Traditional Medicine of the Peruvian Amazon
The foundation of our work at the Temple is traditional Amazonian medicine, practiced by genuine and highly skilled indigenous Amazonian shamanic healers. We deeply honor and respect indigenous traditions, their tried and tested healing practices and profound wisdom that has evolved over thousands of years of working with ayahuasca and Amazonian medicinal plants and trees.
As more and more people are called to work with ayahuasca, there is an exponential growth in the availability of ceremonies not only in Peru but throughout the world. Our concern is that the traditions of the Amazon continue to be respected and practiced by people called to serve ayahuasca. Healers of the Amazon need to undergo arduous training over many years in order to effectively administer and manage ayahuasca. Without sufficient training from genuine healers of the Amazon, those holding ayahuasca ceremonies are typically not in a position to deal with the many issues that can arise.
Amazonian healthcare is not a “New Age” practice – it is a system of healthcare that existed long before conventional medicine developed over the last few hundred years.
Indigenous peoples across the planet have maintained a deep relationship with the natural world and the knowledge that nature is conscious and intelligent. Indigenous rituals, ceremonies, techniques, tools and systems of working with medicinal plants and the elements of nature have evolved since time immemorial.
There are many different indigenous and mestizo systems here in the Amazon, but the Temple focuses specifically on the Shipibo system of traditional healthcare. We would like to offer a brief overview of healing practices and traditional medicine in the Amazon from the Shipibo perspective, bearing in mind that there are considerable differences and commonalities among healing traditions and terminologies in the Amazon.
Many Westerners have been misinformed about the different types of Peruvian Amazonian healers, but especially ayahuasca healers. The confusion often centers on the difference between an ayahuasquero and a curandero.
An ayahuasquero is someone who has the ability to prepare and cook ayahuasca. Usually, they are not healers. It must be understood that if ayahuasqueros hold ceremonies, then any healing and insights emerge solely from the medicine. Ayahuasqueros normally cannot directly work on guests’ energies or manage the medicine to maximize healing. In fact, an ayahuasquero of integrity who sees any serious issues (such as heavy energy or negative spirit) will refer that guest to a curandero for actual healing.
A word of caution: People in the Amazon will sometimes go to an ayahuasquero for the purge, but not for deeper healing of more serious issues. If an ayahuasquero runs a ceremony without a curandero present, they run the risk of being overwhelmed if they encounter powerful negative energies. This can become a serious problem in ceremony and potentially put guests in danger.
However, some ayahuasqueros are also curanderos.
A curandero is a healer. Medico is Spanish for doctor and is a common term used among indigenous and mestizo people in the Peruvian Amazon for a curandero: one who works with plants and plant spirits. Many curanderos will work with ayahuasca, although not all (especially vegetalistas, who are akin to herbalists).
Most curanderos train through a system of (traditional) medical education, essentially given to them by the plant spirits through many plant dietas over many years. This medical education – sometimes referred to as a form of ‘divine science’ – takes numerous years to learn and then to practice effectively. The plant dietas fill the curandero with energy medicine from the different plants and trees they diet; they effectively build a ‘toolbox’ and ‘energetic pharmacy’ that can be used in ceremony.
In Shipibo, a curandero is called an Onanya – one who has knowledge. In order to become a true Onanya, the apprenticeship is around 10 years. True curanderos must be able to face the darkest energies and spirits when working on patients. For this reason, the training is extremely hard and riddled with many obstacles and tests. It is common for only about 20 per cent of apprentices to graduate. The plant spirits will stretch the apprentice curanderos way beyond the limits of the most unbearable discomforts, so they can overcome and experience their deepest fears (up to the illusion of death – the so-called shamanic death, not the ‘ego deaths’ common to the early healing stages).
Amazonian Curanderos will work with the following:
Essential when working with any plant spirits. If a curandero is not working with tobacco, then there is every reason to question if they are truly a plant-spirit curandero. The plant spirits require tobacco. Tobacco is protector, cleaner, conduit and sustenance for the plant-spirit doctors.
The songs of the plants. A curandero in ceremony will be sung to by the plant spirits and act as a conduit for the spirits to transmit their songs. It is the plant spirits who are carrying out healing on the patient, not the curandero. During their apprenticeship, curanderos undertake a number of dietas, with durations of generally one, three, six or 12 months, over many years in order to become a tool for the plant spirits to carry their medicine. The healer, of course, is a part of the equation, so he or she must be emotionally and psychologically balanced, have a clear and focused mind (with only good intent) and an open heart. The combination of these qualities is actually hard to find, even in the Amazon.
