Learning to be a Shaman in the Peruvian Amazon
Throughout January this year, I have been working with Laura, a young, very bright PhD student at the University of Berkeley, California, on a research project called ‘Learning from the Peruvian Amazon’. This project has been commissioned to the non-profit I work with (Alianza Arkana) by Roffey Park Institute, a Management Institute I used to work with in England and for whom I still continue to do occasional consultancy.
The focus of this research is: ‘What can Western organizations and leaders learn from the shamans of the Shipibo people? The Shipibo are a tribe of around 40,000 indigenous people located along the river Ucayali and its tributaries in the Peruvian Amazonian.
More specifically, we wanted to investigate how the Shipibo Shamans learned their craft and if and how this learning process was changing across different generations. The Shipibo call their shamans ‘médicos’ so I will continue using this term for the rest of this blog post.
To understand the learning process, we carried out thirteen interviews with recognized médicos. Five of these interviews were conducted in pairs, with two family members where a younger family member was apprenticing to an elder, and three were individual interviews.
Interestingly of the thirteen people interviewed, six were women. In general, most Shipibo medicos are male. One article I read by Bernd Brabec de Mori suggested that 93% of Shipibo médicos are male.
The interviews were all recorded and will later be transcribed into English. They will then be carefully studied and analyzed.
At this point, before starting a more detailed analysis of the interview content, I am interested in sharing five themes that particularly struck me from the interviews.
I knew about and have previously written about the importance of dietas . It was especially evident that, in all the interviews, the médicos strongly confirmed that the primary way in which they had learned their craft was through continually doing plant dietas. Normally these were done with a supervising Maestro who they were apprenticed to but occasionally they were done alone.
These dietas varied in length from ten days to one year. One médico actually did his first dieta (with tobacco) for a year when he was twelve years old – his Maestro (his father) enclosed him in a hut on the family compound with his two brothers and a cousin and regularly drank ayahuasca with them. The only people he saw for the whole year were his fellow dieteros and his parents. That is quite an education for a twelve year old! At this time, there were no schools in any of the rural Shipibo communities.
When we asked in the interviews about how exactly did the médicos learn during their plant dieta, many of them said they were taught in their dreams. The spirits of the plants/trees they were dieting came to them in their dreams and instructed them. This made me think that I must pay even more attention to what I dream during the dietas that I do. I had already noticed that my dream life becomes much more vivid and memorable during dietas.
The other medium through which the médicos said that they learned was from being taught the healing songs, known as icaros, by the plant/tree spirits they were dieting. They further said, importantly, that they continued to learn by practicing these songs through singing them in ayahuasca ceremonies.
4. The indigenous worldview
Before conducting the interviews, I had been reading, thinking and talking about the differences between the indigenous Shipibo worldview and the Western worldview.
This is a huge topic and will be much more elaborated in the theoretical part of the research paper we will eventually write.
To summarize here and to make some broad generalizations.
The Shipibo cosmovision, like many indigenous worldviews, sees all of their world (animals, plants, trees, rivers, places, stones, their ancestors etc.) as being alive – everything has its own spirit, which can be good or bad. Illness, generally, is seen as a result of the action of malos espíritus (bad spirits) and/or sorcery. Some contemporary anthropological theories are now naming this worldview ‘neo-animist’ – suggesting that the aliveness and ensouled nature of everything is not a simple human projection onto the world (as animism used to be seen) but a valid recognition of the spiritual dimension of the whole of the non-human world.
Given this, indigenous people approach all aspects of their world(s) in an attitude of relationship, respect and reciprocity. They feel deeply connected to their natural environment and learn about it through closeness, identification and empathy. Indigenous knowledge is a knowledge based on relationship and interconnection, or, in other words, is ecological knowledge. There are many ways of knowing. The jaguar has its particular knowledge, as do the trees and plants, as does everything: These different forms of knowledge can be accessed by a skilled shaman.
By contrast, the dominant rational, materialist Western worldview sees nature as lacking any spirit or soul. It can therefore be used and appropriated for purely human ends. We learn about nature through separating and distancing ourselves from it. This is essential for objectivity, which is seen to be the only criteria of valid knowledge.
This difference in worldview was vividly brought home to me in a ceremony that we did with two of the female médicos, a mother and daughter. This ceremony was held at a friend’s house on the edge of the indigenous part of Pucallpa. During the first part of the ceremony, in which I felt heavy and struggled to stay sitting upright, there was a lot of noise of doors slamming and raised voices coming from a neighbor’s house.
The older Maestra struggled to sing for the first part of the ceremony. At one point though, she began to sing a beautiful, haunting icaro, which she sustained for a long time. As she continued singing, I found my own heaviness vanishing and was able to sit upright and fully concentrate. When she had finished singing, her daughter said that her mother had been frightened by the energy emanating from the neighbors’ house, but had liberated herself from this fear by singing. I also felt liberated in some way.
Her daughter then said that she, in contrast to her mother, had not been bothered by the neighbors’ argument. She said it had nothing to do with her. I said to her half-jokingly that she was talking just like a gringa (foreigner).
Afterwards, I thought that the mother and daughter embodied very different ways of experiencing the world. The mother felt deeply energetically connected and was highly responsive to what she heard and felt – it distressed her greatly and she felt frightened in response. Her daughter, though, had a more Western attitude. She saw herself completely separate from the argument of the neighbors and could think and say that it had nothing to do with her.
5. Generational Changes
I have already indicated in the previous section one significant dimension of the generational differences between the people we interviewed. Additionally, four of the older Shipibo we spoke to could not read or write and spoke limited Spanish. Their children or other younger relatives functioned as interpreters for them in the interviews.
In his interesting and wonderful book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’, David Abram advances the idea that literacy, and then print, and now the digital media (though he refers less to this) have functioned to take us increasingly further away from a direct, intimate experience with the natural world.
I wonder if part of the reason these elders are such effective médicos is their lack of literacy and exposure to Western education.
We asked all the interviewees why they thought that very few young Shipibo people now want to follow the path to become a médico. The main reason we were consistently told is that this path is very difficult.
It requires many years of strong discipline and sacrifice. One of the conditions of dietas is that sexual relations (or even touching other people) have to be avoided. The older médicos said simply that young Shipibo people no longer wanted to do this.
I look forward to going back over the transcripts of the interviews (not all of which I fully understood at the time of doing the interviews) and hope to include more of this work here at a later date.