Lessons I learned from working with a shaman

I spent some time in Mexico living with a man by the name of Boz, who specialized in the use of psychoactive plant and animal medicines. I was staying in a small cabin on his beautiful property in the Yucatecan jungle, amidst sacred Mayan trees and stone sculptures. Save a few rest days, we worked very intensely in the medicine realms, using an array of powerful tools from nature to allow our minds to journey in ceremony.

The lessons that came from my days with Boz are many, and all were life-changing in their own way. Although the nature of these shamanic experiences is that they are often beyond words, I still couldn’t resist attempting to communicate them the best I can, as I feel that this knowledge is especially important in today’s increasingly divided world.

Getting past doubt. It’s almost impossible for someone coming from a typical modern North American background to go into this kind of experience without a healthy dose of skepticism. And it is indeed healthy at first to be on guard, because a lot of people announcing themselves as shamans are in fact charlatans who are hungry for power and money.

But trust is one of the most important factors when choosing to take a mind-altering medicine with someone. Without it, it can be very difficult to go deep and to let go fully. Whether there’s doubt about the legitimacy of the shaman or about our own ability to heal and let the work happen, it’s something that has to be overcome in order to connect with this other realm.

Trusting Boz came quite easily as I found him through a reputable source and could see within the first day or two how well he was guiding me. His presence was nothing but supportive, and I had an unmistakable sense that his intentions were good. But getting rid of self-doubt was another story.

It’s deeply rooted in Western society that altered states of consciousness don’t have much truth or validity to them. It’s easy to forget the fact that many other cultures have been seeking knowledge in those spaces for thousands of years. Whether it’s through yoga, meditation, plant medicines or countless other methods, humans have a myriad of tools at their disposal to access spiritual truth.

So I had to constantly remind myself of this fact, to bear in mind that what I was going through was actually an important facet of the human experience… It became ridiculous to try to reduce the powerful feelings and visions that were arising to just neurons firing in my brain. There is truly a force at work there that we can’t (yet) quantify through science. And once we accept that, we open ourselves to all the possibilities that those medicines have to offer. The final step is believing that we’re strong enough to handle it.

Nature wants to communicate with us. As much as we like to pretend that we’re separate from animals, the truth is that we come from nature just as much as monkeys, bugs and plants do. Human beings, even though they’ve lost their connection to it and keep trying to dominate it, are children of the earth. And one quality that all the plant medicine journeys have in common, in my experience, is the sense of a teaching that is being transmitted from this long lost mother.

Our species may be destroying its environment, draining its resources and indulging in an illusion of hierarchy within the natural world. But being there in the jungle, consuming plants that came from it, I was able to open myself to the message that our planet is desperately trying to get through to us.

This message doesn’t appear in the form of words or thoughts, but feelings, sounds and visions. The language of nature cuts through the rational and goes straight to the heart, reminding us where we come from and inviting us to change our ways.

A web of interconnection. Just as we tend to forget about our organic roots, so do we often dismiss the deeply woven web of phenomena that makes up our existence. The classic logical model of thinking views time as linear and physical reality as an orderly place where every person and thing is its own distinct unit of matter. Quantum physics is now showing us that the universe doesn’t quite behave this way, but it’s hard to make sense of those scientific theories without any kind of direct experiences.

For me, the clearest way to understand the connectedness of all things is to feel it on a personal level. One of the gifts that these shamanic ceremonies offer is that they create a space where we’re allowed to let go of our tightly bound ego, and release into the totality of existence that makes up our universe.

It’s definitely not easy to surrender the boundaries we’re used to dwell in, the identities we’ve built and the personalities we think make up the entirety of who we are. But when I was able to, I found that I had never felt so safe. I didn’t have to hold up so much alone anymore. The knowledge of being a participant in a collective, rather than an isolated individual, is deeply freeing.

Remembering the body. In contrast to the universal consciousness that represents the truth of who we really are, in day-to-day life, we are bound to our bodies. Whether we like it or not, there is nothing but death that can truly change the fact that our experience is for the most part grounded in flesh and bones.

After all the oceanic, boundless experiences of the shamanic world, it can be hard to come back to the physical self and tend to our earthly needs. But it’s a paradox we have to learn to hold. One of the perils of any kind of spiritual practice, I think, is getting lost in those astral spaces and beginning to neglect the body. One thing that kept me grounded during my time with Boz was physical exercise.

Doing some breathwork, yoga or calisthenics each day was an immense help in bringing myself back to this reality after spending time exploring stranger ones. Pain can also be a great teacher; one time during a ceremony, my shaman accidentally dropped some burning sage on my leg. It was a crude but essential reminder that for all our spiritual capacities, we remain mortal and vulnerable to our environment.

The phrase that came to mind: I am an eternal being refracted in the body of a dying animal.

There is no light without dark. I’ve gone on about the ability of shamanic work to show us universal love and connection, but a huge part of it is also unimaginably scary. All the dark things that dwell in us and in the collective unconscious are sure to come up at one point or another in those spaces. There’s a reason why the best medicine is often bitter: it’s impossible to cure ourselves without taking a good hard look at our shadow.

After being presented with all of the love and beauty that nature holds, it inevitably had to show me the other side. The planet is at once beautiful and cruel, and humans are no different. People are capable of the worst of things, as evidenced by history; those shadow aspects are present in all of us and manifest in a variety of ways.

Whether we tend toward destruction or self-destruction, anger or sadness, greed or fear, that darkness is an expression of the primordial urge toward entropy. It’s the black in the Yin-Yang, the gods and goddesses of death across mythologies. Just as we can’t keep breathing in forever, just as life can’t grow without death, so the light within and around us can’t exist without darkness.

So whether it’s our own demons or those of the greater universal mind that come and visit us in those medicine realms, the only thing we can do is to acknowledge them. Resisting or pretending that they don’t exist only makes them scream louder. They are begging to be understood, integrated, and only then do they lose their power. Of course, this is an attitude that is not just useful in altered states but can be applied to daily life.

The work is never finished. As much as the work done in ceremony is intense, demanding, rewarding and everything in between, the real work begins afterward. The most important part of it all in integration. Because most people don’t plan to stay in the jungle partaking in rituals forever, but rather end up going back to a semblance of normal life, it’s tricky to stay tuned in to the lessons of the medicines.

This is something I grappled with when returning to the fast-paced, achievement-focused environment of the city after my very first shamanic experience. What I found was that to keep the energy alive, one needs a practice, preferably something that’s done every day. This can be anything that makes us feel connected: for me it is breathwork, movement and meditation; for others it can be music, dance, prayer… Whatever taps into that feeling of transcendent meaning and keeps us from being swept right away by the frantic currents of modern life.

It’s not easy, and having some kind of community around is extremely helpful. I was lucky enough to have people close to me who were supportive and didn’t dismiss my experiences. And thanks to the internet, it’s now easier than ever to find and unite with like-minded people. This way we can keep on learning from each other.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn, both from the shamanic world and from life itself. What all these lessons have taught me, though, is that I can only approach the work ahead with courage, and that is precisely because it is meaningful. How can we expect people in our society to face the challenges they are presented with when they often lack any inherent sense of purpose? It’s easy to feel suffocated by life’s hardships when we can’t see any kind of meaning within them. I once heard that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection, and I would extend that to say that feeling connected to a greater whole is an antidote to almost all of our dark patterns as human beings. When we heal ourselves, we heal the world around us.

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