The sacred plants: ibogaine, San Pedro, peyote, mushrooms and ayahuasca
Sacred medicine plants
The Wider Web of Life
Here is a brief overview of the plant medicines that are now being increasingly taken by seekers from and in non-indigenous societies.
Iboga is an African rainforest shrub containing, in its root bark, the psychedelic alkaloid ibogaine, which has been used by African shamans for thousands of years for spiritual development and rites of passage. Ancestral spirits are generally prominent in African ceremonies. Iboga ceremonies usually last for 24 hours, with the ancestral spirits, drums, chants and rhythms working together with the plant to ’break open the head’.
Ibogaine is now also used as an effective addiction interrupter for many substances, including heroin, methadone, methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol and nicotine. It can induce intense reprocessing and a complete rebirth experience, it alleviates physical withdrawal symptoms and it seems that the plant knows what people need to experience or re-experience — and process — in order to overcome substance addiction and heal.3
San Pedro is a cactus growing in the Andes. Its active ingredient is mescaline. Set up and prepared ceremonially, it is consumed in groups, often around a fire, with altars being built to represent the dark and light spirits that can be encountered.
Lesley Myburgh, who runs shamanic retreats and has led ceremonies with San Pedro for a long time, describes the effects of the sacred cactus:
It is a master teacher… It helps us to heal, to grow, to learn and awaken, and assists us in reaching higher states of consciousness. I have been very blessed to have experienced many miracles: people being cured of all sorts of illnesses just by drinking this sacred plant. We use it to reconnect to the Earth and to realize that there is no separation between you, me, the Earth and the Sky. We are all One. It’s one thing to read that, but to actually experience this oneness is the most beautiful gift we can receive.4
Peyote is a Mexican cactus. The sacred plant teacher of the Huichol, the Cora and Tarahumara, it now also has a big following in North America. The active ingredient is, again, mescaline.
After extensive preparation, the Huichol undertake a yearly traditional pilgrimage, called the peyote hunt, to the sacred site of Wirikuta (Paradise), where the cactus can be found. It is a symbolic return to their origins, to where ’their mother lives’, in order to ’find their life’. Dances, fasting, prayers, storytelling, purification and much weeping accompany the ceremonial intake of peyote, with the shaman performing healing. Peyote is also taken back to the community, sold to other tribes and used in between pilgrimages.
I took mescaline a long time ago. It struck me as a gentle, rather mild teacher, being energizing and bringing soft visions and vibrations, rather beautiful emotional states and experiences of connection and joy.
First brought to the attention of the Western world by Gordon Wasson5 and popularized by the writings of Carlos Castaneda, mushrooms were amongst the first psychedelics sought by spiritual seekers from all over the world. They can be found in many parts of the globe, but the best-known traditional mushroom ceremonies take place in Mexico. During these, the shaman chants and sings songs throughout the night, weaving a web of the elements and spirit.
From my experience, lower doses of mushrooms increase visual perception, allowing underlying fields, energetic movement and vibrant colours to be seen, whilst high doses induce full visionary experiences. I want to describe one of my own here:
Suddenly, the world is alive. Everything moves gently: the trees, the mountains, the plants and the ground. The air around me shows whirling patterns in pastel colours. Fascinated, I observe my perception changing, whilst the movement of everything holds me spellbound. The sudden and undoubted insight that everything is alive sends me into an ecstatic state of bliss — until I take some more and the vision abruptly changes: I am no longer the observer, but an integral part of the experience. I seem to have been thrown out of my body and am flying through space. The speed is breathtaking. The suddenness of the event produces panic: I can feel my heart racing. I fly down a dark tunnel, where luminous eyes stare threateningly at me. I have the impression that I will hit the ground, breaking into pieces. Terror engulfs my very being. A part of me is aware of my shaking body, my beating heart and, very vaguely, of place, people and soft chanting, but I am nevertheless out of control, in a frightening place, with more and more eyes coming towards me out of the darkness.
