Grounding the Quest for God

Unifying a plant and non-plant led approach to shamanism

Jez Hughes

The use of teacher plants or other plants for healing is something I feel that unifies and defines what we’ve come to term ‘shaman’ across different cultures and time. This is much more so than the use of the drum or other percussion instruments I would venture: being primarily healers, shamans have always used plants and herbs to assist them to bring healing to both the body and the spirit. When I look at the modern shamanic world, however, I observe something of a split between two strands of shamanic practice- one that is heavily reliant on the use of teacher plants, almost exclusively from cultures ‘foreign’ to the west and the other that, following Michael Harner’s lead, actively shuns the plants in favour of the drum. I often witness debate, at times heated, between these camps as to whose approach is the most ‘authentic’.
Further back than Michael Harner, Mircea Eliade began this argument by claiming in his seminal work -‘Shamanism- Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy’- cultures that used teacher plants were somehow following a debased version of a previously more pure form of ecstatic communion with the Otherworld that didn’t need them. Terrance McKenna rightly pointed out that this had more to do with Eliade’s subjective prejudice than any rational analysis of the evidence, but then went on to claim the exact opposite- it was cultures that had lost connection with their teacher plant roots that were practising a weaker, watered down strain of shamanism. So who is right? Probably neither and both, because I feel such debate is actually irrelevant, as it just boils down to theory and shamanism is a practical path not a theoretical one- though many will try and turn it into such.
What is important though is that the legacy of such debate can be seen to be continuing in the practise of modern shamanism, and I want to explore the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches and, more importantly, how they can perhaps be brought closer to together. How we can build a bridge between these apparent disparate worlds. The west is becoming awash with previously exotic teacher plants, even to the point that Ayahuasca has been used apparently as a party drug by some young people. More and more people are also travelling to the Amazon to partake in indigenous ceremonies with the plants and recent, tragic events such as the deaths of two young men following ceremonies has brought this into a focus.
I feel it is important then, that, as ‘shamanic practitioners’ (or whatever the pc term is for us moderners who utilise the old ways) we have an awareness of why the plants maybe calling so many people now and how we can integrate them in an effective, but also safe way to our practises- if we choose to of course.
Beginning with teacher plants, the first point is to note a different approach to the plants between the indigenous people who have cultivated their relationship with them for thousands of years and modern explorer. If we look at how westerners have changed the name of such plants from hallucinogens to entheogens (which means ‘generating the divine within’) we can see the emphasis that our relationship with the plants has taken- i.e. that the plants teach us to find God within. This transcendental focus fits in well with the impetus of much of our religious exploration for the past couple of thousand years, seeking that lost connection with the divine.
For indigenous people, there is not the same need to seek or find God, because the creator is seen everywhere in the nature surrounding them and that connection is inherent in their culture- they have not been banished from the garden of Eden or cut off from the source in their mythology. Thus, the plants are used much more practically, essentially to provide healing and curing, the reversal of ill luck or the answer to problems. Medicine people would also use the plants to cleanse and restore their power. As Cocama curandero Don Juan Curico explained to me recently- a shaman/ healer is like a battery, after working with the plants their power is full but gradually through helping and healing others their power will be drained, that’s when they should return to the plants for themselves to recharge the battery.
This distinction, between the indigenous and western approach to the plants is very important as it can highlight some potential pitfalls when we work with them. The indigenous approach, by its nature is extremely grounded and down to earth- the plants are practical aids. The western approach is the opposite as it is one of transcendence. Thus, a problem I have observed in westerners when working with the plants is that they can get easily caught in the trap of ‘chasing the medicine’- becoming so enthralled in the experience of connection (to oneself, others and spirit) that the plants can offer, it leads to the desire to re-experience this again and again. Because one of the core ‘stories’ in the western psyche is that we are somehow separate from the ‘divine’ and we need to find our way back to oneness, people can then start chasing this feeling of connection, and the story becomes that it is only possible to experience this when in ceremony with the plants.
Apart from leading to a lot of ungrounded people who want to stay in a bubble of oneness and not face up to conflict and other challenges that are the grit of life, the main problem I see with this is that the medicine and healing that the spirit of the plant and the ceremonies are offering is never fully integrated.
The plants, as with any work with spirit, work fundamentally with intention. Thus, if my intention is to heal an aspect of my life, say to open my heart more, the spirit of the plant in a ceremony can give me incredible insight into what is blocking this and also begin the energetic work to take apart the defences that have built up in my response to past trauma. However, the healing doesn’t stop there; in fact it is only just beginning. The real work occurs when I start to integrate this new way of being into my life and this can be tough. I always say with any shamanic healing that the energy work is the most straight forward and easy part, what is difficult and can take a long time is for our emotional and physical bodies to catch up with what has occurred on the invisible, spiritual level. This process of integration can lead to what people have traditionally called the ‘healing crisis’ and what I like to call the back- flush. This is when we’re hit with all the crap that has been blocking us, all the pain from the past, as it is suddenly been brought up from the depths of our being in order to be released.
