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Drinking the Four Winds
A Shamanic Love Story
By Ross Heaven
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Author Name
All rights reserved.
GRACE AND MADNESS
With everything so perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile ... as tenuous as a soap bubble, shivering and empty
Scott Westerfield, Pretties
Grace and Madness, the 6th International Conference on Amazonian Shamanism, was held in Iquitos, Peru. For six years it had been a forum for presentations and workshops on rainforest medicines, mainly centred on Ayahuasca: the vine of souls, the gateway to madness or liberation from it. Jungle shamans are brought together – including 'superstars' like Guillermo Arevalo and Percy Garcia and lesser-known but talented healers and medicine men such as Ron Wheelock and Adela Navas – to offer stories and insights into their healings with Ayahuasca and their views on how and why this visionary brew is able, where Western medicines fail, to cure conditions such as addiction, trauma and many other physical and emotional problems.
They are joined on the programme by Western academics, authors and scientists who have studied (and drunk) the medicine themselves and who have their own stories to tell. This year, according to schedule worked out - and often frantically reworked - by the organisers (since hardly anything goes smoothly or to plan in Peru) they include Peter Gorman, former editor of High Times and author of a recently published book on Ayahuasca, Dennis McKenna (brother of Terence), Pablo Amaringo, the world-renowned visionary artist ... and me. At this gathering I'm a nobody and I'm not even here to talk about Ayahuasca so I'm expecting a lukewarm response when I begin speaking about something which I presume the audience has little interest in.
The gathering isn't as big as in previous years – maybe a few hundred people and they don't attend every presentation so some speakers, as interesting as they are, get only a handful of listeners. Eventually it's my turn and I'm not hoping for much.
As I am introduced however there is a murmur in the room and people start walking over from wherever they have congregated or vanished to. By the time I reach the stage – a circular platform surrounded by delegates' tables – almost everyone is there. There are no seats left so people are standing three deep behind them in some places, waiting to hear what I have to say.
That's when I get it. I am here to talk about San Pedro – a mescaline cactus not a DMT potion of vines and leaves; Andean mountain rather than Amazonian jungle medicine – and yet, even at this conference with its traditional focus on rainforest shamans and the vine of souls, people want to hear. The times are changing it seems, just as the healing needs of people and the culture they belong to change. Maybe San Pedro is the medicine we most need now.
My theory is supported by other events this week. The conference runs for eight days and most shamans offer ceremonies during this time which delegates can attend. We hear through the conference that the shamans have done well and their ceremonies attract 20 or so attendees - which is good; under normal circumstances an Ayahuasca ritual might only have half that number. At the jungle retreat Centre I own however we are running San Pedro ceremonies and they draw almost 100 people. Interest in the cactus outstrips the call of the vine.
I think I know why. I first visited Peru to drink Ayahuasca in 1998 and I've been back many times to do so, my visits eventually culminating in my purchase of the healing Centre I now own in Iquitos where my business partner Trudy and I offer this plant medicine to our clients to help with their healing needs. In the 12 years that I have worked with the brew I've got to know it well and it seems to me that it opens up new worlds of possibility for people, freeing the soul from the body so it can travel the universe and they can see their lives from the perspective of the infinite, aware of all the choices and potential they have. San Pedro, by contrast, is a plant of the Earth which enables the spirit of the universe to enter them and show them all that is possible in this lifetime, in this body, in this world. Its healing is more direct and immediate than Ayahuasca and more meaningful because it is rooted in what is real and happening in their lives right now. It is this groundedness, this experience of spirit in the everyday that our participants have come for. They want to know how to be, how to act in the world, how to heal themselves and find meaning.
Over the years, San Pedro has become an important teacher for me. The reason I am in Peru now in fact is to begin an apprenticeship with the cactus which will involve dieting it (a shamanic process of fasting, meditation and drinking San Pedro at regular intervals) so it can teach me how to heal.
Our first ceremony during the conference is run by La Bruja, a curandera from the Andes who has flown to Iquitos to stay with us and is also speaking at the conference. I first drank her San Pedro five years ago and since then she has become a friend and a teacher to me. Her medicine is strong and we drink it in beautiful surroundings, the ritual beginning on the porch at the back of our casa grande, the big house where our clients and participants stay, overlooking our lagoon and the forest beyond it. The day was warm and humid, the sky cloud-free and azure-blue and a sense of peace descended as people entered their San Pedro dreams and found quiet places for reflection and healing. Some laughed like children and played in the water; some cried, exploring old wounds. Business as usual for San Pedro, the mellow healer who gently coaxes the pain from sorry souls.
