*If you would like to see a talk Skye gave about dietas at a Plant People South Africa event, click here.
Plant Dieta is the soul of Amazonian curanderismo, and without a doubt, one of the most invaluable yet rigorous practices transmitted to us during our time in the jungle. How the practice is undertaken varies with each curandero or ethnic group. What we discuss here is based on what we learned during our 4-year apprenticeship within the Shipibo tradition of curanderismo and also from our own direct experience and understanding. In our practice, we keep to what we feel are the essential tenets of the tradition while also evolving, integrating and transforming parts of it to meet our needs and the current cultural context in which we find ourselves.
What is a Dieta?
Channelling the forces of nature
In traditional curanderismo, it is not the person doing the ‘doctoring’, it is the spirits of nature, the ancestors, deities, and the Divine- all done in communion with the patient themselves. While the curandero may have extensive knowledge in making herbal medicines and skill in other healing practices, it is their ability to enter into altered states of consciousness and to channel and temporarily transform into these spiritual forces of nature that then guides their practice and lends whatever healing modalities they are using their potency. No matter what form of Amazonian curanderismo we speak of, the practice of dieta is where these spiritual working relationships are formed, the energetic sacred vocabulary/ library is built, the skill in channelling is honed, icaros received, wisdom gained, intuition strengthened, sensitivity increased and healing power attained. This is the backbone of the whole tradition.
It is also used to give protections and defences, purify and clear out physical and energetic obstructions that may be preventing this channelling from taking place and to cleanse and renew one’s energy after working intensively with patients.
“The plants sing and speak to you if you listen to them with respect, and they allow you to see by way of visions and dreams.” In the Amazonian societies under study, we observed that during the traditional medicine apprenticeship, the initiates dedicate a fundamental part of the process to developing the capacity to “see”, establishing contact with the spirit world. This capacity to see is an aspect of extreme importance in shamanic traditions. Thus, it is not surprising that apprentices invest considerable time, resources, and effort in developing it. In the Peruvian east-central Amazon region the most important way to acquire this capacity is through shamanic diets.” -Elsevier (Journal of Ethno-Pharmacology)
An ancient practice of entering the inner and outer wilderness
Essentially it is a practice of relating- a specific form of an ancient journey that has been undertaken by humans for millennia. Similar to the vision quest of the Native Americans, or Walkabout of the aborigines- this is a solo mission into both the outer and inner wilderness, where one fasts or holds to strong dietary and behavioural observances and then wholeheartedly prays to the mysterious wild spirits of nature and the ancestors for teachings, connections, visions and songs that can then be carried back to the ‘community’ for healing, divination, direction and for imbuing deeper meaning and depth.
Dieta and mysterious prayer of the soul
For us, dieta has also become a container for deep soul work and self-exploration, a vehicle for both emotional and spiritual maturation, an opportunity to cleanse the doors of perception, revitalize our spirits, deepen our mindfulness, speak our sacred prayers and embody more fully the feeling sense. It is a practice that opens the doors to a direct experience of the mystery, to touch the world-soul, the ever-present river of meaning that flows beneath the outer forms we have become so accustomed to focusing on.
“In leaving the cloth of civilization behind, in leaving psychology of friends and family behind, in leaving food behind, the barrier between the sacred and the self-thins and eventually dissipates. Knowledge begins to flow from the full into the empty” –Stephen Buhner
**Please note that a ‘plant dieta’ is a specific practice undertaken by students/initiates of the tradition and is completely different from the ayahuasca ‘healing diet’ which is simply a set of recommended dietary observances that one follows before participating in an ayahuasca ceremony or a ‘therapeutic dieta’ which is administered in order to assist in healing an illness.
How is a dieta undertaken?
