Stop Bashing Barberry

Barberry is a recent target in the “fight” against invasive plants. Barberry (Berberis) is a low growing, spiny shrub with pretty red foliage in the fall accompanied by bright red berries. Landscapers and botanists love to hate this plant. I would like to offer several reasons to love Barberry.

Why So Many Barberry Haters?

Barberry comes in several species:

  • European Barberry Berberis vulgaris:  A native European shrub introduced to the US as a landscape plant, now considered invasive
  • American Barberry Berberis canadensis: Our “native” Barberry, currently on the “imperiled” list, and protected in some states
  • Japanese Barberry Berberis thunbergii: The most common and frequently encountered Barberry and the one that gets the most hate

…along with a few others. I am focusing on the three listed above because of their berberine content, which is my main reason for loving Barberry.

But that comes later. First, more about Japanese Barberry. This is the species of Barberry that has recently garnered so much attention as an invasive plant that needs eradication.  It is native to Asia and was first brought to the US in 1864 as a landscape plant. It is still widely planted as an ornamental. Its spines make it a great privacy hedge.

Barberry shrub

Japanese Barberry is now listed as an invasive in many states and is said to force out native plant species with its aggressive growth habit. The plant is spread by animals who eat the Barberry fruit and spread the seeds through excrement.

Recently, the plant was also named as a breeding ground for ticks. In a recent study, Japanese Barberry was cited as creating “a perfect, humid environment for ticks.” The report further states “When we measure the presence of carrying the Lyme spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi) we find 120 infected ticks where Barberry is not contained, 40 ticks per acre where Barberry is contained, and only 10 infected ticks where there is no Barberry.”

An eradication campaign has begun, using propane torches to burn Japanese Barberry from “native” landscapes.

Is this enough reason to despise and eradicate Japanese Barberry from “our” part of the world?

Thoughts on “Invasives”

I am an herbalist. I love plants. I talk to plants and learn from plants. After many years of admiration, study, and use of medicinal plants I have a deep connection with plants and the Earth.

In short, I trust the Earth and the plants on her. I think that classifying a plant as “invasive” is purely a human construct. Part of our human-centric viewpoint of the planet that is not accurate or beneficial.

The most invasive species on the planet is US- humans. We have spread to every corner of the globe, and we are taking over the Earth as if it is ours. The Earth is a living entity that is not owned by any one species- it is by her grace that we are allowed to share her space and her resources.

OK, enough of that for now. Let me offer you another way of looking at Barberry, and other “invasives,”that may offer a different perspective. Ever hear of Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)? If you are at all “crunchy” or “green” you probably have. Goldenseal is a plant that is native to North America and has been used by native people of this continent for hundreds of years as a potent antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer herb.

goldenseal
Goldenseal

Goldenseal has been overharvested and is on the endangered species list in the U.S. and Canada. In my apothecary, Goldenseal was my go-to plant for any sort of bacterial infection, and my clients and I find it highly effective. I used Goldenseal for:

  • Upper respiratory infection (sinus infection)
  • Bacterial infection of the lower respiratory system
  • Infection of the throat (tonsillitis)
  • UTI
  • Topically to prevent infection of wounds

I still keep Goldenseal in the La Loba Community Apothecary for times when other herbs don’t work, or as a small part of a formula. But Goldenseal has become extremely expensive, and because it is endangered, herbalists like me are looking for alternatives.

This brings us right back to Barberry. Plants in the Berberis genus contain berberine and hydrastine- the same effective chemicals in Goldenseal. With Goldenseal all but gone, we need another option for berberine-containing plants… see where I am going with this?

Japanese Barberry is very hardy. It is hard to kill, and if we stop torching it, hard to eradicate. What if Barberry is abundant JUST BECAUSE there is no longer Goldenseal to fight bacteria? We need plant antimicrobials, especially considering how antibiotic resistant some bacteria have become.

A little further on in this blog, I will also show you how berberine is being studied as an anti-obesity chemical. Obesity is nearly epidemic in the U.S.- another reason for the indestructible Japanese Barberry to make its way to our continent?

Is Barberry “invasive” and needing to be eradicated? Or is it here due to a deeper wisdom that transcends our human-centric views of the planet? Something to ponder. I do.

processing Barberry root
Processing Barberry root

Barberry As Medicine

Two species of Barberry (B. vulgaris & B. thunbergii)  have been studied as a possible substitute for Goldenseal. The Journal of Pharmaceutical Biology did a 2008 study that compared the plant alkaloids of Goldenseal, Japanese Barberry, and European Barberry.

Overall, while Goldenseal had more than twice the alkaloids of any Barberry species, Japanese Barberry had more of these antibiotic plant extracts than European Barberry.

“In conclusion, these results suggest that Berberis thunbergii
is a potential substitute for goldenseal with respect to
its berberine content and in-vitro antibacterial activity”

Since the primary concentration of berberine is found in the roots of the plant, using Japanese Barberry root for medicine would, in effect, control it’s growth and spread.

Berberine Potential Uses

So why care about Goldenseal, Barberry or berberine anyway? Berberine has now been studied in hundreds of clinical trials, and the potential uses are highly impressive.

In December 2012, the Natural Medicine Journal published an abstract called “Clinical Applications for Berberine,” which includes links to dozens of studies on berberine’s therapeutic uses. Here are a few potential uses of berberine:

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Antimicrobial against bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Increses bile secretion (improving digestion)
  • Wide range of GI infections
a bowl of barberry root
a Bowl of Barberry root

Berberine and Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a very common complaint in our overweight and obese culture. Metabolic syndrome includes:

  • Insulin resistance: the body produces insulin that is not properly burned as fuel by the body; but is often stored as fat
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Abdominal obesity (belly fat)

Sound familiar? It should. Metabolic syndrome affects up to 30% of our population; primarily those who are obese. Metabolic syndrome results in heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver, PCOS and more.

Metabolic syndrome is thought to be caused primarily by:

  • Smoking
  • Eating a high carbohydrate diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Here is where berberine (and Japanese Barberry) might come to the rescue. Studies have shown that berberine is one of the few alkaloids that activates AMPK, an enzyme that determines how energy is used in our bodies. Metabolic syndrome happens when AMPK enzyme production gets switched off. It turns out that high glucose levels (eating a high carb diet) initially inhibits AMPK enzyme production.

Research is suggesting that switching back on our AMPK enzymes might produce the same benefits as dieting and exercise. And-you guessed it- berberine is one of the few chemicals that activate AMPK. Berberine decreases insulin resistance and thereby stimulates weight loss. Go figure.

Berberine and Cancer

Maintaining a healthy weight and getting exercise each day is a way to avoid getting cancer. Berberine also inhibits the growth and spread of cancer cells. There are dozens of studies taking a closer look at the potential of berberine as a cancer prevention and treatment.

barberry
Barberry fruit

Reasons to Love Barberry

Sometimes I am confounded by the human need to exert control over everything, and I include myself here. Instead of rushing to negative conclusions about the invasive nature of any plant, perhaps we could instead ask “why?”

