Follow the White Rabbit: Entheogens, Meditation and the Path of Awakening

    Sometimes strange and unusual opportunities show up in our lives. We are free to ignore them and continue life as usual, or we may feel a stirring inside to answer a call to adventure. Like Alice we may choose to venture down the rabbit hole into strange lands. This is the beginning of the archetypal descent into the unknown depths of life; into the hidden unconscious aspects of oneself which lie outside the matrix or consensus reality that we have become habituated to. It is a journey from the limited individual mind, to the one mind.

The Gospel of Thomas says “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

    I have had various psychedelic plant teachers show up on my path. I have never had a real interest in them, yet each time I have encountered them it is as if some mysterious force brought us together. These “entheogens” (entheos translates to English as “full of god”) have served as a sort of permission slip for me to access the hidden recesses of my being, connecting to levels of the soul in which human and plant spirits are intertwined. What do I mean by “permission slip”? As soon as I decided to try the Iboga root, I started to experience the spirit of plant, or you could say I started accessing that part of myself that is typically revealed by the plant. Months before I actually ingested the plant, without any physical connection to it, the work began; it was as though I had given myself permission to begin a new level of self exploration.

    Like meditation, working with an entheogen can help us make conscious the hidden dimensions and parts of ourselves that were previously unconscious, and untie the energetic knots that keep the self structure from developing and flowering. In the meditation world the path to liberation involves purifying oneself of sankaras (Pali) or samskaras (Sanskrit), which are the conditioned habit patterns of the mind that keep us identified with form. Through our meditation or self inquiry practice we make these unconscious sankaras conscious by allowing them to arise in consciousness without reacting to them in any way. We realize subtler and subtler aspects of mind, remaining equanimous with reality as it is, which leads to realization of the emptiness, impermanence and endless craving and aversion operating within the self structure. 

    The use of entheogens can greatly accelerate this same process which leads to liberating insight. They can also become a sideshow and distraction if we become attached to any phenomena or particular states that unfold. Experiences with psychedelics give us an opportunity to make deep discoveries about ourselves and patterns of behavior and at the same time show us the interconnectedness of all things, revealing that which transcends our separate sense of self; our center which is everywhere and nowhere.

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” ~ Morpheus, from the movie “The Matrix”

    Not everyone is ready for, or interested in working with, plant helpers, but they can be profoundly helpful for some people who are drawn to them as a tool for accelerating progress on their path. Entheogens have been part of the human spiritual journey in countless cultures since the beginning of recorded history. The subtle and hidden layers and aspects of self can take a lot of meditation or self inquiry to reveal. The deep sankaras or conditioned patterns that bind awareness to identification with the self structure can take years or even decades to become free of through meditation. As they say, when the student is ready, the teacher will come, and that teacher can be in any form, within or without. Once the soul and higher intellect becomes awake in your life it becomes easier to access and integrate liberating wisdom. For many people it can take just one experience with plant medicines to make significant, permanent shifts in their life, but there needs to be a willingness – a fearlessness – around facing the often difficult truths the plant will show you. Do not expect entheogens to do the work for you; they may offer you clear insights and a sort of ‘reset’, but without following up with the sometimes challenging work of integrating, real change may not be lasting. The less you resist the truth that is revealed, the more your life will come into alignment with the spiral of life and your soul’s purpose.

    There are many tools we can enlist on the path of self exploration.  I’ve used several over the years: sensory deprivation tanks, darkness meditation, gongs and singing bowls, chanting, ecstatic dancing, yoga, pranayama, dyads, and meditation techniques. Many continue to be useful for me, and some have been stepping stones. Entheogens are no different. It is said that inquiring into the Self is like digging a well; one should not dig a shallow hole in many spots, but choose one spot to dig deep enough to reach water. Different tools can be used to dig the one deep well, and I see all of these tools as ways to achieve exactly the same thing; realization of our true nature.

