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April 9, 2019

Plant Consciousness in Plant Medicine

Diana Quinn Inlak’ech ND is a licensed naturopathic physician and curandera (Spanish for healer of traditional indigenous methods) who has completed two years of apprenticeship with Wixárika Marakame don Julio of Central Mexico, her ancestral homeland. Additionally, she has travelled to the Peruvian Amazon and completed plant diets with Shipibo Maestro Enrique. She is a board member of the Center for Shamanic Education and Exchange (CSEE), which raises funds for indigenous cultural preservation, supporting projects including Wixárika temple restoration and an apprenticeship program to train Shipibo youth in their ancestral practices.

With her wealth of information in traditional medicine, healing, and visionary practices, I was fortunate enough to talk with her about the nature of plant consciousness and how recognizing the innate intelligence of psychoactive substances might shift our relationship with the experiences found in consuming them.

Banisteriopsis Caapi, one component of the Ayahuasca admixture.
Photo credit – Diana Quinn Inlak’ech.

Diana: I definitely think that the essential nature of considering plant consciousness and plant intelligence — in terms of having a different relationship with the plant medicine that one might be ingesting — changes the dynamic and also changes the experience. It becomes a relationship. I think it can be intuitive, people who have experienced plant medicine don’t see it as “chemicals in my body.” There’s that piece, but also culturally, shifting the way we relate to plants, and other sentient life, as having innate personhood changes the dynamic completely from an extractive exploitative relationship, to one where we are actually inclined to treat nature like our sibling. Clearly the time is long overdue to shift our thinking in that direction.

Eric: For a person who has grown up in a culture where that is completely out of the realm of familiarity, no real dialog established for that, how does a person begin to comprehend what they are interacting with?

D: I think there are a lot of entry-points, and for people that are more analytical and scientifically minded, there is a wealth of research that is emerging about plant intelligence.

It feels, sometimes, a little manufactured if you don’t have a context to say “oh, father Cannabis, I bow to you” or whatever, I mean maybe some folks are ready to do that, but if that doesn’t come naturally I would personally start spending time in nature and consider that that kind of intelligence is literally all around you.

Stephen Herrod Buhner, an herbalist and thought-leader who has published a lot of botanical and ethno-botanical books, talks about it as being like the metaphysical background of our existence. Materialistic and reductionistic world views would have us break it down into the smallest parts, these mechanical nuts and bolts, but that’s so contrary to what we actually experience.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ethno-botanist and indigenous researcher who has written several books, including Braiding Sweetgrass, talks about considering the personhood of a tree. We would call a tree ‘it’, but if you behold the tree and give it a pronoun — not to gender the tree, necessarily — but to consider the nature of the tree and change our thinking and our language to be more animistic. Because English is one of the least animistic languages, and a lot of thought patterns that have been instilled in us do not have that personhood or being-ness, whereas Anishinabeg (her traditional language) gives personhood, so you can’t talk about the tree without referring to it as ‘they’, like that person, the tree. It’s a total worldview, a paradigm shift, it’s not just like cannabis or psilosybin is exclusively this intelligence. It’s all intelligence.

E: It’s funny that cannabis has been referred to as a gateway drug for decades, but it’s not necessarily a gateway to other substances, it’s more a gateway to alternative ways of perceiving your reality. Which actually might be MORE intimidating to some people, ha.

D: Yeah, right?

Lophophora Williamsii, better known as Peyote. A psychoactive cactus containing mescaline.
Photo credit – Diana Quinn Inlak’ech.

E:  In an experiment conducted by Monica Gagliano, and reported on by Robert Krulwich [Radio Lab podcast: Smarty Plants], they found certain plants were demonstrating a responsive behavior that psychology has recognized as a normal function in human cognition. These plants were given a stimulus, they were dropped a short distance, and a measurable reaction was observed, but over time this stimulus produced a markedly reduced reaction as the plant came to recognize that shock wasn’t a threat, and began gating it’s responses. 

Obviously there is some sort of awareness on that level, and so there is maybe some justifiable anticipation in the psychedelic community that certain psychoactive plants have something to commune with. On some level. Maybe not the same level as this conversation.

D: No, they’re much smarter, ha!

E: They’ve been here longer.

D: They’ve been here a LOT longer, haha. Yeah, the Shipibo have a cosmology in which Grandmother Ayahuasca taught them about other plants and which plants were medicinal, and how to use them. And which plants were edible. So that gets woven into a way of life that is profoundly different.

Even just tobacco, one of the oldest plants on the planet, is profoundly powerful and wise. One of my teachers taught that the most powerful allies are the ones that can kill you. And you really want to have a deeply honoring, you want to be in right relationship with them, because with tobacco for example, if you’re not, it doesn’t work out so well.

We have nicotinic receptors, it’s basically a central component of our  sympathetic nervous system. It’s not an accident. Kind of the same way we have DMT in our bodies. It’s being found in so many plants. It exists in so many different contexts. Well, how did they ever figure out to mix it with an MAO Inhibitor? They would say the plants taught them that. It’s a very different world-view to consider that our species isn’t the most intelligent on the planet. Or the most well adapted to survival.

Achunisananga, a sacred tree in Peruvian indigenous medicine.
Photo credit – Diana Quinn Inlak’ech.

E: So what are some of the more common plant teachers as anyone interested in the field of psychedelics might be aware of, and how do you define their medicinal value in this context?

D: I can speak to the plant teachers I have the most experience with, but in many ways I’m still a novice, humbly a beginner, and by no means an expert in anything. I’ve been deeply honored to have been invited into traditions with elders who have used plant medicine in their lineage for generations. Like they can’t remember how far back. And those are not my traditions, those are traditions through relationships, deeply reciprocal, respectful, I have been welcomed in. I want to be very clear I don’t claim to any of that knowledge, because that’s not MINE.

