A Good Way to Teach

If you’ve read Returning to Sacred World you probably recall a number of references to and quotes from Kanucas, a spiritual elder in the Native American Church (NAC). Kanucas was my first contact with the NAC in 2003 and in the years since I’ve had a lot of interaction with him.

Returning to Sacred World makes frequent mention of teachings from the NAC and includes a full chapter on the ceremonies and the sacred peyote medicine. When I had the manuscript pretty much ready to go, I sent him a copy, telling myself that if he objected I would not seek publication. Fortunately there was nothing in the book Kanucas found objectionable or inaccurate. Instead, he spoke in very positive terms about the content and the writing.

When the book was published in November 2010 I organized a book launch event here in Vancouver BC and asked Kanucas if he would come and speak at it. He agreed without hesitation. A week before the event I called to make sure we were on track and reached him far from home in California, where he and his wife Anne had been called down to work for several weeks. He said he intended to take a break from the job and come up for the launch. That in itself got me, but it gets much more dramatic.

About four days before the launch I got a call from Anne informing me that Kanucas had had a car accident on the way up from California. He was driving at night in northern California with his daughter and grandchild in the pickup truck when they hit some black ice. The truck slid into a raised curb, rolled over one and a half times and came to a stop upside down in a ditch. Remarkably, all three emerged without significant injuries. Kanucas got the worst of it with a cracked and displaced collarbone and a collection of bumps, cuts, and bruises. The truck was a write-off.

Anne told me that the chances of Kanucas making it back to his home on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state were slim, let alone getting up to Vancouver for the book launch. To my surprise though she added that he still hoped to make it and that I should check back in a couple of days.

On Thursday, two days before the event, I called and reached Kanucas. Anne had picked him up in another car and driven him home, a journey of nearly a thousand miles. She then turned right around and headed back down to California to continue working. Kanucas told me he was sore and carless and though it didn’t look likely, he had not given up on the possibility of honoring his promise.

On Friday he called me and announced that his friend Gord had offered to drive him to the U.S./Canada border, a five or six hour trip. Like many of the Native Americans I know, Gord didn’t have a passport to get into Canada so we agreed that I would wait and watch for Kanucas just across the border on the Canadian side. Kanucas has difficulty walking any distance at the best of times, let alone after being bounced around the cab of his truck like that. After a lengthy grilling from a grumpy and bewildered Customs agent, Gord was allowed—under the doubting gaze of a couple of officers—to drive through the border for another fifty metres or so and drop him off where I was waiting.

I add this level of detail because of my suspicion—based on past experiences—that when a positive intention has been set into play unexpected support often manifests from unseen sources. Kanucas in particular seems to have spirit guides and guardians close at hand much of the time.

Sitting in my kitchen the next morning, Kanucas showed me where his collarbone had been pushed far enough out of alignment that I could see it jutting out behind the shoulder joint. He could barely move his left arm. His right forearm was wrapped in a large bandage and his discomfort was obvious.

About forty people showed up for the launch. Kanucas spoke about the ideas in my book for about twenty minutes and added his own understanding of some of the underpinning principles. Most if not all of those present were moved by his obvious authenticity and wisdom, even more so when I took the mic and explained what he had endured to get there. I suggested a hat-passing for the “help Kanucas get a new vehicle” fund and the folks there generously chipped in with about $200. Most of those present also bought a copy of the book, no doubt due at least in part to Kanucas’ testimonials on my behalf.

I was deeply moved and more than impressed by Kanucas’ generosity of spirit and the discipline of his commitment to honor a promise despite obstacles that would deter most of us. It felt like a great gift at the time, but it turned out to have unexpected reverberations.

Now, a year later, I can see that what Kanucas handed to me that weekend wasn’t just a generous gift. It was also a powerful teaching and a transmission of responsibility. I doubt he saw it that way though. He just does things like that for people. But it got under my skin and influenced my behavior.

We all know there’s much talk on this planet that doesn’t hold up. We have lots of old homilies and clichés on that theme: “Put your money where your mouth is,” Walk the talk,” “Actions speak louder than words,” “All hat, no cattle,” and so on. Kanucas’ selfless actions on my behalf put the golden seal of approval on the teachings he has accumulated and shared for so many years.

What I see now as I look back over these past months is that, without any conscious agenda, I’ve found myself more frequently saying an unhesitating yes to requests for support or assistance and jumping in wholeheartedly to situations that could benefit from my attention. It feels fine, you know, you just do it, no big deal, no litter left behind on the path.

My old Buddhist mentor Chögyam Trungpa—also referenced frequently in Returning to Sacred World—used to talk about choicelessness. That may sound restrictive, as though you’re not free to make your own choices. You are of course. But maybe there’s an energy coming from a certain direction, a “first thought best thought” intuition. You feel your way along, you don’t have to endlessly analyze things and hem and haw about the right course of action. Life can be a lot simpler lived that way.

