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Seven Minute Shaman

The Mazatec peoples have always lived just out of reach of the great empires of Mexican history.  Deeply ensconced in the highlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the northeast corner of the state of Oaxaca, their lifestyle has long withstood the brunt of such formidable forces as the Toltecs, Aztecs, Spanish Conquistadors  and the Mexican Federal government.  Though a tribe of Popoluca-Zapotecan linguistic stock, Mazatec is a Nahuatl name given them by the Aztec  meaning “Lord of the Deer.”  The Mazatec prefer to refer to themselves as the “Humble People.”   While the relentless pressures of Catholicism and modernity have gradually seeped into their daily lives they remain predominantly a community of weavers and farmers.  Life at 6000 feet has proven ideal for the cultivation of such common crops as maize, beans, chilies, squash and more recently coffee.  However, their plant of greatest renown is not a foodstuff but the powerful entheogenic herb known as Salvia Divinorum.

Locally known as Yerba de Maria, (Mary’s herb,) Diviners Sage or hojas de la Pastora, (Leaves of the Shepherdess,) Salvia Divinorum is a type of sage belonging to the Labiatae or Mint genus.  A sprawling perennial herb, it favors the moist, isolated and shaded areas of the region.   Capable of reaching heights of three feet with long green ovate leaves and square stems, Salvia no longer grows wild.  It is strictly cultivated.  Salvia Divinorum is one of a trio of hallucinogenic materials, (along with Psilocybin mushrooms and Morning glory seeds,) used in sacred curative rituals by the shaman of the Mazatec and their close neighbors the Cuicatec and Chinatec.  Up until its rediscovery by Albert Hoffman, (he of LSD fame,) in 1936 it is believed these Oaxacan tribes were the only peoples actively using Salvia for spiritual/medicinal purposes.

When it comes to psychotropic materials Salvia Divinorum is a different breed of cat.  Its leaves contain Salvinorin A, considered the strongest natural hallucinogenic compound known.  Differing from opiates which are alkaloids, Salvinorin A is an organic compound called a diterpenoid.  Unlike classic psychedelics like LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT, Salvinorin A doesn’t target the serotonin 2A receptor.  As such its effects are completely different from those of other well known entheogens.   It is completely non addictive and there is no evidence of its use causing any form of  long or short term toxicity.

Consistent with so many traditional cultures now feeling the sway of the modern world, the Mazatec cosmology has evolved into an odd hybrid of Catholicism and traditional spirit worship.  Where once the spirits of animals, ancestors, mountains, rivers and other natural elements reigned supreme they now share time and freely intermix with the pantheon of Catholic saints.  Attendant with these principles is an acute sense of karmic balance.  Whether reward waits in an afterlife in the Kingdom of Animals or the Kingdom of God, the quality of ones actions and their respect for nature will ultimately be recognized and judged by a higher transcendent power.  Within this spiritual syncretism one traditional element has endured; the role and power of the shaman.  Whether as healer, mystical guide or source of practical information the shaman remains a crucial focal point within the cultural fabric.

The Mazatec shaman, (known as a curandero,) shares a commonality with shaman of all other cultures; he or she operates from an altered state of being.  While there is great cultural variation in the manner by which altered states are induced, (fasting, lack of sleep, physical pain, rigorous activity, etc.,) the Mazatec shaman uses psychotropic drugs, the foremost being Salvia Divinorum.  In most circumstances it is employed to induce a visionary trance to identify and cure disease.  Predictably, it is thought to be most effective against disease having a strong psychosomatic component such as the evil eye, evil wind, sudden fright or loss of soul.  However, many claim it just as effective in identifying and formulating cures for physical ailments from common sickness to such dramatic conditions as cancer and the removal of tumors.  Under the Salvia spell shaman are also capable of offering prophecies and locating lost objects and animals.

Regardless of the task there is great consistency in the Salvia ritual.  Like so many others, the Mazatec believe the darkness of night is the optimal condition for gaining entrance into the metaphysical realms.  Once inside they can then confer with the supernatural powers and divine beings and understand the hidden reasons for events or sickness.  In the darkness of the room candles are lit and Copal incense burned.  Salvia can be ingested by chewing the leaves, smoking them or grinding them on a metate and drinking the juice in the form of a tea.  Regardless of method, the shaman will always first lay out the Salvia leaves in pairs in acknowledgment of the opposing powers of life.  Both the shaman and the client take the drug and together begin to solemnly articulate their desires to the spirit of the leaf through prayer or song.  Salvia is personified as a female being or Mother goddess known as La Pastora, (the shepherdess,) and conceived of much like an oracle.  If lovingly and respectfully engaged La Pastora will whisper her advice, lessons and blessings to the shaman and his patient.  It is then incumbent on the shaman to translate and interpret the words of the leaf into practical advice or perform the necessary curative procedure.  For centuries this has been the way of the Mazatec shaman.  The shepherdess and the shaman unite in a deep and abiding relationship for the curative well being of the tribe.  But the secrets and sources of other worldly experience rarely stay private for long.

