Can praying over your food change the way you eat?
This show with Nick Polizzi will turn your idea of alternative healing on its head.
In the heart of the Amazon, “alternative” medicine healing ceremonies can produce baffling results (even for skeptics of the Western World like me).
Nick Polizzi is the director of the documentary, The Sacred Science. His work explores holistic alternatives to conventional medicine. His most recent film follows a group of terminally ill patients who searched for healing in the Amazon jungle.
On this show, you’re going to learn:
- How to heal your body, mind and soul with plant medicine
- Why connectedness is an important part of health
- The incredible power of rituals
- How not to fall off a cliff in Peru
- And much more!
Take a big breath… it’s about to get deep.
NICK POLIZZI: HEALING WITH PLANT MEDICINE IN THE AMAZON
Abel: Nick Polizzi has spent his career directing documentaries about holistic alternatives to conventional medicine. His work stems from a calling to honor, preserve, and protect the ancient knowledge and rituals of the indigenous peoples of the world.
Nick just returned from Peru (one of my favorite places in the world) where I hear he almost fell off a cliff. Nick, I’m glad you’re alive and thanks for joining us.
Every time I go to Peru, there’s an adventure. The people I go with also push it to the edge.
Abel: How in the heck did a white dude from Connecticut find himself in the middle of the Amazon?
I have made movies before, this most recent one being The Sacred Science, and they are about alternative medicine. As we were interviewing the experts, I’d ask, “Who are your teachers or mentors?” And they would say, “You don’t know them.” It’s a man or woman from this or that indigenous tribe.
I started sniffing around, following the breadcrumbs like any good documentarian, and it all lead me into shamanism. One of the main hubs is South America and the Amazon. I went from being someone filing things about meridian points and tapping for stress, to all of a sudden I’m in the middle of the jungle filming these indigenous folks who have traditions that are hundreds and thousands of years old… that are endangered, but highly effective.
Abel: It’s an entirely different world. You come from the Western world, but alternative medicine is a whole different ballgame in the heart of the Amazon. What surprised you?
The conversation around our own mortality. It’s not something that we talked about around our house growing up, and it’s not something talked about in holistic health, alternative medicine or medicine period. Mortality is something that’s avoided at all costs in conversation in the Western world. We don’t talk about mortality, what might happen after that, who we actually are.
Something the shamans ask is, “Who’s seeing through those eyes. Who’s hearing through those ears?”
Who is in there? They’re not just rubbing this on the skin or tapping this point and it’s good. If you want to film us, we want to see you. We want to put you through some ceremonies and ask questions that will hopefully peel the onion layers away to let us see you and you see yourself.
It was an eye opener and a point of fear for some time, because I was seeing things that I had never really acknowledged about myself. Who is the essence of who you are? Seems like a nice sentiment, but when you start looking at that in real terms, it can be shocking and a little intimidating, but definitely the fastest way to get healing results.
Abel: For Sacred Science, you take 8 people struggling with health problems who hadn’t had success in Western medicine, and throw them into the Amazon jungle in seclusion. How did that turn out?
Of the eight, 5 come back with real results, 2 come back disappointed but spiritually transformed, and one person doesn’t come back. This person dies down there.
There’s a whole intrigue around that, and it opens up a great conversation that’s hard to have otherwise in the film. Just to be clear, this person went down with a terminal situation where they only had a couple weeks to live. They went down to spend their last days there.
We had 400 applications right away, from all around the world, from people with varying illnesses that really wanted to go down to the jungle. We had to select people based on who was the most jungle-friendly, or who was maybe not so much but who would go through the transformation because they weren’t. The people who seemed really outdoorsy had the hardest time, because they came down confident, but found out it wasn’t what they expected.
One guy was really gung-ho, and he bought his own plane ticket and he’s like, “I’ll meet you down there.” This man, who has prostate cancer, goes through all kinds of struggles because he has a lot of ego. The people who got biggest results were not necessarily the ones we thought were going to do well.
SHAMANS DON’T HEAL YOU. THEY HELP YOU HEAL YOURSELF.
Abel: I was fortunate to be raised by my mother, who’s an herbalist and into alternative medicine and holistic health. But for people who don’t know or don’t have a background in plant medicine, what does that mean?
Down in the Amazon, we are looking from two different perspectives: the sacred and the science.
From the Western medicine perspective, there’s more than 65,000 species of plants in the Amazon jungle. Of those, less that 3% have been studied. Of those, 25% of the treatments we are using to treat cancer are synthesized from those plants. There’s all kinds of incredible medicine that come from those 3% that have been studied. But every year, some ridiculous amount of rainforest is being destroyed.
