In this episode, David interviews published researcher, social entrepreneur, and internationally recognized Indigenous rights activist: Sutton King, MPH.
In New York City alone, 180,000 people identify as Indigenous, Native American, or Alaskan Native, and this community is facing a disproportionate prevalence of mental health disparities, poverty, suicide, and PTSD due to intergenerational trauma from attempted genocide, forced relocation, and the erasure of culture and identity via boarding schools. Her purpose has become to bring light to what Indigenous people are facing due to being forced to live under a reductionist, individualistic Western approach that is in direct opposition to their worldview.
She talks about growing up being instilled with the importance of ancestry and tradition; why she moved to New York; how psychedelics helped her move through the trauma she felt in herself and saw so commonly in her family tree; and capitalism: how we need to move away from our private ownership, profit-maximalist, extractive model into a steward mentality inspired by the Indigenous voices and principles that have been silenced for so long.
“One of the principles that I always was taught is that Indigenous peoples were always taught to be humble and not to be proud and not to be loud. But I have always felt like that was a way to keep us stagnant, to keep us complacent. So I would say I’m definitely a disruptor of this generation.”
“We are dealing with a burden of poverty, we’re dealing with so much chronic morbidity and mortality, as well and our chronic health. There is a number of different issues that we’re facing as Indigenous peoples. However, I’d also like to highlight how resilient we are as well. To be able to survive genocide, forced relocation, boarding school, and the poor socioeconomic status that many of us face [and] our families face, but continue to be a voice for our communities; continue to be on the front lines, advocating for missing and murdered, advocating for the protection of our land and demanding land back – I see a resurgence.”
“When you look at that skyline of that concrete jungle in New York City, I love to remind folks that it was the Mohawk ironworkers who risked their lives on that skyline, to be able to create the world we see around us. The paths that we walk today [and] the rivers that flow have always been used by the Indigenous peoples who came before us.”
“When we think about the economy and this market, it’s not capital that creates economic growth; it’s people. And it’s not this reductionist, individualistic behavior that’s centered at the core of economic good; it’s reciprocity, and being able to make sure that we have a market and an economy that’s inclusive; that’s bringing in all voices, that’s also considering all voices, all of the different parts of the ecosystem – not to silo people, but to bring everyone together, I think, will be the opportunity of a lifetime to really be able to really enact change.”
In this episode, Joe interviews Miriam Volat, MS and T. Cody Swift, MFT; Co-Directors of The Riverstyx Foundation: a charitable organization focused on funding psychedelic research and ensuring integrity and reciprocity in the psychedelic space.
Volat and Swift cover a ton of ground in this conversation; from philanthropy, research, and the hurdles of funding in the psychedelic space, to the unintended consequences of the quest for holistic healing (e.g.: iboga & peyote over-harvesting), to plant medicine biocultures and the Good Friday Experiment, to changing our relationship with waste with green funerals. They discuss psilocybin’s ability to ease distress related to cancer and death, toad conservation efforts by the Yaqui; the true sacredness of peyote amongst Native Americans, and Indigenous-led structures for future biotechnology companies.
They talk about the ever-present reality (and ripple effect) of the decimation of the Native American way of life, and break down the critical considerations for the survival of Indigenous culture; looking at the Nagoya Protocol and how sustainable harvesting structures, better relationships with the land and surrounding communities, benefit-sharing, and, most importantly, partnerships with Indigenous leaders can help to ensure a culturally respectful and informed future for the psychedelic field.
“Sometimes in the psychedelic space, people are just focused on this organism or brew or something, and that’s the focus. But really, for thousands of years, those things aren’t separated from a way of life or a cultural container that guides many things through a territory, through language. So that’s why we’re really using that term, ‘bioculture,’ so as not to dissect these things into little parts that are actually very interconnected.” -Miriam
“If we arrive in a psychedelic future 20, 30, 50 years from now and we haven’t done our work to empower those communities to survive and stay strong and stay rooted in their own traditions, we’ll be at the same place of not knowing where we came from: What were the original ways of holding these medicines? What were the original songs? What were the original protocols? And once again, [that] will have been lost. And that’s not healing, that’s more disconnection.” -Cody
“White cultures, especially on the West coast; we’re blessed with …so many amazing medicines from MDMA and LSD and ayahuasca and 2C-B, and all the 2Cs, and 5-MeO, and just– it’s incredible. And the Native American communities have, at least in this country, they have peyote. They do not regard it [as] a psychedelic. This is a sacred, sacred plant medicine. And they have no interest (from all the leadership that we’ve talked to); absolutely no interest [in other drugs]. It would be a sacrilege to consider the other pathways. All they have is Peyote. We really need to keep that in mind.” -Cody
Miriam Volat, MS, serves as Co-Director with Cody Swift of the Riverstyx Foundation, Interim Executive Director of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, Director of the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, and she is on the Board of Directors of MAPS Public Benefit Corporation. The RiverStyx team undertakes deeply engaged relational philanthropy supporting social justice; ethical and innovative integration of the psychedelic movement into broader society; addressing mental, spiritual, and ecological crises through biocultural responsibility; and respectful allyship with Indigenous traditional knowledge holders. Miriam Volat works personally and professionally to promote health in all systems. Her background is as a complex systems-facilitator, soil scientist, educator, and community organizer. Her work aims to increase broad-based community and ecological resilience through supporting high leverage initiatives at the intersection of biological, socio-cultural, and psycho-spiritual diversity.
About T. Cody Swift, MFT
T. Cody Swift, MFT is a philanthropist, qualitative researcher, and licensed psychotherapist. Through the Riverstyx Foundation, he has collaborated extensively on projects addressing healthy society through working with stigmatized populations and issues – those most likely to be overlooked for funding and support. Since 2007, he has helped to fund over 20 psychedelic research trials. He has served as a therapist-guide in the Johns Hopkins psilocybin and cancer-anxiety study, and has conducted dozens of qualitative interviews with study subjects into the subjective aspects of their experiences with psilocybin and MDMA. He has a passion for reinvigorating religious traditions through psychedelics, and has also worked for over 7 years supporting Indigenous communities in the conservation of their sacred plant medicines, such as the Native American Church in the preservation of Peyote and the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund.
Grechanik tells his story and digs deep into the rich history of shamanism, herbalism, and Indigenous spiritual traditions that span the globe from Siberia and India to Peru. The unifying theme rests on bridging our cultural commonalities; recognizing the fundamental truths consistent across cultures and acknowledging how this seemingly lost knowledge has been kept, guarded, and passed down through epochs of change.
He unfolds the many layers of ayahuasca medicine work; examining plant intelligence, plant dietas, ways of seeing beyond yourself in the world of spirit, and how deep ayahuasca work can inspire gratitude and humility. And he discusses how group containers exemplify universal oneness; the value in both Western and Indigenous medicine; critiques for the current psychedelic renaissance; the power of breathwork; and the debate between traditional plant medicines and newer lab-derived substances – how everything has a spirit, even a mountain.
“I think it’s always really important when we’re talking about these experiences to also realize that they’re extremely personal; that there’s certainly archetypal experiences that these plants can invoke, but they’re very personal as well. And for some people, what they need is the opposite of that. They need to see beauty and love and their own self-worth and to have a very gentle experience. And then other people need to be thrown into the abyss to kind of shake themselves out of something. And I think that’s where that idea of plant intelligence comes in.”
“It’s not that far-fetched to think that these medicines were ancient, and that they were guarded even through apocalypses and catastrophic events and colonization. They kept these things, but why did they keep them? They kept them because they were seen as not only important, but actually something that was inseparable from humanity.”
