We are now experiencing a psychedelic renaissance in the western world. People are truly beginning to realize the value of psychedelics as the most effective medicines for the mind, body and spirit. And we are experiencing a flood of people who want to become “medicine men”, “Ayahuasca facilitators”, “shamans” or “psychedelic therapists”. And of course, these are all different roles and modalities. But the primary question we must consider is, who should be serving these medicines? How should these medicines be served? And what is the training that should be involved for people who want to serve these medicines? Essentially, who are the people who should be doing this work serving these medicines and how should they be carrying it out most effectively? One of the big tendencies within the psychedelic world, is that people tend to proclaim their way is right and all the other ways are not the right way, and so there is always some differences of opinion or politics involved in this question. For a lot of us in this scene, there is an understanding that there is something for everyone and not just one way that fits everyone, and yet I think most people can agree in general what makes a good facilitator.
I think when it comes to ayahuasca, a world I know well, the neophyte or inexperienced person, will often tend to gravitate to what they believe to be some sort of cultural authenticity related to who they drink with, as they might believe that is the safest option. The marketplace of ayahuascaros is always keen for more customers, and many ayahuascaros study people’s psychology as keenly as any advertising agency. They know how to present themselves and what to say to appear shiny and juicy to the consumer, and often most “authentic”. Such individuals know what to do in ceremony and how to act in such a way that maintains their visage, so that people will believe that these people are somehow above them.
Charlatans therefore exist because people demand they exist. Such ayahuasca consumers may well mistakenly believe themselves to be a blue belt and are seeking someone more “enlightened” than themselves in order to “submit to their guidance and control”. And yet, all this egocentric hierarchical malarkey is unnecessary to say the least, you are the one who is drinking ayahuasca, and wanting another person to make some sort of “shamanistic” who-ha about it is completely unnecessary. Ayahuasca providers are at worst, ayahuasca baristas, and at best, glorified trip sitters. Unfortunately, what people want to experience in the ayahuasca experience is not necessarily what people need, or what is best for their growth or best for their soul. The predominant paradigm of “spirituality” in the west is very often orientated towards spiritual by-passing, and that attitude might lead to taking ayahuasca and singing feel good songs, which can perhaps limit self confrontation. The whole marketplace of “shamans” selling their “power, presence and protection” may only represent distracting elements which lead people away from the inner work they actually have with ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is supposed to be an ego destroying agent, at least in many people’s idea of what it is, and yet many have found that is not the case. At times, Ayahuasca appears to be trolling us with how the ego can appear to work, and can give us ideas about what our ego is and how the human world can work in our favor. That is perhaps why, the ayahauscaros can be so slick in their marketing of their highly cultivated “altitude”, because ayahuasca can give us insights into the mechanisms of the ego and what IT appears to want. Let us not forget that in the ayahuasca world in South America, that the dark sorcery is largely driven by envy, or jealousy. The aim of that game is to take down those other shamans who have a higher status or ego position. The realm of ayahuasca contains both light and dark, something that many people in the west appear resistant to understanding. I know a woman who has trained traditionally in the amazon with curanderos for many years, who was continually stunned how her teachers on the one hand, were healers par excellence, but on the other hand, would commit harm against others with dark magic if they were paid to do so. Personally, I would advise being wary of anyone who follows the rule book of Amazonian mestizo shamanism religiously. As I am continually having to point out to people, the tradition of giving people ayahuasca that gives them visions is a new tradition only a few decades old. Before that time, the only people who would traditionally drink strong brews, were the shamans, not the “patients”, who often would not drink any ayahuasca at all.
There really is no singular “tradition” of drinking visionary ayahuasca brews, although many would like you to think otherwise. Older traditions of drinking ayahuasca like those practiced in Brazilian churches such as the Santo Daime or UDV, also largely do not drink ayahuasca that regularly gives people visions either. The UDV for example, considers their way, which involves talking during the sessions, to be the most primary and essential way, and call other people who drink in different ways, “masters of curiosity”. It is worth noting that the Santo Daime was started by a Brazilian rubber tapper stationed at the border with Peru, who presumably met ayahuascaros, who taught him a way of drinking ayahuasca suitable for Christian Brazilians. The Santo Daime way typically involves singing and dancing or sitting still in a chair, and singing religious songs for many hours. It is worth noting in Brazil, there are many who are breaking away from the church structures and going their own way. The first person who is known to break away from the Santo Daime church was a jazz musician called Carioca, who instead of singing Santo Daime songs, sang his own songs and developed his own format of drinking ayahuasca called “ciranda style”. This style may suit some people who enjoy singing in Portuguese, and drinking ayahuasca 3 times over the course of a whole night. Indeed, Carioca appears to catalyzing “franchises” all around the world, who practise his style of drinking ayahuasca. I have heard a few people in Australia express that the “ciranda” style of ayahuasca drinking is somehow considered “traditional”(!)