From a more spiritual perspective, the way healing happens down there is unlike what you see here in the western world in that there’s not a quick fix or a magic pill. You’re taking 5 or 6 different herbs in addition to ceremonies that you’re doing which are a spiritual intervention. They’re meant to purge the stuff that’s in your body, and get yourself out of your own way.
There’s no “wonder herb” that you’re going to take and it’s going to heal whatever you’re suffering from in an instant. Herbs are subtle.
For the shamans I work with, the approach is to create an environmental condition where you’re actually living—a jungle hut that’s very deep into the woods. You don’t have contact with anyone but the shamans and the people who bring you food, who speak no Spanish (or English). You don’t have anything from the western world, not even books. These environmental factors are going to push you to your edge, not make you uncomfortable, but make you have to tune into yourself and make you listen to the voices going on in your brain while you’re sitting in nature trying to just be for 30 – 60 days.
Not only that, but you’re going through ceremonies—it could be an Ayahuasca ceremony or it could just be sitting there holding space, but they are also meant to help you go inward and help you check in with the things inside of you that are at your very core that need to be in alignment with your body to help you heal.
From a spiritual perspective, you’re doing all kinds of ceremony and spiritual passage to clear the blocks that might be prevent your body from healing.
One of the shamans I’m nearest and dearest to, his big breakthrough for me, probably the most important piece of wisdom I’ve ever received is that people have this idea that shamans heal us. Shamans don’t heal us. Shamans clear the blockages that we have that prevent us from healing ourselves.
We think that our doctors are going to heal us. We give all our power to our doctor and say please take care of this for me. Whereas there, they say, “I’m here to clear the things that are blocking you from healing yourself. You heal yourself.”
The herbs do have their own powers and properties to help you heal from the particular thing you’re working with. But the fundamental thing the shamans can do for you is in the ritual and ceremonial side of things. Yes, they do have an amazing pharmacopoeia of natural plants, so yes we should be delving into those things. And they’re the only ones who know what those plants do, that’s why ethnobotanist have been going there for the last 40 years. Some do it right and give back, and others just go to make a name for themselves and disappear.
They have a lot of tools, which is why we decided to go to the Amazon to shoot this film. They’re shamans, they have amazing ceremonies and they have this amazing tool chest in their backyard to help you.
Abel: Many shamans have a unique way of looking at disease. If you’re ill, a shaman might explain that there’s a problem in your psyche or soul that’s manifesting in your body as sickness.
I’m a student of all this. I know this stuff only as well as a human being can understand it, but there’s a saying in the jungle and the tribes that we work with it’s pretty common among all of them. They view diseases as mothers. When you get a disease, a mother becomes pregnant with you. The disease is a motherly energy that is there to teach you something. So it’s pregnant with you and has all kinds of lessons to teach you when you’re in its womb, while you’re working through the disease. All the fears it conjures up, the blind spots it might be alluding to, where you’re not addressing underlying elements of your life that are toxic.
If you look at this thing as a mother or teacher, and you look at the lessons being presented to you, then the mother will rebirth you as healthy. Ultimately if you learn all the lessons, you’ll come to full term and the disease will rebirth you as a healthy person with that much more wisdom.
If you don’t learn the lessons, the mother will rebirth you into the next life or the afterlife, and that’s fine too. They don’t look at it as good or bad. They look at it like there’s this or this, it’s an opportunity for wisdom or an opportunity to be rebirthed and find that wisdom in some other life or dimension.
This resonates for me because I had severe migraines growing up that got worse as I got into my 20’s. I didn’t use shamanism, but I used a couple different interventions that forced me to address the underlying trauma that was bringing these things about. And it was painful, but it was a huge relief once I addressed the shadows that were lurking under the surface contributing to this illness.
A lot of people were like, “Are you sure this is true?” When the shamans say it, I was like, “Finally, there are people who are validating what I went through.” This can be tried out in real time for people who have real problems. It validated something I experienced in my real life.
Abel: When we visited Peru, I noticed immediately that Peruvians have a unique relationship with plant medicine.
Tobacco, down there, is a very sacred plant. The idea that the plant has its own spirit, its own intelligence, that can be good or bad. It can go back and forth depending on how reverent you are. If you’re smoking in America, you might be on your phone, driving a car, or multi-tasking.
But down there, tobacco is a sacred plant and often part of ceremony. You could be drinking it, smoking it, maybe someone else snuffs it into your nose to clear negative energy.
