Science and spirituality are like the the yin and yang of human experience. On the one hand we have everything that is measurable, observable, and provable, and on the other hand all that is subjective, meaningful, and beyond logic. These two sides of reality constantly intertwine, and different cultures have taken different approaches as to which side they identify with and explore the most. In the West, materialism and science have been the prevailing zeitgeist, but for the vast majority of human history tribal cultures practiced shamanism and focused deeply on the mysterious and immaterial. Of course, neither yin nor yang are better than the other, but rather they complete a circuit, and work together to create the dynamic reality that we inhabit. Both aspects have different things to offer, and both can create dysfunction when they are not properly balanced by the other. Perhaps the growing love affair that the West is now having with the powerful psychedelic brew ayahuasca is indicative of a rebalancing of Western materialism with shamanic insight.
One of the best qualified people to speak about this interplay between science and spirituality is Dr. Joe Tafur, a practicing medical doctor, author, and initiate in the Shipibo shamanic healing tradition. In this recent conversation we had with Dr. Tafur, he shares his perspective on what the materialistic West stands to learn from the mystical side of spirituality, emotions, and mental health.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Dr. Tafur. Your work centers around bringing attention to the spiritual dimension of physical health, a concept that is common sense to the Shipibo but heretical to Western medicine. Having your unique position of being trained both in Western medical science and in Shipibo shamanic healing, how did you resolve these two traditions within yourself? Were they contradictory or complementary?
I don’t think it’s contradictory. On one side you have the scientific approach, which is very powerful but also very limited in the sense that it’s hamstrung in certain areas. You’re not allowed to talk about things you can’t prove in a material way, and yet everyone is experiencing immaterial phenomenon all the time. So there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in the purely scientific approach that is really crippling to people and to society and institutions, because you’re asking people to constantly deny things that they experience. There are political and religious elements at play in this too.
I’m not against science, and as a doctor and I’ve seen it help a lot of people. I think science is a powerful lens to learn about the world, but I think it’s becoming more and more clear that it doesn’t cover the whole gamut of human experience . Anyone who investigates science’s further reaches will run into the frontiers of mystery, like quantum physics, the hard problem of consciousness, and the origin of the universe. There’s no getting away from the things that don’t make sense with pure logic and measurement. So what about that part of life? Just because something can’t be objectively proven or understood through science doesn’t mean we should deny it outright.
Absolutely. So how do you describe shamanic or “spiritual” healing in a way that someone with a Western medical orientation can understand?
When someone comes down to the Amazon for healing, and the shaman says “This person is spiritually ill” that is how they describe what they see in their tradition. Some might dismiss that, but it’s important to remember that we have our ways of talking about being “soul sick” in the West too, such as someone losing the will to live, dying of a broken heart, being shell shocked, and so on. In the example of someone with PTSD, we can measure a rapid heart rate, blood pressure problems, cortisol and adrenaline problems, and other physical symptoms. These are the manifestations of a dysregulated stress response system. The shaman might say “We need to clear the energy of trauma and war” and then go through with an ayahuasca ceremony, and what happens is the subject will often undergo a deep emotional healing. Through the mystical experience their emotional state vastly improves and thus physical symptoms are better. That’s the link.
We know that emotion has a biological correlate, and that stress affects our psychology, our neurology, our endocrine system and our immune system. These systems get quite disturbed in someone with PTSD. Although we don’t know exactly how the molecules in the brain are affected by going through emotionally traumatic experiences, we accept that a person is marked or imprinted by that experience, and it does affect their physical health. We can say it’s all in their head, but that’s not true, it affects their brain, nervous system, heart rate, hormone levels, cortisol levels, adrenaline levels, and then the way inflammation is expressed in the body from the immune system.
What do you see as the main thing that Western culture is missing in its rejection of the mystical side of spirituality or shamanism?
In Western society things have become very individualistic, very ego oriented. It’s a powerful way to approach certain realms of science to study things, but when it comes to matters of the heart and emotional issues, tribal societies are a lot more tuned in to the mysteries of life, the social nature of people, and how the immaterial influences us. Disregarding the knowledge that they have cuts us off and leaves us trying to solve all these emotional problems with a very material approach. If we are truly being scientific and measuring results, we’re not having very good success when it comes to mental health. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, these things are growing epidemics today.
I think our foundation is very shaky when we reject the spiritual dimension of life that tribal traditions like the Shipibo know intimately. It is a whole other side of ourselves that we have yet to fully understand, and to our own detriment. Yes there is some backwards thinking, hard to relate to beliefs, and superstitions in some tribal societies, but still, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, just like we don’t throw out science because it can be misused. Do we really think that our tribal ancestors were so dumb and senseless, and for hundreds of thousands of years didn’t know anything? That seems like a big wound to me, cutting ourselves off from our ancestry, our roots, and our origins on planet earth. We should be asking if the most ancient spiritual tradition on earth- shamanism- has anything to offer.
Why do you think so many Westerners are attracted to ayahuasca?
I’ve seen it myself firsthand, thousands of people are coming to the Amazon for healing with ayahuasca, primarily the first world diaspora from North America and Europe. They have been through healthcare system, they’ve spent years with the doctor and the therapist, but they are looking for something more. Doctors and therapists are important in their own right, but many of these problems have an emotional root that is not being addressed. Exploring that root involves a deeper subconscious approach than what pharmaceuticals are capable of.
I don’t think everyone should drink ayahuasca. Probably a lot of people should abstain from it. But ayahuasca healing shines a light on how you heal people emotionally, and it’s fascinating to me that this spiritual approach is so effective. We need to find ways to broaden our belief systems so they are not threatened by other belief systems, so we can have the mystical or the spiritual or whatever you want to call it involved in healthcare.
We thank Dr Tafur for sharing his insights with us and continuing his exciting exploration of science, spirituality and medicine. You can check out his book The Fellowship of the River here, and his nonprofit Modern Spirit here.