by Kevin Furnas
Originally posted Feb 10, 2007
INVARIABLY WHEN WE THINK OF AMAZONIAN shamanism, images arise of the forest itself with its endless array of twisting vines and exotic plants whose primordial character exudes a sense of reality more akin to myth than the concrete existence of our more modern world. Alexander Von Humboldt broke open the trail with his early exploratory expeditions at the start of the 19th century which in turn inspired Schultz and the ensuing ranks of plant researchers who came to make up the growing field of ethnobotany. Intrepid botanists and anthropologists paddled down uncharted rivers and hacked their way through virgin forest in the name of science and with the ultimate goal of one day being able to understand this mysterious new frontier.
The mechanism, however, through which all this was to be accomplished, indeed the entire driving force behind the various personalities of this epic endeavor was based on a single idea, that through the scope of western scientific rational thought reality could be objectified and thus understood. Plants were collected, classified and analyzed down to their molecular level with the assumption that the whole could be gleaned through the sum of its material parts.
When many of these scientists came across indigenous worldviews which conflicted with their own Newtonian mechanistic perspective on reality, the local beliefs were often discounted and relegated to the sub-science of mythology. The unconscious assumption, of course, was that native peoples were making up stories to explain their environment because they were not as astute as those trained in universities. Indeed until recently an entire Amazonian science has been overlooked or explained away as quaint folklore in favor of a search for interesting raw materials suitable for exploitation.
It is my intention then to present in this article a glimpse into a shamanic amazonian perspective on how indigenous people perceive their environment and interact within it. Diverging from the academic I would like to rectify some of the entrenched beliefs about the nature of plant life on this planet by painting an alternative picture of the forest based on my time undergoing shamanic initiation outside of Iquitos, Peru.
While much has been written about Amazonian shamanism, in particular the use of ayahausca as a conscious altering entheogenic plant brew, few authors have actually bothered to study the system from the inside. Indeed a schism exists between the indigenous and modern view of what reality is and thus a great deal of confusion is generated when these two systems of belief collide.
Perhaps the greatest area of misconception centers around the locally held assumption that plants are sentient beings and thus able to interact with and influence the course of human affairs. While this idea has been consistently documented by anthropologists worldwide, to this day its reality has rarely been accepted by western thought and as such its implicit significance has been largely ignored and is thus in need of a fresh reevaluation.
In truth, once we even garner the possibility of plant intelligence, we are invariably forced to question our own deeply entrenched views about the natural world and our roles in relation to it. Indeed fear has prevented any real inquiry into the matter, for if such a Copernican idea was to be accepted the repercussions would alter the very fabric of reality as accepted by the modern world. Has western thought strayed so far from its moorings in the scientific method that it now trembles at the possibility of a new hypothesis? Columbus’s supposed “discovery” of America shattered the belief that religion was the vessel of all knowledge (how come the pope didn’t know?!), which in turn led to an age of reason and the birth of science. Perhaps we have to discard our old dogmas once again and go back to the garden of the Americas, but this time as human beings willing to learn from our environment and this school we call the earth.
Indigenous shamanic practices, indeed just about everything in the lives of traditional Amazonian peoples is centered in one way or another on the belief that their vegetative environment is populated by intelligent non human life forms. In order to establish and maintain a relationship between humans and plants various methods have been devised to act as a bridge to facilitate the flow of communication. Chief among these is the use of ayahuasca and similar visionary plants which enable the commingling of species in an altered state of consciousness. Indeed this becomes necessary as the higher energetic selves (spirits) of the plants being contacted exist in another plane of existence known as the spirit world and entheogens are often necessary to lesson the distance between levels of being.
Once the perceptual barrier is breached humans can easily interact with sentient vegetative life forms. Generally speaking humans are considered to be on the receiving end of this relationship and knowledge is bestowed by plant teachers who are thought of as wise elders and are often referred to as parents or grandparents. When someone is ill, for instance, it is the plants who are consulted as they are the ones able to diagnose a problem and impart a cure.
