Interview with Robert Tindall
Robert Tindall is the author of the recently released "The Jaguar that Roams the Mind", a travelogue of his journey through the far-reaching corners of South American ayahuasca culture -- which makes a great gift for entheo-curious friends and family members. After reading his book I had many questions for Robert, and here is the exclusive interview that you will only find on DoseNation.com.
James: Starting with your experience at Takiwasi, an ayahuasca treatment clinic in Peru, it sounds like Takiwasi most matches the model of Western therapy: inpatient treatment, long-term care, multiple curanderos on staff. It is not one-shot treatment routine where you take ayahuasca and are magically healed, it is a program which includes various treatment paths like purging, behavioral training, talk therapy, art therapy, etc. It seems like after your experience here you began using the term "working with ayahuasca", not drinking or taking, but working. Was there a shift in your thinking about ayahuasca therapy at this point? Robert: Yes, there probably was a shift around that time of my journey for two reasons. The first was my experience until then had been in circles that emphasized the visionary element of medicinal plants -- so I was under the false impression that the work with plants began and ended with the cerebral cortex. Takiwasi introduced me to the three pillars of Amazonian shamanism -- the purge, the diet, and the catalytic work with psychoactive plants. All three of these practices form a synergy that we not only encountered institutionalized at Takiwasi, but also in the jungle with the mestizo healers. Much of my own lack of awareness of the full spectrum of Amazonian curanderismo arose from my cultural background, which emphasizes "breaking open the head," if you will, over the cellular intelligence of the body. Ultimately, however, the practice of vegetalista shamanism is grounded in the cells of the entire body, not just the pineal gland! In other words, it's no good seeing something liberating or extraordinary if you can't embody it. The second reason for my shift in perspective was at that time the cellular vestiges from my own childhood struggles with addiction and homelessness were arising like a Medusa head, and as I recount in The Jaguar, I was in for a major confrontation with my shadow. I now reckon that concentrated work with plant medicines is inevitably going to lead to a diversion to Hades -- look at Dante at the beginning of the Inferno. He sets out to climb the high hill to the Beatific vision, but ends up being blocked by the she wolf of his own "sin." That's when Virgil appears to lead him down through Hell. That's when the work really begins, and for myself purging and dieting were key.
Despite the facilities at Takiwasi, some patients resist treatment, relapse, or are so emotionally damaged they can barely be put back together. Can you talk about some of the limitations the clinic's curanderos find themselves up against, and how they deal with patients who don't make progress? This is a very difficult topic for me, personally. I feel a very strong connection with suffers of addiction, and to see their treatments fail -- as we did with two remarkable young men who were at Takiwasi, is heartbreaking. I haven't discussed this issue directly with any of the curanderos working at Takiwasi, but I think I can offer an idea of what they're up against and what interpretive tools they bring to their diagnosis. Curanderos face blockages in the body, psyche and spirit of patients. First, the addict enters ossified around the drug experience, like a fossil, and because of the degeneration of their mental and psychological capacities, it's not certain if they can recover. So the first stages of treatment involve diet and purging, which in a sense are exploratory devices to stir up what may be still alive beneath the addiction. Second, the roots of addiction vary. In the Amazonian cosmovision, it may be a spiritual malady. A bad spirit entered the body, a possession or hex is upon the patient, and it has to be removed. It can also be a substance lingering in the body -- the story is told of the patient who vomited up the codeine-based cough syrup he had drunk twenty years before that turned out to be the basis of his addiction. It also may be psychological, coming from family dynamics -- Jacques Mabit, the director of Takiwasi, believes that addicts lack masculine power and are swallowed up in the infantile field of the mother. Third, the patient himself may have an untamed spirit that he needs to confront for himself. I think this was the case with the two promising young men who left the program (one of them early) and relapsed. But there was also a psychological hole in their center that they could not fill except with cocaine or heroin. Indeed, one of those young men had sat in ceremony after ceremony with ayahuasca and faced a blank screen for months during his treatment. Somehow, the healing tendrils of the plant didn't penetrate him to his core, and his relapse was total. Are we now looking at the hand of fate? I don't know. I wish I did. Takiwasi holds addiction as a thwarted spiritual quest, and so I think one of the hallmarks that they seek in a patient's recuperation is their re-embedding in a spiritual cosmovision and a renewed vision for their lives in the world.