The issue with many of the people who serve ayahuasca, and who proclaim to be practicing a tradition, is that they haven’t truly done the years of training in the amazon that they really should have done to practise that particular path. Some facilitators may attach themselves to a Brazilian shaman from Acre, adopt the name he gives them, learn his songs from his tribe, and kaboom, they are serving traditional ayahuasca! This is what we call cultural appropriation in its grossest sense, and I think it is valid, to question if it entirely right to go about things this way.
My thoughts are, we are in the Wild West, and we need to figure out the right way for us, for western people. For myself, I have a specific style that does not involve any style or format or religious structures. My personal observation is that it is the western need for control and structure, IS the problem in the first place. And you will not find these factors of control and structure in ANY indigenous way of drinking ayahuasca, only in mestizo ceremonies and in the Brazilian churches. This is the issue I think, that the medicine itself can become moulded and shaped to the human dysfunction, in this case, that dysfunction is the structure of the human mind, the very prison of mind, religion and culture in the first place.
So then how do you train people to let go of their mind? To let go of the prison of culture? In my view, you create a space where no foundation is given to any of that material, you create a mindless space, conducive to losing your mind, loosening your mind and the grip that it has on you. I have no doubt, singing songs and sitting up straight is just maintaining the mind in a form which appears to have some sort of dignity. But the truth of ayahuasca is not dignified, it doesn’t appease the ego, it is rolling in the mud of your own issues and it involves the raw work of contemplating yourself where you truly are in the framework of life. Therefore, if you are to train people to serve these medicines, shouldn’t they have deconstructed the mind maze in themselves? And what’s more, cease to impose the mind maze and social and cultural memes onto other people? Yes, I do think this is a pre-requisite. But how to do this? How to deconstruct the mind, deconstruct the ego, cleanse your third eye of toxic culture and its games? I think the answer is that the medicines themselves taken with that intent, are innately tasked with deconstructing these kind of structures, and it is up to us to actually do this inner work of deconstruction of the toxic relics of human culture within ourselves, in order to represent the true nature of reality.
A good facilitator really shouldn’t bring their own issues into the space and should be clear enough in themselves to not bring their own issues into the space. And how do you not bring your issues into that space? Well, I think you must have worked upon yourself enough, that such issues don’t show up, that you are clear enough and present enough the space is uncontaminated by your issues. Too often, people who facilitate these spaces are running some power or control trip. So perhaps the issue is not so much in training individuals, but encouraging the kind of gentility that does seek to manipulate such spaces for supposed personal gain. Unfortunately, the temptation is too great for most. People who take psychedelics will generally go into a vulnerable space, so they are often pliable and they are highly susceptible. Too many men, find it too hard to resist the temptation of female attention in this space, which is unfortunate for them, as this very often sabotages their work.
The facilitator has to understand what they are in this for. Ultimately it is a job, it is a role, it is a doing, there is nothing they should be “getting” from the space. It can be that participants can project both positivity and negatively onto the facilitator. The facilitator must be able to know who they are, enough to not be caught up in these unhelpful projections. Being grounded and real is necessary, the anti-thesis of that is pursuing “altitude”, or a higher status through this work. The reward for doing this work, should be a good livelihood and a good work. Nothing else is necessary. For many facilitators, they are looking for a craft, something to get their teeth into. But working with human beings is not so much a “craft”, just like therapy or social work is not so much a “craft”, because what is most primary is the incredible complexities and nuances of relating. If you are truly looking for a craft with a set structure, perhaps you could try taking up woodworking or astrology.
Should the facilitator even be entering into relationship with people in this space? I think that very gentle touching is ok. But too much talking I think can take people out of the healing that is already happening. As a facilitator you could very easily spend the entire night giving people bodywork, or spiritual healing, but the issue is, this could distract away from the work the plants are doing. Also, many people who carry out this kind of spiritual healing may get too much into other people’s energy fields, and that can become very much draining, taking on and processing people’s energies. If you were to do sessions with people every week or even every 2 weeks, it could be the case you could easily burnout. I’ve seen it happen. I find that even with my approach of minimal interference into people’s processes, that it takes me many more days than you would expect to recover after a weekend.
