What is Plant Spirit Medicine?
In earlier times of human history, people lived in harmony with the natural world, and regarded plants as sentient, aware, intelligent, alive, and healers in their own right.::Ross Heaven
Unfortunately, in current day society, we have moved far away from this perspective. Plants are rarely viewed as anything more than objects that can be reduced to a chemical component, or an object that looks nice perched in a corner.
However, as with many aspects of our natural world, there is so much more to plants than meets the eye.
For those who strive to regain the ancient relationship with indigenous spirituality through plants as our allies, Plant Spirit Medicine can help you discover the healing power of plants.
Eliot Cowan, an American-born healer, fully initiated Tsauirrikame (shaman) in the Huichol tradition, teacher, author, and founder of the alternative healing technique known as Plant Spirit Medicine, remains as a leading authority on the healing wisdom of plants.
I had the pleasure to speak with Cowan to gain further insight into the healing world of plants.
What is Plant Spirit Medicine?
BJB: What is the basis for plant spirit medicine as a healing modality?
EC: In recent times, our culture has basically looked to plants as healing agents in terms of their chemical properties. That is a relatively recent development in the history of humanity. In previous times when people turned to plants as agents of healing they were not primarily concerned with chemical constituents, but rather they saw plants as living beings, as highly aware, having feelings and as well disposed to helping people. It was that living awareness and good disposition to help people that people turned to plants as the primary source for the element of healing potentials.
When people approach plants primarily on the basis of their relationship with plants, I call that Plant Spirit Medicine. I practice and teach one particular approach to that.
BJB: Is there difference between plant medicine and plant spirit medicine?
EC: In practice, they’re often different.
When people refer to plant medicine these days, generally they’re referring to the discovery that plants have certain chemicals that create changes in the biochemistry of the human body. Today, that is by far the most common approach to plant medicine in our society.
When you use the term plant spirit medicine, the primary relationship is not about chemistry. It’s about a spiritual relationship to the plants as living, highly-aware, intelligent beings.
How is Plant Spirit Medicine Different from Herbalism?
BJB: What is herbalism? How does it differ from plant medicine?
EC: Herbalism is a very broad term which (to me) denotes the use of plants as healing agents. That includes using plants as chemical factories, as well as relaying to plants as spiritual healers. It’s a broad term that encompasses any form of relating to plants as healing agents.
BJB: In Plant Spirit Medicine: A Journey into the Healing Wisdom of Plants you write “Plant spirit medicine does not diagnose or treat any illness…the practitioner of plant spirit medicine, in assessing which plants to use with a given person, pays no attention whatsoever to any symptoms that person may have.”
What is the Role of Plant Spirit Medicine?
EC: You’re on the right track with this question. The healer makes no attempts to treat symptoms. The reason for that is we recognize that the symptom is merely a messenger for an underlying imbalance.
Our effort is to determine what the imbalance is and call upon the spirit of plants to correct the imbalance.
Now that doesn’t mean that people don’t often and in fact usually experience a great deal of positive change in their symptoms. The difference is when the change that comes about in the symptoms, and for that matter equally important change that comes about in how people experience their own lives, that’s a byproduct of using the plants to help correct what we call underlying imbalances. So, there’s no attempt to diagnose a symptom; there’s no attempt to treat a symptom but Plant Spirit Medicine is highly effective at helping symptoms.
I would also add the reason we call it Plant Spirit Medicine is for two reasons:
- We call on the spirit of the plant to affect the spirit of the person.
- We’ve seen that in this day and age, with the present conditions, the vast majority of people’s symptoms of any kind have a spiritual basis that can be influenced with a spiritual intervention, as opposed to a chemical intervention.
How Do Healers Work with Plant Spirit Medicine?
BJB: How do you physically work with Plant Spirit Medicine?
EC: The first thing is a lengthy and in-depth intake procedure that goes in detail about health and personal history. This can take anywhere up to two hours. The goal with the intake is to give the healer a basis to see the underlying imbalance which if corrected can help the person be more whole and well. Plant Spirit Medicine healers look at the whole person, seeing all they have to offer, leaving judgment and criticism behind. You take the time to get to know the person very deeply so you can follow them through the process. Following the intake, treatments can begin.
There are various ways of doing this, but the most common way that I and my former students use is that we spend a great deal of time developing a relationship with a number of plants as living, aware, spiritual beings, and coming to know what kind of medicine the plants may have to offer. You could say we’re building partnerships, or friendships.
