Transcript: Integrated Spirituality as a Path to Health and Wholeness – Dr. Joe Tafur M.D.
Please enjoy this transcript of our interview with Dr. Joe Tafur M.D.
Dr. Joe Tafur MD is an integrative family physician, curandero, speaker, and author of The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine. In this podcast with Paul F. Austin, founder of Third Wave, discusses the ways in which science and spirituality are intersecting to help heal humanity—a breakthrough he’s exploring through the Modern Spirit Epigenetic Project, an initiative that has seen him join forces with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the University of Southern California (USC) to explore the biological basis of psychedelic medicine and investigate how healing from trauma can alter the way our genes are expressed.
- Medical school, antidepressants, and the psychedelic renaissance.
- How Peyote and a Native American spirit walk created new opportunities to find hope.
- Building a bridge between medical science and a spiritual perspective.
- Creating energetic shifts to heal trauma, release energy, and increase resilience.
- Investigating the intersection between spiritual healing and cellular shifts through the Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project.
- Exploring the physiological benefits of Ayahuasca.
- Shipibo apprenticeship, the one-year diet, and becoming a curandero.
- What we still have to learn from Native American culture.
Paul Austin: Welcome to The Third Wave Podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, here to bring you cutting edge interviews with leading scientists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals who are exploring how we can integrate psychedelics in an intentional and responsible way for both healing and transformation. It is my honor and privilege to bring you these episodes as you get deeper and deeper into why these medicines are so critical to the future of humanity. So let’s go and let’s see what we can explore and learn together in this incredibly important time.
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PA: As long time listeners know, yoga and meditation have played a huge role as complementary practices to my own responsible psychedelic use. And that’s why we’re excited to be working with Half Moon Yoga as a partner for the podcast. They carry everything from basic yoga supplies to more advanced things like bolsters and sandbags to meditation cushions that are super comfy to sit on. And right now they’re offering a 15% discount to Third Wave listeners with the promo code “THIRDWAVE”. I’d encourage you to check them out at shophalfmoon.ca if you’re looking for tools to support your yoga or meditation practice.
PA: Hey listeners, I’m back with The Third Wave Podcast and I’m sitting virtually across from Dr. Joe Tafur. Dr. Joe, I just wanna welcome you to the show, thanks for coming on.
Dr. Joe Tafur: Thank you, and thanks for having me.
PA: So, what I love to start a lot of these interviews with is a pretty simple question, and that’s just, what inspired you to become involved with psychedelic medicine and plant medicine generally?
DT: For me what inspired me to get involved with psychedelic plant medicine and/or sacred plant medicine, and subsequently some psychedelic research and things like that, was getting depressed in medical school. I was just struggling in medical school and having a hard time and, I was also exposed to a friend of mine that was trying to get into psychedelic research like in this renaissance of the clinical research with psychedelics, this was like in 2000/2001. A good friend of mine wanted to get his MD/PhD in psychedelics so he was exposing me to this new round of research and medical promise, and I was kinda opening my mind, I was a little fearful, I wasn’t so into psychonautics and things like that. And then I actually tried anti-depressants for a little bit, ’cause my dad was a psychiatrist and… And I actually felt… Although I found it helpful, but I was also reading and learning about all this crossover between the anti-depressants and serotonergic agents and the psychedelics and, this anti-depressant made me feel a little bit… It kind of… I don’t know, I’m a sensitive person and I felt a little bit like I was on a little bit of mushrooms.
DT: I had tried that a few times, and then I also had a little jaw tension, that reminded me I’d tried MDMA a couple of times. And so then I was at… It’s like, “Wow, I’m already feel like I’m doing the so-called drugs, so why don’t I go back to something that I’m more interested in?” I was more interested in something more natural, from nature and so I went back to Arizona where I’m from and I explored a opportunity to enter a Peyote ceremony, and I had a really profound healing in that ceremony, and it really turned me on and excited me to seek good plant medicine. So after that, I wanted to learn more and more, and, that’s how I got involved.
PA: And so, what happened after that? So you… You’re in medical school, and I had read ‘Fellowship at the River,’ which we’ll get into a little bit later on in the interview, and read that you were burnt out and under a lot of stress and, like all medical students are, and then you find out about psychedelics and plant medicine through a friend of yours, you go ahead and have a profound Peyote ceremony and experience, what sort of… What shifted from that experience and what did that lead you into?
DT: Well, that experience… The main shift was just… It was a one-night experience, so yeah, that’s kind of like the book… My book is about that, it’s about my journey into plant medicine, and then it goes on and we’ll get into it but that night I… I just felt I had before that… In medical school I had just become so lost in my thoughts and in my head, and like I said, I had such a difficult time, I felt connecting to my own feelings, how did I really feel about things in my heart, and I felt like I was getting shut down in the training process that I was in. I felt like I was getting disconnected from a lot of things that I had felt connected to previously that I felt like were very important to me, namely to nature, to spirituality and to people.
DT: And… And so that night, I just… At first, it was… It was a difficult start, I was uncomfortable physically with the Peyote, and then gut turmoil, but there was a shift, there was a moment when I just realized, “Oh my God, my internal dialogue had stopped.” I was no longer thinking, and I just came into my awareness in a very unadulterated way, and in that space, I was just able to connect to my senses, to the outside world and also inward to my own heart and my own feelings and trying to get a sense of, “How do I really feel about things? How do I think or feel about things?” And then that really blossomed into just feeling a spiritual connection, and with the… In the context of nature. So just a real sense of belonging in place in the universe, and a peace in my mind and a new opportunity to find hope, through an open mind and an open heart that I just couldn’t really feel into my heart space I feel like, and I… My mind was just cluttered and overtaken, and I could not have enough peace of mind just to sit and look and try to see what’s actually happening right now.
