Plant Spirit Medicine

The American adventurer Peter Gorman is walking down a trail in the Amazon jungle. He is on his way back to the village after watching his Matsés Indian friend set a trap for wild boar. The Indian takes advantage of the walk to show Peter some medicinal plants growing along the trail. Within a few minutes, he has pointed out several dozen species and pantomimed their healing virtues.

Arriving at the village, Peter summons his interpreter and returns to the hunter’s hut. He didn’t have his notebook with him on the walk, he explains, and he couldn’t possibly remember all he had been shown. Would the hunter be kind enough to say once again how the herbs were prepared and used?

The hunter-shaman smiles at Peter and then begins to laugh. He invites all his wives and children over to have a good laugh, too. When they have all laughed themselves out, he explains, “That was just to introduce you to some of the plants. If you want to actually use a plant yourself, the spirit of the plant must come to you in your dreams. If the spirit of the plant tells you how to prepare it and what it will cure, you can use it. Otherwise, it won’t work for you. That was a good one! I’ve got to remember what you just said!” He laughs again.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a major pharmaceutical firm approaches a shamanic studies institute. The firm wants to contact shamans of the Amazon in order to get information on medicinal plants. The company plans to take samples of the herbs, isolate active molecules, and manufacture them in the laboratory.

I can imagine the scene when the pharmaceutical firm makes it to the Amazon: The shamans laughing uproariously as they collect their meager fees. The field workers rushing specimens back to the laboratory. Skilled technicians spending millions of company dollars researching new compounds, only to come up with one disappointment after another. The shamans will be discredited, but they won’t care. They will still be in the jungle, working cures with the plants they have used for centuries.

The American firm, infatuated with its “superior” technology, will go to the jungle dreaming of profits from a patentable new drug. No one will think of asking the shamans what the active ingredients are. If they do ask, they won’t like the answer. There is only one active ingredient in plant medicines: friendship. A plant spirit heals a patient as a favor to its friend-in-dreaming, the doctor.

To the people of the Amazon this truth is basic. Any four-year-old understands it. That is why the Matsés hunter-shaman called his children over to have a good laugh at Peter. They couldn’t believe a grown man could be so silly!

The Matsés and many other non-European peoples understand that both nature and humankind are endowed with awareness and spirit. Therefore, humans and nature are of the same family. In all cultures there exist individuals who have especially vivid experiences with the spirits of nature. When properly trained and initiated, these people become shamans. Shamans make friends of the spirits of nature and call upon them for help with everyday affairs. Plant spirit medicine is the shaman’s way with plants. It recognizes that plants have spirit and that spirit is the strongest medicine. Spirit can heal the deepest reaches of the heart and soul.

There is nothing exotic about all this. Don’t be misled by talk about the Amazon. If you want to meet the most powerful healing plants in the world, just open your door and step outside. They are growing all around you. If you don’t believe me, or if you have a taste for romantic locations, you can try going elsewhere. But if you stay there long enough, it comes down to the same thing: dealing with the local weeds.

Two Types of Power

I went to visit a Huichol Indian named José Benítez Sánchez. In certain circles José was famous as a visionary artist. Among his own people he was known as a shaman. José lived part time in a village near Tepic, Mexico. The rest of the time he lived in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta. It was there I went to find him.

As I approached his home in one of the humblest districts in town, I recalled the first time I’d met José, the year before. This was a man who earned a huge income by Indian standards. Yet as he welcomed me into his house, it was apparent that he had but one material possession of any consequence — an electric fan. Our visit was brief, for he was due to leave in a few hours to meet with the president of Mexico.

José cheerfully admitted that he did not have money for bus fare. Looking down at his ragged cutoffs, he allowed that he also did not own a pair of pants to wear to greet the president. Evidently he sensed I was confused about why a successful man should be so destitute, for he told me the following story:

“When I was a boy, I admired my grandfather. He was a powerful shaman. One day when he felt I was old enough to understand, he told me, ‘José, there are two types of power that one can acquire. One type is used for your own personal reasons. The other is used for the benefit of your people. You can walk the road to the first type of power or to the second. But let me tell you this: the second road is the road to happiness.’ Because my grandfather was a very wise man, I took his advice, and I have stayed on the second road. Whenever the gods give me something, I immediately pass it on for the use of my people.”

José’s presence radiated contentment. Obviously his grandfather had known what he was talking about. I dug into my suitcase and came up with a pair of pants, which I presented to him, together with his bus fare. He accepted my gifts with sincere thanks and not a trace of surprise. Then he took off on his voyage to see the president, leaving me one small step farther down the road to happiness.

As I was reminiscing about that first meeting, I looked up to see José walking toward me. José was a good-looking, compact man of middle years. That day he was wearing long pants, a short-sleeved shirt, and a cowboy hat. The only sign of his background was his intensely colorful Huichol shoulder bag. He invited me into his house, and we sat down at a table with two of his paintings-in-progress. Eventually I got around to the purpose of my visit: I had begun to visit [the nearby peak] El Picacho in my dreams and I wanted his advice.

Dream Learning

More than once during my school years, I awoke in the middle of the night with the solution to a mathematical equation that had completely stumped me during the day. I never told anyone that I had done my algebra homework in my sleep. I was afraid that people would think I was weird. Eventually I stopped having these dreams.

Much later in life I discovered that it is not at all unusual for people to learn from dreams. Nowadays I enjoy asking people if they have ever dreamed something that later came to pass. About 75 percent say they have indeed had a dream of this type. And everyone has dreams that take place somewhere other than the bedroom where their sleeping body lies. When we dream, we can easily travel to distant places. We can know the future. We are given special understanding that enables us to solve life’s problems.

For the most part, these wonderful dream powers lie dormant in our society, but the Huichols and the Matsés of the Amazon consider dream learning to be true learning. Indeed, nearly every culture on earth, except our own, respects dream learning as true learning. We revere the rational, analytical method of learning that has been honed and polished since the days of the ancient Greeks. We do not realize that the shamans of our species have honed and polished another method. This dreaming method is neither rational nor analytical, but it works extremely well.

The key to this method is to get into the dream state of consciousness, keeping in mind what it is that you wish to learn or accomplish. The way you get into the dream state is incidental. Some shamans learn to go to sleep and dream about what they wish to dream about. Others use psychotropic plants. Many simply listen to monotonous drumming to induce the dream state.

My conversation with José confirmed that my dream corresponded with an ancient tradition. As a Huichol and a shaman, he had no trouble accepting that I had met a tree spirit who could help me heal people, so it seems that plant spirit medicine keeps practicing me and I’m still learning medicine from plants.

Adapted from Plant Spirit Medicine: A Journey into the Healing Wisdom of Plants (Sounds True, 2014) © 2014 Eliot Cowan. Reprinted with permission of the author.

In 1986 American healer, Eliot Cowan, discovered the power of plant spirits to heal the human spirit and has been practicing and teaching plant spirit medicine ever since. Plant Spirit Medicine was first published in 1995, with the current edition enriched with perspectives gained as an initiated elder shaman in the indigenous Huichol tradition of Mexico. Eliot is the founder of the Blue Deer Center for ancient wisdom teachings in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

See also:
How Shamans Dream the World Into Being
Cared For and Loved By Green Beings
Musings: It’s Time For a Return to Plant Wisdom