There are two parts to this:
- Preparation for the healer. This consists of developing a relationship with a variety of plants to see which type of medicine they have to share.
- Developing skill and depth of perception to look into the person’s spirit to see what it needs.
One or more plants are selected which can offer exactly what the person needs. The plants are called upon as spiritual presences to help supply what the person needs.
The way that looks is unseen.
The healer calls upon the healing presence of their ally (the plant/s) and asks them to come through their hands. The healer’s hands are placed lightly onto the person’s body and the medicine of the plant passes through the hands into the body and creates an effect.
The Importance of the Relationship with Plants as Living Beings
BJB: Why is it essential to ask the plant for permission to use it for the purpose of healing?
EC: It’s a basic foundation of good relationship. In other words, if I ask you for the use of this, the question is, how can I pay you back?
The problem with society today is when you think of that kind of respectful exchange, we tend to limit it to human-to-human interaction. The ancient wisdom is that it’s not really designed to be limited to human-to-human interaction.
All the aspects of nature, certainly including plants, are spiritual beings who are aware, have intelligence and feelings. If you’re asking them for something and receiving something from them, you’re blessed to give to give something back to stay on good terms.
It’s a matter of good manners.
BJB: This reiterates when in Plant Spirit Medicine you write, “…plants spirit medicine is low tech; it produces healing purely through good relationship with the natural world…we are just asked to follow a simple rule: take only what you need and give back something that satisfies the one you’ve taken from.”
Approaching Plants from a Spiritual Perspective
BJB: What is the one belief that we as Westerners can let go of to begin to improve our relationship with the natural world?
EC: I would approach it a little differently. In these kinds of manners that we’re talking about, I think experience is much more important than belief.
What I would suggest is that if people are interested in developing better relationships to plants, or for that matter other aspects of the natural world, they could try to make an assumption that a plant is fully alive, fully aware, has feelings and entertain the possibility that its awareness could be more developed than that of ours.
As a plant species that has been around longer than the human species, maybe there is something to be learned if you approach plants and the natural world with interest and respect.
If people would take this on as an assumption without believing it or disbelieving it, but instead just trying out the perspective of ‘what would happen if I were to approach a plant that way?’ I think that would change a lot because the experience of plants would not be based on beliefs.
BJB: What has been the most surprising or unexpected part of your work with Plant Spirit Medicine?
EC: I’m always being surprised by their uncanny effectiveness as healers. I’m always being surprised by how they demonstrate a deep and broad awareness. They seem to know in detail so much about the person who approaches them for healing, including the person’s past and (believe or not) their future. I’m constantly being surprised not only from my own stories, but also by the practitioner’s stories and by what is possible.
BJB: For someone new to Plant Spirit Medicine who would like to learn more, where is a good place to begin?
EC: Be open to the experience of plants having more to offer than what we have deemed possible.
Whether you choose to cultivate a rich and intriguing relationship with plants, or not, as humans seem to move farther away from our connection with the natural world, Plant Spirit Medicine is one reminder that all is not lost.
If we treat plants with love, they flourish and grow, and we flourish and grow with them. In their incredible compassion, plants have invited us to be in a dance with them so that we can sense the healing power of the Divine in them.
There is a distinct and viable possibility that we can indeed rebuild the spiritual bridge that connects humanity to the living matrix of the planet, the plants as well as the bountiful natural elements that surround us.
By leaning toward the question of ‘what would happen if I were to approach life as an inquisitive seeker,’ we can begin to re-discover the essence and vast possibilities of all aspects of life that lie in wait around us.
As Seamus Heaney reminds us “we are all hunters and gatherers of values” and it’s up to us to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” to create what needs to be created, to honor what needs to be honored and to preserve what needs to be preserved.
For more information on exploring programs in The Plant Spirit Medicine Training Course, or smaller programs that range from evening talks, or one to five day programs, you can log onto Blue Deer Center.
Psilocybin and Depression; Psychedelics Can Reset Brain Function
Psychotropic plants once considered taboo are now being used as highly effective clinical solutions for treating a number of psychological issues, including depression, PTSD, and end-of-life anxiety. And a recent study has gained the most traction with its successful treatment of depression with psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms. The study found evidence of a reset mechanism in the brain that can have lasting effects. But, can psychedelics cure depression?
Psilocybin & Depression
A calm, relaxed feeling in the hours, days, and weeks after using psilocybin is familiar to those who have taken it before. This is sometimes referred to as an “after-glow,” and many attribute this to the sense of profundity or universal insight acquired during the experience. This sensation is often subjective and fleeting – something that would be difficult to measure in a lab.
