What is plant medicine?
Plant medicines are a healing tool, used by Shamans and indigenous healers to access different states of consciousness wherein they believe they are able to heal the body and/or mind from illness and disease. The reason for the moniker ‘plant medicines’ is that they are generally made of plant-based materials, as in the case of Peyote (cactus), San Pedro (cactus), Ayahuasca (vine), Psilocybin (mushrooms), Iboga (shrub) .
Currently, the better known of these plant medicines is Ayahuasca, a vine-based brew made throughout South America. Many people do not realize that Ayahuasca is not the only medicine available. A short list of plant medicines can be found here.
Plant medicine is also at least partly a misnomer, as there are some fauna-related sacred medicines.
There are many terms used to refer to plant medicine, but let’s get a bit more specific before we move on. Some of the more common terms are:
Entheogens, my preferred term in many ways, which means ‘generating the divine within’, and refers to any psychoactive drugs when used for their religious or spiritual effects.
Psychotropics, which includes any substance which is mood- or mind-altering. This isn’t the best description as Xanax, a well-known mood-altering pill, has little or nothing to do with an experience like Ayahuasca.
Hallucinogens, which is any drug that causes hallucination. Again, I don’t think this is the appropriate term, as sacred plant medicines are used ritually and serve serious healing purpose for indigenous folks who do not depend on allopathic medicine. Sacred plant medicine has nothing to do with LSD or DMT. Comparatively, plant medicines are 10% hallucinogen, 90% entheogen; LSD is 90% hallucinogen, 10% medicinal. I know that some may disagree here, especially any Timothy Leary followers. Note I’m not discarding LSD as an entheogen, which I believe it surely is, but rather that many people work with LSD on a purely recreational level and therefore the overall culture supporting LSD has not generally been one of serious healing intention.
Plant Medicine, which is the easiest term to use overall, being that it encompasses both the healing and organic nature of the experience; for that reason, it’s the term I’ll use throughout this post.
Is it a drug?
Well…yes and no. Yes, because it is at least slightly hallucinogenic, and therefore drug-like from most people’s perceptions, but no, because it’s nothing like taking drugs.
Ideally, a plant medicine experience (when done properly, and with serious intention) won’t have any similarities to taking LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs. If you have lots of experience with hallucinogens, you may even be underwhelmed that the ‘visuals’ of your experience are far less dramatic with entheogens. On the other hand, the psycho-emotional experience should be much, much more profound than the time you dropped acid with your friends in the backyard while your parents are away.
In the plant medicine ceremonies I’ve been in, I and almost everyone involved has been completely compos mentis. Maybe a bit light-headed, even a bit giggly at times (and desperately sad at others – all emotions come up), but never out of our minds. I always tell people intending to come to a plant medicine ceremony that you can easily ‘click’ into place if needed; if your boss or mother called, you’d be able to grab the phone, handle the call, and then hang up and ‘click’ back into the vibe of the ceremony.
So, long story short: no, it’s not a drug.
What is it like to take it?
This is impossible to describe: every person’s experience is different and every time you do it is different. There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ plant medicine experience.
I’ve known plant medicine participants to: cry wailing sobs, sleep the entire time, sing, dance, remember nothing, see visions of their childhood, envision future children, see past lives, be told things by a ‘voice’, receive spontaneous physical healing, be shown future developments in their career.
Just know that whatever happens for you will be a) what you need and b) what you can handle; nothing more, nothing less.
You can read here about my first experience with San Pedro, here for another, and here for an understanding of how Shamanism helps us heal.
Will it/can it change my life?
Maybe – are you ready to change your life? Will you change your life? Nobody can say if it will change your life, that’s for you to decide (and if a Shaman or someone else says you just have to come because it will change your life – run away).
Plant medicine is not the last stop on a very desperate healing train. I’ll admit readily that plant medicine has been a key part of my journey; your journey may end up looking very different to mine, and you should stay true to that calling.
The challenge of returning to life after a plant medicine journey and applying that wisdom to your reality, instead of just enjoying the cozy bubble you experience immediately post-ceremony cannot be understated. This is what most people would call ‘integration’.
The really life-changing stuff potentially comes together in the integration period, not just in the plant ceremony.
How many times do you have to do it?
Plant medicine ceremonies are not a linear, do-it-more-and-heal-faster journey.
In the West we’re used to easy healing narratives: 10 Steps to Better Self-Esteem; a weekend workshop that promises to heal our poor body image; a wellness faux-guru who advertises her revolutionary ‘fast-tracked’ healing techniques; a new ‘miracle’ drug that promises to cure us if we can just withstand the insurance co-pay and deleterious side effects.
Shamanic work, and especially plant medicines, are not controlled experiences. You are not able to push the plant to give you more than what you can a) need and b) handle. That’s tough to get used to, as we’re so used to having lots and lots of control in our everyday lives.
Remember: the plant is divine. It knows where to take you each time – just surrender. Allow yourself to be led.
Is it scary?
