Music for Yoga, Reiki etc.

Keary’s CDs playing in the background during the yoga classes at my studio have proven time and time again to be ideal for setting a very relaxing atmosphere. I wouldn’t be without them! —Gail Leslie, owner of the Dancing Cat Yoga Centre, New Westminster, BC.

“It’s beautiful, it’s us.” —Cindy, buyer for The Omega Centre, Toronto, Ont.

I have 3 cds of music that is excellent as accompaniment to any kind of healing/body work such as yoga and reiki. The music is spacious and relaxing but also active and heart-opening. It also works effectively for journeying into deep spaces in a meditative way. This site, stephengrayvision.com, is dedicated to the work associated directly with the writing. I have another website, www.keary-reedsong.com, where you can listen to two-minute long demos of several pieces from each of the three cds. If you wish to purchase any of the cds or individual songs, the website will link you to cdbaby.com, or you can use this cdbaby link to go directly from here. The three cds, The Secret Gate, The Open Path, and One World Mandala, under the artist/group name Keary, can also be found at iTunes, where you can listen to shorter demos of every song on each of the cds.

If you do purchase any of my music, please contact me and let me know about your experience with it, what kinds of situations you use it in and so on. If you would like to provide a testimonial or user review that I could use on the site I would be most grateful.

Visionary Quotes

Note: I’ll be adding quotes here on an ongoing basis. Some may include commentary, like the article  “On Service and Cannabis,” which you can see by scrolling down a little farther on this page.

Scattered Bits of Wisdom:

“Genius is eternal patience.” Michelangelo

Only connect.” Somerset Maugham

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go and do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman (I saw this on an email, don’t know the source)

“Since things neither exist nor do not exist, are neither real nor unreal, are utterly beyond adopting and rejecting – one might as well burst out laughing.” Tibetan Nyingmapa master – Longchenpa Rabjampa – C14th

“All thoughts vanish into emptiness, like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”  from the Sadhana of Mahamudra, by Chögyam Trungpa, 1968

“Emptiness  becomes luminosity.” Another Buddhist teaching I picked up from Chögyam Trungpa on the core truth that when we have been able to get out of our heads, emptying out the complex tapestry of beliefs and concepts we use to filter  “what is” and shape it into some imagined story we employ to protect ourselves, we may relax and open into emptiness. I take this statement as a reminder to have confidence in the emptying, faith that reality is in that direction and though the ride may get bumpy, emptiness becomes luminosity. I don’t honestly know if I know much about that luminosity. Something about experience feeling real and the crispness of that.

“Practice non-action. Work without doing. See simplicity in the complicated. Achieve greatness in small things. Lao Tzu

“Capitalism always was socialism for the rich.” Slavoj Zizek (from an interview on democracynow.org, Oct. 15/09)

In the aboriginal universe there is no past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of dialects spoken at the moment of contact was there a word for time. There is no notion of linear progression, no goal of improvement, no idealization of the possibility of change.”  Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, 2009, p. 158.

“holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence/ of bronze, only the sight that saw it/ faltered and turned from it./ An old joy returns in holy presence.” Dennis Levertov, from the poem Come into Animal Presence.

“All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can conceive of doing so.” from the movie “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

On Entheogens, cannabis included.

“Pot removes the clothing of the mind, the literal habits of thought. The panic when we resist is like holding on to the last garment being pulled off us. We are naked before pot, and what we see first is ourselves.” Jeremy Wolff, “Thots on Pot” p. 387 in The Pot Book, ed. by Julie Holland M.D. 2010

On Service and Cannabis: The following is from an interview in the Toronto Globe and Mail from September 17, 2009 with Alannis Morissette, well-known singer, songwriter, actress. In this first quote she was referring to her work on the television show Weeds.

On Service: “But it’s really showing up with a vast amount of humility, and your talent in your back pocket, and being there to serve – as long as I have the orientation toward service, I can’t go wrong. Any other orientation might get me in trouble.”

On Cannabis: “I’m a huge legalization fan. I think marijuana has done so many positive things for so many friends of mine, some of whom were physically ill, some of whom wanted some emotional support.”

Now a few thoughts of my own: It might not be as odd to combine these two quotes on service and on cannabis as some of you may think. Some of the most heartfelt and satisfying experiences I’ve had with that plant have come when I’ve focused on friends and sent good thoughts to them. It’s usually easy to stir the heart doing that and rouse some compassion. Those moments often result in a phone call, a visit, or even just a few more prayers.

Cannabis’ influence has also triggered a lot of interesting ideas for projects I’ve been working on over the years. Yes, I know what some of you may be thinking on this topic: “Sure, great idea at night, trivial or incomprehensible the next day.” Of course you have to test the ideas in the light of day and of course they don’t all stand up. But I’m testifying that I’ve received quite a few that have passed the sobriety test and made it into my work in teaching, music composition, writing, and other life forms. The caveat on this is—to paraphrase a line from Alan Ginsberg—if you create stoned, edit sober.

In fact, thinking of others, or what may also be termed prayer, is a common feature of all the plants I’ve worked with. I’ve written at length in my book Returning To Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality about my experiences with the peyote medicine in the Native American Church and the remarkable power of prayer. I’ll probably write some blogs entries on that topic as well. But no matter what my condition or the environment, like Alannis, I find that if I can remember to think of others and how to benefit them, good things often come of it.

On Art, Spirituality, and Creativity:

My work is an attempt to show spirit as the one universal force beyond the confines of cultural and religious differences. Martina Hoffmann. (Martina Hoffmann does stunningly beautiful and powerful paintings often inspired by her visions from ayahuasca experiences.)

If while composing I become afraid of the music I am writing, I know that I have arrived at the extreme place where I want to be. When fear arises, I’ve reached the threshold between the known and the unknown. If I’m able to continue composing while tolerating the fear, I will be writing music that is new to me. Keeril Makan (Keeril Makan is an associate professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a recipient of the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.)

