Medicine plant diets
Medicine plant diets can last from 12 days to 30 days or even more. In the diet, you eat food with no salt or sugar, usually rice and other cooked starchy vegetables (green bananas or potatoes or yuca root), plus a white fish. Without salt or sugar, you soon become very sensitive. Due to the increased sensitivity, everything chemical or with smell is avoided: you wash without soap, brush your teeth without toothpaste, and so on. You spend your time quietly in one location (the dieting hut) with very little contact with other people during this period. One or more doses of a medicine plant extract are given during the diet. This state of increased sensitivity allows you to think and heal and learn from the medicine plant. The diet is also accompanied by Ayahuaska ceremonies. The number of ceremonies depends on the preference of the person undertaking the diet and on their needs during this time. In the style of working of the Curandero’s, he also monitors the condition of the person who is dieting during the night, remotely, and does healing work to open channels and aid the process of learning with the plant.
The medicine plant diet is ended by the reintroduction of salt and sugar into the diet, and over a couple of days the person dieting comes back to their normal state of being. The Curandero also prepares the person for returning to eating other normal foods by singing the „Arcana”, which protects the body from the possible shock of various different foods and external influences after the diet. This is important because the plants are very fussy about some food items, different for each plant, and this can cause problems otherwise.
In the traditional way of working of the Curandero’s medicine is based on, the effect of the plants, is understood as follows. Each medicine plant has both good and bad spirits. Within a medicine plant diet, the Curandero invites the good spirits to take up residence within your body. These good spirits can then do their work of healing and helping you throughout your life from that point on. The bad spirits are not invited into the body, but are kept around the body as protection. The Curandero explains this as follows: the bad plant spirits are like your dog. You do not eat with your dog, or sleep with your dog; instead your dog sleeps on the patio and keeps the house safe; this is what the bad spirits do. He also explains the good and bad plant spirits as follows: It is like a hospital. The good plant spirits are like the doctors and nurses, and the bad plant spirits are like the soldiers guarding the entrances to the hospital.
Once someone has dieted with a plant, they then have the good and bad spirits of that plant available to them. He explains that each plant has a whole world of spirits or beings associated with it. In Ayahuaska it is possible to visit that world and receive help from the spirits there. If the person is a Curandero, then these spirits also come to help when he is curing someone. Each plant also has its own songs (the Ikaros), and these also come to those who have started to learn to sing. It is important to note that according to the Curandero’s approach, all medicine plants have these good and bad spirits. This also applies to medicine plants from other traditions than jungle traditions. It is possible to do a diet on other plants as well, for example in theory it would be possible to work this way with the Bach Flower Remedies, and meet those spirits and work with them using this same jungle-diet approach. Those who have previously worked strongly with plants for healing may already have these plant spirits available to them in their bodies. It is also interesting that this form of medicine requires very little theory or mental understanding. Rather it is the plant spirits that do all the work, and the Curandero does not have to mentally choose any plant to work with — rather he allows the plant spirit to come (out of all the spirits that he knows) that is best suited to the healing work at hand.
Don Raul can provide diets with very many different medicine plants, but he lists the following few which he suggests are good for a first diet:
- Chiric Sanango ( 15 days),
- Villacocaspi ( 15 days),
- Toe ( 12 days),
- Huarme Renaco ( 15 days).
The following plants are also available, and diets with many others could also be arranged after discussion with the Maestro.
- Remocaspi ( 12 days),
- Cahuapuri ( 15 days),
- Chuiachacicaspi ( 15 days ),
- Wairacaspi ( 30 days),
- Sihuahuaco ( 60 days),
- Uchu Sanango ( 15 days).
Ayahuasca ceremony – 150 $
15 days of diet – 1.200 $
The prices of the diets include all food during the diet, accommodation in the dieting hut, medicine and ceremonies. Bedding, mosquito net and hammock are provided. The dieting hut is well protected with anti-mosquito mesh. Other types or lengths of diet can be arranged with the Maestro. If you wish to stay longer after the diet, this is possible by paying the day-to-day costs.