I’m not trying to make this whole situation and the changes it wrought in me sound like some grand accomplishment on my part. Many people help each other in similar ways. Some live every day in service. This one was a somewhat extreme example of sacrificing personal comfort and convenience to help a friend, and as I’ve suggested, it set a high standard of behavior for me that without conscious planning I have since felt honor-bound to live up to.

Iboga Interview—in three parts (audio version)

A few weeks ago (Mar. 2011,) I received an email informing me that two iboga ceremony leaders, Steve and Sean from Britain, would be coming to my area to lead a three-day healing ceremony with the iboga root, sometimes called “the wood.” I found this exciting news since Kanucas, my friend and spiritual elder from the Native American Church, had told me a couple of years ago that he and others had received a vision that ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga would play key roles in the global consciousness transformation. At the time I had no idea how this little-known plant would spread its footprint.

I was very pleased to be able to get in touch with Steve, who readily agreed to come over to my home with Sean for an in-depth interview on this remarkable spirit-plant medicine. I found them both sincere, knowledgeable, articulate, and engaging.

The interview lasted close to an hour and a half. I divided it into three roughly equal segments of a little under a half hour so listeners don’t have to swallow it all in one gulp. I hope you find it useful. For a short synopsis of the history and current use of iboga and its primary psychoactive alklaloid ibogaine, please read my article at this site. I also warmly invite comments. Here is the three-part interview. Enjoy, Stephen.

Iboga Interview Part One

Iboga Interview Part Two

Iboga Interview Part Three

Stephen Gray interviewed by Robert Phoenix

Returning To Sacred World With Stephen Gray – Sep 27,2010

On the evening of Sunday, September 27, I answered the telephone to begin a long and winding conversation with Robert Phoenix on the cultural paradigm shift and in particular the role of sacred plants in this journey of awakening and healing. Listeners may find some very engaging and useful information about how individually and collectively we can work with these plants and nurture them successfully as they take a greater role in the consciousness transformation process underway. Clicking on the link above or here: “Returning to Sacred World With Stephen Gray – Sep 27,2010“, will take you directly to the audio interview.

Robert proved to be a skilled interviewer, keeping the questions focused and allowing me all the time I needed to fully explain the issues as I understand them. I recommend Robert’s internet radio station Free Association Radio for some very interesting interviews on similar topics as well as astrological forecasts and other juicy tidbits of information.

I should tell you that it was a two hour conversation. You could save a little time at the beginning by going to about the 9 minute mark where the actual discussion starts. As always, I welcome and encourage comments and questions and will do my best to respond to all of them. Please also help support this vision by sharing the link for the interview with your own contacts. Thank you, Stephen.

P.S. On the subject of fascinating and informative interviews, don’t forget to check out the interview I conducted with Ronin Niwe, one of the new breed of non-native ayahuasca ceremony leaders who are learning from the traditional masters and bringing this remarkable medicine out in the larger world with respect and humility. I have it here on my website in both audio and text versions.

Ayahuasca: a Remarkable Healer

Peruvian Shaman with Ayahuasca Vine

Although my main practice is the peyote prayer meetings of the Native American Church, the researcher in me is drawn to periodically explore the teachings of other medicines as well. I have a particular fondness and respect for the ayahuasca medicine. For those unfamiliar with ayahuasca, there is no shortage of information online and in books on the pharmacology, history, and current use of this Amazonian brew. There’s also a chapter on ayahuasca in my book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality (O Books, Nov. 2010.) In that chapter I give a more detailed description of the brew, its effects, and its ritual use. Suffice it to say here that the brew is made from a combination of at least two plants which work in tandem to produce the psychoactive effects.

Ayahuasca is very close to my heart. I’ve imbibed it ten times as of this writing. Though I suspect I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential, I have already had a number of very powerful and beautiful experiences with the brew. I’m feeling especially inspired at the moment since I recently participated in a weekend event that included two consecutive nights of drinking ayahuasca. I believe I’m beginning to understand its genius.

The ceremony leader, also referred to as the shaman, the curandero, or the ayahuasquero, plays a very important role in the success of the work. The man guiding this particular weekend event, Ronin Niwe, encouraged the participants to understand that ayahuasca will always relate appropriately to each drinker. It will show you where you are at that moment. In that sense it’s like an enlightened Buddhist teacher, who, traditional teachings say, functions as a clear mirror to the student.

Again, for those unfamiliar with ayahuasca and its cultural context, this suggests a living presence of some sort. Those experienced with the plant, and especially the indigenous people of the Amazon who’ve been using it since who knows when, will readily say that indeed, this is the case. Ayahuasca is described as a spirit, a being. It’s often, but not always, experienced as a feminine spirit, and also a serpentine entity.

