Flores. One day, Flores tramped back to visit us during our solitary fast, and there the conversation turned to the mythic—and quite real according to him—beings that inhabit the Amazonian waterways. As Flores described the behavior of these sirenas, Robert was struck by the intriguing parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when given the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”

It was then we began to suspect that the indigenous experience of the natural world, which has a marked universality among native peoples, might have an underlying, shaping influence upon Homer’s narrative.

Along with familiarizing us with the cosmovision of the Amazonian peoples, our fieldwork also introduced us to the practice of shamanic journeying, which among Amazonian peoples, who live in an environment of extraordinary biodiversity, is often conducted in ceremonies utilizing ayahuasca, a psychoactive plant medicine whose name translates from Quechua as “vine of the spirits” or “vine of the dead.”

There we were also struck by certain parallels between Odysseus’ visionary descent into Hades and ethnographies of traditional shamanic practices among indigenous peoples worldwide, especially when supplemented by cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams’ theory of the intensified trajectory of consciousness. These parallels are suggestive of a deeper morphological relationship between Homer’s narrative and the traditions of vision quest among the ancient, indigenous Mediterranean peoples (whose material culture is preserved in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries), than is generally recognized. By viewing, as our main objective, just one episode in the Odyssey, the hero’s visionary journey in Hades, from an ethnographic perspective, this essay hopes to open up more inquiry into the indigenous, and shamanic, background of the epic poem.

To read the entire article, please enter here: The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades

snakes!

The Siren’s Rapturous Song: A Video on Shamanism and the Healing of Addiction

Awareness of the remarkable efficacy of psychoactive plant medicines to heal addiction is growing. These presentations by Robert Tindall and Susana Bustos, sponsored by City Lights Books, were inspired in part by the authors’ work at Takiwasi, a center for the treatment of addiction in Tarapoto, Peru which utilizes the traditional medicine of the rainforest, including ayahuasca, with a high degree of success.

These videos interweave two perspectives on the spiritual nature of addiction: An exploration of addiction versus shamanic initiation in the light of ancient Western texts, and a report on research into the shamanic treatments of addiction just conducted at Takiwasi, focusing especially on the lesser known vegetalista practice of the plant diet.

Part One is Robert’s talk on addiction versus initiation in the light of the ancient Greek and Celtic traditions.

Part Two is Susana’s talk on the vegetalista practice of plant dieta and its unique efficacy in the treatment of addiction.

With gratitude to Emerald Tablet, upon whose premises these talks were given on December 19th, 2013; to Vincent Tamer who captured them on video; and to Peter Maravelis at City Lights Books.

Tolkien and Magic Mushrooms: A Review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck

An engaging, insightful commentary upon magic mushroom use among Tolkien’s contemporaries and a review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck of Boston University, co-author with Albert Hofmann and R. Gordon Wasson of the classic, groundbreaking study The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Continue reading “Tolkien and Magic Mushrooms: A Review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck”

Tolkien is Wild and Disney is Tame: A Fantast’s Apologia

I can remember as a child falling into line with Disney’s black and white formulas. Jiminy Cricket’s “Give a little whistle” was a cheery invite to safety holding hands crossing the street, whereas the Fox’s “An Actor’s Life for Me” sounded ominous and full of forbidden pleasures that could lead to my sprouting donkey ears!

Yet somehow such simplistic dualism, a world cleanly divided into good and evil, abruptly ceased to comfort my young mind.

Some time ago, while walking my baby in the morning, I took a moment to reflect, why is it I am so downright suspicious and critical of Disney? If I could do a little self-psychoanalysis, what would I find?

So I played therapist, and realized where my break with Disney happened. It occurred when I was nine years old, on the day I was abandoned in a children’s shelter. As a creative kid who constantly referenced stories as a guide in life, I resorted to the mythos of Disney to populate the unknown world I was about to enter. I distinctly remember the images of the ragged, soulful-eyed orphans I generated in that final car ride, good children with whom I would bond together against a cruel world. We would have adventures together. He comforted me, Disney did, for the very last time in my life.

With my abandonment, the shaky floor of middle class values that I had been raised in splintered and collapsed, and I fell into a subterranean world that had nothing to do with Disneyesque belonging. The values Disney had inculcated in me were naïve in the face of the education I was slated to receive at the hands of the criminal class.

As I grew up during my adolescence in shelters, group homes, and foster homes, Disney’s art came to reflect the Great Lie: sanitized middle class values that secretly operated prisons and sweatshops over on the other side of the railroad tracks.

I don’t think I ever forgave Disney. What good is a mythos if it offers no survival value?

