In many previous blog postings, I have referred to dietas with different Amazonian plants and trees. Here, I want to write a blogpost about dietas in general, which also will include the particular plants and trees that I have dieted with. I’m hoping this will form a useful resource for people considering dietas.
If you have been drinking ayahuasca for a while, and are interested in taking your work with La Madre further, the next step is to do a dieta. This deepens and extends the process of working with the medicine. Dietas last a minimum of eight days and can be up to one year or longer. I have heard of shorter dietas, and even people dieting one plant a day for twenty consecutive days, but I have serious doubts about these. To really make contact with a plant spirit requires time.
The way I have done dietas is as follows. The dieta is first opened by a Maestr@ in an ayahauasca ceremony. The following night, the plant/tree being dieted is drunk. Ceremonies then follow every other night, with the plant being dieted usually being drunk once or twice more on the nights between the initial ayahuasca ceremonies. In the final ceremony, the dieta is closed by the same Maestr@ and sealed into the person with a special song called an arkana.
There is an excellent article about dietas here – which I always link to when writing about dietas. The first three paragraphs are:
“Dieta is a Spanish word that means – simply enough – “diet.”
However, when used in Amazonian herbalist traditions that deal with the more powerful and often reality-altering and visionary varieties of plants known as plantas maestras or teacher-plants, the word comes to mean much more than that. It then describes dietary and behavioral regimens that allow one to move most safely and effectively into working relationships with such plants. These relationships can bring about profound transformations, and the dietas are designed to best facilitate them.
The dietas originated as a plant-based practice for developing attunement to the currents of spirit that underlie the material world. Traditionally, this has been applied to such skills as hunting, divination, ancestral consultations, healing, leadership, and so on. The dietas are part of broader systems of human-plant relationships (food taboos, garden magic, and so on) that characterize many of the indigenous people of Amazonia. As the Amazon basin is populated by a high concentration of plants whose chemical behaviors are complex and ‘active’ enough to be used medicinally, and humans have been interacting with them for 1000’s of years, the dieta tradition is well developed.”
Hopefully, that will stimulate you to read the whole article which is really worth reading.
Between, and even within different Amazonian ethnic traditions, there are many ways of doing dieta. They vary according to: the time spent on dieta; how isolated are people whilst doing dieta; how frequently people drink ayahuasca whilst doing dieta; and the food and other restrictions that have to be observed doing dieta and afterwards (the post-dieta).
Typically a dieta involves abstinence from sex and alcohol as well as not consuming salt, sugar, caffeine, any spices, oil, milk products, red meat, fruit and some vegetables. In some Shipibo traditions, the only fish allowed is boca chico because it does not have teeth and does not feed on other fish. In the Shipibo tradition I diet in, all fish are allowed. I am grateful for this as eating fresh, grilled fish that was swimming in the river a few hours earlier really does not seem like a hardship.
Different traditions, too, have different views about contact with menstruating women whilst doing dieta – it is especially important not to have your food prepared by a woman in her moon. It is also recommended that women do not attend ceremony whilst on their moon as it can be very painful for them. My Shipibo Maestro sends away the women who help with the food and cleaning to live elsewhere whilst they are on their moon.
Traditionally, for the Shipibo, doing many dietas over an extended period of time – an apprenticeship of at least ten years – was the path to becoming a shaman. This leads me to mistrust anyone claiming to be a shaman working with ayahuasca with less than ten years experience of dietas. Dieting different plants gives the shaman access to the particular worlds of the different plant spirits and the knowledge and healing powers in these worlds – often revealed and expressed in the form of songs called icaros that they were taught by the plant spirits.
In talking of plant spirits, I’m aware that I may be stretching the credulity of some of my readers. I never used to believe in plant spirits and used to think they were probably a convenient figment of the fantasies of the people dieting plants but my experience has taught me otherwise.
As I have tried to show in other posts in this blog, plant and other spirits are not hallucinatory products of the mind but a genuine presence of the ‘other’ in an autonomous spirit world.
