THIRD WAVE PODCAST

“More Than Molecules”: Plants as Living Teachers

Episode 136

Jeremy Narby, Ph.D.

After studying with Humphry Osmond when he was 20 years old, Jeremy Narby became intrigued by the intersection of psychedelics, mental health, and philosophy. As a graduate student in anthropology at Stanford, he lived with the Ashaninka people of the Peruvian Amazon, which set him on an early path researching ayahuasca. In this episode of the Third Wave podcast, Jeremy talks with Paul F. Austin about the importance of language, how we can shift our worldviews, and powerful lessons from plant teachers.

Jeremy Narby, Ph.D. is a Switzerland-based author, anthropologist, and activist. An early pioneer of ayahuasca research, Jeremy lived with the Ashaninka people of the Peruvian Amazon in the 1980s while earning his Ph.D. from Stanford. He now works as Amazonian projects director for Nouvelle Planet, a nonprofit that promotes the economic and cultural empowerment of indigenous peoples. Best known for writing The Cosmic Serpent and Intelligence in Nature, Jeremy’s latest book is called Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and The Pursuit of Knowledge, which he co-authored with indigenous elder Rafael Chanchari Pizuri.

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Podcast Highlights

  • What language has to do with knowledge and understanding.
  • How Humphry Osmond introduced Jeremy to psychedelics, mental health, and philosophy.
  • Jeremy’s graduate studies at Stanford and introduction to the Peruvian Amazon.
  • Jeremy’s shifting understanding of indigenous knowledge.
  • Using suspended disbelief to engage with indigenous wisdom.
  • How Ashaninka people view humans and nature as one united entity.
  • Breaking free from the arrogance of our own cultural narratives.
  • The delicacy and individuality of expressing your “worldview”.
  • How drinking ayahuasca informed Jeremy’s dissertation and worldview.
  • The importance of applying time and distance between ayahuasca ceremonies.
  • The role of tobacco as a medicine in Amazonian indigenous communities.
  • Why writing a book about ayahuasca and tobacco (at the same time) is essential.
  • Why psychedelics alone won’t save the world.

Podcast Transcript

0:00:00.0 Jeremy Narby: There was a moment as I was writing The Cosmic Serpent, the moment that was maybe the most, I don’t know, kind of devastating, was realizing not just had Western culture excluded indigenous people as being irrational, superstitious, worthless. Animists who didn’t really know anything. Whereas, in fact, they had deep knowledge about how life works in their culture, but that I myself had also had that arrogance.
0:00:45.3 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, welcome back to Third Wave’s podcast. Today, we have famed anthropologist and author, Jeremy Narby, who is best known for writing The Cosmic Serpent as well as Intelligence in Nature, and his most recent book, Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge, is largely what we’ll be talking about today, and he co-authored that with indigenous elder, Rafael Chanchari Pizuri.
0:01:13.0 PA: Jeremy became an early pioneer of ayahuasca research while living with the Ashaninka people of the Peruvian Amazon in the 1980s. He studied anthropology at Stanford University and now lives in Switzerland, and works as Amazonian Projects director for Nouvelle Planete, a non-profit organization that promotes the economic and cultural empowerment of indigenous peoples. Jeremy, welcome to the podcast.
0:01:35.7 JN: Thank you, Paul.
0:01:37.1 PA: And my apologies for probably butchering a few of those words because I was…
0:01:41.3 JN: Just wanna say it was all good except “Planete” not “Planette”. Nouvelle Planete, the “new planet” in French.
0:01:50.0 PA: I love it, I love it. So how many languages do you know then, having done work in the Amazon and having lived in Switzerland? Tell us about that just to start.
0:02:00.0 JN: I grew up in a bilingual town, which is Montreal, in an English-speaking family, but I went to the local school which was in French, and then we moved to Switzerland when I was 10 to a French-speaking town that was also German-speaking, so it was another bilingual town. We continued to speak English at home, but I was going to school in French and then also learning German.
0:02:24.7 JN: It turns out that I learn German faster and better than my French-speaking Swiss comrades, because actually when you speak English, it’s easier to speak German, than if you’re coming from French.
0:02:37.7 PA: They’re both Germanic languages, right? They have that rooted.
0:02:38.9 JN: No.[foreign language]
0:02:44.2 JN: “I can speak.” Whereas in French it’s…[foreign language]
0:02:47.7 JN: It’s something completely different. So you can transpose a lot more. So then I kind of became trilingual in Switzerland and then went to, well after universities, down to Peru where actually I learned to speak Spanish with Ashaninka people who, so these rainforest indigenous Amazonian people who the younger men spoke Spanish as a second language, so I learned to speak sort of rural Peruvian Spanish with an Ashaninka accent as a fourth language.
0:03:31.8 JN: And then Ashaninka, it’s really hard, because actually coming into Spanish from French is pretty easy too, because they’re Latin languages, you can transpose most words and stuff, but Ashaninka is just like a completely different kettle of fish. I can’t say that my Ashaninka ever got proficient by any means, but actually, I felt I was able to do, ask the questions I wanted to ask in Spanish.
0:04:00.5 JN: I never really felt that I suffered that much from not speaking Ashaninka, but then actually as time goes by, you realize just how that important each language is. There are just, I can give you a few examples of Ashaninka concepts, or rather, and also absence of concepts, and it turns out it’s really interesting.
0:04:25.3 JN: Here, I’ll just give you a quick example. In English, so we talk about body and we talk about mind, so everybody’s made comments about that this is the body, mind dichotomy is a pretty Western dichotomy. Western dichotomies tend to be pretty watertight, in other words, that what is the body is not the mind, and what is the mind is not the body, kind of by definition.