The visible world is no longer a reality, the unseen world is no longer a dream.” WB Yeats

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of our great human resources. He is a Vietnamese monk who became deeply involved working to alleviate the massive suffering visited upon the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s. His activism resulted in exile and he settled in the U.S. from where he has taught and written since. Here are a few from him I’ve appreciated. These are from the following interview: “In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with you” by John Malkin, Shambhala Sun July 2003, online:http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1579

“Small enlightenments have to succeed each other. And they have to be fed all the time, in order for a great enlightenment to be possible. So a moment of living in mindfulness is already a moment of enlightenment. If you train yourself to live in such a way, happiness and enlightenment will continue to grow.”

“It is possible for you to enjoy every step that you make.”

“The practice can be done every moment . . . If the present moment is good, then the future will be good because it’s only made of the present.”

“You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.”

John Malkin: What did you learn from being in the United States during that time?

Thich Nhat Hanh: The first thing I learned was that even if you have a lot of money and power and fame, you can still suffer very deeply. If you don’t have enough peace and compassion within you, there is no way you can be happy.


The Benefits of Low-Dose Psilocybin Mushrooms [updated]

medicina 2

Not everyone knows how to ask for medicine or how to receive it, they [the indigenous healers] tell me, but there is no one in the world who does not need medicine in their lives.1 Kathleen Harrison

Note: The essay below was added to the site over two years ago as I sit here tonight in January of the historic year 2012 (ask me about that in twelve months time.) In the intervening period I’ve come across some potentially valuable information that I’d like to share. I decided to insert it here rather than attempt to harmonize it into the body of the essay. First a disclaimer however: This idea is based on several anecdotal reports and so of course it’s a long way from passing the test of scientific rigor. I offer the information in case it’s of use to some people.

There is reason to believe that the very low-dose quantities of psilocybe mushrooms discussed below may have significant beneficial effects on depression.  A leading researcher in this area of ethnobotany—whose name I’ll keep private out of discretion—told a friend of mine that something in the neighborhood of one small mushroom taken each morning could go a long way toward alleviating his depression. I have great respect for this ethnobotanist so I assume she spoke based on at least some experience. I’ve also heard from two people who wrote me in response to the original essay who both said they had experienced noticeable improvements in their depression symptoms.

Though I make no claims to have medical expertise in this or any other matter, I will go so far as to say that there appears to be no evidence whatsoever of physiological harm or contra-indications associated with these small doses of the mushrooms. The LD50—the dosage at which 50% of people would die—is extremely high with psilocybes. There is a danger of encountering frightening experiences with high doses, but not with the barely threshold or less than threshold doses suggested for this and the other purposes discussed in the original essay. There is further information on the dosage issue below so please read on. . . .

It’s well-known to the experienced that medium to high doses of psilocybin mushrooms, given advantageous internal and external conditions—often called “set and setting”—can provoke experiences of stunning insight, visions of great beauty, an abundance of love, contact with spirit entities, and authentic mystical experiences completely beyond the boundaries of the separate ego.

What is much less frequently discussed, in my experience, are the benefits of very low-dose experiences with these mushrooms. I’m talking about doses not too far above the threshold of observable effects. It’s difficult to pin down the exact quantities involved at that level of potency. And if we think of it in terms of medicine, getting the dose right for the desired effects can be important. I’ll return to that concern further down in the article.

I think the best way for me to describe this is to talk about my own experience. Interested readers can extrapolate and experiment from there. I often get together on weekend evenings to play music with friends. On one of these evenings, I went to the home of some friends who have a collection of dried and frozen psilocybe cyanescens that my friend had picked locally. We decided to try an experiment, and this is where any discussion of exact quantities becomes unreliable. We wanted to see how a very low dose would affect the emotions and the mechanics of playing and singing.

We each ate two of what I would call medium-sized, dried mushrooms, the stems perhaps an inch and a half long and the caps half to three quarters of an inch across. Although we didn’t weigh them, previous experience suggests we’re talking about less than a gram of dried weight. We didn’t engage in any special preparation for this, such as fasting for several hours before hand, although I always attempt to make a connection with such medicine plants before consuming them, like with a short prayer, dedication, and expression of gratitude to the spirit of the plant.

I have to make it clear with full disclosure that this was in no way a reliable scientific experiment. We included a little cannabis smoking with the mushrooms, knowing that the two often complement each other quite nicely. The result was that you might say the mushrooms’ effects overrode the somewhat more fuzzy effects of cannabis with a subtle but noticeable sharpness of mind and emotion. I’ve also experienced this sharpness on the three or four other occasions in the past year or so when I’ve done something similar.

One of the results of this sharpness was that my playing became more focused and agile. I don’t play guitar enough anymore to get through most songs flawlessly but on those nights my playing was definitely more on the mark. I also don’t spend the time to memorize lyrics to a lot of the songs these days and instead often use lyric sheets. In these situations I’ve noticed my recollection of lyrics to be noticeably superior to the norm.

In conjunction with the sharpness has been a softening of the heart which has helped me connect to the emotion of the songs. A lot of the songs I like to play have poetic lyrics that don’t necessarily reveal clear and simple meanings. The songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen can be like that. Favorites among the younger songwriters are Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine, and Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. Writers like these are strong and clear channels for the Muses of metaphor. During these low-dose mushroom sessions I’ve noticed that my mind instantaneously grokked meanings which had previously eluded me.

I’ve seen before with psilocybes and had confirmed again in these experiences that the plant functions as a truth serum of sorts. The mushroom appears to temporarily dismantle inhibition and hesitation to seeing things clearly and talking about personal topics straightforwardly. And it appears to be just as easy to hear these truths spoken about oneself as it is to say them. I’ve had some very intimate conversations with  friends where we revealed ourselves without embarrassment and spoke about sensitive issues without raising defensive reactions.

There are a couple of extremely interesting points about these very small doses that bear comment. If you’ve read other writings on this site, articles I’ve written elsewhere, or read my book Returning to Sacred World, you’ll know that my main plant practice is with the Native American Church and that I’m a strong believer in the value and importance of careful, thorough inner and outer preparation for working with these powerful medicines. I agree with Kathleen Harrison’s observation that for most of us in the so-called modern cultures, “We’re not generally wise enough and openhearted enough to take that type of medicine on our own, for casual use, without a teacher, a healer who can show us how it really is medicine.”2

However, it’s not so easy for many of us to find the right circumstances. Where are the experienced mushroom guides? Where are the traditional mushroom ceremonies for us to participate in? Ingesting such small doses is something most people can do safely on their own. No particular ritual is necessary to elicit beneficial effects, although in my experience the spirit of the plant is always potentially present and is much more likely to bless and empower even these mild experiences if petitioned and treated with respect. You might even take the attitude that you’ve invited an honored guest into your home. I believe that this is an extremely kind plant, willing to meet us where we are and help us at whatever level we’re willing to come to it.

