Head-to-head: the Maestro and the Apprentice, don Antonio (shaman) and Connie Grauds
A shaman’s mysterious healing practices are a blend of medicine and spirit,” says pharmacist Connie Grauds. “The rainforest shamans are experts on the healing properties of the jungle’s rich plant medicines. These shamans have an intimate relationship with the healing spirits of nature and of the plants, which they summon on behalf of the patient during the healing. Connie, as a shamama of the Amazonian jungle tradition, shares the secret of the shamans, “Shamans summon these healing forces and transfer these healing plant spirit energies to their patients during the healing.”
These are just such stories of the healing power of the spirit doctors of nature.
Today, I stand with my feet firmly planted in two very different worlds. I am a pharmacist who has worked in the world of conventional Western medicine for nearly thirty years, and I’m also a shamana who has apprenticed in the world of “nonrational” healing for over fifteen years.
Connie Grauds, RPh, MNPA, is President of the Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists; Adjunct Faculty at the University of Minnesota, Center for Spirituality and Healing; and is author of Jungle Medicine, and The Energy Prescription. Connie is Executive Director of the Living Shaman Museum.
Through a series of seemingly random events, I ended up in the Amazon jungle on a continuing education trip. There, I met a powerful shaman, don Antonio, and took an unexpected, disorienting plunge into the world of the irrational—a realm of inner visions and voices, powerful energies, and strange experiences. At that time, I knew practically nothing about shamanism, nor did I imagine my ordeal to be anything like an initiation. During my first encounters with Amazonian shamans, I found myself talking to plants and seeing visions I couldn’t explain. One shaman told me I had a block in my neck, whatever that meant. I was confronted with the terror that I might be going mad—a fear buried deep within me since my childhood.
I had been taught early in my life that hearing extraordinary voices and seeing visions were signs of pathology. During my early childhood, I had seen my mother hospitalized and diagnosed as psychotic—precisely for hearing unusual voices and seeing other-worldly visions. I had seen what the Western medical system had done to my mother for not being normal, and I was determined to do everything within my power to make sure that my life was grounded, rational, and, above all, sane.
After I graduated from the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy, my life and career were set. I became a pharmacist—a respected member of the Western medical establishment. Ironically, my mother’s madness had driven me into the arms of the medical profession that had virtually destroyed her because it didn’t understand the spiritual roots of her disease. In time, I would come to realize that the medical profession itself was in need of spiritual healing.
In my early forties, nearly two decades into my career, my life took a turn. I discovered a lump on my neck, which was diagnosed as thyroid cancer. The surgeon removed the cancerous thyroid. While Western medicine told me I was cured, I knew that there was something deep inside my being that was in crisis beyond the cancerous thyroid…some kind of deep existential crisis that I intuitively knew that Western medicine couldn’t cure.
During my recovery from surgery, I remembered one of the Amazonian shamans who said I had a block in my neck. Could this be the same thing? How did the shaman know this? In a dream, I saw the Amazonian shaman don Antonio uttering the words he had spoken to me during my first trip to the rainforest, “You have enough energy to be a shaman yourself.” Now I wanted to see him again. I wasn’t sure what I would do if I found him, and I didn’t even know if I would be able to find him, but I decided to return to Peru as soon as possible.
Soon after I arrived in Iquitos, the jungle-drums of gossip eventually led me to find don Antonio. He was about to begin planting a medicinal plant garden in a village on the Yanayaco River, and he needed volunteers to help tend his new garden. As I worked the gardens in the day, the nights were saved for healing rituals. Don Antonio had taken me on as his patient. He knew I needed the help that only a shaman can provide.
Don Antonio understood what was happening to me, and helped me to see it as a transformational, rather than a pathological, process. He walked with me to the edges of madness where I wrestled with my inner demons. He helped me to understand and relate directly to these powers from which indigenous shamans have drawn their healing wisdom and spiritual gifts. In doing so, he initiated me into ancient mysteries of healing upon which modern medicine had turned its back.
After many moons of getting to know each other and working together in the primal depths of the jungle, don Antonio finally took me on as his apprentice. During my apprenticeship, I would learn of the awesomely powerful healing forces that are nature itself. I offer here the spirited stories of two healings during deep shamanic ceremony in the jungles of Peru that exemplify the importance of the inclusion of the powerful nature spirits into the healing equation.
