I’m back after a two-week trip to Iquitos, Peru where I had the opportunity to study herbal medicine with a group of Shipibo Shamen. The experience of working with these masters was nothing short of extraordinary.
Shipibo traditions span millennia, and much of the culture is embodied in their medicine. As an herbalist myself, much of this resonated with me as it is based on the understanding that there is a boundless pharmacy to be found in the natural environment around us.
Shipibo medical “education” is typically acquired through a mentor but is not complete without dieting on the herbs and plants, a process where the practitioner actually takes and experiences the effects of each remedy. Over time a broadened repertoire evolves. As their expertise develops, practitioners are seen to embody not only the knowledge of each medicinal substance but also the elements that underpin Shipibo philosophy. This is similar to Chinese medicine where the models of diagnosis and treatment that are drawn from nature also reflect our personal, cultural, and cosmic awareness. Five Element theory recently made popular through feng shui, is a classic example of this.
One distinction between Shipibo medicine and Chinese medicine is how knowledge is transmitted. Shipibo masters are informed through an oral tradition that spans thousands of years and they are considered personal custodians of wisdom. Chinese medicine on the other hand possesses an expansive canon of literature that dates back over 2300 years to its foundation text, the Huang Di Nei Jing.
Despite these systematic differences though, the common thread of Nature between these medicines is a powerful one. Both see our personal experience as a microcosm of the world and universe around us. This creates an in-common belief that our health, like the Amazon, is inherently self-regulating and prioritizes support of the organism rather than destruction of the pathogen. This outlook also allows both to have unique but elegant understandings of the relationships between body, mind, and spirit.
People travel from all over the world to the Amazon for healing through this traditional medicine, often for conditions that conventional medicine has not been able to address effectively for them. These include everything from psycho-emotional disorders like anxiety and depression, to pain syndromes, to neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease.