Sacred Plant Healing: Shamanic Medicine & the New Science

By Brett Lothian

In our modern age, all of us have been touched in one way or another by mental illness, either directly or indirectly. Depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, and an ever growing list of psychotic disorders and addictions are today rampant in our modern industrialised world. Most likely a direct result of our “keeping up with the Kardashians” lifestyle and ultra competitive, capitalist “greed is good” world.

Whilst we may never be able to go back to more simpler times, what we can do is learn from the societies who still live a simpler life. Especially in the area of mental health, where we enter the mystical realm of the Shaman and shamanic plant medicine.

After the false start of the 1950s–1970s psychedelic research, today cutting edge science has learned from the mistakes of the past and is once more entering the realm of the Shaman, this time (by necessity) in a far more measured and scientific way. The results of which will not only save lives, but show us a way that all of us can live happier, less stressful and healthier lives.

It is repeated time and again in the science of anthropology that indigenous societies with little to no contact with modern civilisation simply do not have the same mental health issues that we do in our modern world.

Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, who conducted research in New Guinea, described it as “an unusually good country in which to do epidemiologic research because census records for even most remote villages are remarkably good.” After examining these records, he found, “there was over a twentyfold difference in schizophrenia prevalence among districts; those with a higher prevalence were, in general, those with the most contact with western civilisation.”

In reviewing other research, Torrey concluded: “Almost all observers who looked for psychosis or schizophrenia in technologically undeveloped areas of the world agreed that it was uncommon. The striking feature is the remarkable consensus that insanity (in the early studies) and schizophrenia (in later studies) were comparatively uncommon prior to contact with European-American civilisation.” Interestingly, in traditional cultures the people we would call ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘insane’ often become the Shaman or Medicine men/women that go on to heal and counsel their people.

The reasons for our mental maladies are many (and worthy of an entire article in their own right), but the main reason seems to be the level of coercion (with the threat of violence) in our modern society versus those of the traditional. In other words, from cradle to the grave we are taught to fear, we are controlled by fear, and have fear reinforced on a daily basis by the mainstream media.

To many indigenous peoples, even the supposed majority rule that most westerners call democracy is problematically coercive as it results in the minority feeling resentful. Roland Chrisjohn, member of the Oneida Nation of the Confederacy of the Haudenausaunee (Iroquois) and author of The Circle Game, points out that for his people it is deemed valuable to spend whatever time necessary to achieve consensus so as to prevent such resentment. By the standards of western civilisation, this is highly inefficient. “Achieving consensus could take forever!” exclaimed an attendee of a talk given by Chrisjohn, who responded, “What else is there more important to do?”

Unfortunately, we in the modern world simply cannot wait for such a consensus utopia to happen by itself, and accept that our modern world is exactly how the powers-that-be want it to be. That is the entire point of having power to begin with. Our modern way of life is literally killing so many of us, and the natural world around us, whilst the one percent at the top get to live their lives of luxury, at our and the world’s expense.

What can we do about it? How can we achieve a happy consensus, instead of the coerced consensus imposed upon us, without the use of fear and the resulting resentment that is the root cause of many mental problems? I think it begins at home, not just in our recycling bins, but in our minds and gardens. We simply must break the shackles of fear if we are to be truly happy and mentally healthy. That is where the ancient methods of the Shaman and shamanic plant medicine come in, and now with the backing of cutting edge science, it can no longer be denied.

The modern research into the use of shamanic plant medicine and modern psychedelic drugs such as LSD (which work the same way in the brain) for treating mental illness began in 1953 and was conducted until 1973 and the Richard Nixon led ‘war on drugs’. Psychedelic drugs (often derived from shamanic plants) were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality). The results reported were almost always positive.

However, many of the studies were, by modern standards, poorly designed and seldom well controlled, if at all. This is not what led to the prohibition of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelic drugs in general. The current legal standpoint came from the fear induced in the powers-that-be of the ‘flower power’ generation and their increasing unwillingness to fight in foreign wars for the benefit of the elite. Nothing could put more fear into the powers-that-be than an entire generation embracing peace, love and understanding through the use of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelics, when the elites made their money (and therefore power) from war, fear and propaganda.

In today’s world of the ‘war on terror’ (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) we must remember that little has changed at the top. Luckily for us, the new breed of scientist has learned that instead of promulgating the ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ slogan of Timothy Leary and the ‘acid gurus’, what we need is undeniable facts, hard science and proven repeatable results.