Two Stories of Nature Spirit Healings
I left for Peru with the usual stopover in Miami to change planes. While waiting in the Miami airport between flights, I struck up a conversation with Kay, an interesting and friendly American woman in her fifties who was also on her way to Iquitos. Kay had a passion for pottery, and had studied with indigenous potters in Ecuador twenty years before. But she had mostly given up her craft to become a respiratory therapist in the United States.
She also told me that a childhood bout with polio had left her lame in one leg, and that recurring bouts of post-polio syndrome over the past few years had left her exhausted and depleted. She was on her way to the Amazon’s lush tropical jungles to find rest and rejuvenation. We sat together on the plane to continue our conversation. When I told her a little about my apprenticeship as a healer with don Antonio, she expressed a strong interest in spiritual healing. Then she asked me outright if she could come with me to meet don Antonio and perhaps get a healing herself. I told her we could consider it further in Iquitos.
When we arrived in Iquitos, we both checked into the El Dorado hotel, located near the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. That night, while dining in the hotel restaurant, we struck up a lively conversation with a Canadian woman, a high-spirited family therapist in her mid-forties named Marcie who told us she’d come to Peru in search of a “spiritual adventure”. As we shared stories, Marcie revealed that she was also looking for ways to integrate spiritual perspectives into her personal and professional life.
To make a long story short, by the end of the evening we were comrades in adventure, and they were both asking me to let them meet don Antonio. I agreed, wondering what don Antonio would say when I showed up with two unexpected guests.
Our rapido, the speed boat, wound along the Napo River, past the familiar, progressively rising skyline of foliage and trees, deeper into the primal jungle. I now knew the route by heart. Shaman don Antonio met us at the docks near the camp, and did not seem surprised to see Los Tres Mosqueteros, as we were now calling our adventuresome threesome. He told me later he’d seen himself in a dream several weeks ago, performing a healing with three white women. But he hadn’t known what the dream meant until we arrived that afternoon.
During these first several days near don Antonio’s childhood village on the Yanayacu River, he put us all to work in the medicinal plant garden. I had grown to love this place like home, I accepted shamanism on its own terms, and don Antonio was now like family to me, a loving taskmaster of spirit. But all of this was new for Kay and Marcie.
Don Antonio had announced his requirements for our working with him on the first afternoon, when I explained to him Kay and Marcie’s reasons for coming. “If you want to work with me, I will need a little work from you,” he said, mincing no words. “If you want the spirits of the jungle and its plants to provide some healing for you, you must provide something for them in return. Working with spirit is always a reciprocal arrangement.”
The next morning he handed each of us, respectively, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and a machete for our first full day’s work. His own trusty machete, as always, hung loosely in the belt around his waist.
“Tilling the soil is tilling your substance, too,” he said. He pointed to a newly cleared section of land. “Prepare the land there to accept the new plant seeds I have collected from the jungle.” He handed me a calabash full of tiny black seeds. “Connie will show you what to do.” Then he added, “The jungle itself will prepare you and humble you.” Then he turned and walked off to work in another part of the gardens.
Yes, there is nothing like the jungle’s intense heat, pesky mosquitoes and non-stop tickling sweat to wear you down. The jungle is the medicine: to merely show up the jungle guarantees a confrontation. And performing intense physical labor there forces a deeper level of surrender. This was no tourist safari from the safety of a boat or cleared jungle path. This would be a dirty-up-to-the-elbows, sing-for-your-supper complete immersion experience. I wondered how Kay and Marcie would take to it.
In the first few days of work in the gardens, full of grumbling and sore muscles, Marcie and Kay began to fall into the rhythm of the jungle. The animal sounds, the afternoon rains, the spectacular beauty of the flora and fauna all worked their magic and medicine upon them. As the week wore on, we began to fall into rhythm with each other. Working together gave us an opportunity to talk at a deeper level and get to know each other better. Marcie and Kay got to know don Antonio better, too. And after each hard day’s work, a limpia (sacred healing herbal bath) at dusk in a nearby stream with don Antonio deepened their connection to him. After our limpias by the river’s edge at the end of the week, don Antonio spoke to us.
“I am pleased with your work,” he announced. “The spirits told me in my dream that you would come for a healing. You are all now ready. Tomorrow night, if you are willing, there will be an all-night ayahuasca healing ceremony.”
