By Ross Heaven
Shamanic healing often employs plants to good effect, though it is rarely about herbalism, per se. Indeed, most shamans are explicit that the pharmacological properties of the plants they employ are of far less importance than the spirit which is held by the plant. It is the spirit which heals, while the plant itself is secondary, acting only as the home of the plant-spirit.
The point is illustrated by Amazonian shaman, Javier Arevalo, who serves the community of Nuevo Progreso, on the Rio Napo river of Peru, working with the visionary jungle vine, ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a powerful purgative and curative mixture which is used by the shamans of the Amazon to commune with the spirits, who then oversee the healing of the person who drinks the ayahuasca brew, while the shaman guides the healing session and appeals to the spirits on behalf of his client.
The mixture itself, blended in careful measure, contains ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), often with datura and pure jungle tobacco, which cause the purging qualities that ayahuasca is famous for. The final mixture is also known as ayahuasca, from the Quechua words, aya meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘dead’, and huasca meaning ‘rope’ or ‘vine’. Hence, the brew is often referred to as the ‘vine of souls’ or the ‘rope of the dead’.
It is prepared by cutting the vines into short lengths which are then scraped, cleaned and pounded to a brown pulp. The vines, along with chacruna leaves and other ingredients are then placed in a cauldron, water is added, and the entire mixture is boiled for 10-12 hours, overseen at all stages by the shaman who will continuously blow sacred tobacco smoke into and over the brew. When ready, the mix becomes a muddy, pungent liquid with a foul, acrid taste.
Once ingested, the mixture produces initial feelings of warmth which spread up from the stomach, creating a sense of well-being and a sensation of skin elasticity, almost as if the skin has become rubber-like and pliable and no longer separate from the air around it. After this first phase, which may last 30-60 minutes, the visionary effects begin, which are often dramatic. Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, in his book, One River1, described the sensation as akin to being “shot out of a gun barrel lined with Baroque paintings, and landing in a sea of electricity”. Visions of snakes and vines in bright primary colours are very common but, for the trained shamanic eye, information on the illnesses and diseases which inhabit his client’s bodies are also expected. It is these visions which enable him, and the spirit of ayahuasca, to heal his clients.
During the visionary phase, purging may also take place through vomiting or diarrhoea. This is often emotionally uncomfortable for Westerners who are brought up to control their bodily functions and not to ‘let go’ of themselves, but it is welcomed by the people of the Amazon since it is this purge which removes the ‘poison’ that can lead to illness, and clears the system both physically and spiritually. Of course, the shaman must never purge since he is a master of (or partner to) the vine and must control the healing ceremony.
Javier is a Maestro (master) of ayahuasca (also known as an ayahuascero) and has spent 14 years understanding the ways and the spirit of this and other plants, which he refers to as “the jungle doctors”. The training of an ayahuascero is arduous, involving abstention from certain foodstuffs, from alcohol and from sex, since the spirit of ayahuasca, while angelic and protective, can also express very human emotions, such as jealousy and anger, and can turn vengeful, with unpleasant consequences for those who approach it in an impure manner.
Training as an ayahuascero also involves long periods of time spent in jungle isolation, “dieting” the plants, which means regular (often nightly) ingestion of ayahuasca, along with many others which are considered healers. He must also follow a special diet which denies him sugar, salt, alcohol, pork and other foods. In fact, the diet consists largely of rice, fish and rice water – and even that might be considered lavish since all of the food must be found locally or carried into the jungle, where the shaman must remain for months at a time. The harshness of this training regime is exemplified by one Amazonian shaman whose mentor once gave him tobacco to diet, in a mix so strong that it bordered on toxic. After consuming the fermented tobacco drink, the shaman retired to a jungle cabin where he lay in a coma-like state for three days. “When you take this drink, you’ll either live or you’ll die”, his mentor told him. “If you live, you will know tobacco”2.
“Every plant has a spirit”, says Javier. “The shaman goes into the forest as part of his apprenticeship and spends years taking plants and roots. He takes ayahuasca too and the spirit tells him what it cures. Then the shaman tries another plant, each time remembering which ailment is cured by that.
“As the spirits, or plant doctors, who teach us are pure, they are made happy when we are pure too. So a shaman must diet in order to attract them. That means they should not eat salt, sugar or alcohol, and they should abstain from sex.