Again, how it is done will vary with each curandero as the essence of this work is always adaptable, alive and evolving to meet the needs of the moment. In the tradition we studied in, the process is more or less as follows (I speak in terms of plants here because that is what is most commonly dieted in this tradition but this process is roughly the same for anything one chooses to diet such as stones, bones, places in nature and even nonphysical beings such as deities, planets, faeries etc):
Preparing the soil (container):
- First, we choose a plant to learn from (and which part of the plant, as roots, bark, leaves and flowers have different spiritual qualities)- this can be through intuition, as in you just feel particularly called or magnetized to a certain plant. Perhaps the plant visits you in a dream or ceremony and requests that you do a dieta with it, or maybe your teacher will recommend a specific plant to you because he/she sees that you may benefit from the qualities gained from connecting with it such as energetic defences, increased sensitivity or vitality.
- Then you decide on a period of time you will do this dieta for (or you will be instructed by plant or teacher) – The usual time frame is anywhere from 5days to 6months. In the past, curanderos would do dietas for years at a time but that is very rare now.
- You then head to a place in nature where you can live in isolation for the duration of the dieta. Some people will continue to interact with their teacher, fellow students or with the people who bring their food- others will choose to see no people at all for the full duration (definitely our preference). *note: with the recent spread of these traditions around the world, we are now seeing adaptations of the traditional dieta format to what is called “soft diets” or “plant attunements” where you remain engaged with regular life to a degree eg. work and and study while simultaneously engaging in a plant dieta*
- You then prepare your dieta plant (or your teacher will do that for you), in our tradition, this is usually a water extraction with a bit of tobacco added to help facilitate the connection. There are then rituals, prayer and specific icaros that are used to ‘open’ your dieta both in and/or outside of ayahuasca ceremony.
- In our tradition you enter into a period of fasting for a minimum of two days, during which time the only thing you are ingesting other than water, is a preparation of the plant you are choosing to connect with (some people will take certain purgative plants before commencing the diet so that the body is very clean and receptive). You may choose to begin eating again at a certain point, but only the blandest foods with no oil, salt, sugar, dairy, spices or meat except certain types of fish. This allows the body to become very open and sensitive. The idea is that strongly flavoured foods can be ‘loud’ and may mask the subtle consciousness and communications of the plant you are attempting to connect with. Sticking to bland foods is also seen as a personal sacrifice that helps one to enter into a state of deep listening and to demonstrate the strength of your intention. Sometimes you only drink the plant preparation during the fast in the beginning and at other times it is drunk daily throughout the dieta.
- You may also want/be required to fast from cosmetics, electronics or anything else to which you feel very attached or addicted, anything that may cause distraction or bring toxicity into the body.
- Most curanderos refrain from having intercourse or masturbating during a dieta. The opinions as to why this is are many and varied. Similar to the bland food, many consider it a personal ‘sacrifice’ in order to demonstrate your commitment to the plant or spirit in question, some say sexual energy can damage the energy of the dieta, others say sex can interrupt or dilute the communications of the plants and may cause distraction or externalisation of focus, and some even say it is because plants are jealous. It may be some or all of the above, but we also tend to look at it from a Taoist perspective where the energy released during orgasm is the same energy that the body uses to heal itself and also the same energy used in making spiritual connections- so rather than suppressing our natural sexual energy, we try to engage solo conscious sexuality practices that help us to circulate the energy during the dieta and possibly even enhance it so that it may be used to fortify the connection to the plants.
- If you are undertaking this process under the guidance of a teacher, it is common for them to energetically ‘open’, ‘facilitate’, ‘protect’ and ‘close’ your dieta with the use of certain icaros during ayahuasca ceremonies. If your teacher is allied with the plant you are dieting with, then it is also possible for them to ‘introduce’ you to the spirit in question and help to bring about a stronger connection through a process similar to energetic ‘transmission’ used by many spiritual teachers of other traditions. Our teachers described a process of ‘lending’ their apprentices a kind of holographic root system that they have developed over many years in order to facilitate a faster or deeper connection to the plants in question.
