Elliot Cowan on Healing Plant Spirits

There is a story told by a traditional doctor from BotsWana
about a villager who fell seriously ill and called the local
healer. After examining the patient the healer went off to
consuit the mountains, the waters, the animals and the
plants in the area. When he returned he told the villagers
that someone had cut down a tree without asking permission
of the spirit of the tree. This disrespectful act by one
had created imbalance that showed up as illness in someone
eise. The villagers understood the tree was teaching
them something and that there would be larger conse-
quences for everyone unless good relationship to the trees
was restored. A ritual was prescribed to remediate-the
offense. The whole village participated; the patient and his the region.
community returned to health.

This story should be remembered in any interaction with
plants. Plant spirits are part of a web woven of love aod respect,
giving and receiving.We humans are part of it too.When we tear
the web, a plant messenger shows up with a suitcase with something
designed to make sure we take the message to heart.  The
suitcase is labeled "misfortune." The messenger says, "For the
sake of all creation, repair the web. Get back to what supports
you, what supports others, what supports everything: love and
respect, giving and receiving."

These days there is a lot of interest in plants and the healing
they can teach us, but if you are interested in engaging one ofthe
sacred plant teachers--plants such as peyote, ayahuasca or special
mushrooms--you should remember the story of disrespectful
use as if your life depended on it. The power of these plants
is beyond imagination; you don't want to see their messeenger
arriving with his suitcase.

To understand respectful engagement with these great teachers
we have to go back to the time when the gods were singing
a great story-the story of the world. Thet singing brought the
world and all its creatures into being, including, eventually, us
humans. The Darwinians made their best guess about how this
carne about, but according to the indigenous wisdom keepers,
they didn't get it quite right.The different human peoples did not
evolve out of a common ancestor; they were each born out of the
womb of their own homeland.we appeared in different parts of the
world at the same time. Each group was as much a part of their environment
as the other animals and plants of the region.

Each animal was sung into the world with the equipment it needed:
wings, gills, fur, pointy or hooked beak, claws, fast running
legs, a keen sense of smell or hearing and so on.The special equip:-
nent given to us was the human mind with its unique ability to
create the sensation of separateness. However, if our mind forgets
that we are part of the web of being, this forgetfulness is the soure.
of illness and suffering. All the original peoples were given teachings
and practices to remind us that we are part of the web. Remernbering
produces healing wisdom, a flourishing environment,
and a sustainable way of life.

Some indigenous peoples were given sacred plant teachers as
memory aids to maintaio this web of being--doorways to sacred
realms of knowledge, wisdom and healing. Some of these plants
like peyote, are ingested; others, like the wind tree, are not, but
not one of them was brought forth everywhere or for everyone's
use. This is because, as we have seen, people belong to the environment
they are born into, and their lives and needs are shaped
by their ancestral place. The Inuit is very diflerent from Amazonian;
the Aborigine different from the Celt, the Zulu from Mongol,
and each has different needs. Their souls are made the ancestral
stuff of different lands. The ways of remembering are different for each.
Their sacred plant teachers are for them:
None is for everybody.

If it's all about you, then the plant
teacher  will see you as disrespectful.
It may ignore you; it may play a
little trick on you, or it may send its
messenger with a bulging suitcase.

In the old days it was perfectly clear who could benefit from
a sacred plant teacher. For example, if you were a member of
group that had been through countless cycles of living and dying
where the ayahuasca vine grows, then you and ayahuasca were
made for each other' If you were from sorneplace else, ayahuasca
was not for you.These days it is more difficult to know whether
a plantis right for you.Very few of us live in our ancestral homelands,
and we no longer practice the ancient funerary rites that
keep the soul close to its ancestral energy.  We have become soul
mutts. It is, therefore, very hard to know if our soul energy is
Amazonian, Inuit, Celt or Zulu or something else. Here, therefore,
are some essential questions to think about.

Are you considering whether the plant you wish to heal you
sees you as one of its people-the people it was brought into
the world to help? Or is it all about what you want? If it's all
about you, then the plant teacher will see you as disrespectfirl' It
may ignore you; it may play a little trick on you, or it may send
its messenger with a bulging suitcase. These days you need the
help of a trustworthy guide who can look into your soul to see
whether you and the sacred plant teacher are soul mates'
Actually, a human guide has always been needed; the sacred
plant insist on it.They were brought into the world to benefit
us. They open into vastness we cannot navigate on our own.
On our own we easily get lost, and a lost person is of no benefit
to himself or others, except as an example of what not to
do. A good guide has himself had a guide. He--or she--has
walked the path and is still walking it.  He knows the direction,
the twists and turns. He knows who belongs to the medicine
and who does not. He has seen many receive blessings and
some who have suffered misfortune. The successful ones, like
himsetf, stayed true to the traditions given by the plant and
passed down through generation after generation of ancesters,
The unsuccessful ones wanted to have it their way'.