Ronin was a good communicator and a good listener. He encouraged us to express our intentions. What did we want from the experience? What did we need help with in our lives? In the intention-setting discussion that immediately preceded the drinking of the brew, Ronin worked with each participant to hone his¹ intentions until they were clear and uncluttered.

According to Ronin, the ayahuasca spirit will respond to that intention during the several hours of one’s time in her embrace. This appeared to be true in my own situation and was also confirmed by the others in the sharing sessions that were held in the morning after each encounter with the medicine. Though it wasn’t always clear to each of us at first, with some probing and nudging by Ronin, for most of us it gradually became clear that the plant spirit had indeed responded to our intentional requests.

I’m fascinated by the deep intelligence and creativity of ayahuasca in this respect. Ronin cautioned us to enter the experience with intention but not expectation. As the weekend progressed it became increasingly clear to me how we tend to clutter our minds with analysis and speculation. Ayahuasca appears to cut to the chase, to hone directly in on the heart of the matter. If you have a fixed idea about how she will respond, you may well miss the actual teaching or healing. In fact, it looks like she often doesn’t even require us to consciously realize what has happened. Ayahuasqueros will often tell you she is a healer and that she does her work regardless of how much we recognize and understand what is occurring.

Ronin reminded us that it’s all energy. When we can tune in directly to the energies we’re working with, or that are working us over, we can better align ourselves with ayahuasca’s work. Near the end of one of the ceremonies, as I lay reflecting while the medicine gradually let me go, I sometimes thought of the plant spirit as a poet. It doesn’t necessarily ‘think’ in the rational, left-brain style that so many humans do. It can teach in a great variety of ways: feelings, memories, visions, physical healing through purging, ferocious blasts of energy, gentle invitations to inner stillness, contact with entities . . . if you’re reading this and you’ve had some experience with ayahuasca, I’m sure you could add your own shortlist of ways that she teaches and heals.

I want to point out that, as I understand it, the ayahuasca spirit doesn’t do the work for you. That may be self-evident to many. I bring it up because—and I know this from personal experience too—there’s a tendency for many of us to bring along what Buddhist teachings call a theistic mindset when working with ayahuasca. Theism is described as the illusion that anything outside of ourselves can save us, as it were. The thinking, generally not conscious, is that if we acquire the ‘object’ of our desires, we will feel better. The object of our desires can run from longing for an ice-cream cone all the way to what my old Buddhist teacher labeled “spiritual materialism,”² where we harbor the illusion that the teachings, the practices, and in this case the medicine itself, can save us.

The way I understand ayahuasca’s work at this stage of my education is that it can shine a light on previously hidden knowledge at almost endless levels, from the intensely personal to the universal. As I said earlier, the medicine spirit appears to respond directly to our sincere requests and intentions. If we can surrender to it, the medicine can help us release old wounds, open our hearts, and show us new possibilities. The important qualifier here—and again, I say this based on years of experience with this and other healing/teaching medicines—is that the intensified, clarified condition brought on by the medicine tends to fade back to one’s normal equilibrium state. She gives us the information, she shows us the possibilities, then she leaves us with the ongoing responsibility, and the choice of course, of bringing the learning onto our daily walk.

An example of this for me in these recent ceremonies relates to my request for help in calming my mind. I had had a lot going on in the months prior and for whatever reasons, my normally active mind had been racier than at other times. I spoke to the medicine spirit and asked her to help me tame this wild mind. She appeared to respond to that intention. During both of the ceremonies, and especially the second one, I experienced moments of deep stillness and peace, sometimes accompanied by visions representing and emanating that peaceful energy.

But then I didn’t get to walk away dusting off my hands and saying, okay, we’ve got that one taken care of. In the weeks following, I noticed the busy mind trying to take over the workshop again. What has shifted perhaps is the realization and recollection that that bedrock, unconditioned peaceful place is always there and can be accessed, or surrendered to. It’s as though the medicine spirit is saying, “Okay, here’s what’s possible, it’s real, and you yourself have the tools to open to that understanding and manifest it in your life.”

In the chapter on ayahuasca in my book I mentioned earlier, I’ve gone into some detail on the crucial issue of how to nurture this and other medicine spirit paths as they become better known and spread their influence. I’d also refer you to the interview I did with Ronin Niwe that’s posted on this site both as an audio clip and in text form. I want to say here that if the spread of ayahuasca is done right, with great respect and knowledge, I believe it can help a great many people and can be instrumental in ushering in the consciousness transformation so urgently needed on this planet. It does require courage and there are definitely people who are not ready for this kind of healing and awakening work. However, I’ve certainly seen a lot of—how to describe them?—regular, fairly ordinary people who have drank and benefitted from ayahuasca.

