This is an edited transcript of a series of conversations between Howard G. Charing, author of The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo, and Steve Beyer, author of Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. These talks took place during the summer of 2010, at the kitchen table and on the front stoop of Steve’s house in Chicago. Some drinking and cigar smoking was involved.
Howard: I read Singing to the Plants several times, and I found it not only an extremely well researched book but also inspirational; it came through to me as a true labor of love. I understand that you originally envisioned the book to address more of an academic, anthropological audience, which is the reason that you wanted it to be published by the University of New Mexico Press; but you have created much more than an academic work. When you talk about your teachers, doña María and don Roberto, your warmth, humanity, and respect for them shines through.
You asked them to describe their history, how they perceive their lives, as a personal mythology in which their stories are portrayed not as a continual flow but as consisting of events and turning points in their lives. You have lived and studied in Tibet, written books about Tibetan Buddhism, had a career as a partner in a major Chicago law firm, and finally worked with medicinal plants, shamanism, and a blog and book of the same title. So my question is: how would you mythologize your life?
Steve: Some people don’t mythologize their lives. Don Roberto didn’t, but doña Marie did see her life as a series of major episodes. I tend think that lives actually go in spirals — at least it seems that mine has. My interest in Buddhism, and in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, was an attempt to understand what it was like… I have a lot of trouble articulating this, because the vocabulary available to me has gathered so much baggage. I want to say that I’ve always been interested in altered states of consciousness.
Howard: That’s an important starting place.
Steve: But the term “altered states” seems to me to be wrong. And it has accumulated so much baggage that it’s very hard to use.
First of all, if you talk about altered states of consciousness, you’re immediately making the assumption that there are ordinary states of consciousness that are somehow in opposition to altered states. I have simply never seen this as an opposition. Let’s think about human experiences. You have the experience of doing mindfulness meditation, climbing a mountain, writing poetry, falling in love, giving birth to a child, or watching someone you love give birth to a child. Human life is so filled with important experiences that grouping them into just two classes, ordinary and altered, is artificial, and filled with built-in value judgments. For example, I can see what a life-changing experience it can be for people to witness the birth of their first child. Then to say that’s somehow an ordinary state of consciousness, as opposed to taking LSD, which for many years has been the paradigmatic altered state of consciousness, is, I think, artificial and misleading.
So, to rephrase what I started to say before, I have always been interested in the range of human experience, including those experiences that are less common in North America. That was one of the reasons I became interested in Buddhism and in Buddhist meditation in particular. At the time I wrote my first book, The Cult of Tara, in 1973, Tibetan meditation had not yet really been explored by Western scholars, and what I wrote about — how Tibetans actually performed meditation, what was going on internally when one performed ritual meditation in the Tibetan tradition — was pretty much new. So this was one of the first books to talk about what it was like to perform Tibetan ritual meditation and the ways in which meditation coordinated with ritual in the context of monastic practice.
And when I first started to think about Amazonian shamanism, that was the model that I was using. I wanted to understand how it worked, what it was like, what the cultural context was.
Howard: I think there’s an important point here; there are two ways to look at this. One way, for example, would be a traditional anthropological perspective — that is, you sit outside and you describe your observations. Then there is another method where you actually participate, so it does not become a scientific Western objective perspective, but rather a subjective experience. And when you write about these things, you’re writing about your personal altered experience.
Steve: I think there’s a trap there. If you follow that path, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that you are more important than the people you’re writing about. If you approach it from this — let’s call it postmodern — perspective, it’s very easy for the investigator to think that the investigator’s thoughts, reactions, emotional involvements are all much more interesting than the people the investigator is trying to understand. The book is not about me; the book is about my teachers.
And, in particular, about doña María and don Roberto. I tried very hard to use my own very limited kinds of experiences to illuminate something about them and about the kind of shamanism that they practice. Erik Davis, the social historian and cultural critic, in his review of the book, said that I resisted the temptation to turn it into a memoir, which I thought was very astute. I take that as a compliment.
So there is kind of a narrow path you can walk, which I tried to walk, where you use your own experiences to illuminate the people and practices you’re trying to understand, without turning it into a book about yourself.
Howard: Your relationship with doña María and don Roberto does come through without a doubt, and their teachings are central to the book. You have been explicit regarding this. I just want to underscore — without implying that this book is anything resembling a memoir — that your relationship and personal dynamic with them are an essential component of the book. This certainly makes the book more engaging, richer, more textured. Although you resist this point, your role as narrator, their communicator and pupil, makes you part of it, and the vignettes — how at times they treated you as a confidant and other times admonished you like an errant pupil — in my view has really successfully augmented the academic text.
Steve: Well, I really appreciate that. That’s very kind of you.
There is a tendency — and I talk about this especially in relationship to María Sabina — to romanticize and to spiritualize shamans generally, and shamans in the Upper Amazon in particular. I think that does them a disservice. It takes away the depth of their humanity.
Howard: And their suffering, too. This is another important aspect of Singing to the Plants. You show that life in the Amazon is harsh, and in no way is it a soft and easy reality. The tragic death of doña María illustrates this. It is candid and direct, and no attempt has been to make the Amazon world romantic or “cosmic.” In my experience the shamans are not cosmic. They work to help everyday people in their suffering, their illnesses, and their protection. It is about the nitty-gritty of survival, and that’s one of the impressive aspects to your book.
Steve: Shamans are people who are engaged in dealing with envy, resentment, jealousy, disease, sickness, marital problems, business failures, interpersonal conflict. These are people whose job it is to deal with mess.