0:04:49.5 JN: Even though actually it turns out that science is discovering that the body has a lot to do with the mind and vice versa, without even going there. The fact is that in Ashaninka they don’t even have a word for “body”, so then you’re thinking, “Well, wait a second,” because we think you and I, we think we know what a body is. It took me a long time to figure this out.
0:05:15.9 JN: Because yes, they have a word for “foot”, they have a word for “leg, arm”, but they don’t have a word for the whole thing that we call “body”. The closest, and this is what anthropologists who have thought about this, and actually even missionaries before, because missionaries are always concerned with body, mind and soul and so forth.
0:05:40.1 JN: And so what was the Ashaninka concept of soul? Well, I’ll get there, I’ll just deal with the body first. The Ashaninka concept of body is the closest they get is four words, which is “all my skin standing”, if you translate those four words. All my skin standing. And that means essentially their view of a person, they do have a dichotomy, but it’s not between body and mind, it’s between the skin envelope and the heart, and so there’s this outside envelope and then inside there’s the heart.
0:06:15.2 JN: And so the word, the Ashaninka word for or what the missionaries translated by “soul”, is “heart”. “Ishiri”. It’s not that they have a concept of soul, it’s that they have a concept that a person is, inside the person there is this heart, and that’s what makes this sort of, well, the heart of the person.
0:06:42.3 JN: So they don’t do body-mind or body-soul dichotomy. They do an inner heart and an outer skin envelope. So they’re not sort of opposing body and mind or matter and spirit, they’re kind of opposing inside and outside and they’re still staying really organic. Actually, when I think just knowing the Ashaninka concept of body, which is that they don’t really have one, and what they do have is “all my skin standing”, which is pretty concrete, if you think about it. “My flesh bag” in English, my heart and my flesh bag.
0:07:33.0 JN: It’s way more concrete than my body and my mind. But anyway, so that’s why knowing a language like Ashaninka can actually lead you to some pretty interesting places.
0:07:48.9 PA: I wanna tie back this, I wanna tie this around when we get to talk a little bit about your work with The Cosmic Serpent, because I feel like this is at the forefront of that book in terms of anthropologically as you were exploring these sort of shamanistic traditions and tying them to maybe scientific research, you came to realize there was a synthesis between those two, and that seems to be rooted as well in the language itself.
0:08:12.4 PA: So I think that’s even an interesting thread that we can further explore, but before we dive fully into that, I would like to open the conversation with a question about Humphry Osmond and how Humphry influenced your path with psychedelics. So who was Humphry, first of all? Just so our listeners have a little bit of context.
0:08:32.2 JN: How did you even know to ask me about Humphry Osmond?
0:08:36.5 PA: Little research before the podcast. [chuckle] Did a little diving in.
0:08:41.9 JN: Okay. Well actually, it’s a story I haven’t really told that often, but it’s true that when I was 20 I was studying history at university in England, and I was studying medieval history, and I had been struck by a book by Michel Foucault called The History of Mental Illness… Folly. The History of Folly. Histoire De La Folie.
0:09:16.7 JN: Anyway, he argued that mental illness was something that was historically constructed and that in the Middle Ages, they didn’t treat mad people like people that you had to lock away. Anyway, I was intrigued by that, and so I did a kind of a paper on it, but to do my first long undergraduate paper, I thought it would be interesting to go and work in a psychiatric hospital.
0:09:43.9 JN: It turns out that my father was friends with a friend of Humphry Osmond, and this Canadian friend, Ben Webster, who was a Canadian businessman who’d actually tried LSD with Humphry Osmond, he was my father’s open-minded friend. And when Ben said, “Oh, well, Jeremy should go down to Alabama and spent some time with Humphry.” I said, “Okay.”
0:10:13.4 JN: I was studying in Canterbury, England, but essentially I went and spent a month in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1980 as, well, a young university student recommended by Ben Webster. So there I was, and Humphry and his wife Jane were kind enough to open their house to me. It turns out that so by day I’d go down to the psychiatric hospital in Tuscaloosa and hang out with the different people, schizophrenics and manic depression and so forth.
0:10:52.9 JN: At night, Humphry would read and have me read things, and actually the whole… Not the whole literature, but he’d come and dump all of all Aldous Huxley‘s books in front of me, or show me his correspondence with… And essentially, I got a kind of a crash course in the history of psychedelics. Humphry and Huxley actually coined the word “psychedelic”.
0:11:16.7 JN: Humphry was really… He still… At this point, he was like, he kinda looked like Doc in Back to the Future. I exaggerate, but he had this kind of grey hair and he was in his own world. We’d go and walk the dog, which is a labrador and a basset that they called Labbit. We’d go and walk the dog at night and he would just go on. He was known to talk a lot.
0:11:41.9 JN: But I just learned at ton. He could talk about… He was interested in everything, in any subject, as was Aldous Huxley. So he kind of told me, but his point of view had not changed, which was that Timothy Leary messed things up and that actually there were kind of two schools back in the day, when it was happening in the ’50s.
0:12:09.8 JN: Humphry and his colleagues thought that it was something like a serious tool that should be kind of kept under medical control and very powerful and needed to be used wisely, and people needed to learn how to use it and so forth, and they were considerably dismayed by Professor Leary’s proclamations to put it in the water system and so forth.
0:12:35.9 JN: So I was educated from the get-go into the idea that psychedelics were these things that needed to be taken seriously, and that you couldn’t just sort dish them out and hope that they would change society. And it’s true. 42 years later, I still kind of agree with that. I know that there’s a lot of aficionados out there who think that Timothy Leary was a hero and everything.