There is a common wisdom throughout the book that ayahuasca therapy is good for treating addiction, yet much of the addiction therapy revolves around smoking massive amounts of natural tobacco and drinking natural psychoactive teas. Isn't this just substituting one set of plant drugs (alcohol, cocaine, opiates) for another (nicotine, betacarbolines, psychoactive tryptamines)? How much of the cultural use of ayahuasca and tobacco comes down to those specific plants being drugs of choice in the rainforest? How much of their use can be classified as habitual or recreational vs. strictly ritual or medicinal? It's important to bear in mind, first, that Amazonian tobacco, Nicotiana rustica, has roughly 18 times more nicotine content than the Nicotiana tabacum smoked in the North, and of course it has none of the chemical additives of our tobacco either. As well, usage differs. Patients at Takiwasi do not smoke the tobacco or handle it themselves, because of their addictive tendencies. However, it is used in their treatment. They may purge with it or have it added to their medicines to heighten certain effects. Tobacco is also used for purifying the patient's energy through sopladas, where the smoke is blown like a fumigating agent over their body in ritualistic fashion. I learned in the Amazon that there is a clear distinction between the addict's and healer's handling of a plant -- I believe that the veneration a healer feels toward tobacco serves as a protection against his or her own capacity to develop an addiction to it. I think this attitude of reverence is key for distinguishing addiction from medicinal use across the board, whether we're discussing a psychoactive tea or tobacco. Addiction lies in the abuse of plants (witness the highly nutritious and sentient coca plant reduced to cocaine), whereas healers have a connection with the plant spirit itself and so know how to behave themselves appropriately.
It seems like each huascero group you visited had their own spiritual blend of pantheism, animism, ancestor worship, voodoo, black magic, plant spirits, demon spirits, water spirits, even spirits of Western doctors in white lab coats, but all with a facade of post-Catholic Jesuchristo santo worship sprinkled over the top. As a reformed judeo-Christian turned Buddhist seeking a purer wisdom in older religious forms, was it odd that you found yourself right back in church with every curandero you visited praying to Jesus and all the saints to protect you? And at what points, if any, did you find the multi-layered religious archetypes reaching the absurd? To be honest, I find the smug rationalism of the West far more absurd than the work with spirits down in South America. The root of "absurd" in Latin, ab surdus, "from deafness," adequately defines most of Western consumeristic culture. But, of course, I faced the dilemma that anthropologists face: how much can I abandon my criteria in order to enter into the experience of these people I am studying and apprenticing with? I believe to understand a culture adequately one must immerse oneself in it, which includes a willingness to relinquish clinging to "objectivity." This is hard to do, and there were times where I felt close to losing my anchor in reality entirely, but to achieve the kind of shift in perception required to understand another viewpoint of the universe you have to go through this. Objectivity always comes back afterward -- and then you have to work to develop a more refined criteria to adequately interpret your experience. My experience taught me that however odd a cosmovision may appear from the outside, from within it can have a remarkable coherence. As I moved from through this world chock full of spirits, I just came to accept them as the ecology of the region. Why not? The only time I can remember feeling the forms of worship absurd was with a "daime evangelist," a character I describe in my book who seemed to me to take the word "Jesus," a mantra to enter into communion with the divine, and change it into a fixture of belief, a lá the fundamentalist Christian movement that is so powerful in Acre.
Your book spends a good deal of time talking about icaros and the power of sharing music to influence the ayahuasca ceremony. In your bio it says you are a classical guitarist, but other than singing a Beatles tune in one session you don't seem to spend any time sharing music yourself. Were you playing or composing music at all along your journey? And now that you've seen how huasca cultures use music has it changed your approach to playing? My guitar was a companion during the journey, but my creative work was primarily engaged with writing and language acquisition. In a way, my training had been so classical I felt like I was in a completely different school of music! I think I play better now, am more relaxed and allow the music to flow better, but I have yet to do the work to connect the one approach with the other. Perhaps that lies in the future -- thanks for suggesting it.
You spoke briefly about the number off brujos and scam-artists out to take advantage of huasca tourists by giving them shoddy medicine, poisoning them, sexually abusing them, ripping them off, and so on. With all the brujos and huasceros hexing and spelling and power-tripping one another was the atmosphere more wild and woolly than you originally expected? And do you think this underlying black-magic predator/prey power structure is a natural component of life in the jungle? Yes, and yes. The only correction I would add is this kind of behavior is not just aimed at foreigners. But, as a friend of mine put it, "You take your life in your hands when you get in that boat and go upriver." At the same time, we were part of a network of caring, authentic practitioners and so, most of the time, we weren't moving blindly through the landscape.
