Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another fascinating report...

What is a jungle diet?

The food | The body's environment | Isolation | Preparation for the diet | Ayahuasca | Ending the diet | After the diet | The medicine plant | Understanding the diet | Don Marcial's perspective

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 flavour, 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 judgement 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 saltless 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 flavour" 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 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 flavour is the general rule.

[ There is also the question of what to do about malaria, given that taking malaria tablets is incompatible with doing the diet. There is some risk of malaria in northern Peru, varying according to the region. However, I chose to take the risk and not take any of the tablets. ]

Isolation. 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 mosquitos (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 mosquitos, 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'.)

Preparation for the diet. For the diets that I did, the preparation was the same as for Ayahuasca, i.e. no pork/bacon/ham, no sex, no alcohol, careful with the salt/sugar/chillies, and so on, for a short period running up to the diet. However, maybe for some plants you will need other additional preparation as well -- the curandero should tell you.

Ayahuasca. You will almost certainly have ceremonies of Ayahuasca, before, during, or after the diet. One form both starts and ends the diet with a ceremony. In another form, there are ceremonies at stages during the diet. Maybe some curanderos do both, I don't know. I know of one guy who had Ayahuasca ceremonies every night of his diet with the curandero. Really the whole thing depends a great deal on what you're working with, which plant, the judgement of the curandero and so on. In my first diet, there was no initial Ayahuasca ceremony, but instead a purge using Bobinsana and tobacco.

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 Ayahuasca, because after taking Ayahuasca, 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 as don Marcial's "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 an 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 centred, 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 incoherant 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 icaro (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 plant. 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 Ayahuacsa, 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 Ayahuasca 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 vomitting with Ayahuasca, 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 (aka Floripondio, related to Datura) is reckoned to be one of the most potent, and also the most dangerous if badly handled. Don Marcial says that dieting this plant is one of the quickest ways to learn. If you are dieting Toë, 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 Toë.

Another surprising option is to diet Ayahuasca. This means taking Ayahuasca 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 Ayahuasca 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.

However, I didn't find any curandero (including the curandero Diego dieted with!) who would give me a diet like this. With Fernando I came a little closer, but finally with don Marcial 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 ...

Don Marcial's perspective. For don Marcial, a diet is about getting acquainted with some new plant spirits. He has dieted 105 plants in his life, his 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!

To don Marcial, 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. Don Marcial 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 Ayahuasca 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 Ayahuasca 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 don Marcial 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 recognise at first. This means either 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 visualisation 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.

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