Plants as Teachers

Posted on November 25, 2008



Dear Friend,

[Horoscopes are posted at:]

This week’s column is excerpted and adapted from the book I’m working on about 2012 and the concept of time freedom. The material seemed especially appropriate to the present moment for a few reasons. First, I’ve finally been given the go-ahead by my guides to discuss it.

Second, Thanksgiving marks the year anniversary of my first trip to South America to do medicine work. One of the final instructions I received from my teacher before leaving Peru was to be frugal in speaking about the work and the insights I received from it. In the alchemical tradition, there’s the concept of the container or vessel in which the process of transmutation takes place. My understanding of the instruction I received was that maintaining silence about the work would enable the energy of the alchemical process to stay within the container, rather than dissipating outward.

Although I remember being told on several occasions that the journeying itself was just the beginning of the process, I guess I found that hard to believe. With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, it’s easy to see that the work has had much longer-lasting consequences than I anticipated. Looking back now, I see the ritual of the medicine work itself as a depth bomb I dropped into my psyche — for much of the last year I’ve been alternately drowning and treading water in the deep muck it stirred up from the bottom of my being.

Which brings me to the third reason this piece feels appropriate to release now: I’m encountering so many others who are doing the Work in their own ways, and who seem to be struggling with the same stuff I’m struggling with: profound experiences of fear and (self-) loathing, self-judgment, and the feeling of being held back or blocked from the work they feel called to do by the pressing immediacy of repressed trauma surfacing from childhood, addictive family patterns, and all-around feelings of low self-worth.

One of the big problems I have with the New Age movement is what I perceive as a dogmatic fixation with “living in the Light”. Don’t get me wrong. I want to feel good and be permanently peaceful and loving and abundant as least as much as the next person. But most New Age and self-help type books and magazine pieces seem to be written from the point of view of a being of light who has “made it” in a spiritual sense — the same way “get rich” books are written from the point of view of a self-made millionaire.

While I believe some of these writers are actual paragons of spiritual health and abundance, the fact is many of the rest of us don’t wake up feeling full of love and light every morning. We’re struggling with fear, addiction, attachment, scarcity thinking, and that persistent parasitic demon of self-judgment on a regular, if not daily, basis.

I fall prey quite often to the pernicious whisper in my inner ear, “You’re not good enough. You’re a fraud. You write these beautiful messages, but look at how little discipline you have in your life. Look at your own bank account. Look at the way you just treated that person. If you were really spiritual, you’d have….” and on and on.

But the awareness of where we really are, the willingness to acknowledge the darkness and the pain and the guilt and the shame, and to continue seeking healing even when we don’t feel we deserve it — to me this is the essence of the Great Work.

It’s also a big theme of Saturn in Virgo, a transit that started in September 2007 and continues through about the middle of 2010. Saturn is a hard taskmaster. He demands persistence and commitment and the willingness to keep getting up and going back at it no matter how many times we get knocked down, fall short, or feel like a failure. Saturn does give us a gift for doing the work but, as I learned from master astrologer Susan Miller, he often delivers that gift in fullness only at the end of the curriculum — in this case, when Saturn finally exits Virgo in July 2010.

This doesn’t mean we won’t make progress between now and then — God, at least I hope not! But it does mean we need to take the longer view and realize that however grim it can feel to acknowledge the darkness inside and do the hard work of transmutation, all of our work must bear fruit and our efforts will pay off in the end — provided we don’t give up on ourselves.


A year ago at this time I went to Peru to do medicine work with a native healer, or curandera. The work consisted of a dieta, along with three ayahuasca ceremonies. The dieta is a traditional cure in South America that involves solitude, fasting, and the ingestion of a plant medicine. One can diet any number of different plants and the length and specific details of the diet varies according to culture and to the guidance of the healer who is directing the fast.

The plant our group was dieting is called chiric sanango, known as fever tree in English. Its purpose, as far as I can tell from the limited literature available on it and from my own experience, is to help heal the inner child by taking you through the fear complexes that have built up in the body from internalized childhood trauma.

At the end of a 36-hour trip from New Orleans, I arrived on site in rural Peru in the evening. It was dark by the time we reached our village. With very little fanfare and about as much talk, we met the other members of our group, shared a quick and unseasoned vegetarian dinner, and then headed up the hill to the little 12′ X 12′ bamboo and wood casitas where we would spend a week of solitude.

In the morning the curandera arrived with my first glass of chiric sanango. It had a not-unpleasant minty flavor and a nice fiery bite to it. So far, so good. I lay back on my mattress under my mosquito net, staring at the wall and wondering what would happen next. I soon felt myself growing chilled and got into my sleeping bag…and drifted into a state of semi-paralysis that uncomfortably resembled sleep.

And for the next six days, this was my routine. Three times a day the curandera would bring me a glass of chiric. Three times a day a helper would bring me a bowl of plain steamed rice or quinoa, occasionally with an unseasoned chunk of yucca root or squash thrown in for good measure.

