Of course, many ancient healing traditions have long understood and utilized the power of psychedelics and altered states of consciousness in the treatment of physical, emotional and spiritual diseases. In Shamanic cultures, it is believed that trauma is at the root of many illnesses, causing the soul to leave the body as a way of protecting itself from the intolerable pain experienced during a traumatic event. It is thought that in order to heal, the soul needs to be lovingly and safely guided back to integrate with the body, so the person can become whole again.
In scientific terms, trauma happens when our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and our most primal coping strategies fail. If we feel threatened or attacked but are unable to fight or flee in that situation, our nervous system reacts by freezing or disconnecting/dissociating and the energy of the unprocessed fear gets locked into our body. These energetic residues can show up in the body as chronic tensions, pain or illness and express as states of stress, fear and reactivity, leading to anxiety, depression, addictions and often, the constellation of symptoms that we call PTSD.
This is an entirely involuntary process, driven by our limbic system, which automatically chooses our survival mechanism and strategies. Yet, we often feel ashamed of or responsible for the ways our system has responded and adapted to the trauma, leading to an even deeper sense of disconnection, aloneness and possibly even rejection of ourselves.
Once we come to understand disease as a loss of connection of the unity of body, mind and spirit we can begin to work on restoring this sense of connection, wholeness and trust in our innate goodness and the world around us in order to heal. States of altered consciousness induced through psychedelic therapy &/or BioDynamic Breathwork can give us a direct experience of that connection with our spiritual core by revisiting past traumas, defusing destructive core beliefs and coping strategies and opening our hearts again towards ourselves and others.
As Dr Gabor Maté, a leading scientist and author in the fields of trauma and the use of psychoactive plants in trauma therapy, explains:
“So if you can become conscious of your patterns and your beliefs, these core beliefs, and how you attain these beliefs, then you can let go of them. Rigid feeling, thought, and behavioural patterns can unclench; the self can rearrange itself and develop its inner and outer resources more deeply. So there we get to the concept of a true self and one that can be reconfigured, or at least rediscovered with the help of the psychoactive plants, particularly ayahuasca.”
I started my own healing journey 3 years ago with the BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release System (BBTRS) and about 2 years ago found the path of working with Shamanic plant medicines. I find that breathwork compliments the work with the plants beautifully and in many ways the combination of these approaches allows me to go deeper in my healing and integrate the work into my life. In the following I share from my personal experience working with both and some of the things to consider when starting a shamanic medicine journey.
Top tips for starting a shamanic medicine journey
1. Choose your medicine family wisely
With an increasing number of Shamanic healing retreats being offered across the globe, it can be tricky to figure out which one to go for. Some ceremony circles host dozens of participants, whereas others less than a handful of people; some are facilitated by indigenous shamans with a long ancestral heritage of working with the plants, yet nowadays ceremonies are unfortunately also often offered by people with little healing experience and without proper guidance in preparing and serving plant medicines; ceremonies can be held anywhere, in nature or in a confined urban space or even in locations underground. You can certainly have a very profound healing experience in any of these settings, as arguably the quality of the experience will greatly depend on your state of being at the time, the preparation you have done and how open and ready you are to receiving the medicines. However, one crucial element when working with trauma is a sense of safety which was missing at the time when the trauma occurred. The choice of our ‘medicine family’ may therefore come down to how safe and supported we feel with the retreat facilitators and the general set-up of the retreat.
I have sat in many different medicine circles, from open-air jungle ceremonies to makeshift urban living room arrangements and for me it makes all the difference how well I feel the space is being held. Ideally, the person/s holding the space has deep knowledge of and experience with Shamanic practices and traditions, while also being familiar with the Western mind and therapeutic approaches to help with the contextualization and integration of the experience. Above all, I need to trust that this person can meet me with love and compassion while my deepest, most painful wounds are coming to the surface and that the set-up of the ceremony supports such a transformative healing experience.
Most facilitators will stress the importance of and advise you on the “Dieta”, a special diet to prepare you for the Shamanic medicine journey. This should be part of the pre-ceremony guidance and will depend on the types of plants you are working with. However, there are many other techniques and practices that will help you prepare and get the most out of your healing journey with the plants.
