Principles of the Paradigm Revolution

I suspect that if you’ve found your way here it’s abundantly clear to you that the juggernaut of the current dominant paradigm is not going much further on this planet. That conceptual framework has at its core the belief that the material realm is all there is and that we are no more than separate egos disconnected from the whole. Largely as a consequence of that belief structure, Mammon, the false God of riches and avarice, has come to hold much of the world in his tight-fisted grip. This dominant paradigm long ago lost contact with the living Gaian mind and with our embededness in the all-encompassing web of life. And, to restate it, there is an extremely strong and clear case to be made that this way of seeing life is on the cusp of making the planet uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

Here are a few ideas that many of us see as the operating principles for an urgently needed paradigm shift. This is a very incomplete work in progress and readers are warmly invited to add your own ideas or to comment on those offered here. Some of these principles could also be seen as components of a kind of manifesto for the emerging sacred reality.

1. The Earth is our mother and we are her completely dependent children. It goes without need of elaboration to say that she keeps us alive every second of every day. It’s impossible to overstate how precarious her health is at this moment. For any skeptics in the room who may scoff at the previous sentence as another example of doomsday thinking, I want to say that the basis for such a statement comes not from lack of faith in life but from a deep and fiery commitment to life. It arises from abundant evidence, from knowledge, from individual and collective intuition, and directly from the Spirit when it’s given voice through deep meditative states such as those invoked through the intelligent use of entheogenic plants.

When a beloved parent or other close relative or friend is seriously ill, many of us step up and devote ourselves to that person, sometimes even taking long leaves from our jobs and moving to other places to attend to the sick person. Our primary responsibility now may be to see our mother in that way and to give ourselves over to her healing.

I offer no dogmatic or reductive prescription for this work.  As I see it, the healing work can and does take many forms. In fact, if you were to start at any website devoted to any version of this work and follow the links to related sites, it’s likely the trail would be all but endless. There are many many groups and individuals working to heal the wounds, redress the imbalances, and uplift and beautify the world through every possible sphere of activity: human rights and social justice; environmental; mind/body/spirit teaching and healing; art; food production and distribution; urban design, etc. etc.

The inner paradigm shift required of us now is to learn to step down from our isolated ego-encased misunderstanding of life and allow the ever-present truth of our interconnectedness with each other and with all of life to enter the fabric of our consciousness. For most of us it’s a long journey that challenges us to “quell outer, inner, and secret obstacles”¹ before we can arrive at the trust in life that gives us permission to relax and open our hearts. This leads to principle #2, which could also be seen as a corollary or underpinning foundation for principle #1 above.

2. Healing at all levels must be humanity’s primary mission for the time being. Just as our mother is ill, so are we all wounded and stunned by the ignorance and aggression we see around us, as well as the toxicity and dangerous fragility of our planet and of the collective human enterprise at multiple levels. Buddhist teaching uses the word “samsara” to describe the deluded state of mind that sees itself as only a separate ego. That state of mind dominates worldly activity on this planet and has resulted in untold suffering. If you could peal back the surface layers of the personality, even those who don’t particularly see themselves as suffering are harboring wounds and confusion and typically have no idea of the potential depths of unconditional peace, love, and joy that can be realized in the human form.

3. Following from the previous principle, there is a dawning understanding which intuition and observation tell me will become much more widely and deeply understood in the years to come. That is that our capabilities for healing are far beyond what has been generally recognized and accepted in the mainstream societies. With the right mindset and knowledge, just about any physical or mental condition is amenable to healing. The currently understood laws of physics fall far short of this potential. The primary guiding principle here could be boiled down to the old homily “mind over matter.” Another statement I’ve always liked is writer Philip K. Dick’s comment that “Matter is plastic in the face of mind.” Based on my experience around healing environments where people invoke the intercession of Spirit, I would also express this idea as “Spirit over matter.”

At this time, the majority of people would probably slot this potential into the realm of magic, or simply deny its reality altogether. However, the people who understand the mechanisms at work tell us that it’s not magic at all but rather the knowledge of the underlying structure of reality that allows this kind of intervention. Anyone who looks beyond the conventional consensual reality and does a little digging will find that the evidence is abundant. There are healers who know that it’s possible to see illness of all kinds and in many cases to be able to invoke the intercession of Spirit, move the energies around, suck out black spots, pray away infirmities, receive insights into the needed healing plants, and many other means and methods.

The encouraging news—though it still hasn’t made itself felt in the mainstream discussion forums—is that a major paradigm shift is well underway in the field of healing. We’re beginning to see evidence of a whole new view of healing work rising up all over the place and influencing more and more people. I could—but won’t—stretch this essay out into near interminability with examples to back up this assertion. I have seen and personally experienced some of this work. I’ve also heard a number of reports and testimonials from highly reliable sources regarding individual and group healing work, seminars, and workshops which indicate the gradual seeping of the power of Spirit-infused intention into both the alternative and mainstream healing professions.

If you want to be skeptical be my guest. Obviously, opportunistic charlatanism can rear its ugly head wherever there’s money to be made and especially in the complex realm of human health. Caveat emptor always applies. Again, the point is that this new—at least for the dominant cultures—understanding is spreading like mycelia just under the surface. Time will tell of course. I suspect we’re extremely close to an almost quantum leap forward in this part of the paradigm shift.

4. We the people have the power. This follows from the previous point but leads further, into the world of business and electoral politics. I’m convinced that without the blind complicity of the majority, the power elites are powerless. But to put it bluntly, we’ve been duped. Maybe you and I do not personally feel like we’ve fallen for the great hoodwink, but don’t forget that in the U.S., after eight outrageous years of transparent incompetence, manipulation and bald-faced lying by the Bush Jr. administration, nearly one third of those polled still approved of his presidency. And in 2010, the influence leaders of the Repugnicant Party can still get a large minority of people to believe that the fox in the hen house is their best friend and supporter.

