Artwork: “Soul Aperture” by Alex Grey
Today, dozens of studies are taking place to evaluate the medical safety and efficacy of psychedelics, thanks to organizations like MAPS – but, unfortunately under Federal Law, psychedelics are still illegal. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that psychedelics can be used as part of the practices of certain organized religions.
Peyote and the Native American Church
THE TRADITION: Peyote, from the Aztec Nahuatl word, peyotl, is a small, spineless cactus that grows in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. It was not traditionally used by North American indigenous cultures until the advent of the reservation period in U.S. history, when it became a pan-Indian response to genocide. Prohibited from following their own practices and traditions, Native Americans combined the consumption of peyote with aspects of Christianity, understanding peyote to be the “flesh of Christ” and as a direct method of communication with God. Today, peyote is credited by members of the church with curing alcoholism and depression, as well as leading members to healthy, balanced lives, grounded in direct experience of the divine in communal prayer ceremonies.
Since 1994, the use of peyote in the Native American Church has been legally protected. While only officially registered Native Americans can be active members of the church (a unique case of a government-enforced ethnic identity requirement for religious membership), non-Natives are frequent participants in NAC ceremonies.
CEREMONY: Native American Church ceremonies are best understood as prayer meetings, called when a member of the community would like to sponsor a specific prayer for the health of a loved one, a soldier going off to war, or just about anything else. The sponsor determines the “main smoke,” which is a reference to the ceremonial tobacco that is passed around the tipi at the beginning of a meeting. The Road Man, or ceremonial leader and legal carrier of the peyote, explains the purpose of the ceremony, as determined by the sponsor, and participants are expected to present tobacco and offer prayers in line with what the sponsor is requesting.
The ceremony begins in the evening and continues until after the sun has risen the following day. Peyote can be consumed in a variety of forms: fresh cactus, dried and powdered, or made into a tea. The peyote is passed around the tipi at specific times during the course of the ceremony, though participants may request additional peyote at any time. Participants are literally expected to “sit up,” maintain good posture and composure, and pray continually throughout the proceedings. Participants should neither exit the tipi nor attempt to leave prior to the official conclusion of the ceremony.
With the exception of speeches and prayers, music and singing is a continual part of NAC ceremony. Songs begin with the Road Man in the west, and then the ceremonial water drum, staff, rattle, and eagle feathers are passed to the left (sun-wise), giving each participant a chance to sing a set of four songs. The instruments are passed around this way throughout the ceremony, with songs sung in many Native American languages and even in English.
THE MEDICINE: Peyote’s active compound is mescaline, which functions similar to a neurotransmitter when consumed. Overall, peyote has a reputation as a “mild” psychedelic, and its effects are comparatively subtle when contrasted with other entheogenic sacraments. The taste is bitter, and consuming it can be challenging, especially after the first round of communion. Visually, colors can become more enhanced and an otherwise “magical” quality infuses general perception. At higher doses, full-fledged visionary scenes may unfold, along with complex geometry and perception of energy.
A common effect of this medicine is the need to “get well,” as it is called in the NAC. Peyote can cause extreme nausea and digestive discomfort, and the process of purging is understood to be healing. Those who feel the need to get well are often encouraged to “eat more medicine” to help with the process, and individuals may feel the need to purge several times.
ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES: A Native American Church ceremony is a highly structured and formalized event led by practiced experts. The sacred focus of the ceremony is paramount, and the chance of a frightening or disorienting experience is minimized. But some guests feel that this strict ritual structure impedes their ability to fully experience the medicine, and the rules and prohibitions within the tipi can be intimidating and arduous. Any would-be participant should be aware of this before committing to sitting up all night with no sleep, digestive discomfort, and a bitter medicine.
Ayahuasca and the Santo Daime Religion
THE TRADITION: Santo Daime is a relatively new religion that emerged out of the Amazon basin in Brazil and makes use of an extremely powerful entheogenic brew called ayahuasca or “daime.” Traditionally, ayahuasca has been used by indigenous cultures in the Amazon and surrounding areas in their shamanic practices and is still in widespread use today. The past century saw the birth of several new religions in Brazil that use ayahuasca, with Santo Daime being one such tradition that can be legally practiced in the United States.
The Santo Daime tradition teaches that daime (“give me” in Portuguese) provides direct access to the true doctrine of Christ and universal God consciousness. According to tradition, the true teachings of Jesus were lost in Europe, and the doctrine hid itself in the jungle, waiting to be brought out into the world through the medium of the daime. Members of the religion are understood to be undertaking the personally challenging process of evolving their consciousness to attain a state of Christ consciousness, which is considered to be the “second coming” of Christ — not an individual but a widespread awakening to the reality of our divine unity.