Recently this was demonstrated by a healer friend called Dona Otilia who during the course of one of our ayahuasca ceremonies related to me that she had received a cure for AIDS. During the night she had been instructed by spirits to gather seven plants and given detailed instructions concerning the parts to be used, quantity, method of preparation as well as dose and length of administration.
Once we accept the possibility of plant sentience then it becomes much easier to understand Amazonian science and technology. The discovery of ayahuasca for example is generally assumed by most scientists to have been accidental despite the statistical improbability of someone cooking up the exact two plants out of thousands of possible species needed for this entheogenic brew. Perhaps a better explanation would be the indigenous one, which while its details vary according to oral tradition, clearly states that ayahuasca was something given by spirits. Indeed upon closer inspection, it becomes evident amazonian shamans are trained by plants and the format of their ceremonies have been designed by spirits whose intention is to facilitate inter species communication.
While ayahuasaca helps to transport the shaman into the realm of sentient plant spirits, it is the icaros or sacred songs which act to guide the way and enable a systematized means of communication. An icaro then is a vibrational code which is introduced by a plant into the crown chakra (known in the Amazonian system as an eye of light) of an initiate and is experienced as a series of notes to be memorized and later sung to call the spirit. In short an energetic link is established and the song acts as the specific telephone number for the spirit to be contacted during a ceremony (imagine a touch dial phone). During the course of their training, shamans are often given more than one song by a particular plant as each is designed so that its unique sound structure serves a specific function.
Some raise the intensity of the visions while others are used to induce vomiting and facilitate the release of negative energy; others bestow implements of power or raise one`s defenses against shamanic attack. Often icaros can be perceived and the specific color signature of a plant is apparent in the patterns that make up one`s visions. Indeed an experienced ayahuascero can distinguish between spirits and icaros through a recognition of their unique pattern of energy. While it is true that a student may learn the songs of an elder shaman before he has the capacity to receive them himself, it should be noted that icaros are vibrational tools given by a specific spirit who is interested in interacting with humans.
During the course of a ceremony an experienced shaman can conduct the flow of energy by calling on the various doctors he has learned from to heal the participants or find a solution to a particular problem. The shaman however must first undergo a rigorous period of training under the tutelage of plant teachers to familiarize himself with the spirit realm and enable him to better act as an intermediary between species. This process is known as la dieta and constitutes the central avenue through which humans have learned from sentient plant life. The guidelines of this system are laid down by the plants themselves and one’s individual process of initiation is always dictated by non human guides. While elder shamans may help to facilitate this process, their role is primarily that of middlemen whose job is to implement the instructions of vegetative masters.
In essence then the diet is a process through which a human student is healed and trained by the higher energetic self of a particular plant. Indeed the spirit chooses the pupil based on compatibility and a recognition of what kind of instruction is needed by the student. In this sense the forest can be seen as a personalized university with each species of plant offering a unique course of instruction. Generally speaking an evaluation takes place during the course of an ayahuasca ceremony whereby the initiate is energetically examined by various plant teachers. His case is discussed by spirits who work within a larger “hierarchical” structure which consists of hospitals, advisory councils and other specialized fields of influence. Once a teacher is decided upon, the choice is made known to an elder shaman along with specific instructions as to the manner in which the diet is to be implemented. Certain goals are set by the plants, indeed a course of instruction is agreed upon, whereby it is decided how much time the student will likely need to meet the various criteria necessary for moving on to the next stage of his development.
Traditionally in order to learn from something one must ingest its essence and so the particulars of preparation, dose and duration of diet are decided by the plant to be imbibed. In my case I usually drank a tea twice a day which had been cooked up from the bark of a tree though the dose was sometimes altered according to the preference of the spirit teacher. At other times I would be instructed to use the roots, flowers, or parts interior, whether cooked or crude, as each variation would act to alter the process in some fundamental way and was deemed necessary to the implementation of the diet. In taking in the physical manifestation of the plant, I was ritually enacting the real process which is the energetic communion of student and teacher. As such the grandfathers of one particular species of tree (they usually took turns) would work with me 24 hours a day for the duration of my diet which could be up to several months. During this time one is healed, tested, and instructed in the nuances of shamanic power. While much of this takes place on a “verbal” telepathic level, dreams and even the events of daily life can be used as tools of instruction.
