Can Animistic Perception Change the World? An interview with Robert Tindall
Robert Tindall M.A. has been kind enough to give PsypressUK an interview. Tindall is a writer, classical guitarist, long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and an inveterate traveler, whose work explores the crossing of frontiers into other cultures, time depths, and states of consciousness. He is the author of two books on shamanism, “The Jaguar that Roams the Mind” and “The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience.” Robert and his wife, Susana, currently live in Peru with their four year old daughter Maitreya, and lead journeys into the Amazon rainforest to encounter the healing traditions there. Visit his blog at www.roamingthemind.com
PPUK: Hi Robert. You’ve spent a great deal of time in South America with indigenous cultures working with ayahuasca and other plants, what do you think are the major lessons that today’s South American shamanism can teach the West, and why?
Robert Tindall: In a very modest way, I wonder if it might help save our planet. Although there still remains the possibility that we will use our rational, scientific thinking capacity to pull out of our plunge into catastrophic climate change (we did, after all, save the ozone layer by banning CFCs by international global treaty back in 1987), the outlook is grim. As we know, the estimates of the IPCC on global temperature change back in 1988 have been far surpassed by reality – the oceans are rising and the polar icecaps vanishing. The level of carbon in the air has actually increased from 2.8 parts per ten thousand in 1987 to 3.9 parts in 2000. We’re looking down the barrel of a mass extinction gun, and keep pulling the trigger. Scientific, rational thinking will hopefully bring us to our senses before it’s too late, but perhaps the experience of permeable consciousness (characteristic of indigenous culture and their shamanic traditions) has a catalytic or seminal role to play, especially now as it makes inroads into Western society.
To put it simply, if your experience of the Earth is of an ancient, vital, sentient organism embedded in a vast, mysterious cosmos of awe inspiring power and beauty, it is far less likely that you would dump, as the Europeans did, 220 000 drums of radioactive materials into the waters of the Northeast Atlantic—leaving ticking time bombs for future generations of life. If scientific rationality wasn’t sufficient to overcome such profound imbecility, an instinctive veneration for the sacred womb of life could.
The experience of animistic consciousness wipes away the Cartesian distinction of an independent, rational self surrounded by a mechanical, dead universe. Gone is the hardened dualism of self and other, opening us to a form of apprehension that pre-historian Jean Clottes described as fluid and permeable: “Fluidity means the categories that we have, man, woman, horse, tree, etc., can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal and the other way around. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of spirits.”
“The world of spirit,” for me, isn’t limited to ghosts, holy or otherwise. It means the innate, unique sentience of all beings, now hidden from us by the blinders of our a priori world view. In this way, animistic perspective is the great equalizer: you cannot poison the Earth if you instinctively recognize it as the organic extension of your own body and mind—indeed, as your body and mind.
Of course, this idea isn’t new. In my recent book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, I quote the author and academic J.R.R. Tolkien, who was tuned into the rich possibilities of animistic perception and used it as a foundation for his mythopoeic Lord of the Rings:
“You look at trees, he said, and called them “trees,” and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a “star,” and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, “tree,” “star,” were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf patterned.”
Another major lesson lies in the healing potential of such permeable states. Western, industrial medicine treats the body as a machine according to the Cartesian model. Obviously, in many ways it works. Yet it’s fascinating to see how sometimes the shamanic medicine of the Amazon can take diseases declared incurable by Western medicine and heal them. Fortunately, these shamanic practices can work very effectively in coordination with Western medicine.
This was recently demonstrated by a friend of mine who accompanied us into the rainforest to work at the healing center Mayantuyacu, located outside of Pucallpa, with our old teacher, the Ashaninkan curandero Juan Flores. Joel had sustained a fall from a second story roof directly onto concrete some four years ago, and Western medicine had achieved the remarkable feat of rebuilding his shattered spinal column with titanium discs. Joel experienced Western medicine at its best there, yet he found his healing work had just begun, not just in his body but also in his psyche and spirit. Our paths crossed in sweat lodges and tipi meetings of the Native American Church in Northern California, where I found him to be the sincerest imaginable practitioner of indigenous healing ways.
In the rainforest here in Peru, Joel did a dieta, where he lived in isolation back at a confluence of streams and drank a plant known as Came Renaco, an epiphytic strangler vine long utilized to mend injuries to the skeletal and muscular structure of the body. It also appears to have the psychological affect of strengthening and shoring up the psyche. Dreams and visions come as the consciousness of the person fasting with the plant in isolation becomes more permeable and fluid. It’s very common to see the plant spirit, to receive healing instructions, or even in longer, month-long diets, to receive a song that can be used to heal others as well.
