Shamanic healing with plants is hardly ever and certainly never solely about administering medicine in a form that a Western doctor might understand the term. Instead, it may include divination, the receipt of spirit blessings, magical potions to change luck, or the healing of the soul through the energy of the plants, and not their physical attributes at all.
The aim of a plant shaman, in fact, is not even to cure a condition, but to remove its spiritual cause by restoring in his patient a sense of balance, harmony and reconnection to the sacred and the Earth. This balance and at-one-ment is regarded as the natural state of human beings and once the patient experiences it again, the illness (which was a messenger of disconnection rather than a condition in itself) has no need to remain and will magically disappear. The plant is an intermediary in this, playing the role of doctor, counsellor, confessor, therapist, or friend whatever the patient or the shaman needs it to be, in fact, in order for balance to be restored – rather than a source of medicinal or chemical properties.
Ethnobotanist, Frank Lipp PhD, points out that: plants play an integral role in ideas of balance and cosmological order that often reflect sophisticated medical theories of the human body, the symptoms it experiences and their underlying causes.
There is, moreover, no hard and fast distinction between medicinal plants and food plants, since many plants, such as maize, chilli peppers and sage, are utilized both as food and medicine.
It is the shamans intention and the co-operation of the plant that decides whether it is a healer or a foodstuff. In Andean Peru, for example, coca leaves are used medicinally to give people energy and help them cope with the high altitudes that can drain the body of strength, but they are also one of the most sacred plants used as offerings to the gods. It is not unusual, therefore, to see an Andean shaman chewing coca as a medicinal foodstuff while at the same time offering the leaves as part of a ceremony. At one and the same time, the plant is a medicine, a food, and a spirit ally. What makes the distinction is the shamans intent.
Another example, this one offered by Lipp, is that of the healers of Zaire, who must visit the sacred woods where the ancestors are buried and pick certain herbs just as the suns rays fade, if they wish to cure a patient of fever. A plants medicinal potency may lie dormant until the requisite incantation has been pronounced which will define its purpose and direct its action, says Lipp. The ancestral spirits are petitioned to make the fevers heat fade in the same way as the light of the sun.
Without this petition this statement of intent the herbs would not work at all, no matter how chemically potent they might be.
PLANTS AS PLACEBOS
As Lipp also remarks: Since the time of Plato it has been recognized that substances with no inherent chemical efficacy are never-the-less useful in eliminating symptoms and pain It has been estimated that 35-45 percent of all prescriptions are for drugs that by themselves could not affect the conditions for which they are prescribed.
This is known as the placebo effect the use of an inert plant material such as sugar, which is given to a patient with the promise of a successful cure. We are rather dismissive of this effect in the West, but the fact is that it works better than orthodox medicine in many cases. From Lipps estimate, our recovery from illness relies on it in a third to almost half of all cases. If there is no medicinal quality to the drugs we are taking, what else can it be that heals us, but something non-chemical the spirit of the plant – and the intention of the healer to heal?
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Western mind in accepting plant spirit medicine as a bona fide practice is, as we said earlier, that its outcomes are not scientifically measurable. It is not the same as giving someone an aspirin and recording that 30 minutes later the problem is cured (or, at least, the symptom, if not the real problem the underlying cause of the headache – is cured). How do you measure, for example, the effectiveness of a plant in making someone fall in love with you or increasing your business turnover?
Because of the model science uses, there will always be other factors to look for so that supernatural causes can be ruled out. That, after all, is its point. Science is tautological in this respect, because whatever we look for we will, of course, find. Whenever a scientist sets out to find an alterative explanation which proves that plant spirits do not exist, that is what he discovers since he was, all along, seeking this proof.
The irony is that because we are looking at the world from the viewpoint of this model, even when a placebo is shown – scientifically – to work, we deny ourselves its healing by ruling it out as effective in its own right and putting its success down to gullibility.
If we open our minds to how plants really work, though, what we notice is the possibilities not the limitations, the miracles, not the trickery involved.
PLANTS THAT HEAL CAN HARM
It is also a recognised fact that, in most shamanic healing – as in modern science – plants that heal can also harm. In the Amazon, for example, there is a tree colloquially known as the brujo (sorcerer) tree – which, in other circumstances, can be used for positive magic. If a photograph is nailed to it of someone to be harmed, however, the scorpions, snakes, and poisonous spiders that live in its branches will ensure that s/he suffers.
This knowledge that what can heal can harm is not confined to the Amazon. The folklorist Zora Neale Hurston writes, during her time in Jamaica, for example, that the God Wood tree (birch gum) the first tree that ever was made the original tree of good and evil also has these powers.
A shaman wishing to do harm will drive a rusty nail into the tree trunk, while thinking of the person to be injured and that person will grow weak and die. Interestingly, in terms of physical effects, if a small piece of bark from the God Wood tree is applied to the brow of a person who is sweating, it is toxic enough for death to follow swiftly.
By the same token, all plants have the power of life and death, depending on the shaman: Boil five leaves of Horse Bath and drink it with a pinch of salt and your kidneys are cleaned out magnificently, says Hurston. Boil six leaves and drink it and you will die.
Marjo Bitter is a vine that grows on rocks. Take a length from your elbow to your wrist and make a tea and it is a most excellent medicine. Boil a length to the palm of your hand and you are violently poisoned.
As Doris Lenz, Andean shaman, comments: Plants have much more wisdom than people!