Thursday, 1 December 2016

How Shamanic Plant Medicine Works ~ Interview with Ross Heaven



This article first appeared in New Dawn Special Issue Volume 10 Number 5 October 2016. 
 © Brett Lothian. The second and fourth pictures used are the copyright of Ross Heaven.

How Shamanic Plant Medicine Works:
Exclusive interview with Ross Heaven.


Ross Heaven is a shaman, psychologist, author, healer, workshop facilitator and presenter. From early childhood he has trained extensively in the shamanic, transpersonal and psycho-spiritual traditions. The story of his beginnings in this work are told in his autobiographical, semi-fictional book, The Sin Eater’s Last Confessions. From the late 1990s he has apprenticed to the ayahuasca healing traditions of the Peruvian Amazon and the San Pedro traditions of the Andes, also working with the curanderos of Mexico, the houngans (shaman-priests) of Haiti, and with other indigenous shamans. His initiations in these traditions have also included owning and running his own ayahuasca healing centre in the Amazon rainforest outside Iquitos, Peru, and a healing centre in the mountains of Spain, experiences documented in his book, Drinking the Four Winds.

Since 2000 Ross has worked exclusively as a shaman, healer and teacher and written almost 20 books on shamanism, empowerment, plant medicines, teacher plants and healing. The first of these, The Journey to You was described by Amazon Books UK in its official review as “the most important to be published in years“. His other works include Plant Spirit Shamanism, The Hummingbirds Journey to God and Cactus of Mystery.

In this exclusive interview for New Dawn readers, Ross Heaven, with his always insightful, no nonsense approach talks about his new book, San Pedro: The Gateway to wisdom, following the shamanic path and the role of the modern shaman. Also, Ross explains exactly how shamanic healing and shamanic plant medicine work and what it really means to be a shaman.

Ross Heaven

COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK IN THE SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE SERIES - SAN PEDRO: THE GATEWAY TO WISDOM?
The Shamanic Plant Medicine series is a range of books which provide a succinct and practical introduction to a specific teacher plant: its history, shamanic uses, healing applications and benefits, as well as the things to be aware of when working with it, including ceremonial procedures and safety precautions. These plants are also known as entheogens: substances which ‘reveal the God within’, and in shamanic cultures as allies: helpful spirits which confer power and pass on insights and information.

The books so far in this series are Ayahuasca: The Vine of Souls, Salvia Divinorum: The Sage of the Seers, and the new one, San Pedro: The Gateway to Wisdom. All of them tell you the truth about these plants and provide insight into their uses as well as the cautions to take with them so you are properly informed and not reliant on government propaganda, media sensationalism and disinformation. Then you can make your own decisions about whether you’d like to try them.

Trichocereus pachanoi "Yowie" one of the San Pedro cacti.

HOW DID YOU DISCOVER SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE?
I learned about it as a child. I lived in the countryside so I grew up with plants and my first medicine was the mushrooms I picked for myself. But then I got distracted for a while with jobs and making money so it wasn’t until 1998 that I first went to Peru to drink ayahuasca. This, in turn, led me to San Pedro, which led me to salvia, which led me back to mushrooms.

HOW DID YOU BECOME A SHAMAN AND IN YOUR OPINION WHAT QUALITIES MUST ONE HAVE TO BE A SHAMAN?
What is a ‘shaman’? It’s a job – like any other job. Like being a plumber. And just like any job, you decide that’s what you want to do and you get on with it, train in it, or whatever. It’s no great mystery. I’m sure you’re as bored as me with all those ego-stuffed Western buffoons who write their precious new age books called The Shaman’s Last Apprentice or The Chosen One in High Heels, documenting the wild adventure they once had where they drank a glass of ayahuasca, which apparently qualified them to be the next chief shaman of the Ashaninka tribe.
Why do they need to be the last or chosen anything? Are they so dull and uninspiring in themselves?
Just look at what they’re asking you to believe about them - or about shamanism - and how special they are, with a book title like that. The effect wouldn’t be quite the same would it if they’d called it The Plumber’s Last Blocked Drain or I Was the Chosen Bog Cleaner? But the thing is – if they actually had any idea what a shaman really is - they might as well have given their books titles like that because shamanism is just a job, no different from plumbing, cleaning toilets or shovelling shit in a factory, despite the author’s arrogance.
I became a shaman because I couldn’t find another job which suited me better and the one I’d chosen before (pharmaceuticals marketing) was literally killing me as well as my customers, so I went to Peru and drank ayahuasca to find out what I should be doing instead. Then I began training in shamanism, including a four year apprenticeship with San Pedro in Peru and Spain, running an ayahuasca healing centre in Iquitos, and travelling to Mexico for salvia and mushroom ceremonies with a disciple of Maria Sabina. I suppose I worked at it because I cared about shamanism - the job I’d chosen for myself - not just about having a ‘shaman trophy’ I could hang next to my Michael Harner books, Sandy Ingerman relaxation tapes, my Simon Buzzton Bee Maiden diploma and my Munay Ki/Money Key ‘Master of the Universe’ certificate.
As for what a shaman is and the qualities you need to do that job: shamanism is everything that Harner, Ingerman, Buxton and their like are NOT. Shamanism is a way of being, a worldview, a belief system which is the antithesis to the exploitative, misleading, money-grubbing capitalism that Buxton et al stand for. It has integrity, authenticity and honesty in a way they don’t.