In the tradition of the Huichol--the People of the Peyote of
western Mexico--this is what it takes to become a guide for
peyote: First, there are at least five years of grueling apprenticeship
under the supervision of a tricky, hardball-playing shaman.
Then there is a dangerous initiation ritual.  If candidates make
it through initiation succensfully, they have themselves become
shamans and must take on a life of service to their community'
Still, they are not ready to guide others' They must now work as
shamans for another five years.  If they are seen to be effective
healers and devoted to the welfare of their people, they may ask
for a second initiation, which is even more dangerous than the
first. After running that gauntlet they present themselves for third
initiation as a guide to peyote. In that final initiation the
ancestors, the gods and peyote itself at last declare them ready to
help others who would ask this sacred plant teacher for help.
Preparing to become a guide is always a big responsibility. The
one who disregards tradition, who looks for shortcuts, who declares
himself a guide--that person is a dangerous fool.  These
days all kinds of people offer themselves; some are authentic,
some are deluded, some are after money, sex or power. Make
sure your guide is properly initiated and has your interest at heart.
Due to their enormous popularity, two sacred plant teachers
deserve special mention here: mariiuana and tobacco. Let's
consider marijuana first. Its homelend is Central Asia' In the
Western world it is rare to find a person with substantial soul
relatedness to that land and plant. It is even more rare to find
someone initiated into its indigenous protocols and rarer still to
find a properly initiated guide willing to teach others.  Marijuana
tricks people into believing they are benefiting from it' Outside of
its sacred context the sacred teacher becomes a trickster carrying
an intriguing, prettily decorated suitcase'

The rituals of engagement between sacred plants and

guides are not invented by an individual:  they are not

even invented by a culture.

Many more people harre relatedness to tobacco, but very few
recognize and respect its sacredness.These days it is feared and
condemned as a poison, and the numbers of smoking-related
deaths and illnesses would seem to support that view. But tobacco
like all sacred plants becomes destructive when treated
with disrespect. The statistics do not prove the malevolence of
this plant they only demonstrate that it is massively abused.
Tobacco was brought forth in the Americas, and I have never
been anywhere on these continents where it does not have an irnportant
place in indigenous spiritual practices. It helps people hear
with the ears of the heart, so it is a special adiunct to prayer-the
source of many blessings. Ironically, the plant, which produces
healing and protection in the indigenous world, produces danger
and illness in the modern one. In most cultures tobacco does not
require elaborate conditions for its proper use, but it does demand
unfailing gratitude and respect. A minimal ritual setting is good for
keeping the user focused and honest about his intentions.

The rituals of engagement between sacred plants and guides
are not invented by an individual; they are not even invented by
a culture.  They were given.to the peoples along with the plant;
actually, they are part of the sacred presence ofthe plant. When
the moment arrives to invoke rhe medicine of the sacred plant
teacher, what kind of situation is ttre sacred plant teacher invited
into? Is it focused respectful and safe, as the plant desires? Or is it
scattered contaminated by egotism--an invitation to misfortune?
A trustworthy human guide follows the instructions given to the
ancestors about how to build a propcr ritual container, and he
listens carefully for guidance on moment-to-momerrt adiustrnents.

When the Huichols want to ask their sacred plant teacher for special gifts,
they take great care with the ritual setting. First, the human guide sets a date
for a pilgrimage to the birthplace of their traditions. There is a preparatory month
of abstinence from sex, salt and bathing. A deer is hunted and killed with the
propef, prayers and respecq a bull is also purchased and propedy sacrificed. Special
offerings are constructed and prayed over with love and devotion; later ttrese
will be left at the sacred site. The journey is long*until a few years ago it took a
month of walking.These days, trucks and buses can be hired, but the cost is so great
that the journey may be postponed for lack of funds.

Along the way there is much protocol to atend to, culminating at the entrance to the holy land with a specific purification rite that leaves the fasting pilgrims innocent as young children
there are moments to move and moments to stay still, moments to speak and moments to keep silent. A fue is built, consecrateand lovingly tended. An altar is constructed, festooned with offerings aad anointed with the blood of the deer and the bull.

The sacred medicine is prayed to, searched for, found, prayed
to again and again, blessed by fire attending shaman and finally
eaten. The prayers, the offerings, the altar-- everything is done
with scrupulous and loving attention to the prescriptions given
to the ancestors at the beginnings of time. The pilgrims vigil
through the night. At dawn they sing the traditional prayers '
gratitude and start the long journey back to their village.

Traditional indigenous peoples understand such practices;
they know the practical value of rituals, and they take
great care with them. Modernl Western people often feel these
things are quaint and obsolete. When dealing. with sacred plant
medicine some will say, "I have good intention. I am respectful.
There won't be any problems for me."

This is naive, Yes, sometimes naive engagements work out okay
but sometimes they don't. If we wish to be blessed with knowledge,
wisdom or healing, it not for us to say what we must give in return.
It is not for us to say how we must demonstrate our respect.
The spirits of the plants will make the call.

This article was excerped from the upcoming net
edition of Plant Spifi Medicine.

Join Eliot
In March of 2013 Eliot Cowan will begin a
new cycle of classes tor Plant Spirit Medicine
(PSM) at the Blue Deer Center in Margaret-
vilie, NY. While this offering is for those who
want to become Plant Spirit Medicine healers.
it is aiso a wonderful experiential oppornrnity
for those interested in learning more about
how to be present in and communicate with
the living world. For more information write
psminfo@plantspiritmedicine.org or visit the
PSM website ar plantspiritmedicine.org

Join them.] Ed.