It comes back to the dysfunctional and dying paradigm introduced in the first paragraph above. Although most of us can be tempted to some degree by the big G of Greed, there are power elites who seem to think that acquiring and maintaining control of vast wealth is their only salvation. The damage caused by their machinations and manipulations has been and continues to be unbelievably harmful and heartbreaking.

At the level of nations, democracy is a sham, a shell game. These elites not only do not believe in democracy, they actively and at times violently oppose it whenever it appears to threaten their strongholds. Not that the United States is by any means the sole culprit, but as the most powerful empire on the planet that country offers prime evidence. You could run your finger around a map of the globe and find dozens of countries where the U.S. has directly or indirectly interfered in a nation’s internal affairs to stop nascent democratic movements and keep or put into power leaders friendly to the agenda of mega-corporations. Even when they don’t take such extreme measures, the meddlers are working overtime behind the scenes to influence and pressure governing bodies in every way they can.

I believe a shift is also well underway in this sphere and again, is a central element of the overall healing process. Though clearly I can’t prove it, I suspect the invisible hand of Spirit is helping us heal ourselves and our planet before we waste this incredibly brilliant creation. The curtains are being drawn back to expose corruption at all levels. As a prime example, for the past thirty to forty years we have seen one exposé after another of hypocrisy and abuse from representatives of the churches. Here in Canada we had years of painful discoveries of abuse in the Church-run schools. Lately of course the Catholic Church has been facing the fire for rampant sexual abuse by priests in multiple countries. Through these exposés we see that—with due respect to genuine Christian teachings and the actions of good-hearted people everywhere—the primary function of the Church has been control.

Developing this idea of sham democracy further, I would suggest that the latest version of this corrective healing process seems to be in the realm of political and economic power directly. With appalling events like the global financial meltdown of 2008, everyone is shown in stark relief the real motivations of those who control the flow of the almighty dollar through institutions by the likes of Goldman-Sachs and their ilk and the hand-in-glove collusion of government in this enterprise.

The idea that the people have the power is a central element of the vision for the emerging reality. It meshes with the truth of our interconnectedness, with the reality that the walls that appear to separate us so solidly are an illusion. A core tenet of The Native American Church says that when united as one heart, people are capable of just about anything. When extended into the larger world, this idea provides the foundation for the manifestation of the best idea. To put it succinctly, this understanding proclaims that we are fully capable of collectively manifesting our best ideas.

At this dangerous moment on planet Earth, any more limited idea is insufficient. There’s an excellent six-part series on youtube called Native American Elders Speak. These elders speak in straightforward language with a ring of authority that seems to rise up from the Earth itself. One of them, Oren Wilson, makes the almost painfully obvious point that we are now reaping the results of the intentions we have sown. There’s no more wiggle room. This leads to the next principle of the emerging reality.

5. I believe it will become increasingly clear to greater and greater numbers of people in the years ahead that there’s a fundamental equation at work. There are several ways to say it, probably all a bit clichéd and obvious: you reap what you sow, thought/intention creates reality, etc. The main reason this insight is likely to take hold in the larger society follows from the previous points in this essay. Again, there’s no more wiggle room. Events are circling in upon one another at an alarming rate. It’s not a game. We are right now reaping the consequences of the intentions of those who have had the opportunity, the means, and the talent to manifest those intentions in the world. The rest of us are on some level complicit in our disempowerment.

The logical conclusion of this fundamental equation ties back into principle #4 above regarding the power of the people. Our past and current individual and collective intentions have brought us to a breaking point. Our only hope is to have faith that our wisest, most compassionate intentions are ultimately stronger than the soulless pursuit of power and wealth. The best ideas are stronger because at the core they are in alignment with reality. They are in some sense effortlessly aligned with the primordial, unconditioned, eternal reality. We appear to be going through a purification process and the “no more wiggle room” hypothesis posits that, as a general principle, only that kind of aligned, awakened intention will survive this transit.

6. This one should be right near the top of the New Bill of Rights. We the people have the inalienable right to cognitive liberty. The days of the patriarchy are coming to an end. We are witnessing the grudging but inexorable death of the paternalistic control-based mentality that treats the people like children or like idiots incapable of taking responsibility for ourselves. The shift in thinking required for this particular element of the revolution to take full hold is that the powers that be and a lot of the rest of us have to radically rethink our evaluation of the potential for wisdom in the human species.

If it doesn’t look that way right now as we observe the banalities and absurdities of so-called popular culture, I believe that’s mainly because of the mindset of mutual group imprisonment. If you were never taught that you are at core an awakened being with vast creative potential, you are quite likely to live down to that expectation. If you were never trusted to see life directly for yourself you probably never learned to. We have to trust the root unconditioned goodness of humans.

There’s a Buddhist view of the potential for transmuting unenlightened thinking and behavior into enlightened mind and activity. It’s another fundamental equation. The force of the energy moving in one direction, however neurotic and unaware it appears, is equal to the potential for transforming that energy into awakened activity. Addictions of all kinds, for example, can be seen in this light, as essentially misdirected energies that can be transmuted into life-enhancing creative energies. For those interested in exploring this principle in more depth, take a look at the chapter in my book Returning to Sacred World called “The Worst Horse”

The right to cognitive liberty is the foundational principle for any number of versions of freedom of expression and behavior. One of the most important at this moment involves the use of sacred plant medicines. I count myself among those who hold the conviction that Spirit-infused, visionary, healing plants are here and available for some very important reasons. Though I won’t go into it here, a little research on your part would reveal that plant medicines such as ayahuasca, psilocybe mushrooms, peyote, iboga, and a number of others harmonize extremely smoothly with our existing brain chemistry. To take a particular, and particularly relevant example, DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, is the primary psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca and in its pure form considered by some researchers to be the strongest psychedelic on the planet. DMT is found in the pineal gland in our brains, and according to researchers such as Dr. Rick Strassman and others, may be implicated in a host of non-ordinary states, possibly including mystical experiences of divine union.

