Amazonian Curanderismo – the art and science of plant spirit medicine

 

*Please note that this is part 1 of a 3 part series. Part 2 is on Plant Dieta and part 3 is on Icaros (medicine songs). Originally published on my other website http://www.sensenya.org/

There are many forms of “Curanderismo” (what many of us in the West

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By Luis Tamani

might call shamanism- a term that actually originates in Siberia in reference to their traditional healers) – the practice of animist plant, elemental and ancestral spirit medicine. What we present here is our own ever-evolving perspective and understanding, formed during the 5 years we lived in the Peruvian Amazon, 4 of which were in full-time apprenticeship with indigenous Shipibo curanderos of the Mahua-Lopez lineage.

They taught us a framework of curanderismo that we applied to co-facilitate hundreds of people through intensive healing retreats ranging from 2-10 weeks in length. Though we do not claim to be representatives of this tradition, we continue to be influenced by it and we have done our best to carry into our practice what we feel are the essential and transferable seeds of Shipibo curanderismo.

These seeds are now being nurtured in the soil of our own understanding, ancestry, land and context, allowing new forms to emerge that are appropriate to those we serve. It is worth bearing in mind that curanderismo is a living, multidimensional and nonlinear system which is quite impossible to capture it in its entirety, especially as its form changes, sometimes quite significantly between lineages, or even between practitioners within the same lineage. Here we only attempt to give you a snapshot of some of its elements.

What is Curanderismo?

Curanderismo is a blanket term that covers many different forms of traditional animistic, relational and ritual folk medicine practices across Latin America. Much of what we discuss here is specific to the Peruvian Amazon Basin and even more specific to the indigenous Shipibo people. Capturing this system in words is somewhat challenging because it is, in its nature, adaptive, permeable and in a constant state of evolution (especially since its exposure to Western culture). Each curandero(a) expresses their craft in a unique way, reflecting the depth of relationship to their local environment and the specific needs of those seeking out their medicine.

Curanderismo- more than just ayahuasca ceremonies

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Ayahuasca Vine

Many of the people flocking to the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca (or partaking in weekend ceremonies elsewhere in the world) are totally unaware that it is only one part, and oftentimes not even a very significant part of a much wider traditional healing system. Animistic, curanderismo sees everything in “nature” as sentient, multidimensional and capable of being in relationship with us. The practitioner of curanderismo is someone who has cultivated strong relationships with these other-than-human peoples so that they may be guided and empowered by them in their healing work.

It is a sophisticated relational and spiritual technology, where the curandero combines their extensive understanding of local medicinal plants and cleansing practices with their ability to enter into altered states and partner with spirit beings (predominantly the spirits of plants, but animal, ancestor, elemental and deities are also called upon) for the purpose of healing and addressing the spiritual/energetic imbalances that are seen to be the root of most dis-ease. It can be an exceptionally subtle and non-linear process. Cultivated in isolation, this form of medicine evolved without exposure to Western reductionist/materialist thought for thousands of years until very recently.

Branches and specializations

Amazonian curanderismo is comprised of many different branches and specializations. One of the primary branch splits you will see in the Peruvian Amazon, is that of indigenous curanderismo and mestizo curanderismo.

Indigenous traditions are many, but two well known ones are the Shipibo-Conibo in Peru or the Huni Kuin in Brazil. Though the indigenous curanderismo traditions are considered to be closer to the pre-colonial forms of practice, most of them now show post-colonial elements due to their inevitable exposure to Western culture through colonization, tourism and the intensive Christian missionization of the Amazonia’s.

The other main branch is mestizo curanderismo, which came about after the slave trade during the Rubber Boom. Many indigenous tribes were torn apart and placed into working camps alongside members of other tribal groups and together they were rigorously missionized. During this time, there was a lot of mixing of indigenous cosmologies and healing technologies with elements of Christianity. While mestizo people are often thrown into one group, there can be significant differences between practitioners and their healing styles. Here are some of the many specializations within curanderismo that can be found:

Specialisations within curanderismo

  • Hueseros who are the ‘bone doctors’ of the jungle. They are specialists in manipulating bones, tendons, and ligaments.
  • Tabaquero is someone who works almost entirely with different preparations of the very sacred, highly revered and potent plant, tobacco. A certain preparation can also be ingested to achieve an altered state for healing work similar to ayahuasca.
  • Sananguero is someone who specializes in working with the ‘sanango’ family of plants and who creates different preparations from these plants depending on the various issues being presented.
  • Perfumera is a plant doctor who specializes in the use of fragrant plants and flowers preparations for healing purposes. 
  • Palero is someone who specializes in medicinal and purgative preparations made from tree barks and resins.
  • Vegetalista is a specialist in plant medicines, basically a jungle folk herbalist. This word is sometimes used interchangeably with curandero although typically a vegetalista is more focused on plant medicines then ayahuasca, and their work may not involve the use of ayahuasca at all.
  • Brujo is a black magic practitioner, someone who uses their connections with plants spirits, ancestors, nature beings and ayahuasca in order to cause harm, bad-luck, and illness to others. There are many types of brujo’s and oftentimes the line between healer and brujo is not so easily defined.
  • Pusanguero is someone who specializes in love magic, which in certain instances may also be considered a form of ‘black magic’.
  • Midwives are those who specialize in plant and spirit medicine only in relation to women, birth, and babies.
  • Faith/prayer healers are those in the jungle who heal simply through prayer and song. For example, they may pray or ‘icarar’ a bottle of water and give that to the patient as medicine.

Styles of ayahuasca ceremony facilitation in the world today: traditional, therapeutic, contemporary and religious

*We will touch briefly on some other styles of working with the medicine, just to put curanderismo into some context. Please be aware that the categories we describe below are not fixed and many more may exist that we are not aware of*

  • We are currently in the midst of a global psychedelic revolution and entheogenic research is being legalised for the 1st time since their eruption and suppression in the 60’s. As part of this new wave, we are seeing a strong push towards the legalization of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. This typically involves a standardized dose of the substance in question (MDMA, Psilocybin, Ketamine, DMT, Ibogaine or ayahuasca) being administered in a clinical setting, under the care of a qualified psychotherapist. In certain countries, this would be the only legal way to engage these medicines. Here we generally see ayahuasca being removed from it’s broader medicinal, animistic, relational, diagnostic and traditional cultural context within Amazonian curanderismo, and instead, taking place within the western psychotherapeutic paradigm with a strong emphasis on the internal, psychological dimensions of the experience, and as part of an ongoing therapeutic relationship.
  • Another common way to work with ayahuasca outside of the Amazon jungle, especially those attending one-off ceremonies or weekend-long retreats, would be with a contemporary facilitator/space holder/ neo-shaman. This is a recent development that has come with the rapid globalisation of ayahuasca use. The facilitator will often serve the medicine to a group or individual and then ‘hold-space’ by singing songs and mantras (as distinct from icaros), playing instruments, putting on a playlist, sitting in silence or doing guided meditations. Many of the facilitators of this category have little or no traditional training but will often use this work to compliment other healing modalities and practices within a New Age or Neo-Shamanic context, 
  • The Religious use of Ayahuasca is not an area we are very familiar with so we won’t go into too much detail here, but we are aware of two main Christian religious groups that originated in Brazil: the Santo Daime and the UDV. Both use ayahuasca as a sacrament in their congregational gatherings. It’s a very community-based way of working with the medicine and is led by someone called a Padrino(a) (a kind of shamanic priest/ess). In our limited experience, it usually involves singing Christian hymns mostly in Portuguese, lights/candles are on (by contrast, Shipibo ceremonies are always done in darkness) and there may be line dancing. In the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda/Condomble Daime churches; drumming, vigorous dancing and even ancestral mediumship are elements of the experience. There are now have churches all over the world and it’s a fairly common way to work with the medicine these days. They have also inspired many contemporary practitioners who emulate their community based and celebratory style without the religious elements. We are also aware of certain Vajrayana Buddhist sanghas that use ayahuasca to deepen their awakening/meditative practices and Indian Ayurvedic gurus who bring ayahuasca to their followers. We would not be surprised if there were many other religious and spiritual traditions starting to weave ayahuasca into their practice.
  • An ayahuasquero (this term can mean different things to different people, and is sometimes used interchangeably with the word curandero or vegetalista) is someone who has undergone traditional training in the preparation of ayahuasca and the facilitation of ceremonies. They will likely have undertaken at least a few plant dietas and be skilled in the use of icaros, working with helping spirits and in ceremonial energy work. For an ayahuasquero, ayahuasca ceremonies are the primary focus of their healing work and they may or may not have much knowledge of diagnosis, the use of medicinal plants or other traditional healing practices outside of the ceremony itself. Many Westerners with basic ayahuasquero training (maybe a few months to a few years) are complementing this work with other healing modalities, counselling and psychotherapy skills and/or spiritual awakening practices.
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Helm and I with one of our teachers, curandero Don Rono Lopez.
  • curandero is some who has undergone years, maybe even decades of intensive training and apprenticeship, usually within a specific traditional lineage that may go back hundreds, if not thousands of years. They usually have extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and their applications for healing purposes and a wide range of other practices they use to treat their patients. The efficacy of their work is reliant on the depth of relationship they have cultivated with their other-than-human allies through the practice of “Dieta”. They are generally skilled in diagnostics, and in the use of icaros and spiritual/energetic work in ceremonies. Each curandero has their own gifts, strengths, plant diets and spiritual connections and so no two will be the same. They utilize a unique constellation of approaches to treatment. To a curandero, ayahuasca is only one small part of an entire system of medicine and spiritual relating, and in some cases, the brew may not be used at all. Working with a curandero usually takes place over weeks, months and possibly even years.

