It Takes a Village: Toads, Shamanism and Ayahuasca


Joanna Harcourt-Smith

Date of original publication

Apr 28, 2017


Today, we're especially interested in the Shamans of the Global Village. Was that your idea, Rak, to do that?

Rak: Yeah, so thank you, Joanna; being on the show is great. Thank you. As the bio sort of gave a bit of an overview, I stumbled into the world of plant medicines and shamanism, I guess actually through psychedelics, which is intimately connected. They're all sort of unnecessarily interchangeable words.

As you yourself know, Joanna, I'm sure there's a whole psychedelic community and culture and revolution that happened, you know, just a few generations back, and I think that really helped set the tone and lay the groundwork in the seedbed for this now current generation of Westerners that are exploring the shamanic dimensions and having that relationship with indigenous cultures and being the caretakers of these medicines from the planet itself.

So I started as a journalist in 2006 and went to Albert Hoffman's 100th birthday party at the symposium that was in Basel, Switzerland, and I was reporting on that for Australian media. And it sort of started my Gonzo journalistic career on being what I call an experiential journalist, a bit safer way to say Gonzo in the modern age that my mother could understand because Gonzo had all these connotations.

But essentially, it meant that I was really exploring consciousness and the psychedelic community. and spirituality and technology, as well as going hands-on into the experience and not just reporting on it objectively from the outside.

I really wanted to establish a sort of point of view that was like that of a traditional journalist but goes into the experience itself. So, the Basel Switzerland conference and meeting Albert Hoppen were definitely highlights.

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My personal life but also my career because it started me on this path and that was in January 2006 and then by June 2006 I, my next assignment was to go down to the Amazon and explore the role of the mythic archetype of the shaman and what that meant in the 21st century and what that meant in the western sort of paradigm and what this resurgence of interest in ayahuasca was.

And so, you know, that 3000-word article became two books, the main one, "Aya Awakenings," and then from that, a lot of the footage we had from that original journey in 2006, we made a documentary adaption of the book as well. And interestingly enough, this is the way things work. I was there for almost three months in 2006, and I sat with, interviewed, and recorded sessions with almost two dozen different curanderos or shamans and I got an incredibly fresh snapshot of what was happening at that time, both with this mythic archetype coming back into the West and this whole generation of Western seekers.

And a lot of the language in nowadays with ayahuasca is just everywhere in popular culture and media. It's being reported on by Time Magazine and Marie Claire and Elle Magazine, and everyone seems to be falling over themselves to report on this surge in interest, but at the time in 2006, it was just starting to peak in the mainstream back then. It's been a phenomenon, and so what I really recognized was that the current language around in the mainstream will say it's drug tourism. They'll use these pejorative terms and this language which is all colored by the war on drugs, and it's really a war on drugs on consciousness itself.

What I really saw back then in 2006 was that these aren't drug tourists, these are seekers, seekers of the mystery, seekers of wanting to reconnect to something which Western culture has tried to sever our connection to the planet and then to these sacraments which she secretes, which then connect us to a larger bandwidth of information and a larger bandwidth of information of relationship and of coming home to the garden and coming home to this larger energetic ecology, which we're embedded in and part of.

And so, you know, I thought that this was like a pilgrimage. I have documented that in the ayahuasca books. A week into my first journey, I was given the opportunity to sit with Ron Wheelock, a well-known figure from the Iquitos in Peru: “the Gringo Shaman”, and he was working with 5-MeO-DMT from a synthetic source–it was legal at the time until 2009–and he was working with a neuroscientist called Dr. Juan Acosta, who was doing QUEEG, this quantitative electroencephalography scans, all these brain scans, so you take medicine why you were wired up to a computer with the EEG helmet, 19 electrode caps on the hood and gel, and that would read your brain while you fly it into the mind of God.

And of course, I don't think I ever recovered from that. It was the most incredible, amazing, transformative experience. And at the time, that set the tone. So it laid the seeds for my introduction to shamanic culture, consciousness, and its deeper levels of exploration.