“All of these things; there’s a time and a place for it. There’s benefits to certain things, there’s some drawbacks to certain ways of doing things, but ultimately it’s: what is going to be best for the patient? And that’s also something that’s fundamental to any holistic medicine, is realizing that there’s no panacea for everyone. We’re all different. We all have different body types, we have different stories, we have different physical ailments, [and] different mental stories. So how do we find the medicine that’s going to be best for us in this moment?”
Jason Grechanik’s journey has led him around the world in search of questions he has had about life. Early in his twenties, he began to develop a keen interest in plants: as food, nutrition, life, and medicine. He began learning holistic systems of medicine such as herbalism, Traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and nutrition. That curiosity eventually led him to the Amazon where he began to work with plants to learn traditional ways of healing.
Jason came to work at the ayahuasca healing center Temple of the Way of Light in 2012. After having worked with ayahuasca quite extensively, he began the process of dieting plants in the Shipibo tradition. In 2013, he began working with maestro Ernesto Garcia Torres, delving deep into the world of dieting. Through a prolonged apprenticeship and training, involving prolonged isolation, fasting, and dieting of plants, he was given the blessing to begin working with plants.
In this episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations, David interviews philosopher, clinical psychologist, Grof-certified Holotropic Breathwork® facilitator, and long-time mentor to Joe and Kyle: Lenny Gibson, Ph.D.
They talk at length about shamanism, Greek mythology, tribal cultures, and the overlapping themes across them. They discuss how religion became but a shadow of the ancient wisdom these cultures held; the commonalities between physics and poetry; how Holotropic Breathwork is a shamanic technique appropriate to 20th century western culture; and the battle between attainable knowledge and the vice of ignorance.
Gibson discusses the “dying before dying” that took place at Eleusis; how practices like meditation and breathwork can help us in recovering what in Zen is called “original mind;” achieving mystical enlightenment by studying mathematics; and the philosophical parallels between Plato, Kurt Vonnegut, Alfred North Whitehead, and the ancient Greeks.
He also shares how LSD has reshaped shamanism along with a fun story from the first time he met Albert Hofmann. When considering the most vital conversations people should be having, Gibson encourages us to return to the origins; to study the lineages that embodied the mystical wisdom discovered through non-ordinary states – something he believes our modern culture is missing. In the words of Leon Russell, “May the sweet baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind!”
“Lao Tzu says, ‘The secret awaits the vision of eyes unclouded by longing.’ The secret is in plain sight. All one has to do is step back and pay attention.”
“Conformity and deep understanding don’t go together.”
“I try to discourage the focus on substances because one of the most important means in Greek culture was poetry. Homer may or may not have been a person identifiable, but his poetry survived as a body. …The Greeks gathered in large festivals and they would recite the poems of Homer, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, and get thousands of people together chanting the same poems – a huge rave!”
“The absolutely most impressive thing about Stan Grof’s discovery …that if you empower people in accessing their deepest Self, you will get more than you could get by having a psychoanalyst talk to them about themselves.”
Leonard (Lenny) Gibson, Ph.D., graduated from Williams College and earned doctorates from Claremont Graduate School in philosophy and The University of Texas at Austin in counseling psychology. He has taught at The University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He served a clinical psychology internship at The Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and trained in Holotropic Breathwork with Stanislav Grof. Most recently, he has taught Transpersonal Psychology at Burlington College. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he conducts frequent experiential workshops. He is a founding Board member of the Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region. As a survivor of throat cancer, he has facilitated the Head and Neck Cancer Support Group at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Lenny is President of Dreamshadow Group. He raises vegetables, fruit, and beef cattle on a homestead in Pawlet, Vermont, and plays clarinet in local bands.
Morisano was researching the small percentage of people who experience negative effects from cannabis dependence, but in 2013, her boss retired to pursue ayahuasca research around the same time she was reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, and she wondered: Is there a tangible future here? She discusses the emergence of psychedelic medicine and the importance of reciprocity and inclusivity, pointing out how we often lump very different traditions together under the umbrella of “Indigenous.”
Three years in the making and planned as a one-time event, she considers the “From Research to Reality” conference to be a state of the union of the field of psychedelic science, where people from all fields in psychedelia will meet and discuss what we know, what the future could look like, and how we can get there. Each presentation was submitted and reviewed by a committee of peers, and will largely feature new research. The conference takes place May 27th to May 29th in Toronto, and a virtual option is available, with a special “Saturday night special” featuring David Nutt, Rick Doblin, Monnica Williams, and others. Check out the website for more details!
“We can’t just pick and choose what we want to gain from Indigenous knowledge. It has to be gifted to us. It has to be given freely. And if people want to incorporate Indigenous practices into their modern Western clinical practice, I think it should be done in consultation with multiple folks across different groups of different nations, and done with reciprocity in mind.”
“One person can’t speak for everybody. Three people can’t speak for everybody. 10 people can’t speak for everybody. But the more we listen to different perspectives of people coming from different nations, the more we will learn. And we includes everybody. It’s not just like we’re in one group and they’re in another group, it’s like we’re all having conversation together, hopefully learning from each other.”
“This is a place where everybody’s going to come together – government, regulators, policymakers, traditional medicine providers, neuroscientists, clinical practitioners; they’re going to all come together for the conversation. It’s a single track event, so there’s not going to be: ‘The neuroscientists are going to that room, the clinical people are going to that room.’ It’s like: No, everybody’s in the same room at the same time, listening to all the same stuff, and they’re going to learn from each other. That’s the idea. We’re going to learn from each other so that when we’re making decisions moving forward about what works best for people and for us, we’re going to have a lot of different viewpoints in the conversation.”
With the emergence of more and more psychedelic religions, many people are finding themselves in a situation where proving that their religion is sincere is the difference between being able to practice their religion legally or not. Could an International Psychedelic Religious Survey be the answer?
My lord, I suspect an incredible secret has been kept on this planet: that the Fremen exist in vast numbers – vast. And it is they who control Arrakis.
-Duncan Idaho, David Lynch’s “Dune” (1984)
To expand and clarify religious freedom and liberty in the United States and abroad, it is sometimes necessary to seek court rulings. One of the missing pieces of evidence that would prove helpful in most psychedelic religion cases is a reliable data set evidencing the demographics and statistics behind the world’s psychedelic religions. How many religious groups exist? How many members are there? What type of sacraments do they use? How to quantify communities that may not have stable membership? And more? I have gone looking for a reliable resource but have not found one yet. Indeed, I have spoken with some of the lead legal practitioners in this area, and they also lament the absence of this data. And the concern is not limited to lawyers. My friend, Brad Stoddard, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies, points out additional challenges in defining and applying metrics, including:
Some people will identify as spiritual but not religious.
Some people are likely to identify as neither religious nor spiritual but will still engage in practices many would consider religious or spiritual (the so-called “nones”).
Many Native Americans reject the category of religion as something that misrepresents their traditions. They also reject the categories of entheogens and psychedelics as they relate to sacraments like peyote and San Pedro. The politics of labeling these groups “religious” is tricky.
Beyond the U.S., even today, wide groups of people don’t have a category in their native language that corresponds to Western definitions of religion or spirituality, so assessing psychedelic religion in, say, rural India, would be almost impossible without extensive ethnographic surveys.
So, this gave me an idea. I would like to propose that some ambitious Ph.D.-types consider undertaking (as a Ph.D. thesis?) an international survey. For purposes of this article, I call it the International Psychedelic Religious Survey, but it could have a variety of different names. What is important is that the survey be conducted under scientific principles that could withstand court scrutiny, and that the data it procures answers the right sorts of questions.
Why are Psychedelic Religions Secret?
