Interview with Robert Tindall

Robert Tindall is the author of the recently published book “The Jaguar that Roams the Mind”, a journey into the vanishing world of Amazonian shamanism – an adventure of initiation and return – that explores the unique reality at the heart of the Amazonian healing system. Excited about this new publication, we contacted Robert to ask him a few questions.

Ivar: I’m curious how you ended up studying shamanic healing. What came first for you, the interest in (natural) medicine or the entheogenic experience?

Robert: Hands down it was the entheogenic experience – as I describe in The Jaguar, while living on the streets as a teenager, I had been hell-bent on destroying myself with alcohol. But then while partying I had a healing experience with psychoactive mushrooms. In that moment of insight into the tragic-hero alcoholic persona I had been constructing, I saw the grand universal stage upon which my little drama was operating, and laughed with delight. I was perfectly content at that moment with who I was, even though I was headed for death in the gutter. A few weeks later, I realized I had lost my drive to self-destruct with the bottle. I was healed without my having intended it!

Another of the salvific insights I had while on the streets was Buddhism was my path. Although I didn’t know what to make of that vision, lo and behold, a few years later I was seated before a Zen master requesting my first koan. When I began meditation practice, I left the path of working with plants. Some twenty years later, when they came back into my life, I had a much better foundation upon which to work with entheogens, having learned how to concentrate into meditative states by that time.

Ivar: On Amazon it says your book “explores the three pillars of Amazonian shamanism: purging, psychoactive plants, and diet.” Does diet here refer to the diet one is supposed to observe prior to the ingestion of Banisteriopsis caapi, or a specific diet for the purpose of healing?

Robert: In the North, due to the trajectory of the psychedelic experience, there is a strong focus on the visionary aspect with ayahuasca, but in Amazonian shamanism, the entheogenic experience is just one component. “Diet” is a poor translation for what really amounts to a form of asceticism where an apprentice or someone seeking healing withdraws into the jungle and, severely limiting their food intake, takes plants whose healing or teaching capacity is tailored for their specific intention. These periods of withdrawal can last for a month or more.

While the “diet” we observe before and after ingesting ayahuasca is essential, it’s not the full range of the practice, which is embedded in the cosmology of the Amazonian people. For example, with certain plants the dieter cannot go near a fire, or be exposed to the direct light of the sun. Contact with other human beings, especially sex, is strictly limited. Salt is particularly taboo, in that it helps reinforce the sense of individual self. Dieters report, and this was our experience as well, that the self gradually goes from a hardened shell to a permeable membrane, open to the other “selves” of the jungle through dreams, visions, intuitions and synchronicities, during these diets. It’s also common that the teacher plant, such as Came Renaco, Shihuahuaco, Chullachaqui or Tobacco, comes as a spirit to heal and teach the dieter.

It’s interesting to note that in the Daime churches, it appears that the traditional diet has all but disappeared, although the founder, Mestre Irineu, underwent a rigorous diet before receiving his revelations. I think this missing component is one that we should start investigating more seriously.

Ivar: The Jaguar that Roams the Mind “reveals the intimate relationship between shamans and plant spirits”. Some recent researchers of the psychedelic experience, like Leary, Metzner and Alpert in their commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, suggest that whatever is encountered during the entheogenic experience is ultimately arising from the self, as projections from the psyche. Most tribal societies however suggest the beings have an ontological reality of their own, as separate entities, variously named “the ancestors”, “the gods” or “the spirits”. I heard Dennis McKenna comment on this matter, suggesting that it’s very difficult to determine whether it’s one or the other. What are your thoughts on this question?

Robert: I think it all comes down to your definition of “mind.” As a Buddhist, I understand “mind” as Buddha-nature, within which all categories of self and other deconstruct. Where is this self, after all? Where are you going to locate it? I cannot find a clear demarcation between self and other within my own experience.

I struggled with nomenclature while writing The Jaguar. Psychedelic, “mind-manifesting,” is attractive but may privilege a reductive concept of mind. “Entheogenic” is similarly flawed in that it implies the divine is within, in an Augustinian fashion. “Hallucinogen,” which in Latin means “to wander the mind,” is actually pretty good, except for the fact that to wander in the mind now means to be mistaken or deluded.

Among the Western theorists I have read, I’ve felt that James Hillman in “The Dream and the Underworld,” comes closest when he talks about ethnological research into the “dual pluralism of soul” between a “body or ego soul” and a “dream or ghost soul.”

My partner, Susana Bustos, a psychologist who had done phenomenological studies of ayahuasca experiences, believes that “grandma” actually wishes to heal this rift in the Western psyche which has arrogated all meaning-giving capacity to itself. It’s in the authentic encounter with the “other,” or maybe the big “Other,” that we get snapped out of our little boxes of perception and can bring healing to the world. After all, the root of the present ecological crisis on this planet clearly arises from this Descartian isolation of consciousness – if the world is material and dead, or if reality is just a projection of some layer of our brain, it doesn’t matter if we kill it, or live in alienation, does it?

In the end, I just decided that the literal meaning of ayahuasca is faithful to the reality of the experience: the vine of souls, spirits or the dead. I believe it’s better to experience this reality than attempt to define it in Western terms.