Irridescent blue morpho butterfly
Kay’s Healing Ceremony
Both Kay and Marcie expressed a strong desire to undergo the ceremony, which they knew would include drinking the Medicine (with a capital “M”, as don Antonio best describes it.). Don Antonio was pleased. “To prepare yourselves, do not eat anything tomorrow and spend the day in silent communion with nature. Kay, this first healing is for you. We will all come prepared and drink ayahuasca together. Remember,” he concluded, “healing is a community effort. There are no observers. We will all participate in Kay’s healing.”
The symptoms of Kay’s recurring post-polio syndrome flare-ups included chronic fatigue, increasing motor difficulties, and pain in her lame left leg. Being a healthcare professional, she had tried every conventional treatment available. Now, having reached a dead end, she was willing to try anything…even the ayahuasca healing ceremony that shaman don Antonio was now preparing on her behalf.
Kay intuitively knew she needed a deeper healing than conventional medicine offered, and which it had already failed to provide. She needed to reach into the spiritual depths where both illness and healing have their roots. And while grateful and excited at being allowed to participate in this shamanic healing ritual with don Antonio, she also had a case of the jitters at the prospect of drinking ayahuasca, the sacred Medicine don Antonio and I had, through rituals and words, been preparing her to meet.
During the day of preparation and ceremonial fasting, my body and mind began quieting down. I chose to spend my reflecting time swaying lazily in the arms of nature in a hammock strung in the shade of the jungle foliage, between a breadfruit tree and a giant cecropia. Toward the end of the day the heat, the sense of weightlessness and the swaying, and the late afternoon shadows flickering across my half-closed eyes, lulled me into a deep, peaceful trance.
Early evening is the in-between time, the intersection of light and darkness when don Antonio says the spirits reveal themselves. Now, after a day of fasting, contemplation and invoking the spirits for the evening ceremony, I began to notice faint milky silhouettes in the play of the shadows, against a distant background of dark-green jungle foliage. Some soared amidst a group of hanging lianas, flickering in and out of visibility the way fireflies do. Was I dreaming? Imagining? Perceiving reality beyond my “normal” senses? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t concerned. Their simple presence felt comforting.
As the sun set, and the awaited ayahuasca hour approached, I experienced the familiar pre-Medicine tension, a mixture of anticipation, excitement, anxiety, fear of the unknown, and a peculiar heightening of the senses, almost like a shadow cast by the Medicine’s approach. I was soon drenched in sweat. The body/mind of an ayahuasquero always feels this peculiar anticipatory dread and respect which the medicine commands. Ayahuasca healing ceremonies are intense ordeals on every level, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Like the jungle itself, they are not for the faint of heart.
We were to meet don Antonio at the ceremonial hut at 9 p.m. sharp. At 8:30 p.m. we gathered in my room, said a last round of prayers together, and started down the path away from the camp toward don Antonio’s ceremonial hut in the depths of the jungle. The sky was cloudy and the night was dark. Our ears rang with the nocturnal cacophony, the cries of animals searching for food, calling for mates, or simply bursting with the sheer, primal intensity of the jungle life force. I heard far off the powerful, unmistakable growl of a jaguar announcing an evening’s hunt, and the disturbing phrase “eat or be eaten” popped uninvited into my mind.
As we walked along the path, the pitch dark jungle night seemed to absorb our flashlight beams the way black holes are said to devour the light of stars. Somehow we lost our way…the slippery clay path turned to mud, then to an ankle-deep swamp, and we soon found ourselves floundering, legs tangled in the thickly growing camu camu plants that thrive in these common low-lying swamps. We walked in circles, bumping into each other, seeking a way out of the watery bog. The Tres Mosqueteros had become the Tres Stooges. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream for help.
Finally, not far off through the foliage, I spotted the candlelight that marked the shaman’s hut. We moved directly toward it and soon reached the hut, our boots and feet drenched in a baptism-by-bog.
Don Antonio was there to welcome us. He wore his black ritual cushma, a jaguar tooth necklace, and his eyes already had the faraway look of one in touch with the spirit realm. He invited us to sit on the logs that formed a ceremony circle in front of the hut. In the middle of the circle was a splendid table altar, his holy mesa. Lit candles formed a numinous ring around the table’s edge, interspersed with boughs of healing plants. The candles represented our prayers and intentions for healing. In tonight’s ceremony we would ask the spirits of the higher realms to heal us of things for which we had found no cures in the human realm.
