Category Archives: Essay


The landscape in my head has colonists in it, looking out over the rolling hills with a productivist grasping that turns every tree into timber and every meadow into pasture, every field into rows of farmland, as far as the eye can see. The colonists in my mind see bodies and can understand only labor, see minds quick and alive and can find no expression of wonder but to enslave to their own gain.

They arrived without my consent and settled in my thoughts, through my eyes, in my blood and genes. There is a vicious rationalism and Puritanism that scratches at my thoughts, the willful demand that the world stop moving, that everything be held still, orderly, ready to be put to my own device, utterly dominated. They landed on the shores of Turtle Island and I came in tow, history dragging my bones across the sea, to murder the inhabitants of this incredible place, their blood in the earth mingling with that in my veins before I was even born. And discontent with the fecund earth my forebears chained the bodies and minds and lives of Africa to the terraforming of this continent in their own image, that of a distant God and a supremacy of Whiteness, until the blood and sweat and suffering and countless enslaved lives became the very productivity of the soil, the land itself, seen as the natural right of Whiteness to receive the generative capacity of the enslaved bodies and enslaved land in kind. The eyes and minds of dark-skinned bodies still alert and bright and looking at me today, right now in this moment, in faces that need only for me and mine to step the fuck aside, and let them live. Needing not my leadership or my brilliance but the silence of my certainty, the stilling of my constant trained domination, lending where asked and when requested my support and as much my absence.

But my own mind is colonized, too. The valuation of rationalism and scientism, the quiet calm of authority that I know I can retreat to if need be, the intellectualization that keeps me both distant from and infatuated with the majik of the immediacy of the real and lived world.

I have always been fascinated by majik. And I can see that in many ways it was not other than an alienated longing for communion with the living, dynamic, awake-and-wild world. But I only knew how to view it as something other than myself, distant, something unapproachable, that required some intermediary of the “other”, whether cultural or historical or religious. I will suggest that it is this divorcing from the immediacy of our living, breathing, moment-to-moment lives – the majik that I mean no metaphor by – that has characterized the intellectual-cum-historical alienation and terror that has driven the need for domination and control by me and mine in heteropatriarchal Whiteness. This is not a disconnected account from a Marxist historical-materialism, because I believe they are movements into history of the same disconnect.

I have been watching a series on the Daoist and shamanic origins of Chinese Medicine – my first graduate degree is in anthropology of shamanism, and I am an acupuncturist by training and current profession, and understanding these roots help me better understand my own medicine. But what has struck me over and over is how resonant much of the way these practices are with shamanic systems worldwide, with how near-fit they are, from tracing of sigils in the air to using whistling and songs to the manner of divination, from using an egg to trap evil energy and remove it from a patient to the misting a patient with blessed herbal water from the mouth of the healer – they show up everywhere, in so many different parts of the world that I cannot help but say to myself “Look! Again!”

And I have seen these work and I have recognized their profound possibilities. But then comes a mind of doubt, a resistance and a hesitation, a stepping back to a critical stance that I have celebrated as a kind of anchoring, a reasonableness that I have been taught and enculturated to believe shows a maturity, a stance of analysis that I have been led to believe is necessary to… and here the teachers fall silent and shamefaced. Necessary to what? The only answer is “to not be like them”, to retain the critical distance and cultural power afforded us by the Whiteness of our thinking. To generate theories and conceptual structures that will serve to both isolate us from “these others”, from their lives, and to shore up our own cultural-power derived from the accolades of our fellows at our intellectualization.

Because it is here we fall apart and fail. Our structures of ideas cannot help but be organized by our more fundamental and necessary Belief that we are separate from the world, from Life, from the way we perform, practice, and act. That there are discernible Truths somewhere “out there” that stand still and certain. We are infatuated with our processes, our Scientism not other than Colonialism given new clothes, bleached clean of its long histories of racism and complicity with violence and oppression. Our colonialism still that authority we grant ourselves to draw the lines that include or exclude forms of knowing, the gatekeeper of what is possible and what is not, and what we will allow within certain coded boundaries for real and unreal. Just because a materialism and scientism has become our Belief does not reduce the Protestant and Puritanical infatuation with adhering to “Belief” that so fully orders our lives and experience. By giving such primacy to what we “believe” to be possible and real, we have allowed the Protestant and Puritan character of an always-evolving colonialism to mark the whole of our intellectual history, a needless neuroses forever circling the security of Belief, where our only ability to engage with a living experience is to decide that we do believe, do not believe, or conditionally set aside our belief structures for a time, waiting to take back up our critical stance again at the end. Even the value of any laudable empiricism has been set back centuries now by a fixation on forcing experience to fit belief, rather than allowing that ontology itself is fluid, and that the rules that seem to shape aspects of experience are emergent from particular forms of organization and activity far more than they are absolute rules that transcend the historical and lived. It is the purity of our souls in the Protestant sense, that our salvation is by the unyielding faith in our beliefs and our incorruptibility in the face of other experience, that still structures our participation with those aspects and elements of the dynamics of life that do not fit neatly into categories of right or wrong, of true or false. Scientific replicability may have replaced God, but our hearts are still Puritans looking for salvation.

But there is nothing of belief in magik. To paraphrase a Zen saying, the Great Way has nothing to do with knowing or not knowing. And majik has nothing to do with anything separate from right here, right now, in the dynamic and extraordinary unfolding of our immediate and lived lives. Trace a sigil and whisper a spell, walk in the forest, or make a phone call to a friend, drive to the store and get groceries – everything immediately alive. Never a moment that was not humming filled to overflowing with majik and possibility.

We thought that finding the right beliefs was a prelude to living fully, completely, to finally being aligned with the “right” way of being in the world. We thought that our epistemologies were our ethics, we thought that our existential doubts were the crux of what made us special, even human. And when we Whites found other ways of being in the world, other folx living in radically different ways, with questions of their own developed from histories and embodiments marked by different ecologies and organizational styles and strategies, we could not even recognize their “humanity”, because our “humanity” had become so entangled with the quivering doubt and fear that a no longer immanent God had left us, wondering where our hearts and souls and spirits had gone. We demanded Faith to cover this chasm of doubt and separation that has left such a rent-open-hole in the hearts of Whiteness when God was nowhere to be found. When the crying out of doubt and despair was not echoed by others on these new shores, the despair that characterized our very experience of ourselves – that demanded Faith to if only for some moments salve the wound – was the only way we could recognize “humanity” at all, and in the absence of that despair-as-Faith we saw no brothers, no sisters, but only creatures without souls.

And so we set about enslaving bodies and etching our own despair into their flesh and living spirits, simultaneously using their bodies to carve up this living, breathing earth, which were carved with whips and chains in kind. The economies were about power, and the policies were designed to arrange power – it is not a material analysis that I am avoiding, done better and more fully by many others, but rather to ask the question about the why’s of power, of what is the broken thing, the diseased need at the core of domination, colonialism, imperialism. I cannot ask it fully or completely, and I cannot answer the history. But what I can point to is where the answer echoes for me where I was raised, with what I was taught, and how the world looked to me, how it was structured for me, and the deeply broken places in me that would have justified almost anything to escape.

What then does decolonization look like? Because this is my own responsibility now. There is no one else to do it, no one else’s labor I can take hold of and turn to my own device. My history as a slaveholder can and will never have another life to claim, and the mind of the slaveholder must die in kind, slain by the hand of those who have suffered and never relented, the unstoppable force of the Black bodies and lives who shake free the chains of my own fear, cowardice, and weakness. My history as a patriarch, who can demand labor of the women if no one else, is likewise spent, exhausted and failing from its own corrupt premises, broken asunder by the brilliant resistance and expressions of unflagging life of the minds and bodies of womyn who would not allow such a tiny cage to hold them. And so while I must listen, to allow the dynamic life of this decolonization to flow over and through me, to listen to voices that the colonist in my head has always failed to hear, my own decolonization is not their responsibility and does not belong to them to do for me.

I live on Turtle Island. My blood flows with its rivers and its streams, my breath is that of the wind in its trees, my bones that of the stones that are likewise its own. If I am ever to decolonize, it must first be by stopping the imperialist project in my own heart, it must be by dismantling the deep belief that, if I go elsewhere, find another land or another people, my freedom will be given to me by labor they have already done, or can be made to do. I cannot but live on Turtle Island, and I cannot but survive from the earth that is stained with the blood and sweat of those that me and my kind have enslaved, tortured, and murdered outright by the millions. I am a settler and I cannot escape that. I am a colonist and I cannot escape that. This is my home, too, now. There is nowhere else for me to go. And so the question is how do I come home, to this place, to this land, with this history.

But to do so, I have to wake up. I have to see THIS WORLD as it is. And so I have to expressly and without reservation finally simply say, with no caveats and no dissembling or intellectualization. I have seen the spirits. I have heard the stones, I have listened to the trees, I have sung my own deep song down into the ground and had it vibrate back from the earth into my body. I have witnessed the dynamic life that flows moment to moment in us, as us, through us, beyond words and beyond time or space, but never separate from and always completely filling up and emptying out, overflowing and unmaking, each space, each moment. It shames my face to give it any name, to speak a word to describe, and yet I must acknowledge it somehow. The world breathes in and out with me, as me. I have never taken a single breath. Lungs full and heart beating. I am the dirt moving. This is majik, this is LIFE itself, full and complete. Nothing else to find, nothing else to hope for. If you say GOD I will point back to this and ask where, and if you say NO GOD, I will point back to this and ask where. You want the mystical, I will trace a sigil in the air and I will place my hands on your body and I will pray with strange words. To whom? Does it matter? You want the material and practical and we will strike stones together for a spark, and we will together be Prometheus.

This is the beginning of my decolonization. To wake up. To see there was never any great chasm, no abyss, no heart separate from the whole world to be torn asunder by doubt and despair. That I am the dirt, moving. Nothing else to be. No great ideal to manifest, no world to conquer, no Divine Plan to implement, no great vision to make real, no final word from any voice to say “This is the direction forward, and all else must stand aside” – for therein lies the root of all fascism. Life is already alive, manifesting, unfolding, becoming. I could never stop it, control it, or direct it. It was not mine to control. The colonialist in my thinking demands that it be chained and harnessed, that it be turned to productivist ends, that one day it might tell a grand story of my triumphs, that history might justify me. And the raw force of Life dismantles, dashes asunder, the absurdity of any such claim, not even noticing it, not even turning its head to ignore it, as it vanishes in a gust of wind, snatching a half-heard bit of nonsense from a mumbling dreamer’s lips.



On Fear

I managed to hurt not one, but two, of my friends’ feelings this week, in separate situations, with things I said, and things I did. I’m feeling afraid, now, of what my words and actions have done, of what the ramifications might be down the line. Unlike many times in my life, these words and actions were not harsh or even ill-thought-out, but they were, nevertheless, potentially damaging. Good intentions only get me so far. I want to write this because I have been reflecting on fear. This is not a new topic for me (or any of us, of course), but it seems important for me to reflect on it again now.

In my early days with Zen, it often struck me as strange that, in Buddhist doctrine, when the three poisons are described, fear was not among them. For many years I sat Zen simply to cope with my fear. That fear was not a foundational poison was hard for me to understand.

The three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. I don’t remember where I first read it, but there is a teaching somewhere that shows how each of these is mirrored by compassion, wisdom, and liberation. The teaching suggested, or what I took from it, was that compassion is truly just the blossoming and making whole of greed – that those desires in us that clutch after the world, that want to hold it steady, that want to make it ours and unchanging, can, when they soften, expand out gently becoming an open palm holding the world. The hand that grasps and clutches to own and control, when relaxed and opened, becomes a safe and strong palm capable of holding gently, embracing. So too with ignorance – to be ignorant is to not know something… but what more is liberation than waking up to the reality of “don’t know!”? Samsara’s delusion becomes Nirvana’s enlightenment with a simple blinked eye open, waking to the unmistakable reality that this whole wide world and the great currents and flows of our experience, the confusions and disappointments and laughter and triumphs are all expressions of “just right here”, the this-very-moment-ness of liberation itself, the absolute made up in its finest details out of the piece-by-piece of the relative, with all ideas, concepts, and judgements fallen away. With no ideas, concepts, judgements, what could one ‘know’? Let go of knowing, and suddenly the whole expansive world opens up, fresh before us. And so too, then, anger, when we step past the notion of a single, limited “ego” self, when we step past the fundamental delusion of our separateness one from another, can be transformed to wisdom, to understanding, to clarity. The sharp eye of anger that sees the world in fine detail, ready to look for openings to strike, suddenly recognizes itself-as-the-whole-world in every glance, and the clarity of the vision that anger has brought becomes a deep understanding of where suffering arises, where delusion obscures, seeing the cracks and crevices of hurt and pain and violence, knowing them as openings in need of great compassion.

I left anger for last, because for me, this is where fear enters the picture. For me, my relationship with fear is such that I no longer see it as an emotion distinct from anger. It has all the same energy, all the same vehemence, all the same capacity to recognize details that might otherwise be lost. Fear is only anger moving in a different direction, pouring inward, rather than raging outward, finding all the spaces that can be hurt inside, looking at all of the fine detail of our own makeup, and knowing where and how to hurt it, to take it apart, to destroy it. For many this is an old insight – my oldest friend reflected on this intertwining to me when we were still teenagers. And I saw it then, certainly, knew he was right. But it has taken me a very long time to know how to recognize it at play in the moment of anger, or to recognize the anger in the moment of terror, and let them just be there in my experience without giving them reign over my behavior, or trying to run from them, hide them, or press them down and away.

And so tonight, right now, I have fear in me. I am afraid, if quietly and not abjectly, of what my actions and words may have unwittingly done. But it occurs to me that I have never been furious where I was not also terrified, inasmuch as I have never been angry when I was not holding on to something, some idea or wish about myself or another, that I wanted to protect, to hold steady, to not allow to change. It is greed – the desire to hold things still, to have firm ground upon which we can stand and build an solid sense of self, a notion of self divided from other – that springs up in those moments, it is greed that turns us inward, curling in toward ourselves, and in so doing, allows anger to pour down into us, watching its destructive energy wash over the whole of our landscape of thought and emotion and word and sound and perception and memory, until we know just how we are unmade. That desire to be something solid, that greed, generates anger, and when our fear becomes overwhelming as it courses through us, it finds momentum and swings back in and around, and rushes out, and in changing direction, becomes fury and vehemence and rage and violence.

I’m afraid I’m not enough, that who I am – this utterly false ‘solid’ self that has space in this consciousness – is shaken by my mistakes, that I will have to let go and become something else. And I can recognize it and I know the fear and doubt to be unnecessary, but I still feel them. But if I am never other than the whole world, then this emotion is not my own, but rather an emotion that runs more broadly, an experience that if “I” am having, then “we all” are having. Which makes me not alone. There is never a separate me to be alone. And so I can look toward making right the harm without further fear, without a need to make myself ‘right’, without a need to find distance from the result of my action. I cannot be alone, I cannot be unmade, there was never a me separate from any other to be alone, to be unmade, and so no one separate to hold a grudge or judge and find me wanting. Only all of us at the same moment as I say that I am sorry, that I am committed to making right, that I atone and will atone for the harm I have caused. As I have said to one friend and will say to another when there is the right moment.

