If you’re new to Shamanism, you may want to start here: What is Shamanism?
Plant medicine has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years, and unfortunately, this has created a lot of misperception about the medicine, the experience, and how it can be used to achieve healing or grow in consciousness. I hope this post will serve to answer questions you may have about what plant medicine is and clear up some of the common confusion.
As always, you can also comment me below if you have thoughts or questions. Also remember that I’m one person – others may have different views that conflict with mine, and that’s fine. The most important thing for me when I’m writing these posts is to be open, authentic and responsible about the information I share with you guys. Plant medicine work has made an incredible impact on my healing journey and I want to share that, but with strong cautionary remarks where it’s needed.
COMMON PLANT MEDICINE QUESTIONS
#1 What is plant medicine?
Plant medicines are a healing tool, used by Shamans and indigenous healers to access different states of consciousness wherein they believe they are able to heal the body and/or mind from illness and disease. The reason for the moniker ‘plant medicines’ is that they are generally made of plant-based materials, as in the case of Peyote (cactus), San Pedro (cactus), Ayahuasca (vine), Psilocybin (mushrooms), Iboga (shrub).
Currently, the better known of these plant medicines is Ayahuasca, a vine-based brew made throughout South America. Many people do not realize that Ayahuasca is not the only medicine available. A short list of plant medicines can be found here.
Plant medicine is also at least partly a misnomer, as there are some fauna-related sacred medicines.
There are many terms used to refer to plant medicine, but let’s get a bit more specific before we move on. Some of the more common terms are:
- Entheogens, my preferred term in many ways, which means ‘generating the divine within’, and refers to any psychoactive drugs when used for their religious or spiritual effects.
- Psychotropics, which includes any substance which is mood- or mind-altering. This isn’t the best description as Xanax, a well-known mood-altering pill, has little or nothing to do with an experience like Ayahuasca.
- Hallucinogens, which is any drug that causes hallucination. Again, I don’t think this is the appropriate term, as sacred plant medicines are used ritually and serve serious healing purpose for indigenous folks who do not depend on allopathic medicine. Sacred plant medicine has nothing to do with LSD or DMT. Comparatively, plant medicines are 10% hallucinogen, 90% entheogen; LSD is 90% hallucinogen, 10% medicinal. I know that some may disagree here, especially any Timothy Leary followers. Note I’m not discarding LSD as an entheogen, which I believe it surely is, but rather that many people work with LSD on a purely recreational level and therefore the overall culture supporting LSD has not generally been one of serious healing intention.
- Plant Medicine, which is the easiest term to use overall, being that it encompasses both the healing and organic nature of the experience; for that reason, it’s the term I’ll use throughout this post.
#2 Is it a drug?
Well…yes and no.
Yes, because it is at least slightly hallucinogenic, and therefore drug-like from most people’s perceptions, but no, because it’s nothing like taking drugs.
Ideally, a plant medicine experience (when done properly, and with serious intention) won’t have any similarities to taking LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs. If you have lots of experience with hallucinogens, you may even be underwhelmed that the ‘visuals’ of your experience are far less dramatic with entheogens. On the other hand, the psycho-emotional experience should be much, much more profound than the time you dropped acid with your friends in the backyard while your parents are away.
In the plant medicine ceremonies I’ve been in, I and almost everyone involved has been completely compos mentis. Maybe a bit light-headed, even a bit giggly at times (and desperately sad at others – all emotions come up), but never out of our minds. I always tell people intending to come to a plant medicine ceremony that you can easily ‘click’ into place if needed; if your boss or mother called, you’d be able to grab the phone, handle the call, and then hang up and ‘click’ back into the vibe of the ceremony.
So, long story short: no, it’s not a drug.
#3 What is it like to take it?
This is impossible to describe: every person’s experience is different and every time you do it is different. There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ plant medicine experience.
I’ve known plant medicine participants to: cry wailing sobs, sleep the entire time, sing, dance, remember nothing, see visions of their childhood, envision future children, see past lives, be told things by a ‘voice’, receive spontaneous physical healing, be shown future developments in their career.
Just know that whatever happens for you will be a) what you need and b) what you can handle; nothing more, nothing less.
#4 Will it/can it change my life?
I don’t know – are you ready to change your life? Will you change your life? Nobody can say if it will change your life, that’s for you to decide (and if a Shaman or someone else says you just have to come because it will change your life – run, run, run).