It was Tolkien’s work that came in some years later to fill the void left by Disney — for Tolkien’s mythos confronted our struggle to survive in the cosmos in a way that made sense of its spiritual dimension.

What is the essential difference, then, between Disney and Tolkien?

Basically, if the mythos of Tolkien is wild, Disney is domestic and tame.

What children, and serious minded-adults, want to hear are reminders of the wilderness, the great living cosmos filled with powers, terrors and joys lying far beyond the ken of humanity, within whose larger ecology we must struggle to locate ourselves and find our purpose. It is a realm where an angel, as the poet Rilke describes it, “will deign to destroy you.” A growing mind, and a mature psychology, needs to go occasionally astray in a wild spiritual topography, and Tolkien fulfills this function amazingly well.

Disney, on the other hand, is xenophobic — he fears foreign contamination, anthropomorphizes Nature, and whitewashes culture. All representations of mythology’s bad- assed wilderness are reduced to personifications of the family drama. Witches are inflated bad step-mothers, dwarves are cute childhood companions, dangerous sorceresses are larger than life cruel aunties, shamanic animal and plant allies are glorified pets, elves are not terrible and beautiful like the Eldar, but have little wings and wands and sit in daisy cups or are fat and wear aprons. Safe, tame, and domestic.*

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau once said, and Disney’s products censor that wild vitality. As Joseph Campbell points out, mythology gives us a map for entering the unknown and wresting value out of it. If our prevalent, functioning Disney mythology does no more than to suggest that our hero’s journey ends at heterosexual marriage and domestic bliss, who is going to take on the great tasks now awaiting doing? Is not the Disney mythos keeping us in an arrested development?

If Disney offers a counterfeit bourgeoisie paradise, Tolkien’s work offers redemption from the values of that world by reawakening us to indigenous ways of knowing, to an animistic sense of wonder and participation in a vital, non-human centered cosmic order.

Early in their friendship, Tolkien shook C.S. Lewis free from the confines of his scientific rationalism into an animistic perception of the cosmos, explaining how our ancestors experienced the sacred as immanent in, not transcendent to, creation:

You look at trees and called them “trees,” and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a “star,” and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, “tree,” “star,” were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf patterned”

“If God is mythopoeic,” Tolkien concluded, “man must become mythopathic.”

This vision of animistic participation in the cosmos is the rarely acknowledged phenomenological cornerstone of all Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth. But more than a literary device, for Tolkien this experience of enchantment is an essential ingredient to human existence. He called it “Faery,” and toward the end of his life he attempted to more precisely formulate it.

Here is what Tolkien wrote:

Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar—a constant awareness of the world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: a love and respect for all things, “inanimate” and “animate,” and an unpossessive love of them as “other.” This “love” will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful, even glorious. Faery might be said to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic, exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic (sub)creative. This compound—of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and the desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived—this “Faery” is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life.

As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger comments, “No great leap of imagination is needed in order to see that Tolkien was speaking from experience and that Faery was as necessary for his own spiritual health and complete functioning as sunlight for his physical life.”

Not only is it necessary for spiritual health, it is a requisite of accurate perception of ourselves and the world. For Tolkien, when we “appropriate” our experience and the things of the world, once we’ve “locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them,” the cosmos becomes, well, trite. The cure is Recovery of a clear view: “Seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them — as things apart from ourselves… so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Recovery through creative fantasy, “may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds…and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.”

The recovery of deep wonder is the gift that Tolkien gave us, and I thank him for it.

*Perhaps this sentiment is shared with Tolkien himself, who declared a “heartfelt loathing” for the American’s animations. “I recognize [Walt Disney’s] talent,” he said, “but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”

Loving a Sentient Cosmos

Future Primitive interviews Robert on the joy of participating in a sentient cosmos; water, the primordial womb; music and opening of the gates of consciousness; from shamanism to cultural regeneration; Tolkien: remembering the animistic perception of the world; “a love and respect of all things animate and inanimate”; “a cosmo-centric economy”; reintroducing the indigenous consciousness of reciprocity; cultivating a self-sustaining soil.

Subversive Spiritualities: A Review

It is a rare occurrence to encounter an anthropological work that is intellectually rigorous and deeply spiritual, one which both illuminates the mind and touches the deep concerns of the heart. Yet when such a miracle occurs, as we find in Frédérique Apffel-Marglin’s Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World, all too often these works languish in obscurity. The ethnographic works of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff on the Tukano Indians, for example, still make for riveting reading, yet his volumes mainly gather dust upon university library bookshelves.

