Did you know that 25 percent of the active ingredients in cancer drugs are found only in the Amazon? Only 10 percent of its plants have been studied for their medicinal propertieies.
I recently had the chance to interview a friend of mine, Robert Sindelar, who also happens to be a shaman. I met Rob in October of 2013 at a plant-based medicine retreat that I participated in, in Peru. Recently Rob, along with film director Angela Gouglas and producers Shannon Wingard and Sean McKnight, have been involved in a pretty incredible project, the goal of which is to document the journey of 3 cancer patients spending 2 months in the Amazon rainforest, being treated with solely plant medicines.
Here’s what Rob had to say…
Hi Rob! If you wouldn’t mind, please tell us about your journey thus far and what led you to where you are now and your fascination with plant medicines?
Where to start? Well, from an early age I was groomed to be a scientist, as my father was a medicinal chemist and was quite influential in the direction of my interests during my youth. During the entirety of my secondary education, I worked on a science project investigating the medicinal properties of legume and nutshells—the highlight of which the discovery that there was a compound in peanut shells that was quite active in the tests of the initial extracts against breast and ovarian cancer cell lines. The excitement of that discovery, combined with the success of the project at the Westinghouse/Intel International Science Fairs, catalyzed my interest in the sciences and their applications to the treatment of disease.
I had thought about going into medicine after my collegiate experience to train as a doctor, but something within myself stopped me from taking the MCAT and applying to medical schools, so I instead took a B.S in Chemistry and applied to graduate schools. Also during the years of my academic studies, I worked as a laboratory chemist for a startup pharmaceutical company focused on the semi-synthesis of anti-cancer drugs. The process of semi-synthesis involves collecting bulk plant material, extracting a group of alkaloids that share a similar structure to the most bioactive compound in the plant. Then the different compounds are chemically changed into the same core molecule, from which the bioactive compound is rebuilt, allowing for the production of a larger amount of the drug candidate than what was originally present in the plant material.
I was recruited into the MIT PhD Chemistry program, where I began my synthetic organic chemistry research. After two years there, I found myself disenchanted with the research, in the midst of depression, and in disagreements with my research advisor. Something about it was telling me that it was not my path. I then wrote to a professor at UC Berkeley in the chemistry program about my decision to leave MIT, and he invited me to apply to the program there. He was very kind to fast track my application process, and I began anew. I joined another research group and began work in the practical applications of synthetic organic chemistry towards the synthesis of pharmaceutical compounds. After another two years, the feeling came back that this was not my path. My time there was fruitful, and was an author on several academic publications of my work in various academic journals of organic chemistry research. Instead of completing my PhD at Berkeley, I decided to instead take a master’s degree and set out to discover what to do next. After entering into a teaching program (Oakland Teaching Fellows) aimed at placing high quality teachers in schools in underserved communities in the city of Oakland California, I taught high school chemistry, geometry, computer science, physical education with students in the autism spectrum, as well as served as the stand-in vice principal of the school. During one of the summer vacations, still searching for my path in life as well as other personal healing, I found myself in Peru, working with a powerful plant medicine known as ayahuasca. Through my personal work with the plant, I healed the aspects of myself for which I sought healing, and began my further learning of the other medicinal plants of the area. Six months later, I took an open-ended leave from teaching, moving to Peru to dedicate my life to the study of these plants and their application in the healing of others. Since then I have been both studying and putting into practice what I have learned through the use of these healing plants with others. I am currently engaged in both the shamanic healing practices and the preparations of natural plant medicine remedies for the healing of various conditions of the human experience. I expect to continue this study and practice for the rest of my life.
Coming from a pharmaceutical background, would you say that this encouraged or hindered your decision to look further into traditional Amazonian plants for healing?
I guess it depends upon how I look at it. I would say both. My overall intentions have remained the same between then and now—to help people heal from various ailments of the human condition and to explore the nature through which things interact. When I was training as a synthetic organic chemist, working in the development of novel chemical reactions for application in the synthesis of pharmaceutical drugs, I was driven by the nature of curiosity and exploration, as well as by the aim to have a positive effect on the health of the world. Now, as I am studying the plants of the Amazon and training in the shamanic healing arts, I am still driven by the same things, although the healing of others being the greatest force behind my work. The occidental mindset—the application of the logical mind—has sometimes been a hindrance in my work, as working in the esoteric practices of Amazonian medicinal shamanism forces one to surrender much of these mental patterns to open completely to the intuitive nature of the mind and of consciousness. I strongly believe that in this age, the true power of healing comes from taking the best of both worlds—the occidental and the esoteric—in order to address the conditions of an industrialized world seeking to rebalance itself with its intuitive self. In fact the world itself is in a constant struggle between its two selves—the logical and the intuitive; the practical and the spiritual; the left and the right; the male and the female. It is through the full integration of these two selves of the collective human culture that true healing, prosperity, and harmony can exist.
What discoveries have you made so far?
I would say that at the forefront, it has been an incredible journey of self-discovery, and then through that journey of self-discovery, I’ve learned much about many things. What I have been learning about this healing modality and the use of the medicinal plants of the rainforest thus far is nothing new. These are not my discoveries. They have been around long before I arrived, and have been used by many practitioners over many centuries and in many forms. I would say that at this stage it is more discovering for myself what already exists and is available and then introducing these medicines and methods to a world that has either forgotten or largely ignored them. I work with various plants in a variety of combinations tailored specifically for the healing of individual patients. Will novel discoveries arise during the course of this work? Yes, I believe they already have in some form and will continue to do so as my path continues.
Would you say that these discoveries have been easily accepted by the scientific community or has there been a lot of resistance/skepticism?
