The Incas regarded coca as the divine plant, mainly because of its ability to impart endurance, and its use was entwined with every aspect of life, art, mythology, and the economy of the Incan Empire.
Millions have chewed coca on a daily basis and the practice has continued for hundreds of years. It continues as a custom, not because coca (the basis for cocaine) is a habit drug, but because it is a part of Andean culture. Even today, distances are measured in cocadas – how far a load can be carried under the stimulus of one chew of coca.
Andeans chew coca just as they do everything else: ritually, deliberately, and systematically. A mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from an exquisitely woven coca bag or chuspa and lliptia is chewed with the leaves to liberate their active ingredients.
But the ceremony which really brings out the spirit in the leaves is coca divination. Doris Rivera Lenz is an Andean curandera (shaman) who is expert in its practice. In the following interview, she offers insights into the nature of healing and illness, and the role of plant spirit medicine in this.
What is coca divination?
It is meeting with the spirit of the element that you are working with, whether it is coca, maize or a mountain. In the case of coca, you meet the mother spirit, soul or power of the plant, which is the sacred part which never dies.
The practitioner must be in total communication: spirit-to-spirit. It is more like listening to the coca leaves than reading them. It is a higher state of consciousness. You have to be prepared to integrate yourself spiritually to help another spirit.
Human beings are sacred cosmic seeds in evolution. The coca is a sacred seed like us, only of the vegetable kingdom. It has been created by the Earth to guide and heal its younger brothers: ourselves. Similarly we have been created to help other people. As we become more open, we discover plants like coca. Not everybody sees the spirit of coca, but it is here to help us.
What is the cause of disease, and how is it cured by the spirit of the plants?
Illnesses do not exist. We create them with our minds according to our attitudes and the things we do. Resentment, for example, causes cancer. A woman whose ovaries are unwell [with cancer] may be resentful and [so] suffers trauma. People who do not have the freedom to express their feelings suffer from throat problems, and so on.
So how do we heal them? First we need to look at them through the coca leaves, to know what has happened. Why are they resentful, fearful, or anxious? What is causing their problems? Difficulties existing outside our bodies, such as a theft, disillusionment, or being lied to, affect us because we are predisposed to have this pain. Such people get ill because they are not in equilibrium with themselves. The coca shows when and how this began; it tells the story of how they got ill.
Human beings are always predisposed by their attitudes. This is why you need to know their story. Someone who has a superiority complex or is aggressive and violent is on a downward spiral. They are weakened in their heart, stomach, and solar plexus: the ñawi or naira [the Andean equivalent of chacras] where emotional attitudes are held. In the Andes, people will frequently consider an aching stomach to have been caused by sorrow.
A person who harbours feeling of hate may feel perfectly well for a time but problems with their children, their husband, or lack of money, intensify their emotions which degenerates their body on a cellular level. So they create their illness because they are already out of equilibrium.
Can you explain the concept of the ñawi and how it relates to illness?
In Quechua it is ñawi, or in Aymara, naira. It means eye, or energy centre of the body, but chacra is also a very common word in Peru, and is Quechua for a piece of cultivated land or field. I believe it has the same linguistic root as the Hindu chacra. Just as some fields have lots of stones, and others are very fertile, so our bodies, also part of nature, are similar.
Less than a generation ago, people would make offerings before preparing their fields for sowing. They would chew coca leaves, drink chicha or maize beer, and even play music – a whole ceremony. The ancient healers or shamans would give floral or smoke baths to people, curing them of illnesses, fright and so on the health of the land and the people were treated as interrelated.
People identified themselves with their fields and with nature. So when I remove negative emotions from a person, it is like I am removing weeds from their chacra/field.
When they are feeling desperate, the people of the Andes benefit from going to a wild place or some ruins, to scream and shout so that even the mountains will hear. They align with natural forces; this puts them back into equilibrium.
So, do people come to you for coca divination because they are unwell? Is it more than divination as we would understand it in the West?
