Medicinal and Shamanic Plants of Peru, a set on Flickr.
I’ve been adding more photos from the archives.
Ayahuasca Shaman – Artidoro Aro Cardenas Interviewed By Howard G Charing and Peter Cloudsley (2003)
This interview has been revised to include plant classification names.
An extract from this interview appeared in the book Plant Spirit Shamanism (Destiny Books USA).
Inner Traditions have posted a preview copy of the book on Scribd. It’s also available now as an ebook.
Pablo Amaringo wrote an inspirational foreword to the book, a link to that is here;
In Plant Spirit Shamanism, the authors explore the use of one of the major allies of shamans for healing, seeing, dreaming, and empowerment–plant spirits. After observing great similarities in the use of plants among shamans throughout the world, they discovered the reason behind these similarities: Rather than dealing with the “medical properties” of the plants or specific healing techniques, shamans commune with the spirits of the plants themselves.
From their years of in-depth shamanic work in the Amazon, Haiti, and Europe, including extensive field interviews with master shamans, the authors present the core methods of plant shamanism used in healing rituals the world over: soul retrieval, spirit extraction, sin eating, and the Amazonian tradition of pusanga (love medicine). They explain the techniques shamans use to establish connections to plant spirits and provide practical exercises as well as a directory of traditional Amazonian and Caribbean healing plants and their common North American equivalents so readers can explore the world of plant spirits and make allies of their own.
“Plant Spirit Shamanism takes readers into realms that defy rational logic and scientific theory, showing graphically that we humans are not the only intelligent life on this planet. From their extensive travels to indigenous cultures that understand life very differently from those in the ‘developed’ world, the authors reveal a wealth of plant knowledge that has been lost to Western civilization. This book is both a fascinating read and a considerable challenge to the orthodox mind.”
(Leo Rutherford, author of The Way of Shamanism and Your Shamanic Path )
“This is an incredible book, a book with depth that speaks to the soul. . . . The knowledge in this book could very easily be put to good use in everyday life, which makes it a ‘keeper; for any healer’s library.”
(Bonnie Cehovet, Angelfire, Sept 2006 )
“Plant Spirit Shamanism explores not the usual medicinal qualities of plants, but shamanic communications with the spirits of the plants themselves. . . . Healers will find this essential to understanding plant processes.”
(Diane C. Donovon, California Bookwatch, Nov 2006 )
“A practical and useful guide for healing on a deeper level, using Mother Nature’s power.”
(Vicky Thompson, New Connexion, Nov-Dec 2006 )
“Healers will find this essential to understanding plant processes.”
(California Bookwatch, Nov 2006 )
“The book is not simply a dry academic discussion of these topics, although that alone would be intrinsically interesting. Instead, it provides cross-cultural perspectives on all aspects of plant-spirit based healing. . . . Whether you want to learn to practice plant-spirit medicine–or simply want to gain a better understanding of it–this book will be a useful addition to your botanical library.” (
Dennis J. McKenna, Ph.D., HerbalGram, Journal of American Botanical Council, No. 78, May/July 2008 )
Ayahuasca, is regarded as the ‘gateway’ to the Soul. The fifth and concluding part of this article explores this fascinating plant brew from the Amazon Rainforest. Ayahuasca is the jungle medicine of the upper Amazon. It is made from the ayahuasca vine ( Banisteriopsis Caapi) and the leaf of the Chacruna plant (Psychotria Viridis). The two make a potent medicine, which takes one into the visionary world. The vine is an inhibitor, which contains harmala and harmaline among other alkaloids, and the leaf contains vision-inducing alkaloids. As with all natural medicines, it is a mixture of many alkaloids that makes their unique properties.
In this context, the teacher plants can provide a doorway to great and meaningful insights in the adventure of personal growth and healing. The growth and healing has therefore to be also in the physical world, thereby offering the opportunity to reveal our emotions, traumatic and turbulent experiences hidden or otherwise and so these can be released and ourselves restored. This access to our soul companion (our greater selves) , this flowing omni-present force guiding our life which presents with what are often called euphemistically “growth opportunities” for us to overcome. The plant teachers can show us these, where we can transcend linear time itself, and we journey within this eternal now at the very place in time where we experienced such a difficult event or suffered a troubled pervasive period in our life. We can re-experience this albeit from a different perspective, learn what happened, the reasons why it occurred and the subsequent impact and consequences on our life, and then to release any pain and trauma locked within our being. This release within the Ayahuasca experience is called ‘la purga’ our purge, when we literally purge this pain from our being, it is not only the contents of our stomach which are being released but also the deeply stored bile and sourness in our bodies generated from these difficult events. The plants offer us the potential for deep soul healing so we can become stronger and more able to engage fully in the precious gift of life.