But through those experiences, I’ve seen how Ayahuasca in the Shipibo tradition, or Peyote in the Huichol tradition, are considered absolutely integral component of the entire cultural fabric. It’s an essential. It’s like a deity, the plant spirit.

In my time with the Shipibo, I got introduced to other plants that have totally different capacities as medicinal plants. For example tobacco. I did a dieta, a plant diet, with tobacco where it’s prepared in a special way. There’s multiple plants they diet this way, but you have an extended period of fasting and drink a tea made with the preparation; and there’s dozens of plants that the practitioners, the healers, the maestros, in that tradition diet with. But tobacco is the foundational one my teacher works with.

Tobacco was such a profound teacher, and I have had a historically difficult relationship with tobacco. I grew up with a parent who smoked, and I was a smoker for many years. A decade or more after changing my relationship with tobacco I found myself in this context having this relationship, and my experience was as a grandfather, very similar to the way the Huichol relate to Peyote.

It is mildly hallucinogenic, and there’s another plant that they use with it. And this is not a recommendation to make tea out of tobacco, because it’s actually potentially toxic and can be fatale. You know, the maestros do it, we don’t do it. But there’s another plant that they mix with tobacco, called Piñon Colorado, it’s a little shrub. The teacher I spent time with in Peru is a botanist, he has a compound and grows a lot of plants, so I was able to see how he cultivates Ayahuasca, how he cultivates tobacco, how he cultivates Piñon Colorado, how he cultivates Achunisananga. All of these mildly hallucinogenic plants. So Piñon Colorado’s one that opens your intuition, opens your knowing, is one of the ways they refer to it.

The relationship is deeply respectful. It’s considered an intelligence. So when you’re working with it every day, you’re sacrificing. You’re fasting. You’re giving up something to present yourself to the plant in this way. Prayers are made and offerings are made, and then you ingest the plant, and it’s now an ally when you work with it in that way.

In those traditions, and the way in which I was trained, those allies can be invoked and called upon. You don’t have to be in ceremony to call them in for guidance. It’s like when you tap into your ancestral memory. I have this wise grandmother Curandera, I call upon her to facilitate this healing, or to help me in this situation because I’m having a hard time, and they can actually come to your aid in that way. And people make offering to them, it’s a two way relationship. You want to show your respect and your deference to them.

Chacruna, or Psychotria Viridis, is a common pairing with Banisteriopsis Caapi in Ayahuasca.
Photo credit – Diana Quinn Inlak’ech.

E: I think a lot of times, when people are unfamiliar with this concept of plant medicine, or unfamiliar with the concept of a vision quest, or an ordeal, we’re so devoid of these experiences in our culture these days, but the only real frame of reference for many people is a family member, or a neighbor, or somebody in the past who had a less-than-healthy relationship with alcohol, tobacco, whatever. And so the assumption is that when we talk about these things, you’re going on massive benders with Ayahuasca and you’re just constantly, constantly leaning on that crutch.

I think when you talk about the ceremony, when you talk about the preparations, it starts to put things into context. People might realize that this isn’t something that you’d indulge in frequently, because it’s not convenient to do so. The time that it takes to set aside to have one of these experiences, it doesn’t work out very well with most people’s nine-to-five work-life, and family-life, and all the other obligations we have. This is actually something you need to make the time for, and set aside the space for it in your life, before you see any kind of return on that relationship.

D: And then do some work with integration. Because your whole psyche and cellular matrix has been shifted. So now how do you come back into the rest of the world and consensus reality, and make meaning of that, and reinsert yourself into your life in a new way and go forward.

E: The integration is a huge point that a lot of people miss on their relationship with mind-altering substances. If it’s only a temporal thing, if it’s a weekend indulgence and then the experience passes you by and you never bother learning from those experiences, it kind of just comes and goes and there isn’t any long term benefit to it. A lot of times when we talk about plant medicine, or psychedelics, that’s not what most of us are interested in, the weekend partying. Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that, but don’t stop there. There’s so much more that these things can offer to you if you just cultivate that relationship and ask more for deep and meaningful experiences from the plants.

D: Like you said, no judgement on the enjoyment, or the joyfulness of the experience. That’s important too. We need to lighten up sometimes.

But what I’m interested, what I know is available, after medical school and studying naturopathic medicine and herbalism, one of the precepts of naturopathic medicine is the healing power of nature. The body has an inherent capacity for healing, the doctor isn’t doing the healing. It was through practicing that medicine for many years and getting back toward the shamanistic and animistic way of relating to nature that I circled back to plant medicine, with no intention in my mid-forties and doing ayahuasca.

I just want to emphasize that everyone interested in neurognostics (enhancing the neurological capacity to experience the metaphysical background) they’re interested in psilocybin or peyote or ayahuasca. It’s exciting and sexy to talk about these, but for example Rhodiola is an herbal adaptogen, can be bought in a health food store, and acts on the serotonin receptors, the same 5-HT2A receptors that most of the psychoactive medicines act on. Obviously it’s not hallucinogenic, but it shifts your psyche and opens your awareness and enhances your neurogenesis in similar ways.

E: Well Paul Stamets talks quite a lot about Lion’s Mane mushrooms and what a fantastic adaptogen it is, having extreme benefits for physiological and psychological health.

D: So I would like to expand the notion, when we talk about plant intelligence, to also include these plants that we can also have a relationship with and don’t require such a disruption of our day to day lives, and actually support our day to day lives.