#47 Western users finding their own way with traditional substances

When it comes to psychedelic use, how much should Westerners defer to drugtaking shamans’ knowledge, methods, and traditions?

This thought is poking around my head. I believe most shamans to be very wise. Probably some, not all, of it is hocus pocus too depending on the person and tradition. Regardless, shamans seem to know what they’re doing, they give order to the unconstrainted psychedelically altered mind. Their traditions are rich, passed down over hundreds and most likely thousands of years, presumably even before the advent of language. So, what is passed down and taught to subsequent shamans? Knowledge about how to handle intense states of consciousness/perception/being/thinking, their culture’s spiritual cosmology, traditions of interacting with spirits and guides, plant botany to be used as medicine, songs, dances, entering trance states, psychedelic technologies such as rattles, drums, and other human-made devices for manifold purposes, etc. Shamans do things for a specific reason. I’m not a shaman, so I don’t know whether they are full of shit or not. With regard to the case I outlined above, just as I am agnostic when it comes to religion, I simply do not know for certain whether the shaman’s cosmology and spiritual claims are real or not. Even if they are false, he or she might believe them so profoundly that they become real to him or her. If we take on the role of anthropologist when discussing this matter, we should employ a cultural relativistic stance, therefore, whatever other peoples claim about their culture—from spiritual cosmology and societal structure to any aspect of their world, the anthropologist must accept that which the people they are studying claim. According to cultural relativism, if it is real for a particular (sub)culture, then it is. Now, in this sense, I lean toward deferring to shamans and their ways, since unless I was trained in their drugtaking traditions and culture, I am ignorant to what they claim to know.

And from this is where the Catch 22 enters. If I want to research a particular psychedelic substance, shamans and those “in the know” regarding said substance and the culture that surrounds it would probably advise me to do specific things, take specific actions, and not do specific things, while under the influence of this drug. Surely, there is knowledge they share freely, and much they do not. I’m interested in the stuff they do not share. [To be clear, I’m interested on an academic level and wouldn’t put their unshared knowledge to use unless I had been trained to use it. I would advise the same dictum to you.] This knowledge is coveted, secrets closely guarded by custodians of and in a time-honored tradition, passed down in an uninterrupted chain from shaman to shaman. Incredible to say the least. I’m reminded of what Greg Lawrence told me about combining substances, for example, a small amount of iboga with a small amount of cannabis. I would try such a technique, but I’m a “substance purist” at heart; I like to feel the energy or personality of the substance that I ingest, otherwise I feel that combining substances would be like having multiple personality disorder, plant personalities or spirits competing for control of my mind or physical avatar. But Greg says that advising people not to combine substances is a human construct after all. Fair point. But why shouldn’t we do it? I’ll give you a reason: it’s probably a bad idea to combine various pharmaceuticals together or use with alcohol, which can create liver poisoning. The point I’m making is that someone had to find out that this was the case. In a state of early mass ignorance about combining pharmaceuticals with alcohol, some people did it, and it is only when people fell ill or started dying from engaging in that kind of activity that got the attention of medical professionals. The same can be said about any plant that our ancestors found, ate, combined with other plants to create herbal medicines, etc.

It seems to me that Westerners stumble in the dark when it comes to their psychedelic drug use. There are outlets of information such as drug forums, YouTube, books, etc., but for the most part, we do it alone or not as well as shamans that receive training. They receive training because they are the go-to person in their community for purposes of healing, consultation, spiritual protection, and even defense of their community. Most Westerners do not receive such training, and those that do probably/hopefully received it from an actual shaman at the fringes of modern society. But in these cases, unless the Westerner grows up in that culture and speaks their language, the transmission of knowledge from shaman to novice will be distorted at varying degrees. I’m not saying it’s impossible for Westerners to become shamans, but more difficult, and so, I guess it comes down to how much effort the Western novice shaman puts into their learning and practicing to overcome these obvious hurdles.

Regarding the Catch 22 above, I think of my own iboga use and research. I definitely do not know what Bwiti shamans know and I respect their rich tradition and culture. But I know what I know about my American/Western culture, a perspective that the Bwiti can never know as intimately as I do. Therefore, we have different perspectives on iboga consumption, use, motive, analysis, etc., of the experience. It is important to understand the background of the substance under study, but it is also important to consider what the newcomer Westerner could discover about a substance that the indigenous people/users would not or cannot consider because of their different worldview and aims.

I want to stress here that different doesn’t mean bad. Difference is good because no one knows everything. Even people within the same culture have a unique perspective about reality. No one will ever live my life. We are all unique in that way. Therefore, it seems to me that what is going on regarding human civilization and culture, the evolution of consciousness and technological progress, and so on, is like a constant remixing of perspectives, similar to a DJ. For example, how might a half American half French person, that is me, absorbing some characteristics passed down through family and friends, mixed with my own personality and life experiences, produce or think of a new way to approach a phenomenon? Who knows? Perhaps we can only make such an assessment retrospectively when we tell ourselves, yes, that little puzzle piece that makes me me led to this which led to that and so forth.

In sum and returning to my main question above (When it comes to psychedelic use, how much should Westerners defer to drugtaking shamans’ knowledge, methods, and traditions?), I think Westerners should at least know and take very seriously what harmful effects traditional users discovered. This is obvious, isn’t it? At least know some basics to not harm yourself. As for the rest, I don’t know. Additionally, I think over time and with greater societal acceptance, Western users will inevitably develop their traditions surrounding a particular substance, traditions that might have a reverse cultural effect. We need only look at the American phenomenon of the “sake bomb”: dropping a shot of sake into a glass of Japanese beer. An American I once met who lived in Japan said that even some Japanese people do this in Japan. There is a kind of intercultural pollination at play, and I think the same will happen when it comes to psychedelic substances, wherefrom traditional customs will find their way in Western society, either modified or wholly new Western methods spring from them, and then could make their way back to traditional users that incorporate them into their traditions. I’m very interested what these might look like. In my view, it’s inevitable that a psychedelic-intercultural pollination or transference will occur as Western users find their own way with traditionally used psychedelic substances, and indigenous users seek guidance on novel psychoactive substances found primarily or originating in Western cultures.

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