Belief systems are funny things and I’ve come across many since working as a shaman. From the client who was disappointed at my lack of a Gandalph-esque beard, to the old acquaintance who wanted to see my certificate from the jungle to prove I was a shaman. Nothing regarding the work I do and its quality, just looks and pieces of paper will do thanks very much.
One area of shamanism where I’ve seen the imposition of belief systems and cultural baggage more than any other, is when it comes to plant medicines and their use. As the vine of Ayahuasca begins its creep from the Amazon jungle across the globe to heal the hearts of humanity, there are many PC, self-righteous opinions being thrown around the world wide web, our global communication line.
This in part has played out as people are accused of misusing the plant in what others consider inappropriate settings and without proper knowledge. Which does have some validity although gets taken to extreme levels. There are also cries that the plant belongs in the Amazon and as such you should fly to the Amazon if you want to work with it. Hmm, wonder if those same people only consume all plants in their native settings. It would be a drag if you lived in the UK and fancied a banana.
Mainly, however, I’m talking about the use of plants like Ayahuasca and Huachuma in Europe as opposed to their historic setting of the Amazon.
Some people immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s all a bit unethical with the handling of the Amazon tribes and shamans who supply them with Ayahuasca. Others have come back from the Amazon very critical of the shamans there. This brings forward my first major belief that needs addressing and Terrence McKenna says it best for me:
The shamans of the Amazon have been eulogised and mythologised by many an intrepid westerner. It comes from a malfunction that drives people to constantly look for answers outside of themselves rather than connecting within. The guru phenomenon of the early 80s is still alive and kicking. Yet they are all fallible human beings, just like we are. The problem is, people put such high expectations on them, which they may or may not play up to, and when the guard is dropped and the truth is outed, people feel hurt and cheated.
Another issue is that with all this eulogising comes exclusivity and with exclusivity comes control and division. It is in essence a departure from personal balance and deep into an extreme of being. The self-entitled hippy phenomena of a spiritual ego that seeks to enter into a transcendental 'pissing contest' with any fellow seeker they meet.
"Oh you drank Ayahuasca, yar, I trained in the jungle for six years eating nothing but rice and plantain and drinking with Maestro Don Julio De Jaguartamer. He actually prowls along the forest floor at night surviving on ants and monkeys."
"Oh, temascal, yar, you must only do it in the fifth cycle of the new moon when the spiritual portals become open to the magnetic flow of the oceans current which signals a new cycle of rebirth for the rainforest."
Of course I don’t think drinking visionary plants is something to be taken lightly or without due consideration, in essence there are three things that you can focus on if you have doubts:
Find a shaman you feel comfortable with
Therapists are OK but shamans cover much more, especially when working with plants. The idea that these plants don’t have their own intelligence and spirit is not only contradictory to an avalanche of anecdotal evidence, but it’s simply boring and limiting. In shamanism we deal with infinite possibility on a daily basis, always at home with mystery.
How do you pick the right shaman for you? That’s up to you, take some responsibility for your own actions. The jungle is not by any means a safe bet, the heritage of course is there, yet that heritage includes years of shamanic battles, poisonous darts (non-physical) and all other kinds of dark magic. It is not the loving safe haven we’ve romanticised it to be. Of course there are some amazing places yet there is also plenty of malpractice, particularly in Iquitos, the Peruvian launch pad into the jungle which has become as corrupt as any financial district in the world.
erowid.com and reset.me are good online research points should you want to choose a jungle centre, or get online and ask around about people’s experiences with retreats in Europe. Then contact the place and see what kind of response you get.
Get out of your head, listen to your heart, listen to your gut and let all three areas of your knowing make the decision for you. Trust yourself!
Ensure the setting is safe
I’ve heard it all, from church halls to conservatories in Essex.
Where you drink matters; I’ve imbibed in all kinds of places including my front room and have learnt that whilst it is not everything, the setting makes a difference to your comfort.
Drinking in the mountains of South America might seem like a good idea but it does get cold at night and most places down there surprisingly don’t have underfloor heating. As enchanting as the sounds of the jungle may be, the whining of yet another mosquito may be an unwanted interruption during your conversations with a river dolphin.
Maybe, just maybe all those challenges are part of your process. My point is: make it safe if you can, make it comfortable so you can get on with the work you need to do and build a strong relationship with the plant. The journey with the plant itself is big enough without having to worry about all the aforementioned details and distractions. Or they can in fact be part of the journey, that’s your choice, it’s all about free will.
Know what you’re drinking
Ayahuasca is a brew and can be made from any number of plants. It’s important to know which plants you’re drinking, especially as you’re basically introducing yourself. You wouldn’t divulge your life story to someone without even asking their name would you?
Seriously speaking, many shamans want to up the voltage on your visionary experience and they’re not afraid to use plants that are beyond your personal abilities. One of the plants being Toe.
My good friend and mentor, Keith Robinson, always says of this plant:
“If you can read and write then I’d suggest you don’t do it.”
Such is the journey this plant offers that if you’ve come from a culture that can read and write then your ability to handle what is given to you is severely limited. Hence, many stories detailing the rare Ayahuasca deaths and tumbles into insanity often involve this plant. It’s not the traditional Ayahuasca brew made of an MAO inhibitor and a DMT-containing plant.
If you’re science focussed then try something new, open yourself up to the potential that the plant has a spirit and that spirit is willing and able to teach and heal you.
A summary of Dogmas to consider letting go of:
1. You have to wear white as it carries the right energy
On no occasion has my clothing had any relevance to my experience other than to add more for warmth or strip off to cool down.
2. You have to stay still and be quiet
The purge is not just vomiting and diarrhea, you may be told to shake, dance, stretch, move, whatever, you go with what the plant teaches you. Your process is your process, if that annoys someone else then that is their problem to deal with. I will say on that note that ‘intentionally’ disturbing someone’s process without their permission is a BIG NO! It’s just rude and selfish.
3. You have to work with indigenous shamans
We all live on planet earth, we all inhabit the same universe, we’re all spirits, we’re all indigenous. The flags, borders and skin differences are just illusions of separation. A brown wrinkly face is not a qualification for a good shaman but merely a physical appearance.
Finally, whatever situation you find yourself in when working with the plants, go with an open heart, show love to any darkness that comes your way, show respect, love, warmth and reciprocity to the plants, people and all who surround you. Learn your lessons and take them into the world.
Above all, be honest with yourself. Are the judgements and criticisms that you dish out about truth, or are they more about you!