I don’t know how to explain what happened to me.
I first heard about Tonkiri when I interviewed Sarah Anne Johnson back in June about her work on festivals and mind-altering substances. After our interview, we continued chatting more generally about the benefits of altering consciousness. She began to tell me about her experiences with ayahuasca at Tonkiri, a learning and wellness centre near Sandilands Provincial Park, using ayahuasca ceremony to heal, learn, and inspire. When we parted ways, she promised me the contact information of the ayahuasca shaman who runs Tonkiri, Jim Sanders, warning me that if I wanted to write an article about Tonkiri, Jim would likely ask me to participate in a ceremony. I knew nothing about ayahuasca, but I was intrigued.
A few months later, I’m headed east on Highway 1 towards Tonkiri, riding with two people Jim asked me to pick up in the city. I still don’t know much about ayahuasca, having decided not to do any online research before the trip. I wanted to just let myself have the experience. But my curiosity gets the better of me in the car. My passengers respond to my questions by telling me a bit about the structure of the ceremony, but when I ask what it’s like to be on ayahuasca — what they call drinking the medicine — they tell me it’s hard to describe. It’s not like anything else, and everyone has their own experience with the medicine. By the time we get to Tonkiri, I’m nervous about what to expect.
We unload the car and Jim greets us as we walk toward the ceremony lodge. I’m introduced to a small group of people whose names I forget almost immediately. I’m happy to see that Sarah’s here. She and Jim’s helpers get me set up in the lodge where I’ll be sleeping for the night after the ceremony. I spend a bit of time orienting myself, relearning names, and chatting with people before ceremony starts.
After ceremony, I spent time talking with Sarah and Jim about how someone could possibly write about the experience of ayahuasca. As Sarah aptly put it to me, “How do you communicate your reverence?” And the truth is, I don’t know how or if I should write about it. My experience was profoundly personal: something just for me. And yet, I went out to Tonkiri with the purpose of writing about it. That sense of guilt, of owing my readers and Jim something in exchange for the experience of being out there, was something I thought through a lot during the ceremony.
Here’s what I will say about it to satisfy your natural human curiosity. Yes, I got mind-meltingly, life-altering high, but it was more than that. I was able to think about my life and the world and the barriers I’d constructed for myself about writing this article in a way that felt productive. The experience changed me for the better.
The day after the ceremony, Jim and I make time to talk more. We’re sitting in one of his favourite spots in the woods around Tonkiri with the wind rustling through the trees. I’m not quite myself yet, still reeling from the ceremony, but I feel ready for our conversation. Ayahuasca helped me sort out the questions I want to ask, and how I want to ask them.
FULL: I’m curious about your path. How did you get to this point?
Jim Sanders: I used to be a black bloc anarchist. I was pretty disillusioned with the world, but one thing I had was my refusal to enter into nihilism.
I first went to South America in 2002. I was in Bolivia, making a documentary about the drug war, and that introduced me to the Indigenous people there. I recognized their power and humility — their ability for social movements — and I also recognized the role that plants and spirituality played for them. Back then, I had no time for spirituality.
I went to Maestro Juan Flores to make a movie, and before I knew it, I was becoming an ayahuasca shaman. It’s a form of social change and activism for me. Ultimately, I hope to open the world to accepting this medicine, because I believe it works.
FULL: Sarah told me that you’re building Tonkiri for Maestro Flores.
JS: After meeting Maestro Flores, I said, “You know, you should really come to Canada.” And he said okay. He had never been anywhere but the Amazon. On my last day of ceremony with him, he handed me these bottles of ayahuasca, telling me, “You should take these up with you because it will be better for my trip.” I came back wondering how do I bring this guy to Canada? That goal gave me the confidence and purpose to reach out to Indigenous people here, which I had never had the ability to do, because before I felt guilty and bad, and I didn’t know how to reach out. I met this elder, Don Cardinal, who told me what I needed to do to make this happen, and within a year, Maestro Flores was here, and we were doing ceremonies.
Through meeting with Indigenous people, I learned about the sacredness of Manitoba. In 2009, I went with Maestro and a group to the petroforms at Bannock Point. Part of it is a place the general public can visit, but if you hike a couple hours in and know the way, there’s the real site. It’s fenced off by Heritage Canada. I befriended the park keeper, who at that time was an ally to the Indigenous people, and he gave me the key. The moment we went inside, Maestro turned to me and said, “Look Jim, it’s important that you know this, I’m home now.” What he proceeded to say is that his people are from here, and now he was back. His pilgrimage is to come here. This is the most important place to do work for him. I’ve made plans and created this space for the work that he says needs to happen here. I’ve brought him here six times, and the vision is for him to come back and have a home and residency here where he can do a deeper work.
FULL: You mentioned that in the past you hesitated to connect with Indigenous people in Manitoba because of your feelings of guilt. Something I was asking myself last night is, as a white person, am I allowed to be here? I’m curious how you’ve wrestled with thoughts about cultural appropriation.
