Peter Gorman, investigative journalist and veteran traveller to remote regions of the Amazon Basin, reveals the intricate and deadly world of Amazonian shamanism in this four part series. This "primer" on ayahuasca shamanism explores the world of the Master Plant Teachers, the Sacred Purge, Amazonian Sorcerers and Healers.
Mushrooms in the Amazon Rainforest. Photo by Lorna Li
Part I: Master Plant Teachers
Man has always had a special relationship with plants. Plants provide, and have since the beginning of time, the bulk of our food, our clothing, our shelter. Some provide us with the loveliest scents; some with extraordinary color. They’re the source of our medicines. Their roots work with soil and stone to keep the surface of the earth intact. They go so far as to take the poisonous carbon dioxide that humans exhale and turn it back into human-life-giving oxygen. That’s some relationship. Of course it may be that plants only invented us to distribute their seeds, so I’m not suggesting they live to cater to us. But they do provide us with much of what we need to exist on this planet.
While in Western societies, plants are typically viewed as not much more than consumable resources, among the indigenous tribes of Northwest Amazonia, all plants are considered to be intelligent beings, with wisdom and teachings to impart to those capable of listening. In fact, in Amazonia, many rainforest plants are considered to be allies, helpers to the education and development of individuals and mankind.
Within the practice of shamanism , several plants are not just allies, they are considered Master Plant Teachers. You might extend that to read: Master Plant Teachers of Man. These plants might be considered gatekeepers. These plants are the plants that allow us, we humans, to slow down enough to communicate with the mountains; to speed up enough to communicate with a hummingbird, to visit the other realms past and present and simultaneous that are here but that we don’t ordinarily see or hear within the band widths of our senses. When I say other realms that are already here, what I mean are other realities that co-exist with ours. Imagine a dog whistle. You blow it, you hear nothing. Your cat hears nothing. Birds hear nothing. But blow it close enough to a dog and the dog will yelp in pain at the sound. Now the dog hears it but you can’t. But it was still there. Your hearing just didn’t have a broad enough band. Now what I’m suggesting the Master Plant Teachers do is broaden the bands of your senses so that we see, hear, feel, touch, taste and sense things we can’t under ordinary circumstances.Now the Master Plant Teachers include—and they are frequently called the 7 Master Plant Teachers—include Datura, Iboga, San Pedro cactus, Peyote, Ayahuasca, Amanita Muscaria… and I always forget the seventh, though I believe it’s Ololuqui, used by the Mazatecs and other indigenous groups in Mexico. There are undoubtedly others whose existence man has either not yet discovered or whose existence is being closely guarded by the peoples who use them.
Chacruna, or psychotria viridis. Photo by Lorna Li
There are a number of minor Plant Teachers as well, among them Cannabis, Salvia divinorum, a number of species of mushrooms, coca, opium poppies and so forth. All of these are vital and can help alter the perspective of man but what separates them from the Master Plant Teachers is the depth of their teachings, the power or knowledge they are capable of imparting to man.
Ayahuasca and tobacco, 2 sacred plant teachers. Photo by Lorna Li
These teachers all have, I believe, the will and have made the choice to be teachers to mankind. They all, also, have built in mechanisms that ensure that mankind has to want to ingest them, has to want the knowledge they can impart or realize once they have opened the gates they guard for us. Most of them prevent frivolous or accidental use simply by being physically difficult to ingest. One might pick a peyote button and eat it with little difficulty, but to eat the 30-or 50 or 500 one would need to have the spirit of Peyote convinced that you want to learn what he has to teach is a very difficult thing. Similarly, the vile taste of datura or ayahuasca, coupled with the intense purging—often from both ends—that accompany the drinking of these teas, makes frivolous or accidental use almost impossible.
So while the rose suggests we come to her to bathe in her glorious scent, the Master Plant Teachers warn us away from them. You pretty much have to want what they have to offer, and be willing to prove it with physical discomfort, before they will share.
But once they do, well, when those gates are once opened they will never quite close all the way again. Your broadened band of senses will never quite be able to forget seeing or interacting with the spirits you encountered, the spirits that are sharing your/our space. In other words, the spirits never leave once you’ve made their acquaintance. In the Amazon, continued communication with spirits after one’s initiation with ayahuasca is quite normal.
Ayahuasca Healing and the World of Spirits
Don Julio Jerena. Photo by Peter Gorman
A clear example of that occurred several years ago. I was at my friend and teacher Don Julio Jerena’s home up the river from Iquitos in Peru. I had my wife and two sons with me—they were all born in Amazonia and loved going to Julio’s.