HOW HAS FOLLOWING THE SHAMANIC PATH IMPROVED YOUR LIFE?
For the most part it hasn’t. As many people discover when they wake up to the truth of this world, the new aware- and awakeness they find can be far more painful and frustrating than liberating. But it’s also the only honest thing to do if you want a life of integrity so you can be real and face the world you’re living in and find your own solutions to it. But don’t coming looking for quick fixes and improvements from shamanism because you won’t find them here – or if you do it’s a good indicator that you haven’t found true shamanism but have wandered by mistake into a Simon Buxton weekend warrior bee maiden seminar instead.

DO YOU HAVE A PERSONAL FAVORITE SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE TO WORK WITH AND IF SO, WHY?
If I do I suppose it would have to be San Pedro. In a way, my four-year apprenticeship to San Pedro never truly ended because every plant I work with somehow falls under the umbrella of San Pedro so that the cactus dieta surrounds it too. San Pedro is the plant of the Earth – it teaches us how to be “the true human” - so I guess that’s the lesson I most need now. I do, however, very much enjoy mushrooms – los ninos – and they still have a great deal to teach me, which is always fun: to find a new teacher with plenty to teach, not just the same old lessons to be learned again, over and over.

ARE ALL SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINES EQUAL AND ABLE TO BE USED IN THE SAME WAYS?
Every plant has its own unique personality and ways of teaching but what they teach is in many ways similar. They very quickly show us the lies we have been fed and accepted, including those we’ve fed ourselves, and the true nature of human life. If this is what you mean when you talk about “enlightenment” then this is what all teacher plants also provide us with. Of course enlightenment is not a process of addition or multiplication (add more ‘happiness’ or ‘sound more clever at dinner parties’ etc), it’s a process of subtraction – the shredding of all you know while having your armour ripped off – so whether enlightenment turns out to be all you ever hoped for is another matter… 
Working with teacher plants is like joining an academy of advanced learning and, like the professors in any academy, each plant has particular skills, talents and areas of expertise. Salvia shows us the nature of existence, for example, while ayahuasca teaches us about the creative possibilities of the universe and San Pedro educates us in how to be human.
But that is not all that plants do. They belong to the plant kingdom as well, just as every professor, no matter what his speciality, is also a human being and shares characteristics in common with everyone else through his humanity. Plants are the same, so everyone knows something about all others and can teach us about them as well as itself.
Finally, all plants are aware (as some humans, and even some professors may be) that they are ultimately part of the ‘mind of God’ – or, in quantum language, one expression of the same energy that makes up the entire universe – so they can all open doorways for us into a wider understanding of life.
 
