Shipibo Shamanism: When Spirits Sing
Allysan Balmforth is a shaman who works in both the Andean and Amazonian traditions. She works with plants, songs, and spirits to heal people. A former concert violist, Allysan describes a plant shamanism ceremony as “a beautiful symphony of communication” between human beings and spirit beings
We met with Allysan to discuss her retreat centre, Sacred Dimension, in Peru’s Sacred Valley. In our interview, she made the enigmatic statement that “the biggest secret of [plant] medicine is reciprocity, or ayni, as we call it in Andean cosmology.” The reciprocal relationship between humans and spirits that Allysan described rang true as evidence of a morally nuanced relationship with plant medicines—something that is not always evidenced by those who engage with these powerful spirits.
She explains, “When I sing in the ceremony, it attracts the spirits to enter into my body. They and I become one. In this way, my human consciousness can direct the spirits’ energy, with the result that they become conscious of themselves in a new way, through me.” Allysan frames this reciprocal relationship to the healing spirits of the plants within a larger pattern—the unfolding of a cosmic dance.
We humans are eager to engage with these spirits because we benefit from their healing power. Yet, as Allysan explains, the plant spirits find these relationships reciprocally fulfilling. The spirits “heal me, and I complete them, because the spirits are conscious through us and we are healed through them.”
Shamanism apprenticeship through dieta
In the Shipibo traditions of shamanism, esoteric wisdom and the ability to heal are passed on through apprenticeships of working with ayahuasca and other plants, “which are beings and lineages.” The teacher does not convey information directly to the apprentice, but rather manages the relationship between the apprentice and the spirit beings, who are the true teachers. As Allysan says, “the plant is like a key: at biological level, to our cellular memories and, at a consciousness level, to a kind of cosmic library.”
The apprenticeship takes place through a withdrawal from the everyday world, which is often called a dieta, or diet. By keeping to a diet of simple foods, withdrawing from social interaction, and maintaining a celibate lifestyle, the apprentice maintains a receptive physiological state and shows commitment to the path, which are the key elements that attract plant spirits to an apprentice. By developing a relationship with these spirits, the apprentice gains wisdom and skill in healing. “By following the diet, you open up its possibilities and expand your own potential.”
By undertaking a dieta, we situate ourselves in a network of activity whose nodes are humans, plants, and spirits. The forest as a whole, quite literally, becomes our teacher. “We integrate into a network of hormonal, cellular, biochemical, electric information. This is the essence of shamanism for me.” The human maestro [teacher] is only one element within this vibrant ecology of knowledge and energy.
Given that the dieta is a process of integration into a network of knowledge and energy, the maestro or maestra does most of their work at an energetic level. “During a dieta, the Shipibo maestro initiates you in an orderly and structured way.” The maestros “give you permissions, stage by stage” within this immersion process, but in a non-verbal and non-conceptual manner.
Allysan emphasizes that “the Shipibo médicos [healers] are highly skilled at managing all aspects of a person’s relationship with ayahuasca, including the energies that may appear around you during a ceremony or throughout a retreat.” Although personal issues are likely to emerge during a dieta—and possibly also conflicts with other humans or non-human beings—a good maestro will “give you power and strength that keeps you protected” throughout the dieta.
But, with this type of shamanism, the grace is worth any risk. As Allysan said, “there is only one thing that you can be certain of, which is that it is beyond your imagination.”
Allysan Balmforth is trained as a musician, a linguist and scientist. Her journey and esoteric studies have been varied and rich and taken her all over the world. Alyssan first participated in an ayahuasca ceremony in 2005 and knew at once that this was her destiny as a healer and musician. She has since studied with master curanderos Antonio Fernandini, Edinson Panduro, Alonso del Rio and Leonardo Inuma.