Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I speak with Eliot Cowan. Eliot is an American-born healer, teacher, and author. He’s the founder of the Blue Deer Center in Margaretville, New York—where he provides training in plant spirit medicine and other traditions. For many years, he apprenticed with the shaman Don Guadalupe Gonzales Rios, who in 2000 ritually recognized Cowan as a guide to shamanic apprentices in the Huichol tradition. With Sounds True, Eliot has released a new edition of his classic book Plant Spirit Medicine: A Journey into the Healing Wisdom of Plants.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Eliot and I spoke about what it means to engage in a friendship with plant spirits and how Eliot believes that friendship is the active ingredient in plant spirit medicine. We talked about the importance of connecting with the plant spirits in your local area versus working with the spirits of plants from distant places. And finally, we talked about great teacher plants such as marijuana and the plants from which ayahuasca is derived—[as well as] the dangers and potential benefits of working with such great teacher plants, and the attitude of reverence that is required. Here’s my conversation with Eliot Cowan.
Eliot, the title of your book—Plant Spirit Medicine. That phrase—“plant spirit medicine”—is something that I have only been introduced to through you and your work. I’d never heard of it before. I’m curious, for our listeners, if you would begin by explaining what you mean by “plant spirit medicine.”
Eliot Cowan: OK. Well, by design it’s kind of a double entendre. Let me say this first of all: it’s a form of doing healing work with plants, but not plants as objects or chemical factories—but as spirit beings, alive and feeling and wise and connected to the world around them, and to ourselves.
So it’s a way of relating to plants as sources of spiritual healing. We like to say that it is the spirit of the plant that has the unique capacity to touch and heal the spirit of a human being. So it’s “plant spirit medicine”—meaning it comes from the spirit of the plant—and it’s also “plant spirit medicine,” meaning medicine for the spirit of the people who are receivers of their work.
TS: Help me understand what you mean by “the spirit of the plant.” I mean, I can imagine saying, “OK, there are plants all around me where I’m living,” (where someone might be listening to this), “but what do you mean that the plants have a spirit?”
EC: OK. A way of describing it is to say—well, a bit what I just said. In other words, we have a view and an experience that plants are not just some sort of inferior, unintelligent being that offers nothing more than an opportunity for exploitation or enrichment or something like that. Rather, they are spirits themselves.
By that, we’re referring to plants as being fully alive, fully aware, [and] full of feeling in a deep and sacred relationship to the world around us. That “livingness” of the plant is what I call “the plant spirit,” or the spirit of the plant.
So there’s different ways to think about that or talk about that, but that’s the way I would point to what I’m trying to—well, what I did with that title, “the spirit of the plant.” It’s the livingness and the wisdom and the awareness of the plant as a fellow being.
TS: Just to dig into it a little more, is it that each plant has a spirit, or the species of a plant has a spirit? Or both?
EC: Well, it’s primarily what you could call the spirit of the species, because—unlike human beings—plants really don’t identify themselves as individuals. That’s one of the reasons for their great capacity as spiritual healers. That sense of being separate and individual—that is something that only human beings do—is actually a source of a lot of pain and suffering and illness.
But plants don’t suffer in that way. They don’t suffer with the illusion of individuality. They don’t see themselves as separate.
And yet, there is a level of separateness or differentiation between—you know, there’s the oak people and the rose people, and so on and so forth. What we call different species of plants are different characteristics and have different roles to play in the world. And so, we can talk about a spirit of a species of a plant.
But so far as individuals are concerned, again, plants don’t really see themselves that way. They see themselves—if you want to say it this way—as an expression of one overarching spirit.
TS: There is this really intriguing quote from your book that I’d love to have you comment on. That, “Plants know us and love us as grandchildren.” When I read that, it kind of turned me upside down for a moment.
EC: Well, in order to answer your question, I’d like to ask you what turned you upside down about it.
TS: Oh, thinking that I was the grandchild of the plants—and yet going out with a mower and mowing the lawn. Or all the other ways that I might relate to plants. I’m not thinking of them as my grandparents.
TS: So that’s kind of what I mean by that.
EC: OK, so when we say “grandparent,” what that word refers to—first of all—is somebody related to you. Somebody who loves you and cares about your welfare. Somebody who is much older than you and therefore more experienced and wiser. Somebody who has a lot to offer you in those ways.
And I think that’s a very fair way of characterizing plants and their relationship to us. They’ve been around a lot longer than we have as human beings. I think you could make a case to say that they’re wiser than we are, because they have found a way to get along with the world for a long time in a very good way. Giving and receiving, and [with] a mutual benefit to everything around them. That’s something we can learn about—how to live that way.
