The Shamanic State of Consciousness

I really wish we would all just stop talking about the shamanic state of consciousness. States of consciousness occur in people, and people occur in cultures. Thus what we should be talking about are the experiences of shamans in their global, postcolonial, historical, cultural setting, rather than about some hypothetical, abstract, discrete, contextless, monadic entity.

There. Now I feel better.

The notion of a discrete, unitary, disembodied shamanic state of consciousness pretty much began with Michael Harner. Stanislav Grof has decomposed the shamanic state of consciousness into even smaller pieces — experiences with animal spirits, encounters with spirit guides and suprahuman beings, visits to other universes and meetings with their inhabitants. It is difficult to say that such experiential units are anything at all like shamanism as a cohesive cultural practice. In fact, in an article included in an anthology on shamanism, ostensibly about the shamanic journey, Grof identifies shamanism not with such experiences as meeting with animal spirits, but with such phenomena as telepathy, psychic diagnosis, clairvoyance, clairaudience, precognition, psychometry, out-of-body experiences, and other instances of extrasensory perception “utilized in shamanic and other mystical or magical traditions.” It is hard to know what to make of this; it seems as if shamanism has been abstracted entirely out of existence.

Rather, shamans occur in cultures — often in cultures that are geographically remote, speak foreign languages, eat strange foods, and lack plumbing. These cultures are themselves embedded in their own messy historical, global, postcolonial, market-driven setting.

The emphasis on discrete and disembodied states of consciousness leads to a further mischief. One state of consciousness can be evaluated, often by covert criteria, and then ranked against other such states — mystic experience, for example. Psychologist Roger Walsh apparently considers that mystical union is, somehow, higher or better than shamanic journeying. Note how Walsh puts it in one study — that, on the basis of his evidence, shamanism “may deserve to be called a mystical tradition”; or, even more explicitly, that such mystical union, if found in shamanism, would be “the highest, and rarest, flowerings of a tradition.”

It is possible to tease out some of the covert assumptions at work here — that spiritual phylogeny recapitulates spiritual ontogeny, that states of consciousness that develop later are higher than those that develop earlier, that states of consciousness achieved by the few are better than those achieved by the many. Entirely apart from the question whether such value judgments belong in what was purportedly an empirical inquiry, such criteria are not obviously valid.

Ken Wilber makes all of this quite explicit. He combines abstract and reified states of consciousness with his own fully developed developmental and evolutionary map, and, on that basis, he has dismissed shamanic practitioners as both delusional and fraudulent, making “pitiful attempts to exploit others into believing that they were quite exceptional and heroic souls.” Why? Because shamans do not merge and vanish into the formless void — a different discrete state of consciousness that Wilber believes to be preferable.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of this framework has come from Jürgen Kremer, who points out that Wilber’s model of social evolution is in the tradition of nineteenth-century evolutionary conceptualizations. Wilber virtually ignores indigenous peoples, their cultures, their religious beliefs, their impressive cognitive skills, and, especially, their ongoing conversation with the surrounding community of what may be called other-than-human persons. Thus, he says, Wilber simply joins the ranks of those other white Eurocentric thinkers who justified colonial oppression on the basis that Western culture represents the highest level of human evolution. Indeed, indigenous communities offer an alternative to such inherently hierarchic discourse — “a process of an immanently present, visionary, socially constructed being, which is sustained without a need to progress or overcome some insufficient state.”

I think the critique can be extended beyond the metaphor of the branching tree that underlies such hierarchies. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari seek to subvert the dominance of the tree as a metaphor in Western thought by proposing the alternative metaphor of the rhizome — technically, a type of stem that expands underground horizontally, sending down roots and pushing up shoots that arise and proliferate not from a single core or trunk, but from a network which expands endlessly from any of its points. Unlike trees or their roots, Deleuze and Guattari write, “the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple.” Rather than being arranged vertically, with mysticism above shamanism, human spiritualities can be seen as taking the form of a rhizome — always evolving, with no defining or constraining center, intersecting with and affecting one another, changing over time, contingent, contextual, embodied, embedded, without ordinality.

The Journal of Shamanic Practice

The Society for Shamanic Practitoners has announced a new journal, The Journal of Shamanic Practice: Exploring Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism, with a first issue due out in February, 2008.