Subversive Spiritualities, like Reichel-Dolmatoff’s works, deserves wide reading. After her upbringing in Morocco and her anthropological studies at Brandeis University, Apffel-Marglin began her first fieldwork in the 1980’s in the temple city of Puri, India. Her experiences there opened her eyes to the power of ritual as a regenerative practice, transforming “a secular Western anthropologist into a person with a very different relationship to rituals and to the beings that were invoked and conversed with during their enactment.” As her engagement with ritual deepened over the years, leading her to Peru and extensive fieldwork among Andean and Amazonian peoples, her critique of conventional anthropology, with its view of rituals as mere “symbolic action” and the dismal inverse proportion between anthropological archives and the well being of the worlds these archives represent, sharpened. Eventually she founded Sachamama Center, a non-profit organization in the Peruvian High Amazon which collaborates with the local, indigenous population on bio-cultural regeneration projects. Most especially, Sachamama works to reintroduce the yana allpa (more widely known as terra preta), a remarkably fertile pre-Colombian soil recently discovered throughout the Amazon, back into the native communities from which it originated.

Subversive Spiritualities is the fruit of her many years of anthropological fieldwork and meditations upon the “cosmocentric economy” of indigenous peoples and, in contrast, the “Modern Constitution” of the West. In the book Apffel-Marglin weaves a fugue, a counterpoint of two themes.

In the first theme, she depicts the richness and efficacy of native practices through first-hand descriptions of the Andean water ritual of Yarqa Aspiy and the agricultural Festival of the Ispallas, as well as native reactions to the forced imposition of the Modern Constitution, as in the well-intentioned Fair Trade movement of Peru or the family planning programs of the Bolivian government. Along the way, she even manages to make contributions to our understanding of native medicine, and the use of ayahuasca.

In the second theme, Apffel-Marglin conducts the most comprehensive, deeply informed critique of the foundations of Modernity (laboring under its unwieldy, artificially constructed divisions between observing, alienated self and absolute Space, Time, and Nature) that I have yet to read. In a narrative that reads like good detective fiction, Apffel-Marglin discloses the all-too-human historical and political forces, such as the enclosure movement, witch hunts, and bloody religious wars, which were an integral part of the emergence of modern science in Europe. In so doing, she deftly unveils the little carnival showmen, such as Descartes, Boyle, and Bacon, fiddling their epistemological dials behind the big, booming smokescreen of Oz the Great and Modern.

For example, surveying contemporary Western society, it is hard to dispute her claim that, “With Descartes’ cogito, the mind departed from matter, transmuting the body and the world into soulless mechanisms, transforming us into the only observers of an inert material reality, alone amongst ourselves, abandoned by all the other beings of the world.” Apffel-Marglin’s juxtapositions of aspects of indigenous culture with those of the history of the Scientific Revolution, such as Boyle’s famous experimental method for establishing certainty, is deft. In showing how Boyle’s method “created new boundaries between the physical, the metaphysical, and the spiritual,” and how “the latter two were evicted from matter, from the physical, relegating all such things to the privacy of the individual’s heart and mind” (thus creating “an anthropocentric cosmology”), she makes visible the arbitrary nature of the boundaries created by the rise of Science.

Indeed, although Apffel-Marglin’s discussion of the forces that wrought modern consciousness is layered throughout her text, they can be enumerated as a Decalogue of the Worst Modern Superstitions, beginning with the unfounded metaphysical conceit that I. The Human Self is Separate from the Cosmos. With four hundred years’ hindsight, it is now evident that, with the Scientific Revolution, “The very act of knowing became an estrangement, a distancing, and a controlling of matter. Knowledge became power, naked, unrestrained by sentiment, moral strictures, or by aesthetic guide-posts.”

After Descartes’ astonishing epistemological sleight of hand, the descent down the slippery slope into a fragmented world view is inevitable. Soon, it emerges that II. Humans and Nature Are Separate, III. The Cosmos is Mechanical and Dead, and IV. The Identity of a Human is Human, and Nothing Else (That is to say, a “Human being cannot also be an animal, a plant, a rock, a spirit, a deity,” a characteristic of permeable consciousness that allows indigenous cultures to effectively “intra-act” with the cosmos through ritual.)
Building upon this decisive break with what Apffel-Marglin calls the “non-human and other-than-human communities,” the superstructure of consciously formulated scientific belief can be erected, with its conceits that V. Science Can Objectively Represent Reality, VI. Reality Consists of Primary and Secondary Qualities, and VII. Humans Are the Self Conscious Shapers and Guarantors of Their Reality.

