Considering a Plant Spirit Medicine Ceremony? Ask these questions first.

So, you’ve been thinking about taking part in a plant spirit medicine ceremony such as ayahuasca. Perhaps you have the opportunity to join one in your own city, or maybe you’re thinking about heading down to Central or South America to a retreat center. While there certainly are leaders who have trained properly and offer their services with integrity, these good folks seem to be vastly outnumbered by many who can only parrot what they’ve observed in ceremonies and end up doing more harm than good. Check out this excellent Vice article for an example of this:

As with so many traditional healing practices that are meant to be used sparingly and respectfully, plant spirit medicine has become sensationalized in the Western world and touted as a miracle cure for every condition known to man. Like the snake oil salesmen of the past, this work has become over commercialized and contaminated by people only looking to make a quick buck or take advantage of the unwary participant. Because of this, you need to arm yourself with knowledge so you can discern whether a potential ceremonial leader or retreat center is working in a way that won’t leave you worse off than you felt before you started.

Local gatherings

Let’s start with the more local work in your own country. Over the years, ceremonial offerings can now be found all throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, as well as in many other countries. You no longer have to make the long journey to Peru to experience a medicine ceremony because there is likely one to be found in your own back yard. A local ceremony can be every bit as authentic and powerful as a jungle one provided you find one using the following guidelines.

Let’s say that someone has told you about a person who runs medicine ceremonies and you’re wondering if you should go. Here are some things to ask the person who will be running the ceremony before you sign up and hand over your money.

  • Training. Did you do an apprenticeship or just go to the jungle for a month or two? The traditional ayahuasca apprenticeship takes at least 4 to 5 years and is brutally challenging. This is the point. The trainee learns to master their own emotions, desires and ego so these things don’t spew out during the work in altered space.

The number of ceremonies the leader has done is also irrelevant. Walk away from anyone who brags that they’ve been in hundreds or thousands of ceremonies. Just because someone informs you that they’ve done something like 800 ceremonies does not mean that they are qualified to hold the often challenging space that medicine ceremonies can have. This is a clear case of quality, not quantity.

Another important aspect that comes through the training is the association with the person’s spirit guides. The leader sitting behind the altar is not the one doing the work. They are only a conduit for the higher beings that know exactly what to do at any given moment. If the leader has no spirit helpers, or cannot see or hear them, the big work cannot be carried out. Those beings protect the ceremony and all who are present in addition to any healing work. Creating a relationship with spirit helpers takes time.

Some important questions to ask:

Who did you apprentice with?

What is their lineage?

For how long did you work with them?

Any properly trained leader will be happy to tell you these things. If you get an answer such as “Oh, well, I’ve traveled all over and worked with many different medicine people,” walk away. This does not mean they have the very specialized knowledge and abilities to run a safe ceremony.

Another very important question to ask is whether the leader will be present for the entire ceremony. While this sounds like a no-brainer, what seems to be happening currently is that the supposed leader will hand out the medicine in some form (see below on this) and then go home, leaving untrained assistants to deal with whatever comes up. Even those that come back towards the end are to be avoided. You want a trained person present with you for the entire time that you are working with the medicine, and that person must be the leader, the one you paid.

  • Icaros are the sacred songs that are sung throughout the ceremony and they have many different purposes. Some are used to call in the spirits, while others protect the space, and still others are directed for healing. They are usually in Spanish or Portuguese if in Brazil, or indigenous languages such as Shipibo, Quechua, Asháninka and others depending on the area of the jungle. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn these songs and this is also a key to a good leader. These songs are what drive the ceremony and connect the leader to their healing spirits.

The big question to ask here is do you sing live or use recorded music? If the answer is that they don’t sing, ask why not. Using a “great playlist” instead of making the effort to learn the songs will tell you a lot about the capabilities of the leader(s). A ceremony is happening in real time and the songs must be able to be changed as the energy flows. No jungle shaman is going to play music over an electronic device. The person who is the leader must be the main source of the icaros. They must sing, and it doesn’t matter if they have a good voice or not – most jungle shamans don’t.

It’s okay if more than one person sings, but the leader should not be relying on someone else to do all the singing for them. Playing a drum or other instrument all night without singing is also not effective. The use of various instruments in ceremonies is perfectly fine, but not in place of the icaros.

Also beware of “hippiehuasca” ceremonies. These are generally ones where the facilitator will call out something like “does anyone have a song?” Most participants don’t know icaros, so if you do get someone who decides to contribute you will likely get something like them lying on their back and yodeling whatever sounds come out of their mouths. “All You Need Is Love” is a great song by the Beatles, but it doesn’t drive the energy needed for transformation.