Until the use of ayahuasca—along with other similar medicines—is much better understood and accepted in the mainstream cultures, this growth will be primarily like that of a mushroom that extends itself through a mycelial network just below the surface. At this point in that growth process it’s up to each interested person to find his or her own way to make contact with this loose network. If I could offer any helpful advice at all to people not yet connected, perhaps it would be to clearly state your intentions to the universe. Doing some study and research on the internet and via books would also bolster the likelihood of realizing the intention.

As always, I offer these thoughts in the spirit of the prayer for the healing of the planet and all that implies. And also as always, I warmly invite comments and questions.


1. Given the painful history of male domination on the planet, it’s unfortunate that our personal pronouns default to the male gender. In this case, it really was all men. Five of the ten participants were involved with each other in a men’s group. Since they had presumably already ploughed some ground together, the result was that the level of sharing very quickly dove beneath the surface to reveal deeply personal concerns. I believe this in turn influenced the ayahuasca experience, to some degree at least, since by the time we drank the medicine, our intentions had all been laid out nakedly.

2. I’m referring to Chögyam Trungpa, a brilliant and influential Tibetan Buddhist teacher. One of his books is titled Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

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.

Visionary Quotes

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

Scattered Bits of Wisdom:

“Genius is eternal patience.” Michelangelo

Only connect.” Somerset Maugham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Entheogens, cannabis included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Art, Spirituality, and Creativity:

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

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

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Prayer Meets Medicine

wooden path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandfather Peyote and the Native American Church

Monument Valley

We know whereof we speak. We have tasted of God and our eyes have opened.1   Albert Hensley, Winnebago

My first encounter with the peyote medicine spirit, ten years before I met it again in the Native American Church (NAC) ceremonies, demonstrated and presaged in a gentle and humbling manner what it’s capable of accomplishing. I was visiting an old friend, Alan, for a couple of days. Alan mentioned that he had one peyote button which he’d kept in a jar for about ten years. He doubted it would still be psychoactive but offered to share it with me and another friend of his anyway. One peyote button among three people is not much, to say the least. When ethnographer Weston La Barre traveled the western United States learning and writing about the NAC in the 1930s, he found that participants commonly ingested from four to thirty or more buttons in a ceremony.

Alan took this dusty old, long ignored peyote, cleaned out the hairs in the center that we’d heard were poisonous, and steeped it in boiled water for some time. The three of us shared the soaked button and drank the resulting tea in silence while sitting in big, overstuffed chairs in Alan’s now darkened living room. We remained like that for close to two hours before Alan broke the silence and asked us what we’d experienced. To our surprise, each of us had undergone something strikingly similar. There were no indications of being “stoned.”  We all felt sharp and sober. This little peyote guide had led all three of us on a clear, gentle, and nonjudgmental tour through the aspects of our own thinking and behavior that we needed to straighten out. None of us felt belittled or depressed by this exposé. Instead we each felt a similar quiet humility and gratitude from the experience.

After more than five years of frequent participation in the all-night prayer ceremonies of the Native American Church I now consider myself a member, and although in some respects still an outsider (at least in my own mind.) I’ve been accepted with kindness and generosity of spirit into that “family” and hold this church in my heart with great respect. This article is adapted from my forthcoming book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality, and as the title suggests, I’m passionately attuned to a dawning prayer and vision coming from “the four directions” that on multiple levels the karma of the current dominating worldview on planet Earth has played itself out and we’re now being drawn rapidly into a period that could be called a time of crisis and transformation. As an elder of the church told us in a meeting one night, when this transition period settles out things are going to look very different.

Part of the message contained in the pre-Columbian prophecies of indigenous peoples from around the planet—groups as scattered as the Hopi of southwestern United States, the practitioners of the bwiti religion in equatorial West Africa, and the aborigines of the Australian continent, (to name only a few)—holds that as the unsustainable illusions of the dominator societies continue to be exposed and to collapse, the prayer will gain clarity and strength. One version says that there may even be a kind of quantum moment, no doubt not to be taken overly literally in terms of clock time, when the prayer, the truth, supplants the dying paradigm, like the phoenix that rises from the ashes.

One of the central themes in my book is that as events unfold, those of us  attuned to this prayer—at whatever level, from whatever background, and by whatever name—need to pay very close attention to the signs as they develop and keep an open mind about how to proceed. Although this theme reverberates at several levels, here I’m addressing the issue of engaging the assistance of mind-manifesting, entheogenic plants. (By the way, it’s sometimes difficult to know what to call these plants. I often use the respected term “entheogen”, meaning “becoming divine within” or “generating the spirit within”.)

