Jan Irvin Talks with Steve Beyer
Steve Beyer is a researcher in ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, shamanism, and hallucinogenic plants and fungi. His interests center on the indigenous ceremonial use of the sacred plants — ayahuasca and other psychoactive and healing plants in the Amazon, peyote in ceremonies of the Native American Church, huachuma in Peruvian mesa rituals, and teonanácatl and other mushrooms and plants in Mesoamerican healing ceremonies — and on the legal status, uses, effects, and therapeutic potential of naturally occurring and synthesized hallucinogens, empathogens, and entheogens.He is the author of Singing to the plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon.
Jan Irvin is an independent researcher, author, and lecturer. He is the author of several books, including The Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity, and co-author of Astrotheology & Shamanism: Christianity’s Pagan Roots. He is the curator of the official website for John Marco Allegro, the controversial Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, and in 2009 he republished Allegro’s famous 1970 classic, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, in a fortieth anniversary edition. Jan is the editor of the forthcoming Entheogens & Consciousness: A Comprehensive Overview of the Psychedelic Sciences, a two-volume set of interviews done with about fifty of the world’s leading independent and academic researchers in psychedelic studies, from which this interview is drawn. The original audio interview is available on Jan’s popular Gnostic Media podcast site.
Jan Irvin: Steve, welcome to Gnostic Media’s podcast. How are you today?
Stephan Beyer: I’m just fine. I’m very happy to be here talking with you.
JI: And I’m very excited to have you on the show. I finished reading your new book, Singing to the Plants, last week. I would say that it definitely has raised the bar, as far as research into ayahuasca and South American shamanism. I would put it up there with Benny Shanon’s book, Antipodes of the Mind — I think you’ve done an equivalent job in bringing your data together and the thoroughness of your research.
SB: Well, thank you for your very kind words. I really appreciate that. I’m happy to talk about the book with you.
JI: Why don’t you start out by telling us a little bit about who is Stephan Beyer and your background?
SB: I’m a retired university professor. I’m a retired lawyer.
JI: Where did you used to teach?
SB: I taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I taught at Berkeley. I taught at Graduate Theological Union, back in the ‘70s.
JI: So it’s been a little while?
SB: Oh, it’s been a long time, yes. I’m also a retired wilderness guide. Right now I am a peacemaker and a community builder. And that’s really about it. It’s been a great ride.
JI: Would you define yourself as a practicing shaman?
SB: No. And I’ll tell you the reason for that. I have studied with people I consider to be real shamans. And when I look at the depth of their knowledge and experience, when I look at their ability to suck illness out of the bodies of suffering patients, when I see that they know intimately hundreds of plants and hundreds of sacred songs, I’m barely even a beginner on that path.
JI: Would you say that they’re sucking sickness out of a patient? Is that something real that you’ve seen actually work?
SB: It raises a whole bunch of questions. I’m still trying to sort through those questions myself. Can I tell you a story?
SB: Alright. Here’s a story. I was sitting with my teacher, my maestro ayahuasquero, don Roberto, late at night. A canoe pulls up at the landing down by the river near his hut. And two men come up the walk, one holding the other. They tell don Roberto that the sick person has terrible stomach pains. The guy carrying him is his cousin and he’s brought him to don Roberto. So don Roberto does his healing work — what I came to think of as his ten-minute healing. And he did all of the things that an Upper Amazonian shaman does. He blew tobacco smoke into the crown of the sick person’s head. He blew tobacco smoke where the pain was. He shook his leaf bundle rattle, his shacapa, and sang his icaros, his magical songs. And he sucked at the place where the pain was. And he spit the illness, the flemosidad, the darts, onto the ground. And all the time I’m sitting there thinking to myself: ‘Oh my god, what if this guy has acute appendicitis?’ So when don Roberto is finished with his healing, I ask permission from everybody to touch the person he has just been healing. And I check for all of the signs of appendicitis: fever, rebound tenderness, guarding, pain on the right side when pressing on the left — all of those things. And I say to myself, phew, no appendicitis. But that left me with an unanswered question, which is this: Here is don Roberto — my teacher, a man I respect and admire and love — and I have to ask myself: Do I or do I not believe that he is capable of healing acute appendicitis?
JI: Very interesting. Are you familiar with professor Tom Roberts?
SB: Oh yeah.
JI: And you’re familiar with his work on placebo ability, right?
JI: So obviously you’ve considered that as a possibility as well — just placebo ability. Or do you think that it’s deeper than that?
SB: This is a difficult question. Let’s look at the course of most illnesses. Most sicknesses that people suffer are self-limiting. Many other diseases — such as arthritis or multiple sclerosis — are cyclical. They seem to be getting better and then they get worse and then they seem to be getting better. Lots of diseases seem to respond to placebo in most drug trials, as you know. Something like thirty percent of the placebo group get better. But I don’t know whether the placebo effect can heal acute appendicitis.
JI: What gives you the idea that he had acute appendicitis?
SB: Oh, I think he did not.
SB: And surely whatever he had, it responded to what don Roberto did. My dilemma was a little different. My dilemma was: if he had appendicitis, did I think that don Roberto was in fact healing it? And if I didn’t think so, if I thought this guy was going to die, what should I do? So that raises the question: What is a shaman really doing? To what extent do we think that shamans cure in the same way we think that biomedical doctors cure? Or are they doing something else? Certainly when you talk to shamans, they will say that they are just as interested in healing physical disease as any biomedical specialist is. And I think we have to be very careful about how we use words — like curing and healing — to try to understand, in their own terms, exactly what it is that shamans do when they’re shamanizing. I think one of the advantages of really trying to understand shamanism is that it allows us to look at sickness and at the process of healing, as we experience it in our own culture, from a very different perspective. In the Upper Amazon, I think shamans see disease, see sickness, as having a profoundly social dimension that we don’t think about in biomedicine. We see patients as being discrete, monadic units, somehow isolated from their social setting. In the Upper Amazon, a shaman looks at sickness as indicating a failure of right relationship. Disease, sickness, is always the result of a broken trust, is always the result of envy, resentment, or malice on the part of another human being. And so, there is a social dimension —
JI: That’s such a hard concept for many people to grasp. They don’t understand that these indigenous people — and it’s not just in South America, but throughout the world — don’t believe that a germ comes and gets you sick. Traditionally they believe that sickness was caused by sorcery and things like that. And, as you’re familiar with, I had Neil Whitehead on my show last year. He was a pioneer in that area of research. So many people get this New Age concept of neo-shamanism that is so far removed from what shamanism is really about. To even try and explain it to people causes them to start making all sorts of bizarre ad hominem attacks and things like that instead of trying to realize that Terence McKenna’s definition of shamanism is not really all there is to shamanism.
