What is a Dieta?

Dieta is a Spanish word that means – simply enough – diet.

However, when used in Amazonian herbalist traditions that deal with the more powerful and often reality-altering and visionary varieties of plants known as plantas maestras or teacher-plants, the word comes to mean much more than that. It then describes dietary and behavioral regimens that allow one to move most safely and effectively into working relationships with such plants. These relationships can bring about profound transformations, and the dietas are designed to best facilitate them.

The dietas originated as a plant-based practice for developing attunement to the currents of spirit that underlie the material world. Traditionally, this has been applied to such skills as hunting, divination, ancestral consultations, healing, leadership, and so on. The dietas are part of broader systems of human-plant relationships (food taboos, garden magic, and so on) that characterize many of the indigenous people of Amazonia. As the Amazon basin is populated by a high concentration of plants whose chemical behaviors are complex and ‘active’ enough to be used medicinally and sacramentally, and because humans have been interacting with them for 1000’s of years, the dieta tradition is well developed.

An individual undergoing a dieta retreats into isolation for a period of time (from days to months or even years) during which s/he is fed a ritually prepared and symbolically significant diet of foods such as plantain, manioc (cassava), and certain fish and jungle animals. In modern times this list often includes rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and chicken. Sugar, salt, chilies, certain meats (especially pork), acidic fruits, fermented foods, alcohol, and stimulants are avoided, as well as excessive exposure to sun, rain, fire, and unpleasant smells. Social interactions that involve ill individuals, sexual activity, and speaking of outside concerns, are likewise eschewed. In this way the dietas loosen the hold of human cultural traits – the understanding being that by doing so humans are more open to guidance and power from the natural world. In addition, its ritualized structure values and inspires self-discipline. Such traits are shared with vision quests, and the dietas can be approached in this way.

When one undergoes a dieta the focus is often on a particular plant best suited to the needs of the individual. “The chosen plant depends upon the personality structure of the patient and the goals of the therapists: some plants are indicated for connecting with emotions and childhood memories, others to strengthen a proper attitude, still others to break some resistances” (Mabit et al 1996). Such plants can include bobinsana/Calliandra angustifolia;toe/Brugmansia sp.; chiric sanango/Brunsfelsia sp.; oje/Ficus anthelmintica;tangarana/Triplaris sp., and the “king of brews,” ayahuasca/Banisteriopsis Caapi, along with its usual admixture chacruna/Psychotria viridis.

The simple explanation of the therapeutic value of dietas is as follows:
1. They modify states of consciousness and purify the body,
2. They allow one to more easily deal with the strong emetic, cathartic, and visionary effects commonly associated with the plantas maestras. The resulting changes need to be carefully protected, as rearrangements in body biochemistries and identity patterns leave the patient or initiate for a time sensitive and vulnerable. In this way dietas can be typified as preparation and recovery technologies that attend this sort of phyto-spiritual “surgery”.
3. They stimulate the body’s innate ability to self-heal.

According to Schultes and Winkelman (1996), “Diet is viewed as a tool helping to maintain the altered state of consciousness (ASC) which permits the plant teacher to instruct, provide knowledge, and enable the initiate to acquire power. The diet is viewed as a means of making the mind operate differently, providing access to wisdom and lucid dreams. These regimens provide strength . . . .” In Luna’s studies of ayahuasca shamanism in Peru, he likewise says that the “necessity of diet — which includes sexual segregation — to learn from the plants was stressed by every vegetalista I met” (1991).

It is said that the dietas are prescribed by the plants themselves, each a little different, depending on the character (species) of the plant. To understand plants as capable of communicating the conditions by which we can best relate to them is a . . . leap . . for many of us. However, in order to grasp the rationales of the dietas and the entire therapeutic process in which they are involved, it is important to cultivate a view of the natural world as highly aware, intelligent, infinitely helpful (if approached with respect) and ultimately ~~ Enchanted.

To this end, it helps to explore what we might call “indigenous consciousness.” When a person or people actively recognize the nourishment exchange between themselves and the land, and connect the quality of their lives to the health and fertility of their environment, then ecological relations become an intimate experience. Such an awareness is available to anyone who walks the ways of the earth.

“Indigenous consciousness” therefore defines the word “indigenous” in a relational sense, not in the sense of whoever arrived at a place first. Relational indigeneity is a birthright of everyone, and is up to everyone to claim. To cultivate one’s indigeneity is to root one’s sense of identity, of belonging, deeply into the earth. One then reaches into the nourishing groundwaters of Spirit. The deeper one drinks, the more one perceives the common origin and destiny of the great society of Nature. All plants, animals, minerals, forces of weather, elements, and so on are recognized to be a vast interwoven, co-evolving, and mutually transformative community. Natural ecosystems are then understood to be the surface manifestations of an underlying culture of spiritual relations.