  • Assistants. Many jungle shamans don’t train with the idea that they will need help, but many foreigners seem to need a lot of in-ceremony care. Assistants should also have some kind of training so they know how best to sit with someone who needs support. They should also have years of ceremonial experience so they themselves have been through a wide variety of experiences. If it’s a large group, ask how many assistants there will be and what their training has been.
  • Medicine. What’s in theirs? Do they know? Who makes it for them? Obviously, they can’t be expected to give out certain information, but you want avoid medicine that is bought off the internet. It takes around 3 days to make a good brew, and there are many important stages to ensure it is right and safe to drink. Buying it from an unknown source can be dangerous.

Find out what form is the medicine that you will be offered. Real, traditional ayahuasca is a dark brown liquid that you drink. I’ve heard tales of people being given pills, capsules or even drops of the two main components that were synthesized in a lab! While you may still experience the effects in your body, these forms are artificial and don’t contain the teacher plant spirit that you’ve come to communicate with.

Ayahuasca should not be combined with other plants such as cacao, mushrooms, or other hallucinogenics as seems to be very trendy right now. Each of these is a spirit in itself and should be honored by taking it on its own. Plant medicines are unpredictable and one night you may have nothing happen, while the next night you get shot through the wormhole. That’s just the way it is. Too many people are adding other substances with the view of trying to ensure results. Don’t mix medicines or you won’t know which spirit you’ll be dealing with. These divine entities cannot be coerced into doing what you want them to do or be, no matter how much medicine you drink or combine with other substances.

  • Tobacco. While we in the West have demonized tobacco, many native traditions revere this sacred plant and include it as an essential part of any healing work. In a medicine ceremony it is used to clear the atmosphere, help participants in their journeys and also to bestow blessings. Used with respect, the leader does not develop an addiction. There is no comparison between pure tobacco use and commercial cigarette which are loaded with additives. If they don’t use tobacco, ask them what they do use to keep the atmosphere clean.
  • Dieta. This is the cleansing preparation done traditionally 7 days before the ceremony and 3 days after. Each shaman has their own version so you should follow that which you are given. While many in the developed countries balk at the dieta because we take things such as red meats, sugar, excess salt and other things out temporarily, the importance of this preparation cannot be underestimated. Often, the messages from the plant spirits are subtle, and if you come in with a physical vehicle (your body!) loaded with heavy or processed foods, this is going to affect your ceremony. If you go to a restaurant and are given a dirty plate, would you eat off it? It’s the same case here.

In shamanic terms, there has to be an energy exchange. By accepting these temporary conditions in which you may feel like you’re suffering a bit, you are showing the spirits that you are giving in order to receive something.

A question to ask is if they require dieta. If not, ask why not. It’s important.

  • Ayahuasca in particular is dangerous in combination with certain medical conditions or medications, as well as various herbs and foods. The leader should be aware of these and vet on the side of caution. Plant spirit medicines are not for everyone.

Retreat centers

So, what about retreat centers and jungle lodges that offer ayahuasca and other medicines? While the same conditions apply as for local ceremonies, there are a few other things to consider. Just because a ceremony is held in an exotic location doesn’t mean it will be good or safe. Peru especially has a big problem now with too many lodges that have sprung up overnight with suspect “shamans”  who care nothing for those who’ve paid good money to be there. Some add dangerous substances to their brews in order to ensure that tourists get the big visions they seek. Some of these add-ins can render you unconscious and cause temporary paralysis and amnesia, affording the unscrupulous operators a great opportunity for robbery and physical assaults.

Many of the lodges that are owned by non-natives charge hundreds of dollars a night and require a stay of a week or more. If you are looking at one of these, here are a few more things to consider.

  • Medicine. Pretty much the same as above, but an expensive lodge should have people who make their medicine on site. Those who make it should be trained in the proper procedures. Ideally, they will have a separate cooking area for medicine making and cook over an open fire. If they buy it in from somewhere else, ask who made it and what’s in it. Ask why they don’t make their own.

And it almost goes without saying that this means the medicine is in its traditional liquid form.

  • The leaders. Who will be leading the ceremonies while you’re there? Do they only have an experienced shaman come in once a week and leave the other nights to inexperienced foreigners? (Yes, there are lodges that do this!)

Does the shaman make him/herself available for integration or questions, or do they do their best to avoid contact with participants except when in ceremony?

  • Music. Same as above. If you’re paying thousands of dollars for a retreat, don’t settle for canned music. I’ve heard of one expensive jungle center that only has live singing 2 nights a week, and the rest of the nights are a recorded, New Age playlist. This is a rip-off.

This all may seem lot a lot to take in. And I have to add that just because a local group or retreat may not have all of these things, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a horrible experience. It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you seek a traditional experience with leaders who are very able to take you through the most difficult times and safely back out the other side, the components I’ve mentioned above need to be in place. It’s better to ask a few questions first than to blunder into an amateur show that may do you more harm than good.