And they have their own sometimes messy lives. They have the dirty, difficult, and dangerous job of trying to make sick people better. And I think we do them a disservice when we spiritualize them, romanticize them, and try to turn them into some kind of religious icon. They deserve better than that.
Howard: I found your description of your first ayahuasca session and its effects to be something I can relate to. It was amusing and messy, very real. You are not saying “I had this transcendent experience.” You describe the reality of the whole thing: “I was sick as a dog.”
Steve: The unique healing culture of the Upper Amazon is centered on making sick people better; but their concept of what constitutes sickness is, I think, broader than in biomedicine. For example, an unfaithful spouse, a failing business, the patient’s own acts of selfishness and betrayal are all forms of sickness that need to be healed. And sickness in the Upper Amazon is always social. The only reason you get sick in the Upper Amazon is because there has been a breach of the social bond among people. The patient has behaved in a way that violates the norms of generosity, mutuality, and trust to such an extent that envy and resentment on the part of the other person results in this social disruption embedding itself in the body of the patient in the form of a dart. And this dart could be a monkey tooth, a parrot beak, a scorpion, a razor blade, a snake. It is a physical manifestation of a breach of confianza — a breach of the relationship of trust and mutuality that ought to inform all human relationships.
Howard: What you’ve been describing, and putting into a good perspective, is a self-regulating social anarchy system. There’s no form of institutional authority involved in regulating people’s behavior. It certainly for me puts the use and purpose of sorcery in another light. In the Western world, where anarchy is frowned upon, the authorities control our social behavior.
Steve: Right. Sorcery has been said to be a weapon of the weak. It is a way of enforcing social norms of generosity and mutuality. It is a way of subverting hierarchy. It is a way of making sure that people interact in ways that are socially acceptable.
Howard: Westerners treat sorcery or brujería dismissively as a superstitious belief: if you don’t believe in it, they say, it cannot harm you. This is a mistake. There are powers outside of the everyday human intellect which do have an effect, which can heal people and which can harm people. And I think it’s a weakness for a Westerner to go to the Amazon and believe that this kind of sorcery is just some kind of illusion.
Steve: But at the same time I have seen Westerners get caught up, for example, in the sorcery craziness in Iquitos. Part of mestizo culture is the assumption that life is a zero-sum game — that if I get something that you don’t have, I have in some sense deprived you of it. There are constant undercurrents of suspicion. If anything goes wrong, it’s not attributed just to bad luck, it’s attributed to the malevolence of another person. So, sorcery has both positive and negative aspects within mestizo culture. On the one hand, it is the enforcer of norms of generosity, a subverter of hierarchy, and at the same time it creates currents of gossip and speculation about who is using love magic on someone else’s wife, and who is using evil magic to make sure someone else’s business fails. This is constant conversation in Iquitos.
I have seen westerners get caught up in this. If they have a bad experience with ayahuasca, they say, “Oh, it must be brujería.” Or if they almost get hit by one of those motorcycle taxis, they say, “Oh, somebody’s out to get me.” So between these extremes, I think there somehow must be a way for foreigners to understand these cultural assumptions without themselves getting all caught up in paranoia about brujería.
I was once asked how I protected myself from sorcery, and I gave several answers. I said, first of all, that I have the phlegm of my master, which gives me a corazon de acero, a heart of steel, and protects me. The second is that I am, however remotely, an apprentice of my maestro ayahuasquero, so that my teacher is able to protect me and to take vengeance on my behalf. But my most important protection against sorcery is my insignificance. I think that if you are trying to navigate these currents in ribereño culture, you conform to the social norms that sorcery is intended to enforce. In other words, the lesson of sorcery is that you should strive to be in right relationship with everyone you can. You don’t pick fights, you act generously, and, if somebody offends you, you try to work it out. You don’t attack back. Basically, you behave the way a real human being is supposed to behave, and that’s your best protection against sorcery.
Howard: I go along with that. You don’t want to make enemies in the Amazon. I remember being told, “If someone sticks a knife in your back, take it out, and move on.” The message is clear not to get sucked into all this.
Steve: I think that’s what ayahuasca teaches, too. In the Amazon, as you know, you cannot separate out sorcery and healing. There is no bright line that separates them.
Howard: In my experience it is more of a faint boundary. Where does one begin and where does one end? For example, the use of pusangaría, love magic, which often raises an ethical dilemma for a Westerner.
Steve: The same practices are used for sorcery and healing. The same plants are used. The brujo plants are the very ones used for protection against sorcery. The spiny palms are used as offensive weapons by sorcerers, but they are used as protection by healers. And at the same time, the difference between a sorcerer and a healer has a conceptual basis — the difference between lack of control and self-control.
So, I think again what we see is a lot of ambivalence and a very tragic view of human life. Healing and harming, disease and health, life and death are all bound up together. There are no sharp lines between them. For example, in many indigenous cultures in the Upper Amazon, it is impossible for a shaman to heal one person without making another person sick, because the dart has to go somewhere. You can throw it away, but it’s still there where somebody can trip over it, get hurt by it. Most often the shaman will take the dart and project it back at the person who sends it. Is that healing or is that sorcery?
Howard: That’s the ambiguity of the whole thing.
Steve: Don Roberto told me that he never sent back a dart to the person who sent it. He would always simply put it into his phlegm and make it part of his own armamentarium, his own protection. But that’s unusual. The more common course is to send it back.
