Telling people about my work with sacred plants can meet with two distinct responses. The person I'm speaking to may appear to take a sudden mental step backwards while they decide if I'm serious. "That's ridiculous," they might say if I asked; "Poisons? Drugs? No one uses those anymore; we don't need them." Or perhaps the person nods with great enthusiasm, then invites me to attend a "ritual" with them (and they send a coded wink my way). "What fun!" they might say. "Parties! Indulgence! No one knows how to have fun anymore; we'll do it like they did in ancient Greece ."
I can explain chemistry, history, and discipline to the first person. Maybe they'll listen, maybe they won't; they will generally recognize my argument as reasonable though may not agree. I can't explain anything to the second person because they are too busy telling me about that time with the beer bong and 'shroom pizza; they'll encourage me to "honor the plants" by partaking and tell me that it's the doorway to a higher reality.
While I agree that imbibing these plants is a way to honor them, I worry that these people may use "honoring the plants" as an excuse to get high, or that they don't have the commitment and discipline necessary to keep themselves safe. Without these things, the path of sacred plants may not take you very far towards useful spiritual exploration. Discipline is necessary to resist addictive tendencies and to avoid injuring one's spirit allies; this committed behavior extends to many facets of a person's life, from how we eat to how we deal with the natural world. An important emphasis on this path is how we affect the world, and how the world affects us.
This discipline is partnered with ecstasy, and this is one of the most exciting and ecstatic paths of shamanic practice there is. The Greek roots of the word ecstasy mean "to stand outside the self" and that is certainly what happens. The chemistry of a plant seizes the body and the spirit of a plant seizes the mind; mind and body are separated in order to face each other, or to gaze through a new lens of perception. The normal function of body and mind is suspended, and the awareness is free. This is dangerous.
Human awareness is a complex, fascinating thing. It handles billions of units of information in a near instant, filtering out what is unnecessary and allowing us a nearly unlimited range of possibilities; we can focus on a single task at once, or many. Normal brain function allows us to choose, to a greater or lesser degree, what we notice in a given moment. Conditions such as stress exaggerate our perception; time slows down, colors are more extreme, or sound may be an undifferentiated cacophony. Conditions brought on by the chemistry of sacred plants also alter normal brain functions, and we are aware of things in a way normally outside our notice. The shapes and voices of spirits may become more distinct as the distractions of the physical body fall away; the sensation of flight or of physical shapeshifting can occur, and we may be aware of our environment in totally new ways. However, all these altered conditions are not normal brain function and can stress our bodies and minds in sometimes irrevocable ways. A person unaccustomed to the sensations of altered awareness may panic and harm themselves or others. Normal rules of perception and reasoning no longer apply, and it can be like gravity has suddenly ceased to exist. There is no up or down by which to order one's inner world.
Under the effects of extreme doses or potent herbs, a few people may experience what is sometimes referred to as psychic or shamanic death; they experience the death of body and identity and, if they're lucky, they reemerge from the experience; if they're not lucky, the death experience results in mental and emotional instability or physical injury to themselves or others. (The factors that differentiate these so-called shamanic deaths from the ones experienced by actual shamans is the subject of another discussion altogether.) Many of these extreme experiences take place outside any structured context and leave the participants to fend for themselves within a mental landscape unprepared for such a brutal shaking up and a body not ready for potent chemicals.
Plants and plant spirits are wild, anarchic beings. They will find their way through cracks in pavement, rock, or consciousness and have as much power to destroy as they do to nurture and uplift. The powers of the Green World affirm every part of life from emergence and birth to rotting decay; these powers speak to humanity in each stage of life and remind us to face each transition with pure wild joy. How then can we bring this wild lifeforce into a context we can use?
Giving the ecstatic experience boundaries does not limit its potential potency; rather, structure gives ecstasy a focus in order to concentrate the experience and achieve the most use from it as possible. Carefully structuring the environment of these spirit-inspired ecstasies will allow you to immerse yourself deeper into the experience and emerge with a greater chance of safety.
First, begin with yourself. Your body is the vehicle for your mind and awareness, so your body is the natural starting point. Body and spirit are affected by each other; problems with one will often translate to problems with the other. A healthy body (or at the very least a not unhealthy body) helps support a healthy spirit and vice versa. Being on this path full-time demands that I pay close attention to my diet and what I put into my body; I focus on nutrition in strict vegetarian choices (a vegan diet with the exception of honey), low sugar, with a growing emphasis on organics and on getting rid of refined ingredients. Although not all these considerations are possible each and every day, I am held to strict vegetarianism at all times. This doesn't mean that I don't have occasional treats and snacks, I just have to moderate what snacks I choose or look for more healthful alternatives.
Pay attention to your body's energy flow as well. Are the blockages, seeps, or snags anywhere? Do you have any hitchhikers or indwellers? Are your energy centers balanced and clear? Basic grounding, centering, and focus techniques are the first step in maintaining energetic health. From there, look to your energy centers and make sure none are closed off, dark, or over-compensating for centers that are closed off. A closer look at internal flow can show you weak spots and any troublemaking hangers-on. If you have trouble getting your flow to circulate out garbage or if you need help ridding yourself of a troublemaker, someone skilled in energy healing techniques such as Reiki can assist. Another thing you can do on your own is exercise. Even if it's just a walk around the block, pick an activity and do it regularly as often as possible. This helps physical flow (blood in the circulatory system) as well supporting healthy energetic flow.
