History begins with the written word; before the written word is “pre-history”.
Particularly over the last 2000 years with the rise and spread of Christianity and Islam we have become a “People of the Book”. This worldview has led to a general suppression of direct religious experience, substituting Gnostic awareness with book knowledge and ecstatic experience with legalisms. There have been exceptions within this stream but the dominant Western religious trend has been a legalistic duality that places the relationship to God into the hands of experts and the direct experience outside of the realm of the common man.
Do we change reality by writing about it? Is history what happened or is it what we read about what happened? There is a Jewish tradition that God created the universe with the Alphabet. Our understanding of human culture is deeply rooted in the written word. Truly written language has provided us with a great boon. We have the ability to maintain records, share information and learn and teach each other. The written word has a positive power, but unfortunately we tend to miss out on the knowledge available through a more direct connection.
Growing out of this way of understanding is the Western view of medicine. The world and all that is in it can be defined, labeled and identified. Western medicine tends to see the mind and body as being separate, not interconnected, and spirit as something either belonging to the realm of the religious professionals or merely as superstition. The view of mind, body and spirit all being interdependent is not a common viewpoint and is perceived as being alternative, New Age or otherwise foreign.
As a result of this way of viewing the world, Western medicine has moved away from the use of plants as medicine. While many medications are originally derived from plant substances, scientists have concentrated the aspects that they perceive to be useful. The development of heroin and cocaine are “advancements” developed from this logical scientific perspective. Heroin has come a long way from the poppy flower and cocaine is quite different than the coca leaf. In our search for scientific perfection, we created Frankenstein.
From the beginning of time man has used a wide variety of psychoactive plants for both medicinal value and religious experience. The use of plant induced changes in consciousness have been consistently suppressed by all three of the dominant monotheistic faiths with the exception of sacramental wine that has been used by Jews and to a lesser extent by Christians. Europe has been dominated by Christianity. The ancient cultic use of plants have all been suppressed and generally purged from European history.
Beyond the Western world, in the unconquered jungles of Africa and the Americas and the inhospitable deserts of the Americas as well, the Gnostic traditions continued. Three psychoactive healing plants with some similar properties are peyote (from the American desert), ayahuasca (from the South American jungles) and Iboga (from the jungles of Western Central Africa).
All three substances have likely been used from the early mists of time. However, the cultures that use these plants have no traditional written language and therefore no “history” of their own. History is written by the victors and the victors have the power of the written word. The oral traditions that surround the religious and therapeutic use of these plants are fluid and change with time. The conquering Western worldview based in the written word is in direct juxtaposition to the unwritten traditions of indigenous peoples.
The shamanistic oral traditions and the use of psychoactive plants were considered “demonic” by the invading political and religious culture. Interestingly enough however, the religious use of all three of these substances have grown as a direct result of European conquest and the attempted suppression of indigenous culture. The use of peyote spread well beyond the Mexican and Texan deserts and developed into a central aspect of a broad religious experience that transcended the tribal differences in the Americas. Likewise, over the last 300 years the religious use of iboga has spread, making Bwiti the fastest growing religion in Africa. The rise of the Santo Daime religion follows a similar, though more recent, pattern.
The use of these substances for both medicine and religion reflects a worldview that sees mind, body and spirit as being of one cloth. The spread of these practices as a result of contact with Western influences can be seen as a natural attempt to heal from the damaging affects of domination by outside forces.
Literate and intelligent, Western man sees himself as rational. After giving up the spiritual world to religious professionals, he gave the healing arts to medical professionals. Freedom from these responsibilities however leaves a void. Alcoholism and drug dependence result from this unnatural dichotomy and unhealthy relationship with our inner selves. This may explain why iboga, peyote and ayahuasca – ancient indigenous religious and healing plants - have use in breaking the dependencies on the dominant drugs of Western culture.
We will see how it works out. The final chapter has yet to be written.