A few days into his dieta, Joel suddenly found himself caught up in a profound life review. The plant medicines showed him an unrecognized consequence of his fall: he had sustained a blow to his spirit and had lost his sense of humor and joy in life! Joel reported spending an entire afternoon laughing his head off as he was ushered through the four years of tragic, bitter struggle that had followed his waking up in the hospital. Suddenly, his entire experience was hilarious. Incredibly, Joel even came out with a continuing treatment plan: he’s going to start doing stand up comedy in the clubs of San Francisco, using his experience to help other people laugh about the trauma in their own lives.
This is powerful shit. 20 years of therapy in an afternoon! I think we’ve still got something to learn about the art of healing, as well as encountering new medicines for what ails us, from these traditional, shamanic ways.
PPUK: Taking a sacred medicine out in the jungle of South America, certainly from Western accounts, appears to give rise to this ecological awareness, as a reaction against a cold, materialistic view of the environment that mostly exists in the corporate mind, where it is seen as a ‘resource’ to be exploited. However, in vastly over-populated countries, where it can be difficult to find wilderness to garner this experience, can the urban setting, in your view, also give rise to ecologically-minded realizations? Which is to say, to what extent does the setting determine the efficacy of psychedelic/entheogenic plant medicine?
RT: This is actually a very real issue which I believe most folks are loath to think about. Back in 2004 I accompanied my partner, Susana Bustos, for her doctoral study investigating the healing power of the mystical songs, or icaros, sung in ayahuasca ceremonies by the vegetalista shamans of the Amazon. We were deeply immersed in the rainforest for a year, and when we returned to the industrial world of the North we were shocked to discover that we spoke a different language than the psychonaut community.
We had been trained to view the work with sacred medicines as a healing modality, and had developed a profound respect for indigenous way of knowing. We took seriously the process of dietas that train apprentice shamans, and saw veneration for plants and their spirits as essential to the practice of any healer. And yes, we had come to understand that “setting” did determine a lot. For example, at Mayantuyacu, there is a hydrothermally heated boiling river which flows beneath the main maloca at the center. It is a site of astounding beauty, yet even more, the river is experienced as sentient by the inhabitants and visitors. It is an open vein of the Earth, a place of deep compassion and intelligence, where a pilgrim can enter into profound communion with the sentience of the planet.
As I listen to myself speak now, I realize I probably sound a bit naïve. Yet, immersed as I had been in the rainforest, questions such as the “ontology of spirits” were not on my mind. Having entered the cosmo-vision of the Amazon as a participant, from my own perspective at least, “scientific” approaches to shamanic experience were of faint importance compared to actually comprehending the phenomenon from within.
Of course, the circumstances are reversed in the North. In the San Francisco Bay Area, I often see the psychonaut community giving a paternal nod toward indigenous ways while still pursuing its explorations under a fundamentally Cartesian, not animistic, perspective. Molecules, not plant spirits, are the primary vehicles of the visionary experience. Individual freedom trumps obedience to the norms of conduct within a shamanic tradition. And for Westerners, cut off from their ancestral roots, the issue of lineage within a particular medicinal tradition doesn’t arise.
Traditional shamanic and psychonautic approaches could, of course, be seen as opposite ends of a particular scale, each with its own virtue. A generous sprinkling of scientific knowledge and ability to break with convention wouldn’t do any harm down here in Peru! Yet if we want to free ourselves of the cold, materialistic viewpoint through shamanic practices, we had best start by examining our own a priori assumptions.
For example, in the recent International Amazonian Shamanism Conference held here in Iquitos, one of the speakers, an author of numerous books, gave one of his credentials as an astonishing number of trips on LSD, and went on to declare that in the emerging utopian psychedelic society we’ll all be our own Popes.
I myself hearken to such visions, but I know them to be fundamentally Cartesian. There is no authority outside of the individual consciousness here: human reason (or psychedelic gnosis) is the sole adjudicator of meaning. From this angle, the psychonautic/psychedelic community looks like a bunch of Protestant extremists. Each man and woman self-appoints as his or her own priest.
One of the audience, perhaps sensing this contradiction, asked the presenter how many ayahuasca ceremonies he had done. “Four,” he answered, and then explained he didn’t trust a traditional shaman to prepare the brew and guide him in the experience. Instead, he used his own recipe, including ingredients from Whole Foods, at home. In an apt demonstration of the cold, mechanical perspective, he then shared the recipe. Such scant respect for thousands of years of indigenous experience of plant sentience and healing practices! In transposing these indigenous medicines from their sacred context, reducing them to molecules, is the entheogenic community really any different than a pharmaceutical company stealing and patenting native cures from the rainforest?
It seems to me that if we really want to have experience of ecological consciousness, whether in an urban setting or the midst of the rainforest, we should start by “setting” our relationship with indigenous peoples and their traditional life ways straight by giving their knowledge preeminence. In this realm, they are our elders. We need to listen to them closely and even apprentice in their traditional ways if possible.