It’s an unanswerable question as to whether there ever was good reason to reject the use of these spirit-medicine plants in spiritual work, but I strongly believe that debate should be put to rest during this crucial transit. These are indeed extraordinary times and likely to become much more dramatic before anything does settle out. In these circumstances the real question is how we can wake up, become attuned to reality, and act upon that understanding as quickly as possible. As has been said, there may not be time for twenty years of therapy or twenty years of only a meditation practice. And in that regard a wise and compassionate case can be made that a number of these plants should and in fact will play a major part in the urgent call to awakening.

A huge body of evidence from the historical and contemporary record makes it unambiguously clear that entheogenic plants can be of great benefit when employed with reverence and knowledge in optimum conditions of “set and setting.” It’s not the purpose of this article to make a list of the plants and those who have used them. A good many Shaman’s Drum readers will likely be aware of much of that history, a history that covers the planet and extends back at least as far as our archaeological investigations have been able to uncover. Stories from some indigenous cultures say that these medicines were given to the people in the earliest days to help them remember and reconnect.

Kanucas, an elder of the NAC and a man sharply attuned to the unfolding of the prayer for planetary healing, told me one morning after a tipi meeting that he’s received a vision from Spirit, a message which he said had also been picked up by others. In this vision three plants are to play a central role in the transformation: ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga. Shaman’s Drum readers are likely familiar with reports of the use of ayahuasca in the Amazonian region of South America and its rapidly expanding use in syncretic churches like the Santo Daime, which is now spreading into North America and Europe.

Iboga, on the other hand, is relatively unknown to westerners at this point. However, there are between two and three million practitioners of the bwiti religion in equatorial West Africa employing this root in their ceremonies. The primary alkaloid ibogaine has also been synthesized and has demonstrated a stunning ability to break addiction to substances like heroin and cocaine. Good information about ibogaine and iboga can be found online and in the recent (2007) book Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism, by Vincent Ravalec et al. (And coincidentally—perhaps—Shaman’s Drum issue #76 arrived in my mailbox during this writing, bringing with it three articles on iboga.)

A component of these prophecies—the vision of the uniting of the four directions—counsels us to strengthen our awakening and our work by being very open and intuitive about learning from each other. Taking my own life path as an example, the journey back toward the meeting with Grandfather Peyote in the environment of the NAC looks to me now like a natural and even inevitable progression. I’ve often had the distinct impression I was being guided in that direction and over the years I simply had to follow the signs as they appeared, without knowing the eventual destination.

A key concept here is “syncretism,” defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “combining different religions, cultures, or ways of thinking. We are becoming rapidly more connected on this small planet, increasingly aware of layers of interdependence and interpenetration, and increasingly part of one larger story. The message is that many of us may need to go beyond exclusivity or dogmatism about our own path—and without of course watering down the power of any tradition—be open to the possibilities for cross-fertilization, for learning from other paths and possibly even incorporating other empowering techniques into existing practices.

This is clearly a complex and controversial topic that I don’t intend to explore too deeply in this context. Let me give you a general example though. For many years I was involved in Tibetan Buddhism as a student, teacher, and meditation instructor. There’s a view in that environment, shared by many, that entheogens, or what are often shrugged off as “drugs,” have no part to play in spiritual practice. Some have dismissed the plants as producing artificial realizations.

My attitude is; Why not? What are we afraid of?  As I suggested earlier, when employed with the utmost skill and right attitude, some of these plants can greatly deepen and clarify the often more subtle and gradual realizations gained through practices like a simple mindfulness/awareness meditation practice. And in return, meditation practice can have a highly beneficial grounding effect to help us remain open to and able to benefit from the powerful energies and insights often experienced with entheogens. Kanucas told me after the first meeting I attended that the encounter would likely give me about six months worth of material to process.

Terence McKenna, whom many know as a brave and brilliant explorer of deep entheogenic realms, has suggested that people working with spiritual practices, such as those of Vajrayana Buddhism involving mantra recitation, visualization of deities, and the like, entertain the possibility of finding ways to sometimes include the use of entheogens in conjunction with these practices.2 Might a practitioner discover a level of direct connection previously inaccessible? Radical ideas to some of course, but again, we’re currently in a “far from equilibrium” condition.

If indeed the way forward includes a wider dissemination of the ritual employment of entheogens, important questions arise about how such use can develop effectively and with great sensitivity. As I intimated earlier, syncretic churches like the Santo Daime are moving into a wider world and may have much to teach us about how to wisely conduct rituals. My own experience with the NAC has shown me how its principles and approaches might also provide a general model.

Before going further with that line of inquiry though, I feel compelled to take a slight detour here and stress the sensitivity issue. As a reader of Shaman’s Drum you may be aware of the history of cultural appropriation of indigenous practices by nonnatives. The Native American Church is a particularly delicate situation because of the extremely painful history of conquest and domination by the Europeans and the great commitment involved in having kept the continuity of that vision alive in the face of waves of opposition over the past one hundred and fifty years or so in the United States.