Narration of one the participants in the ceremony
„I undertook a 15-day diet with Chiric Sanango with a Curandero. I took three doses of the plant on alternate days at the start of the diet. The first and third were quite mild, but the second was much stronger with the characteristic „mareación” of Chiric Sanango. After that point, the diet was relatively quiet, and I tried to work on myself and contact the plant spirits. It took a while for me to understand what was needed, because I am not so sensitive as the Shipibo-Konibo, but in the end I was able to connect with Chiric Sanango and with the spirits of several other plants that I had dieted previously. In this time I was going through much confusion and clearing, in quite an internal sensitive space. Towards the end of the diet I received a number of Ayahuaska ceremonies. The Curandero would give the ceremonies, accompanied by his wife who would rest beside him giving support, but without taking a direct role in the ceremony. Each ceremony was very different from the next. In one I was working through a lot of internal questions very intensively. In another, the Curandero massaged some discomfort out of my belly region, which he later explained was a ‚shock’ I had given to the Came Renaco plant by eating something wrong after a previous diet I had done, and which was causing me to vomit every ceremony with Ayahuaska, more times than necessary. In another ceremony I had huge discomfort in my belly, which was relieved by going to the toilet. In all the ceremonies the Curandero would sing, and there was one ceremony in which I remember very clearly the power of the songs. He explained later that he was singing to help the plants take up residence in my body. In another he was singing me through all kinds of discomfort and pain, releasing that discomfort from my body. It was hard, but I am certain that it was worthwhile. He also started to teach me to sing so that I could take Ayahuaska on my own if I wished, to work on myself; connecting to him for help should I need it. This is the start of a process that will obviously take time and practice. For me, the Curandero has a huge amount of knowledge, but that knowledge is deeply buried within him. Consciously, on a mental level, he does not have the answers very much to hand, but with a little questioning, sometimes extremely lucid explanations would come which helped me a great deal. However, there is a lot which he simply does not know consciously, which just comes to him in the moment when it is needed: when he is healing or working with Ayahuasca. For that reason at times it could be frustrating trying to understand something from him, but really I think this is inevitable. Also, there are very many curanderos out there with very little respect for foreigners, who will tell you any old nonsense that they think you want to hear (for example: „Oh, that will be your third eye opening”), because they know that in general foreigners really are not sensitive enough to know what is happening to them on the spiritual levels at which curanderos are accustomed to work.
However, with the Curandero, whilst it was not always possible to immediately understand what he was explaining or saying, in the end I could trust that what he was describing was real for him in his vision, and that it was a valid and honest point of view. Trust is something hard to come by when there are so many Curanderos out there so willing to lie. The only downside for me of the diet with a Curandero was that at times there would be a bit too much noise from nearby houses in the village, people playing music or whatever. Sometimes this would bother me, and sometimes not. One day there was some kind of political broadcast on someone’s radio which was giving me a lot of trouble — however, I had my CD player with me, so I could blot this out with my own music or other relaxing sounds. So, this is worth bearing in mind. There is electricity in the dieting hut, so power is not a problem. The other thing is keeping the communication channels open, because as a Shipibo, brought up with a completely different way of life, the Curandero cannot always guess correctly what a foreigner needs or is accustomed to. To me, jungle life is incredibly noisy, with all kinds of interruptions and distractions — to the extreme in the cities like Pucallpa. A few radios playing music probably seems like tranquility itself to people from here. Slowly I am becoming accustomed to all of this. The other thing was that on arriving I was hoping for a much stronger “mareación” from the medicine, to have a really strong ‚chemical journey’ with the plant, if you like. In the end, it wasn’t like that, but in adjusting to this different approach, I learnt a lot of things. So this was all positive in the end. My understanding and approach has certainly changed significantly on a number of issues during this diet, and this is what I was looking for, even if some of the answers were not what I’d hoped for!”
What is a jungle diet
For those who’ve never heard of a jungle diet („dieta” in Spanish), I will give an overview based on my three experiences and talking with various people during my time here in Peru. There may be other approaches to the diet that I still don’t know about, so please don’t take this as the final word. The basis of the diet is eating bland white food with NO salt or sugar for a certain period of time — anything from 7 days up to maybe 6 months or even a year — along with taking one or more doses of a medicine plant extract. During this time, your body is exposed to nothing with flavor, and nothing chemical, and you are isolated in the jungle in a hut, with contact with no-one but the Curandero. At least, that is the ideal or most extreme form, but as you will see there are various compromises (good and bad) that may occur in practice.