Developing a personal relationship with Ayahuasca is within a background of an ancient body of practices. The oldest know object related to the use of ayahuasca is a ceremonial cup, hewn out of stone, with engraved ornamentation, which was found in the Pastaza culture of the Ecuadorian Amazon from 500 B.C. to 50 A.D. It is deposited in the collection of the Ethnological Museum of the Central University (Quito, Ecuador). This indicates that ayahuasca potions were known and used at least 2,500 years ago.
For example, there is a dietary regimen, and prohibitions regarding libidinous thoughts and activity. These considerations need to be respected and can not be ignored if one embarks on a path of communion with the plant. On observation and study (also called trial and error), this regime helps us to become more ‘plant like’, therefore increasing our receptivity to the plant-spirit-mind.
Many of my visionary experiences with Ayahuasca have led to a deeper understanding of my life and the role that various people had played in it. Sometimes I became those people, lived their lives, and came to understand why they did what they did, what decisions they had to make in their lives. These revelatory experiences invariably led to some form of closure with that person, like completing an open chapter, or a profound healing of my relationship with that person.
Medicines like ayahuasca can help us along our path but we still have to do the work ourselves. My experience is that these kind of allies can help us open the doors of perception, but what we do when we get there is entirely our own challenge.
Ayahuasca, is regarded as the ‘gateway’ to the Soul. The fourth part of this article continues to explore this fascinating plant brew from the Amazon Rainforest. Ayahuasca is the jungle medicine of the upper Amazon. It is made from the ayahuasca vine ( Banisteriopsis Caapi) and the leaf of the Chacruna plant (Psychotria Viridis). The two make a potent medicine, which takes one into the visionary world. The vine is an inhibitor, which contains harmala and harmaline among other alkaloids, and the leaf contains vision-inducing alkaloids. As with all natural medicines, it is a mixture of many alkaloids that makes their unique properties.
I discovered that Ayahuasca is a medicine, so unlike the Western understanding, a medicine which works on every level, on the physical and non-physical beings, our consciousness, our emotions, and our spirit. It is as if you are drinking not just a liquid brew but imbibing an ‘other’ intelligence which knows exactly what is needed to help you. This is a communion in the true sense of the word, an intense experience of euphoria and ecstasy. A journey of deep and profoundly meaningful personal and trans-personal insights , a searchlight on the hidden thoughts and feelings in the sub-conscious mind, an erasing of the ego boundaries and a merging with the greater field of consciousness of creation.
The was more and more to experience, dieting some of the teacher plants such as Ajo Sacha and Guyasa, I felt my senses being altered , expanded in some ineffable way, and becoming aware of the song, the very rhythm of the rainforest. There was sound, smells, and sights around me, which I had not been aware of in my normal everyday waking state. I could zoom in on smells, and sound, I realised that the rainforest was one entity with the insects, birds, and animals being a part of the totality of the rainforest. I am in paradise when lying in my hammock; it is like floating within a living three-dimensional sensorial experience of sound, colour, smell, movement, and vibration all in harmony and great beauty.
The work with the visionary plants not only provides a philosophical frame of reference for my life so to speak, but is also a path for deep soul healing, and generates a desire to engage fully and with enthusiasm the world around me. Celestial visions are always very nice and pleasing but they must never cloud, disguise, or distract our real purpose to live in the full embodiment of being a human on this beautiful planet and striving to enrich that special and unique experience, our ‘earth walk’. I recall some years ago when I led a group to the Amazon Rainforest, our initial gathering with our shaman Javier Arevalo so we could all introduce ourselves. Javier was very curious about Westerners, and was interested in knowing what we were searching for with the visionary plants. One participant stood up and said she wanted a clear and definitive understanding of the male and female principles of the universe, the cosmic “ying and yang” as she put it. Well Javier was totally mystified by this question, as when I have attended his sessions with local people who visit him for a consultation or session they ask about everyday problems and concerns such as “is my boyfriend / husband / girlfriend cheating on me?”, or “why am I unlucky in finding a job?”, “I need help to overcome this disease”. Well we worked with our participant to explore what the real question was behind her initial enquiry, finally she said that she was really looking for love in her life, and of course, Javier could understand this deep desire completely, and was subsequently able to help her discover and reconcile the inner obstacles, which had been preventing this.
Ayahuasca, is regarded as the ‘gateway’ to the Soul. The third part of this article continues to explore this fascinating plant brew from the Amazon Rainforest. Ayahuasca is the jungle medicine of the upper Amazon.