If any of you reading these words but not already acquainted with “Los Niños” are inclined to track down some psilocybin mushrooms on your own, I’ll mention a couple of cautions. Those experienced with the mushrooms often say that it’s important to educate yourself about them. There are several books available that describe various aspects of the mushroom experience. The best book I’ve come across on identifying the little ones is Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide by Paul Stamets. It has excellent color photos and some good guidance for usage. Though Stamets’ book is a good starting point, I would still stress the importance of proceeding with caution. As he demonstrates in his book, although the psilocybes are all around us in certain areas of North America, they are not easy to identify at first and can easily be mistaken for similar looking but poisonous mushrooms. I had an experienced mycophile point out the local psilocybe cyanescens and since then I’ve shown another friend how to identify them.

Getting the kinds of effects from the mushrooms that I’ve been discussing in this article can involve some experimentation. Not all mushrooms are the same potency of course and not all people respond the same. One time I ate two small ones and the effects were too subtle to have much impact. Another time I experimented with a slightly higher dose, somewhere between one gram and a gram and a half. For playing music that quantity proved to be a bit much. The effects interfered with functionality. Some of these in-between doses may not be particularly useful and people may find their effects more uncomfortable than illuminating.

If we’re able to shift our cultural understanding of these plants and begin to see them as medicines, I would say that, used with respect and good intention, low-dose psilocybin is good medicine. Playing music under its influence has been a good way for me because it provides a focus, a kind of ritual environment. The songs almost become prayer songs. No doubt beneficial experiences can come from working alone like this in a meditative, prayerful way, or with others of similar intention. The important thing is to provide the right kind of space for the medicine’s effects to manifest. Superficial, chatterbox conversation is not likely to be the best lubricant. There has to be enough space in the mind’s busyness to notice the subtleties, to feel the softening of the heart, to catch the insights as they arise. Aho.

Notes:

1. Kathleen Harrison, Roads Where There Have Been Long Trails, terrain.org

2. Harpignies, J.P. (ed.). Visionary Plant Consciousness, 103.

test music post

Shakin’ All Over

Greetings. This is a test sample entered by the man who set up the site for me. I don’t know if there’s an inadvertent metaphorical connection with that particular choice of songs—intimations of shaking related to the dissolution of personal or planetary egos perhaps? In any case, please check back in the near future. I hope to have several demos of my music up here, or maybe even a few whole pieces. There’s some description of the music on the Music page. You can also listen to two-minute long demos of several pieces from each of the three cds at keary-reedsong.com. All three of my cds, The Secret Gate, The Open Path, and One World Mandala, under the artist/group name Keary, can also be found at iTunes, where you can listen to shorter demos of every song.

Shamanism Conference in Peru

Percy's ceremonial tambo

Across the Andes from Lima and now flying low into Iquitos, my view out the airplane window fell upon vast expanses of the Amazon jungle and the legendary Rio Amazona winding its serpentine pathway through the dense forest— la selva. Iquitos, a rambling, noisy ‘town’ of about 300,000, appeared suddenly out of the surrounding jungle.

I was there for the Fourth International Amazonian Shamanism Conference, held on the grounds of the El Parthenon Hotel, ten minutes by mototaxi from the central Plaza de Armas in downtown Iquitos. The conference is hosted and organized by Alan Shoemaker, an American expat who’s been living in Iquitos for about fifteen years, and his gracious wife Mariella Noriega, who, among her many tasks, saved a lot of people a lot of hassles with travel and lodging arrangements.

The nine-day conference was divided into three repeated sections—two days of presentations followed by a day for going to ceremonies, times three. I should make clear that although ayahuasca was by far the predominant medicine being employed and discussed, there were also opportunities to do ceremonies with other medicines, particularly the cactus San Pedro, described to me by those who did do ceremonies with it as a gentle and very clear plant medicine.

On Day One, about fifteen of the area’s shamans—or curanderos and curanderas as some prefer to be called—introduced themselves to us from the makeshift stage set up in the large open tent on the hotel grounds. The presentations were generally of high quality and great interest, with leading figures in various aspects of work related to entheogens and curanderismo. Among the two dozen or more presenters were Dr. Dennis McKenna (brother of Terence), Dr. Robert Forté, Dr. Frank Eschenhoffer, visionary artists Pablo Amaringo, Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffmann, and well-known journalist and adventurer Peter Gorman. Some of the curanderos were also given longer slots to speak to us. One of these was the legendary Don Agustin Rivas, now in his seventies, whose life story is told in the book Amazon Magic by Jaya Bear.

I’ve been around a fair number of spiritual teachers and practitioners over the long years and I can usually feel a sense of people—how natural they are, how humble they are, how open their hearts are. For me, the benefits of the plant medicine path were confirmed by the energy of many of the presenters like those just mentioned. Dennis McKenna raised the bar and maybe the hair on the backs of some necks with a powerful, unscripted opening address. He pointed out that many scientists now agree we’re dangerously close to a tipping point on the planet. If we don’t undertake some radical, far-reaching inner and outer changes, Earth may soon spiral through a set of unstoppable events. Another stunning assertion made by Dr. McKenna was that the plants are actually the true mediators of consciousness on this planet, the authentic voices of information and wisdom, and everything else is essentially living through the generosity of the plants. In stark terms, all life forms that don’t photosynthesize are parasites. Hmm. One statement in particular from that talk has bounced back at me repeatedly. Dr. McKenna told us that he works for the plants. Sounds like a worthy intention and aspiration.