DT: And I… That experience was very very magical for me and inspiring. It inspired me and I felt inspiration, I felt energized from feeling connected. And so that was really wonderful and talked about… It gave me enough strength to continue on, and I continue… I finished medical school, I went to residency, and then in residency I… I was more… It was a different scene, it was more active, we were helping patients, we’re in the hospital, we’re working, it wasn’t just this indoctrination process and all the kind of weird disturbed elements, it was more about being useful and helping people and… I don’t know. It wasn’t so difficult for me to engage in that, and I… But I went back, I went back and I did Peyote a few times during that process, during my residency, and I also sat in on another Native American church ceremony that was separate, different from what I had experienced before in the spirit walk, where you just do it alone.
PA: Like a vision quest?
DT: A vision quest of sorts, it’s called the Spirit walk, it’s at the Peyote Way Church of God, it’s a certain kind of ceremony that they run there, where it is, you go and you’re gonna have to get to know them and make an appointment, and then you arrive on their property, which is really remote, out in a big, big desert and very sacred space that they maintain, and then you fast for 24 hours and the following night, then you go out into a little camp site that they set up for you to have the experience. So that’s that, but the Native American church ceremony is within the tribes, they’ve developed this format where it’s in a teepee and there’s a roadman or there’s someone leading it, a medicine person is leading the ceremony, and so you have, there’s the pros and cons, but you have this person and I got to witness, somebody like working with the energy and the plant medicine and what looked like a shamanic way. And I got really curious about that. I was interested, it felt familiar to me, and my family’s from Colombia… And so I knew about Ayahuasca, I knew that Yahe in Columbia or Ayahuasca in Peru, was out there, and I knew that more and more people were going to Peru and I started wanting to go at some point, and I started becoming very curious about that.
PA: So you came from a pretty, from what I understand, a more traditional medical background, you were in traditional medical school, and then all of a sudden, because of this depression that you were going through and feeling burnt out, you start to work with Peyote, you go through a vision class, you start to learn more about shamanic…
DT: A spirit walk. It’s called a spirit walk. Vision quest is different.
PA: The spirit walk I’m sorry.
DT: That’s a different thing.
PA: The spirit walk. And you go with the spirit walk and you’re starting to learn more about the shamanic practices, and I’d be curious just from a medical perspective and your own personal perspective, what are some of the fundamental differences between the Western medical model and how it treats illnesses versus the more shamanic model and how it treats disease or illness?
DT: Yeah. Well, I think there’s, first there’s a fundamental similarity, which is, like I would say in my book, there’s really only one medicine, the one that heals. So in a practical sense, they’re very similar in the sense that you’re trying to help someone through illness or suffering or whatever it is they’re struggling with. So they actually have a lot in common there. And then… But the modality is like what was missing, and what I see for a lot of people that they struggle sometimes in the Western medical system, allopathic medical system. Because there’s the emotional and spiritual dimensions of illness are often neglected or overlooked, like in other words, what role, do your emotional experiences of your life, or let’s say your childhood or trauma, etcetera, etcetera, play in your mental health and even some physical health problems. Is that considered and the reason that’s important and spiritual. How do you feel about yourself? What do you… Do you have… What do you feel like is meaningful and significant for you at a deep, personal level, and is that being addressed in your life, and can that be affecting your health? Some dissonance there.
DT: And so the reason that’s such an important thing when I started going down to Peru and getting exposed to what Shipibo shamans, Shipibo healers, Shipibo curanderos were doing in Peru, I witnessed them healing and having success with a lot of people that I knew were struggling with their medical care previously. That they had already been going to the doctor or the psychologist or whatever it was, and as I mentioned in my book, they spent a lot of money, trying to solve problems, but it was not until they encountered a cultural system, a healthcare system that addressed them at a kinda deep emotional and spiritual level that they made progress. So for me, that’s an important thing because there are certain problems that unless you address the emotional health, the emotional being, then that person does not improve, and so I think that’s… That doesn’t have to be limited to and it is not a limited to Shipibo or traditional plant medicine there, that same approach is used in all… Many contexts.
DT: The important part is that you need to find some kind of modality that is gonna address those elements, you don’t need to do psychedelics, you don’t need to do sacred plant medicine, but you may need to really find a healing modality that’s gonna help you address yourself at a deep, emotional and spiritual level to heal from certain problems. Especially if those problems are rooted in trauma.
PA: Right. Right. And a lot… Usually those healing modalities are in some way tied to an altered state. Right, whether that’s fasting or whether that’s drumming or whether that’s breath work or there… Yoga has been used in that way for thousands of years. So I think there’s that far-reaching commonality that altered states places outside of these egoic structures, which allows us to have more perspective, it’s sort of like the things that we keep stuffed away in the basement for a long time in the unconscious and subconscious can finally surface and become integrated.
DT: Yeah, so we could call it like altered states, and is one, or you can call it like a spiritual perspective. And you could… And in other words, some kind of spiritual perspective on your life that maybe an altered state is what allows you to achieve that spiritual perspective, sure. And there are other people that are able to kind of achieve such a perspective, I guess, in their more in their normal waking consciousness, and so I think that’s important. I mean, there is. There’s both elements, but I guess it’s like in the bridgework, trying to find the bridgework for people to understand that this is a universal thing, it’s not… And it’s true that many, many people, especially in this culture, they’ve only experienced that kind of consciousness through certain altered state experiences, but there are other people from other cultures that have. That haven’t required that.
DT: And so then the issue is that if you’re just from a certain kind of culture where maybe your family and the people you’re around, and there’s just that altered state consciousness is not accessed until let’s say they try a psychedelic drug and then they think, Oh my God, that this is it. Like everybody needs to do psychedelics, ’cause then they’re gonna find the altered state. When it’s like, “Well, and maybe for you. Yeah”, But it just… I just think there’s many, many ways for people to access spirit, but of course, I’m deeply involved with plant medicine work, and it is a very interesting way, and so I think there is a… There needs to be space for altered states.
PA: Well, and speaking about that bridging concept, I think you as an individual or a great… And particularly the retreat center that you were involved with in Peru, your new modern spirit project in terms of epigenetic research for the MAPS phase three trials, you really are building that bridge between modern medical science and what you’re calling the spiritual perspective.
DT: Yeah, no, I am very interested in that because it’s just… And that’s why… That’s what I was getting at with you a little bit, is just there’s kind of like this polarity, this polarity of like, Okay, well, there’s the allopathic side and then there’s shamanic, and then there’s the Muggles, just the whatever, the normal, the system, and then there’s altered states. And so that polarity is like naturally for me like I’m, yeah, I’m trying to be a bridge, so I’m trying to put things in terms because I have a little YouTube that I just put up and I don’t know, I’m trying to promote it all the time, but it’s called “Spiritual Healing Loves Science”. It’s just a 50-minute talk that I… It’s some of the ideas and concepts of the book, but it’s trying to talk about like a larger perspective, and that’s why I like the spiritual perspective because it doesn’t… We don’t have to limit the discussion, it’s like First, there’s everything. First, there’s everything.
DT: And so now, just because we run into some compartmentalized or limited understanding about this or that it doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. And so it’s like, there are strange things that happen, there are extraordinary things that happen to us, there are things that we experience in our lives that we don’t understand, and we know that, for example, like our emotional experiences, which it could be described without necessarily having all the mathematics, but that there’s an energetic sense to them that you feel the energy, you feel something move through your body and your emotional being and your emotional body, and so that that’s part of our lives, that there’s an energetics to our experience through the way our body responds the way that influences our awareness, and we know that really intense emotional experiences, they end up being very significant for people, and they feel them very strongly in their bodies, and so that’s something.
DT: And so how do you… When you look at like a for example, just to touch briefly on the epigenetics project, so you have people that are in this MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy trials which is the MAPS phase three trial, so these people are getting MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for treatment-resistant PTSD. So they’ve had the average, what I read was 17-18 years, average of treatment-resistant PTSD, they’ve tried many treatments and failed many treatments, and now they’ve had over nearly two decades, and then they go through this intervention, which is a 12-week intervention, which involves three MDMA sessions according to their protocol, and after that 12 weeks, and one year follow-up, almost 70% of them don’t have PTSD anymore. So that is a remarkable transformation and a really big breakthrough in psychiatry and in medicine in general, and for the individuals, of course, a humongous shift in their lives.
DT: And so that’s a pretty big deal that they had this thing that was so stable in them for let’s say nearly two decades, and now it’s cleared up, and we know that there’s like a physiologic component to PTSD. It’s studied at the physical level, at the way it affects the brain and neural imaging, the way it affects your nerves, and these people’s fight-or-flight systems and their hormone, and their cortisol levels and the inflammation in their blood that all those things we know are very related to the way that stress affects their body, and we also know that the source of that problem was some kind of trauma, there’s not really a lot of debate about that, that something really imprinted their system… An event, an experience, let’s say was it war or let’s say sexual abuse, something like that, or recurrent stress, or recurrent trauma, and that somehow imprinted their system and it stabilized, and so then they are frozen in trauma, frozen in the past. The Vietnam Vet reacts to a helicopter, a news helicopter flying over head as if he was back in the war, triggered into the past, so he’s not… It’s very difficult to be present and maintain a present awareness.
DT: And so then something is released, resolved, healed, therapized in this process, and now they don’t have that kind of response anymore, so from the Shamanic perspective in Peru, they talk about that in terms of energy, that the energy of the trauma needs to be healed, needs to be purged, released, needs to be transformed, and also healed to whatever degree possible to increase the resiliency of the system, or the resilience of the system. And so my Ayahuasca, my experiences in Ayahuasca and my experience is watching people heal, and a big theme of the book and what I talk about is these energies that I was learning about how to help people with through shamanic techniques and how people release that a lot of times it had to do with helping them overcome emotional trauma, there’s other energy, there’s other factors. But that was a main. That was a major one.
DT: And that releasing the energy of those traumas and transforming it, and healing it and forgiving, and all of these deep personal processes, they allowed for something to be released or transformed or changed, and Ayahuasca, and this experience that I had encouraged me to focus on the epigenetics, and so then as I did more research about epigenetics yeah, it was definitely like a part of the biology of the system that affects the way our genes are expressed without changing the DNA code itself. So very deep level of our biology, but like I say in the book, it’s a software, not a hardware, it is a programming, so that there are certain ways that we’re programmed, our genes are expressed in certain way, and so we know that deep emotional trauma can effect us epigenetically and major stress can, and we’re learning that can alter people at an epigenetic level.