They are related to us, because they see us that way. They see us as—just as they don’t see themselves as separate from each other as individual plants, you could say that they see all of the world—including us human beings—as expressions of spirit. Therefore, made of the same stuff—made of the same elements. And related. We’re all family. They see that.
But they see us as younger grandchildren who have a lot to learn and can benefit from their elders. That’s where their great generosity comes from.
TS: Now, Eliot, I have to get some of these skeptical questions out of the way here at the beginning, so I hope that’s OK.
TS: I’m imagining someone listening and saying, “How they heck does Eliot know how the plants see us? I mean, he’s a human. How does he know what’s going on for the plants?”
EC: What I’ve discovered through my experience is that anyone who approaches plants with a certain openness, demonstrating a certain humility and respect, and presenting a heartfelt request, can be shown and instructed by the plants in a way that is very convincing.
Now, in my case, my primary relationship with plants has to do, of course, with healing. They’ve shown me a great deal about healing—in particular about healing [by] calling upon their spirit resources. And I can say, “I know that this is so,” because it works. What they’ve shown me and what they’ve given me—I can say I have confidence in that, because it works to help people. And it works to help people in just the way that they say it does.
This, by the way—this kind of approach that I’m talking about—is something that seems novel or exotic or even bizarre in our modern, Western culture. But that’s a very recent view. I mean, our distant ancestors all used to view plants—and for that matter, the other aspects of the natural world—in just this way.
But I don’t mind the skepticism. I enjoy skepticism, if it’s honest—which says, “Well, that might be true. It might not be true. Let’s try it out and see.” That’s a healthy attitude—as opposed to the attitude that already has its mind made up.
Oh, and that’s one of the great advantages of healing as a path of spiritual growth and inquiry. Of course, healing is by nature—by definition—a practical art. Therefore, when you have seen or learned something as a healer, you always get a chance to check it out—to see whether you’re on track or not. And the proof of the pudding is: is it helpful?
In my case, and the case of my students and colleagues, we see evidence over and over again that it is practical—that it does help. Therefore, we say there’s got to be something to it.
TS: In terms of healing, I think it’s pretty well-accepted that this plant or that plant has a certain herbal function, herbal properties. But when you’re talking about “spiritual healing” with plants, you’re really talking not just about, “Use this plant if you have hives and it’ll help take the itching away.” You’re talking about something else, yes?
EC: Yes, exactly. So, what we’re looking at is—if we look at the hives or whatever the symptom, whatever the manifestation may be—the basic view is that the symptoms of illness are always an expression that something is a little or more than a little out of balance. The kind of balance that we’re particularly keen on noticing is that we see that the whole world is made of a series of dancing relationships among some basic forces or energies that everything is made of. If we’re living a life that is in balance with those forces or energies, that constitutes health and the absence of symptoms, which we see as messengers. That is an imbalance that needs correction. So, we’re looking at that.
The treatment is also directed at taking the help of the plants—who live in a beautiful state of balance—to help correct the imbalance. What we discover is that—to the extent that balance can be restored—that the symptoms most often improve or disappear entirely, but not because we have treated the symptoms.
So, I hope that helps to explain that.
TS: I’m wondering if you can give me an example from your healing work. And maybe early on in your life, where you were first starting to really tune to this idea of plant spirit medicine—how it’s distinct from herbalism. Maybe a living example would help us.
EC: OK, well, there’s many examples. It’s hard to pick one off the top of my head. There’s an example that I recall that I wrote about in my book. I’ll just talk about this briefly.
She had a number of symptoms, but one of the main ones was she was having respiratory difficulties. In looking at her life in the way I’m speaking about, what stood out was that her relationship to a particular energy that expresses itself as—well, on the one hand, when we really, deeply appreciate the value or someone or something, there’s something in us that connects to that value in [ourselves] and allows us to appreciate that. And when that’s present—when that person or that opportunity or that object is lost to us for some reason—for instance, a loved one dying—what naturally arises is grief. And grief arises not as a problem in of itself, but as a healer to cleanse us of the pain of that loss and to prepare us to receive something new from life.
But, if we’re not well-connected to that sense of value in [ourselves]—or even more commonly, if the experience of feeling the grief is something that we suppress or try to disassociate from because it’s something we’re afraid of feeling—then [instead of flowing and healing us,] that energy gets blocked up and creates an unbalanced situation.
So the woman I’m thinking of—that was exactly the situation. She had suffered some great losses, which she was never fully able to grieve. So I called upon a plant spirit to help her with that. She went into a deep grieving period—cried deeply, produced a lot of mucus, and so on and so forth. In a period of a few days, that passed over and she now had a much deeper and richer experience of her life. And, as a little frosting on the cake, her lungs got better.
So, that would be an example of what I’m talking about.