According to studies and claims of users, regular drinkers of ayahuasca are more socially integrated, have fewer health problems, are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. They often show an increase in intelligence, have fewer psychological and emotional problems, and have better family relations than non-drinkers. Users also claim to feel that they have spiritually been transformed and evolved through their use of the drink.
CEREMONY: Santo Daime ceremonies are called “Works” and are held for various purposes, from healing to meditation to worship. Participants wear formal uniforms and are separated by gender. Depending on the Work, participants either sit in carefully chosen rows or stand and dance in place. A core group of musicians and singers sit around the central altar. Hymns are received directly from the daime itself, with many individuals creating full collections of hymns. In all, there are hundreds of Santo Daime hymns. All participants are encouraged to sing along — a feat that can be extremely challenging for an inexperienced visitor.
Works begin in the evening or late afternoon and generally last until midnight, if not until three or four in the morning. Works open with the Lord’s Prayer and saying the rosary, followed by consumption of daime, which takes about 40 minutes to have an effect. Men and women are served separately, with each individual drinking a shot-glass worth of the sacramental drink. Depending on the length of the Work, daime may be consumed anywhere from three to five times over the course of the ceremony.
As with the NAC, participants are discouraged from leaving the ceremonial structure, or salao, and they are expected to actively participate as much as they are able, meaning that they should sing, dance, or pray, as led by the padrinho or madrinha, the ceremonial “fathers” and “mothers.” However, there are Works called “concentrations” where, for a period, no songs are sung and no prayers are offered. On these occasions, participants are expected to be “firm” and meditate on their own spiritual progress.
Santo Daime also practices mediumship, or the “incorporation” of working with spiritual/energetic beings and “releasing them into the light.” It also practices extraction of unwanted energies and entities, sometimes reaching rather dramatic levels of personal release and catharsis.
THE MEDICINE: The two main ingredients are Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains harmaline, an MAO inhibitor, and Psychotria viridis, which contains the psychoactive compound N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or “DMT,” as it is often called. Outside of the Santo Daime church, DMT is considered a Schedule I substance and is prohibited by United Nations drug trafficking laws. An irony of these laws is that DMT is a naturally occurring substance found not only in countless species of plants but is also found in every mammal, human beings included.
Ayahuasca tastes awful — worse if it is fermented. However, only a shot glassful is necessary to receive enough medicine to have an extremely powerful experience. Indescribably complex visuals are common, as are full-fledged visions. Most users experience vibrations of energy in their bodies. Feelings of divine love, absolute bliss, intimate connection to the universe and all of existence and pure, unitary consciousness are common. The effects of a single drink do not usually last more than a couple hours. For long ceremonies, repeated rounds of drinking are standard.
Ayahuasca often induces purging and can also cause extreme diarrhea, both of which are considered cleansing and purifying.
ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES: Among Amazonian shamans, ayahuasca is appreciated as the “mother of all medicines,” far surpassing any other entheogens available (of which there are hundreds in South America), and many Western users agree. As with the NAC, the advantage to participating in a Santo Daime Work is the security and structure provided by the ceremony. Works are held in lighted rooms with numerous participants, lessening the likelihood that an individual might pass into a state of fear or disconnection from physical reality. There is deep communal support among members and a sense that the Work is a group effort for the benefit of all of humanity and the Earth. There is also the advantage that Santo Daime is legally protected.
It is important to note that for some, the experience can be extraordinarily harrowing. Many casual visitors to Santo Daime Works are also put off by the rigid structure of their practices, especially if they are more familiar with South American-style ayahuasca shamanism, which is practiced in a dark room were participants are encouraged to “go within” and have a private visionary experience. The Catholic/Christian nature of Santo Daime also can be challenging, especially for Westerners disaffected with mainstream religion.
Financial donations are requested for participation in Santo Daime Works, and one must have an active member in the church as a sponsor in order to attend as a guest.
Salvia divinorum, the Diviner’s Sage
THE TRADITION: Salvia divinorum is the only known psychoactive member of the sage family, and its sacred use originated with the Mazatec culture of Mexico (who are best known for their use of psilocybe mushrooms, which contain two varieties of DMT: psilocin and psilocybin). Influenced by Catholic missionaries, Mazatecs refer to mushrooms as the baby Jesus and salvia as the Virgin Mary; they understand that users are able to commune with these figures in the visionary state afforded by the consumption of the medicines.
