From Enlightenment to Disillusionment to Wholeness
Quick fixes are spiritual myths.
The unfolding and unwinding of our soul “knots” is a lifelong journey, replete with the sometimes maddening, chaotic, and terrifying moments along the way.
I wish there was a quick fix, personally, as I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life healing, growing, and becoming more of my essential self.
I turned to visionary plant medicine and entheogens shortly after finishing a doctorate in transpersonal psychology in California. I felt intuitively that there was just something that I was missing — some part of myself that I could not access but that was essential to my healing. I had no idea what It was, but I knew I had been dancing around It for some years.
And, perhaps after years of therapy, spiritual practices, workshops, etc, it was time to bring in a psychospiritual crowbar. At least, that was my thought process back then.
That thought process led to 4 years of intensive ceremony work, including a wild and horrifying multi-year misadventure with a charlatan shaman, being completely seduced and assimilated with the vegetal world, working as a psilocybin guide, many beautiful, revelatory experiences, and, finally, a dose of iboga that revealed what I had been searching for all of those years.
In those 4 years of intensity, I pushed my physical body to a breaking point, and I had to come to a deep personal reckoning of what it meant for me to be healthy, grounded, and of service to the world.
Reaching my breaking point meant that I was forced to see my own need to integrate my work with sacred plant medicine.
I was forced to see that I had been seduced by this world of visionary plant ceremony and had lost myself to its way of being. I had given up my own essence subtly to join this world of mystery, magic, and expansion, and I took on this world’s identity as my own.
What you will read next are some of the fruits of those labors of chaos, madness and beauty.
After 2 years of steady integration, I’m offering you some of what has helped me find the balance between the healing opportunity made available with visionary plant medicine and what we need to do to fully embrace that opportunity.
So, what is visionary plant medicine integration?
Visionary plant medicine integration is the process by which a visionary plant medicine practitioner is transformed by the teachings, visions, and experiences from visionary plant medicine experiences and incorporates those changes into daily life. Visionary plant medicine integration can often necessitate attending to traumas to release them fully; understanding the manifestations of ego in one’s day-to-day experience; and, practicing new ways of thinking, conceptualizing, and being that are in alignment with wisdom teachings.
What You Need to Know about Visionary Plant Medicine Practice
- Deep Personal Change is Challenging (Even With Plant Teachers)
Releasing old patterns means that something has to die and be reborn. We all have this place inside of us that recoils at the thought of death and dying. The ego hates any end to its continuity and will do anything to persist, even if it means resorting to self-destructive or other-destructive behavior.
The ego serves us deeply by being able to give us a sense of personhood in the world and pull together a teeming mass of impulses, thoughts, emotions, and sensations and give us a moderately coherent sense of “I” with which to face the world. In this sense, the ego is very important and helps us function in the everyday world.
Beyond that rudimentary sense of I, however, is a hodgepodge collection of habits of mind, body, and feelings. If our early life was unsupportive or unhealthy in any way, the ego had to develop a work around to get us through until we reached a time and place where we are strong enough to reconstruct ourselves in a healthier way.
With significant, deep, early, and/or chronic traumas, the workarounds we develop are wired in tightly into the oldest parts of our ego and often go unchallenged for much of our lives, even if they are self-destructive or profoundly unhealthy. These workarounds become deeply embedded patterns that play on repeat over and over again.
Many never reach a place in their lives where they are secure enough to face these deep patterns head on. Not being able to face these patterns head on occurs often because the right kind of support doesn’t become available and so life continues as best it can while colliding with the unhealthy pattern over and over again. Not turning towards these patterns is hampered by our social milieu.
Our current Western social structures also often reinforce habits of turning away from our deeper patterns through the pressures of modern stress, lack of education regarding emotional and psychological health, and the discounting of the importance of such work as well as through the incredible amount of distraction our information age offers.
The challenge to the ego is simple: These patterns provide a continuity of self. The ego literally is able to recognize itself by experiencing these patterns repeating. Physiologically speaking even, the body rewards the pattern repeating with a nice hit of dopamine, putting even more reinforcement behind the pattern itself. When the ego sees the pattern happening, it says, “Hey that’s me. I exist.” And, the ego wants to exist. When the ego feels like it doesn’t exist, it becomes disturbed. Psychologically speaking this could look like psychosis and/or feel like one is losing their mind and all touch with reality or this could feel like existential discomfort.
So, it does not matter that the egoic house of cards is built on a shoddy foundation. The ego much prefers to continue to stack the cards up than replacing the foundation. Replacing the rotted foundation is equated to death, and death is perceived as highly threatening.
