The Jaguar that Roams the Mind by Robert Tindall
Originally published in 2008 ‘The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey’ is written by Robert Tindall, with a foreword by Mark J. Plotkin. Tindall is a writer and classical guitarist and has also recently authored ‘The Shamanic Odyssey’.
I was already partly acquainted with Robert Tindall’s The Jaguar that Roams the Mind when it arrived on my doorstep for review. Robert had been kind enough to rework a section of the book and contribute it to the Psychedelic Press UK: Anthology of Pharmacography. It was a well-crafted article that managed to imbue some of the magic of his experiences into a strong narrative voice, and I expected similar with his book. I was not disappointed. The text displays a keen grasp of language and a depth of literary knowledge that beautifully compliments the content.
“The floodgates of memory broke a few nights later. In the session I saw the spirit of the tamamuri tree as Juan sang her as a princesa, a sirena. A beautiful pearly white throne, upon it a woman in white, serene and loving, burst upon my senses and was gone. Then something began jerking me about like a puppet, through the motions of receiving a soplada on my cupped hands and upon the top of my head, whipping away the darkness obscuring my vision” (Tindall 2008, 177).
Ostensibly a psychospiritual narrative, the book in fact goes much further than the self-absorption of many ayahuasca healing texts. While it retains the key psychospiritual components of self-realisation, the surfacing of memories and identifications with a wider natural and spiritual world, Tindall also explores the cultural landscape of shamanism. Primarily what is described as the ‘three pillars of Amazonian shamanism’: purging, psychoactive plants, and diet. In other words, it is not only his ‘self’ that the content is concerned with but equally the shamanic way of life that he was surrounded by as well. In this sense, it is both an informative, and often times touching, portrayal.
Some of the characterization is superbly executed. In particular the shaman Juan Flores is deftly described. The simplicity in his character is underlined by a deep knowledge and it is clear Tindall regards him with some degree of reverence—not simply for his skills as a shaman but his attitude in general. Hearing of the treachery of a pupil that resulted in nearby deforestation, for example, Juan confronts the man: “Juan’s face darkened with rage, but he held his tongue, saying only, “I am your master, and I will not condemn you. But Nature itself may not forgive you.”” (Tindall 2008, 239). Juan is both master and servant, to people and plants, without overly stratifying himself or position.
Aside from the text-typical psychotherapeutic growth of Tindall himself from troubled child to adult, already partially embarked upon through his earlier adoption of Buddhist beliefs, there is also one of the more emotionally therapeutic and most ancient of occurrences: the love story. On his journey he meets Susana Bustos, a PhD student who is studying the icaros (healing and plant songs) of Amazonian shamanism. While this lends a touching and personal thread to the text, engrossing the reader empathetically, it also works well as a counterpoint in the exploration of the facets of shamanism. This is especially true of brujeria shamanism, the dark side of the practice, which the two come across and find themselves split and divided under the gaze of a trickster shaman—ultimately allowing a recognition through confrontation of the dark side, and a growth in their own relationship.
“Naïve Psychonauts arriving in Peru seeking authentic shamans to help quench their thirst for authentic spiritual and ecological experience are the new foreign import ripe for exploitation […] Brujeria—witchcraft—is as well a serious issue in Peru, a constantly revolving door of hexes and counterspells and exorcisms.” (Tindall 2008, 126)
Of all the stories and characters in The Jaguar that Roams the Mind there is one that, for me, particularly stands out, and which reflects many of the larger themes in the book; the story of the kitten Tigrilla. Becoming used to the wildlife of the Amazon, the spiders, mosquitos, cockroaches and alike, is part of the trial for any Westerner in the jungle. However, while Susana made peace with the spiders, the rats crawling beneath their door became too much; they needed an ally and that ally was the kitten Tigrilla. She quickly formed a bond with her human companions and even journeyed with them like a dog might: “she was showing signs of taking on the traditional role of a familiar, an animal that serves as a bridge and mediator between worlds” (Tindall 2008, 155).
Sadly, she eventually dies because of eating a meal laced with rat poison not meant for her; killed by a drug that was meant to serve a similar purpose to herself—the synthetic overcoming the natural. Yet, in the spirit of the vine of the dead, she returns in visions later as a spiritual entity of healing and helps cure Susana of a serious eye problem. In life, and in death, Tigrilla was the companionship of an ally and friend, of healing, and the great spiritual turning of the natural world. Indeed, her story plays out the themes of journeying and healing that, throughout the text, underline the personal and shamanic aspects of the content.
There are an increasing number of psychospiritual drug narratives that centre around ayahuasca and the Amazon, and while they all retain a great number of similar threads, Tindall’s The Jaguar the Roams the Mind manages to stand out from the crowd; not least because there is a more learned literary repartee being made use of metaphorically. For the scholar of pharmacography this is an excellent example of ayahuasca literature and, for the general reader, it is an illustrative and engaging story that probes both mind and culture.