The bald fact is that with respect to cognitive liberty and the use of visionary plants, the authorities and mainstream opinion leaders in today’s societies are coming from places of fear, ignorance, and control and are standing in the way of spiritual tools and healing medicines that have remarkable potential to shift the dominant paradigm away from the primitive and arrogant assumption that we are the entitled top dogs granted unrestricted sovereignty over an unsentient planet in a soulless cosmos.

7. Art, or perhaps it should be called Sacred Art, is central to the vision for the paradigm shift. Before writing this section I thought I’d do a quick check of the Oxford Dictionary to see what they had to say about the word “art.”  They didn’t even come close. Here we’re talking about the most all-encompassing implications of that word. It includes the attitude that everything is sacred. It includes the view that art is to be found in the smallest of daily experiences. It includes gratitude, praise, and celebration. It includes channeling visions and voices of the Muses, of Spirit. It includes releasing the mindset of struggle and harmonizing with the larger patterns of life.

Art is especially intertwined with the principal of nowness. Living fully in the now, as I understand it, has to do with mindful, aware, relaxed presence in this very moment. It has to do with relaxing out of control mode and beginning to align ourselves with the energies around us. When we can allow ourselves to awaken into nowness, I think we begin to notice a kind of natural, unconditioned hierarchy of values.

My old Buddhist teacher used to talk about choicelessness. I believe the concept of the Tao has a similar meaning. Choicelessness doesn’t mean that there’s only one way to do things. It means that there are ways to do things that feel right because they are in tune with Spirit, with the natural, creative movement of energy. When we’re present enough to tune into that kind of feeling perception, we’re much more likely to fall into harmonic patterns. The universe, or the interconnected flowing grid of energy and intelligence, tends to lubricate those aligned patterns. Ego is in some sense the opposite of art understood in this way. The more intensely we insist on our own habitual, conditioned ways of seeing and acting, the more we block out awareness of the flowing patterns of the Tao. And, as I pointed out back at the beginning of this essay, that way of experiencing the world is damn close to destroying it.

Ideally, culture reaches a point where the creation of all varieties of form and infrastructure is aligned with the Tao. That’s what’s meant by the centrality of art in the vision for enlightened societies. When that happens we’ll see societies where everything we do and create uplifts, awakens, brings joy, and honors life altogether.

If you’ve ridden with me this far you just might be thinking I’ve gotten a little idealistic here. If so, my response to you is to restate my conviction that matter is plastic in the face of mind and that if we could only have confidence in “the possibility of possibility” as Bishop Desmond Tutu once put it, we are completely capable of manifesting our best, most aligned, most awakened visions on this planet, especially when we can join in one united heart to manifest our intentions.

1. This is a phrase from the Shamabhala meal chant I learned in my days with the Buddhist/Shambhala community founded by Chögyam Trungpa.

Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero

Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero

Ronin, or Ronin Niwe, is one of what might be described as the new breed of ayahuasca curanderos. These are mainly people who are not native to the Amazonian region of South America and who have undertaken apprenticeships, often under the tutelage of ayahuasca shamans trained in the traditional way.  This apprenticeship, when done properly, is a very demanding and rigorous commitment that requires many years of experiential learning.

I have now participated in three ayahuasca ceremonies with Ronin Niwe and have had several very interesting conversations with him. My strong sense is that he is one of those who are doing this right—nurturing the tradition with integrity, respect, and humility. This is an important point because, as you’ll hear in the audio clip Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero, it appears that not everyone involved in this work does have the proper training, and in some cases the intention of some self-appointed ceremony leaders may be questionable.

Ronin generously agreed to sit down with me to answer questions about a range of topics, including his personal relationship to ayahuasca, optimal internal and external conditions (set and setting) for beneficial encounters with the medicine, how ayahausca does its healing work with people, the issue mentioned above about the need for proper training and right intention for ayahuasqueros, and the potential role this plant medicine may play in the years to come.

I’d be very interested in hearing listeners’ comments and questions about this interview. Ronin himself suggested we get together again after I’ve had some feedback. I’d like to go back to him in a few months with a fresh batch of questions, so please post your questions in the comment section following this.

For those interested in learning more, I will be continuing to add content here at the Returning to Sacred World website. My book, also called Returning to Sacred World (due out from O Books this November 2010), has several in-depth chapters on the plant medicines and one chapter specifically on ayahuasca.

I’d also like to direct your attention to a very interesting DVD by Richard Meech called Vine of the Soul: encounters with ayahuasca. Richard gained permission from Ronin’s teacher in Peru, Guillermo Arévalo, to film several ceremonies using an infrared camera. With the addition of a number of highly informative interviews, this film is about as realistic a look as one could get into the ayahuasca experience, short of going to South America and doing some ceremonies oneself. I’ve watched an advance copy of the DVD. I believe its official release date is slated for fall 2010. Richard’s website for the film is www.vineofthesoul.com.

I’ve also transcribed a text version of the interview on this website if you’d prefer to engage it that way.

Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero – text version

An ayahuasca ceremony tambo near Iquitos, Peru.

This post contains the text version of Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero. It’s almost identical to the audio version, as is the fairly brief introduction below.

Ronin, or Ronin Niwe, is one of what might be described as the new breed of ayahuasca curanderos. These are mainly people who are not native to the Amazonian region of South America and who have undertaken apprenticeships, often under the tutelage of ayahuasca shamans trained in the traditional way. This apprenticeship, when done properly, is a very demanding and rigorous commitment that requires many years of experiential learning.

I have now participated in three ayahuasca ceremonies with Ronin Niwe and have had several very interesting conversations with him. My strong sense is that he is one of those who are doing this right—nurturing the tradition with integrity, respect, and humility. This is an important point because, as you’ll hear in the audio version of Interview with an Ayahuasca Curandero, it appears that not everyone involved in this work does have the proper training, and in some cases the intention of some self-appointed ceremony leaders may be questionable.

Ronin generously agreed to sit down with me to answer questions about a range of topics, including his personal relationship to ayahuasca, optimal internal and external conditions (set and setting) for beneficial encounters with the medicine, how ayahausca does its healing work with people, the issue mentioned above about the need for proper training and right intention for ayahuasqueros, and the potential role this plant medicine may play in the years to come.

