A Conversation With… Stephan Beyer
Editor’s Note from Carl Helmle: An interesting interview that provides us a snapshot into the life and soul of an impassioned, very well studied and highly experienced traveler on the spiritual journey.
Carl Helmle: Can you tell our readers how it came about that a lawyer and litigator at a major international law firm in Chicago for twenty five years would end up so passionately interested in such esoteric and “outside the mainstream” topics as Eastern philosophy and sacred plant medicines of indigenous societies?
Stephan Beyer: Like most things in this world, my life has been much more like a circle than a line. More than forty years ago, I started out with a doctorate in Buddhist Studies. I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for a year and a half, spent twelve years teaching religious studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, the University of California—Berkeley, and Graduate Theological Union, and published several books on Buddhism generally and Tibetan meditation and language in particular. Only then, frustrated by many features of academic life, did I become a lawyer—a litigator and trial lawyer, trying cases to juries around the country.
I loved being a lawyer. I loved the intellectual challenges, the emotional demands, the sheer physical stamina required to try a complex medical and scientific case for four weeks while staying in a motel room far from home. I loved being tough and smart.
What changed—what brought me full circle back to my roots—was, of all things, a developing interest in wilderness survival. I was filled with the same machismo that drove me as a litigator; drop me in the desert naked with a knife, I said, and I will eat lizards and survive. I undertook training in mountain, desert, and especially jungle survival, which took me on a number of trips to the Upper Amazon, both for training and to study indigenous survival techniques. One of these trips, with wilderness survival expert Ron Hood, to study the jungle survival skills of the last of the head-hunting Shapra and Candoshi Indians, became an award-winning survival training film.
But, as I learned more and more about the ways in which indigenous people survive—indeed, flourish—in the wilderness, it became increasingly clear to me that wilderness survival includes a significant spiritual component—the maintenance of right relationships both with human persons and with the other-than-human persons who fill the indigenous world.
So, just as I had learned from the Shapra Indians how to make a really clever animal snare, I tried to learn the ways that indigenous people maintain right relationships with the spirits. I undertook numerous four-day and four-night solo vision fasts in Death Valley, the Pecos Wilderness, and the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. I participated in rituals with peyote and huachuma, and I also began to work with my ayahuasca teachers.
At the same time, I began working toward my second doctorate, this time in psychology, with an emphasis on transpersonal and humanistic psychology, attempting to put all of this into some sort of perspective. And I don’t know whether it was the effects of getting older, or drinking ayahuasca, or the magical phlegm my maestro planted in my chest, or the gentle example of my plant teacher, doña María Tuesta Flores, working in my visions and my dreams; but far from the Amazon I found that my heart was slowly opening, and I was spontaneously and miraculously entering into right relationship with the persons, human and other-than-human, that suddenly filled my life.
Carl Helmle: Can you describe for us some of the most profound and powerful experiences you have encountered on your journey?
Stephan Beyer: I think that we Americans are in too much of a hurry. We want an epiphany, a quick fix, a transformation—a profound and powerful experience. But I think instead that most often the spirits work slowly and subtly; the sacred plants heal in plant time, not in human time.
Here is a story. I am drinking ayahuasca. Suddenly I find myself standing in the entry hallway of a large house in the suburbs, facing the front door. The floor of the hallway is tiled, like many places in the ayahuasca world. There is a large staircase behind me, leading to the second floor; there are large ceramic pots on either side of the entrance way. I open the front door and look out at a typical suburban street—cars parked at the curb, traffic going by, a front lawn, trees along the curb. Standing at the door is a dark woman, perhaps in her forties, her raven hair piled on her head, thin and elegant, beautiful, dressed in a red shift with a black diamond pattern. She silently holds out her right hand to me. On her hand is a white cylinder, about three inches long, part of the stem of a plant, which she is offering to me.
I was concerned about this vision, because the red and black dress might indicate that the dark woman was a bruja , a sorceress. But don Roberto, my maestro ayahuasquero, and doña María, my plant teacher, both immediately and unhesitatingly identified her as maricahua, whom they also call toé negro, the black datura. They told me that this plant is ingested by splitting the stem and eating a piece of the white inner pith, about three inches long. The lady in my vision was handing me just such a piece of the plant, a part of herself.
Ayahuasca teaches many things—what is wrong or broken in a life, what medicine to take for healing. It teaches us to see through the everyday, to see that the world is meaningful and magical; it opens the door to wonder and surprise. I need to open my front door, look out onto a bland suburban street, and see standing there the Dark Lady, the black datura—thin and dark, raven hair piled on her head, elegant and beautiful, silently holding out to me a stem of maricahua—and follow her into her dark and luminous world.
The message is not cognitive; it is an inchoate stirring of the heart. It has to do with giving up ego, control, and the delusion of power. The question that my Dark Lady asked—what the sacred plants ask all of us—is this: Am I willing to give up ego, hierarchy, power, dignity, self-importance, moral superiority? Am I willing to give up control, to hand myself over to the plants? Am I willing to see the world as miraculous and filled with spirits?