My younger son, Marco, was maybe 11 or 12. He’d been around ayahuasca several times: the first time Julio put a drop on his forehead; the next time a drop on his tongue. The third time he was permitted to wipe his finger around the cup after I drank, and so forth. But he’d never done ayahuasca in the sense of actually drinking.
But on this occasion I had some guests with me and on the day we were going to drink we all went out with Julio very early in the morning into the rainforest in order to collect the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and Psychotria viridis leaves he was going to use to make the ayahuasca. He also collected small pieces of bark from the Lupuna Negra, Catawa and Chiri caspi trees that he was going to use as admixtures. I insist that people wanting to drink take that walk: If a 90-year old curandero can venture into the hot, humid rainforest, hacking his way through overgrown trails to seek medicinal rainforest plants on our behalf, the least we can do is keep him company. Marco joined us.
When we returned to Julio’s he began to cook the ayahyasca while we had breakfast---our only meal of the day—and then I sent everyone out for a long hike in the jungle. I did and do that for several reasons: I want them physically tired before doing ayahuasca. I want them tired enough that they are not concerned with whether they left enough cat food out at home, 3,000 miles away. I want them empty and clear so that the spirits, who often whisper, can be heard.
I also want them full of the sights and sounds of the Amazonian rainforest —from which ayahuasca comes and within which its spirit has grown up. And then I also want people to have an empty stomach before drinking, so that when they purge they can purge the bile of their lives, rather than undigested eggs. I’ll get more into that in a moment.
Amazon rainforest. Photo by Lorna Li
When people come back from a hike in the rainforest they are generally too tired to remember their own names, full of the things they’ve seen and been shown by my crew in the jungle, and their stomachs are empty.
And not long after that it’s time to drink. Now some people choose not to drink, and for them there is always a feast of food waiting. And at Julio’s, in his platform hut, the kitchen is maybe 10 feet away from the living area we drink in, so that food is close and can be awfully tempting.
On the night in question my son, Marco came back from the rainforest hike and headed straight to the kitchen to eat. But then he stopped, came back to me, and said he thought he wouldn’t eat, but that he’d drink ayahuasca instead, if Julio and I would allow it. We did.
An hour or two later, probably twenty minutes after he drank, Marco called me to his side, saying he was frightened. I held him and let him lay his head and shoulders on my lap as I sat on the floor. At times it seemed that if I let him go he’d fly away. But Julio and ayahuasca are gentle and in two hours it had passed and Marco went to sleep shortly after that.
In the morning I was surprised when one of my guests came to me in the kitchen and sort of angrily demanded to know how on earth I could have let an 11 or 12-year old drink ayahuasca. I said it never occurred to me that he shouldn’t drink as he’d done everything asked of everyone else and then wanted to drink. Plus, he’d been born into a world where ayahuasca’s use was traditional.
“But what on earth could Marco have possibly learned at his age?” I was asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Let’s ask him if he learned anything.”
We did, and Marco responded. “Well, before last night I was always afraid of the dark because I thought that’s when ghosts came and I was afraid of ghosts. But last night I realized they’re always here, right here with us. Only it takes ayahuasca to be able to see them and hear them and talk with them. So now that I know they’re everywhere all the time, and now that I talked with them and see they’re not all just trying to kill me, like I thought, I don’t think I’ll be afraid of the dark anymore.”
And he wasn’t.
Of course, once Marco was able to see the ghosts with ayahuasca, he didn’t stop seeing them either. And now, even at 18, he often calls me into his room at night to ask me to tell one or two of them to stop talking so loudly as he’s trying to sleep. Or to speak more clearly if they want Marco’s help with something.
So that’s work with Master Plant Teachers. It’s often very simple, just like it was with Marco. Of course, if you don’t want to learn that ghosts or spirits are everywhere, if you don’t want to learn what a flower is ‘thinking’ or how badly a tree feels when you prune its branches, you may not want to deal with the Master Plant Teachers, who seem to always give you what you need, and rarely give you what you want.
Pounding ayahuasca vine. Photo by Lorna Li
In my own case, some of the teachings have taken years and dozens of sessions to learn; others have been very simple but no less profound. Once, years ago, I was in an ayahuasca dream and asked the spirits what I could do to make a better living as a writer. Without hesitation a spirit said: “Drink less. Write more.”