On Day Two of each three-day section we were invited to sign up for ceremonies with one of the various curanderos who were stationed around the back of the room. There was a lot of “Who are you going to go with?” and “What do you know about_____?” going around among the one hundred and thirty or so conference participants. Alan, an experienced ayahuasca drinker and curandero himself, had personally recommended Percy Garcia to me, describing him as “without ego” and saying that when he drinks with someone else, he drinks with Percy. Now approaching his thirty-fifth birthday, Percy began his studies with his grandfather at age ten, drank ayahuasca for the first time at age fourteen (“It was confusing” he later told us with a grin), and has led many ceremonies since he was eighteen.

I had already felt a heart connection with another curandero, Luis, so I held off on Percy until the second session. Those of us who had signed up to do a ceremony with Luis met around midday in front of the conference hotel to be picked up and squeezed into a rickety old van. We were driven down to a muddy shore at the end of a block of rugged houses on stilts with friendly children buzzing around us. A short boat ride took us to a nearby island from where we began a hot, sweaty march for about half and hour into semi-jungle and Luis’ encampment.

The encampment consisted of a number of sleeping and retreat huts, a larger, screened hut for group meals, a covered cooking area, and an even larger hut, called a tambo or maloca, for ceremonies. The ceremony began sharp at 7 o’clock that evening. Luis’ medicine, at least that night, turned out to be very mild. No one in the group of 8 or 9 reported any strong effects and a couple said they felt nothing. I felt disappointed and so did several of the others. Luis invited questions at the end of the ceremony and I asked him about this. His reply was that his whole focus was on healing and that the medicine didn’t need to be strong for that. He said that even if we experienced no noticeable effects, la medicina was still doing its work. Don Luis is an exceptionally kind and gentle man and I had the feeling that these personal qualities and his attitude to working with people were reflected in his approach to the medicine.

After the second round of ceremonies a couple of days later, I spoke with two young men who had been to Don Luis’ ceremony with me. It was their first experience with ayahuasca and they actually liked the “enter me in gently” approach, so much so, apparently, that they decided to go with Luis for the second ceremony. I was a little surprised to hear that the effects were noticeably stronger for them that time. I wondered if Luis had taken the group’s feedback to heart.

On the appointed day, we were told to gather in front of the hotel at 12:45. Nearly twenty of us were then shoehorned into a rattling Econoline type van for the sweaty, hour-long drive out toward Nauta. Dropped off by a school in mixed farm and forest lands, we then hiked for a hot half-hour in the early afternoon sun until we arrived at Percy’s jungle encampment. The compound was well laid-out with a few small cabins for the two or three staff who lived there and for those who want to come for “dietas” or to recuperate from illnesses or addictions. The beautiful maloca, where the ceremonies are held, is built on stilts above a quebrada—a jungle creek. The photo at the top of this article is Percy’s maloca.

After relaxing for a couple of hours we were invited to don our bathing suits and go over to the creek, where each of us would bathe briefly in the cool, murky water, then step back out to receive the “agua florida,” the floral bath. Each in turn stood before Percy, who blew tobacco smoke on us and on the water he scooped out of a tub of herb and flower scented water. He then poured four scoops of the water over each person while blowing more of the healing and purifying tobacco smoke.

After allowing the agua florida to dry naturally on our skin, we dressed again and were directed to our spots around the perimeter inside the maloca with a mattress and a bucket for the purging which inevitably happens to many drinkers. At about seven o’clock Percy came in and took his seat on a kind of throne chair. There was a small table in front of him with about a dozen bottles of various dark, murky liquids and his ceremonial materials—a leaf shaker called a shacapa, a Tibetan bowl and mallet, a small jaw harp, and a loose pile of cigarettes made from local tobaccos.

The shacapa is a particularly fascinating tool employed by curanderos in the Amazon. According to Alan Shoemaker, tribes widely scattered throughout the jungle have independently come upon this very same leaf used to form the bundle. Alan said that when the energy in the ceremony is strong and clear, people can sometimes see beams of light extend from the points of the leaves. And on some occasions one can see that after it’s been shaken around a person, usually accompanied by the singing of an ícaro (the healing songs that curanderos say are taught to them by the ayahuasca itself), there will be small, black balls attached to the light beams where the shacapa has cleaned out emotional and physical toxins in the recipient.

After speaking briefly about his way of working and answering any questions we had, Percy invited each of us to come up one at a time to receive a cup of the ayahuasca brew. As he describes in the interview, the spirits indicate to him how much is appropriate for each person. Once we’d all drank our portion of la medicina and returned to our mattresses, the small candle that had been burning in the middle of the floor was snuffed out and we found ourselves in total darkness. (It gets dark early four degrees south of the equator). With the jungle canopy hovering over the maloca and the moon not yet above the horizon, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.

We’d been instructed to relax, breathe, set our intentions, and prepare to speak directly to the spirit of ayahuasca— “Mother Ayahuasca”— as Percy and others refer to it. We were also asked to do our best to avoid disturbing others by remaining silent and being very considerate about the use of flashlights on the way to the bathroom. (Later in the ceremony Percy actually turned to his interpreter and had him ask us not to use the flashlights at all if we could help it, since the sudden flashing of light coming into the maloca could disrupt the concentrated connection he had with his spirit helpers.)

About twenty minutes after serving us, Percy began to gently and steadily shake the shacapa. For the next fifteen minutes or so that was the only sound in the room. And then the medicine began to take over. At age 59, I’ve been around a lot of ceremonies from different traditions and I’m a musician myself. In the space of the oncoming ayahuasca I can say that Percy’s music was some of the most beautiful and sensitive I have ever heard. In the interview he speaks a little about how his spirit allies guide the music and I distinctly felt that living, breathing quality. The sound of the shacapa in the peaceful near-silence of the jungle compound was like the soft brushing of birds’ wings. Then he began to sing softly with the shacapa and at various points play spare notes on the jaw harp and create both bell-like ringing and sustained harmonics on the Tibetan bowl.

The spirit-guided music created a sacred space of peace, stillness, and healing in the maloca. Each time Percy began to sing, my visions changed and became stronger. A request I had for myself from the ayahuasca spirits was for healing a tightness and heaviness I’d been carrying in my chest for some time. At one point, three indigenous women appeared before me and each in turn blew energetically in the direction of my heart. With visions and exchanges it went like that for the next three or four hours until Percy announced that the ceremony was over and he was leaving. He told us that the ícaros would continue reverberating in the nature surrounding us and said goodnight.