Psychedelic religions are not mainstream, and they are dogged by the omnipresent threat of allegation of criminality. It is therefore natural that psychedelic religious groups and their adherents stay mostly out of public scrutiny. There is justifiable fear of social stigma and risks to liberty, amongst myriad downstream repercussions. But these same forces that keep the psychedelically-inclined underground also serve as a shackle for things to remain so. The existence, nature, and populations participating in the world’s psychedelic religions is not well-documented. Some are out in the open, but most are not.
Why a Survey?
The importance of having numbers and an understanding of the types and varieties of psychedelic religions is helpful in court cases. This sort of data could be especially important in aiding the defense of persons criminally charged for their participation in psychedelic religious practice. Such data could also inform legislatures and other policy makers, increasing their awareness of (and possibly, sensitivity to) psychedelic religions. Indeed, the information could be useful to the United Nations, and could help the UN Office on Drugs and Crime with policy reform.
Similar to how a census counts a population and derives statistics, psychedelic religions might benefit from being counted. My suspicion is that revelation of the true demographics of psychedelic religions is apt to be a lot like Frank Herbert’s Dune – like the Fremen, the numbers of people who participate in psychedelic religions is secret and vast. When it comes to psychedelic religion, there persists popular ignorance and misunderstanding that have dampening effects on how these minority psychedelic religions are treated. Having data, even if it be anonymous, reflecting that these minority religions are not nearly as small as they appear helps to give these religions presence. From presence can flow understanding.
Consider that most psychedelic religions do not behave like more broadly accepted mainstream religious organizations. Out of fear, most psychedelic religions do not have billboards, do not evangelize, do not have television or radio ads, do not seek public donations, etc., and for similar reason, most do not fight court fights. Litigation is often prohibitively expensive, and minority religious groups trying to fly under the radar tend not to have financial means. A survey could provide synergy by which these minority religious groups could gain collective leverage. A survey could change the conversation about psychedelic religions with backed statistics and data. A survey might even move public policy focus away from chemical structures (the metric law enforcement uses) toward purpose and effect (the metric psychedelic religions use). Courts are not presently accustomed to the argument of “it is not how you get there that matters, it is that you get there,” but a reliable data set could further the point.
The Importance of Court Admissibility
If you are sitting in a criminal defense chair, charged for psychedelics but claiming religious exemption, the burden is on you to educate the judge and jury on the nature, basis, and supposed validity of your defense. The probability that the judge and jury are going to be well-educated about psychedelic religion is low. Your burden to come forward with credible, persuasive, court-admissible evidence supporting your psychedelic religion defense is made that much more difficult and necessary.
The key is court admissibility. To have a jury or a judge consider data, it needs to be admissible. It also needs to be relevant and authenticated. The most compelling and relevant evidence is meaningless if a court will not admit it. Hence, the need for a scientifically-run survey that considers all the details: who will gather the data, how that data will be gathered, what form of survey will be used, what questions would be posed in the survey, the types of answers permitted, etc. The survey will also need to be verifiable and be able to demonstrate things like chain of custody, all encapsulated in a report that can be admitted within a hearsay exception or over a hearsay objection.
Religion is not national. Indeed, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution would find the notion of national religion abhorrent, and no court in the United States could rule a religion “un-American.” Rather, at most, a court could rule an organization altogether not a religion, or a person’s observation thereof insincere, but a court could not weigh the merits or values of a religious group. Rather, under Constitutional principles, court inquiry is limited to examination for the trappings of things commonly associated with religion – concepts like contemplation of the imponderables of existence itself, contemplation of the source of all things, the nature of spirit, etc. Neither nationality nor nation of origin are relevant points of inquiry.
Pragmatically, it is a lot harder to claim religious exemption when the court knows nothing about, has had no life experience with, and is questioning the validity of your religion or the sincerity of your practice. The benefit of having a court-admissible survey demonstrating that you are far from alone, but are acting in conformity with possibly millions just like you, is manifest. Likewise, one of the greatest challenges that many of us entheogen lawyers are hoping to crack is the multi-sacramental conundrum, or the wholesale legal transcendence of relevance of sacrament. Along with the many holes in appellate precedent, there is no high-level appellate decision that has affirmed multiple psychedelic sacraments as acceptable religious practice. But that case can be made, and it can be made better with better evidence.
Although the United States Constitution contemplates a variety of religious expression, it would still be dangerous in court to ignore that Abrahamic lineage dominates in the United States. Statistically, it is more probable that the judge and jury in any psychedelic religion case will be most familiar with concepts of a revelatory religion that is manifested in scriptural texts, and whose members meet in some form of congregation and group worship, employing scripted prayers and relying upon faith. Many psychedelic religions look like this. Many do not. And getting that point across in a meaningful fashion to a court can make the difference between winning or losing a psychedelic religion case. An International Psychedelic Religious Survey can help demonstrate that minority adherents in one country may not be as minority as they seem, when taken in a global context, and could likewise reveal trends in the spread of psychedelic religions around the world.
Content and Manner of the Survey
The precise execution of the survey is admittedly at the edges of most lawyer’s skill sets. I imagine this project calls for a Ph.D. or aspiring Ph.D. theology student, or a professor excited to take on one of the most significant projects of their career (not to mention perhaps a couple qualified statisticians). I also offer that while we won’t do the survey ourselves (again, not our skill set), I and fellow entheogen attorneys, Greg Lake, Ian Benouis, and Dan Peterson are happy to contribute, particularly regarding framing survey questions that would be helpful for court admissibility. Brad Stoddard, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College, is also available to assist and welcomes contact. Anyone interested in picking up the mantle and running with it is invited to reach out to any of us. My friends and I hope this article inspires one or more of you to take on this very important task.
In this episode of the podcast, Kyle sits down with Joe Tafur, MD, for the first episode in our new weekly series, “Vital Psychedelic Conversations.”
Vital is the name of our new 12-month certificate program launching in April, and each episode of Vital Psychedelic Conversations will feature one of the teachers we’ve been honored to be able to include in the program. While the official announcement with all the important details is coming next week, we’re pretty pumped about Vital and wanted to start this new series today!
Joe Tafur, MD, is a family physician and author who was trained in ayahuasca curanderismo at the Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual in Peru. He also is a co-founder of the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, which is currently pursuing legal protection for ceremonial ayahuasca use.
He discusses the frustrating application process for the church; the idea of the substance only being a part of the experience; how a truly transpersonal moment seems to make people start asking about the sacred; the scientific community’s struggles with the transpersonal; soul retrieval; the interconnectedness of all things; and he makes an argument for allowing religious tokens in therapeutic containers. And he talks about what we can learn from Indigenous tradition and their holistic and health-focused mindset, connection to nature, relationship with substances, and embrace of spirituality.
Through the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, Tafur is running a webinar series to speak to and learn from Indigenous elders called “Wisdom of the Elders.” The first is next week, January 27th, and features Diné Elder Josie Begay-James.
“People are with this kind of direction: they’re partying, they’re having a great experience, maybe making some big memories, maybe they are shifting, some people are growing, maybe not. But then, on this other side, you have this high percentage of people really turning around decades-old mental health issues. So that’s a big, big difference. So what’s going on in those sessions? And what’s going on around those sessions? The focus has been the substance, the substance, the substance, the substance. They think they can sell it, whatever they want to do with it. But that other meat of what’s happening with people – there’s a lot of mysterious elements in that space.”
