Carlos Tanner is the Owner and Program Director at Ayahuasca Foundation, an institution that supports the preservation of indigenous wisdom and culture. He organizes healing retreats and educational courses led by indigenous curanderos in the Amazon Rainforest of Peru. Tanner is also a Founding Member of the Psychedelic Medicine Association, a society of healthcare professionals dedicated to education regarding the therapeutic use of psychedelic medicines.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
My early childhood was spent on a farm in New Hampshire and while I don’t have many memories because we moved when I was five, I feel confident that it helped create a connection to nature, because I spent so much time outside exploring, catching frogs, and hanging out with animals.
For most of my childhood, I lived in Southern Connecticut in a wealthy town called Westport. It was there that I went to elementary school and somehow found myself in an experimental educational system in my school, where a small group of students was chosen to have classes in an alternative methodology that focused on creativity. That definitely influenced me in a big way, I’m sure.
I moved to Massachusetts at the age of 12 where my parents soon divorced. That was a dark time for me, but looking back I see that it helped form an important realization for me, that we all view the world from a unique perspective. I was trying to come to terms with my parents telling me two different stories regarding their separation and at first, I thought one must be lying because the stories were so different. I managed to resolve my issues with an understanding of point of view.
I earned degrees in philosophy and art at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and my philosophy dissertation was entitled Optimistic Multiperspectivism, a clear nod to the impact of understanding the concept of perspective at a young age. I also began playing African percussion, taking psychedelics, and studying Buddhism and shamanism.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I am now the father of a most incredible six-year-old daughter, and I am already teaching her what I wish I would’ve realized earlier, which is that what is most important is not what happens in our lives, but how we respond to what happens in our lives. How we respond to an experience determines how we interpret the experience, and how we interpret the experience determines how we remember the experience, and how we remember the experience ultimately determines our reality.
So while we cannot change what happens to us, we can always change how we respond, interpret, and remember our experience. And through this power, which I refer to when speaking with my daughter as our super-power, we can determine our reality. Our ability to respond is our true responsibility. This is probably the most important lesson I have learned so far in life.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I think the most common bad recommendation I hear in the field of ayahuasca tourism, which I guess is what one might name my profession, is that you don’t need a shaman and can just buy ayahuasca and drink it. To me, that is like saying you don’t need a pilot, you can just get a plane (although a spaceship would be more appropriate) and fly it. This recommendation is often justified by the notion that the shamans learned from the plants and nature, so you can do the same. While there will obviously be direct learning in that way, to me that is like saying you don’t need to learn science, because all the scientists of the past were just learning through observation and experimentation, so you can do the same.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to live with and learn from incredible healers. I acknowledge that I also learned a great deal from my own personal experiences and direct connection with plants and nature. But I feel it is naïve to think that one could achieve on their own in a single lifetime the depth of these ancestral traditions passed down through countless generations, and why would anyone want to deny themselves the wisdom and guidance of all the lessons learned by those previous generations? We owe it to ourselves and humankind to honor those traditions and to learn as much as we can from them, even if we adapt that knowledge and develop our own perspectives along the way.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
My parent’s divorce was somewhat devastating to me. I was caught in a custody battle and while I wasn’t completely aware of it at the time, I blamed myself for their separation and all the problems I had from then on were essentially infections from that childhood trauma. At the age of sixteen, I began having suicidal thoughts and depression followed me throughout my life, which is most likely why I found solace in taking drugs to numb my feelings, but also saw the potential of psychedelics to help me resolve my inner conflicts.
It was ayahuasca that provided me the awareness and power to resolve the trauma once and for all. I am so grateful to my first teacher, don Juan, and to the ayahuasca tradition because I feel it really saved my life. The main reason I formed the Ayahuasca Foundation was to provide a path to healing for as many people as possible to realize their own healing transformations. Now I look back with gratitude for the trauma because it created the necessity to find this path. I feel so blessed to live the life I have now that I am thankful for those dark times because they helped show me a light I might never have known existed.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
My path has required what I might call a great amount of faith. It involved making a decision to leave my life behind completely in the US and starting a whole new life in a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language, living in conditions that would not appeal to most people. I have believed in this path so deeply that I have persevered through countless obstacles and challenges. I was not without concern and worry, but it was my determination and confidence to continue forward that has provided such incredible opportunities for me.