But now a team of researchers has set out to measure this feeling and the potential it has for use as a clinical treatment for depression and anxiety. These researchers believe they have possibly recorded this reaction and noticed a reconfiguration of the pathways that are narrowed down in people who experience severe depression and anxiety. Their research appears to show what they call a disintegration and reintegration in which psilocybin acts as a “reset mechanism.”
This test, conducted by researchers at Imperial College in London, looked not only at subjective measures of how patients felt in the days and weeks after but also brain scans to monitor cerebral blood flow and functional connectivity. The scientists focused on the amygdala, an area of the brain where emotion, behavior, and motivation is processed, noticing that decreased cerebral blood flow to that particular location correlated with reduced depressive symptoms.
The amygdala is directly connected to the prefrontal cortex, controlling a sort of back and forth process for measuring fear. This is basically where your fight or flight response plays out. The amygdala acts as our alarm system, sending a signal to the prefrontal cortex, which in turn tells it whether that threat is something to actually be concerned about. It’s thought that higher activity in the amygdala leads to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex which causes anxiety and depression.
This has led scientists to see psilocybin as an appropriate medicine for people experiencing anxiety and depression. But psilocybin isn’t the only psychedelic shown to have this effect. And while these material observations seem to correlate things like blood flow and electrical activity with those positive changes, some still maintain that the mystical psychedelic experience rather than the plant is what is so palliative.
LSD for Depression
Similar studies have been undertaken with LSD in place of psilocybin, providing many similar results. The most well-known trials have been conducted by MAPS, the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a group that has been working on advancing clinical research with psychedelic and empathic drugs for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
A 2014 study administered LSD to 12 patients experiencing severe depression, anxiety, and end-of-life anxiety, 11 of whom had never taken the drug before. Nearly all who completed the trials expressed the desire to receive more treatments in the future due to their notably positive experiences.
One subject said the experience caused a marked shift in her values to make time for things that were more important in life, like family. Another subject with end-of-life anxiety found that after her LSD experience she found humor in her illness and looked at herself as part of a larger cosmic entity rather than an individual. Meanwhile, all subjects reported no lasting adverse side effects after the experience.
While these clinical studies show promise and work well in closely monitored environments with professional psychotherapy sessions to accompany them, many remain unconvinced due to the small set of studies and subject samples. But this is primarily due to strict laws preventing these trials as well as difficulty obtaining these compounds from “legitimate sources.”
However, a recent shift in the public perception regarding psychedelics and cannabis seems to be bucking the trend. Meanwhile, groups like MAPS and the Beckley Foundation are helping to ease the stigma, stating that they believe certain psychoactive drugs will be approved for clinical use within the next several years.
Ketamine Depression Treatment
Clinical trials for treating depression with LSD and psilocybin often lead critics and journalists to harken back to the ’60s and make some clichéd quip about the hippie generation, or their brief stint experimenting with drugs in college. But when it comes to ketamine, personal anecdotes are few and far between. This drug, which tends to also fall into the recreational club-drug scene, has shown some profound results when it comes to its potential for treating severe depression, especially for those who are suicidal.
Though ketamine for treating depression is considered use as an off-label drug, one that is used for a purpose other than what it is labeled for, it has shown unprecedented results. Typically used as an anesthetic, in large doses ketamine is a highly psychoactive hallucinogen, and also an antidepressant.
People who are suicidal and have not had success with typical antidepressants have seen drastic changes within a few hours of ketamine treatment. Researchers believe that ketamine acts on glutamate, rather than serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals most antidepressants focus on. This particular channel can cause drastic changes and overnight transformation in attitudes of people suffering from severe depression.
Of course, doses high enough to achieve this effect are incapacitating and can be difficult to deal with. The psychedelic effect of ketamine can lead to “k-holes” or feelings of intense and sometimes frightening psychedelic experiences often paired with paralysis. This has lead doctors to search for drugs that can target the glutamate in the brain, but skip the burdensome trip.
While these drugs have amazing potential to help solve mental issues that plague large percentages of society, there needs to be a shift in drug policy to allow them to be rescheduled. All of these drugs are Schedule 1, classified as having no medical value, but clearly there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
While their use should be monitored and taken in controlled scenarios, their criminalization prevents people from taking advantage of the positive results scientists are seeing. And when an effective drug is made illegal, it can lead to those who need it seeking it out on the street where purity and quality aren’t guaranteed.