DT: And alter the way, for example, their cortisol receptors that are on cells to receive and respond to cortisol that that would be epigenetically affected modulated in a person that has PTSD, and that that would be linked to their symptoms, so if then they… As we learn more than we’re like, “Wow, okay, so maybe that is where the trauma,” that’s where part of it is stored at the cellular level, and could it be changed, could it be shifted, and we learned there is some psychotherapy research that shows, “Yeah, the psychotherapy can lead to changes in epigenetics,” and then meditation can lead to changes in epigenetics, and we know that relationships really influence people’s epigenetics, and so then I was really curious about…
DT: Wow, I wonder if the Shamanic healing that we are doing in Peru with Ayahuasca and with the songs and everything could affect people at the epigenetic level. And then we kind of realized that the MAP study was going on, and they were getting these amazing results, and this would be like an ideal place to look into that. So we have started the modern spirit epigenetics Project, in which collecting saliva samples on people going through their trial that eventually we’re gonna analyze and see, did they shift at this epigenetic level, and is that perhaps linked to their trauma and is a shift there perhaps linked to their trauma healing and linked to what we would call in the shamanic world the energy that’s being shifted inside them, and so where the story of this trauma may live at least in part in their cells, and so that’s an example of the bridge work, but in that sense if we were able to understand things at that level, then the shaman, which I already have had this experience, would agree with the western person as far as like, “Hey, this is where we need to heal this person, we need to heal them at this core level, and when the healing is complete, I think we could both appreciate the shift inside of them subjectively, from what they report and also from what we observe, and maybe even at the genetic level in some cases,” and that is something that both sides would agree on.
DT: So it is just trying to finding… We’re just finally getting to that degree of science where we could explore things at that level, the subtle, very subtle aspects of ourselves.
PA: Which is beautiful because an element of precision comes out of that, and that of course is the benefit to the allopathic medicine approach is it has the potential and the ability to be very, very precise.
DT: That’s right, it does. And then sometimes that precision can be overly precise in the sense that it doesn’t tell the whole story, so it also there’s trying to balance it, again, is have the precision to really to know this… Like you said, a molecular change. Incredible, but then also to remember, that that’s part of a process that is magically quantum physically, whatever miraculous.
PA: So I’d be curious, because you’re a medical doctor and you’re very well-versed in the physiological elements of Ayahuasca. This is written about in Fellowship of the river, like physiologically, how Ayahuasca is healing us. I’d love if you could just give a brief overview of like, when we’re going down to Peru or we’re going to a retreat center in Costa Rica or going to… It might be a weekend retreat in the United States, what is physiologically going on in that Ayahuasca experience that’s helping us to heal and how does that relate to what’s going on with the MDMA therapy, ’cause they’re two obviously, very, very, very different experiences. And what’s true about them is if you have prep and integration, they both can be equally healing for things like PTSD or addiction, or depression.
DT: Yeah, I think that in both cases… Well, I mean Ayahuasca still is a very complicated substance chemically, and so we don’t understand all of the physiologic effects that it has on the body, we know that a lot of attention has been put towards the DMT, which is the Chacruna leaves and a particular type of Ayahuasca that Shipibo’s drink that obviously is a psychedelic and hallucinogenic as some people might say, but it has a very intense effect on people and can open visionary states that can open mystical experiences. And so that’s a whole other like ball of wax. Once we’ve allowed that to be there, it’s like, well, we don’t have all the facts on that, there’s a lot of mystery involved, but there’s certain serotonin receptors that are known to be in the 2A I think receptors, and maybe they’re learning more about other ones that are particularly important in like such a visionary experience and are known to be triggered by other psychedelic substances.
DT: So that’s that element, but then there’s all of this… There’s the Harmines, there’s the Ayahuasca vine that has all these Harmala alkaloids, these different Harmines that have their own properties that may be involved and what make people sick and what make people purge, but also are known to being studied for their anti-depressant effects and for their effects on neurogenesis. And neuroplasticity, so helping our brains like change so there are some of the things in the psychedelic kind of altered states, a big focus has been on this the way it’s changing your neural networks, the way your brain is operating, and so that these mystical experiences are sometimes before that happens, perhaps there is a shift, this default mode network in the brain that maybe is overactive in overthinking, ruminating kind of modern life and see it more overactive and depression and anxiety, and PTSD, which is really a form of anxiety and addiction and OCD, that default mode network is quieted or just the way it’s function just shifts and that allows people to kind of access their senses in a different way, access their emotional being… A lot of emotional content comes forward, sometimes repressed memories.
DT: And then there’s this other component that I mentioned before that sometimes that’s associated with some kind of mystical access. So that’s some of what we know about the stuff since MDMA is different, it’s a different substance. It has a little different… It is considered a psychedelic and has a little bit different physiology, but I think what I am kind of a big proponent of and there’s a conference that’s gonna be happening in Canada next year, and they were trying to come up with the title and it was gonna be something psychedelic Science again, and we were talking and we were talking about these different perspectives, and I was just like, really it’s psychedelic-assisted therapy, psychedelic-assisted medicine. So just MDMA by itself, it’s been around in many contexts for a long, long time, people achieving what they’re achieving in the MAPS trial is a very refined use of it by people who have really developed themselves to be able to provide that kind of therapy and support.
DT: Similarly, at the Ayahuasca healing centers, where it’s a mixed bag, where there are some people who could be irresponsible or even predatory, versus people that have really dedicated themselves to refining their own development to be able to provide a kind of support that would really make the difference for somebody or could help make the difference for somebody… So for me, it’s much more about the context and the people that are bringing that context to you, that that’s there’s a lot to be said about that. And so one of the things that they have in common, and I have been to the training for MAPS and the MDMA psychotherapists, is that they are not just like having any old psychotherapist as part of the MAPS trial, these are some pretty cream of the crop people, and the ones that I’ve met are some very spiritually kind of evolved human beings that really there’s a real love and dedication to what they’re doing. And so I think that plays a humongous role in the kind of healing they’re a part of, and I would say the same thing is true, in the Ayahuasca scene that there is a humongous difference when there is that level of dedication and love brought to it, so I would say that’s what brings them together is that they’re… Like you said, there’s an altered state experience that helps kind of open things, help people access things, help people re-evaluate things, help people access their feelings and work through their traumas.
