Intentional social isolation is an integral part of Amazonian shamanic practices. What can we learn from it?
Why is it taking so long to believe that if we hurt Nature, we hurt ourselves?
– Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami
Ours is a civilization of speed. The world we create moves faster than ever before. We strain ourselves and our environments to produce more, cramming as much activity as possible into every minute, hour, and day. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve kicked into high-gear, transforming into a cult of acceleration, pushing ourselves to the brink of systems collapse. Operating on the edge of exhaustion, we hardly have the time to acknowledge the blaring alarms and reminders from our bodies, minds, and landscapes that this hyperspeed merry-go-round is spinning out of control.
How unusual it is for us to do nothing. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the cogs of our civilization, bringing nearly every aspect of life as we know it to a grinding halt. Perhaps for the first time, our industrialized culture is steadily broadcasted the simple, clear, almost eerie order to isolate.
I’m writing this in the Peruvian Amazon, where I quite intentionally seek isolation several months of the year. This time, however, my isolation is not optional: Abruptly, Peru announced a total lockdown, strictly enforcing self-quarantine and halting all travel by water, air and land.
Viruses and isolation are nothing new to communities of the Amazon. 17th century Spanish conquistadors plundered and exported treasures of the forest like cinnamon, gold, and exotic delicacies, importing in exchange measles, smallpox and a woeful medley of venereal diseases. Survival International estimates that within the first decade of their arrival, diseases brought by Europeans annihilated 90% of the indigenous population.
Historian Alfred Crosby created the term “virgin soil epidemics” to describe the sweeping impact of colonialist-carried diseases on Native American populations with no prior exposure or immunity. While larger indigenous populations of eight to ten million were hit hardest by the invisible maladies, Amazonian groups living in remote regions were more likely to survive. Today, communities living in so-called ‘voluntary isolation’ may, in fact, be generational refugees whose ancestors fled Western civilization’s viruses and vitriol.
In the Amazon, intentional isolation continues today in an ascetic practice known as a diet or dieta in Spanish. This practice is grounded in the animist perspective that plants, animals, and even landscapes possess a spirit. The dieta is a means of entering into an experiential relationship with non-human beings. In the West, we’ve largely lost touch with the subtle sensibility and techniques needed to recognize the natural ‘messengers’ of the world.
COVID-19 is a reminder of our interrelation; a golden example of the butterfly effect—a bat has effectively collapsed the Empire’s economy. With these blue latex gloves and papery masks come a third asset: invisible goggles, bestowing upon the wearer a glimpse into the microcosmic migration of submicroscopic entities.
The virus is a reminder of our part in the web of relationship responsibility to other beings. It reminds us that the lives of bacteria, animals, insects, and plants all have a purpose and majesty intertwined with our own. It’s a reminder that the world is a tremendous, intelligent, evolving being. Mammals, mountains, birds, flowers and fungi collaborate in an exquisite dance of symbiosis, existing in a constant dialogue of give and take with the rest of the world. The very air we breathe is brimming with biological matter, as the novel coronavirus so bluntly demonstrates.
In my own experience, extended periods of isolation spent immersed in wild environments tend to soften rigid mental patterning, allowing space for ineffable, intuitive ecological sensitivities to emerge. Anthropogenic changes in weather, animal migration and the life cycle of plants are clear to ecologists and indigenous wisdom-keepers alike, who through sustained observation and lived experience perceive causes and effects in environments. They will tell you this perception requires a degree of patience, stillness, and silence.
Silent self-isolation is a technique used for various purposes by indigenous Amazonian cultures. Whether for sharpening the senses, fortifying health, strengthening group-cohesion, mediating human-environment relations, or undergoing shamanic practices such as plant medicine dieting, periods of isolation are seen as a crucial process. Observing silence in many of these cultures is the technique of choice for establishing and maintaining harmonious interactions with non-human beings and the land.
What I propose here is that silence and stillness are necessary prerequisites to tempered, attuned action geared towards building a more beautiful, sustainable human experience on Earth. For hundreds if not thousands of years, Amazonian communities have intentionally architected periods of isolation and reflection into their social structures. By appreciating these sanctioned approaches, I suggest the quarantine we are now observing is a unique opportunity to recognize the vital personal and ecological value of silence and solitude.