That was it. The whole answer. So I drank less, wrote more and pretty soon was able to support my family on investigative journalism…no mean feat in a world which does not highly reward those who spend their time exposing hypocrisy and corruption in government quarters.
Realizing that inviting the spirit of a master plant teacher like Ayahuasca into your life has lasting repercussions is just one of the frequently overlooked but important aspects of these plants. There are several others I’d like to discuss as well.
Healing is a vital element of all of the Master Plant Teachers. With ayahuasca, with which we are concerning ourselves, that healing occurs on physical, emotional and spiritual levels, sometimes all in the same session. In the rainforests of northwestern Amazonia, the home of ayahuasca, illness is almost always seen as a symptom of a disorder or disturbance in another dimensional plane. Accessing that plane and identifying that disorder will frequently eliminate the symptom. Ayahuasca is one of the methods rainforest curanderos—healers—use to access those other planes.
Divining the Cause of Illness and Misfortune
One important aspect of ayahuasca healing is identifying the cause of illness, which, in Amazonia, might plausibly stem from a spiritual or mental aflliction within the patient himself. One other thing to remember is that, in the Amazon Basin, things like Mal Ojo, the Evil Eye; Envidia, jealousy, and other forms of negative energy, whether produced by a person or by a brujo—sorcerer—paid by a person, are considered to produce very real results. That’s because of a belief or awareness that intentions, like everything else, have a life force. And the life force of negativity, just like the life force of positive thinking, effects what it touches.
That said, at its most basic level, in the Amazon, a person living on a river might go to a curandero and say that he’s got a problem. His problem is that his chickens keep dying and he doesn’t understand why. He asks the curandero to drink ayahuasca to see what’s causing it.
The curandero drinks, contacts his spirit allies and asks them the cause of the problem. They in turn might show him that a neighbor who is angry with the chicken farmer is adding a touch of poison to the chicken’s feed at night.
But the work doesn’t end there. A good curandero would look further, to see what might have caused such anger, and see that the chicken farmer, at some earlier time, had caused a problem for the neighbor.
When the curandero comes out of his dream he has good news and bad news for the chicken farmer. The good news is he’s identified the problem. The bad news is that until the chicken farmer acknowledges the initial wrong he did to his neighbor, the poisonings will continue and the chickens will keep dying.
Many of the healings are quite simple in retrospect: a man keeps hurting himself shortly after he sells his bananas and suspects someone of giving him the evil eye, so he goes to the curandero and asks him to drink ayahuasca to see who it is. The curandero does, contacts the spirits, and sees that it’s not the evil eye, but that the man, every time he sells his crops and has a little money, gets drunk and hurts himself. The solution is to stop celebrating when the crops are sold.
On one occasion in Iquitos I was present when a man came to a curandero named Juan. The man was beside himself. He was certain that his wife was cheating on him and about to leave him for another man and he couldn’t bear the thought. He wanted to know whether it was true and who the man was.
On this occasion, Juan, the man and I all drank. And all of us saw the same thing: we saw the woman—I only presumed it was the wife in question as I didn’t know her—speaking with a man on a busy square.
When the dream was over the man was even more distraught. “I knew it! I knew it! She’s no good and she’s leaving me!!!” he sobbed.
Juan asked the man to try to revisit the scene in the ayahuasca dream. He asked the man if he could identify the place. The man did: It was the Plaza 28, not far from the center of town.
Juan then asked the man to try to calm down enough to see the man in the vision clearly. This time when the man grew even more distraught: “She’s cheating with a priest! A priest!”
Juan laughed. “No. She’s not cheating. Did you hear what they were talking about?”
The man said he hadn’t.
“She was telling him that you are so jealous that you always think she’s cheating. And then you hit her. And now, even though she still loves you, she cannot take your jealousy and the beatings anymore. So she was talking with the priest about getting a divorce.”
The man started to deny it, then began to sob and admitted that what Juan said was true. He kept beating her because he thought she was so beautiful that everyone wanted her and he didn’t want her to leave him.
Those healings are quite typical of the work an Amazonian curandero does with the people he treats. But ayahuasca healing is not limited to those sorts of things. In sessions with my friend Don Julio, I’ve had guests clear up physical ailments that ranged from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to imaginary pain from the loss of a limb. I had one guest nearly three years ago come to the rainforest to die. She was in end-stage cancer and wanted to disappear in the Amazon. She arrived taking a mountain of pills, from painkillers to anti-depressants. She cut out the anti-depressants prior to her trip to the Amazon—they would have had a bad-to-lethal effect in combination with ayahuasca—then drank twice with Julio and once with Don Francisco at Sachamama, a healing center situated in the rainforest outside of Iquitos,. She hated the trip. She hated me. She hated the rainforest.