Today the interest in Salvia Divinorum has vaulted beyond the tiny villages and towns of the Sierra Madre.  La Pastora now commands a new legion of aspiring shaman whose interests reach far past her healing insights.   These new shaman are no longer traditional tribal peoples.  They are the creatures of the modern urbanized West unconcerned with sacred ritual.  To them the shepherdess is a tool to explore deep meditative states, spiritual realms and reveal the unseen secrets of consciousness and reality. 

To contemporary seekers Salvia Divinorum offers a wealth of advantages over other possible psychotropic candidates.   To begin with, by and large it’s legal.  Thirty six American states have no regulations regarding its sale or use.  It is no more controlled than a pack of Marlboros or a bottle of Coors Light.  Even better is the ease in which Salvia’s obtained.  Old timers who look fondly on the days when having a psychotropic experience required dealing with questionable characters in questionable parts of town to gamble on material of questionable quality will be disappointed.  Today one need only go online to one of dozens of ethno-botanical warehouses.  Just a few clicks of the mouse and a packet of Salvia in your selected weight and concentration is on its way to your front door courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service.

When it comes to ingestion, Salvia is hands down the winner.  Those with experience taking traditional entheogens can testify the process is often painful and problematic.  Who can forget the joy of swallowing peyote?  After hours of carefully removing strychnine laden fibers from the buttons the real fun began; gagging down the acrid flavored cactus without retching out your upper intestinal tract.  Of course the taste of peyote is akin to a chocolate éclair compared to that of the trendy entheogen de jour, Ayahuasca.  Imbibing the solution distilled from the Amazonian Vine of the Dead is unquestionably the most nauseating ordeal tolerable to humans.  Words are incapable of describing the foulness of taste.  Before the effects kick in, those with the necessary fortitude to swig this vile liquid are rewarded with waves of violent vomiting.  One wonders if the ensuing altered states are the result of the drug or severe dehydration.   Salvia is comfortably and cleanly consumed by smoking.  This simple process has been made easier through the wonders of modern chemistry.  As the concentration of Salvinorin A in each leaf is small, the Mazatec traditionally had to smoke large quantities to achieve the desired effect.  Today’s mail order Salvia is actually a concentrated extract of the leaf designed to increase its potency.  Calculated in standard figures such as 5x,10x,15x or 20 times the normal concentration, one need no longer inhale the equivalent of a camp fire to move through the cosmos of consciousness.  Simply select the desired strength and take one singular puff on the pipe and off you go.

Possibly the most peculiar and attractive quality of smoking Salvia is the brevity and efficiency of the experience.  Once the smoke leaves your lips the effects are instantaneous and in most cases last for a mere seven to ten minutes.  That’s right, ten minutes after ignition you find yourself back to baseline status with only a slight lingering, contemplative afterglow that quickly dissipates.  In the time it takes to watch the local weather report on television you can leave the realm of reality, travel through cerebral hyperspace to the edge of existence and be back in time to catch the sports scores.  The uninitiated may wonder what can be learned and experienced within seven minutes.  Don’t be concerned.  In the time and space distortion Salvia creates one can easily live every single minute of every single day of an entire lifetime in those seven minutes of real time.  However, be warned, after returning from the Salvia experience taking in the Yankee scores may be far from your mind.

Numerous personal psychotropic experiences in the 1970’s suggested LSD, peyote, psilocybin and mescaline all create a similar type of altered state.  Chemistry and history aside, all were essentially different vehicles traveling to the same place; a hyper perceptive state of mind operating on the perceived forms of the everyday world.  Now this was no mean feat.  Being privy to some of the hidden qualities, dimensions and potentialities within our “common reality” while simultaneously realizing the extent of human perception is one of the greatest gifts one could ever receive.   I expected Salvia Divinorum to cast me back into that insightful and probing, though familiar frame of mind.  Though thirty five years had passed since my last psychotropic journey I felt confident I would easily reorient to the enhanced perceptions typical of the experience.   I was wrong.  Though all who try Salvia, (or any other entheogen,) are likely to encounter different aspects and revelations of alternate reality, suffice it to say I didn’t find La Pastora to be the gentle, temperate and benevolent consort of legend.  While there is no such thing as a uniform entheogenic experience, none of the many reports I’d read prepared me for what was to come.