A part of this process often may mean that the pattern I’m trying to heal is repeated, i.e. I re-experience the trauma of what it feels like to be so vulnerable to being hurt by another person or life that it feels threatening to my very survival- the very thing that caused me to close down my heart in the first place. This is an essential part of any healing as it gives me an opportunity to respond consciously in a different way- to keep my heart open in the face of that vulnerability to pain. If I do this I can then fully take responsibility for my healing; I can claim it for myself. If, however, in the midst of this healing crisis I then go off to work with the plants again, or undertake more powerful ceremony, as the temptation can overwhelming to do so, I could just be putting off the inevitable- that I am going to have to at one point face up to all this in my everyday life in order to integrate it. Or, worse I could go with another new intention and then be caught up in two healing crisis’ or more at once, this can then lead to the very real possibility of complete psychic breakdown as the system becomes over loaded. I have seen this and experienced it myself. Too much healing at once can be a dangerous thing.
The reason that this normal healing process is compounded when working with spirits of the teacher plants is that their power is immense. The healing that can be received in one ceremony in my experience could be the equivalent of years and years of other healing work. It is like they offer us quantum leaps in our growth. This is their gift but it is also where we need to be careful and respect them absolutely.
Traditionally when the shaman would be dieting the plants- consuming them on a regular basis, they would be kept, under guidance, in isolation from the community in order to cleanse and face their inner demons without distraction and also to protect them from other people’s negative intents which they would be much more sensitive and vulnerable to. The aforementioned Don Juan Curico spent five years in isolation like this, his teacher, his grandfather spent ten. This is no longer possible in the modern world and even if we are able to go on retreat in the Amazon and diet the plants for a while, we still will have to return to the modern world, if we want to work shamanically in this culture and help people heal here, which I believe is where important work is needed.
This is where I feel that other shamanic work that focusses on connecting to spirit and more importantly to nature and the land in other ways is so important. This is the gift of the non-teacher plant focused path. We have to learn in my opinion to ‘earn our visions’ as Lame Deer puts it, when he decides to move away from the Native American Church and what he thought was an over reliance on Peyote.
I will share a personal experience as an example of this. A few years back, I was involved in a Natem (Ayahuasca) ceremony with a Shuar medicine man. I’d travelled quite a long way to get to this ceremony and was ill at the time which had caused me to reconsider quite a lot whether to take part. Not being able to decide whether this was resistance or a genuine message not to continue, I had in the end decided to carry on with the ceremony. However, feeling the way I did and not having worked with this medicine man before meant that after taking the medicine, I felt a huge desire not to be there, I lost my trust completely. Unfortunately, this was when the medicine started to take hold, but in such a powerful and bewildering way that I hadn’t ever experienced before. It was like I was suddenly in the middle of the worst storm of my life, I was completely disorientated, couldn’t in think or sit straight, my head was spinning madly and there was this overwhelming noise that sounded like a helicopter was just about to land above my head.
At this point strange spirits, beings that were the most unusual looking, alien like things I’d ever seen, manifested physically all around me. I could see them with my eyes wide open and physically feel them. One of them, kept reaching into me, as if he was trying to drag me out of my body. I was absolutely terrified and focussed all my energy on battering him back, convinced that if I gave into him that would be it, I’d end up dead or mad or worse. Luckily, with what I had left of my conscious, rational mind, I suddenly realised I had to pray for help. As I did so, the main spirit helper I work with, one I’ve spent years developing a relationship with, who has helped me in over a thousand healings and through this, I trust implicitly, was there in an instant, again physically manifesting. He put his hand in the middle of my back and held me up which meant I could just surrender into his arms, which I did, leaning right back as he held me upright. He then said simply, ‘go with him’, indicating the spirit that was reaching into me. Because I trusted my teacher, I did so and physically left my body with this spirit. The experience I then had was one of the most profound and deeply healing of my life, far beyond the realms of time and space, and is impossible to put into words.
I still work with the spirit that was introduced to me that night, especially in exceptionally difficult healings when someone is facing what seems to be an irrevocable conflict in their lives, as I had been on a personal level at the time. This is the beauty of being introduced to the spirit of the plants, it is the beginning of a relationship that can continue to grow and flourish, and the potential of the teachings that can be received is infinite. And the important thing is and what a lot of people forget is that you do not necessarily have to consume the plant on a regular basis for this to continue- the spirit of it is always there once you have connected.
However, without all my shamanic training outside of the plants, the hard earned trust of my ally that I have worked at for years on a daily basis -the essential groundwork- I would not have been able to have received this experience. It would have been far too much; my resistance would have been too great. And even if I had have been able to surrender to what was happening, it would have been of little use in my life, other than as an extraordinary out of this world experience to file away somewhere in the back of my mind. Or, a lot worse, the intensity of it could have led me into the very real possibility of psychological breakdown. This has happened to many people following such experiences. We in the west with our often fragile, psychological make-up need to consider this very carefully.