“The ones who are doing the psychotherapy with ketamine, I find, over and over again, that they become very curious about the sacred. …Those people want to know about people that have experience with this, from that perspective (from a spiritual perspective), because you can tell them: ‘These molecules did this and these neural patterns did that,’ but they’re not satisfied. It doesn’t answer the questions that they’re seeking, about: ‘What do I do with that?’” “Why does it have to be separate? Why would it be separate? It’s not separate, I don’t think, in sports. I don’t think they try to get people to dissociate from their intuition and their feeling. I think they encourage it strongly. …They’ll say, ‘He’s possessed!’ They’ll say a person is ‘inspired.’ Similarly with music; you wouldn’t have that ‘I’m not going to try to feel into my soul while I’m on stage.’ It’s actually the opposite, is the discussion quite often. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that what sells tickets all over the world? Isn’t that what distinguishes the big ticket sellers in general, that they’re able to tap into something that is transpersonal?”
“We have to deal with the transpersonal, not only for the sake of expanding ourselves and to be better people or to grow, but it’s a matter of health. That’s the reason.”
Joe Tafur, MD, is a Colombian-American family physician originally from Phoenix, Arizona. After completing his family medicine training at UCLA, Dr. Tafur spent two years in academic research at the UCSD Department of Psychiatry in a lab focused on mind-body medicine. After his research fellowship, over a period of six years, he lived and worked in the Peruvian Amazon at the traditional healing center Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual. There he worked closely with master Shipibo healer Ricardo Amaringo and trained in ayahuasca curanderismo. In his book, The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine, through a series of stories, Dr. Tafur shares his unique experience and integrative medical theories. After the release of his book in 2017, Dr. Tafur has been spending more time in the U.S. and with his spiritual community in Arizona, has co-founded the Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC). This spiritual community is dedicated to promoting the spiritual unity of all people with the Creator through the practice of traditional Indigenous spirituality and sacred ceremonies. The CEC is currently pursuing legal protection for their practice of sacred Ayahuasca ceremony. Dr. Tafur is also a co-founder of Modern Spirit, a nonprofit dedicated to demonstrating the value of spiritual healing in modern healthcare. Among their projects is the Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project, an epigenetic analysis of the impact of MAPS MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Their first results have now been submitted for publication. He is currently a fellow at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Additionally, he is involved the Ocotillo Center for Integrative Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona. To learn more about his work you can also visit Drjoetafur.com.
In this episode of the podcast, Joe sits down for the very rare multi-guest podcast, this time with four: teacher and author, Ayize Jama-Everett; LMFT, certified sex therapist, owner and operator of Doorway Therapeutic Services, Courtney Watson; LMFT at Doorway Therapeutic Services, Leticia Brown; and activist and facilitator, Kufikiri Imara.
The group has come together to create A Table of our Own: a for-Black-people by-Black-people psychedelic conference and corresponding documentary. While noticing how often it seemed members of the BIPOC community were being used to check off a diversity box for grant money, they decided that before they were another guest at someone else’s table, it was time for them to gather at their own table and figure out exactly what they want out of this “so-called psychedelic renaissance” first.
They talk about why a Black conference is needed and what it could look like; how affinity groups create safety; the ease in communication and connection when having shared experience; the problems with modern, performative-based psychiatry; and why it’s true that when Black people win, everyone wins. And reflecting on some of the recent abuse allegations, they also discuss abuse in the psychedelic space: how abusers always learn from abusers, how communities learn from the behavior of elders, how guidelines for facilitators and therapists are drastically oversimplified, and how we all need to recognize our own ability to cause harm.
A Table of our Own is happy to take donations, but only if you’re in it for the right reasons (i.e. you aren’t filling a quota or need your company’s banner hanging at the event). And if you’re someone who understands affinity groups but the idea of a Black-only event feels like segregation (like many felt when Nicholas Powers talked about a Black Burning Man), definitely check this one out.
“There’s a lot of ‘We want you at our table, we want you at our table,’ but as people of color, we’re not a freaking monolith. We haven’t sat at our table. We haven’t shared our stories, the positive and the negative. We haven’t collaborated on what’s going to do best for our communities. We haven’t had those conversations. And so the conference is about: Let’s just sit together and talk. Where are we at? How are you feeling? What’s going on? What do you need? Do you need a hug? Can you get fed? Can you be comforted? Can I hear your knowledge? Are you willing to share yours? Can we get that back-and-forth going? And then once we have that; well, let’s document that, because not everybody’s going to be able to come to this. What we need to show is: Hey, this is how we do.” -Ayize
“For survival purposes, because of the nature of historical precedents, we have to adjust who we are for the environment that we’re in for survival, understanding that there are those in the same society that expect the environment to change to them because that is the way things have been set up. So when we’re in an environment of a Black experience of people of the African diaspora, understanding that that’s not something we have to do in that space (like the others said, around being policed and thus having to police themselves); there’s a uniqueness around that.” -Kufikiri
“The harm comes in in ways of presenting itself as some authoritative model around good and bad, right and wrong; yet misses so much of the harms that exist in society that are navigated by those in marginalized communities (especially those in Black bodies and Western colonial spaces) that don’t account for that aspect of someone’s identity, but yet is looking to work with someone around what their identity is. So that harm is a very real one. …How do you know your worth and your value in a space if you’re always being compared to someone that does not look like you or does not have your experience?” -Kufikiri
“Black folks, when we’re in spaces together; we’re not all sitting around talking about our trauma. We are often just connecting with each other and laughing with each other and holding each other. So this conference is also a space where we can heal through play and joy and movement and dance and everything about how we navigate the world that brings so much flavor, including the joy. Black joy is a whole other kind of medicine that is always present when we gather.” -Leticia
Ayize Jama-Everett (b. NYC 1974) has been in various relationships with plants, substances, and communities since his birth. Born into the Black Power movement’s conflicts, Ayize comes from the lineage of the Lincoln Detox project, a community organization in Harlem, New York, that taught the formerly incarcerated to use acupuncture to help with heroin withdrawal. At sixteen, he traveled to Morocco and was taken in by the Gnawa and was privileged to join their rituals. Ayize served as the director of Outpatient services for Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment center for three years before joining Catholic Charities of Treasure Island as the substance use and mental health services manager. He’s worked in both abstinence and harm reduction modalities. He also served as a high school therapist for over a decade.
Ayize Graduated from the Graduate Theological Union in 2001 with a Master’s of Divinity. His thesis was on the spiritual use of substances among the homeless youth of Morocco, London, and the Bay Area. Soon after, he began teaching the Course “The Sacred and the Substance,” one of the first survey courses of sacred plant use at the Graduate Theological Union. In 2003, Ayize received a Masters degree in Clinical psychology from New College of California. In 2019, he received a Masters in Fine Arts, Creative Writing, from The University of California, Riverside. He is the author of four books, and his shorter works can be found in The L.A. Review of Books, The Wakanda Dream labs, The Believer, and Racebaitr. As an African-American male, Ayize’s focus has been consistently on underrepresented communities in the sacred plant community.
About Courtney Watson, LMFT
Courtney Watson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex therapist. She is the owner of Doorway Therapeutic Services, a group therapy practice in Oakland, CA focused on addressing the mental health needs of Black, Indigenous & People of Color, Queer folks, Trans, Gender Non-conforming, Non binary and Two Spirit individuals. Courtney has followed the direction of her ancestors to incorporate psychedelic assisted therapy into her offerings for folks with multiple marginalized identities and stresses the importance of BIPOC and Queer providers offering these services. Courtney has received training from the Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research at CIIS, MAPS and Polaris Insight Center to provide psychedelic-assisted therapy with a variety of medicines.
