Medicine for the Soul – Plant Spirit Shamanism of the Amazonian Rainforest

‘Whether the plant is to heal the body or the spirit or whether it is part of an apprenticeship, what makes it work is your good intention towards the plant. They are beings, which have their own forms or they can be like human beings with faces and bodies. When the spirit accepts the person, and the person has the will, the spirit grants them energy. The path to knowledge opens, and the healing takes place’

Guillermo Arevalo – Shipibo Maestro

In the Amazonian tradition working with planta maestras (teacher plants) is known as the Shaman’s Diet. The working can be seen as a conscious body of actions to incorporate the plant spirit into one’s own spirit. From this incorporation or union, the plant spirit informs and teaches the maestro or apprentice. They learn the magical chants (icaros) which invoke the power of the plant, how to use the plant for healing purposes, and how to strengthen the dieter both psychologically and physically. The purpose of the diet is to prepare the body and nervous system for the powerful knowledge and expansion of consciousness given by teacher plants.

It offers a significant challenge for the rational Western mind to come to terms with the teacher plants, and a leap of imagination is required to incorporate the ‘other’ consciousness, or spirit of the plant.

We also have a ‘linguistic’ limitation (as an analogue the Inuit have over fifty distinct words for snow), in that the word ‘shaman’ is very recent to the Amazon, coming via the Western world in the last 20 – 30 years. There are many words which denote the plant specialisation of the maestro or Vegetalista. Benjamin Ochavano a 70 year old Shipibo Vegetalista says that his father was known as a moraya or banco (healer), in Spanish it was a curandero. A curandero could then further specialise in a particular plant such as chonta (bamboo) and be a chontero. For example a curandero who specialises in smells and perfumes would be a perfumero.

Another challenge to our rational mind to enter the magical world to which we are transported by plants is that it is mainly accessible through dream language or an expansion of the imagination. Thus dreams & our imaginative powers act like doorways during a plant diet and connect us with the plant spirit.

The rational mind can only struggle, to take as an example the famed ‘love potion’ of the Amazon known as the Pusanga. In rational terms it makes no sense whatsoever, how can a concoction of leaves, roots, and seeds attract a lover, or good luck to you? My experience working with shamans in preparing Pusangas (which normally is prepared away from their clients so it was a privilege to be invited to participate in the preparation) showed me that far from interfering with the freedom of other individuals or putting a ‘number’ on them, we were altering something within ourselves, which was brought out by the ingredients, the magic of the plants. Whatever it was, it felt wholesome and good. It is what is in oneself… one’s own magic. Asking Javier Arevalo (the shaman) what does the Pusanga actually do, is it inside us or outside of us? His response was “When you pour it onto your skin it begins to penetrate your spirit, and the spirit is what gives you the force to pull the people. The spirit is what pulls”.

The anthropological term ‘sympathetic magic’ does not give this justice, to illustrate this, the water used in the preparation of an authentic pusanga (which has been specifically made for you) has been collected from a deep trek in the rainforest, sometimes 40 or 50 miles, where there are no people and where clay pools collect and thousands of the most beautiful coloured parrots and macaws gather to drink from them for the mineral content. Now the great leap of imagination required is to bring into yourself the knowledge, the feeling, the sense that the water in the Pusanga has drawn in or attracted thousands of the most brightly coloured creatures on the planet. If you do this, it can generate a shift in consciousness in you.

You can sample this for yourself, just find a quiet moment and space, close your eyes, and with the power of your imagination as the launch pad, draw in the verdant, abundant forest filled with life, colour, and sound. Sense the rich vibrancy of the rainforest as a single breathing rhythmic totality of life force. When you have this image, expand it to include, the humid warmth, the smell of earth, the scent of plants, hear the sound of insects and bird song, allow all your senses to experience this. Then with a conscious decision draw this sensory experience into your being. Whenever you are ready, open your eyes, and check how you are feeling.

