Entheogen Use in Spirit-Work
“But I would say this, that walking with teacher plants is far from easy. Their purgative effects can be punishing on the body, while they are nothing if not existentially and ontologically challenging. Many cultures regard the experience as something of a moral interrogation, where one is forced to review one’s actions and their consequences from the standpoint of others. One’s failings are typically brought to the fore. Perhaps that’s why the path tends to be self-selecting.” (Andy Letcher, in response to those who claim that entheogens are a shortcut, a degradation of purer spirit work practice, etc.)
I remember – in my early pagan days, studying at college – reading Mircea Eliade’s confident and clearly biased assertions that entheogen use marked a later, lesser form of shamanism. I thought this notion had been debunked by now, but apparently it persists in some quarters. It’s rather patently ridiculous, as entheogen use can be found in pretty much every animistic/polytheistic society to some degree, and the only people who seem to have such attitudes about it are Western folks outside of the traditions, obviously influenced by the anti-drug mindset of our own culture, which looks at any attempt to alter consciousness with a certain amount of suspicion and contempt. There is no objective reason that using an entheogen to access certain mental and spiritual states is any less valid than any other method – in fact, it may be more useful in some circumstances, as it involves (when done properly) interactions with actual spirits who may share vital knowledge or resources, rather than simply a temporary change in one’s brain chemistry.
I used to be somewhat wary of my own entheogen use, constantly checking to make sure I wasn’t relying on them too heavily. While that might be a reasonable concern – with any shamanic tool – the irony is that I was often actually avoiding them too much, and had to remind myself to keep those relationships active with semi-regular use and communion. The reasons for my avoidance were pretty much what Andy Letcher states above – entheogens are hard on the body and the mind. My two primary entheogenic allies are Amanita muscaria and Salvia divinorum. Amanita brings me nausea, excess salivation, and drowsiness along with its more beneficial effects. Salvia, especially the extracted and enhanced versions, can produce seriously terrifying and even traumatic experiences on a mental/spiritual level, just as often as it opens doors directly to the otherworlds (and sometimes, those are the same thing).
And while I have no idea if this is unique to my strange way of functioning, or simply a direct effect of working with the spirits themselves, I have found that over time, the effects become less and less tied to the substances themselves – in other words, I might take a tiny amount and experience a physically-impossible full trip, or take a lot and experience nothing at all, depending on my own state of receptivity, and the will of the spirits. Which means that every time I embark on a journey with them to any degree, I am putting myself in their hands entirely, and risking both mental annihilation and conversely having the whole thing fizzle.
To actually get something useful out of these experiences – to stay on the path rather than succumbing to physical issues or merely drifting off into an unproductive la la land – requires training, spirit allies, practice, and dedication… and a fair bit of courage. These entheogens are not fun, they are not recreational, and they certainly aren’t the easy option. One must learn to maintain some level of control while simultaneously surrendering to what the plants/fungi are communicating, and then be able to process and utilize the experience in one’s spirit-work. It is much easier, safer and reliable to alter consciousness with breathwork, drumming, sensory deprivation or overload, dancing, prayer, etc.
Which is why despite entheogens being a purported “shortcut,” few spirit-workers (in my experience) actually use them regularly, and some avoid them entirely (either by taboo or personal preference) – especially wise considering we lack a traditional context and experienced teachers to guide us in their proper use. Those of us who walk this path usually do so because we were called by the plant spirits themselves (and/or instructed by other spirits to seek them out), and have negotiated a reciprocal relationship which mitigates the dangers to a degree, similar to any other spirit interaction. But we are always walking a sharp edge.