If we live with the concept that there are no accidents, then things start to make a little more sense. When we trust that our great Earth is alive and aware, our perspective can shift. When our perspective shifts from dominating to belonging, we feel the urge to protect our sweet home planet. What a wonderful domino effect.

We practically eradicated wild Goldenseal with its amazing berberine content. Nature brought us some berberine that is harder to kill- Japanese Barberry. This seems similar to taking away a glass from a toddler and replacing it with an unbreakable sippy-cup.

In my Plant Wisdom series, Herbalism for Home and Homestead, I teach people a new way of seeing the Plant Nation. Weeds become medicine. Invasives become gifts from our tolerant Earth mother. Our urge to resist softens, and we become part of our ecosystem again.

Next time you come across a Japanese Barberry, perhaps you can resist the urge to hate it, to kill it. Instead, dig up a root and scratch off the top, thin layer of bark. You will find gold just under the surface of the roots. Come join me for some classes, and see how to learn to love Barberry.

 

A Natural, Non-Toxic Treatment for ANT Control

The ANTS are marching one by one…

Actually, this year there seem to be THOUSANDS of ants… Everywhere! Typically, I note a few of the tiny ants in early Spring, and I simply spray my natural, botanical insecticide over my counter tops and around doorways. This usually handles the problem. This year there are so many ants- tiny and huge- that I find them crawling up my arms at times! One night while reading in bed, a large carpenter ant was exploring the bedspread. Ugh.

Time to pull out the big guns. I am a “live and let live” kinda gal for the most part. However, this many ants must be dealt with. We can control ants without expensive visits from the exterminator and his toxic chemicals. Here is the strategy: (Please follow the LINKS provided to purchase your items from Amazon)

  1. Sweep or vacuum your floors and wipe down your counter tops. Vacuum around window sills. Then, mix up some non-toxic ant repellent cleaners for your home, as follows:
  2. Floors: If you have vinyl floors, try a simple solution of 1 cup white vinegar per gallon of warm water. This will clean your floors well without leaving toxins that may effect your kids and pets. You can add a squirt of Dawn dish detergent per gallon if your floors are really dirty. Just a squirt- a teaspoon or so- so it’s not too sudsy. Now, ADD TWO TEASPOONS per gallon of vinegar/water mix of YOUR CHOICE of any these essential oils- choose by your preferred scent. Orange, Cinnamon, Cedar or Peppermint. These essential oils are very repellent to ants and other crawling insects. Stir it all up well and mop your swept floors. Let dry- do NOT rinse. Got wood floors??? Try using Murphy’s Oil Soap instead of vinegar. Follow the directions to mix a gallon, then add the essential oil and mop as directed above.
  3. Counter tops, Window Sills: Mix up some DILUTED Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap: 1/4 cup into a 1 QT spray bottle. To this, add 1/4 tsp of whatever essential oil you bought above. Mix gently and use this to spray your counter tops and window sills. You can actually use this all over the house, except on glass. This is not only insect repellent, it is effective against bacteria too!
  4. NOW for the final step! Prepare a NATURAL and EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE ant bait. The ants will flock to this, eat it up, and take it back to their nest. This will kill the entire nest, although it may take a few days. Mix 1/2 cup of BORIC ACID, 1 cup of SUGAR and enough water to make a liquid- about three cups. Use warm water and mix well until completely dissolved. Place this mixture directly in the path of ants or in areas you have found a great concentration of ants. DO NOT PLACE THIS WHERE PETS OR KIDS MIGHT EAT IT! It is WAY less toxic than most insecticides, but not for internal use. Use a small bottle top from a milk jug or the lid of a mason jar (seen below). Alternatively, you can soak cotton balls and place them around sills and counters.
dav

Take a look at this photo that I took recently. The ants are COMPLETELY ignoring the commercial ant trap. This trail of ants ate from the lid filled with the boric acid/sugar mix (see above) for three days and then disappeared. The ants take the mixture back to their nests, and feed it to their young. This eradicates the ants that have been visiting your home, at least until a new colony moves in.

One more bit of info for you- SOME ants prefer fat to sugar. If your ants are ignoring the sugar/boric acid mixture, you can try this instead. Mix equal parts of boric acid and softened butter. This makes a kind of dough. If the dough is too mushy, add more boric acid powder until you can make little dough balls. Place these dough balls in the path of the ants. This also works VERY well against cockroaches and other fat eating pests.

Best of luck to you- and thank you for staying non-toxic!

Avoiding Lyme Disease

My dear friends…
Lyme disease has become a very serious problem in our area. People and their pets are at VERY HIGH RISK for contracting Lyme in our region. The CDC has an excellent page for Lyme statistics: www.cdc.gov/lyme/stats/maps.html  Here is a quote from the CDC website on Lyme disease:

Results of these [recent] studies suggest that the number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the United States is around 300,000. Notably, these estimates do not affect our understanding of the geographic distribution of Lyme disease. Lyme disease cases are concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest, with 14 states accounting for over 96% of cases reported to CDC. The results obtained using the new estimation methods mirror the geographic distribution of cases that is shown by national surveillance.

Tick bite showing Lyme rash

If you are here browsing my page, I assume you are a crunchy type- natural, outdoorsy and self sufficient. For years now I have been offering an organic, essential oil based insecticide (now called Tick Armor, previously named Botanical Bug Spray) that has a lab rating of 99% effective as a repellent and 85% effective as an insecticide (kill). This formula is tested as safe for dogs and horses. THIS formula is more effective than your home-brew because the BASE is non-alcohol, non-evaporating and therefore long lasting. It is natural, silica based.

A harmful trio (from left): a deer tick, lone star tick and dog tick.

I have also had available an essential oil mix formulated and rated by various renown herbalists as 99% effective as a repellent (previously named Ecophile Essentials) It is NOT tested yet on animals, nor is it scientifically lab tested, but is rated by thousands of users as extremely effective at repelling all biting insects. However, it is in an alcohol base- not very long lasting, and needs to be reapplied often.

In the next few weeks, I will be COMBINING the two formulas into a very strong, long lasting insecticide and repellent. It will be called Bug Barrier and will be effective at both repelling and killing biting bugs. This includes all the tick species that carry Borrelia (Lyme). This formula is endorsed by one of our herbal greats- Stephen Buhner, author of “Healing Lyme“.

I will still keep Tick Armor in stock along with the Bug Barrier… because the Bug Barrier will be expensive. It includes dozens of the best insecticidal essential oils from all over our Earth, including some I have to order from Europe. However, I assure you whatever the cost of Lyme prevention… it surely beats the alternative.

COSTS:
Tick Armor Insecticide: Reg size 4 oz $12; Family size 8 oz $20.00
Bug Barrier Repellent & Insecticide: Small 2 0z $15; Reg 4 oz $28; Family size 8 oz $55

Please visit the La Loba Apothecary to purchase. Here is a youtube video demonstrating the effectiveness of my Tick Armor

A Natural, Non-Toxic Approach to Flea Control

Fleas Are Here!

