Carlos Tanner is the Director of the Ayahuasca Foundation in Iquitos, Peru, a centre that combines ayahuasca retreats, educational courses, and research to form one of the most well-known and respected plant medicine organisations in the world. We spoke with him recently to learn more about him and what inspired the foundation’s creation.
Carlos grew up in Westport, Connecticut, the youngest of 4 boys. Carlos excelled at school and was popular with his peers, earning the title of class president for three consecutive years. In 7th grade, his parents divorced, and he moved with his father to Worcester, Massachusetts, which had considerably lower economic advantages. Having moved in the middle of the school year, Carlos had missed the grouping-up stage and felt left out. This shift left him feeling alone, resulting in his first experience of depression.
With his father often away for work, and his older brothers at college, Carlos had ample time alone, sometimes days at a time. Once in high school, he visited his brothers, who introduced him to psilocybin mushrooms. Carlos enjoyed this first psychedelic experience, crediting the ideal setting in the company of people he loved and trusted as contributing to his feelings of safety during the trip. Returning with 14 grams of dried mushrooms, Carlos began experimenting alone. He now believes this period of his life and the inward explorations he experienced during this time are attributable to his life-long affinity to psychedelics.
Philosophy of Acid
Left to his own devices, Carlos smoked cannabis before attending high school every day. “I was prepping myself for an illustrious career as a hippy”, he told Uthymia. By age 17, he had begun using LSD but still preferred the mushroom experience. “I brought a sheet of acid to the first day of college”, he remembers with a laugh.
“I decided to study philosophy. Taking psychedelics and studying philosophy creates a pretty unusual context; you’re already thinking deeply, and then you add psychedelics.”
“At one point on acid, I came up with the idea that it was just a placebo, that it was a game, or it was fake. If you believed it to be true, then your belief opened your own consciousness. I tested the hypothesis by taking it, knowing that it was just a placebo; I didn’t have a trip. I felt like I had proven it to myself; I was right. Then I took some with friends and still didn’t have a trip when the others did.”
“I thought I’d figured it all out, but I loved taking psychedelics, and I had ruined it for myself. I couldn’t unknow this truth, but luckily, I figured out how to make it work again by understanding that acid is a chemical that interacts with our biological system, but we are much more powerful than the psychedelic, so we can override it if we want to.”
Around his senior year at college, Carlos started going to raves and experimenting with MDMA and ketamine. After graduation, he tried numerous opioids, including oxycodone and heroin. “I started spiralling. I wasn’t talking to my family; I skipped Thanksgiving because I was too high. My relationships weren’t going well.”
“In 2003, I was at a bar where my friend was DJing. I was smoking and drinking, and then someone offered me a Klonopin. I was fine at first, but then the same person offered me another one as we left. My last memory was driving out of the parking lot. Next, I was 20 miles away from the bar, and my car was sinking into a lake. I swam to shore and walked until I found my way home.”
A week after the accident, Carlos received an email from a friend asking him to join her in Iquitos, Peru, for an ayahuasca experience. He had discussed ayahuasca with her many times but had yet to try it himself. Making his way to the Amazon, Carlos met his friend at shaman Don Juan’s home. “The building he lived in at the time was more of a shack than a house”, described Carlos. “It had a ceiling but not a roof, a dirt floor; it seemed half-built. I had five ceremonies there with Don Juan.”
“the difficulty I was experiencing was more about me than the ayahuasca”
In his first ayahuasca ceremony, Carlos was struggling and purging hard. Until that is, he saw a tribal chief purge easily and get on with his journey. “That was very helpful for me. I could see that he was in control – he wasn’t in the foetal position crying like I was. It made me realise that the difficulty I was experiencing was more about me than the ayahuasca.” he remembered.
Carlos then brought a different mindset to the second ceremony. “I knew I wasn’t going to be afraid this time. I came face to face with what I considered my demon, a giant black pterodactyl that was holding onto this vine coming out of my belly. I knew that it was that demon within me who had driven the car into the river. I followed it into outer space and destroyed it with a sword, then a laser. I turned it to dust. I felt like I had defeated my demon. I felt like that demon was where the voice telling me to do harmful drugs had come from. “
During ceremony, Carlos discovered trauma from his childhood he was unaware he had held onto since he was eight years old. “I had been listening through the wall; my parents were fighting about money. My name kept coming up – I was the youngest of 4 children – I took it to mean I was the one putting financial strain on the family. I assumed it was my fault when they fought; then it was my fault when they got divorced.”
“I began to unravel right there in the ceremony how I had inaccurately interpreted an experience which led to a powerful and detrimental self-perception ever since. I allowed it to infect the dynamics of all my relationships from then on, especially my relationships with my parents. I was now able to see I had taken an incorrect interpretation and was then able to change my perception and alleviate and release my trauma.”
The Birth of the Ayahuasca Foundation
Inspired by his ayahuasca experiences, Carlos moved to live with Don Juan in Iquitos in January 2004. He spent years learning about plant medicines, including other vital plants like bobinsana, noya rao, sangre de grado, piñon colorado, and mucura, among many others. In 2006, together with Don Juan, they began offering ayahuasca retreats to travellers. In 2008 a woman who took part in a retreat offered them a donation. She wrote the cheque out to the “Ayahuasca Foundation”, inspiring Carlos. Shortly after, Carlos obtained an inheritance from his mother’s passing, and in 2009, the Ayahuasca Foundation was born.
An emphasis on education sets the Ayahuasca Foundation apart from other retreat offerings. In 2010 they launched their 8-week initiation course, based on Carlos’ interpretations from his years of study. “I had amassed an impressive collection of information over the years and found I was able to decipher traditional Amazonian paradigms effectively for people from western societies.” He explained.
For those interested in a shorter educational course, the foundation also offers a shorter 4-week “Empowerment” course, a fusion of a healing retreat with an educational course. “We include educational elements in all our shorter retreats too, so that people can take more of an active role in their own healing.” Carlos said.
Another integral aspect of the foundation that sets them apart is the world-class research centre located on-site. Research at the centre began in 2017, and despite funding and COVID-19 hurdles, it continues today. This research is being presented by Dr Simon Ruffell and Wai Fung Tsang in-person and online in London on Tuesday 11th January 2022; register here.
Carlos told Uthymia that a portion of the profits from the Ayahuasca Foundation goes to the Mishana community. “We employ heavily from the local community whenever we have work to be done. We have donated solar panels to all of the houses in the community and welcome the adults of the community into our ceremonies at no cost; we do our best to contribute to their lives.”
Where to now
In 2019, Carlos moved with his wife and child back to Massachusetts to enrol their 7-year-old daughter in school. He splits his year between the two countries: eight months in the U.S., four months in Peru.
“Moving back to the US has allowed me to connect with more people who are unaware of the paradigms of traditional Amazonian healing. People in the U.S. are getting sicker and sicker. Now I see my future involves setting up training programs for therapists for what I call Ancestral Psychedelic Therapy.”
“I want to make sure ancestral psychedelic therapy is a separate branch of psychedelic therapy as it’s a very different approach than what we’re seeing with ketamine, MDMA and current pharmaceutical psychedelics. It is a western interpretation of Shipibo practices that combines elements such as meditation, epigenetic reprogramming, holotropic breathwork, and ancestral traditions from other cultures. I’m trying to make use of the best from all worlds to find what could be the optimal treatment process.”