Interview with Jeff Firewalker Schmitt
Updated: May 31, 2019
A dozen Wisdom Keepers are coming to England this summer to walk the ancient ways, bless the land and share their wisdom with those they meet along the way. By way of introduction we will be sharing conversations with them over the coming weeks in the run-up to their attendance at Glastonbury Festival. First up is Jeff Firewalker Schmitt, a walker-between-worlds: a scientist, folk healer, ceremonialist and musician, who has spent precious time over here in the last few years sharing his profound understanding of North and South American Nature Mysticism.
WK: We’re sharing conversations with the Wisdom Keepers in the run up to this year’s program of events and we wanted to start with you Jeff because you’re such a great bridge between the cultures.
J: Well, thank you. That’s one of the things I endeavour to be. And one of the things we try to cultivate within the Eagle Condor Council community is what we refer to in Quechua as chakaruna, the bridge person. And most of the really interesting and juicy stuff in life tends to happen at the boundaries, the interfaces.
WK: How did you come to be a keeper of this ancient Andean tradition?
J: I came to it through the San Pedro medicine path. For more than three decades I was a completely committed, died-in-the-wool academic university professor and for a time a department head. And for the majority of that time, I was completely invested in the model of Western science, and unconsciously contributing to Scientism, that among other things posits that all of our problems have technical solutions. And it wasn’t until I was working with the North Carolina University system, getting a new research institute started, that a whole series of unexpected events led me to a ceremony on the Cherokee tribal grounds, which led me to the person who would become my teacher for many years, my San Pedro maestro. I had worked with other powerful medicines, such as ayahuasca, and was in that phase of annihilation when I first experienced San Pedro. I went into the ceremony expecting more of the same – to be ground to a pulp! But sitting there for the very first time with San Pedro, I discovered home. After that, I was very fortunate to have a teacher living not too far from me for quite a few years, who happened to be one of the great carriers of this tradition, this was an incredible luxury. The traditional Northern Peruvian San Pedro ceremony Is extremely elaborate. Yet, I found myself knowing what was about to happen. I had many incredible visions, which I later found out to actually be of the Homelands, the tribal lands of this medicine. It was the first time in my life that I completely felt that I finally arrived home, and the amount of information and healing that was gifted me that first night led me to ask this gentleman if I could become his student. So I sat with him for many years, then sat with his teachers too. And travelled to Peru with him and worked with some of the greatest San Pedro Maestros alive at the time. So I am very blessed in that way! I know that for me to really fully carry the tradition in an honouring way, I needed to understand the historical roots. San Pedro was a major, if not the most significant sacrament and spiritual tool throughout the Andes in pre-Incan times. Over the past eight years I have been learning about the cosmology of Andean nature mysticism more directly. I now have a number of teachers, that I have been studying with and working with and traveling with for quite a few years now. The ECC hosts annual pilgrimages with my teachers. These traditions are considered in an anthropological sense ‘pristine’. The cultures of the high Andes are among about a dozen throughout the world that have received the least interfering influence from the outside world.
WK: So there is very little syncretism?
J: Right. So the practices and the prayers and the way of working with the earth and the cosmology are very fine-tuned and very pure in a sense. They are very simple yet potent. There has been the influx of Catholicism, of course, which came in with the Conquistadores, and some pacos (carriers of the nature mystic traditions) as well as being Andean priests, follow Catholicism too. As a matter of fact, in the north a lot of the curanderos (healers) put an overlay of folk Catholicism on their altars, on top of what they were already doing so as to avert suspicion from the Catholic priests and missionaries - this helped the system to survive. So there is an influence from Europe here, but it is relatively minor, and again the beauty of the nature mysticism tradition is that it is so simple, which is a beautiful foil to our tendency in the Western world to believe that complex solutions, complex systems must be better than the simple ones. I gradually came to this understanding on the path towards becoming a San Pedro maestro, but also there was a point where one of the nature beings/teachers started talking to me and providing guidance and teaching, and much of what I am doing now is in alignment with those direct transmissions I received whilst on pilgrimage down in the Andes. Andean mystics work with apus, which are spirits that inhabit some mountains. An apu very significant to the Andean people called Ausangate was the one who reached out to me so to speak.
WK: How do you think your former science-oriented self might have rationalized this transformation of your life? This is clearly what you were born to do.