Maestros do not invent diets, they are given by the plant spirits themselves, but there is more to it than simply abstaining from certain foods and activities. It involves a state of purification, retreat, commitment, and respect for our connection with everything around us – above all the rain forest. When we listen to our dreams, they become more real, and equally important as everyday life.

The shamans work with the power of the plants in many ways, the colours of the flowers, the perfume, their shape, form, and associations. To illustrate this, another maestro Artiduro Aro Cardenas remarks;

‘A smell has the power to attract. I can also make smells to attract business, people who buy. You just rub it on your face and it brings in the people to your business, if you are selling, people come to buy. I also make perfumes for love, and others for flourishing. These are the forces of nature, what I do is give it direction with my breath so it has effect. I use my experience of the plants which I have dieted. I have a relation with the plants and with the patient; I can’t make these things on a commercial scale.

When I diet I take in the strength of the plant and it stays with me. Later I find the illness or suffering of the person or what it is they want, and the plant guides me and tells me if it is the right one for that person, and I cure them’

He also (as do many maestros) works with the plants not only to heal illnesses but to resolve domestic and family problems;

‘I get people coming for help to give up drug addiction, people with family problems, supposing the man has gone off and left his family, the Mama is here with me and the Papa is far away. I pull him back so he returns to his home so that the family can consolidate again. In a short time he will be thinking of his children and his wife, and he comes back. I don’t need to have the actual plants in front of me, I call the plant spirits which work for that, Renaco, Huayanche, Lamarosa, Sangapilla, perfumes and I call his spirit back to the family home. I blow smoke to reunite them.’

Another (in a very enjoyable way) the qualities, consciousness or spirit of the plant is used to attract benign forces is “los baƱos florales” or flower baths. In this the individual is bathed in flowers which have been soaking in water for many hours. The maestro prepares the water by blowing mapacho (jungle tobacco) smoke and at the same time placing his intention into the flower soaked water. Again these flowers and plants have been gathered from sometimes deep and not easily accessible locations in the rainforest and have been selected for their specific qualities which the maestro feels are needed to help that person.

A friend of mine Alonso del Rio, who has lived with the Shipibo people, and is uniquely well equipped to be a bridge between the indigenous wisdom and modern Westerners, tells the following;

‘The mind of the traditional maestro is very different from yours or mine. He has lived in the rainforest without contact with the Western world, so to have access to the same visions, the same codes is difficult. But what I have found is that the expansion of the consciousness and the power that the plant gives you to understand many things is perfectly valid.

The magical space to which we are taken – call it the ‘unconscious’ or any term you want to use depending on your psychological model – is one where all the kingdoms of nature can communicate. That is people can talk to plants, and plants with minerals, minerals to animals and animals with humans… all in the same language. It is a very real communication and one of the greatest mysteries which exists. This is something which an English person or a Peruvian born in Lima can experience just as an Amazonian person. Because you can do it without speaking in a native dialect, it doesn’t go through the mind but between one spirit and another.”

On the edge of the Amazonian town Iquitos is the market river port of Belen, which has the famous street ‘Pasaje Paquito’ where many of the rainforest, herbs, plants, mixtures, tinctures are sold. Chatting to Juanita the owner of the stall where I buy plants from, I remember her describing some of the potions, lotions, plants, tonics, barks, perfumes, roots, oils, aphrodisiacs and leaves, and remarking “when you talk to the plants you will get to know them like friends, they have their own spirits, their own personalities”.

A look at a few of the ‘planta maestras’

The shamans say that plants connect us with nature because they take their nourishment directly from the earth, as well as the sun’s rays, the air, and water. They allow us to know and recognize ourselves. A shaman must know this and must love his people to heal them.
Chiric Sanango Brumfelsia grandiflora; this plant is good for colds and arthritis and has the effect of heating up the body, so much so that the maestros advise a cold shower after each dose! This plant can be used in baths for good luck, and bring success to fishing, hunting etc.
This planta maestra also makes possible for people to open up their heart to feel love for people and animals (warms up a cold heart) and bestows the ability to identify with other people as though they were your brothers and sisters.