I think that it is ultimately not any profound and powerful experience, but rather life itself that has changed me—my experiences in the wilderness, my training in jungle survival, my vision fasts in the desert, my family, and the joys and sorrows of a lengthening life in the human world. The sacred plants have been part of that, my guides and teachers, working slowly and silently within, in their barely heard songs, in the beating of my blood.
Carl Helmle: You have lived with monks in monasteries in Tibet, have studied with curanderos and ayahuasqueros in the jungles of South America and shared many powerful sacred experiences with natives here in North America. Is there common threads that runs between these three very geographically separated cultures in regards to their views on reality and how we should live in the world?
Stephan Beyer: Looking back, it seems that I have always been fascinated by the sorts of anomalous human experiences that have been ignored, marginalized, and pathologized by mainstream psychology—meditation, hallucinations, lucid dreams, shamanic visions, out-of-body experiences, delusions, visualization, false awakenings, apparitions. I have been driven by fascination with dreams and visions.
My first book, The Cult of Tara, written just about forty years ago, was one of the first studies ever published on eidetic visualization as a Tibetan meditative practice. My friend Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, drawing a connection that I myself had only dimply sensed, wrote me once that my book, which I thought was about visualization, was “the best book ever written about the reality of dreams.”
A few years later, I wrote an article entitled Notes on the Vision Quest in Early Mahayana, where I said that Mahayana metaphysics “is in fact the metaphysics of the vision and the dream: a universe of glittering and quicksilver change is precisely one that can only be described as empty. The vision and the dream become the tools to dismantle the hard categories we impose upon reality.”
I look at that article now in amazement. It contained the seeds of everything I have now returned to.
A common thread in these traditions, whether explicitly or implicitly, is that we find ourselves embedded in a world of solid categories of our own making. We have built a prison of our own narrowness and constriction, a prison the Buddhists call samsara. We are not in right relationship with each other or with reality because we reflexively impose constructs that close off our vision and our heart, our wisdom and compassion.
Right now, at every moment of our lives, we are on a vision quest. Right now we are in the land of myth and dream and fairy tale, in a world full of magic and miracles, if we could only open our eyes and hearts and minds to the wonder that surrounds us. What these traditions share is that right now, at every moment, we already live in the magic forest, in a world that is full of depth and meaning, in a Pure Land of jeweled trees and a hundred million shining Buddhas.
But I want to emphasize another point. It is striking how often we think in terms of cognitive categories—the importance we place on beliefs and views. I think what is important—and I think what is important in the traditions through which I have journeyed—is less what we believe than how we behave, how we maintain right relationships with all the persons, human and other-than-human, with whom we interact—how we treat them as ends rather than means, meet them genuinely and with an open heart, and take them as our teachers.
Carl Helmle: You have had numerous interactions with the spirit world thru many different methods and have written heavily on what the spirits want. With all the uncertainty in the world today and with the end of the Mayan Calendar coming this December, what is your general feeling about the future of mankind?
Stephan Beyer: I am optimistic. I believe that human beings are inherently autonomous self-healing problem solvers. During my own lifetime—I am within spitting distance of seventy—I have seen significant decreases in violence, bigotry, and oppression around the world, and certainly uneven but significant advances in freedom and democracy. But, of course, my ability to see the future is very limited.
And I am dubious about grand narratives in any event. I do not believe in vast schemes; as far as I can tell, they all seem so far to have turned out badly. I am very micropolitical. In my own work as a peacemaker and community builder, I have always sought to institute change at the most local possible level, in schoolrooms, church basements, community clinics, and youth detention centers.
So my thinking about the sacred plant spirits is micropolitical as well. Grand narratives, in my opinion, too often disparage what medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman calls local moral worlds—“the personal pains and distress that sick persons bring to shamans, which shamans try to cure.” The misery that comes of poverty, inequality, and hopelessness, the suffering of the person who seeks out the curandero for relief of pain, sickness, sorrow, bad luck—all this may be both moral commentary and political performance, but it is, most of all, a lived experience, immediate and direct. And we are the ones who are called upon to heal it.
I think the plants love us. I have no idea why. We certainly have done nothing—at least recently—to deserve it. I think that they want us to be human beings again. Each step we take in that direction will help to heal the world.
Carl Helmle: Can you describe for us what your primary focus is at this point in time and any projects you are currently involved with?
Stephan Beyer: My current interests center on the indigenous ceremonial use of the sacred plants—ayahuasca and other psychoactive and healing plants in the Amazon, peyote in ceremonies of the Native American Church, huachuma in Peruvian mesa rituals, and teonanácatl and other mushrooms and plants in Mesoamerican healing ceremonies. My goal is to understand the individual phenomenology—the unique personhood—of the different sacred plants under their conditions of use in indigenous ceremony, not as their allegedly single active molecule is ingested under experimental or recreational conditions.
I just finished an article on the origins of ayahuasca, which I have posted on my blog, and which has generated some very interesting discussion. I am working on an article about reintegration after life-changing experiences—what is sometimes called metanoia. I am working on two preliminary ideas for books—one about huachuma, the San Pedro cactus, and its use in Andean shamanism; and the other about the contemporary Native American Church, especially as it changes and adapts under a new generation of leaders.
I am waiting to see what doors the spirits open for me next.