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 puro sonido, 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 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.
Any encounter with the spirits is like a dream. We are always strangers in the underworld of dreams. We are talked to in a language we do not speak. We are surprised at every turn by the exotic goods unloaded in the marketplace, the jokes we do not understand, the sudden kindness or treachery of our dream companions, our own capacity for compassion, terror, and rage.
And, perhaps like our own journeys, like our encounters with the spirits, like our vision fasts, dreams have a purpose — to make us richer and more human.To that end, dreams are willing, perhaps like our own journeys, to teach us things we do not always want to learn. You can not be a tourist in your dreams.
Our encounters with the spirits, our vision fasts, our talking circles, our dreams all make demands on us, and the demands are all the same. We can evade these demands, pretend they do not exist, but the obligations are real. We must be transparent, and vulnerable, and accountable. When we encounter the spirits, we must pass them our talking stick, we must speak honestly and listen devoutly for what they are saying to us, in signs and whispers and silent motions of the heart, as if they were the mysterious songs of dreams and visions.
A World Full of Spirits
There is more to be learned from the shamanism of the Upper Amazon. When the soul of a patient has been stolen away, hidden perhaps by an evil sorcerer in a mountain cave, a shaman in the Upper Amazon does not travel to find it. Rather, the shaman sings the song that summons the evil sorcerer before him to demand the return of the stolen soul, or summons the soul itself to travel back home to the body of the patient that lies on the ground before him.
Sometimes, too, the mermaids who live in the lakes and rivers will steal away the body of a fisherman, or a dolphin will seduce a young woman to join him beneath the waters. Here again, the shaman does not travel, but commands, through the power of his songs, that the underwater people give up the still living body of the one they have enchanted and stolen away.
Similarly, when they heal their patients, shamans in the Upper Amazon sing the songs that invite the healing spirits to the place where the ceremony is held, so that the spirits can direct the shaman’s magical healing songs and show him the location of the pathogenic projectiles that have lodged in the body of the suffering patient.
Again, we do not need to be ourselves embedded in the culture of the Upper Amazon to recognize what this teaches us. The spirits are all here, with us, right now. This world is as magical — as filled with ogres and allies, signs and mysteries — as the miraculous world of the vision fast. What ayahuasca does, I was taught, is to render before us the unmistakable presence of the omnipresent spirits. We need not travel to find the healing and protective spirits of plants and animals or to hear and sing their songs. We need only open our hearts to the miraculous present.
If, as the shamans say, the spirits are always present, and are brought into focus and visibility by the power of ayahuasca, then so are their voices and their songs. Don Carlos Perez Shuma says that the songs of the plant spirits are like radio waves: “Once you turn on the radio, you can pick them up.” Or the songs are like prerecorded tapes. “It’s like a tape recorder,” don Carlos says. “You put it there, you turn it on, and already it starts singing…. You start singing along with it.”
My maestro ayahuasquero don Roberto told me that he hears the spirits clearly, speaking in his ear, instructing him. Heal like this, they say, sing this song, make such and such a medicine — just as if they were standing next to him, just as, he said, you and I are talking right now, just like this. And he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “This is the sickness this patient has. Use this medicine,” with startling clarity.
Right now, if I could see it, my room is tessellated with delicate blue tiles, filled with receding pathways to crystal palaces, opening out onto sparkling waters, crowded with spirits and visitors from other galaxies, and resonant with the singing of the plants.
So: Our vision fast is taking place right now, at every moment of our lives. Why must we draw a line in our path? We are right now in the land of myth and dream and fairy tale, in a world full of magic and miracles, if we could only open our eyes and hearts and minds to the wonder that surrounds us. What ayahuasca teaches is that right now, at every moment, we already live in the magic forest.
Suppose you dream that you are walking on a path, trip over a rock, and look up to see a child holding a flower and smiling at you. The dream is salient and powerful; it seems to you to be what some call a Big Dream, mythic and meaningful.
There are many ways you might reflect upon what this dream means and what its significance might be for you. You might go back into the dream to meet the child — or sit quietly and invite the child to come to you in a vision — and ask, Who are you? Why are you smiling? Will you be my teacher? Or you can ask the rock, Who are you? Why did you trip me? What lesson are you teaching me? Then hand the child, the rock, the flower your talking stick, and listen devoutly with your heart to what is said.
Now suppose that exactly the same events occur while you are awake. One day you walk along, trip over a rock, and see the smiling child. Why is that experience any less meaningful — any less salient and mythic — than the same events in a dream? Why do we show our waking experiences the disrespect of dismissing them, when we should respect them as much as we do our dreams? Rather, we should give our waking experiences the same respect we give our dream experiences — hand them our talking stick and take them as our teachers, rich, deep, and full of meaning.
Now: Think of what happened to you today, or yesterday. Put it in the form of a story. If this were the story of a dream, then what is it saying to you? What is the meaning of what happened to you today, or yesterday? Is all the world speaking to you — the rock you tripped over, the child who smiled at you, the rain and moon? Are you listening? This is how we make the world meaningful, and full of mystery.
What the shamans of the Upper Amazon teach us is that we are always surrounded by the spirits and their music. We see them sometimes, at the edges of our vision. Their music is pura sonida, pure sound, the language of the plants, reflected in the whistling and whispering of the shaman, and in the susurration of the shaman’s leaf-bundle rattle. We can learn to listen for their music in the humming of our blood, in the singing of the stars, in the stories we tell each other.