    When I started meditating around 20 years ago my sadhana or daily spiritual activity consisted  primarily doing two hours of Vipassana meditation every day. Sometimes I would do three or four hours in a day, and it is during these times that things started to get interesting; cracks began to appear in the matrix. The meditation technique (Vipassana body scan) was something I learned, so it was a conditioned part of my self structure. But sometimes I would let go of the technique entirely and would allow myself to be drawn into deep stillness and presence. On one occasion, while meditating a vision appeared to me like a lightning bolt from beyond. At this point in my life I considered myself to be a very grounded, rational and scientific person who required proof and double blind studies to validate the truth of anything. It was quite surprising when the usual broadcast of my reality was interrupted by a vision of a DNA double helix made of vines, which was rotating into the keyhole of a padlock. When it entered the keyhole a brilliant golden light shone out like rays from a blinding sun. With the vision also came an energetic transmission which is difficult to convey in words, but essentially there was something new inside of me; an aliveness that I had not felt before. I had absolutely no idea what the vision meant, and in spite of my identity as a rational minded person, I started sharing this vision with others. From two independent acquaintances I received an answer; it was Ayahuasca. Synchronicities started to happen as this strange new thing that had been completely unknown to me started to turn up at every corner. As I started to explore what Ayahuasca was I felt the aliveness growing, as if the energy itself was saying “yes, this is it.” I came to understand that the double helix in my vision was also my own inner energy, and the spiral of life that extends from my DNA to spirals of the galaxies themselves.

    This was my first experience of how my inner world could direct or guide my outer life, and since then I’ve learned to tune into and trust this inner aliveness and its attendant web of synchronicity. I was guided to experience Ayahuasca at two points in my journey, and both times she provided me insights which I integrated into my understanding of myself. Interestingly, the experience I had physically ingesting the ayahuasca reconnected me with the energy that had been transmitted in the original vision; it was an energy and consciousness that had been a part of me all along. Working with the plant directly gave me the permission slip to explore it more deeply.

    Recently my path led me to iboga, which is a sacred root used in the African Bwiti tradition of Gabon. It came to my attention through conversations during retreats at the Samadhi Center and after some investigation arrangements were made for an experienced provider to attend at the Center for a weeklong retreat. Two ceremonies were conducted, during which we ingested flood doses of the plant medicine, which is a root bark ground into a powder, and taken by the spoonful. It has the consistency of dry dirt and tastes extremely bitter, as many medicines do. Some people experience nausea and vomiting, but I found it to be quite agreeable to my system with only a bit of nausea on the first dose, and none at all during the second ceremony.

    The psycho-active effects can be intense for a period of 8-12 hours, which is the first stage of the trip and goes through the night,  but can last much longer depending on one’s sensitivity. During this period there can be dizziness, nausea, hallucinations, and a high sensitivity to sensory input. During this first stage of the ceremony we spent most of the time lying down and listening to Bwiti music, which is made up of repetitive percussion instruments, chanting, and an unusual mouth harp called an ngombi, which is said to help facilitate the experience. There is a powerful connection between the music and one’s thoughts and inner experience, and many people report visions involving the Bwiti musicians and other African people.  It’s also at this stage that you may begin to be shown your mind from a uniquely objective perspective. In the morning we were brought back to our rooms for the second stage, which runs for about another 12 hours. This is a time for recovery, quiet reflection and integration, but because iboga acts as a stimulant, for many people sleep is not possible for another day or so. Throughout this time, until we were feeling well enough to get up and move about, we were provided with water, fresh juice and soup in bed.

    It is said that Iboga has two spirits; a masculine and feminine component. A participant may experience both the changing phenomena of the feminine spirit, and the clear emptiness and conscious presence of the masculine. My experience with iboga led to many profound insights into the operation of my self structure and opened a more clear communication with the soul or higher intellect. Even if one has realized Samadhi or had profound insights into one’s nature with entheogens, it does not mean that one has necessarily learned to manage personal relationships, become conscious of all patterns inherited from society and parents, or unlocked one’s full creative potential. There are many developmental lines that can be explored in a human life, and the soul is the key to the self structure’s evolution and growth. During my experience on iboga I was shown points in my life when my aliveness had been suppressed, when my childlike spirit had been crushed and I started protecting my heart as opposed to expressing it freely. Some of these experiences were an actual reliving of the event, and feeling energetically the original state of being that had been lost. But this does not automatically restore balance to the self structure or eliminate the old patterns. I still need to be willing to do the hard work of integrating these insights into my life.  Of all of the entheogens that have crossed my path, iboga was most helpful in giving me clear insights into many formative experiences. The story about me is not important, but what is important is the letting go of trapped energy which flows in the unconscious mind, which binds awareness to identification with the self structure. In the Bwiti tradition the Nima or high shaman may ask “At what point in your life did you stop singing and dancing, and enjoying quiet moments to yourself?” If we can untangle the knots that have been tied in our being, we can once again join the universal dance.

