Notes from the Amazon

The night air is heavy and thick, a weight upon my skin, almost like a lover’s breath. Fecund with sound, the warm, damp darkness is a sonic tapestry of insects, tree frogs, occasional night birds, and a chorus of amphibians along the stream that joins the river nearby—a timeless jungle symphony.

Alone in my tambo (hut), its walls consisting only of greenish mesh screen, by the light of a lone paraffin taper on the crude table that also serves as a desk, the slow and wordless—but not quiet—hours drip by. There is not yet rain tonight, though almost surely the sky will downpour at some point in the darkness, adding an uncountable cadence upon leaves, thatched roof, and earth to the elemental soundscape enfolding me.

Earlier, as I swayed languidly in the blue cotton hammock, watching an orange sun sink through the tangled grille of interwoven trees, knowing that hours remained before I could go to bed and hope to sleep, I mused upon how accustomed already I am to this slothful passage of time.

Two weeks have dripped by since my arrival in the Peruvian Amazon, ensconced in this utterly modest hut, here to spend a month at a healing retreat centre roughly an hour by motorbike—the modern form of jungle travel—from Iquitos.

Lungs of the Earth, the green living sea of energy that is the Amazon

Pastel twilight deepens to purple-black, and I hear the young German in a nearby tambo singing an icaro (“medicine chant”), so fiercely dedicated to his apprenticeship as a Shipibo-style shaman. Further distant, my ears catch the ongoing drone of the centre’s power generator, a rumble of background noise that switches off later in the night, finally releasing us into the rich darkness that is anything but silent.

The endless, wild soundtrack of my surroundings actually makes it difficult to sleep, and seldom do I achieve more than a few hours of rest, especially given that the feral chickens begin their ruckus well before dawn. On an auditory level, the jungle is far from peaceful.

Soon there will be a storm, I can smell it in the air. Rain, rain, rain, drumming through the night as I lie silently trying to sleep, listening through the absence of solid walls to the rapid flutter of leathery wings and pepperings of sonic chirp-squeaks as bats, huge and small, swoop and twirl around the tambo and amid the trees.

Perhaps tonight there will be other nocturnal visitors as well, like capybara—giant rodents that look somewhat like a massive guinea pig, the size of a Welsh Corgi—one of which often bumps around under the raised wooden floor of my hut, waking me from precious sleep.

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Rustic tambo (hut) in the jungle

Everything is damp. Clothes, bedding, pillow, towel, journal. The pages in my Clairefontaine notebooks from France—which I prize for their satin-feel paper and the way a fountain pen glides across the surface, ink not bleeding through to the other side—are soft and warped.

Twenty years have passed since my beloved and I resided in the windward rainforest of the Big Island of Hawaii, yet that time offered a surprisingly useful primer for my current environment: a screened-in dwelling, the deafening deluge of monsoons, massive cockroaches and insects, geckos and frogs (outdoors and in), off-the-charts humidity, mould and mildew on everything. Despite that I am in Peru rather than the middle of the Pacific, this experience feels familiar, though here the surrounding jungle feels much more expansive and vast—a seamless, interconnected, interpenetrating web in all directions, pulsing and throbbing in sheer aliveness.

Feeling into it, casting senses wide and inhaling a deep breath, followed by another and then another, an openness stretches across chest and belly. In the deep calm of my bodysoul, I’m savouring an absence of buzzing energy, the freedom from gridlines—whether formed of city streets or power lines—and a slow unhurriedness… to everything.

How far I am from the frenetic, restless world of modern humanity with its addiction to consumerism.

Here, in a humble hut submerged in an impossibly verdant world where parrots squawk loudly and brightly-billed toucans cavort in the tree tops, perspiring as I observe a small troop of adorable little monkeys traversing the green canopy on their way to somewhere, their long dark tails curling around branches as deftly as a third arm, I wish to share something of this experience… but what, and where to begin?

Yes, I could tell you about ayahuasca, the entheogenic brew of the Amazon, and the powerful healing that sacred medicine brings, but I’ve already written of it previously. [Read “Ayahuasca, The Vine of Souls: Parts 1 & 2“, TendingSacred, February/April, 2018.] Honestly, that’s not why I am here in the jungle—or rather, it is only a very small part of the reason.

The mother Vine of Souls, outside the medicine brewing hut

Some part of me wishes to illuminate the difference of shamans versus shamanic practitioners, along with my thoughts about crisis and initiation as it relates to the former (shamans), or about those of us who are called to walk such paths—or even how shamanic ways and traditions are evolving. However, I’ve spoken of these things in a couple of my video interviews, and feel less compelled to write of them further at this point.