Its healing approaches in waves. You feel it gently at first and then it recedes a little. The next wave is stronger and lasts longer. The next is stronger still. The whole process takes perhaps four hours until you are fully held by San Pedro, although you feel its spirit enter you way before that. The journey lasts a further six to eight hours, a ten or twelve hour experience in total, sometimes longer; sometimes a lifetime.
During the day I reflected on the past – the twists and turns of fate that had brought me to this place – and the future: what I was going to make of this strange new environment now I had given up 'civilisation' for the jungle. Both the past and the future are going to be important in this story but it was the present which suddenly consumed me because, sitting on that porch, senses heightened by San Pedro, what I was most aware of was the presence of two other people. It radiated like an energy from them, grabbing my attention.
One was from someone on my right and felt female. I took a glance and saw a woman, mid-30s, a volunteer at our Centre whose name was Jane. She had long dark hair and was quite pretty but it seemed to me that she was also in some way unhappy, perhaps even damaged by something from her past. I had heard a lot about her, some of which supported my sense of her now, as she already had a history at our camp, but I had only spoken to her briefly and did not know her well. There was a book at her side, The Count of Monte Cristo, a classic story of failed love and the search for freedom and vengeance.
The other energy came from someone behind me and felt, unsubtly, to be boring into my back and rummaging through my soul; checking me out. It came from a man, I knew that, but I wasn't going to turn around and see who. Instead, I started sending out energy 'vibes' of my own to check on him.
Who and what I discovered in both of these people was going to change a lot of things around here and be part of some amazing adventures to come. The future was already calling but it was the past which had brought me here. 1998 had been a pivotal year.
THE BEGINNING – AND AN END
In the safe island of my mind [I]created an art that amounted to buffoonery, a brilliant veneer to hide the darkness of thieves like myself – thieves who pillaged the earth, robbing others of their health, transforming their time into a hard personal shell, dividing others' space into dog kennels in which these citizens, befuddled by the walls, accepted their obligatory blindness
Alejandro Jodorowsky, film director and Zen Master
1998. Sometime around September
I am on a plane to Vancouver where I will be doing ... very important things. For the last 14 years since graduating with a degree in psychology and related subjects I have been using these disciplines to manipulate the minds of others as an international marketing consultant; inviting them with a winning smile and a subliminal mallet to love my clients as much as I clearly did (even though I actually had little love for them myself). I now mainly represent medical and pharmaceutical companies and my job basically amounts to wearing flashy suits and taking clients to dinner so I can tell them how to run their own businesses – because I, of course, know best. Like I said, I do very important things.
I'm drinking a Bloody Mary on Air Canada, on my way to a conference where I will, of course, have an important role to play, and I really should be smiling to myself at my close-to-six-figure salary and the BMW I drive when the national UK wage even today - is barely a third of what I earned then and most people have to work for a living. I'm not smiling though. I'm depressed. Disillusioned might be a better word.
Inevitably, because I know I can (and because she's in love with her designer lifestyle and self-importance too) I will sleep with the woman next to me who works for a 'rival' company and is going to the same conference, even though we've barely met. This will happen after dinner at some oyster bar near the river and a bottle or two of expense account wine where we will toast our salaries and egos. In the morning we'll say goodbye, nothing more, and she'll be gone. Then we will both return to the business of being important and regard each other as competitors. Her name is Claire. I'm amazed I can even remember it.
And that's how it was for me. Empty highs and empty sex with other Masters of the Universe; all of it on account; all of it amounting to nothing. We were international airborne whores paid for by someone else. At first I thought it was only the companies I represented which were picking up the tab but increasingly I'd come to realise that the people who were really paying were those who could least afford to. I'd had hidden it from myself for years but the shabbiness I felt now at my own success was undeniable and it revealed my deeper feelings.
On this trip I was representing two pharmaceutical clients, both of them in the HIV business, at a conference on HIV and AIDS. They used different technologies to manage the progression of the disease and its effect on sufferers so they saw no conflict of interest and I was impartial, giving my love and devotion to both, although, had I known it then (which I didn't because it was never made public, even to Masters of the Universe) the approach of one of my clients, Roche - or rather, the origins of its HIV technology - would have grabbed my attention more. Roche used a process called polymerase chain reaction or PCR to enable early diagnosis of diseases such as leukaemia and lymphomas, both associated with AIDS. The sensitivity of PCR meant that the virus could be detected soon after infection and before the onset of serious disease, which might give physicians a head start in treatment.