This year has been a bumper crop year! The frequent rains & hot temperatures have everything growing like mad. Including the bugs. Mosquitoes, ticks & fleas are the worst I have experienced them in years. Many of you have called me looking for a natural alternative to ridding your home of fleas- which travel in on you and your pets and can be extremely hard to get rid of once they are established. So today I will share with you my tested and effective flea control methods- without using a single drop of neurotoxic chemical pesticide.

Flea Infestation Story

First, though, I will share a story with you. Many years ago, I showed pure breed dogs as a hobby. People would send their dogs to me, and I would keep them with my own dogs for several months while showing. I often had as many as a dozen plus pups staying at my small kennel! These precious dogs helped me learn about natural flea prevention. The methods I am going to share with you kept my dogs, home, yard  kennel 100% flea free. Some years later I shared these techniques with a friend who had paid a professional pest control company hundreds of dollars to treat a commercial space in downtown Martinsburg. These chemicals were so strong that all people had to vacate the premises for 12 hours after treatment. The fleas were so thick in this building that your legs would look like they were covered in pepper. After three very expensive treatments the fleas were still there. I helped her treat the building naturally- and the fleas were gone in 2 days. Save your money, save yourself from exposure to deadly chemicals, and save our environment. Please.

There Are Many Types of Fleas

A little about fleas first. Did you know that there are several types of flea, and each has a preferred host? There are dog fleas, cat fleas, human fleas, rat fleas and fleas that prefer fowl. These fleas will bite others if their preferred host is not available. Fleas can jump up to 7″ vertically and over a foot horizontally- which makes them very mobile! They easily move from host to host, host to person, and host to HOUSE. Flea saliva contains chemicals that can cause a severe itch response in some animals and humans. This is known as flea bite dermatitis, and can lead to infection if scratching or biting the area is intense. However, some people have fleas in the house and never get bitten- or simply have no reaction to flea bites. Did you also know that fleas are a host for tapeworms? Tapeworm eggs travel inside the adult flea, and if the flea is accidentally swallowed or inhaled by an animal while licking or chewing , the animal then may become infected with tapeworms. The animal also becomes a host for tapeworms. And if that animal is YOUR PET, you may also be exposed to tapeworms. Yuck. Finally, flea eggs can lay dormant in your home for months, just waiting for their preferred host to arrive. Let’s get rid of them NOW.

How To Know If My Dog or Cat Has Fleas

 

How do you know if you have fleas in your home or on your pet? Watch for frantic scratching, digging and biting from your pets. Using your fingers, comb the hair backward around their rump, base of tail or tummy, where fleas love to live. Fleas are tiny brown spots that move quickly, and they leave small black dried blood spots in your pets fur. These tiny dots of dried blood are called “flea dirt” and is often the most noticeable sign of flea infestation. If your pet has flea dirt but you don’t see any fleas? THEY HAVE FLEAS. And fleas lay 20 to 50 eggs a day- which roll off the host onto bedding, carpets and furniture. If your dog has fleas- you have fleas. Get over it. You are not dirty or bad… you just have fleas.

How Do I Kill Fleas?

SO! Here are some things to know about killing fleas. Firstly, they are very hard to crush. No matter how hard you squeeze, you cannot kill them, you must use your nails to break them. Yuck. Fleas need moisture to survive and prefer around 70-80% humidity. Without adequate hydration they struggle to live. Immersion in water, however, drowns fleas quickly. Armed with this knowledge, we begin our treatment.

flea bath

Pet Flea Bath

Give your pet a bath in warm water with shampoo. ANY shampoo will do- it is the water that drowns the fleas. I do not use flea shampoos as I think the chemicals are dangerous and they are no more effective. The flea shampoos say they repel fleas up to 3 months, and I have found this to be false. I use tearless baby or pet shampoo on my animal’s head & face so that I can get right around the eyes. If you do not soap up the face, the fleas will actually pool around the eyes in an attempt to escape. Gross. I use a diluted castile soap on the body- Dr. Bronners Lavender Castile works well and has the added benefit of soothing any sore, bitten areas. The other blends work well too, choose your favorite scent.  Use about 1/4 cup in a quart of water. Let the pet stand for 5-10 minutes in the shampoo. Rinse well. Watch the dead fleas run down the drain. In the meantime, wash every sheet, towel, comforter, blanket and throw rug that you can fit in the washer. Use warm or hot water. OK you have now killed most of the live fleas. But what about flea eggs and fleas still living in the house and yard?

cat fleas

Kill Fleas In The House and Yard

Enter 3 flea killing friends: Best Yet Cedar Insecticide , boric acid powder & diatomaceous earth. These 3 inexpensive, non toxic ingredients will keep your home & pet flea free. Maybe you have heard of these- but it is important to know how to use them. Here we go. Go to your local dollar store or follow any link here to buy on Amazon and buy a plastic bottle of roach powder. It is often called Roach Prufeor similar. Read the ingredients- it should be almost 100% boric acid. It should cost a few dollars. If you buy boric acid at the hardware store it will be 2 to 3 times as much money to buy. While at the dollar/online store, buy one of those glass cheese shaker top jars. Take your bottles home. Open the boric acid and for each cup of powder you use, add 1 tablespoon of Best Yet Cedar Insecticide. Shake this up well and put into your shaker top jar. Shake this powder over every surface of the home. Carpets, under the furniture cushions, cracks of hardwood floors. Take a broom and sweep the powder into the surfaces so it is well-distributed. Leave for 24 hours then vacuum it all up. (I actually just leave the powder under the seat cushions of my furniture) Now take your spray bottle of Best Yet and spray the baseboards, your closets, any vertical surface that the powder will not adhere to. Do this once a week for several weeks. No more fleas. The boric acid dehydrates the fleas, and the cedar insecticide suffocates them. Boric acid has the same toxicity as table salt- so while it is relatively harmless, do not let children and pets lick or lay in a concentrated amount of it. It is not tasty, they won’t purposely seek it out. Don’t get stuck on this point- boric acid is hundreds of times less toxic than chemical flea sprays, bombs and powders. This carpet/floor treatment will also kill ticks, carpet beetles, roaches, spiders and anything else that dares to crawl around your home.

flea treatment

Safely Kill Fleas On Pets

Now back to the pets. Kitty & puppy are all dry and clean from the bubble bath. But without protection, they will simply go back outside and bring back more fleas. With your new & continued boric acid and cedar insecticide flooring treatment, the fleas will not survive in the house. Remember to wash the pet’s bedding often. But the fleas will still dine happily on you and your pets. Boric acid is, in my opinion, to harsh for direct application onto a pet’s skin. But Best Yet Cedar Insecticide and diatomaceous earth are very gentle and totally non-toxic to pets- even if they lick and chew after application. (ALWAYS test a VERY small amount on cats first- they are ultra sensitive)[Note: As of 3/11/16: CedarCide, the manufacturer of Best Yet, has recently marked a few of their products as “not for use on cats”. Best Yet is now known as “Original Formula” and is still approved by CedarCide for use on cats. Read this link] Those flea drops that you spread onto your animal’s neck? They are proving to be very dangerous. Google it if you want to see. I won’t press that point.  Often a good wetting down of your pet’s coat with cedar insecticide spray is all that you will need to keep fleas away. Wet the pet’s coat down, covering all areas, once weekly during the hot summer months, less during the winter.  It is so gentle you can use it on puppies and kittens, as well as your kids and yourself to keep mosquitoes and ticks away. Apply directly to exposed skin and clothing. I practically BATHE in this stuff- the mosquitos LOVE me. It smells great, works great, and can be used for so many of your buggy problems.