Space cannot truly be “held”, you are not holding space, ideally you are perhaps giving space, giving people space to go into what they need to. If you are “doing” too much, are you really giving people space? A lot of this I think comes back to your own sense of self-worth or self-confidence. Personally, I am aware that if I was to give interactive bodywork with an individual, with some talking and communicating insights that I feel may be helpful to them, that could well be as transformational as an ayahuasca session of a few hours. But the point is, if I am not confident as a healer, I may be trying to show my worth as a healer, by trying to do all this healing. The thing is, the plants are already carrying out this healing work. Often the best thing you can do, is to support people, to know you are there as an anchor and give them encouragement and present a grounded anchor for them to know your presence, but not to get in their face. Some people may need on the spot dialogue, or to communicate about a difficult issue. Personally, I try to minimize these whispery dialogues to a few minutes at the most, and then encourage people to just go back into the space to do the work.
I believe you must have some care and be able to see what the real work is. I have heard of some facilitators for whom the point and purpose of this work, is to break out into the 5th dimension. It is fairly common that the only intention many people have is to experience spiritual states, which many may not have experienced before. But this can lead to psychonauticism, which is really just representing being a tourist in these states.
What about vetting people? Screening people. My view is that everyone can work with the medicine. People generally know when they are ready. A lot of people don’t take the opportunity to just take a light dose, people often feel compelled to just jump right in in the deep end. Knowing how much to give people is quite an important issue, and so correct dosage is paramount, and knowing the dose is a combination of intuition and experience which will result in this understanding.
My view on protecting people and entities is that we are always protecting ourselves on a sub-conscious level anyway. Most of us have shields and have ways that we deal with these entities that are conscripted into our consciousness. Many people have entities inside them, and entities that work through them. This world is riddled with interference on a collective level, because collectively we are not aware, have collectively strayed from our true power and have become slow and weak, and therefore food for them. Simply protecting people from entities is not necessarily going to help people, as they have to deal with entities and “pee-pool” in their daily life anyway. However, it is true that psychedelics lift the barriers that we normally have to the spiritual world, and so good and bad entities can then interact with us.
“Traditional training” or feathers and songs do not guarantee protection, nothing does in fact. Each individual who is serving, has to ask what is their relationship with these entities. Oftentimes some facilitators unwittingly or wittingly become doorways for the entities to get up to their tricks. I would see most cults as basically groups of people feeding from an entity or a group of entities that has typically become focused through one charismatic person. Even if the cult leader was carrying out powerful and sincere teaching work in the beginning, the entities normally seem to overcome and take over and infest such an individual into a host for them, examples are too numerous to go into. A lot of ayahuasca groups become tied up in entity interference, and many people will not even know what is happening to them, as they do not have the ability to discern what is what. On a collective level what needs to happen is that society wakes up to the issues of entities in the first place, and in our time, we still live in a world of heady dilettantes still trying to decide whether the “machine elves” are real or not, and the people playing in the shallow end are still taken seriously, and those who talk about entities are often considered “crazy”.
I think in any conscious space, there does need to be some level of “protection”. And so how can you “prove” there is protection? And how do people know that such protection is there? And what’s more, is shielding people from all the entities going to be useful or beneficial to the people? If the space they are entering into is an artificial utopia, which is completely free of any kind of entities? My view is that any shielding is best enabled as being selective, permeable to a degree, that purely malevolent entities are prevented from entering the space, but some level of engagement with this level of existence is perhaps appropriate and realistic at times, and will enable and empower people’s learning and realization. If people are not at all going to be able to touch the darkness, perhaps they will probably then be going out of balance, into the Lala land of “its all good”, spiritual bypassing, when it is far from being “all good.”
I find the plants like to let people know of the suffering of humanity on a collective level, and often appears to help people to come into a sober understanding of what it is to be of service and useful, which breaks down these narcissistic plastic going nowhere patterns of idiotic consumerism, directing people back to the question, “How can I serve?” “How can I give value?” or “How can I help?” As opposed to, “How can I be a success?” Or “What can I get for myself?”. In serving, in giving, in sharing value, people do actually increase their value, increase their status, and truly enable their own personal success, and so this basic orientation is most effective for individuals to align with what is truly going to serve themselves and what they actually truly want on every level.