“The spirits are already present around us,” he said softly. His statement immediately deepened the mood of our group. It often seems that our plight on earth is to suffer the bondage of self—in troubles manifesting as physical, emotional, or spiritual afflictions—until death, the great purge (purging), takes us into the beyond. We three had come far, at great expense and through much hardship, to reach this place in our lives, to attend this healing ceremony, to pray to unseen forces beyond our known reality for divine healing. Our allies in tonight’s journey into the spirit realm sat in the center of the mesa, two hand-carved balsa figurines, a jaguar and anaconda—el tigre and el serpiente—and between them a dried piece of brown gnarled serpentine vine—ayahuasca. Don Antonio’s shamanic healing tools—the tobacco, ayahuasca brew, bowls of perfume and camphor water (for protection, don Antonio explained)—also sat on the table. “Tonight,” don Antonio began, “we will call on three friends and allies, three fearsome entities—the jaguar, the anaconda, and ayahuasca—for their great healing powers.”
After briefly instructing Kay and Marcie regarding the ayahuasca experience and the formalities of the healing ceremony, he offered prayers and requests to the spirits of the heavens on our, and his behalf. As ayahuasca ceremonies are performed in complete darkness, he extinguished the candles, welcoming the spirits closer, then poured us each our dose of medicine. We drank it in turn, managed to hold it down, and settled back to await its effects. We occupied ourselves by wiping away the rivulets of sweat pouring down our faces, and waving our arms to chase away the ever-present swarms of mosquitoes that were eating us alive.
What an ordeal these jungle night ceremonies can be! Yet the outer jungle discomforts soon give way to internal phenomena of another order—dizziness, purging, visions and altered states—as the Medicine takes effect. Then one finds oneself in a completely expanded and fluid dimension where normal limits on reality do not hold. This is the place where healings occur.
As I sat there feeling these multi-dimensional effects, two luminous apparitions, a man and a woman, walked out of the velvety darkness of the jungle and stepped into our circle. Their bodies were almost like living X-rays, not quite skeletal, not flesh and blood, but glowing, three-dimensional entities distinctly human in size and shape. Oddly, they wore Western medical garb and comported themselves almost matter-of-factly, like ordinary physicians. Their faces were devoid of all expression, as if they were above human emotion. I knew that they were not humans, but spirit doctors, the healing nature spirits we had ritually invoked at the beginning of the ceremony.
Nothing in my previous ayahuasca journeys had prepared me for this extraordinary encounter. They stood in the ceremonial circle and I watched them, heart pounding. I looked for don Antonio but he was no longer beside us. Then I looked around, straining my eyes in the darkness. He stood in the clearing amidst a swarm of bright yellowish orange dots. Face turned skyward, he waved his arms like a maestro in beautiful rhythmic gestures, conducting a ballet of fireflies and clouds.
The shaman was in his element, in deep communion with the spirits and full of ecstatic power, seeming both surrendered and very much in control. I saw that I was on my own. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. My body was in a state of hyper-vigilance beyond the typical physiological effects of the Medicine.
It was time for a reality check. Focusing intently, I scanned my surroundings as best as I could in the dark to compare these two spirit apparitions with what I knew to be tangible realities. I saw: Kay and Marcie on their benches, retching on the ground, oblivious to our two luminous guests; the mesa in front of me; the hut; and the two spirit doctors. All seemed equal, reality and spirit were indistinguishable to my present perceptions. This fact, both frightening and fascinating, was wreaking havoc with my sense of reality. I felt no fear of the spirit entities, who seemed benignly intent on their own purpose.
They went up to Kay, to whose healing this ceremony was primarily dedicated, and for whom we had invoked these spirits. I assumed they would work on Kay’s left polio-stricken leg. Instead, to my puzzlement, they went behind her and stood looking intently at her back. “No…what are they doing?” I protested silently. “Can’t they see that her leg is the problem?” I wondered again if this was a mere drug-induced hallucination.
I didn’t have the confidence or presence of mind to speak to these spirit doctors and ask them what they were doing. Silent, I watched the event unfold. The male spirit now produced out of nowhere a glowing white globe of energy about the size of a bowling ball. He and the female spirit together held this ball of white light directly against Kay’s spine at the base of her neck, then began to move it very slowly down her spine. After what seemed like an hour, they finally reached Kay’s sacrum with the glowing ball and held it there for some time. Then, in an instant, they vanished.