Julio makes ayahuasca. Photo by Peter Gorman.
Nearly three years later she wrote me recently from southern Italy, where she’s touring on a motorbike, still cheating death. And still wondering why she is alive. The answer is that Julio, while under the influence of ayahuasca, saw some specific rainforest plants she needed to take to eliminate her cancer. The day after the second ceremony he had one of his sons collect these rainforest plants and made the woman a tea from them. She drank them religiously for a week—after that she was no longer with me so I can’t be certain she drank them at all. But they seem to have bought her a couple of good years at least.
Soul-loss and Soul-Retrieval
One type of healing that is common with ayahuasca is soul-loss, a condition most Westerners have never even heard of, and if they have, not something they would believe is real. Soul-loss is a condition in which a person’s soul, life force, flees the body, generally during a traumatic experience, leaving the body nearly lifeless. If not treated, if the life force is not reunited with the body quickly, the person will frequently die, and if they don’t die, will be little more than vegetable.
Not long ago, an old indigenous Matses woman who lived not far from Julio, was washing clothes in her canoe on the river. She looked into the water and saw her recently deceased husband. He was calling to her to join him. Then she saw her own grave next to his. This we learned later. What those who were there saw was the woman suddenly lurch forward and fall from the canoe, screaming. She climbed onto the riverbank and began racing headlong through tall grass toward the village she lived in. In her panic she stumbled on a fallen tree trunk hidden in the grass and fell, hitting her head.
A Matses woman and child. Photo by Peter Gorman
Her nephews brought her to Julio. They had to carry her from the canoe. Her breathing was very shallow, her eyes were rolled back in her head. She did not respond to touch.
Julio had her laid down on a hut floor and began to treat her. He chanted, cleansed her with smoke and Florida Water (the ubiquitous holy water of northwest Amazonia), then went into a trance that lasted perhaps an hour. During the trance he was as lifeless as she, except for moments of agitation when his fists would clench, his shoulders shudder and he would speak unintelligibly. He began to sweat profusely. When he came out of the trance his clothes were soaked through and he told the Matses men to bring her back the next day at the same time.
She left as lifelessly as she’d arrived, and she arrived the next day as lifelessly as she’d left.
The second day’s treatment was much like the first, except that Julio forced a little bit of a plant decoction he’d had his son make into the woman’s mouth. And this time, when Julio was in his trance and would tense up, the woman began to tense up as well. She was still unconscious, but moaned perceptibly, and gritted her jaw.
When he was finished he told her nephews to bring her back to finish her treatments the next day at the same time.
When she was gone Julio related that he’d seen the woman see her husband in the river calling to her. Then she’d seen her grave. It was such a shock that her soul fled, leaving her to fall from the canoe then race mindlessly until she’d fallen.
During the third treatment, while Julio began to chant, the woman began to move. She moaned, clenched her jaw and folded her hands into fists. She began to move her torso. Within an hour she opened her eyes and there was recognition in them. Julio chanted and cleansed and the woman was given a little more of the plant medicine—this time she tried to object to it—and her movements began to take on a solidity. An hour later and she was asking what Julio was doing and why she was there.
Another hour and she could be helped to her feet and, with assistance, walked back to the canoe. She’d gotten her soul back.
The next day she returned, still weak, and Julio asked what had happened to cause her soul to flee: She told the same story Julio had told two days earlier.
To be continued...
Part II: La Purga
In the Amazon Basin, ayahuasca is frequently called La Purga - the purge - because users tend to physically purge themselves. In next issue, Peter Gorman unveils the importance of purging as a healing process in the Amazon, and describes a shaman's ability to suck disease out from a patient's physical and energetic body.
Part III: Brujos: Sorcerers of the Amazon
The world of Amazonian shamanism is fraught with sorcery, and those who choose to follow this path need to maintain constant vigilance. Peter Gorman describes methods that the brujos, or sorcerers, use in order to accrue power and kill their foes in the Amazon Basin.
Part IV: Curanderos, Healers of the Rainforest
In the Amazon Basin, few medicine men have mastery over plants, and even fewer are true healers. What differentiates a healer from a sorcerer? Peter Gorman talks about a healer's relationship with plants and spirit allies, and describes how psychic surgery is performed by healers of the Amazon rainforest.