Plant medicine is not the last stop on a very desperate healing train. I’ll admit readily that plant medicine has been a key part of my journey; your journey may end up looking very different to mine, and you should stay true to that calling.
The challenge of returning to life after a plant medicine journey and applying that wisdom to your reality, instead of just enjoying the cozy bubble you experience immediately post-ceremony cannot be understated. This is what most people would call ‘integration’.
I use the analogy that a plant medicine ceremony is someone asking you to marry them; integration is the 30-year marriage that happens afterwards. What matters more, the one-time romantic event, or the 30-year grind of staying committed and loving to another person?
The really life-changing stuff potentially comes together in the integration period, not just in the plant ceremony.
#5 How many times do you have to do it?
How long is a piece of string?
The core problem I had that eventually brought me to plant medicine was my self-esteem and body image. I’d say it’s taken me the better part of 6 or 7 San Pedro ceremonies to heal this part of myself. Some ceremonies hit at that chunk of pain deeper and harder, in other ones the focus was elsewhere. Plant medicine ceremonies are not a linear, do-it-more-and-heal-faster journey.
In the West we’re used to easy healing narratives: 10 Steps to Better Self-Esteem; a weekend workshop that promises to heal our poor body image; a wellness faux-guru who advertises her revolutionary ‘fast-tracked’ healing techniques; a new ‘miracle’ drug that promises to cure us if we can just withstand the insurance co-pay and deleterious side effects.
Shamanic work, and especially plant medicines, are not controlled experiences. You are not able to push the plant to give you more than what you can a) need and b) handle. That’s tough to get used to, as we’re so used to having lots and lots of control in our everyday lives.
Remember: the plant is divine. It knows where to take you each time – just surrender. Allow yourself to be led.
#6 Is it scary?
No. Most of us get nervous as we approach a ceremony, but it’s not scary.
The one caveat to that is it could be a bit scarier working with Ayahuasca, which my Shaman describes as ‘physically and emotionally demanding’, or other seemingly intense plant medicines like Iboga. Possible other factors include not being ready for your experience (my personal recommendation is never just to ‘book and show up’ without knowing the Shaman/healing centre), a dodgy Shaman, or badly cooked medicine.
I’ve known some people in the ceremony to get overwhelmed or have a big release of fear and anxiety, and thus, they may have felt very palpable levels of fear or anxiety as part of that release. But that doesn’t make it inherently scary; if anything it can teach you that our emotional responses are not always in line with reality.
If you’re worried about a scary experience, just remember again that you get what you a) need and b) can handle.
If you’ve read really full-on, seemingly insane experiences on whacked-out burner forums, please just ignore that stuff. There’s a huge tendency for people to over-hype their experience for ego reasons, so take it all with a grain of salt.
#7 Why do you keep on doing it?
At first, I think I continued to do it because I hadn’t worked out my own essential wounding as much as I wanted. I saw that plant medicine was advancing and deepening my spiritual connection far better than anything else I was involved in, so it only made sense keep going back to it.
Later, I began to cultivate a deep sense of love and respect for San Pedro (the plant I work with). Now, I continue with the plant work because I’m studying with my Shaman, but I would still be continuing with it even if that wasn’t the case.
For me personally, it just serves as a good, thorough clean-out and reset on every level. When I leave retreat I feel as if I’ve been scrubbed inside and out. You may find you just do it once, or, you may return to it again after many years.
Follow your feelings.
#8 Is every ceremony the same?
No, not at all. Reiterating from the above, every person’s experience is different and every time you do it is different. Some plant medicine ceremonies are heavier and tougher, and others feel joyous and ebullient.
A lot of that depends on where you’re at emotionally/energetically as that dictates the filter through which you view the evening. Equally, the energetic feeling or vibe of the evening comes from the group.
Groups come together for a reason, and sometimes it’s because we all have heavy work to do, which results in a tougher ceremony. Sometimes we need to be uplifted, which can make for a lot of laughter.
I reiterate: you will have the ceremony a) you need and b) you can handle.
#9 Why do you call it a plant medicine ‘ceremony’?
First off, simply because that’s how my Shaman has always referred to the experience, so obviously you end up copying your teacher’s lingo!
Secondly, because plant medicines differentiate themselves from hallucinogens as it’s part of a spiritual expression, ritual or ceremony instead of just a wild night with some friends.