Howard: Eye for an eye… It can be very raw and harsh.
Steve: As you know, and as Pablo Amaringo has illustrated, this leads to great battles between shamans, and the line is not easy to draw — as in most human life whenever there is a conflict — and say that one person is perfectly right and one is perfectly wrong. Shamanic battles symbolize human conflict, just as the healing shaman takes onto himself a conflict between two people that has caused the sickness to occur.
Howard: Shamans have to be very careful about who they return the darts to, because they might make another enemy for themselves.
Steve: That’s exactly right. Being a shaman, sucking out a dart, is a dangerous thing to do, for all sorts of reasons. In fact, part of shamanic performance in the Upper Amazon is to dramatize the danger and difficulty of doing this. The darts are perceived as being putrid and nauseating and terrible. The shaman — don Roberto was great at this — spits them out on the ground and makes horrible noises, horrible gagging noises, to show that the dart that’s being sucked out is repulsive, and this dreadful thing has to go somewhere. You can throw it on the ground, but still someone may step on it and be hurt by it.
Howard: And the person being healed can see the disgusting or noxious thing removed. They are then engaged in what’s being performed as well. It’s the drama of the show — a performance, like an art. It’s also for the person that’s being healed. They can actually see it, and the healing becomes tangible.
Steve: Although doña María — this is so typical of her — said that sometimes when you suck it out, it’s very sweet, you have a great temptation to swallow it, and then it’s going to get you. So if you suck something out and it’s sweet, you have to be particularly careful to resist it and to spit it out.
Howard: Did doña María or don Roberto use plants such as camalonga or other roots in their mouths as an additional barrier to prevent them from swallowing the noxious virote?
Steve: What they told me was that this barrier was primarily the mariri, the phlegm that rises up in the throat and becomes like air to protect them from the dart going into their body, but instead gets stuck and dissolved into the mariri.
Howard: Right, then they master this power.
Steve: Yes, and then they can project it out. They can put it into their own phlegm for further protection, or they can use it for attack.
Howard: The use of tobacco; that is so interesting. I know you wrote a whole chapter about it. And it’s particularly important in situations of healing.
Steve: I talk about what I call the Big Three. There are three hallucinogens that are of primary importance in mestizo culture. There is ayahuasca; there is toé, or various species of Brugmansia; and there is mapacho, or tobacco. I should add that there has been so much emphasis on ayahuasca that people have lost sight of the fact that ayahuasca is embedded in a whole pharmacopeia of healing plants, each with a different function. The function of ayahuasca is to give you information. The function of toé is to harden your body and make you immune from sorcery. The function of tobacco is to protect you, because it is the paradigmatic strong sweet smell, and strong sweet smells are protective — that means tobacco, agua de florida cologne, camphor. And mapacho is used by tabaqueros and others as a hallucinogen. It’s hard for a North American to think of tobacco as being hallucinogenic.
Howard: Given the fact that tobacco…
Steve: The fact that, one: Our tobacco is very weak. And two: The reason that people smoke tobacco in North America is as a mood stabilizer. If you’re feeling down, tobacco helps you focus, it increases your attention. If you’re stressed, it can calm you down. So people smoke until they’ve ingested enough nicotine to achieve that effect.
Howard: And there’s very little nicotine in commercial cigarettes compared to mapacho, which has a high level.
Steve: That’s right. That’s why if you’re simply seeking mood stabilization, you don’t have to inhale mapacho, because the underside of the tongue is heavily vascularized, and you can ingest enough nicotine for mood stabilization from mapacho just by holding it in your mouth. But tobacco has all kinds of physiological effects in addition to being a hallucinogen. As you know, it’s smoked during the ceremony and has an effect of — how can I put this? Let me take a step back. Schizophrenics smoke a lot. One reason schizophrenics smoke a lot is because nicotine reduces the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. It helps you concentrate, it helps you focus, it keeps you from getting scattered, while it has no effect on the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations. So tobacco, when used in conjunction with another hallucinogen such as toé or ayahuasca, helps focus, helps calm, without having any effect on the visions.
What’s interesting to me is, as far as I know — and I could be wrong about this, I’m still waiting for someone to come forward with an example — tobacco is one of the most sacred plants in North America, as well as in South America; yet I know of no indigenous people in North America that has used tobacco as a hallucinogen.
Howard: Let’s talk more about tobacco. This is s very interesting and important part of the Amazon world. It is not only the leaves; you talk about how the smoke is used, and the purpose of drinking tobacco in water as well.
Steve: Yes, a cold infusion of tobacco. Shuar drink tobacco the same way. You have to drink green tobacco to keep your tsentsak, your darts; you have to feed your darts with tobacco. Tobacco use is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.
Howard: What did doña María or don Roberto say about tobacco? Did they discuss any sort of spiritual aspect to the tobacco or some kind of energy or force associated with it?
Steve: I was told by both that I needed to smoke mapacho every day to nurture my phlegm. But they understood that in North America it was hard to get mapacho and it was hard to drink ayahuasca.