She is deeply interested in the impact of psychedelic medicines on folks with marginalized identities as well as how they can assist with the decolonization process for folx of the global majority. She believes this field is not yet ready to address the unique needs of Communities of Color and is prepared and enthusiastic about bridging the gap. She is currently blazing the trail as one of the only clinics of predominantly QTBIPOC providers offering Ketamine Assisted Therapy in 2021. She has founded a non-profit, Access to Doorways, to raise funds to subsidize the cost of ketamine/psychedelic-assisted therapy for QTBIPOC clients (now accepting donations for our first 100 recipients!!).
About Leticia Brown, LMFT
Leticia Brown (she/her/hers) is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Black queer femme whose practice engages various healing modalities at the intersections of harm reduction, sexuality and social justice. She prioritizes work with BIPOC & QTNBIPOC communities through a liberatory lens that values communual interdependence and affirms the inner healer we all hold within. Constantly exploring ways to decolonize her relationship to healing, she incorporates intergenerational exploration, spirituality, ritual, the use of the body, and reconnection to intuition in her practice, and sees her role as co-creator with those she walks beside on their healing journeys.
Leticia has been trained in a variety of Psychedelic-assisted Therapy modalities, including Ketamine-assisted Psychotherapy trainings with Sage Institute, Polaris Insight Center, Healing Realms and Doorway Therapeutic Services, where she maintains a small private practice. Leticia was also a trainee of MAPS’ first-ever MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy Therapy Training for Communities of Color, in August of 2019. Additionally, she is a therapist with the MAPS expanded access program, using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating severe PTSD. In her harm reduction consulting and training, Leticia encourages both self-introspection and challenging discourse. In her work supporting therapists with engagement of anti-racist and decolonizing practices, she aims to offer a sense of groundedness and purpose to the work. In her work with clients and therapists around issues of sexuality and (other) altered states of consciousness, she holds a sociopolitical lens, and aims to cultivate a safe relationship to the body. In all of this work, Leticia aims to be guided by Fannie Lou Hamer’s mantra that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free”, particularly in her work with QTBIPOC folx.
About Kufikiri Imara
Kufikiri Imarawas born and raised on Huichin territory of the Ohlone people (Oakland, California). With parents that were involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, he grew up in a family and community that strongly emphasized cultural awareness and social responsibility. He volunteered with Green Earth Poets Society in NYC, bringing poetry to incarcerated African-American youth. He was an early member of the Entheogen Integration Circle in NYC, supporting marginalized communities. He is a friend of Sacred Garden Community as a facilitator. A former member of the Decriminalize Nature Oakland grassroots collective, he went on to head the DNO committee on Outreach, Education, Access, & Integration. He lent his voice to the Horizons Media documentary film “Covid-19, Black Lives, & Psychedelics.” He also facilitates a BIPOC Entheogen Integration Circle with the San Francisco Psychedelic Society. Kufikiri Imara is a voice championing the important issues of access, education, and inclusion within the larger psychedelic community.
Our understanding of the brain in the 1800s was quite different from what we know today – and pretty weird, too.
You can’t throw a tab of LSD without hitting a story about psychedelics these days. While psychedelics are going through a scientific renaissance, 150 years ago, the field was a circus of misinformation and racism. Occasionally though, through that potpourri of misguided madness, it nailed some concepts that still hold up today. Granted, future scientists will most likely write an article clowning the state of psychedelics in the early 2000s to today, but let me be the first to start that vicious cycle by highlighting some of the more ridiculous concepts people believed in the 19th Century.
While there may have been many ethnographic studies of psychedelics dating back to the Bronze Age, the concept of modern neuroscience is a fairly new field. In the 1880s, the interest in neuroscience formed from humanity’s attempt to explain mental illness and addiction through scientific terms as opposed to supernatural spirits possessing bodies. Some neuroscientists in the 19th century believed a person’s cognition, along with predisposition of behavioral traits was rooted in neuroanatomy, which some believed was reflected in the physical structure of the skull. The idea that chemistry played a role in brain functionality was a novel concept that didn’t have much support in the scientific community in the early 1880s. In fact, the closest thing science got to neurochemistry was in 1809, when Johann Christian Reil soaked a brain in pure alcohol for a week just to see what would happen (if you’re wondering, it got really hard and took on the texture of shoe leather).
To first understand the state of neuroscience in the 1800s, we must first comprehend the state of science at the time, and it was bonkers.
Cell Theory, Darwin, and Phrenology
The idea that all living organisms consisted of cells and that all cells originated from pre-existing cells (cell theory) proposed by German physiologist Theodor Schwann in 1839 was revolutionary. It shifted the deeply-held religious belief that life originated supernaturally, and instead, emerged from biological means. It sounds trivial now, but society took a collective seat and came to the realization that each person was a community of cells working in unison to create a ‘Bob,’ Connie,’ or ‘Karen’ (and of course, all those Karen cells wanted to see the manager shortly after being created).
Twenty years after the world recovered from Schwann’s cell theory, Darwin dropped The Origin of a Species, giving birth to the concept of evolution, a radical idea that once again shifted humanity’s focus away from divine creation and more closely towards the modern worldview we hold today.
Science in the 1800s was also notoriously racist. Many people used Darwin’s evolutionary theory to justify hateful pseudoscience that revealed the most vile aspects of humanity. While he was able to consciously remove himself from the 19th century racism that prevailed in science at the time, most could not. Franz Joseph Gall constructed the basic ideologies of phrenology in 1808, which was a belief that a person’s mental aptitude could be determined by bumps and ridges in a person’s skull — evidence Gall believed was the pressure of the neuroanatomy of the brain on the skull. More specifically, he believed a person’s behavior was localized in different compartments in the brain — a total of 28 areas to be exact. Things like ‘the firmness of purpose,’ ‘love of poetry,’ and even a place in the brain that’s responsible for a person’s tendency to murder, Gall insisted, could be determined through cranial anatomy.
When phrenology emerged in Europe in the 1800s, most scientists discarded the idea since its foundations were based on faulty neuroanatomical information. Gall was tossed out of Austria for proposing such an obviously absurd idea and eventually ended up in France, where even Napoleon Bonaparte ridiculed his concept of phrenology. When the rest of the world seemed to collectively reject phrenology as the pseudoscience it truly was, it found a home in America — because at that conflicted time, obviously it would.
With abolitionist movements spreading across the country along with the social underpinnings of what would be known as the Civil War, phrenology was used as a “scientific” reason to justify slavery in America and the overall disgusting treatment of Indigenous people as land continued to be removed from tribal territories. However, phrenology did have its fierce opponents, like John P. Harrison, editor of the Western Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal that caught the attention of Southern political leaders when it was introduced to America (and is still in print today). With the assistance of books like Phrenology Vindicatedby Charles Caldwell and Crania Americana by Samuel Morton, political leaders had the “scientific” backing to make absurd claims like Africans were neurologically designed to be enslaved and Indigenous Americans were biologically a different species than white people — which made stealing their land a natural process ordained by God.
Louis Lewin’s Phantastica
Amongst the incendiary nature of science during the 19th century, the unlikely emergence of psychedelic neuroscience occurred — and like all things in the 1800s, it was undoubtedly a product of its time. That’s a nice way to say it was sometimes wrong and mostly racist, but interestingly enough, it got some things right.
Neuroscience can be defined as the objective study of the brain and the central nervous system. The first neuroscientist to analyze the effects of psychedelics was Germany’s Louis Lewin in his book, Phantastica. Although it was officially released in 1924 when Lewin was 74, it contained his collected psychedelic research that took place in the late 1800s. Among the many drugs he categorized, he decided not to call psychedelics “hallucinogens” since not all substances elicit a hallucinatory response. “Phantastica” was the word he decided on, along with other equally interesting names like “Inebriantia” for drugs like alcohol, and my personal favorite, “Excitantia” for substances like caffeine and nicotine.