I don’t remember all of this part of the journey, but I remember vividly the moment of knowing what to do. Whilst realizing that I have to stop trying to control this, I know I have to shapeshift into a cat, so that I can see in the dark and land softly. I begin to imitate the movements of a big cat, and, imagining the features of a cheetah I once observed in Africa, I am suddenly a big cat, at the bottom of a large dark space, moving safely on the ground. Ah, this is how it feels to be an animal! I love it. I stay in the form of a cat for quite a long time — or so it seems.
The next moment I remember is hearing the chanting again and feeling myself being pulled, as if through a vortex, up into a jungle landscape. I stand there, overwhelmed by the intensity of the colours, vibrations and sounds, out of control, feeling terror of the unknown creeping up on me. But before I can give in to my resurgent fear, I become aware of myself pulsating. The whole place pulsates as well — it is alive, but not threatening. My pulsating merges with that of the place and I am again in a state of utter bliss. Everything alive, me alive … I am indeed part of this web of sheer ecstatic, vibrating, beautiful aliveness.
Ayahuasca, the ’spirit vine’, ’vine of death’ or ’vine of the soul’, is a powerful mixture prepared by indigenous shamans in the Amazon. The leaves of the plant, which are part of the potion, contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a very strong hallucinogenic.
Ayahuasca ceremonies conducted by indigenous shamans and healers, mainly in Peru and Ecuador, have become extremely popular and are increasingly attended by seekers from all over the world. Well-conducted ceremonies have a dietary and energetic preparation phase; they are set up ceremonially — with spirit and intent — and take place on consecutive nights, with the doses becoming increasingly potent. Besides using rattles and sometimes drums, the shamans usually sing the Icaros, powerful and sacred songs through which the healing takes place and visions are encountered. For most people, ayahuasca ceremonies include a cleansing phase (la purga), during which they vomit.
There are many individual accounts of ayahuasca journeys.6 I have chosen the following one because it gives powerful insights into the strong visions and emotional experiences, blissful as well as frightening, through which seekers can go:
Outside my physical body, the frogs, birds, insects, jaguars, and other creatures of the Peruvian Amazon fill the night air with their calls, cries, twitters and buzzes. For me there is no difference between the infinity expressing itself outside me and the infinity that I soar through inside myself. It is all one. Outside time and space, a noise from deep in the jungle sounds as if it is right beside me, startling me.
Sometimes I feel myself fully present and aware, in two places at the same time, often in different times and dimensions.
After experiencing the consciousness of predator and prey in the lower worlds, I have flown first as a condor, then as a hummingbird into sublime and exquisite high-frequency realities, exploding with neon luminescent pastel manifestations that defy rationality. While my spirit soars, my body quivers and my insides teeter on the verge of both vomiting and shitting.
I soar between agony and ecstasy as each experience awes my soul with a palette of emotions that range from heavenly bliss to a hellish, maddening terror that cannot be articulated, much less comprehended. I am vaguely aware of others sitting around me in the humid jungle night inside a circular open-air hut called a maloca. Many of them vomit and sometimes cry out in fear or bliss as they pass through their own visions. I feel my soul connected to theirs.
Our visions are directed by the music of a white-clad mestizo shaman who sings magical songs and plays different flutes and a stringed mandolin-like instrument called a charango. He is the keeper of a vast body of knowledge of Amazonian healing plants that dates back to prehistoric times. His speciality is a unique combination of plants that have brought me to this visionary state that continues to unfold outside of three-dimensional reality.
In this waking dream, where time and space become fluid, I not only soar through alien vistas of sight, sound, and feeling; I also travel through events of my life, both good and bad, often reliving them and their emotional content. Throughout my journey, I often confront hidden aspects of my Self that have been ignored and denied because of the negative emotional charge that they hold. I sometimes vomit when confronted with something particularly unpleasant, which clears it out energetically in what is called a purge.7