Within Mazatec culture, shamans might use mushrooms, salvia, or even morning glory seeds (which contain LSD) on regular occasions as part of their practice and training, but everyday Mazatecs will only consume these sacraments for specific prayers or healings. In such sessions, both the shaman and the patient will consume the medicine in a dark room, where all are encouraged to stay focused on their visions and strive to commune with Jesus, Mary, or any of the other spirits or deities found within Mazatec tradition. Prayers, especially spoken words, carry special intention and energy in the salvia experience and can have a uniquely deep sense of sincerity when spoken from within the realms of sage space, which is one of the reasons that Mazatecs emphasize audible prayers and entreaties while using salvia.
Today, most who encounter salvia have no exposure to Mazatec traditions and instead purchase salvia via the Internet or at local smoke shops. While a few states have instituted policies outlawing or regulating salvia, there are no restrictions in most places in the U.S and it is popular among spiritual seekers and thrill-seekers alike.
Traditionally, Mazatecs simply chew salvia in bundles of 26 leaves. Most Westerners smoke it, which allows for a stronger experience, but it is also quite brief, lasting only 15 minutes or so. Enhanced salvia — leaf with the active compound, salvinorin A, added to it — is also now easily available, making it possible to have an extremely powerful entheogenic experience with a minimum amount of smoking.
CEREMONY: Given the intense nature and brief duration of a salvia experience, this sacrament is best experienced in small groups, where each person is afforded the time, space, and respect to take individual turns. Darkness is recommended, as even a single candle can seem extraordinarily bright. It is best if the ceremony is led by an individual who is experienced with the medicine and knows how to effectively hold space for others. He or she should be able to show leadership in getting others to be still and silent when the communicant is experiencing salvia. Outside of group settings, individuals should always have a “sitter” for safety.
The active compound, salvinorin A, is not related to any other psychoactive compounds and produces an experience totally unlike any other. It can be disorienting and confusing. Music can help lessen this disorientation, especially drums, rattles, and drone instruments like didjeridus. The one taking the sacrament can drum/play for himself or herself (if able to physically function), or the group leader can take on the instrumental/musical role, much as would a traditional shamanic practitioner.
Many participants like to share their experiences, though this is best left for the conclusion of the ceremony. Overall, the aim is to provide a safe and supportive context to experience this medicine. As with any entheogenic experience, trust and the ability to comfortably “let go” and enter fully into the experience are paramount.
THE MEDICINE: Salvia has been cultivated for so long by the Mazatec that it is now no longer found in the wild and generally only reproduces from cuttings, making virtually all the salvia available on the market genetically identical. The active compound is salvinorin A, which binds to only one receptor on our brains.
If smoking enhanced leaf, only one or two small hits are necessary to enter the experience fully. Within the space of a breath, a user may find herself enveloped in an overwhelming multidimensional energy nexus of pure consciousness, with seemingly no connection to the “outside” world. A common comment by first-time users is that the experience is equivalent to dying, with some even convinced that they are never coming back. This can be quite unnerving.
ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES: Salvia is, for the most part, legal, simple to use, and can be an excellent tool for personal meditation, prayer, and exploration of the mind. It can assist in rapidly and effectively bringing one to a very profound and heightened state of concentration and awareness. Its effects are short-acting, so one does not need to commit a large amount of time for its use (though prior preparation and integration time post-salvia–ingestion is recommended). For those who enjoy a deep and profound entheogenic experience, salvia is an ideal medicine as it can easily be incorporated into any variety of spiritual disciplines and practices and could enhance virtually any ceremony.
The disadvantage to salvia is that there are few truly experienced users who can help guide initiates. It is also an extraordinarily powerful plant and can be overpowering and disorienting. Many who try salvia once vow to never to do so again.
5-MeO-DMT, the God Molecule
THE TRADITION: 5-Methoxy Dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) is a form of DMT that has been used by Central and South American indigenous cultures, mainly as a snuff, though on some occasions as an admixture to ayahuasca. It is used in shamanic healing ceremonies as well as individual vision quests or communions with the divine. To prepare the traditional snuff, seeds from 5-MeO-DMT–containing trees are roasted, shelled, then ground into a fine powder. The one administering the medicine uses a long blowpipe to forcefully blow the snuff up another’s nose. The effects of the medicine come on quite rapidly, sending the visionary quickly into the full-blown experience. In the case of ayahuasca, plants with 5-MeO-DMT are added into the brew and it is absorbed in a manner similar to the more common N,N-DMT. In such cases, the experience unfolds much more slowly and tends to be less intense.
Rather than making a snuff, contemporary users prefer to vaporize or smoke extracts of 5-MeO from plants or from the Sonoran Desert Toad. Using such extracts, the experience is a feeling of total surrender to the direct presence of or union with God. It is readily comparable to Hindu experiences of Moksha or Buddhist experiences of Samadhi and Nirvana, and it may be more profound than experiences attained through meditation alone. Advanced meditators tend to agree that their deepest meditations barely scratch the surface of the depth of the 5-MeO experience.
