In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the use of ancient shamanic medicines, and remarkably one of the most promising uses for them in the modern world is the healing of the destructive relationship we have with their modern cousins: substances of recreation and abuse.
Keep in mind that all of the shamanic medicines listed below have the potential to do harm when facilitated by practitioners who don’t have the appropriate level of training and experience.
The True Purpose of Culture… and Psychoactive Substances
Before the written word existed, knowledge was passed down through culture. In each generation, the vital information learned through life experience that could help ensure survival for future generations was encoded into story, dance, song and ceremony so that the accumulated the wisdom of that generation and all the ancestors before them could be remembered and passed on indefinitely into the future.
In the world we live in today, we may have the written word, but culture seems to have lost its original purpose of carrying information designed to prevent us from losing our way and becoming self-destructive, and potentially even leading ourselves to our own extinction.
One of the most self-destructive aspects of modern ‘culture’ is our relationship with substances that have the ability to alter our consciousness, i.e what we commonly call ‘drugs’.
Long before these self-destructive aspects of modern western culture, there was a long history of knowledge around the use of non-ordinary states. Psychoactive substances, for almost all of human history, have been used to support the original purpose of culture: to preserve and enhance our ability to survive and thrive in our environment.
Iboga and Ibogaine
The chemical compound found within iboga – ibogaine – has been found to be effective in many cases to completely cure heroin addiction (and other addictions) in a single session.
Iboga is a plant from the equatorial rainforests of West Africa. The most well-known use of this plant comes from The Bwiti tradition in Gabon, where it is used in flood doses for initiation rituals; introducing the initiate to a fully immersive and personal experience of the world of the spirits. This initiation can last for around 72 hours, where the person is in an intense and non-ordinary state. Reports from recipients often describe a strong, loving, masculine presence guiding them through and supporting them as they experience all the pain they have ever caused others – from the perspective of the person who was harmed. This is by no means the only kind of experience, however, it’s common enough to mention. Like all visionary shamanic medicines, the healing is occurring on emotional levels as well as physical. Practitioners claim that the healing also occurs on spiritual levels.
On a neurological level, ibogaine resets the opiate receptors in the brain to the state they were in before the addiction. Though, this is a double-edged sword because, on one hand, it completely removes all craving, but on the other hand it also removes tolerance. Therefore if a person relapses (often due to social reasons), there is a high risk of overdose, if the person was to take what they had come to consider a normal dose.
Ibogaine is illegal in many countries where the war on drugs still continues to escalate. It has been shown to also be effective for other forms of addiction including cocaine and methamphetamines.
Kambo a.k.a. Sapo, or Kampu
The Phyllomedusa Bicolor frog of the Amazon jungle is known as the Giant Monkey Frog for its ability to go anywhere it chooses in the jungle, including high in the canopy, and far from water. It is able to do so due to a secretion that has the two-fold effect of keeping moisture in, and being poisonous to predators. Kambo is also known as the king of the amazon, as predators know to leave it alone and it is, therefore, free to roam where it chooses without interference.
Kambo has been effective in assisting with addiction interruption and acceleration of the withdrawal process.
Several tribal groups in the amazon, including the Matsés, use this secretion as an intense purgative to remove parasites, flukes, and anything else that might be obstructing hunters from being at the absolute peak of their capacity to sense and track game.
Kambo could certainly be described as ordeal medicine. Think of the vomiting, sweating, and evacuation that comes with acute food poisoning and then imagine a shamanic jungle technology that causes this natural function to be switched on, on purpose, for about 20-30mins. Kambo is not a visionary medicine and the secretion is not ingested. Small, light burns take the top layer of a person’s skin off so that the frog’s secretion is able to make contact with their nervous system (by being placed on the burns).
Kambo has been effective in assisting with addiction interruption and acceleration of the withdrawal process in a wide variety of addictions, (along with a great many other ailments), according to extensive anecdotal evidence.
On a scientific level, the Kambo secretion apparently contains the highest number of peptides of any substance known to man, and more research is needed to understand it from a modern scientific perspective. It is, however, proven to have powerful analgesic effects.
This plant is being used in a method of addiction recovery known as ‘stepping down’. It is itself a mild opioid-containing plant, which is about as addictive as caffeine. People suffering from opiate addiction have experienced rapid success in getting off pharmaceutical and street opiates by switching to kratom, as a way of achieving immediate relief from withdrawal symptoms.
The person first steps down to Kratom to get off the more intensely addictive opiate and then is able to come off the Kratom with little or no problem.
