My 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.
My partner at the time, a therapist, 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, 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. Continue reading “Shamanic Archaeology at Chavín de Huántar”
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”
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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 from a listener to that episode of Expanding Mind.
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.1
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.2
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!
Even if not taken in an explicitly sacred context, it’s still good to know what being you are communing with. For myself, although my relationship with red wine is sealed, because of the cultural richness and personal significance of enjoying a glass of stout, I still leave that possibility open for myself.
Yet, I haven’t taken that opportunity in many moons, and don’t know if I ever will again. First, I’ll be sussing out how my relationship stands with that other old friend of mine, that pint of Guinness, once enjoyed in many a convivial gathering in the local pubs in Connemara, Ireland.
1. Apffel-Marglin. “The pre-Columbian Amazonian Black Earth Re-emerging,” 6.
2. Ibid., 10.
Apffel-Marglin Frédérique. “The pre-Columbian Amazonian Black Earth Re-emerging Today. A source for Global Regeneration.” Selva Vida: De la Destrucción de la Amazonía al Paradigma de la Regeneración. eds. Stefano Varese, Roger Rumrill and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin. UNAM, Mexico: IWGIA, Denmark; and Casas de las Americas, Cuba. Forthcoming.
“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.
“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:
KMO welcomes Robert Tindall to the C-Realm to discuss the experiences that inform his book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey, and the themes of his new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.
Topics discussed in the first interview done in 2008, Jaguar and Pilgrim, include the nature of addiction, the role (helpful or harmful) of so-called “Ayahuasca tourism,” and the relationship between entheogenic exploration and psychedelic recreation.
In KMO’s second interview conducted four years later, Breath, Psyche, Life, Robert makes the case that the animistic mindset of non-Western, indigenous traditions, which understand how to live symbiotically with the rest of life on Earth, lies dormant in the Western psyche. It was there all along and is ready to reconcile with pre-lapsarian shamanic consciousness. In support of this idea he points to the Odyssey of Homer and to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien for illustrations of the sort of shamanic consciousness that the dominator mentality has spent the last few centuries grinding under its heel.
In particular, Robert references Aragorn’s use of the healing herb, Athelas (Kingsfoil), in The Houses of Healing and the whole of Smith of Wootton Major, as examples of animistic and shamanic themes working harmoniously within the mindset of a learned, Christian scholar.
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 wife, 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.
Returning to my seat I willed myself to enjoy the beauty of the night, but a deep apprehension gripped my stomach. I found myself urgently summoning my spirit guides. I would pass through the gates of horn – the ancient gate of true dreams – that night. I would have to, because the alternative was unthinkable.
Rosa’s voice arose over the buzzing hum of insects, invoking the powers of Madre Ayahuasca.
Soon the maloca sat steeping in dense energy, and I in a revolving chamber of mirrors, seeing nothing but the confines of my self, amplified to a Dantean hell. The other patients sat with heads bowed, seemingly plying the same dark waters. The icaros went on to the dull flailing of the shacapa. Nothing moved. We were flies stuck in the bottom of a black lacquer bucket.
Finally I was called forward to drink a second time. I tossed it down. Turning the cup about in my hands, I contemplated my dosage. Handing it back to Rosa, I politely asked if I could drink more. Nodding her head, she refilled the cup. I drank again. Now I was truly committed.
Returning to my seat, my head soon fell back to rest on the wall and my hands loosened their grip on my prayer beads.
The goddess Psychointegration is the force and the goal underlying consciousness. Like gravity, she contains the matter and temporality of mind, as well as providing the underlying, binding attraction of consciousness to the Self that lies beyond the narrow confines of the ego. That evening she came as thousand faced and armed deity, with a million eyes of spirits and gods, speaking innumerable tongues. The free traversers of the depths of the mind. As a voyage into the beings that, assembled, make our character and psyche, dance our neuroses, dream our births and our deaths.
Suddenly a spirit I encountered in the Barquinha church months before in Rio Branco, Brazil, hove into view in the darkness of the maloca.