DT: What also like to be done effectively, there has to be that, to me is the spiritual context, there has to be a very loving, supportive framework to allow people to transcend any kind of judgment that is gonna get in the way of their healing process, and then like you said, there is the, the before, the during and the after, which we call it, they call it set and setting or they call it, then they call it the session, and then they call it integration, but here in the community that I’m a part of here in Phoenix, we’re learning from some of the Navaho members, the [unclear speech] members in our community, Darryl Slim is one of our teachers, and Darryl always says, well, the way they look at it before they do any kind of ceremony, not just plant medicine or let’s say Peyote, but other forms of ritual and prayer that they engage in, let’s say even vision quest, for example, which is like more of a… I did a vision quest here, a form of it is, and it’s just like a four-day fast out in nature where you’re just by yourself and in a little small space and you just kind of try to be with yourself without any distraction and in the nature until, and hopefully you receive some kind of vision or some kind of experience.
DT: So there’s the before, what we call the set and setting, is like the preparation for the ritual, for the ceremony, for the session, Darrel calls that love. So we come to it with love, that’s the way to approach it responsibly, and then the session itself, they call it the gift, what we receive in the session is the gift, and then what we do with that gift, the integration process, they call that the responsibility of the gift. So I think that when you do all those things, like in Nihue Rao in Peru, the people are doing their healing and what I got exposed to and that’s what I have experience with, I don’t have experience with all these other different formats, but people are going through their healing as part of this [unclear speech] people diet there and retreat, they’re taking their a time out and they’re integrating as they’re there, there’s a lot of time for them to reflect on what they’re doing and still it becomes very important how they integrate when they get back. What do they do with that gift, how are they able to take care of it, and with what degree of responsibility and who’s guiding them to do that, and who’s walking that walk so that they can guide them to do that.
PA: Well, and that’s a big part of what stuck out to me when reading Fellowship With The River was how you had walked that walk, and I would love if you could just tell our audience a little bit about going back to the beginning of the podcast, you go through these Peyote experiences and sooner or later, I don’t know what the timeline was, you find yourself in Peru running an Ayahuasca retreat center, I would just love to hear a little bit about that journey for you, what took you from that medical background into Peyote and into running an Ayahuasca retreat center, and in particular in the context of what we’ve just now been talking about, how did you walk that walk so that you could facilitate and lead people through that very spiritual experience?
DT: Right, and so that’s an ongoing process, right? I’m still learning as a human being, many, many things, but still I had to go the preparation, to even do it at the level that I’m doing it out now is… I told you I was interested in learning more about Ayahuasca and my family is from Colombia, and I wanted to go and so I went down there to Peru in 2007 the first time and to a healing center, and I would just observe like this Shipibo style with the icaros and the songs and the ceremony, and I was looking at the kind of healing that was happening there and well, as I mentioned with the kind of problems that I knew that I, as a doctor, I’d been working as a doctor for a little while, or just coming out of my residency, 2006, but medical school and residency, and then I’m seeing people respond and they’re doing this whole other approach and connecting the dots between some of this deep emotional trauma and some people’s physical symptoms and experience, or at least their mental health problems, and so that really excited me about what they were doing, and I did have some pretty major experiences with the Ayahuasca, personally, and I felt very, very at home with the whole scene and the whole experience, and I kind of fell in with the Shipibos and the Shamans.
DT: And so I just, I had a very deep personal experience and kind of a sense of belonging, that when I finished that first session there, that I was on there for five days, I couldn’t stop crying because I just felt like something. I just felt so at home. And so when I got back, I hadn’t told my parents, so I’m going to down to Peru to drink Ayahuasca, but when I got back, I did tell them because I wanted to let them know that I’m gonna go back. I’m not saying I don’t know where this is going, but this is a big deal and I have to go back. And so, then I went back and I had even bigger experiences, and I talk about that in the book, and I started learning things about my own family in Colombia and connection to Amazonian plant medicine, and so I kept returning and I kept learning more and getting exposed and watching people go through the training, realizing they’re training foreigners and curious about that. And then over that time, I developed a relationship with Ricardo Amaringo, who was a Shipibo people healer, Ayahuascado, and at some point, he wanted to start his own center, and he asked a few people if we would be interested in helping him to do that, and everybody had their own little role and their contribution, and I was a doctor and I spoke Spanish and I was very interested in the plant medicine.
DT: So, and we were getting along and he thought this would be good, so we had a little team of people and we decided to, yeah, at the beginning, it didn’t seem like a big deal, it was like, it only cost… It was very cheap buy the land, so we each put in 600 bucks, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll be there two months of the year”, and so ’cause there were multiple people on the team.
DT: So I was like, “Okay, what’s the big deal? I’m not a big risk.” And then Ricardo started building the center, and then a lot of the partners dropped out, and then Ricardo was saying like, “Hey, we need some money, we really need some money now, ’cause we’re really building.” And he asked me for $12,000, and I was working as a doctor, and so I gave it to him as a business partner. And we went down, I went down there like that… It was around new years, and he was building it for real, you would have thought, “Oh God, he’s gonna blow the money, it’s gone,” but he started really building it, and then we had somebody else that was still around to help us kinda manage and by the time Fairway rolled around, they had enough structures and some more money, and Cvita started, my other business partner, Cvita started investing money and then it was there and then it was just the three of us, Ricardo, Cvita and I. And then we got started. And then it was like, wow, we’re actually gonna do this, and there’s no other business partners, so either Cvita has to be here or I have to be here all year to manage this place and run this place.
