Notes on the Use of Entheogens
This is an older article (slightly revised) that I am shifting over to my blog from my website – expect several more of these as I re-order a few things. More details to follow soon.
Many cultures have a tradition of using psychoactive plants in religious ritual to aid in communion with gods and spirits. In fact, some peoples worship these special plants as divinities themselves, and speak of meeting with the spirit of the plant during their experiences. These plants are called “entheogens” by anthropologists, coming from the Greek which means “a god is within.” Entheogens are especially used by shamans and other spiritual specialists, to guide them on their ecstatic trance journeys.
In recent decades, these plants have been discovered by members of modern western cultures who are seeking experiences of the spiritual and other planes of existence. These are not drugs to be taken just to get “high.” They must be respected. They exist, I believe, in part to help us transcend our normal perceptions, our mental blocks, our doubts, and experience the divine directly.
Due to a combination of factors, including our cultural issues with “drugs” and the biases of earlier anthropologists and ethnographers such as Mircea Eliade, there are many misunderstandings about the use of entheogens in spiritual practice. Some think that it is unnatural – however, not only are plants certainly part of nature itself, but it is well documented that even animals take advantage of psychoactive substances when they can find them (reindeer eat fly agaric mushrooms, birds eat fermented fruit that’s become alcoholic, etc.). And in fact, many of the same exact chemicals found in entheogens are produced by our own bodies naturally (just not in the same quantities or concentrations) – such as DMT (possibly secreted by the pineal gland, and also found in the Amazonian brew called ayahuasca) or the recent discovery of endocannabinoids.
Another commonly held idea is that entheogens are a degraded path to altered states of consciousness, only used in cultures once the “purer” methods (such as meditation, fasting, rhythm, etc.) are forgotten or no longer understood, or only used by novice shamans. But a thorough examination of entheogen use in traditional cultures shows that they are often used side by side with those other methods, by experienced shamans who know what they are doing and can attain trance via other methods as well. Entheogens are simply one tool in the toolbox of a spiritworker, no better or worse inherently than any other tool, each with its own benefits, risks and downsides. They are not “cheating” somehow, just because they provide a quicker path to altered states than some other ways, because like every other path, they merely open a door, and the spiritworker, or devotee, or medicine man, still has to go through that door, handle themselves on the other side, retrieve useful information, recall it afterwards, etc.
The only difference is that we can see very clearly that they are altering our brain chemistry – however, other tools do the same thing, we just often don’t realize it. Pain, for instance, releases endorphins and changes our state of consciousness. So does fasting. Hyperventilation or oxygen deprivation, used in many rituals, works by changing brain chemistry as well. Just because something functions via a physical process does not make it less sacred – as most spiritworkers know well, the gods and spirits usually work through physical means of some sort to communicate with and touch us (for instance, answering our questions via the flight of birds or fall of knucklebones, healing through the right mixture of herbs or the hands of a healer). Of course, the gods are entirely independent of our brain chemistry, but our experience of Them is not. Our ability to contact Them directly, to open our minds in that way, cannot be divorced from the physical processes involved, the very mechanism of our communication. Entheogens are simply one way to receive the message.
And entheogens in fact are not an easy path at all. Most of them are dangerous to some degree, either from their physiological effects (anywhere from mild nausea to death in extreme cases) or their mental effects (they can blow open the doors of perception too quickly for the inexperienced or unsuspecting experimenter, which can even lead to psychotic breaks in some). It takes patience, courage and dedication to pursue this path. You must research every plant you think of using, make sure you know correct dosage and common side effects and interactions. Ideally, if possible, you should grow the plant yourself, enter into a close relationship with the spirit. Offerings to the spirit of the plant, prayers, purification, extensive preparations and rituals are all part of the proper approach. Even if everything goes right, and the entheogens pull aside the veil for you, you have to know what to do next yourself.
I have experimented with several entheogens over the years, including Peganum harmala (syrian rue), Nymphaea caerulea (blue lotus), Calea zacatechichi (dream herb) and Sceletium tortuosom (channa). At this stage in my path, I am entirely focused on just a few as my allies, most notably Salvia divinorum (diviner’s sage) and Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) – the latter not technically a plant but a fungus, yet still an entheogen. I hope to write more in-depth on these two in the future.
So far, all of these plants are still legal to possess and use in the United States (with the exception of Salvia divinorum, which is now illegal in certain states), but that may not last forever. The government of this country clearly wants to control not only the bodies but the minds of its citizens. Plants like these are merely aids in reaching altered states of consciousness, and yet one by one they are being outlawed. If we are not free to choose the state of our own minds, how can we say we live in a free country? This issue is critical to the future of our freedom, our spirituality, our most fundamental rights. I support research of these plants for use in physical and emotional healing, and for their abilities to expand consciousness and let one communicate with the divine. I strongly believe that educated and proper use of these plants will further us as a species, and I pray that our chances to explore them will not be cut off entirely by the same government that crowds our prisons with harmless marijuana users (which is, of course, another entheogen, when used respectfully).