Musings and Deep Thoughts

A Gift That Made Cents

No, that is not a spelling error or a typo.

I went into the post office this morning to send a registered international letter. Tucking a $20 bill into my waist pack, I set out on foot to take advantage of the lovely morning. Confident that this amount would easily cover the postage as it had many times in the past, I was surprised when the clerk announced my total: $20.37.

When I queried the amount, I was told that there was a $16 charge for the registration, and the rest was postage to cover the large envelope. Since the clerk had already printed out a formal label with a specific time received, I panicked. The registration was in process and I was short a whole 37 cents! How could I have been so foolish?

Telling the clerk I would have to come back later and start over, a woman behind me in the line offered me the small change. As I started to reply, the clerk at the adjacent window noticed something in front of her.

“The man that was just here left his change behind. You’re not going to believe this, but it’s exactly 37 cents!”

“No way!” I’m a firm believer in Spirit gifts, but when these exact and precise things happen, I can’t help but be awed.

“Look!” She picked the 4 coins left on the counter: a quarter, a dime, and two pennies.

“I have the chills!” announced the woman who’d offered the change.

“Me too!” I turned back to my transaction and smiled at the clerk. “Okay, lesson learned.”

“Yup, and now pay it forward!”

I certainly will be looking for that opportunity!

Questions to ask if you’re considering a plant medicine ceremony


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.

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.

The Vehicle of the Flesh

What do you want to manifest?

“I want my business to be successful…I want a partner…I want to be a shaman… I want a (fill in the blank). I’ll just put it out to the universe!”

Having worked and taught for many years in the fields of shamanism and spirituality, I continue to hear things like this over and over. And okay, I’ll admit that I’d also been guilty of putting things out to the universe too until I learned a little secret.

Often, when I’ve worked with people in these more esoterical areas, they’ll tell me that only things of a spiritual nature are worthy of their consideration. There’s a misconception that since the spiritual realms exist at higher frequencies than those of our heavier corporeal domain, they must certainly be superior. Anything to do with the body, dealing with physical world things, or even having to interact with “regular” people (gasp!) is greeted with great reluctance and a lot of sighing. Yet even after their furious efforts of praying, visualization, or working in certain kinds of ceremonies, the petitioner remains jobless, broke, or alone. So, what went wrong?

One view that is widely held across many different belief systems is that there is much more to us than just our flesh and bones: human beings are a duality. We are primarily spirits, made in the Creator’s own image. We are also physical beings, skin-covered vehicles which allow our spirit bodies to interact with the physical universe. As you might imagine, this is a very complicated subject which would take up far more space than this blog would allow, so let’s keep things simple. If we acknowledge this duality, then we need to engage both sides, not just the spiritual side. If we want something physical, we must work through our physical medium in order to get it.

Some years ago, I was training with a group of healers in the Pacific Northwest. The group leader–let’s call him Kevin-was a tall and somewhat portly man in his late forties who had a way of making his students feel really uncomfortable. It wasn’t that he was a jerk, but he had a way of speaking to the person’s spirit and subconscious rather than to their conscious mind. It’s hard to describe, but as you were speaking to him you’d be aware that something deep inside of you was being shaken and rattled.

I can’t recall the details of what we were talking about, but it had to do with something I wanted to manifest in my life. Giving me one of his intense, penetrating looks, he asked me what I’d done so far in order to bring about the changes I sought.

“Well, uh, I put it out to the universe and…”

He cut me off before I could go any deeper into my nonsense.

“Oh? Oh, really? You put it out to the universe? Well, that’s just wonderful. And what else did you do?”

His tone was scathing and I suddenly felt like an idiot.

“What else? What do you mean, what else?” Like many others, I truly believed that if I handed things “upstairs” then nothing more would need to be done.

Kevin’s reply changed my life. All these years later, I realize it wasn’t that his tone implied he was disgusted with me, but rather that he was sick of hearing that same phrase over and over.

“If you put something out to the universe, you must then follow it up with some kind of action in order to bring it from the spirit world into the physical world. If you just put it out there, you are only dealing with half the equation. Does that make sense? Think about this for a bit, and I’ll check in with you later.”

It’s been many years since our little chat in that cold meadow, but I’ve seen for myself that what he told me is true. I’ve incorporated this principle of taking dual action with my own students and groups. If you want to manifest something in your life, you must move energy in order to make it happen. Use the spiritual side to imagine what you want; see it, feel it, and put it out there, but then follow it up with physical action.