DT: So that started up and as I was… We were helping in ceremony, but I hadn’t really been through… I’d been through some training over the years leading up to that point, but I hadn’t been through the full Shipibo apprenticeship to become Ayahuasquero and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. That’s the traditional ways as a diet of one year where you do, you’re in the jungle and you don’t… You just basically no sex, no alcohol, no drugs, no red meat, no pork, no, in this case, no chicken and some strict diet. So only fish, grilled fish, only grilled fish, no fruits or vegetables, or in this we have a little, I had some apples and bananas, I wasn’t supposed to. And just some starchy stuff, no vegetables, but just starchy rice, plantains, potatoes, lentils, beans, water. That’s it. Some people do it very, very strict where they just do plantains and fish, that’s it, for one year, and water, and in that process, the typical curandero goes into isolation and they don’t talk to people anymore. And I didn’t have that opportunity ’cause I was running the center.
DT: So I just didn’t know how that was gonna fit in, but Ricardo was pretty adamant, he’s like, “Joe, you have to do this, you have to train for you to be working alongside me. To help in the ceremony, you have to learn.” So he encouraged me, and although I was reluctant, and so I ended up breaking it up to six months of a diet while I was running the center, which was very intense and tough four nights a week ceremony, not always drinking Ayahuasca, but being there to help all the time. And then I told them I can’t, I don’t wanna do that again. That was really, really rough. So I broke it up into three months and three months, and then I continued dieting after that, like a month here, a month there, just keep accumulating these training periods, but it’s that… Those are the restrictions, which I didn’t go into as much isolation as many people have to really get into the deep contemplation and I was working so I was more doing an in-service.
DT: So I had to go through that process to demonstrate my commitment and my responsibility and then to go through my own healing and all the things that are gonna come up and that I’m gonna have to deal with inside myself and beyond that, to be able to be there for people so that they… That was another commonality between MDMA psychotherapy and Ayahuasca shaman is that I found that on one of the training I went to, one of the head trainers was saying that when people talk about people being re-traumatized by, let’s say Ayahuasca sessions or ceremonies or MDMA sessions, that she found that that was really… Although that’s a possibility that one of the major limiting factors was the facilitator ready to go there and be there with the person through come what may and if they are ready to hold space and guide them and support them through that process, you wouldn’t see that, you would see them come through it and work through it eventually, and that was my experience for the most part in Peru, and I feel like we had to be ready for that. And so we had to go through it ourselves, and in the case of my training, it was years of working supervised with a bunch of Shipibo masters, and working alongside them in ceremony with all kinds of people, some people with very severe problems. So that was the training process that I went through after already having become a doctor, which is actually pretty severe, and…
PA: How did that change then your approach to medicine going through that entire process?
DT: I think it changed just like what I talk about in the book, the big message of the book is just the emotional and spiritual dimensions of illness and disease that that just has become more primary. I get how if I go do some per diem work as a doctor and go work at a urgent care and… It’s urgent care, so we’re just patching them up, and heading them on their way, so we’re not gonna necessarily get into all the deeper issues and maybe it isn’t, maybe they just cut their finger, it’s not such a big deal. But when there’s other problems, like more chronic health problems, it definitely comes to mind that, “Hey, maybe a deeper healing is… Would be called for.” And before I went down there and went through that training, I hadn’t seen what such a deeper healing could do for people, so you didn’t even think that was a possibility.
DT: I think going through normal medical school, my personal impression of sexual abuse of children was that that’s an even severe rape or even severe PTSD from war. That was considered chronic illness, that’s not gonna get better, and so there’s a perfect example. So you’re just like, of course, you feel bad, but you’re not really trying to solve the person’s problem because you’ve never seen… The possibility has never been illuminated to you, that that actually can be healed, that some people actually heal from that, and it may not be universally true for everybody, but that there is a pathway and a possibility. But what does it mean? It means addressing some of these very deep profound things, and like you said, sometimes it involves an altered state and sometimes it involves the spiritual perspective, but allowing people to work through things at a very deep, profound level.
DT: And so that’s what I listed those cases in my book, was like, oh, here’s idiopathic chronic cough, which means this person has a dry chronic cough that we don’t know why they have it, and it’s not getting better. And so you’ll just like, “Oh yeah, I got this dry cough, you know? That’s me.” And they already ruled everything out and they had the pulmonary function testing, and they had a CAT scan and everything, and they don’t have anything that we can identify. It was like, “Well, what is that?” And they just stuck, because if we now say idiopathic, that means we don’t know what it is. It means we’ve kinda ruled everything else out, and that’s as far as we can help you. And it’s like, “I’m sorry.” So what does that look like? That looks like you paying a lot of money and going to a lot of doctor visits, just be told like, “Hey, it’s in your head,” or “There’s nothing we can do.” And sometimes, there is, perhaps, something that can be done.
DT: And in this person’s case, it was related to some really deep emotional stuff, that once they were able to work through, that eventually resolved. And then I present a migraine headache case, where the person had really significant improvement, and that’s not something as a doctor going through medical school, that wasn’t even… I never even had that idea, that a migraine sufferer would just be something that could actually really shift, maybe even go away or heal. And I present addiction is in that category for a lot of people. They’re not sure that people are actually gonna get better from that, but some people do. And you got PTSD that we mentioned, then there’s depression. Is this just a chronic depression, is this a biological, biochemical imbalance? Or is it something else? Is it some deep emotional trauma? Is it some ancestral trauma? Is it some epigenetic thing?