As the name implies, the diet involves certain food restrictions which facilitate the real process which centers around the merging of plant teacher with student. The dieter refrains from salt and sugar for the very reason that they are necessary for the normal functioning of the human body. Deprived of these essentials one becomes like a man lost in the desert without food or water. One’s personal beliefs become secondary to biological necessity and this helps to lesson the ego’s resistance to the energetic union with a plant. As the human vessel calls out for help the spirit of the plant enters to perform healing and impart knowledge. This artificially created condition is also conducive to altered states of consciousness and moves the human student closer to the realm of the spirit.
In addition to foregoing certain foods, the dieter is normally required to abstain from sexual relations as during the diet this type of exchange with another human is considered to be in conflict with the energetic workings of the plant. Indeed in the strict traditional sense, one is encouraged to avoid all possible physical contact with those not dieting, including the shacking of hands, as this is thought to prevent the introduction of possibly harmful influences.
To further this process, the dieter is deliberately segregated from society and made to live in relative seclusion in the forest. Thus denied the normal trapping of human social interaction, the initiate is guided into a period of introspection and self discovery. Taken out of one´s cultural syntax and deprived of peers to reflect a sense of self, the student is stripped of his illusions and left to interact with the sentient world of the plant spirits. It is only through the dieter’s willingness to take on such hardships that he is able to prove the seriousness of his intent and demonstrate his determination to continue on with the path of medicine.
During the initial stage of this process one is healed of the past by undergoing a life review. As all memories are stored in our energetic makeup, a recollection of painful events is necessary in order to understand and then release blockages. During the diet this is usually done in a paced and systematic manner and generally conforms to what appears to be a blueprint for healing. While the particulars of each individuals traumas are of course unique, a common road map is used by the plants to help one overcome personal barriers. This takes the form of a staircase of self revelation where one is led through a series of steps intended to heal the past. In my own case this process began with a subtle guidance of my thoughts whereby my teachers would help me to access and reevaluate painful memories. Forgotten incidents buried in my phyche were energetically triggered so that i could re experience them and thus acknowledge their present impact. During this initial stage it is not unusual to have visions or dreams of being lost in darkness, trapped in a sealed room or otherwise restricted in some symbolic form. In this state the dieter becomes acutely aware of his predicament as the problem is dissected and reviewed from various perspectives.
Plants are masters of manipulating perceptual reality, and often resort to concocting manufactured scenarios in order to get the student to come to terms with a particular issue. In the case of one of my associates, for example, he was shown during the diet the graphic death of a parent with whom he had had problems with in the past. While the vision created was an illusion, its impact was quite effective in inducing this individual to confront his relationship with his father. Despite the apparent darkness of this procedure, a ray of light and hope is always introduced into the situation once the dieter has become fully conscious of the past blockage. Often the solution comes in the form of a key whereby some form of ritual reenactment of the past allows for an alternate future where forgiveness or some kind of reconciliation is presented as the means of achieving healing. While it is true that the plants are behind the orchestration of these events, it is always left up to the individual to find the key and thus decide whether or not one is ready to pass through his own particular door.
While these steps are ritually enacted out, the plants work alongside the initiate on a spirit level, and assist in the process of seeking out and clearing emotional blockages which have manifested in the chakras. In the same way that humans are able to manipulate their material world, so too the spirits of plants are quite competent in their ability to work with energy. Existing as they do in a higher vibrational realm, it appears to be relatively easy for them to direct concentrated beams of laser like energy into ones chakras and thus alter the negative blueprints which precipitate the onset of disease. In going to the source of the problem, that is in releasing the original negative memory which acted to block the healthy energetic functioning of the body, the spirits of plants are able to heal the past and thus effectively treat diseases which are considered to be incurable by western medicine. So too it is considered an essential part of ones personal journey to let go of the past so that one is free to make room for new ideas and thus move on to the next stage of the diet which involves learning directly from plants. While the work of self discovery and healing is a lifelong or even eternal process, the progress made during the first few months of the diet acts as a foundation for the teaching to come.
