Something that has interested me for a quite a while is an apparent split I have observed in the modern shamanic community between those that endorse the use of teacher plants and other intoxicants in shamanic practice and others who seem at times vehemently against such use.
I have often experienced a strong charge amongst people who are anti-plant use, labelling such teaching and healing aids as ‘drugs’ with at times the direct accusation that people using them are little more than drug addled freaks. At other times, there is the softer implication that this isn’t really shamanism, and that people are just seeking a way to ‘get off their heads’ or a short cut to a visionary state, thus diminishing the realness of such practice.
Of course, as with most prejudices and judgements, the people doing the accusing have often never sat in plant ceremony in their life- they just go on what they perceive as the affect of their use on people, coupled with a kind of righteous indignation that anyone could ever suggest that such practices have anything to do with shamanism.
Now there are many issues with the use of such ‘medicines’ (let’s use the word that really describes what they are) in the modern world, especially with our strong tendency towards addictive behaviours and the seeking of short cuts to enlightenment.
However, if we are to have an intelligent discussion of these issues we might have to get to the root of what causes this split, between those that have such a strong negative charge regarding any kind of intoxication in shamanic practice and those that can can only see the positive in medicine use, ignoring the very real pitfalls that such a path can involve.
For me though, the issue actually goes much deeper than the to ingest or not to ingest debate and may cut to the heart of a fundamental issue in our retrieval of these ancient ways of being in the modern world, and also how we approach healing and spirituality in general.
Something I have observed with a western approach to many traditions is our almost obsessive need to sanitise them. This is often done under the guise of making them palatable to modern taste. Hence, something like mindfulness which has the spiritual heart taken out of it to leave a secularised set of techniques for dealing with the stresses that a secularised society creates. This is presumably so that no one can be offended by the fact that service to a greater power is inherent within such practices, as this would be counter to our individualistic consciousness that presupposes everything begins and ends with the human.
Core shamanism which in itself ‘stripped away the cultural baggage’ of different traditions to provide a set of techniques, can arguably have been said to have done the same thing. To be fair to Michael Harner though, who created core shamanism, this was done with the intent to provide a framework so that different cultural trappings could then be put back on by different communities. Which was probably something quite necessary when dealing with a people in the West whose old shamanistic ways had been all but wiped out by successive oppressive regimes of church and state.
However, one of the side effects of such stripping away of culture influences is again a sanitation of traditions. This is because the minute we take these spiritual technologies out of the context of the indigenous cultures that gave birth to them, we immediately load them with our own cultural baggage.
One of the biggest illusions we have in modern world is one that comes from our scientific paradigm- that we can in any way be objective when observing reality. This is counter to the indigenous world view that all reality is actually subjective- it is a reflection of the way we dream.
Thus, it is impossible to strip away cultural influences from any spiritual pathway, because in that very act you are already loading these techniques with your own cultural prejudices. It is the same when someone completely embraces a tradition or path, there will always be a tendency towards and focus on the parts of that path that tie in with their own cultural inheritances.
So how does this relate the debate around ingesting plants and why we sanitise traditions so much? The answer I believe lies in that the dominant cultural hegemony in the modern world has come from WASP culture- White Anglo Saxon Protestant. And that this culture for the past 500 years or so has had a tendency towards puritanical and reformation based ideologies. The result of this is that religious experiences (or nowadays anything that touches the soul) must be constantly cleaned up and reformed- hence the need to sanitise, which of course just creates a huge shadow.
Thus it is when we approach spirituality in the modern world, there is very often this underlying puritanical edge. Everyone is unconsciously attempting to appear whiter than white. Or, the other game is to be as ‘purist’ as can be. This is seen as a sign of authenticity. Which is ironic as there is nothing authentic in being pure, as it in no way reflects the nature that surrounds us. More a concept that our minds might create.
It’s very different when working closely with indigenous people in my experience as they tend not to have this cultural baggage. Thus, their approach to spirituality appears much more earthy and real. But, also much more light hearted, a thousand times more accepting of the imperfections in life and people that I have seen in the west. There is also a distinct lack of idealism or ideology- the sort that might separate earthly realms from that of heaven. Or, intoxication from connection.
This means their spirituality has so much more depth as it embraces the very natural conflicts that arise when a bunch humans live that close together in communities. In fact it embraces every aspect of life, good bad and indifferent and thus is central to their lives and not something to be practiced as some sort of adjunct to life, to help make it sweeter or more tolerable. Or to be used as something to escape from life.
The idea then for an indigenous person, that a medicine that grows in the ground, a medicine that is gifted to us from the Mother, might in any way be ‘wrong’ in a spiritual context, i.e. it takes us away from spiritual experiences, is then more than a little absurd. The plants have an intelligence and an awareness so much greater than ours, why in the world would we allow our prejudices to stop us from bowing down and honouring them as such? Or, from being humble enough to ask for their assistance in our healing journeys?
Unless of course there was a hangover of a puritanical tradition that praised and worshipped sobriety, hard work and a kind of ascetic cleanliness when meeting a distant God. Which coincidently makes that tradition very good at appearing somehow superior to others engaged in the much more messier process of meeting God in actual life.
One of the greatest teachings the plants can offer us in my experience is the dissolution of boundaries. The loss of the individual self to the vast expanse and continuum of life, in all its mystery-sometimes awe inspiring at others terrifying. This is experienced on a visceral level, far beyond any intellectual understanding which often also involves a breaking down of any mental constructs, or belief systems we have around reality.
This may be why the plants have come to us at this time in the West. Because it is our fundamentalist and obsessive belief systems that are separating us from nature and making us sick. Inherited cultural belief systems are an important part of this, and I believe we need to dismantle a lot of these when undertaking these journeys into the spiritual realms.
The plants are far from the only ways we can do this. However, coming directly from the earth, as beings, they can assist us in getting over our cultural and human hang ups.
There are of course many issues in the use of these plants, intention of how we interact with their spirits is incredibly important. There is the very real possibility I have observed that we could just use them in the West as another kind of spiritual bypassing or distraction from life. This is when the medicine becomes the poison, as in all cases of addiction.
To have this conversation though we may have to get over ourselves a bit and accept that intoxication, be it plant, or simply life induced, might be an inherent and potent aspect of the shamanic spirit. It’s what can take us to the edge of ourselves and beyond. As the word intoxication suggests, true medicine contains poison, as poison contains medicine. Shaman’s need to learn to know and handle both.