I don’t use drugs in my practice. There is no practical, cultural or spiritual reason for me to use them, and my teachings prohibit them. Just like my teachers before me, I am proof that you don’t need drugs in shamanism.
This is sometimes misinterpreted as my not approving of or not supporting the use of traditional hallucinogenic medicines in shamanism, but not so. I understand and accept that, for some cultures, the use of hallucinogenic medicines and other substances like alcohol are a sacred part of the practice (I think of ayahuasca or salvia in South America or alcohol in Russia). But outside of those specific traditional ceremonies, you don’t need drugs in shamanism, and the two things should not be synonymous.
Why My Teachings Forbid Drugs & Alcohol Before Any Kind of Shamanic Work
If you read my post on why I don’t allow alcohol before a soul retrieval or my post on the shamanic approach to medicine, you’ll already understand a bit about my teachings and why I don’t really bide with drugs in shamanism.
To summarize, I was taught that everything organic has a spirit. A tree, a rabbit, a river, a mountain. We can journey to these spirits and work with them if we feel called to do so. But it’s important to understand that different spirits act differently, so eating a bunch of grapes – taking in the spirit of grapes – is different than drinking wine and taking in the spirit of alcohol.
When we ingest an organic substance like alcohol or morphine, we are taking that spirit into our bodies. Sometime, as in the case of alcohol or drugs, the spirit inhabits us for a period and, because our bodies can only hold so much at once, we suffer temporary soul loss. Think of it like this: When the spirit of the drug you’ve ingested enters your body, it pushes out your own Spirit for a period. Usually those soul parts don’t go too far, they stay nice and close to us until they can return to our bodies naturally, but not always.
If a person drinks or gets high all the time, they can suffer chronic soul loss. The soul may wish to return but the body is simply not an inhabitable place for it. When we suffer this kind of longer-term soul loss, we often feel empty disassociated and anxious; feelings that only increase the need to fill the void with alcohol or drugs.
It’s the filling the void part where this pattern becomes dangerous, especially with drugs.
When Drugs Become a Gateway, Literally
To understand drugs in shamanism, let’s look at drug use in general from a shamanic perspective.
Do you have experience with drug addiction or do you know someone who does? In my experience, many drug addicts talk about seeing demons and having dark spiritual visions that frighten them.
If one is deep into drug use, they can become spiritually vulnerable; an open door that any kind of spirit can walk through. These spirits can be well-intentioned or malicious, an ancestor or a stranger; it doesn’t matter who or what they are, only that the door is wide open.
Hence the visions. Hence the fear. I have yet to speak to someone who was a hard user who did not talk about their terrible visions, and it reminds me that people who have overcome heavy drug use are among the strongest and bravest people in the world.
Alcohol is similar, but not quite as intense, although I’m sure you wouldn’t have to look to hard to find an alcoholic who have also faced their shared of frightening spiritual experiences.
When an early teacher was trying to explain this concept to me, he said, “Kim, tell me what it’s like to be an alcoholic, but you can only use five words.” (Me? Five words? LOL. But I did it…)
Like. Stones. After. A. Sweat.
Clear as mud, right? It’s not my place to go into detail about the Sweat Lodge Ceremony (Anishnawbe Health Toronto has some fantastic brochures online if you wish to learn more), but I will tell you this: The stones that are used in the ceremony sacrifice themselves so they can become vessels to pull in the spirits of the ancestors. It’s a great service these stones do for the Community.
Once the ceremony is over and those ancestor spirits have left, those stones become empty vessels, and anything can enter them. For this reason, they must never be used in ceremony again.
It’s the same with us. If we suffer chronic soul loss from drug or alcohol use, we become empty vessels, and anything can enter us.
This is a big issue when conducting ceremonies (indigenous and non-native alike) and doing healing work.
It’s Not Only Dangerous for the User…
An elder once told me that the Spirits can look over the skyline of a city and anywhere where there is ceremony happening, it’s like a pillar of light extends into the sky from that location, and in this way, spiritual work is like a beacon to all the spirits around it, healthy or otherwise.
That’s why, if someone is doing healing work in the middle of the city where all sorts of unhealthy spirits reside, those spirits will be attracted to that healing ceremony, and they will try to enter it.
That’s also why the one job practitioners have is to ensure the integrity of the ceremony. Keep it safe by working with trusted guides to control what comes through that door.
If someone in the ceremony is fresh off a bender, they have unwittingly become an uncontrolled door through which any kind of Spirit can enter the ceremony and endanger the lives of not only the practitioner, but everyone present.
Hence the request: Don’t drink before a session or a workshop. Don’t do drugs before a session or a workshop. In this case, not only do you not need drugs in shamanism, but you don’t want them either.
The above teaching is pretty dark, and I can hear you asking, ‘But what about peyote? What about ayahuasca? Surely they are different.’
Obviously, these things are different than someone taking heroine (remember I said how all spirits act differently?)
If you’re taking these medicines in a proper ceremony with experienced conductors, the whole open door thing is not going to be an issue, but the concept that the spirit of the organic substance inhabits you for a time is consistent with these sacred medicines.