One of my intentions for the trip to Iquitos was to interview a curandero for a magazine article. During the ceremony with Percy I got the clear message that he was the person I was looking for—clear, gentle, humble, and as Alan had said, without apparent ego. Through his assistant I asked if I could come back for the final ceremony on Sunday and interview him. He cheerfully agreed and three days later, around four o’clock, I sat down in a small cabin with Percy and a young man named Martín acting as interpreter for a forty-five minute question and answer session.

Could you tell me a little about your family background and how you came to do this work?

My name is Percy Garcia Lozano. I became a shaman because of my grandparents. There were generations before them also. I started this study of curanderismo when I was ten years old. My grandfather Enrique Garcia Mozombite taught me everything in this way. First of all he taught me all the names of the plants. Then he told me the properties of each plant.

How did he teach you?

I am from Aucayo. It is two hours from Iquitos. Every time my grandfather came from town to do his work as a shaman, he was teaching me.

When you were young like that were you doing the “dietas” with individual plants?

First of all you watch the plants and then you get to know their names.

At what point do students like yourself begin doing diets to develop a relationship with the spirit of each plant?

I started to do the diets when I was twelve. My requirement at that time was to do light diets of three or four days. After a few years my diets became harder, stronger, where I had to abstain from many things, many foods.

Can you explain to those unfamiliar with these things what actually happens? Does the spirit of the plant you’re dieting with appear to you and do you communicate with it?

We have to be careful with what we eat. We have to say, no peppers, no condiments. I could still eat all the fruits, all the plants.

I understand, but what I’m asking is a little more than that I think. On Thursday [just before the ayahuasca ceremony] you mentioned that you use eight different plants in your ayahuasca brew and that you have a relationship with the spirit of each of those plants and that they work with you. So I’m asking, how did that relationship come about?

I’m not only working with ayahuasca [the banisteriopsis caapi vine] and chacruna. I’m mixing eight different plants. It’s not only to make you see some visions or to make you feel good spiritually. I concentrate on physical health. That’s why I mix eight plants.

And the spirits of those plants? You have a relationship with them?

Claro. Completamente. Yes, this is because I prepared myself long years ago when I dieted with these plants. I know them very well so I am very connected with them.

I want to make sure I understood this properly from Thursday night. So, at the beginning of the ceremony, you call upon the spirits of those plants and they come and work with you for the whole ceremony?

Claro que si [Yes of course.] because when I prepare the medicine, I’m keeping in touch with the spirits. I’m receiving information so that at the moment when I give you ayahuasca I receive information about the quantity you must drink. Then later, when I begin the ceremony, singing the ícaros, I start calling to God, to the cosmos, to the stars, to nature, to mother ayahuasca. I am invoking protection for myself and for all the participants. Then I call the curative part. Then I say thank you for all the healing that I’m able to do. At the end I also thank the spirits for the healing I’ve done. [Note: In the question and answer session with the ceremony participants Percy had also said, “I don’t do the healing, it is ayahuasca who does the healing.”]

During the ceremony, do the spirits help you see what’s going on with the individuals in the ceremony?

Claro, because the transmissions I’m giving you are due to the icaros. the words I’m expressing with the icaros are what they are telling me, what the spirits are saying to me and singing. With all this singing, the spirits are working in each person. There can be a lot of illnesses but I use only one ícaro to cure different illnesses.

Is it important for the participants to give a lot of attention to the icaros during the ceremony, rather than keeping them more or less in the background as they go through their personal experiences with the ayahuasca?

Yes, this allows the intention of each person to be made stronger. In that way the person can connect with the spirit of the plant easily.

On Thursday night you said that although people often come wanting to see visions, the most important aspect of the experience is about healing. I was then surprised when strong, clear visions appeared before my closed eyes almost right away. Is there a reason for that?There are always some visions, but not necessarily visual visions. There are different types of visions for different people. The important thing is that if we want to know, if we want to see, we must concentrate on it. [In the pre-ceremony discussion Percy had put somewhat more stress on this point, saying in effect that although people often come to his ceremonies seeking visions, it is not primarily about that at all, it is about the healing. That is the essence of his work and the work of the ayahuasca spirits.]

And we can actually ask ayahuasca direct questions to help ourselves and our intentions?

Claro que si. That’s why I say, connect with your intention. For example, the person doesn’t necessarily have to connect deeply with his intention. In all ways he will receive the healing. This is because, due to the ícaros, I am transmitting to you the healing power. When I’m preparing the medicine, I blow tobacco to make it ready to help you out.

Can the medicine help if someone in the ceremony asks for assistance for a person who is unable to be present? For example, I have a friend back home in Canada with a serious chronic, physical infirmity. She can’t travel at all. Can the medicine help with situations like that?

Claro que si. As I said, we must concentrate in our visions on what we want. If you concentrate on what you want, your wish will be able to be made real. As an example, I recently worked with a man who was unable to walk at all. After the healing work I did with him the man could walk again. Ayahuasca is completely capable of having these kinds of effects.

Changing focus now, how do you feel about so many foreigners coming here for ayahausca?

I wouldn’t say that I feel good about everyone who comes to me, but I feel very happy for all the help that I can give them, the healing part.

At the conference there’s been a lot of discussion about the potential role ayahuasca may have in the future as its spreads beyond South America to other parts of the world. Have you had any visions about the possible role of ayahuasca in this way?

From my personal experience I’m not thinking of what I want to see in the future or everywhere around. I’m just thinking what I can do to help those people. When I finish the ceremony with all the people, that’s the time when I begin to investigate personally every different kind of plant and different healings so I can work to make the healings more effective.

Another central topic at the conference is the concern that the planet is in grave danger at this time from environmental degradation. It is thought by many that we really need healing, visionary plants like ayahuasca at this time to help change the direction of the planet. Are you aware of that? Do you have a sense of where the planet is now in that regard?