“You learn all this in the wilderness. The spirits there are the angels of each plant, to which you add your own will to heal the client. This is the will of Christ”3.
Javier’s own training has taken place under the tutelage of his grandfather, a Banco (master shaman), who, under the protection of ayahuasca, is able to spend up to eight hours beneath the waters of the Amazon rivers, communicating “with the biggest fish of the river”, according to Javier. Once, he also saw a mermaid there, who is now a guardian and tutor to the old shaman. Soon Javier will begin his own “river training” on his own path to becoming a Banco.
The use of ayahuasca is completely egalitarian, according to Javier; its healing spirit being available to anyone who partakes of the drink, though it is often the shaman who carries out the healing, per se, once the spirit of ayahuasca has revealed the nature of the illness to him.
Laboratory tests reveal no significant healing properties for ayahuasca, only hallucinogenic qualities, so it is surprising to Western scientists and clinicians that such results are possible. For Javier, the explanation is simple: the spirit of the plant is a healer and it has, he says, had similar remarkable results in curing Western visitors with ailments including cancers and HIV, as well as alcoholism, drug addictions and other more emotional problems.
“I had a patient who was HIV positive and had been in hospital a fortnight”, said Javier. “That night we drank [ayahuasca, and] I saw in my vision that HIV was like the devil destroying him and that he was getting worse.
“He stuck to the [ayahuasca] diet for two months [and] he also took bitter tasting herbs which cure internal wounds. After three times [three ayahuasca sessions] he was better and, when tested, proved HIV negative”3.
The Pulitzer Price-nominated author, John Perkins, who has written extensively about ayahuasca usage among the Shuar Indians of Ecuador, has confirmed other ‘miraculous’ healings. “During the ten years we have been taking people to meet the shamans, there have been a number of remarkable stories”, he says4 – among them, cures for deafness, depression, weight loss, as well as endless accounts of life changes and new visions for a different personal and social future.
Against this backdrop of radical and positive change, it is depressing for Javier to reflect that the rainforest, home to so many healing plants – millions of them still unknown to Western medicine – is being destroyed so quickly by the ‘developed’ nations, with so little consideration of the consequences of this action. Every three seconds in the Amazon rainforest, one entire species is wiped out forever as a result of this development in order that Westerners might eat more burgers and drive more cars – the very things (pollution and fast food) which are, in many cases, causing disease in the first place.
People create such ‘madness’ as a result of confusion and to be noticed, says Javier. Ultimately, they are searching for love and belonging but, in the West, they believe this comes through status, rather than the more direct route of loving intent.
Javier’s point was underlined a few years ago, when he worked with a group of Westerners of which I was a member. Immediately prior to the ayahuasca ceremonies, Javier asked the group what they really wanted from their lives.
Most answered with spiritual or ‘cosmic’ answers and spoke of world peace and saving the planet, etc. Javier looked bemused and confused. He asked again and this time, after a little more thought and a good deal more honesty, people said what they really wanted was love. This Javier could understand. The requests were real and immediate – but it was as if people had not felt entitled to ask for these personal things.
Yet, paradoxically, these honest desires are where true healing begins, said Javier, since, if more people in the West were able to experience love, there would be no need for the madness of developed society, the search for more status and material gain and the destruction this leads to – and, consequently, no need to save the planet, which would never be in danger. “Love solves problems”, say Javier, simply. “Ayahuasca cures through love”.
Ross Heaven is the director of The Four Gates Foundation and the author of books on shamanism and healing. His latest is Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul. Ross also teaches Plant Spirit Shamanism workshops and trips to the Amazon to work with indigenous healers and plant shamans. Details of these are available at The Four Gates
1. Davis, W. One River: Science, Adventure and Hallucinogenics in the Amazon Basin. Touchstone Books, 1998
2. In Heaven, R. Spirit in the City: The Search for the Sacred in Everyday Life. Bantam Books, 2002
3. Cloudsley P, Love Magic and the Vine of the Soul, Sacred Hoop magazine, Issue 36, Spring 2002
4. In Heaven, R. The Journey To You: A Shaman’s Path to Empowerment. Bantam Books, 2001