I’d be very interested in hearing listeners’ comments and questions about this interview. Ronin himself suggested we get together again after I’ve had some feedback. I’d like to go back to him in a few months with a fresh batch of questions, so please post your questions in the comment section following this.

For those interested in learning more, I will be continuing to add content here at the Returning to Sacred World website. My book, also called Returning to Sacred World (due out from O Books this November 2010), has several in-depth chapters on the plant medicines and one chapter specifically on ayahuasca.

I’d also like to direct your attention to a very interesting DVD by Richard Meech called Vine of the Soul: encounters with ayahuasca. Richard gained permission from Ronin’s teacher in Peru, Guillermo Arévalo, to film several ceremonies using an infrared camera. With the addition of a number of highly informative interviews, this film is about as realistic a look as one could get into the ayahuasca experience, short of going to South America and doing some ceremonies oneself. I’ve watched an advance copy of the DVD. I believe the film is now available for order. Richard’s website for the film is www.vineofthesoul.com.

Stephen: I’d like to start by asking you how ayahuasca has benefitted you in your life, what your journey has been with it.

Ronin: I could say that ayahuasca has given me lots of teachings and insights, but I think everyone will know that that’s pretty common for most people. On a personal level ayahuasca has given me more than just personal growth or development and evolution. It’s also given me many dear friends, it’s given me a life path, a purpose, and a whole community of people who are working with this medicine who have changed my life forever. To be more specific, I would say that ayahuasca has helped me resolve many things inside myself that were blocked or resistant. Definitely it’s given me confidence, it’s given me belief, it’s given me a spiritual connection, and all those things have benefitted me one way or the other the last eight or nine years.

S: I’ve read in a few places, for example Benny Shanon in his book The Antipodes of the Mind talks about how ayahuasca presents a sequential or graduated course of instruction, that whatever you’ve been able to incorporate from lessons you’ve learned, she’ll take you from there and show you more that builds on that. Does that coincide with your experience and do you have any further comments about that issue?

R: Yeah, I like that metaphor that Benny Shanon uses. I remember that from his book. I would say that’s fairly true. I can remember certain parts of my apprenticeship where it seemed that a lesson was complete and it was on to a new part of the learning within myself. I’ve also seen it in working with people over the last number of years. There seems to be a progression in learning, although it depends on how much you’re integrating. Ayahuasca won’t teach you further until you’ve integrated the teaching into your life. She’ll keep teaching you the same thing and sometimes she teaches you with more assertiveness unless you really integrate that into your life. I remember an example for myself three or four years into my apprenticeship. I seemed to get a seventy or eighty ceremony experience of learning where it seemed that I was just getting taught about creation, the source, or God—whatever you want to call it. Then it seemed to just stop. I remember it going on for a number of months and then the final ceremony came where it felt like I had gotten all I could from that and was moving on to the next bit of learning. So I do like how he uses that metaphor.

S: So if you’re not integrating it into your life, have you seen with people that the ayahuasca spirit starts booting them harder?

R: People have this impression sometimes that ayahuasca is booting them harder. But what’s actually taking place, from my own experience, is that it’s actually yourself that’s doing the booting. Ayahuasca will open this learning, and—I’m guilty of this, I think anyone who’s drank ayahuasca will be guilty of this—we get these amazing teachings, sometimes we get hundreds of teachings in one night. And how do we put this into our lives? How do we integrate this? It’s not easy. Then we come back and some of the core issues, if we haven’t placed them into our lives, the ayahuasca will definitely open up the relearning of it. I think a lot of the time it’s ourselves putting the guilt onto ourselves, or whatever it may be, the shame.

So it’s not really the ayahuasca. I don’t think that ayahuasca has that personality as someone who punishes. But I definitely know the human mind, the human ego, does punish. My experience of ayahuasca is that it’s very nurturing, it’s there to teach, and it’s very much like a mother. There is a sternness from ayahuasca that comes, but it’s not a punishment. You’ll cleanse and you can call that punishment. But it’s not so much ayahuasca punishing you. When you’re cleansing it doesn’t always feel good and you may interpret that as a punishment.

S: Can you say anything about whether there is a certain type of person who can benefit from ayahuasca and a type of person who should probably not involve himself or herself with ayahuasca?

R: I think anyone who’s willing to learn about himself can benefit from ayahuasca. The tricky part with ayahuasca is that although we all want to become better people, not all of us want to put in the kind of time and energy and sacrifice required of us. We want it the easy way. But the learning with ayahausca is not necessarily easy. So if you’re willing to learn, and you’re willing to learn in the way that she wants to teach you, understanding that it’s not going to be easy, then ayahuasca can be very beneficial for you.

As to who should be drinking ayahuasca, number one, there needs to be a maturity, and it has nothing to do with age. It’s a maturity in terms of where you’re at spiritually and emotionally. You need to come to ayahuasca with some tools. If you come without the tools it’s going to be a very difficult experience. Those tools can range from meditation to some self-development workshops. It can be Tai Chi, it can be yoga, it can be art, anything that allows you to be inside yourself and to be present with that, because of what ayahuasca will demand.

If you want to talk about contraindications with ayahuasca, I would say that people with severe mental illness, it gets a little complicated because people need to have support as they discover themselves. It can leave a person very vulnerable, very open, and unless they have that support people could get into difficult places, not so much during the ayahuasca ceremony, which can happen, but in the days following the ceremony. So I would say, bi-polar if you want to put labels on that, but anyone who is in a very difficult place in their life that doesn’t have support, I would be very cautious with for sure. And of course, medically there are indications that with people who are taking certain antidepressants, people with high blood pressure and some other conditions, further research is necessary before I can give a definitive answer.

S: If you’re taking an antidepressant, I’m assuming you can get off it at some point before the ceremony and it’s okay. Is that correct?