Lewin was never really a scientific rock star in his time though, mostly because he refused to renounce his Jewish heritage in 19th-century Germany – racism and anti-Semitism in the scientific community at this time went hand-in-hand. However, Lewin did get the props he deserved in psychedelics when Paul Henning of the Berlin Botanical Museum named peyote Anhalonium Lewiniiin Lewin’s honor.
Around the time Lewin came on the scene, most people were describing psychedelics in a subjective manner, wrapped up in pseudo-science and religious mysticism. People weren’t tripping because of psychedelic-induced neurological activity — evil spirits possessed the taker of the psychedelic, which meant evil behavior was soon to follow. Metaphysics, with its focus on the nature of human consciousness and existence, was rapidly growing in the 1800s. Lewin believed that describing psychedelics in metaphysical terms would ruin what we could potentially learn from them. His research was wholly focused on dispelling the pseudoscience that surrounded psychedelics, yet Lewin fell into the trap of anointing psychedelics with otherworldliness with his idea that an invisible force called ‘vital energy’ surrounded all living things. Lewin believed this vital energy governed all chemical, mechanical, and physical properties of each person and that psychedelics had the ability to interrupt this energy. He also believed a person’s resistance to psychedelics was dependent on the strength of their vital energy.
This wasn’t the first time Lewin would take an L in his neuroscientific research of psychedelics. When assessing the capability of certain psychedelics on the brain, he assumed (1924, p. 8) that black people naturally had a higher recovery rate than whites:
“We may take it as a fact that Negroes have greater recuperation powers than white people. This is due not to climatic conditions but to certain innate qualities possessed by them.”
In his writings, he didn’t seek to prove this theory — it was just taken as matter-of-fact; another symptom of the 19th century. Lewin also insisted Indigenous people knew of their own racial inferiority, which is why they self-medicated with psychedelics:
“The Indians of South America are said to have an intuitive appreciation of their own defectiveness, and to be ever ready to rid themselves of such melancholy feelings by intense excitement, i.e. through kola and similar drugs” (p. 2).
Still somehow, Lewin believed psychedelics ‘form bonds in people of all walks of life’ (p. 7). He realized the diversity of people was so great that a one-size-fits-all explanation of human physiology and psychology in regards to psychedelics wouldn’t suffice. Likely influenced by Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Lewin made a strong case for the adaptations of organisms to a variety of external influences like psychedelics. He believed a skilled anthropologist could trace the development of culture directly to the availability of psychedelics, an idea shared 100 years later in Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods. Lewin was also one of the first scientists to see the health benefits of psychedelics, mostly based on accounts of Indigenous people taking them for mental health.
In the 1800s, a small but prevailing idea amongst scientists was that psychedelics created a “trip” by activating ductless glands in the body to secrete hormones into the endocrine system. Lewin thought the theory was BS and instead theorized that psychedelics excite certain “brain centers” to “transmit agreeable sensations” (p. 3) through the chemistry of the substance. He basically described what we now know as psychedelics acting as serotonergic agonists that bind to mostly 5-HT2A receptors in the brain — an original theory Lewin established nearly 50 years before the discovery of serotonin.
Lewin’s assumption that psychedelics hit specific cortical regions through something like the serotonin system was remarkable, but only because he made other successful guesses like recognizing that every chemical study on the brain up to that point was conducted ex vivo, or on a dead brain, and that in vivo neuro research conducted on a living brain may have chemicals that were not present or didn’t transform into something else upon death. He also knew about the brain’s need for oxygenated blood and suggested that psychedelics may affect this process. Neuroscience had to wait 100 years for Lewin’s idea to be tested with BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependent) brain imaging through MRI.
When it came to theoreticals, Lewin had a few. One of his notable ones was the idea of a toxic equation, which is a loose formula that dictates everyone has a certain resistance to the effects of psychedelics based on their neurophysiology and overall physiology. On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable idea, but digging deeper, it gets a bit irrational. His general belief was that people built up a resistance to psychedelics due to parts of the brain weakening and not being able to process these substances. There’s still no proof of this over a century later though, and in 2021, Dr. Ling-Xiao Shao conducted research that pointed to the opposite. Psilocybin actually strengthens dendritic density in the brain and repairs neurons that have atrophied due to stress and depression. Lewin also believed cells had ‘will-power’ and when a person takes a psychedelic after not taking it for a long time, the memory of the ‘agreeable sensation’ is just too strong to resist and that’s how people become addicted again (p. 18).
Learning From the History of Psychedelics
Unfortunately, psychedelic neuroscience research didn’t really catch on in the 19th century, mostly because civilization almost collapsed due to a global opioid addiction that crippled nearly every economy and led to prohibition in the early 1900s. The bigotry and racism of the 19th century confined Louis Lewin’s research of psychedelics into a box that takes a lot of ethical unpacking to fully absorb.
The origin of neuroscience is shrouded in poorly constructed science and whacky ideas which were specifically designed to marginalize groups of people from the discussion of who could be considered human. It has a dark past, but with a more defined scientific method and newer ideas, the future of psychedelic neuroscience is whatever we make it. In every natural system, diversity is the key defining factor for the progression of that system. These ideas aren’t mine or even new — Darwin wrote several books on this. This same need for diversity also applies to psychedelic neuroscientific research. History shouldn’t serve as an obstacle for the exponential amount of discovery that can be revealed if we all work together. We will get there.
In this episode, Joe and Kyle sit down with famed anthropologist and author (most notably of The Cosmic Serpent), Jeremy Narby. He is also the Amazonian projects director for Nouvelle Planète, a nonprofit organization that works to empower Indigenous peoples through demarcation of land.
Narby talks about how he was pushed to psychedelics through a combination of long talks with Humphry Osmond and political anthropology, focusing on the conflict between the World Bank and Indigenous people over their land. He tells how his first ayahuasca and datura experiences made him feel reconciled with nature, and how he realized people in the states had started speaking highly of the ecological knowledge of Indigenous people of the Amazon without ever talking about the hallucinogenic way they attained that knowledge (and how he felt it was his place to start talking about it).
He also discusses anthropology and subjectivity; Richard Evans Schultes; the problem with trying to verify or substantiate hallucinations; the West’s focus on “the active ingredient” and how ayahuasca is much more than drinkable DMT; the overuse and microdosing of ayahuasca; the entourage effect and how it’s excluded by the “DMT explains everything” hypothesis; why vine-only ayahuasca needs to be researched more; and the differences in how people react to LSD vs. ayahuasca or psilocybin (do the plant substances have a trickster spirit in them which doesn’t like some people?).
To win a copy of Narby’s most recent book, Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge (co-authored by Rafael Chanchari Pizuri), click here!
“When I first started hearing this at the age of 25 (in 1985), I thought it was a bit of a joke because I didn’t think that one could take psychedelics and learn about plant properties. I thought one could take LSD and have an interesting time in the woods with one’s friends, but if you really started thinking that the trees were talking to you, there was a bit of a problem. That was my point of view at the time. But here were these rainforest Indians living in the most biodiverse place on earth saying: Yes, we learn about plant properties by drinking this hallucinogenic vine mixture.” “I went to the Rio summit in 1992, and suddenly there are all these governments talking about the knowledge of Indigenous people about biodiversity, talking about the knowledge of Amazonian Indians and how we have to recognize it and take it into consideration. Everybody talking about the knowledge of Indigenous Amazonians, [but] nobody talking about the hallucinogenic origin of this knowledge as they themselves discuss it.”