Now I looked over and saw Marcie, lying on the ground in fetal position, moaning, clutching her head and her stomach, so ill she could not sit up. The Medicine does that sometimes. Don Antonio now came and knelt beside her and began working with her. He was still attending to her when Kay and I finally stumbled back to our rooms many hours later, and he continued attending to her through the night and into the morning.
I was disappointed by the spirit doctors’ failure to treat Kay’s stricken leg, and by Marcie’s prolonged ordeal with the Medicine. I had hoped they would both have a strongly positive experience. But this apparently had not occurred.
Shaman’s sacred medicine, Ayahuasco ready to brew
Getting to the Source of the Problem
In the morning I crawled from under my mosquito net, still weak from the previous night’s ceremony. Seeing Kay refilling her canteen at the water jug, I went and joined her, to rinse the putrid taste from my mouth and check in on her and see how she was feeling.
“Well,” she asked me hopefully, “did you see me get a healing last night?” I swished some water around in my mouth, trying to find a diplomatic answer, since I believed she hadn’t received the healing she so desired. If I was disappointed, I knew she would be also. I felt responsible for her experience, and guilty that I had enthusiastically recounted to Kay, days earlier, several extraordinary ayahuasca healing stories. I felt I had given her false hope.
“Well, umm, I don’t know, Kay,” I began. “I’ll just tell you what I saw.” I then told her how two spirit doctors had come to her out of the jungle, pressed a bright ball of light against her spine for some time, running it from her neck down to her sacrum, and after leaving it there a while, had suddenly vanished. I didn’t mention their glaring omission…they had ignored her leg. I was surprised when Kay lit up at my report with a huge smile. She noticed my puzzled look.
“Don’t you get it, Connie?” she said. “Do you remember the etiology of polio? The virus attacks the motor neurons of the spinal cord. The polio-damaged motor-neurons in my spine that were still functioning are now failing me. That’s what post-polio syndrome is.” She was quite excited. “Those spirit doctors went right to the source of the problem. It sounds like they were recharging my failing spinal motor – neurons with that glowing ball of energy.”
This struck me as utterly remarkable. I had paid little attention to polio as a healthcare professional…it had essentially been eradicated in the United States before I reached pharmacy school. I now realized the misunderstanding had been mine. I was expecting them to treat the branches, while they had gone straight to the root of the problem. Had they merely treated Kay’s leg as I had expected them to do, they would have ignored the real problem, the damaged motor-neurons in the spine which were responsible for her post-polio disintegration.
When I asked her what she had experienced, she made the following report. “I saw a golden ball of light moving toward my body and stop still in front of me. I gazed at its inviting glow and saw my life bathed in a new light. As I continued staring at the golden light, I saw pieces of my life rearrange themselves. I realized that I was working too hard in a job that was not my true calling. When I was thinking about my job, the light grew dimmer. When I thought about my life continuing as it is, into the future, the light was nearly extinguished. When I thought about my real passion for making Ecuadorian pottery, the golden light grew bright and intense, and it made me feel warm, loved, connected and ecstatically happy. I feel physically and emotionally energized right now, even though I feel like I should rest.”
This contradiction between my perception of what had happened, and Kay’s experience, showed me both my own limitations and the mysterious power of the Medicine. I would try to keep in mind after this that there was often far more going on than I was aware of.
We all spent the day recuperating, quietly reflecting, taking naps to recharge and catch up on the sleep we’d missed during the all-night ceremony. Yet despite the intense nature of ayahuasca, it does not wear the body down. Overall, ayahuasca is profoundly healing and rejuvenating. Not only do I feel a greater sense of energy and aliveness over time, I also feel calmer and more grounded because of it as well. That is one reason it is called the Medicine. Late that afternoon don Antonio came into my room off the maloca and announced an ayahuasca healing ceremony to be held the next evening for Marcie. When he left I moaned and rolled over on my cot, wondering if I could really go through this again so soon. Still recuperating, I felt physically spent, emotionally drained, and my mind was in shreds.
“Well, you can be a shamana,” I reminded myself, “or go back to pharmacy.” Neither option seemed particularly appealing at the moment. It took what little energy I had left to crawl from under my mosquito netting and grab some dinner. After that I went straight back to bed again. I would need all my strength for tomorrow evening’s ceremony.