The journal is intended to provide an international forum for publication and discussion of scholarly, peer-reviewed, and methodologically sound work focusing on the practice of traditional and contemporary shamanism in historical and cultural context. The journal will include work on the relationships between shamanism and the expressive and healing arts. The intention is to be interdisciplinary, experimental, inclusive, and accessible to a broad readership. Full disclosure: I am honored to be one of the editors of this journal.

The Journal of Shamanic Practice addresses the practice of shamanism: what shamans do and why they do it, in a way that honors the cultural diversity inherent in this field. It is intended to include perspectives from a multiplicity of voices and to explore both the traditional practices of shamanic people around the world as well as all types of contemporary shamanism.

The journal will pay particular attention to the underlying principles that inform shamanic practice and will provide a means to understand how shamanism is re-emerging and integrating itself into contemporary societies.

A New Study of Icaros

Susana Bustos is a graduate student in East-West Psychology at the California Inistitute of Integral Studies. In 2004, she began research in the Peruvian Amazonian Rainforest, working as a counselor at Takiwasi, a center for the research of traditional medicine and drug abuse rehabilitation using ayahuasca and other indigenous healing methods.

Subsequently, she and her husband also sought out Anáshaninca shaman don Juan Flores Salazar -- you can hear some of his singing here -- and they have provided us with a brief description of some of their experiences at his center, called Mayantuyacu, in the Amazon rainforest of the Ucayali region.

Susana focused her research on icaros, and she has now completed a doctoral dissertation entitled The Healing Power of the Icaros: A Phenomenological Study of Ayahuasca Experiences, which she is due to defend at CIIS in early December. Her committee includes Luis Eduardo Luna, one of the pioneers in the study of mestizo shamans and their songs. She describes her dissertation as

a qualitative exploratory study of intense healing experiences with icaros, or ayahuasqueros' songs, during traditional ayahuasca ceremonies in the Peruvian Amazon. Giorgi's Descriptive Phenomenology in Psychology was utilized in the analysis of the data, uncovering an essential meaning structure of the phenomenon, which supports the perception of particular musical features as healing.

This sounds really interesting. I will let you know when I hear more about this work.

The Shamanic Crisis

Transpersonal psychology has two distinctive features: first, it is interested in a broad range of human experiences, including those marginalized by other psychologies; and, second, it is willing to incorporate these understandings into its clinical practice. Thus, transpersonal clinicians have worked with meditation, active imagination, guided imagery, dream sharing, breathwork, and psychoactive substances; and they have looked at clinical phenomena in light of their expanded interest in such areas as shamanism. Thus we have the clinical concept of the shamanic crisis.

In 1989, Stanislav and Christina Grof first proposed an idea, now widely accepted among transpersonal clinicians, that some experiences, otherwise diagnosed as schizophrenia or depression, are in fact analogous to the psychological turmoil experienced by prospective shamans in a variety of cultures. Such experiences, if appropriately understood and respectfully handled, can be initiatory — that is, ultimately positive and leading to spiritual growth, “an amazing process of healing and profound restructuring of personality that facilitates resolution of a variety of life problems” — rather than reason for stigmatization and incarceration.

Transpersonal psychologist David Lukoff, for example, offers a deeply personal account of such a shamanic crisis; he also maintains a Spiritual Emergency Resource Center which discusses the shamanic crisis here and here.

The concept of shamanic crisis is based largely on the work of Mircea Eliade, who writes that this shamanic madness “reveals certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other mortals, and it is only after having experienced and entered into these hidden dimensions of reality that the ‘madman’ becomes a shaman.” Stanislav Grof says that shamans find their calling through “a spontaneous initiatory crisis conducive to profound healing and psychospiritual transformation … an experience of psychological death and rebirth followed by ascent into supernal realms.”

There is little doubt that some shamans have had such experiences, and that such experiences may be more or less normative in some shamanist cultures, but certainly not in all. Among the Aguaruna and Canelos of the Amazon, for example, shamanic power may be purchased for money or trade goods; among the Shuar, young people may become shamans to avenge the death of a relative. Indeed, as Stanley Krippner has pointed out, the shamanic crisis could be a political strategy that limits the number of contenders for the shamanic role.

Yet, as a clinical tool, the concept of a shamanic crisis can serve as a heuristic device, providing a framework for understanding and a mode of guidance which validates rather than denigrates the patient’s experience. For example, the Grofs claim that people experiencing such crises can “show spontaneous tendencies to create rituals that are identical to those practiced by shamans of various cultures”; entirely apart from the anthropological claim, such self-created rituals, especially if placed in a positive initiatory context, can be powerful tools of healing.