This dynamic in the ego proves to be the most challenging aspect of moving into healthy patterns and letting go of that in our lives that which is generally not serving us. Letting go of those patterns means throwing our ego into what it sees as the arms of death. It also means losing that physiological dopamine-reward-carrot and can even mean feeling withdrawal from the old, self-destructive pattern. What this means is that we have to be strong enough when we want to change for the better.
A sacred plant teacher can show you the patterns — their points of origination and how they constellate in your life — but the work of repatterning has to be done in the here and now, in your day-to-day life, and that takes time, discipline, and good support. Entirely new neural pathways have to be created and used over and over again for these changes to occur!
2. You Cannot Blast Yourself into a Healed State
(In other words, repeated peak experiences do not equal healing.)
Spiritual bypassing is an idea coined by John Welwood that refers to the “use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs” (Masters, 2010, p. 1). As you can imagine, most of us want to find a way not to feel our pain. If we are spiritual seekers, we may find a very clever strategy to avoid and numb our pain through the use of spiritual practices.
While spiritual bypassing has many forms, the most popular forms for visionary plant medicine users likely include delusions of having arrived at a more advanced level of being, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and overemphasis on the positive (Masters, 2010).
As Masters (2010) so aptly writes, “True spirituality is not a high, not a rush, not an altered state. . . . Authentic spirituality is a vast fire of liberation, an exquisitely fitting crucible and sanctuary, providing both heat and light for the healing we need” (p. 3).
The importance of psychological and emotional healing cannot be overstated. For the most part, psychological and emotional issues cannot be worked out with spiritual practice alone. No amount of meditating is going to completely resolve your strained relationships with your family of origin, for example.
The key to spiritual bypassing seems to be the desire to avoid pain and suffering and attempting to use spiritual practice to do so.
A mature view of spirituality means “no escape, no need for escape, and utter freedom through limitation and every sort of difficulty” (Masters, 2010, p. 42). Steering our ship right into the heart of our pain means engaging in shadow work, defined by Masters (2010) as “the practice of acknowledging, facing, engaging, and integrating what we have turned away from, disowned, or otherwise rejected in ourselves” (p. 43).
One of the motivations for visionary plant medicine use that I hear and read of frequently is the desire to fast track spiritual growth and/or healing. The idea is that one can reach the same state as someone who has meditated for 40 years, for example, in a single evening. Why sit in meditation for decades when a plant teacher can take you there in a matter of minutes or hours? The rationale seems logical on its face, especially when a number of indigenous traditions have used these technologies for hundreds of years, if not longer.
Unfortunately, visiting a state of “enlightenment” for a few minutes or hours is “akin to saying that we have reached the top of Mount Everest when in fact we’ve just been comfortably helicoptered there for a brief, well-insulated landing. Not having taken the climb, and thus not engaged in any of the lessons of such a challenging trek, leaves us far less capable of appreciating where we are than if we had actually made the climb. Theoretically we may have arrived, but with so little of ourselves actually there, we cannot call it a true arrival” (Masters, 2010, p. 39).
Trying to take shortcuts only prolongs the process of true psychospiritual healing and development. At a certain point of understanding, you realize that time is basically irrelevant. The process takes as long as it takes, and there is no value judgment placed on the time taken. When we get really real with ourselves and our desire to shortcut, we usually undercover a desire to avoid or limit pain felt. When we can relax into the knowing that taking steps forward and into our shadow is all that is required, the path becomes simple — not easy but simple nonetheless.
3. Your Native/Mestizo Shaman Doesn’t Always Know How to Help You
It is important to understand that traditional forms of visionary plant use by mestizo and indigenous populations often had different goals in mind than Western (or Northern American) practitioners do. Psilocybe mushrooms, for example, were used for physical maladies such as fever, chills, acne, and toothache along with cultural-bound syndromes including soul loss, witchcraft, and hexes (Winkelman, 2007).
Westerners most often seek help with spiritual development, emotional healing and unresolved trauma, connecting with the sacred, and personal awareness development. Westerners assume that they will gain “increased self awareness, personal insights, and access to deeper levels of the self that enhanced personal development and expressions of the higher self, providing direction in life” (Winkelman, 2007, pp. 163–64).
As Labate et al., (2014) writes,
“Grassroots Amazonian shamans have to contend with an uneasy transition from traditional ayahuasca shamanism, including divination, sorcery, and curing sorcery-inflicted wounds, to using ayahuasca for self-exploration and to cater to Westerner’s hopes of healing both physical and emotional ailments. Simultaneously, they are involved, either directly or indirectly, in local interethnic exchanges among indigenous groups” (p. 8).
With these two very different goals in mind, we can understand why the process of use by indigenous/mestizo populations could be very different from that of the Westerner (Losonczy & Cappo, 2014). These differing goals and radically different settings and cultural contexts would seem to necessitate different ways of working with these medicines effectively.
