We know whereof we speak. We have tasted of God and our eyes have opened.1 Albert Hensley, Winnebago
My first encounter with the peyote medicine spirit, ten years before I met it again in the Native American Church (NAC) ceremonies, demonstrated and presaged in a gentle and humbling manner what it’s capable of accomplishing. I was visiting an old friend, Alan, for a couple of days. Alan mentioned that he had one peyote button which he’d kept in a jar for about ten years. He doubted it would still be psychoactive but offered to share it with me and another friend of his anyway. One peyote button among three people is not much, to say the least. When ethnographer Weston La Barre traveled the western United States learning and writing about the NAC in the 1930s, he found that participants commonly ingested from four to thirty or more buttons in a ceremony.
Alan took this dusty old, long ignored peyote, cleaned out the hairs in the center that we’d heard were poisonous, and steeped it in boiled water for some time. The three of us shared the soaked button and drank the resulting tea in silence while sitting in big, overstuffed chairs in Alan’s now darkened living room. We remained like that for close to two hours before Alan broke the silence and asked us what we’d experienced. To our surprise, each of us had undergone something strikingly similar. There were no indications of being “stoned.” We all felt sharp and sober. This little peyote guide had led all three of us on a clear, gentle, and nonjudgmental tour through the aspects of our own thinking and behavior that we needed to straighten out. None of us felt belittled or depressed by this exposé. Instead we each felt a similar quiet humility and gratitude from the experience.
After more than five years of frequent participation in the all-night prayer ceremonies of the Native American Church I now consider myself a member, and although in some respects still an outsider (at least in my own mind.) I’ve been accepted with kindness and generosity of spirit into that “family” and hold this church in my heart with great respect. This article is adapted from my forthcoming book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality, and as the title suggests, I’m passionately attuned to a dawning prayer and vision coming from “the four directions” that on multiple levels the karma of the current dominating worldview on planet Earth has played itself out and we’re now being drawn rapidly into a period that could be called a time of crisis and transformation. As an elder of the church told us in a meeting one night, when this transition period settles out things are going to look very different.
Part of the message contained in the pre-Columbian prophecies of indigenous peoples from around the planet—groups as scattered as the Hopi of southwestern United States, the practitioners of the bwiti religion in equatorial West Africa, and the aborigines of the Australian continent, (to name only a few)—holds that as the unsustainable illusions of the dominator societies continue to be exposed and to collapse, the prayer will gain clarity and strength. One version says that there may even be a kind of quantum moment, no doubt not to be taken overly literally in terms of clock time, when the prayer, the truth, supplants the dying paradigm, like the phoenix that rises from the ashes.
One of the central themes in my book is that as events unfold, those of us attuned to this prayer—at whatever level, from whatever background, and by whatever name—need to pay very close attention to the signs as they develop and keep an open mind about how to proceed. Although this theme reverberates at several levels, here I’m addressing the issue of engaging the assistance of mind-manifesting, entheogenic plants. (By the way, it’s sometimes difficult to know what to call these plants. I often use the respected term “entheogen”, meaning “becoming divine within” or “generating the spirit within”.)
It’s an unanswerable question as to whether there ever was good reason to reject the use of these spirit-medicine plants in spiritual work, but I strongly believe that debate should be put to rest during this crucial transit. These are indeed extraordinary times and likely to become much more dramatic before anything does settle out. In these circumstances the real question is how we can wake up, become attuned to reality, and act upon that understanding as quickly as possible. As has been said, there may not be time for twenty years of therapy or twenty years of only a meditation practice. And in that regard a wise and compassionate case can be made that a number of these plants should and in fact will play a major part in the urgent call to awakening.
A huge body of evidence from the historical and contemporary record makes it unambiguously clear that entheogenic plants can be of great benefit when employed with reverence and knowledge in optimum conditions of “set and setting.” It’s not the purpose of this article to make a list of the plants and those who have used them. A good many Shaman’s Drum readers will likely be aware of much of that history, a history that covers the planet and extends back at least as far as our archaeological investigations have been able to uncover. Stories from some indigenous cultures say that these medicines were given to the people in the earliest days to help them remember and reconnect.
Kanucas, an elder of the NAC and a man sharply attuned to the unfolding of the prayer for planetary healing, told me one morning after a tipi meeting that he’s received a vision from Spirit, a message which he said had also been picked up by others. In this vision three plants are to play a central role in the transformation: ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga. Shaman’s Drum readers are likely familiar with reports of the use of ayahuasca in the Amazonian region of South America and its rapidly expanding use in syncretic churches like the Santo Daime, which is now spreading into North America and Europe.