No. Most of us get nervous as we approach a ceremony, but it’s not scary.
The one caveat to that is it could be a bit scarier working with Ayahuasca, which most Shamans describe as ‘physically and emotionally demanding’, or other seemingly intense plant medicines like Iboga. Possible other factors include not being ready for your experience (my personal recommendation is never just to ‘book and show up’ without knowing the Shaman/healing center), a dodgy Shaman, or badly cooked medicine.
I’ve known some people in the ceremony to get overwhelmed or have a big release of fear and anxiety, and thus, they may have felt very palpable levels of fear or anxiety as part of that release. But that doesn’t make it inherently scary; if anything it can teach you that our emotional responses are not always in line with reality.
If you’re worried about a scary experience, just remember again that you get what you a) need and b) can handle.
If you’ve read really full-on, seemingly insane experiences on whacked-out burner forums, please just ignore that stuff. There’s a huge tendency for people to over-hype their experience for ego reasons, so take it all with a grain of salt.
Follow your feelings.
Is every ceremony the same?
Every person’s experience is different and every time you do it is different. Some plant medicine ceremonies are heavier and tougher, and others feel joyous and ebullient.
A lot of that depends on where you’re at emotionally/energetically as that dictates the filter through which you view the evening. Equally, the energetic feeling or vibe of the evening comes from the group.
Groups come together for a reason, and sometimes it’s because we all have heavy work to do, which results in a tougher ceremony. Sometimes we need to be uplifted, which can make for a lot of laughter.
You will have the ceremony a) you need and b) you can handle.
What is the Shaman’s job? Can’t I just do it on my own?
No, not a great idea. Serious use of these sacred medicines is just that – serious. And as such, it should involve being guided by a strong, able Shaman that can hold space, protect you and intervene if required. The Shaman is also able to help you interpret, understand and integrate your experience.
Doing it on your own is like doing anything on your own. You technically could but why would you?
Would you do an oil change on your car by yourself? How about heart surgery? A haircut?
In a world where many of us don’t even clean our own houses or cook our own food anymore, presuming you’ll be able to guide yourself through a sacred entheogenic experience is faulty thinking, to say the least.
Why should I have to pay for it? Shouldn’t something like this be free?
You should pay for it because it’s serious, valuable and important to you. If a plant medicine experience doesn’t evoke those feelings for you, then you may want to reconsider if you’re doing it for solid reasons, put it on hold, and return to it when you’re ready to do it with proper intention.
It’s complete fodder that ‘traditional’ Shamans work for free. They’ve always been compensated, or, held other types of jobs in addition to their role as Shaman. Without going too far into it, just know that the Shaman does more than their fair share of work for the entire ceremony, before and after. You should absolutely fairly compensate a Shaman for their time and effort.
What’s the difference between San Pedro and Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is capable of taking you places whether you want to go there or not; San Pedro seems a gentler plant to ‘work’ with, in the sense that you move in and out of control.
What’s Entheogens and Psychedelics Integration?
The definition refers to the process by which the material accessed and insights gained in an entheogenic experience are incorporated over time into one’s life in a way that benefits the individual and their community.
Does the Shaman you do it with matter?
How to find a Shaman?
If at all possible, don’t search for your Shaman; let the Shaman find you.
Does doing it with intention matter?
Yes, the deeper my respect and love for the plant has deepened, so have my ceremonies. An intention is hugely important.
How have Shamanic plant medicines helped you?
How about changing my life.
For me, it helped me develop on too many levels to describe. Probably most importantly, it’s helped me gain of sense of internal power, self-value, better self-esteem. It’s helped me become a better partner, friend, and person.
Are there any dangers?
Yes, of course, there are. That’s why it’s deeply important to choose a Shaman with integrity.
I don’t feel qualified to fully answer this as I’m a Shamanic Practitioner, not a Shaman. You should always consult with a Shaman and tell them of any pre-existing health issues before going into a plant medicine ceremony.
Will I get sick/vomit/have diarrhea?
Every plant medicine is different. Some, like San Pedro, have milder physical side effects. Normally this would look like intermittent nausea, headaches, dizziness or a light-headed feeling. In nearly 10 ceremonies I’ve only known one person to vomit, and it was more of a gagging than projectile vomiting.
Ayahuasca is well-known for its ‘purgative’ nature. Apparently, some people experience that through vomiting, and some others through diarrhea. I’ve heard that similar side effects exist with Peyote and Iboga; as I haven’t done either, I cannot say what the physical side effects are. You should always consult the Shaman about all possible reactions before the ceremony.
Is Ayahuasca the female spirit, and San Pedro the male spirit?
All plants are female because they’re all from Mother Earth.
Visionary plant medicine is a term that describes the group of entheogenic “teacher” plants used first in traditional societies throughout the world to promote wellbeing and healing at individual and community levels. This group includes ayahuasca, huachuma, iboga, peyote, and psychedelic mushrooms.
A chemical substance, typically of plant origin, that is ingested to produce a nonordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.