Too, there is the vegetalista and curandero practice of “dieting” with plantas maestras—healing, medicinal, or teacher plants—the primary reason I’ve come to Peru. I wrote about this, briefly, in “The Dreamtime of the Plants” (February, 2017), an early post of TendingSacred. Admittedly, in the past fortnight my understanding has deepened exponentially—plunged into a restrictive dieta with a hugely powerful tree—and I bow to the dedication and knowledge of these shamans, a lineage of tradition whose roots are lost in the mists of time.

To better create a harmonious environment for the Master Plant, my particular “dieta” requires that for an entire month I am limited to eating only unsalted fish and plantains. Moreover, those bland, uninspiring meals are taken alone in my tambo—delivered in a Tupperware-type container and left silently outside so as not to disturb my solitude, reflection, and inner listening as I draw deeper into communion with the plant’s spirit.

Local, unsalted fish and grilled plantain… daily diet for a month.

Yet perhaps what I most desire to convey, if I might, and given a limited amount of words, is what it’s like to spend a month in a thatched-roof hut—no electricity, no water—surrounded on all sides by the living, respiring intelligence we broadly call “forest” or “jungle”. Yet how can I possibly elucidate its remarkable presence, the cacophony of sounds, steamy light, and sweet smell of rain… this raw, undomesticated place there is nothing to do but simply be. Mobile phone is switched off where it rests on the rustic shelf because it doesn’t work in my hut, there is no “telly” or radio, and I have but a candle for illumination (other than a Tikka headlamp/headtorch) once it grows dark.

Can I adequately describe this rare freedom from electrical current and insulated wires, mobile signal, and WiFi, with one’s biofield and bodily rhythms entraining back to those of nature and Earth…? How, with an absence of walls, one is continually enmeshed in the interwoven relationship and tumult of wild voices, that there exists no possibility of disconnection—thus making one something much more than an observer.

I feel deeply alive on a cellular and soul level… humming with soft thunder in my bones.

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Some years back, while living in a magical poet’s cottage on the central California coast, directly upon the rocky seafront, tucked amid the living sculptures of windswept Monterey cypress trees, I read The Outermost House: A Year on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Written by Henry Beston in 1928, it is considered a classic of American nature writing, and it’s a book I love and admire—so much so that I penned a post about it for the Soul Artist Journal. I’ve read the lyrical narrative twice, and both times reading I envied Beston; not only his remarkable skill with kinesthetic language and keen powers of observation, but also such an extended, solitary immersion in the living world (à la Thoreau, though far less pessimistic and crotchety). Published almost a century ago, these words ring truer than ever:

The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling up from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself under foot…” (excerpted from The Outermost House)

Here, listening to a din of crickets, frogs, and night birds, the rumbling of the centre’s generator in the distance, I envy Beston still. Perhaps even more than I did initially. His beautiful, daily conversation with the natural world inspires and invokes a sharp, bright longing in my core. For always what the soul most desires, itself a part of the ‘more-than-human’ world, is to have such an intimate relationship with place. And I know that deeply inhabiting the living realms is the ONLY way there is hope for a life with any real semblance of magic.

One of these days, probably in the dark of winter, when I am back in the place I currently call home, I will read Beston’s book once more and fall in love all over again with his lucid writing, yearning for the primordial voice of the sea again at my doorstep.

In our Western world, how nearly inconceivable it seems to live in such a fashion—no television, media, gadgets, nor modern distractions—living on nature and soul time rather than clock-bound human hours. I confess it took nearly a week, with long stretches sitting in the hammock or resting on the bed, to get past my initial thoughts of being “lazy.”

Though my brain knows it is October, gazing at the dense web of trees and flashing needles of pewter rain, I cannot discern what month it is, and the painted autumn of Oregon now exists only in my memory.

Simplicity, jungle-style

Lying down for another nap on the damp bed—which is nothing more than a cheap foam pad upon a plywood platform—with its mildewed pillow, or rocking gently in the hammock, the heat during the day is oppressive and inescapable. I am nearly always hot, sweating and sticky, waiting for the comparatively cool night with its relative quietude, when once again I feel restful as a pool of calm water.

Alone in my hut, passing long hours contemplating the green canopy with its unfurling milieu of life, or the low clouds as a thunderstorm rapidly builds, releases its torrents, and then passes, I spend a good bit of time daydreaming—particularly about food, and what I’d like to eat when I finally end the dieta and return home. My daily rations of bony fish from the nearby river and local plantains—chalky, dry, and more like a cooked, plain potato than any semblance of banana—are about as “locavore” as it gets. Unsalted, grilled-too-long over the the cooking fire in the kitchen hut, flavoured additionally only with notes of char and woodsmoke, it’s an exceptionally bleak meal for this Paris-trained chef. My single allowed indulgence is an herbal “tea” infusion of chamomile.