TS: Now, when you say you, “called on a plant spirit to help her,” did you call on a particular plant spirit because you have a working set of correlations that, “When someone needs to release grief, call on this particular plant”? Or was it something that just arose—you got a message, “This is the plant this particular woman needs right now.”
EC: There’s different ways to work with this, but I’ll speak about my approach. That is to say that this medicine really comes from a deeply personal relationship between the healer and the plant or plants that he or she is working with. Think of them like “plant friends.” You need to make friends of the plants and find out who they are, what they have to offer.
Out of that friendship, you may say, “Well, if I come across somebody who needs some of what you particularly have to offer as the being you are, can I ask you for help for that person?” And of course, as a friend, they say, “Well, yes, of course. What are friends for? Of course I’ll help out.”
Then, the next step is you say, “If I need that kind of help for somebody else, how should I call on you?” The plant will inform you about that, too. There [are] many different ways of calling for the medicine of the plant. Sometimes, certain preparations of the flesh of the plant are made under certain conditions—usually with prayers and so on. Sometimes—particularly in the Amazon—plant spirit healers get the medicine of the plant in the form of a song. They sing the medicine of the plant to the patient.
For some people—including myself—the plant agrees that you can call on it to come through your hands. Simply put your hands on the person and they receive the medicine that way.
There are many ways of doing it. The main thing is: how does the plant want to be called upon? If you go with that, it will show up.
Now, it’s a great mystery as to how that works. The main thing is that the experience shows that it does work.
TS: OK, now this is really cool. You’re saying to me that the spirit of the plant comes through your hands. Meaning, you’re not necessarily presenting your patient with the actual, physical plant.
EC: That’s right!
TS: Uh huh! Now, you said that the first step is becoming friends with the plants. I’d be curious to know more [about] what you really mean by that. Let’s say someone listening says, “I’d like to become friends with the plants in my part of the world, wherever I live. On the hike that I take, in my neighborhood, or the plants that are in my back yard. How do I do that?”
EC: It’s actually quite simple. There [are] different ways of approaching it. First of all—just like you would if you’re interested in developing a friendship with another human being—you want to spend some good quality time with them.
So if there’s a particular plant you’re interested in getting to know—making friends with—the first step is to go to the plant and introduce yourself. Say hello. Tell it your name. Give it thanks for the opportunity to visit with it in its home. It’s nice to praise it a little bit for its beauty or for its other qualities that you appreciate. You can also say, “Well, I’m interested in getting to know you better. I’m interested in what you may have to say, if you have anything to say to me.”
Also very important—since in that kind of a case, you’re asking for something from the plant—to be in good relationship always means there’s a give and a take. There’s an exchange involved. So, if you’re asking for something, you offer something back. If you’re going to dinner at the home of some new friends—they’ve invited you—and people used to do this, I hope they still do. They say, “Thank you very much for inviting me. What can I bring?” And the person says, “Well, we’re having such-and-such, so a nice bottle of red wine would be great.” So you bring that.
Now, in the case of people not having that kind of previous experience, I can say now that particularly in this part of the world—what we call the New World—all the plants agree that a good form of exchange that they appreciate and recognize is a little bit of tobacco.
So you go through all those processes and then you spend some time with the plant. Quiet your mind. Observe the plant. Make sure it’s not poisonous. Ask permission, maybe, to taste a little bit and smell it. Get a sense of how it relates to the other elements of the world. You know—what kind of soil does it like? How much sunlight? How much or little water does it like? How does it relate to other plants and animals, insects around it?
Just quietly and respectfully spend some deep time with it that way. When you do that very often, you find yourself at a certain point moving into a place that’s quite hard to describe—but it’s like merging with the plant. It’s almost like you feel like there’s no separation between you and the plant. That’s one way that plants talk to you. Talking for plants is not always in words—although it can be. It can be through feelings. It can be kinesthetically. It can be all kinds of ways.
And then there’s another way to approach it, which is using some methods from what I call “household shamanism”—which is the kind of shamanic activity that’s safe and available for everyone that’s interested. [You need] to enter into a waking dream state. In that state, the spirit of the plant often makes a very striking appearance and shows you different things. It may speak your language. It may take you on an adventure. It may bring up different emotions. It’s all different ways of the speaking of the plant.
Those are the basics. It’s not difficult, but it takes a little bit of time. Some openness, humility, respect, and the willingness to give something back.
TS: Circling back for a moment to you working with this woman who had respiratory trouble from grief that was stuck in her experience. The spirit of a certain plant—you were able to bring it through your hands. Tell me more about how that works—just your experience of it. Does it feel a certain kind of way as something’s emanating from your hands?