Bodies and Healing in Ayahuasca Ritual Spaces

Two in pretty quick succession! The Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos (NEIP) has just published a paper of mine. It’s an article drawn from my thesis work – it’s probably the chapter I’m most proud of, work I’m still excited about. Though I’m studying acupuncture and herbalism at the moment, I’m still very interested in ayahuasca research, and so I’m really excited to have this paper published.

On Nihilism

A theme has occurred to me repeatedly in the last weeks and months, and I would like to comment on it before the central insight of it slips from me.

It has occurred to me as I watch popular media. Kung Fu Panda. Man of Tai Chi. True Detective. Others, though these are worthwhile examples of where my head has been while contemplating this. Each, in their way, grapple with an existentialist question of being and nothingness. Perhaps they did not intend to, exactly – except for True Detective, which most certainly knows what its about – but there’s a common thread nonetheless.

Jung said “Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” This is where I would like to start. Or, rather, end, though it is with it as inspiration that I begin.

There is nothing outside of this. This very world, this moment, my cold fingers as I type, the lingering illness, the frozen image of a movie on the TV screen where I paused it to write, the settling of sunflower seeds and dates in my stomach, the dog barking outside, the quiet-almost-unheard hum of the A/C, my thoughts as they cast about for the next word, the language as it writes with and without my consent. The recognition that “my” in all of the above is an unfounded ontological assumption that presumes a possible subject and object and a relationship between them that suggests hierarchy, even an authoritarian subjugation of soma to psyche, or psyche to ‘self’.

There is nothing outside of this. The study of Zen has presented this insight over and over. If there are gods, they are not other than as I am, made of this self-same stuff, whatever it may be. I am not a materialist-reductionist, I don’t mind if there are ‘modes’ of being that are not material, that do not lend themselves to a mode of inquiry based on reductionism and isolation, as powerful as those tools may sometimes prove to be. Frankly, my own proclivities would welcome the possibility of non-material modes of being. But whatever other modes there may be, they are still of this and nothing else. There is no external meaning. There is no sanctioning authority outside of all the rest. There is nothing watching us, judging us, keeping us. And wherever the Way may be as it moves through, there is still only this. The Source itself is beyond knowing and speaking of, but I cannot dive any deeper into it, plumb any depth of ontology and not come back with only this, as it is right here, now, my breath in and out.

There is nothing outside of this. There is a kind of nihilism in it, but there perhaps should be. We need a nihilism, a clarity that cuts through everything else we imagine, in order to see what is. Meaning is a shadow, a play of images. It is not real. That can be liberating or it can be terrifying and it’s perfectly alright if it’s both.

I mentioned three films above, and they run a pretty broad spectrum, but I think they make a compelling case that this is not an insight limited to philosophical speculation. Tai Long in Kung Fu Panda, Donaka Mark in Man of Tai Chi, and Rust in True Detective each, in their way, have recognize this kind of nihilism. They have a kind of freedom. They have seen that there is no meaning, that there are no rules, nothing outside of just us, just here, right now. Nothing to judge, no one to condemn us. That there is no standard for morality, for good and evil, no right and wrong, no better and worse. In the two kung fu movies, “power” becomes the obvious marker then – might making right. Rust goes in a different direction, seeing a kind of fatedness to it all, a Nietzschean eternal return, an inescapability, “power” here perhaps a will to power, but in a sense of the simple and mindless energetic-mechanics of an impersonal and dispassionate universe playing themselves out over and over and over again.

I will return to Love, but I want to spend moments longer with nihilism.

I think the worst possible thing we can do is to attempt to refute this nihilism, this recognition of emptiness. It grabs hold and shakes us soundly – and if it does not, we have not really stared closely into the dark – because there is an undeniable reverberation of reality about it. In our moments of clarity, our eyes open, and we too see the world as it is – bare of other imaginations, meanings, layers of hope and dread, of desire and revulsion. Clarity requires that we embrace this nihilism. There is nothing outside of this. The world is empty of meaning that transcends the moment to which the meaning is inextricably bound. Truths are never abstract and universal, only fragmented, momentary, and contingent. We see both the fractal, infinite nature of the world and its cracked-discordant-brokenness at once. If there is a pattern we are locked in and always have been, if there is no pattern then we are without purpose, plan, or hope. Both, perhaps, are true at their edges, but likely something far stranger beyond the boundaries of the thoughts that my brain – by accident of genetics, physiology, lifestyle, education, and even very likely its constraint to the biological parameters of life on this kind of planet, around this kind of star – is capable of.

Delusion is all that can result from an attempt to cling to a hope for meaning to the world that transcends the this-ness of the world. Meaning, where it exists, arises from the world itself in the way that heat arises from fire – a part of it, due to it, and dependent on it, fading when the fire fades. And with a rejection of meaning as something that guides the world from outside, that is not part of the world and thereby subject to manipulation and modification just the same as all else, it becomes implausible to look to meaning as a hope for ‘sense’ in the universe. The ontological ground of the universe is itself in flux, and what was true before is not true in the next moment, not by the same standards, as that ontological ground is itself not outside of this-ness. Clarity means an acknowledgement of a rejection of superfluous transcendental meaning, a kind of nihilism to see what is.

It is only by saying yes to the clarity of a kind of nihilistic-emptiness that Love can ever fully open. Only when we struggle to hold on to meaning does the absence of meaning seem so stark and terrifying to us. Only when we expect order do we recoil from chaos. I can look at the emptiness of the universe, the emptiness of the world, its voidness of meaning, and say “yes” to it, and find in my heart compassion for those who suffer, to find wonder and mystery in the brokenness and uncertainty of the world around me. If there is a “God” to whom I could pray, it would be only this – the opening of Love not despite, but because, of the clarity of emptiness around us.

Love is a word far too loaded with religious, political, affective, and flagrantly sentimental values to ever mean what I would like for it to mean here. So let me begin again.

When I was in a ceremonial house in Peru, I saw a vision of a man holding a gun, anger in his eyes, as he willfully pulled the trigger and gunned down a little girl. She was already dirty, standing beside a mound of earth, her little skirt ragged, her shirt torn, as unidentifiable as her face, all streaked with filth. He fired, and she fell. And all around them both, without differentiation, I could see like it was particles of energy, what I would call Love, as if it surrounded, infused, and was the stuff of both. Their possibility. It was the earth linking their feet, the matte black of the gun, the burnt smell in the air, the blood in her veins as she fell to the ground, already forgotten, the anger in his eyes as he ceased to see her, had never seen her. There was Love, something that had never judged either of them, had never considered them as separate at all, had never known their shape as anything other than itself, that would never understand the scene as anything other than something to be gently held, a life, a death, a gunshot, the embrace of the earth as it took in the little slain form. This Love did not explain itself, did not enter a world of morality or meaning. It did not refute emptiness. It did not deny suffering, disease, death. It looked at them, it was them, and it was with them. This is the Love I mean, when I say that Love opens up, looks in the face of emptiness. Love was already with emptiness when we conceived of it after having wished for fullness, for meaning. Emptiness never existed either, it was just another, final layer of meaning that we had waiting after we had stripped away every other word and delusion the world had been painted with.

For me this is the Bodhisattva ideal. Love is not a response to the deviation of “power” as it presents itself as the only worthy tool in an empty world. Love was before power, and has no need to deny it, to struggle with it. Power screams into the dark that there is nothing, all is void, and only by it can anything move or become. Love nods, but knows power only as energy, a force that acts on other forces, without the moral component that power simultaneously denies but depends on, and wishes so wholly to affirm.

I had a dream a few weeks ago, where a torch was lit in my heart. Or, I was given a torch, and it was the opening of my heart, as it entered my chest. It was both at the same time, and it happened at the self-same moment that I made a choice for my heart to be open. It was a gift and a decision at the same time. There was no difference between subject and object, or, rather, there was simultaneously a recognition of a subject/object and the impossibility of that separation, and a decision and a gift could coincide at precisely the same moment. The torch was the decision/gift of compassion, or Love, however phrased or understood.

To be with emptiness, to embrace the clarity of nihilism, and to open to Love – to reach across with compassion and not down with magnanimity is the only ‘religion’ I can understand for myself. I am the very stuff of every other. If there is no meaning outside of this, then we are not “going” anywhere. There is nowhere else to be, no story to finish, no ideal to make real. What then is there but the suffering of those around us, the fears and uncertainties that keep us divided, deluded? We could control them with Power. There is no one to tell us no. It is not even “wrong”, as there is no standard, no authority to judge nor to which we must bow. But to what end? What story do we tell with power, what ideal do we realize, what hope do we express that is not ultimately a delusion, one that will wind its way to nothing, to still more emptiness?

Love as I understand it is not a refutation of chaos and suffering. Love is not an answer, as if to say “yes, there is suffering, but Love makes up for this”, and to leave the theodicy of it with a simplistic and trite response. It may well be that there are not answers, not in the way we would like, to the questions we want solved. Buddha describes a man shot with an arrow, who before he will allow it to be taken from his body and his wound treated, requires that someone describe to him who shot the arrow and who his family was, what the bow looked like and from what kind of tree the wood was taken, the type of metal in the arrowhead, etc. Perhaps our demand for meaning is, itself, as one of these questions. And perhaps Love is withdrawing the arrow and tending the wound.

MA Thesis up online at NEIP

The Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos (NEIP) just put my thesis up online! I’ve been a member of the group since 2011 – extremely active, vocal group full of rigorous academic work on the benefits, drawbacks, and remarkable distinctness of psychoactives and psychoactive experience. The group comes from a wide variety of national and disciplinary backgrounds, and I’m really happy to have the opportunity to get the thesis online with them!

Ritual Healing and the Aftermath of Dystopia

Utopia, Dystopia, and History

In analyzing ritual healing practices of the Amazonian rainforest and riverine cultural groups residing in southern Colombia, eastern Ecuador, and on into parts of lowland Peru, I follow Taussig in noting that illness and suffering tend to be understood, in the eyes of the ‘patients’ themselves, in terms that are “economic, political, and social, as well as those of bodily disease” (1980:219). If the body is disciplined, constrained, constituted, and produced by a variety of forces – ecological, political-economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual among others – then the body is, in a sense, the actual site of history, manifest. That is to say that these historically constitutive forces that act on bodies must be understood to act on, to the point of identity with, the biophysical body, the social body, and the body politic at one in the same moment (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:29), making the ‘all-at-once’ of the body central to any understanding of ritual healing.[1] In order to understand the suffering that such ritual healing practices must engage with, then, it is necessary to understand the geographical-historical place these bodies inhabit. I am interested in looking at the Amazonian rubber economy of roughly 1880 through 1914, and the effects this period has left buried, perhaps in shallow graves, in the ground of contemporary Amazonia. By associating the concept of dystopia with the ‘end of history’, and this in turn with what Taussig has described as a “culture of terror” and a “space of death” (1987:3-36), it is my intention to follow a trail through the legacy of the rubber economy in this region on through its intersection with historical sorcery and multi-generational trauma, to the question of how to heal historical violence, and where ritual healing intersects with the bondage of debt.

Harvey designates ‘spatial’ and ‘process’ utopias as two distinct forms in which utopian aspirations can be organized (2000:159-179). In an analysis of ‘spatial’ utopias, he points out the way in which certain, classic, models of utopia are arranged in order to isolate them from the pressures of historical change. He suggests that ‘process’ utopias, by contrast, do not attempt to isolate a given spatial organization from historical change, but rather project onto the historical process itself a teleology that is predictive of some final utopian moment that will ‘end’ history. While this second ‘process’ utopia is more apropos of neoliberal capitalism, and likely the nascent capitalism of the rubber epoch in Amazonia, it is the first form of utopia that I am interested in for the purposes of this paper. It is the sense in which history ‘stops’ for a given spatial organization that I find most telling for the way in which the rubber economy became a dystopia for indigenous lives of the era. Utopia, in this sense, is something outside of history, becoming operative under its own internal harmonies, and unreliant on external influences to retain its state or position, effectively isolating it from history. Dystopia then can be understood as the opposite extreme, as something overdetermined by historical forces, where no novel action can arise, and cut off from the liberties of potential change. Here utopia is never subject to change, while dystopia is incapable of it. This inescapability provides an effective analytic lens through which to view the terror of the rubber boom in Amazonia.

Dystopia, the End of History, and the Space of Death

The imperialist justifications for the colonization and enslavement of indigenous persons in much of the Amazon tended to be based, when not denying their humanity outright, on a sense of indigenous people as those ‘without history’. Problematically, many of these assumptions have been carried forward even as late as Steward’s 1946 tome the Handbook of South American Indians (Fausto and Heckenberger 2007:2). This colonialist, and often bluntly racist, conception has been sharply rebuked by contemporary research. By highlighting instead the “regional scale and supra-ethnic character of Amerindian social organization” (Whitehead 1994:34), it is possible to look more carefully at the continuous processes of change that have gone on for indigenous groups before, during, with, and in spite of European contact (Whitehead 1994; Fausto and Heckenberger 2007; Zarzar and Román 1983). This has proved to be an especially potent tool for historical analysis in terms of ethnogenesis, marking it as a process of creative adaptation in the face of violent repression and exclusion, albeit one which is never unilinear or internally uncontested (Hill 1996). By recognizing the multiple modes of indigenous socio-political organization, all naturalized notions of ‘ethnicity’ become suspect, as ethnicity in emic categories – both prior to and throughout much of the colonial period – was as much related to economic production and trade networks as it was to linguistic or kinship commonalities (Whitehead 1994; A. Taylor 1999).[2] Indeed, it was the effects of violence, disease, slavery, and missionization that led to the fragmentation and “breakdown of macrosystems and regional networks” that had played such a pronounced role in indigenous identity formation prior to contact (A. Taylor 1999:208), ultimately producing the smaller, less complex, and more localized socio-political forms suggested as a-historically ‘typical’ by Steward and Métraux (1946).

Bartolomé de las Casas  decried the “brutal massacres”, “frightful and disgraceful crimes”, and “terrible butchery” during the early colonial period of Spanish invasion (in Peterson and Vásquez 2008:70-72), and the rubber economy in Amazonia unsettlingly echoed the worst abuses of this period. In the region of the Amazon outlined here, indigenous populations declined, between roughly 1550 to 1780, by eighty percent (A. Taylor 1999:238). The literature detailing this history is a tangle of violence, slavery, and disease, shot through with the rhetoric of saving souls (San Román 1975:85-87; Kohn 1992:51; Whitten 1976:10, 207-208; Myers 1974:139-147). The mission pueblos, in part because they acted as focal points for the spread of disease, became associated for indigenous peoples with the image of death (San Román 1975:87). The effects of disease, however, should not be mistaken for those of simple biological pathology – as Whitten clearly notes, “in these centuries the Spanish crown’s insatiable mercantile thirst for gold articulated well with the church’s insatiable desire for bureaucratic expansion” (1976:207), suggesting that calculated intentions drove the cataclysmic effects on bodies and territories of indigenous peoples as much as any happenstance of disease vector.

