The Amazon was never on my bucket-list. Fist-sized spiders? No thanks.
But when I was asked to join a shaman and a botanist in the Peruvian rainforest to lead a trip for ACEER (The Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research), I couldn’t say no.
It wasn’t because the Amazon rainforest is home to more than 40,000 plants and 430 mammals. Or because it’s considered the lungs of the earth, producing about 20% of our oxygen.
I decided to take on giant mosquitoes and a hundred percent humidity because I was a little obsessed with the mythos of the shaman.
To be clear, I was not obsessed with Americans who have studied shamanism. I was a member of that tribe already. Standing around a fire and calling in jaguar energy felt like wearing clothes that pinched in some places and gaped in others. What did I know of jaguars? I wasn’t sure I’d even seen one in a zoo.
So the chance to teach beside a for-real shaman? Irresistible.
I worked myself into quite the pre-trip tizzy, shopping for mosquito-proof clothing (hint: there’s no such thing) and shoes which would be light and comfortable while still protecting my ankles from snakes. And since I was going to be teaching, I aimed for clothes which would look respectable while soaked in sweat.
When I arrived in Peru, I quickly realized I’d put a lot more effort into my wardrobe than Don Antonio. I’d finally met a for-real shaman and he dressed like an American grandfather about to hit the shopping mall. I loved him immediately.
Don Antonio was generous with his small stash of English, telling me stories of his grueling and often lonely childhood training in the jungle. As a child and teenager, he wished more than anything to be normal, to play soccer and laugh with his friends. When he was old enough, he escaped the family shaman business by joining the army.
But eventually the jungle called him back.
Whatever you may think when you encounter the word “shaman”, erase those thoughts from your mind.
Imagine instead someone who finds joy in the smallest thing, who observes patiently and kindly, and who doesn’t bind himself with unnecessary rules.
While we were traveling, I got a urinary tract infection. Don Antonio delivered cucumber juice to my room each morning to cool the burning. But despite traveling through the largest living pharmacy on the planet, there was nothing on hand which would clear the infection. For me, taking an antibiotic is always a decision; in this situation it seemed cosmically ironic.
As I sat in the mess hall contemplating the white capsule, Don Antonio joined me. He took the capsule in his hand and focused on it for a few moments before closing my hands around the pill. He put his hands over mine. “You take,” he instructed, smiling infectiously.
I knew in that moment it wasn’t about the pill; it was about the energy I put into taking it.
I also knew I’d learned more from being with Don Antonio for a few minutes than I had from years of study.
So I continued to watch.
I studied him in the back of the boat, making microscopic movements with his fingers and chuckling to himself. He caught me watching and nodded toward the trees. I scanned the treeline, baffled.
It was a few days before I realized he was imitating the sloths, perezoso in Spanish. They hung from branches high in the canopy, the moss growing off their backs blending them into the foliage. Sloths do move, but you’ll need a huge dose of patience to see it.
Don Antonio imitated their slow-motion movement, amusing himself for hours as we toured up and down the river.
When I returned to the States, I spent a few days imitating my dogs; I’ll still “get in the skin” of any animal I want to know better by mimicking their movements.
Yes, there were ceremonies, but they’ve flowed from my mind like the water of that mighty river. What has stayed is the joy, the patience, the deep respect and observation, and the sense of being “one with” and “part of.”
I’m still obsessed with the idea of the shaman, but I know now they wear many faces and labels. I see a shaman’s joy in a photo of the Dalai Lama and deep respect in the eyes of my dog’s veterinarian. The herbal world has many women who exude “one with” and my carpenter embodies deep patience and care.
Being a shaman is about taking the time to know deeply. It’s a gift which lives like a seed in each of our souls.
Tell me, what bit of the shaman lives within you?