“If you’re an average Westerner; without really even realizing it, you kind of subscribe to this idea of The Active Ingredient. So you know what is the active ingredient of ayahuasca? Ah, it’s DMT. This is the scientific opinion that has been turned into a kind of orthodoxy, but just talk to the Indigenous Amazonian people. They’ll tell you that the vine itself, which doesn’t contain DMT, is the main ingredient.” “Just the ayahuasca vine itself; if you make an extract from it, you already have a complex cocktail. And then that mixture is used to study all the other plants. And so, it’s a cocktail to which you can add tobacco and nicotine, datura and scopolamine, coca and cocaine — you can add any plant you want to study the effect of the plant. That’s what ayahuasca also is. So, it’s, at its base, a cocktail, and then it can be turned into a psychoactive cocktail with many different plants, including DMT. …It’s Cocktail City, basically.”
Jeremy Narby, PhD, is co-author of Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge with indigenous elder Rafael Chanchari Pizuri. He became an early pioneer of ayahuasca research while living with the Asháninka people of the Peruvian Amazon in the 1980s. He studied anthropology at Stanford University and now lives in Switzerland and works as Amazonian Projects Director for Nouvelle Planète, a nonprofit organization that promotes the economic and cultural empowerment of Indigenous peoples.
In this episode, Joe and Kyle decided to celebrate 9/20 by sitting down with friend, writer, Editor in Chief of the blog, and past Solidarity Friday member, Michelle Janikian.
Before Michelle was part of the PT team, she was one of our more popular podcast guests (in a very mushroom-heavy episode), and the writer of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, a safety-focused and informative guidebook highlighting the many ways mushrooms can be used. So it made perfect sense to spend the mushroom holiday episode checking in with her and talking some psilocybin. She talks about what inspired her to write the book, the importance of learning how to trip and fostering a relationship with mushrooms, how using mushrooms solely for personal healing feels self-centered and a bit boring, the common opinion of many psychonauts that you need to do a large dose for your first time, the concept of mushrooms as tricksters who may be trying to hurt you, the joy of foraging, how much we all tend to romanticize Indigenous culture and perceived wisdom, and the value of being honest with yourself about what you want out of a psychedelic experience and developing your own rituals. And she talks about what’s been biggest in her life recently: the time she spent living in the house she was raised in as her parents prepared it to be sold, and how doing mushrooms there after all these years not only made her feel reconnected to the house and its surrounding woods in a special way, but also gave her a ton of new gratitude for what her parents did to provide that for her. She feels much closer to her parents now and wants to have a mushroom or MDMA session with them- something many of us could benefit greatly from. If you want to win a free signed copy of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion and a whole host of other great mushroom and psychedelic-themed stuff, make sure to enter our huge 920 giveaway before it ends tonight at midnight! Happy Holidays!
“I feel like when folks only make their psychedelic work about healing, it seems a bit self-centered. It does feel a bit like if you make it all about yourself and healing your problems, …to the plant and the rest of the universe, [that] kind of seems a bit petty, perhaps. Not to be rude- we all deserve to heal ourselves, but I think that when we go in with just an intention to do that, we’re putting blinders on, …and we are not going to be able to see the rest of what’s going on here. It’s bigger than you.”
“Mushrooms are tricksters. We have to be a bit careful as a culture, welcoming mushrooms in. I mean, sure, let’s do it, they’re fun- they’re the life of the party. They should absolutely be part of our culture. But giving them so much responsibility, like healing mental illness of the world, for me, I don’t know if that’s actually the best idea, as someone who communicates and listens to them quite often.”
“People who use mushrooms are quite smart, and I think a lot of them are being ignored or not part of this new conversation, and that’s a shame. It shouldn’t be like that. I think a lot of them want nothing to do with this new clinical world either. They’re like, ‘Ehh, you can have that. I have my ritual, and it works for me.’ And I just want people to develop their own rituals and find out what works for them. That’s why I collected so many in one place, so you can kind of pick and choose what’s right to you. Everyone’s different. And in the true ‘think for yourself and question authority’ manner, Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: It’ll help you figure it out. I don’t know if you really need everyone else telling you what to do. I think you know what you want to do, you’ve just got to listen.”
Michelle Janikian is a journalist and the author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion (Ulysses Press, 2019), the down-to-earth guide that details everything you need to know about taking magic mushrooms safely and mindfully. Michelle actively covers psychedelic and cannabis education, harm reduction, and research in her work, which has been featured in Playboy, Rolling Stone, High Times, DoubleBlind Mag and others. Currently, she’s the editor-in-chief of Psychedelics Today and an occasional co-host of their podcast. She’s passionate about the healing potential of psychedelic plants and substances, and the legalization and de-stigmatization of all drugs. Find out more about her work on her website michellejanikian.com or follow her on Instagram (@michelle.janikian), Twitter (@m00shian) and Facebook (@Michelle.Janikian).
Sacred psychedelic plant medicines are increasingly entering the Western mainstream, but is it cultural appropriation?
From the medicinal and ceremonial use of mescaline-containing plants by the Indigenous peoples of Mexico thousands of years ago, to the brewing of ayahuasca by several Indigenous groups in the Amazon today, entheogens have been a part of the cultural heritage of these communities in ways that Western society is just starting to understand.
Because there are significant differences in the ways these plants have been used historically and the way Western society is integrating them, let’s take a brief look at both approaches.
Indigenous Uses of Sacred Plant Medicines and Traditions
Various Indigenous cultures have used medicinal plants with psychoactive properties for hundreds of years including the Mazatec and Huichol of Mexico, Native North Americans, tribes in Africa, and Indigenous groups in the Amazon. The uses of these plants vary from culture to culture, but have a few commonalities when it comes to their healing purposes. For most, there is a general belief in their sacredness and spiritual properties.
“Plants, in general, have been used for ceremony, food, and utilitarian purposes. Sacred plant medicines were always used in ceremonies and never used for recreational purposes. Plants were placed on this earth to heal humanity as I understand it,” Belinda Eriacho, Native American Healer, tells Psychedelics Today. “In my own experiences, these sacred plant medicines have helped me to heal intergenerational trauma, to find peace with deceased loved ones, and to look at my own life and improve many areas of [it].”
When it comes to ayahuasca, Indigenous peoples from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador have used the brew in their sacred rituals for many years. It served and continues to serve as a basis for the establishment of different spiritual traditions by these peoples. They hold the vine in high regard and believe it can facilitate the perception of the complexity of the natural world and human creation.
Similarly, the consumption of peyote in sacred rituals allowed the Huicholes and the Tarahumaras of Mexico to come into contact with divine beings or ancestors and to cure various diseases. To this day, peyote has also been adopted by several Native American peoples. They see peyote as a gift from the creator, and a direct communication channel with the “Great Spirit”.
These cultures have preserved rituals and sacred medicines but have also gone through extreme hardships in order to do so. Many Indigenous spiritual practices in Mexico were severely persecuted and banned during the Spanish Inquisition, and hundreds of thousands of natives were brutally murdered. Many other Indigenous communities in the Americas faced the same barbarities during colonization, having their codices destroyed and much of their ceremonial knowledge lost.
Western Uses of Plant Medicines
In the Western world, the use of psychedelic plant medicine can also be traced for thousands of years. A few examples are The Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece that involved ceremonies with psychoactive plants. Furthermore, Indigenous peoples of Siberia and the Sámi people of Northern Europe used Amanita Muscaria mushrooms in their sacred traditions.
Many medicinal plants have found their way into numerous products that the pharmaceutical industry sells today to treat a variety of diseases and health conditions, from aspirin derived from willow tree bark, to the current growing interest in entheogens for therapy and the possibility to revolutionize global mental health.