- Some people sit in ayahuasca ceremonies during their dieta in order to connect with the plant they are dieting but it is just as important and in some cases even more so, to communicate with the spirits through subtle exchanges of meaning throughout the day, during dream time and meditation.
- In our tradition, when your dieta is complete, you end it through various rituals such as eating a plate of chilli, onion, lemon juice and salt, thankful prayers, possibly placing gifts at the base of the plant in question, and then ‘sealing’ it with the use of a very powerful type of Icaro called an ‘Arkana’. *As far as we are aware, Mestizo traditions do not use the plate of onions/chill and an Arkana to close the dieta and as a result, usually have a much stronger emphasis on ‘post-dieta’*
- It is then common to undergo what is called a ‘post-dieta’, a series of dietary and behavioural observances to protect this new plant consciousness within you as you take time to integrate back into the world and to reaffirm your continued commitment to nurturing this relationship going forward- however that may look to you. Pork is a strong taboo in this tradition and it is expected that you will never ingest it again once you have begun dieting with plants.
Planting and nurturing the seeds of your Dieta (the practice):
Dieta, like prayer, is sacred, unique to each plant-human relationship, private. Nevertheless, we want to give a few examples of practices we have personally used to deepen the dieta. Keep in mind as you read that whatever practices you do, the dieta should always be guided by a deep listening to the spirits and to nature; this will make the relationship spontaneous, intimate.
Also, some of these practices are very much unique to us since our intent with dieta goes beyond the traditional scope of building relationships with plant spirits for power and knowledge. For us, in addition to the traditional objectives, we see the dieta as a vehicle for deep self-inquiry, shadow work, and connection with the Mystery.
It has helped us, to begin with, a strong, sincere intention to encounter the hidden faces of the sacred in everyday things. Our intent to connect deeply to the plant and the more-than-human world, as well as our intent to know ourselves – really know ourselves – is what shapes our journey and begins the process of opening the doors of our perception.
When the loneliness or difficulty of the process sets in, it is the strength of our intention that carries us through and helps us to turn that very same difficulty into the path itself.
We also like to enter into some form of reciprocity with the spirit in question, either by leaving offerings at the base of the plant such as tobacco or by creating gifts for it. Since we are asking for something, it makes sense that we would begin by offering something first. We also see this as an opportunity to cultivate our heart/generosity and devotion. This is a very personal act and could take many forms, as long as it is done with genuine feeling.
At some point, we begin to direct our awareness to the plant in a variety of ways. The most common traditional practice is to ingest a tea of the plant each day or even two or three times a day (or at least during the water fast, and as long as the plant isn’t toxic). This tea drinking is a ceremony, we use this time to strengthen our prayers for connection and invite the plant’s essence into every cell of our bodies. Due to the fast, the particular consciousness of the plant and its effect on our mind is more apparent. It is wise to follow the tea drinking with a period of meditative stillness in order to really feel its medicine starting to move within the heart-mind. Sometimes sleeping after ingesting the tea happens naturally and then connections in the dream state may begin to take place.
Another profound yet simple practice is to sit with the plant itself and allow our sensory impressions of its body to touch us. With the utmost respect, slow deep breaths and soft focus- we ask permission to connect, wait a moment to feel a yes/no in our bodies and then proceed if permission is felt.
Again, we begin by making an offering such as a song-poem- tobacco etc as a sign of our respect. We then look closely at it, studying its colour and shape, we notice the environment around it, we taste it, feel it, smell it– bathing in it with all our senses until it begins to feel familiar to us. We become aware of our primary emotional and feeling-sense impressions and responses to it, noticing how it feels to us (The work of Stephen Harrod Buhner was very helpful for us with regard to this).
In this way we begin ‘entraining’ our consciousness to that of the plant, our willingness to ‘listen’ and ‘feel’ the plant over days-weeks-months-years will lead to a heart opening- a flowering of love and even devotion for it, thus facilitating a deep recognition of our shared life and allowing us to connect with its inner and secret forms, hidden from those who only know how to focus on the surface of things.