Which brings us to the new dawn of psychedelic research and the return of shamanic plant medicine. Unfortunately, the new science must deal with the fear and propaganda of the past, which makes scientific research incredibly difficult. The simple fact is, most reputable scientific institutes simply do not want to go anywhere near ‘psychedelic research’ because of the stigma attached to it. The main problem is there just isn’t the money for this kind of research because the big pharmaceutical companies have no interest in developing drugs that people can grow at home. People are never going to pay their hard earned money for a ‘drug’ when they can get the plant it was derived from for free. You can’t patent all of nature and the vast majority of research is funded by and designed to benefit Big Pharma, not the patient. We must remember that businesses are in the business of making money, otherwise they would be called charities.

Another problem with receiving funding for this kind of research is that shamanic plant medicine consistently proves effective at limited doses that are non-habit forming. Meaning there is little to no scope for consistent reliance (or addiction) upon a ‘drug’, and therefore no money for Big Pharma which has no interest in cures, only ‘treatments’ that have to be continued for a long period of time to be profitable. Take a look at modern pharmaceutical ‘treatments’ for depression that usually have to be taken for years at a time and say right on the box “May cause suicidal thoughts!” Once again, the powers-that-be have put their own profits over the people.

Thankfully this has not stopped serious scientific researchers from making major breakthroughs in the field of psychedelic research. After almost thirty years since the last serious psychedelic research, Dr. Rick Strassman began to investigate the effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital. DMT is a powerful psychedelic found in hundreds of plants from all around the world and in every mammal (including ourselves) that have been studied. Literally everywhere in nature, DMT is the active ingredient in the Amazonian shamanic plant medicine ayahuasca, which is gaining popularity around the world for its therapeutic benefits, and is currently being reviewed by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration for religious use.

Strassman refers to DMT as the “spirit molecule” because its effects include many features of religious experience, such as visions, voices, disembodied consciousness, powerful emotions, novel insights, and feelings of overwhelming significance. During the project’s five years, Strassman administered approximately 400 doses of DMT to nearly five dozen human volunteers, with more than half of the volunteers reporting profound encounters with non-human intelligences whilst under the influence of DMT. His team published a companion article characterising the psychological effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale, the Hallucinogen Rating Scale, or HRS. The HRS has seen wide acceptance throughout the international research community as a sensitive and specific instrument for measuring the psychological effects of a wide variety of psychoactive substances, with over fifty articles documenting its use as of 2016.

The next major step was taken by Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences and his team at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 2006 they conducted a double blind study evaluating the acute and longer term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in the shamanic plant medicine commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms’) relative to a comparison compound administered under comfortable, supportive conditions. The researchers found that psilocybin produced a range of acute perceptual changes, subjective experiences, easily changeable moods and increased measures of mystical experience. Seventy percent of the volunteers went on to say they had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives. The volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in mental outlook, life satisfaction, attitude and behaviour consistent with changes rated by their community observers (the researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family). Griffiths believes the personality changes found in this study are likely permanent since they were sustained for over a year by many. The fact that Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (which is widely regarded as the premier medical centre in America) was now conducting psychedelic research literally opened the floodgates to new and exciting research into shamanic plant medicine and the new psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA (the active ingredient in the street drug ‘Ecstacy’).

This was followed by Dr. Charles Grob at UCLA, who for a Phase I pilot study assessed the safety, dosing, and efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and existential stress in terminal cancer patients. The Phase II trials, concluded at both Johns Hopkins and NYU, involved higher doses and larger groups. In both phases of the study researchers found after receiving just a single dose of psilocybin the subjects involved experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months, with no clinically adverse effects being noted. The subjects involved were reported as saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet’, or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke’. People who had been palpably scared of death lost their fear of it and were able to be at peace during such a difficult time. The fact that a substance given once can have such an effect for so long is unprecedented; there has literally never been a substance so effective in the field of psychiatry, but of course it’s long been the staple of the Shaman.

A Norwegian study in 2013 titled ‘Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study’ by Teri S. Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen, showed that the use of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelics had no negative effects on mental health. In lifetime users of shamanic plant medicine and psychedelics, there was a decrease in mental health issues.