Iboga, on the other hand, is relatively unknown to westerners at this point. However, there are between two and three million practitioners of the bwiti religion in equatorial West Africa employing this root in their ceremonies. The primary alkaloid ibogaine has also been synthesized and has demonstrated a stunning ability to break addiction to substances like heroin and cocaine. Good information about ibogaine and iboga can be found online and in the recent (2007) book Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism, by Vincent Ravalec et al. (And coincidentally—perhaps—Shaman’s Drum issue #76 arrived in my mailbox during this writing, bringing with it three articles on iboga.)
A component of these prophecies—the vision of the uniting of the four directions—counsels us to strengthen our awakening and our work by being very open and intuitive about learning from each other. Taking my own life path as an example, the journey back toward the meeting with Grandfather Peyote in the environment of the NAC looks to me now like a natural and even inevitable progression. I’ve often had the distinct impression I was being guided in that direction and over the years I simply had to follow the signs as they appeared, without knowing the eventual destination.
A key concept here is “syncretism,” defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “combining different religions, cultures, or ways of thinking. We are becoming rapidly more connected on this small planet, increasingly aware of layers of interdependence and interpenetration, and increasingly part of one larger story. The message is that many of us may need to go beyond exclusivity or dogmatism about our own path—and without of course watering down the power of any tradition—be open to the possibilities for cross-fertilization, for learning from other paths and possibly even incorporating other empowering techniques into existing practices.
This is clearly a complex and controversial topic that I don’t intend to explore too deeply in this context. Let me give you a general example though. For many years I was involved in Tibetan Buddhism as a student, teacher, and meditation instructor. There’s a view in that environment, shared by many, that entheogens, or what are often shrugged off as “drugs,” have no part to play in spiritual practice. Some have dismissed the plants as producing artificial realizations.
My attitude is; Why not? What are we afraid of? As I suggested earlier, when employed with the utmost skill and right attitude, some of these plants can greatly deepen and clarify the often more subtle and gradual realizations gained through practices like a simple mindfulness/awareness meditation practice. And in return, meditation practice can have a highly beneficial grounding effect to help us remain open to and able to benefit from the powerful energies and insights often experienced with entheogens. Kanucas told me after the first meeting I attended that the encounter would likely give me about six months worth of material to process.
Terence McKenna, whom many know as a brave and brilliant explorer of deep entheogenic realms, has suggested that people working with spiritual practices, such as those of Vajrayana Buddhism involving mantra recitation, visualization of deities, and the like, entertain the possibility of finding ways to sometimes include the use of entheogens in conjunction with these practices.2 Might a practitioner discover a level of direct connection previously inaccessible? Radical ideas to some of course, but again, we’re currently in a “far from equilibrium” condition.
If indeed the way forward includes a wider dissemination of the ritual employment of entheogens, important questions arise about how such use can develop effectively and with great sensitivity. As I intimated earlier, syncretic churches like the Santo Daime are moving into a wider world and may have much to teach us about how to wisely conduct rituals. My own experience with the NAC has shown me how its principles and approaches might also provide a general model.
Before going further with that line of inquiry though, I feel compelled to take a slight detour here and stress the sensitivity issue. As a reader of Shaman’s Drum you may be aware of the history of cultural appropriation of indigenous practices by nonnatives. The Native American Church is a particularly delicate situation because of the extremely painful history of conquest and domination by the Europeans and the great commitment involved in having kept the continuity of that vision alive in the face of waves of opposition over the past one hundred and fifty years or so in the United States.
In my personal experience with the NAC community, most native people are open to the inclusion of nonnatives in the ceremonies. Kanucas has said several times that Spirit has made it clear to him that the church is open to those of sincere and respectful intention, no matter their background. Some, however, have told me they find it hurtful when they see nonnatives borrowing their ritual practices, especially when it appears that the borrowers have only skimmed the surface of those practices. One elder, a woman very sensitive to unseen and subtle energies, described to me how she sometimes can’t sit through meetings run and attended mainly by nonnatives. She said the energies in the tipi get tangled when people don’t have a deep understanding of what they’re doing with the medicine, with the prayer, with the fireplace, with the instruments.