Let me step back a minute. When shamans get together, what do they talk about? They do not, as far as I know, talk about great cosmic symbolic metaphysical ideas. They talk about practical things — how much you should charge your clients, how to deal with clients who don’t pay what they promise to pay, what kind of animal skin makes the best drumhead: “Have you heard about this plastic drumhead they use in North America? Have you tried that?” And what plant medicines to use: “I have a patient with this condition, I’ve used this plant and it doesn’t seem to work. Do you have any idea what other plants I might use?” Or in the Upper Amazon shamans will drink ayahuasca together in order to solve a problem or see if they can get some insight into a difficult social situation. They don’t talk metaphysics any more than biomedical doctors at a medical conference are going to talk about the philosophy of medicine. They’re not going to talk about how the AIDS virus symbolizes social disjunction. They’re going to talk about, “Gee, have you tried this new x-ray machine?”
So, as a general rule, I got very little philosophy from either doña María or don Roberto.
Howard: It was pragmatic?
Steve: Very pragmatic. And what was interesting about doña María was that, unlike most shamans, she had started out as an oracionista, a prayer healer. She had a close relationship especially with the Virgin Mary. Much more than don Roberto, she had incorporated folk Catholicism into her practice. Her arcana, her protective song at the beginning of an ayahuasca healing session, was the Ave Maria. She had, on her own, come up with a metaphysics that explained the relationship between the Virgin Mary in Heaven and the work that she was doing on Earth. She had developed a schematization that was satisfactory to her in making sure everything fit together.
Howard: You know, this is interesting. I’ve never seen a group of shamans get together and talk about their practice. They are very protective. Because when I asked them about this, about sharing their use of medicinal plants or an icaro with a fellow shaman, how they use it, and other things, the general response is that to reveal it would weaken the power for them.
Steve: On the other hand, shamans are part of a whole shamanic information network, reinforced in the Upper Amazon by an apprenticeship system that encourages apprentices to study with other shamans, especially shamans in another indigenous people. There is a tradition that mestizo shamans should go study with indigenous healers, because indigenous healers are masters of shamanism. Just as there are traditions of exogamous marriage among indigenous people in the Upper Amazon, where you are supposed to marry somebody from a village that speaks a different language, there is a tradition that the more foreign shamans you study with, the more powerful you become.
Howard: Absolutely. Artidoro, a mestizo shaman, offers a good example. What he said about the power of icaros was interesting: the ones in Spanish are deemed to have less power, the ones in Quechua have more power, but the ones in the indigenous languages, he says, have the most. He told me a great story of his quest to learn the chants from the Asháninca. The Asháninca are hard-line and war-like, and the men are naked. Artidoro had to be naked with them in order to be accepted. It is not as if you can simply say, “Can I come along with you?” They have to accept and trust an outsider.
So it’s a long process to do this, and though it may be tradition, it’s not something that every shaman, or every single ayahuasquero, can or will do. The apprenticeship takes a long period of time. And so, when Artidoro chants, he chants Asháninca icaros, and they’re so exquisite, they have, so to speak, a very different vibration. And this power and sublime nature of the icaros is something that many people do not appreciate.
Steve: There is a tradition that icaros you have brought from a long distance are more powerful than those you have learned locally. Now, doña María, once again, was contrary. She sang mostly in Spanish, she sang loud, and she said, “I don’t hide anything. I let everybody know exactly what I know.”
Howard: That’s different.
Steve: That’s doña María. She was a feisty lady. There is also a tradition that it is difficult for a shaman in one indigenous group to suck out darts that belong to a different indigenous group. So unless I have, say, Shuar darts myself, I can’t suck out Shuar darts from somebody else.
Now that has a couple of functions. One function is that it’s a good excuse if someone being healed happens to die, and the healer has a concern that he might be accused of sorcery, of having himself killed the patient. He can say, “You know, it was a Shuar dart. There was nothing I could do.” But more important, it means that there is dart trading. There is a market in darts; you go and you get darts from as many different people from as far away as you can.
There are some really interesting things about this shaman network. One is that one of the places where shamans from many different parts of Peru come together is in the Peruvian Army. Another is that Protestant missionaries give people rides in their airplanes to these big tent revival meetings. So people from a wide area all come together for the Protestant revival meetings, and that’s where shamans from different regions of the country get together and share information: “How do you do this where you come from?”
There are lots of reasons for a shaman to be part of a network of shamans. I might have a healing problem that I can’t solve. Maybe the brujo who has afflicted my patient is much more powerful than I am. It is important for me to have access to other shamans who are even more powerful than the brujo. People who might attack me need to know that I have powerful friends, and that if they succeed in killing me, at least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that my friends will take revenge on my behalf.
Howard: And that’s a good thought, isn’t it?
Steve: So, yes, there is this combination of secretiveness and trying to protect your proprietary knowledge, while at the same time there is a lot of sharing going on, not only among the mestizo shamans but among mestizo shamans and Shipibo, Huitoto, Asháninca shamans, all these other peoples.
We started out talking about the fact that most Upper Amazonian shamans are not philosophers of shamanism, and that when they get together — just as when biomedical doctors get together — they talk about practical things. Doña María was, in part, an exception, because her path to being an ayahuasquera began when she was very young and was a prayer healer. Pablo Amaringo is a good example of somebody with an intense curiosity and, because of the popularity of his paintings, with the opportunity to meet and interact with all kinds of people. He had a remarkably absorptive mind. He was unusual, I think, in the way that he became a philosopher of mestizo shamanism.
That’s one of the things that made him important, because he was doing something that other people were not doing. And I think in Pablo Amaringo we have somebody who was deeply immersed in his own tradition, but had both the capacity and the opportunity to be able to apply all kinds of other things to this tradition — to express a philosophy of shamanism and how it works, how it can be read cosmologically.