Shamanism and Belief

Beliefnet has become so large and complex that it can be hard to find things -- and sometimes things move around. The old Shamanism Debate forum has now become the new Discuss Shamanism forum; the old Shamanism and Learn About Shamanism forums, and the old Shamanism Archive, have now been consolidated in the new Shamanism forum.

The shamanism forum is one of many grouped together under the heading Faith Communities. I must confess to being troubled by the apparently politically correct expression faith community, which seems to me to have a built-in bias toward a Christian way of looking at spiritual traditions. Belief is very important among Christians; it is the kind of thing Christians have fought wars over. Comparative religion texts often show the same bias: they will have individual chapters on the Big Religions, each with a section headed something like What They Believe. Indeed, look at the name of Beliefnet itself.

Shamanism, I think, is not faith-oriented in the same way. When shamans gather, they do not argue over the ontological status of the deer spirit; they talk about shamanic practice -- what skins make the best drum heads, what experiences they have had, what plant mixtures have the best effect. And gossip, of course -- who has worked love magic on whom, who is secretly a sorcerer, what patients have been difficult and ungrateful. Shamans seem to speak rarely about metaphysics.

Thus shamans, unlike some other traditions, are not a faith community; rather, they are a community of practice. Shamanist cultures have certainly fought each other -- over land, over women, over accusations of sorcery, over power and status. But not, as far as I know, about beliefs.

Visionary Tobacco

Mapacho cigarettes made of Nicotiana rustica rolled in white paper, at the Belén market in Iquitos

Mapacho, the tobacco ingested by shamans in the Amazon, is a species containing very high levels of nicotine and other psychoactive pyridine alkaloids — indeed, the highest nicotine levels of any tobacco species; leaves from this species contain more than eight percent nicotine, as much as twenty-six times the amount found in the common cigarette tobacco in North America. There is also reason to believe that psychoactive alkaloids other than nicotine are present in noncommercial varieties of tobacco.

There is little doubt tobacco by itself has psychoactive effects, including the ability to induce hallucinations. The nicotine alkaloid in tobacco displays high acute toxicity, and acute nicotine intoxication can have significant visual and auditory effects, including what anthropologist Johannes Wilbert, an expert on tobacco use in South American shamanism, calls “hallucinatory eschatological scenarios on a cosmic scale.”

It is difficult for North Americans to think of tobacco as a hallucinogen, in large part because the tobacco species used in commercial North American cigarettes have such a relatively low nicotine content, and because North American smokers ingest relatively small quantities, generally stopping when the desired mood alteration has been achieved. Interestingly, there have been scattered reports of hallucinations associated with smoking while wearing a transdermal nicotine patch.

Nicotine is acutely toxic, so I would strongly discourage unsupervised experiments.


Amazonian Pipes

Indigenous Amazonian peoples ingest tobacco in every conceivable way — smoked, as a snuff, chewed, licked, as a syrup applied to the gums, and in the form of an enema. Mestizo shamans consume tobacco as a cold-water infusion, in cigarettes, or in specially carved pipes; tobacco may also be added to the ayahuasca drink.

There are two ways shamans smoke tobacco — as cigarettes, hand-rolled in white paper, called mapacho in distinction from finos, commercial cigarettes; or else in pipes, called shimitapon or cachimbo. The word cachimbo is Portuguese — hence the alternative pronunciation and spelling cashimbo — which in turn was probably derived from a West African language.

Among mestizos, the pipe bowl is often made from the dense reddish or purplish brown heartwood of the cachimbo tree, Cariniana spp., often carved with figures of snakes, birds, jaguars, or mermaids. Additional woods used for pipe bowls include palisangre, Brosimum rubescens, and quinilla, Manilkara bidentata, which the Yagua often incise with symbols of the pipe spirit.

Among mestizos, the pipe stem is preferably made from the thin hollow leg bone of the tanrrilla, sunbittern, Eurypyga helias, a wading bird with significant magical properties and, reportedly, a spectacular erection. I also own a pipe in the indigenous style whose stem is made from a monkey bone; the Yagua make their pipe stems from the bone of a panguana, tinamou bird, Crypturellus undulatus.