As I was writing up the book and working on the film, I saw that over the years, I've been involved with shamanic culture, I also lead retreats now in Peru, I'm going down in June this year, and I stayed in contact with the culture and with the coal face of doing this work, clients and exploring these dimensions. But what I've seen is that a percentage of people go down to places like Peru and engage with plant medicines, and then they keep on with the practice when they go home all over the world to their open environment. And then there's an even smaller percentage of people who feel the call to action to become facilitators or neo-shamans themselves.

And I guess I saw this rising surge of interest and the supply and demand of the business of spirituality. And I realized that there was this global shamanic resurgence happening. It was about this unification of old world, new world, east and west and, taking up and filling this void of the absence of the archetype of the shaman in our culture and all of this has basically felt tied into meeting my creative partner Niles Heckman here on the line with us now and realizing that we could do a documentary series about this.

We could document this rise of interest to the global shamanic resurgence and looking at you you know, from the planet that secretes these ancient, these sacred substances which alter our consciousness and plug us back into the level of life, and then looking at the role of the caretaker or the keeper of these substances, the shaman, and also specifically how Westerners are taking up this role and what it's meaning and what that archetype is doing, coming back into our culture.

So that's a pretty shorthand overview of the last 11 years of my career as a psychedelic documentarian and media maker, and maybe I'll let Niles run from there.

Joanna: I would like to just say something before Niles comes in.

You see, the way I see it is that after the two world wars a lot of us realized that we were on the path to self-destruction. So starting with Gordon Wasson making the link with María Sabina in Mexico and renewing the understanding the shamans and plant medicines, starting with that, we are on a path to something different than self-destruction, although it looks really bad now.

And then there was the second generation, which was us, Timothy Leary, myself and several other people. people who were brave, very brave explorers and who found other shaman and others who were the same.

And we open this path to where we must counter self-destruction. And you've come along with this beautiful, visual, honest, and straightforward look at how we can let go of these self-destructive belief systems. You show it very nakedly and beautifully in this first installment of your documentary. I think it's very important that people see that truly the shamans and the medicines can help us change our mind from this planetary suicide.

So Niels, it's time for me to invite you in and for you to tell us what's is giving you passion for this documentary series.

Niles Heckman: Yeah, thank you, and I mean, that bio you read was certainly full of kind of accomplishments and accolades, which are a bit front-loaded and kind of me doing a dance between the past career, you know, to make kind of fake money in commerce, working in and out of the trenches of Hollywood, which is, of course, kind of an industry that is technologically quite stunning, but quite starving. starved for content at the same time.

And, you know, as I spent about a decade working in it, just coming to eventually understand the lacking of, like, empowering and kind of more philosophical content that is represented through the stories that you see, you know, or lack thereof of, you know, authentic civilizations from the past might have been. So, as I kind of worked more in the industry, documentary filmmaking really started to appeal to me just because of the authentic nature of it and using some of my background working in various modalities of the commercial industry or the high-end game industry in Los Angeles, going at the same time through a bunch of growth and development in my life, kind of spiritual growth, allowed me to kind of put my cosmology into a more kind of conscious project.

At some point, Rak and I kind of aligned stars and this project was a born out of our kind of chemistry together in terms of his background with all the things that he just spoke of and his past,and then me kind of wanting to work on more conscious content. So, in this series of which you've just mentioned, the first episode is kind of the culmination of our two skill sets with the content and experience that Rak had a lot of time working in for the last over ten years, and in my background, kind of, you know, doing the production values.

So thanks for the nice words on the pilot, Joanna. It's very nice to hear. It's always nice to hear kind of people's feedback.

Joanna: No, it's very clear and very, very open. It seemed to me that the people who were introduced to the gland secretion of the toads really blew their minds in our terms of our time. And how was it on the other side?

Rak: How was it on the other side? Well you know the documentary which you can see at it is raw, it is exactly what it is experienced. And as the Toad Medicine comes back into the Western understanding, it doesn't have an unbroken lineage with indigenous tribes.

So Dr. Octavio Rettig discovered it and was introduced to it by other Mexican people in the culture. And, you know, there's anecdotal usage. He has a sort of argument in positing that there's a lot of anthropological evidence in different Mesoamerican cultures that if you told, and it seems quite convincing that there was, that there's a lineage.

