December 30, 2015

Self-Transformation Medicine: the Spirituality Behind Visionary Experiences.

Félix de Rosen article photo

From ayahuasca ceremony to the ceremony of life.

Fifty years ago, ayahuasca was known outside the Amazon only by a few adventurous ethnobotanists.

Today, this plant medicine, used traditionally in the Amazon rainforest, has become a familiar name amongst alternative health seekers, the spiritually inclined, and curious psychonauts in the West. Having heard spectacular reports of visions and miraculous healing, I joined the club and dived head first into the world of visionary plant medicine (VPM), a world which includes an endless array of powerful healing plants such as peyote, iboga, san pedro, and psilocybin (“magic”) mushrooms.

Although the arrival of visionary plants into the cities and towns of the West brings much needed awareness and healing into our lives, it’s worth remembering how recent a phenomenon this is. Whereas traditional cultures around the world make safe space for visionary rituals, we in the industrialized world do not yet have mature support systems to guide us along the journey. I would like to make the point that visionary plants can be allies in our quest of personal and social development when approached with humility, discipline, and gratitude.

The German poet Goethe wrote about what happens when we play with tools without fully appreciating their power. In his poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Goethe describes a young apprentice who must clean his master’s workshop while the latter is away. The apprentice doesn’t want to do this by hand, so he uses one of his master’s spells to enchant a broom to clean for him. Voila! The broom begins fetching water and scrubbing the floor. Soon the floor is flooded as the apprentice realizes he doesn’t know how to end the spell. He tries splitting the broom in two with an axe, but each half becomes a whole new broom and the chaos doubles as torrents of water crash their way through the workshop. When all seems lost, the sorcerer returns and breaks the spell, sternly warning that the spirits should only be called by those who understand them.

What is Goethe telling us? The apprentice knows how to open the floodgates of spirit, but is overwhelmed when the spirit takes on a life of its own. The apprentice is still learning the way. Unfamiliar with spirits, he invokes them to do something he should be doing himself: cleaning the workshop.
Notice the role of water in the poem. Normally a source of life and purification, here water plays the role of destroyer. The spirit of healing becomes an agent of chaos. The apprentice doesn’t realize the power of the spirits he has called and the channel he opens literally floods him. Goethe’s lesson is simple: the master’s magic is not casual stuff. It is sacred work, direct communion with the very fabric of reality.

By opening us to this reality, VPM guides us along a similar, sacred path. Like Goethe’s apprentice, we are still learning to integrate the teachings of plants into our materialist concrete jungle. Of course, all spiritual traditions, whether they are local or foreign, have their own unique set of challenges and learning curves. VPM is unique in its intensity and speed of action. In the space of a few hours, we experience emotions, dimensions, and beings that we didn’t even know existed. We understand the innate perfection of the universe and the indestructible clarity of the awake state of mind. We weep, we chuckle, we smile.

And then we live happily ever after, right? So I thought after my first ayahuasca ceremony. Having witnessed my own death and dissolved into cosmic bliss, I figured it was all smooth sailing from then on. Goethe’s poem is a reminder that such experiences come at a price. It’s a bit like losing your virginity. Whether you like it or not, there is no turning back once you’ve seen behind the veil.

Across the world, this loss of innocence, the step into adulthood, is celebrated in initiation rituals. Common to all initiations is the assumption of responsibility towards community and cosmos. In the West, we have a tendency to want knowledge without this parallel sense of duty. Carl Jung said that this was “the mistake of our age. We think it is enough to discover new things, but we don’t realize that knowing more demands a corresponding development of morality.”

VPM can guide us but it rarely solves our problems. It is through our own conscious action that we heal ourselves—and conscious action is difficult because negative habits, tendencies, and addictions have momentum. Changing them is like trying to divert the course of a river. Lama Govinda explains that “every deed leaves a trace, a path formed by the process of walking, and wherever such a once-trodden path exists, there we find, when a similar situation arises, that we take to this path spontaneously.”

In the West, we’ re used to thinking of medicine as curing illness because modern Western medicine treats symptoms. But symptoms are only manifestations of a mind-body imbalance. Traditional medicine treats the imbalance, helping the mind-body heal itself. In other words, it is the inherent intelligence of the body that heals. Medicine, then, is a support, a compassionate friend, in the healing process.
The beauty of VPM is that it gives us a choice: to be brave and assume responsibility for our innate healing capabilities, or to shy away in fear and shallowness. The question is whether we are ready to be exposed to this choice. With VPM, there is no turning back: every moment we refuse the challenge is a moment of sadness and suffering, as part of ourself identifies with the visionary experience whilst the other remains afraid of fully accepting its consequences. And so we limp away, like a wounded dog, from our dreams.

This is why the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was critical of psychedelic experiences. He believed they revealed too much: “I am profoundly mistrustful of the ‘pure gifts of the Gods.’ You pay very dearly for them.” For Jung, man could only handle a bit at a time. He believed the perfect medicine was the dream state, when the mind relaxes, the ego weakens, and the dreamer receives insight inaccessible to the rational waking mind. Dreams, he thought, were more effective than psychedelics because they allowed for consistent, gradual evolution. They kept things on a human scale. Regardless of his views on psychedelics, Jung reminds us that the spiritual path is not something we do occasionally. It is a constant, fiery devotion towards life, an unwavering acceptance of reality at every moment in time.