What is the correct training for someone who wants to work with people in this space of psychoactive healing? What is really needed of them? My view is that the training largely occurs in doing it. The issue with undertaking formal training, is that you can easily become a carbon copy of the person who trained you, and not easily find your own style. My approach is to become transparent. I personally feel that works best for me. But the opaque ways, of trying to do something, of trying to guide people tend to predominate. So if I were to create a course for facilitators, what would I teach them? I would first of all, teach them about the medicine they are using and how it works, getting the dosage right. It does seem to me, what new facilitators need perhaps most of all, is support and mentorship. They are intimidated by this work, and what they think it requires of them, as the medicinal effects of these material are so profound. But most of all, they need confidence to be able to understand what is required of them, and understand more deeply the psychodynamics of the individual and also the group space, and only with experience does this come, and along with that an understanding of how to confidently deal with most situations that arise.
I think we would do well to ask, where is the psychedelic guide trying to guide people to? Presumably spaces they have walked themselves. I don’t believe these spaces need guiding, because the plants or fungi are guiding and showing the way, and helping people to realize their own co-ordinates. As soon as you have someone singing or trying to guide the space, I think that can discount where the individual wants to go, and where their own guidance systems want them to go. Everyone does have these guidance system, it just may take them a little while to find them.
To my mind, most of what this work involves, is in not what to do. It involves stepping out of the way. I have met an iboga facilitator, who truly does step of the way. But with just with a few words from one of those facilitators caused a friend of mine, to really look at himself very differently. Sometimes people just need to be left alone, even if they are crying. Let them cry. You don’t always need someone comforting you. But some people will do well with support and comfort, it is truly a matter of intuition.
I genuinely feel the way forward is in creating spaces for people, where they can come and take psychedelics, as I have outlined in this article.
In such a group space, there would be people present that you can call like flight attendants, to assist you, to bring you food, to bring you water, to help show you the way, to talk to you. But also, you should be able to be left to your own devices, maybe even to interact with other people in a similar state.
I do not think that this idea of a clinic is at all appropriate as an environment for taking psychedelics. Or our idea of what a clinic is must change quite radically. A plain white walled space with people acting stuffy and “professional” just is not conducive for people who are going into deeply vulnerable and psychically open spaces. Such people need access to nature, to animals, to artwork, and people who are human and personal in their orientation. This idea of a “medical” space is likely going to be stuffy and claustrophobic to our true human needs. This desire to make everything medical and “professional” is only a kind of shallow aesthetic and stuck up conformism which denies creativity or open mindedness to explore and create beauty and that which truly resonates with human realities.
The idea that there is a “serious” medical space for taking psychedelics and a “recreational” space is not always correct. I think if we stick to the purely medical approach, we can lose some sight of the healing involved. A lot of that involves loosening the grip of the mind, of the ego, and becoming ecstatic, in bliss and that is enjoyable. Puritanical Anglo culture wants to separate the two, but they are intertwined. Much of the issues involved in people in our culture being so depressed, is their inability to have fun. If they knew how to have fun, then they wouldn’t be so depressed and anxious in the first place. Neither is purely recreational use of substances like psilocybin the answer, but this attitude that there must be a separation between the healing aspects of psilocybin and the fun parts of mushrooms are misguided I think. People who are moving into working in this space, will learn this I should think.
I do not think that people who have not taken psychedelics should have any right to be administering or taking care of people who have taken psychedelics. Traditional textbook psychological understandings of reality simply do not cut it – at all. The work of people such as Stan Grof I think comes close to understanding the range of transpersonal experience, but there is a general lack of maps, because the possible space itself is so large and varied. I think the psychedelic therapist must have directly understood their own processes and developed their own cosmology. If that is not the case, how can they have empathy or understanding for people experiencing those states? They can’t. It is a bit like a football coach who has never played football. There is no good reason for you NOT to play football if you are wanting to be a coach, unless of course, you are a chicken.
The issue with this medicalization route, is that there may be a limited amount of healthy, spacious superstition involved in such approaches. What we’ll see I think are people bravely sticking to models of reality that are in fact outdated by the revelation of the psychedelic materials themselves. As much as the medicalization folks may discount the role of psychedelics necessitating social and psychological change, as if to avoid another situation in the late 60’s and early 70’s – what is clear is that humanity is always evolving and growing and learning about itself. I think it is a grave error to see these substances as panaceas that can heal common psychological conditions, then send people back into “the world”, and expect them to remain free of conditions such as depression and anxiety. That is because as it is very systems of culture and the resulting misaligned ethos and individual psychological imbalance, that allows these conditions to thrive. I think it is fair to say that the reason why psychedelics work is that they bring people back out of their mind, into their heart or emotions or their own internal reality. And most elements of our society brings the individual back to what Graham Hancock calls the problem solving state of consciousness – the world which encourages all the petty, incessant, out of control thinking separate from real human meaning and relevance. Only by changing the circumstances of our culture and how we live, can we collectively be free of individual and collective suffering and actually live in a way that we truly want to live. Psychedelics may give us good reference experiences for how we truly want to live, and so it is our obligation to deeply listen and adjust our inner and outer circumstances to reflect how we truly want to live.