A blazing figurehead on the prow of my spirit boat cutting through the night. In a deep drift across the waters, I became aware that my Nordic ancestors were assembling.
Ayahuasca translated means “the vine of the dead,” and the taste of the dead is familiar to a portion of our psyche we touch only in deepest dream.
Now they were come indeed — those who knew how to ply the immensity of the ocean, bringing with them the Viking gift of sight stored deep in my genetic code. Half seeing their faces playing before me, half feeling the salt wind and wave upon my body, the paths of navigation suddenly lay bare, open. Ocean. Endless ocean. Brilliant, cold stars. I clutched the prow of the boat. I remembered.
A sound of wings, great wings, came cutting across the water, mysterious and familiar at the same time. Then, hovering over me, the dragon landed upon my head and closed his wings over my eyes, settling into my cranium. Joining his vision to mine. The serpent guarding his horde at the base of my brain stem, dark and poisonous, had returned – transformed as the joyous rider of the clouds.
“The dragon… The dragon…” I muttered like a mantra, touching home in my body, aware I was journeying very deeply.
Psychointegration released her hold and I passed out of the waters. After a spell the arms of ayahuasca embraced me, enfolding me in a warm, fluid light and its circumference became the walls of the womb. Held suspended in the matrix of birth and rebirth, I rested.
The mysterious summons came much later in the session. As I sat quietly, the lilting, serpentine voice of Rosa abruptly wound, serpent-like, into me searching out deeper mysteries still.
My body began to transform under her icaro. My northern giant’s bone structure compacting into an indigenous skeletal frame, my skin from white to brown, and I found I had been given indigenous ears to hear and, what was better, the seeds of indigenous understanding in my mind.
As a smaller man with black hair, brown eyes, a sharp nose, and a different music sounding in his chest, I stared across the maloca and realized there was a presence there.
Bienvenidos, I heard with perfect distinctness. Tu has hecho el trabajo y estas listo para venir a nosotros. Estas bienvenido a nuestra casa. “Welcome. You have done the work and are ready to come to us. You are welcome to our house.”
I could discern nothing of the appearance of my interlocutor. To whom the voice belonged was a mystery. Yet familiar it was, as the scent of ripe honeysuckle and the sound of droning bees. In the darkness, I was aware the shamans of the deep rainforest were assembled, a lineage of practitioners who spoke with one, Elohim-like voice. A path into the indigenous mind had opened, and I was wholly transported by its promise.
In previous ayahuasca ceremonies I had gone on marvelous journeys, passed through terrifying transformations, received healings, and been touched by spirits of love surpassing human understanding. But I had never encountered anything of this nature before – it was as if I were being shaken awake by an actual presence from outside, reaching within my ayahuasca vision!
I felt deep joy, a child’s sense of homecoming, and my adult apprehension utterly suspended, much as J.R.R. Tolkien describes: “If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary world. The experience may be very similar to dreaming…but in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp” (Flieger 126).
Gazing into the rich, pregnant space that had opened in the night, I gave my thanks and said I would come. The vision faded.
In the days following, back in the bright sunlight making arrangements for our journey, I wondered, had I received a genuine summons – or was it an intensely symbolic dream, valuable in itself, but without true external referent? Yet the vision had that ancient flavor, much as one classical scholar wrote upon the bardic experience of communion with the Muse: “Such visions, welling up from the unknown depths of the mind, must once have been felt as something immediately “given,” and because of its immediacy more trustworthy than oral tradition” (Dodds 100). Of course, ancient bards also experienced the past as a dimension of the present, and had an uncanny ability to see into the abyss of time. Did my vision also have an objectively verifiable referent?
It was up to me to make my way to the rainforest and find out.
Meeting a shaman naturally provokes some scrutinizing for gifts of power, some evidence of otherworldly charisma. Standing on the sidewalk outside of our dingy hotel in Pucallpa, Juan Flores Salazar affected none.