For example, let’s say you want a life partner. Imagine what that person might look like and how they may act, which traits you want them to have and which ones are not so important to you, and so on. It’s okay to put it out there, but then you must follow up with some kind of action. Open a dating app, hire a matchmaker, engage in an activity that you love, go outside your comfort zone and move around; be social. You get the picture.

Taking action shows the universe that you’re willing to work for your desired outcome, and in doing so everything works together with you to bring it forth. There are no shortcuts.

So, embrace your duality. Don’t just put things out to the universe and cross your fingers. Add the vehicle of the flesh in to balance the equation and you’ll be able to move mountains.

A Small Part of a Big Picture

Why me?

Why is this happening to me?

Have you ever asked yourself this before? Maybe you had car troubles on the way to an important appointment. Or perhaps the WIFI went down before you could send out your resume for that perfect job.

Perhaps the better question should be why not me?

In the shamanic view of creation, everything is connected. Eastern yogic practices acknowledge a universal field. And those who study particle physics, going farther and farther down into the atom, atomic particles, and then subatomic particles, will say that the space between these particles is immense. Eventually, it all filters down to what appears to be nothing. A universal field, the void, all that is, the Akashic Records; there are many names for this space.

So what does this vast emptiness have to do with personal disasters? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

I recently had to let go of an old and comfortable relationship with someone I trusted because I started seeing a hidden side of him. On the surface he presented one thing, but deep down his actions seemed to speak the opposite. I admit that I felt like I’d been hit by a train at full speed. The anger eventually gave way to depression. Here was my occasional business partner, someone with whom who I’d shared a lot of interesting work and social engagements, and now I was on my own. Why me?

I’d been here before. Job losses, relationship break ups, things going horribly wrong. Yes, I’d been here before, but this time, I knew what to do. I allowed myself time to grieve because this process is important. Then I let it all go and took a deep breath and waited.

Something else was coming. The universe had other plans for me, and those plans did not include my ex-partner. I couldn’t go where I wanted to go with someone who didn’t walk with integrity, so I took the risk of flying solo.

And suddenly, amazing things started happening.  Work offers I could not have seen coming and new business partnerships suddenly appeared. Why was this happening to me? Because I was able to see the bigger picture.

Most of us have been through various traumas and dramas in our lives. While they are happening, we feel like grains of sand being rolled in shore waves, tossed around and slammed down with a force. We protest, we ask God to help us, we complain, we do what we can to make the issue just stop. But then time passes. Months, maybe years, then we are able to look back and see the entire chain of dominoes. That one event or series of events happened for a reason. Perhaps that relationship was toxic. Perhaps we were meant to be doing something else with our lives. It’s not until we are able to let go of what was holding us down that we can fly.

So the next time you get a flat tire or your new date ghosts you, take a deep breath.  That flat tire may have delayed your arrival at a disaster scene. That absent date could have been a homicidal, ax-wielding maniac. At this point, you don’t really need explanations. Just relax, breathe, and know it is all a small part of a bigger picture, a picture you will be able to see in time.

Have patience, dear one. In that seeming emptiness of the universal field lies your destiny. When you release attachment to the smaller events, you will enter the flow of your big picture. And when you do, you will be able to finally say, “Ohhhhhh, now I understand!”







I Love You

I’m writing this from the beautiful city of Charlottesville, Virginia. I came here nearly a week ago to officiate at the wedding of some very dear friends of mine. It’s been quite the adventure learning how to deal with the established state procedures at various courthouses, but it’s all a learning experience.

One thing that has really struck me during the many events surrounding the ceremony was the dedication of the people who came from all over the country just to be with the happy couple. We spent hours and days together just sitting and talking. New connections were made, and I know my own connection with my friends certainly deepened. Over the week as people spent more time with each other I began to hear the L word more and more.

I love you.

I love you, too.

When was the last time you either said this to someone or someone said it to you and really meant it?

In my work as a spiritual counselor and therapist I too often see the results of the lack of intimacy in people’s lives. We hide behind computer screens and write to our hundreds of friends, yet which of them could you call in an emergency? Some of those I work with haven’t felt the human touch in years. Imagine that.

When I was growing up as a Catholic I used to hear that no man is an island, but I never knew what it really meant. Now I do.

We can all do something every day to reach out to those who may have become isolated for whatever reason. Sometimes a simple smile will make a huge difference in someone’s day. Sure, you’re probably not going to tell a stranger that you love them, but a simple gesture speaks volumes in itself.

This has been quite an intense few weeks. I lost a friend to cancer, I married two others, and another had a baby. I am happy to be here in the middle of it all, for happiness or sadness. I love all those who I work with.

I love you.

Pass it on.