JS: I get my blessing and validation from Maestro Flores, and I don’t listen to anyone else. He’s the one I’m appropriating from, so if this is what he says I should be doing, I will do it. It would be my ego to get in the way of that. I withstand the criticism; it used to be worse. Now I’ve been doing this long enough, I’ve increasingly proved myself, and I have Indigenous allies that do come to ceremony with me. My ultimate goal is to bring this medicine to the Indigenous people here.
FULL: When I look at the people who are here attending ceremony, there are people who have money and people who don’t. Tell me more about the practicality of that in terms of what you charge for ceremony.
JS: It’s adapting constantly, and I used to struggle with it a lot more. I need to support myself and my family, and I need to build this place. I don’t have much money at all. I built this place out of ceremony, good will, and support from others. I envision Tonkiri becoming a place that is supported by government, so that I can reach out to those communities that can’t afford it. I do give free ceremonies or discounts depending on the situation.
In ceremony, we’re all equal, and it’s hard for some to come into that space. Sometimes people with more money are less able to do it.
FULL: How do you explain the benefits of ayahuasca to others?
JS: The main thing for me is that this is medicine, it’s not a hallucinogen or a trip, it’s powerful medicine that has been used for thousands of years. Done properly, it can stimulate healing and transformation in ways that I’ve not seen in other places.
FULL: I think one of the things that I’m wrestling with, talking about this being medicine, is the idea that leaving sobriety is an escape.
JS: In the Western world, we use many things to alter our consciousness in a negative way — pharmaceuticals, bad choices. I used to experiment with drugs, and I had a addictions, but I’m super clean now. I eat well. To me, ayahuasca is the most sobering experience you can have. It’s not about escapism, it’s about clarity and revealing a deep truth within yourself. Ayahuasca comes into communities and helps inspire creative solutions and action. You’ve done it once. People in the western world do it once and go, “That’s what it is.” But it’s an infinite journey. Last night was my most powerful ceremony ever. Watch me next week, and I’ll say the same thing. It’s a sharpening. And that’s why it’s medicine.
FULL: In addition to the ayahuasca ceremony, the people here are drinking plant diets. What purpose do those diets serve?
JS: Ayahuasca’s the force, and the other plants are the more targeted tools of transformation. I’m recreating Maestro Flores’ model, working with Amazon plants, and increasingly I’m working with Manitoba plants too. Right now, there are a bunch of people drinking Shihuahuaco, a tree in the Amazon. We boil its bark down into this concentrate and drink it three times a day. We take a diet without salt or sugar, so the medicine’s absorbing. Every two days, we do the ayahuasca ceremony, and in the ceremony, I sing the Icaro, which is the song of gratitude specific to the Shihuahuaco plant, and that activates the medicine. Different trees can do different things. One will help get rid of fear and anxiety and clear the mind. There’s one that will clean your blood. It’s an endless cornucopia of plant medicine that can be dieted on and activated.
For me, ayahuasca ceremony is a knowledge system on how to enter into communication with your environment and learn from it. All this knowledge doesn’t come from other people, it comes from the plants themselves. Ideally, people from around the world can come here, learn the knowledge systems of our plants, go back to their places, and try to enter into communication with their environments, their trees. It can be a renaissance of recovering knowledge from trees and plants.
FULL: I’m thinking about what you’re saying from an evolutionary perspective. Like the fact that humans have been here for such a small piece of the life of earth.
JS: Exactly, this is the plants world. That’s something I understand — that the plants are running the show. They’re intelligent, conscious beings. Maestro Flores would say that the gods are in the plants, they just can’t speak. Ayahuasca is a translator for the plants; you can speak with them again and learn.
Maestro Flores is a man of very few words. He’s the master of leaving a room when too much talk is happening. He’s not a guru who needs to tell you anything. The plants are the gurus. Our job is just to give the plants and try to stay out of the way.
FULL: Being in Winnipeg, in a situation where many people know each other and there’s a lot of history, it can be very overwhelming — the amount of confrontation, how interconnected things are socially. How has your relationship to that social environment changed through this?
JS: It was a tough decision to go down this path. Being one of the founders of Mondragon, and so connected to the realm of anarchists and activists, I had to leave that world. Increasingly over the years, people from my past trickle in. I rarely talk about ayahuasca ceremony in public, and I don’t bring it up in casual conversation. I’m not going to convince people, they have to come to me. At this point, there are a lot of people from Winnipeg who come through my ceremonies. It’s kind of a silent network of people from all walks of life. I think we’re turning the tide.
FULL: From what you’ve seen, how can ayahuasca change people?
JS: Ayahuasca is time in a cup, and time heals all wounds. That’s why you can process so many things in such a short amount of time. Rather than take twenty years, let’s go through those emotions in one night and speed up the process.
To me, Maestro Flores is the epitome of human potential. He’s just so humble, so full of love, and so refined. When you meet him, you go, “That’s what humans can be like?!” I have a great understanding of what humans are, what spirit is. It’s an infinite journey. And I do believe we are evolving with the plants, hopefully into something better. But it takes time.