Entheogens: Generating the Divine Within
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
The term ‘entheogen’ literally means ‘generating the divine within’ and it refers to a group of psychoactive plants and fungi that have the capacity to engender a shift in our ordinary state of consciousness. Traditional plant entheogens which have been used in shamanic, religious and spiritual contexts would include peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, salvia divinorum, iboga, uncured tobacco, cannabis, ayahuasca, syrian rue, and amanita muscaria.
The use of the word entheogen with regard to spirituality can evoke a mixed response depending on the level of understanding and beliefs held about this re-emerging area of interest. Assumed prohibitionist attitudes and misinformation are giving way to open discussion and scientific inquiry into this ancient healing and exploratory modality.
Human interaction with plants in seeking and worshipping the divine is embedded in our culture, religions, psyche, and biology. Throughout history plants have been utilised and revered for their visionary and mystical properties.
Rock art dating back to 10,000 BCE from the Tassili region of Central Sahara depicts individuals holding mushrooms, which suggests a religious significance.
In Greece between 1600-1100 BCE there were secret initiation rites known as the Eleusinian mysteries. Scholars believe that psychedelic plant agents were used in these rituals of purification. Plato, who partook of these mysteries, regarded them as a means to glimpse the transcendent reality beyond that normally experienced.
During this same period in Central America, the Mayan civilization was carving stone mushroom effigies. This tradition was continued by the Aztec civilization of Mesoamerica who communed with ‘Teonanacatl’, the name they bestowed on the psilocybin mushroom. The colonisation of the Aztec empire by the Spanish heralded a move that drove sacred plant use underground, as Catholic missionaries labelled entheogens as ‘pagan idolatry,’ believing that heathens claiming to commune directly with the divine was a heresy.
A central mission of the conquistadors was the conversion of the indigenous people to the Catholic faith, hence state and church banning and demonising Teonanacatl who was to be replaced by the Eucharist, a move from the primacy of direct revelatory experience to experience mediated and controlled by the clergy. It is of note that at this time the European Inquisition was raging, where heresy was punishable by death and an estimated 40,000 supposed witches were executed.
Yet Teonanacatl was still worshipped behind closed doors and hidden within a syncretic adoption of Catholicism. An unbroken tradition of sacred mushroom use still remains to this day in the mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico where it is part of the culture, healing, and worship of the indigenous population.
It was not until 1955 that the spiritual use of psychoactive mushrooms came to the attention of the western mind again when ethnomycologist Robert Wasson visited the Oaxaca region and participated in a mushroom ceremony with Maria Sabina. He later detailed this event in an article in Time Magazine and shortly afterwards the active ingredient of the mushrooms was isolated and synthesised, allowing for its dissemination among academics and researchers and eventually the general public.
This all coincided with the global counterculture of the 1960’s, a time of revolution from social norms catalysed by often unbridled use of psychedelics—much to the chagrin of governments who saw it as a decay of social order. This created a backlash of restrictive laws and a ‘war on drugs’ that criminalized and stigmatised psychoactive plant medicines, making it nearly impossible even for scientific research into clinical applications for these medicines. But thankfully this too is shifting.
There are now some fascinating studies, which are uncovering a wealth of information and demonstrating the value of entheogenic plant medicines. One study, by Johns Hopkins University, found that psilocybin can occasion, with a high degree of probability, mystical type experiences. Their study group was made up of healthy professionals who had never taken entheogens and who had spiritual inclinations. These volunteers reported experiences of unity, pure consciousness, love, peace and transcendence, with over 30% claiming that it was the most spiritually significant experience of their life, while the other 70% said it was in the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives. Also 80% said it had increased their overall sense of well-being, with lasting feelings of love, joy and compassion. In a follow up study fourteen months later these positive attributes were unchanged.
It would appear that we are biologically wired to interact with certain plants and to experience mystical states leading to non-dual awareness where we may reorient to a more unified and holistic worldview. Traditional healers, mystics and visionaries through time have noted this and now the scientific community is verifying it. It may be that the sacred plant medicines are being re-dignified at a time of need, helping us to better understand the interconnectedness and oneness of all life in a world culture that is increasingly jaded by division and conflict.
There has been a worldwide shift underway, with many people opting to travel to South America to encounter ayahuasca with indigenous shamans for healing and spiritual exploration. This is not without its dangers as many pseudo-shamans have popped up in lucrative response. While others choose to explore a more religious psychoactive framework such as the Santo Daime Church who use ayahuasca as their sacrament, or the Native American Church who practice Peyotism, both of which have a legal footing. Then there are those who singularly or in small groups work with entheogens to explore consciousness or incorporate it into their spirituality, whether that be prayer, meditation or yogic practices.
Entheogens are a profound spiritual tool that can reveal our inner moral and ethical compass of unconditional love and respect. This is not to say that entheogens are a cure-all but that they have a part to play in the awakening of humanity. The path of the plants is not for everyone and is open to misuse, like any other modality, but with proper policies based on science, traditional knowledge, compassion, health and human rights, then we may be in a better position to explore and appreciate our own true nature directly.
About the author:
Will Brennan is author of ‘Embracing No Other: awakening through shamanic plant medicines to non-dual awareness of no-self.’
“This seeing of no-self expands the personal ‘I am’ to an impersonal and universal ‘I am’.”
- The artwork accompanying this article is by Alex Polanco. More work by Alex is available at entheogenart.com
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