Howard: Absolutely. Pablo is an authority; he not only paints but describes the structure of subatomic particles and how matter is formed. He shows the influences of sound and vibrations, and ultimately he says that everything is just one, massive, eternal sound, one vibration. His mastery of communicating the underlying nature of existence is unique, his paintings inform where linguistics cannot.
Steve: He talks about the Hindu gods, samadhi meditation, the king of the Sakyas — that is, Buddha. He remembers everything he’s ever heard, and he works it into a philosophical system of Amazonian shamanism.
Howard: And beyond. Well beyond.
Steve: I am sometimes asked — because I wrote the book and not because I know anything — in effect to philosophize on behalf of my teachers. Somebody will come up with something, you know, sort of cosmic, and they ask me what I think about it. And I have to answer, “I don’t have a clue.” I would guess that certainly my teachers, and probably most Amazonian shamans, never thought about it at all.
Howard: It’s not in their world at all. It just falls outside their domain. Absolutely, practical matters, you know, “Is my boyfriend cheating on me?” “Why can’t I get a job?” “Why aren’t plants growing properly on my farm?” Practical, everyday matters of life.
Steve: That’s absolutely right. The mess of life.
Howard: One of the things that has come up in this type of discussion, it was about two years ago, at the conference in Iquitos, and the first few days the shamans were introducing themselves, describing what they do so the gringos could decide who they would like to drink ayahuasca with — a sort of “shaman market.”
I recall one shaman talking about how he heals, about his plant mixtures, resins, and so on. But basically, he was saying, “My work is proprietary. It works for me. I heal people.” He was saying this his healing comes from a personal relationship with the plants, with the medicine, and that is the source of his power. A couple of Westerners couldn’t appreciate this. They stood up and said, “Well, if your medicine is so powerful, why don’t you share it with everybody? Why don’t you give it to everybody?” The shaman was literally lost for words. In the West, medicine is pharmaceutical; there is no relationship between the doctor and the medicine. In the shamanic paradigm, healers undergo the discipline of la dieta, and they learn directly from the plants how to heal. So I can really understand that a shaman can say, “I can’t share this with anybody else because it wouldn’t work for anybody else.”
Steve: I think one of the things that we need to think about is whether, in fact, when we say heal or cure we’re talking about the same thing that an Amazonian shaman is talking about when he uses the words heal or cure.
Here is a story. I was with don Roberto in his hut when a boat pulls up by the bank of the river. Two men come up the bank, one helping the other. The man being helped is doubled over, and the man carrying him tells don Roberto that the man is his cousin who has terrible pains in his stomach. Can don Roberto do something about it? So don Roberto does what I came to think of as his ten-minute healing. He shakes his shacapa, his leaf-bundle rattle, all over the man’s body, especially in the area where it hurt. He blows tobacco smoke into the top of his head, all over his body, and onto the place where it is hurting. He sucks the place and spits stuff out and shakes the shacapa some more, and the man said he was feeling a little bit better.
And I was sitting there the whole time, thinking to myself, “My god. What if this guy has acute appendicitis?” So I ask permission from everybody if I can touch him, they say okay. There’s no fever, no rebound tenderness or guarding, no pain on the right side when pressing on the left, nothing special in the lower right quadrant — all the things you look for to see if someone has appendicitis. So I was very relieved, but that only postponed the real question: Here is don Roberto, my maestro ayahuasquero, a man I admire and respect and love. Do I or do I not believe that don Roberto can heal acute appendicitis? If I had acute appendicitis in the jungle, would I want to have don Roberto sucking at it, or would I want to be on a plane to the University of Chicago Hospital?
Howard: Yeah, but that is not a valid question or situation for an average guy in the Amazon. They don’t have that choice.
Steve: Absolutely right. But it raises, I think, in stark personal terms, the question of what is going on when healing is taking place in the Upper Amazon. There is question I ask people. Some Amazonian shamans are very humble, some are very bold. There’s one who says he can cure cancer, he can cure AIDS, he can cure obesity, and he’s got a whole list of things that he claims to cure. It strikes me that if he can do even a fraction of what he says — if he can cure breast cancer, for example — then there ought to be hundreds of doctors studying what he does to find out how it works and to see if it can be reproduced; he should be immensely wealthy and should be teaching in medical schools and hospitals all over the world. And yet this doesn’t happen.
Howard: I’m not sure that I would trust someone who made those claims. As you say, if those claims were proven, he would indeed be world renowned, a shaman to the stars and the wealthy.
Steve: Now, two things occurred to me. One is when Amazonian shamans who deal with a gringo clientele make claims like that about what they can heal, the claims always involve diseases that are socially salient in gringo culture. They always involve the diseases, such as AIDS and cancer, that gringos are most concerned about, that have almost mythic significance.
So I would ask that shaman, “Can you cure gingivitis?” And if he could cure gingivitis, that would mean that all of the old people in his village would have all their teeth. And if he can’t cure gingivitis — if, like everywhere else in the jungle, people have lost most of their teeth by the time they are in their forties — should I think he can cure cancer?
Howard: But we’re talking two completely different paradigms here, and the two just don’t work together. When a Westerner talks about AIDS or cancer, that is a disease from our perspective, but maybe that’s not what they regard as a disease. As you said before, they deal with the results of social imbalance, an illness caused by envidia, the envy of others, or susto, a fear caused by contact with a tunchi or ghost. There are many different factors involved; they can heal the imbalances within their own paradigm, many of which are caused by an external source. Shouldn’t we keep these different domains separate? When we talk about disease from a Western view, doesn’t that that confuse and in some respects contaminate the shamanic paradigm?
