In search of healing in the Amazon Rainforest

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.

by Nick Polizzi — 

What we did could be seen as extremely risky and careless, perhaps even criminal. At least that is 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 abyss for more than a month.

Given the circumstances, many were surprised to hear that we received more than 400 applications for this “healing journey,” as we called it. People worldwide, suffering from just about any 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 and 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 short of telling them not to come; yet there was still a line around the block. Why?

Reason 1: People are running out of time. Yes, science is moving us forward, but cures for afflictions like AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s, M.S., Alzheimer’s, diabetes and depression are not right around the corner, and for all we know they could be 100 years away. Our great grandchildren may have those solutions, but we do not have that kind of time. The clock is ticking, and people are beginning to take matters into their own hands.

While vetting potential patients for the documentary, 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 favor of mysterious jungle treatments, he responded, “The doctors told me that if I defeated the cancer using Sandostatin (a big ‘if,’) I would have to take it for the rest of my life. At $1,000 per month, I would be living under a bridge like a troll. That is not much of a choice.”

Reason 2: The rainforest is a virtually untapped resource for powerful medicine. It is a fact that more than 30 percent of modern-day pharmaceuticals come from the rainforests. The vast tropical expanses of South America are home to more than 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 is a reason the major pharmaceutical companies are beginning to set up research labs on the fringes of the Amazon jungle — it is where the medicine is. But proper conventional research takes years and millions of dollars, a decades-long patenting process. What do we do if we are sick now?

During production on The Sacred Science, I had the honor of speaking with legendary ethnobotanist and preservationist, Mark Plotkin. I asked how, with 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 lynch pin 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 remote, these jungles are not empty. The Amazon has been home to the same indigenous tribes for thousands of years, during which time the elders have, through trial and error across generations, cataloged each plant according to their 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 catalog is not written on paper or stone — it is passed down word of mouth, from the medicine man to his/her young apprentices. They do not share the true secrets readily.

Reason 3: “We are never gonna survive, unless we get a little crazy.” (Thanks to Seal for that song lyric.) We live 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 their favorite reality show than their household. Every year, we are getting sicker and more detached. Thankfully it appears that this way of life may 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, one of the local shamans, Habin, 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. The most astounding part is that these groups have had no known contact with each other for thousands of years, and yet they all carry the same fundamental beliefs.

Most of our applicants were well aware of the spiritual aspects of Amazonian healing, having read firsthand accounts of the vision quests and sacred ceremonies that are a staple of the curandero’s toolkit. Now, the importance of the plant medicines in this process cannot be overstated. These are powerful, precise remedies that are used with the utmost respect and care. But it was this willingness to step outside the conventional comfort zone and into a completely new concept of what it means to truly heal that made these patients remarkable.

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 definite and turning them into guinea pigs in some misguided experiment to prove that some third-world savagery might hold the magic charm that has escaped Western medicine for centuries. We could never have foreseen how this true-life drama would unfold. But five of these patients came back with undeniable physical recovery. All of us came back forever changed.


Nick Polizzi has directed and edited feature-length documentaries. His role as producer of The Sacred Science stems from a calling to honor, preserve and protect the ancient knowledge and rituals of the indigenous peoples of the world.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 31, Number 6, December 2012/January 2013.

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