The curandero’s medicine bag

Most curanderos will use a combination of modalities to help their patients address the cause of their disease and return to a state of balance. Some of the primary modalities include:

  • Purgatives are medicines used to cleanse and detoxify the body by causing people to either vomit, shit, sweat profusely, expel mucus through the sinuses or all of the above. They are a vital step in this healing system and may be used quite intensely depending on the strength of the patient and the conditions being treated. Purgatives are often given at the outset of a treatment process to cleanse the body in preparation for receiving medicines (our Shipibo teachers would often tell us that we need to ‘clear space’ for the medicine spirits to be able to enter and do their work). In some cases, purgatives are done every day or every other day. They also cleanse on energetic, emotional and psychic levels and can lead to profound shifts in health and consciousness all on their own.
  • Specialised healing diets and fasts are given to all patients regardless of their condition. Most healing diets avoid salt, sugar, oil, strong spices, meat (occasional fish and chicken may be allowed but pork is a STRONG taboo) for the duration of the treatment, although extra restrictions may be advised depending on what plant medicines are being administered or the condition being treated. Sometimes water fasting is also prescribed. This is another essential part of a curandero’s treatment and this practice can also yield outstanding results all on its own (not to be confused with the practice of Plant Dieta which is explained in-depth in part 2 of this blog series).
  • Behavioural restrictions such as avoiding the release of your sexual energy through intercourse or masturbation during the treatment process (that energy is conserved and utilized toward the healing instead), and being advised to enter into periods of isolation, silence and/or undistracted rest. Sometimes you may also be told to avoid swimming or going into direct sunlight.
  • Plant medicines are multidimensional in their use in this context. They are not simply seen as a collection of chemicals with certain ‘actions’ but rather as physical correspondents of sentient beings, which can treat a human on multiple levels (in fact some medicines are given for their spiritual or energetic effects as opposed to physical). Sometimes only one preparation is given and sometimes many different medicines are used both internally and externally depending on the condition(s) being treated. This can include tinctures, infusions, decoctions, creams, inhalants as well as eating certain plants or their seeds. Sometimes animal parts are also used, such as the fat of a boa constrictor being rubbed into joints or eating the organs of certain jungle animals.
  • Plant baths are another keystone modality for most curanderos. Plant baths such as vapor/steam baths, flower baths or smoke baths are generally used to treat conditions that are more energetic and spiritual in nature. Examples of this would be those caused by black magic (brujeria), external entity attachments, envy, bad luck or soul loss.
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    A vapor bath for cleansing and protection
  • Bodywork is utilized either through massage with medicinal plant creams/salves or through a type of jungle ‘cupping’ method. Hueseros will have a much deeper knowledge in this area and may work to reset bones, ligaments, and tendons in painful yet effective ways.
  • Dietas of master plants are usually undertaken by students of curanderismo but in some cases they may be prescribed for healing purposes, usually to strengthen the patient’s spirit or to give them energetic defenses. Dieta’s are covered more in depth in part two of this series.
  • Ayahuasca and ceremonial energy work are primarily performed through medicine songs called Icaros. These songs are empowered by spirits who allow the curandero to energetically ‘see into’ his patient and accomplish a vast array of energetic functions. Icaros are covered in depth in part three of this series. Before the boom in popularity of ayahuasca that occurred in the late 90s/early 2000s, it was more common for patients to attend ceremonies without drinking the ayahuasca themselves. Simply being present in the ceremony was often enough for a curandero to make their diagnosis, do energetic work and receive guidance on the patient’s treatment plan from the doctor spirits.
  • Complimentary modalities are also currently used at many of the Westernized ‘healing retreat centers’ in the Amazon. It is not uncommon to see traditional curandero treatments being complemented by yoga, meditation, qi gong, art therapy, somatic trauma therapies, counseling, spiritual practices from other traditions, integration counseling, acupuncture and even certain ‘modern’ health practices such as enemas, liver cleanses and raw vegetable juices. In our experience, these additions can be very useful in treating cases of more ‘Westernised’ illnesses, mental health conditions, and trauma.