In an encounter with the spirits, in a vision fast, in a dream, sitting in circle with others, we seek meaning and depth in our encounters. But what we have learned is that there is no difference between the vision fast, the dream, and our everyday waking reality. We always encounter the spirits; the world has the depth and meaning of our dreams, and we are on a vision quest always, even in our most routine activities.
In an encounter with the spirits, on a vision fast, in a dream, a rock can be a teacher and an ally on our path. Why not in everyday waking reality? A rock can be our teacher because a rock can engage us in a reciprocal relationship: we can give tobacco to a rock, and a rock can give us a gift in return—a song, a ceremony, a teaching.
What the Spirits Want
The spirits make demands on us, and we cannot ignore those demands. It is no excuse to say that we were just tourists, just visitors with no intention of staying overnight. We cannot visit the spirits and then come back home, because the spirits are already here with us. And when we open our eyes to them, when we listen for even the faintest echoes of the songs they sing for us, we have undertaken an obligation to them.
The spirits love us. There was a mythic time when all beings spoke the same language.The plants want us to be back in that time with them. They love our stories, and they must love our music. Why else would their gift to us so often be a song for us to sing for them? Above all else, they want us to be grateful and humble, humans who walk in right relationship with each other, with the plants and animals, stars and thunder.
Here is the way to recognize a demand the spirits have placed on us: It does not gratify our ego. It is not the purpose of the spirits to make us feel important or superior, to be able to say, I am a shaman, or I am a healer, or I walk with the spirits. The demand may be something we do not want to do, or something we must give up, or a task we think is beyond our powers. What the spirits want, I think, is that we all become better human beings.
Sometimes the spirits hide our keys, put things in our way to trip over, make us emit embarrassing noises at a formal dinner. Why? So we can learn to laugh at ourselves, and stop taking ourselves so damn seriously.
And that, I think, is the meaning of humility — not to take ourselves so damn seriously. To be humble means being content with both our gifts and limitations, not regarding others as competitors but as fellow travelers on the path. It means wasting no time in envy of others who have different gifts. It means never to be ashamed, never to need to inflate our importance in the eyes of others, never to need to buttress our self-esteem.
Humility means taking joy in the exercise of the gifts we have, rather than despairing over those we lack. Indeed, these are the very gifts we discover on the vision fast that is our life. Humility means being fundamentally happy with ourselves.That is the kind of human person the spirits want us to be.
Many people drink ayahuasca, go on vision fasts, seek to encounter the spirits for essentially self-centered reasons — for their own healing, their own transformation, their own empowerment. The spirits meet with people where they are. But I think that encountering the spirits, or going on a vision fast, or dreaming a deep and salient dream is pointless if it does not make us — somehow, and perhaps over a long time — willing to walk through the world carrying a talking stick.
How to Pray
The spirits are persons — other-than-human persons, but still persons — and, like all persons, they are ends in themselves and not means to other ends.They are not there for us to use, but rather for us to meet. They sit with us in a great talking circle. We pass the talking stick back and forth as we tell each other our stories, as we sing each other our songs, as we give our gifts to each other. In a true meeting with another person — a human, a spirit, a rock — we do not seek any end other than genuineness in our meeting.
The spirits are willing to help us in many ways. They give us songs and ceremonies and guidance, and what they want in return is gratitude and humility. Once we have started on this path, they will teach us these things, whether we want them to or not. Why? Because you cannot be a tourist in your own life.
We cannot just go to the spirits and expect them to give us what we want. They may well have other plans for us. In fact, rather than asking — or, as some people do, demanding — that they heal us, or transform us, or make us into someone else, we should just pour out our hearts to them in prayer. We should not go to them with requests or demands or even expectations.
We should tell them what we need; tell them what we fear; tell them what we regret. We should speak to them honestly from our hearts, and then listen devoutly with our hearts to what they tell us.
We must pass the talking stick to the spirits, to our companions, to the trees and plants, and be deeply alert to what they are saying to us. We must do this with everyone, all the time, because the spirits want us to be human beings, in right relationship with all persons, both human and other-than-human. We must allow them to show us how, and not block them by telling them to transform us, or empower us, or heal us, or turn us into a healer. Perhaps we will be a healer in a way completely different from what we expect. Perhaps they will heal us in unexpected ways, or perhaps we will be healers who are ourselves wounded or broken. We must put aside expectations, pray with an open heart, and weep for our visions.
If we must ask for something, let us ask them to be our teachers, ask them to give us a gift, not for ourselves but for our people. And let us recognize that the gifts of the plant spirits grow in plant time, not in human time.
We all live, shamans included, not on the mountain peak of spirit, but in the valley of the soul, amid anger, love, envy, resentment, grief, sorrow, loss, and mess. This is where the spirits want to meet us, because this is where we live. And the obligations we owe the spirits are right here and now, in the genuineness of our meeting with all persons, both other- than-human and human.
The spirits miss us. They want us to return to the time of myth, when all creatures spoke the same language. It is up to us to figure out how to walk upright with the spirits through the miraculous valley of the soul. It is the quality of our meeting that matters, what we are willing to learn, whether we are willing to be taught by what we encounter, whether we will take our chances in the epistemic murk of a transformed world.