Shamanic tales from the recesses of Amazonia: An interview with ayahuasquero Guillermo Arevalo

Recently, Dionisio and I sat down with Guillermo Arevalo, the celebrated Amazonian ayahuasquero also known by his spiritual name, Kestenbetsa, when he visited us at our home. For students of Amazonian shamanism, this is an interesting convergence to listen in on as Guillermo, a native from the Shipibo-Conibo tribe has 40 years of shamanic experience, Dionisio Santos, a Westerner living in Amazonia has 25 years experience and myself, a North American transplant living in Amazonia has been immersed in the field for 10 years. The three of us share from our different perspectives on shamanism based on our diversity of cultures, backgrounds and life experience. We talked a lot about plants, like what makes something a poison and something else a medicine, what are the essential elements of an Amazonian dieta are well as what really is Ayahuasca and how can it be a beneficial tool for helping one attain their own self-mastery.

Guillermo began by admiring some of the plants in our garden and telling us what he knew about them.

GA:These painted leaves we know as saban are local to Amazonia. There are two types of Saban. One is variegated and the other is not. When one has a cold they consume the leaves of saban in a tea or a vaporizing bath. Helps to open the pores and release. Matico is also good for vaporizing baths. It’s also great for inflammation. The Incans used matico a lot as well, to drink, to take vapor baths and to treat woman during postpartum. There are a lot of plants here!

AB: After listening to you recount your recent experience dieting Pinon Colorado and the very strong effects you experienced, perhaps it makes one question if the plant is actually a medicine or a poison. In your opinion, what’s the difference between a medicine and a poison?

GA: From what I understand, all medicine can be toxic but if the dosage is correct, it’s not a poison. If one takes too much, the same medicine can act as a poison. It’s the same for anything, if one eats too much candy, too many cookies, it can make you sick. Food can be poison too. For example, the leaves of the Pinon Colorado contain saponine and can be poisonous, but if you know to use it, it can be a very potent medicine. Another example, the resin of Catahua is poisonous as well as the Patiquina negra but if its measured and used properly, it’s not poison, it can help you. Many times the academic description of a plant goes against the experiential wisdom and understanding of how certain plants are used.

AB: Why is this?

GA: When a plant is studied from an experiential perspective, one doesn’t just take a lot at once. One must incrementally increase the quantity until the right amount is discovered.

AB: So you think the true way to discover correct formulas is through experimentation?

GA: Yes.

DS: The other point is that we don’t all have the same organism.

GA: That’s what I’m trying to say. No two people have exactly the same organism so the result/effect of the medicine given will be different for everyone.

DS: In that case, how does one know to measure the precise dose of medicine that a specific patient will require? In my opinion, a good curandero uses his intuition to discern this.

AB: Perhaps there is an energetic component to consider that is absent from most clinical approaches to this subject.

GA: Through my experience and what I saw working in the field with my dad and other curanderos is the presence of a human interaction with patients like, “Bienvenidos, sit down, let’s talk.” You begin to talk to them. “How long have you felt like this? What are you taking?” You take out a diagnostic through questioning to base your decision of what dose to begin at. You go little by little. If it doesn’t work, you add a little more. Once you arrive to a certain reaction, there you stop increasing and observe. Medicine is all about the correct application. Even vapor baths can give a strong reaction sometimes.

AB: We don’t just ingest medicine through the mouth. We ingest medicine through all the senses including what we see and hear.

GA: Plants themselves are dietary supplements. For example, Pinon Colorado can also be eaten in a salad. It is 100 substances including antibiotic properties.

AB: What are the elemental features of the Amazonian dieta?

GA: Traditionally, the dietary elements that were originally employed were green bananas and fish. But recently, I’ve been noticing the importance of consuming salads while dieting. One can add medicinal leaves, like that of Pinon Blanco and Pinon Colorado to salads. But they shouldn't be eaten only for their beneficial nutritional value, but also for their energetic properties. Matico, Pinon Colorado, Pinon Blanco can also be taken like a tea. It is possible to experiment with oneself to see what works. We also eat boquichico during the dieta because it is a fish that only eats the leaves that fall from the trees. We don’t eat fish that have teeth during this time because they eat other animals. You don’t want to create any kind of shock between the plant you are dieting and the food you are eating that can produce certain allergies or energetic disturbances. With a traditional dieta, one can’t eat certain fruits like mango, papaya or sweet banana. We do consider the green banana to be ideal in this situation. The dieta follows the master plants, like Pinon Colorado, Mucura, Bobinsana, there are so many. Each plant has its own dieta.

DS: When you talk about a traditional dieta, each curandero has their own protocol and I’ve observed different curanderos working with the same plant but with different protocols ranging from how they prepare the plant to take to how the dieta of the plant is given. When one observes such diversity in different approaches, it produces a doubt about what is actually traditional.

