In a shaded hut, a brown-haired man in a T-shirt stands, eyes closed, breathing deeply as smoke swirls around him. A shaman with long, white hair jingles a bell over his head. He exhales, and takes a sip of cactus tea from a wooden cup.
The man is Aubrey Marcus, creator, producer and funder of a new documentary film Huachuma. The film is directed by Mitch Shultz (director of DMT: The Spirit Molecule), and sets out to provide a glimpse into the Amazon jungle, where the ceremonial consumption of plant medicines — like the huachuma, or San Pedro cactus — is ingrained in local culture.
“The initiation we’ve undertaken this week reflects an understanding of the nature of the three worlds,” says shaman Don Howard Lawler, founder of the SpiritQuest Shamanic Sanctuary, an ayahuasca and huachuma retreat center, during the film. “The lower world is the world of our spiritual beginnings, where we’re coming from as spiritual beings. That is manifest in water as the birthing element.”
The scene cuts to images of glassy channels of water winding through thickets of trees. A woman named Megan is shown sitting in a chair outside of a hut, remembering aloud the reflection of the trees in the water.
“It’s just a reminder that everything is so divine in its own way,” she says.
Don Howard’s voice speaks once more, over images of barefoot, indigenous children running down a tree-lined path towards a village.
“I believe ancient wisdom is the medicine for the modern world,” says Don Howard. “Its simply a return to a sense of connectedness to the Earth, an acute awareness of our interdependence with the Earth, an acute awareness of the concept of reciprocity.”
The film focuses, of course, on the sacred plant medicine huachuma, also known as the San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi) cactus. It is native to the Andes mountains of Ecuador and Peru, and has been used in spiritual and healing ceremonies, where the plant is consumed as a tea, for thousands of years. It has the ability to provide visionary experiences, and the potential for profound healing — physically, mentally and spiritually. It has been known to bring down fevers, heal emotional traumas and generally connect people to one another and to the greater universe. According to tradition, the cactus is a masculine energy of the heavens, (as opposed to another sacred Amazonian brew, ayahuasca, which is believed to hold the feminine energy of the earth).
The 45-minute-long production set out to capture the true feeling of traveling into the Amazon to experience the cactus, one of the oldest psychedelic plant medicines in existence. Marcus said he made the film with the sole intention of sharing the experience with others — something that ended up benefiting the overall quality of the content he and his crew were able to capture.
“This film isn’t designed to make money, and it won’t make money, and that’s not the purpose of it,” Marcus said. “The purpose is to affect the consciousness of humanity for the better, and create a better world. When you’re in alignment with that thinking, it’s easier to get things like permission and to get people to go along with it, because you’re not taking something from them and making money off of it. What you’re doing is allowing them to contribute to something that will benefit the good of all. So that makes things a lot easier from our perspective, and all the people there as well.”
He described the film as a “moving meditation,” noting that he was proud of the way the film was ultimately able to bring the jungle experience to life.
“It gave kind of a texture of the whole journey,” he said. “I think we captured the moment, but we also had the very fabric of what it felt like to be down there, with all of the different shots of the jungle and the journey and all of these different things.”
Marcus, the clean-cut CEO of the multi-million dollar fitness and nutrition company Onnit, has been publicly open about his experiences with psychedelic plants. He attributes that openness to honesty, plain and simple.
“These medicines have helped me on my journey, so it wouldn’t sit right with me if I left that part of my story out,” he said. “That’s been a tool that I can’t remove from the fabric of what allowed me to be successful, so when you think about it, it’s just being honest.”
Marcus describes his own experiences with huachuma as a “master course” in dealing with fear.
“In how to deal with your fears, and how to choose to have faith — fears of the jungle, fears of what’s coming in your life,” he said. “How to overcome your fears and replace them instead with faith: faith in yourself, faith in the universe, faith in your past.”
One of the themes running through the film was the jungle itself — how being in the jungle heightens the senses and immerses the film’s subjects in a raw, unleaded reality.
“The intensity of the jungle is really unmatched,” he said, describing being in the jungle as “paying a house call to Mother Earth.”
“Every cubic foot of jungle has more life forms than any other cubic foot anywhere else on the planet,” he continued. “It’s just teeming with creation, and that’s really intense. It’s intense because it doesn’t like to view people as separate. We like to be separate. We like to isolate ourselves from all the bugs and isolate ourselves from all of the other parts of Earth… And there, in the jungle, you realize you have to just assimilate and become part of it.”
Marcus said the way Western culture is commodifying and destroying the Earth is psychopathic, when you get right down to it, because when we’re harming the planet we’re harming the very essence of ourselves.
“We are the jungle,” he said. “I think that’s the big lesson that you get when you go down there. [People there] don’t look at themselves as separate from the Earth, from the planet. They look at themselves as part of it, and that’s what we are. How do you think we have bones and skin and body? We have that because we came from the Earth. We literally eat stuff that comes from the Earth, and that makes up our whole body, and when we die, we return to it. But somehow, we play a little game and we trick ourselves to think that we’re something different, that we’re not part of the Earth.”
He continued, “We box ourselves in coffins when we die so we don’t return back to it. It’s this whole funny game that we play with ourselves, and I think in those indigenous cultures, they don’t view themselves as separate from it. They view themselves as part of it. And that’s such key fundamental concept because once you realize that, you don’t destroy something that you’re a part of, only a psychopath would do that.”
As film cuts from nature-scapes, to talking heads to indigenous villagers in traditional dance, Tipper’s modern-day electronic music fades into a more Andean sound. Marcus said half of the music he used for the film came from a burned CD he bought for roughly 100 soles from a “guy on a bus” in Peru. He remembers telling the film’s director Mitch Shultz, “This music sounds like what the experience felt like to me.”
Marcus has since been trying to find the man behind the music, and said a friend recently came to him with a lead.
“We’re in the process of contacting the guy who made that music and seeing what he wants to do,” Marcus said, noting that hopefully, in the spirit of huachuma, they’ll be able to strike an agreement that works for everyone.
Marcus said ultimately he made the film because he believes huachuma is a medicine that could help bring compassion to the world. He explained how in ancient times, Amazonian tribes would administer the cactus tea to newcomers.
“What the archaeological records show is that there was a period of hundreds of years of total peace,” he said. “No weapons of war, no signs of mass conflict were discovered during that period. And it’s because huachuma was offered as a sacrament that helped bond people together, build bridges among communities, open peoples’ hearts to recognizing each other as just themselves, living a different life. And I think that kind of spirit that huachuma can create is really unique.”
He said that while many plant medicines turn a spotlight inward, helping people overcome personal barriers, huachuma is a more outward uniter.
“If I look out at all of the medicines of the world, and which ones I think could make some of the biggest difference, well, ayahuasca is great healing psychological trauma, and physical trauma, in a variety of different ways. But huachuma is the medicine that might be able to bring the whole planet together.”