Safe Flea Powder, Diatomaceous Earth

Some pets, though, need a little extra protection. Just like with people, some dogs and cats seem more prone to attract fleas than others. For these pets, we will kick it up a notch. Go to your local pet store or to my online store and buy some diatomaceous earth (DE) that is made for pet application. It looks a lot like flour.  If you wish to treat your yard, buy some additional DE for lawn & garden use (it’s cheaper) and follow the directions to treat the yard. Do not use lawn & garden DE on your pets. For the pets: Mix 1 cup of organic food grade DE powder with 1 tablespoon of Cedar Insecticide. Mix well and sprinkle over your pet’s coat, rubbing the powder in well. Use extra in the places the fleas like to live: tail, rear, and belly. You may even sprinkle a bit of this into your pet’s ears for ear mites. Do this outside or over a towel to keep the floor clean. I have found this powder & cedar oil mix to be foolproof, even during the height of flea season! And again, totally non-toxic. Apply as needed- I apply once weekly during the hot summer months.

happy dogs

Safe, Natural Flea Treatment

I hope you try these simple and effective natural flea treatments. They are better for your pets, your family, your wallet and our beautiful planet. Please leave a note with questions or comments. Hugs~

Shift Happens…

Divine Journeys is now…

La Loba Earth Medicine

Shift happens! The only sure thing is change…

Ten years ago I decided that it was time to offer my work to the world. I needed, among other things, a name. I needed a name that described what I had to offer my community. I had sacrificed nights and weekends to attend a year long school of medicinal herbalism. I had wandered the woods, getting to know these plants in a personal way. I had spent many years immersing myself in the practice of shamanism. I had attended hundreds of hours of workshops from the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. I had studied at the feet of several amazing shamans. I had read dozens of books. I had gained a deep relationship with my own Guides and was in touch with the wisdom they had to offer. It was time!

“Coincidences” are messages from the Universe, I believe. There are no accidents. I was pondering a name for the beautiful, sunny healing room/classroom on my small farm. In the mail a document arrived, notifying me that my mailing address was going to be changed. The new name of the road I lived on???

Divine Drive.

A friend said “How can you ignore that?” How indeed? Divine Journeys. Divine: of Spirit, and the name of my road. Journeys: a primary tool of the shaman. Perfect. And it was, for close to ten years. But I have evolved, my practice has expanded, and I have moved away from Divine Drive.

I have ventured deeply into the realm of Plant medicine, not simply herbs as commodities for human health, but as co-habitants of our Earth. I have surrendered my will to Teacher Plants, and have had doors open that I did not know where even there. I have spent countless hours acting as a channel for healing, with individuals and in Ceremony with community. I have taught others and been taught.

I have lived deeply and intimately with the Land and many plants, insects and animals. I learned first hand about the circle of life, planting, birthing, gathering, foraging, harvesting. I have understood the immense honor and horror of knowing the face of my food. I have uncovered the comforting lies of the mono-cultured supermarket.

My Guides show me magical images that the artist in me hungers to bring into this dimension.They show me these images in night dreams and day dreams. I have painted drums, wired together beautiful bones into jewelry, cradled skulls in my hand to honor them with painted symbols.

Shifting sand under my feet- both uncomfortable and exciting. Once again I needed a name. I needed a name that described what I now wish to contribute to my community. One day, I was gently cupping a Coyote skull in my hands, in order to draw a shaman’s hand upon it. I was recently returned from another Journey with a Plant Teacher, and needed quiet space to integrate. Playing in the background was a CD by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of “Women Who Run with the Wolves”. She was telling the story of La Loba, the Wolf Woman.

La Loba is an old Crone woman, who lives alone in the wild. Every day she scours the Land for the bones of animals. La Loba especially seeks the bones of Wolves. These bones she brings back to her home. When La Loba has a complete skeleton, she lays it out under the moon and sings a song. As she sings, the Earth shakes and the dismembered bones begin to regain flesh and fur. Finally, the animal draws breath and runs aways, fully alive. If the re-membered skeleton is a complete Wolf, she runs under the moonlight and Wolf becomes a laughing Wolf Woman. This woman goes into the world to teach others about their own wild nature.

Sitting there, recovering from a deep session with a Plant teacher, painting the hand of the shaman onto the skull of the Coyote, I began to cry. This is the whole of the process. We must find our bones- gather the hard, unchangeable pieces of ourselves that remain even after the flesh has been ripped off by living. When we find all of our pieces, and we are ready, we can sing our soul-song. We can pour out all that is within us, under the light of the moon. And sometimes, if we get it right, we re-member ourselves. We remember our wild nature. We might run, laughing, into the night, reborn.

“I can feel it in my bones” we say. The place that knows about the trees, the river, the language of the birds. The energy of the Thunderbeings, the soft whisper of the Corn mothers. Yes indeed. The Land is waiting for us to find all the pieces of ourselves again. Waiting for us to remember and be re-membered. A name had found me, again. La Loba Earth Medicine.

Vine of the Soul: 8: Healing the Spiral Helix

DNA_double_helix_vertikalI am aware only of the struggle to survive. I have no thoughts. I am writhing in the mud of existence, a single-celled organism. Dim light flickers on and off all around. I move only very slowly, and with great effort, through the soup I swim in. Over time, thousands of years it seems, I become vaguely aware of myself. “I” am lying on my belly, moaning softly. I am no longer amoebic, I have evolved to have a rudimentary shape consisting of a head, organs, a spine.

Something hurts. I become aware of this sensation and as I focus on it the sensation grows. I locate the pain, it is in my core, in my rudimentary spine. I focus. I go deeper into the pain. I see an elongated spiral with a mesmerizing checkerboard pattern. It looks similar to a coiled snake without head or tail. I am aware now that something is there, within the spiral, causing the sensation of pain.