My first real encounter with the plant world of the shamans was when I first arrived in the Amazon some fourteen years ago. The moment I stepped off the aeroplane in Iquitos it felt as if I had been hit by bolt of energy. I felt so energised that I didn’t sleep for two days, my senses were at a heightened state of awareness, and it felt as if I could hear the heartbeat of the rainforest itself.
Iquitos is a city in the Amazon rainforest, there are no roads (completed anyway) to it. The only way to get there is via aeroplane or by river boat. The city in the 19th century was the centre of the Rubber industry but by the early 20th century the rubber trade had moved to the Far East, and the city had fallen into neglect and disrepair. It is now a place without an apparent purpose resplendent in its post-colonial splendour literally in the middle of nowhere, a true frontier town.
I recall my first moments in Iquitos standing on the Malecon at the edge of the city overlooking the river and some 3000 miles of pure rainforest spread out in front of me, an exhilarating experience which still fills me with wonder and awe.
I had come to Iquitos out of a long-standing interest and desire to experience at first hand the living tradition of plant spirit medicines and of course, the magical brew of Ayahuasca of which I had heard so much about.
I was not to be disappointed; my first sessions with a shaman in an open jungle clearing changed my view and understanding of life, a spiritual epiphany. I experienced being in the very centre of creation. I had the realisation and experience that I was not separate but an intrinsic part, a discrete element in the vast cosmic mind or field of consciousness, and that we were all connected. All part of the one great mind, and our experience of ‘separateness’ was no more than an illusion, generated by our being in our bodily vehicle which housed our senses.
One of my most profound experiences in an Ayahuasca ceremony, when I found myself transported to what I felt as the centre of creation. I was in the cosmos witnessing totality, planets, stars, nebulas, and universes forming. Everywhere stretched vast patterns of intricate geometric and fluid complexity constantly changing size and form. The chanting of the shaman was filling every cell with an electric force, every port of my body was vibrating and it felt as if I was being bodily lifted into the air. I was in a temple of sound, vibration and bliss. Gathered around me were giants in ornate costumes of gold and multi-coloured feathers blowing smoke and fanning me, these were the spirits of Ayahuasca, and then this soft gentle and exquisitely soft and sensual voice spoke to me of creation and the universal mind.
To reinforce this poetic insight, the words appeared before me in bold neon like script. When I related this after the session to the maestro said, “Ayahuasca wanted you to understand”, and he continued; “Ayahuasca opens doors to different dimensions. Often the mind can be obstructed from accessing inner knowledge. Ayahuasca can open up the mind to abstract things that cannot be seen in the material world. If I hadn’t had the experience, I would not be able to believe that a tree could have its own world or have a spirit. But when you begin to discover these dimensions personally, little by little you begin to recognise and accept the mystery of it.”
The Western rational mind can only struggle, to take as an example the famed ‘love potion’ of the Amazon known as the Pusanga. In rational terms it makes no sense whatsoever, how can a concoction of leaves, roots, and seeds attract a lover, or good luck to you?
My experience working with shamans in preparing Pusangas (which normally is prepared away from their clients so it was a privilege to be invited to participate in the preparation) showed me that far from interfering with the freedom of other individuals or putting a ‘number’ on them, we were altering something within ourselves, which was brought out by the ingredients, the magic of the plants. Whatever it was, it felt wholesome and good. It is what is in oneself… one’s own magic. Asking Javier Arevalo (the shaman) what does the Pusanga actually do, is it inside us or outside of us? His response was “When you pour it onto your skin it begins to penetrate your spirit, and the spirit is what gives you the force to pull the people. The spirit is what pulls”.
The anthropological term ‘sympathetic magic’ does not give this justice, to illustrate this, the water used in the preparation of an authentic pusanga (which has been specifically made for you) has been collected from a deep trek in the rainforest, sometimes 40 or 50 miles, where there are no people and where clay pools collect and thousands of the most beautiful coloured parrots and macaws gather to drink from them for the mineral content. Now the great leap of imagination required is to bring into yourself the knowledge, the feeling, the sense that the water in the Pusanga has drawn in or attracted thousands of the most brightly coloured creatures on the planet. If you do this, it can generate a shift in consciousness in you.
You can sample this for yourself, just find a quiet moment and space, close your eyes, and with the power of your imagination as the launch pad, draw in the verdant, abundant forest filled with life, colour, and sound. Sense the rich vibrancy of the rainforest as a single breathing rhythmic totality of life force. When you have this image, expand it to include, the humid warmth, the smell of earth, the scent of plants, hear the sound of insects and bird song, allow all your senses to experience this. Then with a conscious decision draw this sensory experience into your being. Whenever you are ready, open your eyes, and check how you are feeling.