Sometimes I look back and wonder how crazy I must’ve been to think it could be done, but I knew in my heart it was my path. Perhaps it was listening more to my heart, even (or especially) when my brain could not understand the message, that led to receiving so many amazing blessings in my life. I suppose each one of us encounters situations like this when we fall in love perhaps, where we must choose to listen to our heart more than our brain to determine our path forward. I am so grateful for all the people and experiences that have guided me along this path and continue to do so.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up at around 7 am every day when my daughter comes in to snuggle with me for about 30 minutes. Sometimes we just lay together quietly, sometimes, we talk about things that are real or imaginary, and sometimes we watch a video together, but her energy is what regulates and balances my own so that I get out of bed with a smile on my face each day. Then we go downstairs and have breakfast together, which always includes drinking a cup of coffee, where my wife and I go over our schedules to coordinate responsibilities. I reliably use the bathroom at around 9 am and then start my day. I used to meditate each morning before my daughter was born, and it is my desire to return to that routine this year.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Meditation played a large role in my life for many years, but since my daughter was born I feel it has been replaced with parenting, which I would say is a different form of meditation. The behavior that I feel has always been the most beneficial for me, however, is play. I have always engaged in playful activity, whether it be playing music, playing sports, playing outside in the woods, anything playful really. I’ve always managed to keep my childhood nature, and I feel it has served me well, most especially with parenting. Children have a magnificent influence on us to remind us to be playful.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I wish I had a better answer for this because I do feel that I could be much more productive than I am, but I guess my strategy is first to have a space I enjoy being in and then, of course, to enjoy doing what I enjoy doing. Thankfully, I enjoy it so much my work that once I start, it’s easy for me to keep going, as I feel I build up momentum as I go. I use a calendar and take notes on my phone, but I can’t say I have too many strategies. I just do my best to make sure I get everything I need to do done. This is definitely an area that I need to work on, though.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda is probably what pointed me in the direction of shamanism at the age of eighteen. I had just begun experimenting with psychedelics and reading that book helped to shape my perspective on the potential of my experiences. My interest in shamanism and psychedelics would greatly deepen with time.
Food of the Gods by Terrence McKenna brought my interest in both shamanism and psychedelics to a whole new level. It inspired me to want to do more than just personal experimentation. I would say that it was that book and McKenna’s other works that planted a seed in my consciousness that my life’s path might be in the field of shamanism.
Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East by Baird T. Spalding has most likely influenced my life the most. I read it when I first started living in the Amazon rainforest with the shaman, don Juan, studying the ayahuasca healing tradition. The way the story and its lessons integrated into my experiences in ayahuasca ceremonies was absolutely profound and shaped a newly developing paradigm for me about who I am and what we, as humans, are capable of. To this day it is at the top of my list of most incredible literary works of all time.
The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton also had a tremendous influence on me. I read that just two years into my study of the ayahuasca tradition in Peru and again, the description of how to activate or deactivate our genetics integrated into my experiences with ayahuasca in the most incredible way. Whereas the Spalding works could be described as religious philosophy the Lipton works were scientific biology, which seemed to be a great balance for me as I navigated the challenges of processing two separate realities.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ from Albert Einstein touched me when I was a young kid and helped me to value creativity in my own efforts. I would often repeat it and perhaps it was the first quote I ever memorized. Looking back I can see how it most likely helped me to think out of the box and perhaps led me to follow an uncommon path in life.
‘A good traveler has no fixed plans’ is a quote from the Tao te Ching that has served to help me on many occasions. The first time it helped me was when I traveled to Iquitos, Peru to drink ayahuasca for the first time in 2003. My plans were changing and I was getting very frustrated about it. Luckily, I had the Tao te Ching with me and I decided to open to a random page, as I often would, to see what message would appear and that message allowed me to open my eyes and mind to new opportunities as a result of what I felt was a deviation from my plan. I began to believe that my path would reveal itself, rather than having to determine where it would go. This has been and continues to be a great lesson for me.