SB: I agree with what you’re saying. There is, especially in the Upper Amazon, what I have called a tragic cosmovision, which is very different from the view of shamanism which you see in a lot of the popular media. For example, the relationship between hunter and prey in North American indigenous culture is often based on a gift model. In other words, indigenous people in North America frequently express their relationship to animals in the hunt as the animals giving themselves up as a gift to the humans who hunt and eat them, which requires in turn a gift from the people who hunt them — a song, a ritual, tobacco. And so, the hunt is perceived as a gift relationship. And many people take this as normative for indigenous culture generally. But in the Upper Amazon, human and animal relationships, the relationships between people, are not based on a gift model so much as they are based on a predator-prey model. And just as jaguars hunt people, people hunt wild pigs. And the relationships between people in causing disease, in hunting animals, in warfare, are all made part of this same tragic cosmovision. In many Upper Amazonian cultures it’s very clear you can’t cure one person of the disease without causing that disease to go to a different person. And it seems to me that this kind of tragic cosmovision, this sense of the innateness of human aggression and the necessity of tremendous self-control on the part of the shaman to keep from becoming an aggressor him- or herself is something that is very difficult for people in our culture to understand or accept. And that’s why work by people like Whitehead and Brown is so very important.
JI: What got you into studying psychedelics and Amazonian shamanism?
SB: I was interested in wilderness survival, of all things. And I was filled with machismo — you know, drop me naked in the desert and I’ll eat lizards and survive.
JI: Like these guys on Discovery Channel or whatever —
SB: Yes, exactly like that. And I had the benefit of many really good wilderness survival instructors. I first went down to the Amazon to study jungle survival. I had a lot of very interesting adventures doing that.
JI: But you were a professor before you did that, correct?
SB: I was a professor of Buddhist Studies and I did that for twelve years.
JI: I see clearly the direct relation.
SB: I went off after that to become a lawyer. And I was a litigator and a trial lawyer for twenty-five years. And then toward the end of that, I was becoming interested in wilderness survival.
JI: So what happened? You did some mushrooms or some ayahuasca, and something happened?
SB: It went the other way, actually.
That’s the usual trajectory, no question about it. But, as I studied wilderness survival, it became clearer and clearer to me that survival in the wilderness had a spiritual dimension — that if you look at the spirituality of indigenous peoples, it is almost universally based on the need to maintain right relationships, both with the group that you’re part of and with the spirits of the wilderness. They’re also part of your group. And the spirits of the cosmos are also part of your group. So, when I started thinking about that, I became very curious. I wanted to find out more about it. So it was at that point that I started drinking ayahuasca. I did — how many — seven four-day and four-night wilderness vision fasts in the desert — in Death Valley and the Gila Wilderness and in other areas of the Southwest. I participated in ceremonies of the Native American Church, and slowly became drawn into the ayahuasca shamanism of the Upper Amazon and just felt I needed to learn more and more about it. So there was no great revelation. It was a matter of just increasing curiosity, and then, as my curiosity began to be satisfied, my need to understand what was going on in some kind of cultural context. And that’s what led to the book.
JI: Would you like to define shamanism?
SB: Umm, no. People who are a lot smarter than I am have gotten into trouble trying to define shamanism. I’m not at all sure that there is one shamanism. I guess I prefer to talk about shamanisms. And it’s like a Wittgensteinian family resemblance more than anything else. This shamanism resembles that shamanism. That shamanism resembles a third shamanism. And by the time you get to the other end of that chain, the shamanism at the end has very little similarity with the shamanism you started with. Let me put it this way: when lawyers talk about property rights they often use the metaphor of a bundle of sticks. To own a piece of property means that you have the right to sell, lease, share, bequeath, donate, alter, repair, or destroy it. Owning different things, or owning the same thing under different circumstances, may alter the number or type of sticks included in the bundle. And the notion of owning a piece of property is defined by these sticks in a bundle. I like to think about shamanism the same way as a kind of bundle of sticks. One stick is that the shaman has a particularly close relationship with spirits that other people don’t have. Another stick is that shamans know things that other people don’t know. They know what caused a sickness, or they know where game animals are. They know where a lost soul has gone. Another one is that they are performers. Shamans practice, at least some of the time, in public where people can see what they’re doing. The shaman’s power may be encapsulated as a physical object inside the body And you can come up with a list of maybe a dozen of these sticks. And you can say that a shaman in this culture has these six sticks, and a shaman in another culture has these six sticks, of which three are the same as the first one. And you can come up with some kind of a way of thinking about shamans that doesn’t seek for some kind of essence that they all have in common. If I were asked to define shamanism, I would define it in terms of a bundle of sticks.
JI: What are shamanic darts?
SB: Let’s see. In the Upper Amazon, a shaman’s power is conceptualized as being kept inside the shaman’s body, usually in the form of some kind of slimy, sticky substance. And among the mestizo shamans, they use the common Spanish word flemavirot, for phlegm. And in this matrix, there are kept pathogenic projectiles, or the substance may itself be projected outside the body. Among the mestizo shamans, usually these are called virotes, darts. The word virote means a crossbow dart. And when the Spanish invaded, that term was used for the darts that the indigenous people of the Amazon used in their blowguns. Although these pathogenic projectiles are called darts, if you see them having drunk ayahuasca, they can be teeth, scorpions, spiders, the beaks of birds, razor blades. And the sorcerer causes sickness by projecting these darts into the body of the victim. This concept of disease being caused by some pathogenic projectile being inserted into the body of the patient is virtually universal in the Upper Amazon. Just as the cure for this is virtually universal: the healing shaman sucks the dart out. And that’s how the patient is healed.
JI: And we’ll get back to the concept of the phlegm in a moment. I want to come back to your discussion of shamans appearing to suck the disease out of someone. But first I wanted to talk about your research into Gordon Wasson and his interactions with María Sabina.
SB: Well, I wouldn’t even really call it research. It’s a story that has been well told before and I told it again to make a point, which is that people have mistakenly thought of shamans as something like spiritual gurus — as being like Zen monks, or Hindu ascetics, or people who dwell in the bright light and on the mountaintop of enlightenment. And shamans are really nothing like that. Shamans dwell in what James Hillman has called the valley of soul.
JI: I know somebody who has been living in Jimenez since the early 90s. They say that Wasson’s picture of María Sabina and the whole situation was highly distorted.
SB: I think that’s right. He saw her as this perfect spiritual person, the embodiment of spirituality. She was a shaman who lived her own messy life, who dealt with disease and resentment and envy and love affairs gone bad and farms that stopped producing crops and all of the mess of human life. And she healed people by vomiting for them. If the mushrooms didn’t make people vomit, then she would vomit for them and try to heal them that way. She was a person who lived our ordinary, human, messy life and was a healer in this context of, not the mountaintop, but the valley of soul. But Wasson idealized her and made her into this spiritual person. And as you know so well, María Sabina just didn’t understand any of this.
JI: You know that Wasson had actually met several other shamans and had seen them doing the mushroom ritual before he selected María Sabina to be the proper one to show, whom he then presented to the world in Time-Life Magazine. And I’m not sure if you were aware, but he was the head of PR, or public relations — which is spin — for J.P. Morgan Bank. In fact, he was the pioneer of banking spin. And so it’s not surprising that he would look for the most opportune way to spin his story, which just happened, unfortunately, to be María Sabina and the Mazatec.
SB: I’m sure you know that he probably, at least based on what I have read, was less than honest in explaining to any of these people he met, including María Sabina, why he wanted to take the mushrooms.
JI: Oh yeah. He made $40,000 off of the serialization rights of the article. I think he paid María Sabina like a pack of cigarettes and some little trivial items. He was a banker through and through. He certainly had ulterior motives. I’m actually working on another book. In 2008, I published a book called The Holy Mushroom, that revealed a lot of Wasson’s tactics against John Allegro, who is the author of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Since writing that book I have come across a lot of new and startling information that merits a whole other book.