R: Again, this is a bit of a grey area because the research they’ve done in the past is when you combine certain SSRIs [Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors] or when you combine certain MAOIs [monamine oxidase inhibitors.] Those are pharmaceuticals. When you combine those two it produces a negative effect. I don’t think there’s been any research that shows that taking ayahuasca along with antidepressants causes the same interaction as taking two antidepressants that are pharmaceuticals. But if you look at it from a pharmaceutical standpoint, then ayahuasca does contain some of the same constituents that other pharmaceuticals would have in terms of the MAOI or  the SSRI. They have similar action, so on paper that’s what the interaction would cause, but I don’t think it’s ever been shown. It would be interesting for someone to do that kind of testing. My feeling, and this is through some experience as well, is that it doesn’t have that same effect.

S: What do you recommend to people in that regard?

R: I recommend people taking antidepressants not drink ayahuasca.

S: Oh, really.

R: Yeah, if you can come off of it in two or three weeks, depending on which antidepressant you’re on, I would get in touch with a couple of friends of mine who are doctors who have experience with the ayahuasca medicine as well as the pharmaceuticals. There’s one you can be off for a week and it should be fine. There are others that stay in the system a little bit longer, three or four weeks. But if you really want to work with ayahuasca you need to prepare physically. Any time you go to an ayahuasca ceremony and you have pharmaceuticals or drugs in your system you’re not as entirely open as you could be. So I would always recommend to people to be clear of those kinds of substances. But again, I think further research needs to be done because a lot of the time people can’t come off of the antidepressants and those are the people who need the work and the healing.

S: On a similar topic, I’m wondering about the dieting. I know that for people like yourself who are training to be or are already working as ayahuasqueros, that you do a lot of very restrictive dieting and work with particular plants. If someone is not interested in pursuing that path of being a ceremony leader, would you recommend them anyway to do some of these kinds of diets and why?

R: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s important to distinguish here between the diets. A lot of people get mixed up about the diet in terms of preparing for an ayahuasca ceremony, the specific diet that we need to follow before drinking ayahuasca and also in the days after that will help optimize their experience. But in the traditional way of working with the medicine there is what’s called la dieta, the diet, which is where a person who’s wishing to learn—traditionally that would only be people who are wanting to become ayahuasqueros or vegetalistos or curanderos. But things have been changing. Also, traditionally, a hundred and fifty years ago, it was only the curandero who was drinking ayahuasca. It wasn’t the participants. I think that’s important to remember, that things are changing.

The diet is the kind of restriction where someone would go into the jungle for a week up to a year or two of isolation, only working with specific plants, what they call master plants, following all the restrictions. That’s very separate and very different from just preparing for an ayahuasca ceremony. But yeah, I think, absolutely, even if you’re not becoming an ayahuasquero or curandero, walking down that path, you’re still going to learn about yourself. Through the plants you can learn how to heal, not just with ayahuasca. You can learn how to heal in many different methods, whether it’s Chinese medicine, whether its Ayurveda, or other holistic medicine paths. All these plants teach us about ourselves.

So when we’re working and doing healing with other people, we need to know ourselves well, we need to be clear ourselves, we need to be clean, we need to be very aware and conscious and all these plants will teach us. So it’s going to help us not just in ayahuasca healing but in all healing. All these master plants we work with teach us how to live, so it’s not just always about becoming a healer or ceremony leader. It’s about learning how to live. This is how and why these plants are used in the Amazon.

S: Can you say anything about the important factors and conditions that help create a beneficial experience with ayahuasca for the participants in a ceremony?

R: I think you could look at it in two ways. The way to create the best internal environment is, number one, to have a very strong intention and be very clear about what it is you’re looking to learn from ayahuasca. Some people come to ayahuasca because their friend told them he had an amazing experience and that’s great, it’s great to have that kind of referral. But if you really want to work with ayahuasca, you’ve got to be clear on what is it you’re looking for because ayahuasca is very powerful and will demand a lot of respect.

It’s also very helpful to have good support around you anytime you do deep personal work, friends or family who are supportive. They don’t necessarily need to know you’re drinking ayahuasca, but to know that you’re going through some very deep work and that they’re there to support you when you come out of that experience. Again, you want to prepare physically with a clean diet. The better shape your physical body is in, the more open your body is, which will allow for more of the medicine to permeate into your whole being.

In terms of the actual ceremony space, number one, it’s good to know who you’re drinking with, that the person is well trained and understands the sacred space, the ceremony space. There are many different types of ceremony out there. The traditional ceremony is done in a particular way. This is the way I’m trained so maybe I’m biased in the sense that I think this really creates a safe space, the way the traditional ceremony is run with someone who is well trained and with someone there to assist in case it’s needed, or at least a sitter. Location is also important, doing it in a private setting where it’s not around a lot of people, which can bring in other energies. You want to keep the space quite contained, private, and secure.

S: Thank you. I wonder if you could say more about how the medicine actually works on behalf of people. For example, my impression from my relatively limited knowledge of it is that it seems to be able to help you even if you’re not fully consciously aware of how it’s helping you. Am I on the right track there?

R: Yes, ayahuasca works in many different ways, so for some people it works in one way and in other people it works in another way. As I’ve said to people many times before, everyone has their own unique connection to ayahausca. What ayahuasca is to you is going to be different from what it is to me and what it is to me is going to be different what it is to my teacher. What ayahuasca does is show you yourself. Because each one of us is unique, we can’t all have the same connection, even though we’re working with the same spirits. The spirit allows us to see ourselves as unique individuals.

For some people you hear these stories where ayahuasca opens up this incredible teaching where God comes down and gives all the answers to the universe. Then you hear of other experiences where people have no teaching, where in their mind they don’t feel anything. There is something happening but it’s not what they expected to happen. You know, you’re working with a spirit. You’re not working with a drug, you’re not working with a chemical. The spirit of ayahuasca can permeate all parts of ourselves spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sometimes we don’t feel it in the physical body, the emotional body, but there is something happening spiritually.

For many people the most powerful time is the days following. Sometimes people don’t have the vision or the big fireworks or the purging. But in the days to follow they have incredible shifts and changes in their lives. If you want my honest opinion, I think that’s even more powerful than having the big powerful visions and all the fireworks, because the way our western minds work, we love to have all that excitement and those dazzling colours. But the real power of ayahuasca is its ability to teach us how to live. So if people are having shifts and changes in their lives, that’s what I look for. That’s what I’m interested in hearing from people.