Reading your book closely it strikes me that every curandero or shaman you meet is quick to tell you whatever you are willing to believe. There are times in the book where I can see you being hooked on the end of a power scam and you are blithely clueless as to what is happening. In retrospect do you feel that you were too naive and willing to be manipulated by anyone with a good line to sell? Does every shaman embellish his powers to bolster his reputation, and how can you tell a real shaman from a trickster out to string you along? We're facing the anthropologist's dilemma here: how far are you going to enter into the culture to understand it before you pull back and try to draw your conclusions? Things look different on the inside than the outside! For example, it might be possible to conclude on reading my book that Juan Flores was stringing me along when he confirmed he had invited me to the deep jungle in a visionary moment in an ayahuasca ceremony -- and I myself reserved judgment at first. Over time, however, in my work with Flores I saw that indeed he can bi-locate. I have no idea what bi-location really amounts to, but within the context of Amazonian shamanism, it's a known technology. On the other hand, when we stepped off the path of strongly recommended curanderos in Pucallpa, we began encountering some dicey characters indeed and Don Martín, a brujo in the Shipibo village of San Francisco nearly sucked us in. There are two answers to your question. The first is from the context of work with the medicine itself: you need strong spirit protectors. These are spirits that you are allied with who've got your back. The second is empirical: you need to develop criteria, and in my opinion excessive wariness can be as much an obstruction as excessive naïveté. It is possible to inform oneself well in advance by reading and speaking with experienced practitioners what constitutes the authentic practice of vegetalismo shamanism in the Amazon. As well, gut instinct goes a long way: if something smells fishy, it is. Con artistry is the same the world over: the con artist hooks you in by sussing out your desires and offering to fulfill them. In the case of Amazonian shamanism, it's for an "authentic experience" of indigenous shamanism, a lá Don Juan in Casteneda. In contrast to the pseudo-shamans who cultivate a mystique, when we first encountered our maestro, Juan Flores, in Pucallpa, the man radiated ordinariness. Nothing special. Just an old forest worker dressed up in frayed and scuffed clothing for a night out on the town.
I noticed some pretty stark paradoxes in your book towards the end. For instance, you spend many chapters talking about how huasca is good for curing disease and potentially treating cancer, and then you talk about how a large percentage of the indigenous Amazonian population is dying from infectious disease and cancer introduced by European viruses and petroleum waste products. Do gringo viruses and industrial pollutants trump Amazonian healing magic, and what does that say about the limitations of ayahuasca therapy in Western culture? Yes, right now gringo viruses and industrial pollutants all too often trump indigenous medicine. If you dropped an atom bomb on the jungle, it would have the same effect. At the same time, evolution continues and maybe the medicines of the jungle and Nature herself are about to trump our guns, germs and steel, as Jared Diamond so pithily summarized the impact of our culture on the Americas. Who knows? I think this particular future is unwritten.
You condemn Western petroleum and timber companies for destroying the rainforests while a neighboring Amazonian farmer who takes huasca with your Maestro gladly hunts endangered jaguars and sells out his trees to the interlopers. It makes me wonder how we can change things if the people of the rainforest -- good people who know the power of the plants -- are complicit in its destruction? From the perspective of a local shaman the seduction of progress and industrialization must appear as a dark spell of death that's been cast upon the entire world? How can rainforest magic hope to compete? One thing I observed in our maestro was a deep faith in Nature itself, and often when I would react with despair over setbacks he would remind me of how much deeper the sentient resources of the planet reach than we can understand. Obviously, not everyone who has recourse to vegetalismo (and it's important to remember here that Juan Flores is a doctor in the traditional sense, treating cancers and hepatitis and other diseases), among the mestizo population of Peru is going to come away enlightened about their relationship to the natural world. As well, there are many economic pressures that come to bear upon these campesinos -- it's important not to scapegoat them for being caught in an economic system that exploits them along with the other resources of the jungle. I may have been guilty of that to some degree in the writing of my book.
As you discovered, traditional curandero therapy utilizes dieting on multiple rainforest plants; drinking multiple types of rainforest brews; a distinct rainforest spirit mythology; and the application of ritual icaros, herbal baths, and tobacco smoke at the proper times to be effective. When adapting ayahuasca use to the modern clinical model the ritual extras are typically left by the wayside and reduced to dietary tips and drinking the brew. Having seen the real deal do you think the magic of the living jungle can ever be fully reproduced in the world of clinical protocols, white powders, concrete, and glass? No, I do not think it can. I believe there are two issues here. The first is what do we mean by "reproduce"? Mark Plotkin gives a fascinating account of how he documented the preparation of a plant medicine being used by a healer to cure diabetes, a disease we are quite ineffective in treating. When the medicine was analyzed in the lab the technicians were not able to isolate that "silver bullet" molecule that did the trick. Going back to the healer, Plotkin inquired why the medicine hadn't been reproducible in the laboratory and the shaman had impatiently informed him that it was the synergy of the plants that created the medicine, not a molecule. This, and other stories one hears, demonstrate how misguided our approach to reproducing Amazonian medicines can be. The second issue is of translation. I believe that ayahuasca wants to work with