Can you explain the depth of appreciation for plants in the Amazon (as opposed to the idea that they’re “drugs” in Western medicine)?
It feels like having an ear and eye for subtlety. Here we look at plants—tobacco is a great example—we use unconsciously because we like the head buzz and we like to consume more and more of this thing that makes us feel good. Down there, there’s a feeling of appreciation for the subtle notes, the spirit of the plant.
Mapacho is the jungle tobacco. We were in the Mapacho River Valley and it’s filled with this wild tobacco. This is not used casually. You don’t see people smoking packs and packs of mapacho. It’s used in ceremony.
That term ceremony in our culture is not really something that exists. We might look at ceremony as two things in our life—you turn 21 and get hammered. Maybe you get married. Maybe you have a confirmation when you’re twelve but you’re not really paying attention and just want to get home and play video games.
So we’ve lost this concept of ceremony. When a tobacco shaman is working with tobacco, he’s sitting there in ceremony a lot of times with a patient, trying to get a read on tobacco. He’s not chain smoking, he’s using a little bit because he knows there’s subtlety that can only be tapped into if you use it in conjunction with the right energy, the right intention, in the right setting.
There’s an attention to that subtlely that really draws me into that culture.
When I used to work with herbs, I’d throw this in or that in a blender because it’s good for me and chug it and go on with my day.
Now, for example, I went on a hike with my dad here in Connecticut and I was like, wow this is a beautiful place, I’m going to take my shoes off. Just do it, take your shoes off and walk on this path and you’re going to feel something. It’s amazing, do it.
This rubber-soled culture that doesn’t want to have the direct experiences with the natural world around us is at the heart of a lot of our disease.
Whereas down there, people spend so much time in nature and they know how to listen to it. It’s done consciously, with an ear to the ground, so to say. They really experience some of the subtleties the plant has to offer.
THE HEALING POWER OF COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION
Abel: If you take sacred plants, process them into a pill and bring them back here to market them in CVS, it’s kind of missing the point.
There’s a problem with western medicine: “a placebo effect.” We don’t know why it happens, but if you take a sugar pill but think it’s something else, ~30% of the time it “works”!
But when you experience traditional ceremonies, or pick wild sage, ask the plant for permission, you open a dialogue.
This sounds woo-woo but bear with me. If you go through a ritual every time you consume a plant, your intention communicates a strong signal to the brain and that seems to amplify what we call the placebo effect through intention.
I’ve been through 5 Ayahuasca ceremonies—and I want to emphasize that it’s not play, it’s work. This is some of the hardest spiritual or personal development work you’ll ever do.
So what happened with your group during their first ceremony in the Amazon?
A lot of people who went into this felt like they were going to be able to maintain a level of comfort, focus, and poise in an Ayahuasca ceremony. That doesn’t’ happen.
Our patients were like in operation spiritual shock and awe. People go in thinking it’s going to be extremely transformative and enlightening. There is a serious degree of transformation, but you have to pay to play. This is not a joy ride. It just isn’t. Some people have it easy, and just because of their chemistry and perhaps something deeper in their presence, particularly women, can sometimes have this joyous experience. It’s enlightening to a degree, but there isn’t much suffering and isn’t much spirit work.
The people who have the layers of their onions peeled during that night have a corresponding acceleration in their personal and physical healing process in the weeks to come. When they went through those experiences and really got a good dose of medicine, and have really seen their essence where they can remember it’s there and use it as a guiding light, we saw in those people a serious shift in their mental, emotional, and physical ailments that came in the weeks after.
People feel that shamans and people like you and me that have been in a number of Ayahuasca ceremonies, that it gets easier. But it doesn’t work that way. That’s not the nature of the medicine. If that was the nature of the medicine, then there would be an inherent flaw in the medicine. It’s not there for you to get good at and use in a recreational way.
I was in an Ayahuasca ceremony in the middle of nowhere on the border of the Andes mountains in the Amazon, and there was a four hour period where we hung out in our tents to meditate before the ceremony, and I was sitting there and I was slightly amused by how scared I was. I was thinking about my kids, my wife, all these things you might do if you were on one of those carrier boats on your way to normandy or something.
Ayahuasca. Huasca means vine or rope. Aya means spirit or death. In these cultures death is not a feared thing, so spirit or death are the same thing. You’re going to ingest this potion that’s called the vine of death or the vine of soul.
You can’t go into the spirit world and keep all these things that you have. You can’t take it with you.