A middle-aged man with short-cropped hair above a dark indigenous face with high cheekbones, he wore a frayed white shirt, old blue slacks, and scuffed black shoes. Addressing him as “Maestro,” I shook his hand and found it hardened by a lifetime of work in the jungle. He smiled, revealing a row of tobacco-stained teeth, but his face remained set in an expression of deep stoicism. This was the Ashaninca shaman who Susana and I had traveled to study with at his center for traditional medicine, Mayantuyacu.
As Susana chatted with Sandra, Juan’s wife, he and I stood in the doorway out of the din of the motorized rickshaws. Finally we went to a restaurant down by the waterfront of the river Ucayali, where we gossiped about Takiwasi. Then, warming up to one another, Susana and Sandra began chatting animatedly about the difficulties of taming the barbarians in their lives. They meant us. Juan and I glanced across at each other, and laughed.
I observed that he was eating his fish with his fingers. I’ve gotten too civilized, I thought, choking on a fish bone I hadn’t been able to extract with my knife and fork. When I recovered, Sandra was relating intimate details of their courtship as Juan polished off his plate.
“I often can’t tell if it’s him or a plant that is talking,” she commented, looking pointedly at her silent partner.
He smiled again.
I sat contemplating the humble indio seated across from me. Had he already introduced himself to me through the Cinema de Indio? Among the features of this native version of Skype is telepathy. Early German researchers of the chemical constituents of ayahuasca named the first alkaloid they isolated telepathine (now called harmine), convinced it facilitated telepathic communication.
But as we concluded arrangements to journey to Mayantuyacu, Flores still offered no hint of prior acquaintance. No cryptic words, no significant nudge. Watching him and Sandra disappear down the dark streets, I remained puzzled.
I saw nothing of Flores in the succeeding days, except in a dream. After a ceremony with a local Shipibo shaman, I fell ill. Night after night of wading through wisps of lingering sleep back and forth to the toilet followed. Finally, I dreamt of a landscape filled with water, water flowing in valleys, rising in vapors, falling lightly from the sky. Everywhere green, everything vibrant. Watching a figure descending into the valley below, I called out, “Stop, you’re going the wrong way!” Appearing on the next rise, he said to me, “I am a hydrologist. I know what I am doing.” I knew instinctively it was Juan, going deep into the watershed to tramp through the resuscitating waters.
“Wait!” I shout to him, running in to find my rubber boots and a flashlight.
I awoke to slog off to the toilet, grateful I hadn’t shat myself again, aware we desperately needed to get to Mayantuyacu.
The day finally came when I could tell Juan about my vision at Takiwasi. He giggled as I described being transformed into an indigenous. I asked him if it had been him that had spoken to me that evening.
“Sí,” he replied from his hammock, smiling like a boy who had just done a magic trick and was enjoying the effect.
Seeing me stumped, he repeated, “Yes, it was me,” as if we were talking about meeting on a street corner. “You probably saw me in my appearance as an Indian,” he added, meaning wearing a crown of feathers and a cushma robe.
“Why did you invite me to come, Maestro?”
“I can sense a mind in search of a new curandero.”
“How is this possible?” I asked, groping through this new terrain.
“The spirits of the plants move about the world talking with one another, and if you diet sincerely with them they teach this art.”
Medieval woodcuts of witches riding about on broomsticks intoxicated by datura swirled through my mind.
“For a curandero, plants help sustain life,” he said, and went on to speak of Christ within the plants. I learned that for Juan, Christianity is first realized in the photosynthesis of sunshine, and that plants – with their roots in the soil and their branches spreading to the sky – act as bridges between worlds. Instead of dwelling in the sky, Christ is literally among us, incarnate in the lilies of the field.
Good god, I thought, this guy is the real deal.
Yet I couldn’t shake the suspicion I was being duped. Sharing my doubts with Susana and some South American friends, I was rebuffed. Of course it was possible, I was assured.