In my personal experience with the NAC community, most native people are open to the inclusion of nonnatives in the ceremonies. Kanucas has said several times that Spirit has made it clear to him that the church is open to those of sincere and respectful intention, no matter their background. Some, however, have told me they find it hurtful when they see nonnatives borrowing their ritual practices, especially when it appears that the borrowers have only skimmed the surface of those practices. One elder, a woman very sensitive to unseen and subtle energies, described to me how she sometimes can’t sit through meetings run and attended mainly by nonnatives. She said the energies in the tipi get tangled when people don’t have a deep understanding of what they’re doing with the medicine, with the prayer, with the fireplace, with the instruments.

Returning now to the question of how entheogens might be incorporated into spiritual practice, wise voices have counseled us to turn to indigenous experience, where it’s available, for guidance. There are still people and groups around who have never lost the living connection to an “ensouled cosmos,” who know the spirits of one or more plants intimately, who know how to speak with these spirits and how to petition them for assistance and support. As cultural anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis has pointed out, there’s a radical difference in worldview and understanding between someone who grew up seeing a mountain as a rock and someone who was raised in a cosmology that sees a mountain as a spirit.

Perhaps in ideal conditions many more people than are currently doing so would be able to connect with strong lineages of authentic ritual practice that include entheogenic plants. But since that’s likely going to be much easier said than done, it may be that new versions of what Ralph Metzner has dubbed “hybrid rituals” are going to be required in these unsettled years. As I said earlier—and keeping in mind the concern about ill-considered appropriation—some of the principles and practices of The Native American Church could provide a kind of general template for effective ritual forms.

This church could itself be considered syncretic. Without subjecting you to a detailed history lesson, I think it may be helpful to provide a little background as a demonstration of how traditions can evolve and absorb influences.  Although the underlying principles may be eternal or unconditioned, the particular forms of the practice have no doubt shifted over the centuries as times and circumstances changed.

The use of the peyote medicine is thought by scholars to be at least 10,000 years old. Peyote cactus buttons uncovered in Shumla Cave in southern Texas have been radiocarbon dated to 5,000 BCE. The annual peyote pilgrimage of the Huichol Indians of central Mexico is thought by scholars to be the oldest continuous sacramental use of peyote in North America, estimated to date back to about 200 CE. Several other Mexican tribes, including the Tarahumara, the Cora, and the Tepehuan (or Tepecano) also have a historical relationship with the peyote cactus. In modern times the reintroduction of the religious use of peyote into the United States is thought to have occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when it spread into the Great Plains region through the Mesacalero Apache and other nations.

As the ceremonial use of this medicine spread through mostly the western half of the U.S., it met with an unusual, maybe even uncanny historical “coincidence.” In the later decades of the nineteenth century the expressed policy of the American government was to “deculturize” the Indians. The enactment of that policy severely weakened the hold of the older tribal religions without actually undermining widely held Plains religious beliefs. According to Weston La Barre in his landmark 1938 ethnographic study The Peyote Cult, “Thus, ironically, the intended modes of deculturizing the Indians have contributed preeminently to the reinvigoration of a basically aboriginal religion.”3

As part of the deculturizing program, the government was gathering many  previously scattered and diverse tribes into close proximity on reservations, (Oklahoma being a particular focal point for that,) and forcing their children into state schools together. The resulting cross-fertilization gave birth to new ritual forms, many of which have maintained an unbroken lineage and remained relatively unchanged up to the present. By the 1990s there were chapters of the NAC in every state west of the Mississippi with members from over seventy different native American nations. Estimates of current membership range from 250,000 to nearly 400,000.

So what are the elements of the NAC prayer ceremonies that lead me to suggest their value as a general model? Put simply, the main constituent ritual elements could be listed as: various forms of prayer, chant-like singing accompanied by something akin to shamanic drumming, moments of silent ‘meditation’, the use of an alter, a fire, and various ritual objects, and of course the central sacrament itself—the sacred medicine Grandfather Peyote.

The meetings of my experience are usually organized in response to a request from someone, who is then referred to as the sponsor of that meeting. The sponsor determines the main prayer for the meeting. The reasons for the request can be relatively wide-ranging, such as a request for a healing, a birthday, a baptism, a wedding, an opportunity to express gratitude to someone, or even a celebration of life.

Much of the meeting then revolves around that prayer. The participants are expected to concentrate their attention for much of the night on the sponsor’s request. The praying is done in several ways, both individually and collectively; sometimes silently, with or without the assistance of a tobacco, sometimes spoken aloud while other things are going on, sometimes with the full attention of all present, and sometimes through the medium of the singing that fills the tipi for much of the night.