I will deal with each aspect in turn:
- The food
Sometimes the diet is done by just eating cooked white rice or some other starchy food. Remember that no salt or sugar is permitted in the preparation. Sometimes cooked green bananas are added to the meal (not a plantain, just a normal yellow banana picked green and boiled or baked), or potatoes or yuca root or cooked oats. With my first diet, I was also given unsweetened plain drinking yogurt. For longer diets, a meal of meat or fish is included at intervals according to the judgments of the Curandero. This might be a wild-fed chicken or a fish that is cooked very simply (e.g. baked or grilled). In my third diet I was given fish at every meal. To drink you will be given water, or perhaps a herb tea suitable to accompany the diet (a „mate” in Peruvian Spanish). It is interesting that what is eaten on the diet is pretty much the indigenous daily jungle diet anyway, with the exclusion of salt — and salt was something that had to be specially looked for in the jungle in times past.
- The body’s environment
During the diet your body should be exposed to nothing with flavour, and nothing chemical. This means washing without soap, brushing teeth with only water, using no deodorant, using no insect repellant, using no chemical medicines, and so on. This is important. With the bland and salt less diet your body can soon become very sensitive to external things. Some smells become overwhelming, and you might find you can pick up all kinds of subtle things that you were probably never aware of before. There seem to be a few exceptions to this „nothing with flavor” rule, though. Of course, tobacco is used universally (it seems) by Curanderos, for cleansing things, making prayers, aiding them in their medicine, and so on. Also, in my first diet I was given a very strong infusion of “mapacho” (jungle tobacco) to rub into my skin as a natural insect-repellant and to help ease insect bites. Also, you may be given herbal tea to drink. But apart from this, no flavor is the general rule.
One of the more traditional ways to do a diet is in a very basic hut in the middle of the jungle, just four poles and a roof, with perhaps a hammock and/or a bed with a mosquito net. You might have a local stream for bathing, and the bushes for your toilet. This could be called a „deep jungle diet”. You could say that this is the extreme version — this way you are totally immersed in the jungle during the experience, and you are accompanied by all of its inhabitants with whom you will most probably interact at times. However, there are many other ways that diets are arranged as well, some better than others. For example you might be in a much bigger and better hut a few feet off the ground, with perhaps better protection from mosquitoes (less suffering from bites), even maybe a bathroom (real luxury!), and maybe not so deep in the jungle. At the stage I’m at, this seems to me to be good, because although I’m getting used to dealing with mosquitoes, they can be a real distraction at times. Bathing in a local stream, though, is really recommended even if you have a shower available, because you feel very good afterwards from the natural energy. And I can appreciate the idea of being at ground level with all the animals — if you are really ready to meet them all … There are other ways the diet may be arranged which are not so good, depending on your point of view. For example, you might be staying in the Curandero’s house, or in a village, or close to the noise of a town. This really depends on how well you think you would be able to cope with the distractions. One friend did a diet at a Curandero’s house and complained that the kids turning the radio on full-blast at dawn were seriously interrupting his internal processes (dreaming, realizations, etc). My third diet was like this, on the edge of a village, with music at times during the day and sometimes at night as well. This is not ideal, but I got by: sometimes I had to listen to my own music to „protect myself” from external sounds which were bothering me. However, in my first diet, the noises from all-night parties in the nearby town were giving me immense problems — I really would definitely not want to do a diet again under those conditions. So, it is good to understand the advantages of different arrangements before undertaking the diet. Also, ideally you should only interact with the curandero during the diet. However, you might also be interacting with the guy who brings the food if that is someone else, or with curious kids, etc. If there are other people around in the area, they are supposed know to leave you alone and not try and talk to you or approach you. Visiting the local stream might mean waiting for others to leave. You are supposed to avoid women completely, due to the possibility that they are in their period. (Before anyone reading goes crazy about this recommendation, first try a diet and realise how unusually sensitive you can become during it before judging this ‚rule’.)
Certainly, you will take part in Ayahuasca ceremonies before, during or after the diet. In one case, Ayahuasca ceremony celebrated both before and after the diet. In another ceremonies at subsequent levels during the diet. It is possible that some of the curandero work both ways. One man was involved in Ayahuasca ceremonies every night even when their diet with curandero. In fact, all of this depends on what you intend to work with, from the plant, with which dietujesz and on the recommendations of a curandero. During my first diet, there was no such ceremony of initiation, but instead was subjected to purification using bobins and tobacco plants.