Be aware of any potential drug interactions. Mixing chemicals can be very dangerous and can aggravate conditions that may normally be under control. Unfortunately, not all plants found on this path have been scientifically scrutinized. Even with ample research, you may still find yourself unsure about interactions. Always remember that just because something is "natural" doesn't mean that it's safe to use. Research thoroughly!
For someone not on this path full time, long term regular dietary and activity requirements may not be necessary, but you should keep the techniques in mind when preparing for entheogen work because they help begin to structure your session with a sacred plant and its spirit. Give yourself more than a few days to incorporate these considerations into your life; drastically changing your diet and activity levels stresses the body, which could make you less receptive to the entheogen. Work slowly and steadily over a period of weeks or months, if possible. Paying attention to physical and energetic health never hurt anyone, and the longer these considerations are made, the more responsive to the ecstatic experience you will be.
Look at your environment next. Where will you be using the entheogen? Who will be with you? The challenges presented inside a house will be different than the challenges of an entheogen session in the forest, so prepare accordingly. If you are in a house, take time to clean and organize everything; there is nothing more distracting to a growing trance state than the mental reminder that you haven't washed your dishes yet. Clear away clutter that would distract the mind; make your space comfortable but not overwhelming. Turn off the TV and unplug the phone; these intrusions have no place in the work you'll be doing. Be mindful of the condition your body will be in; will you need blankets, water, or a place to lay down? Keep these close at hand so you won't have to hunt them down.
Having another person keep an eye on things can be invaluable; these spotters can pay attention to your body while your mind is elsewhere and handle any potential disturbances. This is an important job and ideally shouldn't be filled by your friend who just happens to have a free afternoon. They may have preparations of their own to address before the session and they ought to figure into your planning. While I sincerely hope that this is never a need, having a person who knows some basic first aid or who can call emergency services with the names of the chemicals you're dosed with could make a great deal of difference should something very bad happen. Spiritual emergencies like loosing bits of yourself or having trouble coming fully back to your body can also arise during entheogen work. Someone who knows you well and is experienced in this sort of care is also very helpful.
Finally, consider what will happen after you're finished with your session. The effects of an entheogen will vary a great deal, not just from plant to plant, but from session to session with the same plant. One session may leave you exhausted and emotionally shot, while another leaves feelings of renewal and joy in the wake of chemicals dancing through your brain. Minimizing your responsibilities after a session will give you time to recover in body, mind, and spirit. Even when you feel fine, keep in mind that a great deal has happened, and it will take time to come completely back to yourself. You're likely to be more emotionally sensitive and may react strongly to situations normally handled with ease. This is where another person again comes in handy; the simple physical proximity of another person helps you come back to yourself, and a skilled spotter will help comfort and counsel raw emotions.
The discipline of willpower figures into entheogen work as well. When one enters into a working relationship with any sacred plant, there is no room for recreational use at all. The spirit may have other taboos or requirements that you must uphold, and having the willpower to adhere to these rules is very important. Aside from that is the intriguing dynamic of submission to the experience and the ability to arise whole from it again. As those involved with the BDSM fetish community will tell you, it is the submissive partner who holds the real power. There is great power in knowing how to fully turn yourself over to the power of another (human, spirit, or deity) and know that you are not weaker or broken for the experience. This dynamic has been described in terms of a game, of being at play, and of dying and being reborn. In a sense, it is rather like drinking poison and not being harmed. In Hindu cosmology, Shiva is known as Nilakantha, "blue-throated," for having drunk the poison generated by the churning of the Sea of Milk at the beginning of time. The churning brought forth many treasures but the shadow side of physical existence is pain, and so the poison was a natural counterpart during creation. Shiva was the only one strong enough to contain the poison and He was able to drink it where any other deity would have died. His devotees play with marijuana, smoking more than any normal person could and still remaining sober; this demonstrates mastery over their own awareness.
Setting a controlled surrounding allows our awareness to be released into the strength of the spirit and the plant we work with. We can cultivate the willpower needed to turn ourselves over to another being by self-knowledge and by creating structure in our lives that supports the ecstasy of this path. It is entirely possible for someone suitably skilled to resist the mind-altering effects of these plants, but what is proved by this resistance? Some could argue that the strength to revive from radically altered states, to resist addiction, and to gracefully surrender control is a truer indication of self-mastery. There is a more esoteric level to this ingestion of poison; the spirit-worker who goes forward on this path with knowledge and willingness helps transmute the poison of a culture into a new substance. This is done in small increments, maybe in measures barely discernable, but poison can be battled with poison. This is unusual work found in several parts of spirit-work and shamanism, accomplished through several different means. It is, so to speak, homeopathy for the world.
As humans, we try to impose systematic order on a world that we perceive to be chaotic. We try to apply our understanding of order onto systems that have their own ideas of how they should be ordered; little concern is given to the self-image of the beings we seek to define. The search for patterns in what would otherwise be complete chaos doesn't have to be so one-sided; working with the spirits of this path helps a person create structure that supports and enhances their work and gives the spirits useful tools to communicate with us. We each have to learn to speak the other's language. Naturally, some give and take will have to happen; the plants willingly give up their bounty, the spirits give their assistance, and we respond with care, attention, and adherence to the rules that help keep all parties safe. Our willingness to cultivate discipline on the path of sacred plants creates a launch pad for ecstatic experience and gives a safe place to which we can return. Beginning and continuing to live in a disciplined manner is the first step towards the self-mastery needed to work on this or any path and will give you skills that will affect and enhance every other part of your life.