Generally speaking during these initial months of intensive healing and personal introspection the plants are primarily concerned with manipulating the dieters energy so that it functions in a more correct and healthy manner. That which was confused and entangled is realigned so that the position of the initiate’ s energy is more receptive to receiving the higher vibrational teachings which emanate from the spirit world. During this time one enters a new and exciting phase of the diet whereby the individual begins to hear the voices of his teachers and thus learns to communicate telepathically with plants. It is also not unusual during this time to have some preliminary visual experiences, though this is usually aided by the repeated use of visionary plants such as ayahausca. Instead of feeling isolated and alone in ones hut, the dieter begins to explore his new found capacity to interact with vegetative life forms. Whereby in the past spirits would subtly guide ones thoughts and manipulate the emotions according to the situation at hand, here the individual begins to distinguish his own inner monologue from that which is being transmitted and thus is able to engage in open conversations where questions are allowed and responses freely given.
While the topics of discussion often concern certain recommendations as to personal behavior or the means by which the initiate can improve himself, it should be noted that they can also be of a more mundane nature and often take the form of small talk. The individual personalities of plants are as unique as those of humans and while spirits can be at times quite serious and demanding, it is also true that they can display a wicked sense of humor. Here in the realm of the spirit, wisdom is not separated from a sense of fun, and it is not uncommon while immersed in the dark abyss of some personal revelation to be abruptly confronted by the absurd. Indeed one soon learns that all is fair game when it comes to methods of teaching, and spirits are not immune to a little mischief if it forwards their goal while in the process of grooming a student.
This idea can be easily illustrated by an example which took place during the course of my own training. After several months of intensive diet and at a stage where I took it for granted that I could converse with spirits, I had the great fortune to work with a tree called Cuma Ceva. This wise grandfather spirit came in the form of a gracious king and pushed me to go beyond my previous limitations. As such he would work me 24 hours a day, and it was not uncommon to find myself in some daunting purification ritual such as the night I was instructed to bath in a stream where I had recently come across the deadly Naka Naka snake. In this moment of intense stress where I was forced to confront my fear, Cuma Ceva helped me to ease the tension of this particular test of my faith by suddenly manifesting himself in the most unexpected manner. While I had grown accustomed to his rather regal appearance, it now came as quite a shock when he suddenly appeared with sun glasses and accompanied by some rather obnoxious sounding music.
Floating as I was in this murky Amazonian pool, awash in ayahuasca visions and primordial slitherings, it was only through my ability to laugh at the absurdity of this odd situation that I was able to move beyond my fear and recognize it as an illusion. In the instance then, my teacher chose to drastically alter his appearance as a means of changing how I perceived reality, and thus was able to prod me into successfully confronting and thus overcoming this barrier to my personal growth. It should also be reemphasized that the curriculum taught in this school of the forest is uniquely tailored to the personality of the student, and as such the plants are quite capable of using whatever device they deem necessary to accomplishing their objective.
As one progresses along the road of medicine certain choices are usually introduced, often disguised in the form of challenges, and which act to determine the future course of the initiate. Generally speaking each candidate must decide whether he will use his new found powers for healing and the service of others or for the aggrandizement of the self with its lower and more nefarious associations. Alluring gifts and promises of power over others are deliberately left in the path of the student, and these easy enticements are often too great a temptation for those unaware of the reason for their existence and who still have a lot of work to do in these areas of personal development. As might be expected, those individuals who fall into this trap often become brujos or black magicians till they learn to rise above these challenges and decide to heal whatever ills originally led them to abuse their power. For those who proved themselves wiser, it is recognized that in the school of life personal power is something earned, not stolen, and the only means of growth in this world is through the passing of individual barriers and an honest approach to ones personal evolution.