Returning now to the question of how entheogens might be incorporated into spiritual practice, wise voices have counseled us to turn to indigenous experience, where it’s available, for guidance. There are still people and groups around who have never lost the living connection to an “ensouled cosmos,” who know the spirits of one or more plants intimately, who know how to speak with these spirits and how to petition them for assistance and support. As cultural anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis has pointed out, there’s a radical difference in worldview and understanding between someone who grew up seeing a mountain as a rock and someone who was raised in a cosmology that sees a mountain as a spirit.
Perhaps in ideal conditions many more people than are currently doing so would be able to connect with strong lineages of authentic ritual practice that include entheogenic plants. But since that’s likely going to be much easier said than done, it may be that new versions of what Ralph Metzner has dubbed “hybrid rituals” are going to be required in these unsettled years. As I said earlier—and keeping in mind the concern about ill-considered appropriation—some of the principles and practices of The Native American Church could provide a kind of general template for effective ritual forms.
This church could itself be considered syncretic. Without subjecting you to a detailed history lesson, I think it may be helpful to provide a little background as a demonstration of how traditions can evolve and absorb influences. Although the underlying principles may be eternal or unconditioned, the particular forms of the practice have no doubt shifted over the centuries as times and circumstances changed.
The use of the peyote medicine is thought by scholars to be at least 10,000 years old. Peyote cactus buttons uncovered in Shumla Cave in southern Texas have been radiocarbon dated to 5,000 BCE. The annual peyote pilgrimage of the Huichol Indians of central Mexico is thought by scholars to be the oldest continuous sacramental use of peyote in North America, estimated to date back to about 200 CE. Several other Mexican tribes, including the Tarahumara, the Cora, and the Tepehuan (or Tepecano) also have a historical relationship with the peyote cactus. In modern times the reintroduction of the religious use of peyote into the United States is thought to have occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when it spread into the Great Plains region through the Mesacalero Apache and other nations.
As the ceremonial use of this medicine spread through mostly the western half of the U.S., it met with an unusual, maybe even uncanny historical “coincidence.” In the later decades of the nineteenth century the expressed policy of the American government was to “deculturize” the Indians. The enactment of that policy severely weakened the hold of the older tribal religions without actually undermining widely held Plains religious beliefs. According to Weston La Barre in his landmark 1938 ethnographic study The Peyote Cult, “Thus, ironically, the intended modes of deculturizing the Indians have contributed preeminently to the reinvigoration of a basically aboriginal religion.”3
As part of the deculturizing program, the government was gathering many previously scattered and diverse tribes into close proximity on reservations, (Oklahoma being a particular focal point for that,) and forcing their children into state schools together. The resulting cross-fertilization gave birth to new ritual forms, many of which have maintained an unbroken lineage and remained relatively unchanged up to the present. By the 1990s there were chapters of the NAC in every state west of the Mississippi with members from over seventy different native American nations. Estimates of current membership range from 250,000 to nearly 400,000.
So what are the elements of the NAC prayer ceremonies that lead me to suggest their value as a general model? Put simply, the main constituent ritual elements could be listed as: various forms of prayer, chant-like singing accompanied by something akin to shamanic drumming, moments of silent ‘meditation’, the use of an alter, a fire, and various ritual objects, and of course the central sacrament itself—the sacred medicine Grandfather Peyote.
The meetings of my experience are usually organized in response to a request from someone, who is then referred to as the sponsor of that meeting. The sponsor determines the main prayer for the meeting. The reasons for the request can be relatively wide-ranging, such as a request for a healing, a birthday, a baptism, a wedding, an opportunity to express gratitude to someone, or even a celebration of life.
Much of the meeting then revolves around that prayer. The participants are expected to concentrate their attention for much of the night on the sponsor’s request. The praying is done in several ways, both individually and collectively; sometimes silently, with or without the assistance of a tobacco, sometimes spoken aloud while other things are going on, sometimes with the full attention of all present, and sometimes through the medium of the singing that fills the tipi for much of the night.
When I look back seven years, to before I became involved with the NAC, I know that at that time I understood almost nothing of what prayer can really accomplish, even though in my Buddhist practices we often recited various prayers and chants. The very first meeting I attended was alone nearly enough to shock me out of my worldview. My mother had died four days earlier. Her demise was extremely gradual and until that night I thought the moments of sadness I had experienced through those previous few years had released most of my grief. But over the course of the night I began to feel worse and worse until a torrent of unrestrained sorrow began to pour out of me. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I felt totally devastated for hours. At the same time I saw through the tears and the pain that this was right and good. I also saw that my experience wasn’t impeding the flow of events and that nobody paid me any unusual degree of attention, and so I felt completely safe in that container to be the way I was just then.