While rubber may have been the commodity, the object of control in Amazonia during the rubber boom was labor – or perhaps more clearly put, the organization and compulsion of indigenous bodies (Whitten 1976:211). The influx of capital from foreign investment created a situation in which the demand for rubber was extraordinary, but due to both socio-cultural norms and simple geographic logistics, the rationalization of rubber production was not feasible in the Amazon (Weinstein 1983:3, 263-264). Because wages on the ‘free’ labor market were high given the remoteness of much of the territory, the solution was often to simply coerce the required labor from indigenous populations (Taussig 1987:53). After 1892 when the Jesuits were expelled from Ecuador, “more than half of the Quichua men living near Loreto were chained and taken to work the ‘rubber lanes’ on the lower rivers in Peru and Colombia” (Hudelson 1984:68).[3] It is Weinstein’s thesis that these colonialist, classist, and racist attitudes represented and enforced during the terror of the rubber boom were behind the failure of this economic explosion to “give rise to a basic transformation of Amazonian society” (1983:267) in terms of economic development and socio-political arrangements. Moreover, it was international demand for rubber that “opened the floodgate for atrocities in Amazonia”, those which were to be “hauntingly reminiscent of those described by Bartolomé de las Casas” (Lane 2003:78). It is not difficult to find descriptions of the terror that reigned in many areas of the Amazon during the rubber economy (Stanfield 1998; Taussig 1987:3-138), but what is striking is the degree to which such violence seems related to the all-pervading system of debt (A. Taylor 2007:143; Stanfield 1998:37-60; Taussig 1987:53-71).

It is the relationship between a system of debt and the performance of such extraordinary violence as plagued the rubber-boom-era Amazon that orients an invocation of dystopia as an analytic tool. If inescapability of structurally compelling historical forces is a worthy view on dystopia, then the pervasive bondage of debt in terms of peonage and forced labor provide a convincing image of the rubber economy as dystopian. The utter absence of a cash economy or an internal labor market meant that “wage labor was impossible”, making the only source of labor available the compulsion of indigenous persons into service (Stanfield 1998:40). However, as outright slavery had by the nineteenth century dropped from favor in liberal-minded European societies, it became necessary to establish a polite fiction over the institution by invoking the ‘moral’ need to repay debt (Taussig 1987:65-70; Stanfield 1998:39-62). In this manner indigenous persons, as well as unfortunate others, could find themselves pressed on threat of violence to accept wildly overvalued goods, as well as unwanted and unneeded lines of credit with company stores, as ‘advances’ in exchange for their labor. Roger Casement, known for his clear descriptions of both British violence in the Congo and later in rubber era Amazonia, described this situation as making a “compulsory debtor” out of a person so forced, though he would go on to affirm that such a debt was “pretext altogether”, for it was threats and enactments of violence that were the real “hold on the Indian in the Putumayo” (in Taussig 1987:70-71). Both Casement and a contemporary, if more melodramatic, voice in Hardenburg noted “the lurid details of flogging, mass slaughter, decapitation, rape, dismemberment, and pleasure-killing” performed routinely in the Amazon of the rubber boom, and in the Putumayo in particular (Stanfield 1998:133). It is virtually impossible not to note the mad logic of the marketplace, the commoditization of lives and labor, where patróns sold human beings back and forth “like chattel” (Stanfield 1998:47-48), via the accounts of their debt. Indeed, Taussig suggests that, in the Amazon during the rubber boom, in answer to the question of what makes a human, human, “the answer lying closest to hand is his debt” (Taussig 1987:70). This throws into unsettling relief the distinction between debt-peonage and slavery. Though neither promised any greater security of rights or property, the debtor could be simultaneously a fetishized ‘object’ in terms of his[4] debt, though still recognized as a social ‘person’ in this sense. The slave, on the other hand, per Patterson’s notion (1982) and as echoed in Graeber’s recent work on debt (2011), had undergone ‘social death’ by being uprooted from any community or social network which would have conferred upon them a form of personhood. Within a space of terror such as the Putumayo, the very production of personhood via social relationships – throughout the entire aviamiento system of patróns, international business partners, rubber tappers, and Indian labor – was transformed by, and perhaps only understandable in terms of, inescapable bonds of debt. It was perhaps this inescapability as much as anything else that lead to a kind of madness of violence, for as Taussig suggests, it was the fiction of the “appearance of trade” in which the debtor is a free person able to exchange himself, and somehow his family for generations at a time, on the market as labor, and hence as a debt, on which the whole fiction of the system depends (1987:65). What shows the system mad is that despite the efforts to maintain such a fiction, the rubber traders “were just as ready to claim the flesh of a debtor’s body” as any amount of rubber (Taussig 1987:65).

“Ineffability is a striking feature of this death-space” (Taussig 1987:4), a space where the arbitrary exercise of brutal force and lethal power – the ability to hold children as young as nine years old as concubines, to torture or murder a man for no fault, but rather as entertainment (Stanfield 1998:128) – suggests that the performance of terror ceased to be, if it ever had been, in service of an attempt to rationalize production of rubber, but rather toward “the inscription of a mythology in the Indian body”, in this case the mythology of a colonial ‘civilization’ onto a fantasy of ‘wildness’ (Taussig 1987:27). What stands out from both Taussig and Stanfield’s accounts of the Putumayo, is the uncertainty, the ambiguity and amorphousness of the spatiotemporal place of the Putumayo in the rubber boom era. As Taussig compellingly suggests, this uncertainty is itself the groundless-ground of a culture of terror (1987:4). As lethal as any particular event of violence was the promise, miasmatic, of the same waiting senselessly at the end of an arbitrary and even anonymous gun barrel or machete blade. How many had died, and what was fabrication, what was sensationalistic – and was, as Taussig asks, the sensationalism perhaps nevertheless part of the real of the space (1987:32-33)? Casement estimated that for the production of 4,000 tons of rubber over the period of 12 years, no less – and likely many more – than 30,000 indigenous lives had been taken, through explicit violence or the toll of disease and starvation (Taussig 1987:20). In such a space, reasoned estimates echo in shock as if they must be hyperbolic.

Healing and History, Ritual and Debt

History, for many indigenous people of this region, is understood to be of and in the earth itself. Uzendoski states that for the Napo Runa, “there is no reality that is not part of place”, and that the past is something, like plant growth, that blossoms into the present, which, fading, becomes again the ground of the future, which finally is the same allpa as the past (2012:15). The production of subjectivities are often expressed in these terms, as a socio-ecological and cosmo-political network of relationship between humans, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, ancestors, and powerful beings that cross boundaries between forest and urban spaces, as well as contemporary history and the primordial past (Kohn 2007:106-125; Uzendoski 2005:201).[5] Bodies and personhoods are developed in relation to the earth, and the history it holds. This intersects with Taussig’s notion of ‘historical sorcery’ – he suggests an image of sorcery as an “evil wind”, wherein the “history of the conquest itself acquires the role of the sorcerer” (1987:373). In this conception, the historical space of colonial violence itself becomes a “temporal hell located in a fermenting, rotting, organic underground of time” (1987:372). Sorcery in this temporal sense reminds of the notions of historical and multigenerational trauma noted by Good (2008:5), where structural violence not only occurs in the past, but echoes in experiences of suffering through generations. History, as it produces persons and bodies in kind, also produces this suffering, via the selfsame forces.[6]

The question becomes how to heal historical violence. The political agency so powerfully displayed by indigenous persons throughout this region, both historically and in contemporary political practice, give answer on one level to the work that must be done to right structurally repressive forces.[7] But if there is a relationship between inescapable debt and the production of violence, then contemporary indigenous lives are still under threat. Neoliberal structural reform advocated, or demanded, by the IMF, World Bank, and other international financial bodies leads to national, regional, local, familial, and individual debt in unprecedented ways (Cleary and Steigenga 2004:14; Lane 2003:96; Warren and Jackson 2002:15; Whitten 2003:11-19). All exploitation and structural violence must be actively produced and performed in contemporary situations by contemporary actors for them to have compelling force, but there is nevertheless the troubling sense that colonial history and the repressions of the rubber economy find themselves being replayed in novel but nevertheless familiar ways. Whitten notes that Steve Forbes likened Ecuador’s turning to the IMF for aid as a hemophiliac turning to Dracula for safety, and suggests that this analogy runs startlingly close to indigenous ideas of the “pishtaco or ñakak… the foreign, white bogey man who renders and sells ‘indian fat’ and sucks the blood of indigenous people” (2003:3). The threat is to the body, as physical as it is economic. And if the site of suffering is the body – material, social, and politic – then the question I am interested in asking is just where it is that ritual healing intersects with the alleviation of both historical suffering and the multiple crises of debt. It is my contention that the very corporeal mortality of the body is an effective denial of any ‘end of history’, whether a utopian isolation, or a dystopian inescapability. Mortal things cannot evade history, and this reverberates through institutions wrought by the same. The capacity to heal and be healed suggests there are always, in a sense, spaces left for historical ‘play’, openings to novelty both in terms of crisis and transformation. Whitten affirms that “shamanism provides a focal point for confronting and containing the real forces which dismember” the lifeways of the Napo Runa (2007[1979]), which suggests that an understanding of ritual engagement with the problem of national, regional, local, and individual debt is central to a full understanding of its elaboration as suffering in indigenous lives. Uzendoski notes, “the logic of debt-peonage… continues to exist culturally in Napo even after the actual institution does not” (2003:135). There are numerous studies of ritual healing in this region,[8] and likewise a significant number of analyses of both political-economic structural suffering and discourses of sorcery in terms of envy and violence.[9] What I am interested in opening is a direction for inquiry oriented toward where sorcery, history, and global networks of debt intersect in embodied lives of indigenous Amazonians of this region, and how these forces – as cosmological, in a sense, as they are economic – are engaged with in a space of ritual healing.


I very much want to thank Robin Wright for his constant mentorship, without which I would not have been able even to begin this line of research. I want to thank Whitney Sanford for giving me the opportunity to explore “utopias and dystopias” as an analytic lens through which to view this particular period of history, and for acquainting me with Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. I want also to thank the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida for their support over the last two years, giving me the opportunity to pursue this course of study.


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1981 Aboriginal Trade Networks in Amazonia. In Networks of the Past: Regional Interaction in Archaeology. Peter D. Francis, F.J. Kense, and P.G. Duke, eds. Pp. 19-30. Calgary: University of Calgary.

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2003 Purgatory, Protestantism, and Peonage: Napo Runa Evangelicals and the Domestication of the Masculine Will. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 129-153. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

2005 The Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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2012 The Ecology of the Spoken Word: Amazonian Storytelling and Shamanism Among the Napo Runa. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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1983 The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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1994 Ancient Amerindian Polities of the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Atlantic Coast: A Preliminary Analysis of Their Passage from Antiquity to Extinction. In Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to Present: Anthropological Perspectives. Anna Roosevelt, ed. Pp. 33-54. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

2002 Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

2004 Violence. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

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2004 Introduction: Dark Shamanism. In In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright, eds. Pp. 1-20. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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2003 Introduction. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 1-45. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

2007[1979] Soul Vine Shaman., accessed March 6, 2013.

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[1] Cf. Csordas 1988; Strathern (1996:178)

[2] Cf. Zarzar and Román (1983:24) for ethnicity as a particular historical moment than an essential category

[3] Cf. San Román (1975:142-150) for more on the coercion of indigenous bodies to rubber slavery

[4] Here I opt for the gendered term, as men tended to be the explicit debtors in this system. Women were systematically exploited, raped, and enslaved, but debtors were almost exclusively men.

[5] Cf. A. Taylor (2007) for alternative indigenous modes of engaging with history among the Shuar and the Runa of this region.

[6] Cf. Kleinman (1992), Das  et. al. (2001), Kleinman et. al. (1997) for analyses of cultural elaborations of ‘suffering’ in anthropological and ethnographic literature.

[7] Cf. Uzendoski (2005:147) for the echo of colonial era ancestral heroes in contemporary resistance. See Tournon (2002:59-60) for an analysis of both Atahualpa and Runcato’s revolutionary movements in the colonial era. See Whitten (2003) and Brysk (2004) for accounts of contemporary levantamientos in Ecuador by indigenous activists. See Warren and Jackson (2002) for an analysis of current indigenous movements and the establishment of new political power throughout Latin America.

[8] Cf. work by Beyer (2009), Luna (1986), Dobkin de Rios (1972), Tournon (2002), Cárdenas Timoteo (1989), and Harner (1972).

[9] Cf. work by Whitehead and Wright (2004), Heckenberger (2004), Whitehead (2002; 2004), and Stewart and Strathern (2004), and Rubenstein (2002), Taussig (2010[1980]).

On agency and structure – or why some and not others?

A week or two ago I ended up in a conversation with a few friends of mine. After a couple of beers all around, the topics at hand – discussion of the performance over the last year of a few mutual projects, plans for the coming year – drifted into more esoteric territory. I’ve spent the last few years studying religion in Latin America, and the anthropology of religion more generally, and as we began to talk about the nature of free will, whether it exists or whether it’s an illusion of chemistry in our minds, we headed into territory that I enjoy discussing. This led to a discussion on how it is that some people seem to ‘make it’ – economically, socially, politically – and others fail to thrive. Positions came out in interesting ways, and tended broadly toward poles that I would describe as “strong agency” and “strong structure.” That is to say that though no aggressive positions were laid out, and no one seemed to particularly take up the gauntlet for any one position to the exclusion of the others, the rhetorical movements suggested a keen awareness of the tension between the historical agency of a given individual – his or her capacity to make a way in the world – and the structured nature of our capacities and possibilities in socio-cultural, political-economic, intellectual, and even biological terms. I put my two cents in, given my anti-statist and anti-capitalist leanings, but the old structure-vs-agency debate doesn’t lend itself to concrete positions: too oriented toward structure and we become determinists, too much emphasis on agency and we slide into neoliberalist rhetoric of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

If I didn’t take a hard-and-fast stance on a position during the conversation, I nevertheless chatted with relative ease over the rhetorical points I’m used to making in discussions like that, stemming from my own tendencies to post-Left anarchist political theory. But the conversation has replayed itself in my head on and off, and I’ve realized that my politics tend to obscure a more ready response to any given discussion, as I encounter it. I tend to have my ‘beliefs’ lined up and ready for distribution – I do my best no longer to explicitly defend or attack any position, but with my own ‘-isms’ already arranged, I tend to frame what I hear and what I understand in those terms, and respond accordingly.

I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. I’ve begun to realize that, if I’m to take a commitment to compassion and understanding seriously, especially in terms of being simply honest and present to the world as it arises, that my political stances are, like all other beliefs, provisional and contingent constructions – thoughts, as it were, hardened or sedimented into a habitual pattern. Recognizing this – over and over again – I’ve decided to take another look at how I might go about trying to engage with the questions that were raised.