0:13:05.9 JN: But it’s true, I think that at least when for the people like Humphry when it was happening, it was true that by throwing prudence to the winds, it then turns out that all hell really did break loose around LSD. It made research impossible. And then it just… But it’s also true that as Albert Hofmann, the discover of LSD, whom I met actually after returning to the Amazon, and Humphry this time said, “Oh, you must go and see Albert Hofmann,” and so he wrote me a letter, so I went to see Albert Hofmann just for a day.
0:13:48.1 JN: So Albert Hofmann wrote a book, LSD, My Problem Child, and he felt, he too was somewhat dismayed as how this extremely promising and powerful substance escaped from the control of the scientific community and got into all kinds of trouble. But it’s kind of like, it was one of those things where you felt that… They felt that if it had been controlled better then it could have turned out better.
0:14:24.8 JN: My point of view now, or I wasn’t even involved when it was happening, I was kind of like the first generation of observers or something who came after, and then looking back on it, the cat was just bound to get out of the bag, and then it was bound to get into trouble with the state of Western societies at that point in the ’60s, the ’70s, the war, everything that was going on then.
0:14:55.1 JN: I mean, just like ayahuasca. At the Ayahuasca Conference in Girona in 2019, I used that same metaphor. Ayahuasca may have been discovered by indigenous people in the Amazon, but the cat is out of the bag at this point, it’s a wild cat, ayahuasca is. But it’s out of the bag. And actually, one of the interesting things, if you compare ayahuasca to LSD, so these are two cats that are now out of the bag, and they are powerful and they can cause trouble.
0:15:33.4 JN: Ayahuasca, interestingly not just compared to LSD, but also compared to other shamanic plants, has traveled, has largely traveled with the ritual attached to it. In other words, even Western aficionados know that ayahuasca is too powerful just to take just like that. That you gotta get ready for it. You gotta do it in a certain space at a certain moment.
0:16:03.5 JN: It makes no sense to do it at the baseball game or whatever. You really do want a bucket next to you and sort of like-minded people around you, and nobody’s showing up out of the blue and stuff like that, and then you want music and so on and so forth. You can change the ritual arrangement. But it’s like, so now I switch metaphors, so like a wild horse. Not a wild cat but a wild horse.
0:16:36.7 JN: The ritual functions as a kind of saddle, in other words, you can… It’s so wild that you need a kind of a structure to contain it, otherwise it’s not gonna work. I think that that’s clear to more or less anybody who works with ayahuasca. LSD over the years, it showed up in Dr. Hofmann’s laboratory, it never really did have a ritual attached to it, and then people made it up as they went along and they did all kinds of things with it. And not even talking about Charles Manson or anything. You can seriously misuse these powerful tools.
0:17:23.0 PA: Or MK-Ultra as well, the government program that was…
0:17:26.7 JN: That’s right.
0:17:28.4 PA: That as well.
0:17:31.7 JN: But that’s a… I think these are interesting subjects, I make no claims on having the definitive story, but I think it is true that as a kind of a scientific product, a semi-synthetic hallucinogen invented by the Swiss chemist in 1939, it kind of showed up out of nowhere. It did not come out of a millennial tradition, it showed up in the guy’s laboratory. Ta-da. Actually, for four years, he didn’t even realize what it was until he went back to it, and then a drop fell on his finger and then he realized. And so that’s when this molecule landed in the consciousness of a human being.
0:18:22.7 JN: Actually, Hofmann didn’t really know what to do with it, so what he decided was he convinced his superiors in the Swiss pharmaceutical company or chemical company, Sandoz, to make it available by the kilo, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of doses, to anybody who wanted, any kind of medically trained psychiatrist or doctor or researcher, or anybody who wants to look at this molecule and tell us what it is, how it works and what we should do with it, and whether it can actually be useful, we’ll send you some free of charge.
0:19:02.0 JN: And that’s what they actually really did. This was in the old days when they actually also did science for science’s sake. But the whole point is that it did not have a tradition attached to it, a system of knowledge or even a, what’s it called? A guidebook of how to use it, an instruction manual, nothing.
0:19:27.7 JN: They decided they needed to write, so they looked into it, and before they could actually come up with a serious instruction manual, boom, Leary and friends threw it into the mainstream, and then it went off to the races. And then the next thing you know, it was banned in 1967 on trumped up charges besides, like, “Oh, it’s gonna destroy your chromosomes.” Those were weird times, for sure.
0:19:55.9 PA: Weird times for sure. And just to trace that a little bit more, I think what I often…
0:20:02.5 JN: Not like it’s not weird times now. Maybe it’s always weird times?
0:20:07.1 PA: Especially when you’re doing psychedelics, it seems to be the case. [chuckle] It just, it makes things weirder.
0:20:10.8 JN: Sorry I interrupted you.
0:20:12.7 PA: No, I was just saying the last time we really had that cultural context from a Western perspective, were the Eleusinian mysteries. I don’t know if you’ve read The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku, I’m sure you’ve heard about it. But even then, the Eleusinian mysteries were secret, they would go outside of Athens into Eleusis, and so all of a sudden this LSD molecules dropped into Western consciousness and there’s no context around it.
0:20:36.7 PA: A lot of the books even were written in the mid ’60s, like the books on Set and Setting and all that, but by that point, it was too late in time. Like you said, the cat was out of the bag, and the rest is… The rest is history, so to say. Now, what I do wanna transition into is, let’s talk a little bit more about ritual and the sort of saddle on the wild horse, so to say.
0:21:04.4 PA: With your work in the Amazon in the late ’80s and early ’90s, bring us through that line. How did you go from being introduced to psychedelics in 1980, from Humphry Osmond, to deciding to live with the Amazonian people and study ayahuasca as this shamanistic medicine?
