Not long ago, while hobnobbing one morning at my 5 year old daughter’s school, I overheard a couple of parents talking about their experiences with different ayahuasqueros and how difficult it was to find anyone reliable in the Bay Area these days. Continue reading “Integration of Ayahuasca Experiences”
I am not in charge. The spirits of Ayahuasca are – big, powerful, monumental – like a mountain with a Sphinx on top – brown and green and jungle. Sharp edges, lightening-like patterns like native weavings – strong. Continue reading ““I Am Not in Charge. The Spirits of Ayahuasca Are.” One Pilgrim’s Experience at Mayantuyacu”
Animistic 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. Continue reading “Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals”
I showed up at Koko An Zendo while still a teenager. Having done my preliminary research, I marched into my first dokusan with Robert Aitken and announced my intention to take up the path of Zen. He had regarded me and said, “Well, there is this koan called Mu…” Shortly thereafter, I moved into that little temple in Hawai’i and embraced the deep sense of inner vocation I felt upon chanting the vows and taking my seat for meditation.
I was a rough piece of work. Unruly, my peace of mind shattered by my life on the streets, without inner direction except a fierce conviction that the Buddha Way was mine own. I don’t know what Aitken Roshi saw when he accepted me as a student – he was an intensely private being. Yet I recently came across a passage in a little booklet he published in 1960 which seemed to reach out of across the decades to clarify his mind for me:
Sometimes a juvenile delinquent is brought to the temple by despairing parents in hopes the monks can make a man of him. In the one case of this kind I know about the boy had a difficult time in adjusting to temple life. He made one entire sesshin a complete washout for everyone by going into giggling fits in the zendo. However, I found him at the same temple when I visited there six years later. He had become a monk and was acting as the personal attendant of the roshi. So far as I could tell, the temple life had indeed straightened him out.
Had Aitken Roshi recalled that “juvenile delinquent” as I had audibly and visibly battled with my inner demons through my second sesshin, wreaking similar havoc on the atmosphere of the zendo? Had that long ago encounter shored up his determination to keep a loose cannon like me rolling around the temple until I could batten myself down? I suspect so. Continue reading “Reflections on A Dawn Cloud”
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
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.
Here is 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.
The journey began in northern Africa, as recorded in the author’s earlier autobiographical account, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey (2008) and it brought him eventually to his wife and coauthor, Susana Bustos, Ph.D., who was studying the healing songs, or icaros, of the mestizo vegetalista shamans of the Peruvian Amazon. The present book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, is also something of a personal Odyssey, combining Tindall’s abilities as a classical guitarist and a professional scholar of medieval English literature1 and ancient Greek epic.
Of course, the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, philologist and Professor at Oxford in Anglo-Saxon and the author of a series of fantasy novels, are now part of the general culture of the present generation through their film adaptations. The novels burst upon the world at the incunabula of what has come to be termed the Psychedelic Revolution of the 1960s and satisfied a thirst for a mythopoeia to codify the meaning of the flood of personal vision quests launched upon the world through experimentation with drugs, inadvertently instigated by R. Gordon Wasson’s Life magazine account (1957) of his participation in a mushroom healing séance of the Mazatec shaman María Sabina, and the ensuing general enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs like LSD. Continue reading “Tolkien and Magic Mushrooms: A Review of The Shamanic Odyssey by Carl Ruck”
Back in 2004, when I was documenting the shamanistic practices of the Ashaninkan curandero Juan Flores for my book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, Flores had a saying that captured the nature of his healing work.
Returning from the riotous din of the nearby frontier town of Pucallpa, he would turn to us with a smile and say, “The city for machines. The jungle for healing.” At such moments, speaking of his beloved rainforest sanctuary of Mayantuyacu, Flores’ face would light up from within, and he was capable of shedding bitter tears at the cutting of precious old growth medicinal trees on lands bordering his center for traditional medicine.
At that time, it was clear where Flores’ allegiance lay: the old ways. The traditions of the Amazonian peoples who lived in intimacy and conscious symbiosis with the mysterious lifeways of the rainforest.
One night, early on in my bewildered stage of adaptation to Mayantuyacu, Flores approached me after a ceremony with the visionary plant medicine, ayahuasca. Sitting with me on the floor, he described how his grandfather had taught him to make fire with the natural products of the rainforest. In Flores’ words, I heard that corridor open, the one that can very rarely be found nowadays, that leads directly back to our ancestors – those who knew not merely the utility, but the magic, of fire.