The team of spirits that make up the hospital can only be brought into ceremony by a curandero who has carried out dietas. Otherwise, there is only one doctor (ayahuasca) in the ceremony and every good hospital needs a team. Ikaros can only come from dieting, over many years. The ikaros have many different types and purposes: cleaning, opening, straightening, liberating, connecting, centering, protecting and illuminating. Ikaros also deal with soul retrieval and soul loss, bringing a dislodged soul fully back into the body.
The ikaros can also drive ayahausca much deeper into the system of the patient. It is through the ikaros that curanderos are able to release residual negative energy blockages and their emotional counterparts. When a patient’s mareacion (the effect of the medicine) is too strong for them, it is through the ikaros that curanderos are able to guide the participant safely through their journey. If a patient is temporarily getting “lost” in their journey, the curandero is also able to retrieve them through the ikaros. In general terms, without the ikaros, ayahausca is working on a more limited and superficial level. Without a trained curandero, the participants are not being accompanied and protected in the medicine space.
A curandero needs ikaros to protect the ceremonial space both from dark spirits and energies potentially jumping from one guest to another, but also from any external dark spirits and energies affecting or attacking the guests. Only a good curandero can do this effectively. Holding responsible ceremonies implies working with trained curanderos. This critical skill of managing energies and spirits is particularly important in an ayahuasca ceremony when guests’ energy fields are significantly open and vulnerable.
Sucking out particularly heavy energies from the patient. Curanderos either use a floral water held in their mouth to shield the energy from entering their system, or for more serious cases, bring up mariri/yachi into their mouth. This is a plant phlegm that grows in the stomach but only after many years of dieting. The mariri is also considered the ‘power’ that a curandero carries or is gifted to him/her by the plants.
Blowing (transmitting) the plant-spirit medicine into the patient. One can only soplay after many years of dieting. This is usually carried out with tobacco or floral water.
When treating a patient, a curandero will also communicate with ayahuasca and other plant-spirit doctors who prescribe other plant remedies for specific health issues. Traditionally in the Amazon (although not in all indigenous tribes), the patient would not drink ayahuasca. Only the curandero would drink, in order to cleanse the energetic issues of the patient as well as receive a diagnosis and prescription from doctor ayahuasca. A fully qualified curandero will work with a vast number of different plant medicines in order to effectively treat their patients. Only a fully trained curandero (or vegetalista) can effectively prescribe plant remedies as well as know potential contraindications between different plants.
There are many different types of curanderos who specialize with different plants and trees (tobaquero, sananguero, perfumero, vegitalista, palero, for example). A curandero can also be an ayahuasquero, vegetalista, and/or palero, but not necessarily vice versa. The Temple works with a team of 12 Onanya – all fully qualified (through dietas), highly experienced and genuine Shipibo healers.
Other Ways of Working with Ayahuasca
Outside of traditional indigenous and mestizo healing practices, other ways of working with the medicine have evolved, particularly in Brazil, where groups such as Santo Diame and UDV offer a religious approach that syncretizes Christian beliefs with the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament. These churches are, by and large, focused on religious activity and are not working to offer the same level of healing that traditional medicine can. For example, in the US, the Santo Diame church makes it very clear that they do not offer healing and that they are not a healthcare system. They work with ayahuasca as a sacrament, not as a healthcare system or medicine.
Modern / Western Approach
There are also Western shamanic practitioners who serve ayahuasca, hold ceremony and work with sound (including instruments, throat singing, ‘high vibration music’). Provided these ceremonies are held by well-intentioned facilitators operating with total honesty, integrity and sufficient safety protocols, then positive and heart-opening experiences can be facilitated. It is also important that they do not falsely claim to be healers or shamans if they have not been genuinely trained over sufficient duration and depth in the Amazon. However, these types of ceremonies will not reach the depths of healing that a fully trained curandero from the Amazon with many years of dietas will be able to achieve.
There is now more and more need to integrate Western psychotherapeutic approaches when working with Westerners. Traditional Amazonian healers are able to work on the energetic issues of Western patients but are often not able to deal with the processing and integration that comes during and after the healing work. Psycho-emotional development techniques are necessary especially with more severe cases of emotional trauma. We greatly respect the work of people such as Luis Eduardo Luna and Gabor Mate, despite not offering a purely traditional approach. The Temple is working towards providing the ultimate approach when working with Westerners: a combination of both traditional medicine and advanced psychotherapy techniques.