While it is true that in essence the diet involves the personal training and apprenticeship of a human by a particular species of plant, it should be recognized that often times other teachers are brought into the process as each represents a different line of specialty. In my case, for instance, ayahuasca was drunk twice weekly and acted as an essential and complementary component to my work dieting with the trees. In the initial stages of my initiation, i would rely on the residing maestro or qualified shaman, who during the course of a ceremony would consult with the spirits and thus pass on any messages I might need from my teachers in the spirit world. Later as I was able to converse independently with spirits, I came to recognize that these sessions were invaluable opportunities to interact and learn from my teachers in their own environment.
While during the day I could communicate and even “see” to a limited extent, with the aid of ayahuasca I was actually able to enter into the energetic realm of the particular tree for which i was dieting or else be transported by my guides into completely different dimensional realities. Indeed it became quite routine to be taken on excursions down energetic wormholes which let to various worlds and locals where i would be instructed by my teachers. In working with a tree called La Punga, for instance, often times i would be whisked off into the inter dimensional space of the water world where this grandmother spirit would introduce me to the denizens of this aquatic landscape.
It is not uncommon then during these forays into the unknown to be introduced to various teachers and forms of life. Often times one comes in contact with animal spirits, whether through the assistance of ones vegetative teachers or of their own volition, and it is not unusual during these initial introductory meetings to establish the foundation for what later becomes a more permanent relationship. In my own experience, those animals which chose to become my totem spirits would manifest in one of two ways; they would either give me their song outright or else be brought in a deliberate manner such as on a float or in a boat of some kind.
As a dieter advances, he is introduced to various guides who help to broaden the course of his instruction. During a ceremony potential teachers will often congregate around a particular student as he is evaluated and his case is discussed. Many times energetic gifts of power are bestowed by ones teachers or others waiting to work with the initiate. These may come in a variety of forms and their relative importance appears to be determined by the intention behind which the object was given. While a visiting rose spirit, for example, may offer a flower as a sign of friendship, the grandfather of the tree that one is currently dieting with may decide to give something much more substantial.
In my case, energetic crowns were often bestowed upon completion of a particular test or advancement to a higher level of shamanic capacity and learning. So too it is often decided that the student is sufficiently prepared to utilize certain powers, so for instance the ability to have visions without the use of entheogens might come in the symbolic form of special looking glasses or perhaps in some esoteric looking potion to be drunk.
Normally only after the pupil has acquired a fair amount of personal power, indeed after many months of intensive dieting, is he deemed ready to receive an arcana. This is a spiritual defense which acts to encapsulate ones medicine and prevent psychic intrusions and outright theft from those less scrupulous about how they increase their power. Arcanas can come in a multitude of forms depending on the need of the recipient, though a few good examples might be that of rainbows, crystals or even dragons! These energetic barriers can also be used by shamans weary of loosing the power of their icaros, and while many healers are quite generous with their medicine songs, others appear to go to great lengths to guard these shamanic tools. Some other examples of gifts of power might include magical weapons, wings, perfumes, magical phlegms which depending on their color determine their function, and huatas which act to weave ones energy in such a way that it is impervious to shamanic attack.
During the course of the diet, the human student is introduced into a mind boggling array of possibilities which at times can be quite overwhelming. The sheer number of spirits which inhabit the various layers and realms of the spirit world, let alone their various functions, can appear to be quite confusing and would literary require lifetimes of study to adequately comprehend. As such it is usually decided during the course of a student’s progression in which direction his path will lead. The depth and range of this amazonian science is indeed quite profound, and so a decision is made by the plants as to what type of medicine the initiate will eventually practice. In my own case, after having worked with various plants and stones, it was decided that i would diet exclusively with twelve big trees as well as conduct ceremonies with ayahuasca.
While it can be argued that this decision ultimately came from the sky and my celestial guide, within an Amazonian perspective it was the plants who authorized this change in my path and who determined what type of healer i would become. Other specialties offered as curriculum in the school of the forest include those trained in the use of perfumes (particularly with the various species of piri piris), those working intimately or exclusively with one variety of plant ( toe or sanango, for example), stone specialist as well as those who are gifted with healing through the use of oration or laying on of hands. Indeed a plethora of possible paths exist within the greater sphere of this amazonian science, and it is commonly understood that each shaman works according to his unique talents and energetic makeup even if this consists of a variety of specialties. As in any school there are grades of achievement, though as the coursework of shamanism encompasses our relation to the universe, it should be recognized that the diet process is potentially without end.