Is it too much to say that, upon these tenets of faith, has emerged our modernist, progressive credo, that, VIII. Time Is a Universal Arrow, Moving at a Measurable Pace, IX. Human Cultures Develop from Primitive to Advanced, and most threatening for the health of the “ethnosphere” of the planet, X. Modern Cultures Must Join the March of Progress?

Yet, despite her strong critique of the Modern Constitution, Apffel-Marglin does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. She writes as one thoroughly steeped in the investigative methods of Western science and scholarship. It is therefore fitting that one of the most interesting sections of Subversive Spiritualities is the book’s exploration of the confluence of the epistemology and ontology of Western science and indigenous rituals of reciprocity with a living cosmos. In her discussion of Neil Bohr’s complementary principle, Apffel-Marglin reveals how, once the Modern Constitution is teased apart, a vision of “intra-action” with the cosmos emerges, one which gives insight into and strong support for the reality-creating capacity of traditional, indigenous ritual.

Subversive Spiritualities is, in short, must reading. While authoritative as an anthropological work, it transcends its genre to directly address what are, in the end, the most urgent spiritual issues of our time. It is to be hoped that not only will this text be integrated into the curriculum of anthropology departments, but that it will inspire more engagement among anthropologists themselves. Certainly, the recent publication of Apffel-Marglin’s new book, Selva Vida: De la destruccion de la Amazonia al paradigma de la regeneration, co-edited with Stefano Varese and Roger Rumrill, has caused a welcome stir in her adopted homeland of Peru.

This review is forthcoming in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness, issue 25(2), Fall 2014.

Alas! My Blade Is Broken!

Among Zen Buddhists, there is a tradition of composing a final work of art or poetry upon one’s death bed.

As a teenager, freshly embarked upon my Zen training in a Buddhist temple in Hawai’i, I came across this poem that has stuck like a koan in my memory ever since:

All my life I have prepared for this moment,
Sharpening my blade.

Now, my time has come.
And I draw it forth.

Alas! My blade is broken!

“This is not good news,” I had thought, appalled. How could someone train for decades and find, at one’s moment of greatest need, all the effort to be worthless?

Over time, I have come to savor this final communiqué from an anonymous monk in the recesses of a medieval Japanese monastery. The Heart Sutra teaches us that all things are essentially empty, including all the layers of the self that lead us to the delusion of a permanent, solid ego. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, and like clouds in an empty sky, we coalesque and dissolve as well. This realization is the great liberation transmitted by the Buddha. Our blades are, indeed, broken. Good thing, too.

Yet, the anguished lament of this monk echoes still in the marrow of my bones:

Alas! My blade is broken!

Expanding Mind Interview — Shamanic Odyssey

Robert recently had a conversation with Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust on the Progressive Radio Network’s program Expanding Mind, exploring indigenous versus modern consciousness, addiction, and the profound relevance of Homer’s Odyssey to unraveling the roots of our current ecological crisis.

Erik and Maja, of course, are deeply informed and intelligent interviewers, who bring a critical, along with appreciative, perspective to their program. We hope you’ll enjoy this podcast. It can be accessed here.

Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in supernatural beings permeating the natural world. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity,” yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men.”

Yet Shakespeare offered a far more sophisticated theory of animism in his final play, The Tempest. This is not surprising. Shakespeare’s works easily bear more than one interpretation, and like the termas in the Tibetan tradition, their hidden teachings seem to emerge as the centuries pass.

The Tempest is the tale of a Duke of Milan and his daughter, who, marooned upon a remote island, survive with the aid of a magic staff, a book of potent spells, and two servants: an airy spirit and a half monster/half man named Caliban.

When their enemies one day come sailing into Prospero’s prescient view, he uses his magic to regain his throne. It sounds almost silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. Shakespeare, like a quantum physicist, is exploring the fabric of reality and how “magic” can shape it, and all the play’s activity is grounded in animistic experience.

Tylor’s theory of spiritual evolution is dramatically realized in the characters of Caliban and Prospero, who both perceive the cosmos as vital and sentient, yet from different ends of the spectrum.

In Caliban’s naïve animistic consciousness, trees, streams, stars, all are alive, filled with music and strange wonder, and his most haunting evocation of that sentience comes in the lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

If Caliban is mother nature’s son, Prospero is her shaman. As a Renaissance magician, Prospero has a similar mode of perception as the savage Caliban — he releases spirits imprisoned in oaks, calls forth mutinous winds, and, above all, creates visionary worlds that enrapture their beholders — yet his apprehension is aesthetic, not raw or sensual. In Prospero, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into one of the directions that science, as we now know it, was developing in his time (and would have kept developing if not for the interventions of the Inquisition, Galileo, and Descartes).