Steve: Well, let me respond. Anthropologists have made a distinction between healing and curing. The idea in this distinction is that you cure things like a duodenal ulcer. But when we talk about healing, we’re talking about the making better of a whole person, not only individually, but socially and spiritually. So that the distinction is drawn that if you cure cancer, then there are objective measures by which you can determine whether the cancer has gone away or not. But if you heal cancer, you’re talking about something different. Even if the cancer is not cured, perhaps the person has now accepted the cancer, or the person is able to live with a better quality of life without anxiety over impending death.
But I reject this distinction for a couple of reasons, particularly in the context of healing in the Upper Amazon. One is that if you speak to the shamans, they will claim that they can, and certainly claim that they want to, cure physical diseases. If you had a duodenal ulcer, they will say, “Yeah, we can cure this in exactly the Western sense. It will go away if you use our treatment.” I think that this distinction is a Western imposition, and it is political. Because when a biomedical doctor sets up shop in the jungle, he wants to make a political deal with the shaman, saying, in effect, “I’ll do the curing, you do the healing” — which is the doctor’s way of saying, “You’re not going to do anything at all.”
Howard: But this isn’t just about the individual shaman. We’re talking about plants, about medicinal plants that have healing properties. So traditions and taboos and must have some truth to them, some factual, pragmatic evidence that this healing works, even among people who have no formal education; otherwise they wouldn’t have been there for such a long time. There must be a body of evidence to support the belief that the plant can heal physical illnesses. There are certainly some plants that I would take if I had a physical illness, for example uña de gato, cat’s claw, which is also well known in the West.
Steve: One consideration is that most diseases are self-limited; they get better by themselves. Another consideration is that many even serious diseases are cyclical. Arthritis, for example, can go through a period of getting better, and then go through a period of getting worse. And so the question is: if we’re looking at whether shamans actually heal or cure, we have to separate out the effect of the plants from the effect of a disease being self-limiting or cyclical. We have to have some kind of a metric for deciding when something is healed and when it isn’t. And as far as I know, certainly in the Amazon and for just about every shamanic practice in the world, there has been no study that has done long-term follow-up. I think this is different from trying to understand from within the culture what kind of healing or curing is really going on.
Howard: In some respects we are touching on the allopathic versus holistic systems of healing. In the Amazon, an external influence or “energy” such as malaire —literally bad air — is regarded as a common source of illness. This condition would not be recognized in the allopathic model.
Steve: And malaire is associated with tunchis, the spirits of dead people.
Howard: That’s right, and according to Pablo there are certain plants that create malaire when they decompose. The closest approximation we have to malaire is the term “bad energy.”
Steve: One of my goals in the book generally has been to try to understand this healing system in the Upper Amazon on its own terms, and I have tried to step away from trying to explain it in my terms.
People use terms like energy; just about everybody who is involved in this work at some time or another has used the word energy. But I don’t know what Shipibo term, for example, would be properly translated as energy. Even if I were fluent in Shipibo, I don’t know how I would go about trying to explain the Western concept of energy to them. Even if I tried to explain energy to a mestizo shaman in Spanish, I don’t think I would be able to explain the whole complex of ideas that accompany our concept of energy, its relationship to concepts such as vibration in nineteenth century science, or its relationship to quantum physics. At the same time I am not sure that there is any word that I have heard mestizo shamans use regularly — except perhaps words like energía that they have borrowed from gringos — that I would feel comfortable translating as energy.
So, one of the questions that fascinated me was trying to understand this kind of healing shamanism on its own terms. Now, I say one of the things I was interested in. One of the other things, of course, was trying to understand my own experience and trying to come to grips with the things that I had experienced and seen and participated in, and to see how that related to my own life. But that was not something that I wanted to be in this book.
Howard: Yes, you make that very clear in the book. and it’s a very difficult thing to do, what you described. I know how great a challenge it is, because when I have spoken to a shaman, automatically I’m trying to understand — trying to put my own influences on it, to put it into my way of thinking.
So although a shaman is talking to me about his world, how he understands things, I have to do some kind of translation, some kind of processing to incorporate it. So it takes a lot of care to avoid getting your own personal perspective and comprehension tied up in this. It is a challenge to step outside your own subjective framework of ideas, and try to see it from the other’s perspective. That’s one thing I think you definitely achieved in that book.
Steve: Well, thank you. I was trying to understand what was going on, to take my teachers and place them in a social, cultural, and historical context, and to understand them on their own terms to the extent that I could.
Another reason for writing the book was that there are now a lot of people going down to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, and they go down there in a state of ignorance. They know nothing about the culture. They may have heard a few things, and they may have heard about sorcery in one of the online ayahuasca discussion groups, but they know nothing about indigenous mestizo culture. They are divorced from the cultural and political struggles of the mestizo and indigenous communities. They are often afraid of the jungle, and will do just about anything to insulate themselves in concrete buildings, because they don’t understand the jungle and they have heard stories about how dangerous the jungle is.
My jungle survival instructor told me that you are safer in the jungle than you are in Lima, because there is virtually no animal in the jungle that will attack you without warning you first. Usually the animal will warn you because you are doing something stupid — you’re getting too close, say, to a wild sow’s piglets. The tourists go to a lodge and food is put in front of them; there are fruits and vegetables and fish and chicken, and they have no idea where this food came from. They have no idea how the people in the jungle fish, or of the kind of sophisticated forest management skills that mestizo and indigenous people use to make sure that they have plantains to eat. So, one of the reasons I wrote the book is to be a sort of guide, because I wanted people to have in their hands something about the culture, the background, so that they could, to some extent, be involved in the culture from which they are taking the medicine.