My Shipibo Maestro did his first dieta when he was 12 years old. He was enclosed in semi-darkness in a hut on the compound where the family lived with two of his brothers and they only saw their mother and father for 18 months. This was much easier to do fifty years ago when there were no schools and many Shipibo did not live in communities as they do now but in large family groups in close proximity with the jungle.
Many of the older Shipibo Maestr@s I know have done similar long term dietas in isolation – usually alone in the jungle apart from the occasional visits of their teacher and the person who brought them food. One reason the Shipibo shamanic tradition is in decline is that living circumstances have changed and few young indigenous people now are prepared to make the sacrifices to do this type of dieta. Curiously, it seems it is now Westerners who are more prepared to put themselves through the rigor and discipline of long dietas.
In the past two years, without consciously planning to do so, I have dieted a number of different Amazonian plants and trees. The more I have dieted, the less attractive just doing ayahuasca ceremonies has become. There is much more learning to be gained in a dieta.
In the next section of this blog, I will say something of my personal experience of each of these – except for Noyarao, which is a special case and which, to some extent, I have already written about. I am also linking the name of each of these plants/trees, both in the two lines above this paragraph and in the headings that follow to extensive information about it (where it exists) on the excellent Raintree Tropical Plant Database site.
Chricsanango is often recommended for a first dieta as it provides a very good platform for doing further dietas. I have dieted it twice (ten days each time) and once combined with Bobinsana (also ten days). It has many properties, one of the most important being to strengthen the central nervous system. Many people on drinking a preparation of chiricsanango experience physical symptoms such as tingling, numbness and even fever. I have never experienced this.
Chiricsanago has helped me hugely to navigate the experience with La Madre Ayahuasca. It seems to slow everything down and make everything much clearer so I feel less buffeted (especially in the early stages of mareación, as the medicine kicks in) and can engage and participate with Madre Ayahuasca more consciously and effectively.
I had always seen Chiricsanago as a friendly, close, companionable, young, male spirit. In my last dieta, however, when I fell from a platform, I also received the message from him that I should not underestimate him. I sensed he was not entirely happy with the way I was categorizing him and that I was delimiting his powers.
Everyone loves Bobinsana!
Well at least everyone I know. This plant, which is actually a tall bush with the most exquisite, delicate pink and white flowers, helps the emotional body. In Shipibo medicine, like other natural medicine systems, there are four bodies – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Bobinsana works on the emotional body. It helps people access and release their emotions
For me, she has a beautiful, calming presence that seems to be diffuse – unlike Chiricsanango, which I experience as a close companionable presence. I have seen people spend long periods in ceremony crying whilst doing a bobinsana dieta.
Machinga was the first large jungle tree that I properly dieted with. The tree has the most extraordinary serpentine roots, like huge anacondas.
Machinga is recommended for people who have suffered physical trauma, for example broken bones. It helps greatly with the further healing of these trauma – even many years after the event when it seems that the body is now healed.
It is made by cutting into the bark, collecting the thick, sticky white resin that comes out and making it into a thick liquid. People are usually given a couple of large spoonfuls at first to see how they react and then the dose may or may not be increased depending on the effect that the first dose has. Many people experience trembling and great pain when taking it – especially if they have had a lot of physical traumas previously. I did not experience these symptoms – its effect was to flatten me. I spent the first three days of dieta barely venturing from my hammock.
When, on the fourth ceremony of the dieta, I was graced with the presence of the spirit of Machinga, I understood why I had not been moving. To be able to feel and accept the presence of a huge tree like this, you have to slow down and become almost tree-like yourself, rooted to the spot. Machinga, like all the big trees I have dieted with, has a huge presence. I saw myself as a tiny ant on its trunk. This dieta was really the first experience I had where I engaged in conversation with the tree spirit. In fact, these conversations have given the name to this blog.
Unfortunately, I did not realize that these conversations were strictly private. When I wrote about them on my blog, the tree spirit withdrew from me. He has come back occasionally – at one time urging me to do something about illegal logging in the Amazon – but has subsequently remained a relatively remote figure.