As you can see, working with a curandero can be multifaceted and often times a challenging experience, both inside and outside of ceremonies. Though we have a preference for how we ourselves choose to work with these medicines, we also appreciate the different paths and approaches (when they are done responsibly) and believe that each unique offering brings something different to the spectrum of healing that is deeply needed right now. As mentioned above, none of these categories are static and new ones are evolving all the time. This exploration is just to give a general idea and potentially help to guide you toward the type of practitioner that may be most suited to your needs.

Things to be aware of and/or look out for

  • Dualism and the maps of navigation

The Amazonian curanderismo traditions are dualistic for the most part and there tends to be pretty strong distinctions made between the good and the bad, the dark and the light, self and other. A lot of their healing work involves seeking out the “bad” energies and spirits and clearing of them out, and then calling in and reconnecting folks to the “good” energies and spirits. “Bad” can also mean misplaced, broken or misaligned and not necessarily “evil”, as in certain spirits or energies that cause trouble when they are removed from their ecology, have been disturbed or are in the wrong place. Having said this, they also believe that most plants contain light and dark aspects and also recognise classes of beings that can cause trouble/be dangerous but are also protectors or powerful healing forces under certain circumstances. This approach is deeply animistic and requires skillful navigation and communication with an entire ecology of spiritual beings and forces.

This is quite distinct from the contemporary ‘awakening’ approach that many westerners have, where the purpose is the realization of our true nature beyond concepts of good/bad, of a fixed and unchanging Self, or beyond dualities of self/other as described in traditions such as Dzogchen Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita etc. In this approach, any engagement with ‘spirits’ may be perceived as a distraction from the real goal of spiritual liberation. It can also be quite different from the psycho-therapeutic approach where the purpose is self-exploration, individuation, shadow-work and the healing of relational wounding and trauma. Here we are intentionally cultivating relationship with shadow parts and allowing the completion of frozen traumas which may be at odds with the shamanic approach at times.

It’s important to understand that the lenses or maps that one uses to navigate altered states can make a big difference to the experience and outcome of our work with plants. This will covered in more detail in other posts.

While the plant medicines themselves have great potential to assist on the paths of awakening and psychological healing, many Westerners may be disappointed if they are seeking this kind of guidance and modeling from a curandero. For this reason, we are now seeing many Westerner facilitators integrating these other maps and frameworks into their way of working or various healing centers in the Amazon and around the world bringing psychotherapists and yogic practitioners onto their teams to support and complement the potent yet very specific and important work of traditional curanderos.

  • The Pedestal

yodaMany people assume that skilled curanderos are psychologically individuated or spiritually realized/illuminated beings, but in our experience, this is often not the case. They may be exceptionally skilled at their work and achieve impressive healing results with their clients but most curanderos are just regular people with all their own wounds and trauma’s. In fact, like most people around the world, most indigenous and mestizo curanderos will have significant ancestral trauma and be experiencing the devastating effects of colonisation on their traditional lifeways.

Projecting your shamanic fantasy onto a curandero or holding them to some unrealistic ideal of the perfected human is a form of violence and will likely result in disappointment. In our experience, some of the best healers come with some pretty unsavory character traits and habits such as alcoholism. It is up to each person to decide what they are willing to put up with.