It was a good moment.That was Mayantuyacu’s gift to the world: memory of the old ways, of the healing power and rapturous beauty of wild nature, just as it is. Mayantuyacu had the power to recall one to his or her aboriginal senses.
At that time, Mayantuyacu floated delicately upon a sea of foliage and jungle cries. The animals, snakes, and birds were populous. The insects voracious. With no electricity, Mayantuyacu gleamed with kerosene lamps and candles, suspended in a matrix of silence, so deep your bones relaxed in its embrace.
This was in keeping with another of Flores’ beliefs: the spirits don’t like noise, which is why they make their residence in the most tranquil, undisturbed places of the wild. If you want to get to know them, Flores said, you had to seek them out there. Which is why Flores built Mayantuyacu at a place of unique geological power and beauty: the geothermally heated river that flows beneath his center. The spirit boat, so well known in the Amazonian cosmology, filled with doctors and other supernatural beings, traveled up that river. It is also a traditional site for his people — there is record of “wild Indians” gathering at the locale in the 1800’s.
Mayantuyacu now presents something of a contrast to those early days. Seen from the ridge above, it no longer appears like an organic part of the landscape. At night, electrical light blazes in the main structures, and the sound of an electric generator reverberates in the night. Technology is making its creeping way into the settlement. We observed during our hike in that the shaman’s apprentice, Brunswick, is now addicted to fiddling with his cell phone. Ominously, a worker assured us, Mayantuyacu is “catching up with the times.”
Viewed in that light, Mayantuyacu is beginning to resemble just another frontier town, aggressively pursuing its growth at the cost of the surrounding landscape.
This is the perpetual question: will Mayantuyacu lose its original vision under pressure from the world outside? Will it become just another hub for the spiritual tourism market?
As the concrete continues to pour and the infrastructure develop to provide more comfort to visitors from afar, we watch carefully if the “mythic line,” that place of tending to the ancestors and traditional ways, has been frayed or broken. Put bluntly, is Flores still holding it together? Has the container of Mayantuyacu been broken?
Yet it’s all too easy to fall under the delusion of naive realism — that we must hew to some primitive standard in order to have a true culture of shamanism intact. As in so many places in the world, Flores is in a race of adaptation to mounting pressures from inside and outside.
Inwardly, traditional curanderos are not immune to the seduction of “progress,” and their families often ratchet up the pressure upon them to pay the bills, educate their children, and leave a concrete inheritance once they, and their traditional knowledge, pass away. Comfort and convenience creep into precedence over reverence for ancestral ways. Some curanderos entirely abandon the idea of transmitting their cultural heritage to their video game playing, TV watching, internet surfing children.
Outwardly, Mayantuyacu squats upon land controlled by a Houston-based oil company, which has thus far cast a tolerant, even mildly benevolent, eye upon Flores. Should some other corporate eye fall too hard upon the sentient river that flows through his lands, the sacred waters could be diverted, and the music of the spheres end in mere noise. Thus the scientists and film crews visiting Flores’ center, seeking to document and save it, all of whom require electricity to power their equipment. As well, as Flores’ reputation spreads, groups of physicians and medical students will come seeking education in indigenous ways — and they cannot be expected to adapt to raw jungle living in the brief time they will have to immerse themselves at Mayantuyacu. They will need more than a modicum of comfort.
Mayantuyacu, therefore, presents a fascinating challenge, perhaps an identical one faced by all beings who wish to live in communion with the original mind. Can we keep a balance between our necessity to adapt to the impersonal demands of the world economic system and vocations that require immersion in the embrace of sentient Nature, especially among traditional healers?
This strikes me as a battle now being fought on innumerable fronts, in innumerable ways, in every moment of our lives.
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.
Taking a sacred medicine out in the jungle of South America appears to give rise to ecological awareness, as a reaction against a cold, materialistic view of the environment that mostly exists in the corporate mind, where it is seen as a ‘resource’ to be exploited.
Can such perception of interconnectedness and of a vital, living cosmos, characteristic of indigenous and traditional peoples, help save our world? Click here to check out this interview with Psychedelic Press UK.
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. Continue reading “Subversive Spiritualities: A Review”
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? Continue reading “Is Alcohol a Spirit? Or, My Goodness, My Guinness!”
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 coalesce 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!
“There are an increasing number of psychospiritual drug narratives that centre around ayahuasca and the Amazon, and while they all retain a great number of similar threads, Robert Tindall’s The Jaguar the Roams the Mind stands out from the crowd… For the scholar of pharmacography this is an excellent example of ayahuasca literature and, for the general reader, it is an illustrative and engaging story that probes both mind and culture.”
