Lessons in The Use of Mazatec Psychoactive Plants
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During the mid-1980s I participated in a caving expedition in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico. Our group intended to explore and map the lower reaches of the Sotano de San Agustin, which at that time was the deepest known vertical cave in the Western Hemisphere. While waiting for the main party to arrive, I set off to look for cave entrances on the high limestone plateau of Cerro Rabon. Topographic maps and aerial photographs indicated that even deeper caves might lie in those forested hills. On the second day of the walk I encountered some Mazatec farmers harvesting beans in a high altitude field. In order to learn more about the trail system I accompanied them on their return to their village, but was frustrated to find that the trip led away from the most promising region for new caves. I had lost so much altitude that I decided to continue on down the valley and return to the San Agustin basecamp. The Mazatecs that I met along the trail were all curious about me and asked what I was up to. It was remarkable to them that I should be walking alone down a trail that accessed only their high fields and that was never used by outsiders. Two young brothers called me over and eventually offered me a meal and invited me to stay the night with them. One of them explained that he was a baker and suggested that I stay for a couple of days while he baked. Then we would travel together up onto Cerro Rabon on a combined bread-selling and cave-hunting trip. I stayed, and we eventually loaded his burro with bread and did a great two-day trip together.
When we returned he introduced me to his father, whom I shall refer to here as "R." "R" speaks only Mazatec. He struck me as a sturdy, even-keeled, straightforward, reliable, and unpretentious farmer. At one point "R," his son (whom I shall refer to as "C"), and I were standing beside one of the farmstead houses. For lack of a common language we were laughing quietly together. Then I noticed an unusual glow flowing off of the broad leaves of a tall, tobacco plant beside the building. I thought, These must be curanderos (healers). Sure enough, that night the sons explained to me that their father was a curandero. I was elated. I knew that the Mazatecs, along with their neighbors the Cuicatecs, Chinantecs, Mixtecs, and Zapotecs, had maintained some of the arcana of ancient Mexican religion and medicine within their healing traditions. "R" and his sons seemed willing to talk about their practices of curanderismo. With one of the sons translating my Spanish into Mazatec, I told "R" that I respected the tradition, but that I knew little about it, and I asked him what plants he used. Piciete, hongos, y hojas de la pastora, was the reply. I knew that the Mexican Spanish word piciete was derived from the Nahuatl word picietl and that it referred to tobacco. I also knew that hojas de la pastora referred to a little known psychoactive plant in the mint family, Salvia divinorum. I assumed that the hongos were Psilocybe sp. I told "R" that I would like to learn about his practice. He immediately got up, left the room, and came back with something wrapped in clear plastic. He broke off a small chunk of dry green material, crumbled it, and offered it to me, saying, Piciete. They explained that I was to place the powder between lip and gum, not swallow, and spit the saliva out on the dirt floor every so often. The tobacco gave me a pleasant buzz and then an upset stomach. They urged me to have more. One of the sons said that I would eventually see figures, but I was too ill to continue. "R" invited me to do an hojas session with him in a week or so.
When our explorations in the Sotano de San Agustin were complete, I returned to visit "R" and his family. The next morning "C," one of the sons, and I walked about an hour up to one of their coffee plantations. Their Salvia divinorum patch was secluded from sight among the coffee trees and limestone crags. I was amazed to see that all of the Salvia plants had been chopped down and were laying in heaps. "C" said that this was a malicious act done by others, but never clearly explained why. I assume that it was some sort of symbolic attack on the plant and/or on "R." The roots had not been harmed and the plants later grew back vigorously. We gathered a quantity of leaves, still in good condition, from the downed plants. Back at the farmstead, "C" set the leaves on a small altar table for several hours. In the late afternoon "R" sorted through the leaves and selected out some large ones without insect holes. After dark "R," "C," and I sat in "Rs" bedroom/living room. Some of the other family members watched from a doorway leading to another room. A saints image, a candle, and a flower in a vase adorned the altar. "R" counted 13 pairs of leaves, passed them through copal (incense) smoke, rolled them into a cigar-shaped cylinder with the leaf-tips up, and handed the roll to me. The only verbal instruction that I was given regarding the use of the plant was to chew well. "R" and "C" did not partake of the leaves. They seemed to treat the event as serious, but not extraordinary. I got the impression that "R" was coaching "C" with regard to how to administer the plant to a novice or patient. What I had read and heard about Mazatec mushroom ceremonies led me to expect that "R" would structure the hojas experience, and offer some guidance, by means of songs or chants. I was looking forward to visions, Mazatec chants, and an opportunity to experience an entheogenic world structured according to an ancient Mesoamerican healing tradition.
