Article: Interview: Plant Medicine as a Spiritually Transformative Experience: Challenges to Integration in the Modern Context
Editors’ Note: The following article was published on the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (ACISTE) website February 10, 2019. In this article, Dina Varano interviews Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D. on the topic of plant medicine.
ACISTE recently had an opportunity to interview Isa about her views on the use of psychotropic plant medicine for psychological and spiritual transformation. Given the recent resurgence of clinical interest in the use of psychedelics for treating mental health concerns, we hope this two-part (Feb/Mar) interview will encourage therapists and others to further educate themselves about the unique integration needs of those who choose to engage plant medicine for healing and guidance.
Q: What is your perspective on why plant medicine journeys have become so popular in recent years?
There is a serious existential crisis in many western societies at this time. This is a function of the deterioration of the social fabric there. The rise of social polarization across the planet and the cultivation of a culture of “no compassion” in the U.S. contribute to people becoming increasingly desperate for answers and meaning. The traditional sources for finding meaning are frayed as well – churches whose ministers are abusing children and overloaded mental health care providers who are unable to provide the level of assistance they have in the past, as two examples.
I think people are looking for answers in new places, and many people are finding them through the experience of plant medicines. As they speak about their experience, others are interested in trying them as well. There is also a more esoteric answer, which has to do with the intentionality of the plants themselves, but I think that answer requires a bit more context in order to make sense to most people.
Q: What are the greatest challenges to integrating the powerful insights and awareness these journeys can offer?
One of the greatest challenges is that as humans, we are ‘human-centric.’ We tend to value our own ways of knowing and seeing over the intelligence of other forms of life. Most people don’t even consider that other life forms have their own intelligence. This makes it hard for people to think of plants as intelligent beings whose biochemistry may offer insights to our own ways of processing information.
This lack of awareness extends beyond just turning to plants for assistance. It also extends into the processes of integrating the insights we receive from ingesting the plant medicines. In a way, it is actually a problem of translation. Most people do not understand the ‘language’ of image and … felt-experience in which the plants tend to communicate. As humans, we tend to value only information that comes in a conceptual, linear framework. Over-relying on this familiar method of problem-solving is understandable, especially because we are trying to figure out what is going on with us when we don’t know how to address the symptoms of this existential crisis I mentioned. And we are used to using our conceptual minds to figure things out.
But the truth is, many issues highlighted in plant medicine journeys cannot really be fully resolved by the conceptual mind. Nonetheless, the expansion and opening of the conceptual mind so that its ‘meaning generation faculties’ can help with the issues revealed in the encounter with the plant medicines is of key importance in successful integration.
Q: How might the psychological issues of modern people influence the integration process?
Certainly another challenge we face is that although many people leading plant circles in traditional settings have positive intention and a very good understanding of the way the plant works, it may be very difficult for them to understand the very different types of psychological problems westerners have. This makes it difficult for them to be able to meet westerners where they need to be met in order to fully integrate their experience. For this reason, traditional healers may not be in a position to help with the level of psychological integration that westerners need.
One of my senior students recently told me about an experience he had in a series of circles held in Brazil where half the participants were from the States and half were from Hungary. He noted a marked difference in the way the plant was working with the two groups.
The Hungarians collectively and individually were processing the social, emotional, and psychological legacy of the Holocaust and World War II during the plant circles. Even though they were all under the age of 30, each was carrying the trauma of their forebears in one way or another, and their experience with the plant was bringing this legacy to light. One can imagine how difficult it would be for the traditional healer who was leading the circle to understand this experience, much less be able to offer assistance in integrating it.
Q: What kind of support for integration is generally offered in these plant medicine circles?
It is unusual to find a traditional setting where integration is emphasized. This is why it is so important to help clinically trained counselors understand shamanic principles generally and plant intelligence specifically. In this way, they can become a bridge between the two worlds to be able to better help the people they serve.
The Sacred Stream’s Plant Medicine Insight Integration program is designed to address this gap so that western counselors can gain an understanding of the context in which these kinds of experiences arise without necessarily having to ingest the plant medicine. In this way they can use all their clinical skills in a more focused, effective way in helping their patients understand their encounters with the plant.
For instance, in the circles in Brazil I just mentioned, the traditional circle facilitator most likely would have understood the phenomenon of the legacy experience, as this is an important area of focus in shamanic healing practices. But they might have had difficulty understanding the level or nature of trauma arising from the particular legacy of the Holocaust and the way it moves through the collective western consciousness well enough to be fully effective in helping the circle members address these issues.
A western-trained counselor might not fully understand the way legacy issues function in the clinical setting, even with exposure to the recent emergence of epigenetics, which explores issues related to legacy lines from a more scientific point of view. But they might be able to help with the trauma. We need people who can bridge as many of these types of issues the plant might highlight as possible. In this case, someone who understands the subtleties of shamanic principles related to legacy lines and someone who is well-versed with the types of imbalances westerners are grappling with, would be an ideal integration facilitator.