EC: Usually, yes. And it can take different forms. Sometimes, it feels like heat. Sometimes, it feels like a flow of something that I would call “energy,” for lack of a better word. It takes different forms.
But in some way you feel—I feel, I should say—there is a transmission of this spirit energy. Then you know that that’s complete. In the approach that I use—which is based on my training and practice in a particular aspect of classical Chinese medicine—there’s also a way of assessing immediately the effect of the treatment by listening to the Chinese pulses (of which there are 12).
That’s a great help. It’s not the only way to do it, but it’s a good way and a way that I use and teach.
TS: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of friendship, because there’s a quote from your book that also really got my attention. “There is only one active ingredient in plant medicines: friendship.” And I’m curious, how many friends do you have out there in the plant world?
TS: Are you a popular guy? Do you have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, or are you just close friends with a small group of plants?
EC: No, I don’t have hundreds and hundreds. But I do have a number. Honestly, I haven’t kept count.
I’ve moved around a fair amount in my life and work. Also, I find myself working and teaching in different parts of the world. Therefore, I’ve made it a practical point to focus on plants that are very widely distributed so that they’re highly effective in many different places. Then there are regional specialists and so forth, which I have fewer of.
But I can’t give you a number. I’m sorry.
TS: No, that’s OK.
EC: The main thing is what I practice myself—and also what I teach my students—is something that I call “letting the plants choose you.” What I mean by that [is]: instead of going out with your own agenda to find something for a particular purpose, you go out in nature and just look at the different plants, watching for something that feels especially attractive to you. That’s what I call a plant trying to get your attention because it has something to offer you.
In talking to people—whether or not they’re healers or plant specialists—I find that many, if not most, people have at least one plant or large tree or small plant that they just have some special feeling for.
I say that’s not just a one-way street—it’s the way the plant, as I say, is getting your attention and has something special to give you. People feel that. That’s why they like to be around those trees or other plants.
So, you go to those plants and you get to know them in the way I’m talking about. You find—if you’re interested in healing—that most of them are very happy to share with you their medicine to share with your brothers and sisters.
Now, doing it that way—actually—I find works better than going out with your own agenda to look for something specific because you don’t really know what you’re going to need. You don’t know what people are going to be coming to you for help, what kind of problems they need help with, when you need it, and so on and so forth.
But guess what? The plants know all that already. They already know who’s going to be coming to you for help. And if you open yourself to letting them show you what medicine you need, you always find that you have the medicine that you need when you need it.
So, a given person may have 5 or 10 or 20 or 30 plants that they relate to. Another one may have more or less. It can grow and change over the years. But that’s the approach that I find works best.
TS: Can you share with me one or two of your plant spirit friends, and how your friendship began?
EC: My plant friendships began—in almost every case—in just the way I’m talking about. There [are] certain plants that I felt a certain traction or affinity for. So I began to talk and listen to them in very much the ways that I described a few minutes ago.
You know, the other part of your question is a very natural question. But I’m a little shy about answering that, and I’ll tell you why. Very naturally, a person would like to know, “Well, what plant do you use in what way for this or that sort of situation?” As I say, I’m a little shy about that because the essence of working this way is developing the relationship—the friendship, as I call it—with the individual plant.
I find that plants—very much like human beings—are quite multifaceted. They have different aspects to their personalities and their capacities. Depending on the relationship they have with a human being, they may offer one or more of them to that person—because they’re a fit for that person. They may offer something quite distinct to somebody else, even though it’s the same plant.
So, rather than saying, “This plant is good for that condition for everybody,” I say, “Get to know what the plant has to offer you and that will give you their strongest medicine.”
TS: I think what I’m curious about is: in the human realm, if I were to tell you how I met a really good friend of mine, what that experience was like, the magic that happened, how I felt this sense of recognition, what I said, what she said, what happened—it would be an interesting story.
I guess I’m curious if you have such a story from the beginning of one of your plant friendships.
EC: Well, I have many, many of those stories. OK: One is popping up in my mind right now.
[It’s] a small plant with a beautiful flower that I first discovered in California, when I was living there. I got to know it in the ways that I described earlier. When it got around to talking to me—and this is one of the plants that did talk to me in English. Not all of them talk in words at all. But it said that the medicine it had to offer was that of a messenger. It didn’t have much more to say.
I puzzled over that for a long time. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how that fit into anything that I could see any use for. Eventually, I forgot all about it.
Several years later—this was in the very early years of my working with the plants in this way. One thing that they didn’t instruct me on was how to actually deliver the medicine to the people. So, the thing that I started experimenting with—first of all—was making homeopathic preparations for the plants. I had experienced a good homeopathic treatment and I was convinced that there was something about the way that they prepared those medicines that gave them something like the depths that I was looking for. I started off by having homeopathic preparations made of the many plants that I was working with.