- Ending the diet
The diet is often ended with a „corte de dieta” meal which consists of raw onion, salt, garlic and lime juice. After this came a „caldo de gallina” in two of my diets, i.e. a chicken broth made with free-roaming chicken and vegetables. This is to start building up your strength again, and as one friend pointed out, if it is at least half-decent, this will be the best caldo you have ever tasted in your life. In my third diet, however, the end was simply a salt mouth-wash, a sweet „mate” tea, and the re-introduction of salt and sugar into the diet.
After the diet
Now comes the interesting difference between the dieting medicine plants and Ayahuaska, because after taking Ayahuaska, you are free to do all the things that were prohibited before the ceremony, but with the dieting medicine plants, by default that couldn’t be further from the truth. The plant stays in your body and has a significant influence over it for perhaps a month afterwards. What effect it has and for how long varies from one plant to the next. The Curandero will give you a list of foods and activities to avoid and for how long, and the list is different for each plant. However, some Curanderos do some ‚magic’ to protect you from these problems, such „Arcana” in my third diet, so there may be fewer restrictions depending on the approach of your Curandero. The strong influence of the plant in your body over this period is something that you won’t necessarily notice if you keep to the Curandero’s guidelines, but if you don’t, you will really know about it. Breaking some of the guidelines might mean having to go back to the Curandero to resolve the problem. The fact that the plant stays around influencing your body so long, restricting your diet and lifestyle during this time, is best regarded as a necessary exchange for the positive influence that the plant is bringing to your life. However, it is worth noting that some plants are more restrictive than others in this respect.
Anyway, to give some examples:
„After my first diet, I was told to avoid sweet things for a month. Testing this rule as the weeks went on, I found that eating something sugary in the morning really knocked me out — I had to go and lie down all morning.”
As another example:
„With my first diet with Chiric Sanango, I was asked not to shake hands with anyone for a month. This may sound ludicrous, but one friend accepted the helping hand of a boatman and nearly fainted in that instant due to the movement of energy. A couple of weeks after my diet, I also shook hands with someone by mistake, and felt an unusual sensation in my palm for some time afterwards. However, after my second diet with Chiric Sanango, the Curandero told me he had protected me from this problem, and indeed I shook hands with many people without difficulty. Another example: after my first diet I was asked not to visit any loud places such as bars. After a few weeks, I did cautiously visit a noisy dance venue and I felt how my body reacted to the noise: it was like a shock for my whole energy body — this is the best way I can describe it. I was able to stay centered, but I could see how this could really knock someone completely off balance if they were less careful or less aware.”
As a more extreme example of this, there is a story of some guy who ignored the guidelines completely and immediately after his diet headed off to Iquitos and hit the night clubs. He was found in a park a few days later completely incoherent and confused, in a state perhaps something like that of an infant, with no memory and no idea who he was or where he was. This state is called „cruzado” in Spanish, which means „crossed”. Some concerned people searched his pockets, found a contact number and got in touch with the centre where he had dieted, who got them to put him on a plane back. The people from the centre picked him up, and took him to a Curandero who specializes in people in this state, who after singing an Ikaro (medicine song), with one blow of tobacco smoke brought him back to his normal self. To the guy himself it was as if he had just woken up after a long sleep. This „cruzado” state, as I understand it from what I’ve heard, is something that happens when you are in a very open sensitive state (which you may very well be in after your diet, depending on the plant you’re dieting) and you experience a strongly shocking outside influence.
So, the best option is to follow the rules — or if you’re not a rule-following type, at least break them cautiously with some knowledge of the possible consequences.
The medicine plants
The medicine plants used for diets are also sometimes called „master plants” or „teacher plants”. Each plant helps you in a different way, i.e. they are all for different things. As with Ayahuaska, each plant has spirits which perhaps some people will be able to work with during their diet. Anyway, all the plants do hugely different things, and the only ones I can talk about are the ones I’ve experienced. But from my experience I would say: don’t necessarily expect anything like the immense journeys that can occur during an Ayahuaska ceremony. This is often a bit more subtle. These plants infuse your body with their influence for some extended period of time. The changes might come as dreams or visions, or as thought-streams that lead to understandings or realizations. The plants I took made relatively subtle changes to me, changes that might be huge in their implications over time, but which are not so obvious when compared to having a huge emotional purge of toxic emotional material when vomiting with Ayahuaska, and then feeling instantly better the next day.