0:21:25.1 JN: Sure. Well, after spending some time with Humphry, I had already eaten psilocybin mushrooms in England. And after spending some time with Humphry, I also tried LSD on several occasions. So when I was 20, 21, finishing undergraduate, I actually felt it was difficult, it was because having powerful LSD experiences and getting a degree at a university.
0:22:07.9 JN: I’ll tell you, here’s a funny one. I showed up at Stanford University, I think it was the summer of ’81, and I was gonna be turning 22. I had my undergraduate from England. I’d been taking quite a bit of LSD that summer, four or five experiences at the beach in France, all pretty cool things, but I felt it was kind of difficult to go back into the normal world after those experiences, and even talked with people about them.
0:22:50.4 JN: And then I showed up at Stanford a couple of weeks before the classes started, just to kinda get used to it, so I started hanging out in the library. In the bathroom, on the second floor at the Stanford Library, this guy had written, there was a graffiti that said, “Take LSD,” and then somebody had written underneath, “Yes, and then lose awareness of your real feelings for two years.”
0:23:23.4 JN: And I thought, “Oh shit.” I’d been feeling kind of like there was this… It was difficult to both really go into the trippy kind of nature thing, and then to come back into normal world, drive the car and deal with normal reality. And so there was this graffiti that said, “LSD causes you to lose touch with your real emotions,” and I feel like, “Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly true,” but actually kind of steered me away from wanting to take any while starting to do serious studies in anthropology at Stanford University.
0:24:04.0 JN: So I spent the next three years at Stanford reading, working, doing my homework and so forth, and trying to keep a clear or sort of un-psychedelic mind, there’s the time for this and a time for that. I was really interested in rich, poor, north, south, “Third World development” is what they used to call it, inequality in the world.
0:24:32.6 JN: A professor said, “Study indigenous people, they’re the Achilles heel of north, south and development and so forth because… And so go to a place where there’s the World Bank on the one hand and indigenous people on the other, and a kind of a development project and look at the friction,” and actually the place to go at that point was the Peruvian Amazon.
0:24:55.2 JN: That’s where the… It had been the Brazilian Amazon in the 1970s, and they were re-doing that in the Peruvian Amazon, which was deep forest un-contacted. That’s what they were building, penetration roads. So go to one of those places where one of those roads is being built, go a bit beyond the road where the indigenous people are living, live with them and get their point of view on it.
0:25:22.1 JN: Well, so it was for entirely theoretical reasons that I was more of a Marxist than a psychedelicist at this point, a politically economically motivated… I wanted to criticize the World Bank in their development policies, actually their deforestation and territorial confiscation policies, and look at things from the point of view of people who’d been living there for a long time and who were the only ones who knew how to use the forest without destroying it.
0:25:52.7 JN: So that was actually the point of the whole research, was to go and show the rational uses that the Ashaninka made of their rainforest and resources, to contradict the World Bank and say, “Look, these people actually do know how to use their resources rationally, and therefore deserve the right to own their lands.”
0:26:14.0 JN: So that was the approach. But I knew preparing to go down there that, well first of all, this was like the world center, not only of biodiversity, but also of psychoactive plants, and that the people, indigenous people of the Western Amazon are known for using all kinds of psychoactive plants, and of course there was this ayahuasca thing.
0:26:42.4 JN: Actually, my fellow students, graduate students at Stanford used to rib me as being, I was the space cadet and the one interested in the trippy stuff, and so they actually gave me a book by Michael Harner, where he talked about hallucinogens and shamanism and his experience with ayahuasca, where he saw all kinds of bird-headed people.
0:27:09.8 JN: My fellow students at Stanford gave this to me, I think it was as a present before going down there, “Say hi to the bird-headed people, Jerr.” So I’d heard of ayahuasca, I was intrigued by it, but that wasn’t the reason why I went down there, even though with Humphry Osmond I’d spent an interesting summer. I was interested in, as an amateur, really. As an amateur, I don’t know, you could be an armchair philosopher or something.
0:27:49.0 JN: At that point, it was pretty clear that in anthropology, you did not make your career studying indigenous hallucinogens. On the contrary, if you took indigenous hallucinogens too seriously, you get disqualified like, well, Michael Harner or Carlos Castaneda, and so forth. Don’t go there. So it was for personal.
0:28:13.5 JN: So there I was wanting to study the rational uses of the forest by the Ashaninka people. I soon saw they had deep knowledge about all the different plants in the forest and their properties, and so when I’d say, “But so how do you know what you know about plant properties?” Well, they’d start talking about ayahuasca, they start talking about tobacco, and in fact, they’d say, very matter of factly.[foreign language]
0:28:47.9 JN: Or, “Shamans take this hallucinogenic plant mixture or eat tobacco concentrate and then communicate in their visions with the entities that animate all living beings and that give them this information.” In brief, they were saying that they learned about the medicinal properties of plants by drinking this hallucinogenic potion.
0:29:10.6 PA: How did that land with you as a Westerner, having your background in psychedelics? Did it resonate? Were you skeptical?
0:29:21.0 JN: Yeah, it resonated I would say with difficulty. Actually, two years… Two and a half years later, when I got back to Switzerland to write my dissertation, and Humphry said, “You must go and see Albert Hofmann.” I went to spend a day with Albert Hofmann, I was like 27 at that point, and he was a retired professor already. And that was my question to him, because I was saying, “In fact, their view somehow is that mind can affect matter as well.” In other words, that you can go in the mind and that somehow learn about true properties inside of plants.