Joanna: So Octavio has a style that he's trained as a medical doctor?

(NOTE: In the years since this interview, Octavio’s actions and behaviours have resulted in much consternation in the bufo community, injury and deaths. An open letter concerning his actions is published here:

Rak: He went to work with the Seri tribe, who live as one of the 13 tribes of this Sonoran Desert, natives with the Yaqui Indians who were made popular in the Carlos Castanada novels, and the toad, you know, it comes out during the monsoon season every year, which is around July or August for about two, three months of the year. And so it's been native to that area. And, you know, presumably these cultures all know about the toad. You just don't know what they knew about the psychoactivity of its venom. And you have to smoke the venom as well.

It's poison and it does need to be smoked. 5-MeO is, you know, an incredibly powerful psychedelic compound. So the roundabout of this is that Octavio worked with the Seri tribe in Sonora as a GP, and it's also in that territory in the north of Mexico. It's very sad, but it's like the Mexican drug cartels are putting a lot of their products through there to get to the border of America. And it's very poor people, indigenous people that have been put on these reserves by the government.

And a lot of them were addicted to crack cocaine. It was like, no, they don't have a lot of basic services. There's no fresh water supplies there. And yet, you know, a great majority of the community had a crack cocaine cocaine addiction.

And Octavio himself is an ex-addict, so that's why he has that traditional wounded healer sort of archetype of his initiation into the shamanic realms. And he cured himself of his crack cocaine addiction by using the Bufo Alvarius Toad Medicine. And he then introduced this medicine to the elders of the very tribe and helped, you know, cure their addiction. They saw the value of this medicine and introduced it to other members of the tribe.

In return, what they gave him was this shamanic lineage. Now, we've got to be very careful because there's a lot of different factions within, I guess, the Mexican shamanic scene and as this medicine gets reintroduced and people can be critical. When we went down in 2015 to film the documentary, we had the permission of the elders under the offices of Octavio, Don Antonio, the chief of the Seri, the tribe at the time, came to our ceremony on Tiberon Island, the sacred island of the Seri, just off the coast. And so did Chappito, this 80-year-old shaman of the village. And what they did at the time is they sang their songs.

Learn more about Amazonian hallucinogenic shamanism

And as we know in Shamanic culture, or from my work at least in the Shipibo tradition when they work with the Icaros, the medicine songs, these aren't just normal sort of recreational songs. You know, these are vibrational codes, and these are things which draw upon their own lineage to connect to everyone who’s sung them before and invoke the power of the deities and the energies the songs are about.

So Octavio was given permission to sing the songs and then create a shamanic ceremony around the toad medicine. And this is completely new. It didn't exist before Octavio in that style. And Octavio is not saying that he's doing a tradition which is thousands of years old either. He was very upfront, saying he gave his medicine to the community and in return they adopted him and gave him the songs. So he does this medicine outside and because his experience is to work with his medicine to cure addictions with his own experience in the village, that's sort of predominantly his energy.

It's a very, very powerful Yang warrior style. It's standing up, saluting the sun, being in the air, outside in nature. And Octavio gives sort of large doses of the medicine because what he wants to do is to ensure that there's a full breakthrough.

And when this happens, there's been quite a lot of science being studying this phenomenon. On a neurochemical level the medicine will flat line the frontal lobes of the brain, the frontal cortex, and that sense of ego and identity is just totally obliterated. It's ego death. And some people resist it. Some people can resist it physically, somatically as they feel they're integrating, and essentially it's almost just watching people in ceremony. It's how they approach death, how they approach dying, and not physical dying, but their ego completely being dissolved.

And as the Sufi poet Rumi says, "The drop rejoins the ocean." And this experience is something we all go through eventually, one way or another. 

And the training of doing this, I think, is incredibly valuable as a spiritual tool to prepare ourselves for this eventuality, but also while we're here in life, to have a connection and to anchor these higher dimensional source realms, to be closer to our experience. So Octavio's style is very shamanic. He sings the songs and it invokes all that lineage. He uses water in the ceremony.