However, having said that, some plants I took did also have obvious immediate effects, such as a sense of apparent numbness in some parts of the body, apparent cold, plus vibration and/or shivering with Chiric Sanango, or maybe the kind of manic mind-state I had occasionally from Ucho Sanango, or maybe just feeling wiped out and sleeping really deeply for a few hours with the mix of five plants. However, still, most of the action is really happening at a much more subtle level. Out of the traditional master plants, Toë (Floripondio, related to Datura) is reckoned to be one of the most potent, and also the most dangerous if badly handled. The Curandero says that dieting this plant is one of the quickest ways to learn. If you are dieting Toé, they say you are completely in a world of your own, living in a dreaming world, effectively. You see consistent things in the world around you that are simply not there. They say you have to be monitored 24 hours a day. I think you’d have to be pretty confident in your Curandero to do a diet with Toé. Another surprising option is to diet Ayahuaska. This means taking Ayahuaska once or twice a day. This could also be a pretty interesting experience; I’m not sure exactly what the benefits would be of doing something like that.
Understanding the diet
There are various ways of understanding what happens during a diet. One approach might be to regard it as a chemical journey with the plant, enhanced by the increased sensitivity provided by the salt and sugar-free diet, i.e. to look at it as a trip, similar to the way that Ayahuaska can give you a clear conscious journey, with visions and so on. This is how I was initially regarding my diets, but this is also what lead to a lot of my disappointment and confusion, because I really wasn’t getting the strong conscious journeys I was hoping for. Certainly it is possible to provide a strong diet in this form, but now I realise that for many curanderos this would be regarded as completely missing the point.
Maybe for an insensitive Westerner, however, a diet of many strong doses would give a more measurable effect. I was basing my ideas initially on the diet experience of Diego of Ayahuasca-Wasi, who dieted Chiric Sanango, fasting completely for 7 days with daily strong doses of the plant. He was constantly in the „mareación” of the plant, with numbness and shivering and so on, and he had immense visions during this time. Finally with the Curandero I understood that this is a rather unsubtle approach. Maybe if someone would give me a diet like that, I could benefit from it, but failing that, let’s see what the other approach is about
The Curandero’s perspective
For the Curandero, a diet is about getting acquainted with some new plant spirits. They diet about 100 plants in their life, usually the first diet at the age of 12. His longest diet was for a whole year: 4 months on each of three plants. To him, it is pointless to diet a plant twice (as I have done), because he says it would be like going through University twice to study the same subject. Well, maybe I was at „Medicine Plant University” effectively wearing a blindfold and earplugs, which is how I managed to completely miss the point the first time around! For the Curandero, each plant has good and bad spirits. The good spirits are invited to take up residence within the body, and they do the work of healing or helping you. The bad spirits are invited to stay around the body as protection. The Curandero compares the bad spirits to a dog. He says: „You don’t eat with your dog, or sleep with your dog; instead the dog sleeps on the patio and keeps the house safe.” You don’t want the bad spirits involved in your healing process because they just get in the way and make a mess of things — again, very much like a dog would do. So, the dog is kept outside where he can do his job well and not get in the way. The good spirits help in various ways with healing. For Curanderos, they come to help when he/she is working to cure someone. Each plant also has songs, which start to come in Ayahuaska ceremonies to those learning to sing. Each plant also has a whole world of beings and spirits associated with it, which can be visited during Ayahuaska ceremonies, or they may come in visions during the ceremony to help you. So, the diet is simply to establish a connection with some new „healing powers” (if you like) which the plant provides, and to allow the plant to do whatever work it can on you during that time. Maybe this means physical changes, emotional healing, visions, or whatever the particular plant has to offer.
It is also interesting that the Curandero regards all medicine plants as having these good and bad spirits. This means that, for instance, in theory it would be possible to diet the Bach Flower Remedies. Indeed, the work of Bach really is identical to the approach and work of many Amazonian Curanderos — for instance the way he became ill and then went looking for the plant to cure himself, building up his knowledge in that way. This was a very interesting revelation to me, finding such a strong connection between these two systems of medicine. This does mean, however, that most of the action in a diet is taking place at a level too subtle for most Westerners to recognize at first. This means both accepting it like that and trusting that the plants and the Curandero are doing their work, or alternatively trying as much as possible to connect with these subtleties. Maybe being in a very isolated place might help to connect, or maybe trying to work consciously with dreaming or visualization or Reiki or some other technique to build a connection. This seems the only way forward to understand and benefit from the diets in the way that the Curanderos intend