0:30:08.1 JN: He said, “Yes, but actually we know LSD in fact, is an example of the fact that matter can affect mind. You put this molecule inside you, it inserts into your neuronal receptors and then presto, it changes your mind. So matter affects mind. Why would it not be a two-way street?” He said, “There is no reason, it’s written nowhere that it can’t be a two-way street.”
0:30:40.1 JN: In other words, even after spending two years with the Ashaninka, I had a kind of a hard-boiled rationalist view of things. I didn’t really think it was true that… In fact, at the time when the Ashaninka told me they learn about plant properties by drinking ayahuasca, first of all, I thought it was a joke. But they weren’t laughing, and then different people would say the same thing several times.
0:31:15.1 JN: And then I realized that at least according to Western standards, it couldn’t be true, because if you think that there’s verifiable information in your hallucinations, it means that you’re psychotic, it’s the definition of psychosis is believing that. It was more like, “Okay, so wait, what are these people talking about?”
0:31:30.0 JN: And then if I kept listening to them, they’d talk about plants, like ayahuasca or tobacco or just most any plants really, and animals like they were people, like they had intentions and points of view. And that too was… Meanwhile, I was there trying to demonstrate the rational uses of the rainforest by the Ashaninka, all the better to contradict the World Bank.
0:31:57.8 JN: So in my dissertation, I soft peddled the ayahuasca part right at the heart of their knowledge according to how they themselves talked about it. And so it took a while, it took writing that dissertation and then becoming an activist and then once again arguing in favor of indigenous land titling, saying, “These are the only people who know how to use the forest rationally without destroying it. So the best way to protect the rainforest is to pay for the legal demarcation of their territories.”
0:32:31.4 JN: And once again, there I was arguing that they were rational users of the forest, and it really took like six or seven years of both writing that dissertation and arguing those things that I realized, “Well, wait a second. There’s something… There’s something right at the heart of their system of knowledge that everybody is… In the Western world, all the Western commentators, all the anthropologists, myself included, are kind of turning away from actually taking seriously what these people say.”
0:33:05.3 JN: But at that point, like in the early 1990s, as somebody who still wanted to sit inside of the scientific community or the academic and say, “Look,” and not to pass for a crazy person willing to consider things, at that point, how do you actually take that seriously? Well, like in The Cosmic Serpent, I argued in favor of suspending disbelief, so that it was…
0:33:35.3 JN: At that point it was like, okay, this couldn’t be true, this contradicts our principles of knowledge, but still, what if we suspend this belief and just take them at their word and say, “Okay, that actually what is going on is what they say is going on, but they’re saying it in their own way. Maybe it might correspond to something in our system of knowledge that might be said differently.”
0:33:58.9 JN: So then the question becomes, what might that be? And so then that’s the whole book of The Cosmic Serpent, that goes on from there. It’s not… What is it? It’s an essay. This is one way of looking at it is saying, “Oh, that’s impossible. The only reality is the scientific reality, and those Indians don’t know what they’re talking about.”
0:34:21.7 JN: Okay, well, that’s one possible perspective. Another is the one I just said. Maybe actually, they do know what they’re talking about. Maybe actually what they say can be taken literally. Maybe we actually don’t have the knowledge and the concepts now to actually understand what they’re saying. Or maybe we do, and we just haven’t been able to do the correct translation yet.
0:34:50.6 JN: And that’s where actually being bilingual was useful. Because when you start thinking about science as a system of knowledge, and let’s just say indigenous Amazonian understandings as another system of knowledge, then you can start thinking about going back and forth between the two, just like you would think about going back and forth between two languages.
0:35:16.3 JN: Because anybody who speaks two languages knows that you don’t say things in the same way in one language to another. Often you have to sort of betray the literal translation if you really wanna get the meaning across, the subtleties across. Sometimes there is no corresponding concept, so that you necessarily have to put it differently.
0:35:46.3 JN: And so, yes, the world is not the same in English or in French, or choose any languages. I’ve actually had people tell me this, that they think I have a different personality if I speak in English or I speak in French. I think it’s actually correct, it may sound a little strange to people. But I think we are unaware, most people are unaware of the language they speak, just like fish are unaware of the water they swim in.
0:36:17.0 JN: You’re thinking the world in English, you’re breathing it in an English, you’re interpreting it in English, you’re naming it in English, you’re dreaming about it at night in English, that English is, if you’re an English speaker, the pair of glasses that you wear and through which you see the whole world, through which you name it. It actually influences, the words that the language proposes, influences the concepts that you can entertain in your mind.
0:36:47.2 JN: Here, I’ll give you just another example that bounces off Ashaninka. In English, we talk about nature. And so here are these people who live in the most intense nature in the world. “Nature”, if you look in the dictionary, is the phenomena of the physical world, including plants, animals in the landscape, in opposition to humans and human creations. So there’s an opposition to culture in the word “nature”, it’s one of those dichotomies like body and mind. It means “everything that is not human”, that’s what the word “nature” means.
0:37:29.0 JN: So when you go to Amazon and you say to, for example, Ashaninka people, “How do you say ‘nature’ in your language? How do you say, ‘everything that is not human’?” They say, “We don’t have a concept like that. We’ve been telling you, everything is human. There’s persons inside the plants, person inside the animal, they’re Ashaninka like us. It’s all one big family.” They’re animists, that’s their point of view.
0:38:01.5 JN: And so there it is, here we are, we think we’re friends of nature, and we’re Englishing the world and we wanna protect nature. We don’t even realize that inside the word “nature”, there’s already the separation between ourselves and all the rest, kind of is part of the problem.