Trichocereus pachanoi "Etienne" one of the San Pedro cacti in flower.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE WORKS?
Sure. There are basically four levels of healing with every plant:
A): The Plant as a Medicine. Used in the same way that any herbalist might, Salvia for example can treat stomach problems, rheumatism and depression, among other conditions. Pharmaceutical drugs derived from the plant could also be used to combat diseases including Alzheimer’s, AIDS, leukaemia and diabetes. In this way Salvia addresses the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the body; the material stuff that modern medicine and medical herbalism also concerns itself with. Modern medical treatments, however, are based on rather primitive ideas of causality and cure – i.e. that A leads to B, or that giving a patient Medicine X will clear up a disease in 96.4 percent of cases – while shamanism also gives attention to the attitude, motivation and psychology of the patient, and to the spirit of the plant.
The notion of magical illness and cure is an example of this and raises, again, questions about the nature of reality and disease. For example, panzón de Borrego is a blockage in the stomach (seen as a stone put there by a rival) which may arise because of mal d’ojo – giving someone the ‘evil eye’ because you are jealous of them in some way. The person who receives such an attack is, of course, a victim of sorcery – but that does not mean that they are entirely innocent since they might in fact have provoked their misfortune by bragging about their wealth or success to others and making them feel bad. Even though they are on the receiving end of negative energy, therefore, they may also be part of its cause. Orthodox medicine or herbalism might well be able to cure the symptom of the disease but by ignoring the ‘magical’ component of the illness it would leave the cause untreated and so invite a recurrence. Nor would it offer suggestions for the patient’s continuing good health by recommending, for example, that he acts in a more dignified manner in future so as not to provoke the ill-will of others. Used shamanically, however, Salvia can divine the cause of a problem and find an ongoing solution to it as well as an immediate cure. Even from a purely herbal perspective, then, the medicinal use of Salvia is more far-reaching and holistic than orthodox treatments and includes aspects of psychology, counselling and pastoral spirituality.
The idea of magical illnesses and cures (even from this more psychological perspective) is often met with cynicism by Western doctors and sceptics, but ‘magic’ itself is used extensively in modern medicine. They just have a more scientific (and, therefore, more seemingly valid) name for it: the placebo effect. In modern usage, the placebo (Latin for I will please) is a medically ineffectual treatment which is given to patients to deliberately deceive them into wellness. Common placebos include inert tablets, sham surgery or false procedures based on what the medical profession calls ‘controlled deception’. In a typical case, a patient is given a sugar pill and told that it will improve her condition. Because she believes this there is often a real improvement despite (or, rather, because of) the lie she is told. The researchers Wampold, Minami, et al, in their paper, The Placebo is Powerful (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2005) conclude that placebos – the power of belief alone – can, in fact, exceed the effectiveness of ‘real’ treatments by 20 percent in some cases.
The use of placebos by general practitioners is widespread in fact. A study of Danish doctors found that 48 percent had prescribed a placebo at least ten times in the past year. An American survey of more than 10,000 physicians showed that 24 percent would or did prescribe placebos, while a 2004 study of physicians in Israel found that 60 percent used placebos. The point is that they work. We are capable of magically curing ourselves. Brain imaging shows that placebos have real organic effects too, causing changes to the brain in the anterior cingulate, prefrontal, orbitofrontal and insular cortices, amygdala, brainstem and spinal cord, among other areas – which is another way of saying that belief – a non-material ‘substance’ – has an effect on our material selves. In terms that a shaman might use, the condition of the body depends on the condition of the soul.
B): The Plant as a Spirit Ally. Beyond their purely medicinal uses, plants can teach us about ourselves, reality, existence, and the wider patterns of our lives. To some extent this comes down to what shamans call intention or focus or ‘having a good concentration’: entering into a committed partnership with the plant with the express intent that it will reveal certain information to us or pass on certain powers, and that, for our part, we will pay close attention to the signs that it sends us and the changes it makes to our bodies in order to receive its messages and gain mastery of the new abilities it gives us. The shamanic diet is likely to be part of this arrangement.
The shamanic diet involves certain actions and inactions, including restrictions on the behaviour of the dieter so he can learn from his ally. Foods such as pork, fats, salt, sugar, spices, condiments and alcohol are prohibited, leaving the apprentice with a bland menu so he is not overwhelmed with flavour and can more finely sense the plant. It also weakens his attachments to routines, some of which revolve around meal times and foods. For the same reason there is a prohibition on sexual activity since sex is another worldly distraction and during orgasm we can also give away the power that has been building within us during the diet, which would be a pointless waste.
Breaking these taboos can lead the plant to turn against you so that it takes from you not only the power it has given you but any similar power you may already have had. In the case of Salvia, for example, since the plant’s intention is to teach us about the nature of true reality, breaking the diet before it is complete can lead to the opposite of expanded awareness and a clear perspective on life – that is, to madness, according to warnings from Mazatec shamans.
C): As a Guide to the Spirits of Other Plants. Once it is a part of him the plant ally begins to teach the shaman about itself, about other plants and about how to heal. Since all plants are part of the same kingdom, that is, they have an affinity with all others and know something about the specific powers of each. San Pedro as an ally, for example, is more than just a healer in its own right, it becomes for the shaman a guide to the spirit world in general and an ambassador which will act on his behalf and introduce him to other plants. In my book I talk about a long shamanic diet I did with San Pedro and how, during an ayahuasca ceremony to meet its spirit, it introduced me to a number of other plants that it wanted me to diet, including tobacco, rose, and the Amazonian plants jergon sacha and chanca piedra. In this way the shaman becomes knowledgeable about a range of plants and their healing uses and has a guide that he can call upon to lead him to those he needs to heal any patient, even if he is unfamiliar himself with the patient’s illness or the plants he may need to help him.
D): The Plant as Gateway to the Void, Where We Learn the Deepest Secrets. Perhaps the greatest teaching of these plants is that there is nothing to the universe except what we make of it. In this sense, we are God. Healing then often comes back to the same message: that there is no absolute reality, that our life stories are exactly that – stories – and that the first essential for positive change is to make new choices based on greater awareness and a decision to embrace love rather than fear, none of which is impossible for a God.
 
