In 2011 I spent 4 months in Peru and was able to a little investigation into on one of the most unique human-plant relationships on earth. The shamans of Peru are famous for the phyto-spiritual “surgery” they facilitate with their patients. Using the ayahuasca plant, a strong hallucinogen, shamans guide participants on an inner journey with common goals including promoting insights into problems and healing life traumas. As would fit a blog focused on sobriety I will skip the sexy discussion on the controversial psychedelic aspect of the custom and will instead explore the role diet plays in the process.
First light of dawn hits the peak! My tour guide at Machu Picchu claimed the use of ayahuasca inspired much of the Inca religion including the design of this sacred site
All Shamans strongly recommend a period of dietary cleansing from several weeks to several months prior to taking ayahuasca. The belief is that a strict regime prepares one for the vigors of the powerful visions and emotions that wait. Shamans call this “la dieta”, the diet. Typical restrictions include: salt, sugar, vinegar, sweets, spices/chili, fats/oil, seasonings, canned food, stimulants, alcohol, drugs/medications, chocolate, red meat, and pork. Last spring I interviewed a shaman to learn about this piece of the custom.
Why is it important to follow the diet prior to the ayahuasca ceremony? The experience of ayahuasca starts with the knowledge gained during cleansing, the participant arrives to the session with an already modified state of consciousness.
How can following a strict diet effect consciousness? Every food has a message, some are stronger than others. Following the diet cleanses the mind from conflicting messages. Ayahuasca is a planta maestra, a professor plant, it has a great deal to teach. If your body has been influenced by strong foods than it can’t give itself completely to the ayahuasca.
How does not following the diet impede the experience? Sugar, caffeine, flesh and heavy foods (fats) modify consciousness, they have a strong influence, the ayahuasca plant is jealous over the power they have.
How can a plant be jealous? The body isn’t free and independent with those foods exerting their control. The healing and revelatory effects of ayahuasca work much better if the body is free.
Is there a physical reaction as well or are you only talking about the effect on the mind?It is difficult to separate the effects but, yes, those who follow the diet don’t throw up as much, get sick, or feel weak and in general they feel stronger, the experience goes more smoothly for them.
A boxed lunch, Peruvian style. In the mountains many people travel with little sacks of boiled potatoes and beans, both of which are considered good choices by the Shamans
Outside of diet, what recommendations are there for one’s lifestyle prior to working with a Shaman? The goal is to lessen outside influences, one should avoid over exposure to rain, sun, smoke, fire, polluted air and foul odors. One must abstain from sexual activities for at least two weeks, but longer is better. Also, interacting with people that are strongly pessimistic or sick should be avoided.
Why are these practices important? We weaken the power of our material desires and the societal influences that separate us from nature. In this way we can be more open to guidance and power from the plant world, from Ayahuasca. [Interestingly many native tribes from North America have similar practices of isolation from society’s (the tribe’s) influence prior to taking part in vision quests]
What I found intriguing in these conversations was that the Shamans have a firm belief that diet effects consciousness. They have singled out many of the same foods as having undue influence that so many of us crave: sweets, salty foods, rich and heavy foods, alcohol, and caffeine. As a Dietitian I couldn’t help enjoying the respect that these Shamans had for the transformative power of diet.
Personal note: I did not participate in the ayahuasca ritual, though I did follow the cleansing diet and found it to be a remarkable trip of its own, as much of a consciousness changing experience as my shaman friend insisted it would be.