“Whether the diet is to heal the body or the spirit or whether it is part of an apprenticeship, what makes it work is your good intention towards the diet. Also the good intention of the maestro who helps make the connection with the spirit of the plant. He must know how to get into the altered state to be in contact himself first. They are beings, which have their own forms or they can be like human beings with faces and bodies. When the spirit accepts the dieter, and the dieter has the will, the spirit grants them energy. The path to knowledge opens, the healing takes place, as the case may be.”
Shipibo maestro Shaman Guillermo Arevalo who worked with our group on our Ayahuasca Retreats
Our intention in this journey is to provide the conditions and orientation to enable participants to follow a proper diet, and for it to be as near as possible to what indigenous people have done for thousands of years, (although we can avoid unnecessary hardship, in any case a diet is not a trial of endurance).
The diet is a journey of self-exploration and the maestro is there to give support, not to impress us with a ‘show’, as do some of the ayahuasca shamans who work with Westerners. It is tempting to imagine that shamans with the gift for engendering powerful experiences in their clients are necessarily spiritually evolved and benevolent, but unfortunately this is not always the case. It is more important that the shaman is an evolved and impeccable person, who will guide us to learn for ourselves and benefit from our experiences in safety.
Participants will undertake to ‘diet’ a plant for a full six to eight days, selecting their plant from a range of options which will be explained by the maestro and depend on individual requirements. Some plants are good for specific ailments as, for example Chuchahuasi for arthritis and other bone conditions, although there is always a magical world opened up by the plant spirit. Other plants have specific spiritual benefits. Chirisanango and Ushpahuasanango, for example, open up the heart and are healing to emotions. Guayusa works very curiously on one’s dreams, affording an experience of being conscious while in fact asleep or dreaming. The plants used will all be compatible with Ayahuasca so that we can benefit from the plant diet during Ayahuasca ceremonies. There will be a programme of talks, exercises, individual sessions and group meetings without prejudicing the spirit of the diet. This is a way to learn from observation and intimate contact with nature, practical artistic exercises using local materials.
We will participate in the gathering and preparation of Ayahuasca, a prolonged ritual in which power is invoked from the planta maestra. We will learn about healing plants and how to find them.
Working with teacher plants is known as the ‘shaman’s diet’. The purpose of the diet is to prepare the body and nervous system for the powerful knowledge and expansion of consciousness given by teacher plants. In everyday life, the mind creates the illusion that we are separate from reality, and thus protects us, like a veil, from experiencing the vastness of the universe. Access to the truth without preparation could be a radical shock to the system. It offers a significant challenge for the rational Western mind to come to terms with the teacher plants, and a leap of imagination is required to incorporate the ‘other’ consciousness of the plant.The magical world to which we are transported by plants is not accessible through the verbal rational mind but through dream language or an expansion of the imagination. Thus dreams & our imaginative powers act like doorways during a plant diet and connect us with the plant spirit.
• Mocura; taken orally or used in floral baths to raise energy, or take you out of a saladera (a run of bad luck, inertia, sense of not living to the full). This plant gives mental strength and you can feel its effects as also with ajosacha, both are varieties of garlic and have a penetrating aroma. Mental strength means it could be good to counter shyness, find one’s personal value or authority. Medicinal properties include asthma, bronchitis, reduction of fat and cholesterol. Another of its properties is that it burns of excess fat.
• Piñon Colorado; this plant has short lived effect after drinking but helps dreaming later on when you go to sleep. Piñon Colorado can also be worked with as a planta maestra (teacher plant). Medicinal properties include dealing with Insect bites and stings, vaginal infections, and bronchitis. It is possible to take the resin which is much stronger but toxic if too much ingested. The resin can be applied directly to the skin.
• Chiricsanango; this plant is good for colds and arthritis and has the effect of heating up the body, so much so that the maestro advises a cold shower after each dose! This plant can be used in baths for good luck, and bring success to fishing, hunting etc. This planta maestra also makes possible for people to open up their heart to feel love for people and animals, and identify with other people as though brothers and sisters.
It grows mainly in the Upper Amazon and only a few restingas (high ground which never floods) in the Lower Amazon. The shamans say that plants connect us with nature because they take their nourishment directly from the earth, as well as the sun’s rays, the air. They allow us to know and recognize ourselves. A shaman must know this and must love his people to heal them. The gift of Chirisanango is self esteem i.e the ability to recognise ourselves.
The shamans say that this plant opens up the shamanic path, assuming that we are prepared to live under the rules of shamanism, to do this we need courage and no fear of extremes or negative & challenging circumstances. We need to understand what role we will play in society and have the heart of a warrior.