GA: Totally. I understand that. Each maestro has his own way to guide a dieta. One needs to be conscious of what one is doing.

AB: Last night, you were talking about how Ayahuasca helps us to “recognize”. What is it exactly that Ayahuasca is helping us to recognize about ourselves? How can Ayahuasca help us to recognize?

GA: Very well. Ayahuasca is like a book of information. If we want to discover about ourselves, we need to go deep. First we need to cleanse our mind, not focus on the problems of the past, our fears, or thinking that we are the best. There is always someone better than us. So once we create more clarity within our interior field and our memory, one can discover what the plant can teach. So, what do you do for this to happen? When you read a book, you concentrate and dedicate yourself to that pastime. You don’t focus on your problems. It’s the same with Ayahuasca. Developing your concentration, you begin to understand. On some occasions, Ayahuasca, herself will show you. For this, you must concentrate consciously. You can’t lose yourself. There you will find the answer to the question you asked Ayahuasca. It can show you everything: past, present and future, on all the levels, only when one is clear in their intention. I’ve always asked Ayahuasca for help with what I was looking for. I have asked people for advice along the way but if I felt I couldn’t trust in their responses, I could always rely on Ayahuasca. You can discover everything.

DS: I always ask myself, what is Ayahuasca? Maybe for those beginning in this path, the question is relatively simple: it’s a preparation of plants that is taken and modifies your consciousness by showing you things. In the beginning, my experience was centered on how Ayahuasca spoke to me and showed me things that happened in the past or future, which with the years turned out to be true. So until a certain point I was satisfied with this explanation that something outside of myself, in this case the Ayahuasca, was communicating with me, teaching me things. And with more time, I questioned that maybe it wasn’t the Ayahuasca. What’s behind all this? For example, if I didn’t take this beverage, then this whole experience couldn’t exist. I came to the conclusion that I also have a profound participation in this experience. Like you were mentioning before, once you’ve clarified your interior terrain, your psychological issues, traumas and unconscious patterns, you become available for something else emerge that allows you to “recognize” and to be conscious of this recognition. So the question for me is, what allows you to recognize and who is recognizing? You arrive to a point, and this can be constantly evolving, for me the most important, interesting and beneficial experiences are when I forget everything about my past and experienced a kind of disidentification from this person called Dionisio that inhabits this body, that has a life experience like such and such. This is not the primary program that is running anymore. It doesn’t disappear completely but it doesn’t require the same attention as before. It’s in that space that something really interesting emerges, like when you use that word “to recognize.” It’s a eureka moment, when you say, “finally, I feel alive.” This is beyond your own preoccupations with your physical body and your personal story. When I return from this type of experience, I ask myself, “Who/what is this consciousness that allows me to recognize this?” In this moment, there is no Dionisio. This phenomenon, which allows you to recognize, is a great mystery. I can’t explain it but I’m aware that it exists. This level of consciousness opens doorways. Its like the sensation to plug into something, you just need to follow the flow of it, without unconsciously putting obstacles of your fears or judgments in the way. The problem is how do you know when you are truly there because many times there are subtle projections that confuse and distort this type of experience. I’m curious to know what your perspective is about this.

GA: It's a passage to know the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. Sometimes a part of one’s own spirit manifests, in the form of an angel or something like that, it can help us to recognize. Doubts, fears and confusions may come up but we move forward through them, we recognize and we move forward.

DS: In your opinion, can you reach these levels of consciousness through trained concentration, meditation or breathwork or just through the use of these medicinal plants?

GA: I have become maestro of my own learning process. I am the student and also the maestro. I’ve asked various maestros, what are the requisites of the dieta? They responded that the dieta is like this or like that. After my first dieta, I was staying with a family and taking a plant, drinking Ayahuasca and dieting but I ate one of these fish that is contraindicated. At night, what a barbarity! Horrible... It wasn’t any disrespect to the dieta, but part of the recognition of how each one needs to live his life. This experience helped to open my way. If you search the best, the most beautiful, where there are no problems or issues of any kind, this is not the way to learn. One needs to suffer to learn. To believe that yes, it doesn’t have to be like this. This is how I’ve learned. Now, I don’t do these things.

AB: With time and experience, one can learn to learn without suffering so much.

GA: In my youth, I was quire masochist.

We all share a hearty laugh.

AB: We learn the hard way until we realize we can actually learn our lessons in a much gentler, subtler way. We can develop a more subtle communication with life.

GA: Now I realize, everything is inside of this world of universal consciousness: plants, minerals, animals, humans, the earth, everything… If one is aware of this universal consciousness, everything opens and one becomes peaceful. One recognizes everything. It’s beautiful to be able to arrive to this point of peace and tranquility within oneself. However, everything that is light can become darkness, its not bad. It’s the nature of things. If God didn’t want these things to exist, they wouldn’t. All the techniques of knowledge are valid and can teach something if they are employed in a good way.

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