Body-mind practices, such as yoga, meditation and chi gong will strengthen your awareness and help you get in touch with your physical and energetic body. The medicine journey itself is a meditation that requires the ability to stay present and connected with the experience you are having. The plants also cleanse us energetically, so the more effort you make to consciously detox, drop unhealthy habits and tune in with your energy body the easier it will be for the plants to work on a deeper level.
As mentioned before, an essential element of trauma healing is a sense of safety and love from outside but also from within ourselves. This inner resource can be cultivated within our own bodies by bringing awareness to parts of the body that feel comfortable and soothing. Bioenergetic practices, such as BBTRS, can help you get in touch with your resource and strengthen this connection so that when you encounter trauma during your journey, you do not become overwhelmed or even re-traumatized. In fact, I find the breath itself is the most powerful resource during my journeys, as it helps me to connect back with the felt sense in my body whenever the stories and drama in my mind are taking over.
3. Intention & Surrender
The plant spirits can act as teachers and give us powerful insights and answers related to ourselves and the world we live in. It is therefore often said that the quality of a plant medicine journey greatly depends on how clear and strong the intention is that you take into the ceremony, especially if you want to focus on a particular aspect of your healing. The plants can teach us in mysterious and sometimes confusing ways, and many times the answers we receive may not be very clear to us or they take time to unfold. It is therefore important to approach the ceremony with openness and curiosity, and a willingness to be surprised or even disappointed, if what we receive is not what we expected. It is natural to have certain hopes and expectations prior to a journey and we can use those to formulate our intention, however, as best as possible we need to then let go of those and trust that the plants will give us exactly what we need and are ready for at the time.
As Dr Terence McKenna, who has researched psychedelic therapy in over four decades, states:
“With ayahuasca it’s often said that you should have a goal going into it and state your intentions. I used to emphasize that myself, but I’ve sort of come around in some ways. If you have an intention going into it, that’s fine. If there’s something that you really want to get some insight about then ok, do that. But my own preference lately has been to approach it with very little structured intent. I tend to say “Tell me what I need to know, tell me something that you want me to know” and that’s how I approach it.”
It is this quality of surrender which my BBTRS practice has helped me cultivate over the years. In many ways, the process of accessing unconscious parts is the same whether we use breathwork or psychedelics, and our egos will usually put up a fight and try to resist the process. So I had to first and foremost practise surrendering to the sneaky ways of my resisting ego in order to fully let the plants in.
4. Integrating & Grounding the experience
Much is written about pre-ceremony preparation when working with plants, yet there is far less guidance on how to properly ground and integrate the experience into our lives after the ceremony. This is, of course, a very individual process and no set time periods or instructions can be given. However, in order to experience lasting transformation and healing it is essential to continue the work and find ways to fully harness the fruits of these powerful teachings.
Dr Maté describes it in the following:
“Now, that’s not to say that because you have that experience it’s going to stay like that. That takes work that takes practice. If you don’t put in some practice afterwards, if you don’t get follow up, if you don’t put it into the context of your life, this experience just becomes a beautiful memory. But the impact of it will fade. So it’s transformative, but it’s only transformative if you allow it to be transformative. And it you work with it so that it becomes transformative. But if you do, it can be very, very powerful, it can be life-changing for many, many people.”
Body-mind practices, such as active meditations and yoga will help you ground the experience energetically. We may also find our bodies craving nourishment and grounding foods, such as root vegetables and quality proteins, in the days and weeks after the ceremony. Spending time in nature, with people we feel safe with and generally all activities that nourish and resource us, should be made a priority whenever possible. In some cases, it may be useful to seek the help of a counselor or therapist to help contextualize and fully process the experience. The success of any therapy and healing work will show in how we, our lives and our relationships change over time and it takes conscious effort and patience to fully manifest these changes into reality.
As mentioned before, the plants will often not give us immediate clear answers during the ceremony and it can take weeks or even months for the teachings to fully unfold. I have found my BBTRS practice post-ceremony incredibly valuable in re-connecting with the spirits and teachings of the plants, and many breathwork experiences have been just as profound and a direct continuation of the work with the plants, helping me gain further insights and see deeper truths.
Above all, the work with the plants, just as breathwork, creates space in us to hold ourselves and others with more love and compassion. The best we can do to aid this process is to be patient and gentle with ourselves, to learn to listen to and honor the messages our bodies and hearts are sending us and to stay present with our experiences moment to moment.
The World’s Best Practices for Integrating Ayahuasca