The Doctors Return for Marcie’s Healing
At 9 p.m., the next evening, after another day’s fast, we were again seated on the logs of the ceremonial circle outside the shaman’s hut, as prepared as we could be for the long night ahead. The smell of the burning copal, an aromatic jungle tree resin, on the mesa helped us to turn our focus inward to our intentions for the night. Don Antonio finished his preparations and blessed each of us with songs and tobacco smoke, covering Marcie in a blue swirling cloud. Marcie, the focus of tonight’s ceremony, had no physical maladies or complaints. I wondered what she might need besides a general healing and a spiritual blessing.
After the ritual blessing, don Antonio offered us each a dose of the Medicine and we settled in to wait. The sky was clear tonight and the light of the full moon radiated through the jungle canopy, pouring down through the clearing over the ceremonial area. This would make it easier to navigate back and forth when the purga began. And began it did…soon we were taking turns vomiting into the bushes. After this subsided, my mind cleared and my senses sharpened.
Forty-five minutes into the ceremony, I saw a far-off glow in the jungle, steadily approaching. As it drew nearer I made out the two spirit doctors. They had come again. They walked straight to Marcie and began a formal, even clinical examination. They first lifted her tee shirt and took turns palpating her stomach. Each carefully pressed and felt all around her abdominal area, as any western physician might do. Marcie seemed oblivious to their presence. Don Antonio was sitting on his log, looking elsewhere, absorbed in his own experience, seeming unaware of what I was seeing.
Tonight I was determined to speak with the spirit doctors, to interact with and learn from them. So I asked them if they were teaching me how to palpate patients. When they didn’t respond, I reached over to Marcie and put my hands directly on top of theirs, thinking to learn their technique.
“No,” the female spirit doctor clearly said. “You don’t do anything. We do all the work. You just host the vision.” Having been given my place, there was nothing to do but sit back and watch them work. Next they lowered Marcie’s pants and took turns palpating her pelvic area, from left to right, slowly, intently, with great care. Then I noticed them focusing on Marcie’s left pelvic area. After spending a good deal of time there, they stopped to converse in undertones. The female spirit doctor seemed quite concerned. She pressed deeply several times on one particular spot on Marcie’s left pelvic side. Each time Marcie would clutch her abdomen, groan, and then vomit. But she still seemed unaware of the two entities working on her.
Then, to my utter surprise, the female spirit doctor looked up at me and said, “She has ovarian problems.” “Are you sure?” I asked. “She hasn’t complained or said anything about it.” “We are sure,” she replied. “What should I do about it?” I was feeling very troubled and at a loss. “You don’t do anything about it,” the spirit doctor said, reminding me of who has the real power here. “We will take care of her. We are going to perform surgery.”
Riveted, I sat on my log and watched fascinated while the spirit doctors performed some sort of operation on Marcie’s ovaries. They both bent over her, focused intently on her pelvic area. One of them held Marcie’s clothing out of the way while the other moved both hands over Marcie’s ovaries. I was unable to distinguish exactly what was being done, but it seemed effortless and was over soon. When they had finished the procedure, Marcie’s vomiting episodes had subsided. Then, in silence, the spirit doctors walked off into the jungle whence they came.
Again, once they had disappeared I immediately began doubting what I’d seen. I looked over at Kay and don Antonio for confirmation, but they were both busy retching by the side of the hut. Marcie, her “surgery” finished, lay exhausted on the ground. I still didn’t know what to think or believe. I decided to talk to don Antonio in the morning about my “vision”.
Confirmation of the Vision
In the early morning hours, exhausted by the Medicine and the night’s events, I climbed into the hammock inside the hut and fell into a deep sleep. When I woke the next morning, Kay, Marcie and don Antonio were gathered out front around the mesa for a ceremonial closing circle, a kind of group debriefing. Kay would do the translating for us. Don Antonio had made everyone a tall glass of limón water, with jungle lime, a post-ayahuasca morning tonic. Don Antonio nodded to me as I joined in, and then toasted the group.
“Salud, to your health,” he raised his glass and sipped the tart green limewater. He began with a heartfelt acknowledgement, and then got to the point. “Marcie, I’ll start with you. First, I want to thank you for the sacrifices of time and energy you made to come here and participate in this healing ceremony. Now I must tell you something. I’m afraid that you have ovarian problems.”
