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  • Mysterium Tremendum, Part 1: Approaching Plant Medicine

    Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

     William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience


    (Here's the soundtrack to this post.)

    Somewhere out there in the ether floats an episode of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki; it’s called The Jungle Prescription, and it follows Gabor Mate, a Vancouver physician, addictions specialist and noted author, into his work with ayahuasca, a primordial plant medicine traditionally used for multifarious purposes, including the treatment of addiction and the often co-occurring afflictions of anxiety and depression. Mate’s work in the downtown East side of Vancouver, a neighborhood with one of the world’s most concentrated demographics of drug addicts in the world, is encouraging, and as one of the most celebrated thinkers in the field of addiction and drug policy, his conclusions on the usefulness, efficacy and long-term benefits of traditional plant medicines is not just valuable, but sorely needed at a time when an alarming number of people suffer from addiction—not just addiction to substances, but to self-defeating patterns of thought. 


    In recovery from alcoholism and addiction it is often said those who cannot or will not recover possess a constitutional inability to be honest with themselves. Honest self-appraisal is a tough attribute to come by at any point in life, but particularly in active addiction and early recovery because the brain circuitry is in such a chemical and perceptual imbroglio through prolonged substance abuse, poor diet, chronic negative thought patterns and lack of self-esteem, self-awareness and self-love. The addict is incapable of piercing the nature of his addiction with his own self-sabotaging mind; if the brain was a bus, it has been hijacked by the addiction. Thus, the addict is not driving his own bus, but just about everybody in the addict’s life, himself included, assumes he is; what this means in practical terms is that the person we see on the outside is not controlling some of his own thoughts, words and behaviours. Stuck in this pattern of use, the subtle but illuminating truth of his own powerlessness, at a neural level, in the face of the substance in which the focus of addictive patterns has manifested, remains elusive. 


    As an alcoholic, I understand how the repetition of self-defeating actions and words of the addict are steeped in denial and ignorance. The insanity of our own mental make-up has kept us ingesting alcohol and/or drugs repeatedly over a prolonged period of time, despite catastrophic consequences; in active addiction we stop at nothing to drink and use, even though these substances are very things that are killing us.

    The grace that comes in early recovery is a tapas (from the Sanskrit), a burning desire, astrong determination to achieve, at any cost, sobriety—due principally to what is generally described as a moment of clarity. This moment is sometimes born through a grace-induced insight, but more often than not it is crystalized from the consequence of some combination of public humiliation and deep personal shame. This marks the first of many perceptual shifts along the path of recovery. 

    Sages of all stripes have long held that sense gratification should be balanced in such a way that it doesn’t control an aspirant’s life. The illusion of separateness—from not just each other but the rest of existence—is part of mistaking oneself for the body/mind; in our world of illusion and delusion, we have misconstrued our perceptions in this very limited plane of existence for reality in totality. We really don’t know what’s going on, and most of the time our ignorance, judgement and denial prevents us from recognizing this.

    The two elements in the shamanic traditions that pose the most direct and radical challenge to the accepted Western worldview are the existence of multiple worlds or realms of consciousness, and the reality of spirit beings. Such conceptions are considered completely beyond the pale of both reason and science within the mindset of the modern world. However, for the many thousands of explorers from North America and Europe who have used hallucinogenic plants, including ayahuasca, as a shamanic tool for serious consciousness exploration, the recognition of multiple worlds and the reality of spirit beings is becoming quite common.

    Ralph Metzner

    It has been drilled into me through my own recovery journey that any substance which can alter perception is a drug that is no good for me; this position categorically rejects much wisdom and can ultimately be quite limiting as a healing modality. And yet, and yet...while I understood these limitations as potential blockages to greater awareness and growth, they were persistent and clearly deeply-rooted in my psyche. 


    When I arrived in Cusco, Peru for Shamanic Yoga training, I had no way of comprehending that ayahuasca meets you exactly where you are at. But I very soon would, and the experience I had wasn’t, strictly speaking, from here



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