Sometimes if people have trouble breathing, if they have out of body experience and the automatic reflexes of the body and the breathing aren't kicking in, he uses water. Some people have been critical of that style as well. It's almost as if to me, I see him as this very raw, warrior style of initiation. And as the medicine has come into the Western practice, almost the same as what's happened with ayahuasca. The Peruvian tradition of ayahuasca is drinking in the dark with the song, with the ceremony, with the ritual, but with curanderos or shamans that have been doing this for years.

So many Western ayahuasca practitioners may only have a few years experience. They may not have the song base or knowledge of the songs. They may sing Western bhajans, or kirtans, or their own Western English songs. They'll create a very safe container in a Western ceremony, but in some senses it feels diluted compared to an Indigenous ceremony.

And it's not better or worse, but I find that with toad medicine, it's the same. Toad medicine creates their own container. When the prefrontal lobes go off in the prefrontal cortex, you know, a flat line, it seems to be in my opinion the other two brains kick in the heart with the neuronal cells and the gut with the stomach instinct and intelligence and there's some type of full bandwidth signal of consciousness that's always been broadcast, but the ego still blocks.

When the ego goes down, we receive full signal, which is the biggest healing, because we rejoin Source, and then come back from it. So it's an incredibly purgative on many levels of experience, but it's also the ultimate medicine because it reconnects us to the divine within

And you know, also then affects the physical body because the tryptamine cascades into the endocrine system, and they help flush and clear our toxins and blockages in the body, which is, I think, where Octavio is usage with addicts is really successful. It has a real boost of the immune system and helps flush things out.

And so it's just the most incredibly powerful medicine, but it also needs the most incredibly safe treatment container to be experienced in. So that's essentially Octavio's tradition and Octavio's style, and we documented this in the film going out to the Seri tribe and into the sacred ceremony in Tiburon Island.

And you see quite a diversity of reactions to the medicine, of people having a very physical reaction, a very challenging, purging, you know, a technique sort of locking their arms to the end and holding on and not being able to release or people dancing and channeling the energies they go through or people just, you know, completely knocked out by the medicine and then having to come back from this ego-dissolving experience.

Joanna: And it is very raw, it's very challenging documentary, it's very, very real. So, I want to ask both of you, I don't know if Niles experienced the medicine, but I see you in the documentary experiencing the medicine, what are the changes you have experienced on the other side?

Rak: Well, I'll let Niles go first, because he has experience in medicine.

Niles: Yeah, it was interesting. I actually did experience the medicine, but it's like Rak said; it's a show that concluded at the ceremony on Shark Island. We started in the kind of late afternoon and one in the evening and I actually, as a person that's directing the show and shooting the show, you know, the camera stopped rolling and we got all the footage that we needed to get.

I did take medicine and a very kind of small dosage, which was very unusual and different than what… my experience was very unusual and different than what's seen by everybody on screen, but because we're also, you know, like everybody's experience is different and mine was a very kind of wonderful experience; it was probably only five or ten minutes long but it was still probably the most profound life-changing thing I've ever gone through.

So it gives you a little bit of a quick preview into what might be considered mystical experience, which, you know, even if it's in a small dosage and however that's done and everybody's doing different, however they get there, that rejoining of sorts has just been such an amazing zoom out of the ego and allows for such mental wholeness.

So, obviously there's, you know, you can talk about this sacrament from a healing process of two people's physical healing, but then from a mental perspective if you've done some work on yourself and development, kind of attainment in your life, then when you're, you know, lucky enough maybe synchronicistically to be exposed to this sacrament which is like beyond a psychedelic experience or an initiation into higher consciousness. I don't think there are any coincidence. Everything happens for a reason. Very beautiful.

It was a light-changing time making the show and then obviously just experiencing the medicine and it kind of just catalyzed the reason why we were putting such hard work into a piece of media anyway because here you are having the direct experience trying to the actual sacrament.

We joke that the show would never be able to be insured because here's the host also taking sacrament on screen. But yeah, it just goes to show that it's something that we're proud of having created.