Fantasies of food and proper tea aside, I do occasionally distract myself by listening to soft music via noise-canceling headphones—sometimes merely as a soothing escape from the unending opera of the night. In my highly expansive and sensitive state, however, it must be the right music: mainly soft instrumentals, some Celtic harp (an instrument I am learning to play), or a brilliant European musical shaman whom I admire.

Sometimes when I hear my German neighbour practicing his icaros, the thought crosses my mind that perhaps I could serenade the jungle, just to deepen my relationship with this living relationship that enfolds. We live in a mutually sensing and fully reciprocal universe, after all. And thus occasionally I sing softly in low tones, though mostly I’m content to simply listen.

When darkness finally falls, I will again encounter Eloisa the Cockroach, a regular visitor, probably on top of the little bookshelf where she seems to enjoy being. Granted, having lived in the rainforests of Hawaii where I became well acquainted with roaches, I know that there are probably a dozen “Eloisa”, even if I only see one at a time. I simply acknowledge her and say hello as she darts past, startled by my movements, those long brown antennae waving in the humid air, for I’ve no need to kill something simply because it exists (I confess I am not so benevolent with mosquitoes, biting ants, and ticks).

Dinner by candlelight

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Entrainment to the natural world usually takes about five days. Since that initial period after my arrival, as the bodysoul’s rhythms reset and harmonized, as habitual filters from modern life lessened and fell away, my senses continuing to dilate and become more receptive, a feeling of porousness and of being profoundly expansive has intensified.

Much of the time I am somewhat light-headed or almost dizzy, like I’m slightly “spaced out.” Highly sensitive. Entrainment, enmeshment and embeddedness (?) in nature aside, as a clairvoyant I am keenly aware the veil between worlds is gossamer thin… and thinning steadily. Not to mention that the daily brew of Amazon tree bark I drink each afternoon—reddish pink and tasting vaguely of hibiscus, just faintly effervescent—is working upon me in subtle ways, cellular and energetic.

Beyond simply a method or means to draw into communion with a healing/medicinal Master Plant, the dieta is a powerful purification on ALL levels; indeed, as one who has repeatedly performed “cleanses” and fasting throughout my adult life, this is the deepest cleaning work I’ve ever undertaken. Alongside the severe restriction of what is actually eaten and/or abstained from, there is a total absence of stimulants (food, chemical or otherwise)—no coffee, tea, sugar, alcohol, etcetera. And when one removes all such drugs and stimuli, not only does the bodymind level-out from a typical Western, hyper-activated state (stress, arousal, addiction, etc.) but a profound openness and receptivity ensues. We embody a natural, balanced, and responsive state of being—something that nearly everyone in modern culture has not simply lost but likely never even experienced.

Tree roots in sand…

Here in my secluded tambo, removed from technology and media as well, there is only the seamless interconnection with all that surrounds and enfolds. A blissful evenness in my bodysoul. Sonorous tranquility.

Yet even in the jungle, such an experience is rapidly disappearing—noting that the majority of youths have mobile phones. The shamans, too.

Despite my imposed isolation, I could walk up to the main complex with its thatched-roof buildings—a common area that houses a modest lounge, covered porch with rocking chairs, and dining area—to be social with those who gather there, mostly Americans and Europeans who have come for a week of ayahuasca ceremonies, but I’ve really no desire to do so. Like most of the long-term “dieters” and shamans’ apprentices, I am utterly content in my solitude and own company. Add to this the slightly dizzy expansiveness, dilated senses, and being “worked” by the tree I am “dieting” makes me even more sensitive than I normally am as an empath/healer. I find it jarring and uncomfortable to be around others’ conversations (especially superficial ones, as with many of the new arrivals), thus I venture forth from my hut only as needed: for brackish showers and toilet, a mug of chamomile tea, and, because I am here for an extended period, to occasionally check email IF the centre’s dodgy Internet connection is working.

Arrival day, the tambo with its strictly functional furnishings

At times, I’ve wished to put energy into writing, or even doing some work on my latest book manuscript. Yet all I can manage is a few notes, a couple of sketchy paragraphs or thoughts here and there as they come to me—every few days, elusive as butterflies—with the realization that any actual composition of this post will have to be accomplished once I end the dieta and resettle at home.