Ayahuasca Ceremonies Outside South America
One of the greatest challenges of the movement of ayahuasca culture to the West is the transfer of a tradition rooted in shamanic communities to ones with vastly different psychological and cultural values. We passionately believe that education is needed to truly understand, represent and practice traditional Amazonian medicine. As the use of ayahuasca increases, there are both positive and negative consequences.
There is a growing number of people in the West who offer ayahuasca ceremonies yet have only spent very limited time (weeks to months) in the Amazon but return claiming to have been trained by Amazonian healers.
There are many people holding ceremonies who have no real understanding of how to work with ayahuasca, how to safely hold space and how to support others who are drinking ayahuasca, especially when the experience becomes more challenging. This ultimately threatens the good work of true Amazonian healers (and genuine Western apprentices and curanderos) who train over extensive periods to master their healing skills.
A Western facilitator’s position of power in combination with the medicine can create many challenges. The ceremony leader sits in the center of power. With devoted participants who see the brew as a means of connecting with the Divine, this can lead to participants idealizing the ceremony leader. There is a risk of ‘ayahuasca cults’ forming if the leaders are not psychologically and emotionally balanced.
The Temple is concerned about the number of ceremonies being held by Western facilitators with no training and questionable motivations. In the last few years here in the Amazon, there have been a number of extremely unfortunate and unnecessary deaths of people who had ‘taken’ ayahuasca with ill-intentioned and untrained ceremony leaders. They were not curanderos. We do not wish to see this become a growing issue either inside or outside South America (noting that in most countries the use of ayahuasca is currently illegal).
The Temple is deeply committed to developing more awareness among the general public and the academic and medical communities about the efficacy and often profound benefits of ayahuasca healing, when practiced appropriately and respectfully. We feel that it is essential to present ayahuasca healing work with absolute sincerity, professionalism and integrity. At its best, working with ayahuasca is a ‘professional’ system of ‘spirit-assisted’ healthcare.
As Westerners attempt to remember our connection to the natural kingdom, we feel it is essential to take heed, learn from and respect indigenous healing traditions. Sadly, indigenous medical practices and their knowledge systems have been destroyed in many places across our planet. We feel strongly that what has survived should now be protected, legitimized and held sacred by people in the West who recognize the significant importance of these systems.
There should be no “gurus” who work with ayahuasca; only healers who humbly transmit the healing energies of the plants as well as pass on the knowledge to others who wish to walk the path of apprenticeship. To reiterate, here is what a good facilitator should be very clear about with his/her circle:
- The exact nature of their experience with the medicine;
- Whether or not they have received training with an Amazonian curandero; and
- That their role is fundamentally to hold the space and care for the safety and welfare of the participants.
A facilitator typically does not drink ayahuasca when holding the space. However, a curandero (or apprentice) must drink ayahuasca when holding ceremony in order to work with the participants – to cleanse, guide, navigate, manage and protect. We advise much caution if you are considering working with any Westerner who:
- Proclaims that they are a ‘shaman’ or curandero yet doesn’t drink ayahuasca with the group,
- Carries out much self-promotion (such as through videos and books),
- Appears to have developed a community of ‘followers’,
- Expounds ‘spiritual truths’,
- Carries out a ‘healing performance’,
- Claims they are singing ikaros (if they have not done many dietas).
There are some genuine Western curanderos scattered throughout the globe who have been genuinely trained in the Amazon but they are rare and typically do not have the need or desire to self-promote.
Ayahuasca puts people into a vulnerable and particularly susceptible state. Guests can easily be pulled into believing that the facilitator is actually the one carrying out the healing. The interpersonal dynamics and energy between the facilitator (or healer/practitioner) who is conducting an ayahuasca ceremony and the guests can also cause significant harm when not handled appropriately. It is common for there to be unconscious projections between ‘patient’ and ‘therapist’, forms of countertransference. Facilitators may end up consciously or unconsciously superimposing their own agenda on the guest. Guests can also idealize and focus an inordinate amount of attention and energy on the healers/facilitators, losing the original intention of their ceremonies for growth and development.
We hope this information can help anybody looking to work with ayahuasca find a genuine practitioner. Much caution should be taken when choosing with whom to drink ayahuasca. As the medicine expands its reach across the planet, it is essential that its foundation – indigenous traditions of the Amazon – be honored and respected.