SB: I hadn’t heard about the disparity in what he made and what he gave María Sabina. But as you know, that’s an old story. People, gringos, have been doing that to indigenous healers for an awfully long time, and I’m sure you know the story of this guy who tried to patent ayahuasca, leading to a very bitter fight. And that kind of thing has been going on for a very long time. Fortunately, things, I think, are getting better as people become more and more aware. But the exploitation of indigenous healers is a really old and very troubling story.
JI: Are shamans trusted or distrusted?
SB: Shamans are generally mistrusted. In the Upper Amazon — and in many, if not most, shamanic cultures — it’s generally accepted that the power to heal is also the power to harm – they are the same thing. This is especially clear, I think, in the Upper Amazon, where the sorcerer and the shaman use exactly the same means. They use the same plant spirits. They use the same protective plants and animals both to attack and to defend. The means of causing disease overlap with the means of extracting disease. The phlegm which contains the darts of the sorcerer is what the healing shaman uses to protect himself from the darts that have been projected into the patient. So the shaman in the Upper Amazon inhabits this area of ambiguous marginality. People don’t trust shamans. Shamans are killed. If a patient dies, people wonder: Was he really trying hard enough? Was this sorcery under the guise of healing? A French anthropologist, Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, did a study of Yagua shamans in eastern Peru. He tracked the death of shamans over a period of several years. Every shaman who had died did so in one of two ways. Either he had been killed, people said, by a sorcerer, or he had been killed by people who said he was a sorcerer. So, people need shamans, but they distrust them.
JI: They need them but they distrust them. Interesting paradox.
SB: In the Upper Amazon, they say the difference between a sorcerer and a shaman comes down to a matter of self-control.
JI: Well that leads me to my next question. Are shamans that are capable of healing also capable of killing? And what is the separation there?
SB: It’s not a bright line. For example, a shaman sucks pathogenic projectiles — darts, scorpions, snakes, razor blades, piranha teeth. When don Roberto heals, part of the performative aspect is that he makes it very clear that what he is sucking out of the patient is vile and disgusting — he gags, he chokes. It is clear from what he does that he is taking grave risks on behalf of his patient by ingesting into his own body these vile, foul substances that were projected into the body by a sorcerer.
JI: You don’t think it’s just a show though? You think there’s merit to this display?
SB: I have come to think that we make a mistake by simply dividing the world into two boxes. And in one box we put things that are real, and in the other box we put things that are fake. And I think that drinking ayahuasca — participating in the healing culture of the Upper Amazon — makes you question whether there is in fact a bright line difference between things that are real and things that are unreal. When you read accounts of shamans, when you talk to shamans, they will talk about physical things coming into their mouth that need to be spit out. But when the shaman sucks a dart from the body of a patient, what does the healing shaman do with that dart? Sometimes, in some traditions, that dart is put into a rock or thrown toward the sun over the horizon. But that’s a problem because it is still pathogenic. Somebody could stumble on it and become sick. Another possibility is for the shaman to take it into his own phlegm and add it to his store of darts that protect him from attack by sorcerers. A third possibility, which is probably the most common, is that the shaman takes that dart that he has sucked out and projects it back into the one who sent it. Is that healing or is that sorcery? Here’s another example. The darts that are in the shaman’s body are in some sense alive and autonomous. When you have darts in your chest, embedded in the phlegm that’s in your chest, those darts, in many traditions in the Upper Amazon, want to hurt people. They are eager for you to project them out of your body into the body of somebody else. They are in some sense alive and autonomous and you have to feed them tobacco juice. They tempt the shaman to use them in order to harm. And only the most self-controlled shaman can keep those darts under control and be a healer. And my teachers, don Roberto and doña María, prided themselves on following the path they called pura blancura, pure white. They only healed, they said. On the other hand, doña María once said to me, she said: You know, we are gentle people, but sometimes we show our claws. That’s typical doña María.
JI: One point that came to me via David Hillman’s work in The Chemical Muse, and it’s come up in other areas as well, is that practically all plants, depending on the dosage, have the ability to both heal and kill. Are you familiar with that idea?
SB: Oh yes. It goes back to Paracelsus, who said that the dose makes the poison.
JI: And things like hemlock were actually used as inebriants back then — you increase the dosage a little bit and suddenly the user dies. But at very minute doses, they were having a good old time with the stuff.
SB: In the Upper Amazon it goes even beyond dose. You can use the plants for selfish, vengeful purposes, or for protective and healing purposes. And the same plant can harm or heal, depending on the intention of the shaman, who calls the spirit of the plant using the song that the plant taught the shaman.
JI: What is the importance of the shaman’s diet, or dieta?
SB: I think it’s important. People spend a lot of time talking about ayahuasca. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Ayahuasca is fascinating. But I think you have to remember that — especially among the mestizos — ayahuasca is embedded in a whole pharmacopoeia of healing plants. And part of the training of the shaman is to learn not only ayahuasca, but to learn all of the healing and protective plants that the shaman may use and prescribe to patients. And the way in which you learn the plants is by establishing a close, personal relationship with the plant, so that the plant will teach you how to use it, what song to sing to call it, what sicknesses you should prescribe it for. The way the shaman learns that is to go into the jungle and live in solitude over a period of time — maybe with periodic visits by the apprentice’s teacher — and to ingest the plant. Then, in a dream, in a spontaneous vision, in a vision when the apprentice is drinking ayahuasca, in all sorts of subtle ways, the knowledge appears. It may appear in the form of a plant spirit speaking to you. It may appear in the form of a song that you hear in a dream. It may appear in the form of knowledge that forms in your mind. The song may be something that you just spontaneously find yourself singing. But the idea is that the plant is not just a collocation of molecules that you use to treat a specific disease. The plant spirit is a person, an other-than-human person, who may appear in different forms under different circumstances. But the shaman or the apprentice has to form a deep personal bond with the plant, and does that by actually taking it into the body and letting it teach from within. This is learning with the body. So it’s very important that when you go into the jungle and you are learning the plants, you have to keep to a very strict regimen of solitude, of dietary restrictions, and of sexual abstinence. So that you’re in the jungle alone. No salt, no sugar, no sex — this last because the plant spirits can be very jealous. In this solitude, you let the plant teach you in the plant’s own time. And that’s pretty much la dieta. The details vary from teacher to teacher and from tradition to tradition. But that’s basically the idea.
JI: What is the importance of the icaros, or the shaman’s songs?
SB: The songs you learn in a number of different ways. The apprentice begins by learning the songs of his or her master, the maestro ayahuasquero. It’s the songs that allow the shaman to call the spirits of the plants, to call the protective spirits, to do all kinds of things: call the lightning, summon the souls of deceased shamans, protect against rain. There are a thousand uses for these icaros. Once you’ve started to learn the songs of your own master, then the songs come to you while you’re in solitude in the jungle. And you may dream the songs. You may hear them with your ears. Sometimes people will travel long distances to hear the songs of other shamans. A shaman is known in the Upper Amazon for the number and quality of these icaros, these magic songs. They are the basic tool of shamanizing in the Upper Amazon.