When I look back seven years, to before I became involved with the NAC, I know that at that time I understood almost nothing of what prayer can really accomplish, even though in my Buddhist practices we often recited various prayers and chants. The very first meeting I attended was alone nearly enough to shock me out of my worldview. My mother had died four days earlier. Her demise was extremely gradual and until that night I thought the moments of sadness I had experienced through those previous few years had released most of my grief. But over the course of the night I began to feel worse and worse until a  torrent of unrestrained sorrow began to pour out of me. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I felt totally devastated for hours. At the same time I saw through the tears and the pain that this was right and good. I also saw that my experience wasn’t impeding the flow of events and that nobody paid me any unusual degree of attention, and so I felt completely safe in that container to be the way I was just then.

As the night gave way to dawn and the water woman entered to make her long and heartfelt prayer over the morning water, my grief moved outward from the release of my own sorrow to deep sadness for all my family and friends, the pains of their lives and their unfulfilled potential. From there my raw heart went out to the human community tragically disconnected from Spirit, the creatures of the Earth who suffer so much at the hands of humans and from the pervasive reach of the human enterprise, and to the Earth herself for the abuse we’ve heaped upon her.

As accumulating evidence continues to blow out the cobwebs of my Western mechanistic conditioning, I can now say with a new-found conviction that prayer can heal, prayer can turn seemingly intractable problems around, at least when it’s practiced as a form of concentrated, directed, heart-fuelled intention. In the environment of the NAC I’ve seen peoples’ lives change dramatically and heard firsthand a wealth of stories describing what conventional, mainstream worldview would call miracles of healing.

The interaction between prayer and the peyote medicine is key to the effectiveness of prayer in this context. When people eat the medicine in the sacred container of the tipi meetings and pay attention without getting in their own way, the medicine calls the participants out of themselves into a shared, empowered, openhearted space. Though I myself am just beginning to understand the movement of the Spirit in the tipi, elders like Kanucas have made it clear to us that when we’re able to get our minds focused, the Spirit has an opening and will enter to manifest the intentions of the group and impart crucial insights.

I’ve also come across much supporting testimony for that relationship from a variety of other indigenous/shamanic traditions. Kathleen Harrison, a highly regarded student and advocate of plant wisdom, has expressed it as succinctly as anyone in describing her work with the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico. “They have impressed upon me that their prayers go much farther and are much clearer and stronger when they ingest one of these allies—strictly following the proper rituals—and ask to speak to it, and ask it to carry their prayers higher.”4

The singing in the tipi meetings has also made a deep impression on me. Although some of the songs have words from Native American languages, most of those I’ve heard and learned are comprised mainly of chant-like syllables that I’m told may once have been words with specific meanings but now are considered what are sometimes called “vocables.” Syllables such as hey, hee, ee, ah, hah, ho, yah, yo, nah, nay, and wen are commonly heard in various patterns and combinations. The songs combine with the intention of the singers and the power of the medicine to give wings to the prayers of the assembled.

Over the course of the night, instruments are passed around the tipi, one or more times, for each person who knows some songs to choose and lead a set of four. The instruments include the staff of the person running the meeting (the roadman,) a small sage bundle, a gourd shaker, and the water drum. Since the very first meeting I attended I’ve been struck by the passionate conviction with which most people sing, a conviction that often overrides any natural limitations in musical ability.

When a singer is connecting well with the song and others present also know that particular song, the group singing can be impossibly beautiful and moving. One of the elders told me she sometimes likes to close her eyes to listen to the singing and when it’s really happening “the song sings the singers.” After good singing like that you can sometimes feel how the energy in the tipi becomes simultaneously more charged as well as more settled into the presence of Spirit.

It’s easy to see why singing like this could be considered a key element of effective ritual practice in ceremonies that include entheogens. The music brings beauty into the ceremony, strengthens and carries the prayers, and gathers the participants into a shared connection. Among many other examples, The Santo Daime church ceremonies are also well known for the central role of group music in creating an empowered container and bringing the assembled together.

The drumming that accompanies the songs in the tipi meetings deserves a particular mention as well. We’ve all experienced the hypnotic, even trance-inducing power of steady percussive sound, and shamanic traditions around the world use repetitive drumming for purposes like transporting the listeners into other realms and for invoking spirit assistance for healing work. In the NAC, the water drum that’s used has been described both as a spirit being and as the heartbeat that carries the prayers. One native elder with long experience as a drummer told me that when he drums for a singer he can often see the spirit of the drum travel out from the drum and move through the tipi.

I included the experience of times of something like silent meditation as a valuable constituent of effective ritual practice and also part of the tipi meetings. It’s not that there’s any formal structure built in for periods of meditation. It’s that there are unplanned moments here and there throughout the night where for a few minutes there’s nothing in particular happening as part of the ritual events

Some of those moments have been the most powerful and exquisite of all experiences in the tipi. Deep into the night, when most or all of those assembled have been able to calm the head traffic and get out of our own way, the tipi sometimes falls silent and “the peace that passes all understanding,” infused with love, settles into the shared space. In those moments you can feel the nourishment, the healing power of that stillness, and you remember that this peace truly is the one most essential need for human beings. As Kanucas reminded us one night, pointing to his heart, “Relatives, nothing out there will ever feel right until you feel right in here.”