However, those plants were not in the homeopathic pharmacopeia. I had a hard time finding a pharmaceutical outfit that would make them for me. I found one, but eventually the FDA started clamping down on the thing. They weren’t going to allow them to make any preparations that weren’t in the official United States homeopathic pharmacopeia.
Well, I’m skipping over a few stages here, but the long story short was that at a certain point I found myself without my supply of medicines. I thought, “Well, surely this can’t be the end of this whole exploration and discovery. There’s got to be some way.” I started brainstorming, and that means just entertaining any wild-eyed idea that occurred to [me]—jotting it down without editing.
One of the wild ideas was: wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a plant that agreed to summon those spirit remedies from other plants, and act as a kind of messenger? That would solve the problem, wouldn’t it?
I said, “Yes, it would. But only if that plant happened to be in the US pharmacopeia.” This was when I was still giving homeopathic remedies either in liquid or tablet form (which I don’t do anymore). But in any case, I thought, “Well, that’s a wild idea, but let’s see . . .”
So I took out my pharmacopeia, and lo and behold—it was a very obscure remedy, but there it was. I went back to the dream state and got in touch with this plant again. I laid out the whole thing and I said, “So, would you be willing to act in this way? To summon the other plant remedies for me so I could deliver them without danger of prosecution?” And it said, “Well, I told you several years ago I would offer that—so what do you think?”
I don’t know for what reason, but that’s the one that popped into my mind. I started using that one ever since, and I still use it today. When I do what I do now and teach to my students this hands-on delivery, I always call upon my messenger plant and ask it to bring whatever other plant is needed there. Bring it to bear and ask it to come though my hands. Then I put my hands on the person and they get a good dose of it. It works very well.
TS: Now, Eliot, I first just want to say that I’m quite enjoying this conversation with you. I think I’m enjoying it so much because you’re introducing me to a way of looking at the world that I don’t normally see. I don’t normally look through the lens that you look through. So, I want to thank you for that.
EC: You’re welcome! I’m happy to hear you say that. That also gives me an opportunity to make a little plug or something? I want to say that in my work with plant spirit medicine, I have two main offers aside from healing work, per se.
One is that those people who are interested in learning to become plant spirit healers—well, I have a professional training program for them. It’s quite long and demanding, but of course not everybody is interested or up for that sort of thing.
I also have another offering, which is a short course—a five-day course—which is an introduction to plant spirit medicine as a way of not only talking about, but actually experiencing this way of being in the world through the doorway that the plants offer us. They’re both really good offerings.
TS: Wonderful. Thank you.
One of the strongest statements that you make in the book, Plant Spirit Medicine, is that it’s so much more powerful for somebody to work with plants in the place that they live versus working with plants from someplace far away. I’m curious how you came to this discovery.
EC: This is something that the person who I studied Chinese medicine from—who was not an herbalist, but an acupuncturist—this was something that he proposed. When he said it, something in me was resonated. Something in me felt that that was true. I didn’t know why or how, but in my subsequent years of practice I began to discover what the wisdom of that was and is.
As I said earlier, healing is quite mysterious. If we can say it’s about anything, it’s about balance and restoring balance. But that raises the question of, “Balance with what?” [Cowan laughs.]
One way of answering that is to say that everything that gave us our life in the first place —and maintains and nourishes and sustains our life—is present and came from what we call “the natural world.” Or simply nature. That’s what we’re made of, and that’s what sustains our [lives.] So, to be in good health is to be in balance with those forces that create and sustain the natural world.
It’s about being in balance with nature. That leads to another question, which is, “OK—where is nature?”
The answer to that question is always very simple: It’s here. And by “here,” I mean wherever you are. That’s where nature is for you. Wherever you live, that’s the place to be in balance with because that’s where you live. And that’s the place that has what you need to be in balance and harmony with nature as it is.
That’s the reason why I came to understand why local plants have a special capacity. It’s not that exotic plants aren’t helpful. But compared to the plants that live where you live, it’s a somewhat reduced capacity because they’re not in balance with it. So they have less capacity to help you be in balance with where you are.
TS: I want to open up a pretty complex area, but I want to hear what you have to say about it. Which is: here, where I live in Boulder, Colorado, more and more people are journeying to South America to go on ayahuasca trips.
TS: . . . And to work with a plant that is not grown in our local area, but one that they think is bringing very powerful plant medicine into their [lives]. So I’m curious—first of all—just what your view is of that.
EC: It is a complex question. It’s something that we could spend a lot of time with, which we don’t really have right now. When you’re talking about—well, ayahuasca is actually a brew of at least two plants, and usually more. But when you’re talking about plants of that kind, it’s a whole different category in itself than [what] I’m going to call “other plants.” It’s a category of plants that I call “sacred teacher plants.”