My experience is just that. I believe that once we connect with the spirit of ayahuasca once and continue to connect with it if we do it multiple times, the spirit is always within us. All we have to do is notice it and be aware of it. Many people have this experience where they’re in meditation five days later and they connect with the spirit of ayahuasca. Obviously the physical part of ayahuasca is no longer in your system. However, the spirit is connected to you always.

S: My impression from that last ceremony was that it showed me what it could do and then it’s that I then have to remember that I can do that in my daily walk. I can tap into that space, I can slow my mind down, I can relax and open up into that space. So you’re being shown that little tool that then you take with you. Does that make sense?

R: Yeah, ayahuasca gives you the key. Then it’s up to you to unlock the door, and you have the choice. You don’t have to open that door. Sometimes people are just not ready to make that shift.

S: You yourself have drank a lot of ayahuasca over the years and seen people who’ve drank it very infrequently and more frequently. Is there anything you can say about the difference in the way it works with you if you’re drinking more frequently or less frequently? It’s probably self-evident in some ways. Maybe you could add to it a little.

R: It goes back to what I said before in that it really depends on how much you’re integrating. Some people drink once every two or three years and they get enough from one ceremony to integrate for those two or three years. Other people may integrate faster, or they don’t get as much in every ceremony. It’s really hard to say because, again, everyone is different. Some people drink a hundred and fifty times a year, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with drinking every ten years. It’s really, what are you learning and what are you putting into place? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a spiritual practice.

Do I believe that ayahuasca’s a path? Yeah, sometimes people come with this idea they’re going to drink ayahuasca once or twice and they’re going to get all the answers they need for their life. It’s like meditation. You don’t meditate for five minutes and then you’re good for the rest of your life. Ayahuasca is a meditation, so there’s always practice to be done. It depends on what rate you learn at and how well you integrate and what kind of support you have in your life.

So it’s an open-ended question that every person will have to answer for him or herself. For myself, I knew that when I started drinking ayahuasca I wanted to work with it very frequently at the beginning. I took it to a certain level where I was drinking a lot and then I came to a point where I knew I had to integrate for six or eight months. So I stopped drinking for that period of time and that was a big challenge for me because I also love the ceremonial aspect of ayahausca. But that six or eight month break was also some of the biggest learning that I have ever received. I integrated the hundreds and thousands of ceremonies that I was able to do before that.

S: These ícaros, these songs that the ceremony leaders sing, I love these things. They seem to have quite an effect and I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about, first of all, how you see the ícaros functioning in the ceremonies. Another question I have is that I’ve read that traditional ayahuasca curanderos often learn their songs directly from the plant spirit. Has that been the case with you and is that an important issue?

R: Good question. The ícaros are an enormous part of the ceremony. A lot of people will say that the ayahuasca is what the whole ceremony revolves around. But in fact for me it’s the chanting, the prayer, the songs that are such a beautiful part of the ceremony. They’re prayers. Each song is a prayer. Each song is a way for the ayahuasquero to commune with these plants, to commune with nature. So it’s a very intimate relationship as well.

S: How many songs do you know, quite a few?

R: I have no idea. I work with two traditions. In the Shipibo tradition, which is my teacher’s tradition, every song we do is spontaneous. So I would say that I know an infinite number of songs because whatever’s happening in terms of the patients or in terms of the ceremony, I’m using the vocabulary of what I’ve learned with different melodies in the context of what I’m seeing in the ceremony. So no two songs can ever be the same.

S: So it’s how you feel it in that moment.

R: It’s how I see it, yeah, whatever visions are coming up, whatever I’m clearing away. Sometimes we use very similar melodies or the same melodies but the words may be different. And a lot of times the melody just comes to you in the moment. In terms of the Quechua songs, the Quechua-Lamista style of working is a little different. They have set songs. These are very repetitive. They’re specific chants like you would have in Native American songs. They’re sung in a certain way. There are about twenty or thirty of those I’m familiar with.

S: So in this way of working spontaneously in the moment with the ícaros, are you sometimes responding to a message that you’re getting from spirit or some sense that you need to direct your song to a particular person in the ceremony who you feel needs it at that moment?

R: Abolutely, yeah. And what’s so amazing about the ayahuasca experience is that every ceremony is entirely different because you can never have the same energy in any two cermonies. The moon is going to be in a different place, the stars are aligned differently, the people in the ceremony are different, my energy is different. So all this is going to bring up different energies. When you put the ayahuasca into the participants, when the ayahuasca starts to manifest for people, you open the space for the ayahuasca to come with the chanting. When the medicine goes in it brings up people’s stuff, people’s energy. At a certain moment you have a vision of certain people in the ceremony where you can see into their inner world and you work with that energy. You can also call the person up and do very close personal, individual work called the Soplada to focus your intention on that one person. But you can also do it long distance, that is, when the person is across the room. You don’t have to have them in front of you.

S: How do you know, in your own experience, that the spirit of ayahuasca is there? How do you know that that’s real. Also perhaps an addendum to that question is that I’ve heard it described as a female spirit.

R: I’ve seen the spirit of ayahuasca.

S: In a visual representation? What did it look like?

R: In many different forms. Typically a snake, an anaconda, but also I’ve seen it as a woman.

S: And how could you say for yourself that that was the spirit of ayahuasca as opposed to a representation of the spirit of any number of animals or other entities?

R: Well, she told me [laughter.] That might sound a little funny on tape. I might get locked up in a straightjacket for saying that. But here is an important distinction. A lot of people use the word psychedelic or hallucination in referring to ayahuasca. But for me it’s neither one of those. It’s a vision and it’s the same as having a vision in a sweat lodge or in Sun Dance or any type of ceremony. The vision is gifted  to you from spirit and in the ayahuasca ceremony the spirit can come in a number of different forms. I’ve personally had that interaction where the ayahuasca has told me, “I am the spirit of ayahuasca.” But it can also be very different. Sometimes I see other spirits. Sometimes I see spirits of animals, or sometimes I see dark spirits or negative spirits, if people want to label it like that.

