This is a synopsis of a talk  given on December 10th at the San Francisco Botanical Garden as part of an ongoing series about plants, medicine, and spirituality.

Around town, you see the products of the rainforest everywhere you look.


Rubber tree latex in tires.


Ipe wood, also known as ironwood, in fences and decks:


Pineapples at the grocery store:


New must have health foods:


Products of the petroleum industry – gas, plastics, and jet fuel:


Some of these plants are native to the Amazon rainforest, and have been planted in tropical plantations worldwide from Southeast Asia, Africa, to Hawaii.  Other items like logs and fuel come straight out of the Amazon.

The rainforest is a treasure box of chemicals, many not yet examined or deciphered.  Many plant chemicals have made their way into our culture.  What the Indians use as whole plant extracts, we like to isolate into small and specific compounds.  What the Indians use in ritual and respect, we tend to use in a secular context, or in an abusive manner.


The rain forests are the lungs of our world, why would a culture want to chop out its own breath?


This is my experience with the doctors and hospitals of our culture:  the waiting room with excellent magazines and hand sanitizer;  the cuff of the blood pressure monitor and a kind nurse; the reassuring gaze of a doctor who comes in and out; and a stop at the local pharmacy.  Alternatively, the health care experience as a patient begins with an ambulance ride; then the operating room with the healer doctor shaman of our tribe in scrubs and bright lights; ending in a hospital bed recovering with the help of a big screen TV, IV drip, and a constant beep beep beep.


With the amazing things we can do (growing stem cells, grafting skins, shrink tumors, laser surgeries, and the like), it is easy to put down other medical traditions.  It would be tempting to lump Amazonian traditions with any number of hocus pocus hunter gatherer new age type traditions.  Plus, we are uncomfortable with medicines that address good and evil, or medicines that make the earth and universe dance and sing as if they possess consciousness:


On the other hand, the Amazonian traditions are ancient and practical, having been used over thousands of years to survive in the rainforest environment.  Their medicine men and women are true researchers and healers; the forest is their university.  How would you like it if people came to your university and chopped up all your professors and tore down the school?

I wrote down the various roles of  an Amazonian medicine man, and imagined what their resume might look like:

shaman role

Among the shaman’s medicinal plants, they are roughly divided into plants that are used for the body, and those that act on the mind and spirit.  For the Secoya (Siecopi) people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, plant potions like Pehi, Chiricaspi, and Yahe are gateways to the spirit and ancestors.  Kekenna is an Aristolochia pipe vine used for stomach ailments; wasi iko is a Chenopodium pigweed used for intestinal worms; suara iko is a coca relative, an Erthroxylum, used to treat diarrhea; ma susi is a big stinging nettle named Urera useful for muscle aches and pains; mito is used externally for skin parasites, it is tobacco Nicotiana.

secoya meds

The following are some scenes of my limited experience as a patient of the Amazonian Tradition.

To drink plant medicines it is necessary to fast.  Simple foods unadorned by spices and sugars.  Fasting is not just about the guts, it is also fasting for the heart.  To be aware and conscious of one’s breath; to not be quick to anger and frustration; to let it come in and let it go out.  Fasting is also about the movement of energy – cultivating the inner mind scape, making it as vast as the sky and as deep as the sea.


The shaman must bless the medicine by blowing his spirit into the potion.  This part reminds me of the kosher gefilte fish I loved to eat in the all you can eat cafeteria, and the holy water at the entrance to the church.  Dip your fingers, make a cross.

bless the brew

When the shaman sings, the song covers me in clouds of rainbows.  All the antigens find receptors and nest comfortably in the hammock as birds fly overhead.


This next part is painful.  It is the purge as the small rainbow snakes of the plant potion find their way to the guts and start to jerk the nastiness free of ones body.  It expels the parasites and locked up emotions in the cores of cells.  For many people, these are useful parasites in day to day modern life; they help to maintain the order and structure of civilization.  They help to define success and accomplishment.  For dwellers of the rainforest, , engaged in constant battle, evil must be purged if the tribe is to survive.  It hurts just thinking about this part.  Not fun, not fun.  The worms stare back at you with gaping mouths.


There are some excellent visuals that come with the drinking of these plant medicines.  I get the same visuals by going to the supermarket and standing in front of the cereal aisle.  Abundance, colors,  and excellence!!  Another way I’d describe it is this, combine fish:


with colorful produce:


Add a football game with its flowing colors and running patterns:


Multiply those images by 2000, then feel that energy running through your whole being.  That’s about right.

At some point during the medical appointment, you may come to the end of the road and see either a small crack in the earth, or perhaps a loud rushing river.  My best guess is that it is death you encounter.  Not physical death like I can’t breathe! or I got no heart beat! but the place where we all end up.  Across the river is another place full of blooming fragrant flowers.  I get cold and scared here at this point and turn around, but you may be tempted to just walk across.  When you come back to regular life, perspective is changed, priorities are aligned, and fear is not gone, but it is lessened.

death & spirit

The Amazonians believe in a universe filled with spirits, and lived with in balance with the heart and mind.  Heart and spirit.  There is a story about an Indian who was tempted by power, and was granted the ability to change into a jaguar.  He became ruthless and cunning, and knew only killing and destruction.  Too much power, not enough light.  Power must be balanced by the forces of the light –  goodness, and  respect for people and nature.

price of evil

Followers of the Amazonian tradition see that there is a small jaguar within ones heart that is to be awakened.  With the roar of the sun it comes to life.  With that, transformation takes place.  Everything  will look the same, but lines of gentle waves  will rock our tribe of humanity.


Well, that was my experience as a patient of Amazonian medicines.  May you find the time to reflect upon our world, and appreciate all it has to offer.