Drug abusers have also long known that they can escape the pain of withdrawal from a substance like crystal meth by switching to opiates like heroin. Meth addicts are also seeing success with healing their addiction by using Kratom in a similar way, which brings the relief they seek, without the continuing harm of further drug abuse.
Cannabidiol or CBD is derived from cannabis and is useful in helping to rehabilitate the damage to the central nervous system that can come with extended drug abuse, particularly for meth users. Over the past 50 years, CBD has been progressively bred out of recreational strains of cannabis, in order to make room for more of the intoxicant, THC. CBD has many medicinal qualities including being a natural antipsychotic.
An interesting combination being explored is the combination of Kratom for addiction interruption and CBD oil for central nervous system rehabilitation in meth abusers to relieve and heal the extremely raw feelings of nerve sensitivity that can result from meth abuse.
CBD oil is illegal in many territories, despite it not being an intoxicant and having an incredible number of healing qualities already proven by science.
An excellent example of the Amazonian visionary plant medicine being used for addiction interruption can be found at the Takiwasi healing center in Peru. Prof. Jaques Mabit accepts addicts for a 9-month program, which combines the use of Ayahuasca and other non-visionary master plants from the amazon, with western psychotherapy and a live-in community environment.
Ayahuasca is used initially to assist the purging process, in order to accelerate and reduce the severity of the withdrawal period. Throughout the program, it is also helpful in allowing the participant to understand the root causes of their addiction and heal past emotional trauma.
While far from perfect, the rate of relapse and re-use is exceptional when compared to modern western rehab methods.
Canadian addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate, has also seen success working with ayahuasca. You can find out more about this in the episode of ‘The Nature of Things with Davis Suzuki’, called ‘The Jungle Prescription’ at the end of this article.
Huachuma and Peyote
Huachuma, sometimes known as the San Pedro cactus, as well as its northern cousin, Peyote, both contain the visionary chemical mescaline. The cultural mecca of Huachuma is the Chavin temple complex in the Peruvian Andes, used in ancient times to allow thousands of participants to attend Huachuma rituals together. Peyote has been a medicine of tribes, such as the Huicholes in Central America who still, to this day, participate in annual pilgrimages into the desert to collect their sacred medicine. Peyote has also migrated north and can be found being used in the Native American Peyote Church.
These medicines are anecdotally known to heal heart and blood pressure problems, along with a wide variety of other ailments. There is also a great deal of success claimed around healing alcoholism, as well as other substance abuse problems.
There is a good deal of peer-reviewed evidence suggesting that psilocybin is highly effective in breaking nicotine addiction. I would not be surprised if this was the case with other addictive substances as well. A great video from ‘The Atlantic’ on the modern use of psilocybin in clinical trials, at Johns Hopkins, can be found here,
LSD is a man made substance originally derived from Ergot Fungus, which may well have been the elixir served at the Temple of Eleusis in ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries were large scale rituals not dissimilar to those held at the Temple of Chavin in Peru. Initiates included Socrates, Aristotle, and Pythagoras and may have actually had a significant influence on inspiring the founding of western civilization.
While LSD may not be a traditional shamanic medicine, there were those who explored its potential for inducing a non-ordinary state and being used as a healing tool for almost 30 years, before it escaped the lab and was banned in the late 60’s. Remarkably, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous was a supporter of LSD as a tool for addiction interruption.
With the ban on scientific research slowly lifting during the 90’s and 00’s, one of its most impressive clinical uses is in the treatment of alcohol addiction.
As spoken about in the Uplift article The Opposite of Addiction Is Connection, trauma, and the severance from family and community that it can cause, is very likely the underlying reason for addictive behavior.
While not a shamanic medicine in the traditional sense, MDMA is being trialed extensively in the US for use in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, for people suffering from extreme trauma (PTSD).
The theory is that the MDMA has a mood elevating effect, allowing the participant to go into the traumatic memory and come to emotional completion, without being triggered into an experience of trauma flooding. Trauma flooding is an overwhelming and immersive experience of re-living the event, which itself is traumatic and potentially only compounds the original trauma.
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may be helpful in finally releasing the pain and trauma at the root of a person’s addiction. Hopefully, clinical trails will give way to legalized MDMA-assisted psychotherapy by the end of this decade.
Plant-based 5MeO-DMT and Otac, The Sonoran Desert Toad
Arguably the most intense experience a human being can go through, other than their own birth or death, 5MeO-DMT consistently takes the subject into the very deepest states of non-ordinary awareness. This can include the temporary dissolution of personal identity and a sense of return to the oceanic oneness at the essence of all existence.
Participants report having the experience of becoming all of the infinity of existence. Transpersonal psychotherapist and theorist, Prof. Stan Grof suggests that this unitive state of oceanic oneness may be exactly what we are all craving, and may be the underlying desire at the root of all addiction.