I argue that the Western practitioner cannot effectively adopt the visionary plant medicine practices of native/mestizo tribes without modification. Our lifestyles, cultural contexts, social conditioning, needs, histories, mentality, and goals for use are simply too divergent. Westerners need competent cultural meditators to help them translate the work of the plants with their goals for healing.
4. The Seduction is Real.
And I know because I lived it.
I see many people becoming assimilated into the vegetal world. They go from ceremony to ceremony, as often as twice a month or more. Their lives become completely wrapped up in the worlds of ayahuasca or San Pedro, et cetera, and they move farther and farther away from realizing that they have, perhaps, become lost in a world made to visit but not to inhabit.
Assimilation by the vegetal world is common. The plants have a strong desire for you to be a part of their world. Without realizing it, part of your psyche can begin to think that it is a plant. This confusion can propel you unconsciously to continue your visionary plant medicine activity without questioning frequency of use and/or whether you are integrating the teachings and visions you have received.
I was fortunate that I had three separate healers that I trusted reflect back to me that I had become assimilated into the vegetal world. One healer had to remind my body consciousness that it was not a plant. Another healer reminded my mind that the vegetal world was only one of several levels of consciousness to master. And, the third confirmed for me that the plants do possess these assimilation qualities.
Another strong aspect of seduction into visionary plant medicine circles is the strong desire humans have for connection, love, and belonging. These topics have been written about widely. Abraham Maslow (Daniels, 2013) strongly identified these needs as part of his famous hierarchy of needs popularized through the humanistic school of psychology. More recently, social work researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown (2012, 2015) deeply explores these needs as part of the essential fabric of humanity and our sense of wholeness.
The tribal nature of most ceremonies uses a set and setting that we are deeply familiar with on a base human level and one that is profoundly appealing to a Western psyche (Walsh & Grob, 2007). As one of my teachers Malidoma Patrice Some said, we know it in our bones. Being outdoors, sitting in a circle, being in a group, joined in the middle with a fire, flanked by an altar, and serenaded by music calls us back to a time when we all lived in tribes, close to the earth and the elements, and in communion with our surroundings.
A challenge for the modern psyche is that while the tribal perspective is deeply appealing, “we must not idealize it” (Goldsmith, 2007, p. 125). The tribal perspective is not more evolved than our modern one.
My experience of visionary plant medicine practice was a deep awakening to a feeling of connection, love, and belonging that was aided by the tribal set and setting but that also went beyond it. Longing for this ancient familiarity can be deep, especially when we lack a deep feeling of love, belonging, and connection in our own day-to-day lives. If we lack these feelings, we can find ourselves returning to visionary plant medicine not because we need it for our growth and/or healing, but because it is temporarily filling a void we have and/or helping us “take the edge off” of the pain we feel regularly. To know whether your visionary plant medicine practice is temporarily filling a void or helping you heal requires a deep level of discernment and, often, outside expert guidance.
5. Taking Personal Responsibility Means Doing the Work of Integration
If there was a teaching I received over and over again, it was the plant teachers’ insistence on me taking personal responsibility for my life and for finally growing up.
While there was always another invitation to a ceremony that held the promise of putting another dent in my work of healing, the truth was, I needed to hear the teaching of the plants that said the more important work was outside of ceremony.
I needed to get my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing on track, and I could not even know what the baselines were on those fronts were until I got off the ride and let myself reground.
Turning away from the ceremonial work was painful, and I grieved the loss of that community, but the call to integration and living the teachings of the plants in my daily life was more powerful. That call felt more true to my own sense of integrity.
I remembered that before I began in this visionary plant world that my deepest call was towards wholeness.
That call towards wholeness and the guidance for it did not reside in the teaching of the plants: It resided in the deepest parts of my own being.
And so I took responsibility for myself again by attuning to what I felt was needed for my own integration. My integration has looked like a deep physical detox to help my brain and body reground; long-term intensive work with an energetic healer to clear deep rooted karmic patterns and psychic attack; and, psychotherapy and trauma release work to attend to the trauma that iboga revealed. I also had to change the entire focus of my private practice to stay in my own integrity. Throughout it all, I processed deeply with trusted friends and soul family, spent time in nature, and made my life anew.
Integrating has been humbling. It also has brought me back to a depth of grounding that I had never had before. And, perhaps because of it, Spirit has blessed me with a child and the opportunity to be a mother and the ground for a new soul coming into the world.
Many blessings to you in your journey!
Much of this article is taken from my new guidebook on integration, After the Ceremony Ends: A Companion Guide to Help You Integrate Visionary Plant Medicine Experiences, which is now for sale on Amazon. If you are interested to know more, you are welcome to reach out to me.
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