The Shaman Woman, Plant Medicine, and Psychedelics Salon

by Annie Oak

I have just returned from Canada where I attended WVC’s third annual Shaman Woman, Plant Medicine and Psychedelics Salon at Simon Fraser University in downtown Vancouver. Organized by Eleonora Molnar, the Director of WVC Canada, the event included a series of thoughtful conversations about the use and misuse of power in ceremonies that include psychoactive materials. The gathering also featured presentations by speakers who looked at the history of these substances and ways in which they shape culture, politics and our own personal search for self-knowledge. It was great fun to reconnect with a community of people in Vancouver who care deeply about these topics and have a well of insights to offer.

The salon began November 14th with a roundtable discussion. Everyone present was invited to take three minutes to introduce themselves and share their thoughts on strategies for maximizing the benefits of these ceremonies – and practical steps that participants could take to protect ourselves from potential harms and abuse of power. A number of participants recalled having beneficial experiences that supported lasting positive change in their lives. Others expressed grief and anger while reflecting on circumstances where they had been abused by shamans and others they had turned to for healing. Concrete suggestions were offered to hold such people accountable, conduct due diligence on prospective practitioners, and structure ceremonies in ways that could reduce the potential for abuse. We have posted a list of these recommendations on the WVC website which summarize many of the points made during this conversation.

The round robin format gave those in attendance several opportunities to speak. WVC events are open to people of all genders and one of the men present offered his three minute allotment for a group meditation to practice creating a circle of energetic protection around ourselves – a skill that is useful in many day-to-day situations as well as during ceremonies. I called on my own departed family members to be my guardians during this meditation and reflected that there are few spiritual traditions that do not honor ancestors in some way. This is an example of how the spirit world remains a part of our lives and can be called on when we use tools such as meditation or plant medicines to help heal and strengthen ourselves.

On November 15th, we gathered again at the university for an afternoon of presentations starting with an excellent talk entitled “Gender, Drugs and History: A Lesson in Power and Voice” by Connie Carter PhD, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Carter reminded us how narratives about women corrupted by mind altering substances have been used for many years as the pretext for the prohibition of these materials – and how these arguments have been deployed to flame racist fears of white women being seduced by men of color. This presentation was followed by a lively talk by WVC’s emeritus advisor Carolyn Garcia which she titled, “What happened in the 1960’s? The story of how LSD became part of American culture.” Garcia, who was present at the Acid Tests and a member of the Merry Pranksters, recounted how she became one of the first people in North America to ingest Ibogaine which she accomplished by consuming a research sample at Stanford University where she worked as a laboratory assistant in the early 1960’s. The experience showed Garcia that after descending into a deep state of altered consciousness, she could cultivate the inner strength to manage the psychological impact and retain valuable information.

The third talk during the Saturday event was presented by Donna Dryer MD and Richard Yensen PhD who spoke about a research project in Vancouver that is studying the efficacy of MDMA assisted therapy for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Dryer and Yensen are serving as investigators in this important study that was initiated by psychiatrist Ingrid Pacey, MD and psychologist Andrew Feldmár. Dr. Pacey still remains the principal investigator. This research is supported by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), whose members participated in the Salon. We look forward to the findings of this important study which has the potential to develop powerful new therapies for people who have experienced trauma and have not been treated effectively with existing therapeutic tools.

The importance of addressing sexual trauma was emphasized by the next speaker, Lily K. Ross, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, who recounted her experience with a prominent ayahuasca shaman in Ecuador who she said drugged her with multiple transdermal and oral doses of scopolamine and sexually assaulted her for several weeks. The use of scopolamine in the commission of crimes is well-documented and by no means limited to those associated with ayahuasca. But this was certainly a cautionary story about the abuse of power. Ross views her ordeal as a perilous rite of passage and reflected on what she says has been the inclination of those who hear her story to either blame her or resist exploring the ethical dimensions. During the Salon, event organizer Eleonora Molnar made insightful observations that considered the potential for materials like ayahuasca to enchant those who use them in ritual contexts – especially people who are new to plant medicines and those who facilitate these experiences. She observed that it is important to honor the healing potential of these journeys and also to think critically about shamanic and neo-shamanic practitioners and others who present themselves as “healers” in this context.

The talk I presented at the salon looked at existing social science research into sexual misconduct by shamans and the conversations about this topic during past WVC events. I noted the rapid growth of the ayahuasca tourism industry and suggested that some of the resistance to discussing these challenging issues may be due in part to financial self-interest among the growing numbers of shamans, lodge owners and tour operators. I acknowledged that many shamans use this powerful medicine with integrity and noted the growing number of female shamans, neoshamans and ceremonies that address the need for safety during these rituals. Click here to read a transcript of this presentation.

After considering these very serious subjects, Michael Horowitz stepped up to offer a talk entitled “Antidotes to Everything” that made us laugh and remember the ego-puncturing irreverence than can accompany psychedelic experiences. The editor of books by Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, he told a very entertaining story about visiting Leary in prison while under the influence of LSD. Horowitz co-founded the world’s first psychoactive drug library, operates Flashback Books, and produced with his wife Cynthia Palmer two groundbreaking anthologies of women’s drug experiences, Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady and Sisters of the Extreme.

The WVC Salon ended with a beautifully crafted talk by scholar Elena Andrade entitled,”The Poetics of Ayahuasca: Lessons Learned from César Calvo.” Andrade discussed how drugs can be a technology of control. She sparked an intriguing conversation about how the widespread use of anti-depressants, marketed heavily by pharmaceutical companies, may suppress our sense of outrage necessary for meaningful political reform. Andrade presented the idea that despair prompted by our present economic system increases dependence on these substances which in turn make citizens more docile and easily manipulated.

While we considered this observation, Eleonora Molnar skillfully brought the Salon to a close leaving us with an exquisite short film by Vancouver-based filmmaker Simon Haiduk. This piece of visionary art, entitled “Calling the Others,” reminded us how psychedelic experiences can renew our sense of wonder and our connection to each other and all life around us.

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