Bridging The Gap: Science & Shamanic Wisdom

A drum being played for a shamanic experience

When I was 16, I started going to a small Buddhist temple in the city I was raised in. Across the street from the city bus stop that I was deposited at around 3:30 every week day, this small zen center had guided practice for about an hour and a half. I was young and only attended temple occasionally, but my interest in meditation was piqued. A book by thich nhat hanh taught me basic technique and practice. And then I forgot. I never finished that book and I stopped going to temple altogether.

Years later when I moved to southern Colorado, in a flurry of determined self-reimagination I got my hands on a book called The Willpower Instinct. Based on a class taught by a Stanford University psychologist, this book helped meditation find its way back into my life—this time with science attached. Suddenly a myriad of questions around the pseudo-scientific beliefs of the parents that named me Sky (Yes, really. Sky, of all things!) came rushing to the forefront. If a Stanford psychologist could explain to me the neurological benefits of meditation, what else could science begin to explain? What other spiritual, holistic shenanigans had some real science behind it? I promptly took this cache of enticing questions and stuffed them under a litany of 70-hour work weeks.

Fast forward 3 more years. I’m sitting at the same beat-up computer that I downloaded The Willpower Instinct onto 3 years earlier. But now, I’m a continent away. A filled trekking backpack bobs up the stairs at the entrance of the hostel I’m volunteering at and makes its way over to reception. Three minutes later I’ve lost all interest in the work in front of me and am entirely wrapped into feverish eavesdropping. The woman attached to the trekking pack had begun talking to the owner of the hostel about her experience participating and assisting in ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru. Not only that, but she had science! A couple conversations and a few hours later, and I began reading her doctoral dissertation.

Know Thyself

“Know thyself: A first-person hermeneutic phenomenological study of the lived experience of using the shamanic plant medicines ayahuasca and willka”: The pleasantly succinct and accessible title of her dissertation. Once again. Science. Yes! I love this stuff. As I fell deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of neurological chemical interactions I knew immediately I had just found something significant. They don’t teach you this in school. Plants aren’t supposed to cure cancer, and they definitely aren’t supposed to have a personality. Here is just a slice of what I found…

Shamanic Medicine

Similar to Ayurveda and other old forms of medicinal practice, South American Shamanic medicine takes what is called a “whole person” approach, i.e., holistic medicine. Holistic and integrative medicine assert that physical, psychological, and spiritual components of the person need to be considered together when one is in need of healing. While holistic medicine in the western world often is regarded with significant amounts of skepticism, there is an increasing volume of scientific research giving credence to holistic science, especially as defined as the opposite of reductive science.

A significant portion of our scientific understanding of the natural world is defined by reductionist modalities, which view the world as something that can be understood as the sum of its parts. Only recently have scientific methods begun to understand the complexity of interconnected systems in the natural world. While the spiritual side of holistic medicine is still something that exists largely outside of modern science, there are certain aspects of ancient medicinal practice that can be explained.

The Apprentice's Dieta

When an apprentice begins their journey to learn medicine from the Master Plants, or Plantas con madre (“plants with a mother”), they are prescribed a specific lifestyle diet to open themselves to the energy of the plants. The specifics of this diet are defined by the guiding shaman, known as a vegetalistas, Maestro Curandero (Master healer), or even by the plant itself through visions or dreams.

The diet often includes the following elements:

  • Isolation: Staying in the jungle for the duration of the diet or at least an exclusion of contact with those not on the dieta.
  • Dietary Restrictions: These restrictions include salt, sugar, pork, fat, game, acidic foods, garlic, chili sauce, alcohol, cold drinks, and often a complete fast, though these restrictions vary based on the shaman the apprentice trains with.
  • Chemical Restrictions: This can include bug spray, deodorant, soap, and any chemical products that are not made with strictly natural ingredients.
  • Daily ingestion of the Plantas con madre: The teacher plants are a series of medicinal plants that are consumed on a calendar, with one being eaten for a week then the next for 5 days with another. The actual schedule of consumption is also dependent on the decisions of the mentoring shaman.
  • Sexual Abstinence: This is held to be especially important whether one is an apprentice or just preparing for a ceremony.

Coming to the end of that list, you might wonder about the specificity of the restrictions. The shamans have an explanation for this. They say that these specific restrictions demonstrate the level of commitment of the student to the spirit of the teacher plants, which are regarded to be separate consciousnesses with individual personalities. The restrictions allow a student to cleanse themselves from the conflicting energies of the outside world. It has been stated that sexual abstinence is specifically important as failing to maintain abstinence can lead to a “clash of energies” leading to allergy, blood poisoning, or heart defect.

The Holistic Science

The aforementioned clash of energies is actually brain chemicals. That being said, an understanding of this complex neurological function existing far before bacteria were even discovered is something to be wondered at certainly. When on the dieta you typically will have monoamine oxidase inhibitors in your system, or MAOIs. These inhibitors restrict your brain’s production of monoamine oxidase, a chemical that protects your body from over-producing norepinephrine, a stress hormone.  What this means is that when an apprentice is practicing the dieta, sex or even the wrong foods could induce an overproduction of hormones that could lead to headaches, severe anxiety, heart palpitations, and hypertension.

Not only is there scientific foundation to that, but there is also significant evidence supporting the medical benefits of the ayahuasca ritual itself. Ayahuasca is a mixture of two plants, usually consumed as a tea—one plant provides the primary hallucinogenic component, DMT (N-Dimethyltryptamine) and β-carboline derivatives, the MAOI component necessary for the brew to be effective. Both components are being found to have immense medicinal potential.

β-carboline alkaloids are very simply 3 little rings, mostly of carbon with a smidge of hydrogen, nitrogen. They come in different types, and one specific variety of this little structure with a smidge of oxygen hanging off one side has been shown to be helpful in slowing or even stopping cancer growth. In addition, these rings also have a habit of getting into our DNA, literally slipping into the fabric of our genetics. Here we begin to reach the edge of science—when the vocabulary in the research begins to use less than definite language.

All that being said, the scientific language also begins to sound a little optimistic here and there. Once again, interesting. Other scientifically suggested effects of ayahuasca include reduction of anxiety, treatment of addiction, tissue protection, reversal of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s, and from another angle, once again, cancer treatment (having this time to do with DMT). Though the research is far from complete in all these areas, the idea that something like this could exist is mind expanding, to say the least.

Though there is still significant skepticism around holistic medicine and holistic understandings over all, it is curious to live in a time in which science is beginning to critically consider these ideas. Science is just now connecting neurology and human behavior. The 2017 Nobel Prize in economics was given to Richard Thaler, whose life’s work has just been figuring out the oddities of human behavior. All this rigorous science and reductionist misunderstanding for almost 1000 years, to begin to figure out what a guy worked out by sitting under a fig tree for a week. Maybe spiritual enlightenment and science aren’t different sides of the coin after all.


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