Healing the Whole
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
“We feel the virus already – it’s in the wind, it’s in the rain” Segundo explains to me, swirling his finger in the air in circles around his head as if he’s manipulating the weather, stirring a cosmic cauldron. “We’re taking care of it.”
Segundo Rengifo is an indigenous Shipibo onanya – a healer and sabio, or wisdom-keeper. For Segundo and other indigenous Amazonians, the world is interpreted as an intelligent entity – an intricate net of cause and effect, where no thought or action go without consequence. Health and illness are not perceived as personalized and individual; rather, we are at the mercy of countless intervening factors like fireflies, bad intentions, entities, birds, cursed trees and blessed flowers. Everything, in this worldview, is everyone.
This principle is reflected in the Shipibo concept akinananti – most closely translating to mutual aid, reciprocity and working together. The philosophy guiding akinananti holds that an individual’s health is dependent upon collective wellbeing. The energetic state of an individual is inextricably linked to the energy of her community, society, culture and environment.
Sixty per cent of known infectious diseases have their origin in zoonosis – that is, transference between species (e.g. coronavirus, transferred in a wet wildlife market in Wuhan). With the accelerated expansion of human settlements and extractive industries encroaching upon the wild come more cases of wildlife-borne disease. However, as Executive Director of United Nations Environmental Program Inger Anderson explains, “We should not blame the wild because viruses are everywhere – we get the cold, the flu – but we need to understand that prudent management of habitats and avoidance of habitat destruction is critical.”
In the Amazon, intentional bouts of isolation have traditionally served not only a personal purpose but the greater function of lending insight into culture-environment relationships. Resigning from active life and retreating into the numinous realms of stillness allow for the perspective necessary to truly observe, and in turn, adjust our behaviour. Inaction, by the same token, is action. Take, for example, the mitigation-response to COVID-19, where inaction is a move of choice. Amongst communities of the Amazon, health is established between humans and the rest of the natural world through the same action of inaction.
The current Western conceptualization of health does not extend beyond the individual. In fact, our mainstream approach to healthcare is obsessively personalized; it is a system primarily concerned with treating and ‘managing’ symptoms, rather than healing roots, breaking patterns and purging trauma.
Swedish anthropologist Kaj Århem notes that illness and disease are perceived of as “punishment for failed reciprocity in the cosmo-ecological environment” amongst indigenous Makuna communities in Brazil. “The notions of health and curing are focused, not narrowly on the individual person, but on the natural and social whole of which the human patient is a part.”
Silence as a Teacher
The dieta is an ascetic shamanic practice whereby an initiate goes into the forest for an extended period of time (six months, a year, two years) vowing abstinence from earthly delights such as salt, sugar, oil, fats, bloody meats, alcohol, sex; any and all sensual stimulation is forsaken for meager portions of bland food in order to ‘hollow out the vessel’ of the neophyte. Shipibo onanya refer to a time when the shamanic practices of the bancomuralla, now-extinct exalted masters, would consist of spending up to ten years in the forest in isolation observing a dieta.
In this state of emptiness and heightened sensitivity, the dietero consumes modest quantities of teas made from what are commonly referred to as master or teacher plants. Plants, from the common Shipibo perspective, are sentient beings animated by a spirit imbued with agency and will. Each possesses its own energetic signature – what Segundo calls a ‘personality,’ or a chemist might call the ‘property’ of a plant.
Prolonged fasting while ingesting small quantities of a master plant allows for its effects to be more deeply felt, often during Dreamtime. In theory, the energetic signature of chamomile could be detected if the process is properly executed.
Traditionally, this is done for the purpose of enhancing sensitivity in order to make one a sharper hunter, a better listener, a visionary, a healer, or a leader. You can think of plant dietas like expansion-packs or software updates, adding on layers of perception and psychic capacity for the user. But this relationship is reciprocal – one must ‘pay it forward’ to the plant with their attention and discomfort in order to receive the benefits. José Lopez Sanchez, a Shipibo onanya explains it as such to me: “The plants accept the currency of hunger and thirst – not money, not gifts. It is our attention, our hunger and thirst that we offer in exchange for their teachings.”