Among mestizo shamans, such pipes are used to smoke not only tobacco, but toé leaves and the bark of the ayahuasca vine as well. Some indigenous groups, such as the Yagua and the Ka’apor, also use pipes; there is reason to believe that, in some cases, such pipes have only recently come to replace rolled tobacco.

I am really interested in the variety of shaman pipes in the Amazon. If you have picked up a shamanic cachimbo during your travels, I would be grateful if you would share a photograph.

Sex and the Plant Spirits

There has been very little research on sexual relations between shamans and plant spirits. Certainly the spirits can be muy celosa, very jealous, about sexual relations between shamans and human persons. Relations with the spirits may imply both sexual abstinence with humans and sexual alliance with the spirits. There are reports of erotic ayahuasca visions; regular ayahuasca use apparently does nothing to abate — and, by report, may significantly enhance — sexual desire and performance. Psychologist Benny Shanon notes that ayahuasca drinkers “often detect a sensuous, even sexual flavor in whatever surrounds them,” including the eroticization of plants and trees; he reports his own visions of semi-clad women dancing erotically and lasciviously. Ethnobotanists Richard Schultes and Robert Raffauf remark, rather dryly, that “erotic aspects often reported may be due to the individual differences of the participants.” Don Agustin Rivas reports that, while following la dieta, a beautiful strange female spirit, named Yara, would appear to him at dawn, lift his mosquito net, and lie down with him. He would awake just before having sex with her.

Here is an example. I was drinking ayahuasca with two ayahuasqueros, a father and son, with whom I was living in the jungle, in an isolated tambo. They were both singing icaros at the same time, but different ones, producing a decidedly eerie effect. Suddenly in front of me I see a beautiful green woman, lying back on a couch or bed; her arms and fingers are long; her body is covered in some kind of gauzy material. The moment is intense, erotically charged; I lean forward and kiss her. Whoa! says my rational mind. Is this all right? Are you allowed to have sex with plant spirits? The embrace is really arousing; I wonder what my wife would say. The woman fades away, leaving me with a feeling of both relief and disappointment.

Among indigenous Amazonian peoples, there are widespread reports of sexual relations between human persons and other-than-human persons. Anthropologist Elsje Lagrou tells the story of a Cashinahua woman shaman who married the snake spirit, who came to make love to her at night, and, because of her new spirit husband, no longer had sex with her human husband. One of the signs of her alliance with the spirit world was her deformed mouth, eaten away by the spirits, people said; another was her successful healing of fever in small children.

Among the Napo Runa, the supai, the forest spirits with whom the shaman interacts, enter into sexual relationships with humans, often long-term; one shaman was taught by a supai huarmi, female spirit, and his wife made pregnant by a supai runa, male spirit. The daughter of a famous Napo Runa shaman told an interviewer, “My mother gets angry when she wants to sleep with my father. The supai huarmi gets between them and doesn’t let him.” Napo Runa women who give birth to deformed children are said to have been impregnated by supai and, when the child dies, often become shamans. The Shuar tell stories of men who have sex with tsunki women, the shamanically potent underwater people, a manifestation of Tsunki, the primordial shaman, and get power from them; a female shaman has reported a vision of having sex with a male tsunki.

Who was my Green Lady? What should I have done? What would you have done?

Do Shamans Heal?

Before thinking about the thorny question of how shamans heal, it is worth posing a logically prior question: do they heal? There are remarkably few data on this question. In particular, even moderately long-term follow-up is lacking. As anthropologist and medical doctor Gilbert Lewis puts it, “It is rare to find examples of anthropologists who record the frequency of therapeutic failures, do follow ups, or find out how many people do not bother to come back next time to the shaman.” Robert Desjarlais, a psychological anthropologist, points out that most research on ritual healing attempts to explain how it works, without demonstrating whether — and in what ways — patients actually feel better.

So: how well do shamans actually cure sickness? The answer is that no one knows. To a great extent the body heals itself without intervention; most diseases are self-limiting. Another answer is a question: cured compared to what? It is difficult to devise a metric: return to work? return to premorbid functioning? return for follow-up? consumer satisfaction? Indeed, we cannot even assume that people or cultures have unitary or unequivocal resolutions of suffering, or that we can recognize a culturally relevant resolution of suffering when it occurs. We do not know how long a follow-up is useful, even if we knew what we were following.

Still, a study might go something like this.

