The use of psychoactive substances for healing, transformation and spiritual unfoldment is a phenomena that has been with us since the dawn of man. In a way you could say a culture is reflected in its choice of substances with the west being very much an alcohol, caffeine and nicotine culture (its all about uppers and downers). These are the approved and even promoted substances but there has always been a minority who experiment with substances that society does not endorse. There is a growing movement to have marijuana more accepted as a medicine and to legalize it for recreational use while it is already the most mainstream of the unapproved substances. Its medicinal and healing properties cannot be denied anymore than one can deny its potential for abuse.

Beyond marijuana, psychedelics (and similar substances) have made a comeback in the last decade since their initial widespread use in the 60s and 70s but this time they have emerged along with an interest in indigenous medicine and shamanism. Many people engage in the use of mind altering substances now with the stated intention of healing and transformation rather that just having fun (although thats obviously still in there for many). I have used many of todays most well known substances myself on my spiritual path and as an aid to healing and releasing old wounds as well as expanding my perception. The most striking thing about the plant medicines in use today is their sheer power, the intensity of which opens up the psyche bringing non-ordinary states of consciousness as well as material from deep within the unconscious mind to the surface. This can be very powerful spiritually in helping us directly experience the dream-like nature of reality and realize that there is much more to the universe than we usually experience. The power of these tools in opening up the unconscious and helping us break old patterns, heal old wounds, release stagnant energy and purify our minds and bodies is also mind boggling.

Much has been written on the benefits of shamanic tools such as Ayahuasca, Iboga, Mushrooms and Peyote and I am certainly no expert in this area in any way although I have taken part in many of these things with some beneficial results. However what I’m beginning to see is the shadow side of the neo-shamanic movement as I call it and it concerns me because of the power of these medicines and the lack of preparation of so many who commune with them. Like many things that become popular in alternative circles there is a very fad-like surface quality to much of what passes for shamanic practice in this country. Doing Ayahausca or smoking DMT is the cool thing to do to be in the in-crowd and those that haven’t done them can be looked down on for not being in the know. This can and does create peer pressure to try them which can be very damaging for people who are not prepared for it and/or don’t have the proper guidance or support. Many of the people leading shamanic medicine ceremonies and who call themselves shamans have quite questionable credentials if you ask me. This is further complicated and distorted by the fact that in the west there is a substantial profit motive involved as people might pay thousands of dollars to take part in some ceremonies.

When you seriously study the shamanism of indigenous cultures you quickly realize two things. One is that power plants were only one part of the overall training and practice of a shaman. The other is that in most cultures the use of power plants was considered very sacred and not open to everyone, shamans would need to undergo many years of practice and apprenticeship before being initiated into them. In the west we have none of the culturally based mechanisms for the use of power plants which developed in the old cultures over many generations. A larger issue with our western culture is the quick fix or shortcut mentality which has been conditioned into us by mainstream medicine. This is most easily reflected in the way people pop all sorts of pills to effect an immediate (usually unsustainable) change in their consciousness whether to relieve pain or to enter into expanded awareness. Since the states produced by so called drugs are not sustainable you end up with addiction as people must continually consume the substance as they chase after the state. This is an incredibly dysfunctional relationship with medicine but is very effective if the motive is profit and an addicted society that is easy to control.

However this mentality can also involve going on an Ayahausca retreat to dredge up our ‘stuff’ in the hope that we can quickly be free of it. I’m seeing people woefully unprepared for the result of that and all too often suffering the consequences of too quickly having more to integrate that they are capable of handling. Occult literature has long warned of the dangers of opening oneself to higher planes of experience before one has been properly prepared and these warnings were not offered for no reason. We ingest a substance and enter into realms of which we have no understanding and therefore are unable to protect ourselves from energies and beings we encounter there. Even when it comes to blissful experiences of oneness and interconnection, it is all too easy to become attached to those experiences which usually leads to frustration when the experiences are not able to be sustained. The quick fix mentality may have found its latest expression in those that believe they can find a shortcut to freedom, well being and awakening through shamanic medicines.

My concern is that we could be breeding a new form of addiction because I’ve seen so many people who just can’t seem to get enough of powerful plant medicine, going to ceremony after ceremony and trying numerous medicines with very little time to integrate the experience or what it brings up. There appears to be a potential self destructive tendency in some of this or even an addiction to the intensity and often painful experiences that can result. The question I usually want to ask is, are you sure you are healing or are you simply traumatizing yourself? The way these medicines are being used in the west today is very far removed from how the old cultures used them. When it comes to seeking expanded consciousness or mystical experience I think there is a need to honestly look at the motivation there as well. The escape mentality is so prevalent in our culture that people will do almost anything for a novel experience that frees them from the monotony they experience as the present moment (quite an irony).

My intention here is to call out some of the shadowy more dysfunctional aspects of the neo-shamanic movement but it is not to suggest this movement is a bad thing. These plants have been used for centuries for a reason and our wise brothers and sisters of the old cultures discovered their power and how to wisely put it to use. If we want to address the destructive side of this we will in my opinion need to do the work and let go of being in such a hurry to have the latest ‘experience’. The work of establishing a new shamanism that is compatible with our own culture because spiritualities from other cultures have to be assimilated and made a part of the receiving culture to be effective in the long term. We need to vastly expand the context of the use of power plants to involve rites of passage, proper training and apprenticeship, practices to integrate the experiences and community support provided by people who are truly prepared and genuinely motivated to provide that support. I also believe we need to develop our own relationships with plants that are a part of our local environment rather than importing medicines from far away places. The land and local environment was very important to the old shamans and it is from a deep profound relationship with the land and spirits that they received the power plants and wisdom to use them wisely. If we are willing to take the time and put the energy into it we can create that same relationship with our local environment and allow the Earth Mother to guide us to the plants we’re most naturally meant to work with rather than importing them from a foreign place. It would also protect indigenous peoples from more hoards of meaning starved westerners from invading their land and taking their medicine while leaving little behind once the fad has run its course. If we as a culture are not willing to put this kind of time, energy and commitment into developing our own shamanism I doubt the overall impact of this movement will turn out positive because this is ultimately revealing of the true underlying intentions.

We live in a time of unprecedented availability of wisdom, spiritual teachings and healing modalities. The question for each of us is, will we choose wisely and consciously and sustainably? In my view shamanic medicines can be incredible tools for healing and aids to expanded awareness if they are seen as merely tools. The irony in all this is that our freedom and divine nature is right here right now in the present moment just as it is and ultimately we need nothing outside ourselves to realize it. All the tools used on the journey must at some point be put down lest they become yet another prison.