I watch this spiral ladder and observe what is happening. The Medicine is working there, altering the pattern. Slowly and meticulously the magnificent, complex pattern is being changed, and I realize this is what hurts. Then, from another universe far, far away, I hear a sound… “shhhhhhhhhhh”…

I am instantly snapped into another reality. I understand that the sound I just heard is a helper, encouraging me to be quiet. I understand that I had been moaning rather loudly with the pain I am experiencing. Slowly I regain my equilibrium. I am in an Ayahuasca ceremony, on my mat within the community circle. I am lying on my belly, drenched in sweat, lightly drooling onto my pillow. I notice the pain again deep inside my core and remember the spiral… the pattern…

Hours earlier, as I sat waiting for the Medicine to arrive, I had set an intention for this evening’s ceremony. Setting an intention is an important part of any self-work. The purpose of the work is personal growth, and personal growth requires awareness of our shadow-selves. I typically take 3 to 6 months in between Medicine ceremonies to integrate the gifts of self-awareness the work offers. It is now my second year with Grandmother, and I have traveled ever deeper into my journey of self-healing.

As a result of this work with Ayahuasca, I have come to understand that I have never fully healed from the devastating experience of the collapse of my marriage, between 2003 and 2004. My now ex-husband had slowly, over time, become addicted to pain killers after a back injury. When he could no longer obtain enough prescription drugs to satisfy his growing addiction, he turned to illegal drugs. Like most addicts, initially he tried desperately to hide his problem from me. I noticed some disturbing behavior, but running a large contracting business is tough, and I chalked it up to excessive stress.

By the beginning of 2004, his behavior was so erratic and damaging to the business and to our marriage that he finally confessed he was addicted to heroin. The next four months were, hands down, the hardest of my life. Anyone who has ever lived with a drug addict understands- nobody and nothing comes before the addict’s master- his drug of choice. The lies, betrayals, inhumane behavior and total annihilation of trust are devastating.

I survived the destruction, but sadly he did not find recovery. He left the area when his addiction caused him legal issues. Exhausted and beaten, I filed for divorce. Over time, I came to terms with the experience, and even found grace within it. I forgave him and myself, and became a more compassionate, spiritual woman. But deep within my heart, a scar remained that I did not even recognize until my healing work with Ayahuasca.

Now, lying there on my mat, I recall my intention. I had asked Grandmother to heal any lingering damage that the extreme trauma of that time caused my spirit. For the past two hours I have been in a completely regressed state as the Medicine worked within me. Even now, I slip in and out of awareness as I continue to experience a deep pain and shifting within my core, located near the small of my back. I remain lying on my stomach for some time. Eventually the pain lessens and my awareness remains more in the reality of the room, and the visions of the spiral helix fade away.

I can now focus on the magnificent singing and music going on around me. I roll slowly from my belly to my side, and relax. I gaze with compassion at the brave souls to my left and right. I am relieved to be back, and filled with wonder and humility at the gifts of the Medicine…


 

Deep trauma can literally change DNA. We tend to think of emotional trauma as a psychological issue that affects our emotional health and stability. However, studies are now indicating that trauma can literally change us on a molecular level.

Dr. Sandro Galea of Columbia University authored a study on trauma and DNA changes. In a 2010 NPR interview, Dr. Sandro has this to say about trauma and molecular changes:  “What we are thinking is that trauma that somebody experiences results in molecular changes around the DNA that result in changes in what genes are expressed and not expressed. ”

Speak with any person that has survived deep trauma- rape, war, domestic violence, life threatening illness or accident- and they will likely tell you that the experience changed them as people. They often say they will never be the same again. Many trauma survivors continue to work though issues and evolve into a “better” person. Better is good, but it is still different.

Other studies show an even more startling effect of trauma. “Epigenetic inheritance” is the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, poor diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren. That’s right, inter-generational changes in our genes caused by environmental or emotional stress.

Rachel Yehuda studied the genetic changes to Holocaust survivors caused by severe trauma, and found that the genetic changes can be passed on to the children of the survivors. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

Can Ayahuasca and other catalysts for deep spiritual healing repair damage to our DNA? And could our efforts at self-healing be like ripples flowing forward through generations of our sons and daughters?

 

[Author’s Note: There are MANY paths to spiritual healing & awakening; sacred plants are only one path. My purpose in these writings is to share my personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after great introspection. All people considering this path of exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge and professional background to address after-effects that may arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]

Vine of the Soul: 7:: Rebirth

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Illustration by my friend, Abraxas

Another ceremony, another day. I have been with the Medicine now for a few hours, listening to the wisdom she offers. She tells me things that give me a deeper understanding of the world, the universe, myself. Many of these I remember later and write down, but many more slip away like the edges of dreams.

At some point during these conversations, I become aware that one of my Spirit Helpers, Snake, is present. My Guides are always in my awareness, but this is different. This feels more physical, more real, as if a large snake is in the room with me. As I begin to focus on this sensation, I feel as though Snake is inside me, perhaps in or on top of my belly. My vision dims and I seem to be seeing through grey scales. Grandmother tells me that transformation is coming.

Snake, with scales and ridged belly muscles begins to undulate through me. I FEEL him, and I know that he FEELS me. We are very aware of each other and the sensations of being together in one body. He stretches, tests, writhes, expands. It is painful, this merging. Grandmother whispers to me, “find the beauty in the pain”, and I focus on her instruction. Snake expands until all of his body fits within all of my body from foot to neck. I feel Snake’s head trying to push through the narrow passage of my neck and jaw. This is very laborious, and I feel it is an impossibility.

“Unhinge your jaw, sister”, the Medicine whispers. I ponder this. Snake begins to unhinge his own jaw, to make his large head more flexible for this final aspect of our merge. I observe the process, amazed. Can I do that? I try to loosen my jaw. Recently, jaw clenching  has become a habit for me. The Medicine gently reminds me that a locked jaw is good for nothing. One cannot eat, breathe, speak or transform with a locked jaw.

I work at it. I loosen my mouth, I tilt back my head. My ego tells me that my behavior may look strange and I cover my upper body and face with my silk pashmina. The privacy this affords me lets me focus on my task. I breathe, stretch, open my jaw, my throat. I feel Snake pushing through, eager to “see” though our soon to be shared eyes. It hurts, and my eyes fill up with tears from the effort. Finally, finally he pushes through. The relief is immense. I take a deep breath and tears flow down my cheeks. I feel Snake wanting to see with his new set of eyes. I open my own cautiously, still under the cover of my shawl. I sit up, lift the edge of the fabric and gaze around the room…

It is intense, vivid, colorful. This shared vision is amazing. I see details and patterns I have never before noticed. I scan slowly from left to right and back again. Eventually I cover my face again, aware that I have been scanning the room in an intense and strange way. My ego tells me to stop being weird. I lie down again and Snake and I explore our newly merged body. He is amazed by my hands and arms and moves them. I am thrilled with his strong belly muscles and I roll them.  Snake will never again be outside of me, we are forever merged. We explore our new merge for a while.