J: That’s a really good question, but there is a leading assumption that somehow mystical traditions are fundamentally at odds with western science. What’s been so important to me to learn, both after spending time with the Secoya in the Amazon and with the paqos in the high Andes, is that their systems of spiritual cosmology and healing are every bit as rigorous of a science as we practice in universities and research centres here in the developed world. The tools are different, the language is different, but one is truly no more exotic and bizarre than the other, and one is truly no more without its bounds of domain and interpretability than the other. Although I would say that mystical traditions honour the limit past which their self-consistent system of inquiry can’t help you. (Laughs) That’s part of the humility that is inherent in what I would consider awesome spiritual traditions. There tends to be a bit more hubris in Western science. Our intoxication in the West with the fruits of scientific discovery has led us to believe that there is a technical solution to everything, and that Western science as a mode of inquiry is without bounds. I have come to learn over time that that is a very damaging worldview. Indeed, I think that what we are facing right now is that there are very well-meaning, very brilliant, wonderful personalities out there, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who really do believe, and are promoting technical solutions to problems that I personally believe are more about the heart and the return to experiencing ourselves in relationship to the rest of the universe in a way that Western science could never ever touch.
WK: That’s right. Science cannot define the sacred. How would you introduce the idea of the sacred to somebody who is deeply conditioned in a scientised world view?
J: That’s a really, really good question. For me, even back when I was completely bought into the model of Western science, everything that was beyond my rational mind’s capacity to explain, all these things in my felt experience that were and remain beyond logic, beyond explainability are in a sense sacred. Also, I tend to be very cautious about dividing lines between, say, what is nature and what is not, what is indigenous and what is not, what is sacred and what is not. Who am I to draw that line? How am I to say, for example, that the work of Einstein, his deep passion and drive to understand the nature of light, that led to him understanding the nature of photons; how can I say that that’s not sacred? How can I say that someone who spends their life doing cancer research, seeing that there are people that are suffering, and feeling that there is a solution within the bounds of Western science…how can I say that that’s not sacred either? So these lines of intellectual delineation are where I think we get into trouble. So when we deny our interconnection, and the fact that we are part of a massively interacting chain of causality that is largely beyond our rational understanding is where the trouble starts. Its where awe dies. I love it that Ervin Lazslow says we need to “re-enchant our universe.” In Quechua, the language of the Andean nature mystics there is a very important term, ayni which means sacred reciprocity. Ayni is to operate from a place of sacred awareness. In effect, the imperative is for us it to bring ritual and ceremony back. Rather than being artefacts of primitive culture, ritual and ceremony increase our connectedness and as a result we receive more useful information. This helps us act in a way that strengthens and balances the system. This is, to me, sacred. Where we deviate from ayni is where we step out of the sacred. If you go back to the origins of the word ‘sin’, what you find is that its actually more to do with stepping out of reciprocity than a value judgment.
In the industrialized world, it is sometimes hard to really understand these things in terms of category. My iPhone represents three or four hundred thousand design hours of people asking the question “what is the best way for a human being to interface globally in a simple and meaningful way?! How can I say that this is either sacred or not? Certainly, the means of manufacture is wasteful and exploitative, yet this tool that I can hold in my hand, can query the whole noosphere in a millisecond! Wow! One of my biggest teachers in this regard has been Grandfather Tobacco. On the road to becoming a tabaquero I learned so much about how shaky these categorisations are. Tobacco is reviled in popular culture as the cancer stick, the wicked weed, the addictive demon. Well, yes, and NO! A much bigger ‘no’ than a yes. I mean the ‘no’ is that this plant is considered by cultures that use it traditionally the most significant and powerful of all the plant healers, and the lesson this started to unpack for me was a universal example here that you misuse a powerful tool and you reap major negative consequences. And what happens is that those negative consequences get construed as an accurate description of what the plant is. It’s tragic.
WK: I remember you sharing an origin story about tobacco being the last of the plants to be allocated its virtues, its medicine, by Great Spirit and so chose to partake of the medicine of all the other plants. And I was reminded of this story when recently reading Pico della Mirandola’s great Renaissance Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which the Creator declares to Adam that the rest of Nature has been given its defined forms and virtues, but that, as the last-born, he alone of all Nature’s creatures is free to define himself according to his own free will. So it’s no surprise that we should have such a rich and complex relationship with tobacco, which shares this same distinction.
J: Beautiful. Thank you for that teaching brother!
WK: Not at all. Thank you. I just spotted two bits of the jigsaw that seemed to fit together. OK, so the Wisdom Keepers, how did you get involved in this initiative?