It’s a painful process the first few times. All the things that you are, all the people you know, walking into this tunnel all alone and leaving all this stuff behind. But they all come back. This is a teacher plant. This plant has a built in ally that will not let you go too far. It will always bring you back home even if you feel like you’re seeing things that are pretty intense.
There are other plants in the jungle that will not do that. In fact, tobacco is one that you can take too far and die.
Ayahuasca is an amazing teacher plant that is extremely strong medicine that I feel can give people a pretty powerful peek at who they actually are.
Abel: When we experience “shared suffering” in ceremony, isn’t that exactly what most of us need in the western world?
There’s this feeling of community. When you’re there in a circle of people, men and women of all ages, the first time I was very self-conscious. I don’t want to go through scary things, break down and cry, potentially throw up, in front of strangers.
I was one of the first people to throw up in one of the ceremonies. I threw up in the bucket—this is a very normal part of the process. You’re purging out negative energy, blocks you’ve had for a very long time—but as I purge, there’s this collective groan, almost feeling what I’m feeling.
This circle becomes a large organism. There’s this feeling of love and support going around. Once you’re in the circle and experience it first hand, it becomes very real and the implications of that in the worldwide consciousness and how we go about our daily life, when people come together and share this vulnerability to support each other in ways that cannot be expressed in words, that is an amazing gift to experience in and of itself.
Abel: With technology kind of connecting us more and more, our worlds are getting bigger. We don’t have 100 people in our tribe we’ve known our whole lives and we can connect with. It’s one of the main contributors to why we’re lonely, sad, depressed, and sick.
In other parts of the world, when you find these tiny little places, you get a taste for what they’ve had all along.
What do you think we can learn as a society from ancient traditions?
I feel like it goes back to the village. I have a son now who’s 3 1/2 years old. I’m just realizing now more than ever, the combination of having my own child and being in cultures where everyone lives together.
You don’t ship your parents off to a home in Florida and trust your kids to take care of themselves while you’re away at work, so basically no-one has anyone. We are in a culture of isolation, and it’s becoming more and more isolated.
Down there, it’s community. The parents live in your house or the same little village. That is not looked at as a bad thing.
These people are the happiest people I’ve ever met. They may not have as much money. They may not have ipads and iphones. But they are so connected to each other.
My friends from college know more about their favorite sports team than they know about their extended family. They can tell you more stats about the third string quarterback for the New York Giants than they can tell you about their niece or nephew.
Some pretty obvious smoking guns in our society are things like that. We’re kind of grabbing for our favorite series on Netflix or the substance of choice or anything that will distract ourselves from the fact that we are not leading very wholesome lives.
How do I get closer to family? How do I get rid of this belief that success means I live in this house up on a hill with a fence around it and have my parents in a home in Florida and have my kids in a fancy school where they never see me?
Success to me is becoming more simple. But it’s also more complex, because bringing these people in and getting to know them requires a whole new level of communication and open heartedness than I’ve ever had to work with in my life. When you bring your family closer, you have to deal with a lot of these things that you’ve been keeping in a dark corner of your consciousness and those trials one by one are really healing for you.
I think that we need to get closer and this illusion of separation being the goal. Every major religion looks at the idea of separation being the wrong direction. But our society encourages separation, and that’s a problem.
Abel: When you were in Peru, you experienced a shift. This was your mantra as you were in danger of falling straight off a cliff:
“One step at a time. Eyes on the path, not on the edge. One step at a time. Your breath is your friend. Trust in nature.”
What did you experience as you told yourself that?
As we were running down this Inca trail to get to this valley, it’s a 4,000 ft descent, you realize “this is dangerous.” My initial response was to tense up and get very defensive, but we couldn’t do that because it was getting darker and darker. And the darker it got, the more dangerous it became. But the faster I went, the more dangerous it got. I had to choose one.
The faster I went, the more I had to get out of my head. I started saying that mantra. I achieved my immediate goal, which was getting down the hill and feeling good about it. But a more subtle thing happened about 5 or 10 minutes into my mantra: I was looking at the shaman running in front of me with his head lamp, and I realized I didn’t know who I was.
I was suddenly this prancing gleeful little spirit running down the mountain. I was no longer Nick, the guy who had an agenda. Suddenly everything was perfect. My body was moving exactly how it was built to move down this trail. There were a few times I kicked a rock and I had to grab onto the trail to counter it, but it wasn’t fearful. It gave the essence of who I am the ability to thrive and be joyful in this experience.
I got to the bottom of the hill and I told Roman (the shaman) about it. That descent was medicine in and of itself. I was like, “No, you don’t understand, I didn’t know who I was going down this trail and it was one of the best experiences of my life!”