JI: Let’s get back to phlegm, or tsentsak I believe is another word that you used. In your book you discuss that this was given to you both through your corona and orally. What is its purpose? Have you noticed a real effect on you from it?
SB: Let me tell you a story. Back when I was doing vision fasts in the desert, I apprenticed to somebody who knew what he was doing, as opposed to me, and I helped put people up on the hill, helped people do their four-day and four-night vision fast. People would go into the desert. They’d have water, but there would be no food, no tent, no fire. We encouraged people not to have a fire unless it was part of a ceremony, and basically to spend these four days really focused on whatever issue in that person’s life had made them want to go out and do a vision fast. And many people went out there because of the stories they had heard and the legends that they had heard, looking for what I came to call the pink neon buffalo. They wanted a big vision — an epiphany, a revelation, a transformative experience. And some of them got it, and many did not. There was this one guy, who after four days of great discomfort in the desert, came back and was distraught. He cried. He had not had a vision. And so I started to talk with him. And I said, Well, tell me, the first day you were there, what did you see? And he said he had gone back into the Eureka Mountains and walked up this wash and found this cave where he stayed. Once there had been bats in the cave and he saw the guano on the floor. He saw a lizard squatting in the shade of a creosote bush. He had seen ravens circling in the sky. And it became clear to me, and eventually became clear to him, that in fact the spirits had been speaking to him the whole time, and he just really hadn’t been listening.
And I think that that’s true of a lot of spiritual events: drinking ayahuasca, getting the phlegm of your master, going out on a vision fast in the desert. People have been conditioned to expect the pink neon buffalo. But I think many things, especially the sacred plants, I think that often, they work very slowly and subtly. And there are no big transformative visions. There are no epiphanies. What happens is that things work very slowly over time. And after six months, or a year, you realize that you have changed and that the sacred plant — the peyote, the ayahuasca, the teonanácatl — has worked in you in ways that you didn’t even expect.
And I think that the same thing is true for getting the phlegm of my maestro ayahuasquero. Don Roberto was always pretty taciturn. It was often doña María who took me under her wing and explained things. Don Roberto said I had to nurture the phlegm that he gave me by smoking mapacho and by drinking ayahuasca — although he realized that doing that was very difficult in North America. Doña María said that now that I had the phlegm of my master, I had a corazon de acero, I had a heart of steel, and I no longer needed to fear any person because this phlegm would protect me. I took that with a grain of salt. Yet over time, I have discovered that I have changed in ways I never expected. I don’t know whether it was the ayahuasca. I don’t know whether it was the phlegm of my master. I don’t know whether it’s just getting older. I don’t know whether it was my family and my friends. But I am different from when I first started studying jungle survival. I’m not a healer in the sense that I’m a curandero: I don’t give plant medicines to people, I don’t suck darts out of people. But as a peacemaker, I have become a healer in a very different way than I would have expected. And my own arrogance and rage, that was part of my love of wilderness survival, has evaporated. And again, I don’t know why. I kind of suspect it has something to do with the phlegm that don Roberto gave me. I have a suspicion that it has something to do with the way that has worked on me and made me feel safe enough so that I don’t have to be angry any more. But I don’t know. And that’s the answer: I don’t know.
JI: What is the importance of mapacho, or tobacco, in South American shamanism?
SB: Mapacho is, in many ways, the most sacred plant in South America. As it is in North America.
JI: And probably the least discussed in that regard as well.
SB: Yes. Tobacco is the most important of the strong, sweet smells — like camphor and cologne — that are considered to be protective in the Upper Amazon. So tobacco smoke is protective. It keeps away the spirits of the dead. It helps protect you from darts that are projected at you. It nurtures your own phlegm and that protects you. In a healing ceremony, the shaman blows smoke into and over the body of the participants. Tobacco is one of the three primary hallucinogens that are used by mestizo shamans. The three primary hallucinogens are tobacco, ayahuasca and toé — which is a variety of species of the genus Brugmansia, the Angel’s Trumpet, a plant very rich in scopolamine, just as ayahuasca is very rich in dimethyltryptamine.
JI: Which is the Datura family, isn’t it?
SB: Yes. Sometimes it’s called tree datura. So it’s related to Jimson Weed and other scopalamine-rich plants. And tobacco is used as a hallucinogen. Now, we generally don’t think of tobacco as a hallucinogen. And I think there are two reasons for that. One is that the tobacco that people smoke in North America has very little nicotine in it.
JI: Which is Nicotiana tabacum, as opposed to Nicotiana rustica which is the more traditional type that’s found everywhere from San Diego all the way through South America.
SB: Yes, absolutely right. South American varieties may have eight times as much nicotine as the kind that’s cultivated for smoking in North America. The second reason is that most Americans smoke for mood stabilization. They smoke because the effect of the nicotine is to calm them down if they’re nervous or excited, or to elevate their mood if they’re feeling sad or depressed. And they stop smoking when that mood stabilization has been achieved. But if you drink a lot of tobacco — for example, you soak green tobacco leaves in water over a period of time and drink the juice — nicotine is a hallucinogen. I don’t recommend trying it without proper supervision because for nicotine, the effective dose for hallucinations is very, very close to the lethal dose. So I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t have an expert to teach you how to do it. But nicotine is one of the three major hallucinogens in the Upper Amazon. Ayahuasca is a teacher. Tobacco is a protector. And toé, tree datura, Brugmansia, teaches you courage, protects you from sorcery in particular, gives you a closed body that resists the intrusion of pathogenic projectiles.
JI: And that’s one that I’ve never gone out of my way to try. And I can find Datura growing a hundred yards from here.
SB: Scopolamine, Datura, again is not something I would recommend people experimenting with, without a very experienced guide. There is no question that Datura or toé can make people do crazy, stupid, and self-destructive things. The visions that it produces can be terrifying, paranoid, and people can easily get out of control. So that’s another one I would not recommend without appropriate guidance.
JI: I appreciate that you’re not just saying: that’s not one I would recommend. You are saying: without proper guidance. And I appreciate the proper caveat there.
SB: One of the problems I have in communicating my understanding of the shamanism of the Upper Amazon is that there’s a lot of it that people find strange and disturbing. And from our point of view a lot of it is strange and disturbing. It has a tragic view of life. It has a view of human aggressiveness which is very different from the one we find, or we profess, in North America. It has concepts that are very foreign to people. And so I don’t want to be off-putting. On the one hand, I think it is a beautiful, and rich, and very profound tradition. I think people who go down there to drink ayahuasca ought to know something about its depth and its beauty and also something about what it really, really says as opposed to huggy-bunny concepts of what shamans are and what shamans do.
JI: Good analogy. Would you like to discuss Pablo Amaringo?
SB: Sure. I never had the honor of meeting him. I know people who have known him and speak with great respect, not only of his artistic ability and his devotion to his work and to his people and to the jungle environment, but also of his personal qualities. Clearly he has become emblematic. And his art has created an entire school of Amazonian ayahuasca-derived art. I think when he passed away a month or so ago, it was a great loss. And I think he will be missed.
JI: Talk about don Roberto, your maestro.