My knee-jerk response to phrases like ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps’ is to line up sociological analysis or historical critique that discredit the underlying myopia of privilege that this kind of rhetoric tends to entail. I’m not walking that back – I do have a very real discomfort, to the point of outrage, with any sense in which the victim is blamed for their own misery, especially when that misery tends to be caused or exacerbated by political-economic systems that work to sustain and support those who are using said rhetoric. However, I know the people that I was talking to very well, and these are not people who would see a family hungry on the street and let them stay that way. These people give back to their friends, their neighborhoods, their churches, and their community. The question was not raised to point a finger in blame, but rather honestly investigating why some people from seemingly identical circumstances are able to “make it”, when others are not. It was the way in which I responded to that question previously that I want to address more fully. Or, rather, I want to propose a different way. This is an exercise, for me, in attempting to apply Buddhist principles of compassion and understanding to my own engagement with political discourse, and even with political expectation. Applying it in my life means applying it in all of my life.

What happens when I apply compassion to a question of those who, for one reason or another, do not ‘make it’ in economic, political, or social terms? First, though, what is it I’m trying to say when I say ‘make it’? I am not in any way implying some kind of naturalized or objective standard of ‘success’ in any one life. I could not pretend to venture an all-inclusive standard by which this could be judged, even for just middle-class urban and suburban people in the US, or even just in my home town. Rather, I’ll address it in terms that were evident in our conversation that evening. Many of us at that meeting came from poor backgrounds, whether that meant relying on government lunch programs at school or handouts from the church, or even having had to fight our way to and from the bus stop some days. So, in that context, ‘making it’ referred to those of us, and those we knew, who had gotten out of that kind of life, who had gone on to be, effectively, middle class. I am not celebrating that as ‘making it’ as any kind of endorsement in some kind of bourgeois way. Rather, I’m recognizing that for many lower to lower-middle class Americans, the desire to have stability – a nice house, a car or two, the ability to buy things for their kids, the desire, in short, to become middle class – is a very real, meaningful goal. Making that transition is often the work of a lifetime. I’m not, in this brief essay, engaging with the ethics of a consumer culture, or the ideology of acquisition and accumulation that underlie it. I’m only recognizing the legitimacy, within these cultural constraints, of those goals, and the moral-ethical force they have in ordering many lives.

In those terms, how do we understand someone who has not ‘made it’? I believe, here, compassion has us look at structure. What are the forces arrayed against them? What are the realities – economic, political, historical, cultural – that have constituted their subjectivities, their worldviews, their outlooks, and thereby the tools they have at hand with which to effect agentive change in their lives, and simultaneously the obstacles that work toward making those tools ineffective? Systemic racism, class-ism, sexism and the like barely scratch the surface of that kind of analysis. We need insights along the lines of Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, and Butler, at the minimum, to begin any such discussion. This is where compassion, I believe, leads. Rather than try to find some quality of character or some essence of the person – or even some pivotal event – that is lacking in those who have not reached this – admittedly arbitrary – marker of class-mobility, it serves far better to look at these individual people, and understand them in their specificity. Here we look at what a potentially antagonistic ‘structure’ does – in its disciplining, and even its constituting – to situate lives in such a way as to make certain kinds of mobility or certain historically or economically-agentive acts more and less feasible, or even possible. I believe that compassion, in this sense, is understanding, as it opens on recognizing people just as they are, without judgement or expectation. Of course, what we do with that information – how we then act politically when we recognize the structural forces at play – is a far more potentially revolutionary question.

But, so the argument would go, there are those who ‘make it’. There are always, within any given population, some who do fit the image having ‘pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,’ and made it out of a situation that trapped so many others. I have, of course, any number of leftist critiques of this kind of logic. That no ‘one’ makes it, but is rather propelled by the efforts of a whole community, that without networks of support of whatever kind, it would be impossible to ‘make it’, for the social world is quite literally constituted by other persons, individuals, and so any effect of agency in a social sense always involves the presence of, and friction with, other people. There is no raw ‘stuff’ out of which to ‘make’ oneself, and whatever accidents of biology, birth, and history that produce individuals capable of acts that distinguish them from others must recognize that they have not only been given their field of action by a whole social world, but that they have been constituted by it in virtually every meaningful sense. However – and here I am moving away from my leftist comfort zone – hard work does mean something. We cannot celebrate the historical agency of the oppressed around the world without recognizing it at home. I have seen friends – and I have been among them, as one of them – work nights and weekends for years to build and grow an idea into a functioning business. It was always within the context of a community of friends, but the work and the effort and the uncertainty and the resolve absolutely mean something.

And it is here that I would apply a sense of ‘understanding’. That is to say that rather than jump, as I am wont to do, to a critical analysis along the lines of the one laid out in the previous paragraph, to stop for a moment, and address the situation as it arises. There is a sense in which the historical agency of someone has been effective, to ‘make it’, as it were. I’m not denying any of what I said before, and I am not attempting to dehistoricize the individuals – this group of friends and I were, that evening though not all evenings, white, male, and educated. We had between us an extraordinary set of advantages. And yet I’ve worked with them for years, and there has been a very real display of ‘agency’ in the sense of hard work, continued efforts through failure, and the like. What I believe ‘understanding’ then can help to highlight is the set of advantages, strategic moves, choices, supports, possibilities, and even chance encounters that gave rise to the eventual effect of ‘making it’ in these terms. Rather than looking, again, for a set of characteristics, or some reified essence or attribute, that ’caused’ a person to succeed (in their own sense of the word), the application of ‘understanding’ or even ‘wisdom’ in Buddhist-ethical terms makes it possible engage with what made such an outcome possible. And again, here, understanding becomes compassion, when looked at this way, as it does not undercut a celebration of individual efforts or delegitimize a person’s own historical agency. We are compassionate through that understanding.

In this way, we sidestep the entire conception of blame or praise. We can recognize the limitations of structure, and work through compassion to alleviate the suffering that this can at times cause. We can acknowledge and even celebrate individual historical agency without essentializing the – always contingent in both its manifestation and definition – ‘success’ of a person’s efforts. I am a consistent advocate of the notion that agency is made from structure, and structure is produced by agency, in a constant dialectical process. Human lives and bodies are the manifest site of historical forces, where these forces find their expression and resistance simultaneously. I do not recognize structure and agency to be distinct from one another, at one level of analysis. But at the same moment, they do act as rhetorical poles from which many – even casual, like the conversation of my friends and I – investigations begin, or to which they are often drawn to end. What I want to suggest, and it is of course not radical but perhaps merely a Buddhist-flavored ethical stamp on what has been the practice of social scientists and others for decades, is that compassion and understanding be the guiding motivations behind the application of these two rhetorical poles in analysis. Grounding the application of structure and agency in compassion and understanding leaves impotent the political impulse to blame the victim, or to praise the exception, but rather aids in opening up our beliefs – and our hearts – to insights that work toward liberation from suffering, whether understood as economic, political, bodily, or spiritual suffering.

Economics and Being

In a system of finite resources and potentially unbounded desire, either one establishes a reciprocal and egalitarian form of economic distribution, or there will, inevitably and even necessarily, be inequality in the concomitant distribution of power, and even ontological value. The problem with inequality is that it does not just take more from one ontologically equal actor and give it to another. It inherently degrades the ontological status of the one from whom more is taken. There is a valuation of intrinsic, existential “worthiness” in terms of being itself made when one actor is granted more than another. It is a valuation that has extreme social, environmental, and – of course – economic repercussions. If an ostensibly human actor is “worth less” than another, then not only will that actor receive less than an equal portion, but the means by which that actor can support him or herself, the places in which he or she lives, the relationships that he or she is able to form, are degraded. Being, in the ontological sense, is degraded by economic inequality.

Living Systems

What I’m posting below isn’t an academic argument.  It’s not well defended, and maybe not even well thought out.  And I know it needs more thorough consideration, and critique.  But it struck me as worth putting down in text.



If we want a new world, we must think a new way.


A category of thought that is Green from its very beginning, its foundation.


To recognize the whole of the world as alive.


Systems are alive.


Social systems.  Ecosystems.  The motions of the planets.  The little pressures of bureaucracy, in the politics of workday life.  The wind as it makes leaves dance, of vines climbing up over powerlines.  The group dynamics of dogs, cats, roaming the neighborhoods.  Of flocks of birds, and schools of fish.  The cityscape of streets and roads and paths.  The flow of traffic. Economic systems of trade and exchange.  The lightspeed flow of information.  The dialogues of art, with art.  The shape of the motion of tiny, virtually massless particles, with nothing more than a miniscule negative charge.  The organization of ideas, of histories of thought.  The shape of history itself.  The shapes of it, as it changes, and is changed behind us.


Everything is alive.  The patterns themselves are alive, that we trace out their forms recognizes that they are identifiable phenomena, but we forget that they are in motion.  What we describe moves, it changes.  And in so living, adapting, becoming, it thinks.  It is minded.  It has a telos of its own, an entelechy that shapes.  And all of these systems, moving of their own, are that which comprise other systems, even greater.  The motion is the boundedness, but is not a fundamental division between, but rather describes only unique patterns and outlines, as water in a current is not divisible from other water, but takes on shapes of intensities and momentums.  These systems overlap and interplay, the self-same components in different phases of motion and movement at one and the same time, influenced and informed by so many all at once.  All alive.  All thinking, intending.


This is why the study of Religion is important.  The study of Religion has the potential to be the new ground for a radical re-understanding of the world.  To know these systems as alive means that the study of relationships will be vital.


The practice of religion must come to be understood as the human, both social and individual, reaching beyond, within, and amongst itself to know the minds, bodies, selves, and beings of that which is not, or is only sometimes, human – and even composed of the human – where there is that which is not like the human, but all the same a person possessed of its own rights, its own agency.  The study of Religion has the potential to be at the forefront of this radical change in thinking.  Religion as understood new and wholly different than it has been before.


It is a new picture of the study of Religion.  No more just the study of particular cultural manifestations.  This, too, but much more.  To radically re-conceive the world as composed of living, minded systems all around us means that there must be a new way in which we approach the whole concept of knowing the world.  The study of Religion is uniquely situated to being that discipline which attempts to understand the extraordinary degree of complexity with which all affects all, all effects all, and in which everything is alive, changing, moving, dynamic, and willful.  A study that is inherently post-human, but nevertheless bound up inextricably with the human, and the perspective of the human, in terms of fields of investigation including linguistics, geography, politics, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and every other conceivable front of knowledge.


The study of religion has the potential to be the catalyst toward a change in perspective that begins to understand the agency of animals, plants, stones, places, but more, the agency of flocks, the agency of social groups, the agency of forests and ecosystems, moving out in stranger and more novel arrangements of beings at every level, not only in scales of greater and lesser degrees of composition, but moving tangentially, and in strange articulations of unexpected organizations and arrangements.  This place where the agency of an individual is contextualized by the agency of the group, of the systems of motion that describe and constrain the group, such that agency at every level of composition of uniquely mobile multiplicities informs but never obliterates the agency of any and every other level or mode of composition.


We must have a new, Green way of thinking.  To change the world the way in which it is necessary to be changed, in order to survive and become sustainable, we must think a whole new thought, a new Idea to reshape the world.  The Green must think itself in our very bodies and bones, such that we see ourselves within the myriad motions of a living world, everything around us active, intelligent, and in motion.  Every system of relationship and exchange, itself alive.


The study of religion has the potential to be where this new understanding of the world, and a radically new thought, begins.

Person, Place, and Sacrament: Cross-Cultural Healing and Transformation in the Ayahuasca Shamanism of Iquitos, Peru

In Iquitos, Peru, Westerners[1], often described as ayahuasca tourists, seek out both indigenous and mestizo shamans who will, for a price, lead them in ceremonies where participants partake of a psychoactive brew.  The shamans range from the truly knowledgeable to the outright opportunist, and the Westerners range from sincere pilgrim to hedonistic tourist.  What is not surprising within these ceremonies is that some Westerners feel they get nothing from the experience but a disorienting and disappointing series of colors and images, most often coupled with violent and unpleasant bodily effects.  With the vast cultural differences in worldview, etiology of illness, methodology of healing, understandings of the spiritual, cosmological frames for reality, and even ontological structures of the real, it is far less surprising that there are failures to mediate these gaps than that, with some degree of regularity, there are successes in these mediations.  A number of recent research initiatives into this phenomenon, along with decades of consistent anecdotal evidence, have begun to show that, for all of the critiques that can be leveled against the practice of ayahuasca tourism, there are a surprising number of reports of meaningful healing, personal transformation, and expressions of therapeutic benefit (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005).

It is my intention in this paper to present a series of individually composed descriptive sections, outlining the three fundamental factors at play in these shamanic “healing spaces.”  Such a “healing space” in the scope of this discussion can be understood as the space of dialogue, negotiation, and encounter that is manifested between healer and patient within an ayahuasca ceremony.  Endeavoring to establish a sense of Place, I will begin with a brief history of Iquitos, and an outline of its more modern composition.  Continuing from this, I will turn to a sketch of Persons, including mestizo shamans, Shipibo shamans, and Western seekers as they participate in ayahuasca ceremonies.  This discussion will entail an overview of the etiologies of illness and a general outline of distinct cultural understandings and expectations that inform the participation in these ceremonies for many members of each cultural group.  I will then examine the nature of the ayahuasca brew in terms of cognitive psychology, in an effort to understand how the psychoactive substance plays its role in the establishment of a cross-cultural healing space.  Finally, I intend to propose Michael Taussig’s notion of Montage in terms of ayahuasca shamanism (1991), and Joanna Overing’s notions of the shaman as a “maker of worlds” (1990), as anthropological models that reach toward a theory of shamanic action in these cross-cultural healing spaces.  The varied forces at play in the history of Iquitos, the diverse cultural backgrounds of those persons involved, and the striking phenomenology of the experience of ayahuasca, all find a powerful, and mutually resonant, metaphor in the ideas of collage, montage, and bricolage.  It is my intention to explore the possibility that the mechanisms of montage and world-making may draw elements from personal background, historical and cultural place, and the phenomena of the ayahuasca experience itself, to create a space for healing that is able to be effective cross-culturally.  It is not my intention at any point to attempt to transcend the reality of distinct cultural obstacles to shared conceptions of healing, spirituality, and transformation, but rather to suggest that it is just these cultural obstacles and distinctions that can be worked within and through, to act as the components of a newly composed, dynamic, and adaptive shared understanding, within the space of the ceremony.  It is an engagement that is less concerned with the specific mechanisms of how shamans heal, and more with how they create and make use of a particular kind of transformational, even liminal, space, where, among other things, healing can occur.