And I would sit and stare at the walls of my casita listening to my inane inner dialog (choruses of pop songs repeated over and over, disconnected fragments of thought: “when I get out of here, I must email so-and-so”) and feeling bored and sad and helpless and lost. We were told not to read, write, listen to music, or even meditate or do yoga — the object of the exercise was to remain still and let the medicine do its work.

I had hoped to be treated to a full life review, as was the case for one man whose dieta account I had read before the trip. But not only did I not experience much in the way of meaningful mental movies of my past, my mind was paralyzed to the point I couldn’t have meditated if I wanted to. I couldn’t escape into my imagination (a lifelong habit for this good Pisces) — instead I was fated to sit helplessly in the thrall of a week-long series of idiotic, boring mind loops. A couple times I would have been glad for some terrifying, evil thoughts to burst in and break up the monotony of listening to the same two lines from “Just Another Manic Monday” for the thirtieth time in a row.

[Oddly enough by the end of the dieta, and I can’t account for this mentally, I had developed an intense love for the chiric sanango. Even though the plant had put me through one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging events of my life and I felt a keen disappointment in “failing” to reap the benefits I had hoped for, I felt a deep love for it that I couldn’t rationalize to myself. Looking back now, I suspect that the intelligence of the chiric sanango knew exactly how to disable or “freeze” my conscious mind in order to work directly with my unconscious to identify the blocked energy inside of me that most needed healing.]

The intensity I both desired and feared did come, every second night at sundown as the group came together in silence to do an ayahuasca ceremony. Known as “the vine of the soul,” ayahuasca is a powerful plant medicine with purgative and hallucinogenic properties. I can best sum up the methodology of “the Mother” in her own words, given to me as a download in the days immediately following the dieta:

“To be both ruthless and compassionate is the sign of a truly advanced teacher.”

She told me that while she is harsh in her aspect (imagine sitting in the dark for hours waiting desperately to vomit and/or shit yourself while listening to your comrades around the circle moaning, sobbing, retching or staggering outside to blast away on the composting toilet stationed just on the other side of the wall of the ceremonial hut: this is not all of the picture, but it is a very real part of it), she is actually gentle and compassionate over the long run.

If there’s one single thing that stands out to me from those dark hours of immersion in my own fears and woundedness, it was the realization that all of the pain we repress in our lives remains in our cells until it is cleared or transmuted into light energy. I saw that the dark, compacted energy-matter I experienced within my body in the ayahuasca ceremonies is the cause of my addictive patterns and that I can’t hope to be free of those patterns until I have purged or transmuted that dark energy.

This may have been the key learning of the dieta for me personally: by viscerally experiencing the dark energy of unprocessed pain that has been compacted into my mind-body system over years of denial, rejection and trauma (and the subsequent systemic self-rejection and abuse) as horrific suffering, I realized that this repressed energy is actually in my body. I understood that the demon of attachment and fear is an actual living energy construct that lives inside my body in the form of this dark, dense energy.

What the medicine taught me is that we can have all the good intentions we want, but we can’t live in the present moment until we have purged or transmuted the dark energy of our old traumas. Just as disease can’t live in the human body unless it has toxic waste matter to feed on, spiritual disease lives on our unexpurgated emotional waste.

The Mother also seemed  to indicate that while fast-acting and often brutal regimens like ayahuasca and fasting are extremely efficient ways of cleansing these accumulated toxins from the mind-body system, there are other ways of liberating ourselves that are just as effective if practiced regularly over longer periods of time. Chi gung, tai chi, yoga, reiki, EFT/tapping, trance work and simply feeling our woundedness rather than continuing to suppress the pain are all valid ways of releasing the internalized dark matter and transmuting it into light energy.

With Saturn (the planet of perseverance, structure and responsibility) in Virgo (the sign of purification, healing, and personal service) between September 2007 and July 2010, this cleansing work is of the highest priority for those of us who are trying to “live in the Light”. This is especially apparent as the ongoing series of Saturn-Uranus oppositions highlights the need to take personal responsibility for integrating the mind-body system (Saturn in Virgo) in order to make a quantum leap in consciousness to the transpersonal experience of Universal Oneness (Uranus in Pisces).

Virgo energy (an Earth sign ruled by the airy mental energy of Mercury) is exceptionally attuned to the connection between mind and body, and Saturn’s presence in Virgo for most of the next two years will continue to push us to learn this lesson: you can’t keep a healthy body without a healthy mind, and you can’t keep a healthy mind when your bodies (physical, mental, emotional and subtle) are clogged with old toxic waste.

I remember Wayne Dyer saying something in one of his books on manifesting that has always stuck with me: We must remember to be thankful for even the difficult times, the times when we feel stuck and feel like we aren’t progressing. They’re all part of the package of this life that we are blessed to live.

So, with gratitude, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving week.


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