CEREMONY: As is true with Salvia divinorum, virtually no one in the modern West who uses 5-MeO-DMT has any direct knowledge of or experience with indigenous uses of 5-MeO-DMT. Therefore, those who use 5-MeO-DMT must create their own ceremonies. It is best when used in small groups, where each individual can take a turn. It would be very difficult to administer full-release doses of 5-MeO to several people at once, and given the intensity of the experience, focusing on one person’s experience is usually more than enough to keep everyone in the room occupied. At most, 5-MeO lasts 40 minutes to an hour. Within that time period, however, the user will generally experience a full entry into complete God consciousness, total ego dissolution, and energetic expansion into the totality of the universe. Users generally describe their experiences as entering into a state of divine grace, being enfolded in the pure energy of love, becoming one with the mind of God, and experiencing the true nature of reality. Because of the overwhelming strength of such experiences, use of the medicine generally requires some preparatory time to get centered and focused and also to ease nerves and participant anxiety.
For the actual experience, having soft, non-rhythmic background music is recommended. There shouldn’t be any anxious energy in the music, and instrumental music or music in foreign languages is best, as lyrics can be distracting, especially if they are trite or superficial.
People who experience 5-MeO tend to fall back in a state of complete and total surrender within the first few seconds after inhaling, so a bed or mattress should be prepared. Sitting, standing, or doing anything else isn’t an option — a clear indication of how much more powerful 5-MeO is compared to medicines like peyote and daime, where ritual participants are expected to sit up, pay attention, sing, and dance.
The intensity of the experience can also bring up considerable fear and resistance. In such cases it is important that the voyager be reminded to breathe, let go, and just relax. A few reassuring words can work wonders. Generally, keeping arms and legs open with hands facing outwards is recommended. This allows for better energy flow and can help move voyagers into more profound spaces.
It is also good to allow a re-entry/reintegration time for participants. Some voyagers will “return” from this amazing journey more quickly and more easily than others. Most people tend to want touch to help them “get back in their bodies,” and holding hands and feet seems to genuinely aid with this process; identifying where one’s body ends and the rest of the universe begins can be quite a challenge in the 5-MeO state. Also, participants may need reassurance as their egos begin to re-form after the initial 10 to 15 minutes of the experience. Fruits and chocolate can also help ground people after the experience.
THE MEDICINE: There are currently no laws prohibiting use or possession of 5-MeO-DMT in the United States. However, it is almost impossible to obtain and therefore, it is relatively obscure. Plants and grasses containing 5-MeO-DMT are easy to come by, such as Phalaris aquatica, which grows in many regions of the United States, but the extraction process is lengthy and complicated. Yopo seeds, which also contain 5-MeO-DMT, are easily available on the Internet, but the experience is nothing like working with a concentrated extract.
Like the N,N-DMT found in ayahuasca brews, 5-MeO-DMT is a tryptamine and is chemically related to natural neurotransmitters, like serotonin. When ingested, it rapidly crosses the blood/brain barrier to attach to our neural receptors. When smoked or vaporized, the effects are nearly instantaneous and profoundly powerful. Only very small amounts are needed, with 10 milligrams being a “light” dose and 25–30 milligrams affording perhaps the most profound spiritual experience available to human beings.
Unlike N,N-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is largely non-visual in nature. While fractal and kaleidoscopic images are common, such visuals are far more subtle than anything one might see with N,N-DMT, which tends toward the hyper-real in terms of quality, level of detail, and saturation of colors and light.
ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES: An experience with 5-MeO-DMT can change a person forever. It is probably the fastest way one can have one’s sense of self, world, and the divine upended and overturned. No amount of description could ever capture what this experience is truly like, and nothing can really prepare one for it. It requires a deep willingness to completely let go and surrender. Anything less will only cause fear and struggle. Given the radical intensity of the experience, those with health problems or heart disease should avoid this medicine.
For some, the experience is so intense that they “white out,” or find it difficult to recall their experience. Generally, this would be the result of using too high of a dose.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that 5-MeO-DMT is almost impossible to find. There are also retailers out there who falsely market their products as 5-MeO-DMT when they, in fact, are not.
Lastly, it should be noted that unlike peyote, ayahuasca, daime, or many other sacred medicines, 5-MeO-DMT is primarily about the experience. Other, less intense and longer-lasting medicines allow for deep introspection, exploration, and conscious healing. 5-MeO-DMT is more like a transporter that sends you on a hyper-velocity ride directly to the heart of God and then drops you back in your body and ego consciousness some 40 minutes later. In this sense, 5-MeO is not really a “working” or “healing” medicine, though individuals can have profound healing moments with this medicine. It is the direct experience of God that makes this medicine so special.