Trichocereus valida one of the San Pedro cacti.
DO YOU THINK THAT MODERN PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS LIKE LSD, MDMA ETC, CAN HAVE A PLACE IN MODERN SHAMANISM?
Maria Sabina tried some of Albert Hofmann’s LSD once and declared that there was no difference between it and her mushrooms. The Shulgins did a lot of good therapeutic work using MDMA which is, effectively, synthetic peyote or San Pedro. I think there is a difference between synthetic drugs and natural plants but useful results can still come from using them.
What is of no use to anyone in this work however is science. Science is our favourite new religion which – perversely and paradoxically – asks us to accept its findings as a matter of faith and treat it and its ministers, the research-funded white-coated priests of our age, as almost little dictator-gods themselves, when in fact the entire history of science is one of arrogant know-it-all dabblers and dangerous interferers in nature being proven wrong, wrong, and wrong, over and over again.
When science enters soul leaves and no effect of value results. Strassman tells us in The Spirit Molecule for example, how he became disillusioned with DMT because despite people’s reports of major insights they never did anything with DMT information to actually change their lives. But then look at the setting for their experience and is it any surprise that they got so little from it. A clinical emotionless injection of drugs in a sterile hospital setting administered by soulless automata-humans who did nothing to guide or support their ‘subjects’. I can tell you that people who come to my ayahuasca ceremonies, not Strassman’s DMT experiments, go on to make all sorts of positive changes to their lives – they write books, open healing centres, give up crappy jobs and sad relationships – and I’m not unique in that. Precisely because shamans are not scientists their participants benefit. So modern psychedelics, yes, maybe they can have a role in healing and therapy but science can’t – ever - under any circumstance.

CAN SHAMANIC PRACTICE COEXIST AND OR COMPLIMENT MODERN WESTERN MEDICINE AND VICE VERSA OR ARE THEY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE?
Western medicine certainly has a lot to learn from shamanic plant medicine, but the reverse isn’t true because Western medicine has next-to-nothing of value to teach. For example, around 80% of Western pharmaceutical medicines are derived from rainforest plants yet we have so far only investigated about 3% of plant species which live in the forest. One thing modern science could do then to advance our knowledge is to stop applying itself to the destruction of the forest and make an inventory instead of plants that can heal. That’s about the limit of what I’d ask it to do though since every time pharmaceutical science gets involved further than that with plants – for example, developing a new pill from a jungle species – it ends up with a watered-down version which exists not to cure anything but to create a steady flow of still-suffering customers. Since that is the fundamental proposition of Western medical science – create customers not cures – there is nothing useful that it can possibly add to the curing knowledge of a real healer like a shaman.
 
Trichocereus peruvianus "Rosei 1" one of the San Pedro cacti.
ARE THERE LIMITS TO WHAT A SHAMAN AND SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE CAN HEAL?
I don’t think so. Or, rather, since all healing (even modern hospital medicine) ultimately comes down to faith healing, exactly what can be achieved depends on how much belief, passion and intention you are prepared to invest in the medicine and your own recovery from illness. But, for example, I have seen so many people cured of cancer now from drinking San Pedro that I’ve actually lost count, as well as diabetes, paralysis, MS, ME, Parkinson’s… pretty much you name it. Then there are stories like this one from my new book on San Pedro.
How to save a life and make money the easy way, through faith and San Pedro
I decided to go [from Mexico] to Peru for December 2014 to January 2015 but just before I got onto the plane I heard that one of my co-workers, Fernanda, aged 23, needed emergency heart surgery within the next four months or she would die, but that it would cost $350,000 US which neither her or her family could afford. On top of this, the Mexican peso had just had a big depression compared to the US dollar, so for us Mexicans that was a really big sum of money. 

And yet it was a matter of life or death. I was really concerned but I wasn´t sure if I could do anything. I knew I had to help but I didn´t know how. So I took my plane to Cusco and I drank San Pedro and I literally talked to God. I felt an immense kind of joy, an orgasmic one, during our conversation. God told me that I had to make a fundraiser for Fernanda, that this situation would also be an exceptional gift for me, and that all the joy I was feeling in that moment would remain with me during the whole process of fundraising.

I got pretty scared, I felt overwhelmed and very dizzy, but then God told me to have faith in myself. But He also told me that I had free will and could say no to His proposal, and I was about to but then He told me “For this cause I will put an Army of Angels at your service; many people will embrace the cause because of you and the Army of Angels who are about to come into your heart if you open it now and say YES”. 

I ran to Mark [the shaman at the ceremony] and told him what had happened, and that I just couldn’t do what San Pedro and God were asking of me and he just said “Well, sorry, but if san Pedro tells you to do something you MUST do it!” Then I looked up and saw an Army of Angels commanded by four big Archangels, they were dancing in the sky and flying towards me. So I said YES.