Rick Doblin and his team at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 2013 published a follow up to their 2011 study into the safety and effectiveness of MDMA (Ecstacy) in treatment resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients. Their study revealed that it can be used safely and effectively against this debilitating disorder and the positive effects are long term, without risk of addiction or the need for continued use of the substance.

In 2014 the University of Zurich reported in a fascinating study that psilocybin inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain and positively effected mood. In 2015, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health showed that the use of classic psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin and mescaline (the active ingredient in peyote and San Pedro cacti) had a protective effect on mental health and in suicide prevention. Again, in 2015, another Johns Hopkins study showed that shamanic plant medicine and psychedelic use had a protective effect against mental illness and suicide. Another University of Alabama at Birmingham study this year showed psychedelic use had an inhibitory effect on domestic violence and was useful in the treatment of problem behaviours. Many similar studies are currently ongoing and will be published in the years to come. Please note: the findings mentioned above were achieved under strict clinical conditions and controls.

In most countries around the world the use of shamanic plant medicine such as magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote, San Pedro and iboga, and even the mere possession of psychedelics like LSD and MDMA, are unfortunately illegal, thanks to the ridiculous and socially damaging ‘war on drugs’, despite their proven therapeutic benefits. In the countries where the traditional use of shamanic plant medicine is still undertaken, their legal status is usually protected and has created an ever growing ‘psychedelic tourism’ market of spiritual seekers and people looking for alternative medicines that actually work. People from all over the world are flooding into countries like Peru and Bolivia looking to heal their post-traumatic stress, anxiety and conquer depression and drug addictions.

Unfortunately, not all of us can drop everything and run off to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, but what we can do is garden (gardening itself has proven to be an anti-depressant), and freely purchase and grow the vast majority of these shamanic plant medicines, legally. We just aren’t allowed by law to ingest them or prepare them for ingestion. We are left in the unenviable position of medical marijuana patients, having to break the law to save lives.

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References & Further Reading

DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Dr. Rick Strassman (to purchase, see page 71)

‘How Societies with Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness’ by Bruce Levine, http://brucelevine.net/how-societies-with-little-coercion-have-little-mental-illness/

‘The Trip Treatment: Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results’ by Michael Pollan, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment

‘Magic Mushrooms vs the Fear of Death’ by Anne Harding, www.mindpowernews.com/Mushrooms.htm

‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance’ by Griffiths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16826400

‘Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced Stage Cancer’ by Charles S. Grob, MD; Alicia L. Danforth, MA; Gurpreet S. Chopra, MD; Marycie Hagerty, RN, BSN, MA; Charles R. McKay, MD; Adam L. Halberstadt, PhD; George R. Greer, MD., http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=210962

‘Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study’ by Teri S. Krebs, Pål-Ørjan Johansen, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0063972

‘The safety and efficacy of {+/-}3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomised controlled pilot study’ by Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Doblin R., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20643699

‘Durability of improvement in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and absence of harmful effects or drug dependency after 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy: a prospective long-term follow-up study’ by Michael C Mithoefer, Mark T Wagner, Ann T Mithoefer, Lisa Jerome, Scott F Martin, Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Yvonne, Michel, Timothy D Brewerton, and Rick Doblin, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573678/

‘Psilocybin inhibits the processing of
negative emotions in the brain’ by University of Zurich, www.sciencedaily.com/
releases/2014/05/140507095756.htm

‘Classic psychedelic use protective with regard to psychological distress and suicidality’ by SAGE Publications, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150121093544.htm

‘Psychedelic drug use could reduce psychological distress, suicidal thinking, study suggests’ by Johns Hopkins Medicine,
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/
2015/03/150309174507.htm

‘Hallucinogen may protect against intimate partner violence, researcher suggests’ by University of Alabama at Birmingham,
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/
2016/02/160205135508.htm

BRETT LOTHIAN is an Australian author, professional arborist and ethnobotanist. He is the author of the Tricho Serious Ethnobotany blog (http://trichoseriousethnobotany.blogspot.com.au) and the creator of the Trichocereus Cacti Appreciation group, the Peyote Appreciation group, and the Ethnobotany Appreciation Society group on Facebook www.facebook.com/groups/497741023570760

The above article appeared in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 10 No 4

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This article (Sacred Plant Healing: Shamanic Medicine & the New Science) was originally published on New Dawn Magazine and syndicated by The Event Chronicle

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