The majority are unwell in their spirit or mind; there are lots of problems today. They are particularly afflicted in the stomach, the place of emotional pain, and also where we are joined to life.
The first thing is to discover what is going on: the wife had an accident, the husband was unfaithful, they havent got a job, the house is falling down Then I look to see their capacity to accept criticism, to listen to the mother leaf ticking them off saying: You have done this, you are insecure, weak, a drunk, or a prostitute. What is the story? Is it karmic – or something they are doing?
That sounds like a psychological approach – what people are doing to themselves. How do you make sense of the belief that some problems are caused by sorcery?
I show the person that he is not the victim of sorcery and is creating the problem in his mind. Talking about it brings it out and is the first part of becoming well again.
It is true that some people will take vengeance through black magic when they feel prejudiced or offended in some way, because they are sick. When people think they have power and feel superior, the ego can become very negative. The first thing I do is to wake up the consciousness of the person who has been harmed and tell them that evil does not exist! You are inventing it, I tell them. I need to use a bit of psychology.
Black magic does not exist then?
Neither good nor bad exists; it is a universe, and we create the good and the bad. But I recognise that the person may feel attacked. When someone falls ill it means they are weak and the curandero [an Andean plant healer] must speak positively and encourage them to shine light on it. Then they can create positive thoughts for themselves. If I agree with them and say they are bewitched it makes them worse.
But do you believe that black magic can exist?
Of course, but the act itself is not so powerful as white magic. It is the negative spirit of the black brujo [sorcerer] which creates the power of the spell. If you get hold of a chicken and take off its feathers, put a toad inside, and hang it in the doorway of a hated neighbour [An Andean form of cursing], you can give them a nasty fright, but without a powerful negative spirit nothing will happen. But if the intentions are very negative and the person is weak, they will pick it up quickly.
The most powerful brujos are found in the jungle where there are powerful plants for healing, just as there are dangerous plants that can paralyse your body and so on. But plants have much more wisdom than people. Do you think that if I go to a floripondio [a shaman who works with flowers] and say I want help to do harm to so and so, that their plants will automatically be at my disposal? No! You have to make a pact with the spirit.
Do people need to believe that your ceremony has done something in order for it to work?
When people trust that you are a white curandero they open up. You have special permission to go into their soul and work with suggestion. Lets say you give them a bath in a herb with spines, and you ask permission from the spirit of that plant to heal the person with fright or a bad spell – you bathe them, you put them on a diet, you cleanse them and purify them. You call their soul and give them strength and they get well.
What is different about people from the West? What do they need?
Their heads cutting off! No, its only a joke! Their religion has failed them, the church authorities have kept vested interests and institutions going. Eventually people have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We are Gods and we should believe in ourselves first.
All Gods come through nature. But what has become of Western religion? Materialism, loss of identity, loss of customs. There is so much struggle today. People are no longer thinking about nature, but about money and the help they need. They have become completely insecure. Imagine if we went to live in nature again, surrounded by mountains, or in the rainforest, how much more healing it would be.
Yet the tendency today is for everybody to want to move into the cities, to live like Americans, build motorways. Its sad. Ive spent time with people in the Andes. I have seen people leaving their traditional clothes and customs. They say Why do you believe in the Earth, the Sun, the puma and the condor? They go to the city and see a TV and think, What a beautiful TV! They sell their llamas and buy one. I am sad to see their children, who are so pure, being contaminated in this way.
They learn negative habits and are hypnotized, and no longer want to work their land. It really hurts in my soul to see them obsessing about dollars and forgetting their power. This loss of values for material things is happening so fast, its incredible! But its the Western influence which has been working over 500 years.
People will get a nasty shock from seeing the increasing changes and natural disasters on the Earth and we will be shocked into changing.
Desperation will show the necessity of love. Who will want to do harm when money and material things have become useless? We will come back to a new kind of community consciousness. We are beginning to anticipate this and becoming more conscious, but we are swerving about. There is so much wisdom in nature, she rears us like her children, teaches us to ask permission, to care for her like ourselves.