As the night gave way to dawn and the water woman entered to make her long and heartfelt prayer over the morning water, my grief moved outward from the release of my own sorrow to deep sadness for all my family and friends, the pains of their lives and their unfulfilled potential. From there my raw heart went out to the human community tragically disconnected from Spirit, the creatures of the Earth who suffer so much at the hands of humans and from the pervasive reach of the human enterprise, and to the Earth herself for the abuse we’ve heaped upon her.
As accumulating evidence continues to blow out the cobwebs of my Western mechanistic conditioning, I can now say with a new-found conviction that prayer can heal, prayer can turn seemingly intractable problems around, at least when it’s practiced as a form of concentrated, directed, heart-fuelled intention. In the environment of the NAC I’ve seen peoples’ lives change dramatically and heard firsthand a wealth of stories describing what conventional, mainstream worldview would call miracles of healing.
The interaction between prayer and the peyote medicine is key to the effectiveness of prayer in this context. When people eat the medicine in the sacred container of the tipi meetings and pay attention without getting in their own way, the medicine calls the participants out of themselves into a shared, empowered, openhearted space. Though I myself am just beginning to understand the movement of the Spirit in the tipi, elders like Kanucas have made it clear to us that when we’re able to get our minds focused, the Spirit has an opening and will enter to manifest the intentions of the group and impart crucial insights.
I’ve also come across much supporting testimony for that relationship from a variety of other indigenous/shamanic traditions. Kathleen Harrison, a highly regarded student and advocate of plant wisdom, has expressed it as succinctly as anyone in describing her work with the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico. “They have impressed upon me that their prayers go much farther and are much clearer and stronger when they ingest one of these allies—strictly following the proper rituals—and ask to speak to it, and ask it to carry their prayers higher.”4
The singing in the tipi meetings has also made a deep impression on me. Although some of the songs have words from Native American languages, most of those I’ve heard and learned are comprised mainly of chant-like syllables that I’m told may once have been words with specific meanings but now are considered what are sometimes called “vocables.” Syllables such as hey, hee, ee, ah, hah, ho, yah, yo, nah, nay, and wen are commonly heard in various patterns and combinations. The songs combine with the intention of the singers and the power of the medicine to give wings to the prayers of the assembled.
Over the course of the night, instruments are passed around the tipi, one or more times, for each person who knows some songs to choose and lead a set of four. The instruments include the staff of the person running the meeting (the roadman,) a small sage bundle, a gourd shaker, and the water drum. Since the very first meeting I attended I’ve been struck by the passionate conviction with which most people sing, a conviction that often overrides any natural limitations in musical ability.
When a singer is connecting well with the song and others present also know that particular song, the group singing can be impossibly beautiful and moving. One of the elders told me she sometimes likes to close her eyes to listen to the singing and when it’s really happening “the song sings the singers.” After good singing like that you can sometimes feel how the energy in the tipi becomes simultaneously more charged as well as more settled into the presence of Spirit.
It’s easy to see why singing like this could be considered a key element of effective ritual practice in ceremonies that include entheogens. The music brings beauty into the ceremony, strengthens and carries the prayers, and gathers the participants into a shared connection. Among many other examples, The Santo Daime church ceremonies are also well known for the central role of group music in creating an empowered container and bringing the assembled together.
The drumming that accompanies the songs in the tipi meetings deserves a particular mention as well. We’ve all experienced the hypnotic, even trance-inducing power of steady percussive sound, and shamanic traditions around the world use repetitive drumming for purposes like transporting the listeners into other realms and for invoking spirit assistance for healing work. In the NAC, the water drum that’s used has been described both as a spirit being and as the heartbeat that carries the prayers. One native elder with long experience as a drummer told me that when he drums for a singer he can often see the spirit of the drum travel out from the drum and move through the tipi.
I included the experience of times of something like silent meditation as a valuable constituent of effective ritual practice and also part of the tipi meetings. It’s not that there’s any formal structure built in for periods of meditation. It’s that there are unplanned moments here and there throughout the night where for a few minutes there’s nothing in particular happening as part of the ritual events
Some of those moments have been the most powerful and exquisite of all experiences in the tipi. Deep into the night, when most or all of those assembled have been able to calm the head traffic and get out of our own way, the tipi sometimes falls silent and “the peace that passes all understanding,” infused with love, settles into the shared space. In those moments you can feel the nourishment, the healing power of that stillness, and you remember that this peace truly is the one most essential need for human beings. As Kanucas reminded us one night, pointing to his heart, “Relatives, nothing out there will ever feel right until you feel right in here.”
