Saturday, October 5, 2013

Ayahuasca and Electricity: Useful Mysteries (Save the Rainforest!)

"But how does it work?" they wanted to know.
Image from

The Native American shamans from the Shipibo tribe from Peru had never been out of the jungle before. And they did not understand how electricity works.

Virginia, their host and organizer of their European ceremony tour, could demonstrate easily enough how the light switch works. But the Shipibos wanted to know, if you touch the button on the wall, how does the light get to the bulb on the ceiling? What makes it come on, how does it work?

These shamans were world-class masters of their trade and had been brought all the way to Europe just to help and heal people with their traditional plant medicines. But they could not understand the simple reality of electricity. 

A ten-year old boy overhearing all this interjected, "I know how it works! My momma pays the bill, so the lights come on!"

It's a perfectly good explanation for those of us who grew up with Western technology. But it meant nothing to the shamans. And they were afraid to use the light switch. They thought maybe they could do it wrong and bring on bad, unintended consequences. And although their European hosts earnestly and patiently tried to explain it to them, the concept was just too foreign. They had no vocabulary, neither in their native language nor in their adopted Spanish, to understand things like electrical current, wiring, or utility bills. Only with the greatest hesitation would they take advantage of this technology that we all know to be safe and helpful to the point of seeming necessary, despite its incredible power. In fact, to us its near-magical powers and capabilities have become mundane and unremarkable.
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind,
by Dr. Joseph Murphy.
"A woman asked Thomas Edison, the electrical wizard, 'Mr. Edison, what is electricity?' 
He replied, 'Madame, electricity is. Use it.' 
Electricity is a name we give an invisible power which we do not fully comprehend, but we learn all we can about the principle of electricity and its uses." (The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, by Dr. Joseph Murphy, p. 237.)
And in the same way we struggle to understand the technology of the shamans. Their ayahuasca, their icaros, and their diets are all safe and useful and powerful, but we have no vocabulary, no background with which to understand them before we try them and learn to use and appreciate them.

Virginia told us this story, i think, to make clear the parallel between us and them not understanding the other's technology.

(Just as you wouldn't stick your finger into an electrical socket while standing in a pool of water, so we have to be careful to use ayahuasca safely, under the right circumstances and with the right supervision, but the situation is the same - there is a bit of a leap of faith needed in order employ these technologies from the shaman culture. To find that supervision in Europe, check out the web site for Traditional Plant Medicine or look up the Santo Daime Church.)

And of course ayahuasca is not the only plant medicine that benefits us, and the shamans do not (and do not claim to) have a monopoly on this technology:

While on a retreat at an eco-friendly resort on a rural hill top in Austria, i made friends with a man from Slovakia. He told me that he had been stung by a wasp the day before and that he is severely allergic to them. He said that whenever this has happened before, the sting swells up enormously and painfully. But when he went to the resort's staff to ask for help with the problem, an anciently old Austrian lady who spoke no English lead him back outside to the lawn, where she searched around for some particular green leaves right there in the grass. Finding the right leaves she put them over the man's wasp sting and wrapped them in fabric. Within a couple of hours, all irritation had gone away and it never got swollen. We should not ignore, but instead should learn about, the natural cures all around us.

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and
the Origins of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby
And the use of these natural plant medicines are not rare, isolated or only anecdotal. "Pharmaceutical companies have a history of going to the Amazon to sample indigenous plant remedies and then of returning to their laboratories to synthesize and patent the active ingredients.." (The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, by Jeremy Narby, p. 39.) The most famous example of this is a medicine we call curare. Natives from the western part of Amazonia (where the Shipibo, among other tribes, come from) developed this medicine to help them hunting monkeys for food. Applied to the tips of blow darts, it numbs the muscles of the monkeys, causing them to follow out of the tree rather than holding on and dying on the branches. "In the 1940s, scientists realized that curare could greatly facilitate surgery of the torso and of the vital organs, because it interrupts nerve impulses and relaxes all muscles, including breathing muscles." (Narby, p.39) "Curare has been used in modern medicine since the early 40's. It has a muscle relaxing effect and easy to control so doctors don't have to use as much anaesthesia in surgery, especially open heart surgery." (, by Richard Fowler.) 

So millions of people have benefited around the world from these native, natural plant medicines. We take and use their technology, but then we do not admit the wisdom and usefulness of their source. 
"Most of the time scientists balk at recognizing that 'Stone Age Indians' could have developed anything. According to the usual theory, Indians stumbled on nature's useful molecules by chance experimentation. In the case of curare, this explenation seems improbable. There are forty types of curares in the Amazon, made from seventy plant species... To produce it, it is necessary to combine several plants and boil them for at least seventy-two hours, while avoiding the fragrant but mortal vapors emitted by the broth. The final product is a paste that is inactive unless injected under the skin. If swallowed it has no effect. it is difficult to see how anybody could have stumbled on this recipe by chance experimentation." (Narby, p. 40.)
And if you ask a shaman how they made these incredibly useful discoveries, they often say "The plants told me," or "The creator gave it to us." Which is hard for us western-know-it-alls to believe; but not so hard to believe that we won't synthesize their discoveries and help ourselves to their medical benefits. 
"An extract of the Pilocarpus jaborandi bush used by the Kayapo and the Guajajara had recently been turned into glaucoma remedy by Merck, the multinational pharmaceutical company, which was also devising a new anti-coagulant based on the tikiuba plant of the Uru-eu-Wau-Wau. The fruit of the Couroupita guienensis used by the Achuar to treat fungal infections, and the leaves of the Aristolochia vine brewed into a tea by the Tirio for the relief of stomache, also attracted interest, along with many other unidentified plants that indigenous Amazonians use to cure skin lesions, diarrhea, snakebite, and so on." (Narby, p. 41.)
Image from
We know already that the Amazon is truly a pharmacy full of useful stuff that we definitely need. Still, "One of the most important reasons for protecting the Amazon Rain Forest is for all the medicine we don't even know about yet. There's so much to learn and discover." (Fowler)

To learn more about to help save the rainforests, check out and raise money for it without actually spending any of your own, simply by using for your web searches. It is simply a portal to Yahoo!, but donations are made to the World Land Trust for every search made through them - easy, painless, and helpful :-) 


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