“Unhinge your jaw, sister”, Grandmother says again, abruptly bringing my awareness away from the exploration of my new snaky body. I am confused at first, wondering why I must do this again. I begin to feel contractions in my low belly, a tightening of the strong snake muscles. I open my jaw again, as best I can. The belly muscles ripple from the root upward through my body in deep spasms. I cannot breathe, my body tightens and turns rigid. My eyes stream tears of pain and effort. Finally, in a rush of the out breath, I release what my body worked so hard to expel. I am amazed when nothing solid exits my mouth- this purge is purely energetic.

Over and over my body spasms then contorts with deep gripping contractions that feel like reverse childbirth. Over and over I release energetic matter from deep within my body. This is hard, I gasp for breath and cry in between spasms. My tears are both from pain and effort and of happiness; I am deeply grateful for this cleansing release. Around me in the room, a man sings a gentle love song on his guitar. Another brother plays a giant didgeridoo, which sounds like a bull elephant. Fantastic. I continue my energetic purging for several hours, long after most have left the community area. Gracias, Madre. This is healing…


Psychological trauma has long been treated by shamans using spiritual ceremonies and plant entheogens. Guillermo Arrevalo, a Shipibo murailias (master) shaman, had this response when asked if European and American cultures are suffering from spiritual and psychological crisis: “That’s what I see. It is clear among many people. Indeed, many of them also suffer from depression. Others are enslaved by their work. Others are hooked into materialism and they have been neglectful of the spiritual part of themselves. Many of them have been badly treated by their family. They suffer emotionally from this, often from their father’s behavior toward them. This happens both to Europeans and Americans—this depression.”

Ana Llamazares, Argentine anthropologist, researcher and professor has much to say about Western spiritual disconnect in her article “The Wounded West”. “Materialistic reductionism—i.e. the conviction that the world is only the narrow slice of material reality—has worsened our existential situation. The consciousness of interconnectivity, of our natural participation in the web of life and in the cosmic order, is only possible if we transcend the immediate dimension of the material and access other subtler levels of reality and perception.” Llamares goes on to state that the Western life view of separateness ultimately creates feelings of “anguish, anxiety, depression, fear, abandonment, and a long list of psychophysical manifestations, from the now common stress to the increasingly frequent degenerative diseases and cardiovascular conditions.”

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. The magnificent artwork on this 
post was made for me by a friend, Abraxas, after listening to my story.]

Vine of the Soul: 6: Grandmother Speaks

Nicolaes Maes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nicolaes Maes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m scared, but not as scared as I was while waiting for the first few ceremonies to begin. I have decided that no matter what the shaman offers me in his little silver cup, I will drink only a modest mouthful of the Ayahuasca brew. I wait for my turn in the circle to come, and pad over in my bare feet to where the shaman sits. He confers briefly with his assistant, and hands me the tiny cup. It contains just exactly a mouthful of the brown, lumpy goo known as The Medicine.

I walk back to my mat within the circle, suppressing the urge to vomit. I note that the taste of Ayahuasca is getting less tolerable for me each time I drink it. I sit up straight and call my Guides to me. Snake has been a long time friend and teacher, and he sits curled in front of my crossed legs when I close my eyes to check in. This will be the last time he ever sits there, although I am unaware of that now. I pray, once again, for gentleness as I wait for the Medicine to arrive.

I begin to rock back and forth as the telltale ringing begins in my ears. The shaman’s voice is huge, rippling, as he sings. Colors come then- jagged geometric shapes of intense teal, aqua, blue- all around my head. Lovely. The colors are accompanied by nausea, and I think I may vomit, but I do not. I hear a whisper inside my head, softly at first but then louder. Repeating, like a mantra “trust the Medicine, trust the Medicine”. I recognize that this is the voice of the vine- of the Grandmother herself, and I am honored and humbled. The vivid colors now make shapes like a Spirograph, a game from my childhood. The shapes turn and spin and shimmer, wildly kaleidoscopic. Nausea comes and goes. I lie down and cover myself with a blanket.

How long I lay there with the colors I cannot say. When I come back to some awareness, I am crying. Actually, I am not crying in the traditional way, with choking sobs and moans. Instead, my eyes are simply crying for me. A constant stream of hot, salty tears run down my cheeks, wetting my neck and pillow. I understand that I have been holding onto a lot of sadness, and have a lot of crying to catch up on. Grandmother whispers to me that my body can care for itself, and it does. For the rest of the 4 hour ceremony, my eyes cry for me, steadily and constantly, with or without my attendance.

During this stretch of time, I receive many teachings from the Medicine. The primary message to me this day is that it is time to say goodbye to the woman I have been for the past 30 years. Time to release the blood, the cycle, the bonds of being woman. Time to step up into the place of the Elder, the Wise Woman. There, she told me, femininity is about dignity and power, softness and understanding. I cry for my woman-self, curled up on my mat with the last of the days light streaming though the open window. I cry deeply, sobbing into my pillow to muffle the sounds of my heartache. I cry all my regrets, all my shortcomings, all my bad choices. I feel held as I cry- held by the singing of my sisters around me, held by Grandmother. There is no hurry, I can cry for her. When my sobs diminish I find myself standing at the edge of a new pathway…


 

Maiden, Mother and Crone, the three phases of being a woman. The transition is sometimes painful from one phase to the next. We leave our innocent childhood behind as our bodies begin to bleed. We then spend 35 or 40 years in the Mother stage of womanhood, a place of fertility and sexuality, where many of us are focused on reproduction, family, and our mate(s). During these years we bleed in concert with the Moon, every 28 days, caught in a reproductive cycle and governed by our hormones. Maybe we give birth to children, maybe we don’t.  We might have careers, perhaps not. Regardless, we are the mothers, lovers and caregivers of the world.

The Crone traditionally has two faces in our culture. She is the ugly, wrinkled and wart-riddled protagonist in so many fairy tales. Crone is the scary, long nailed and bent fingered witch who flies in the night. Crone can help you or hurt you at her whim. Conversely, Crone is the grandmother, in her apron, baking cookies. She is sweet, docile, fragile. Neither of these archetypes describe the reality of today’s Crone.

Crone is the wise woman who has seen a bit of everything and has achieved wisdom to accompany her knowledge. She is no longer slave to her cycles and hormones. Crone has often learned how to live simply and in solitude with deep satisfaction. Crone is the elder who now has time to dive deeply into the Gifts of the Divine Feminine: Intuition, magic, wisdom.

I always thought I would age gracefully. I had been told in previous conversations with my own Spirit Helpers that I would not reach my full potential as a Healer until menopause. And yet, as my hair starts to grey and lines appear in my face, I sometimes find myself mourning my woman-self as I face the transition into Crone. I miss my estrogen- the ups and downs of it, the roller coaster ride- even as I sink deeply into the relief of being more grounded with less of it.

We are living longer these days, and retirement has a new meaning. Women are retiring from being moms and wives and finding new and meaningful careers. People 55 and older represent the highest number of new business owners. Many women in their later years win hard-fought battles with illness and disease, and find themselves with the gift of 20 or 30 more productive years ahead. Other women completely discard the cloaks they have worn previously and discover entirely new ways of being in the world. The world needs empowered women of all types if we are to re-balance the patriarchal energies that currently dominate our Earth home. Go on, Crone, own your power. The world needs you.