Ivar: As you know most intellectual and spiritual pursuits in Medieval Europe and Asia were strongly male dominated. I sometimes wonder why, despite the strong emphasis on equality in the psychonautic community, it does seem more men than women are involved with psychedelics or entheogens, or publishing books about them. I guess my question is twofold: is shamanism equally a male and female thing in the Amazon? And why do you think there seem to be more men than women involved in this field? Or are they equally involved but simply active in different ways?

Robert: Susana and I noted that behind every male shaman in the Amazon is a woman, without whom the healers would be unable to conduct their diets, prepare their plant medicines, maintain their households, and probably stay grounded enough to be effective in the world. These women are just as devoted to the path of vegetalismo as their husbands, and equally fluent in its ways. I think this follows a pattern you see in indigenous communities around the world, where woman function as containers for the work carried out by men.

In terms of the Western psychonaut community, I will risk a huge generalization: we men have an ambition to take ground, to explore unknown territories and map them, to accrue fame. In a sense, we have a conquistador mentality that prevents us from experiencing the full intimacy with the plant world that women enjoy. If it comes down to the choice between making a raid on the unspeakable and coming back to write an account or transforming one’s life based in intimacy with the plant powers, women usually choose the latter.

Ivar: To what extent do you think Amazonian healing can be “exported” to the rest of the world the way Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurveda have been?

Robert: When one uses the word “export,” we are already implying a certain commodification of healing into a product, and of course this is the stage where most of the authentic practice is going to be lost. In terms of the healing practices reaching the West, I think “translation” is a better description of the process required. On that front, there’s a great deal of interesting work going on with genuine apprenticeships happening across cultural frontiers as well as some merging of paradigmatic approaches to health and disease between the medicinal traditions. I believe ayahuasca, as a teacher plant, is fully capable of leading us in this translation process, if we listen to her.

One outcome that we have continually seen, and which has been noted by researchers such as Stan Grof, is plant entheogens reconnect us on a cellular level to the natural world. Wild nature, that teeming witch’s brew of evolution, becomes deeply precious and alive for partakers of ayahuasca, and they recognize their identity with it, in it, and as it. In that way, ayahuasca “imports” us into her, which seems a far better outcome!

There are big obstacles to this successful translation, however. The most obvious is what I call the “molecule extraction” approach, where we attempt to identify what Mark Plotkin calls the “silver bullet,” that molecule that can be patented, replicated in a laboratory and then packaged to make big bucks for a pharmaceutical corporation. It’s the same mentality as extracting the other resources of the Amazon. Some important medicines have come to us that way, but most haven’t because Amazonian medicine is synergistic, and includes a “spiritual” component that we cannot replicate through mass manufacturing.

A second, less obvious obstacle is that the practice of Amazonian medicine includes the many beings of the natural world. For example, at Mayantuyacu, where much of The Jaguar takes place, the river flowing beneath the main maloca is a major healing component in our maestro Juan Flores’ work. The medicinal trees growing in the region, the animals and spirits of the jungle, even the insects, all consort to “reinsert” the patient into their original state of health. This is radically different from Western medicine, which mostly works to make us functional. To paraphrase Freud, it works to reinsert us into the daily misery of life.

Finally, the most subtle obstacle for this process of translation is the spiritual commodification of Amazonian healing ways. Ayahuasca tourism and the selling of experiences with shamans is highly destructive to the integrity of the tradition itself and is wearing away at the cultural and ecological resource bases of the authentic practice of curanderismo. I am afraid it is our very hunger for this export that is eventually going to deliver the death blow to the tradition. Look at the ayahuasca being sold over the internet. How much longer do we think a sustainable harvesting of the plant is going to continue at this rate?

Ivar: In Eastern traditions there seems to be a lot of emphasis on spiritual “growth”, “progress” and “obtaining liberation” within this lifetime. When the West encountered LSD the psychological and spiritual benefits of the entheogenic experience were extolled by many. In what ways are Amazonian people concerned with life and death, and matters like reality and illusion? Is there a shared belief about the self, or the soul, and its purpose here on Earth?

Robert: Our experience with practitioners of vegetalismo has taught us that awareness of these existential matters varies hugely from shaman to shaman. My take is “salvation” or “obtaining liberation,” in the Western sense, is clearly an import into Amazonian culture. Their concern is in how to walk the way of life and death, how to understand their world in greater depth. Juan Flores instructed us, “ayahuasca teaches you how to die and be reborn.” It’s important to bear in mind that for traditional people, this world and the next world interpenetrate, and as Juan put it, death is a door you pass through, nothing else.

It feels relevant to add that I began approaching Juan with the same reverence as I feel toward holders of other spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism. I have also found many of my existential dilemmas profoundly addressed within the context of curanderismo, and we have observed healers such as Juan changing their approach with the medicine to accommodate the needs for spiritual growth and liberation demonstrated by their clients. I think in some way, these are matters we could call perennial to all humankind. On the other hand, the particular way Amazonian cultures deal with these questions may leave us scrambling for interpretation, if not skirting death. As a friend of mine said recently, “You take your life in your hands when you get in that boat and head upriver!”