Rob Dickson’s beautifully crafted review of The Jaguar that Roams the Mind just out on Psychedelic Press UK!
Just in case the review piques your interest, the book is available here.
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.
“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. Continue reading “Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman”
“I very much enjoyed reading the shamanic analysis of two of my own favourite books. The use of plants in the Odyssey, and the idea of an “intensified trajectory of consciousness” in Tolkien, and the phenomenological idea of presence in song and story, were all fascinating and thought-provoking, and while their analysis did not err too heavily on the theoretical, there is enough to give the reader a grounding for both historical ends of the texts as being part of a single analysis,” writes Rob Dickens in his review of The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience in the webzine Psychedelic Press UK.
To read the entire review, click here.
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.
“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:
Although Middle Earth could easily be characterized as a product of the intensified trajectory, J. R. R. Tolkien, staunch Catholic, Oxford don, one of the most brilliant philologists of his age, gives scant evidence of a shaman adventurer. “I am in fact a hobbit,”1 he once wrote, describing his conservative and simple tastes.
(Since the webzine Reality Sandwich just ran this excerpt from our The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, we’d like to share this contemplation on the shamanic character of Tolkien’s mythopoeic vision here as well.)
Like Bilbo, he preferred to hear the singing of his kettle as he puttered around in his garden, leading his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, to ask:
Should we not wonder at the fact that a mind of such brilliance and imagination should be happy to be contained in the petty routine of academic and domestic life; that a man whose soul longed for the sound of waves breaking against the Cornish coast should be content to talk to old ladies in the lounge of a middle-class watering-place; that a poet in whom joy leapt up at the sight and smell of logs crackling in the grate of a country inn should be willing to sit in front of his own hearth warmed by an electric fire with simulated glowing coal?2
Yet it is precisely because Tolkien was a visionary that he was content to lead a life that to some, like poet W. H. Auden, appeared so appallingly staid. For Tolkien, Numenor was as real as, if not more real than, Oxford town. Although he himself may have disguised and felt ambivalent about that, psychologically Middle Earth existed as a literal place that he journeyed to. Whenever Tolkien found an unresolved mystery in the etymology of his Elvish languages or the history of the various races that populated his mythos, he would state, “I must find out” the answer, as would any intrepid empiricist seeking objective data in this world.
What is certain is that Tolkien’s quest, often couched in the language of his discipline of philology, was to retrace the route of the development of modern consciousness back to that primal mind, “alive with mythological beings,” which he termed Faery. Given the obviously visionary component of Tolkien’s work, it is odd that more attention hasn’t been given to this aspect of its nature. Continue reading “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness”
J.P. Harpignies, New York-based Associate Producer of the Bioneers Conference, and editor of Visionary Plant Consciousness recently corresponded with Robert Tindall, now located in the cacophonous mestizo wilds of the Peruvian Amazon, about his new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.
J.P.: Robert, can you explain the genesis of this book?
R.T.: The Shamanic Odyssey can be mainly traced back to a conversation Susana and I had with our teacher of the vegetalista shamanism of the Amazon, the Ashanincan curandero Juan Flores. It happened when we were engaged in a very traditional diet deep in the rainforest, where Susana and I were living in isolation drinking shamanic plants and subsisting primarily on roast green bananas! Flores had tramped back to visit us, and sitting together by the stream 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, I was suddenly struck by the deep parallels between their seductive behavior and that of the Sirens described by Homer. Flores had never heard of the Odyssey, yet when I described the story of Odysseus’ ordeal in the orbit of their rapturous song, Flores nodded his head and said grimly, “That’s them, alright.”
I had already been observing a number of intriguing parallels between the ancient mythology of the Greeks and Celts I had studied at the university and the contemporary cosmovision of peoples in the rainforest, but this conversation stuck with me.
Upon our return to the United States after our year-long immersion in the vegetalista tradition, I had a chance to spend some time teaching the Odyssey, and it was then I began to recognize that the text is shot through with indigenous and shamanic cultural elements: shapeshifting, visionary journeys, plants with resident divinities, masters and mistresses of animals, the symbiosis between plant/spirit/shaman, animal becoming, sacred topography—the list went on and on. The case became particularly intriguing when Susana and I began analyzing the descriptions of the therapeutic effects of bardic song in the Odyssey in the light of her research into the healing powers of Amazonian healing songs, i.e. icaros.
The Odyssey led me into an unfolding meditation on the indigenous mind at the root of the Western tradition. The more I followed up on details of the epic poem, the more terrain was revealed. Most notably this occurred around the mythologem of the clash of the Cyclops and Odysseus, which I see as a remnant of a very ancient oral tradition transposed into Homer’s comparatively modern narrative. As a teaching story, like the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, it appears to me to capture modern humanity’s break with indigenous, or primal, consciousness.
Just as I was contemplating the ramifications of such a mythologem existing in the Odyssey at all, I encountered the peyote shaman Bob Boyll, the second major cultural informant for our book, and heard his account of the two roads of humanity he had been taught by the Hopi prophet David Monongue.
Again, like the uncanny parallels between the Amazonian and ancient Greek sirenas, Monongue’s description of the two roads of humanity struck me as too similar to the cultural tensions illustrated in the clash between the proto-modern Odysseus and the indigenous Cyclops to be accidental.
To tell you the truth, I often felt like an amanuensis, those folks who during medieval times assiduously transcribed the oral tradition, during the writing of this book. In that sense, its genesis lies in converging lineages of plant-based shamanism, the research into icaros of my co-author Susana, ancient texts, ethnography, the work of anthropologists like Reichel-Dolmatoff, even the mythopoeic work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Continue reading “Embarking upon The Shamanic Odyssey: J.P. Harpignies in conversation with Robert Tindall”
I first encountered the Ashaninkan shaman Juan Flores within the Cinema de Indio, one of the magical* practices of the rainforest facilitated by the psychoactive brew ayahuasca. Even many years after that heady initial immersion in the vegetalista tradition of the Peruvian Amazon, I still contemplate Flores’ invitation to join him in the rainforest with wonder, and ambivalence.
It came in my final ayahuasca ceremony at Takiwasi, the center for the treatment of addiction in Tarapoto, Peru, which utilizes shamanic medicine along with Western psychotherapy. My partner at the time, Susana Bustos, was doing her dissertation research there into the healing powers of icaros, magic melodies sung during ayahuasca ceremonies, and we were preparing to leave for another jungle town, Pucallpa. One of the curanderos there was expecting us: Juan Flores, who I had already seen in a photo, wearing a crown of brilliant feathers, half-smile on his lips, and an innate regality in his bearing, mounted on a wall along with images of other curanderos who had worked at Takiwasi.
If things had gone better with the introduction of Catholicism in Peru, many of the churches there might look like the maloca at Takiwasi. The essential shelter of the jungle, a maloca is a large, rounded structure with a thatched roof, whose open walls allow for the easy circulation of air while containing its inhabitants like a friendly spider’s web from the buzzing and humming of the jungle outside.
As an architectural synthesis of the traditional ways of the rainforest and Catholicism, the front of Takiwasi’s maloca is a chapel, where hang images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Senor de los Milagros (Peru’s cherished icon of the Crucifixion, executed in an Expressionistic style), and a gaudy, baroque St. Michael slaying a dragon. Yet instead of orderly pews, cushions on reed mats line the walls, a bucket beside each of them, and in place of an altar for Mass, there is a mesa where the psychoactive medicine of the rainforest, ayahuasca, is poured.
That evening, the patients of Takiwasi gathered, dressed in white. They were all men, from teenagers to old, gnarled campesinos. The leaders, Rosa Giove and Jaime Torres, took their places at the head of the room, bottles of ayahuasca, Agua de Florida, and tobacco before them, along with other ritual implements such as the shacapa, which would beat in our ears like the sound of wings in the night.
One by one, the patients and I went forward. Salud con todos, “Health with all,” we salute before drinking, the rest echoing back as a choir.
Raising a cup of ayahuasca to the lips is a practice of transubstantiation. Within the thick, bitter fluid, capable of provoking instant vomiting, is the taste of the salvific power of the jungle, of evolution itself. That night I drank as if I were thirsty, the liquid flowing down my throat like honey. I regarded the cup in wonder. Continue reading “You Get Told Exactly What You Need to Hear: A Visionary Summons to the Deep Rainforest”
Luxurious, well-lit spirit boats plying the night waters? Bath houses for the spirits? The danger of total memory loss? Implanted spells in the shape of little black worms? Bitter medicines that provoke vomiting and purge the system of malign influences? Animal transformation? Shamanic flight?
Surely, we’re in the realm of Amazonian shamanism!
Surprisingly, we’re also in the realm of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the renowned anime director’s most successful, and Japan’s top grossing, film. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away both conveys a strong ecological message and depicts a young heroine’s journey without falling into the simplistic good/evil formulas characteristic of Disney. Instead, the protagonist Chihiro surmounts the obstacles in her path by discovering her innate capacity to heal and to perceive the true essence of those around her. In short, she conquers through love.