On each of the six occasions I tried Salvia I found its effects to be exponentially stronger and experientially dissimilar to any psychotropic material I’d ever worked with.  There was no delving into and reflecting on the nature and constitution of common reality; Salvia creates its own reality which shares none of the objects or laws of normal sense experience.  The specifics of each episode were essentially the same varying only in intensity.  In each event I was instantaneously “ripped” from the conventional world of time, space and forms and thrust into a darkened dimension of being with such force I actually felt my skin stretching as if accelerating through higher G-forces.  Retaining my own sense of ego I perceived a bright red vertical line standing in empty space, as if looking at the side of a thin, closed book.  Immediately upon perception, with an audible “crack,” hundreds of “pages,” began fanning open to my sight, each appearing to hold a different reality; each complete and fully evolved.    It seemed obvious all of these realities normally coexist with one another at the same point in space and time but in such a highly compressed state you are only aware of the one page or layer of strata of reality you occupy.  As the pages fanned out wider I could see each reality had its own origin, history, ideas and time line and was populated with its own “beings.”  I was filled with the impression that had I wanted to I could have fully entered into any of these existential scenarios.  All the elements and particulars of each reality were simultaneously on display.  Almost like staring at the unrolled frames of a movie or words on a page, I could review each scene or word in order of sequence or jump ahead to any particular part of the page or just scan it all at once like speed reading.  Time and space no longer operated in the manner I conventionally knew.  From this perspective I experienced simultaneously the past, present or future of any of these realities.  Everything just was.   Throughout the entire episode my ego remained intact.  After what seemed years of untethered existence, I managed to pass over and “grab” onto my page of reality and quickly return to my own dimension of existence with great relief.  On average each of these episodes lasted seven minutes.

I’ve never liked the word hallucination.  It implies seeing something that doesn’t exist.  In all my previous psychotropic experiences I’m quite convinced I never hallucinated.  I simply saw levels and layers of reality previously undetected by normal sensory function or ordered them in alternate ways.  Upon subsequent reflection I remain convinced the worlds of existence perceived during the Salvia experience have an existential reality and are not any kind of epiphenomenal episode.  If this be the case much can be explained or reasonably extrapolated relative to the way the Mazatec shaman ritually uses this material.   If it’s possible to step outside the fabric of our existence and calmly and objectively view it as both a timeless and sequential entity, (like words on a page,) then the ability to divine the future or locate objects previously lost becomes relatively simple.  The same could be said for diagnosing disease.  Finding physiological change should be easier given the ability to chart the moment by moment condition of any particular human.  There are undoubtedly countless ways unknown to my limited imagination in which a substance with such inherent power and profundity could provide deep insight in to many of the aspects of our meager corporeal existence.  For centuries the Mazatec have sworn to the ability of their shaman.  Having had the opportunity to examine the power of their tools I have no reason to doubt their veracity.

After encountering the Salvia experience I was once again reminded of the benefits and conundrums associated with the use of traditional entheogenic  drugs.  Though the use of Salvia Divinorum has expanded beyond the Oaxacan highlands I believe the insights contemporary seekers obtain are much different than those realized by the native Mazatecs.  While the hidden dimensions of existence revealed through La Pastora are likely similar for both, (brain chemistry and neurological function being essentially identical,) I suspect the experience may be less transformative for the modern seeker than for indigenous peoples.  This is most likely the case whenever natural entheogens are used in contemporary cultures.  Cultural context is critical for providing the framework and thought world necessary to effectively integrate these observations within the course of daily living.  Many feel the accelerated, sensory flooded, ideologically diverse and task specific nature of modern urban life is less conducive for allowing practical integration of psychotropic insight.  For most empirically driven people of the West these drugs are useful for exposing the infinite layers of reality underlying the world of our sense perception.  To realize the limitations of normal sensory function and gain a glimpse of the hidden intricacies of existence is invaluable, especially for those skeptical of the existence of anything outside the realm of the empirically obvious.  However, as we products of the mechanistic paradigm realize, there is limited value in simply knowing the litany of parts composing any apparatus.  How these parts work, to what end they function and the meaning of the greater whole they reveal are entirely different and critical issues.   Perhaps the greatest question arising from the experience is “now that we know, what do we do?”  How does one best integrate and live in concert with the reality such deeper existential perception reveals?  It would seem each is left to theorize for themselves.   Without clues to these issues we are left with only an awareness of a wondrous, though superficial phenomenon.