Maestros do not invent diets, they are given by the plant spirits themselves, but there is more to it than simply abstaining from certain foods and activities. It involves a state of purification, retreat, commitment, and respect for our connection with everything around us – above all the rain forest. When we listen to our dreams, they become more real, and equally important as everyday life.
Morality, Ethics and Power
This is a subject that is worth looking at as we in the West and particularly those who are engaged in following a perceived spiritual path in which there is an implicit or explicit ethical component, find the use of a pusanga (or equivalent) to attract a specific person an action which takes away and subverts that person’s free will. This is criticised as an unmoral and harmful action occurring within a tradition or system without perceived , never mind understood moral values.
This moral view is not shared in other societies and traditions, and there is a profound difficulty experienced by Westerners in assimilating this concept of values surrounding power.
For example the Amazonian (amongst others) tradition portrays a spectrum of existential states, with the highest or most desirable being that of the powerful person, and the lowest or least desirable being that of the powerless person. Power is defined as the ability to do what one wishes, obtain wealth, make others perform desired actions (even against their will), or harm others without being punished or harmed in return. The proof of power is the individual’s material wealth, or social and political status, and their ability to offer patronage. These are not received as immoral acts, and I recall with my colleague Peter Cloudsley attempting to relay the Western view to Javier Arevalo without any success. The conversation went as follows;
Howard & Peter: “Something we make a big problem out of in the West, is that a shaman might be a magician to one person and a sorcerer to another. Asking for the pusanga to attract a specific person takes away that person’s choice. We see it as bad. How do you see it?”
Javier: “Take the case of a woman who refuses when you offer her a Coca Cola because she thinks you are lower class and that she is better than you. She might want others to think that she is better than you. That makes you feel like rubbish so you go to a shaman and tell him the name of the girl. He prepares the pusanga. Three days go by without seeing her and she begins to think about you, dreaming about you and begins looking for you”
Howard & Peter: “Yes, we understand, but in our culture we think its wrong to counteract someone’s will.”
Javier: “But its only so that she will want you for the moment, so she’ll go to bed with you and then she can go”.
Howard & Peter: “(laughing) But if it happened to me, and let’s say I originally found her unpleasant and she did it to marry me I’d be outraged! It would be awful if I only discovered after having children and making a home with her! And would I ever know?”
Javier: “You would be hopelessly in love with her, you’d never know. That’s why it’s a secret.”
Howard & Peter: “Can a jealous third party separate a couple or break a happy marriage?”
Javier: “Yes, they can ruin a happy home. They come as if to greet the couple and soon after the couple are arguing and hating each other and the third party is secretly having sex with one of them”.
Howard & Peter: “Is this why the women from Lima are afraid of the girls from Iquitos?”
Javier: “Yes it happens, they think they are dangerous and will break up their homes.”
Howard & Peter: “Does anyone have freedom if everyone is using pusanga?”
Javier: “its normal you get used to it.”
Howard & Peter. “We like to think we are free, this suggests that we are constantly subject to other peoples’ Pusanga.”
Javier: “laughing, but you all want women, and women all want men!”
Eventually we realised that there was no way that we could communicate this Western ‘moral’ viewpoint. Javier did not see that there was a problem. It was a massive cultural divide we could not cross. His people feel free the way they are and can have extramarital sex using magical means of attraction and without attaching our Western guilt to it.
Looking at this ‘down to earth’, guilt trip free viewpoint, on an earlier occasion when Javier asked the group that I was leading, what they really wanted deep down in their lives, many people gave cosmic, transpersonal, and spiritual sounding answers and were quite mute when he spoke about Pusanga. After a while the participants opened up to their feelings and many admitted they wanted love, apparently behind their desire to put the world to right, resolve planetary issues, and speak to the flowers. It was as though it were not acceptable to wish for love. Javier remarked “These thoughts tangle up their lives. Love solves problems”.
As an observation, if we (and that’s all of us) had more love in our lives, maybe we wouldn’t be worried so much about the state of the world, and be less judgemental, destructive, and just simply be willing to help others and alleviate suffering. It is because people do not have enough of this precious and enriching commodity that we live our lives increasingly bombarded by aggression, with new definitions , ‘road rage’ , ‘air rage’ , ‘safety rage’, ‘word rage’, ‘whatever-you-want rage’ We would also need less material goods, and titles all of which reinforce the boundaries of the ego-mind and separate us from each other and the natural world.
Below is a video of Plants used to prepare Pusanga. The soundtrack is a beautiful Icaro chanted by mestizo shaman Artidoro (recorded on Eagle’s Wing Ayahuasca Retreat).