To be this unwavering is difficult when visionary medicine brings us to states of being so far removed from day-to-day life. The plants show us their vision of the world, where humans are not the center of existence and where all living beings interact and communicate. In ceremony, we experience states that, in many spiritual traditions, are limited only to advanced initiates. Many teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, are reserved only to those who have prepared by years of preliminary practices.

Like Goethe’s apprentice, we like shortcuts. And today, shortcuts are more and more accessible. Supporting a cause is as easy as liking it on Facebook, there’s a yoga teacher on every street corner, and ceremonies of all kinds are a phone call or plane ride away. Suddenly, all these spiritual practices become accessible. Doors of all kinds open up: we have entered the spiritual supermarket. It is enormous and has many, many, brightly-lit, signposted aisles. But, what to pick? This medicine or that one? How to choose?

The abundance of options easily leads to what Chogyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism, when the ego converts spirituality to its own use. Others call it spiritual bypassing, when spirituality becomes a way of not tending to our deepest wounds. Meditation, as a solitary practice, can be a method of avoiding one’s relationship with others. Yoga can be an exercise in self-harm just as it can be a source of serenity.
In spiritual materialism, we go on a quest for personal progress, setting ourselves the distant goal of self-liberation, without ever tackling the root of our suffering. Although our objective may be honorable, we forget that the only way to reach it is to begin with where we are in the present. Think about it: we cannot reach a destination without starting from where we are. To get from A to Z, we don’t start at K.
If we pay enough attention to our experience, we eventually realize that we suffer from an inability to fully accept the present. The ever-changing nature of the present disrupts the rigid notions of reality we hold, the narratives we use to conceptualize our lives. As a result, we are always trying to be somewhere else, either physically or psychologically.

The trouble is that unless we work on maintaining awareness of the habits of our mind on a daily basis, we run the risk of continuing these habits in visionary plant ceremonies as well. VPM can then be like planting seeds in infertile soil. Although the plants of the Earth want to heal us, they are not enough to dissolve our defenses. Their love, in the words of John Welwood, is “like the light and warmth of the sun that starts to wake up a dormant seed within us. Soul is that seed, which wants to grow, blossom, and bear fruit, to become all that it can be. But often the shell around the seed is so thick that it blocks those expansive possibilities.”

Instead of the light penetrating us to the core, transmuting us wholly, we let it shine only in the places we want—the safe places we know—because deep inside we are afraid of lowering our defenses. We remain stuck in the same neurotic pathways as before, endlessly wondering why we don’t feel better, when the nausea will end, and why we aren’t having visions whilst our neighbor is head to head with a large bioluminescent snake. I want what she’s having!

Experienced meditators are familiar with the dilemma that meditation involves shedding a sense of reward. In ceremony too, we must leave expectations behind. In the West, this is especially difficult to understand because we pay for our ceremonies. We want the most bang for our buck (hand over the goods ayahuasca!). The intensity, vividness, and sheer alienness of ceremonies can easily lead us to sensationalist interpretations and confusion.

That’s precisely what happened to me. My ceremonies consistently flooded me with new powerful sensations, and I simply didn’t know what to do with them. The gap between my experiences during ceremony and day-to-day life felt vast. Similarly, medicine retreats in the Amazon don’t always translate to a smooth landing back home. Nor is this phenomenon unique to VPM. In contemplative practices, meditators can reach profound states of bliss yet be completely overwhelmed when returning to the mundane world.

Yet, the mundane world is the real test. It is there that we realize that spirit and matter are two sides of the same coin. It is also there that we realize that others are suffering and that we can help. If our spiritual quest is only to heal ourselves, then we have done nothing but change the name-tag on our ego-trip, which benefits no one, because personal healing and the healing of the world go hand in hand. Lama Govinda says, “He who strives for his own salvation, or merely with a view of getting rid of suffering in the shortest possible way, without regard for his fellow beings, has already deprived himself of the most essential means for the realization of his aim.”

I am writing these words because I see so much good intention in human beings, so much effort, and so much strength, but also tremendous doubt, fear and misplaced energy. Visionary plants can heal, but the most fundamental agent of healing and transformation is the sharp blade of the present, and this can be found regardless of the path we pursue, gods we worship, or plants we work with. To explore the non-human realm is fascinating and necessary, but let us begin with our feet firmly grounded in everyday reality. Jung wondered, “You have not finished with the conscious side yet. Why should you expect more from the unconscious?”

The present moment is the fundamental ceremony of life. This ceremony never ends and you are its shaman. In ceremony, everything is medicine, every breath you take, every blade of grass, the moments of bliss, and the moments of pain and desperation. Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses who are waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love.”

Can our darkest pains, our deepest fears, really be parts of ourselves crying for our attention? Perhaps the way forward is not as scary as we imagined it. As our hearts and minds expand, we understand that the sun is always shining behind the clouds. Its splendid rays radiate eternally in all directions. Truly, as the Ramayana declares, “all evil vanishes from life for him who keeps the sun in his heart.”

I thank our plant teachers for the blessings they have bestowed on us. I thank the shamans and healers, past, present, and future, for their sacred work. I thank the infinitely big and the infinitely small, the known and the forgotten. I thank the light that radiates throughout all dimensions. And I thank you, reader, for sharing this moment with all of us. Bless your journey. Bless our journey.


Author: Félix de Rosen

Editor: Caroline Beaton 

Image: Courtesy of the author

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