I haven’t presented anything yet to the scientific community since my entry into the world of shamanic healing with medicinal plants. I suppose the reception of the work in this documentary would be the test of whether or not these methods are accepted or not by the scientific or academic communities. I’m not sure if work that relies so heavily on the spiritual nature of one’s self, the plant medicines, and disease will ever wholly be accepted by the scientific community, merely due to their inherently different natures. I always like to say that one would never go see a 3D movie wearing 2D glasses. I am also not necessarily interested in convincing them either. If I focus on the healing of those who cross my path, do that work to the best of abilities, and people heal aspects of themselves and/or their conditions, then that is all I want. If the scientific community is convinced… great. If they are not… also great. It is the people seeking healing in this form to whom I am dedicating my life and my work. I would, however, be open to work in collaboration with the scientific community to provide the opportunity for more people to be exposed to this kind of medicine work, especially because of my background in the scientific forum. For example, it would be lovely to be able to take some of the medicinal extracts I work with and run some bioassays against various cancer cell lines or against infectious microorganisms, coming full circle back along the lines of the research I was performing back in my high school years for the science fair project I mentioned before.
How confident are you that these plant-based remedies will cure the cancers of the patients?
I am confident in the medicine work and in the healing power of these plants. I’ve seen what some might describe as being miracles during my course of this work—profound healing of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Whether the patients will be completely cured of their cancers, I cannot tell you. There are so many factors at play, and all must be in synergy to allow for the full or partial healing of their cancers in a predetermined framework of time. I am very confident, however, that through the course of the healing process, aspects of themselves will be healed. If the cancers are healed, then that will be a blessing for them and their respective families, and we will all be in states of immense gratitude.
Do you believe that there is an emotional aspect of healing that is required to rid the body of cancer as well?
I , 100%, believe there is an emotional aspect of healing in all diseases, not just cancer. I would even go farther and say that there is also a mental aspect, as well as a spiritual aspect of healing. We often think of disease as being only an ailment of the physical body; therefore, we only apply a physical aspect of healing to its treatment. Why do we do this? Perhaps, it is because we often only think of ourselves as being only a physical body. What if we think of ourselves as having more bodies, of which the physical is but one? Well, that might change the way we look at the condition of the physical body. If we think of each of these bodies—the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual—as becoming successively larger, subtler, and more diffuse, yet being always connected and communicating to one other, then perhaps any state of disease can also exist or even begin in one of the other bodies. For an intense disease state, such as with cancer, I believe it first exists in the spiritual and karmic bodies and then the mental and emotional bodies before eventually manifesting in the physical body. One can treat the disease as being only physical, but if the mental, emotional, and spiritual roots of the condition remain, then who is to say that the disease won’t reemerge again in the physical body?
What would you say to skeptics or people who call you a charlatan?
Everyone is entitled to his or her own view on anything that enters into his or her experience of life. I’m not really on a quest to change peoples’ minds who have already reached a verdict about how they view the world or practices like mine. Minds will change only when something within experience induces an inward change—a shift. I’m only on a quest to aid in the healing of others who seek it and cross my path one way or another. I would also say that perhaps they would not be good candidates for this type of healing work, or that at least it would be rather difficult for them to undergo.
What are your thoughts on the current methods of cancer treatment? (Chemotherapy and Radiation)
I have several thoughts on those methods. I know several people personally that have undergone chemotherapy and/or radiation and it has prolonged their lives. Some of them led fruitful lives beyond treatment, some led ones riddled with additional suffering of one kind or another. I also know people for whom these methods were not successful in any way. There is a time and place for everything. At one time, I even worked on a chemotherapeutic drug as a chemist. In certain situations, when the cancer has manifested to a great degree in the physical body, there is often no other recourse. However, the toll they take on the healthy cells of the human body, and the lack of addressing the root causes in the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of patients’ lives, definitely allude to the possibility of a different way to heal. I am not one of those who says that there is only one way, and that way is the right way for everyone in every circumstance, nor am I condemning Western medicine. I believe that through the interplay of Western medicine and the esoteric practices there could be many people who can be helped. I believe that there should be more than one option to heal, and that it is the right of the patient to choose which is best for them in which moment.
Has your shamanic training given you any new insight into the power of plants?
Absolutely. My shamanic training has given me new insight into just about everything I can think of. Have you ever read, “The Secret Life of Plants?” It’s definitely worth a read, and much of that research I’ve found to be true in my experience. Perhaps one of the greatest insights is the existence of consciousness in the plant kingdom. We cannot think of it in the same way as human consciousness, but it is a consciousness nonetheless. Also, one important thing to note, is that some of these plant medicines are extremely powerful, almost verging on being dangerously powerful, and should be treated with proper care, caution, and respect. They are to be used appropriately in appropriate cases, and should not be abused in any way, shape or form.
What is it that you hope to accomplish with this documentary?
For me, my main intention to accomplish is to assist three people in their healing journey through cancer. In fact, during those months in the jungle that will be my only focus—to provide them with the greatest care of which I am able, applying all that I have learned in my experiences of both my academic and esoteric stages of my career. I would also love for it to have a positive effect on others’ lives, as well as encourage the world at large to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, specifically in this case, the world’s rainforests.
Any final words that you would like to say about this project?
I have no plans to replace Western medicine or to fight against it. I only want to provide an alternative approach for healing or one that could in some form work in harmony alongside Western medicine.
I have faith that this documentary film is happening for a reason, and that it is to serve the greater good of life on our planet. I trust that people’s lives will change for the better because of it. Sometimes, if we suspend disbelief, miracles can happen.
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