More than any other single aspect, the river defines the city of Iquitos.  The river mediates – dividing, joining, marking boundaries and troubling them – between the forest and the city, the monte and the ciudad (Beyer 2009: 307).  The geographical location of the city has situated it as an economic, historical, and socio-cultural crossroads unlike any other in the Peruvian Amazon.  Its component parts in terms of persons, cultures, and their histories, come together as a collage of elements.  These elements are never wholly subsumed by, or transformed into, one another, and yet are in constant and immediate contact, as parts of a single, mutually-informing, composite and constructed whole.  Indigenous, mestizo, and white persons – with histories that have been as broad as they have been bloody – all play roles in the making of this place.  Colonialism and the rubber trade have left their marks deeply on the city and its population, with mestizo and ribereño cultures plagued by discrimination and grinding poverty.  Sorcery, like poverty, is an inescapable fact of mestizo life in Iquitos, with each of these exacerbating, and in some ways giving rise to, the other.  But poverty and sorcery do not provide the whole of the picture, though they do color and underlie many of its realities.  Shamanism has flourished in Iquitos, in part to counter just this same sorcery, but also as a source of healing for those who cannot afford, or cannot be treated meaningfully by, Western biomedicine.  Such a flourishing of shamanism has given the city a reputation as a powerful center of spiritual activity.  The discourse surrounding the spiritual power of local shamans has spread, both through anthropological literature and from the more hyperbolic claims of psychedelic enthusiasts, into the currents of drug, New Age, and other sub-and-counter cultures of the West, drawing an increasing number of seekers, tourists, and pilgrims to the riverside city.  It is possible to understand the city’s draw as a manifestation of what Allan Morinis has described of other pilgrimage destinations more generally as a kind of “spiritual magnetism” (1992: 5), where the fascination with a particular destination reaches beyond its initial social and cultural boundaries.

Ayahuasca stands out as the single-most sought after ‘hallucinogenic’ experience to be found in the discourse surrounding Iquitos as a tourist or pilgrimage destination.  Shamans and ayahuasqueros, or those claiming these and similar titles, are able to provide this service for a fee.  Acting as an avenue of economic advancement, such a provision of services has led to an emergent phenomenon of ayahuasca shamans who, instead of, or not primarily, working within their own communities, are dedicated to working with and for ayahuasca tourists (Proctor 2001).  Such tourism has been vehemently decried by a number of anthropologists as exploitative and dangerous, calling into question both the motives of the tourists and the qualifications and ethics of these putative shamans.  Undeniably, much of this critique is well founded.  And yet, here again, economic opportunism and Western consumerism do not paint a full picture.  Research and case studies are beginning to show that while the pejorative sense of ‘tourist’ is potentially applicable to some, the idea of ‘pilgrim’ may be more useful in understanding the phenomenon under investigation when speaking of Westerners making their way to a place abroad, especially as they go in search of healing and transformation[2].  Certainly, spiritual-consumerism, an ‘orientalist’ (Said 1979) fascination with the remote Other, and broad misconceptions about the history and nature of shamanism all play very distinct roles in the way in which Western seekers conceive of the ayahuasca-shamanic experience of which they go in search.  There are, however, also very distinct structural affinities between this phenomenon and religious pilgrimage, and even the discourses of religious conversion.  In some ways, the very composite nature of the city of Iquitos, the phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience, and the intentions, preconceptions, and agencies of the persons involved reflect one another, producing a unique sense of place.  Such a place is simultaneously physically, socio-culturally, and historically situated, and yet works through, or even transforms, these forces and factors into something that is more than simply their sum.

A Sense of Place

Though the site which was to become Iquitos was initially established in the 18th century as a Jesuit mission, it was not until the 1840’s that the Iquitos Indians settled there with their white patrón (Stanfield 1998: 30), founding the city in its modern economic and historical context.  Located near the confluence of the Nanay and Amazon rivers, and less than eighty miles from where the headwaters of the Ucayali and Marañón themselves converge, Iquitos has been, from the very beginning, located at a key geographical point for trade flowing through the Peruvian Amazon.  Class and racial divisions, still evident today, were likewise present from the beginning, where a small white elite economically, socially, and politically dominated and oppressed the significantly more numerous indigenous and mestizo populations (Ibid. 30).  Though Iquitos was well situated for commerce, until the advent of the Rubber Boom, the city remained relatively small.  By 1864, however, little more than twenty years from its founding, steamboats, factories, docks, and manufacturing centers were brought to the city by British companies and the Peruvian navy, bringing rapid growth with them (Ibid. 31).  As the demand for rubber increased throughout the world, Iquitos was inundated with thousands of new immigrants, decimating indigenous populations via violence, slavery, and disease, and radically altering the political and cultural realities of those who remained (Ibid. 36).  By 1905, Iquitos was a booming port town, where

Indians and partially acculturated cholos formed the working class, Chinese merchants and restauranteurs figured prominently among the petty retailers, while European merchants controlled the most lucrative wholesale trade.  Along the muddy streets, one could see – along with the harried Indian porters and the pigs routing through garbage – newcomers from Germany, Brazil, Spain, Italy, France, England, China, Portugal, Morocco, Columbia, Ecuador, as well as a few from North American and Russia. (Ibid. 108)

Notably, it was not only the swelling population, systemic racism, and the acculturative impact of Western goods that so distinctly shaped much of what modern Iquitos was to become.  The techniques of rubber tapping themselves, as they were practiced in the Amazon, played a significant role.  Tapping a Hevea tree, which produced a finer quality of latex, was something that could be done sustainably, where a single tapper, working in relative isolation, could tend a few hundred trees at a time, spread over many dozens of acres of forest.  The trouble with this was that even with a hundred trees or more, Hevea trees, while sustainable, could only yield roughly 5-7 pounds of dry rubber per tree annually.  On the other hand, Castilloa trees, while they had to be felled, killing the tree, could produce upwards of 200 pounds of latex in a matter of days.  The caucho model of scouring the forest for these immense trees caused the vast majority of rubber tappers to be constantly wandering, untraceable, forever in search of these lucrative but highly perishable resources.  As Stanfield says, “The mobility necessary for caucho collection resulted in a less stable lifestyle, one that proved highly disruptive for the caucheros, the environment, and Amerindians alike” (1998: 24).  It was in large part this wandering of the caucheros, however, and the contact with indigenous peoples that it facilitated, that played a significant role in the cross-cultural sharing of shamanic techniques that, at least initially and in part, lead to the vegetalismo shamanism of the mestizo population in Iquitos (Beyer 2009: 301)[3].

When the Rubber Boom did finally collapse around 1912, it was due, again, to the details of harvesting the latex from the trees.  Hevea trees are susceptible to a particular form of leaf blight that is common in the Amazon, making plantations of them unfeasible, as the blight passes from tree to tree.  However, in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, this blight does not exist.  Vast plantations of the sustainable Hevea trees were able to be planted in these locations, and as they both produced a finer quality latex than the Castilloa trees and did not require anything like the same labor to acquire from the forest, the costs of the latex from these plantations so drastically undercut the Amazonian market that it simply could not compete.  Almost overnight, the boom went bust.  The commerce that had sustained Iquitos vanished, and thousands of migrants and tappers were suddenly without any other home, and without economic prospects.  Some, certainly, returned to their original homes, but many moved to Iquitos, or slightly up and down river from the city, establishing small settlements near the banks of the river.  Swidden gardens, fishing, foraging in the forest, and game hunting became – much like those of the lives and homes they had left behind – the economic survival strategies for thousands of people, but now without the social and cultural infrastructures that had supported these ways of life prior to the boom.  These conditions have changed little, even to the present day.  As Beyer remarks of the continuing economic divisions and juxtapositions in the life of the city:

The contradictions remain.  The people who inhabit the jungles surrounding Iquitos have no electricity or running water except the river.  Yet they can watch the latest North American programs on blaring old televisions when they come to town, by dugout canoe, to pick up supplies or sell jungle produce. (2009: 293-294)

Traditional ways of living stack up next to modern technologies, the selling of plants and produce gathered from the forest takes place jostled up against satellite dishes, laptops, cell phones (Ibid. 293).

These disparities point toward the poverty that gives rise to the practices of sorcery that so mark life in Iquitos, and as is true of many indigenous cultures of the Amazon, envy is, in many ways, at the root of it.  Though the emotion of envy itself is not necessarily thought to be the direct cause of misfortune, envy, resentment, and jealousy – all encapsulated by the term envidia – are where the desire to cause harm, and to inflict suffering on another begins.  As Beyer suggests, in Iquitos, “Life is perceived as a zero-sum game.  To receive more than a fair share of good is necessarily to deprive another” (2009: 137).  It is poverty and its attendant miseries, however, that underlie much of the desire to make use of sorcery in social settings.  Most mestizo inhabitants of the city have little to no expectation or hope of economic advancement.  Education is extremely limited, and the classist and racist structures in the city keep many, if not most, of the inhabitants from receiving even what is potentially available.  Medical care is virtually unavailable, whether due to the doctors’ inability to understand or deal with culturally-described illnesses, or due more pragmatically to the inability of the patients to pay for expensive prescriptions.  Caught up in the “social disintegration that marks this culture of poverty” (Dobkin de Rios 1972: 65), jealousy over love rivals, the uncertainty of being able to acquire even basic necessities, and domestic instability of all kinds ensure that want and need are constant companions in all social interaction.  When these needs and desires are not able to be met, but the needs or desires of another seem to be, the disparity is not one that can be written off as random chance.  As with many indigenous and mestizo societies of Amazonia, everything that happens is considered to have been intended by someone or something.  Bad luck in business is not a sorry happenstance, but an evil fortune sent by a brujo, the manifestation of someone’s envy or resentment for some perceived disparity, or breach of egalitarianism (Beyer 2009: 132).  When snake bites, falls, and bad machete accidents occur, it is not a question of how such a thing happened, but is rather a question of why (Luna 1986: 120), or, perhaps more explicitly, why me and who was responsible.

Sorcery and poverty are in many ways the boundary terms for mestizo life in Iquitos, providing both its shape and limits.  In the Peruvian Amazon, being mestizo “is a complex identity, a form of hybridity, contradictory and ambivalent” (Beyer 2009: 294).  Though ostensibly referring to those of “mixed blood,” the reality is that “mestizo” covers a wide range of persons, from acculturated indigenous peoples to the varying mixtures of white and indigenous lineages, and pertinent to life in Iquitos, the varying shades of the color of skin (Luna 1986: 31).  This hybridity echoes the city itself in some ways, situated as it is on the river, which is the essential mediator between city and forest.  If the river negotiates the bounds of city and forest, the mestizo identity negotiates the boundaries between indigenous and white, in some cases incorporating both, and in others marking them as distinct (Beyer 2009: 307).  The river, again, being the dominant feature, it is perhaps no surprise that a term often interchangeable with mestizo is ribereño, or “riverbank dweller” (Ibid. 296).  In reality, ribereño culture extends far beyond the mestizaje, being composed of a broad range of people of many different ethnic or historical origins, all living in very similar ways.  Speaking Spanish, wearing European clothing, making and working in swidden gardens, hunting, fishing, foraging in the forest, and traveling the river in peque-peque and/or dugout canoes are all the hallmarks of ribereño culture in the Peruvian Amazon (Ibid. 297).  As noted previously, the origins of this pattern of living are in many ways the result of the collapse of the Rubber Boom, rubber tappers heading back toward the city, and migrants with nowhere else to go, establishing new lives on the banks of the river, near enough to the city for trade, but far enough to carve out a living from the land.

Though the majority of the population of Iquitos is culturally mestizo, a segment of the population does self-identify as indigenous.  Shipibo women can often be seen selling handcrafts and wares by the side of the street (Fotiou 2010: 29), and a number of successful Shipibo shamans have migrated upriver from Pucallpa to be nearer the tourist clientele (Ibid. 121).  Though there are other indigenous groups that have historically lived – and still live – nearer Iquitos than the Shipibo, the Shipibo who have migrated to Iquitos are particularly relevant in the discourse surrounding ayahuasca shamanism.  Having a reputation as the most powerful ayahuasqueros (Ibid. 29), Shipibo shamans are sought out by both Westerners and mestizos alike.  Though many of the healing techniques made use of by Shipibo shamans are similar to those used by mestizo shamans, the foundational cosmologies and theories through which Shipibo shamans conceive of and perform their work differ in significant ways from those of mestizo shamans.  Cultural differences, both in regard to cosmological structures and social life, are certainly present between mestizo and indigenous inhabitants of the city.  However, as described before in terms of ribereño culture, what marks out difference between indigenous and mestizo in the daily life of Iquitos is not necessarily visible characteristics, nor the claims to “blood” or lineage.  As Beyer states, “some Indians have European ancestors, and many mestizos do not.  The criteria defining these two groups are cultural, and, increasingly, socioeconomic” (2009: 295).  This is not to suggest that indigenous identities are so porous as to become undifferentiated from mestizo identities, but rather that these identities may be defined more by those living them, than by externally ascertainable or assignable criteria.

Whether in search of shamanic healing or some other diversion, Westerners arrive in Iquitos by the bus full, driven in from the single open-air airport, past the rusted hulks of abandoned planes out in the tall grasses beyond the landing strip.  Ecotourism, drug tourism, and sex tourism are all well known features of the tourist-trade in Iquitos, and though these kinds of tourism are beyond the scope of this paper, to what degree there is overlap and interplay with the forms of tourism under discussion is certainly a worthy subject for further investigation.  Though many terms have been suggested for the phenomenon wherein Westerners arrive in the Amazon to participate in shamanic rituals – not the least of which is ‘drug tourism’ as put forward by Marlene Dobkin de Rios in a number of publications – in this paper I intend to make use of Fotiou’s term ‘shamanic tourism’ (2010: 2).  Though undoubtedly there are Westerners for whom the somewhat pejorative sensibility of ‘drug tourist’ is appropriate, there are many others for whom the motivations that they self-report do not lend themselves to its applicability.  As Michael Winkelman says of his case studies among just these kind of ‘shamanic tourists’

Contrary to the characterization as “drug tourists,” the principal motivations can be characterized as: seeking spiritual relations and personal spiritual development; emotional healing; and the development of personal self-awareness, including contact with a sacred nature, God, spirits and plant and natural energies produced by the ayahuasca. (2005: 209)

Self-reported motivations such as these belie the notion that the intentions for use are “simply to get high” (Dobkin de Rios 2009: 166), and while such hedonistic pursuits may be the case for some tourists, it cannot be supposed that this is the case for all, or even necessarily the majority, of them.  Repeated case studies and anthropological field work have suggested that the motivations for these tourists are not exclusively hedonistic in nature, but seem to reflect deeply felt desires and drives toward enhanced spirituality, healing, and personal transformation (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005).  To that end, the other often considered term, ‘ayahuasca tourism,’ will not be made use of either.  Though it, like ‘drug tourism,’ is likely to describe some of those participating in these experiences, in the sense that what is sought out is more akin to transformation than simply to the seeing of visions, the term ‘ayahuasca tourism’ shifts the focus of the participants’ intentions from the spiritual to the phenomenological, making the term reductive and inhibiting its utility.  It is worth noting that the terminology of ‘tourist’ is problematic, and though this paper will make use of ‘shamanic tourist’, the term ‘tourist’ itself does retain a trace of preemptive judgment about the goals of a given Western seeker.  A tourist, in these cases, is as likely to be a pilgrim, a term which may present a less biased and more nuanced understanding of the goals, especially in line with the stated motivations, of Westerners seeking out these experiences[4].  However, supplanting the term tourist with that of pilgrim unfairly prejudices the debate on the other side as well.  To place the discussion on more neutral ground, the term ‘seeker’ will be used as a potentially viable substitute.  A tourist may simply be seeking diversion, while a pilgrim may be seeking the transcendent.  While I will not suppose to close the debate by inserting ‘pilgrim’ in as the descriptor of Westerners participating in ayahuasca shamanism in Iquitos, neither am I comfortable labeling them as simply ‘tourist.’  Though I will employ Fotiou’s term of ‘shamanic tourist’ from time to time in specific contexts, more broadly, when speaking of Westerners in Iquitos for the purposes of healing and transformation while working with an ayahuasca shaman, I intend to make use of the term ‘seeker’ to keep the discussion more terminologically aligned with the intentions of this investigation.

