Matteo Politi, Ph.D.

Matteo Politi, Ph.D.

Matteo Politi has a Ph.D. in natural product chemistry, with a specialization in naturopathy, and is Director of Research at Takiwasi Center. He has published in various peer-reviewed scientific journals and popular magazines on topics related to phytochemistry, herbal medicine, and holistic therapies.
Matteo Politi, Ph.D.

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Working as Director of Research at Takiwasi, a pioneering center for the rehabilitation of drug addicts and research on traditional medicines, located in the high jungle of Peru, gave me the chance to get firsthand contact with the ancestral practice known as dieta (diet). This consists of a retreat in isolation with the ritualized intake of specific medicinal plants from the local flora that are perceived as proper teachers, accompanied by a special diet and strict physical and psychological norms. In the approach to mental health challenges, including addiction, Takiwasi successfully combines psychotherapy, conventional Western medicine, and Traditional Amazonian Medicine (TAM), where the dieta represents one of the most important therapeutic practices of this unique protocol.

The dieta, as a tool from the Amazonian medical tradition, is nowadays increasingly spreading towards Western cultures and contexts. The Takiwasi Center alone, since 1996, has welcomed more than 2,300 people from around the world who have come specifically to experience this type of treatment. About half of this audience is from countries outside Latin America, including Europe, Canada, USA, and Australia. During the addiction treatment process, which lasts roughly nine months, an addict patient usually takes part in four dietas. In this case, too, many of the patients are of international origin, and this further contributes to the “internationalization” of these typical and characteristic therapeutic practices of Peruvian TAM.

The Use of Teacher Plants in Takiwasi

Within the Amazonian traditional medicine, teacher plants are considered living beings able to transmit knowledge, once consumed within the specific rituals like the dieta.1 Such ritual technique has been used as a therapeutic tool for over 25 years in the Takiwasi Center as part of the addiction treatment protocol. The several dietas that patients undertake during their inpatient care are crucial for the success of the treatment. Takiwasi uses approximately 20 different plant species for dietas,2 the majority of which are poorly described in the scientific literature. A further key part of the treatment lies in the ritual use of the psychoactive teacher plants beverage named ayahuasca. The modified state of consciousness generated by the intake of this brew allows the patients of the Takiwasi Center to proceed to a deep introspection that leads them to the roots of their addictive behavior. The subsequent phase of psychotherapeutic integration of the information received through the visions is crucial to allow the individuals to become aware of their problem and undertake a path of catharsis.3

Takiwasi’s Botanical Reserve, Tarapoto, Peru. Photo Credit: Fabio Friso

Traditional and Modern Use of the Dieta

Native peoples used the Dieta to obtain teachings about daily survival practices such as hunting, divination, consultations with ancestors, healing, and leadership.4 The dieta also represents a fundamental step during the apprenticeship or initiation of a future shaman.5 Based on the experience of the Takiwasi Center, we could observe that for many curanderos the ability to cure was discovered after they were treated through the consumption of teacher plants.6 The healing and learning occur during the so-called mareación, as the experiences of modified states of consciousness are defined in the local language. The dieta allows patients, both drug users and non-addicts, to face psychological and social blocks and traumas, create a special contact with nature and the inner self, and devote themselves to holistic purification that eliminates toxic elements at the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. It allows them, at the same time, to expand their perceptions, reconnect with repressed emotions, purify and strengthen the body, and connect with the sacred dimension of nature.

The Rules That Accompany the Intake of Plants

If the choice of the plant to be ingested is important, the restrictions that accompany the dieta are even more so.7.. Tarapoto, Peru: Takiwasi] The rules that accompany the consumption of teacher plants play a key role in increasing the strength of the modified state of consciousness and, consequently, allowing the person to get in contact with the spirit of the plant. The main restrictions in the dieta protocol proposed at the Takiwasi Center are: isolation; dietary rules (usually, boiled green plantain [inguiri] and a portion of rice or oats, twice a day, is all that is allowed); salt and sugars must be avoided at all time, as well as alcohol, pork, and spicy food; these should be avoided for up to four weeks after the end of the process, in what is called the post-dieta. Excessive physical exercise, chaotic environments, exposure to sun, rain, fire, and excessively strong odors must also be avoided; total sexual abstinence (masturbation and intercourse) is required.

The Post-Dieta process

At the end of the dieta, the healer performs a “soplada” (blows tobacco smoke) on the main energetic points of the patients. He also administers them a mixture of lemon, chopped onion, garlic, pepper, and salt to cut (cortar) the dieta, and close the energetic body that has remained open and highly sensitive during the isolation period. Because the plants continue to work even after this phase has ended, the person must follow the prescribed restrictions throughout the post-dieta period. It is believed that a large part of the effect of the dieta is the consequence of the integration process that follows it. Amazonian healers consider that respecting the post-dieta rules is essential so that integration takes place correctly at all levels, to avoid the risks related to “cruzadera,” a term that refers to an energetic interference which can cause disorders of various kinds, from the mildest to the most serious.