Marcie’s eyes showed fearful concern. I was dumbstruck. Don Antonio’s words seemed to corroborate my vision of the previous night. I had spoken to no one, had told no one what I had seen, and believed that only I knew what had transpired during last night’s healing ceremony. Had don Antonio also seen the spirit doctors? Had we entered the same healing realm together last night? Could I, as his apprentice, now access the spirit realms where this healing work was done?
“What does that mean?” asked Marcie. “What should I do?” “Don’t worry,” said don Antonio, gently patting her shoulder. “The spirit doctors performed spiritual surgery on you last night during the ceremony.”
My god! I thought. They’re real! Apparently I wasn’t the only one who saw the spirit doctors last night, who heard their diagnosis and witnessed the “surgery”. This was the confirmation I needed. Now I could finally believe my own eyes. The spirit realm was real.
Meanwhile, Marcie looked relieved, even radiant. The color returned to her face and she said, “That’s interesting…you see, I had ovarian surgery as an adolescent. When my mother was pregnant with me she took the hormone DES, diethylstilbesterol, and it screwed up my ovaries. It didn’t occur to me to tell you about it, since it happened so long ago. I thought I was done with all that.
“I was so sick last night,” she continued. “Sick to death of myself. I’ve always felt ashamed that I couldn’t have children, that I’m no good for any man. I’ve run away from every meaningful relationship I’ve ever had. But I feel like I’ve purged all the shame from my body somehow. I don’t feel defective right now. I feel lovable.”
Being a pharmacist, I knew the daughters of women who took the hormone diethylstilbesterol during their pregnancies suffered many reproductive problems as a result. Marcie’s story further corroborated my experience with the spirit doctors, and the accuracy of their diagnoses. And it implied that a deeper spiritual healing, which Western medicine did not offer, was still needed some thirty years later.
“This is the start of a healing process for both of you,” replied don Antonio, looking at Marcie, and then at Kay. “But it’s up to you to make this a turning point. This is not a magical ceremony that removes a lifetime of physical distress. Even when spirit heals, you must still do your part afterwards, and make necessary life adjustments and changes. Otherwise you may simply reproduce further illness later on. This is how it is. You must follow the rest of the prescription, or you may lose what you have gained here.”
Now he looked at Kay. “Spirit showed you that you must stop working full-time at your job,” he said. “It is robbing you of vital energy you need to heal. Use the extra time you have to do what you really love, something that makes you feel good. Spirit has given you much positive energy with the healings and ceremonies. Now you must generate your own energia positiva for your ongoing healing.”
Kay’s eyes lit up as she quickly answered him. “Making pottery is the passion of my life. But I haven’t had the time or energy to do it for years. I’m afraid that if I don’t work, I won’t have enough money to take care of myself because of my deteriorating health.”
“My dear lady,” don Antonio replied firmly, “if you don’t stop working so hard, you won’t have a life worth saving. You are killing yourself slowly. But it’s your life!”
I could see that Kay took his words seriously. She knew in her heart that he was right. And she now promised to act on his words when she got home. Now don Antonio turned his attention to Marcie, who nervously awaited his “prescription”.
“Marcie, you must find yourself a good man and settle down. I can see in your heart how unsettled and out of balance you have been. Your sexuality is in chaos.” Don Antonio sipped his lime drink and waited.
“You’re right,” said Marcie. “My relationships have always been confused and fleeting. I never realized how much it had to do with my DES condition.” “Our physical health reflects our spiritual and emotional health,” don Antonio said. “Mind, body and emotions are interconnected. A shaman never treats the body as separate from the whole being. What you have experienced here is a start. You have a deep wound. Find a healing relationship. Listen to your spirit.”
I took a sip of lime drink and stared deeply into the green liquid. A mysterious medicinal world in microcosm seemed to swirl, with bits of lime, in my glass. Now I told don Antonio of my ayahuasca experiences with the spirit doctors, how I had spoken with them and watched them perform spiritual surgery on Marcie’s ovaries. I asked him to explain what it all meant, and what part he played in the healing ceremony.
“So who were the spirit doctors I saw?” I asked. “They were the spirits of the nature who help shamans. The patient drinks the ayahuasca in order to open up to the actions of these nature spirit doctors, whom they do not see. I can invoke and work with the spirit doctors because I have become one with the Medicine. Now you see them, because through your apprenticeship with the spirit and power of ayahuasca, you are also becoming one with the Medicine. This is what it means to be a shaman.”