• Guayusa; It is good for excessive acidity and other problems in the stomach and bile. Also it is both energizing and relaxing at the same time and develops mental strength. This also has the most interesting effect of giving lucid dreams i.e when you are dreaming you are aware that you are dreaming. The plant is also known as the “watchman’s plant”, as even when sleeping you are aware of the outer physical surroundings.
On another personal note, I found the experience with this plant also to be quite incredible. I found that the usual boundary between sleeping and being awake to be more fluid than I had anticipated. Even now, sometime after taking the plant my dreams are more colourful, richer, and lucid than before. For those interested in ‘dreaming’ this is certainly the plant to explore.
• Ajo Sacha; An important planta maestra in the initiation of Amazonian shamans. Mental strength, acuity of mind, saladera (explained above), for ridding spells, self healing. Originally used to enhance hunting skills by covering up human smell with the garlic smell of Ajosacha.
On another personal note, I found my senses being altered and enhanced with this plant. I could zoom in and focus on sounds emanating from the rainforest, my sense of smell became sharper, and in some ineffable way I could tune into the breathing or rhythm of the rainforest. The sound of insects and birds was no longer a random phenomenon, these sounds became a rhythmic breath, rising and falling. No wonder that it is used for hunting as one’s sense are heightened in an incredible way.
• Icoja; A bark used for malaria, fever, an astringent, disinfectant for healing septic wounds. Used against Uta – a kind of leprosy found in the Amazon. Wounds are washed directly with this plant, and it is also used for an infectious disease (Pilagra) in children.
• Chanca piedra; Used for Kidney problems especially kidney stones (hence the name ‘stone crusher’), gall bladder, disinfectant. This is recognised as a gall bladder and liver tonic. It is also used for cleansing the urinary system and for dealing with intestinal parasites. This plant is only used for its many pharmaceutical properties, not a planta maestra per se.
• Sachamangua; This is a large single seeded fruit, which when you crush the fruit and squeeze the juice into the nose, it warms the area locally (it can sting a bit), and it is effective for curing sinusitis. It also helps the eyesight and restores visual acuity by relieving the pressure from the sinuses. You eliminate a lot of mucus and this gives relief. The fruit when ripe is normally eaten peeled or roasted, and is a little like the aguaje fruit, but for medicinal uses it must be green. It is also good for tired feet in an poultice. Taken orally it is useful for the liver when struggling with the digestion of fat, it is also a treatment for gases. Fungal spores in the nose can cause itching, rhinitis or allergy and Sachamangua is effective for this too. Athlete’s foot can also be treated with the dry powder, like talcum powder, prepared from this fruit.
• Cat’s Claw (una de gato); Cat’s Claw is a tropical vine that grows in rainforest. This vine gets its name from the small thorns at the base of the leaves, which looks like a cat’s claw. These claws enable the vine to attach itself around trees climbing to a heights up to 150 feet. The inner bark of this vine has been used for generations to treat inflammations, colds, viral infections, arthritis, and tumors.
Cat’s Claw can be used as tonic to boost the body’s immune system. And is considered by many as a ‘balancer’ returning the body’s functions to a healthy equilibrium. Its has anti-inflammatory and blood cleansing properties as well as being able to clean out the entire intestinal tract and therefore helps treat a wide array of digestive problems such as gastric ulcers, parasites, and dysentery.
From a psycho-spiritual, plant spirit, or shamanic perspective in which disease and illness can be initiated by a spiritual imbalance within a person causing the person to become de-spirited, or losing heart (in the West we would call this depression), it can restore this inner sacred union of spirit and physical body.
The medicinal properties of this plant are officially recognized by the Peruvian government and it is a protected (for export) plant. It is available widely in the west in capsule form. In the markets in Iquitos it is available in bark form, and many indigenous communities
• Boahuasca; Used to heal Cancer of the stomach and intestines and prolapses. Also used against Uta, and cancerous, malignant wounds. The shaman’s make an ointment from the ash and apply directly.
The underlying truth that is revealed in working with the plant spirit or consciousness is that we are not separate from the natural world. We perceive ourselves to be separate beings with our minds firmly embedded within our being (typically our head). The plants can show you that this way of being is an illusion and that we are all connected, all of us and everything else is a discrete element in the great universal field of consciousness. This is an area where the ancient knowledge of the peoples of the rainforest and modern quantum physics point in the very same direction, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one’ Albert Einstein.
Another way of seeing the shaman’s diet is that like the platitude ‘all roads lead to Rome’, all plants lead through different paths of experiences to the same place, i.e a deep and expanded understanding of one’s place in the world around us and a recognition of self as an intrinsic element of this.
The indigenous people of the Amazon see life as having enough purpose just as it is. Fulfilment comes from being in tune with the spirits so there is an abundance of fish, bananas, yucca for making masato (alcoholic beverage), and plenty of healthy children, in short, life is for being happy!