0:38:22.3 PA: It’s baked into the very fabric of culture and then English and being that language, and with globalization now over the last hundred years and the way that we’ve exported even American consumerism, and all of this has then led to the situation somewhat that we’re in now. I’m glad you brought this up because it’s a very… It requires almost new words, new phrases, a new relationship that will lead to a new way of perceiving ourselves.
0:38:58.7 PA: We know the panpsychics, which probably have a lot in common with the animists. The panpsychics say, “Hey, consciousness is in everything,” and yet still the dominant philosophical worldview of Western culture is still the materialist reductionist framework, so to say. And what I’m hearing in your story is you were convinced in some ways that that was the truth, until you wrote The Cosmic Serpent and really opened up in terms of let’s suspend disbelief on what they’re talking about and be open to the fact that actually, that might not be as true as we think it is.
0:39:32.8 JN: Well, you know, actually for me, you’re right in everything that you just said, and for me, there was a moment as I was writing The Cosmic Serpent, the moment that was maybe the most, I don’t know, kind of devastating, was realizing not just had Western culture excluded indigenous people as being irrational, superstitious, worthless animists who didn’t really know anything, whereas in fact, they had deep knowledge about how life works in their culture, but that I myself had also had that arrogance.
0:40:21.5 JN: And so instead of being all like pissed off at Western culture, which was actually part of some part of the initial emotion, suddenly I realized that I was just as much to blame as anybody else, that I’d had those same presuppositions. And that was like, you go from saying, “Oh, those people are idiots,” to saying, “Oh, but wait a second. I’m an idiot too. Holy cow.”
0:40:49.1 JN: So then you think, “Alright,” and so then I vowed at that moment that I’d do everything I could to kind of repair that arrogance in how I write, in what I look into, and the point is to realize that it’s not that all the others are to blame, but that if we, me myself, we ourselves, we find ourselves in the culture we’re in, and then we absorb the arrogance of our own culture without even…
0:41:26.1 JN: That actually, you have to do all this work and all this self-critical work, not only do you try to understand other cultures, but then as you do that, you gotta criticize the concepts of your own culture in making sense of the other. So it’s long, it’s complicated. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.
0:41:49.2 JN: Actually, I found that most people do not like to discuss their worldview, they don’t like to put their worldview in play. They like to look at the world through their worldview, but if you go up to somebody to say, “I’ve noticed that your worldview is rather materialist. Shall we talk about it?” Or whatever. Most people will say, “Buzz off.” You know? [chuckle]
0:42:21.3 JN: They may tolerate you talking about your worldview or maybe not, but actually you see, the worldview one has, the world… So there’s this concept of “weltanschauung” in German, “worldview” in English. It’s what you believe is true about the world, it’s what you presuppose about the world.
0:42:45.4 JN: And so even somebody like me who’s not really interested in believing in things, I still have to believe certain things. I must believe that I am an organism in this world, for example. If I don’t believe that, it kind of throws out the whole position of being me who has been to such a place and seen such a thing.
0:43:10.7 PA: You’d become psychotic in a way, you would become totally un-anchored and disconnected if, however we define it, you didn’t have that sense of identity.
0:43:15.6 JN: And so we all have minimal beliefs about what is real and what is not, about who I am and so forth. But what you believe is real about the world is actually very intimate. It’s like religion. Asking somebody, “What is your worldview?” It’s a very intimate question. It’s like saying, “What is your religion?” That’s why I’ve also found even a question like, especially if you’re looking at the frontier between Western knowledge, Amazonian knowledge. Just the question, “What is a plant?”
0:44:01.1 JN: Looks like a simple question, but actually you put that to a Westerner, where it quickly becomes a delicate subject is, what you think a plant is actually reveals quite a lot about your worldview and what you presuppose about reality. So that’s where when you start, and you notice this with, when there’s discussions of plant intelligence, there are some kind of, let’s just call them stubborn materialists, kind of old school stubborn materialists that get all antsy, all kind of aggressive. They can’t stand this talk about plant intelligence, and it really gets to them.
0:44:47.7 JN: I’ve heard one leading psychedelic researcher on a chat forum among researchers saying, “If I hear about plant intelligence one more time, I’m out of here.” Okay, well, that’s because the idea that a plant can be intelligent actually goes against his understanding of reality. In my view, people really, they’re allowed to believe what they want about the world. I really don’t think one has to convince people of…
0:45:24.4 JN: I mean, I argue in favor of plant intelligence because I think that that’s what the data indicate, but I understand that it’s a delicate subject and that somebody would wanna interpret it differently. I think it’s also important to open up a space of tolerance for other worldviews. Just like, I’m not a religious person, but I do my best to respect people who are religious in their beliefs and who wanna believe things. As long as they don’t go around killing people, it’s all good. So anyway, I kind of got sidetracked there.
0:46:07.8 PA: No, I love this. ‘Cause one thing we haven’t dove into yet is your… We talked about your story and the work that you did in the Amazon and coming back and writing your dissertation, and then that eventually leading to The Cosmic Serpent. I’m curious what role, if any role like drinking the medicine itself and doing that within the sort of context and ritual in the Amazon, did that have a significant impact then on shifting your worldview? Or what was that personal relationship like for you?
0:46:50.1 JN: Well, actually things kind of happened like I wrote in the book, in other words, I had a very powerful ayahuasca experience, which I described in the first chapter of Cosmic Serpent. And then a couple of other ones that weren’t strong enough and nothing much happened. But you know, that first experience was so strong that not only was I not in a hurry to repeat it whilst I was down there, but then when I got back, I needed all this time to think about it. Years.
