|Shamanic healing often employs plants to good effect, though it is rarely about herbalism, per se. Indeed, most shamans are explicit that the pharmacological properties of the plants they employ are of far less importance than the spirit which is held by the plant. It is the spirit which heals, while the plant itself is secondary, acting only as the home of the plant-spirit.
The point is illustrated by Amazonian shaman Javier Arevalo, who serves the community of Nuevo Progreso on the Rio Napo river of Peru, working with the visionary jungle vine, ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a powerful mixture of plants that is used by the shamans of the Amazon to commune with the spirits. The spirits then oversee the healing of the person who drinks the ayahuasca brew, while the shaman guides the healing session and appeals to the spirits on behalf of his client.
The mixture itself contains ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), often with datura and pure jungle tobacco. The final mixture is also known as ayahuasca, from the Quechua words, aya meaning "spirit" or "dead," and huasca meaning "rope" or "vine." Hence, the brew is often referred to as the "vine of souls" or the "rope of the dead."
It is prepared by cutting the vines into short lengths which are then scraped, cleaned, and pounded to a brown pulp. The vines, along with chacruna leaves and other ingredients are placed in a cauldron, water is added, and the entire mixture is boiled for 10-12 hours. The process is overseen at all stages by the shaman who will continuously blow sacred tobacco smoke into and over the brew. When ready, the mix becomes a muddy, pungent liquid.
Once ingested, the mixture produces initial feelings of warmth which spread up from the stomach, creating a sense of well-being and a sensation of skin elasticity, almost as if the skin has become rubber-like and pliable and no longer separate from the air around it. After this first phase, which may last 30-60 minutes, the visionary effects begin, which are often dramatic. Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, in his book, One River (1), described the sensation as akin to being "shot out of a gun barrel lined with Baroque paintings, and landing in a sea of electricity." Visions of snakes and vines in bright primary colours are very common but, for the trained shamanic eye, information on the illnesses and diseases which can inhabit the body are also expected. It is these visions which enable the shaman - and the spirit of ayahuasca - to heal his clients.
During the visionary phase, purging may also take place through vomiting or diarrhoea. This can be emotionally uncomfortable for Westerners, who are brought up to control their bodily functions, not to "let go" of themselves. But it is welcomed by the people of the Amazon since it is this purge which removes the "poison" that can lead to illness, and clears the system both physically and spiritually.
Javier is a maestro (master) of ayahuasca (also known as an ayahuascero) and has spent 14 years learning the ways and the spirit of this and other plants, which he refers to as "the jungle doctors." The training of an ayahuascero is arduous, involving abstention from certain foodstuffs, from alcohol and from sex. This is because since the spirit of ayahuasca - while angelic and protective - can also express very human emotions, such as jealousy and anger. They can turn vengeful, with unpleasant consequences for those who approach them in an impure manner.
Training as an ayahuascero also involves long periods of time spent in jungle isolation and "dieting" the plants - regular (often nightly) ingestion of ayahuasca, along with many other plants which are considered healers. The ayahuascero must also follow a special diet that denies him sugar, salt, alcohol, pork and many other foods. In fact, the diet consists largely of rice, fish, and rice water - and even that might be considered lavish since all of the food must be found locally or carried into the jungle, where the shaman must remain for months at a time. The harshness of this training regime is exemplified by the story of one Amazonian shaman whose mentor gave him tobacco to diet in a mix so strong that it bordered on toxic. After consuming the fermented tobacco drink, the shaman retired to a jungle cabin where he lay in a coma-like state for three days. "When you take this drink, you’ll either live or you’ll die," his mentor told him. "If you live, you will know tobacco." (2)
"Every plant has a spirit," says Javier. "The shaman goes into the forest as part of his apprenticeship and spends years taking plants and roots. He takes ayahuasca, too, and the spirit tells him what it cures. Then the shaman tries another plant, each time remembering which ailment is cured by that.
"As the spirits - or plant doctors - who teach us are pure, they are made happy when we are pure too. So a shaman must diet in order to attract them. That means they should not eat salt, sugar or alcohol, and they should abstain from sex.
"You learn all this in the wilderness. The spirits there are the angels of each plant, to which you add your own will to heal the client."
Javier’s own training took place under the tutelage of his grandfather, a banco (master shaman), who, under the protection of ayahuasca, is able to spend up to eight hours beneath the waters of the Amazon rivers communicating "with the biggest fish of the river," according to Javier. Once, Javier’s grandfather also saw a mermaid, who is now a guardian and tutor to the old shaman. Soon Javier will begin his own "river training" on his own path to becoming a banco.