My work is not only with the ayahuasca. As I said before, I work with eight different kinds of plants to help people who need to be healed. And it can help people far away. As for the planet altogether, what can I say? If we want to save the world, people must change their way of thinking completely. Otherwise, due to the processes of contamination, it is very possible that if we do nothing the world will be completely destroyed.

Has the ayahuasca shown you anything about the possible destruction of the planet?

Claro. We have to teach all the children of the planet to protect the environment and not contaminate the air, the land, the water.

Do you have any advice for those planning to come from afar to work with ayahuasca, what they should think about, how they should approach it, and what they should watch out for, such as people of wrong intention or little knowledge offering to run ceremonies?

For my part, I’m not only healing people, I’m taking care of them. It’s better not to work with shamans you don’t know anything about. We don’t know what will happen in those situations. It’s important to work with people you know, such as those who have been recommended by others who know that shaman’s work.

Are there very many of those kinds of shamans around this area who either don’t know the medicine well or who have dubious motives, like just to make money off the foreigners?

Yes, there are many of them. As there is day so there is night. There are good people and some bad people also.

Is there any final thing you would like to share with people who may read this interview that I didn’t think of asking you. Did we miss anything important?

Bueno. First, all people have to become conscious about the world, to take care of it and to protect it. Don’t create contamination or conflict. This will make us more human, more conscious. And to value all nature, and traditions. That is the best way to live.

One last question please. A little while after you left the ceremony on Thursday [around midnight], a bird came to sit just outside the maloca and for nearly an hour made a pattern of sounds that to my ear sounded similar to the shacapa [the bundled leaf shaker I described earlier that’s used to accompany the singing of the icaros]. I had the distinct impression that this bird was singing to us. Could that be so?

Claro. I can say goodbye and thank you to all my spiritual doctors and teachers and I can leave you, but the icaros go out to the surroundings and mother nature is still working in every participant even when the ceremony is over. That’s why you heard that bird. The healing continues.

Es muy hermoso. Muchas gracias.

When Prayer Meets Medicine

wooden path

Like many of us in the western world, I grew up in a family that went to church on Sunday mornings. In my particular family it was the Anglican Church in central Canada. Prayer was a core principle of the teachings that came down to me as a child and a significant part of the Sunday services. I recall sliding off those wooden benches onto my knees several times during every service. And at home there were a few years when my mother made sure I said my prayers before bedtime every night.

There may well be people around who grew up in a similar environment and made a deep and true connection with the power of prayer. I certainly did not get it and in general I think something crucial was missing. It’s no shocking insight to point out that despite its Christian face, the culture we were embedded in in mid-twentieth century, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant North America was deeply under the spell of the scientific-materialist worldview. In stark contrast to a great many traditional, indigenous cultures—and notwithstanding the great anthropomorphized eminence in the sky who was reputed to be watching our every move—we were not taught to believe in the reality of spirits in the world around us, much less that we could actually communicate with them and ask them for assistance. I doubt many of us believed with conviction that anything real at all could come from praying. As the Native Americans say: in the white, European religions people go to church to talk about God, whereas in their traditions people go to church to talk to God, to talk with God.

So I said my prayers at night but I had no assurance or confidence that anyone was listening. And, like many of my peers, as I moved through adolescence I came to think of religion as irrelevant to my life. But I’ve always had a spiritual yearning and when I heard about the religions of the Orient while in university I was immediately interested. That interest eventually led to a long engagement with Tibetan Buddhism, particularly as taught by the brilliant “crazy wisdom” guru, Chögyam Trungpa.

The word “prayer” wasn’t in general use in that Buddhist environment, but there were a lot of chants. The chants were verses, paragraphs, shorter and longer passages—most of which had been translated into English—which were employed to accompany a variety of events and practice sessions. We read them aloud together, recited them from memory, and included them in our private practices. These chants were reminders of the power of the truth (Dharma,) invocations of wisdom energies, pleas for the banishment of negative forces, and stories of the achievements and dedication of great masters. The chants were also expressions of devotion and gratitude to these masters and to the wisdom of the teachings, as well as appeals for the awakening and blessing of all sentient beings.

Again, though we recited the chants with sincerity and passion, I don’t believe many of us had confidence that we were doing more than strengthening our own commitment, compassion, and devotion. The great majority of us were, after all, still under that rational/reductionist spell. With the possible exception of a few unusually sensitive practitioners, we still had no means and support for gaining access to a living spirit world. Our Buddhist teachings even led us to be suspicious of granting credence to external phenomena of that nature. And many of us were recovering theists who tended to take literally the presentation of Buddhism as a non-theistic religion.

During the years of my most active involvement with Buddhism, I’d stayed away from psychedelics, even from cannabis. Although many would have admitted that their earlier use of substances like LSD sparked their interest in spirituality, the prevailing view in the community was that psychedelics offered only a false, artificial enlightenment and were of no value, or worse, on the path of awakening.

But I never did lose my curiosity about the enlightening potential of psychedelics, and a cover article/interview with Terence McKenna in the L.A. Weekly in 1988 or 1989 triggered a revival of that interest. This was exciting new information. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I drove up to Ojai to hear McKenna talk that weekend.

After a few dubious attempts to breach the far shores alone following McKenna’s “take a heroic dose of mushrooms, then sit down and shut up” approach, I began to think I might negotiate these deep waters more successfully with skilled guidance in a ritual context. As intention often seems to go, one connection led to another until about seven years ago I was given the phone number of a highly respected elder of the Native American Church. This man, Kanucas, invited me to join them for one of their all-night meetings.

My inspiration for going to that first meeting was the idea of combining these two passionate interests in my life: entheogens and spiritual practice. I thought I was going to get help from the peyote plant. I hoped it would deepen my meditation practice and help me work through whatever obstacles to awakening remained in my consciousness.

What I didn’t know then but began to see even in that very first ceremony I attended was that these were prayer meetings and that I’d stumbled upon a stunningly different approach to prayer than anything I’d previously encountered. I’ve gone to a lot of meetings since then and I’m still learning what’s really going on and what’s possible.

Maybe it would be helpful to give you a brief description of the environment and form of the meetings. Most meetings are held at someone’s request. That person is then called the sponsor of the meeting and determines its purpose. The possible reasons for a meeting are many. It could be anything from a birthday to a baptism, an expression of gratitude for somebody, or a request for healing.

