What’s the difference between shamanic plant medicine and a non-shamanic approach that you might get from your local herbalist?
To my knowledge, there are two main differences:
Shamanic Practitioners Work With Plant Spirits, Not Just Plants
My favourite example of shamanic plant medicine is cedar. Cedar is amazing for colds (provided you are not allergic and its prepared correctly so as to remove the thujone oil.)
An herbalist might extol the amount of vitamin C in cedar, its antiviral and antifungal properties, the fact that it actually tastes rather nice with honey, etc.
In contrast, a shamanic practitioner goes beyond the medicine properties and seeks to engage the spirit of the cedar to help heal the client.
With shamanic plant medicine, we believe that every living thing has a spirit. A person, a rabbit, a tree, a bush. Furthermore, my teachings are that everything on this earth is born/hatched/sprouts (!) with a healing gift. If that spirit is willing to help the client by using its healing gift, it will share with the practitioner what needs to be done.
It may not even be a matter of making a tea or poultice or what have you. Perhaps the client carries the medicine around with them. Puts it under their pillow. Puts in in the bath. It doesn’t really matter because they are working with the spirit – not just the plant itself.
This allows shamans to heal clients using powerful medicines that could never safely be ingested.
For example, imagine the spirit of cedar is willing to help heal a client, but the client is allergic to cedar. The cedar can still work with the client through the shamanic practitioner without physically coming into contact with the client. The healing work simply happens in the spirit world.
Shamanic Practitioners Must Build Relationships With Those Plant Spirits
Most shamanic practitioners only work with spirits they know well and they trust well. These relationships are carefully cultivated and consistently honoured in various ways (just like real-world relationships.)
Generally a plant spirit will choose the practitioner, not the other way around. To be able to work with one medicine or another (i.e. the spirit of cedar, the spirit of willow, the spirit of wild ginger, etc.) is a gift that cannot just be taken or assumed because one wants it.
Like all spiritual relationships, the relationships that shamanic practitioners have with plant spirits are scared and approached carefully.
And once the spirit decides to work with a healer, that person must work hard to keep those relationships in good stead.
If instructions include gathering certain medicines, there are usually teachings around how to gather them (these teachings may be cultural or come directly from the spirits through unverified personal gnosis), so it’s not just a case of ‘go outside and cut a bough of cedar and boil it up.’ It goes much deeper.
Why Taking Ayahuasca Or Peyote Can Be A Long-Term Commitment
This is one of the reasons why I often caution friends, family and clients about things like ayahuasca or peyote…
It’s not that I’m against these ceremonies, but I think it’s really important to know what you’re getting into.
First, are you 100% confident that the practitioner has a strong spiritual relationship with either of these plants? How were they trained to work with it/how did they come by their teachings? Physical and spiritual safety is important.
Next, do you understand what you’re getting into? Let me ask this another way: Are you willing to invite these spirits into your life for the rest of your life for the sake of ‘a spiritual experience’?
Being non-native, I don’t know too much about either of these medicines, and I’ve never had an interest in either (they are not my way), but I DO know that they are STRONG spirits. You ingest them via powerful ceremonies that require powerful ceremony conductors, and these ceremonies can bring about big transformation.
It’s all well and good, until you change your mind two weeks later.
These kinds of ceremonies cannot be undone. One cannot be ‘unintroduced’ to a powerful spirit because they find that working with that spirit is more than they’d intended, or they didn’t really understand what they were getting into in the first place, or it was a lark because they were on vacation.
The Moral of This Story
If you are thinking about attending an ayahuasca ceremony or simply engaging a shamanic practitioner who you know works with plants, be aware of the spiritual side of the work.
A good first step is simply understanding that working with plant spirits in the shamanic sense is more than just drinking a tea or having a cool hallucinogenic experience. This kind of work should be approached from a place of understanding, respect and gravitas.
And if you do engage a shamanic practitioner, and they give you directions around a plant, take those instruction seriously. You are working with spirit now.
Finally, if you’re not 100% sure, ask the questions I’ve written about here, and keep asking them until you get an answer that you understand. Trust your instincts, and they will serve you well!
Photo used with permission of photographer (and my lovely friend), Richard Land, 2018