Finally, though Keith Basso’s work was performed in cooperation with the Apache in North America (1996), and thus geographically somewhat far afield from the current discussion situated in Peru, the powerful, almost lyrical, style of Basso’s work presents a way of understanding place, how it lives with people, how it is remembered, how it is known, and how it actively shapes lives, persons, and memories, such that it cannot be left absent from the discussion.  As noted early on, it is the river that most defines the city of Iquitos.  As the preceding discussions of geography, history, and socioeconomic situatedness have endeavored to show, the “making of place” is of the utmost importance in an understanding of the city.  The river is a physical force, but also a metaphoric boundary between the forest and the city, vital to ribereño lives, shaping their possibilities and prospects, sustaining and providing for daily needs, and acting as the mediatory presence between all other aspects of life, both self and Other.  Though mestizo culture may not reflect Apache in terms of complex place names and histories-in-the-landscape, I would argue that the landscape, its immediacy, its daily relevance, and its profound presence – especially in terms of the scale and power of the Amazon river itself – is central to the ways in which the places of social and cultural life are made in the Peruvian Amazon.  Iquitos is a crossroads, a place where cultures, peoples, rivers, forest, and city all meet, exchange with, and inform one another.  While the history of these meetings has often been brutal, it has no less established a place that is as much defined by the heterogeneous nature of its components as it is by their production of a whole.  The place of Iquitos is made by, and continues to shape, its inhabitants, as being a historical and socio-cultural crossroads, a boundary place much like the river which defines it.  That shamanism, a phenomenon explicitly linked with boundary states and mediation, should have arisen here as an experience that reaches beyond its cultural foundations and out into the Western imaginary is fully in line with the way in which place both shapes and is shaped by the lives of those who live within it.

A Shared Healing Myth

Whether shamanic ritual or a prescription for pills, sharing a belief in the causes and cures of illness is a crucial understanding to be held common between patient and healer.  A worldview that allows pathologies and the etiologies of particular illnesses to be meaningfully communicated, at least in part if not full, from the doctor, shaman, or healing specialist to a patient, regardless of the mode of operation of any particular treatment, has shown to be crucial for the efficacy of therapeutic relationships (Walsh 2007: 59).  If this is the case, how is it possible, then, for ayahuasca shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, to act as healers for Western seekers?  Westerners, whether they are in search of healing on physical, psychological, or spiritual levels, by and large do not share indigenous or mestizo worldviews.  This is not a suggestion that all Westerners can be meaningfully grouped together to imply a single common, or even dominant, understanding of the world in physical, psychological, or spiritual terms.  Western culture is composed of innumerable sub-cultures and micro-cultures, identities that are shaped and reshaped throughout the lifetimes of those who comprise them.  But even in the cases of those more ‘open’ to spiritual notions that may conflict with the broader assumptions of scientific rational-positivism and mechanistic views of the universe – such as New Age influenced sub-cultures, pagan and neo-pagan movements, and the like – Westerners are unlikely to share common notions of the ‘spiritual’ with the shamans they seek out.  Ideas of ‘energies,’ chakras, karma, martial-arts-influenced ideas of chi, and New Age terms like the ‘higher self’ find themselves mixed and matched with a great deal of novelty in the minds of many Western spiritual seekers, developing personal theories that are as much self-help rhetoric as they are spiritual paths (Beyer 2009: 353).  Such a statement is not meant to denigrate or cast any aspersions on the validity of any given personal spiritual insight, but rather to suggest that notions of the spiritual in Western parlance may have little in common with indigenous and mestizo notions of living spiritual entities such as the chullachaqui who haunts the forests, or the dangerous and seductive water-persons like the yukaruna.  To make use of a term common in modern anthropological discourse around a new “respect and relationship” animism, indigenous and mestizo shamans are far more likely to consider the spiritual world not in terms of mystical transcendence or self-realization, but more in terms of relationships with other-than-human-persons (Harvey 2006).  In similar ways, the categories of pop psychology and self-help – such as personal growth, emotional cleansing, and the like – that are often raised in the testimonies of Western seekers cannot be expected to be part of the worldviews of the indigenous and mestizo shamans.  These worldviews, while both ostensibly ‘spiritual’ in nature, leave open the question of how space for healing is to be established that can be meaningful and effective for both healer and patient.

Marlene Dobkin de Rios – a medical anthropologist whose work has been foundational in the study of ayahuasca, especially in and around the city of Iquitos – has been one of the most strident critics of ‘drug tourism.’  It is because of its distinct relevance to the subjects at hand, both thematically and locationally, that I will primarily focus on her work in this discussion, and by no means is it my intention to ignore the ideas or contributions of other anthropologists working along similar lines.  Her critiques of the phenomenon of ‘drug tourism’ continue to provide some of the greatest challenges to any possibility of meaningful cross-cultural healing in shamanic experience, especially in Iquitos.  Among these critiques, one of the most difficult to grapple with is the doubtable authenticity of the practitioners she has labeled ‘neoshamans’ (2009: 128)[5] – men (for it is almost without exception men instead of women) who have no formal shamanic training, who have not undergone the extremely rigorous traditional diets and apprenticeships, but nonetheless offer what they at least profess to be ayahuasca to unwary Westerners, whose own motivations and intentions may be similarly questionable.  Those that she describes as ‘neoshamans’ are, by and large, strict opportunists, with interest not in healing, but in the money to be made at the expense of naive Western seekers.  It is an enduring and unsolved problem, a phenomenon still readily found in Iquitos, which has the potential to leave real and long-lasting psychological and emotional damage in its wake.  Dobkin de Rios has also pointedly described ayahuasca and drug tourism as “merely a footnote to drug trafficking around the world” (Ibid. 169), suggesting that Westerners seeking out these experiences are “urban educated men and women who tour Latin American simply to get high” (Ibid. 166).  She has asserted that the majority of Western motivations for seeking out ayahuasca shamanic experience stem from “psychological states such as low self-esteem, values confusion, drug abuse… and chronic consumerism” (1994: 16).  Between the charlatanism of certain ayahuasqueros and the purported “empty self” (Ibid. 16) of the Western seeker, these critiques seem damning for any hope of engagement between healer and patient.  Indeed, more fully, she suggests

Unlike some anthropologists, who hope for a mutual learning experience culturally to occur between people who differ ethnically (see Geertz 1966), I think that there is little hope for communication between the drug tourists and the Amazonians. The Amazonians’ tradition of ayahuasca use is linked in a matrix dealing with the moral order, with good and evil, with animals and humans, and with health and illness, which has little correspondence or sympathy with the experiences of people in industrial societies. (Ibid. 18)

While there are myriad documented cases of the charlatanism she describes, and certainly an “empty self” may describe a number of Western seekers, this leaves, as Fotiou suggests, little space for any valid or meaningful spiritual experience (2010: 126), which is problematized by the remarkable number of reports of the efficacy of these cross-cultural shamanic healings.  But if research suggests that cross-cultural healing and the facilitation of personal transformation is not only viable, but accomplished with some degree of regularity, in these ayahuasca shamanic ceremonies (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005), how can this be reconciled with the critiques that Dobkin de Rios leverages?  If a shared healing myth does not exist between the healer and the patient, if the patient’s motives may not in all cases be ‘pure,’ and the healer’s authenticity and ethics are sometimes in doubt, how can the consistency with which healing does seem to be effected be accounted for?

Though an answer may not be easily suggestible, there are a number of ways in which these critiques can be addressed, if not wholly resolved.  The potential charlatanism of untrained ‘neoshamans’ is something that has been attested to by a significant number of anthropologists and even other well-established shamans.  In an interview, a well known Shipibo shaman named Guillermo Arévalo describes what he calls “folkloric shamansim” (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 203).  He opposes this to traditional shamanism, suggesting that “folkloric shamanism” has been designed to appeal to Western sensibilities, for the purposes of extracting money.  However, by that same token, Arévalo himself is the owner and operator of an ayahuasca lodge and retreat by the name of “Espiritu de Anaconda,” which is well known for its involvement with Western seekers, having been the subject of a number of articles, and even two feature-length documentary films.  In many ways, the “authenticity” of a given shaman may simply be something that has been decided in a similar way in indigenous societies: effectiveness.  Arévalo, in a separate interview, suggests that “Right now, in the Amazon, we can’t say that there’s any pure tradition.  It’s mixed” (Beyer 2009: 281), and as Fotiou suggests, some of the concerns over charlatanism in ayahuasca shamanism are based in “critiques that themselves suffer from naive notions of authenticity” (2010: 3-4).  This is not to downplay the reality of the harm that can be wrought by those who attempt to make use of powerful psychoactive substances without the proper training, especially when they are called on to act as the leader or safeguard in these situations.  Such actions can have very real and very dangerous psychological consequences for those involved.  Rather, it is to suggest that establishing authenticity in shamanic practice has traditionally been a troubling subject, even for indigenous communities.  Ultimately, it is those shamans who cannot heal, who diagnose illness incorrectly, or fall prey to other tell-tale signs of fraud, who are castigated, and suffer the loss of their clientele.  That this kind of self-regulation can prove effective in indigenous communities, of course, does not suggest that the transient nature of the tourist’s involvement affords the same opportunity for this kind of systemic self-correction.  It may however imply that opportunism and fraud are not phenomena that are wholly new to tourist-centric shamanic practice, either.

In his case study of the attendees of an ayahuasca retreat in Brazil, Michael Winkelman found that for many Western seekers, the motivations they gave for their desire to participate in an ayahuasca shamanic retreat were distinctly different than the consumerist-oriented “empty self” previously noted.  He states of these motivations and intentions that the primary reasons included

establishing spiritual awareness and relations and personal spiritual development. For many, the motivation included emotional healing, and for some, assistance in dealing with substance abuse issues. Others expressed the desire to get a personal direction in life, to engage in a personal evolution. Only one respondent mentioned hedonistic reasons, i.e. the visual effects produced by ayahuasca. (2005: 211)

This suggests that while the hedonism supposed of those who would “tour Latin America simply to get high” may hold for some of those seeking out these experiences, many others have motivations more in line with healing and personal transformation, hallmarks of many spiritual pursuits.  While Fotiou (2010) and Winkelman (2005) have some of the clearest data on the subject, a diverse range of anecdotal accounts can be put forward from many internet forums[6] and even feature-length documentaries (such as Vine of the Soul) that all suggest similar patterns of a desire for healing and transformation as the primary stated intentions for participating in these experiences.  Guillermo Arévalo, the Shipibo shaman noted previously, has stated of his personal experience with Westerners that

Principally, these tourists come to try to resolve personal problems. They say it is a self-encounter. They want to find the solution to their own problems and then to liberate themselves from those problems or the psychological traumas that they suffer. Others look for spiritual responses. They want to know the true spiritual path. (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 204)

These statements make it difficult to countenance the suggestion, put forward by a number of anthropologists, that a desire to participate in an ayahuasca shamanic ceremony is purely the product of a consumerist-driven need to fill an “empty self” with goods and experiences.  In many ways, this discourse describes many of the same themes that have been elaborated in the anthropology of pilgrimage, especially as it is compared to the modern tourist.  The questioning of the sincerity and authenticity of motivation that seem to be at the core of the critique of this kind of shamanic tourism are very resonant with many critiques leveled at tourism more broadly, and are subject to much the same problematization.  Engaging in such a problematization is beyond the scope of this paper, but see Morinis (1992) and Ivakhiv (2003) for more extensive treatments of the subject.

If the questions of the authenticity of both shamans and seekers have been addressed – though in no way closed or wholly answered – there remains perhaps the most significant obstacle in the path of the healer-patient relationship, bringing the discussion back around to where it began: the shared healing myth.  Though cultural expectations and understandings between shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, and the Western seekers who arrive in Iquitos are without a doubt distinct from one another, such expectations and understandings are not static, nor are they absolute.  As Fotiou suggests,

South American shamanism has always been about intercultural exchange and has drawn symbols and power from a variety of sources. More than sharing sociocultural content, ayahuasca shamanism provides an intercultural space for westerners and locals to dialogue. (2010: 4)

As can be seen in a wide variety of ethnographic material from the Peruvian Amazon, vegetalismo – mestizo shamanism – is voraciously syncretic[7] (Beyer 2009: 341), absorbing and transforming outside influences from sources as widely dispersed as technological advances, philosophy, metaphysical theory, psychology, science fiction, Christian eschatology, and New Age conceptions of the self. South American shamanism can be understood, broadly speaking, as a methodology of mediation with the Other, an ability of the ritual specialist to incorporate, transform, become, and resist the influences, ideas, and power of the Other.  To that end, while Western psycho-spiritual discourse may be populated by ideas not readily or originally available within the discourses of ayahuasca shamanism, many have become rapidly absorbed and integrated into the rhetoric of healing and transformation.  Beyer, like many other anthropologists and scholars[8], speaks of the mestizo shamans with whom he worked as making use of – side by side with water spirits and spirits of the animals – Martian teachers, aliens that spoke computer languages, and entities that could manipulate electro-magnetic forces (2009: 339).  And this movement is not only seen to occur in one direction.  Fotiou asserts that “there is a two-way exchange and westerners adopt shamanic discourse as well, especially one that involves relationships with non-human persons” (2010: 2).  In this way, the gap that exists between the healer’s worldview and the worldview of the patient can begin to narrow.  Incorporating and making use of not just the terminology, but also the interconnected concepts and their cosmological or ontological implications, of the Other-in-relationship provides a way, not around, but through the cultural barriers that might otherwise prevent a meaningful exchange from taking place.  A shared healing myth is a powerful component of any therapeutic experience, and while Westerners and shamans may not participate in identical, or even similar, cultural backgrounds, it may be possible for the dialogue between them to establish a new, dynamic healing myth as they proceed.

If it is possible to establish a shared, dynamic, healing myth between healer and patient within an ayahuasca ceremony, then the cultural preconceptions and expectations that seem most useful to explore toward an understanding of how these might come together seem to be the etiology of illness and the theories underlying the methods of healing.  In short, what causes illness or distress, and what alleviates the same, will act as windows into the distinct cultural categories of healer and patient.  The causes and cures will be examined for mestizo shamans, Shipibo shamans, and Western seekers in turn.  This examination will be significantly truncated for the sake of brevity and space, though it could readily support a much more extensive investigation.