Howard: That is something which is needed, and is very informative.
Steve: A lot of people go down there for very self-centered reasons. “It’s about me. I am going down for my enlightenment. I am going down for my healing. I am going down there for my very own transformative transcendent experience. I am going down for my epiphany.” And they go down there without any sense of this rich, deep, profound culture that is giving them the medicine that they are taking for their own private purposes.
Howard: I’m not saying that these people are wrong in any way, but they are uninformed about the wider aspects of that world. Most of the literature and Internet material seems to be focused on the more cosmic, transformative, Western perspective on this.
Steve: I would hope that somebody would read this book and say, “Damn. This is really interesting.” These are creative people with a culture that is worth preserving, people who are engaged in long-term struggles for their own culture, for their own land.
Howard: Against the oil corporations and mining companies…
Steve: And are being assaulted from all sides.
Howard: The government, for sure.
Steve: I would hope my readers would say, “Maybe I should go down with an open heart, rather than with a set of motivations that all center on me.”
Howard: There certainly is a self-centered aspect to this. I’m occasionally asked, “How do I become a shaman, who can I apprentice with?” I respond by suggesting that they go there and initially check things out, get in the groove, make some connections with the shamans and so on, but of course that is not what they want to hear. You know, some do go, and if they last three or four weeks, then I’m impressed. But many give up earlier than that, discomfort with insect bites, or basically they couldn’t make friends with the jungle. It’s a very beautiful environment, a total change in the rhythm of life, just day and night.
Steve: Rhythms do change in the jungle. Your sleep patterns change in the jungle because, for people from the temperate latitudes, there’s no twilight. The sun just goes straight down: one minute it’s light and the next minute it’s dark. The darkness comes on very fast. Then you have twelve hours of darkness, which usually changes your sleeping habits — unless you resist the rhythm of the jungle by setting up bright lights to keep you up late.
And, to bring it back around to what we were discussing earlier, there’s a third reason I wrote the book. I wanted to get these ideas out there. Even in just the time since this book was published, there have been all kinds of really interesting discussions, especially online, where people say, “Oh, well, you say this. Here’s my experience.” And the experience is the same, or maybe different. People have corrected some errors I made in the book, which is terrific, and people have challenged some of the ideas I put forward. If we’re lucky, in five or ten years, this book will have been entirely superseded. Hopefully by then people will have read this book and said, “Oh, well, I disagree with Beyer here,” or, “I agree with Beyer, but I can add something here.” I wrote it because there was no book out there like it, where the information was all in one place, and people could add to it, debate it, and correct it.
Howard: You write about the wider popular culture, the unique foods, the drinks, where it all comes from, how it’s made, how it’s transported and so on. It was a pleasure to read, in those informative shaded boxes that feature in the book, about the local cumbia amazónica music that you hear blaring from many bars in Iquitos and Pucallpa.
Howard: The sidebars really add the flavor and texture of Amazonian life, and even the dancing girls get a mention — it’s great.
Steve: That was really fun to write. I was very happy because it was the first time in my life I was able to use in a sentence the word callipygian, which is classical Greek for “having a beautiful butt.”
Howard: You do use some words I’ve never seen before. I had to look it up, and, yup, it means “well-shaped buttocks.” By the way, the callipygian dancing girls are called vedettes — just mentioning that to give some texture.
Steve: And not just cumbia amazónica but cumbia music generally is like the hip-hop music of Peru. It’s countercultural underground music. It’s the music of the people.
Too late to get it into the book, there was an art show in a gallery in Lima called Poder Verde, “Green Power,” which is one of the words that they use for the music, cumbia amazónica, but this was an art exhibition, mostly by local artists in Iquitos, the guys who paint murals on the sides of restaurants, who paint pictures of large-bosomed women on the walls of brothels. They had an exhibit of this colorful, exuberant art from the Amazon.
Howard: Have you seen the work of Christian Bendayan?
Steve: Yes! He was one of the people who organized the exhibit and exhibited in this gallery.
Howard: I regard Christian as kind of the founder of that sort of outsider folk art in Iquitos. His work is brilliant and vibrant.
Steve: It’s very powerful, it’s colorful. It’s filled with spirit and sensuality, and the elite in Lima and in Cusco couldn’t care less. They still see the jungle as an arena of exploitation. For example, there was a gastronomy fair in Lima, which featured famous chefs preparing the food of the Amazon. But they did not have the real food of the Amazon. They did not have boiled monkey.
Howard: Or suri, palm beetle grubs, for sure.
Steve: Or suri, absolutely right. What they had was exotic fruit from the jungle, which was made into Western-style desserts. There were, as far as I know, no actual Amazonians there, and the refrain was, “Oh, this grows wild in the jungle for our taking.” There was no understanding of the fact that mestizos and indigenous people are cultivators of the forest with a sophisticated understanding of forest succession, of the ways in which the chacras, even when they are no longer being harvested, provide shelter for animals that they can hunt. There was no mention of the sophisticated jungle management skills that produce these fruits, only the assumption that they are somehow magically there for us to take away.
Howard: The people from the jungle are looked down upon as unwashed and uneducated by the urban bourgeois class in Lima.