SB: Don Roberto is my maestro ayahuasquero. I don’t want to say he is very traditional, because Upper Amazonian shamanism is traditionally eclectic, but the kind of shamanism he does, I think, is noticeably similar to the kind of shamanic practice you find in many cultures in the Upper Amazon. He is an ayahuasquero, as opposed to a tabaquero or a toéro, and is a man for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration and love. The man is a true healer. He doesn’t talk much about his life. In the book I give a brief biography. I have watched him heal. I have watched his healing performance on many occasions. He is a man of his community. He is devoted to the people of his community. One of the things I like about how the book took shape is the fact that I was able to work, particularly, with two very different people. Doña María was this wonderful grandmotherly, fussy, generous, scolding, outspoken woman. Walking with her through the jungle was like walking with an encyclopedia. She knew every plant personally. She would walk through the jungle and say, here is this plant, you use it for this, and you prepare it in that way, and it’s used for these diseases. And this one is good for children, and that one is good for adults. I couldn’t keep up with her. And so she’d scold me and tell me I’d better pay attention because she was teaching me all these valuable things. She began, not as an ayahuasquera, but as an oracionista, as a prayer healer. From the time she was seven years old, she had had visions of angels and the Virgin Mary. And the Virgin Mary would teach her how to use the plants for healing. The angels would tell her when there was a sick child in a nearby village and she would go and use the plants the Virgin Mary had taught her to go heal sick children. She was doing this from the time she was seven years old. She had dreams and visions constantly. She didn’t become an ayahuasquera until much later. She began to study under don Roberto when she was, I forget the actual date, twenty-five maybe.
JI: She cured someone of something that came out of the woman’s vagina, didn’t she?
SB: I wasn’t myself a witness, but this was the story she told me. Apparently the woman’s husband had run off with another woman — this is a very common story among mestizos in the Upper Amazon. Her husband had abandoned her and run off with another woman. But this other woman still considered her to be a rival. So she or her husband had hired a sorcerer to do harm to her. And this took the form of an animal in her womb. Now when I first heard about this it struck me as odd. But from subsequent reading and research, it becomes clear that having an animal in your womb, as a result of human or animal malevolence, is not an uncommon condition among Amazonian mestizo women. Doña María used a sweat bath and put sorcery herbs in the sweat bath — emetic and other herbs in the sweat bath. The woman squatted over it and this animal in her womb was driven out with considerable force from the woman’s vagina, as doña María told the story. And she said that this flash of white, like rabbit fur, came out of her vagina like a rocket — whoosh, she said, like that. And the woman started bleeding. And they both started praying to the Virgin Mary. And the woman was healed. This pathogenic intrusion, in this case taking the form of an animal in her womb, had been driven out by the combination of the steam and the herbs and doña María’s prayers and icaros. And the woman was healed.
JI: Why an interest in snakes?
SB: Let me take a step back. People go down to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca. There are two things about many, perhaps most, of these people that troubled me, and were among the reasons I wanted to write the book. One is that people go down there with no commitment to understanding the struggles of the indigenous people from whom they are taking this medicine. They really do not have an idea of the culture that has produced this healing practice that they are trying to tap into. Now, I can hardly blame them because there has, until now, been no single, accessible source that would let them learn something about the healing culture that they’re trying to be part of. One of the reasons I wrote the book, in addition to trying to understand my own experiences, was to try to provide people who may be going down to the Amazon to try ayahuasca with an understanding of the cultural context, the conceptual, the metaphysical context, as well as the struggles of indigenous communities in the Upper Amazon, so that they can understand this and maybe get rid of some of their preconceptions and have a better understanding of the beauty and depth of this tradition.
The other reason is that many of the people who go down to the Amazon don’t like the jungle. They’re afraid of the jungle. They have heard stories about the jungle. Now, I love the jungle. And one of the things I wanted to do was to introduce them to what the jungle is really like. And so I have all of these sidebars in the book. People go down, and they go to a tourist lodge where they’re going to drink ayahuasca. And people put food on their table. They put fish. They put fruit in front of them. And these people who have gone down there to drink ayahuasca have no idea where this food came from — of the hunting and fishing skills that are necessary, of the highly astute and sophisticated forest management skills that produce the fruit that’s on their plate, that produce the plantains that they’re eating. So, a lot of these sidebars are intended just to give some of the information that I have learned about life in the jungle through my study of wilderness survival in indigenous cultures in the Amazon. How do they build a house? How do they hunt? How do they cook? Where does their food come from? How do they fish? What do they use? I had a section on snakes for two reasons. One, because people are scared of snakes. So it makes sense to have some kind of a clear, objective description of exactly what the risks of snakebite are. And the answer is, just like in North America, even where you’re in rattlesnake country, the risks of being bitten are relatively low if you just use your head. And the other reason was because there are indigenous and mestizo snakebite remedies, and I wanted to talk about those a little bit because it may be that they have immunomodulatory effects that might be of interest to people. So I talk a little bit in that section about the traditional snakebite remedies that are used in the Amazon.
JI: Let’s talk briefly about love potions.
SB: Doña María was an expert in love magic, in pusanguería. Pusangas are very widely used in the whole area. In the book, I find the word pusanga, or very similar words, in a wide range of indigenous languages in the Upper Amazon. There are folk pusangas, there are pusangas that are made of various kinds of plants. You can buy pusangas on the Internet. If there is a woman you particularly desire and she has been ignoring you, you can go on the Internet and buy pre-made pusangas. Doña María was famous for her pusangas. She tried very hard to make her use of love potions consistent with her vision, her practices, being the pure white path. She would not use love potions if she figured the effect would be to break up a marriage, for example. There’s an anthropologist named Marie Perruchon who studied the Shuar, and in fact married a Shuar and became an initiated Shuar shaman. It turns out that at one point in their courtship, she and her husband had both, without the other one knowing it, given each other love potions.
So there are folk love potions. There are professional love potions. Doña María makes a love potion that combines ten plants. It’s in a powdered form. If I just mix a little bit of it with, say, aguardiente or with some cologne, and apply it to my face, I, not only become irresistible to women but, doña María said, I would be successful in all of my lawsuits as a lawyer. I would, in effect, seduce juries with this pusanga. And I always wanted to try it and yet I resisted because I figured maybe it wasn’t quite fair to use a pusanga in order to win one of my cases.
JI: Oh, why not. Isn’t being a lawyer based on argumentation and rhetoric anyway, and using all of that?
SB: Well that’s true. There was something about it. You know, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. So here I had this very powerful, doña María’s best pusanga, and, you know, I have never used it. I don’t know what would happen.
JI: What are some of the various names for South American-Peruvian shamanism?
SB: It’s interesting. One of the reasons I went into this in the book was because in indigenous North America, there has been great resistance among many North American Indians to the use of the term shaman for their healers, people that they often refer to as medicine men. There has been great cultural resistance to the use of the term shaman as being an imposition of a foreign term and concept by a dominant culture. Many defenders of indigenous culture in North America have been very outspoken, and often very bitter, about the attempt to consider their healers to be shamans — and especially the way the term shaman, as applied to North American indigenous healers, has been incorporated into the whole New Age movement.
JI: For sure on that one.
SB: It was interesting to me that in South America, many of the people I knew, including don Roberto and doña María, who had had contact with gringos and gringo tourists, were perfectly happy to be called chamanes, were perfectly happy to be considered shamans. It was of interest to me to see how these various terms that were used were distributed. And apparently there is no consistency to it.