And the one thing that we can never show on screen is the kind of esoteric internal experience of something psychedelic experience or what might even be called a mystical experience. But we can only kind of show the physical experience.

Joanna: And also, this healing sacrament, as you call it, and I like that, comes from the earth and other creatures, non-human creatures. And that's what it is. It’s a very important message that you communicate really well.

Niles: Yeah, and if you want to, let me just lead into, I know what Rak will probably say to that, is that there's, there's larger, I mean, we always kind of find this, you know, when you engage your will to act on some of these things, that there's larger energetics to play.

And I think that, you know, it's kind of like when the student is ready the teacher will appear. So, you know, when you're ready for it and you’ve engaged yourself to experience something that's as powerful and stunning and life-changing as this sacrament, it's kind of like through synchronicity it may find you. And you know Rak often times speaks and I'll let you take this away from the kind of larger energetics that work with how you know, how you've come about you know, finding these things with with us, getting kind of I don't want to just say like how we see an episode, like universal support.

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For showcasing these things, but just kind of trying to share in a conscious way of kind of trying to honor the medicine in the sacrament and to look at everything from kind of an environmental perspective on our Gaian mother, which is having struggles right now.

But you wanna go ahead and mention, dude, how you oftentimes talk about now at the time for the Gaian mother to release these things.

Rak: Thank you for that little segue and we just did a launch of the film in San Francisco last night which was really wonderful and we did it right on the Haight Ashbury near the corner there and it was beautiful to feel that you know, 60 plus years after, or the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love this year in 1967 (2017) but there's that continuity in culture of coming back into an experience of such altered states, you know, expanded states, they're all out there. We know these aren't hallucinogenic distortions of perception and state.

These are plugging back into frequencies of being, which are permanently radiated in different frequencies of consciousness, which all species are part of.

And so what I really believe is that that, I have a little theory, 'cause you know I started off from psychedelic culture as well. And I believe that there is a difference between psychedelic culture and entheogenic or shamanic culture, that so many of us struggle that gap that we're put in both cultures anyway.

But I really believe that, you know, what came through in the lab with Albert Hoffman in 1943, when he went back to look at that 25th compound of LSD, he said he had a strange presentiment.

In German, the word was "Vorgefühl" or something like that, meaning more than maybe in English. It meant he was guided to go back to this substance. As we know LSD-25, it's one molecule different than LSA, which is the morning glory seed, used by Mesoamerican tribes. You know, basically by the 1940s and by the end of World War II, that sort of white picket fence American mainstream consciousness, that linear consciousness, which Terence McKenna basically could call “dominator culture”. It had won the war.

It had won this pinnacle of human civilization. But look what we did with it. It's this legacy of history or history that meant that first we'd separate from the Earth, then we hide ourselves away in communities. We start agriculture. We start money. We start coming into an idea of past, present, future. We start hoarding. We start division and hierarchy. And basically, these are all products of the ego. And we know that the ego is valuable. We need it. We need it to navigate down here in the baseline reality.

But somewhere along the line, it's started to get out of control. And I really believe that, you know, so many many cultures have these–even in the Christian and Judaic religions, they've mentioned the fall of consciousness–and we've had times when we've had an expanded bandwidth of consciousness.

You look at my country, Australia, and the natives' aborigines, and they say the dream time is essentially coming back. I've talked to different mobs, and they say, "Yeah, bro, that's the season of consciousness." That time, we had this capacity to connect to the web of life and to be more sort of telepathically open to that bandwidth. And then we lost it.” There was a fall of consciousness. And so, you know, all these indigenous cultures have an understanding of cyclic time, and we're going through these world ages. And we've just completed this whole sort of, if you look at the Mayan calendricals with what we call 2012.

We're now five years into the start of a new cycle. And so much of these things are all paralleling and dovetailing. And so we had this psychedelic revolution, which was reintroducing LSD from the lab, but because there was no way we could connect to the garden, because we had spent 500 to 10,000 years killing our shamans and killing the witches and warlocks and medicine people, and all of those who kept the connection to the entheogenic plants and to the portals that they take us through to, and the pinnacle of that civilization, which was absent the shaman and absent the medicine person and absent the alchemy.