In a certain way, they’re not so much plants at all as they are great spiritual beings and teachers that have a lot to offer. Enormously powerful. They’re put into different parts of the world to offer teachings and blessings to the people who live in the places where they were brought forth.
But because they are such great forces, in order to engage them in a way that is safe and produces benefit, they require quite a bit. They require a whole set of conditions that makes them as safe as possible and also demonstrates the respect that they feel is due to them—which I wholeheartedly agree with.
The problems are that—first of all—not everybody that engages in these things necessarily has that kind of innate—what I’m going to call “spiritual relatedness”—to the plant in the first place. Beyond that, the actual protocols, conditions, requirements, ritual conditions, human guidance, and so forth that the plant requires [are] very hard to come by. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s not a simple matter either.
A lot of times, unfortunately, it can be a bit of a roll of the dice. Sometimes, people engage with those plants under less-than-ideal conditions—from the point of view of the plant. And sometimes they get some glimpses of some benefits from it. Sometimes, it works out OK. Sometimes, not much happens. Sometimes, they have a very hard time.
And sometimes, when you engage a great, great force like that without impeccable alignment, it can just run over you and create a lot of catastrophe in your life. Unfortunately, because it doesn’t necessarily happen at the moment of the engagement—it can happen weeks or months or sometimes even later down the line—people don’t often even recognize that it has anything to do with what the plant may have considered disrespectful engagement.
TS: From the point of view of the plant, what would be sort of the bare minimum of a respectful engagement?
EC: The thing is that there’s a whole set of instructions and agreements—a path that came with the plant when it was brought into the world in the first place. That is something that has been carefully honored and guarded and passed down from generation to generation of elders in the traditions that have a good relationship with the plant. Of course, it varies from place to place and from plant to plant.
Those conditions—those instructions—were given to the people in the first place as part of the presence of the plant. You could say [that]—from the point of view of the plant—[it] says, “Listen, I have a lot of good stuff for people if you’re the right person and you’ve demonstrated not only your good intention, but your humility and willingness to do as instructed.”
Also, here’s another thing about this: there’s also exchange—as I say—always involved in any relationship. With these plants, they have so much to offer that the exchange is actually quite large. So large that if people really knew what the plant was asking for, they may not be so eager to jump in and go for it.
TS: What kind of exchange are you referring to there? Can you give me an example of what you think might be required?
EC: Well, OK. For some plants and some conditions, if a person is—let’s say—looking for and receiving some special gift—a life-changing capacity or a life-changing experience. A special gift of some kind, of considerable magnitude.
In this realm, one never receives a spiritual gift only for their own use. Never. With any gift, they’re always meant to benefit not only you but more particularly they’re to be shared for the benefit of others. It’s a requirement. It’s part of the exchange. It’s not about an individual enterprise. It’s always meant to be put at the service of your community.
In many cases—particularly when a person receives a lot from one of these plants—what is required is nothing left but a lifetime of service to your community. That can be very demanding, because in that situation you find yourself as—very simply—a resource for your community. You would have very little individual say about your life at all.
That’s what I consider a true medicine man or woman or shaman. That’s their life. Now, some people are cut out for that—and some people aren’t. But that’s an example—and it may be an extreme example, but at the very least I think it gives you a sense of the dynamic I’m talking about.
There’s a lot on offer. It’s a very high-risk game. If the plant feels offended in any way—which a lot of times people don’t even know what the plant considers an offense. People have good intentions, are good people, and are well-meaning, but [are] unfortunately ignorant because we haven’t grown up in a society that instructs us about how these things work. But if the plant feels that there has been an offense or an imbalance created, it considers compassionately that what is required is some very strong lessons for that person. They’re the kind of lessons that people aren’t so interested in.
TS: What might you be referring to? What would be an example of that?
EC: It could be something like a serious illness, a car accident, a loss of your money, a collapse of your relationship.
TS: OK, that all sounds very serious.
EC: Yes, it’s very serious. Up to and including death. When I say these things, it doesn’t make me very popular, but I say them because they need to be said.
TS: A couple more questions about these big plant spirit teachers. Whether it’s peyote or ayahausca—but you know, in that category. Let’s say someone’s trying to discern in their own life, “Am I called to this or not? All kinds of friends of mine are reporting great discoveries, but I’m not really sure if this is for me or not.” How could you help somebody in that discernment process?
EC: Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it was back in the days when everyone was living in the village because we’re a society of strangers to each other. But I can give some guidelines.