0:47:30.0 JN: Actually, first of all, I tried talking about it to people here in Europe in 1987 and stuff, and people just didn’t wanna hear about it. Ayahuasca and… Really, it was like a sort of… So anyway, and I felt, “Okay, well, I’m back here. I’m working for Amazonian people. I’m a fundraiser now for Amazonian projects and stuff.” I wanted to work with a locally available plant and see just… And look into it.
0:48:07.9 JN: I decided to do it with psilocybin, that I could pick around here in the hills. And so I did my thinking, the Cosmic Serpent research was written in Switzerland. In fact, I wrote that book without drinking any further ayahuasca, and I wrote it six years after drinking the last time I had ayahuasca. I’ve always felt that to get a kind of a handle on ayahuasca, it also helps to have a distance. It helps to have experience, but it helps to have a distance too.
0:48:44.4 JN: Obviously, I’m not an ayahuasca, I don’t claim to heal anybody, I’m not a shaman, I’m just an anthropologist and a writer, so I’m interested in putting words on it. The way to do so is to dive in the deep end and then to come out and to go off and to dry off and go a long way away, and then to meditate for eight years, and then to write about it. And to read other books about it, and to sort of not lose sight of the visionary experience realm.
0:49:16.5 JN: I was happy as a White person in Europe to work with a locally available plant. I don’t know about things, but there always was that, when you’re a gringo in the Amazon, not only would the heat really knock me down, but the whole environment is intense. The wasps, the stinging ants, the ayahuasca, the tobacco, these are like these intense things, they certainly kicked my white butt for sure, right off the pedestal of human self importance, thank you very much. Sort of a crash course in all of that.
0:50:15.2 JN: But still, working a bit more comfortably, more in my own element, more in my own environment, with the sort of Eurasian plant called cannabis and locally available psychoactive panaeolus cyanescens, that I could dose myself. Yeah, so I did psychedelic thinking to write that book, and it was only when it was finished that I went back to Peru and resumed taking ayahuasca. I don’t know, so I had maybe three or four experiences before writing the book, and subsequently, I don’t know, 60 or… 50 or 60.
0:51:00.4 PA: So you’ve gone back in in a significant way over the last 20 years, then you had that initial distance after that first profound experience, but over the last…
0:51:07.9 JN: Yeah, because also then it turns out the book, it was kind of perceived as an ayahuasca book, even though it was also about tobacco and other things, and then ayahuasca really took off and a lot of people started talking about ayahuasca. It’s all very well to write a book like that, which combines proximity and distance, but I also felt that to kind of… Yeah, so there’s a time to drink, then there’s a time not to drink and to write, and then once you’ve written, there’s a time to drink again, so that it’s all good.
0:51:47.1 JN: I think that marking different periods and putting distances and then returning, and it also, it depends also on your biography or your life, like when I started writing Cosmic Serpent, I had two young children in rural Switzerland, so I was not about to go and spend three months in the Amazon to do research and to guzzle a whole bunch of ayahuasca.
0:52:14.6 JN: I was gonna stay home, read the literature, look after the kids, write a book, sometimes use a bit of psilocybin, keep the fridge full, pay the bills. I was 33, 35, that’s kind of what you do when you’re getting a career off the ground. But once I finished writing a book like that, it’s true the kids were a little bit older, and so I had more time to sort of go back and do it.
0:52:49.5 JN: And finally, I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, or the best way to do it, but it’s the way that I did do it, and it worked pretty well.
0:53:01.2 PA: So we briefly glossed over, you’ve mentioned tobacco a couple of times, but in a way, to honor the new book that you’ve recently published about the plant teachers, both ayahuasca and tobacco, I’d love if you just could give a little bit of an intro and opener about what is the role of tobacco as a medicine in indigenous communities in the Amazon? What have you learned about tobacco, being so involved as an anthropologist in that geographic area?
0:53:32.8 JN: Well see, oddly, tobacco… Oddly, when you come from a Western country, and at least when I showed up, I just thought cigarettes were garbage. Dangerous, smelly, gives you cancer, so on. On arrival among the Ashaninka in 1985, their word for shaman is “sheri piai”. “Sheri” means tobacco. It’s a tobacco doctor.
0:54:08.7 JN: You have a problem, you go and see the tobacco specialist. You have pain, you have a fever, you have a broken heart, you’re having bad luck with your hunting. Whatever problem, you go and see the sheri piai, and then depending on the problem, 99% of the time, the sheri piai is a man, he will either smoke his tobacco or he’ll take his tobacco concentrate and lick it, and then do a diagnostic.
0:54:40.5 JN: If you have a wound, he’ll apply tobacco leaves like a patch, so it’s used as a pain killer. Blowing tobacco smoke on the sick people or on wounds is like the number one treatment. It’s actually, if you look into the ethnographic literature, it’s like the number one medicinal plant in all of the Amazon among indigenous people. It’s like, it’s the most used. It’s not just the number one medicinal plant, the number one shamanic plant in all shamanic activities.
0:55:18.2 JN: And that’s the thing, is that there’s hardly, when they take ayahuasca, they wouldn’t dream of not smoking tobacco at the same time. Tobacco modulates the ayahuasca experience. It modulates many different experiences. So these different plant teachers in the Peruvian Amazon, they’ve repertoried 55 different plants that are considered by people to be teachers. Ayahuasca, tobacco, coca, Salvia, Datura and so forth.
0:55:57.9 JN: Some of them are not psychoactive, frankly, they’re big trees and there are different ways of working with these plant teachers, but invariably, you also use tobacco when you work with another plant teacher. So it’s the number one shamanic plant, the number one medicinal plant among indigenous people in the Amazon.