What I am most concerned about perhaps, are the medicalization folks not utilizing proper hygiene when it comes to entities, and not being aware of how these beings can effect individuals. And it is not like we have a great deal of indigenous practitioners coming forward and sharing their secrets how to actually create a safe space for people, as that is perhaps one of the most important components of what their “brand” is offering.
In this world of marketing, we are seeing various providers presenting themselves as the vessel and the meaning, and having all the shots and all the right chops. But what chops are really needed? Many facilitators may not be able to keep the group calm during hectic situations. How do you maintain calm in a space of emerging chaos, again, just by accepting it, once you have come to terms with the chaos of your own states, then it becomes easier to accept others. And then you should know what states other people are in, and know what to say to them. Often it can be good, just to have a reference point of humanity who is centered, who is calm. This relates to one’s inner state. It is perhaps not something that can be taught.
Here is the thing with facilitation, as with any kind of work, one is confronted with many kind of situations and people. And oftentimes you do learn from your mistakes. People do go into deep trauma, they can relive their trauma and that can be traumatic for any person around them. I would say one thing I don’t know how to do is how to bring people out of their loops. But perhaps there is an element of people need to go through them, and I think over time, I’ve learnt to be intuitive enough not to minimize those doses that will often push people over that edge.
I think a lot of work often needs to be done on one’s attitude, and for one thing that means being available to people, not being wrapped up in some sort of haughty head trip as too often seems to be the case. There was a time where I tried to screen a “grandfather” provider, after quite some time I finally managed to get them to say it was peyote on the phone. They expected to me understand their lingo, which I didn’t, even though I am obviously very well informed about this world. Even with my most basic questions, they became quite exasperated, and just wanted me to put money in their bank account and only then talk shop. As a facilitator, too often I find people are not screening me, I rarely get decent screening questions. If your facilitator isn’t willing to talk to you on the phone for 20 minutes if you ask them to, forget about them. Find someone who cares.
The world is needing more people to step up into this role, and what is happening is because there is such demand, a lot of these people who are stepping up to meet that demand, do not have so much experience. But such people are learning, and many of them have the right stuff, but sadly enough, it seems that in ANY human field, the majority just don’t have the right stuff. In many respects, you are born and not made for this role, and if you are made, you still have to learn, you still have to gain confidence and learn what works for you and do your own inner work. You are similar to a therapist, who is there to listen, you are there to be, and just as it can be hard to find good therapists who you will want to open up and share with, it can be hard to find people to trust in this space, because they are running agendas and are not able to truly create a conducive space.
I believe this work does represent right livelihood, and I am tending to think the legal issues involving it will become more and more relaxed. Indeed, for the most part, for a psychedelic therapist, the most many could be charged for is personal possession. What is of concern, is how commodification and upselling and Facebook ads, are trying to sell this experience to people. These states do represent the “sacred”, as loathe as I am to use that word, and should be probably be kept somewhat apart from the mechanisms of business and entrepreneurship. People who are offering these states to people, I do not think should be seduced into money as being the most primary value of the effectiveness of their work. And not that people who practice this work should be ascetic, but neither is it necessarily appropriate that it is perceived as a money making opportunity. People should able to stay true to what is a right livelihood and a brilliant and fulfilling role, rather than trying to make a career or gain large numbers of followers or accumulate large amounts of money as some sort of barometer of “success”. Then again, I do think that people who practice this work should be paid as much as a pilot or a psychiatrist, and regarded in a similar manner within society.
This article was originally published on Julian Palmer’s blog.
Robert Mitchell says
People should have worked with people in non Psychedelic settings. They should have training where they realize that working with people successfully involves empathetic techniques that catalyze the natural healing capacity of the client. They should know that their personality doesn’t matter. That they aren’t “Protecting” anyone from anything. That their training should take their narcissism out of the equation. Working with people with psychedelics is not an identity. It is a job, like delivering mail. Nothing more, nothing less….
John Patton says
This is the best article I’ve read on the subject of guiding ceremonies. I stopped visiting sites and articles like this years ago due to what I felt was too much ridgidity and narrow points of view. A close friend pointed me to this site and your article caught my attention.
Thanks and well done Mr. Palmer.