He’s like, “Yea, that’s what we hear. It’s a really medicinal valley and people have been coming here thousands of years to heal. I’m glad you’re already getting some medicine from this valley.”
And I kept trying to rationalize it and be like, “But no, this isn’t make believe,” almost insinuating a lot of the legend that happens around these parts is like a really charming way of creating some mythology around something that’s completely not real.
Most of the mythologies I went into this thinking were really charming have turned out to be true. You hear people talking about these things, and then you experience it first hand. This must be an amazing place. There must be some power to this location.
Sometimes we pay attention more to what’s happening on the edge. Or the cliff, or the dangers or the potential failures rather than just staying on the path taking it one step at a time.
This is just fundamental to who we are as human beings. It helped me in ceremony the next night. Don’t think about what might come up. This is just where you are. One breath at a time. Don’t think about when it’s going to end. Just be in the present moment.
Abel: Down there, there’s a completely different belief system about how the world works, what spirit is, what you are who you aren’t. But you don’t have to go to the amazon to experience this.
Once you do go through that, you can bring it back and just go for a hike with your family and get into the same reverent, primal mindset, right?
I can tell what’s real and what’s not real. You have more of a sense of what’s happening around you and what’s your projection, your own shadows, and your own fears. You don’t have to go to the jungle to do that, but for me on my path, that’s been my takeaway.
I’ll be in a social situation, I’ll feel a tension, and instead of tucking it away, look at that tension but don’t fear it. When you start paying attention to them in that way, they start becoming very conspicuous. You start, in a polite way, saying farewell to things that aren’t serving you.
You don’t want to have that garbage in your consciousness when things get even more intense. If this is happening now when I’m talking to someone in the grocery store, then we will just part ways now.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GRATITUDE
Abel: One of the biggest things I brought back from ceremony is the sense of gratitude, not in the sense of a gratitude journal or saying what you’re grateful for each day, but the people of Peru would be essentially saying grace for everything they did. Is there a way people can work that into their own daily lives here?
I feel as though there’s a reason to be grateful for a lot of different things that happen in your day. People may say this is a really quaint tradition to say thank you to the glass of water or for the plant before they pick it. But in my experience, people who do that tend to be leading a happy and healthy life.
Our society has built-in moments to give gratitude. Our son has a whole list of things to say that he’s thankful for at the dinner table. Every night before he eats dinner and goes to bed, he has a whole list of things he feels grateful for and he likes the way it makes him feel.
Energetically, when you’re giving gratitude for your life, you tend to be a happier and more well-balanced human being.
Is Sebastian, a karo shaman who’s giving gratitude to the coca he’s about to give you, supercharging those leaves so you’re going to heal faster? I don’t know. But he is much more focused and grounded in that moment than someone who’s pulling out the coca and going through the motions in that moment. It’s really subtle.
I can feel it in my body when I give gratitude in our family. Every person I know who works with plants, whether we’re talking about the amazon or the jungle of Belize or Guatemala. These are not people who know each other. These are cultures who have been doing this for thousands of years and they all do it relatively the same way.
Why do you think we say prayers over food before we eat it?
I can’t tell you exactly what it does to the food. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like to tell you what it’s doing to your food. I’m just saying this has been happening since the dawn of existence.
When you see something like that repeated over various cultures across the continents that have nothing to do with each other nor could have communicated, it’s something that is valid and should be paid attention to.
Gratitude has been happening for thousands of years. For me, when you combine that with the way it makes you feel in your heart, the essence of who I am when I’m giving gratitude before I serve something or administer an herb to a sick loved one, it’s definitely not hurting and it could give a benefit to the receiver of whatever I’m preparing.
Gratitude is something we need in the modern world.
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WHERE TO FIND NICK POLIZZI
For the next film, we are going to Siberia and Mongolia, which is where the term Shaman comes from. It’s a very sacred landscape that have some of the world’s most mysterious and understudied tribes. That film is breaking ground in 2017.
Our mission is to work with these cultures in a very respectful way so they get the respect they deserve. They live in areas of the world that are being exploited for their natural resources. We are trying to bring back knowledge and support those people to help preserve their culture and the landscapes they live on.
For all the updates and the blog, check out The Sacred Science website.
You can see a free screening of the film The Sacred Science at www.thesacredscience.com/screening.
BEFORE YOU GO…
When I first overhauled my nutrition with a primitive version of The Wild Diet, I started eating real, fresh foods and dropped 20 pounds in just over a month.
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What do you think of plant medicine? Let us know in the comments below!