It had Albert Hoffman, and he brought back through his alchemy in Basil, which was one of the capitals of alchemy around the Middle Ages. It brought back through the lab in an incredible huge way, a sacrament that was used, as it was used in the 1960s, and it changed the course of history. It dealt out all these movements, all these isms of ecology, and civil rights, and consciousness, and it was the right time of consciousness, the season, for that to come through. And then because of that, we now have this psychic lubricant of LSD, which I believe has the capacity to heal the mainstream dominator culture, which was very linear.

And, you know, Silicon Valley was Ground Zero, and the Haight Ashbury in the '60s,you know, now we live in an age which has helped birth all these technologies from and paralleling that this psychic lubricant of LSD. We now have cloud computing and uploads, downloads and social networks. There's five of them 5,000 people at a glance on your screen and VR and AR are coming in. And it's essentially distributed consciousness, which is network-centric and mirrors what nature does.

She works in networks. And LSD, you know, switched so much on in the 40s, 50s, 60s and onwards. And then we had another ecstasy revolution in the 80s, which opened up the heart. And then, by the time we come to the 90s, we're going to have a revolution. We've had to merely adopt it, but we have a whole generation of people ready to go back to the jungles and the garden and explore plant medicines.

But we couldn't have returned to the jungle if we hadn't gone through these previous revolutions of consciousness. So when we did the screening last night in the Haight Ashbury, I was really just so happy to be anchoring our documentary about Shamans of the Global Village and talking about it.

The plant medicine and shamanic resurgence here are at the epicenter of that psychedelic revolution because I believe that the Gaian Matrix, like the intelligence of nature herself, is a stepping stone. We've had the acid revolution, the ecstasy revolution, and now the shamanic revolution, and they're all gradations over cultural time, but in the Gaian Time, they're just like heartbeats. And so they're all just this evolutionary surge, not just moving us forward, but bringing us home and bringing us back to the garden and plugging us back into the web of life.

And what we now know through scientific studies is that they've done EEG and MRI studies of psilocybin and ayahuasca and LSD, and they turn off different regional clusters of the brain called the Default Mode Network.

And you know, it's not that the these substances are having this psychic effect – it switches off the ego filter which is stopping us from having this effect, this larger bandwidth of consciousness – and then we connect back to the web of life and we connect to all these frequencies of being which are always out there and that are accessible to us and we're growing back into the planetary organism and coming back into right relationship. So even from ayahuasca being one of the predominant entheogens for the last 20 years or so in the Western intake, that's been cleansing people and healing people and revealing, you know, that we are divine beings ourselves and we are our own medicine.

And now at the crux of, you know, 20 years or more of ayahuasca usage in this shamanic resurgence, 5-MeO-DMT and the toad Bufo alvarius seemingly comes out of almost nowhere. It comes out of the desert of Mexico in this Mexican drug cartel shoot-up sort of scenario, and it is the most potent entheogen on the planet because what it reveals is the divine source, the white light, the oceanic super-union with what we really are.

I mean, I'm going to say the word God, right? And a lot of people don't like this. A lot of people are still getting used to it as well as talking about it or around it. Whatever you call it, the Source, the field, unified field, or Indras Net; it is. It exists, it is what it is, it is that which is.

And it's not that we just witness this and see it from a distance when we take the toad medicine. On a full release it strips away the ego and it reveals that has always been inside us.

And it seems to be this stepping stone over cultural history with our relationships and the psychedelic entheogens are leading up to this apex of the tree of life and the light at the top of the tree, which is the 5-MeO experience. And the toad is essentially just a catalyst, just a reminder that we have this endogenously in our brains. And it's basically, I believe, it's saying you are the medicine and all this relationship from the psychedelic revolution to the shamanic revolution is crescendoing in our awareness that we can do this, its endogenous and we can come back to the garden and to the web of life and to connection with Source, we can anchor dream-time consciousness.

I believe that this is happening in our generation, and this is the overview of the big picture of what's really happening in our relationship with Gaia.

Joanna: Really beautiful. Okay, Rak.