As I began to nibble the leaves "R" orated in Mazatec. He called upon a number of saints, especially San Pedro and San Pablo, and mentioned my full name a couple of times. I assumed that he was recommending me into the care of the Saints responsible for this sort of undertaking. The leaves were bitter, but not unbearably so, and a bit rough. In a few minutes an engaging pattern appeared on the altar table. The candle was put out and the room became totally dark. Thunder sounded in the distance. As I nibbled my way towards the leaf-stems, it became difficult to find my face. I was not alarmed by the apparent potency of the leaves and the rapid onset of the effects. I was determined to consume the entire amount and made the effort to continue until I had chewed up the leaf-stems.
I never noticed the transition. I was not aware that I had eaten an entheogenic plant, was in Mexico, was with friends, or had ever had a body. I was engulfed in a complex, fluctuating environment. Much hung in the balance. I was facing awesome challenges and knew that I lacked the skills to deal effectively with them. However, I also knew that I might somehow do OK. I remember very little of this first plunge into the world of the hojas, but towards the end I recall an intricate, neon-pastel, slick-lit, all encompassing, non-Euclidian topography. This sense of a distinctive topography has characterized each of my Mazatec Salvia experiences. Of course, what I can describe begs the question of what I cannot describe: being out of the three dimensions and linear time.
Eventually I noticed that I was chewing leaves, and then found that I had a body. One of the configurations that lapped cyclically through the swirling world resolved into a couple of spots of light at the top of Rs door. I realized that I was with friends in the Sierra Mazateca and was overwhelmed with respect for this family and for the Mazatec healing tradition that contains this staggering terrain. Lightening struck repeatedly in the nearby hills around the house. "C" leaned towards me and said, Do you want some more? I said, Yes, and "R" gave me five more leaves. These lifted me out again. This time when I returned "C" said, Sing. Me? Yes, sing until you cannot sing any more. It seemed ironic to me that I was to do the singing rather than "R," but I sang, mostly just making up pleasing sounds, for more than an hour. The purpose of the singing seemed to be to weave me back into the ordinary world. It certainly had that effect. I later realized that this was actually my first lesson in a technique glossed as singing, speaking, or praying that is one of the primary Mazatec skills for dealing with entheogenic experiences.
The next year I returned for another holas de la pastora session. This experience was similar in that I was unable to spot the transition and was completely transported from three-dimensional reality, time, the social context, and my body. Afterwards, "R" and his sons emphasized that the hongos are better for learning and urged me to return during the brief mushroom season. They said that the hojas are used for healing when hongos are not available, but that patients prefer hongos, and that the hojas move too fast for most people. I could certainly understand that patients would prefer not to take on the awesome hojas experience when they were seriously ill.
The following year I returned during mushroom season and participated in three ceremonies. Two were conducted specifically for me, and one for a patient. Most of the members of the extended family, including "Rs" wife, his sons, their wives, and some of their young kids, partook of the hongos during each ceremony. I got the impression that the sons, one of their wives, and at least one of the kids were dedicated to learning the tradition. I was given lessons in singing during each of the ceremonies. I was instructed to sing along as "R" belted out sets of racing, pulsing, interweaving songs. Sometimes everyone complimented and echoed "Rs" songs. Sometimes each person sang or spoke in an uncoordinated babble, each sending his or her petition up into the darkness and into the sound of rain pounding on the roof. When I was asked to sing a solo I sang what seemed to me to be pleasing, but meaningless, syllables. Sing in Spanish, I was told on the next occasion when I was asked to sing solo. I made up songs about a bird and about a bridge of flowers. The next time I was told that these songs were not appropriate. "C" asked me to imagine that he was sick, was a patient, and to try to see (in total darkness) where his problem was and to cure him. So I sang about seeing into his body and about seeking health. "C" later said that my songs were limpio, clean, and that I was getting the idea. He explained that the key was to ask for what one needs. He used the terms hablar, cantar, and rezar (to speak, to sing, to pray) interchangeably.