JI: Alice Beck Kehoe, in her book Shamans and Religion, made the point that these other cultures aren’t really practicing the Siberian shamanism where we get the word shamanism from. But at the same time, I see it as a language issue. The English lexicon does not provide us enough terms. It’s like in Sanskrit or in Hindi, there is like ten different words for love and they all have specific meanings. Whereas we have the word love. We don’t really have any longer in our culture terms for these things. Unfortunately, in Alice Beck Kehoe’s book, she doesn’t provide us something that we should use. You can’t without providing a definition of shamanism in each and every instance. Or if you’re going to use curandero or ayahuasquero or brujo or all of these other various terms, you can’t use that word without specifically defining it because most people in our culture aren’t going to know what all of those words mean. The word shamanism is generic, which is why I know that you tip-toed around this issue at the beginning of the interview. It’s become such a generic word in our language that it really has no meaning, except to maybe the New Age crowd who completely misuse and misunderstand it.
SB: I think this is a problem which applies to a lot of terms that come from anthropology. Here’s an example: tattoo. People get tattoos in this country and nobody has challenged them by saying: Wow, you’re using the word wrong. Yet, technically, tatu is a Polynesian word and refers to very specific kinds of facial designs that have profound social meanings. And so, does it make sense to say: Well, no you can’t use the word tattoo because you’re borrowing it from indigenous Polynesian culture and you’re using it in an entirely different social context? And if you look at other anthropological terms that have been broadened from their original context — words like totem, words like taboo — they are words borrowed from very specific cultures. And yet, when people have studied other cultures they have seen practices and ideas that are more or less similar, just as my tattoos are more or less similar to Polynesian tattoos. It becomes a line-drawing exercise.
And I can understand why indigenous North American people do not like their culture being co-opted by New Age movements. And if they want to object to the use of the term shaman in that context, then fine. I can absolutely understand what they are trying to do. On the other hand, there are similarities between what a Siberian healer does and what a Korean healer does. The question then is, are those similarities enough that it becomes convenient to use the term shaman for both? And where do you draw the line? Is Siberian shamanism different from Inuit shamanism? So that we can’t use the word shaman for Inuits, but we can use it for some kinds of Siberians, but not others? That’s why I like my bundle of sticks approach.
JI: Right, and I think that Kehoe’s book actually raised more problems than solutions, unfortunately. And she had a lot of valid points but she doesn’t tell us any solutions to rectify the problem.
SB: In my personal opinion, it is a very ill-tempered book. One of the things that struck me about that book is that she said that the people I have worked with, that I have called shamans, aren’t shamans at all because they take drugs.
JI: And she tries to separate out many of the Siberian shamans, saying that they don’t use Amanita muscaria, when in fact there are many who do use it on a regular basis. But at the time, she didn’t find any that did. Even the BBC, last year, did a video on this tribe that are reindeer herders and their whole culture is based around the use of the mushrooms. But she would point to another culture and she would say, well, this culture thinks that those people over there who use the Amanita, they’re a degraded form. But it’s hard to say how much of that came from Russian-Soviet propaganda trying to get them all on vodka and alcohol and things like that and their own systematic method of destroying those ancient cultures’ heritage. And so that has to be studied and looked at as well.
SB: I think it’s an exercise in line-drawing and in cultural sensitivity. If people I am trying to understand don’t want me to use a particular word for their healing practitioner, then it seems to me only basic courtesy not to use that word. I don’t see any reason to get into a fuss over it. But I think it still makes sense to point out that there are healing practices in indigenous North American cultures that are very similar to healing practices you find in other cultures. For example, the sucking shaman is common to both South American shamanism, at least in the Upper Amazon as I’ve described it, and to indigenous cultures in North America. First nations in North America have had sucking shamans for as long as there have been written records of what their practices are. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to point that out.
JI: What does it mean for a shaman to live under water?
SB: In the Upper Amazon, there are common conceptions — by common I mean common to a number of cultures in the Upper Amazon — about people who live under water. There is a whole mythology built up about dolphins and about the yacuruna, the water people, and how they live in these beautiful cities under water, how they lie on hammocks made of boas and their seats are gigantic tortoises. Under the water, there are dolphins, there are yacuruna, the water people, there are mermaids, sirenas, which sometimes sort of overlap in their characteristics. But they are all sexually seductive. It is a common belief throughout the Upper Amazon, all the way to Brazil, that male dolphins desire to have sex with human women, that female dolphins are sexually voracious and provide a sexual experience for human males that is far beyond the capacity of any human woman to provide, and that the yacuruna, the water people, and the mermaids will seduce men and force them to live under the water. There is an entire underwater mythology that is very important, especially among the mestizos though also elsewhere — for example, the idea among the Shuar that the first shaman, named Tsunki, lives under the water with his entourage and cities of underwater people. It’s very important for shamans to be able to interact with all of these different kinds of underwater people, especially mermaids and yacuruna. Mermaids, for example, are possessors of powerful songs, icaros. A shaman may learn powerful songs from visiting with the mermaids. The yacuruna are held to be great and powerful healers, doctors. And so, many times shamans will learn healing from the underwater people. Because underwater people are sexually voracious, because they capture human beings for sexual and other purposes, it can be very important for a shaman to be able to command the mermaids and the water people to give up their human captives, or to be able to channel the voices of people being held captive under the water so that their relatives know that they are alive and well. There is also a group of shamans, most often I would say called sumi or sumiruna, who have the capacity to actually go visit these underwater kingdoms and dwell underwater at least part of the time. Again, there is a whole mythology built up — and I spend a chapter in the book talking about this mythology of underwater people and how important it is for shamans, as part of their practice, to have access to these underwater realms. And some are specialists in this area more than others.
JI: Can you give a rundown of a few, or some, of the various names used for ayahuasca in the different South American regions?
SB: If you can get hold of it, in Luis Eduardo Luna’s dissertation, there is a list of — I forget how many — forty-odd words for ayahuasca among different indigenous people. Ayahuasca is the term that is usually used in Peru. If you go up to Colombia, the term is usually yagé. Among the Shuar the term is natèm. But there are lots of different words for it. I think the best compendium of those terms is in Luis Eduardo Luna’s original book Vegetalismo: Shamanism among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon, which was his dissertation at the University of Stockholm.
If you can get hold of that book, it is worth tracking down through used bookstores or wherever you have to go. Along with the work of Marlene Dobkin de Ríos, that is the pioneering work in this area.
JI: In your opinion, how was ayahuasca discovered?
SB: There has been a lot of discussion. As you know, there are ways of ingesting DMT — and more importantly, plants and plant substances that are rich in DMT — parenterally, that is, bypassing the gastrointestinal tract, usually, in the Orinoco and other areas in the Northern Upper Amazon, by snuff of one sort or another.
JI: Like epená.
SB: Yes, exactly, or like yopo. The problem with ingesting sacred plants that contain dymethyltryptamine orally, is that there is an enzyme in the gastrointestinal tract, MAO, which is designed to inactivate molecules exactly like the class of molecules that DMT belongs to. In the ayahuasca vine are a number of beta-carbolines that act as MAO inhibitors. So when you mix the ayahuasca vine with any of a number of plants that contain, among other things, DMT and drink them together, that allows the DMT to be orally active because the MAO inhibitor inhibits the MAO that inactivates the DMT.