For some the idea of a plant ‘teaching’ may seem far-fetched. On a practical level, then, let’s look at the psychoactive effects of secondary metabolites like alkaloids, terpenes, phenolics, etc. responsible for attracting and deterring herbivores and pollinators. Nicotine, theobromine and cocaine are amongst the more powerful alkaloids whose distinct psychoactive ‘personalities’ emerge even through the ‘noise’ of stimulation and a varied diet. The same principal holds true in the dieta space, except the subtler effects of the plants have the opportunity to shine through, altering the dietero’ssenses, tastes and disposition.
When I diet, or even spend an extended period of time in the forest without dieting, I realize the frightening extent to which I have been conditioned by my media-saturated, data-hungry, progress-obsessed culture – and how very difficult it is for me to do nothing. My need to fidget and distract myself from stillness feels nothing short of pathological.
From years of working with communities of the forest, I’ve come to see boredom as a uniquely Western affliction—a kind of luxury of affluence—striking those who are simply incapable of being still. For this reason, I find the shamanic practice of dieta to be deeply challenging and nourishing, even without the plants.
Don’t Just Do Something
There is more to life than increasing its speed.
Zoonotic diseases like West Nile Virus, Zika, Ebola, Lyme’s Disease and COVID-19 are just the beginning of what we will see as we continue to expand the commodity frontier further into the wild. Maintaining lush, rich, and resilient biodiversity – our support system, which captures our carbon, produces air we breathe, our food, our medicine, our water – is no longer relegated to the realm of environmentalism, but also that of public health.
In just a few months of COVID-19 spreading like wildfire amongst human populations, scientific communities and public health officials have clearly identified the link between our relationship to animals and the virus spreading, supporting unprecedented measures such as banning wildlife trade. Pollution has dramatically dropped-off in industrial nations since the enforcement of social distancing. Fake accounts of dolphin sightings and elephants perusing vineyards in quarantined regions went viral. These changes are celebrated online, dubbed as the silver linings of the crisis.
What’s interesting about these Edenic accounts, true or false, is what their enthusiastic public reception reveals about our collective desire: We want to believe nature’s regenerative force will clean up our mess when we disappear – quickly, magically.
In his popular essay The Coronation, Charles Eisenstein proposes the following:
When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.”
What we’re seeing during this break—isolation intentionally coordinated for the greater good—is one of these changes I hope we carry into the future. I hope for this because I, and the elders of forest communities I’ve learned from, deeply value the perspectives that emerge from observation, patience, and introspection.
Is it possible that COVID-19 could adjust the way we understand health? Is it possible that this dramatic succession of events can support an integrated approach to health and wellness? Our culture seeks and produces knowledge ‘out there’, celebrating the intellect manifested in technologies, hard data, skyscrapers, and charismatic leaders. Yet it is clear that this extroverted, hyperactive approach to problem-solving, game-changing and ‘Earth-saving’ is not sufficient or sustainable.
Isolation is the seemingly indefinite situation what we have in our hands right now. The real question is what we’ll do with it. When we look to communities in the Amazon Basin who have mastered the art of isolation through the shamanic practice of the dieta, we see there’s much to learn in stillness – for our personal health, and the health of the greater community of which we are apart. Their wisdom and knowledge of the natural world is cultivated not simply with discourse and debate but through extended periods of silence and contemplation. The answers to our questions and solutions we seek may not be out there but in here.
Coronavirus, like climate change, is a danger whose impact is largely invisible and imminent – a specter whose ultimate threat is not clear, yet is present. As a lion crouches in breathless silence before attacking its prey; as a scientist patiently awaits results; as the onanaya sits alone in the forest, observing subtle changes in her senses, we can choose to keenly and curiously observe the world around us as it undergoes this tremendous shift, only proceeding to move when we have attained the composure and insight necessary to advance with dignity and wisdom.
Can we envision a dialectical reversal where our isolation gives way to a fresh vantage point? Can this unprecedented refrain from what we thought to be the unstoppable momentum of development be savored as an opportunity to listen to the more-than-human world? Can we design rites of isolation into the future rising on the horizon, looking to traditional cultures and shamanic practices for inspiration and guidance? It may sound implausible – but perhaps nothing less can bring about the great transformation we need.
Header art by Danny Stanley Insta @avongarde