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]

Vine of the Soul: 5: Shaman and Student

"Ayahuasca 2010" by Awkipuma - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Ayahuasca 2010” by AwkipumaOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I’m sitting quietly in the back of the room, nervous and uncertain. The circle of brave souls are silent as everyone waits for the Medicine to arrive. I had no idea that part of my being “in service” included taking more Ayahuasca. I reflect back on the previous night’s experiences, when I was within the circle. There is no way, I think to myself, that I will be able to function. Time passes, and the circle begins to rustle and shift. She is arriving.

The shaman begins shaking his “chakapa”, a rattle made from bundled leaves. His medicine songs, icaros, seem to intensify the Medicine. People begin to vomit into buckets- purging. I stand and walk softly into the circle to replace a used bucket with fresh. I remove the biodegradable liner and tie up the contents. All these bags go into a large trash can and will later be buried in the Earth. It is believed that the Earth can safely take this purging of negative/wounded material and renew it. I accomplish my tasks well, perhaps I will be OK.

There is a break in the purging within the circle and I sit in the back, watching the shaman as he sings, rattles and walks through the circle. He is dressed simply in a white smock covered in symbols. He is a short, broad-shouldered, brown-skinned man with intense, penetrating eyes. His voice is strong and deep, and the songs he sings are getting inside me. I begin to feel the vibrations and hear the ringing sound from the previous night. The ringing becomes a buzzing and suddenly the room is filled with neon colored geometric shapes. The shaman recedes until he is a small dot in the distance. The room has become a high-ceilinged temple with an amazingly long corridor. I feel sick and nauseated. I hear someone purging and I take a deep breath and stand. The colors recede for a moment and I do my job, changing out the bucket.

The trash can is down the steps, near the bathroom. I walk gingerly down the steps, pleased that I can accomplish this. I change out the bag, and turn to go back up the stairs. I stumble backwards in shock when I see that the floor has become liquid. Under the water of the once solid surface, enormous multi-colored snakes undulate gently through the hallway. They are beautiful. I stare for some time, then squeeze my eyes shut, remembering my duties. When I open them again, the ground is solid, the snakes are gone, and I go back into the ceremonial space.

The purging, crying and moaning in the room goes on for some time then diminishes. The shaman has taken a seat at the head of the circle but continues to sing, alternating between drum, rattle and chakapa. I have studied shamanism intently for almost 8 years at this point and I am fascinated as I observe him. I have read countless books and attended dozens of experiential workshops and retreats that explore the various multi-cultural practices of shamanism. Here I sit with a man who was raised within a shamanic culture and has dedicated his life to healing, and I wish to observe as much as possible in between my own bouts of nausea and neon colored visions.

I see that a petite blonde woman, whom I previously noticed, is moving from prone to sitting.  Earlier this afternoon, the herbalist in me had noted a harsh, rattling cough that seemed to come from deep in her lungs. The shaman considers her and continues his song, rattling directly toward her. She begins to rock faster, and faster still as the shaman sings more loudly. I lean forward, mesmerized, my own nausea momentarily forgotten. She suddenly bends deeply and reaches for her bucket- and at the same time, her head swivels in my direction. She looks directly into my face, and her eyes are completely black, round and shiny as marbles. Her mouth opens to a repulsive rictus, jammed with sharp, jagged teeth. Her back humps up and she slams her face into the bucket as a glistening chunk of slimy-looking, black goo shoots from her disgusting mouth. Her face is now hidden by the bucket and the cascade of her crinkly blonde hair. I am frozen in terror. I shoot a look at the shaman, who is also leaning forward in his chair, directing his song forcefully at the vomiting woman. She gags and gasps for a few moments and then sits up with a deep breath. Her face is once again her own. She sighs and slowly sinks onto her mat, hands folded under her face. The shaman sits back in his chair, satisfied. His singing softens, and he resumes his attentive scanning of the circle.

I sit stiffly with my hands over my mouth, eyes wide, not breathing. I realize the bucket must be changed. I cannot. I WILL not. I look pleadingly to my left, and another helper nods and attends to the bucket. Remarkably, she does not seem to have seen anything unusual. I am trembling and my own nausea has returned. No weekend workshop could prepare me for this. No paraphrased bullet list of shamanic practices can explain this. No expensive bear claw medallion, no beautifully painted drum, no hand-made beaded medicine bag can conjure this. In this moment, I am deeply aware that I have just experienced my first unambiguous demonstration of a shamanic healing. I am also cognizant that the honor of witnessing this healing was a gift and a teaching from the Medicine.

As I calm myself, I become aware of and grateful for the benefit of the purging. I look around the circle and see the beauty in these courageous explorers, and no longer is the vomiting disgusting. I hear myself saying “let it go, sister”, and “good job, brother” as they purge. I take buckets up and down the stairs. At one point I go into the bathroom, the nausea forcing me to my knees in front of the toilet. As I get up to wash my hands and splash my face, I look into the mirror. My eyes are swirling and as I lean closer to stare into them, I shape-shift rapidly. An old sorcerer woman, a spotted jaguar, a glass eyed alien-looking being, then just me again. I wonder how long I have been staring and resume my duties.

The ceremony is nearing its close- an hour or two to go. The shaman walks amongst all of us, singing.  He lightly, repetitively thumps each of us for a moment with his chakapa. He brushes my chest and heart area with his leaf bundle and I immediately begin to cry. I cry for some time afterward, years of sadness pouring out through my opened heart. I hear the Medicine whisper to me about my habit of isolating from others. I see the faces of dear ones and recognize the beauty within each of them…


A majority of the most powerful entheogens are illegal in the United States.  Shamanic cultures have been using plants for enlightenment and knowledge since the origins of spirituality. Some of the entheogens on the Schedule 1 drug list (Felony to use or possess even for research) are Ayahuasca, Cannabis, Cocoa Leaves, Iboga, Peyote, Chacruna, “Magic” Mushrooms and Peyote. How ironic, then, that these illegal entheogenic plants have been used in shamanic cultures to successfully treat persons with addictions, mental illness and overall spiritual deficit. In Peru, Ayahuasca is recognized by the government as a national treasure.

Ayahuasca is considered by shamans, ethnobotanists and spiritual seekers to perhaps be the most overall potent and effective plant entheogen.  Ayahuasca, which translates to “vine of the soul”, is a thick tea made by shamans in Central and South America. Ayahuasca  is being used, along with traditional methods, outside of the U.S. to treat people with drug and alcohol addictions.  A 2013 Canadian study concluded “Ayahuasca-assisted therapy appears to be associated with statistically significant improvements in several factors related to problematic substance use among a rural aboriginal population. These findings suggest participants may have experienced positive psychological and behavioral changes in response to this therapeutic approach, and that more rigorous research of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for problematic substance use is warranted.”