  • Ego-inflation and shadow chaos

Unfortunately, it can be very tricky to navigate the world of plant medicine facilitation (and all types of ceremonial/spiritual facilitation as demonstrated by call-out and cancel culture) with integrity and a genuine heart of compassion and service. The process requires that one learns to work with very potent energies which have the potential to achieve very impressive results in a short amount of time. People can become drunk on the power they feel and the positive projections they receive, wanting to take credit for the results which can lead to ego-inflation. It is a good idea to look for humbleness in your practitioners, bragging about power and healing achievements is generally a pretty big red flag. 

Plants medicines can also be non-specific amplifiers of big-egounconscious material and will often lead shadow aspects of the mind to surface. While this can be very therapeutic in the right circumstances and support, without sufficient awareness or willingness to hear feedback, these aspects may start creating chaos (this goes for anyone working with plant medicines long-term). This can result in any number of very confusing situations- for example, a skilled curandero may successfully assist in the healing of a grave illness in one patient and then go on to engage abusive patterns with another.

  • Brujeria/Black Magic

There is also the brujeria (black magic) aspect of the tradition to consider. Here one is undertaking dieta’s and cultivating spiritual relationships similar to that of the curandero but with the intention of causing harm. In the Amazon, many illnesses are thought to be caused by black magic and so healers need to be adept at identifying, removing and defending against such energies- and then placing protections on their patients to prevent its return.

We also learned that students of curandersimo can unconsciously/ unintentionally do black magic when they have strong feelings of anger or envy towards another in ceremony, when they seek shortcuts in their training or when they unknowingly engage the dark side of the plant teachings during plant dieta’s. Another form of black-magic that can be used, is ‘love magic’- some curandero’s use their knowledge of plants and energies to seduce women. This is called Pusangaria and unfortunately not uncommon. The line between healer and brujo can be quite blurry, with many crossing that line during their training whether intentionally or not.

  • Sexual harassment and abuse

Unfortunately stories of sexual harassment and abuse in ceremony or before or after are becoming a lot more common. This is a very serious and complicated topic, we have co-written a whole document that speaks to this in detail here: https://www.saferceremony.com/

  • Charlatans and ‘instant-noodle shamans’

It is also wise to keep a lookout for the many charlatans and ‘instant-noodle shamans’ that have come with the massive boom in ayahuasca tourism. Make no mistake, for many people ayahuasca is a business and this commodification has created opportunities for numerous individuals to pretend to come from traditional family lineages, to have ‘authentic’ training or to be powerful curanderos, both in the Amazon and around the world. Unfortunately, it can be hard to spot charlatans if you are inexperienced within the world of plant medicine- and sometimes even if you are experienced because Ayahuasca, positive projection and issues with transference may blind you. Its important that you look very carefully at the people you choose to work with, try to verify their lineage and training is possible, and get first-hand character references from experienced and trusted people. If in doubt, stay clear! 

  • Colonisation and Aya Tourism

We also cannot look at curanderismo without also turning towards the effects of the painful and violent history of colonization that is ongoing to this day; displacement, inter-generational trauma, dismantling of community structures, indoctrination by missionaries, widespread ecological destruction, the influence of materialism, cultural appropriation, western industrial culture and the commercial ayahuasca sales paradigm have all had a devastating effect on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, their culture, spirituality, and way of life. This topic is a book in and of itself and will be covered in more depth in later posts, but is important to keep in mind because its consequences are deeply embedded and are very much a part of the package in our experience.

Final words

Bearing all of the above in mind, we recommend spending time assessing what kind of facilitator might best suit your needs and really doing your homework, asking plenty of questions, using your intuition in combination with discernment, and preferably getting first-hand recommendations from someone you can trust before settling on any specific curandero, ayahuasquero, contemporary facilitator or psychdelic therapist. Take your time in investigating and educating yourself.

For anyone who feels genuinely drawn to this path, navigating these obstacles can be well worth the trouble and may even be a part of its trickster magic. We have been fortunate enough to witness and personally experience profound healing and growth from this system of healing and feel deep gratitude for all that we have received and continue to receive from our other-than-human teachers.

*Please note that this is part 1 of a 3 part series. Part 2 is on Plant Dieta and part 3 is on Icaros (medicine songs). To know more about my plant medicine offerings go to http://www.sensenya.org/

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