DT: Is there a way that we can help this person and that they could actually heal and come into more wholeness? And then there’s another case, psoriasis, inflammatory skin diseases. We know, flare, when people have emotional stress, and so is there a way to bring down the threshold within them? So maybe they can take a little more stress than they used to take and if it does, the symptoms are not so severe, they don’t get as bad. Same thing with Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, one of the cases I presented. So that guy has been going to the doctor all this time, right? They already cut two sections of his bowel out, of his intestines out, and me, as a family medicine doctor, Crohn’s disease, I can’t really remember a time when it was presented to me that I should investigate somebody’s childhood traumas. Not once. But when I saw what happened to that guy and I started looking it up, I read, “Oh yeah, actually, this has been going on. This discussion has been going on for a long time.” It’s called morbidity and Crohn’s disease, and I’m not saying every case of Crohn’s disease, but in some people who are not healing and not responding well to treatment, there is evidence that there’s increased depression and anxiety, and what’s the root of that…
DT: And in this guy’s case, this deep emotional healing process and whatever plant medicine process that he went through, dramatic reduction in symptoms. So, to actually see as a doctor, and that’s what the book is about. It’s like traditional medical doctor’s exploration in situational Amazonian plant medicine. It’s like, here’s me as a doctor, watching these people improve from problems that I… What was my previous understanding, after studying a pretty good university in United States, that that was not healable, treatable. Another really big part of it for me was just also acknowledging and honoring and celebrating indigenous culture and wisdom and knowledge that these shaman, these healers in the middle of Amazon knew better in this particular… These cases that I presented, that their knowledge deserves a place at the global table. Because it helps people, it makes a difference. It deserves respect. Everybody there that got the biggest healing of their life, many of them, yeah, they respect it.
DT: But these people are still struggling to be respected within their own countries and in the global scene. For me as a Colombian-American, it’s particularly personal, that the indigenous Native American culture, not just all over the world, but, let’s say here in the Americas, very, very undervalued, very disrespected. And today’s Earth Day, by the way. And so today’s Earth Day, in the midst of the pandemic, and so just realizing that there’s a lot of indigenous wisdom for us to draw from, and there’s a lot of plant medicine out there in the nature that can help us, and even MDMA is from… Its origins are from the Sassafras tree, Safrole oil from the Sassafras tree, cooked from the root bark of the Sassafras tree, and taught to the European sellers by the Native Americans in North America here in the United States. They never talk about that. Here’s another example, I never heard that once. In any of my education, zero, they still don’t talk about that.
DT: So to me, that’s really a big issue here on Earth Day, because as we’re re-contemplating re-examining all our culture and we’re, one of the things people are seeing with all the airs cleaning up and the waters cleaning up is sustainability, and so they wanna know about sustainable Ayahuasca, they wanna know, are you guys growing enough to keep the supply going to supply all these people that wanna drink Ayahuasca, and what about MDMA? Where do they make it from? They say they make it from petrochemicals now, I guess from the oil industry. Okay, is everyone into that? Is that what we want? It turns out you can make it from plants and it turns out that a lot of people still make it from plants, but since nobody asked or cares where it comes from, ’cause it might as well be whatever, just another product on the shelf.
PA: Because we’re so removed from it.
DT: We’re so removed from it and you’re just like, “Yeah, I just bought some toothpaste and I got some MDMA”, but turns out that MDMA that they’re doing at Burning Man and they’re doing all over the place, like yeah, they actually do go to international plant sources, and they said they’re driving a tree extinct in Cambodia and another one extinct in Venezuela, ’cause they still get the Safrole oil ’cause it’s cheaper for some people to produce that way versus trying to get it from petrochemical synthetics. And so it’s like, so it just, I think Earth Day, and so that’s what the plant medicine movement is very beautiful because it’s just like it’s a celebration of the earth and the people that have lived on the earth in a sustainable way, and the wisdom they can teach us and hopefully help us to deal with disease, and you’ve got Paul Stamets out there in the psychedelic movement, talking about the mushrooms and using them for anti-viral properties, whether it’s for the bees or there are a lot of people curious, and he’s on a paper in the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, for using not psychedelic mushrooms, but all of his other mushrooms for corona and maybe it helps. And so it’s like there’s another, just everyone’s overlooking the mushrooms and there they are. So I think it’s just, it’s about bringing nature back into it as much as possible, bringing sustainability into the medicines that we take and put in our bodies, all of them.
PA: So I’m curious, like on this same note, especially as a final question to dig into, we’ve been talking a lot in this conversation about the relationship between allopathic medicine and the spiritual perspectives, that the holistic approach, the wisdom that comes from these deep spiritual experiences with plant medicine or altered states or whatever it is, and especially from a medical perspective, how do you think the Psychedelic Renaissance will shift that energy so that it’s… Yeah, how do you think the Psychedelic Renaissance will affect everything that you were just talking about for the last five minutes?