Perhaps this state of oneness is where we came from and where we return to, and during the time we exist in this physical reality, we can experience an immense pain of separation from this state of oneness.
5MeO-DMT participants often return with a feeling that this sense of separation causing them pain is actually just an illusion, and that we are in fact always in a state of connection to ‘the source’ or to the infinite unity of all things. This separation may be the original trauma; the original feeling of disconnection discussed in my previous Uplift article ‘The Opposite of Addiction is Connection’.
Perhaps this is a clue as to why crack cocaine addicts, meth addicts, and others have been assisted in abstaining and recovering by working with what is arguably the most intense shamanic medicine of all.
The sweat lodge is one of the earliest known shamanic ceremonies. It is a ritual cleanse which involves literally crawling into a warm, damp, dark womb-like environment and going through the ordeal of intense heat, for usually four rounds that correspond with the four directions, and then having the opportunity to crawl out again renewed.
Pain and intense experiences such as ritual ordeals have the potential to open up a heightened state of neuroplasticity, so if a person wishes to change an unhelpful behavior pattern, an ordeal ritual can be helpful. Addiction is one of the most challenging behavior patterns possible so it may take a series of sweats to rewire our neural pathways, and also sweat out the toxicity of the addictive substance and its associated lifestyle. If medicines that induce psychedelic visions aren’t your cup of tea, then working with a traditional sweat lodge may be a helpful path for you.
Another method of clearing trauma used in shamanic cultures was working with the breath to flood the body and brain with oxygen; triggering a non-ordinary state. This can allow for the rapid re-arrangement of things within our consciousness that have become misaligned, including the release of trauma. In this instance, just as deep breathing can bring the pain of physical injury down from a something like an 8/10 to a 5 or 6/10, so too can the deep breathing of a breathwork ceremony dilute emotional pain. For those who are dubious about the thought of MDMA as a medicine, or those who can’t wait for years for it to become legal, breathwork could be a good avenue for releasing the underlying trauma at the root of the addictive behavior.
How and Why Do These Medicines Work?
One peer reviewed paper at a time, science seems to be proving psychedelic theorist James Kent correct on his hypothesis that psychedelic substances bring about a state of accelerated or enhanced neuroplasticity. This is an important point relating to why ceremonial use is so different to recreational use. When people take these kinds of substances casually, it seems increasingly likely that they are in a heightened state of being able to rewire their own brain… but towards what exactly? The randomness of a party or festival? On the other hand, a ceremonial setting encourages focused work on a chosen intention which means the neuroplasticity isn’t rewiring ones brain into randomness at best and a tangled mess at worst, it is instead wiring the brain towards a greater state of coherence around the person’s chosen intention for healing or personal growth.
It is my contention that this extends to ordeal medicines such as sweat lodge, vision quest and initiation rituals involving pain. Consider when the first time you burned yourself on a hot stove. Pain causes extremely accelerated neuroplaticity, helping it become ‘burned’ into our memory to never make the same mistake again. I feel it is likely that over the coming years we will see clear evidence to show that indigenous initiations involving ordeals are a technology for bringing about a non-ordinary state and a heightened state of neuroplasticity so that the lore and law of their culture can be passed on and never forgotten. We may even find that all forms of non-ordinary states bring about varying degrees of enhanced neuroplasticity.
There may be no behaviour pattern more ingrained than substance addiction, so it’s easy to see why non-addictive substances which enhance neuroplasticity may be of benefit.
Drugs are about dulling perception, about addiction and about behavioral repetition. What psychedelics are about is pattern-dissolving experiences of an extraordinarily high or different awareness. They are the exact opposite of drugs. They promote questioning, they promote consciousness, they promote value examinations, they promote the reconstruction of behavioral patterns.
– Terrence Mckenna
A Final Tip
Should you wish to explore any of these options it is important to thoroughly understand the legality of these medicines in the territory in which you live. Travel to another country may be required.
When choosing a practitioner, look for people who are, without any doubt, in service to the good of all instead in service to them self above others. Humility, reverence, and self-discipline are key qualities to seek out. It’s also best to seek references from people who have had similar challenges to you, and have been successfully helped by the practitioner you are considering.
The Nature of Things with Davis Suzuki – The Jungle Prescription
I’m disappointed to not see Essential Oils on this list.
Here’s a great paper on ‘Drumming Out Drugs’
Spending 3 months with shamans doing Ayahuajsca ceremonies in the Amazon I witnessed several people being healed from addiction. Facing the pain, letting go. Seemed to work. People relieved.