Spirituality is at the centre of the Ayahuasca experience. Purification and cleansing of body, mind, and spirit in a shamanic ceremony can be the beginning of a process of profound personal and spiritual discovery. This process can continue indefinitely even if one never drinks Ayahuasca again. We believe that by seriously looking at the way Ayahuasca is used we can improve our life experience and benefit more from this medicine. This article is extracted from the original interview by Howard G Charing and Peter Cloudsley which appeared in Sacred Hoop Magazine.
We have worked extensively with Javier Arevalo on our Ayahuasca Retreats since 1998, and we had many discussions on the role of the Amazonian shaman and the use of ayahuasca. Javier comes from Nuevo Progreso, a community of 50 families on the Rio Napo, Department of Loreto, Peru. Several generations of his family before him have been shamans and already at the age of 17, he knew this would be his future. However it was not until he was 20 when his father died from a ‘virote’ (a poisoned dart in the spiritual world) sent by a jealous brujo, (sorcerer) that he felt compelled to follow the arduous five-year apprenticeship to be a shaman.
Javier, what is the role of a shaman?
He learns everything about the rain forest and uses that knowledge to heal his people since they do not have money for Western style doctors. He uses Ayahuasca to discover in his visions, which plants will be effective for which illnesses.
How do you perceive this?
The sprits or plant doctors tell us. As they are pure, they are made happy when we are too, so we must diet in order to attract them. That means we should not eat salt, sugar or alcohol, and abstain from sex. The spirits come and say, for example they will cure in two months if the patient takes a particular plant. Then the shaman goes out to look for the plant.
It is said that every environments has the necessary plants to heal the people?
Yes, every plant has a spirit, the shaman goes into the forest as part of his apprenticeship and spends two 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 what.
Does each shaman have to find it all out for himself or is there a body of knowledge handed down?
The maestro goes with the apprentice into the wilderness and gives him the different plants and it is like a test or trial to overcome. The maestro is usually a member of family. In my case both my grandfather and my uncle were maestros. You go off deep into the forest with your maestro and make a very simple shelter or ‘tambo’. A shaman must not live in a big house, its just for sleeping and dieting.
How long do you have to diet the plant?
Just one day to know its process, the next day you move onto another. This is if you do not return to the city, you can get through a lot of plants. This is different from dieting a plant for a month say.
So does every condition or illness have a particular plant to remedy it or is it a spirit energy which comes through the plant which can cure many things?
One plant may cure lots of ailments. A particular plant has a spirit which can either heal or kill. As for example with another shaman (who we worked with earlier) , who had not dieted Ayahuasca correctly and poom! it caused fever and people caught colds.
So why would a plant kill or cure?
Because an hechicero (sorcerer) also learns from the plants. He may for example learn from dieting a plant which has spines or phlegm which could be good for certain things. But if he is bad no one can stop him and in the night ‘ffoooo’ he uses it for harm or to kill. These are the brujos who come back from the forest with eyes red like the huayruro (red beans with black spots). He is a bad shaman and we have to cure the people they harm.
Who would want to do such things?
There are some people who have a squabble with someone, and then they go off to see a brujo and say “this Senora talks too much and has insulted me, kill her and I’ll pay you”. They pay them and they do harm.
But the shaman who made us ill did not do it intentionally.
No, of ignorance. It was a shaman from the city not from the forest. He went away and left us to mop up the ill effects. He may have had a good teacher but does not diet, he is very fat! (People in the jungle are rarely fat.)
In addition he probably eats the day of the session and that is why he threw up himself!
How does this affect Westerners?
It doesn’t matter, they will probably throw up and not have any vision because when he blows he has condiments on his breath. However, it matters much less if the clients have eaten or not stuck rigorously to the diet. The important thing is that the shaman diets.
Note: There is much discrepancy between shamans concerning the question of vomiting. Some say it is necessary for the body to rid itself of what ever is necessary and that if they are not sick they might get ill. (Ayahusaca is often referred to as La Purga.) Others say if you vomit you will not have such good vision and on no account should a shaman vomit.
Why and how did you become a shaman?
I never thought of being a shaman. I took Ayahuasca from 14 years old just to clean my stomach. Later my father said I heard you chanting, you are going to be a shaman. I don’t want to I said. Later when I was 20 my father died from sorcery so then I wanted to learn in order to take vengeance. During my apprenticeship I had a change of heart and understood that God knew best in such situations.
Why did the brujo want to kill your father?
Because he was a curandero who had cured someone who had been harmed by the brujo. It happens because we curanderos undo the work of the brujos and they get angry with us. This is the famous spiritual battle between the brujos. When you cure you send the bad magic back to where it comes from and the brujos get their own dirty medicine back. This is why there is a fight between the good and the bad.
Howard tells story of his battle with one of Javier’s assistants 3 weeks earlier.
(Javier laughs a lot and explains.) Well because he was not really a shaman, he works as a guide, he drinks liquor. Then when he takes Ayahuasca and chants icaros he is not pure and his doctors don’t take any notice of him. The spirits start bothering (molesting) the people participating in the session. That is what happened to Howard. When I take Ayahuasca I talk to the doctors who give visions, I ask them to cure, I have dominion over them because I diet. If I don’t, they make you crazy or annoy you.
So if the shaman cannot control himself, then the spirits get out of hand?
If you can’t dominate the spirits of the jungle you are nobody, instead of curing they run away or take no notice of you.
So the control of the spirits is fundamental?
Spirits are like angels. God withstood 40 days of hunger and temptation by the devil and was resurrected. That’s what we have to do too.
This is Christianity, but your (Javier’s) people were practicing long before the missionaries came. Is it possible to separate the Christian from the wisdom of the jungle?
No, no, they work together. But it has nothing to do with going to a church. You learn all this in the wilderness. The spirits there are the angels of each plant to which you add your will to heal the client. This is the will of Christ.
Where does the power of the shaman end and the spirits begin?
The shaman receives the power from the jungle, he doesn’t have any power of his own that he doesn’t get from the forest.
When I look at you by day I see just a normal young man, when you wear your clothes and move into the ayahuasca space you become different, a different presence, you become larger…
(Javier laughs!) The medicine is not in the body, the body can wear clothes for example, and you see that by day. But at night you don’t see my body, you see my spirit which receives the medicine which transforms me through the vision. I have to be pure so as to be a receptacle of the spirit of the medicine. It is essential too for a shaman to be happy, the shaman laughs at everything, because a happy heart is what cures. He can’t have a long face or fight with his wife and children.
You started off with a desire for revenge, what changed you into a shaman?
My grandfather saw that my heart was bitter and he told me that it would not get me anywhere. My heart was still hard and wanted to kill! Bit by bit through taking the very plants that I had intended to use for revenge, the spirits told me it was wrong to kill and my heart softened.
Howard G. Charing, is an accomplished international workshop leader on shamanism. He has worked some of the most respected and extraordinary shamans & healers in the Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Philippines. He organises specialist retreats to the Amazon Rainforest He is the author of Plant Spirit Shamanism (Destiny Books USA).