Select a health problem with outcomes that can be clearly ranked, and of the sort might be brought to a biomedical facility for treatment — diabetes, for example, or a chronic inflammatory disease such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn's disease. Then, at a regional hospital, such as that in Iquitos, ask all patients with that diagnosis if they would accept treatment from a curandero in addition to their biomedical treatment. The curandero treatment would consist of the foundational triad of mestizo shamanism — shacapar, rattling; chupar, sucking; and soplar, blowing tobacco smoke. Among those who would be willing to accept the additional treatment, randomly assign some to a treatment and some to a non-treatment group.

Thus the study would have three groups of participants — those who are uninterested in shamanic treatment, those who are interested and get it, and those who are interested and do not. Then compare two sorts of outcomes — objective findings and laboratory test results, on the one hand, and quality of life measures on the other, such as the World Health Organization cross-cultural quality of life test instruments.

Now there are lots of uncontrolled variables in a study like this — patients on different medication regimens, patients with different levels of compliance, issues of social support, and effects of other concurrent problems such as alcoholism. Still, the presence or absence of statistically significant differences in any outcome measure between the shaman-treated and the two non-shaman-treated groups would certainly raise questions worth thinking about.

A study protocol might even use two different curanderos, in order to see if one is effective and one is not. And then try to figure out why.

Any reason why a study like this shouldn't be done?


The Dark Lady

I am drinking ayahuasca. Suddenly I find myself standing in the entry hallway of a large house in the suburbs, facing the front door. The floor of the hallway is tiled, like many places in the ayahuasca world. There is a large staircase behind me, leading to the second floor; there are large ceramic pots on either side of the entrance way. I open the front door and look out at a typical suburban street — cars parked at the curb, traffic going by, a front lawn, trees along the curb. Standing at the door is a dark woman, perhaps in her forties, her raven hair piled on her head, thin and elegant, beautiful, dressed in a red shift with a black diamond pattern. She silently holds out her right hand to me. On her hand is a white cylinder, about three inches long, which she is offering to me. I do not know what the white substance is.

I was concerned about this vision, because the red-and-black dress might indicate that the dark woman was a bruja, a sorceress. But my maestro ayahuasquero immediately and unhesitatingly identified her as maricahua, whom he also calls toé negro, the black datura. This plant is ingested by splitting the stem and eating a piece of the white inner pith about three inches long; he told me that the figure in the vision was handing me just such a piece of maricahua stem. I was unaware of this method of preparing maricahua prior to this vision.

Ayahausca teaches many things -- what is wrong or broken in a life, what medicine to take for healing. I want to be taught, I want to see, I want ayahuasca to open the door to wonder and surprise. La diosa has shown me what I need. I need to open my front door, look out onto a bland suburban street, and see standing there the Dark Lady, the black datura -- thin and dark, raven hair piled on her head, elegant and beautiful, silently holding out to me a stem of maricahua — and follow her into her dark and luminous world.

Testing the Spirits

Marko Rodriguez, at the Computer Science Department of the University of California at Santa Cruz, has come up with a really interesting idea to see whether the spirits seen after ingesting DMT -- which would include drinking ayahuasca -- are autonomous. persistent, intelligent entities or something else -- perhaps, say, imaginal projections of the perceiver. The idea is to ask these entities to calculate a prime factor of a five-digit non-prime number, such as 12233, and then tell you the answer, which you did not know, or tell the answer to someone else who has also drunk ayahuasca either simultaneously or subsequently.

While the idea is clever, it has some obvious drawbacks. First of all, you have to remember to ask the question, which may not be easy after drinking ayahuasca, when there is often a lot going on at once, and it is easy to be distracted. Second, it is not clear how the spirits would respond. In fact, James Kent, the former editor of Entheogen Review and Trip magazine, has tried the experiment. He asked a DMT elf for a prime factor of 23788, and the entity presented the visual answer of undulating Twinkie on rotating lotus, squirting, which was not obviously an anwer to the question. It may be noted that Kent is a longtime skeptic about the existence of autonomous entities encountered after ingesting DMT.

I am not sure whether the plant spirits know mathematics, or whether it matters. Maybe some of them do and some do not. Maybe even those who do still think there are better questions to answer. For example: How do I help heal this broken person? How do I teach this person how to be a human being?