JI: And not only that, but so many different analogues of ayahuasca. I think it’s fascinating. Some argue that it was probably a salad-like mixture or something like that. What do you think about that theory?
SB: I have heard a lot of theories. One theory is that indigenous people have some mystical connection to the plants.
JI: Do they talk to the plants or maybe they were taking some other plant, other hallucinogen, whether it be scopolamine or maybe mushrooms? Certainly a lot of mushrooms grow in the rainforest. Could it have been some other hallucinogen? I’ve had some pretty interesting experiences myself on rare occasions of having the feeling that I was talking to a plant. So I don’t totally dismiss the idea.
SB: And also the people themselves will say: Well, the plants told us. The plants are the ones who teach all their medicinal uses. One theory I came up with, that I give in a little sidebar in the book, is that I think that if you look at the way ayahuasca is used in the context of the Upper Amazon, often it’s used simply as a purgative and an emetic. And that people who take ayahuasca for a purge, la purga, in order to cleanse themselves physically, find the hallucination, the visionary effects to be side effects. Whereas in other uses, other occasions, other people, the purpose of drinking it is for the hallucinations, the visionary effect, and the purgative and emetic effects are the side effects. I think they came up with this because they were looking for a better emetic. Some Psychotria species by themselves may have an emetic effect. I think they were looking for plants to mix in that might have had some kind of an emetic effect themselves. They mixed them together in order to see if, in some way, they could modulate the emetic effects of the ayahuasca vine. They came up with this combination that had, as an effect, vivid, life-like, three-dimensional hallucinations. I have no idea when this happened. I believe the mestizos got the use of ayahuasca from the indigenous people of the Upper Amazon. Peter Gow, an anthropologist for whom I have tremendous respect, who has worked in that area, believes that in fact it went the other way, that it was mestizos who came up with it first and it passed from them into the indigenous people. It’s an opinion that I have to give some deference to. But I think whoever came up with it, and whenever they came up with it, one plausible explanation is that they were mixing plants together to see if they could make a better emetic, either more gentle or more powerful.
JI: I would think that the fact that there are so many different types of ayahuasca used throughout the Amazonian region would negate the idea that it came from the mestizo population into the indigenous. Isn’t it that these people, the indigenous people that have the connection to the jungle, that know and understand all of these plants and their uses and things like that to begin with?
SB: I think that’s right and it’s certainly the way mestizos view jungle Indians.
JI: Right. They don’t say: oh no, we gave our information to the jungle Indians. They say: no, we got our information from them. I don’t want to dwell on this, but I just don’t see a whole lot of basis in flipping that.
SB: I can say that Gow’s hypothesis has not been widely accepted, but I think it’s an alternative you have to consider, especially given that Gow is a very important investigator of this whole region and has done some important work.
JI: Fascinating. I haven’t studied him. I’ll have to look into that.
SB: Peter Gow.
JI: What does ayahuasca taste like and what are the immediate effects?
SB: It tastes more awful than you can imagine. It has been described as being like a toad in a blender. My favorite description.
JI: Personally, I think it’s a little bit worse than that. I could probably handle a toad in a blender all right.
SB: It is difficult to convey to people just how awful it is. It is hard to swallow. It sticks to your teeth.
JI: The tannins. The only thing worse than San Pedro cactus I think is ayahuasca.
SB: It’s worse than anything I can imagine. It has this hint of sweetness that makes you gag. It sticks to your teeth. It’s hard to keep down, but you have to keep it down for as long as you can. Every molecule in your body rebels against taking this stuff inside you. Especially if you’ve drunk it once and you say: Alright, I can handle this. And then after an hour or so, the shaman calls you up and gives you another cup full. And you want to say: No, no more! It really is terrible and it makes you really nauseous.
JI: Not always, but it can.
SB: You can get used to it. But even experienced people, even shamans, will vomit every once in a while.
JI: I’ve had it a few times where I didn’t get any nausea at all, and other times where in fact, one of the best experiences I had, I had one very short, small and, excuse the term, sweet vomit that just went real quick and I was done. I got up and I felt a hundred percent and within five or ten minutes I was feeling very well on many different levels.
SB: In the Upper Amazon, if you drink it and you don’t vomit, something’s wrong with you. Doña María had a special flower bath that she used for people who weren’t vomiting, to open them up and let this out. We gringos, we don’t like to vomit. We consider vomiting to be something shameful, that you go and hide in the bathroom when you throw up. Vomiting in the Upper Amazon is very natural. The Achuar have group vomiting every morning. When you sit in ceremony with mestizo or indigenous people, you hear them vomit, but it’s not a big deal.
JI: It’s not a negative thing. It’s like a cleansing, a purification. You’re getting out the negative stuff, the blockage, whatever. It’s like you’re freeing up your chakra points or something like that. I don’t know quite how to explain it but I know what they’re getting at. And it’s a bizarre feeling when you go through it.
SB: I make horrible, wretched, awful sounds when I vomit because it is so hard for me not to be embarrassed and ashamed. And yet, I think the first thing that the medicine tries to teach you is to give that up, to give up control, to take the plants into your body and let them do their work. And yet, it has always been hard for me. Maybe it has to do with upbringing and the ways people in my generation or in my sub-culture were taught about retention and how retention is good. It may very well be that other people don’t have that kind of experience. As I say in the book, vomiting has become kind of a literary trope among people who write about ayahuasca. Literary artists compete to come up with the most compelling description of how ayahuasca makes them vomit. I mean all the way from William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to the present, people have been describing the vomiting of ayahuasca in compelling and poetic terms.
JI: Telepathine and telepathy with ayahuasca. Is that something that you’ve experienced at all?
SB: No. I haven’t. Ayahuasca is a teaching plant. In fact, in most traditions, and to a large extent, ayahuasca is not a healing plant at all. What it does is give you the information you need to find out what caused the sickness and, in many cases, what you need to do to get rid of it.
JI: Speaking of that real quick, I remember one time being on ayahuasca and I looked over at a friend and I could see that he was sick and suddenly I could see the problem and I just started telling him: Hey, you need to do this, this and that. And it was nothing I had ever recalled having an ability to do before, but suddenly I could just see all of this person’s ills and exactly what was going on.
SB: I think that that’s exactly right. Ayahuasca is primarily a teaching plant. It is an information-gathering spirit. People who drink ayahuasca, especially shamans, will go on long journeys and see things that are far away. They can detect where game is plentiful. They are shown by ayahuasca where lost objects may be found. If a relative has been gone for a long time, ayahuasca will show the shaman whether that relative is alive or dead, or healthy or not. Ayahuasca will let you see what happened to somebody in the past. If somebody was killed, a shaman can use ayahuasca and can see what the circumstances were. Ayahuasca is an information-giving plant. This includes, in some cases, seeing things that are far away, or distant in time. In that sense, I think that there is some truth in the meme that ayahuasca is telepathic.