Luis Luna, in his extensive work on vegetalismo, has described an etiology of illness among mestizo shamans that covers a lengthy list of sources from which one might be made to suffer some kind of disease or sickness (1986: 120).  Needs of space prohibit the reproduction of the rather extensive discussion here, but by way of summary, the sources of illness can be broadly divided between two categories: spirits and humans.  Sorcery, in its way, is at the root of all illness, the question being only whether it was precipitated by an offended spirit, or a resentful human.  Spirits of specific plants, animals, and trees can all be sources of illness, though the spirits of the dead, the yakaruna of the river and the sacharuna of the forest can all be responsible for casting spirit darts, and even for abduction, both of souls and whole human-persons.  Humans can, likewise, be responsible for illness, sending witchcraft, causing bad luck, praying evil prayers, chanting evil spells, or even physically placing poison where it will come into contact with another.  Just as envidia is a social reality in mestizo life, so too is the notion that much of the spirit world is “basically hostile to human beings” (Ibid. 120), requiring constant vigilance, right action, and the intervention of specialists to maintain health and good fortune.  When health has been compromised from one of these hostile sources, it becomes necessary to seek out a shaman to work a cure.  While biomedicine, when available, is able to alleviate the symptoms of certain illnesses, it is important again to recognize that the important question being asked is less how one became ill, and more why.  Shamans have the ability to engage with an illness both to alleviate the physical difficulty, but also to address the social cause.  This is perhaps more evident if it is recognized that, as Luna asserts, “the idea of healing also includes the manipulation of spiritual forces in the alleviation of financial and emotional problems” (Ibid. 32), such that biomedically-addressable illnesses are not explicitly distinguished from psycho-spiritual, and even fortune-related, troubles in mestizo life.  The techniques employed to effect healing in these cases are very similar to Amazonian shamanic techniques more generally.  Songs – in this case, icaros – are sung, mapacho tobacco smoke is fumigated over the patient, rattles are shaken and made use of to direct spiritual energy by the shamans, and spirit-darts, or virotes, are sucked from the patient, the evil either being sent back to the source of the malevolence, or simply ‘away.’  It is worth noting that while animals, plants, and trees are considered as potential sources of illness, in mestizo life “sicknesses are almost universally caused by the malevolence of other people” (Beyer 2009: 132).  As described previously, envidia goes hand in hand with sorcery, and it is primarily envy, jealousy, and resentment that are thought to be the real source behind the significant majority of illness in mestizo social spheres.

Traditionally among Shipibo shamans, while both spirits and humans are likewise considered as potential sources of illness, the ways in which one might become ill from these sources are distinct from the etiologies present among mestizo shamans.  Much of the shamanic discourse around healing among the Shipibo is concerned with the patterns of quené, or complex geometric designs as they are envisioned by shamans during ayahuasca ceremonies (Gebhart-Sayer 1985, Illius in Langdon 1992, Brabec de Mori 2009).  These designs are understood by the Shipibo shamans to be capable of both healing and harming, such that a patient may be afflicted by the quené sent by a spirit or sorcerer, but then ultimately healed or restored by the quené applied by a healing shaman.  These designs are intimately related to songs, sung and whistled by the shaman as he or she goes about the process of healing, or even by the sorcerer during harming.  The songs, especially when performed in the context of ayahuasca ritual spaces, elicit these complex patterns and visions, as a form of mediation with the spirits.  As Illius asserts, “The sick person’s designs are distorted and must be restored to return to health,” (in Langdon 1992: 65-66), suggesting that these patterns are in some ways bound up with the composition of the person.  Other authors similarly note that when the patterns and designs of these songs have been used to cure or heal, they are “sealed” into the patient, becoming part of their makeup.  When new illnesses occur, or sorcery is worked against a patient, even other shamans from the one who originally healed the patient can see the healing work that was done, and can see the new illness or sorcery as a “smearing,” “clouding,” or “distortion” of these earlier designs.  While many of the techniques made use of by Shipibo shamans in healing – fumigation of mapacho tobacco smoke, the prescription of diets, the utilization of rattles and songs, and the sucking out of illness – may be similar to techniques utilized by other shamans in the Amazon, the way in which these illnesses are understood to operate – how these designs relate to spirits, shamans, and sorcerers, especially through song – is distinctly different.  Though certainly other Panoan peoples share certain similar understandings of these designs and their spiritual and therapeutic potentials (see Lagrou in Santos-Granero 2009 for an exploration of these themes among the Cashinahua), these ideas are not shared unilaterally by mestizo shamans by any means, and certainly are not found in the worldviews of Westerners who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies with these shamans.

Before discussing etiologies of illness and theories of the modes of healing among Western seekers, it seems prudent to address a question that lingers within any such discussion of Western involvement in shamanic experience: why shamanism?  There are many other spiritual paths available in the religious marketplace, many of which make claims to healing and personal transformation.  While undoubtedly certain residual colonialist attitudes about shamanism being ‘closer to nature’ – in the sense of indigenous peoples being supposed in the Western imagination to be ‘without culture’ – can be pointed to in the preconceptions of many Westerners, any such fascination with a ‘primitive’ other seems unlikely to sustain the degree of interest and enthusiasm that shamanism, in its many guises, has continued to excite.  Michael Harner has suggested that this sustained and increasing interest in shamanism is because “many educated, thinking people have left the Age of Faith behind them.  They no longer trust ecclesiastical dogma and authority to provide them with adequate evidence of the realms of spirit” (1990: xi), proposing instead that Western seekers tend to be more interested in directly experiencing and testing the “limits of reality,” since, as he states, shamanism is “a methodology, not a religion” (Ibid. xii).  Fotiou similarly asserts that

Ayahuasca experiences are attractive to Western people because, in a way, they give them direct access to the spiritual and the divine within. There is no intermediary as in organized religions. (2010: 130)

Even the terminological debates surrounding psychoactive substances reflect changing values and ways of understanding.  The term entheogen[9] has been circulated more recently, intended to imply something like “generating the divine within.”  The term has begun, at least within certain circles, to replace others like “psychedelic,” “hallucinogen,” “psychotomimetic,” and the heavily prejudicial “drug.”  While, on its own terms, “entheogen” too is prejudicial in the sense that it suggests a sacredness or spirituality to these substances that may still be open to debate, the intention in most cases is simply to shift thinking away from the more clinical and techno-scientific interpretations of these substances, and turn them more toward the understandings that have, in more traditional cultures, driven their use.  The difference between a drug, a psychedelic, and an entheogen, ultimately, is in how it conceived of and how it is used.  Though such an aside may seem peripheral, I would argue that an understanding of the words practitioners choose to describe their experiences directly impacts the question of “why shamanism.”  A direct, personal contact with these powerful experiences is an undeniable draw for many who have felt alienated by the strictures and dogmas of organized religion.  Whether through entheogens, trance-inducement by drumming, or other techniques designed to instigate experience beyond the bounds of normal, waking consciousness, the appeal of shamanism to precipitate healing, transformation, and communion with the spiritual or divine has a distinct and undeniable attraction for many Western seekers.

While undoubtedly many, if not most, Westerners participating in shamanic ceremonies tend to have biomedical understandings of disease, including notions of germs, bacteria, viruses, infection, genetic dispositions, and other similar concepts, it is not usually, or at least not primarily, these more physical or biological illnesses for which Westerners come to the Amazon in hopes of a cure.  The wide varieties of technologies and chemicals that are available to Western biomedicine are, in most cases, seen as sufficient for treating explicitly physical ills by most Westerners.  More common are psycho-spiritual complaints such as depression, anxiety, disaffection, alienation, and disconnection – a sense of being lost, or lacking something quintessentially ‘spiritual’ to give meaning or fulfillment to life.  Asked if he saw a spiritual or psychological crisis in European and North American communities based on those participants with whom he had interacted, the Shipibo shaman Guillermo Arévalo responded “That’s what I see. It is clear among many people. Indeed, many of them also suffer from depression. Others are enslaved by their work. Others are hooked into materialism and they have been neglectful of the spiritual part of themselves” (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 204).  This is made clear again in the words these seekers make use of themselves, when describing their motivations for participating in ayahuasca-shamanic ceremonies.  As summarized by Winkelman, these are

seeking spiritual relations and personal spiritual development; emotional healing; and the development of personal self-awareness, including contact with a sacred nature, God, spirits and plant and natural energies produced by the ayahuasca. The motivation and perceived benefits both point to transpersonal concerns, with the principal perceived benefits involving increased self awareness, insights and access to deeper levels of the self that enhanced personal development and the higher self, providing personal direction in life. (2005: 209)

The illness, or psycho-spiritual lack, in the experience of these Western seekers is in many ways pointed to by the rhetoric used to describe motivations and benefits.  An unfulfilled or flagging spirituality and personal development, emotional wounds, and a distance or disconnect from the sacred – all of these seem to serve in the place of an etiology of illness in these cases.  While the terminology may ring of pop psychology and self-help, the illnesses engendered from these sources are insistent enough to warrant seeking help outside one’s own cultural boundaries, suggesting that the issues as they distress individual participants’ lives are real enough.  While disaffection or alienation may be a particularly culture-bound illness, it is not necessary to understand it as any less real than anorexia nervosa experienced by young women in the West (Beyer 2009: 152), or the threat of, and affliction caused by, sorcery that pervades so much of the social discourse in the Amazon.

This sketch, however, does not end neatly. The etiology of illness, coupled with the theories underlying the modes of healing, for shamanic worldviews, find logical compliment in one another.  That is to say that the causes of illness fall within a worldview that is matched by the modes of healing that are appealed to.  But for Western seekers with illnesses described as spiritual – those requiring emotional healing and personal transformation – complimentary modes of healing within their own culture do not seem readily available.  Whether this is due to an actual societal or cultural lack of a healing methodology, or due instead to the idiosyncrasies of personal taste and preference, these Western seekers find themselves with an illness or lack where the specialists involved in this potential methodology for healing, shamans, do not share the same understandings and expectations about the world.  Whether intentionally or no, the question of a shared healing myth returns.  Despite the fact that certain pieces of terminology and conceptual material do seem to cross cultural boundaries and allow a new healing myth to be dynamically created, the problem is not wholly resolved.  What facilitates this dynamic creation of a new healing myth?  Though both shamans and patients may make an effort to describe intentions and understandings to one another in terms that make sense to each, it is unlikely that every shaman and every patient have the time or the means to actively structure a full range of understandings that would supplant the need for a truly shared worldview.  To answer this, one of the original questions outlined in this investigation is drawn nearer – the possibility that it is less important to understand, in these cases, how shamans heal, than it is to understand how they make use of a particular kind of transformational space.  But to make such a suggestion worthwhile, it is first necessary to describe the actions of the brew, ayahuasca.

The Psychology of the Ayahuasca Experience[10]

This is perhaps the moral of the whole story.  The cross-personal commonalities exhibited in Ayahuasca visions, the wondrous scenarios revealed by them, and the insights gained through them are perhaps neither just psychological, nor just reflective of other realms, nor are they ‘merely’ a creation of the human mind. Rather, they might be psychological and creative and real.  But when we appreciate this, so much of the fundamental notions by which we view both mind and world have to be considerably altered. (Shanon 2002: 401)

While certainly all perception of and action in the world is to a large extent culturally situated, there are certain strictly cognitive effects of the ayahuasca brew that allow it to shake culturally inculcated structures and constants, radically unmaking the ego and identities of the participants for some finite duration during the experience.  The shaking of these constants places participants into a cognitive situation where they are more ‘open’ to the incorporation of ideas, suggestions, images, and ways of thinking that might otherwise seem alien and inassimilable to “normal” consciousness.  Charles Grob and Benny Shanon’s psychological analyses of ayahuasca’s effects provide a window into how psychoactive components of the brew alter both perceptive and emotional structures.  Many of the characteristics described by Grob hold true for altered states facilitated by entheogens in general, while those described by Shanon are specific to ayahuasca.

Grob outlines ten distinct characteristics “understood to be virtually universal to such altered state experience[s]” (in Metzner 2006: 75).  Though some of these are undoubtedly more relevant than others for the current investigation, as a brief overview, the characteristics he reports as “universal” fall into the following categories: 1) alterations in thinking, 2) alterations in time sense, 3) fear of loss of control, 4) changes in emotional expression, 5) changes in body image, 6) perceptual alterations, 7) changes in meaning or significance, 8) a sense of the Ineffable, 9) feelings of rejuvenation, and 10) hypersuggestibility (Ibid. 75-76).  Just this list alone goes some way toward understanding how a “shaking up” of consciousness might be precipitated in line with cross-cultural communication of meaning, but a few of these categories are worth noting specifically.  Changes in body image entail the “dissolution of boundaries between self and others” where an individual identity or ego-self is no longer understood to be wholly distinct from the surrounding world, and the persons in it (Ibid. 75).  When taken together with the experience of hypersuggestibility – which, as evidenced by the name, implies a profound increase in the capacity for suggestion to alter both perception and attitude – this indiscernability of distinct identity creates a situation in which ideas, even socio-culturally abnormal or uncommon ideas, can be incorporated with a marked rapidity.  As these ideas are suggested and incorporated, the potential for the meanings associated with them, and the significance of the ideas themselves, can take on an extraordinary weight, such that certain words, phrases, and images can profoundly shape both an immediate experience, and potentially a subsequently altered worldview.  If, as the entheogenic experience begins to close, a feeling of rejuvenation or rebirth is felt by the participant, the potential for the weight of suggestions made, or concepts encountered in the ceremony, to remain with the participant for a more extended duration is significantly enhanced.  Though no single characteristic of the entheogenic encounter alone presents a mechanism by which cross-cultural dialogues might effect healing, taken together as they act on a participant in a ceremony, such an outcome becomes more plausible.

If these aspects of enthogenic encounters in general have the potential to produce a space where the transformation of identity may occur, ayahuasca has a number of unique cognitive effects that allow it to act as a “perceptual bricoleur” (Beyer 2009: 235).  While an analysis of purely perceptual alterations under the influence of a psychoactive would do little to further an understanding of how a healing space is facilitated by employing ayahuasca, it is important to remember that these alterations of perception are, in most cases, matched by similar alterations in cognition.  This is to say that the psychological processes hinted at by the visual effects noted are not limited only to the visible percepts, but extend into the cognitive functions of the participants as well, such that while a given ‘hallucination’ may be recognized as such, it is also very often taken as simultaneously ‘real’ within the space of the ceremony (see Beyer 2009: 233 for examples of this phenomenon).