Then I began to panic at my commitment to God and I asked myself a lot of questions, like how should I start? What should I do? Because I had never raised money for any cause before. Through San Pedro, God answered me. He told me to keep my eyes and heart open and that ideas would pop into my head, amazing people would enter my life and help make it happen, and the Army of Angels would remain with me until March 20 and on that day I would have all the money Fernanda needed.

So I got back to Mexico excited but still with no idea how to start. I told my friends Michelle, Georgina, Macarena and Rosy what had happened and invited them to help me and without blinking an eye or asking any questions they all said YES. I understood then that they were the four Archangels I had seen on San Pedro day, and they were leading other Angels. Yet out the four of them, only Macarena knew about fundraising.

The first days were difficult, we didn’t know how to start; no one in the campaign knew how to do it. So on January 22 I went and saw Fernanda and I took a piece of paper and wrote a prayer on it “I want her heart to keep beating. Please help us. Latiendo Por Fer (Beating For Fer)” and I asked a girl from our office to take our picture with the sign. The girl was really moved so after taking our picture she said “I also want a picture with Fernanda and that sign to put on my Facebook page”. So that’s how everything began, suddenly all the office was taking pictures with my sign and Fernanda and uploading them on their Facebook pages to help us raise money. That was the first time I saw the Army of Angels in action.

One day we got call from an important guy in Mexico who must have seen this. He promised us a big donation but he wasn’t able to meet us for days and I became so disappointed and tired after going every day to his home to try to see him. We were already in February and God had told me in the San Pedro ceremony that the Army of Angels would only remain with me until March 20 and the campaign would end then, yet we had only raised $22,929 US so far. That night I cried in anguish and I dared to tell God “I am out now, I´m done!” But still the next day I went again to try to see the guy, saying to myself all the time “This is the last time you try with this guy”. And guess what, it really was the last time because on that day he could see me and he gave me $60,000 US! 

But the most exciting thing of that day was still about to happen. After giving me the donation he invited me into one of his favourite rooms. It turns out that he was an Angel collector! It was a beautiful room with figures of Angels everywhere. Archangels, Angels, cherubs, on tables, on walls, on shelves, EVERYWHERE! The experience of my San Pedro day in Peru came back to me and I just felt the same amazing joy again. It was a pretty clear message to me: “There is an Army of Angels behind you. Do not give up!”

So a lot of Angels came into the campaign, we called them Urban Angels. There were still some very difficult days as we all felt the stress at the core of Latiendo Por Fer - fights, tears, dramas, etc, but every time I nearly said again “I am really done with this now, I am out!”, God sent me help. National TV shows came knocking to interview Fernanda about her condition, newspapers got interested. One time a national paper actually used the headline “An Army of Angels are doing everything they can to save Fernanda”. I told nobody about the Army of Angels that I saw in Cusco so it was clearly another message for me. Keep going.

Then God sent me another gift. After three really bad days we got a call from Molotov, my favourite rock band of all time! They joined the cause and began doing concerts for Fernanda and from the stage they asked their fans to buy the little heart-shaped keyrings we had had made with the slogan Latiendo Por Fer: Beating For Fer. As an extra gift for me I got to meet the band, my heroes, several times! 

In Cusco God really told me the truth that during the campaign I would feel the same orgasmic joy that I felt at the San Pedro ceremony, without even taking any substance at all. That feeling is so amazing that I do not have words in English or in Spanish to describe it. 

Then came March 20 and just as God had promised, we made it. In fact we crossed the goal and on that day we had $361,214 US! Fernanda had her surgery and she is ALIVE!!! Fernanda’s last words to me before she flew to Rochester Mayo Clinic were “You are a superhero, thank you for saving my life”, and I felt it for real then – because I really did. Me! I saved someone’s life! Her father´s words to me were “Thank you for being a sister and mother to my child”.

Other than doctors very few people have the grace to save a human life and I am so grateful to San Pedro because it showed me how I could and it cleaned and revived my relationship with God on such a level that I could trust in His plans for me and follow His instructions. Nowadays, many of us have lost our connection to God, to our Mother Earth and even to our humanity. For me San Pedro was the KEY to open the door to where my humanity was hidden and to realize that I am an important piece in the world and that if I listen to God and the divine in myself I will be free and infinitely happy - as I am right now. San Pedro showed me that nothing is impossible.
~ Ana Limon  
Trichocereus macrogonus one of the San Pedro cacti.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL DANGERS OF SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE?
In general, pretty much zero, unless you’re an idiot. In 2005, for example, the British Medical Journal warned that ‘in England alone reactions to drugs that led to hospitalisation followed by death are estimated at 5,700 a year and could actually be closer to 10,000.’ By comparison, between 2000 and August 2004 there were just 451 reports of adverse reactions to herbal preparations and only 152 were considered serious. No fatalities. That statistic equates to just 38 problem cases a year resulting from plant medicines compared to perhaps 10,000 deaths a year as a result of accepted mainstream medicine. Reviewing these figures the London Independent newspaper concluded that, ‘Herbs may not be completely safe as critics like to point out – but they are a lot safer than drugs.’
The situation in America is very similar. Here, orthodox medical treatment itself is now the leading cause of death, ahead of heart disease and cancer, and ‘Infections, surgical mistakes and other medical harm contributes to the deaths of 180,000 hospital patients a year [and] another 1.4 million are seriously hurt by their hospital care.’ (Consumer Reports online: www.consumerreports.org). Other studies reveal that adverse drug reactions are under-reported by up to 94 percent since the US government does not adequately track them. Death as a result of plant healings meanwhile remain next to zero.
With teacher plants specifically, as long as you approach them in a grown-up and responsible way they are as safe as any plant. In fact, in perhaps the last five years we have heard of just three deaths connected to ayahuasca ceremonies in Ecuador and Peru, and, while the mainstream media like to have a frenzy with stories like these and to dwell on the dangers and the exoticism, three deaths in five years is nowhere near 10,000 deaths a year from pharmaceutical drugs, which is where the real danger lies.

WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF THE MODERN RECREATIONAL USE OF SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE?
By definition, there can never be a recreational use of shamanic plant medicine; there can only be a recreational use of drugs. In plant medicine ceremonies a number of factors are at play – the ceremonial space and the healing energy invoked there, the ceremonial setting and context which focuses the mind on healing, the healing work and curanderismo performed by the shaman, and also of course the medicine plant you take. All of this contributes to the healing and is part of the respectful, responsible context to healing that is created. It goes without saying that this is quite different from dropping a few tabs at a party. There may be nothing wrong with the latter either if that’s what you’re into and, once again, you take responsibility for your experience and well-being, but it won’t be a medicine ceremony so there’s no point pretending it is or that you’re doing anything very useful or sacred.
 
Brugmansia sanguinea.
HAS THE ROLE OF THE SHAMAN CHANGED IN OUR MODERN SOCIETY AND IF SO, HOW?
Well, firstly I’m making a distinction, when we talk about the role of the shaman, between authentic shamans and ‘core shamanism’ – a wishy-washy weekend warrior brand of ego-led spiritual interference which has unfortunately come to be seen as ‘modern shamanism’ when it isn’t.
In terms of authentic shamanism, the principles of healing haven’t changed at all – shamanism is and always will be faith healing in the true sense of the word – but the application of those healing principles – their method of delivery, if you like – may have changed to make that healing felt and understood. In other words, as the modern world becomes more faithless (and more diseased as a consequence), the shaman must do whatever new thing is required to reactivate faith in his patients and reconnect them to God. But then, shamanism has always been a creative force which works uniquely with each individual patient so maybe at its root shamanism hasn’t really changed in the modern world, not at its basis.

CAN SHAMANIC PLANT MEDICINE CHANGE OUR MODERN WORLD FOR THE BETTER?

Absolutely not; it can do nothing at all.
One of the first lessons you receive from the plants is about responsibility: that no-one is going to do it for you so you need to stand on your own two feet and get it done for yourself. Be the change. No-one is interested in your cry-baby whining either, when things don’t go your way (not even you I imagine, deep down inside), so you either get busy living and creating the world you want or… well, you’re just getting in the way of others and wasting oxygen your kids could be using.
So it’s like this… plant medicine can and will expand your mind, give you fresh ideas, bring you beneficial insights, potentials and possibilities but the thing is, a good idea never did anything to change the world. A potential remains a potential and a possibility a possibility until you make a stand and do something practically in the real world with everything you’ve been shown and taught.
So no, plant medicine can’t change our modern world at all. You can.
 
Amanita muscaria the Fly Agaric mushroom.
FINALLY, IF THERE WAS ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE TO SOMEONE BEGINNING ALONG THE SHAMANIC PATH, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
You must do this with commitment, with integrity and authenticity. The shamanic world (or what passes for it these days) already has enough conmen, jokers and core idiots; we don’t need any more. What we do need is new, creative thinkers and genuine healers who are prepared to put in the work. ~ Ross Heaven

As well as teaching, Ross runs trips to the Amazon and Andes of Peru and to Mexico where you can experience directly the healing work of the shamans of these traditions. Ross will be in New Zealand next Jan/Feb 2017 for ceremonies and in Australia for the first time in Feb/March 2017. Details can be found below and at Ross's website:http://www.thefourgates.org/

THE DOWN UNDER TRAVELLING MEDICINE SHOW
Jan 27-Feb 2: Stories from Grandfather. New Zealand. A residential ceremonial workshop with three ceremonies from the Andean tradition.  La Gringa joins me for this week. Please email folkremediesnz@gmail.com for full information and to book.

Feb 4. Curanderismo. Andean Healing. Day time ceremony with Grandfather, night time velada with the Holy Children. New Zealand, island location, with Ross and La Gringa. Please email me for details.