The plant grows mainly in the Upper Amazon and only a few ‘restingas’ (high ground which never floods) in the Lower Amazon. The gift of Chiric Sanango is self esteem, and develops a deep connection with your inner self.

On a personal note, I have dieted this plant, and although I thought the terminology of “warming one’s heart” to be a bit “cheesy”, this plant really did have an extraordinary effect on me, I really did feel this inner glow of warmth, and friendship, and to my surprise it is still there! I feel that I returned from my exploration with this plant a changed person.

Guayusa Piper callosum; is good for excessive acidity and other digestive problems in the stomach and bile. Also it is both energizing and relaxing at the same time and develops mental strength.
Guayusa also has the most interesting effect of giving lucid dreams i.e. when you are dreaming you are aware that you are dreaming. The plant is also known as the “night watchman’s plant”, as even when sleeping you seem to have an awareness the outer physical surroundings.

On another personal note, I found the experience with this plant also to be quite incredible. I found that the usual boundary between sleeping and being awake to be more fluid than I had anticipated. Even now, sometime after taking the plant my dreams are more colourful, richer, and lucid than before. When taking this plant, I sometimes wake up not knowing if I have actually ‘woken up’ or I am dreaming that I’ve woken up. For those interested in ‘dreaming’ this is certainly the plant to explore.

Ajo Sacha Pseudocalymma; A very important planta maestra in the initiation of Amazonian shamans. On a physical level it purifies the blood, and is used for people suffering from arthritis and rheumatism. The other benefits are that it brings mental strength, acuity of mind, and it can take you out of saladera (regarded as a run of bad luck, inertia, or a sense of not living to the full). It is also used for ridding spells. The plant is used to enhance hunting skills by covering up human smell with the garlic-like smell of Ajo Sacha.

The Shipibo maestro Guillermo Arevalo also added that this plant opens the shamanic path – if we are prepared to live under the obligations of shamanism, to do this we need the qualities of courage, and no fear of extremes or ‘ugly’ things. We need to understand what role we will play in our community, and have the heart of a warrior. As a personal observation, Guillermo is one of the most highly respected maestros in the Amazonian region and is regarded as the authority on dieting this planta maestra.

On another personal note, I found my senses being altered and enhanced with this plant. I could zoom in and focus on sounds emanating from the rainforest, my sense of smell became sharper, and in some ineffable way I could tune into the breathing or rhythm of the rainforest. The sound of insects and birds was no longer a random phenomenon, these sounds became a rhythmic breath, rising and falling. No wonder that it is used for hunting as one’s sense are heightened in an incredible way.

Reflections

On reflection dieting plant medicine is totally different than pharmaceutical medication which only affects one whilst it is being taken; these kinds of plant medicines seem to have a permanent effect in some way metaphorical or otherwise altering one’s consciousness or “DNA”.

One of the great revelations that we can experience in working with the plant spirit or consciousness is that we are not separate from the natural world. In our culture we perceive ourselves to be separate beings with our minds firmly embedded within our physical being (typically our head). The plants can show you that this way of being is an illusion and that we are all connected, all of us and everything else is a discrete element in the great universal field of consciousness or spirit.

Experience Ecuador: The Amazon Rainforest

If you ever doubt the necessity of ecotourism or supporting environmental efforts, visit Ecuador. This beautiful Central American country boasts a share of the Amazon rainforest that extends over 40 percent of its land. Home to not only an incredible array of exotic flora and fauna, Ecuador’s several indigenous nations have carved their lives and traditions into rivers, lagoons, creeks, and towering trees. The sheer variety of life that the area sustains demands respect for the environment; it also presents unique opportunities for eco-friendly travel.