As don Antonio drank up the last of the lime water, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked up at me and added, “This is the difference between your Western medicine and my spirited medicine. Your medicine has no magic in it.”
Shaman don Antonio preparing plants for sacred medicine brew
The Dream of the Nature Spirit Doctors
Around 8:30 PM I climbed through the mosquito netting into my bed and tucked myself in. I lay there, thinking about the spirit doctors, fascinated by their healing abilities, and amazed at their remarkable participation in the ceremonies. I felt that we were developing a working relationship.
Yet I was puzzled as to who or what these entities actually were. “Who are these spirit doctors?”
I kept thinking. And with this last question lingering in my mind, I drifted off to sleep.
In the middle of the night, the spirit doctors appeared to me in a dream as a mass of swirling energy.
“You called for us?” they asked, almost like genie’s summoned from a lamp. “Yes,” I answered.
“I’m curious. Exactly who and what are you? How can I explain you to others?”
“We are the shear unbridled healing forces of nature that you, as a shamana, are learning to harness and call upon,” they answered.
I first took this in relation to myself, and wondered if I was due a bit of credit for Kay and Marcie’s healings. But they quickly spoke in answer to this unspoken thought.
“It is we, the generative forces of nature, who do the healing. Not you.” And with that, they slipped away.
And so did I, into the depths of a sound sleep.
It was time for me to go home. Don Antonio and I shared the first leg of the return journey, a long boat ride through the primal jungle towards civilization. He was going with me as far as Iquitos.
I planned to check in on Marcie and Kay in a few weeks, to see what effects their healings might be having over time.
After a while, I became aware of the hum of the boat’s engine vibrating through the hull, and through my own body, lulling me into a pleasant trance. I sat quietly, looking out into the jungle—a mass of vegetation—simply feeling what was happening. I noticed my body swelling with the sound, as in previous ceremonies, and realized I was like an antennae picking up vibratory frequencies from the mass of vegetation that surrounded me, resonating to the primal sounds, the music and vibration of the rainforest.
In a kind of rapture, I looked up at don Antonio, caught his eye, and motioned to our surroundings. “This jungle is in my body and in my blood,” I said to him.
He gave a nod, surveying the lush panorama.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “Me, too.”
I am now emerging from nearly a decade’s apprenticeship to the spirits of the Amazon jungle, one of them being the rainforest shaman don Antonio. Pleased with my progress, and having recently released me from the rigorous dietas and disciplinas of my early apprenticeship, don Antonio he says he has found in me—an ordinary middle-aged Western woman, and his only non-indigenous apprentice—someone to carry on his lineage of healing knowledge. He refers to me as “the blue-eyed, white shamana who has become the spirit of the jungle.”
Who would have thunk?
I went to the Amazon in search of my own healing, and I became a shaman’s apprentice to find the magic that was missing in my own healing tradition. There I was cooked in a cauldron of shamanic medicine rituals, disciplinas and unusual life-experiences, and blown apart by the magnitude and mystery of spirit. In the end, this intense apprenticeship forced me to “let go.” At some point, it became clearly more useful to open my mind, disregard my prejudices, and discover what works rather than continue stubbornly to cling to the superiority of my Western medical model beliefs and presumptions. Letting go into the mystery of the healing power of deep nature has been a most liberating and humbling experience.
Mighty Amazon River: the Giver of Life
During my apprenticeship to a powerful Amazon rainforest shaman, and in the course of my own peculiar ordeal, I learned deeper spiritual truths of healing which my previous medical training failed to provide. I realized that the wealth of vital healing wisdom which the shamanic tradition offers could be combined with the technological wizardry of modern Western medicine to create a new paradigm of healing and health that encompasses the physical, mental, and spiritual domains.
As a pharmacist, I know that the conventional view of medicinal plants is one in which the plant is ingested for its pharmacologically active principles that change the physiology of our bodies to affect a cure. This is like functioning by the letter of the law of healing. But there is also the spirit of the law of healing by which all shamans who use the spirited plant medicine of ayahuasca function.
I have come to believe that both the letter and the spirit are needed for a truly holistic, or spirited medicine, to be achieved. What we need to evolve to in our Western medicine for our deepest healing is spirited medicine by spirited healers.