DT: It’s gonna help. It’s helping already. The leaders and what I observe is that the psychedelic renaissance which is in the same fashion of what we were talking about before is like, okay, the MDMA for PTSD, MDMA assisted psychotherapy, right? It’s not just MDMA. Psilocybin assisted psychotherapy for end of life anxiety, Psilocybin assisted therapy for depression and some other studies that are coming down the line and Iboga and Ibogaine for opiate withdrawal and addiction treatment, and Ayahuasca medicine and more and more people learning about other plant medicines. They are, like at the scientific conferences, for example, there’s been a lot of discussion around, okay, the treatment and the outcome, and then they started getting into the mystical experience like Johns Hopkins like, okay, what’s… These people are having mystical experiences, and then that’s a really significant, like the people who are trying to quit smoking with the Psilocybin-based tobacco cessation program, like the ones that quit were the ones that had the mystical experience, so that seems significant, and then the group in London, or in I think Imperial College, then they’re saying, okay, well, emotional break through, so it wasn’t just the mystical experience, but they also had an emotional breakthrough.
DT: And so there’s a lot of knowledge about what’s going on in the experience and what’s helping, but then ultimately, we’re gonna get to a point at which… And I think we’re on the verge of this point, and my book is very much about this point is like, it’s time to start talking about what goes on in those sessions, that it’s like there is a mystery that we are engaging in and in MDMA psychotherapy, there is a universal love experience that is like core to what they’re doing, everybody involved and knows that very well, the patients and the therapist. And so it just like, we’ve been, obviously, for strategic reasons, and we don’t wanna… They’ve been trying to be very strategic to come across the aisle and make the right moves and to show these clinical benefits in a randomized controlled trial, and now they have it, now that data is there. And so now it’s like, it’s time to start talking about what happened to people in there, and I think that’s where the discussion starts to open up that this healing that people are having and the shift that they’re having does involve them being more open and it does help them access more of themselves, and many of them describe a mystical access, increased intuition, increase creativity from this healing process.
DT: And so all that kind of stuff, and it starts to bridge it, and so the ultimate bridge point for me… And that’s what my message is about a lot. And my community here in Phoenix is trying to promote like church of the eagle on the condor. We have a little spiritual community, we’ve got a Facebook, people are putting prayers on the Facebook today, but is this message that I think is rooted for me and my exposure to what’s their Native American tradition, is that spirituality and health are the same thing. That the entire purpose of spiritual practice is to nourish your spiritual well-being, it’s not for other things, it’s not for some political movement, it’s not to be part of the right club or to do what this person tells you to do or to shame yourself. It’s actually… Its origins are to nourish your spiritual well-being, and so now we have a little more guidance about what’s ethical, because we can talk about it in terms of our health, that health is about being in right relationship with yourself, with your body, with your intimate loved ones, with your community, with your society and with your ecosystem, and with your understanding of the universe.
DT: And so if your practices spiritual practices or medical practices don’t acknowledge those relationships, they may not be healthy, they may not be ethical along the same lines. And so that’s really important because it opens a door towards a universal spirituality that is about healing and wholeness, and is that bridges our physical health, our emotional health, our spiritual health, our mental health. Our community’s health, our ecosystem’s health, etcetera, etcetera. So I think that’s what it has the potential to do, what we’re learning from psychedelic healing, because psychedelic healing by its nature, is extremely open-minded, it’s a profound openness, is that the… It’s just sitting there at the center of it.
PA: Thank you, Joe.
DT: You are welcome.
PA: Yeah, that was just a fantastic way to wrap this because everything in terms of an integration of what we’ve spoken about through the podcast, it is that that like you were saying, the polarity, and when we can bring those polarities together, both the Allopathic and the spiritual perspective, through the vehicle of the psychedelic Renaissance, that’s where the sense of becoming whole becomes way more accessible for way more people, and because we’ve been so disconnected, in particular, not only from source, but largely from the Earth, which is source in many ways, we feel this existential distress. Which leads to disease. And we finally have the chance through plant medicines and through breath work and through community, and through these new religions, if you will, these new narratives around what it means to be spiritual, to finally heal that rotting thing that’s been inside us as a culture for many, many years, especially from a Western perspective.
DT: Well and to put it simply to help people heal their families, simple as that. That’s it. That they’re gonna be able to raise their children in a more conscious way, in a more loving way, and try to heal the trouble in their other relationships. So really bringing it home. So I just wanna plug for a second, just the…
PA: Oh yeah I was gonna ask you the book, the project you’re working on, and then any other if you have a website or anything like that?
DT: Sure, so first is Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project. So we’ve collected saliva through MDMA trial and we’re still collecting, but then we’re moving to the next phase of the trial, which is the laboratory analysis with the epigenetics trying improve, trying to explore where spiritual and emotional healing touches the flesh. So that’s expensive. These labs are not, it’s new laboratory stuff, the precision we talked about, so we have a crowd fund, you can access it through modernspirit.org and that’s our Modern Spirit is a non-profit, and that’s our website, and you can find the crowd fund there. And then you can also, I have another website DrJoetafur.com where it describes my activities and the travel bans don’t keep happening maybe I’ll take some people to Peru this summer, and I’m also part of a clinic in Phoenix, Ocotillo Center for Integrative Medicine, and do some telemedicine stuff there, I have a little mini podcast, The modern spirit podcast, a few episodes there. So that’s some of the things I’d like to mention. Please help us with the study get some people to donate to the study, we’re just we’re almost there, but we need more help.
PA: How much do you have left? How much do you have left…
DT: Well we’re really on the crowdfund it says 200,000 we’re over 70. If we were able to get another 50 to 70, we’re hoping for anymore from 50,000 to 70,000 more dollars to double to double where we are. That would be enough.
PA: Great, well, we’ll include links to that in the show notes as well, so as people are listening to podcast, if you go to The Third Wave, you can see all the show links for that, Joe has also mentioned the URL, so Dr Joe Tafur I just wanna thank you again for coming on the podcast and sharing all of your wisdom with us.
DT: Thank you very much, Paul.