Traditional plant ceremonies
Sacred medicine plants
The Wider Web of Life
Psychoactive plants are perceived as great teachers in indigenous cultures all over the world: gifts from the plant kingdom and plant spirits to help us heal, expand our consciousness and connect with and work within the spirit worlds. Indigenous shamans have therefore developed a profound body of knowledge about them, including their physical, mental and psychological effects and how to set up plant journeys and ceremonies beneficially.
Strong visionary states such as those brought about by sacred plant teachers break down cognitive barriers and ego defences and open neural gateways usually closed to us, thus enabling us to experience worlds we didn’t know existed. In shamanism, entheogens are not, however, used for recreational purposes and should not be taken because we want to have a spiritual adventure. They can be part of the shamanic journey to expand consciousness, connect, heal and become whole, but they are neither ’quick fixes’ nor can they replace the psycho-spiritual journey itself. The ingestion of plant medicines can elicit floods of sheer fear and terror as well as awe, bliss, ecstasy, all-encompassing connectedness and overwhelming love. Whatever we experience will have transformational effects and change our view of the world.
Traditional plant ceremonies
Traditionally, psychoactive plants are always taken in a respectful way that honours the teaching spirit of the plant. They are ingested after a period of preparation, with clear intent and in a ceremonial setting, with spirit forces invited and present. The taking of the plant medicines is usually accompanied by the shaman singing or chanting and/or the use of drums and rattles. The combination of all these ingredients is seen as essential when journeying into the various worlds with a specific intent, to receive teachings and visions, to cure illnesses of a mental, physical, spiritual or emotional nature, for divination and prophecy or to connect with spirits and guides and with the divine.
Plant ceremonies usually take place in darkness, sometimes around a fire, outside or within a lodge, and will last all night. Often plants are taken during consecutive nights, with the doses being increased each time.
Every traditional shaman who works with teacher plants has to go through a lengthy training and initiation into plant medicine before working with other people. Traditional shamans either journey alone or with the tribe sitting in a circle around them, and in some tribes everybody participates. Now, as more and more seekers from all over the world are partaking, and as plant ceremonies are increasingly becoming part of contemporary shamanism, they generally take the form of group retreats, with all participants taking the psychoactive substances on consecutive nights.
Participants in plant journeys will have individual experiences and the experienced shaman, ayahuasquero or huachamera will be connected to, influence and guide whatever is going on for each person and show remarkable insight into the worlds and visions people encounter during their specific journey.
Plant medicine works in various ways. I have taken part in mushroom ceremonies and through my experiences and visions have come to understand much about the underlying worlds, but also about the dark shadow-sides and wounding of my psyche and the shadows of the world.
Some people, especially those who have experienced great mental and emotional suffering in their lives or have suppressed much shadow material, will go through experiences that can be quite frightening whilst clearing out mental and emotional patterns held within the mind, body and energy body. The visions encountered can also be of a violent and frightening nature, and some plant mixtures, such as ayahuasca, often produce vomiting during the purification phase.
But even if some people go through frightening phases during the experience, the outcome will be positive, as plant teacher will always give us what we need and we will end up in worlds that are beautiful and gain much healing and insight in the process.
A friend of mine, the amazing shamanic writer and teacher Matthew Pallamary, gives a good general description of how teacher plants speak to us when we ingest them:
...they speak through colors, patterns, abstractions, and archetypes, introducing concepts beyond limited rational thinking. Moreover, the language of teacher plants unfolds their cosmic wisdom, blossoming in geometric permutations that speak in mathematical progressions using the universal language of sacred geometry to reveal the true nature of the divine unfolding of conscious intelligence that permeates all that is.1
Nothing will prepare you for the experience, as so much depends on the plant teacher, the shaman, the spirits and your mental/emotional state at the time of participating, but let me assure you, a well-conducted medicine plant ceremony will ’blow your mind’ in a consciousness-enhancing sense. I can therefore not stress enough that it is important to have experienced shamans/leaders present who have a sound knowledge of the workings of the specific plant spirits, their physical and mental effects and the visions that can be encountered, and who can judge the strength of the doses given.
It is interesting that patterns of ceremonial usage of psychoactive plants are almost identical in different cultures around the world:
· The role of an experienced shaman/guide is vital, as their knowing, preparation, intent, guidance, singing, chanting and use of drums or other instruments shape the quality and content of the experience.
· Strong visions, beautiful as well as frightening, are often encountered and intuitive knowing — and much knowledge — is conveyed by the plant teacher.
· The boundaries between ’this reality’ and ’the spirit worlds’ can be crossed. People see these other realities or journey energetically to them, or both.
· Spirit entities such as the spirits of animals, trees, plants, guides and ancestors present themselves in intense ways and seem very real. In some cases, people shapeshift into one or more of them. The spirits can also become allies and helpers.
· Healing experiences can be very profound and also emotionally challenging. Very profound plant journeys can involve dismemberment, restructuring and rebirthing experiences as well as the reintegration of split-off soul parts and milder experiences of physical and psychological healing.2