How interesting that Ayahuasca and other entheogens seem to assist addicts in recovery by offering a new spiritual perspective. This same methodology can be found in the highly successful 12-step recovery programs. 12-step programs are “spiritual, not religious” and claim to address the underlying spiritual deficits that are the root cause of addiction. Even more curious- although separation of church and state is one of America’s founding principles, 12-step programs, which are based on Christian doctrine, are often mandated by the judicial system in this country, while treatment through natural plant sources remains illegal.

Ayahuasca works powerfully, if sometimes painfully, to reveal personal truths to the user. However, as opposed to addictive drugs & alcohol, and other drug-therapies like methadone, Ayahuasca appears to have no permanent negative side effects, including addiction, even in long-term users. An impressive 2012 scientific study concluded “The assessment of the impact of long-term Ayahuasca use on mental health from various perspectives (personality, psychopathology, neuropsychology, life attitudes and psychosocial well-being) did not find evidence of pathological alterations in any of the spheres studied. Furthermore, Ayahuasca users showed a lower presence of psychopathological symptoms compared to controls. They performed better in neuropsychological tests, scored higher in spirituality and showed better psychosocial adaptation as reflected by some attitudinal traits such as Purpose in Life and Subjective Well-Being.”

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s)and are not mine.]

Vine of the Soul: 4: The Gift of Being in Service

"Ayahuasca prep" by Terpsichore - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG#/media/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG
“Ayahuasca prep” by Terpsichore – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG#/media/File:Ayahuasca_prep.JPG

My first meeting with Ayahuasca is over, and I lay on my mat in the darkened community area, only a flickering candle for light. The shaman closed the ceremony half an hour ago, but I cannot seem to find the strength to get up. It is around 2 am. Most of my fellow Journeyers have gone to the kitchen area to get some food. There is a huge pot of bland but nourishing soup on the old gas stove, and plenty of bread and fruit for dinner.  I should be hungry after fasting and emptying myself so thoroughly, but I am disinterested in food.

I drift in and out of awareness, but gently now. Finally, I decide to try standing again. My legs feel like a new born foal’s. This is one experience that I will have every time over the next few years- this feeling of being newly born into my body after a ceremony. Other than that, and the peace and serenity toward the completion of the ceremony, no two visits with the Medicine will ever be alike. Amazing.

I gather myself and weave through the room, detouring around the few remaining people still laying on their mats. I cautiously navigate the stairs and then step outside. The night is warm, velvety and sweet. The mountains squat together in silent silhouette, silver stars adorning their heads. I realize that I have been standing, frozen in wonder, with my mouth agape. I head toward the warm light of the kitchen.

When I arrive at the kitchen, the lights, noise and movement overwhelm me. I cringe back as the wave of sensations flow over me. When I can manage it, I smile and nod at a few people gathered around a bowl of fruit. They return my smile gently and with understanding. These people are my brothers and sisters. We have traveled the Universe together and returned. My previous feelings of exclusion are extinguished- that was just me and my stuff. Still, I am unable to carry on conversation. The questions people ask me, while exceedingly basic, seem unfathomable. I grab a hand full of grapes and head for my little bed by the window.

The Medicine comes for me off and on all night. I continue to have liquid bowel movements all night. I sleep and dream and she tells me little things. She shows me how afraid we feel of our bodies- how out of control. She shows me images of us being in horror as a disease or illness seems to take over our physical bodies. She tells me that we feel out of control of dis-ease because we have forgotten that physical illness is the end point. The issue, she shows me, begins days, months, years- even lifetimes- before it ever shows up in the physical.

I wake up in the morning feeling tired but clean. Remarkably clean- mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically. I spend time taking notes in the quiet of my shared room. My roommates and I smile at each other and exchange morning greetings in low voices. Finally, I get up and begin the day. This is my day of service, and my first task is to change the bedding of those who are leaving today and replace it with fresh bedding for new arrivals. Toward the afternoon I am asked to help neaten and arrange the community area in preparation for the evening’s ceremony. This work is shared by many and is not heavy. I am happy to be quietly helpful.

Evening has arrived and the mats are formed again into a large, neat circle. We smudge and the smoke of Palo Santo wood and White Sage herb fill the room. Flowers are arranged, floors swept. Tonight’s Journeyers begin to arrive. This time, I am seated in the back of the common area and not within the circle. Tonight, I will change purge buckets, fetch water, and offer a steadying arm for those who need to walk about while with the Medicine. Four others are here in the back of the room with me, also in service. I feel pleased and relaxed, ready to serve.

The shaman enters and opens the ceremony in the same way as the previous night. I am quite astonished when, after each member of the circle drinks from the little silver cup, the shaman comes to the back of the room and offers the cup. How did I miss this last night? I feel completely unnerved and unprepared to ingest more Ayahuasca. I smile and shake my head no, but the shaman insists by gently pushing the cup forward. A woman leans over to me and whispers that all people in the room must “be with the medicine” during ceremony. I look into the shaman’s eyes and he nods encouragingly, holding thumb and index fingers close together in the symbol for “just a little”. When I peek into the proffered cup, there is just a tiny bit less than last night. How will I do this???? I tip back the cup…


The shaman can connect with entities that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist, traveled to the Amazonian rain forest and spent several years studying with indigenous shamans. In his book “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” he noted that when a person was physically, spiritually or emotionally ill, the shaman went into the forest to get cures for the patient. When Plotkin asked the shamans how they knew what plants to use, the shaman’s reply typically was that the spirit of the plant gave him the cure. Plotkin believed for some time that this was a metaphor for a cultural reference that he did not understand. However, as the trust between he and the tribal people grew, he was drawn deeper into experiences that proved the shamans initial statement was no metaphor- the shaman literally gained direct guidance for his patients through direct communication with the plants.

Working in partnership with local plants has always been a cornerstone of shamanic practice. Plants are used by all peoples for food, shelter and medicine. Most indigenous spirituality has also included using plants as entheogens- tools of enlightenment and knowledge. Entheogens are natural plants that produce an altered state of consciousness.

Entheogens differ from hallucinogens in that they are not created in a lab by a chemist, but are instead a direct product of nature. The word entheogen comes from the Greek “entheos” and “genesthai” and translates to “generating the divine within”. It seems no surprise that our Western culture that has dismissed the importance of spirituality in everyday life has also dismissed the spiritual possibilities of entheogenic plants.

 

[Author's Note: My purpose in these writings is to share my 
personal experiences. I am not suggesting that working with plant 
entheogens is an appropriate path for everyone. In fact, I caution anyone who wishes to work with these plants to do so only after 
great consideration. All people considering this path of 
exploration should work diligently to find authentic healers to 
work with. Persons with addiction issues, those who have been 
diagnosed with mental illness and people with deep emotional 
issues should work directly with healers who have the knowledge 
and professional background to address after-effects that may 
arise from this profound work. All photos posted are attributed to their original source(s) and are not mine.]