Steve: It is racial.
Howard: The natives are not even citizens. They are regarded as being just one step above animals. And the people of Iquitos in their turn look down and discriminate against the river people.
Steve: That’s right. And you hear people say that the wild Indians don’t wear clothes, they eat raw meat, they don’t have salt — and therefore they’re not really there. And so the jungle becomes an area open for exploitation.
Howard: The concept of Manifest Destiny is alive and kicking…
Steve: So people go down to the jungle, and they know nothing of this background. Like the elite in Lima and Cusco, fruits and vegetables appear magically on their plates, and they have no idea where this came from or how it fits into the culture of the Upper Amazon.
Howard: This is the conquistador culture. They just came there, and they just took what they wanted, without any regard for how it’s produced or how it’s made. And that mentality has filtered down through the social structure.
Steve: I talk about this in the book. There is a long, troubled history between mestizos and indigenous people, because, during the rubber boom, not only were mestizos used as itinerant rubber tappers, but they were also used as enforcers by the rubber barons to maintain the servitude of the indigenous people. And of course my belief, for whatever it’s worth, is that the mestizo ayahuasca shamanic tradition is just a hundred years old or so — not much older than that — because it’s a product of the rubber boom.
Mestizos lived by the rivers and used rivers for transportation and or commerce and offered them the opportunity to make a lot of money, supposedly, by chopping down rubber trees and tapping rubber. And they became itinerant rubber tappers, itinerant rubber workers who very quickly became enmeshed in the debt peonage system, because they had to buy their supplies from the company store.
But what it did was to bring these ribereños away from their beloved rivers and move them all east into the jungle, where they came in contact with indigenous people. When they became sick, there was nobody who could look for them because, as itinerant rubber tappers, nobody knew where they were. So they went to indigenous healers, and some of them then studied under the indigenous healers and became healers themselves. When the rubber boom ended, they moved back west and they brought this tradition with them.
Howard: Yes. I think that’s a very important point. For example, we can talk about the barco fantasma, the phantom ship, and how this became incorporated in their world. They were overawed by this invasion of nineteenth-century technology. Steam ships, with their coal burning furnaces producing huge volumes of smoke, making an enormous noise, not just a different noise but one they had never heard before. Up until that moment, the jungle had a whole different sound, and suddenly that had all changed. It’s hard to imagine the impact that the invasion of the rubber barons had on the native world, and how they had to come to terms with it all.
Steve: But look what they did. They incorporated it into their shamanic mythology, the same way they incorporated metaphors of electricity, electromagnetic waves, the way they incorporated flashlights, the way they now have incorporated laser beams and biomedicine. Perfect example: doña María drinking ayahuasca dressed in a long, white coat, like a doctor’s coat, and don Roberto wearing a hat with beads and feathers and Shipibo designs on it and a shirt with Shipibo designs — in effect, symbolizing were two different modes of eclecticism.
Some of the plant spirits who came to don Roberto and doña María would be dressed in hospital scrubs and wearing surgeon’s masks. When they left their bodies and went on journeys through the galaxy, they would visit great spiritual hospitals on other planets and watch the procedures. Remember that to the mestizos, the source of all shamanic wisdom is the indigenous people. It’s hard to think of a mestizo shaman who does not claim somewhere to have been taught by indigenous people.
For example, don Manuel Córdova Ríos, who was a mestizo shaman in Iquitos, told this story about how he had been kidnapped and taken to live with an indigenous people — in effect to where the wild things are. He claimed to have learned the native language through group telepathy sessions when they drank ayahuasca. Eventually he learned all their healing techniques, became their chief, and finally escaped. This is kind of an archetypal story — the civilized person who gets captured by the wild people, learns their language, and comes back and teaches their redemptive secrets to other civilized people. This is a myth that is not only current in the Upper Amazon among mestizos, but this myth is being reenacted by the gringos who go down to the jungle to drink ayahuasca. Here the civilized people go down into the jungle, meet the wise wild people who live there, learn their redemptive secrets, and come back carrying this redemptive wisdom to civilization.
Howard: Joseph Campbell, the myth of the hero.
Steve: That’s right. And this myth of bringing back the healing secrets of the jungle is not only circulated among mestizos, but is now being reenacted by gringos who are going down to the jungle.
Howard: Bring back the gold, bring back the treasure.
Steve: But of course, as you said, this is an ego-feeding kind of thing, because you can say to yourself, “Oh, I’m selected. I’m the gringo to whom these wild people chose to reveal their secrets. That must mean there’s something special about me.” And all of this is divorced from the reality of the jungle, and it’s divorced from the lives of the people and their shamans. It’s divorced from the culture from which these foreigners seek their healing.
Howard: It is important that this way of life be documented in detail, before it goes under the weight of romantic and divorced-from-reality bullshit.
Steve: I think that is another reason. I am very pessimistic about the survival of this tradition.
Howard: Me too.
Steve: I think this rich, deep, profound healing tradition is going to disappear, because there are no apprentices. On one of my podcast interviews we were talking about the loss of this tradition, and I was asked: What about the gringos who have become shamans? I thought that was a really good question, so I gave it a lot of thought, and I said: Well, first, there are very few. Second, they are concentrated in very few places, primarily around Iquitos. And third — and I’m happy to be corrected about this — I do not see these gringo shamans going into mestizo and indigenous communities in order to serve those people. The people they are serving are overwhelmingly gringos.
PART TWO TO FOLLOW