    When the iboga is working in us, it is possible to ask the soul or higher mind (or the spirit of the plant, of whatever you want to call it) any questions and possibly receive an answer that would otherwise not be available to us. Iboga has been an effective treatment for addictions, as it helps us clearly see and become free of one’s patterns. Our patterns and habits are the very things that prevent us from living a life free from our conditioned self, from living a life directed by  the soul. We are all addicts in some sense, addicted to thinking, and addicted to the concept of a “me”. Iboga is a strong medicine, and many need to experience it only once in their lifetime to gain realizations into what their soul is and to get deep insights into their self structure. In the Bwiti tradition they say that once you receive the healing from the medicine, then you simply go and live your life. This medicine is not something that you take on an ongoing basis. Entheogens offer acceleration but not shortcuts on the path of awakening. For those who are prepared to travel through the doors that the plants will open it is possible to let go of the conditioned behaviors and attachments that form the self structure. But it is equally possible to resist the persistent truths that are revealed in the experience.

    One significant aspect of the iboga retreat was the stillness that permeated my experience.  During our ceremonies we were essentially in a perfect position to engage in continuous meditation for a period of 8 hours without moving, as there seemed to be a natural inclination to become very still once the effects of became manifest. To do 8 hours of continuous meditation is something only the most experienced meditators can do, akin to an Olympic feat for an athlete, but with iboga it can become more possible. During this time I did not employ any technique but simply let everything be as it is, abiding in a sort of choiceless awareness and presence. My attention came to rest naturally on the third eye and my lower mind became still for periods of time, as various higher dimensions of my being opened up. I became deeply absorbed in the present moment and whatever “I” was at any particular moment dissolved more and more, and awareness remained. At a certain point that awareness was identical with all that was happening; movement and stillness were realized as one. As the Iboga started to wear off the outer world was experienced as a silent field of peace or empty consciousness, which I relate to the formless jhanas/dhyanas of Buddhism and the yogic systems.

    The author Aldous Huxley had a theory that the brain acts as a ‘reducing valve’ or a sort of limiting filter. Huxley said “each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.” Huxley came up with this realization through his own inner investigations with psychedelics in 1954, long before the advent of modern neuroscience confirmed his theory. He felt that Mescaline temporarily disabled or bypassed the reducing valve allowing him to experience an expanded stream of data. Huxley’s discovery came almost 2500 years after the Buddha and Patanjali realized something very similar, observing their inner world directly. Patanjali and the Buddha described in detail how to experience mind at large through meditative absorption or dhyana (Sanskrit), or jhana (Pali), which is a progressive dropping away of mind activity.

    It has been a couple weeks since my iboga retreat. So what has changed for me? Various states come and go, but I am grounded in awareness more than usual. Awareness seems more tangible, or aware of itself. Rather than taking time to meditate it seems more like meditation is finding me during the day, and is not separate from life. There is a naturalness and deep absorption into presence and I know these to be the fruits of the meditation and self inquiry that I have been doing for 20 years. I also feel the operation of the self structure more profoundly when it becomes active, which is challenging. I feel that the experience has been a catalyst and that there has been considerable healing and clearing on the level of the self structure in a very short period of time. It also seems particularly painful when the negative habit patterns come up, which simultaneous makes them very clear, and provides an extra incentive to let them go.

    Many spiritual teachers discourage the use of external helpers. In the meditation world psychedelics are often seen as merely “tripping out” to hallucinations and strange phenomena, or as an attempt at a shortcut to enlightenment. The argument against them usually goes something like this: if you are trying to get something from the plant, whether it is a mystical experience or insight, it is born out of some egoic agenda and grasping. Of course this is often the case for many people, yet the same can be said for meditation and self inquiry as well. If the limited egoic mind is engaged in some activity called meditation or self inquiry, then that seeking is merely an egoic activity and an attempt to become more spiritual, more awakened, and more enlightened. The path to Samadhi is not about acquiring more, but recognizing the perfection of your timeless nature beyond name and form. One’s connection to plant medicine may be born out ego grasping, or it may be born out of synchronicity,  natural exploration and inquiry into one’s true nature. The impulse to connect to the plant can come from an insight on the level of higher mind, in which case it is not reflective of something external at all. The distinction between inner and outer, after all, only exists due to the dualistic nature of the limited self structure.