Q: How can we maintain reverence for the inherent spiritual process of plant medicine within the context of our materialist culture?
You are pointing to something very important here. Westerners need to step out of the materialist mindset if they are going to reap all the benefits the plants have to offer. There is a disturbing trend toward consumerism in the recent boom in plant facilitated journeys. There is an attitude toward the plant of “What can you do for me?” In contrast, the first question any shamanic practitioner asks in establishing a relationship with the natural world is, “What can I offer you?”
People who lack humility in stepping into the numinous world that the plants mediate are often the ones who have the hardest time, or they are the ones that take nothing from the experience. If people do not take the time to bring their entitlement and hubris to heel/heal – sorry, I could not resist the pun! – before stepping into a relationship with the plants, the plants will almost certainly do it for them.
The traumatic confrontation with one’s own separate, ego-driven definitions of self and reality is the essence of a ‘bad trip.’ So-called bad trips are often the doorway to deeper self-exploration, but the door does not open unless one is willing to develop respect for one’s own inner process and gratitude to the plant for being willing to meet that process.
Q: Where do you envision or what are your hopes for the integration of plant medicine into therapeutic settings at some point?
I have a lot of hope for the integration of plant medicine and the insights plants provide into a western counseling context. I understand that western scientists need scientific method to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention. But the truth is, anyone who understands plants knows that the structures the scientific method places on the analysis of the effectiveness of plant medicine are ultimately incomplete. It’s limiting at best and perverting of the potential benefit of the plants at worst. I think it is important to incorporate the contextual view out of which the work with plants arose in educating western professionals so they can understand better the benefits and limitations of the scientific approach.
The work that is being done at Johns Hopkins using laboratory-produced psilocybin, the psychoactive substance in what are popularly called ‘magic mushrooms,’ to help people facing end-of-life issues is very important. Results of their work indicate that psilocybin reduces anxiety and depression significantly for those facing the end of life. These experiments are establishing important clinical guidelines for this kind of work with these psychoactive substances – and they are establishing a basis for the more widespread use of psilocybin in clinical settings.
It would be very helpful to assure that the clinicians working in this way are clear that there is, at a minimum, a spiritual context that is being generated by this practice – and receive the appropriate training to support this kind of spiritual inquiry in a non-dogmatic way.
Q: Professional psychology, with its evidence-based bias, seems to have lost its connection to the deeper soul work implied in the plant medicine experience. How do we address that?
This may seem obvious, but spirit has not historically been a welcome guest in most clinical settings. There is important education that needs to be done to ensure that its re-introduction is balanced, accurate, and authentic to the purposes of plant medicine, which have been clear to shamanic practitioners for millennia.
It is important to consider that scientific research is not the only authority that might provide the last word on the effectiveness of plant medicines in addressing the maladies of modern people. This is because scientists may have mixed, prejudiced, or uninformed understandings about the nature of the plants and psychoactive substances from the outset. We have only to remember the kinds of intentions that have been behind scientific research of psychoactive substances in the past. For instance, U.S. government scientists working on Project MKUltra conducted experiments with similar psychoactive substances in order to weaken subjects and force confessions through mind control for the CIA. That kind of harmful intent is very, very far from the intention toward healing, understanding, and personal development that is fundamental to the work with plants in most shamanic contexts.
For the true integration of this intentionality into the western clinical setting, practitioners must understand the context out of which the work with plants in this healing way arose. They must have respect, humility, and a spirit of inquiry when educating themselves and others about the potentials of plant medicine. When this approach is combined with western clinical training, western patients can have access to a formidable tool for self-development.
Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D., holds degrees and certificates in transpersonal psychology, cultural and linguistic anthropology, comparative religion, hypnotherapy, and transformational healing. She has been a dedicated Buddhist practitioner for forty years and has spent over thirty years studying spiritual, therapeutic, and meditative techniques from around the world. Isa has worked with master teachers of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Sufism, as well as expert shamanic practitioners from a variety of traditions. Isa is the creator of Depth Hypnosis, a groundbreaking therapeutic model that has won rave reviews from psychotherapeutic and spiritual counselors alike. Isa teaches and speaks nationally and internationally, and has published numerous articles, podcast episodes, videos, and the books Coming to Peace and Return to the Great Mother.
She maintains a private practice with institutions and individuals in Depth Hypnosis and Coming to Peace processes. Isa speaks five languages and has lived in eleven countries. She is the mother of two children and lives with her partner in San Francisco. She is the founding director and primary teacher of the Foundation of the Sacred Stream. For more information about training opportunities and to learn more about Isa’s workshop on Plant Medicine: Preparing & Integrating the Experience, go to sacredstream.org.
To learn more about Dr. Gucciardi’s work, please visit isagucciardi.org.