Benny Shanon outlines a number of cognitive-psychological effects of ayahuasca, only a very few of which will be able to be explored within the scope of this paper.  The most important of these, for the purposes of this discussion, are superposition and collage, the power of metaphor, and the Double-Face configuration.  The phenomenon of superposition can be described as one where a given set of ‘real’ objects coincide with, but are not overlapped or mutated by, visionary objects, with a semantically meaningful relationship between the two.  An example given by Shanon describes an experience wherein bodies were witnessed as hanging from a large tree.  The tree was ‘real’ in the sense that it corresponded to a tree that was visible and solid outside of the entheogenic experience, but the bodies that were hanging from the tree did not correspond to a reality able to be experienced outside of the altered state (2002: 78-79).  What is important to note in such a case is that the bodies were hanging from the tree, a relationship that, in effect, ‘makes sense’ for the coupling of bodies and trees, inasmuch as the bodies were not floating like balloons, dancing on the branches, or anything of the sort.  This is an example of what Shanon has described as a relationship of “collage” (Ibid. 79), insofar as the aspects of the vision were drawn both from something in the ‘real’ world as well as from the visionary experience, and yet combined in such a way as to produce a result that had semantic meaningfulness.  In line with the semantic meaningfulness of a particular vision, the power of metaphor stands out, according to Shanon, as “one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition” (Ibid. 336).  In terms of cognitive psychology, Shanon describes metaphor as that feature of cognition which allows agents to “draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things”, wherein meaningful features “are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made up and new semantic features are generated” (Ibid. 336).  Shanon proposes that ayahuasca plays directly upon this cognitive capacity for metaphor and the generation of novel semantic categories and connections, such that previously unrelated concepts and ideas can be drawn into relationship with one another in ways that are both meaningful and durable, potentially beyond the termination of the ayahuasca experience.  Closely associated with the capacity for metaphor to draw schematic sets into novel relationships with one another is the Double-Face configuration, where existing semantic content is recognized to bear secondary or tertiary meanings not previously experienced or expressed.  Shanon describes this as the mechanism that is at work in many puns and jokes, where a word, phrase, or even whole scenario is constructed and presented in such a way that the crux of the joke or pun lies in shifting the expected result or intention to suggest a novel connection between disparate semantic categories or domains.  Words that can mean multiple things, utilized in an identical phraseology, may impart different and diverse meanings, dependent on the context within which they are deployed.  Superimposing the meaning of a given articulation from one semantic domain onto another produces novelty in the more extended context.  Scenarios and images may suggest outcomes that can be suddenly inverted or transformed upon the interruption of a discordant piece of information not originally present.  Ayahuasca, Shanon suggests, plays on this capacity of language and image in cognitive apperception to present unexpected insights and interruptions into seemingly familiar conscious structures and ideational schemas.  This allows participants in an ayahuasca experience to understand long-held identity structures and inculcated cultural values in radically different ways, even to the point of begin able to choose to retain, modify, or abandon them.

A more full treatment of the data gathered by Shanon, the situations in which he gathered it, and the striking nature of both the commonalities and differences of the experiences reported by his informants cross-culturally is beyond the scope of this paper, but, however brief, the preceding has attempted to establish some of the cognitive effects charted in his study as they relate to the space of healing between patient and shaman in an ayahuasca ceremony.  When coupled with the “universal” characteristics of entheogenic experience as detailed by Grob, a broad outline emerges that suggests, from a psychological perspective, that cross-cultural communication and dialogue may prove to be a real possibility in an ayahuasca ceremony.  With this in mind, and considering the concepts of bricolage and collage that have both been raised in a psychological context, I intend now to return to montage and world-making in anthropological discourse, coming back to where the intentions of this investigation began.

Healing, Montage, and World-Making

This investigation has, internal to its own structure, attempted to act as a kind of montage, presenting fragments and selections from contexts seemingly distinct from one another, in order to produce an image from the component parts that come together to form a new whole.  A history of place, a traversal of the etiologies of illness among differing cultural groups, and the psychological effects of a psychoactive brew, have been drawn together, placed such that they are intended to simultaneously reflect one another, but still distinguish differences of origin and aim that in some ways make them largely incommunicable one to the other.  In the structure of the paper I have attempted to reproduce, in a limited way, the same montage or collage of factors that are present in the spaces of healing and transformation that shamans in Iquitos are asked to hold open for a wide variety of clients in an ayahuasca ceremony.  But why montage, as a form?  In a way it reflects a desire not to neatly fit these distinct factors into a false narrative, and an attempt to allow their mutual resonance to arise, or fail to arise, of their own accord, without wedging them uncomfortably into molds they may not adequately fill.  But perhaps more to the point, it is that it is montage itself that is the resonance between these factors, the play of montage and collage within the construction of each in its own terms, that acts as the commonality between these.  The city of Iquitos has been drawn from a wide variety of social, historical, cultural, and economic forces, a patchwork of indigenous, mestizo, and European elements, strung together to produce a place that is remarkable for its role as a crossroads and borderland.  Shamans have, perhaps definitionally, always been those to traverse any such borderlands, transgressing boundaries between self and other, merging, resisting, but above all mediating between these.  That the persons of indigenous and mestizo shamans should take up residence and ply their trade in a physical, historic, and economic crossroads should not seem in anyway surprising.  Nor should the presence of the Western others, as they seek out something definitively unavailable within their own cultures.  If Iquitos has historically been a crossroads – socially, economically, and culturally, though its function as such has been at times notoriously violent and cruel – then its continuing nature as such a crossroads, if now for different reasons and appealing to different needs or desires, should likewise not prove unexpected.  And as ayahuasca brings together healer and patient, it too acts, within the psychologies and cognitive structures of each, as its own force of collage and bricolage, restructuring and changing previous arrangements of ideas and concepts, integrating those which had perhaps previously seemed alien or incompatible.

But can montage be that mechanism, within a healing space opened and held by the shaman, that brings together aspects and elements of worldviews and conceptual categories, of life experiences and unspoken hopes, that can ultimately effect healing?  In his extraordinary Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, Michael Taussig suggests in terms of ayahuasca ceremonies that

The ‘mystical insights’ given by visions and tumbling fragments of memory pictures oscillating in a polyphonic discursive room full of leaping shadows and sensory pandemonium are not insights granted by depths mysterious and other. Rather, they are made, not granted, in the ability of montage to provoke sudden and infinite connections between dissimilars in an endless or almost endless process of connection-making and connection-breaking. (1991: 441)

The sacred brew of ayahuasca, in the space between the shaman and the patient, acts as a potent force of montage, actively bringing together concepts, cosmological referents, and ontological structures in novel ways, such that, as an adept within the navigation and utilization of the properties of this space, the shaman can effect the healing and, in the rhetoric of Western seekers, the personal transformation of the patient.  Such a notion, while in a significantly different ethnographical context, is not dissimilar to the World-Making proposed by Joanna Overing in terms of the ruwang of the Piaroa, working with concepts drawn from Nelson Goodman’s philsophy (1990).  Overing suggests that the power of the shaman has to do with his or her capacity to build meaningful worlds from pieces of other, pre-existing worlds.  These new worlds, as they are developed in accordance with an attempt to alleviate the suffering or heal the illness of a particular patient, are structured in ways that allow pieces of myth, history, and even daily life to be drawn from their respective wholes, and repositioned together in ways that allow their novel arrangement to uniquely and explicitly address the situation of the patient in question.  What is crucial to understand, even in such a brief outline of Overing’s ideas, is that these worlds are real to both the patient and the shaman, that they are not derivative or secondary spaces.  All worlds, in Overing’s explication of Nelson Goodman’s philosophy, are ultimately constructed from pieces of other worlds, giving no primacy – and crucially, no pejorative cast – to any world so constructed.  This is to say that this new world developed on the principles of montage is no less valid or meaningful than a “prior” world from which its aspects were drawn, but is instead simply another resonant world that informs, even as it potentially contrasts with and contradicts, the worlds from which its aspects were composed.  Such a constructional notion of reality echoes what Santos-Granero has described as “Amerindian constructional cosmologies” (2009: 3), wherein all cosmological structures, even as they produce the lived and historical world, are compositional or constructional in nature, drawn from pre-existing features and elements.  According to Santos-Granero, creation in many Amerindian cosmologies is not ex nihilo, but always constructed from prior or previous elements (Ibid. 4), suggesting that both the primordial and manifest worlds are ultimately the product of a function of montage, just as the healings of a shaman may be said to be.  If the world itself can be understood as having been constructed through a function of montage, healings and other transformations seem within the realm of plausible as well.

Such a suggestion can be both elaborated and problematized.  As shamans have long been the mediators with the Other, and have in many ways drawn power from just such an Other, syncretism of ideas is not only to be expected, but is wholly consistent with the operation of shamanism (Luna 1986: 35).  This is to say that the incorporation of New Age terminology, the images of biomedicine and technology, and other such syncretic actions of indigenous and mestizo shamans is wholly in line with the mediatory capacity that in many ways defines the position of the shaman.  At the same time, real questions can be raised as to what extent cultural barriers can be crossed, even granting the assumption of a healing space participating in montage.  Piers Vitebsky has raised problems centered around the ‘holism of worldview’ that shamanism, especially indigenous shamanism, has traditionally entailed, and how central such a holism of worldview is to the efficacy of shamanic action (in Harvey 2003).  Even in Overing’s work we can see an echo of this, as the “new worlds” that are constructed from aspects of others must be constructed in such a way as to remain meaningful and viable in terms of their constituent parts, and the uses to which they are put for healing.  This is to say that while cultures may be acted in and through to produce new worlds, there are still cultural rules or understandings that will ultimately determine the viability and coherence of any newly produced world through these actions of montage.  Not all constructions are meaningful or acceptable in all cultural contexts.  As Vitebsky’s argument suggests, albeit in terms of Western-oriented neo-shamanisms, if the shamanic worldview is not understood as potent in all aspects and spheres of life – physical, psychological, spiritual, social, cultural, economic, etc. – then its power to act is significantly curtailed.  This does not, I would argue, imply that such a “healing space” of person, place, and sacred substance cannot be effective, but rather that it must be a space of negotiation and dialogue, one that does not attempt to transcend cultural barriers, but rather to integrate and absorb them – to build bridges out of the bricks of the walls.

There is so much more that can, and perhaps should, be said.  There are questions about the ethics of shamanic tourism, about what the impact on local cultures might be.  As indigenous and mestizo young people become interested in ayahuasca shamanism more to pander to tourists than to work in their communities, there are real questions about how such tourism may impact these traditions, and whether that impact will entail, in some ways, the destruction of their cultural meanings, as they are applied more and more to clientele whose rhetoric, problems, and ills do not fit with traditional structures (Proctor 2001).  Neither is the charlatanism and opportunism noted by Dobkin de Rios simply ameliorated by the plausibility of real and meaningful healing in some cases.  But beyond the potential dangers or troubles surrounding the dynamics of shamanic tourism, there are theoretical questions that invite further investigation.  If, as Fotiou asserts, the “question is no longer ‘if’ indigenous knowledge is going to be shared with outsiders but how and under what terms” (2010: 309), then as a religious or spiritual phenomenon, this shamanic tourism has intriguing correspondences to other religious phenomenon.  Pilgrimage, especially in terms of kind of structuralist division between sacred Center and a fascination with the distant Other (Cohen in Morinis 1992), bears directly on this kind of religious phenomenon, especially as modernized Western seekers trouble the notion of any original, cultural Center.  In a similar way, the dialogues surrounding healing and personal transformation that are so ubiquitous in the reports and testimonies of Westerners involved in shamanic tourism (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005, Vine of the Soul 2009, Other Worlds 2002) echo similar refrains in the testimonies of those that have undergone religious conversion (see Steigenga and Cleary 2007 for an elaboration on the discourses of conversion as they are found in Latin America).  That the intentions and outcomes of participants in shamanic tourism may have an interplay with the same motivations, expectations, and experiences as those undergoing religious conversion suggests that there may be an affinity between the two experiences, though inasmuch as shamanic tourism does not require or present a model for converting to any given religion or set of beliefs, the differences may be as informative as the similarities.

Ultimately, it may well prove to be the relationality of the experience, the space between shaman and patient – the healing space created and held by the shaman, making effective use of ayahuasca to open dialogue and negotiated senses of the meaningful or “real” with the patient – that effects the power of the ceremony.  To bring together that which did not before fit, to assemble a world from the self-help concepts of a patient, from the other-than-human spirits of the shaman, from the colonialist preconceptions of a Westerner, from the dynamic nature of tradition, and from the visual and auditory noise of the river and forest and city and unmuffled moto-taxis and carts of fruit and satellite dishes and dugout canoes and cheap cell phones – it is just this that is that essence of montage.  Where this space holds, and where the power of montage can be brought to bear – that power that is, as Taussig suggests a kind of “Epic theater aimed not at overcoming but at alienating alienation” (1991: 329) – social and cultural barriers may not cease to matter, but may be transformed and transmuted into a new shared myth.


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[1] The terminology of Western and Westerner is problematic as a categorical identification.  Many who come to participate in these ceremonies are not, geographically or culturally, “Western”.  Similarly, the many sub- and micro-cultures that exist among those even nominally “Western” defy any singular category to adequately define or even describe the many different persons making these kinds of journeys.  The term is, however, regularly employed in the discourse surrounding ayahuasca tourism to suggest Western-educated persons coming from industrialized social backgrounds.  It will be made use of in that context, though relevant distinctions will be noted in the discussion.

[2] See Ivakhiv 2003 for a broader treatment of the themes of New Age tourist and pilgrim.

[3] While vegetalismo, or mestizo shamanism, may have had some of its traditions retained from many original indigenous traditions of acculturated populations as they became indistinguishable from mestizo in rebereño life, much of the vegetalismo shamanism that became established in Iquitos was drawn from the return of these rubber tappers, as they brought back what they had learned in their time away (Luna 1986: 31).

[4] See Cohen in Morinis 1992 for an anthropological analysis of what distinguishes a tourist from a pilgrim.

[5] This use of the term ‘neoshaman’ should be understood as distinct from its use in terms of Westerners participating as shamans, such as in Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism (Harner 1990).

[6] See and as prototypical examples.

[7] This use of the term “syncretic” is not intended to introduce notions of authenticity or purity into the discourse at this point, but rather to acknowledge an active and agentive multivalency.  Vegetalismo broadly speaking does not have a set of orthodox beliefs that it must sustain as authentic in order to retain a coherent identity, but is rather oriented toward maintaining and enhancing an efficacy in healing and practice.  While questions surrounding tradition vs. innovation can certainly be raised, as this paper endeavors to show, syncretism in mestizo shamanism may deal more with a mediation with the Other than questions of traditional systems of belief.

[8] Cf. Luna and Amaringo 1999.

[9] In many religious contexts, the term ‘sacrament’ is made use of as well.  For a more detailed analysis of the use of the term sacrament vs. sacramental in sociological terms as it applies to ayahuasca, see Baker 2005.

[10] Many analyses of the phenomenology and psychology of ayahuasca begin with a detailed account of how the harmine and harmaline alkaloids potentiate the DMT that is thought to produce the majority of the visual features of an ayahuasca experience.  Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, and would not significantly aid an understanding of the shamanic healing space.  Likewise, a detailed phenomenology of the stages of ayahuasca inebriation, common visual motifs and themes, and the somatic effects of the brew, while related to the subject at hand, do not fall within its scope.