That is: First of all, if a person is really called to something like this—and as a matter of fact, any kind of deep spiritual engagement—at the right time, when the person is ready, what will show up is the right teacher and the right doors opening to the authentic, ancestral pathway. If that doesn’t show up, that means it’s either not time yet or it’s simply not for you.
Now, this is a little different way of looking at it from the kind of person who says, “I’m interested in this and I’m looking for this and I’m going to go for that.” I guess it’s more like what I was saying about letting the plants choose you. So you want to look for, “OK, this seems interesting. This seems intriguing to me. Other people are reporting this or that. Is this for me?”
First of all, look at [whether it is] really calling you. Are the conditions and the guide and the teacher and so forth showing up? Even if that does happen, there’s a further complication in that the living, human guide is always part of this. That person has to be really impeccable. They have to have walked the path. They have to be initiated into it. Not only that, but further initiated by the plant itself to be a guide to others. One does not have the authority to anoint themselves with this capacity. They have to be in good relationship with their own communities, their own traditions, and their own guides and teachers. They have to be ethically really squeaky clean and uncontaminated by the desire for financial gain, sexual opportunity, or anything else like that.
That’s not so easy to sort out. Even though the person may be from the area that the plant lives in or the people who engage it, and call themselves this or that—unfortunately, it’s not a guarantee that they really [have] what it takes. I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I’ve seen enough misfortune along the road here—wreckage along the road—that it just needs to be said.
It’s a very, very high-stakes game. [This] means that there’s a lot to be gained, but there’s a lot potentially that can be lost. It’s not to be taken lightly and requires patience, openness, deep humility, and [a willingness] to do what it takes.
Once again, I want to say that the reciprocity—the exchange—is crucial here. If the plant, if one of these sacred teachers sees a person coming who thinks that they can do it their way, they say, “Well, this person isn’t really getting the point. The point is not about that. They need some teaching, here.” Some of them—many of them—when they’re not engaged correctly, instead of being a source of blessings, they turn out as kind of tricksters. They can sometimes lead a person down a garden path, thinking they’re receiving something good—but actually, they’re just being led down a garden path.
I’m saying this because you’ve asked me, so I’ve got to say it like I see it. I’m speaking from experience.
TS: I appreciate that. And I want to continue down this line. Which is: I mentioned I live in the state of Colorado, where it’s now legal to ingest and smoke marijuana for both recreational purposes as well as medical purposes. I’m curious: What do you think would be a sacred relationship with marijuana that serves people versus not knowing what you know about plant spirit medicine?
EC: Well, I have to say I don’t know. That’s the important point because marijuana is one of these sacred teacher plants. That raises the question: What is the authentic, spiritual, sacred path of the plant? And the answer is—so far as I see when I look around—I don’t see anybody who knows, much less is authorized and initiated to guide others in it. I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t seen it.
That makes the whole thing very dangerous in the sense that what people are getting, by and large—with rare exceptions—is a trickster. A very beguiling one. It’s beguiling and deceptive that way when it’s engaged that way.
Since you’re interested in this, I’m going to bring just one more example to bear. Another great spiritual teacher plant is tobacco. As I’m sure you and probably most of our listeners are aware, tobacco has been and is still considered a sacred plant, used in ceremonial and prayer purposes by—so far as I know—virtually every indigenous people from the Arctic down to the tip of South America. People have gotten great benefit from this plant when they engage it in the sacred way it requires. It actually can protect people’s health, among other things.
On the other hand, it’s very well known that if you have a poor relationship with this plant, it can kill you. It kills thousands and thousands of people every years in this country alone. Can we say that it’s a bad plant? Can we say it’s a blessed plant? The answer to both questions is yes. It depends on your relationship to it.
TS: And a healthy relationship? What would be the features of a healthy relationship to tobacco? I could imagine someone saying, “Come on, really? It’s addictive. How can I have a healthy relationship with it?”
EC: If you are addicted to it, you do not have a healthy relationship to it. [Laughs.] That’s an easy one to sort out.
Actually, tobacco is—in some ways—one of the easier ones to get along with. There are a lot of people who do have what I’m going to call a “soul relationship” to tobacco. Not everybody does, but a lot of people do. So, it’s available to a lot of people. Much less specialized than something like ayahuasca or peyote.
But the basics are: First of all, one of its greatest blessings is that it does have the capacity to help us hear the voice of the divine—the voice of the sacred. That’s why indigenous peoples use it as an adjunct to prayer in ceremony and ritual, or even in their private prayers. When it’s engaged in a way—first of all, in a legitimate ritual setting. If it’s engaged in gratitude and respect, and used for those purposes of facilitating hearing and conversing with the divine—another word for that is “prayer.” [If it’s engaged in this way,] it’s very, very helpful. It has a great deal to offer.