Half of the world’s bird species, 1,200 butterfly species, thousands of mammals and reptiles, jungles, and deep, life-filled waters combine to create incredible biodiversity. The nearby Galapagos Islands host their own spectacle of natural beauty and endemic species. Unfortunately, this diversity is threatened by logging, oil exploration and drilling, and a disregard for the environment that is slowly, slowly changing for the better.

In all of Ecuador, over 21 percent of the forest has been depleted, but there are examples of how ecotourism, preservation, and local community activism has helped the forests survive – and even thrive. Mindo, for instance, has actually managed to regenerate forest. Over 15 percent of Ecuador is protected now, though logging continues to be common. Visitors not only mean increased awareness of the plight of rainforests, but also dollars necessary to fund ecotourism ventures.

The Smart Voyager sustainable tourism certification program, which is a collaborative project of the Rainforest Alliance and Coservacion y Desarrollo, an Ecuadorian nonprofit, is a proactive and effective force in the ecotravel industry. Accommodations like the Black Sheep Inn, Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, and Kapawi Ecolodge also offer a terrific experience and help reduce impact on the land.

In an interesting twist, indigenous tribes are also becoming active in ecotourism. Angel Etsaa of the Achuar tribe of southeaster Ecuador, for instance, is a guide for the Kawai Eco-Lodge; eventually, the Achuar people will be the sole owners of the guide business, and hopefully, able to keep the ancestral homes pristine and free of developers.

When booking eco-friendly tours and accommodations, make sure that you choose companies that do not simply “green wash” their businesses in order to capitalize on eco-conscious tourists. Ask questions about their energy and waste management and their green initiatives. Smaller, locally owned businesses are also beneficial. No matter where you stay, do your part to keep your impact minimal.

The motto Ecuadorian travelers might adopt is “Tread lightly on the earth. And have a great time.” You can bird watch, enjoy the scenery, mountain bike, horseback ride, tube, or raft – you shouldn’t leave anything behind of yourself, but the rain forest will leave much of itself in you.

Rainforest Plants – Curare

Family: Menispermaceae

Genus: Chondrodendron

Species: tomentosum

Common Names: Curare, grieswurzel, pareira brava, pareira, vigne sauvage, uva-da-serra, uva-do-mato, ampihuasca blanca, antinupa, antinoopa, comida de venados, curari, ourari, woorari, worali, velvet leaf

General Description: Curare is a large vine found in the canopy of the South American rainforest. It is only four inches in diameter, but it grows high in the top of the canopy-100 feet. Also known as velvet leaf, its large heart-shaped leaves have a soft silky underside made up of tiny white hairs.

Uses: Curare, injected in high doses into straight muscle tissue, is a highly poisonous extract; it has been prepared throughout tribal history in South America, for the purpose of poisoning the points of arrows. Curare, in large doses, paralyses the motor nerve-endings in striped muscle, and death occurs from respiratory failure. Curare is very bitter, and is actually a common name for various dart poisons originating from South America. Curare is not to be confused with Curara.

Curare has differing effects depending upon dosage, whether it is injected into muscle tissue, or ingested. Curare is used internally in tribal medicine for edema, fever, kidney stones and testicular inflammation. It is also known to relax muscles into a state of inactivity.

Under appropriate medical care and attention, curare is also used to relieve spastic paralysis, to treat some mental disorders, and to induce muscle relaxation for setting fractures. Curare is now used extensively in modern medicine. It is only toxic if it enters the bloodstream. Curare is not for sale to the general public.

As with many Amazonian tribal plant history and legend, curare is prepared by old women. In some traditions, the witch doctor has a monopoly of the business, but generally, wise old men get together to brew a batch. Extra curare was usually carried by tribal members in a gourd or calabash, and stored with weapons.

Disclaimer: The statements contained herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Any reference to medicinal use is not intended to treat, cure, mitigate or prevent any disease.