Ayahuma is another huge, beautiful, extraordinary jungle tree. It is also known as the ‘cannonball tree’ as it produces round hard fruits like balls, which do not split and release their seeds until they fall to the ground.
In the summer of 2013, I did a thirty-day dieta with this tree. The first stages of the dieta were very slow – necessarily so, I believe. It was not until the tenth ceremony that I made contact with the tree spirit. I wrote about this here.
Ayahuma is a powerful shamanic tree. Its purpose is primarily for learning and to teach about the medicine. I have heard and read that it often appears to people as a headless black giant but I have never experienced it like this.
On first contact, in my tenth ceremony, I felt a vast, formidable and somewhat forbidding presence. His presence was so huge that I could get no sense of my human size in relation to him. Whereas the other plants and trees have their particular worlds, the world of Don Ayahuma coincides with this world – entering into his world enables you to see this world shamanically.
After dieting Don Ayahuma the first time for thirty days, he appeared to me in a subsequent dieta with another plant telling me: “I have not finished with you yet.” In the last two-month Noiyarao dieta I did, he also appeared at the beginning of the dieta telling me to drop this dieta, which I was doing close to the city, and go to the jungle community my Shipibo Maestro lives in and diet with him. I thought about this and said to him: “I’ve just started this dieta. Could we not negotiate that later…….”
As soon as I used the word ‘negotiate’ he erupted and said to me: “Never, ever, use that word negotiate with me.”
At first, I was rather alarmed by this conversation. It reminded me of what a highly intuitive and idiosyncratic Peruvian friend, who is deeply connected to the plants (but also to evangelical Christianity), once said to me: “I don’t like those big tree spirits. They are very possessive.”
As I thought about this conversation more, I realized, however, that the issue was not so much about possessiveness but more that I had not been doing enough to stay in touch with Don Ayahuma after the long thirty-day dieta I had done. I have a piece of his bark that I take to ceremonies with me, alongside a piece of Don Machinga’s bark, but my relationship with them had evolved into a meaningless ritual – taking them out, placing them on my altar cloth and then ignoring them.
I had to give them more conscious attention. As Martin Prechtel writes so well about his work as a Mayan shaman, we have to feed the spirits if we expect them to feed us. It’s not a one-way street. Or as Steve Beyer says, we cannot be tourists in the spirit world. We have to engage, to be in dialogue.
I therefore started holding the ayahuma bark in my hand in ceremonies. I also told Don Ayahuma that soon after I had finished this two-month dieta with Noiyarao I would go downriver and diet with him and my Shipibo Maestro again. This was not a promise I intended breaking.
This ten-day dieta is the most recent I have done. It is also the most intense dieta I have ever experienced. Right from the second ceremony, after drinking the dark, muddy solution of ayahuma bark boiled with water between the first and second ceremonies, I felt very much in contact with Don Ayahuma. I had expected him to be severe, testing, remote and inaccessible but he felt close to me and very disposed to show me as much of his world as I could take and focus on. I felt at the end of the dieta that I had just started a long apprenticeship with him.
I’m sure we have affinities with some plant spirits more than others.
I dieted Chuchuhuasi quite soon after my thirty-day dieta with Don Ayahuma. This is the plant spirit I felt I made least contact with. The main part of the reason for this, I think, was that I was still processing the long dieta with Don Ayahuma and there was not enough psychic space to encompass another plant.
Chuchuhuasi is good for overall strength as a tonic, to relieve pain and inflammation, to treat arthritis, rheumatism and back pain, to restore vigor after a debilitating disease, and for relieving menstrual pain. It has the additional benefit of enhancing libido. For a fuller description of its benefits see Chris Killham’s medicine hunter site as well as the link on the heading.
As my purpose in writing this post is to provide information for people who want to diet with different plants, I would appreciate it very much if others write about their experiences with these and other plants in the comments section at the end of this post. Many thanks.