“For something to give up its secrets, it must be loved” -Stephen Buhner
Another practice is to place leaves or flowers of the plant on the various pulse points on the body and breathe its essence into our being. We then place one leaf/flower in water to infuse and then drink, one on our tongue (as long as it isn’t toxic) and the other under our pillow while we sleep with prayers for dream connection.
Other practices we have used are shamanic drum journeys to meet the spirit of the plant, ‘guru yoga’ type meditations with the plant based on Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhist practice, lucid dream connection practices, breathwork and yoga, connecting in ayahuasca/plant medicine ceremonies, playing music to it, writing songs and poems for the plant, journaling to it, making art for it, dancing for it, creating unique rituals to invoke it, prayer, devotional acts and simply opening to it with no ‘formal’ practice in mind.
Heart resonance and the dreams of the soul
All of these seek to develop our empathy, devotion, and kinship with the plant, sensitizing us to its subtle communications and opening our hearts which will then bring us into resonance with it. As this resonant connection deepens, we begin to flow with its patterns and absorb the meanings and communications that are embedded in the gestalt sensory experience of it. This input then begins to blossom into our awareness through dreams, metaphors, omens and synchronicities, song, poetry, ceremonial visions and direct knowing.
“To learn to see, to learn to hear, you must do this- go into the wilderness alone. For it is not I who can teach you the ways of gods. Such things are learned only in solitude” Don Jose Matsuwa
There is also any number of practices one could use to grow or strengthen awareness in general. One such practice is mindfulness (sitting meditation or any other activity done mindfully such as dance, yoga or breathwork). Awareness is a function of energy. Strengthening awareness through mindfulness practice will help to increase one’s energetic capacity to hold and integrate experiences. Awareness can clarify the mind and its ability to ‘hear’ spirit, to hold intense experiences (the beautiful and the horrible) and to integrate wisdom and insight into everyday life.
It is important that one continues to nurture this connection after the official dieta period is complete in whatever ways seem appropriate. Making essences of the plant to use before sleeping, cultivating the plant in the garden and continuing to engage various practices mentioned above may help to keep the energy of the dieta alive and growing within you.
A word of caution
As is always the case on this path, dieting with plants is not only love and light- at least not according to our Shipibo maestros. They taught us that most plants can teach both healing and black magic, also known as “shitana,” and warn that such energies accumulated during dieta can contaminate one’s medicine.
There are certain plants or tree’s, such as Toe, Lupuna and Ayahuma, that are generally avoided by beginners as their shitana is considered too strong for most dietero’s to resist early on in their apprenticeship. Paradoxically, these plants can also provide strong defences against these same energies.
Our maestro’s believe that strong plants will often pose tests, and only by learning to resist and forsake the shitana from such dietas can one learn how to heal in a more effective way. Some of the ways that shitana may show up is in the form of anger, envy or thoughts of revenge towards another person or dreams/visions of doing violence.
Our maestro’s also teach that after a dieta, the plant energies are vulnerable to being disturbed or ‘crossed’ by certain foods, substances, strong emotions, toxic environments, toxic relationships, menstrual blood (yep, the feminist in me hates this one)… for that reason there is a ‘post dieta’ which is a period of time where we take precautions not to disturb these energies while they settle. Crossed dietas can lead to all kinds trouble, including serious illness (my maestro’s would say, the further you are on the plant path, the more serious the consequences of breaking /crossing dietas).
For this reason, in our tradition, we always sing an Arkana Icaro to end a plant dieta. An Arkana is like a kind of energetic shield or protective frequency that’s woven around you and seals in the new and sensitive plant frequencies you have gained through your dieta while they stabilize in your field.
The Arkana makes those disturbances less likely although they definitely still happen. In our lineage, post dieta generally isn’t as long or as strict as many within mestizo traditions because of the Arkana.