J: Well, our mutual friend, avatar and curator par excellence, Ben Christie, got me involved, and I am so absolutely indebted to him for his assistance to me personally and our organisation in finding a community and really helping to establish our teachings in Britain. He’s been a major catalyst; so last summer I had the great pleasure of presenting at the Wisdom Keepers series in London, where I talked for a couple of hours on the topic of re-establishing a coherent cosmology, and its necessity in bringing balance and a sense of place and happiness and peace back to the planet. So that was great fun and I’ve had a great honour of meeting quite a few of the other wisdom keepers and I’m so looking forward to what we’re doing at Glastonbury this year. It’s extraordinary, the opportunity, when you have that many people together in one place, the potential to be catalytic is really, really high. I think I’ll be doing an experiential presentation very similar to the one that I gave in London last summer for Wisdom Keepers. I’ll also be doing a tobacco ceremony, this time that’s focussed more generally on plant spirit medicine. The Andean nature mystics, say that the imperative of conscious evolution is to bring heaven and earth together once again. That’s fairly universal, and one of the ways that this is practiced by shamanic traditions around the world is working with plant intelligence. To bring heaven and earth together to experience ‘being in all ways.’ When we work in a traditional way with plant medicines we start to understand at a fundamental level what it’s like to be a plant. And the ayni, the reciprocity of this, is that we give the plant the opportunity to understand what it’s like to be a mammal. So at Glastonbury we’re really going to focus on exercises and journeys that help us get a sense of what this alchemical practice of working with plants is all about. I will also be participating in a panel/round-table that Graham Hancock is chairing on powerful routes forward for us all at an individual and societal level on Sunday at The Commons.
WK: I’ve been going to Glastonbury for years, but this is one of the most exciting things to happen, having these wisdom keepers from traditional cultures there. What is it, do you think, that makes indigenous culture so important to our modern lives?
J: So, I think it’s pretty simple, but you know, again, I believe in some ways we’re all indigenous. How do we draw that line? But if I had to draw a line it probably has to do with the separation that we’ve experienced from Nature. Many of us almost have an oppositional worldview about Nature, and that’s been informed by so many events over time; the unintended consequences of technical and intellectual revolution have brought us to a place very separate from Nature. And so I think that the most important thing that we at this time in the industrialised world can learn and glean from what we call indigenous culture is how to stop destroying the earth; how to love ourselves, love each other more deeply and love the earth. You know it’s hard to protect something that you don’t love, and I think that’s a very important part of what our brothers and sisters that live in these intact, nature-connected cultures and cosmologies and systems can teach us.
WK: Yes, thank you. So, one way we can define what an indigenous culture is, is one that hasn’t undergone this separation from Nature.
WK: What would you say is the easiest way to incorporate practices which can help people reintegrate with Nature; rediscover their indigenousness, as it were?
J: Oo, it’s so easy and it’s so hard! When you first get up in the morning, go outside your residence, find a patch of earth, kneel down on the ground, touch the earth, have something in your hand that’s sweet, or some kind of sacred offering, like tobacco, corn, whatever, and you say, whether you believe it or not, “thank you for my life; thank you for this new day; thank you for the opportunity to exist and experience all of this. From the deepest place of my heart please accept what I hold in my hand as an offering of gratitude for living this day”. And lay that down on the earth, and sit just for a minute, stay quiet.
WK: That’s great.
J: Even if you don’t believe it, do and do it, and keep doing it and keep doing it, and it’ll change your life. It’s so simple.
WK: I love that. Thank you very much. That’s a brilliant one. What would you say is the biggest cultural threat to us, that is leading us away from our natural centre more than anything else; something we should try to avoid as much as possible?
J: That’s such a good, and fundamental question. What to avoid? It is what I have come to view as the opposite of love: apathy. The illusion that what I think doesn’t matter; what I do doesn’t matter; that somehow I‘m separate; that I’ve got my stuff and I’m fine and I’m not having any impact on the world; my feelings don’t matter, they’re mine and my own; my actions aren’t that big of a deal, because I’m only one of tens of billions of other creatures on the earth. This is the true toxin to our evolution. This toxin allows the cult of the individual to persist; What drives this? I believe it is the miasma of economic individualism that, unintentionally grew out the Industrial Age. The notion that the way that we think, the way that we believe, the way that we interface with the world somehow doesn’t make a difference.