At some point during my own initiation I was faced with the experiential fact that my teachers were in possession of an intelligence greater than that of my own. Are plants really smarter than humans? Their ability to connect complicated ideas, manipulate energy, and retrieve information from what appeared to be a universal memory bank bewildered me till i was instructed into the idea of ourselves as multidimensional beings. While plant life is set up a little differently than ours (numerous spirits can live in one tree), we both share a similar energetic makeup. Each possesses a certain number of chakras known as `ojos de luz´ which process different vibrations of energy so that what we call perception can be converted into memories which are then stored in the body. Each of these vortexes is associated with a corresponding non physical body, and so the soul can be seen as consisting of various parts which can actually exists simultaneously in separate levels of existence.
Generally speaking the lower energetic selves are associated with the earth and material reality while the higher bodies are more rarefied and come closer to what could be considered our eternal celestial selves. The diet then is a process where humans beings residing in physical reality become the students of the higher (perhaps highest) energetic bodies of certain plants interested in our progression. While the tree which exists physically may be relatively simple, its higher energetic body appears to be quite advanced. One interesting ramification of this revelation concerns the possibility of reciprocity in the diet. I would like to put forth the proposition that while we can diet with a plant, it can also diet with us. In this scenario, our own higher selves are instructing the plant while we simultaneously on a different plane of being are its student. This has been confirmed by the plants themselves on numerous occasions, though admittedly we as humans have a long way to go before such complicated multidimensional relations can be fully understood.
For the first time in recorded history we as a species are moving towards a planetary level. I would argue that our only chance of making this evolutionary leap from competitive consumers to cooperating stewards is through a better understanding of the nature of reality. Perhaps its time to recognize the true nature of our energetic selves as students of this school we call the earth and begin to work together. In a cooperative mold, scientists will work with monks, shamans with doctors, so that the imaginary barriers that divide us will fall and enable a unified pursuit of true knowledge.
An essential part of our awakening is the recognition of plant life as sentient beings who have an equal stake in the future of this planet. Perhaps one day we will have the courage to host an inter species conference to hear the words of plants. The rewards of such an endeavor would be incalculable. Processes such as the diet could also be of untold value when introduced to a larger segment of the population. In the instance of threatened indigenous cultures, for example, the implementation of the diet could allow the retrieval of tradition through the assistance of ancient trees whose memory extends into the distant past.
Modern medical practices on the other hand could be revolutionized by the recognition of plant teachers and the energetic nature of the body. Entheogenic archeology could help us understand the mistakes of the past while the frontier of consciousness could be intelligently explored with the help of spirit guides. On the edge of an evolutionary quantum leap, I propose we attempt to recognize such rudimentary facts such as plant sentience before the rush and dazzle of technology threatens to unbalance and overtake our ability to comprehend the world around us. As a student of this school we call the earth, I encourage the inter exchange of medicine and ideas amongst all fields of knowledge in the hope of one day changing the dream of our collective future.
*** In the case of dieting with stones, these are often heated up and introduced into a cup of fresh water which then sits overnight. This enables the dieter to ritually ingest some of the essence of the stone which has been transferred to make up a kind of energetic tea.
Kevin Furnas was born in San Francisco and has spent many years exploring and learning from various cultures around the world. He underwent shamanic initiation at Sachamama Ethnobotanical Gardens outside of Iquitos, Peru and spent 20 months dieting with various plants, trees and stones. He currently resides in Cuzco, Peru where he is in the midst of studying the Andean system, performing ceremonies, and writing a series of books on the diet process. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or else at K’uichi Wasi, d-4, camino capacnan, urb.jardin del inca, Cuzco, Peru where ceremonies are conducted in the traditional manner on a voluntary basis via donations.