Prospero’s magic perfects God’s creation. Rather than splitting the atom, Prospero catches rides on the movements of the stars. His most memorable reflection on the nature of reality comes when he states, in the same vein as Caliban, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Like a Buddhist magician who understands that “all things are essentially empty,” Prospero can shape “the baseless fabric of this vision” we call reality.

Yet far from rejecting Caliban, who is murderous, lecherous, drunken, and won’t fall in line with his colonialist regime, Prospero in the end embraces him. Why?

Could it be that Caliban, with his indigenous visions and uncanny local knowledge, represents that mythic line, that symbiosis of human and animal that Euro-Americans simultaneously abhor and secretly yearn for? Is not the island itself, stranded half way in a dream, the shamanic realm where powerful magic and discourse with spirits and supernatural beings is possible?

If the island is a metaphor for the realm of the transpersonal unconscious (where Shakespeare, who wrote three of his greatest plays simultaneously, no doubt resided for much of his creative career), Caliban, we suspect, is the genius of the Earth — “You earth, thou” — the impulses arising from the depths, the wild vitality, the Dionysian trickster, that still sparkle in the Bard’s work.

Prospero is a hero beyond our society’s adolescent fixation with the journey of meeting mentors, crossing thresholds, experiencing ordeals, encountering the goddess, etc. Prospero is a grown man, who can orchestrate, like an incredibly skilled therapist, the catharsis of his enemies, and then forgive them once they are repentant. In the union of his daughter Miranda and the King of Naple’s son, Ferdinand, we see the hieros gamos, the royal marriage of opposites in the soul, which allows Prospero to renounce all his powers and surrender himself to mere prayer, holding that “every third thought shall be my grave.”

In our society, so desperately short on portraits of mature men, we have much to thank Shakespeare for. Interestingly, the best film version of The Tempest is Julie Taymor’s, in which Prospero is transformed into Prospera, nobly realized by Helen Mirren.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Flos Campi

The impulse to transcend, to rise to a higher plane, was deeply engraved upon Western spirituality by Plato and later Neo-Platonic Christians such as Saint Augustine. Yet Humanity’s primordial mystical desire, artistically rendered in the art of the Paleolithic caves, has never been entirely lost: to touch the mind of the jaguar, to sip of the Earth’s sweet nectar, to take wing with the eagle, to commune in deep time with the ancestors.

This is why I treasure the compositions of the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It may sound like a stretch to associate a 20th century composer with indigenous consciousness, yet Vaughan Williams, inspired by a poem of Meredith, could capture in a violin melody the rising of a jubilant lark and in his orchestration our experience of symbiosis with all of Nature:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Like the voice of nature, in Vaughan-Williams’ work, as one critic observed, “One is never sure if one is listening to something very old or very new.”

Yet Vaughan-Williams did not write airy New Age music. It is a brooding prayer, full of ecstasy and grief, very in keeping with the tenor of the English imagination: “Ostensibly familiar and common place, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.”

Of all his pieces, I’ve most hearkened to his eccentric composition Flos Campi, Latin for “flower of the field,” based in the Biblical Song of Solomon. Opening with a weaving bitonal duet between a viola and oboe, the suite unfolds into an interplay between a wordless chorus and an orchestra of flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, percussion, and a modest body of strings. The voices, rising and falling in mystical/erotic ecstasy to rest in satiated tranquility, are seduced, spurred on to higher planes of exaltation, titillated, and led through intricate, whirling dance steps by their ardent lover, the orchestra. At the piece’s conclusion, all join in a single statement of soaring, subtle ecstasy and affirmation.

To listen to this piece is to be taken through a landscape, one whose contents are unique for each listener, yet which speaks universally to our deepest desire for communion with the transcendent through this created/evolved world. The listener never soars beyond into the empyrean, but is continually brought back to the dank, sublime mystery of our biological home – before being set to flight in spirit once again. It is the breadth and depth of the visionary journey which makes Flos Campi unique.

Like many of his works, Flos Campi is a song of the Earth and our symbiosis with it. Vaughan-Williams called himself an agnostic, but his spiritual roots ran deep.

Shamanic Roots of Western Culture: Odyssey & Tolkien


“I love these kind of interviews – makes you feel like you’ve been sitting around the campfire with one of the ‘elders’ – out there in the jungle with the ancestors. You can almost hear their voices echoing in the wind. This is the new shamanic tradition with a cyberspace twist,” Timaeus commented after listening to this interview.

To listen to the second hour of the interview, click here:

Red Ice Radio Hour 2