In this way a rain forest can be understood as a kind of “city,” a cosmopolitan center of terrestrial life. It is a gathering place of diverse life forms with high population density and a limited resource base. Its inhabitants traffic in fertility and vitality, and there exists a sophisticated culture to work the philosophies of reciprocity, the art forms of diversity, and the languages of interspecies dialogue, all necessary to maintain a fine-tuned ecological balance.

As humans have evolved as part of this sylvan cosmos, which in its various ecological expressions are found all over the planet, and actually ARE the planet, we have had to internalize this culture within our own to maintain equilibrium with it. To the degree we have done so, we are indigenous to our environment, prosper as a species, and flourish. To the degree we have become unaware of this culture through our own inattention, greed, separative ideologies, or whatever, and replaced it with the many variations of human chauvinism, we suffer the ill effects

Of this we are best cured by a thorough re-indigenization, a re-membering and active practicing of co-creative relationships with the tribes of creation.

What we call medicinal plants are among the primary agents by which erring humans are brought back into the ecosystemic fold. They can help bring our own disordered ecologies of body, mind, will, emotions, and social relations into entrainment with their own internal ecologies (their constituents or energetic architecture), which resonate with successively larger and more organized eco-systems. Plants can thereby pull us into harmonic relations with the metabolic functionings of the planet. The planet thereby teaches via the conditions of its healthy functioning. This dharma upwells through the plants and into the understandings and practices of those who are “listening.” It has inspired and guided the world’s great herbalist traditions. Herbalism in its most perennial forms has internalized this dharma and applied it to the microcosm of the human body to understand states of well-being and to treat illness.

In this way herbalism is ecological medicine, the blueprint for all “sustainable” medicines. Its most general prescriptions for health and flourishment can be understood as follows:

1. The importance of dialogue (responsive communication) between all beings. This includes cellular communications within a body, cross-species and cross-dimensional communications between inhabitants of the “horizontal” world of physical existence and “vertical” world of spirit.
2. The accommodation and promotion of diversity, essential to the creative potential of any community.
3. The acknowledgment of the existence of vitality, or life force as fundamental to animate existence.
4. The recognition that reciprocity must be effected between those accessing this vitality or “fertility circuit,” in order to equitably share in, manage, and conserve its use.
5. The importance of respect, and taken further, reverence, in dealing with all members of the natural world. This applies most specifically to humans and acts as governor to the excesses of self-reflective consciousness and ego. The development of this trait reveals the presence and well-being of “others” as self-evident to a healthy existence. It is the basis of relational indigeneity, fundamental to spiritual ecology, and the root of perennial herbalism. All these traits promote flow of energy (change) and balance in this flow (homeostasis). Both are necessary for any organism to grow and maintain itself.

Ecological medicine is inseparable from spiritual healing. Both describe a strengthening and clarity of relationships, an opportunity to immerse oneself in the interconnectedness of all life. A world imbued with spirit cannot be separated into the sacred and profane, the spirited and the spiritless.

It is only by creating an indirect dependence on the land (e.g. modern city life) that nature is easily perceived as “less than” the humans that manipulate it. The world split into the religious and secular is a world judged to have constituents of moral and ethical value (religious) and those of dross (secular), the pure and the impure, the worthy and the worthless. This world view projected onto plants also sees them as having constituents of value (active) and those of dross (inactive). For purposes of utility this can be a useful distinction. But when utilitarianism is raised to a guiding social ethic, an approach to all of the natural world, it cuts off spiritual relations with it.

This can be understood as a “great forgetting” – one of the defining pathologies of highly rationalist cultures. Medicinal plants are specialists in helping humans re-awaken from this amnesia. Some “speak” louder than others; vision plants urge a deep ecological message of change that runs so contrary to the guiding myths of industrial-growth cultures that they are often made illegal. When the medicines are outlawed, then the healers become outlaws. It’s a sign of the times.

However. The wisdoms of human partnership with the tribes of Nature may have been colonized, missionized, industrialized, and consumerized into the earth, and may have been bulldozed and burned at the stake and poisoned and buried under concrete. But to the earth they have gone, and from the earth they will arise. And they are arising now, like sprouts through the cracks in the road of progress. Through many people, and the numbers are growing as world problems brought on by selfish, disassociative cultural scripts become more critical and the changes necessary for their solution more obvious.