A visitor from Brazil, seeing the doubt lingering in my face, told me a story. Once, he had done a solitary retreat in the rainforest, drinking potent shamanic plants. After some days, a band of spirits surrounded his little hut and began playing cacophonous music, a real din. Shaken, he had lit a mapacho cigarette and run around the grounds, blowing smoke to drive them away, but as soon as he lay back down in his hammock, the spirits returned, blasting away on their instruments. He repeated the action, to no avail, and was beginning to experience real panic when a smiling Juan suddenly appeared sitting beside him, calmly smoking a mapacho, cool as a cucumber.
Tranquilo, Juan said. “It’s just some playful spirits.” Getting up, Juan strolled about blowing tobacco smoke, and then left.
“The spirits vanished, and I finished my retreat in peace,” the Brazilian concluded.
Recognizing I was out of my depth, I chose to suspend my disbelief.
In the darkness of the maloca that evening, with the sound of the river of boiling water flowing below, the Maestro sang a boat playing in the whirlpools of the sea, and the whole maloca was transformed and we were on a carefree, delicious ride. He sang icaros of the ancient peoples of the forest, which to sing transforms one into a member of the indigenous group the song comes from. My mind felt it could take wing on the oldest of these icaros, like an eagle, into the sky.
It was simple like plainchant, pure like the cry of an animal in the early morning, resonant with praise.
Vapor rising from the river drifted in great luminous columns up over the trees, breaking up into wisps that disappeared into the starry night above. Juan sang to the vapor, and then to the spirit of the river, the little canyon, and its seamless interaction with all levels of creation.
Some days later I poked my head out the door of our cabin and saw Juan wearing a crown of feathers, crossing the compound barefoot, dressed in an orange and red cushma – a full-length woven robe. No longer the anonymous mestizo on the city streets, here he was in his domain. Now I was satisfied. This was the shaman I had come to the deep jungle to study with.
Yet after eight years of intimate apprenticeship, I am still not wholly convinced that it had been Juan who summoned me to the rainforest. As anthropologist Jeremy Narby once told me, “Shamanism operates in the realm of paradox.” The veracity of the vision I can never doubt, yet I have come to understand that, like series of endless Chinese boxes, one within another within another, cause and effect can never be adequately unraveled in the rainforest.
In the world of shamanism, you get told exactly what you need to hear. It’s up to you to walk the path.
* As in Arthur C. Clark’s dictum, any sufficiently advanced technology appears as magic.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California
Flieger, Verlyn. A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.
This account originally appeared in The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, in a less reflective and nuanced form. If you’d like to order a copy of the book, which gives an in depth account of our initial stages of apprenticeship with Juan Flores, click here.
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.
The healing power of icaros, the magic melodies of Amazonian shamanism, were the focus of Susana’s research in the Peruvian Amazon in 2004, where she participated in numerous ceremonies and conducted extensive interviews with healers and their clients in the vegetalista tradition.
Based on her findings, Susana gave this presentation on the therapeutic use of icaros in ceremonies with ayahuasca at the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) conference “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century” in April, 2011.
“My take is “salvation” or “obtaining liberation,” in the Western sense, is clearly an import into Amazonian culture. Their concern is in how to walk the way of life and death, how to understand their world in greater depth. Juan Flores instructed us, “ayahuasca teaches you how to die and be reborn.” It’s important to bear in mind that for traditional people, this world and the next world interpenetrate, and as Juan put it, “Death is a door you pass through, nothing else.”
Read Robert’s interview with Ivar Verploegh of the website A General Introduction to Ayahuasca here, for an exploration of the interface between the practices of Amazonian vegetalismo and modern Western society in search of itself.
As well, a second interview with DoseNation’s is available here, which is worth checking out for the balance of grudging respect and skepticism brought by James Kent to the interview!
Finally, listen to a rocking interview, The Jaguar and the Pilgrim, with KMO, whose C-realm podcasts are gems of intelligent, humorous inquiry, here.