0:56:25.0 JN: Actually, when people see this new book, Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge, often the first question from Westerners is, “Why are you writing about ayahuasca and tobacco at the same time?” From the Amazonian perspective, if you didn’t, it would be strange. “Why are you writing about ayahuasca and tobacco separately?” Would be the Amazonian point of view.
0:56:55.9 JN: And then when you look into the fine detail, obviously the Western experience of tobacco in the form of industrial cigarettes is a million miles away from just shamanic tobacco and how it’s used, and I’d invite people to read the book if they wanna know more about that, because that would be like another hour’s conversation to go over those differences.
0:57:18.2 PA: Well, and this is a thread that we’ve explored throughout this conversation. A Westerner would say, “Ayahuasca, tobacco separate.” Someone in an indigenous, the group that you spent time with, sees those as together, just like they see the mind and body together, just like they see human and nature together.
:57:36.3 PA:It feels like, as a final comment before we wrap up, a lot of what psychedelics teach us and as the sort of third wave of psychedelics grows, is realizing that everything is interconnected, and my hope is that can actually fundamentally change even the philosophical framework that we approach life through.
0:57:53.3 PA: It feels like Cosmic Serpent having published, I think you published it in 1995, which is ridiculously early compared to everything that we’re seeing now, it’s significantly influenced many other books. I had Joe Tafur on here about a year ago, and he wrote The Fellowship of the River, which goes deeper into that interconnectedness on a medical level.
0:58:17.5 PA: And so I just feel like what you’ve written and the work that you’ve done has been incredibly influential and will continue to inspire people from all walks of life about seeing that truth of interconnectedness.
0:58:31.8 JN: Well, thanks Paul. Just the last thing about the new book and the two plants. What I’d invite people to look at is that, well, instead of considering the plants separately, by considering them next to each other, one also sees their differences. So they are two plant teachers, but they’re different. Different plants, they contain different substances, they work on people differently.
0:59:02.9 JN: And then also the scientific treatment of the two plants has been different. Science has looked into tobacco for 200 years, and into ayahuasca for only, let’s say 20. The last 20. So that actually, so what can one know about these two plants? Well, from the indigenous perspective, there’s two chapters from the indigenous perspective and two chapters from the scientific perspective, and so you can go back and forth, you can see what the Amazonians say about tobacco, and then what science says about tobacco, and then the same with ayahuasca.
0:59:43.2 JN: And so you have two plants, two systems of knowledge, and then you can decide as a reader and according to your view of the world, which perspective is the most interesting. Some might really only understand the indigenous perspective and find the scientific stuff hard to understand or uninteresting. Or vice versa.
1:00:11.1 JN: Personally, I feel the most interesting is being able to use them both, that’s where we get back to the bilingualism, is that if you can see it from the indigenous point of view and then see it again, but from the scientific point of view, and then learn to go back and forth and see how they can work together, also seeing where they don’t work together, then you get to a really richer understanding of these two powerful plant teachers.
1:00:38.5 JN: If you get a richer understanding of that, you’re starting to get a richer understanding of, well, what we used to call nature. That plants, they can actually be more than just bags of molecules, and that one can experience them in a way in which we learn from them. So there it is.
1:01:02.8 PA: Beautiful. So Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco and the Pursuit of Knowledge. Jeremy Narby’s new book that has come out. I encourage all of our listeners to go check it out. Jeremy, any final words just before we wrap, any final words on just the state of psychedelics at this point in time, the psychedelic renaissance, in terms of just your general observations about what’s happening?
1:01:24.7 JN: Yeah, I wrote some stuff recently and that I kind of agree with, which is that a lot of psychedelic fans kinda think, “Oh,” that psychedelics is gonna help us save the world, or all we need to do is give them to people and everybody will become clear-sighted and so forth. It turns out that it’s true that psychedelics can be misused. They do not guarantee eco-friendly kind of results necessarily.
1:01:57.0 JN: And so I think there’s been a kind of a honeymoon phase in the renaissance, and this is where Humphry Osmond and Aldous Huxley were right. That it needs to become mature. Recognize the problems, figure out ways of integrating them into our society. I don’t know, maybe rules. I don’t have the solutions, but I think, yeah, it’s gonna take…
1:02:32.4 JN: I actually think these are vehicles. So you need a code, rulebook for how to drive. You need driving instructors, you need driver’s license. That’s what if you’re gonna have a orderly use of vehicles. So that’s an analogy. Because I think that just having these powerful tools in an industrial world with hundreds of millions of individuals, it can get really messy really quickly. So it’s like you have a 100 million automobiles. If there’s only three, you don’t. So that would be my ending suggestion.
1:03:22.8 PA: I love it. Thank you, Jeremy. Thank you for your time. Thank you for all your work and effort with The Cosmic Serpent, Intelligence in Nature, and now Plant Teachers. It was really an honor to sit down and interview you for a podcast, so thank you.
1:03:36.3 JN: Well, thank you Paul. Your questions were really excellent. You did your homework. It was a pleasure for me too.
1:03:43.6 PA: Thanks so much for watching. If you wanna stay up to date on the third wave of psychedelics, subscribe to this channel and visit thethirdwave.co.

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  1. AvatarMarcus Druen says

    Jeremy – so nice to (finally) hear your voice on Paul’s podcast. The Cosmic Serpent has been one of the perhaps ten books that I just read at the right time – and your authentic journey from science-based ‘disbeliever ‘to ‘open embracer,’ and especially in the context of psychedelics, has changed my mind and heart regarding to many things associated with and experienced by psychedelics, including the blindspots of the reductionist approach of Western Science.

    Paul – well done for engaging ever more ‘sages’ and ‘pioneers’ with first hand experience to the ‘legends’ of the Second Wave.

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