The Fruit (function) of Plant Dieta:
Essentially, when you create the container mentioned above, you are cultivating a healthy environment or soil in which the energetic root system of your plant dieta can grow. Then by beginning the practices, you are sowing the energetic seeds and nurturing them to grow within your psycho-spiritual being.
Energetic plant pathways and spirit allies
How developed this root system will vary greatly from person to person, plant to plant. You can choose to do a dieta repeatedly with one plant for your entire life and create a very deep and developed network within you for that plant to be channelled on, or choose to do dietas with many different plants or sometimes both at different times on your path.
Some examples of this would be a tobaquero who diets mainly with tobacco, a sananguero who diets mainly with the sanango family of plants or our teachers who work primarily with a bio-luminescent tree called Noya Rao. Just like most people have intimate partnerships, close friends, less ‘regular’ friendships and acquaintances etc. so it can be with the plants. Each curandero will have their primary allies, secondary and then still other plants whom they feel affection and work within specific situations but only when necessary.
Gifts, power, insight, and guidance of the dieta
Each plant will bring different gifts, teachings, and energetic qualities. For example, some plants are dieted to gain energetic defences, some for divine connection, some for love and others will have very specific doctoring qualities. These qualities are the sacred vocabulary that is then streamed through icaros in the ceremony (this is covered in depth in part 3 of this series). It is the quality and strength of connection to the spirits/deities/archetypes, cultivated through this practice of plant dieta that gives the Icaros (medicine songs) their power or ‘spiritual resonance’, that gives the curandero his ability to diagnose or ‘see into’ his patients, that guides a curandero in crafting his patients treatments, that helps to ‘activate’ or give potency to the various medicines given and that allows a curandero to defend effectively against energetic ‘attacks’.
Spiritual detox and self-awareness through dieta
In addition to the traditional focus of dieta, we have found many other levels of medicine in this process. Each time we enter into this practice we intentionally release much of the complexity of everyday living- allowing the inessentials to drop away.
Naturally, this initiates a kind of detox of body, mind, and soul- where we sometimes pass through states of intense discomfort as we begin purging gross and heavy elements from the system. It is common to feel weak and vulnerable at these times, and a lot of patterns and emotions that were being suppressed with food and distraction now begin floating into conscious awareness. Though not a typical focus of the traditional dieta practice, we relish this part of the process as an opportunity to deepen our self-awareness and bring the light of consciousness to those parts that have been hidden from us (don’t be fooled, it can be really hard!).
We have found that it has been necessary for us to craft our own conceptual frameworks or models that go beyond both the traditional context of curanderismo and western thought in order to navigate, process and integrate these experiences. We draw widely on the practices and philosophies of many different traditions, especially of the nondual variety such as Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita and Sufism, an array of psycho-therapeutic tools-particularly of the Jungian variety and the work of other more contemporary spiritual teachers, philosophers, poets and deep ecologists. In this way, dieta has functioned as a potent vehicle for our psycho-spiritual and emotional maturation.
“It is in these lonely places that the sacred mysteries, which infuse all, yet are visible to none, can find their way into the human mind” –Joan Halifax
Touching the mystery
The isolation, fasting and intentional practices for connecting with our chosen plant ally have also functioned to soften the boundaries of separation between our being and that of nature, allowing us to develop a certain flexibility of consciousness. The sense of self-begins to blur at the edges and slowly we find our daytime consciousness becoming dreamlike, the quality of light changing, omens and synchronicity immerging as our hearts become more ‘in-tune’ with the natural world. Something emerges, an ability long forgotten- we begin connecting to this feeling that all of life is ‘speaking to us’ and enter once more into the timeless ongoing conversation with all of life.
In this way, we come to feel ourselves as an intricate part of this woven fabric of existence as we sense the meaning in all things and our place within it.
“Speaking creations tongues, hearing creations voices, the boundary of our soul expands” – Joan Halifax
*If you would like to see a talk Skye gave about dietas at a Plant People South Africa event, click here.