Blog: Psychoactive Plants Part 2: Plant Wisdom
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
In the last post we were exploring the complications that can come out of working with psychoactive plants in the wrong setting. There is so much to understand about the way plants’ biochemistry interacts with our own. I am referring not only to psychoactive plants, but even just plants that we use for food. We could spend a lifetime studying these interactions and never fully understand the deeply magical state of interdependence that scientific investigation reveals about the way we live in relation to plants.
Having worked with hundreds of people who have sought assistance in understanding their experience with psychoactive plants, I can point to some very consistent themes regarding how psychoactive plants work with our psyches. In the same way we can say there are particular ways food plants nourish us and provide particular nutrients to help our bodies grow and become healthier, we can say that psychoactive plants open our spirits and provide nourishment and growth to them. Even non-psychoactive plants do this. A report in the September 4, 2014 edition of the Oregon State University News and Research Communications bulletin states that “[m]others who live in neighborhoods with plenty of grass, trees or other green vegetation are more likely to deliver at full term and their babies are born at higher weights, compared to mothers who live in urban areas that aren’t as green…”
Most of us are not aware of how plants are interacting with us all the time. But if we can become aware of our relationship to plants and actually learn how to approach them with respect for the intelligence they demonstrate in interacting with us, we can understand that we have powerful allies all around us. Stephen Buhner’s books, particularly The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature, offer direct teachings about this wonderful relationship we can all have with the plants around us.
When we approach psychoactive plants with the express intention of asking for their assistance in helping us become more whole and integrated, amazing things can happen. My experience of plants is that they seem to know more than those who seek their assistance. There is a steady, wise presence that is often referred to as “the spirit of the plant” in traditional settings. This wisdom is offered to anyone who ingests the plant. Actually, if you know how to open yourself by quieting your mind and allowing for an experience beyond your usual way of knowing, you can also receive the same types of teachings you would encounter by ingesting the plant. One of the reasons people often have disorganized experience of this wisdom is due to our own personal disorganization in comparison to the plant’s more integrated perspective. The plants actually reveal our disorganization to us because they are so organized and consistent.
If we can stay with the experience of having our usual ways of knowing challenged by the plant’s intelligence, the plant will show us the places where we are limited and help us expand into a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all things and our place in it. This is one of the experiences that people can find distressing. We tend to think of ourselves as discrete and separate from one another and from other beings in the world. Plants quickly show us that this sense of separateness is an illusion. Many people have trouble tolerating this new way of seeing things, mainly because they cannot find their separate, special “ego self” within it. So they resist it and struggle. This creates an experience that can be unpleasant, and this is often the basis for the experience of a “bad trip.” Yet if people receive reassurance that they will not disappear entirely if they surrender to this larger reality the plants are revealing to them, they can make great strides in self-understanding – and in understanding the world around them.
Another situation people often encounter in their interactions with psychotropic plants is being exposed to personal experience that has been forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed. This can be disorganizing and distressing. People will often get lost in this distress and overlook the fact that the plants are there in a very consistent way, offering them ever-deepening insight into the very experience they thought they could not tolerate. Again, when people become reactive and resistant to feeling and knowing what the plant is revealing, they can have what they might call “a bad trip.” With help, they can begin to perceive the plant’s consistent, penetrating presence and allow the unwanted experience to unfold with the plant’s assistance.
Yet another consistent theme that emerges in working with psychotropic plants is their uncompromising nature. It is very hard to slow things down when the plants are at work. People often report being brought through the same experience in multiple ways until they “get it.” This can be unpleasant if you are trying to control the experience. There really is no way to control the direction of the plant’s interaction once it is ingested. This is one of the reasons why plants like ayahuasca (a combination of two plants from the Amazon) and iboga, (a shrub from west-central Africa), are so effective in helping people give up addictions to opiates and alcohol. They don’t allow people to hide out in all the places in their inner worlds where they have historically used addiction to escape into. Everything that the addiction is medicating is turned out, like wet sheets to dry, and there is no longer a foothold for the addictive substance within their psyches.
In nearly forty years of working closely with plants, I have found that plants work to consistently help people become more integrated. This can be experienced by anyone who approaches the plants with respect and open-mindedness. Working with someone experienced with plants and plant medicine will also be helpful to people who want to access all of the potential benefits that emerge from working with them. When you are in integrity and work mindfully with the plants, you will be able to experience all the remarkable benefits that they so willingly offer.