Our society is well aware of the addictive siren song of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and chemically-degraded tobacco, all derived from originally sacred, healing plants. Yet little is known of the power of psychoactive plants to heal addiction, especially as mediated by shamanic song. We would like to share with you how one Westerner, a French doctor named Jacques Mabit who trained in the Amazonian tradition of vegetalismo, uses icaros, songs that embody and transmit the healing power of plants, to guide his patients into realms of healing and self exploration.
A little known fact is one of the greatest breakthroughs in 20th century medical science came from a preparation used to shoot monkeys down from the tops of trees. Naked “primitives” running around the jungle with blowguns turned out to be master chemists whose curare, a paralyzing muscle relaxant, revolutionized the practice of anaesthesiology, making possible the open heart, organ transplant and hundreds of other surgeries now performed daily in hospitals around the world.
Many experts claim the teeming life of the rainforests continues to promise cures – to AIDS, cancer, diabetes, auto-immune disorders. Yet where are these miracle drugs? Have we exhausted Nature’s cornucopia? Or are we wearing blinders that prevent us from seeing them?
During the years that Susana and I have spent studying and training in the Peruvian vegetalismo, a mixed-race healing tradition that combines indigenous shamanism with Western elements such as Catholicism, we have come to appreciate the paradoxes that indigenous medicine comes wrapped in for Westerners. Among them is the distinction between curing and healing of disease, concepts which, as in Venn diagrams, overlap yet remain experientially distinct. The thrust of modern Western medicine is to “cure,” from Latin cura “to care, concern, trouble,” by either managing disease within, or excising it from, the body, and disease is usually considered cured when symptoms abate. In indigenous styles of medicine, which give equal importance to curing as the West, healing, from Old English hælan “to make whole, sound and well,” may also involve searching out the hidden origin of the disease in the body/mind. In this healing quest, a cure may be found, and may not. The valence of the disease, however, will change. In such cases, it is the entire self that is engaged in unraveling a disease’s enigma, and the body is the laboratory wherein the cure can be found. As a consequence, such healing is often idiosyncratic, because each body’s laboratory is unique. Continue reading “Assessing a Quest to Heal HIV with Ayahuasca Shamanism”
At a recent panel on ayahuasca at the conference of The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness at U.C. Berkeley, I was intrigued to hear a social critic question the “inventive ‘religious’ mystifying of ayahuasca today in northern hemisphere circles,” stating that “we need to acknowledge that, and question whether the elaboration of further mythology is really ‘healing.'” Finally, he raised the serious question: Can healing arise from self-delusion? That same day, returning home I found this query, the sort that as a writer on Amazonian shamanism and a guide for groups down to the Peruvian rainforest I occasionally receive. With my ears still ringing from the critic’s frontal assault on the most cherished tenet of work with ayahuasca, it struck me as particularly timely:
What are your feelings towards Americans who, without ever having traveled to visit a real Amazonian curandero, take it upon themselves to brew their own ayahuasca? I currently work with a gentleman who has been doing this for nearly a year now, I believe … ordering the components of the brew and making it in his kitchen. He claims that the ayahuasca ally herself told him that he was doing a good job and that he should continue. But as an individual he seems to have a tenuous hold on reality and handles his day-to-day affairs and those around him with an almost frightening lack of compassion. As well, he always describes his experiences with ayahuasca as “tripping”, and has even taken to mixing his hallucinogens (DMT with mushrooms, LSD with ayahuasca). I fear for him, because he does seem to possess a level of self-delusion I’ve never encountered before.
As a writer on ayahuasca shamanism, and a leader of small groups down to the rainforest to encounter the practice of traditional medicine, I have watched the rising of the phenomena labeled “ayahuasca tourism” with apprehension.
The dark spectre of ayahuasca tourism is dealt with in only one chapter of my book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, and tangentially at that. I confess when I first began my pilgrimages to the Amazon, the concept of an ayahuasca tourist hadn’t even occurred to me, nor did I know the effect of this sham industry on indigenous culture. Continue reading “Ayahuasca Pilgrimage?”