Snake Medicine: How Shamanism Heals

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

SNAKE MEDICINE: HOW SHAMANISM HEALS

Our Native Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving a Sentient Cosmos

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

Icaros: Song and Healing in Ayahuasca Ceremonies

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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.

Susana Bustos- Icaros: Song and Healing in Ayahuasca Ceremonies from MAPS: Psychedelic Science on Vimeo.

Ayahuasca Matters: Interviews with Robert Tindall

“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.

Shamanic Song in the Treatment of Addiction

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.

The House that Sings:
The Therapeutic Use of Icaros at Takiwasi
by Susana Bustos, Ph.D.

This article originally appeared in Shaman’s Drum, Number 73, 2006.

Assessing a Quest to Heal HIV with Ayahuasca Shamanism

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”