Scientists have been carrying out research for decades on psychedelic plants for their chemical properties and pharmaceutical potential. In this model of Western medicine, science seeks to understand these substances simply as chemical compounds detached from their ethnobotanical origin.
Adapting the uses of sacred psychedelic plants to Western medicine brings the advantage of making them accessible to people who can benefit tremendously from their properties on a global scale. In recent years, research into psychedelics has demonstrated their potential to address disorders that have proved difficult to treat including depression, anxiety, chemical dependency, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
But in reality, there is a suspicion that dominating the market is more important than addressing the mental health crisis. For instance, we are currently witnessing a debate on whether it’s ethical for companies such as COMPASS Pathways to try and monopolize the psychedelic industry with their patent strategy.
Additionally, in the past few years, the New Age spirituality movement has merged with positive psychology and the wellness industry, bringing many to seek healing, transcendental experiences, and self-improvement through entheogens. For many, these plants are the catalyst of positive life changes and are also revered with respect. However, there is concern that some are engaging in ceremonies so often that “spiritual bypassing” is now a recurring theme in psychedelic community discussions.
“I find it interesting how often I hear stories of people doing ceremony [using sacred plant medicines] every weekend. In many indigenous cultures, you were blessed to have one ceremony in your lifetime,” says Eriacho. “I would suggest that if individuals are finding that they need to use these plant medicines every weekend then (1) they are not taking the time to fully integrate into the experiences shown to them, and (2) these plant medicine(s) are not working for them.”
This high demand and constant search are not without negative consequences. Issues related to cultural appropriation, sustainability, and the commercialization of spirituality are often ignored by Westerners while engaging in such frequent ceremonies and spiritual tourism when they should be taken into greater consideration.
What Is Cultural Appropriation?
To understand the meaning of “cultural appropriation”, we need to understand the meaning of “appropriation” and ”culture” on an individual basis. We can define culture as the set of practices, symbols, and values that a specific group shares. For example, tattoos are an important symbol for many Indigenous cultures, as they are an essential part of the historical constitution of the groups to which they belong.
On the other hand, appropriation is the act of taking for oneself a certain element without the owner’s consent. So cultural appropriation would be the action of adopting elements of a culture to which you don’t belong without consent. An important detail to remember is this becomes problematic when it involves a power relationship. For example, it’s cultural appropriation when a culture which has historically been suppressed and marginalized has its elements stolen and its meanings erased by another culture that has dominated it.
Cultural appropriation contributes to the maintenance of structural racism in our society and the continuity of different stereotypes about cultures. But we must not forget that individuals appropriating a culture are just symptoms of a much larger problem. A capitalist system that aims for profit and uses extractivism (the exploitation of natural resources on a massive scale generating significant economic profits for a powerful few) to transform a community’s culture into a product but does not value the people whose culture it belongs to, is the real problem that needs addressing.
In the context of medicinal psychedelic plants and fungi, cultural appropriation may manifest itself in different ways. An example was the bioprospecting (the practice of searching for botanical miracle cures) of psilocybin mushrooms out of their Oaxacan context at the end of the 1950s by R. Gordon Wasson. And more recently, cases of “neo shamans” offering ceremonies they label “authentic” without years of experience and a real understanding of the cultures to which these ceremonies belong, are also examples of cultural appropriation.
The Answer? Awareness, Balance and Respect
There is a growing tendency to commodify these substances without giving back to the communities who have held this knowledge for centuries at their own risk. For example, who is really benefiting from expensive retreats in the Amazon jungle? Additionally, the development of new treatments with synthetic derivatives of these substances will reach the market through pharmaceutical patents without properly recognizing traditional knowledge.
For Indigenous people throughout the world, the commercialization of their spirituality is just one of many daily challenges embedded in larger societal struggles. Western engagement with Indigenous spiritual traditions often contributes to a false romanticization of these communities’ situations; it can even feel like an erasure of the injustices that they have experienced in the past, and continue to experience to this day. Indigenous people have to fight daily for the preservation of their lands, their languages, and their cultures. In fact, many continue to be murdered for standing up for their rights. As psychedelic enthusiasts, we have the responsibility to bring awareness to these dynamics.
“While psychedelic plant medicines still have most of their potential still to be taped into for the benefit of society, contemporary psychedelic studies are at risk of replicating harmful colonial behavior with the territories and communities from which the plants originate,” writes anthropologist, Paloma David, in her forthcoming publication, “Decolonizing Psychedelic Studies: The Case of Ayahuasca”. “A decolonial approach is essential to the current renaissance as failing to recognize indigenous perspectives as equally valuable to the discussion in the appropriate use of these substances only contributes to deepening the colonial wound in which these plants are interwoven.”
Will psychedelics be reduced to high-class wellness, healthcare, or self-optimization products that are only accessible for those who can afford the steep price tag while the people that carried this traditional knowledge are excluded from the market? As we are about to enter the era of psychedelic capitalism, it’s important for us to remember that balance can be achieved if we acknowledge that respect is crucial for any relationship.
We need to look at what we are doing when it comes to sacred plant medicine, how we are doing it, and what impact our actions have on other communities around the world. There needs to be an effort to educate ourselves in order to comprehend Indigenous paradigms, and the effect of their loss of languages, land, culture, and knowledge. As we begin to better understand spiritual identity and sacred reciprocity, we can start making an effort to no longer let Indigenous peoples and their cultures be seen as resources to be harvested.
“Through my lens as a Native American woman, when we are ill or when we seek balance in our lives through ceremony, we often look to our plant relatives for healing,” says Eriacho “There is a ritual or practice of utilizing these sacred beings. Before the plant is harvested, we are mindful about how much will be needed, and then explain to the plant why it is needed and for whom. This is done out of respect for the plant in exchange for its life. We offer tobacco, cornmeal as an act of appreciation. This is referred to as sacred reciprocity. We need to be respectful and reverent of these sacred plant medicines.”
So how can we protect and develop traditional ceremonies in a way that is useful and respectful of Indigenous communities? And how can we prevent the so-called psychedelic renaissance from exclusively benefiting non-Indigenous Western entrepreneurs?
When I speak to Paloma David about how we can move forward in a respectful fashion, she says, “Firstly, by being culturally humble in actively listening to Indigenous voices who are authorities on the use of psychedelic plant medicines and actively including them in the conversation on the appropriate use of these substances.”
“By being aware of our own cultural biases. By understanding that people’s making-sense of an ayahuasca experience is highly dependent on their cultural background, religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), and personal psychology.” David continues, “And secondly, by avoiding the harmful reproduction of colonial dynamics of appropriation, epistemicide and exploitation in which the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous knowledges are interwoven.”
Reflecting on these ethical dilemmas can offer us models for understanding and solving this continuing harmful and extractive economy. Another solution might be pointing out paths for fair and reciprocal reparation agreements with Indigenous communities.
More importantly, considering these issues make us question the colonial and racialized Western mentality that contributes to the continued delegitimization of Indigenous communities and their knowledge so we all can at least start asking ourselves: What are the true costs of our healing?
About the Author
Jessika Lagarde is a Brazilian storyteller, Earth and climate activist, and Women On Psychedelics co-Founder. Women On Psychedelics is an educational platform that advocates for the end of the stigmatization around women’s mental health and substance use, and the normalization of the use of psychedelics for its therapeutic potential and healing capacities. Jessika’s environmental work and psychedelic path have made her more aware not only of the crisis of our planet but also of how human disconnection is a direct cause of it. All of her work is informed in taking action in a way that serves the Earth and our human collective, in hopes of mobilizing inner healing towards outer action.
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