great length just what Peruvian mestizos shamanism is all about — what happens at an ayahuasca healing ceremony, how the apprentice shaman forms a spiritual relationship with the healing plant spirits, how sorcerers inflict the harm that the shaman heals, and
the ways that plants are used in healing, love magic, and sorcery.
Learning the Plants
At the start of every ayahuasca ceremony, my maestro ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho goes around the room putting agua de florida cologne in cross patterns on the forehead, chest, and back of each participant. As he does this, he blows smoke from the powerful tobacco called mapacho into the crown of the head and over the entire body of
each participant, and he whistles a special song of protection called an arcana. The song has no particular name — it is just la arcana — and no words; it is intention abstracted from human language; the wordless whistling approximates instead to pura sonida, pure sound, which is the language of the plants.
The goal is to cleanse and protect. The song calls in the protective genios — the thorny palm trees, the fierce animals, the predatory hawks and owls that are used in sorcery and thus best protect against it. The strong sweet smells of cologne and tobacco attract the protective and the healing spirits, seal the body against attack, and avert the pathogenic projectiles — the darts, scorpions, monkey teeth, razor blades — of the envious and resentful. The goal, as don Roberto puts it, is to erect a wall “a thousand feet high and a thousand feet below the earth” to protect himself, his students, and all who are in attendance.
But why such precautions at a ceremony that is, after all, intended for healing? Part of the answer is rooted in what I have called the tragic cosmovision of Upper Amazonian shamanism, where there are no bright lines between healing and sorcery, life and death, good and evil, predation and renewal. In this tragic cosmovision, the dark and the light, killing and curing, predator and prey are at once antagonistic and complementary; the price we pay for life is death, and out of death comes healing and life. The same plant and animal spirits, the same tools, are used both to protect and to destroy; the shaman who knows how to heal is at the same time a sorcerer who knows how to kill. Once you drink ayahuasca, I was told, once you start to learn the plant teachers with your body, the world becomes a more dangerous place.
Sorcerers resentful of your presumption will shoot magical pathogenic darts into your body, or send fierce animals to attack you, or fill your body with scorpions and razor blades — especially while you are still a beginner, before you gain your full powers. Peruvian poet César Calvo Soriano says that drinking ayahuasca makes one into “a crystal exposed to all the spirits, to the evil ones and the true ones that inhabit the air.” Such transparency is perilous.
But again, in the Upper Amazon, there is no bright line between the evil and the true spirits. Some of the most powerful of the plants, such as catahua and pucalupuna, want to deal only with the strongest and most self-controlled of humans, those willing to undertake long periods of solitude and fasting in the wilderness. Other humans they kill.
We do not need to be ourselves embedded in the ambiguous and perilous shamanic culture of the Upper Amazon to recognize the power of these beliefs as metaphor. What the protective ceremony is saying is this: You cannot be a tourist among the spirits.
Shamans in the Upper Amazon have established a relationship of trust and love with the healing and protective spirits of the plants. To win their love, to learn to sing to them in their own language, shamans must first show that they are strong and faithful, worthy of trust. To do this, they must go into the wilderness, away from other people, and follow la dieta, the restricted diet — no salt, no sugar, no sex — and ingest the sacred plant that is the body of the spirit.
Thus, the shaman learns the plant — its uses, its preparation, its songs — by taking the plant inside the body, letting the plant teach its mysteries, giving the self over to the power of the plant. There is a complex reciprocal interpersonal relationship between shaman and other-than-human person — fear, awe, passion, surrender, friendship, and love.
Opening the door to the magical world is not a day trip. Every approach we make to the spirits entails reciprocal obligations, the risks and dangers of the vision fast. What those obligations are is a matter between each of us and the spirits, but at the very least they require gratitude and humility — a willingness to be courageous and vulnerable, to speak honestly from our hearts and listen devoutly with our hearts, to tell the spirits our truest stories.
The Vision Fast
Any encounter with the spirits is like a vision fast. During a vision quest we leave our ordinary life and comforts behind; we stay in solitude in the wilderness for four days and four nights without a tent or food or fire. In this way we express not only our willingness to undergo hardship for the sake of the spirits but also our separation from our normal social relationships. The voluntary privations are part of our newly liminal condition, in which we encounter the dangerous unknown in order to bring back a gift — song, a ceremony, our own unguessed talent — not for ourselves but for our people. You cannot be a tourist on a vision fast.
When I have undertaken vision fasts in the desert, and when I have helped others to do their own vision fasts, we often did a small ritual. On our way to the place each of us had chosen for our fast, we would pause and draw a line ahead of us on the path. When we stepped over that line, we knew that we had crossed over into the land of myth and fairy tale, where we would meet ogres and helpers, where every experience — ravens circling in the sky, a cloud drifting across the silver desert moon — became meaningful, magical, and full of mystery.
The same is true in any encounter with the spirits. The encounter is risky and meaningful. We must be willing to undertake the dangerous opening of our hearts, to tell our stories to the spirits with openhearted honesty, and to listen devoutly with our hearts to what the spirits tell us in return, often through the merest signs, the inchoate movements of our hearts, the silent singing of the plants.
The Talking Circle
Any encounter with the spirits is like a talking circle. In a talking circle, people sit in a circle, and pass around a talking stick. Whoever holds the talking stick gets to speak, and everybody else listens. There are no interruptions, no questions, no challenges. People speak one at a time, in turn, honestly from their hearts, and they listen devoutly with their hearts to each person who speaks. The effect can be miraculous.
In many ways, the talking circle is the paradigmatic healing ceremony. The talking circle makes demands on us — that we have a listening heart, what St. Francis called a transformed and undefended heart. The talking circle demands that we put aside ego, speak our truth with humility, and open ourselves to the unspoken motions of the human heart. You cannot be a tourist in a talking circle.
When people speak honestly and listen devoutly, when they tell their stories — when they sing their songs — to each other, healing occurs, miraculously and spontaneously. Speaking our truths with humility in circle touches upon something that is deeply and fundamentally human. Communities become strong and relationships grow deeper on the basis of the songs and stories we sing and tell each other, and by our willingness to be transparent, and vulnerable and accountable to each other.
In a talking circle, we do not ask or demand that the others in the circle help us or heal us or change us. We speak honestly from our hearts; we express our fears and hopes and regrets; and we listen to the songs and stories of the others, opening up our hearts, becoming, in a mysterious and sacred process, better people. Sitting in circle with others is itself the healing.