There is no doubt that ayahuasca makes you vomit. There is some consolation in the fact that the vomiting will ease with continued experience; shamans seldom vomit. There is more consolation in the fact that the vomiting is considered to be cleansing and healing. But the vomiting is certainly distressing to a gringo, who has been taught that vomiting is wretched and humiliating. Indeed, ayahuasca vomiting has become something of a literary trope. Poet Allen Ginsberg has described the physical part of his ayahuasca experiences. “Stomach vomiting out the soul-vine,” he writes, “cadaver on the floor of a bamboo hut, body-meat crawling toward its fate.” William S. Burroughs writes: “I must have vomited six times. I was on all fours convulsed with spasms of nausea. I could hear retching and groaning as if I was some one else.” Novelist Alice Walker speaks of the effect of ayahuasca on her protagonist — horrible-tasting medicine, gut-wrenching nausea and diarrhea, “waves of nausea … like real waves, bending her double by their force.”

Anthropologist Michael Taussig, investigating the shamanism of the Colombian Putumayo, felt compelled to drink ayahuasca — he uses the Colombian term yagé — as part of his research. “Somewhere,” he writes, “you have to take the bit between your teeth and depict yagé nights in terms of your own experience.” And one gets the ineluctable impression that Taussig hated the experience of drinking ayahuasca, hated the corporeality of its effects, hated vomiting. He writes, “But perhaps more important is the stark fact that taking yagé is awful: the shaking, the vomiting, the nausea, the shitting, the tension.” It is, he says, “awful and unstoppable.” His description of the experience is filled with metaphors of slime and nausea. The sounds he heard “were like those of the forest at night: rasping, croaking frogs in their millions by gurgling streams and slimy, swampy ground,” “the sound of grinning stoic frogs squatting in moonlit mud.” He writes that the “collective empathizing of nausea” at the healing session “feels like ants biting one’s skin and one’s head, now spinning in wave after trembling wave.” He refers again and again to “the stream of vomit,” “the streaming nasal mucus,” “the whirling confusion of the prolonged nausea.”

But this is the reaction of a gringo. It is important to note that emetics and purgatives are widely used among the people of the Upper Amazon, who periodically induce vomiting in their children to rid them of the parasitic illnesses that are endemic in the region. Vomiting is often induced in children and adults using the latex of ojé, also called doctor ojé, which is widely ingested throughout the upper Amazon as a vermifuge; some shamans, such as don Agustin Rivas, use an ojé purge to begin la dieta. Vomiting may be induced in children by giving them piñisma, hen excrement, mixed with berbena, verbena, or ñucñopichana, sweet broom, along with other horrifying components, including pounded cockroaches and urine. I have no doubt that this is an effective emetic.

Communal vomiting is also found among indigenous Amazonian peoples. The Achuar drink a hot infusion of guayusa as a morning stimulant, much as we drink coffee, after which all of them, including the children, vomit together. Apparently the vomiting is not due any emetic effect of the drink, but is learned behavior. Here in the jungle, vomiting is easy, natural, expected; the strangled retching of a gringo comes from shame.

La purga misma te enseña, they say; vomiting itself teaches you. Giving yourself over to the plant, giving up control, letting go of shame -- perhaps that is the first lesson you receive from el doctor.

Celebrity Endorsements

Ayahuasca — both the ayahuasca drink and ayahuasca shamanism — has been subject to the forces of globalization and modernity that have affected every other aspect of Amazonian life. The results of this encounter have been mixed, on both sides — on the one hand, new forms of literature and art, new religious movements, experiments in religious organization; on the other hand, oppression, exploitation, and the piracy of valuable traditional knowledge.

But you know that ayahuasca has hit the mainstream when it is endorsed by international celebrities. In his autobiography, Broken Music, Sting says, "Ayahuasca has brought me close to something, something fearful and profound and deadly serious." He told a Rolling Stone interviewer that ayahuasca gives you "a hallucinogenic trip that deals with death and your mortality."

Tori Amos agrees. "The most influential journeys I have had," she has said, "have been with ayahuasca." And she elaborated: "It's an internal journey; it's not a drug — it's a journey." Oliver Stone is more succinct. The New York Daily News quotes him as saying, "I like ayahuasca," along with other things.

Paul Simon has written a song — Spirit Voices on his 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints — about drinkng ayahuasca in Brazil:

All of these spirit voices rule the night
My hands were numb
My feet were lead
I drank a cup of herbal brew
Then the sweetness in the air
Combined with the lightness in my head
And I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo

Globalization marches on.