I think everyone will see ayahuasca in their own unique way, although there are also definitely similarities in people’s visions of seeing it as a woman. Then there are also traditions that believe ayahuasca is masculine. In Colombia there are a number of traditions that believe ayahuasca is masculine. Although my own experience has been more feminine, I believe that any spirit has a masculine and a feminine aspect, as we do. Plants are personalities, plants are beings. So although you and I are of course masculine, there is also a feminine part to us. Because of the yin and the yang we can never be entirely one or the other.

S: You mentioned in a previous conversation that people should be very cautious about mixing medicines, especially in the early stages of their work with plants. I think you said something about how doing this could dilute the learning. Can you add to or clarify that point?

R: Maybe this is a generalization but I think a lot of people in western society get their feet wet in all these learnings and traditions. It’s great that we have access to all these amazing teachings out there. Of course if you were in the Amazon a hundred and fifty years ago the only access you had to knowledge and the spiritual path was the access that people had to the natural world around them. There’s nothing wrong with learning different paths or different medicines. But there needs to be a lot of awareness around doing that, following and respecting each tradition.

For myself, ayahuasca for the first number of years gave me more than I could handle. I couldn’t even imagine walking another path at that time. Eventually I did start to learn a different path, the Sun Dance path. But I did so with a lot of awareness and also a lot of guidance from teachers on both paths. It’s something we just need to be very cautious of. Some people want to work with ayahuasca. There are other people working with ayahuasca and LSD and peyote and mushrooms. Each one of those is a lifelong learning. We have to be careful not to go too fast on these paths.

I know in western society we tend to want things pretty fast. The traditional people have spent hundreds of years studying these plants, these medicines, these ways. For us to come in and think we can grasp it in three or four years, it’s just not possible. But I do think it can be beneficial to walk certain paths together. I also had a yoga practice at one time that has helped me in my ayahuasca path and my ayahuasca path has helped me with my Sun Dance path. So it’s not that it’s wrong, it just needs to be done in the correct way with awareness.

S: When I asked you earlier about a good environment for beneficial work, you said that the ceremony leader needs to be properly trained. I wonder if you could add a bit more to that in terms of the fact that apparently there are a lot of people leading ceremonies who aren’t that well trained.

R: Yeah, this follows what I was just talking about, how in western society we want things so quickly. As I mentioned, most of these paths require much time, dedication, and sacrifice. I recently read somewhere that there’s a Become a Shaman workshop in a weekend. It’s hilarious. A shaman is someone who has a lot of wisdom, someone who’s an elder, who’s a priest, who’s a medicine man, who’s a politician of the tribe. He’s someone who people go to for answers. To become that person in a weekend, or even in five years, it’s not possible. Wisdom is something that comes with practice and knowledge. It takes many years.

People throw that word shaman at people like myself. I’m 33 years old. I’m not a shaman. I’m a baby. I’ve been practicing for eight or nine years. Maybe by the time I’m eighty I may have that wisdom if I keep living in a good way and learning in a good way. People think that someone who’s becoming an ayahuasquero is someone who has drank ayahuasca a lot. In fact, becoming an ayahuasquero or curandero has very little to do with how many times you’ve drank ayahuasca. It has more to do with the training, and the dieta, and the discipline, the restriction in terms of the master plants. So from my perspective there are not a lot of well trained people out there in this work. I would caution people to really know who they’re drinking with and how much training a person has, how much time they’ve put in, how much dedication. It’s a huge path.

I’d like to speak more about this. I think people really need to hear that. In a way it’s not me saying that people aren’t trained or good enough. There are some great people out there who are well trained. But I’m also hearing from people going to these very large ceremonies with seventy or eighty people. My teacher has been doing this for thirty-five or forty years and very rarely would he do a ceremony with over thirty or thirty-five people. That’s someone with more experience than most people on this planet and that’s a caution he has about ayahuasca ceremonies. And then I  hear about people coming through different cities who are working with eighty people. I don’t think you can create the proper healing environment that is safe with that kind of ceremony.

S: One group that I think we’re both slightly familiar with, I went to one of their pre-ceremony gatherings and they spoke about trying to up those numbers into the 150 to 200 range.

R: Well, people will do what they wish with this work. I would caution those people to just look inside. What’s their intention? Why do they need to have so many people at their ceremonies? There’s enough energy, from my perspective as a ceremony leader, with fifteen or twenty people. That energy can be overwhelming when you’re working and with the depths that ayahuasca can take you to. So I’m wondering about the intention. They may be coming with a different intention in working with ayahuasca. It’s not for me to judge. I would hope that they’re being clear on why they would want as many people as they’re looking for.

S: Somewhat following on that, I have a few questions about ayahuasca’s expanding footprint on the planet. It seems to be spreading quite rapidly, both through the ayahuasca churches and through this traditional shamanic approach. How do you see this happening? Are you happy with where it’s at now? Have you had any kind of personal vision about where we might be going or where we might be with ayahuasca in ten or twenty years?

R: Yeah, good question. I think somewhere Dennis McKenna has written about this vision he’s had of ayahuasca spreading as a vine over the world. I’ve had very similar visions myself. I don’t think it’s by chance that ayahuasca is coming out into the world this way. I think all of us would admit at this time that humanity is in need of some help. Ayahuasca can play this role. It has it’s own agenda. I believe that the spirit of ayahuasca  is guiding us right now and that it has nothing but good intentions for helping us human beings.

But yes, I do have some concerns. I’ve seen white man, I’ve seen western society take many traditional things. I haven’t seen it personally but obviously it’s been a part of history. We’ve taken things out of context and sometimes what I’m hearing is that people are losing the tradition of ayahuasca. I wouldn’t say it’s common. I think most of the people who are using ayahuasca around the world are doing so with a very strong intention and a very strong prayer behind that. But once in a while I hear about people using ayahuasca in a different context. So it is a concern of mine that we may lose the essence of this work which is a very sacred space that ayahuasca creates with well trained practitioners who are able to hold that space.