    I have heard some spiritual teachers say that entheogens can cause an imbalance in one’s energy making the rewiring of the nadis and chakras more difficult. Of course the use of any form of psychedelics (plant based or otherwise), if used carelessly can definitely mess up your energy and cause all sorts of difficulties in your development process. However, if you use plants such as Ayahuasca or Iboga in a conscious manner with a qualified provider manner, they should not cause damage to your energy body unless there is a predisposition to psychosis or instability in one’s health and psyche. In fact the opposite is true; the energy body of most people is already damaged and distorted and the plants will help connect to one’s natural, original vibration. Most people are out of balance with the spiral of life/nature, pursuing irrational and pathological egoic agendas, and the entheogens will help reconnect them to their soul. They can help one to heal, evolve and  grow the tree of life within which is a bridge to the soul (and ultimately the entire universe).

    The flowering of human consciousness/energy requires the ability to surrender and let go of control over the experience. If one’s actions are motivated by a desire for a particular outcome, then those actions may lead to suffering when the outer world does not conform to the egoic desires. Any healing, integration and evolution that comes may not come in a form that can be foreseen or anticipated by the limited mind. If you follow your inner direction or inner aliveness without any insistence on a particular outcome, then your consciousness and energy may unfold and flower into something you can’t possibly imagine. People sometimes ask whether a particular experience they have had is Samadhi or whether entheogens can lead to Samadhi. Samadhi is actually not an experience at all, but a collapse of the duality of experience and experiencer. When one experiences some level or levels of dropping away or absorption into awareness, it can be dramatic and extremely profound, but it is important to not get attached to any particular state, otherwise the next level of absorption will not be possible. The mind can get involved in subtle ways, creating preferences for one state over another. The wisdom of beginner’s mind, and the humbling of the self is needed so that energy no longer remains trapped in the old patterns of control and grasping. The two pillars of meditative inquiry, presence and inner surrender, are the guiding compass for navigating the entheogenic experience.

    An entheogen cannot produce Samadhi any more than fertilizer can produce a bloom in a flower; both are simply catalysts for a development process within the organism. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj famously said “fluids come together and the I AM appears”. On the gross physical level fluids, chemicals/ matter come together and there is an awakening of a deeper level of “I” (as the reducing valve is bypassed). On the subtle level you could equally say that energies come together and the I AM appears. On the causal level form is revealed as emptiness and emptiness is revealed as form, and the I AM awakens as all things. It is important to understand that Samadhi is not merely an experience produced by a chemical reaction in the body, but neither is it a transcending of the physical to rest in absolute consciousness. It is the awakening of energy/form and consciousness as one. As it says in the Heart Sutra: form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form. The path involves realizing your true nature beyond name and form; and then a merging of one’s true nature with the soul, which upon awakening realizes that everything was always already that one primal nature, and that our apparent separation was an illusion.

    People may wonder “why should I  do meditation and self inquiry when I can just take a psychedelic?”  Why not do some Ayahuasca ceremonies and forget about doing years of meditation? There is no easy path to realizing your true nature. You will inevitably have to face your pain, your inner darkness, to allow your sankaras or conditioned patterns arise and pass away. Entheogens may come when we are ready to do the deep work, but the development process is ongoing, and meditation and self inquiry are extremely valuable in that process. You must be willing to change the patterns in your life once you see them. Many people will not be willing or able to make those changes, and will get pulled back into the matrix, even after a profound awakening experience. Meditation and self inquiry are ways to integrate an awakening experience into daily living and to avoid falling back into old patterns. Our daily practice is more than just following a technique or method, but is inseparable from life itself. When we see every moment as an opportunity for greater presence, equanimity, and love, then we become a living bridge between the subtle spiritual realms and the gross reality of the material world. 

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[Disclaimer: We recommend that Ayahuasca and Iboga only be taken under the guidance of an experienced facilitator, in a country in which it is legal. Always obtain the proper medical tests recommended by the experts (such as heart tests and psychological screening) before using these entheogens. The articles on this website are for information and inspiration only, and we do not make recommendations about the use of any entheogen for use by any particular individual.]