But anything short of that is not. So, if you’re smoking it to get a buzz, or you’re smoking it because you’re addicted, or you’re smoking it because you feel empty if you don’t, or you’re smoking out of boredom, or whatever—well, you’re engaging a very dangerous plant. Lethal. If you use it the other ways, it has a lot to offer. And as I say, kind of a side benefit is that it can actually protect your health rather than tearing it down.
TS: So, Eliot, I just have a final question for you. It seems like the whole view that you’ve been sharing during this conversation—speaking, if you will, from the perspective of plants—speaking from their perspective—that this is something that’s not very well-received. It’s not common. I can imagine people making fun of it. It’s not really where the culture is at, as a whole.
EC: No. No.
TS: So I’m curious to know how you think your work and this view of looking at life from the perspective of the plant—being able to honor that and care for that—how that will make it into our everyday life here in the West. How do you see that happening? Do you see it happening? Is there an opening? Is it possible?
EC: I would say yes. I don’t have illusions that this is going to be something that’s quickly going to sweep the whole culture, no. But absolutely I do see it happening.
Part of that is that I already have some level of experience with it. The first version of my book has been out for 19 years now. It has touched a lot of people. That I take as evidence that it is touching upon something that is innate in all human beings. The very fact that our society doesn’t recognize, much less nourish that, means that people are thirsty and hungry for it. Not everybody right now, because a lot of people are still busy distracting themselves and are in denial of the real pain that comes from that kind of innate engagement with the world.
There’s another way I’d say it. With the plants, in this case. But the rest of the world, too. It’s our birthright. Many people are in a state of openness and readiness to hear that and feel it and respond to it.
Now, with this second version of the book I expect it will continue to grow. Likewise with the practice of plant spirit medicine. I’ve been practicing it now for many years, and many people I trained are also—and you know, it really makes a deep change in people. Not just in their symptoms—although that’s very important and appreciated—but as a natural way of introducing people or reinforcing or nourishing this innate experience of connectedness to the world.
Thirdly, I would say that, just as you’ve pointed out, the society denigrates or makes fun of or has cynicism about this way of experiencing the world. Well, it’s not just with plants. It’s with everything. The whole world is seen as—at best—offering possibilities for exploitation and enrichment of natural resources. At worst, as hostile and to be controlled by us if at all possible. Or, at least indifferent to us and our concerns.
All of which creates a society that is treating the natural world in a way that the natural world is responding to show us—to remind us—that you know what, that is not a sustainable way of living. It’s something that’s destroying the very natural world that is there to support us and has given us our life in the first place. Therefore, the natural world is helping us out by showing us that “unsustainable” means it will not be sustained.
Therefore, we find ourselves in all kinds of catastrophes and collapses happening, societally and environmentally. With the weather, with the pollution, with the growing violence everywhere. Things are falling apart.
Now, the hope and the blessing in that is that when it becomes so clear to people that that way of living in the world doesn’t work—people have been blind to that because it’s very beguiling. It seemed like we were having a good time there for a while. But it’s breaking down. When more and more people begin to experience in their daily life—in their bones and their daily experience—that this cannot work anymore, they will very, very naturally look for, “Well, what does work?”
When they look for it, they’re going to find it. Plant spirit medicine is one of those small ways that they’ll find it. Plant spirit medicine, by the way, is not just something that I invented or something like that. It is a particular revival of something that—in some form or other—every people has known and practiced and treasured since the beginning of humanity.
So, it’s just one way, but that view and experience of the world proves itself that the natural world is related to us. It does love us. It is our grandparents. We don’t have to steal from it. We don’t have to try and control it or something like that. It has everything we need, and it wants to give it to us. But we have to get along with it in the ways that it’s designed to be gotten along with. That means treating it as a grandparent—with that kind of love and respect, and appreciation for what it has to offer, [and a] willingness to give something back. Don’t take more than you need, and return something when you do take something. All those are sort of the basics of all the different spiritual approaches—of the peoples who have survived all these thousands of years.
In the long run, will it continue to grow? I say absolutely. Will that happen as a sudden, overwhelming surge of popularity? No, I don’t think so. Probably it wouldn’t be a good sign if it did, because those things usually indicate a flash-in-the-pain fascination that doesn’t last very long. But this is something that is sustainable [and] has very deep roots.
The times are already upon us when people begin to realize that this is the kind of thing that they need—that will contribute not only to our survival, but to a full and rich and joyous human life. Not necessarily an easy one, but a good one.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Eliot Cowan. He’s the author of a new, updated edition of the classic book Plant Spirit Medicine: A Journey into the Healing Wisdom of Plants. Eliot, thank you. This conversation [has] really sensitized me in a new way. I’m grateful. Thank you.
EC: You’re very welcome. Thanks for saying that.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.