The point is that due to my relationship with my helper, I was able to not only receive my own healing, but more importantly I was then able to be assisted by this new spirit in the healing work I do, which has taken this healing work to another level. I always say to my students, it’s not how far out you can go into the Otherworld that is important, anyone can take a teacher plant and blast themselves into other realities, it is what you can bring back that is of practical use either for yourself or, more importantly, in service for others, that is important. This for me is the nub, and how the paths of working with and without teacher plants can really supplement and support each other.
We have to ground the healing and wisdom through hours of sweat and toil, of disappointment and disillusionment, feeling completely disconnected from spirit when we need it the most and yet at the same time having to muster all our faith and trust (often, as healers on someone else’s behalf) to reconnect and let the invisible ones lead and move through us. To drum and dance for so long your arms and legs want to fall off and just when you think of giving up, something happens. Or, by sitting out in nature for hours on end, fasting and freezing, thinking why am I here, nothing is ever going to happen? But still retaining the discipline and faith that spirit will eventually reveal itself in a profound way. This is the leg work, and for me, is essential. It also means that when we do open up to the plant spirit teachers, the work can go so much deeper.
So why ingest the plants at all? Well apart from the previously mentioned quantum leaps in our growth they can offer and assistance in our work, there are other possible reasons. One of the things I’ve noticed through my own and observing a lot of other people’s shamanic journeying with the drum, is that we can take a lot of our ‘stuff’ into the spirit world- this can be our stories, prejudices, expectations, illusions etc. This has the potential for a lot of fantasy to be projected onto the spirits and the spirit world. Teacher plants have the ability to cut through any fantasy very quickly and into the heart of what is real. As healer’s I feel we need that, to have our potential illusions cut through every so often to bring us to back into authenticity with ourselves. As Juan Curico also said to me once ‘we can lie to ourselves, we can lie to others, but we can’t lie to the plants’.
Also, most spiritual paths involve some kind of physical practise that is aimed at purifying and aligning the body to enhance the connection to spirit. This essential component is something I feel can sometimes be missing or overlooked in modern shamanic practice. Eastern traditions have Yoga, or Tai Chi, in a lot of North America they have the Sweat Lodge and in other cultures, trance dance is used. These grounding and purifying practices are seen as the bedrock of any further exploration. They also encourage the practitioner to learn the art of surrender- this is something that has to be learnt with the body as well as the spirit. In a lot of shamanic cultures around the world, this is done with the plants. They are there to cleanse the body and teach the initiate to surrender. Forgetting the visions, a traditional name for Ayahuasca is ‘La Purga’, called so because of the violent vomiting it can stimulate, thus emphasising its primary role as a cleansing agent.
I was curious once when in a ceremony once as to how come the plants could assist us humans, how they could know so much about us and our lives and bring us the exact healing we needed? So I asked the plant, and it said simply ‘because we dreamt you into being.’ After the ceremony I thought about this and realised, beyond the spiritual implications, there is the simple fact that it was plant life that provided the exact conditions on the earth that enabled mammals and then humans to live, they gave birth to us. And as any parent, they retain an active interest in their offspring, they care about our survival and want us to prosper and flourish. This is why I feel the plants are calling out to a lot of people right now, to help us to heal and to bring us back into line with creation, back to the source as they, being older, are closer to it. This is not just the teacher plants, but all of them.
The teacher plants however are like the mediators, they can help us to heal consciously this broken link with our own bodies and the rest of nature, to forgive and love ourselves in that unconditional way that only a parent can, so that we, as children of the earth can learn to grow and live in harmony with the rest of creation. If we respect the power of these teachings and use them in partnership with other shamanic techniques, they can then have the possibility to ground in our everyday lives and worlds.
As a last point, I feel it is important that this potential healing power is contained by the indigenous wisdom of the medicine person holding the ceremony, for they have thousands of years of ancestral wisdom in partnership with the spirit of the plants to draw on. This is why I usually will only take part in ceremonies with teacher plants with an indigenous medicine person. Though, just because they are indigenous doesn’t necessarily mean they are any good and doing you own research but also trusting your spirit helpers to lead you to the right teacher for you is very important. Some non-indigenous westerners if they’ve apprenticed and worked with the plants properly can also be effective ceremony holders, though there are many who put themselves in that position without the necessary grounding. Someday, if we partake in enough of these ceremonies we may then be able to connect with the teacher plants of our own lands and listen to and dream with them enough to reintroduce our own similar ceremonies. This is a dream of mine. However this happens and wherever this road leads, I feel the potential for healing is immense, when we as modern shamans (nature orientated spiritual healers) can listen to and entwine both plant led and non-plant led paths of ecstasy.