WK: You’re absolutely right. That kind of apathy doesn’t allow for a sense of ‘us’, because if we are all thinking in the way you describe, how can we have a sense of togetherness? That’s what leads to a complete disintegration of society.
J: That’s right, and that’s why we are so physically unhealthy and why we’re so depressed in the Western world. I’m not one who wants to idealise the historical past or idealise indigenous cultures of the past or societies of the past; we know so very little, but we do know enough to know that there has been brutality, violence, greed, all these expressions throughout time and we know enough now to know that this environment that we’ve created for ourselves in the context of human culture and civilization is a freak show, and it’s not the way that we have operated as human beings, and that has its consequences. And the deepest thing that we’re grappling with now is this sense of separation.
WK: Well said. Thank you. If there were one piece of advice you could give to a young person today, what would it be?
J: Yeah, I appreciate that question. That’s a very deep question. My best answer comes from the British Isles, it’s what Churchill said when things were at their most dire and most hopeless during WWII: conditions have got so dismal that we have no choice other than to be optimistic. At these points of criticality we have to remember that we are in a complex system, and it’s easy to forget that. You know, when we talk about complexity theory, what we understand is that the behaviour of the system is not determined by anything you can know about individual parts. Emergent behaviour that occurs that is, in so many ways, not predictable. We also know that in complex systems the most subtle, the most minute, stimulus applied in the right way, in the right place, at the right time, can elicit absolutely profound effects. Think acupuncture. So the quest, as Bucky Fuller said it, was to find a lever, to find the trim-tab, where a small perturbation, a small putting forward of an intention or a dream can have a massive multiplier effect. This the place where Churchill’s urging to us in WWII has its logical foundation, because one of us in the right place, at the right time with a precision, with an elegant and subtle perturbation can transform the whole system. That is Western science. That’s not some kind of mystic New Age mumbo-jumbo. So for young people: learn the system, so that you can find the levers and the trim tabs and make a big difference without a lot of pain and effort.
WK: When you say learn the system, you mean understand how the infrastructure as we have it works?
J: That’s a piece of it, indeed. And we need to help develop tools (ceremonial, scientific, etc.) to grapple with what sociologists are calling wicked problems. There is nothing that you are taught at university helps you grapple the kind of problems that have emerged in this age of post-globalization. So, yes, learn the system, but also understand that the methods we have to work with now, in order to effect global change, aren’t part of what’s in the textbooks. That’s the frontier material that is the gift of conscious evolution that the generation of young people now have in front of them. We have a new class of drivers for the advancement of consciousness, because we are truly a global system in a brand new way. For instance, think about biomimicry and the emergence of the internet. I mean, if you think about it in the sense of biomimicry and the evolution of consciousness, the global access to this worldwide web thing is very much equivalent to the emergence of reflexive self-consciousness in the evolution of primates. So what that implies is that we find ourselves at a place that requires a completely different system of inquiry to make sense of what has just emerged. I firmly believe that this system of inquiry will be a hybrid of the old and the new.
WK: Wow. That sounds very exciting.
J: It is. Wow! That’s right, and the best that us old-timers can do is take responsibility for our healing, to facilitate also the healing of our lineages. Young people have plenty of challenges ahead and this work will make it easier for them. One of my teacher’s has always joked that we’re kind of like the ‘janitor generation’; we’re the ones who were born right before this time of criticality, and so in order to help the younger ones, who are ultimately going to be at the heart of the global transformation, we’ve got to make it easier on them. And we can make it easier on them by doing our healing, getting back into balance with the earth, and also clearing up all of our ancestral stuff. You might think that sounds kind of crazy.
WK: No, no. I agree. It seems to have fallen to us to digest a lot of the trauma that we’ve inherited from many generations, so that the next generation, or the generation coming through doesn’t have to deal with it so much.
J: That’s right, because they’ve got to unpack this whole new system of interaction with a globalised consciousness. The gaiasphere, the noosphere has taken a huge step forward in evolution, and there are, as there always have been, forces of resistance and immaturity that want to go back the other way. I mean, every child that hits three years will think: “gosh, it would just be easier to go backwards than it would forwards, wouldn’t it? Can I just go back?” (laughs). We know there’s no going back! So, as the Hopi say, let go of the river’s bank, keep your head above the water, go to the centre and find who has come to join you and celebrate!
WK: Jeff, thank you so much. I look forward to seeing you at Glastonbury.
J: Thank you. See you there!