I watched Javier work on the healing of a young woman in the Amazon jungle a few years ago. Ginny, a woman of 35, had suffered from a brain tumour for many years and had been given only a few months to live by her Western doctor. She was confined to a wheelchair, and the chemo- and other therapies had left her legs swollen and her skin in poor condition. Much of her hair had been lost.
Javier had intended to remain with us only to officiate over one ayahuasca ceremony, but as he drank the mixture, his own visions revealed to him that he could heal Ginny. So he stayed with our group for four more days.
During this time he worked exhaustively with Ginny, going into the jungle to gather fresh herbs that he used in lotions and tonics for her legs and hair. After four days of treatment, the swelling in her legs had vanished and her hair was visibly growing back. Even more remarkable, Ginny was able to walk with the aid of a cane, despite the prognosis of her other doctors. Javier had achieved this primarily by communing with, and finally extracting, the spirit of Ginny’s illness. He did so through a combination of journeying to the spirit by consuming ayahuasca and, finally, sucking the spirit-poison from her body.
Laboratory tests reveal no significant healing properties for ayahuasca, only hallucinogenic qualities, so it is surprising to Western scientists and clinicians that such results are possible. For Javier, the explanation is simple: the spirit of the plant is a healer. He says it has had similarly remarkable results in curing Western visitors with all sorts of ailments including alcoholism, drug addictions, and other more emotional problems.
Author John Perkins has written extensively about ayahuasca usage among the Shuar Indians of Ecuador, and has confirmed other "miraculous" healings.
"During the ten years we have been taking people to meet the shamans, there have been a number of remarkable stories," he says (3) - among them, cures for deafness, depression, and weight loss. There are also endless accounts of life changes and new visions for a different personal and social future.
Against this backdrop of radical and positive change, it is depressing for Javier to reflect that the rainforest is being destroyed so quickly by "developed" nations, with so little consideration of the consequences of this action. The rainforest is home to so many healing plants ??" thousands of them still unknown to Western medicine . Yet every three seconds in the Amazon rainforest, an entire species is wiped out as a result of this development. All this so that Westerners might eat more burgers and drive more cars ??" the very things (pollution and fast food) which are, in many cases, causing disease in the first place.
People create such "madness" as a result of confusion and in attempts to be noticed, says Javier. Ultimately, they are searching for love and belonging. But in the West, they believe this comes through status, rather than the more direct route of loving intent.
Javier’s point was underlined a few years ago when he worked with a group of Westerners of which I was a member. Immediately prior to the ayahuasca ceremonies, Javier asked the group what they really wanted from their lives.
Most answered with spiritual or "cosmic" answers, and spoke of world peace and saving the planet, etc. Javier looked bemused. He asked again, and this time, after a little more thought and a good deal more honesty, people said what they really wanted was love. This Javier could understand. The requests were real and immediate - but it was as if people had not felt entitled to ask for these personal things.
Yet, paradoxically, these honest desires are where true healing begins, said Javier. If more people in the West were able to experience love, there would be no need for the madness of developed society, the search for more status and material gain, and the destruction this leads to. Consequently, there would be no need to save the planet, because it would never be in danger.
"Love solves problems", say Javier, simply. "Ayahuasca cures through love."
1. Davis, W. One River: Science, Adventure and Hallucinogenics in the Amazon Basin. Touchstone Books, 1998
2. Heaven, R. Spirit in the City: The Search for the Sacred in Everyday Life. Bantam Books, 2002
3. Heaven, R. The Journey To You: A Shaman’s Path to Empowerment. Bantam Books, 2001
Ross Heaven is a psychologist, author, therapist, TV, radio and magazine contributor, workshop facilitator, and Europe’s first white priest of Haitian Vodou, having initiated into the tradition in January 2000 as part of the research for his books.
He has written numerous articles on psychology, shamanism, Vodou, and the healing traditions, for magazines in America, Europe and the UK, been interviewed by and been reviewed in a number of national newspapers, and been a guest on several radio and television programmes. He has also been called as an expert witness in cases concerning trance states and ritual and acted as a consultant to feature films such as 2004’s London Voodoo. He presents widely on his work and runs workshops in personal development and healing.
He is the author of four widely-acclaimed books on personal development psychology and modern spirituality, including Vodou Shaman, his book on Haitian Vodou, and Darkness Visible, to be published in 2005, which concerns his unique workshops in ceremonial darkness, where participants remain blindfolded for the entire five days of the course.
As well his qualifications in psychology, Ross has trained in various therapeutic approaches and has a healing practice near Brighton in the UK. He has a web site, where you can read articles and book extracts, find out about workshops and catch up on news, at www.VodouShaman.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.