Many believe the nature of traditional life offers a better context through which to integrate psychotropic awareness into one’s daily perspective.  Its felt traditional people and those of certain religious groups usually exist within a more accommodating cultural and spiritual framework through which to apply transcendental awareness.  They usually live closer and in greater concert with the natural world than those contemporary urbanites long estranged from the more essential elements of life.  As such they are more attuned with the fundamental rhythms and patterns of existence and can better contextualize and apply entheogenic revelation.  As a long standing element of their cultural heritage, native entheogenic experience has gradually translated into the ritual, meditative and ethical paradigms that frame and define their concepts of being.  This allows for a better understanding of the specifics of the phenomenon.  Its forms, functions and even personality are an integral part of the traditional thought world shaping and influencing daily life and existential perspectives.

Entheogenic use by native peoples is also employed with a greater sense of purpose and precision than that of their Western counterparts.  These drugs are traditionally taken for a specific use; cure disease, divine their future, secure protection or gain insight into a particular problem.  Having a specific focus, both shaman and subject deal with more manageable and select aspects of the experience, not the totality of all revealed.   With a defined purpose in mind, better navigation through an otherwise overwhelming experience would seem more likely.   Through the process of addressing specific problems a deeper appreciation and understanding of the workings and potential of the phenomena are gained.

Knowing the objective manner in which certain psychotropic drugs react on the brain tells you little about the nuance of any individual experience.  You can’t generalize mental reaction.  Physiology, psychology, culture and specific experience all play vital yet indeterminate roles.  The same is true regarding the study of culture.  Not all individual behavior and ideas can be inferred by the cultural in which they form.  As such any picture regarding the effects and value of psychotropic materials is by necessity painted in broad strokes.  Exceptionality is the hallmark of individuals of all cultures.  However, there is little disagreement that the specific effects entheogenic drugs instill within the user – subtle or dramatic; violent or serene – are best appreciated and understood when contextualized within the fabric of ordinary life.  To what extent contemporary Westerners have the ability to comprehend and integrate the transcendent insights native entheogens provide is difficult to say.  There is a sharp distinction between willingness and ability.  All are different and approach the situation with varying skills.  What is necessary to understand is cosmic insight is not strictly the result of metaphysical revelation.    The use of entheogenic drugs points up one important, unyielding truth relative to all areas of existential and transpersonal study; what is never as important as why.  Phenomenon without meaning is of little enduring value.  Those would be “seven minute shamans” of the modern world would be wise to keep this in mind.  While shortcuts to revelation are many, shortcuts to enlightenment are few.

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2 Comments

  1. Commentsjuliano   |  Monday, 14 February 2011 at 6:29 am

    No offense, but it tends to get me down when people explaining an entheogens always seem to presume that one is better than all the others!

    I have heard this with the Ayahuasca set, and the ones that that do not like the synthetic psychedelics like LSD.

    Camn we not see that ALL the entheogens are our friends and powerful AND that they are not ‘specifics’ as the pharma people call certain drugs which are for specific purspoes. All entheeogens very much depend on the individual and the set and setting.

    Another thing, this romanticizing of indigenous use of entheogens. There actually is a lot of alcoholism afffecting people that take Peyote and with the Mazatecs. Why….? Because of the OVERALL degradation of their lives by the mechanistic world all round. It is very serious –so much so that even having access to entheogens may sometimes not be enough when all your freedoms have not only been taken away by force but are continually being threatened and stamped on by brutal groups intehnt on destroying planet Earth.

    We here who take entheogens very much feel that, and it is not fair to say we take entheogens in a superficial way. Some do, yes, but many of us in the thick of the culture going round the world causing terrible damage take entheogenic awareness VERY seriously!

  2. CommentsRJ Vigoda   |  Wednesday, 23 February 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Juliano, thank you for your interest and response. Please understand I’m not trying to elevate Salvia over any other type of entheogen. I agree with your belief that all entheogens have a huge potential for psychic insight pending on the interests and intentions of the individual user. I would also note it’s not my intention to diminish either the depth or quality of insight those outside of traditional cultures experience through individual entheogenic use. Personally speaking, as a modern product of the West I can tell you my own use of entheogenic materials has provided me with an invaluable degree of insight and understanding into many different areas of existence. What I do assert is that greater cultural acceptance of entheogenic use usually allows for a wider degree of integration of the experience that goes beyond mere individual illumination. In those cases where a prevailing, sympathetic and established spiritual network underlies the use of entheogens it’s often easier to better contextualize, understand and build upon those revelations one attains in their altered state. As we both know, any entheogenic experience is filled with an infinate degree of pure potential. Once the mind is expanded we can receive insights regarding virtually every element of existence. For many this is an overwhelming experience that prevents them from focusing on certain key elements of interest. Having a cultural anchor to direct and help define our voyage often allows us greater and more expediant understanding. Thanx for your input, I look forward to more. Best of luck on your own journey.
    R.J.

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