Miyazaki’s imaginary realm is wild and free, much as the mythos of traditional and ancient peoples.
Of course, Miyazaki’s cultural background is profoundly Shinto, yet the influence of other cultures, such as ancient Greek myth, upon Miyazaki’s work has long been recognized (for example, the protagonist of Spirited Away, Chihiro, has her parents transformed into swine for eating the food of the spirits, and must, Odysseus-like, must find their cure and effect their release). Less recognized is the imprint of the cosmovision of Amazonian shamanism upon Spirited Away.
The early arrival of the Acero Punta, the steamship of the spirits sited throughout the Amazon waterways and depicted by artist Pablo Amaringo, first tips off the viewer of Miyazaki’s new cultural inspiration, but it is an ayahuasca-like medicine that Chihiro, like a good curandera, utilizes to heal the sick that clinches the case.
Chihiro receives the intensely bitter, fist-sized ball of medicine as a reward after performing her first purga upon a polluted river spirit, and is soon required to purge and heal two spirits of intense maladies. The first, her ally the river spirit Haku, dying of internal bleeding while in dragon-form, swallows the potent remedy, is flung into convolutions, and vomits up a stolen golden seal upon which sits a black worm. Chihiro kills the worm, which had been implanted in Haku by the witch Yubaba to enslave him – a hex and extractive procedure quite typical of Amazonian folk medicine.
The second healing, performed upon No Face, a spirit akin to the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist tradition, triggers the most comical sequence of vomiting in cinematic history – as No Face careens after the fleeing Chihiro through the levels of the bathhouse, disgorging the contents of his vast swollen, distempered belly, he literally returns to his senses. After a bout of hurling reminiscent of the most nightmarishly purgative of ayahausca ceremonies, we hear him give a post-limpiada burp and meekly beg pardon! The restoration of No Face’s original self is complete, and he finds his home with Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeneba.
Really, that’s what Spirited Away and the Amazonian shamanic tradition is all about – finding one’s way home. It’s an inspired nostos, a homecoming song, in the best of Ancient and traditional storytelling ways.
For more info on this most remarkable of world leaders, who donates 90% of his income to the poor and chooses to live on his wife’s ramshackle farm instead of in the luxurious presidential palace in Montevideo, check out this BBC article:
Our first visit to Takiwasi, the center for the treatment of addiction that utilizes the methods of Amazonian shamanism along with Western psychotherapy, and its host town, Tarapoto, was many years ago, in a quieter age.
Susana had arrived long before me, and developed a strong affinity with the work of the center – its compassionate approach to treating addicts, its commitment to the study of the native, traditional medicine of the rainforest, and the unique character of its founders, the doctors Jacques Mabit and Rosa Giove. When I had joined her there some years after her first visit, she was working as a therapist in the ample, tree shaded grounds of the center, doing her dissertation research, and soaking up the accumulated knowledge of traditional plant medicines and shamanic techniques utilized at Takiwasi to heal.
Back then, we rented a rustic, but very cargado (i.e., spirit-filled), house, around the corner from Takiwasi for a hundred bucks a month, and slept on borrowed mattresses, cooked on a borrowed stovetop, and invested in a few pots and spoons. We were on pilgrimage, then. When we left the center to continue on to Mayantuyacu, we simply put all our accumulated possessions in the back of a pickup truck and drove into the entrance at Takiwasi, where we gave them away to the staff.
Yet even then, Tarapoto could be loud. Even very loud, both with the chainsaw grind of the constant motorcars (rickshaws drawn by motorcycles) and the blasting of the rhythms of Peruvian dance music late into the night.
Peruvians, like aggressive teenagers, seemed to live by the motto, “I make noise, therefore, I am.” But no taste for silence appeared to develop in them with age (We have observed this conditioning to extreme noise begins very early in this culture, and have the theory Peruvians in the jungle towns are, if not physically, psychologically deaf.).
Yet all these factors, and a hundred other details which we had thought we knew about the mestizo (“mixed blood,” i.e. European/indigenous) culture of Tarapoto, were sadly out of date upon our arrival. On the economic front alone, the Peruvian economy had gone through a boom since our last stay in 2004. Prices are far higher, and the dollar now trades for substantially less.
I had also not fully factored in our own change in status. By virtue of arriving with a three year old girl with the intention of staying in one place for an extended time – involving schooling, decent housing, local community and friends, language issues, reckoning with local diseases such as parasites, etc. – we were no longer pilgrims, skimming lightly over the landscape. We had become immigrants, putting down roots. Continue reading “Tarapoto Mestizo Blues”