Buddhist teachings often stress the importance of nowness. I’ve learned more about giving in to that nowness in the tipi meetings than I ever had before. Events in the meeting have their own organic time. Nothing is hurried. We’re in there for twelve to fifteen hours with perhaps only one brief break in the middle of the night to step out for a pee. If you keep coming back you learn sooner or later that anything other than paying attention with minimal head traffic and total patience creates suffering. This again is one aspect of how medicines like peyote aid the awakening process. You simply don’t have the option of hanging out in the flatlands of habitual pattern. All experience is intensified and clarified.

There’s one further aspect of the NAC that particularly appeals to me and offers by example a healthy model for spiritual congregations. Most of us are well aware of the problems that have often developed in the context of organized religions. The living core of the religion can easily be subsumed by the bureaucracy, the hierarchy, the politics and so on. Sometimes the outer shell of a religion is nearly all that remains and in more than one case the power structure has come to see those inner, esoteric sub-groups as threats.

The NAC of my experience is remarkably light on its feet. Rooted as it is in oral cultures, there’s no written canon to speak of. The knowledge lives in the understanding of the participants and especially the roadmen who, as it’s described, carry a fireplace. One morning Kanucas looked over at a young native man who had recently been showing admirable progress in pulling his life together and said something like, “I’m really proud of you and I want you to know that, although we don’t know how many Indians will be around in the future, if even one person understands the truth of this way and knows the ritual forms, the church can grow again from that single seed.”

A tipi is called a home and can travel almost anywhere. It’s generally raised for a particular meeting and dismantled the following day. The altar is also built and prepared for each meeting and again unmade the next day. The water drum too is tied up in the evening and taken apart in the morning near the end of the ceremony. All the instruments are put away and taken home. A roadman is said to carry a fireplace with him and so the fire that’s kept burning throughout the night is also the temporarily visible manifestation of that living knowledge.

Although there are some ministers, primarily for legal reasons as I understand it, compared to a typical Christian church organization, the bureaucracy is all but nonexistent. Again, the truth, the wisdom of the church, only exists to the extent that it’s held in the understanding and commitment of the members.

Ceremonies like this provide the opportunity for us to learn that when we can open up to it, that spirit will awaken in us. We discover that we’re a lot stronger than we thought we were. Shining the light of awareness on the obstacles we carry in our minds wears them away, sometimes even dissolves them on the spot. You begin to see how you can change your attitude in a heartbeat and how those simple, firm decisions and convictions can reverberate into your life. Kanucas has often reminded us not to get out in front of the spirit, to stay behind the medicine and allow that mixing of spirit with your own innate intelligence and wisdom to heal you and enter you in to that settled place of peaceful heart.

It seems that almost the whole world has walked away from that peace, lost the connection to the heart of the Great Spirit that waits silently in the still center. Buddhist teaching has been quite clear in describing the confused mind of ego as the illusion of a separate self. As the Buddha himself is reported to have said, “The hunger of desire pollutes the world.” We feel the lack of something essential and experience it as anxiety, but not knowing the source of our discomfort we cling to a “sticky web of attachments” and attempt to fill the hole with the things of the world that can never satisfy us for long.

According to the prophecies and the visions of the see-rs, the collective momentum and karma of this misplaced hunger has reached the end of the line and is in danger of destroying the planet. The global vision arising from the four directions is telling us, as much as a journeyman such as myself can understand it, that there’s an opening now and that with enough commitment, the prayer can manifest and the planet can awaken. May it be so. Aho.

Friends: This article is my version of one that appeared in Shaman’s Drum magazine (shamansdrum.org,) issue #77, summer 2008, before the editor got his hands on it. The magazine version is fleshed out a little, is somewhat more scholarly in style, and has some added detail on the argument for the use of these plants in spiritual/healing work. The article is also similar to a chapter in my book entitled “Heart of the Great Spirit.” That chapter is specifically about the Native American Church and the peyote medicine.


1.  Smith, Huston, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. New York: Tarcher/Penguin Putnam, 2000, 117.

2.  See the article “Buddhism and the Psychedelic Society: An Interview with Terence McKenna” in Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, Badiner, Allan Hunt, and Alex Grey, (ed.). San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002, 189-192.

3.  La Barre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. New Haven: The Shoe String Press, 1976: 113. (*first published in 1938).

4.  Harpignies, J.P. (ed.). Visionary Plant Consciousness. Rochester: Park Street Press, 2007, 123.

Deep Versus High

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

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

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

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