What to Consider When Deciding to Use Hallucinogenics & Drugs in Shamanism
If you are raised in a traditional Indigenous Peruvian culture, you will know a thing or two about ayahuasca. You will have heard the medicine people talk about what an important teacher this Spirit is. Maybe you will have people in your family or community who have trained for decades and Ayahuasca is an important part of their work. You will respect it, and should you participate, you will be prepared and know what to expect. You will likely be supported within your community.
But if you don’t know much about it, don’t get the context of the ceremony within the culture that owns it, and have no spiritual experience outside of Sunday school between the ages of seven and ten, and your main motivation for considering something like an Ayahuasca ceremony is that you’re looking for a “spiritual experience”, then use caution, because you might get more than you bargained for.
Once you have accepted Ayahuasca – or peyote – or mushrooms – or whatever is your sacred drug of choice – into your body, that Spirit is now within you, and gentle or aggressive, that spirit is going to get to work healing/teaching you.
It doesn’t matter if you belatedly realize that you’re not ready to be shown whatever you’re being shown, or you don’t have the emotional support to handle these revelations, or if your visions result in a psychotic break down, down the road. What is seen cannot be unseen; you cannot go back. Jung once wrote about the danger of ‘unearned wisdom’, when it comes to hallucinogenics.
Therefore, it’s important to understand what you’re getting into. This is why it’s SO important to work with spiritual people who have trained in these sacred medicine ceremonies for years (not a two-week course, for the love of Mike) and can prepare you for what you may experience.
A good conductor can provide context and perspective for your experiences, even if those experiences were frightening or not what you expected.
If you are working with someone who understands the ceremony, they will not only help you prepare, but if it’s a tough ceremony for you, they will support you afterwards, so that you can learn from your visions and integrate them into your healing journey.
When I would do fasts (vision quests), at AHT, I was never left to interpret my experiences alone. Preparation and integration were more of a Community affair, and the medicine person I was working with (usually they were also the fast conductor) would meet with me in the weeks and months after the ceremony to help me understand what I experienced.
And it’s not that they were experts in my experience, but they would ask their Spirits for help, and that’s how we would know the meaning of certain things I had seen and what I was meant to do.
I cannot imagine participating in a traditional ceremony of such power and intensity without that kind of support.
I mean, if you have a great ceremony, hey, that’s awesome, but if you have the kind that freaks you out and suddenly you’re releasing trauma and confronting memories, etc., well damn, that needs to be addressed, and saying something like ‘I’m not sure how I felt about that’ to your travel buddy as you drink your wine with shaking hands on the flight home isn’t going to cut it.
When it comes to a powerful ceremony like taking ayahuasca or peyote, I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying do your homework and know what you’re getting into. Also, make sure you have support before and after to help you integrate your experiences.
You Don’t Need Drugs in Shamanism, Really, I promise!
For those of you who rely on hallucinogens to connect spiritually, I have to ask; What do you do when you run out?
There is more than one way to do this work.
In the 15 years since I started my journey, I have gone through three different teaching phases. The first phase when I was adopted in by the crew at Anishnawbe Health Toronto. I was not taught how to do healing work on others, that’s a very different thing, but I was given the Teachings from a traditional Ojibwa, Cree and Saulteaux perspective. The medicine people journeyed to drums and medicine songs, and my first experiences with journey work were spontaneous journeys during ceremony that I would later share with the elders. Drugs and alcohol were strictly prohibited.
Next I studied with Tira Brandon-Evans, and I can’t remember whether she had a protocol around drugs or alcohol. It simply never came up because Tira taught me to journey to music. The topic of drugs was never even raised.
Finally, when I began working with Daniel Leonard, he taught me how to rely on the medicine of the elk within my drum or the deer within my rattle to carry me safely into the Spirit World and back again. He showed me that, if I wish to journey faster or have more intense journeys, I must focus and practice. It takes time and sacrifice; it’s not meant to be easy.
Take Your Time, Do Your Research (years not days), Then Teach Others
If you’re drawn to using certain drugs to bring on visions or trance, then please work with a ceremony conductor with years of experience under their belt, and who will support you before, during and after the ceremony.
Think of it as a one-year commitment with the ceremony right in the middle (minimum). Six months prep. Six month integration.
Next, never do these kinds of drugs alone. Even magic mushrooms can cause problems for spiritually sensitive people. If you’re spiritually sensitive, then sitting alone in the forest with a bag of shrooms is probably a bad idea.
And for those of you who have been drawn to certain kinds of medicine and your experiences have been good, or at least they are now integrated, then I have a request for you:
Sit with that medicine for a few years. Study with people who are themselves trained to use those medicines in their ceremonies, and practice with them in supervised environments. Learn the work.
People in North America and Europe need others who can safely guide them. We need teachers. We need ceremonies. There are simply not enough people out there doing this work in a good and responsible way.
But for now, if you’re not sure that you can or should take these hallucinogenic medicines safely, rest assured that you don’t need drugs in shamanism. You can have just as powerful a trip with a good steady drum beat and a bit of focus, and it’s a heck of a lot safer than off-market hallucinogenics and more convenient than a trip to Peru.