What interests me now is not the science however, but that the inventor of PCR, Kary Mullis, like his fellow pioneer Francis Crick, had used what science teachers, politicians and lawmakers would like us to believe is an unusual approach to come up with his idea (although in my experience it is far from unusual in reality): he got high – and it got him a Nobel Prize.
Crick was the first to identify the structure of DNA. To do so he used LSD, a psychedelic derived from ergot, a fungus thought to be the basis of the 'flying ointment' of European witches. In his autobiography he writes about falling into a dreaming state where he saw snakes writhing together in a caduceus form and from that Eureka moment he was able to crack the DNA code. Rather self-effacingly he referred to this dream-clad revelation (which led to one of the greatest discoveries of our age) as simply 'a not insignificant idea', a phrase I love to this day. Mullis was similarly inspired and later said of his own experiences: 'What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR? ... I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.' It turns out that shamans and scientists, alchemists and chemists, establishment and anti-establishment revolutionaries are not so far removed from one another.
I didn't know any of that back in 1998 however. If I had it might have given me at least a new outlook, something to grab my attention and interest, but as it was I was bored, sick of myself, and had the uncomfortable feeling that I had become little more than a scavenger at the scrap end of science. Perhaps it was worse than that. Perhaps I was a murderer, at least by association.
When you join the medical profession – at whatever level: doctor, surgeon, chemist or even someone like me – you are told it is noble work; that you are aiding the welfare of humanity, helping and caring for people. And you believe it. You want to. But the reality, after a couple of years in the business, becomes apparent as something else.
The first contradiction is that pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals (physicians, research scientists ... or marketing consultants) are first and foremost bill-payers and, like any commercial enterprise, they exist to make money and depend on customer loyalty. That, however, is a phrase which means something different in medicine than in most other professions. If you are Wal-Mart or Burger King, customer loyalty amounts to giving your client a taste for your product so they keep coming back. If you're a drug company however, the same principle means keeping your customers sick since there is no money to be made from curing a disease. A healthy patient is not a loyal customer. Directors would be out of a job and shareholders up in arms if AIDS or cancer or the common cold were cured tomorrow, although, most likely, the technology actually exists. There are billions of dollars to be made from managing disease however: never quite curing it but alleviating enough of the symptoms so that people feel a little better and come back for repeat prescriptions. The customer still goes away sick but at least not dead (there is no money in that either, a cynic might add).
Then there are the legalities of drug production which mean that the raw essence of a pharmaceutical, invariably a plant, cannot be patented. You can't 'own' a natural material. What this means for drug companies is that they must typically employ anthropologists and ethnobotanists (collectively known as bioprospectors) to visit areas of interest (the rainforest being a prime location) and develop relationships with shamans and native healers who can introduce them to plants with healing properties so that their 'active ingredients', which are patentable, can then be extracted. Their arrangement with these local experts is usually less than fair and normally falls way short of reciprocity, the shaman receiving a few hundred dollars or products in kind (guns, clothes, Western medicines or even a few beads have historically been some of the commodities exchanged) for knowledge which may net the drug company billions.
One of the issues that troubled me ... is what has come to be called "intellectual property rights". Briefly stated, no matter what disease an ethnobotanist might find a cure for during the course of his research, the indigenous peoples who taught him the cure would not benefit from the sales of the new drug
Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist and author of Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice
As a consequence of the shaman's co-operation in this 'healing mission' whole areas of rainforest might then be exploited or destroyed as drug (and other) companies commercialise the jungle and take the plants that interest them, which also means that native people have fewer medicines left for themselves.
Around 125,000 species – almost half the plants on Earth - are found in tropical rainforests, which cover almost eight billion acres of the world's surface. Estimates vary but it is well-known that several thousands of these rainforest acres are destroyed each year by Western companies or local farmers under Western sponsorship ... There is no doubt that many of these plants hold the keys to life-saving new medicines – we know this from the less-than-one-percent that have been studied - and yet every year thousands more are destroyed
Leslie Taylor, The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs
Dr Norman Farnsworth (University of Illinois, Chicago) writes that 'Worldwide, one in three plant-derived drugs come from tropical rainforest plants [and] only a small fraction has been investigated for medicinal purposes. It is reasonable to believe that further investigation of tropical rainforest plants will yield important drugs to treat diseases for which we still have no satisfactory cures'. With the rainforest destroyed however – sometimes, ironically, at least partly because of the drug companies looking for those cures – it is reasonable to expect that we may never find them.
Excerpted from Drinking the Four Winds by Ross Heaven. Copyright © 2012 Author Name. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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