Feb 7-11: Shamanic Healing & Soul Retrieval diploma course. New Zealand. An introduction to the Heaven Method of soul therapy - everything you need to become a qualified shamanic healer. Please email folkremediesnz@gmail.com for full information and to book.

Feb 13 and 14: Plant Spirit Shamanism. New Zealand. An introduction to shamanic healing with plants. Please email folkremediesnz@gmail.com for full information and to book.

Feb 15 and 16: The Holy Children. New Zealand. Ceremonial healing veladas in the style of Maria Sabina. Please email folkremediesnz@gmail.com for full information and to book.

Feb 28 – March 6. Stories from Grandfather. Australia. A ceremonial healing workshop with Ross and La Gringa. Please email gringatravels@gmail.com for details.

About the author: Brett Lothian is an Australian author, professional arborist, market gardener and ethnobotanist. He is the author of the Tricho Serious Ethnobotany blog and creator of The Trichocereus Cacti Appreciation, Peyote Appreciation and Ethnobotany Appreciation Society groups on facebook.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Ayahuasca and DMT: The Spirit Medicine



This article first appeared as a side bar to my Scientific Shamanism article in New Dawn Special Issue Volume 10, Number 5, August 2016. © Brett Lothian.

Ayahuasca and DMT: The Spirit Medicine

For millennia the Amazonian Shaman have utilised Ayahuasca for diagnosing and treating illness, many Shaman even claim that their traditional knowledge and the often ingenious innovations of their people are a direct result of using Ayahuasca, to contact the ancestors and the spirit world for information and solutions to their problems. Such as in the case of Curare, the poison concoction  used traditionally in the Amazon on blow darts and poison arrows, that often contains over forty different plants. The odds of making such an effective combination with so many different plants, through trial and error (as in the west) is unfathomable in the gigantic green ocean of plants that the Amazon jungle contains and is statistically speaking, virtually impossible to have achieved. And yet, here it is, thanks to the use of Ayahuasca. Traditionally in the cultures that utilise Ayahuasca, it is regarded as the teacher par excellence and with good reason. Whilst the science of Anthropology has known about the use of Ayahuasca for decades, it has only been recently that any scientific studies have been conducted to research the possible applications of this wonderful medicine in the west.

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea that traditionally is made from Banisteriopsis caapi (the Ayahuasca vine) and Psychotria viridis, commonly known as Chacruna. The Ayahuasca vine contains N,N Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and the mono amine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) Harmine, Harmaline and Tetrahydroharmine which allow DMT to be orally active. Mono amine oxidase is an enzyme that destroys DMT in the stomach and thusly needs to be inhibited for the Ayahuasca to be effective as a drink. Chacruna contains DMT once again and is used to increase the potency of the brew. The addition of Chacruna is not strictly necessary, but is the common practice throughout its traditional use. Other admixture plants are also utilised traditionally for various reasons in the brew and recipes can vary quite a bit from tribe to tribe and Shaman to Shaman, with the Ayahuasca vine and Chacruna being the staples. Neo Shaman and psychedelic explorers have in modern times began to utilise other plants such as Syrian rue and various Acacia species in making what are known as Ayahuasca analogs, which have the same chemical components and effects of traditional Ayahuasca. The number of potential plant combinations that can be utilised in this way are almost never ending and make the attempted prohibition of Ayahuasca, laughably ridiculous and quite simply impossible to ever achieve in reality. DMT is one of the most common compounds ever found in nature, it is literally everywhere, on every continent except Antarctica, including within our own bodies. The fact that our own bodies produce DMT, technically makes all of us illegal drug labs and drug smugglers, under the current laws.
 
Psychotria viridis or "Chacruna"
DMT does not necessarily need to be combined with a MAOI to be effective however (as in the traditional Ayahuasca brew), research has shown that it can be taken effectively as a suppository, vaporised, smoked, given intravenously and even insufflated as in the traditional practice among many Amazonian tribes of using hollow tubes to forcibly blow Yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina) and Cebil (Anadenanthera colubrina) seed snuff, up each others nostrils. There are numerous different forms of DMT found in nature, such a 5-MeO DMT (the active ingredient of Yopo), Bufotenin (the active ingredient of psychedelic toads) and even Psilocybin (the active ingredient in Magic mushrooms) which have different and yet similar and comparable effects.  Whilst these different forms of DMT and other various Shamanic plant medicines such as Peyote, San Pedro, Iboga etc, have all been utilised traditionally for the same purposes, for eons around the world, the new studies being conducted on the cutting edge of psychedelic research have finally started to show that all psychedelics so far tested (even LSD and MDMA), are relatively safe, non habit forming and are by far the most effective mental health medicines ever discovered, or more correctly, re-discovered by modern science. After all, Shamanism was most likely the first science our people ever learned, many thousands of years ago, up and until today. Thankfully modern science has began to realise that the accumulated plant knowledge passed down through the ages by our Shaman, cannot be matched by our modern botanists or replaced, and has the ability to solve many of our modern health issues.

