What we did could be seen as extremely risky, careless, perhaps even criminal. At least, that’s what I was told for about four months before I transported eight very sick patients down to a remote region of the Amazon rainforest, thousands of miles away from the creature comforts of home, to live isolated in the green basin for over a month. Surprisingly, we received over 400 applications for this healing journey. People worldwide, suffering from just about every illness you can think of, pleaded to be chosen as one of the eight subjects of our film The Sacred Science, even after we issued a variety of warnings about personal safety, unfathomable dangers such as spiders, jaguars and my favorite: poisonous snakes (the kind that kill you in less than an hour). After this barrage of terrifying disclaimers (we basically stopped just short of telling them not to come), there was still a line around the block. Why?
Reason 1: People are running out of time.
Yes, science is moving forward, but cures to afflictions like AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, M.S., Alzheimer’s, diabetes and depression are still not in sight, and for all we know, could be a hundred years away. Our great grandchildren may have solutions available to them, but we don’t have that kind of time. The clock is ticking and people are taking matters into their own hands.
While vetting potential patients, we sat down with Garry Thompson, a man from Oregon who was battling neuroendocrine cancer. When asked why he had decided to abandon western medicine in favour of mysterious jungle treatments, Garry responded, “The doctors told me that if I defeated the cancer using Landostatin—and that’s a big ‘if’—I would have to take it for the rest of my life. That’s $5,000 per shot. I would have been living under a bridge like a troll somewhere. That’s what I was offered.” There wasn’t much of a choice.
Reason 2: The rainforest is a virtually untapped resource for powerful medicine.
Over 30 percent of modern day pharmaceuticals come from the world’s rainforests. The vast tropical expanses of South America are home to over 44,000 species of plants, only five percent of which have been thoroughly studied by scientists for their medicinal value. The obvious question remains: what healing secrets do the other 95 percent hold?
There’s a reason the major pharmaceutical companies spend mucho dinero to set up research labs on the fringes of the Amazon jungle—this sea of trees is where the medicine is. But conventional research takes years and millions of dollars, not to mention the decades-long patenting process. What do we do if we are sick NOW? During production of The Sacred Science, I had the honour of speaking with legendary ethnobotanist and preservationist Mark Plotkin. I asked him how, with so many thousands of plants and no official accredited reference guide to their properties, a person can find and use those “needle in the haystack” plants with curative potential. His answer has become the linchpin of our message as filmmakers. Mark said, “Nick, if you look at the Amazon as an encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then the indigenous medicine men, or shamans, are certainly its index and table of contents.”
While certainly remote, these jungles are not empty. The Amazon has been home to the same indigenous tribes for thousands of years. The elders of these communities have, through trial and error across generations, catalogued each plant according to its practical applications: these fruits are good for digestion, those vines are ideal for rope-making, that leaf is effective for repelling mosquitoes—and perhaps most importantly, here are the ones that can heal.
This “catalogue” is not written on paper or stone; it is passed down via word-of-mouth, from the shaman or medicine man to his young apprentices. Those who know the true secrets don’t share them readily, but with the right intentions, a film crew and eight enthusiastic, open-minded patients can catch a glimpse.
Reason #3: We’re Never Gonna Survive, Unless We Get a Little Crazy. (Big thanks to Seal for that prophetic song title.)
We are living in a culture where children are given mood-altering pills in kindergarten at the slightest sign of disinterest in the curriculum, 67 percent of us are either overweight or obese, and the typical adult is more interested in the inner workings of his favourite reality show than those of his own household. Every year in the land of the free, we are getting sicker and more detached. Thankfully, it appears that this way of life may finally be reaching a critical mass.
A crucial element that separates the jungle from a conventional hospital is the idea that one must be of sound mind and spirit before the body can truly heal. In the film, Habin, one of the local shamans tells Crohn’s disease patient Jessica Stenis, “In order for you to heal, you must learn to use your heart as your guide. Wisdom does not come from the mind. It comes from the heart.” This principle is not unique to the shamans of the Amazon; it is found in almost every shamanic tradition on Earth, from the Aborigines in the Australian outback to the Tungus tribes of the distant steppes of Siberia. Although these groups have had no known contact with each other, they all hold this same fundamental belief.
Most of our applicants were aware of the spiritual aspects of Amazonian healing. They had read firsthand accounts of the vision quests and sacred ceremonies that are a staple of the curandero’s toolkit. In fact, a few of our late-stage cancer patients were focused more on getting their “existential affairs” in order in preparation for a worst-case scenario, and viewed any accompanying physical improvement as the cherry on top.
The importance of the plant medicines in this healing process cannot be overstated. These are powerful, precise remedies that are used with the utmost respect and care. It was the willingness to step outside the conventional comfort zone and into a completely new concept of what it means to heal that made these patients truly remarkable and their experiences so profound.
It sounds like the ultimate contradiction: taking eight people, most of whom are already fighting for their lives, into an area of the world where danger is a given, and turning them into guinea pigs in an experiment designed to prove that some third-world savagery might hold the magic charm that has escaped Western medicine for centuries. If the tarantulas don’t eat you in your sleep, trading in your prescriptions for untested and potentially poisonous jungle potions certainly will!
We could never have foreseen how this true-life drama would unfold. Five of these patients came back with undeniable physical recovery. All of us came back forever changed. It may be time to reevaluate the definition of the word “crazy.”