JI: I’ve had extreme cases of telepathy with it on one or two, actually two, occasions that were with a couple of other friends, with several sitters in the room and several people witnessing what was going on; us also verbalizing the telepathic thoughts that were happening. But it started out while we were all in different rooms and suddenly we basically mind-locked, like the Vulcan mind meld or something. It was just a pure connection between me and the other partakers of the ayahuasca. None of the sitters were a part of that. Would you talk briefly about Alan Shoemaker?
SB: I devote several pages to Alan and his experience in the context of a discussion of the legality of ayahuasca. I compare his experience with the experience of the Brazilian new religious movements and their more church-like use of ayahuasca. I use Alan’s story just as a way of trying to show how the legal system works in this area and to compare the experience of one person, without a lot of resources, facing the same kind of drug enforcement system that was successfully challenged by, and is still being successfully challenged by, the Brazilian new religious movements. In some ways it’s a cautionary tale, especially because there is still a myth that plant material, chacruna, sameruca, chagraponga, the leaves of DMT-containing plants, are legal. I think that’s just wrong, and I think people can get in trouble because they believe that. The story of Alan is instructive in that regard too because what he was arrested for was chacruna leaves. He wound up having a nightmare experience before he was able to get out and get back to Peru, at the cost of still being a fugitive from American justice. I think it’s an important story for all kinds of reasons. I think Alan, fortunately, is back in Peru and with his family. I think that there is something to be learned from this story in a lot of ways.
JI: One thing that I found interesting in your work that I wanted to touch on here is that — unlike other entheogens: psilocybin, mescaline, LSD — why did you classify ayahuasca as a hallucinogen?
SB: Because I think it is. I think that the primary effect of ayahuasca is to show you things that have been there all along that you haven’t seen. It does this by showing you things, showing you people, showing you objects, that are three-dimensional, solid, present, interactive, and often coordinated with sounds in a space that is three-dimensional and explorable. I think that that is different in significant ways from the depth- or insight-producing effects of LSD or psilocybin.
JI: In your book you say these dimensions or whatever, they’re not other dimensions, there’s only one dimension and that ayahuasca and these substances just open us up and allow us to see that dimension. Is it possible that they’re not really hallucinogens, that these objects and things are just in this, hidden to us in our normal state?
SB: I think that’s absolutely right. As I am sitting in this room right now the walls are covered with tiles — there are a lot of tessellations in the ayahuasca world — brilliant, glowing tiles with minutely detailed fine designs. I just can’t quite see it. I once asked don Rómulo Magin if he could see the spirits all the time. Very experienced ayahuasquero. I asked him if he could see the spirits all the time and he said he can vaguely. But drinking ayahuasca, he told me, is like putting on glasses. I was really struck by that analogy. Right now, there is a window in my wall through which I can look and see a crystal staircase by a blue pool with an escalator going up and down carrying Peruvian schoolgirls in blue and white school uniforms. I just can’t see it right now. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.
JI: Discuss the issue with patents and indigenous shamanism.
SB: That gets kind of technical. I would refer people to the book for that. There’s a whole chapter on the attempt to patent ayahuasca.
JI: It’s such a fascinating story and just so disturbing at the same time. Right now you’ve got these companies, like Monsanto, just running around patenting every living thing they can get their hands on. I personally see it as one of the largest threats that humanity faces today.
SB: I don’t disagree. I think people are becoming more aware of the fact that companies, often foreign companies, come in and attempt to patent indigenous plants and techniques. The Peruvian government has been very active in opposing such patents. I think that’s good. I think that the idea of a law that allows you to patent living things is not a bad idea in itself. I think it’s certainly possible, for example, if I invented a microbe that could clean up oil spills, then I think that I should be encouraged to do so by being allowed to patent my creation. On the other hand, I should not be in a position where I can take a healing plant that’s been used for generations by an indigenous people and patent it so that I get the benefit of their wisdom and they don’t. I think that, again, the story of the ayahuasca patent is instructive as standing for a whole class of cases where I think people need to be more aware of this potential for misuse of what I think is generally a pretty good idea.
JI: What is the future of shamanism?
SB: In the Upper Amazon I think the future is bleak. I think a lot of people are interested in it. I think a lot of those people are interested in it just because they see it as a source of another psychoactive substance they can use, more or less, recreationally, or as a source of a psychoactive substance that they can use in their own personal quest for healing and transformation. I think that there is very little interest on the part of people who generally drink ayahuasca in the struggles and problems of the indigenous communities in the Upper Amazon. And I think that the one thing that is missing is apprentices. There are very few shamans in the Upper Amazon now who are training apprentices. Young people do not want to go through the sufferings, the deprivations, the self-control, the avoidance of sex for months at a time, that can be required in training to be a shaman. So while Amazonian shamanism has always been voraciously absorptive and very adaptive, I am just not sure that it’s going to last without the younger generation taking it up and actually practicing it. I hope I’m wrong.
JI: Well, hopefully books like yours that bring a more realistic approach to the situation — There’s such a movement in European and North American countries into shamanism and neo-shamanism and all of this stuff that hopefully that goes back down into South America and influences the people who are there to focus on what has always been right there for them to begin with and start to pick it up in a serious manner before they get themselves in a position that they can’t recover from.
SB: I hope you’re right. I am not hopeful, but I hope you’re right. I am just not sure the extent to which the interest of foreigners is going to have much influence on young people in the Upper Amazon, except, unfortunately, to the extent that they perceive these foreigners as being useful sources for dollars and may, in fact, have the opposite effect. It will lead people to pretend to be shamans, to learn a few icaros, to learn how to brew up some ayahuasca, and to put themselves forward as healers and shamans for ayahuasca tourists without actually going through the struggle and deprivation that becoming a shaman really requires. I hope I’m wrong.
JI: Have you gone through that deprivation yourself?
SB: Certainly not to the extent that I would ever consider calling myself a shaman.
JI: What is the single most important idea that you would like people to take away from this interview?
SB: The world is magical. The world is full of wonders. There are spirits everywhere. Ayahuasca, if it has any purpose at all, I think, ultimately is to open our eyes to the miraculous nature of the world around us — to teach us that everything in this world is meaningful in a very deep and important way, that we are surrounded by the plants that are singing to us all the time, and that if we can only open ourselves, we can see that the world is filled with wonders and magic and the spirits.
JI: Would you like to give out any website or contact information? And obviously, your book is titled Singing to the Plants. Do you have any other books?
SB: I have three other books.
JI: What are those books’ titles? And also give out any information you’d like to give out about yourself, etc…
SB: The website for the book is www.singingtotheplants.com. That website also has my blog that I have been keeping for several years where I talk about shamanism generally. I talk about the Upper Amazon. I talk about indigenous spirituality generally. The book is Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. It’s published by the University of New Mexico Press. It’s available on the website. It’s available at amazon.com. It’s available at barnesandnoble.com. The website talks about my other books, which are: The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet; The Buddhist Experience; and The Classical Tibetan Language, which is a grammar of classical Tibetan.
JI: Well, thank you Steve for coming on and for being a part of the show. And I thank you for your work. Your book is absolutely wonderful and I highly recommend everybody get out there and read it that has an interest in ayahuasca and this whole field, for that matter — whether it be just psychedelics or shamanism or whatever label they want to put it under. I think your book is extremely important for people to read. Thank you for coming on and for participating in the show.
SB: Well thank you for the conversation. I had a really good time. It was really interesting. I appreciate the invitation.