The ceremonies I’ve been involved in are relatively light on the ritual element. I know some have incredibly elaborate mesas (the altar where the Shaman sets up various tools and protective talismans). Each Shaman has their own way of setting up the scene and directing the evening.
#10 What is the Shaman’s job? Can’t I just do it on my own?
I wrote a long piece about Shaman’s and how to find one here. You may want to check that out if you have questions about finding a Shaman and in general what type of responsibility they play in the ceremony.
As for doing it on your own…nope, not a great idea. Serious use of these sacred medicines is just that – serious. And as such, it should involve being guided by a strong, able Shaman that can hold space, protect you and intervene if required. The Shaman is also able to help you interpret, understand and integrate your experience.
Doing it on your own is like doing anything on your own. You technically could but why would you?
Would you do an oil change on your car by yourself? How about heart surgery? A haircut?
In a world where many of us don’t even clean our own houses or cook our own food anymore, presuming you’ll be able to guide yourself through a sacred entheogenic experience is faulty thinking, to say the least.
I vote no.
#11 Why should I have to pay for it? Shouldn’t something like this be free?
You should pay for it because it’s serious, valuable and important to you. If a plant medicine experience doesn’t evoke those feelings for you, then you may want to reconsider if you’re doing it for solid reasons, put it on hold, and return to it when you’re ready to do it with proper intention.
It’s complete fodder that ‘traditional’ Shamans work for free. They’ve always been compensated, or, held other types of jobs in addition to their role as Shaman. Without going too far into it, just know that the Shaman does more than their fair share of work for the entire ceremony, before and after. You should absolutely fairly compensate a Shaman for their time and effort.
#12 What’s the difference between San Pedro and Ayahuasca?
I haven’t done Ayahuasca, so I can’t tell you. My feeling from talking to lots of people who have done Ayahuasca, and a handful of people who have done both San Pedro and Ayahuasca, is that Ayahuasca is a tougher medicine in some ways. My Shaman describes it as ‘physically and emotionally demanding’.
Again, it’s just a feeling, but I have felt that Ayahuasca is capable of taking you places whether you want to go there or not; San Pedro seems a gentler plant to ‘work’ with, in the sense that you move in and out of control.
#13 Why haven’t you done Ayahuasca yet?
I’ve never felt called to it. I don’t know why – maybe that will change with time. I used to think I was a total Shamanic student fraud because I hadn’t done Ayahuasca…now I recognize that as a bullshit ego game.
I can only tell you that I feel very fulfilled by my work with San Pedro, and don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.
#14 Does the Shaman you do it with matter?
Yes, yes, yes. Read here for more info on that.
#15 Does doing it with intention matter?
1 million times yes. The deeper my respect and love for the plant has deepened, so have my ceremonies. I might write more about this later, and if I do, I’ll link it here. An intention is hugely important.
#16 How have Shamanic plant medicines helped you?
Besides, changing my life?
I wrote a bit about that in general, but you can read more about that here.
For me, it helped me develop on too many levels to describe. Probably most importantly, it’s helped me gain of sense of internal power, self-value, better self-esteem. It’s helped me become a better partner, friend, and person.
#17 Are there any dangers?
Yes, of course, there are. That’s why it’s deeply important to choose a Shaman with integrity.
I don’t feel qualified to fully answer this as I’m a Shamanic Practitioner, not a Shaman. You should always consult with a Shaman and tell them of any pre-existing health issues before going into a plant medicine ceremony.
#18 Will I get sick/vomit/have diarrhoea?
Every plant medicine is different. Some, like San Pedro, have milder physical side effects. Normally this would look like intermittent nausea, headaches, dizziness or a light-headed feeling. In nearly 10 ceremonies I’ve only known one person to vomit, and it was more of a gagging than projectile vomiting.
Ayahuasca is well-known for its ‘purgative’ nature. Apparently, some people experience that through vomiting, and some others through diarrhoea. I’ve heard that similar side effects exist with Peyote and Iboga; as I haven’t done either, I cannot say what the physical side effects are. You should always consult the Shaman about all possible reactions before the ceremony.
#19 Is Ayahuasca the female spirit, and San Pedro the male spirit?
Nope. All plants are female because they’re all from Mother Earth.
If there’s anything else you’d like to know about plant medicine, comment me below. I’ll either answer your question directly or add to the list here and notify you that the post has been updated.
I’m always here for any questions – if you feel your question is more private, contact me.