I returned a few years later with my friend, Ruth Cashman. This time the preparations for the Salvia ceremony were quite informal. We simply set up some chairs in a small, darkened room. A large pile of sand, stored for a construction project, filled most of the floor-space. "R" came in, placed a candle in the sand pile, and handed me the leafy tops of two Salvia plants. I suppose that he felt that I was by now familiar enough with the endeavor to dispense with most of the ritual and just get down to eating the plant. Ruth and I sang some songs together that we had prepared beforehand, but she found Row, Row, Row Your Boat too funny to try. She sang a lovely song that she had learned from a Lakota sweat lodge teacher. I encountered greater difficulty in the world of the hojas on this occasion than I had previously. At one point it seemed to me that the solution was to stretch out. The three-dimensional world correlate of stretching out turned out to be tipping sideways off of my chair. Fortunately, Ruth saw, through the near total darkness, that I was about to tip off of my chair and saved me from an embarrassing fall and a rude surprise. I have the impression that each Salvia ceremony has tested my mettle on fundamental levels. On that occasion I did poorly and did not seem to improve my skills at all. "R" and his sons emphasized that, as they had told me before, it was necessary to avoid all sexual contact for four or five days after an hojas or hongos ceremony. Otherwise, one might go crazy during the next ceremony, even if it took place years later. We were also to avoid giving food or drink to anyone outside of our circle of participants for a few days.
In 1991, I returned to find that the sons had both recently brought home second wives. Their first wives were angry and sad. It appeared that the unilateral introduction of second wives was considered to be the husbands prerogative in this village and that the husbands would prevail despite their first wives objections. "R" and his wife were constructing a new home for themselves a couple of kilometers away. I tried to express my support for the first wives. Eventually, "R" did a Salvia ceremony for me with "P" (his younger son), "Ps" first wife, and their young daughter in attendance. As before, I was the only one to partake of the leaves. "R" assembled a fat, but uncounted, bunch of leaves and passed them through copal smoke. He consecrated the ceremony to the saints and handed me the bundle of leaves. I ate them slowly in the hope that this would result in a more conscious transition. The familiar territory manifested when I was about half way through the leaves. The effect was full-blown when I still had a quarter of the bundle left. Intricate, spotless, neon-lit, blue-green territories, each with a different import and organization, engulfed me. Each territory was different and each required something different of me, something that I could not quite come up with. I did not have the option of waiting it out or of finding my way into shallower water. However, I was able to retain the knowledge that I had once had a body, that I had eaten the plant, and that I was with "R" and his family. I was convinced that this time "R" had effected a permanent shift in my being: I was in here forever. I accepted what I knew was an odd predicament as my lot and tried to deal with it. I began pediendo, asking, as I had been previously instructed. I had thought a lot about what to ask for during this session and had settled on the resolution of a health problem. I began to speak, asking for health, for energy, and for the strength to do my work. Clear words emerged from deep within me. My words temporarily dispelled the alien waves and brought me into my body. I found that referring to health in terms of my body felt correct. I asked for a healthy body, for bodily energy, etc. I focused my attention on the interface between the visionary world and my body. My body felt two-dimensional and homogenous, but it provided me with a point of reference in the heaving sea. When I was embodied, I found it helpful to shake out my arms and to wriggle my body around on the chair. It did not feel right to continue to ask repetitiously, so I fell silent. Soon I was deep in the wilderness of the territories, but I found that I could regain the touchstone of my body by thrashing my way back to pediendo again. This gave me a sense of optimism about the possibility of learning to deal with the territories. Almost in defiance, I twice took another bite from the leaves that I still held in my hand. "R" noticed this each time and remarked to "P" about it. I felt that the base of the leaf bundle that I still held was a sort of power wand. "P" spoke up and said that if it was a bit much I could diminish the impact of the hojas by setting down the leaves. I was feeling OK, but it certainly was a bit much, so I said, Where? He shown his flashlight on the altar and I got up and set the leaves down there. This did diminish the power a bit. I continued to ask, to fall silent, and then to be engulfed within alien abysms. Eventually "P" said that he would show me how to speak. He had me repeat after him, word by word, a simple request for a healthy body, etc. Each of his and my words were stepping stones in an awesome sea. Throughout the session I found that the words that I spoke had to hit precisely the right chord. Anything less than the most genuine and correct words would not do at all. I found the same to be true of whistling: I had to hit just the right notes. I felt that it would be great to find enough of the right words to continue to speak regularly through the ceremony, but I could not. Towards the end of the session I felt very lucky to have "R" and "P" introducing me to this. It was clear to me that there is an ancient and timeless cohort of adepts associated with this place and that "R" and "P" were offering me a chance at membership. The next morning "P" said that now I knew how to hablar, ir (speak, go). He said that I need to repeat more, to keep on speaking so as to find the acceptable words. He also said that I need to speak with more definition, to be more precise and elaborate. He said that I should ask about the disease: what it is and where it comes from. "R" again asked me to return again during mushroom season. Unfortunately, my current commitment to academic education has kept me from continuing the studies offered by my Mazatec curandero friends.
Bret Blosser is an anthropologist, educator, and explorer. He was a principal organizer of the three annual Salvia divinorum conferences that took place at Breitenbush Hot Springs, Oregon in 1998, 1999, and 2000.