Amazonian Dieta in Western Contexts

The dietaas a therapeutic tool is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, and Westerners are traveling to various Amazonian regions to undergo this type of treatment, contributing to so-called “shamanic tourism.” Few pioneering experiments reproducing the dieta in environments other than the Amazon by using plants from the local flora are also currently ongoing. These experiments are located in France, but in recent years, we could observe the spreading of proposals in other European countries such as Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Ireland, as well as in Canada and the USA.

Results and Therapeutic Value

The therapeutic value of the dieta seems to lie in the combination of different factors (teacher plants, isolation, fasting, etc.). According to the opinion of Jacques Mabit, MD, healer and founder of the Takiwasi Center, the changes that can be observed in a person after a dieta have to do with their structure, that is to say, they are maintained over time. Personality, the way of relating to the external world, the ability of exploring the inner universe, the development of oneiric life, all get changed in a lasting way. Therefore, the dietais considered essential for long-term healing and is the main learning tool for those who are initiated to Amazonian curanderism. Based on the observation and clinical experience of Takiwasi’s therapeutic staff, a common result after the first dieta of a drug addicted patient, which usually is scheduled at the third month of treatment, is the reaffirmation of the desire to heal. From this moment on, he begins to act more frankly and openly towards the therapists. For the first time, there is a sincere revelation about the real intentions and feelings in play. The patient returns to the therapeutic community with a renewed feeling of belonging to the group.

Takiwasi’s Botanical Reserve, Tarapoto, Peru. Photo credit: Miguel Palomino

Considerations on the Relationship Between Human and Nature

During a dieta, people often find themselves spending a lot of time in silence and avoiding the use of verbal speech, thus reducing the activation of certain cerebral cortex circuits that, in an ordinary state of consciousness, make the rational functionality predominant. By partially limiting logical thinking, space is given to the most intuitive-instinctual sphere, usually repressed in the daily life of the average Westerner. The full immersion in nature often allows one to observe for the first time the variegated microcosm of Amazonian insects, while being surrounded at the same time by the repetitive melodies of birds, cicadas or frogs. Sometimes the visual encounter with larger animals, especially monkeys and sloths, can further contribute to the feeling of “reconnecting with nature,” as commonly reported by participants with urban backgrounds. The human-like form of these animals pushes towards taking awareness of the human being as one of the many animals that inhabit the planet, thus leading to a more equal positioning within the living realm. This can facilitate the experience of feeling part of an egalitarian whole; a sensation shared also by various mystical-religious cultures that, in certain contexts, can bring about a real ecstatic condition.

Conclusion Given the recent increase of interest in the dieta, especially in the context of the so-called shamanic tourism of the Peruvian Amazon, we can expect that this technique from the indigenous tradition will be more thoroughly investigated by academic scientific researchers, as is currently occurring for the well-known psychotropic brew ayahuasca. Within the Western culture, the dieta could be integrated not only as a therapeutic tool, but also as a means for the ecology of the future. The etymology of the term “ecology” refers to the concept of a “discourse on the home-nature.” By dieting their own local flora, people could include in such a discourse the messages and insights received directly from plants; not by chance sometimes defined as “non-human people”.8

References

  1.   Luna, L. E. (1984). The concept of plants as teachers among four Mestizo shamans of Iquitos, Northeastern Peru. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 11, 135–156. doi: 10.1016/0378-8741(84)90036-9
  2. Politi, M., Friso, F., & Mabit, J. (2018).Plant based assisted therapy for the treatment of substance use disorders – part 1. The case of Takiwasi Center and other similar experiences. Revista Cultura y Droga, 23(26), 99–126. doi: 10.17151/culdr.2018.23.26.7
  3. Mabit, J. (2001). L’alternative des savoirs autochtones au « tout ou rien » thérapeutique (The alternative of indigenous knowledge to therapeutic “all or nothing”)  Psychotropes, 7, 7–18. doi: 10.3917/psyt.071.0007
  4. Sanz-Biset, J., & Cannigueral, S. (2011). Plant use in the medicinal practices known as “strict diets” in Chazuta valley (Peruvian Amazon). Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 137 271–288. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.05.021
  5. Jauregui, X., Clavo, Z. M., Jovel, E. M., & Pardo-de-Santayana, M. (2011). “Plantas con madre”: Plants that teach and guide in the shamanic initiation process in the East-Central Peruvian Amazon. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 134(3), 739–752. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.01.042
  6. Torres Romero  J. (1998). Transmisión del conocimiento médico tradicional [Transmission of traditional medical knowledge. Retrieved from http://www.takiwasi.com/docs/arti_esp/transmision_conocimiento_medico.pdf
  7. Giove, R. (2002). La liana de los muertos al rescate de la vida, medicina tradicional amazónica en el tratamiento de las toxicomanías [The vine of the dead to the rescue of life:  Traditional Amazonian medicine in the treatment of drug addiction
  8. Daly, D. (2015). What kind of people are plants? the challenges of researching human-plant relations in Amazonian Guyana. Engagement.  Retrieved September, 10, 2018, from https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/what-kind-of-people-are-plants-the-challenges-of-researching-human-plant-relations-in-amazonian-guyana/