Icaros, Modernized

Icaros, the sacred songs of the Amazonian shamans, are traditionally sung either unaccompanied or with the rhythmic shaking of the shacapa, the leaf-bundle rattle. Recently, however, there has been some experimentation with additional instrumentation. Don Agustin Rivas Vasquez, for example, sings his icaros using a variety of drums, pan pipes, maracas, a harmonica, and a stringed instrument of his own devising, as well as a variety of singing styles, some sounding very much like Peruvian popular music. For example:

Flautist Tito La Rosa has backed the singing of Shipibo shamans Amelia Panduro, her son Milke Sinuiri, and Jose Campos with traditional Peruvian instruments -- bone flutes, pan pipes, conch shells, rattles, and whistling vessels -- as well as contemporary percussion, violin, charango, and keyboard. Here is La Rosa's version of Milke Sinuiri's Madre Ayahuasca:

Similarly, musician Alonso Del Rio served as an apprentice to don Benito Arevalo, a renowned Shipibo shaman, for three years, and now sings his own icaros accompanied by his guitar -- and sometimes traditional Peruvian wind and string instruments -- in a style sometimes close to folk music. The following is Del Rio's La Casa de Mis Abuelos:

By the way, CDs by Tito La Rosa and Alonso Del Rio are available for sale here.

Most elaborately, Dada World Data -- consisting of Jim Sanders, Andre Clement, and Dustin Leader -- has set the icaros of Ashaninka shaman don Juan Flores Salazar to jazz-inflected electronica, using guitar, drums, bass, and keyboard, as part of a live multimedia performance they call Maestro Ayahuasquero, and as part of a series of films they are producing about don Juan, ayahuasca, and plant medicine. A good example of the resulting sound -- an icaro by don Juan called Mapacho -- can be found here.

For purposes of comparison, here is a video of don Juan singing an ayahuasca icaro without any accompaniment:

And here is a video of the same icaro with the full multimedia treatment:

Some of these adaptations are, it seems to me, more successful than others. I am curious about what people think


Shamans and Soul

We often read about the spirituality of shamans. I am not at all sure this is correct.

Psychologist James Hillman distinguishes between two basic orientations to the world, which he calls spirit and soul. Spirit, he says, is detached, objective, intense, absolute, abstract, pure, unitary, eternal. Soul, on the other hand, is mortal, earthly, low, troubled, sorrowful, melancholy, and profound. Spirit means fire and height, the center of things; soul means water and depth, peripheries, borderlands. Spirit seeks to transcend earth and body, dirt and disease, entanglements and complications, perplexity and despair. Spirit “seeks to escape or transcend the pleasures and demands of ordinary earthly life.” But soul “is always in the thick of things: in the repressed, in the shadow, in the messes of life, in illness, and in the pain and confusion of love.”

Spiritual transcendence, writes Hillman, “is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture.” Spirit seeks “an imageless white liberation.” What Hillman calls spirit, Martin Buber calls, simply, religion — as he puts it, “exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy.” But the mystery instead dwells here, below, in the world, “where everything happens as it happens,” in the possibility of dialogue. Philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas puts this idea in theological terms: “Going towards God is meaningless,” he says, “unless seen in terms of my primary going towards the other person.”

Indeed, the transcendent orientation of spirit can be a way of escaping the messy demands of soul — a process that psychotherapist John Welwood, in a much-copied phrase, has called spiritual bypass. Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield puts the idea this way: “Many students have used meditation not only to discover inner realms and find inner balance but also to escape. Because we are afraid of the world, afraid of living fully, afraid of relationships, afraid of work, or afraid of some aspect of what it means to be alive in the physical body, we run to meditation.”

I believe it is soul, not spirit, which is the true landscape of shamanism — the landscape of suffering, passion, and mess. Shamans deal with sickness, envy, malice, conflict, bad luck, hatred, despair, and death. Indeed, the purpose of the shaman is to dwell in the valley of the soul — to heal what has been broken in the body and the community. Shamans live with betrayal, loss, confusion, need, and failure— including their own. The Amazonian shamans I have known have not had easy lives; think, for example, of the struggles and sufferings of the great Mazatec shaman María Sabina. Graham Harvey, a scholar of indigenous religions, puts it about as pithily as it can be put: “Salmon ceremonies and salmon respecting,” he says, “are about eating salmon, not about communing with symbols of transcendence.”