The meetings are usually held in a tipi. They typically start around 9 or 10 in the evening and continue to anywhere from about 9 until noon the next day. A crescent moon altar made of sand is built and a fire started before the participants enter the tipi. After a few introductory words from the person running the meeting, known as the roadman, the sponsor is called upon to explain the reason for the meeting. That reason then becomes the “main prayer” for the night and the participants are expected to direct their prayerful intention toward that purpose for much of the night. In the hours before dawn we’re also invited to pray for those close to us in need of help and for ourselves.

As it is in numerous indigenous cultures, tobacco is considered a powerful sacred medicine and is used to pray with in various ways during the ceremony. At the beginning of the meeting a pouch of tobacco and a packet of corn husks cut a little larger than rolling papers are passed around the circle. Everyone rolls one of these and begins to pray on behalf of the sponsor. Shortly after that the peyote medicine is also passed around the circle.

Not surprisingly, music is a central element of the ceremonies. There’s a large body of Native American Church prayer songs. If you’ve heard the peyote song recordings of Primeaux and Mike you’ll have a rough idea of what they’re like. The songs are considered to be the wings that carry the prayers and are sung through much of the night. A set of instruments consisting of the roadman’s staff, a gourd shaker, a sage stick, and a water drum move around the circle. Everyone who knows some songs sings a set of four with or without the accompaniment of others. When the medicine takes effect and the energy really gets rolling, especially when there are a lot of experienced singers, I’ve often found the songs to be impossibly rich and moving. As one elder described it to me, when it’s really clicking the songs begin to sing the singers.

The water drum is a key player in the power of the prayer songs. As part of the planning for a meeting the roadman generally asks someone to “carry the drum” for the night. I’ve been told by elders that the drum is a living spirit. One drummer told me that he sometimes sees the energy moving out from the drum, carrying the intention of the singer.

The fire is also referred to and treated as a living spirit. The fire person for the night tends it with great care. The long, split logs are always kept in the same arrow shaped configuration and as the night progresses the coals are gradually formed into particular shapes, often a large bird like a phoenix or eagle. The roadman and other experienced members have occasionally reminded us to pay close attention to the fire. They say it has things to show us.

I said earlier that this environment introduced me to a radically different way to pray. As well as the potent mixing of music, medicine, and prayer, the other key ingredient of those meetings which struck me so forcefully was the way people pray. There are no books, no liturgy, no memorized prayers. From the start I was deeply moved and impressed by the eloquent, straight-from-the-heart talk I’ve heard again and again. People just express themselves. For example, around about dawn, the wife or close female associate of the roadman goes out to get a bucket of water and a ladle, then returns, places the bucket close to the fire, and kneels in front of it. She is given a tobacco to roll and begins to speak. These monologues or prayers often go on for close to an hour and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been moved to tears by the waterwoman’s words. One elder, Susan, who carries the female lineage for her people, told me that when she’s doing that morning water prayer she often has no idea what she’s saying. The words are just coming through her, sometimes even in the old languages that she somehow has to intuitively translate on the spot. One morning after a meeting she said that during one of those prayers she felt the distinct presence of perhaps hundreds of her female ancestors leaning over her and supporting her. When Susan told me that, another woman sitting nearby said she’d been at that meeting and seen those women lined up behind Susan.

One of the essential teachings of the Native American Church is that a prayer is greatly potentiated when all those present can settle their minds and bodies fully, get out of their heads, and enter into a concentrated shared focus—one mind. Kanucas has been sitting up in these meetings for over forty years now. One night he told us that when he was young it was all experienced participants who could stay still in mind and body for the whole night, often not even getting up to take a pee. He said that, with the assistance of Grandfather Peyote, that undistracted focus and intention could accomplish just about anything. As the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick wrote, “Matter is plastic in the face of mind.”

I’ve seen a lot of instances of the effects of prayer now, and over the years have heard many first hand stories of remarkable healings. I’d like to share two of those stories with you. One night a young Native man, known to some of us as Wild Willy, told me he’d had a bullet lodged near the base of his skull for a couple of years. Surgeons were unwilling to attempt removal because of the bullet’s delicate placement and the fear it would cause serious damage if moved. The bullet wasn’t deep enough to be life-threatening in the near term, just embedded enough to cause bad headaches and other unwanted symptoms. A special healing ceremony was held for Willy, accompanied only by a few of the most experienced elders. All ate generous quantities of the peyote medicine, smoked prayer tobacco, prayed and sang hard, and performed other healing rituals. Willy was wearing a small medicine-bundle pouch hanging from a cord around his neck.

The ceremony lasted all night and in the morning he noticed the pouch felt a bit different. He then reached in and was astonished to find the bullet. If it helps the skeptics at all, I want to make it clear that this was in no way a commercial or public transaction. The elders who confirmed the story had nothing to gain from any fabrication or exaggeration. In fact, the general rule of thumb in that environment is that it’s unacceptable to charge money for this kind of healing work.

The other story comes from another Native man named Norman, who has told this story several times in ceremonies I’ve attended. His daughter, about twelve years old at the time of the event, was in a serious car accident and was taken immediately to hospital. When Norman arrived she was on life support. The doctors told him that her spinal cord had been damaged and that she would be permanently and severely brain-damaged and paralysed, if she recovered at all. They asked his permission to remove her from life support. Norman hastily arranged a prayer ceremony for that night and invited only a handful of experienced elders and friends.

The group prayed all night for the healing of the girl and in the morning sent Norman off with a number of prayed-over objects and a small amount of the medicine. Arriving at the hospital, Norman asked to be left alone with his daughter. He placed the objects around her, put some of the medicine on her lips, and prayed hard. After some time the machinery she was hooked up to began to act up and a staff member came running into the room saying, “What have you done?” As Norman told us, within an hour his daughter was off life support and breathing on her own. She was eventually able to resume her education and has now completed high school.