us in our world, to start winding her tendrils into our psyches right here in the midst of the white powders, concrete and glass. Something that my wife and I have consistently observed, and researchers such as Stan Grof also report, is that the plant entheogen experience reconnects people at a cellular level to the natural world. I personally believe that ayahuasca has diagnosed our disease in the West as a psychotic break from Nature and she wants to heal it. The real issue comes down to responsible stewardship. How can we support the authentic healers of the Amazon, apprentice ourselves to them responsibly, earn their trust again and protect the habitat from which not only ayahuasca but many cures for what ails us arise? How can we avoid repeating the old pattern of raping the land out of our greed for the new commodity: visionary experience? Finally, how can allow ayahuasca to guide us in translating her virtue into the North? While I believe that it behooves all serious practitioners of medicine to apprentice themselves -- otherwise, the work is a pale imitation of the real thing -- Westerners have to find their own way. We cannot reproduce Amazonian cosmology, which is land-based, in a different land. If we do, how is that different than the goals of Disneyland? Allow me a slight digression to illustrate my point about the challenges of translation. Some people have taken umbrage to my depiction of the jaguar spirit that accompanied me throughout my rainforest quest -- a reaction based in their own presuppositions about what the symbol/reality of the Jaguar means. But I don't think any of us know what the Jaguar means. I certainly don't. When I first began to be potentiated by the spirit, it was such a powerful awakening I wondered if I was called to be a jaguar shaman, or some such thing, but time never bore that possibility out. Indeed, the cat became more elusive for me than for the other ayahuasqueros would see a jaguar sitting next to me during our ceremonies together. It seemed the more directly I attempted to face the cat, the wilier it became in eluding my clumsy attempts to "document" it. It even seemed to enjoy a game of hide and seek where it would amuse itself by reappearing in unexpected guises and new permutations. Is it an archetype, or is it a spirit? Is it live, or is it Memorex? Finally, I began to realize it wasn't the ontological status of the Jaguar spirit that mattered, it was how this feature of Amazonian shamanism was translating itself into my experience as a Westerner. The raison d'être of these transformations during my time in the Amazon (it doesn't happen to me anymore) finally hit home on reading Richard Grossinger's excellent discussion of shamanism in his Planet Medicine: The patient of a shaman no doubt also has an "inner child," but that child is experienced as a raven or a wild bear and thus liberated to transmute, finally, into something larger than the neurosis. The so-called neurosis may have been no more than the unborn "shaman" within, careening toward its voice. No real growth can happen as long as the victim state requires either comforting or revenge. In fact the more deeply wounded the victim, the more powerful must be his or her potentiation in order to overcome the wound. What a marvelous thing -- reaching way beyond the plodding place of Western psychology! I remain convinced that work with plant medicines offers many unimagined possibilities for healing for our culture if we approach this work with integrity.
Local Amazonian farmers sell out their land to petroleum and timber companies; liberal gringo auto drivers use that oil to earn a living, become huasca tourists, and donate money to save the rainforests; but the petroleum byproducts have polluted the rivers and are causing cancer and disease in the indigenous populations; and the huasca tourism market has now become another cynical way to milk gringos of greenbacks. Doesn't this interaction create a Gordion Knot of industrialized money flowing through the rainforest and leaving destruction and decay in it's wake? How does it feel to come back to the city, drive a car, and publish a book on the chemically treated pulp of dead trees when you've also come to have such a deep connection to the rainforest? How do you reconcile your place along that knot? We make an offering of our work to the larger forces of evolution on this planet. Either I can become a Jain and spend my life filtering my drinking water so I make sure I don't kill any living organisms unnecessarily, or I can enter into the field of life and death and struggle to shape our future in the midst of all the painful contradictions you innumerate. It's an agony, and we have to negotiate our way through it with eyes as open as possible. I find myself constantly questioning my motivations and skill level, and I think it is the plants themselves that drive me on. Who would write such a book as The Jaguar that Roams the Mind if he was motivated by profit? Only a dunce.
At the beginning of the book you talk about an encounter in Morocco where you accidentally cause some offense and find yourself in the street staring down a young Muslim girl with primal hate in her eyes ready to stone you with a large rock. This stirred up thoughts of "the ancient hatreds of our species", something you never revisited in the book. Can you revisit your thoughts about this encounter in light of what you've learned via ayahuasca? And, seeing how huasca culture has so fully embedded the teachings of Christ and Christianity, do you think a similar thing could happen with the teachings of Mohamed and Islam? What might an Islamic huasca culture look like? Well, it's already started. One of the visitors to Mayantuyacu, Juan Flores' center in the jungle, was a Frenchman who had converted to Islam. Inside his cabin a prayer mat lay on the floor and the Koran sat on his writing desk. His work with ayahuasca, and also the daime tradition in Brazil, had gone on for many years, and at one point he introduced the plant medicine to his wife, who was born Muslim. During the ceremony the Prophet Mohammad appeared to her and assured her that this was a good medicine and it was no problem for her, a follower of Islam, to work with it. She now works with ayahuasca with the local Muslim population in her cathedral town in France. What a Sufi ceremony with the plant brew would look like, I am out to depict in my next book. Funny you should ask...