PPUK: The ‘Cartesian’ model is very often evoked in pharmacography discourse. Could you go into a little bit more depth about what you understand this to be, especially in relation to Shamanic model?
RT: Sure. I happen to be co-authoring a book with anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin right now where, among other things, we discuss the Ten Greatest Modern Superstitions, among which Descartes’ philosophy is central. Here’s a rapid sketch of how we got trapped in his epistemological cul de sac:
C.S. Lewis once characterized Western society’s arrogation of interpretative power as, “an aggrandizement of man and desiccation of the outer universe,” an ancient and “great movement of internalization in which psychological history of the West has so largely consisted,” one which can be perceived emerging as early as the theoretical works of Plato.
Yet Modernity’s decisive triumph over nondualistic worldviews, not only indigenous but also the occult philosophies of Renaissance Europe (which likewise saw the whole of nature as alive, infused with the divine and its delegates of spirits, angels and demons), arose after the bloody religious wars of the Sixteenth century. In this period Europe exhaled a collective sigh of relief as the scientific restoration of certainty triumphed, re-emerging, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the witches’ and other heretics’ burning stakes and the battlefields of the Thirty Years War.
Europeans had, after all, become addicted to certainty during a millennium-and-a-half of Church-certified sureties. With the advent of the Reformation, this certainty became sundered in two, each side claiming the possession of the One indivisible Truth.
The success of the new scientific certainty was in no small measure due to the fact it began discretely enough, careful not to compete with religious truths. Protestantism had paved the way for the creation of boundaries between matter, spirit, and mind, which the scientific revolution enshrined as Reality. God, the angels, and all non-visible powers were trundled off to the sphere of the supernatural. Henceforward, science had the realm of materiality to bustle in, and religion had its realm of the supernatural. Peaceful coexistence required such fence building on the collective turf.
With Descartes’ cogito, which presumably began as mere epistemology but was soon adopted as metaphysical doctrine, the raising of arbitrary boundaries went into overdrive: not only spirit but mind as well departed from matter, transmuting the body and the world into soulless mechanisms, transforming us into the only observers of an inert material reality, alone amongst ourselves.
This is as surreal as a Bob Dylan blues tune! Mind packed its bags and moved out of matter, taking the keys from the ignition and leaving us, trampled and dazed remnants after an en masse spiritual stampede, holding the bag of a dead material reality, abandoned by all the other beings of the world.
Of course, we could always light a candle rather than whistle in the dark. God and His heavenly retinue could still be resorted to, but we had to keep it quiet, in the privacy of our own hearts and souls. Certainly, we were not to contaminate our logic and rationality with “magic.” Reality was to be bravely faced, unaided by any other powers save that of our own minds. The very act of knowing became an estrangement, a distancing, and a controlling of matter. Knowledge became power, naked, and unrestrained by sentiment, moral strictures, or aesthetic guide-posts, much less by the inhabitants of the greater-than-human or other than human realms.
The Cartesian superstition, in short, is one of the architectural foundations of our present alienation from the cosmos.
PPUK: A great deal of the West, in particular Western Europe, has seemingly lost much of its traditional plant lore, and any shamanic models in which they were employed. In Britain, for example, there are scant records of folk practices, and those extant were often written by individuals either hostile or patronizing toward them. Do you believe the South American model should, in itself, lead the way for reigniting these understandings across the world, or do you think a relationship with the native plants and, indeed, the land itself, in Western Europe, needs to be developed as a distinct model? One with its own symbology and particular guidance from geographically and culturally distinct nature spirits? The Fairy Faith, for example.
RT: Right. As a scholar, I have been dubious about reconstructions of Druidic practices, etc, The more you dig into the scant, but incredibly rich, ethnographical accounts of indigenous Europeans, recorded by medieval Celtic monks (who were refreshingly unpatronizing and hostile) in the Tain or Mabinogi, for example, the less convincing the modern recreations become. Yet, I believe the indigenous experience of permeable, fluid consciousness, which sacred plants among other shamanic techniques are reintroducing us to, is a valid truth-seeking method. The poet Gary Snyder gives a great quote from a Crow elder, who told him, “You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough—even white people—the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
I’ve lived on a medieval farm in the moors of Devonshire, in Britain, and gotten a sense of the presence of deep time in the land, of a spiritual dimension interdigitating with the present. I think it’s all there, awaiting rediscovery, and I’m all ears to the culture that gets reignited in this way.
I do think Westerners seeking an authentic, indigenous knowledge of the land can learn a great deal from the surviving shamanic traditions, however, such as among the Amazonian vegetalistas or the Native American Church, because the fundamental practice in common among all these ways is to make oneself permeable to the elements, to encounter the vital cosmos as a sacred presence, and they’ve been refining their approach for a long, long time. I believe it’s very helpful to undergo some apprenticeship in one’s process of reclaiming one’s own roots.