I’ve been doing a series of plant dietas under the guidance of a curandero in the Peruvian Amazon. Every few months I fly into Iquitos, catch a moto out to Enrique’s place, and commence a retreat with whatever plant he’s chosen for me this time.
Dieta involves drinking an extract of a particular ‘teacher plant’ (planta maestra) while living in seclusion and eating little and simply. It’s the traditional way to develop a personal relationship with these invisible yet potent plant spirits that have the power to clean, heal and teach us. Curanderos call on these spirits to assist them in healing patients.
For me, dieta has been a tremendous learning and healing practice, deepening and enriching my relationship with ayahuasca. I find the two go hand in hand: master plants seems to get to places within me that ayahuasca has possibly touched on but not entirely cleared out. It puts a whole new spin on things. And dieta has enlivened and enhanced my relationship with the natural world in incredible ways, a subject on which I will have more to say.
Dieta is powerful in a subtle way. Teacher plants are not psychotropic; they don’t hijack your consciousness or hit you over the head with visions. You need to open your being to them, surrender and listen, responding to every wisp of experience with warmth, interest, and attention. Slowly, over time, you become softer, more open, more pliable. The simplicity of life on dieta creates an extraordinary sensitivity in which you begin to communicate with the plant. This connection manifests in dreams, visions, icaros (songs); in thoughts, realisations, intentions, messages that arise in your experience.
In many ways, dieta reminds me of meditation retreat. The solitude calms the mind, opening it to release its innate demons. The hardships form the cooking vessel in which things can first settle, then simmer, and eventually boil over, opening to transcendence. Meditation, psychotherapy, and dieta are all alchemical cooking processes, in which the deeper debris of soul is cleaned, released and healed. Dieta is a spiritual process, every bit as much as meditation is. It’s meditation with plant spirits.
Here’s a look at a day on dieta:
7:16 am Wake up under the mosquito net. Spend a few minutes sifting through the night’s catch of dreams. Muse over meanings (ditches and problems with motorcycles seem to figure prominently in my dieta dreamscape), noting potential plotlines to narrate to Enrique. Write down in dream journal.
7:32 am Get up, make bed, hang up clothes, sweep out mapacho ashes and any rat shit deposited overnight. Sit outside to feel the freshness of the day, and admire morning light gilding trees.
8:10 am The wonderful Luis comes with a cup of jugo, papaya and banana blended. Sit outside and savor it slowly, as it’s the only good flavor coming today.
9:25 am Look up unknown Spanish words to translate yesterday’s events and dreams.
10:07 am Do some desultory stretching and—if ambitious—yoga. Practice my meditation du jour: it might be Tibetan Buddhist practice, or more esoteric energetic techniques like merkaba or kundalini. Dieta is an opportunity to go deeply into working with the subtle body.
11:14 am: Sit outside and gaze at fantastical cloud shapes: a mad deity pursuing a tame poodle. A massive woman staggering beneath an anvil. Watch birds skim over pond. Idly wonder whether that sour smell is coming from the pond or the septic tank.
11:57 am Lie on bed fanning away mosquitoes and scratching chigger bites.
12:36 pm Watch Luis net fish from pond. Watch black dog trot happily down path, chain dragging behind. Watch long-legged chickens strut and scratch for bugs in the dirt. Be utterly content in the moment.
1:12 pm Enrique arrives. Buenas tardes, Kerrrrrry. Cómo estás? Describe to him in my bad Spanish the events of the preceding day/night. Sometimes it’s brief; sometimes there’s a dream or realization to report. Sometimes it opens up to more questions: Why do the trees love us? How did you know to give me this plant? Is this spirit masculine?
1:23 pm Listen to my neighbor purging miserably, and prepare to do the same. Watch Enrique rummage in his backpack of medicines for my bottle, and quell rising nausea. It seems to be cumulative—what tastes okay the first day has me holding my nose and gagging by the fifth, but somehow I get it down. This work takes courage.
1:27 pm Lie down, gasping, to work on the mat. Simply watch what’s arising in my experience, focusing my awareness inside in a meditative way. It’s a concentration of the soul, not the mind. Enrique leaves after blowing mapacho smoke on me for a while. Buen trabajo, he wishes me. Hasta manana.
1:46 pm Shower (dieta has helped me overcome my lifelong aversion to cold water) and lie back down to work. Breathe consciously, feeling the plant’s energy in my body, and open to receive what it has to show me today. It might be personal revelations about this life, or past ones; or downloads for the collective, or geometric forms dancing in my vision. I can feel the energy reach a critical point, as if my body can no longer sustain that vibration, and then I know it’s time to purge.
3:22 pm Kneel over basin and vomit the horrible stuff the medicine has collected from my bodymindspirit. I know every purge is a release of old energy and blockages, and I try to cultivate gratitude, thanking the plant for carrying this out of my body.
3:34 pm Shower again, and lie down work with this new surge of energy, feeling so much lighter and more open. Cry. Sing. Laugh. Talk to the plant, sotto voce—it feels quite natural on dieta, where there’s nobody else to talk to. I try to speak Spanish to it, out of respect. It speaks to me directly, in words, images, body sensation, gut-level knowing.
4:06 pm Crawl to door to receive the evening meal delivered by the wonderful Luis—a few boiled potatoes, a sliced boiled carrot, a sliced boiled beet. Put aside for later.
4:43 pm Sit on steps and breathe, taking in the surroundings with eyes newly washed clean.—the golden light on the treetops, the stately palms rising from the water, the ranks of trees growing pure and straight, offering themselves to the light. Some moments I glimpse heaven on earth, the Garden of Eden right here and now.
5:05 pm Smoke a mapacho, indigenous jungle tobacco. I have to remind myself to do this—when I started working with ayahuasca, I miraculously lost all taste for tobacco—but the spirit of mapacho is a powerful connector to the spirits of other plants, and I feel the connection when I smoke.
5:22 pm Stroll slowly to pond, and bask in sunset light painting earth and sky. Listen to birds squawking, the percussive splat of fish jumping, the chorus of frogs and crickets. Stroll back, taking the time to connect with each magical plant and flower and tree along the way.
6:19 pm Light candle. Swing in hammock and read, something spiritual, or at least innocent. Or savor a few carefully selected songs—kirtan and mantra are good.
7:15 pm Breathe. Somehow my breath becomes much more deep and open on dieta, to the point where I can feel myself taking in nourishment with each slow, expanded inhalation. It’s as satisfying as eating, maybe even more so, and it makes me realise how constricted my breathing is in daily life.
7:54 pm Eat boiled potatoes, as many as I can manage. Contemplate what kind of imaginary sauce I would like on them today—pesto? Cheese sauce? Maybe a garlicky vinaigrette? Sometimes this amuses me enough to get several more bites down.
8:21 pm Play guitar, or draw, or study Spanish, or read. Or just swing in hammock and watch flickering candle flame.
10:12 pm Pull down mosquito net and curl up in bed, reward for a hard day’s work. Lie there listening to symphony of frogs and crickets. Watch moonlit shadows on the floor. Invite dreams.
Repeat, till the days blur together and the rhythm of dieta penetrates my bones.