Buddhist teachings often stress the importance of nowness. I’ve learned more about giving in to that nowness in the tipi meetings than I ever had before. Events in the meeting have their own organic time. Nothing is hurried. We’re in there for twelve to fifteen hours with perhaps only one brief break in the middle of the night to step out for a pee. If you keep coming back you learn sooner or later that anything other than paying attention with minimal head traffic and total patience creates suffering. This again is one aspect of how medicines like peyote aid the awakening process. You simply don’t have the option of hanging out in the flatlands of habitual pattern. All experience is intensified and clarified.
There’s one further aspect of the NAC that particularly appeals to me and offers by example a healthy model for spiritual congregations. Most of us are well aware of the problems that have often developed in the context of organized religions. The living core of the religion can easily be subsumed by the bureaucracy, the hierarchy, the politics and so on. Sometimes the outer shell of a religion is nearly all that remains and in more than one case the power structure has come to see those inner, esoteric sub-groups as threats.
The NAC of my experience is remarkably light on its feet. Rooted as it is in oral cultures, there’s no written canon to speak of. The knowledge lives in the understanding of the participants and especially the roadmen who, as it’s described, carry a fireplace. One morning Kanucas looked over at a young native man who had recently been showing admirable progress in pulling his life together and said something like, “I’m really proud of you and I want you to know that, although we don’t know how many Indians will be around in the future, if even one person understands the truth of this way and knows the ritual forms, the church can grow again from that single seed.”
A tipi is called a home and can travel almost anywhere. It’s generally raised for a particular meeting and dismantled the following day. The altar is also built and prepared for each meeting and again unmade the next day. The water drum too is tied up in the evening and taken apart in the morning near the end of the ceremony. All the instruments are put away and taken home. A roadman is said to carry a fireplace with him and so the fire that’s kept burning throughout the night is also the temporarily visible manifestation of that living knowledge.
Although there are some ministers, primarily for legal reasons as I understand it, compared to a typical Christian church organization, the bureaucracy is all but nonexistent. Again, the truth, the wisdom of the church, only exists to the extent that it’s held in the understanding and commitment of the members.
Ceremonies like this provide the opportunity for us to learn that when we can open up to it, that spirit will awaken in us. We discover that we’re a lot stronger than we thought we were. Shining the light of awareness on the obstacles we carry in our minds wears them away, sometimes even dissolves them on the spot. You begin to see how you can change your attitude in a heartbeat and how those simple, firm decisions and convictions can reverberate into your life. Kanucas has often reminded us not to get out in front of the spirit, to stay behind the medicine and allow that mixing of spirit with your own innate intelligence and wisdom to heal you and enter you in to that settled place of peaceful heart.
It seems that almost the whole world has walked away from that peace, lost the connection to the heart of the Great Spirit that waits silently in the still center. Buddhist teaching has been quite clear in describing the confused mind of ego as the illusion of a separate self. As the Buddha himself is reported to have said, “The hunger of desire pollutes the world.” We feel the lack of something essential and experience it as anxiety, but not knowing the source of our discomfort we cling to a “sticky web of attachments” and attempt to fill the hole with the things of the world that can never satisfy us for long.
According to the prophecies and the visions of the see-rs, the collective momentum and karma of this misplaced hunger has reached the end of the line and is in danger of destroying the planet. The global vision arising from the four directions is telling us, as much as a journeyman such as myself can understand it, that there’s an opening now and that with enough commitment, the prayer can manifest and the planet can awaken. May it be so. Aho.
Friends: This article is my version of one that appeared in Shaman’s Drum magazine (shamansdrum.org,) issue #77, summer 2008, before the editor got his hands on it. The magazine version is fleshed out a little, is somewhat more scholarly in style, and has some added detail on the argument for the use of these plants in spiritual/healing work. The article is also similar to a chapter in my book entitled “Heart of the Great Spirit.” That chapter is specifically about the Native American Church and the peyote medicine.
1. Smith, Huston, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. New York: Tarcher/Penguin Putnam, 2000, 117.
2. See the article “Buddhism and the Psychedelic Society: An Interview with Terence McKenna” in Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, Badiner, Allan Hunt, and Alex Grey, (ed.). San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002, 189-192.
3. La Barre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. New Haven: The Shoe String Press, 1976: 113. (*first published in 1938).
4. Harpignies, J.P. (ed.). Visionary Plant Consciousness. Rochester: Park Street Press, 2007, 123.