Working with ayahuasca is similar to going for heart surgery. It’s something very deep and very personal and we want to make sure that if we’re going for surgery we’re going to get a well trained heart surgeon. This is important to remember. We want to make sure that people who are using this medicine and practicing it and holding these ceremonies are well trained, and also that people who are coming to them are coming with the right intention, which is healing, which is to look within and find their own healing power. I really believe in the power of ayahuasca, in the spirit of ayahuasca, that it will guide us and not lead us astray. I believe that we’re going to be kept in a good way. Ayahuasca will always demand out of us, so it would be very difficult for people to continue working very deeply with this medicine and not stay on track with the tradition of this work.

S: We covered this general theme earlier but I wanted to ask you more about the visionary element of  ayahuasca. In the experiences I’ve had the visions have sometimes been stunningly beautiful, but I’ve also wondered what they have to do with the learning. There’s been a continuing thread through this conversation from your side about ayahuasca being here to help. How do the visions play into that?

R: Certainly an aspect of the ayahuasca experience is the visions. But also what comes with the vision is the interpretation of that vision. That only comes with practice.

S: So when you see some kind of absolutely beautiful patterning, gorgeous art work, if you can’t interpret it it’s not of any particular use other than just having that experience in the moment?

R: There can be teaching behind that vision, but it can also just be that what  you’re seeing is energy. Each one of those patterns you’re seeing are energetic imprints of plants. I wish I had an example of the shipibo weavings here right now to show you. I’ve always seen these visions as the energetic world, the spiritual world, when you walk into that other reality. The practice for myself is to be able to actually work with those visions, to manipulate those visions. It’s like when you’re dreaming, being able to actively participate.

S: Can you say more about how you actually do that?

R: Through the power of the chanting, the ícaros, through the power of the mind.

S: What kinds of things might you be asking for, or what might you be wanting out of that?

R: It depends on what the experience is. If I perceive it as being something negative when I’m working with someone, if it’s an energy that’s maybe not patterned, or that sometimes comes in and it’s not sequential, doesn’t have a rhythm to it when I’m seeing that person’s energy, then I need to remove that energy and reinforce good visions and good color. It may also depend on what color the vision is. All these different parts of the vision, I can’t say that one is necessarily negative or positive. Sometimes it just is, I’m witnessing the person’s pure energy. In that case it’s not for me to change or manipulate. It’s for me to get to know that person’s energy.

S: That brings up another question for me from the participants point of view. People seem to have a lot of experiences where they’re about to go into something that looks like it could be pretty scary. How do you know whether, if you don’t go in there, you’re missing some important teaching? Is there any way for people to know how to determine where to go with that kind of material? Are there places you could go that really could be harmful, that you shouldn’t go?

R: There’s no definitive way to know how to deal with those moments. I can give you little hints and suggestions and recommendations. One is the color of the vision. It’s not definitive in the sense that say, if it’s white it’s good, if it’s black it’s bad. Sometimes there’s some trickery going on by the spirit as well. But sometimes there’s an intuitive feeling that each person gets. Sometimes in my visions I’ve declined to go into a place to learn something because it intuitively didn’t feel right to go there. I remember one specific example where I had an opportunity to go into this doorway, this opening, and I chose not to. Then later on in the experience I came back to the same door and saw it from a different perspective, and I knew I had made the right choice. If fear comes up for you because it’s the unknown, that fear may just be the block of going into a part of yourself that you need to go into.

S: It’s hard to be intuitive if there’s fear in the picture.

R: The feeling of fear can be an intuition, but the rationalization of the fear can be a block for you. If you’re walking in the forest at night and you hear a noise somewhere and fear comes up, intuitively that might be a very good thing because it might make you run, and if there’s a bear there it’s going to eat you. But if it’s just a twig cracking and you create a whole story, that’s very different.

S: Okay, so, hypothetically, let’s say you’re a reasonably mentally healthy person and you’re not dealing with really dark energies and huge trauma in your life, and you’re in a good situation with a good leader, are there places you could go that could be truly harmful with ayahuasca?

R: Uh…no. If, as you say, that’s all set up with a well trained practitioner who knows energy and how to work with it and how to protect the people. Energy is energy. I can’t say you’ll never get into difficult challenges in the spiritual world because the spiritual world is the spiritual world. But if you go with the right intention and keep yourself in a place of love, not much can come and touch you. You start opening up your fears and making yourself vulnerable and not protected, then you’re going to be in the energetic world.

Energy is around you all the time. For example, big cities often have sections where there’s a lot of suffering, a lot of trauma, areas which many people would say are very dark. Whether or not you’re with ayahuasca, you could walk through a place like that and energetically be impacted by the experience. In an ayahuasca ceremony you’re exposing yourself to energy. In life, every time you walk out the door you’re exposing yourself to energy. If you’re in a good place and you’re well protected and clear and healthy, there’s very little that can touch the place of love, the place of heart based living. Every time I lead a ceremony I’m exposing myself energetically. Have I been harmed? I’ve carried energy and it hasn’t felt very good, but I’m always well supported spiritually in this work. I haven’t felt that anything has impacted me long term.

S: That’s great. Maybe we should bring it to a close here. Has anything occurred to you that my questions haven’t covered that people listening to this might benefit from knowing about how to work with this plant?

R: No, I think you’ve covered everything. I really like the questions you’ve asked. I think we’ve touched on some important issues. I would just remind people to go into this work with a lot of respect, reverence, and with clear intention, and not to go into it because other people are telling you to do it or creating false expectations for you, but to go in with the intention that you want to learn about yourself. No matter what happens in your experience with ayahuasca, or in any spiritual path, if you’re willing to learn about yourself you’re always going to come out a better person.

S: Great, thanks a lot.

R: You’re welcome Steve. Thank you.

The Benefits of Low-Dose Psilocybin Mushrooms [updated]

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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.

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.