People are suffering, the world is suffering, and relief is being asked for, cried for, prayed for. Another human story exists to replace the self-destructive mythic addictions of modernity. A story of human lifeways repatterned onto principles of organismic growth and evolution, healthy ecological relations, and recognition of the worlds of spirit and vitality. This story comes from an in-place wisdom native to this earth, and it is breaking like a wave upon this planet. The knowledge that runs this story is now growing like mycelium through the cultural deadwood of the colonizers. It is coming out of the forests and deserts and mountains, out of the many earth-based cultures whose wisdoms are spreading through the air (and electronic) currents of world. It is working through people in the West who are returning home to the community of life, who are engaged in healing themselves and others of the chronic homesickness that manifests in so many of the ills of modernity. This is what the world-wide renaissance in the way of the plants is about. This is why herbalist Rosemary Gladstar calls plants “the umbilical cords to the planet.”

“The earth is calling us to remember” (Buhner 1997).

With all this said, it should be obvious that individual healing is ultimately inseparable from planetary healing. The plants teach awareness, and one is commonly faced with heightened realizations of the enormity of the planetary crisis, along with the obviousness and urgency of the solutions. These understandings demand action. Mucho trabajo! How one accommodates these revelations and integrates them into one’s life is never easy. However, it is integral to healing, to growth into a life of authenticity, of truthfulness.

A further challenge is that during a dieta ones understandings become primarily felt. The greater the problems revealed, the more one must open to feel them. One must thaw the feeling body to feel pain to its core. Only by feeling pain to its depths does one acknowledge it, know it, transmute it, and release it, simultaneously freeing oneself. The more expansive the sense of the self, the more pervasive the feeling, the more one’s Spirit is enlivened, and the greater the healing.

A visionary perspective on this is that the earth is raising its spiritual vibration as a way to transition itself out of the current crisis. This is another way of saying that the earth is sending out strong intentions to heal, a Gaian version of prayer. As the earth moves through this change it simultaneously brings along and is brought along by those humans sensitive to this rising wave, attracted to this swelling invigoration. There are those who persist in feeding off dwindling energy from a dying era with contracted vehicles conditioned, i.e. normalized to limited conductivity. And there are those that are recognizing a higher frequency of “juice,” of life force, of info-energy, of understandings – and are doing their best to reconfigure themselves to accommodate it; to run it, work it, and become it. A new human operating system is forming, and this is what catalyzes the changes, the “roll-over” effect. This energy has to maximize and manifest itself through human one at a time, to then snowball thru the human collective. The biggest blocks to this happening is the feeling narcosis and culture of fear, denial, and avoidance still strongly remnant on the planet.

This is the paradox of healing revealed by the plants. Only by facing fear is one released from its stranglehold. Only by dying is one freed from the fear of dying, and only then can one be fully alive. It may mean a head-on collision with oneself, but out of the wreckage will appear the glimmers of the soul glyph, designs of one’s original incarnational purposes. The chaos of such a collision could last minutes, hours, or even years. This path is boot camp for the spirit. Its purification can take one on a hard, steep, rocky road, but the views are great and the air is fresh!

This is why dietas are a lot of work and not necessarily “fun”. Healing can be smooth or messy, a simple reflection of the reality of what is being addressed. In a dieta, all that is authentic is redeemed and ultimately appreciated. The benefits in engaging this process is rooted in spiritual renewal. From spirit comes the deepest source of well-being, a self-confidence arising from engagement with the actual and the truthful.

The universe rewards courage. The harder the work, the sweeter the ecstasy. It is a spiritual law that one gets what one pays for. This is the evolution Game. The human ego resists the great processes of transformation native to this Game, the letting go to recieve, the dying to a greater rebirth. The plants know this Game, and how to play it successfully. Their teachings are a wisdom of emergence, a greenprint of the heavenly Now materializing on the earth. Their gift is all around us, and is here for the asking.

Buhner, Stephen
1997 One Spirit, Many Peoples. Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers.

Luna, Luis Eduardo, and Pablo Amaringo
1991 ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Mabit, Jacques, Rosa Giove, and Joaquin Vega
1996 Takiwasi: the use of Amazonian shamanism to rehabilitate drug addicts. (In)Yearbook of Cross-Cultural Medicine and Psychotherapy 1995. Michael Windelman & Walter Andritzky, eds. VWM – Verlag fur Wissenschaft und Bildung.

Schultes, Richard E., and M. Winkelman
1996 The Principle American Hallucinogenic Plants and their Bioactive and Therapeutic Properties. (In) Yearbook of Cross-Cultural Medicine and Psychotherapy 1995. Michael Winkelman & Walter Andritzky, eds. VWM – Verlag fur Wissenschaft und Bildung

© Morgan Brent 2003