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Plant Spirit Shamanism: Ayahuasca Medicine
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 works with the visionary jungle vine, ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a powerful plant mixture which is used by shamans to commune with the spirits who heal those who drink the brew, while the shaman guides the healing session and appeals to the spirits for his client.
The mixture contains ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). The final mixture is also called ayahuasca, from the Quechua words, aya (‘spirit’) huasca (‘rope’ or ‘vine’). Hence, it is referred to as the ‘vine of souls’ or ‘rope of the dead’.
It is prepared by cutting the vines into short lengths which are then scraped, cleaned and pounded to a pulp. The vines, along with chacruna leaves, are then placed in a cauldron, water is added, and the mixture is boiled for 10-12 hours, overseen by the shaman who blows sacred smoke into and over the brew. When ready, the mix becomes a muddy, pungent liquid.
Once ingested it produces feelings of warmth which spread from the stomach, creating a sense of well-being and skin elasticity, as if the skin has become rubber-like and no longer separate from the air. After this, the visionary effects begin. Images of snakes and vines in bright colours are common but, to the shamanic eye, images of the diseases which inhabit his client are also seen. It is these which enable him, and the spirit of ayahuasca, to heal.
During the visionary phase, purging may also take place through vomiting. This can be emotionally uncomfortable for Westerners who are brought up to control their bodily functions and not ‘let go’, but is welcomed by the people of the Amazon since it is this which removes the ‘poison’ that can lead to illness, and clears the system physically and spiritually.
Javier is a Maestro (master) of ayahuasca (also known as an ayahuascero) and has spent years understanding the ways and the spirit of this and other plants, which he refers to as “the jungle doctors”. His training was arduous, involving abstention from certain foods, from alcohol, and from sex, since the spirit of ayahuasca, while angelic and protective, can also be jealous.
“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 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”.
Ayahuasca is egalitarian, according to Javier; its healing spirit being available to anyone who partakes of the drink, though it is often the shaman who carries out the healing, per se, once the spirit of ayahuasca has revealed the nature of the illness to him.
Laboratory tests reveal no significant healing properties for ayahuasca, only hallucinogenic qualities, so it is surprising to Western scientists that such results are possible. For Javier, the explanation is simple: the spirit of the plant is a remarkable healer.
“I had a patient who was HIV positive and had been in hospital a fortnight”, said Javier. “That night we drank [ayahuasca, and] I saw in my vision that HIV was like the devil destroying him and that he was getting worse.
“He stuck to the [ayahuasca] diet for two months [and] he also took bitter tasting herbs which cure internal wounds. After three times [three ayahuasca sessions] he was better and, when tested, proved HIV negative”.
The author, John Perkins, has confirmed other ‘miraculous’ healings – among them, cures for deafness, depression, and endless accounts of life changes and new visions for a different personal future.
Against this backdrop of positive change, it is depressing for Javier that the rainforest, home to many healing plants still unknown to Western medicine is being destroyed so quickly by the ‘developed’ nations, with little consideration of the consequences. Every three seconds, one entire species is wiped out as a result of ‘progress’ so that Westerners might eat more burgers and drive more cars – the very things (pollution and fast food) which are, in many cases, causing illness in the first place.
People create such ‘madness’ as a result of confusion, says Javier. They are searching for love and belonging but, in the West, this comes through status, rather than loving intent.
Javier’s point was underlined a few years ago, when he worked with a group of Westerners and, prior to the ayahuasca ceremonies, asked the group what they wanted from their lives.
Most gave spiritual or ‘cosmic’ answers and spoke of world peace and saving the planet. Javier looked bemused. He asked again and this time, after a little more thought, people said what they really wanted was love. This Javier could understand because their requests were real – but it was as if people had not felt entitled to ask for them.
Yet, paradoxically, these honest desires are where true healing begins, since, if more people were able to experience love, there would be no need for the madness of developed society, and, consequently, no need to save the planet, which would never be in danger. “Love solves problems”, say Javier, simply. “Ayahuasca cures through love”.
About the author:
Ross Heaven is a therapist, workshop leader, and the author of several books on shamanism and healing, including Darkness Visible, the best-selling Plant Spirit Shamanism, and Love’s Simple Truths. His website is http://www.thefourgates.com where you can also read how to join his sacred journeys to the shamans and healers of the Amazon.