Here, now, I am of a different focus. A strange but worthy one, I think. Traveling further down the winding path as medicine man who walks with a foot in two realms, an edgewalker.

I am working with the most powerful tree in the Amazon, and watching moonlight on the clouds. 

We are always shaped by the places we inhabit. At moments I cannot help but wonder how this jungle world is sculpting and changing me, knowing I am in relationship with more than merely the physical (trees, rain, soil, lizards, spiders, etc.), but also subtle realms and beings—ones flickering at the peripheral edge of my vision and awareness.

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Why am I doing this: extricating myself from the North American cultural narrative, voluntarily separating from the comforts and conveniences of a very civilized life to endure an extended period of asceticism in the Peruvian rainforest…?

Initially, I came because, as a shamanic healer, I was willing to undertake another initiation and hopefully gain a plant ally—preferably one of the mighty trees—to assist my work. Yet being here for a couple of weeks now, I understand that the deeper goal is to get clear. I offer that “clear” is not the same as being “awake,” though that is perhaps equally important, and achieving either one constitutes the work of a lifetime. To be clear is to truly radiate more love and light—and to cease extending our brokenness/sickness out into the world, which is already incoherent enough.

Cermonial maloka in early morning mist

The body is a time-capsule, and until we disencumber from our emotional wounds and patterns—including the so-called physical level, though really there’s no separation—our awakening and transformation is limited. Many people possess “spiritual” abilities (e.g. the ability to “channel,” connect with the subtle/other realms, work with “energy,” etc.) but, frankly, they are not clear. Even among shamanic or spiritual healers, my observation is that too many rely upon a connection with higher realms but haven’t done their own deeper work. It is tempting and convenient to believe that we can simply transcend our shadows and limiting patterns, but we do not banish old wounds by simply reaching for the light. Rather, we must go into those dark places and face what lurks there.

On a healer’s path, the journey becomes a series of initiations. For me, the past couple of years have constituted an ongoing trial and profound expansion; venturing to South America to undertake an extended plant “dieta” and work with master shamans feels, in many ways, like a culmination… but perhaps it’s simply another test. Yet all of it is a deepening “yes”, ever more fully inhabiting my willingness to be a conduit for the highest energies with which to assist others, clear as I may possibly be.

THAT, my friend, is why I am here—not simply in the jungle, but my life on this blue-green jewel of a planet. A guide can only lead someone along the path as far as he or she has traveled; as a healer, I help others get clear, thus I too must commit to doing the fathomless work.

Loud and colourful

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One of the few things I know is that part of my power as a healer comes from a tangible, direct connection to Earth, while being rooted in the bones and breath—not simply linking to disembodied, transcendent realms. And in this, I help others do the same, while facing their subconscious fears about what they’re really on this planet to do, in the sacred vessel of a human body.

To further ground that connection, here I am, ensconced in a primitive hut and deepening into another initiation, walking barefoot on sandy soil through a sea of living energy, awed by the power of the Elementals with their thunder and lightning, engaged in an ongoing conversation with multiple realms—and understanding that everything is a blessing, even the challenges.

There is real magic here; I’ve experienced more than a few unexplainable episodes since my arrival, in both daylight and nighttime hours. (Stories for another time, perhaps.) And the shamans know that the countless medicinal plants and trees here are really spirits—willing to help cure and save us, if only we’ll ask and come to them with respect.

An aspect of me hopes that when it’s time to depart Peru, I’ll have what I initially came for: a powerful Master Plant as my ally, along with the gift of its unique song—which summons the plant spirit for healing work, effective far beyond the chemical constituents in a poultice,  infusion, tincture, or any other extracted formula. Yet in my soul, it doesn’t matter whether I receive that powerful blessing and acknowledgment, or not; the profound cleanse, challenge, and embodied spiritual experience is proving to be its own reward.

Gentle reader, so many times I have commented and written that we are only passing through—that to the best of our ability, as we endeavor to be “awake” and “clear,” each of us is called to do what we can in order to make our little patch of the world a better, more beautiful place. We must find our sacred giveaway, and live into that offering as fully and authentically as we may—knowing it will always deliver ongoing opportunities for personal evolution.

Here’s hoping that in whatever manner you are called, and whether to a remote mountainside or simply the crucible of the office, that you will say yes to the deepest work of healing and transformation, understanding that there is something essential only YOU can bring to this world… and that it is needed.

Yes, it’s true, just as mythologist Joseph Campbell warned: the treasure you seek is in the cave you fear to enter.

Don’t let that stop you.

Onward, friend.

The medicine tree…

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