I’ve learned from my experience in the Native American Church and from the comments of experienced elders like Kanucas that there are several key factors in the ‘success’ of a particular prayer. First, it takes great confidence and conviction. Second, you need to be specific about what you’re asking for when you call on the Spirit to help out. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for, you might get it. Third, there are often complex forces at play. The mysterious ways in which the Spirit moves may bring changes that aren’t obvious or don’t appear on an expected timeline. It may take years for the prayer to take effect and Spirit may have other ideas for what the recipient of the prayer needs at any particular point.

A brief anecdote about my cousin Ross may help illustrate this. Ross called me out of the blue after we hadn’t seen each other for nearly thirty years. During the course of a brief stopover in my city, he told me he had Hepatitis C. I arranged to sponsor a healing meeting for him. What Ross didn’t tell me (or those at the meeting) was that he had also been deeply in the grip of alcoholism for many years.

That meeting took place three years prior to this writing and until recently I had assumed that Spirit’s intention with Ross was to get him away from the booze, since he never again took a drink after that night. Meanwhile, the hepatitis, while showing signs of improvement, did not seem to be going into complete remission. But just recently, after I’d had no contact with him for another year and a half, Ross again appeared in my life, announcing that new tests showed absolutely no evidence of the hepatitis and that he’d never felt better in his life.

The fourth key factor to consider regarding the effectiveness of our prayers is that we can’t interfere with anyone’s karma, agenda, or desires. We can only ask the Spirit to help the recipients of our prayers with what they want and need for themselves. They have to ask the Spirit for help with the same degree of confidence and conviction felt by those who are praying for them.

I want to return briefly to this meeting of prayer and medicine. A wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that prayer can have remarkable, even miraculous effects. Clearly, it doesn’t require the admixture of plant medicines for prayer to work. With enough shared intention and confidence it may even be that we can help heal the planet and put it on a sane and sustainable path. The medicines, or entheogens, are sometimes called non-specific amplifiers. Healers in traditions that work with these plants often say that they greatly strengthen the effects of their prayers and healing efforts on behalf of the patient.

I participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies outside of Iquitos, Peru last summer with an ayahuasquero named Percy Garcia. Before the ceremony got under way one night, Percy told us that he has a relationship with eight spirit doctors whom he calls upon to guide him through the ceremony. Someone asked him if he could contact them without drinking ayahuasca and he replied that, yes, he could, but that with the medicine in him the connection was much stronger and clearer. Kanucas has told us a few times that when he eats the peyote medicine he calls upon the Spirit and the Spirit talks to him. He’s said more than once that he means that literally. The Spirit tells him how to work with particular situations and individuals throughout the night.

So it seems that we in the modern societies have a great deal to learn at this time. The message coming from indigenous spiritual traditions, from the Earth peoples, from the plant medicine peoples, is that we’ve cut ourselves off from a potentially life saving knowledge: that the world is alive in ways far beyond our current conditioned understanding, that we need to reestablish that connection with the Spirits, with the living Gaian mind in its many forms. If we can find skillful ways to combine the visionary, teaching, healing medicines with our intentions, with our prayers, a whole new landscape of possibility opens up.

I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite little passages, from a Native American elder and healer named Wallace Black Elk: “So I pray for you that you obtain the same power I have. You and I are no different. It’s just that understanding. You just drifted away from it, just walked away from it for thousands and thousands of years. That’s how come you have lost contact. So now you’re trying to find your roots. They are still here.”1

1. Wallace Black Elk and William S. Lyon, The Sacred Ways of a Lakota. New York: Harper Collins, 1990, 14.

Friends: This article is adapted from ideas in my book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality. This version was written for realitysandwich.com, a great website that’s loaded with articles, resources, and links on the general theme of consciousness transformation. My book is expected to be published in November of 2010 by O Books and if not found in your local bookstore will be available at Amazon and other online retailers. I believe passionately in these ideas and of course would like to see them find their audience. There are so many books in the catalogues these days that any help you can provide by asking your local bookseller to order the book would be most appreciated. Thanks, Stephen.

Grandfather Peyote and the Native American Church

Monument Valley

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.

Notes

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.

Deep Versus High

In my forthcoming book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality (publication fall 2010 by O Books) an important aspect of the thesis—and the total focus of the last several chapters—is an attempt to enter the spiritual benefits of a few key spirit/teacher/medicine plants more openly into the discussion about valid, effective spiritual practices and techniques. I’ve worked with a number of these plants in spiritual, healing, ritual contexts. For the past seven years I’ve been a member of the Native American Church, which uses the peyote medicine plant in its ceremonies. I’ve also worked with ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, and cannabis.

As you probably know, the way we conceptualize things goes a long way to determining how we see them. So the language we hang on concepts and experiences is important. I was recently pondering the term “high” in reference to experiences with plants such as cannabis, as in, “I got high.” I’m not sure what the provenance of that term is as a way to describe the effects of a plant or drug. However, it occurred to me that if you’re referring to the effects with the word “deep” instead, it would cast a different, and quite possibly more uplifted light on the experience. High can suggest rising up off the ground, out of your body, perhaps even out of the whole body and into just the head. Old farts like me will recall that in the days of the counter culture of the late 60s and early 70s, users of cannabis and other psychedelics were sometimes called “heads.” Not to digress too far but would we have experienced ourselves differently if we had used the term “hearts” instead of heads?

Recasting the focus of an experience in terms of how deep it is seems to suggest a more powerful way to view the intention. I think I could get away with the gross generalization that for the most part our culture doesn’t have a good understanding of this kind of depth. Most of us have no idea how deep we can go, how thoroughly we can enter experiences. Of course this relates to egolessness, getting the self out of the way to step fully into experience, to become, as they say, one with the experience. Another “of course” is the relationship of depth to nowness, freeing oneself from the obscuring veil of the thinking/discursive mind and being fully present.

I see it as one of the central tasks for the years ahead in our societies: to understand and share knowledge of our potential for entering more deeply into the now moment. There’s an incredible richness of experience available to us frail humans that for most people is left largely untapped. Artists often understand this. A lot of writers, musicians, painters and others have the ability to step through a portal into the world that stands before them as they’re receiving, creating, or transmitting it. We all have this ability but for many of us it remains more or less dormant. It’s a central principle in the vision and prayer for global healing and awakening. We envision a world where people have developed much greater skill at plumbing the depths.