Which brings us to the modern research into Ayahuasca and DMT. Dr Rick Strassman began the new research into DMT in the early nineties by studying the effects of DMT given intravenously and wrote about his findings in the book, DMT: The spirit molecule, which is well worth reading. Numerous studies have been conducted since then but have largely not taken the form of clinical trials and rely on anecdotal evidence, but there findings are very promising to say the least, especially in the areas of drug addiction, treating depression and other mental health issues. A study by the Department of Neuro sciences and Behaviour, Ribeirão Preto Medical School at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, was the first designed specifically to assess clinical efficacy of ayahuasca for medical disorders, and involved three female participants with a clinical diagnosis of recurring depressive disorder and current mild/severe depressive episode without psychotic symptoms. Subjects received an oral dose of 3ml/kg of ayahuasca. After a single ayahuasca dose, depressive symptoms were significantly decreased from 40 minutes after intake until day 14, when symptoms began to reach baseline levels. They are now conducting larger studies that they hope will shore up their findings.
 
Banisteriposis caapi the "Ayahuasca Vine"
A team of scientists at Debrecen University believe that DMT may play a vital role in enabling brain cells to survive for longer periods when oxygen is cut off. Though the team admits that their hypothesis is based on indirect evidence, lead researcher Ede Frecska believes that there are enough clues to suggest that this may well be the function of DMT in the body. For instance, DMT is among the few internally-produced compounds that bind to the sigma-1 receptor, which is believed to play a protective role during a type of cellular stress, called oxidative stress, that can arise from a lack of oxygen. Additionally, the fact that the brain has an active uptake method which enables the transport of DMT through the blood-brain barrier suggests that the organ must require it for something. The team has therefore postulated that the role of DMT may be to protect cells from oxidative stress, thereby prolonging the period of time they can survive in the absence of oxygen and preventing brain damage. If this hypothesis is confirmed, the researchers believe it could have significant practical applications, enabling survivors of strokes and heart attacks to recover with minimal risk of losing their mental capacities. Having now secured funding for the trial via a crowd funding campaign, the team intends to investigate the effect of DMT on oxidative stress in neural tissue cultures, with the hope of one day progressing to human trials. However, the fact that DMT is classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration – implying a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value – may well present a barrier to research using live subjects. This is in spite of an array of evidence previously put forward by Frecska that the molecule may play a vital role in immunoregulation. For instance, he suggests that DMT may help to coordinate the immune responses that fight cancer. This is based on the fact that the molecule's synthesis requires an enzyme called indolethylamine-N-methyltransferase (IMNT), which is produced by the IMNT gene, the expression of which has been found to prevent the recurrence of malignant lung and prostate cancers.  
Whilst many of the studies that have been conducted so far are merely anecdotal, and/or rely on a small sample size, the ongoing research will hopefully lead to a greater understanding and irrefutable proof of Ayahuasca and DMT’s medical applications. Because this is what we need if we are ever going to see a change in our ridiculous and socially destructive drug laws. We have to be able to prove without a shadow of a doubt what the indigenous Shaman from all around the world have been saying for millenia, that Ayahuasca and DMT are medicines, and that they save lives. This has been the case with the Cannabis law reform that is spreading throughout the world. An ever increasing number of countries around the world, now allow people to utilise Cannabis for medicinal reasons, despite the decades of misinformation, scare tactics and blatant lies of the “War on Drugs,” which has for so long told us that Cannabis is merely a dangerous drug of dependance. That fraudulent representation of a harmless plant and life saving medicine, can no longer be upheld as the science has proven it to be wrong, over and over again, at the cost how many people their lives?  How many people had to and still have to die needlessly all around the world because of our government’s ignorance? Far too many I would suggest. Although the tide is slowly turning on the medicinal Cannabis front, the illegalisation of Ayahuasca and DMT (and all the other Shamanic plant medicines) is largely left unchallenged in most countries around the world and if it is being challenged, it is being challenged on the wrong grounds to ever really be effective. The average hard working citizen, let alone our governments, is never going to be swayed by the religious protestations of a few long haired hippies, or the anecdotal evidence of people travelling to the Amazon or self medicating at home. They are far too easily dismissed as “druggies” and will never be taken seriously in the mainstream. We have to do the science, report the science and generate a movement of serious people that is based on hard scientific facts. No average Joe, politician or law maker can argue with irrefutable proof, and once we have that behind us, the whole world will change for the better. 
 *Please note as this article was word restricted and originally a side bar piece, there are no references.
By Brett Lothian.