Visions and Dreams: Natural Hallucinogens

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a natural molecule (Erowid)

Life, with its never ceasing experiments, has evolved with vast chemical complexity not only in the production of individual molecules, like proteins and alkaloids, but in the way that these messengers, regulators and controllers interact.  Harmala alkaloids are especially interesting as they appear not only throughout the plant kingdom, but are also present in the human pineal gland. Similarly for Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which also induces psychedelic states, powerful visions and immersive experiences in humans. These are chemicals which are more familiar to the body than ethanol in beer, but are treated with the utmost respect (in their raw plant form) by indigenous tribes, especially in the Amazonia region.

Ayuhuasca often induces colourful and ecstatic experiences

Ayuhuasca preparation

These ritualistic brews are created from bark, leaves and vines in the forest, as is the case with ayuhuasca. This is normally under the watchful eye of the local shaman, although  now a dying breed, who manages the process and the interpretation of journeys. While journeys to different worlds in complete 3D environments with music, ecstatic kaleidoscopic colours and interaction with creatures and beings of the forest make good stories and for some, real life changing experiences, what is sometimes forgotten are the remaining questions. Questions such as: how do the shamans know which plants to use in the right combinations and so much about them? And why should these trees and plants cause such an effect on humans in the first place? Do the trees benefit at all from this interaction? Why did trees develop these molecules and why are they also present in humans? And how is it that some dream creatures and their characters are also known to shamans, indicating that experiences are not uniquely random?

The Amazon shaman

If one also thinks from an experimental design perspective, to run enough experiments including inescapable trials and deathly errors, and even considering the known 40,000 plant species in the Amazon region and various combinations thereof, how would one tribal shaman come to this knowledge of plants and trees and their effect on the human body, even considering a long shamanic lineage? Well, when this question has been posed to shamans they have answered quite simply and said “the plants tell us”.

This indicates that shamans have a different world view, one that all beings and living things can communicate with each other and have unique relationships. While this currently may be a fair jump for an urban westerner, what is more obvious and astounding than this shamanic perspective, is that ‘modern’ humans have very little or no conscious relationship with nature. It is this lack, this gaping wound in our awareness, that underwrites our apathy in the face of environmental destruction.

Ayuhuasca inspired vision

The Meme of Trees

The Tree of Knowledge

The tree is intimately rooted within human culture and consciousness with significant exposure in religion and myth – often serving as a link to the Earth and the subtle worlds beyond. From Egyptian hieroglyphs tying the character’s soul to the tree, Buddha’s realization under the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), old Semitic texts of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the Mesoamerican world tree – a symbolic axis mundi connecting the seen and unseen, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life – which still influences Western esotericism, Yggdrasil – the giant Norse tree on which the nine worlds exist and the sacred trees of the Arabs which provide council in one’s dreams.

Yggdrasil, the Norse connection to the 9 worlds

By its very form the tree suggests connection with above and below; a mass of tangling, dark roots changing via a conduit to an expanse of branches in the light of sky. It is no surprise that shamans have used this form in journeying; returning with stories of worlds unseen. There are also long associations with ideas of shelter, contemplation, warmth – from the burning of wood, food – from fruit and nuts, construction and support, sacrifice and punishment, and for the pure enjoyment for children’s play. While human knowledge has grown and ideas and cultures have been created, destroyed and mutated, the tree has ever been present and has appeared in our lives’ stories and memories.

The bodhi tree, where buddha sat all night before enlightenment

We should thus ask the question, what it means from a symbolic or mythological perspective, to destroy the tree, and to cut down far more than those that can take their place? Is it representative of a war within ourselves, or do we wish to sever the undying link between the above and the below, the conscious and perhaps that part of ourselves that is more intuitive and more connected with the unknown? And to plant and to connect with trees – is this a desire to achieve wholeness and integration? Myths and mentations are of the past, but they influence us now, and the course of action that we shall take. Let us remember the many human lives and their stories before us.