The Dreamtime of the Plants

In the distance, the grey ocean rumbles with a low voice, a primordial chant that my bones know and always resound with deep longing. The full moon rises to the east, a luminous pearl set upon dark blue velvet, while the shapely, shadowed hands of trees reach up as if to touch it, or perhaps simply offer their wordless song of praise.

My entire being is light and open, drawn outwards as if by silver spiderwebs, woven by invisible filaments to everything around me. In the front garden, savouring the night air, I am surrounded by the familiar plants that I tend and talk to, shrubs planted long ago by unknown hands, the gentle green beings I have gladly befriended: a lanky geranium, the tangle of climbing jasmine, two pink blooming camellias, a diminutive and struggling yellow rose. There are my pots of lavender and rosemary, companions no matter where I live. Most significantly, the Grandmother, a venerable Monterey Cypress with a gracefully spiraled, grey torso—a being much older than this 1940’s cottage—whose great arms stretch protectively outwards, sheltering the garden. Her silvery green boughs exude a slightly lemony, resinous scent, a perfume easily caught in the early morning, at dusk and at night.

It is the third day of my fast, a conscious abstinence from food, while drinking only an emerald infusion of nettle (Urtica dioica)—a detoxifying cleanse of sorts, as well as a ceremonial initiation—and I shimmer like an evening star, or Venus alongside the moon.

An ordinary moment, this, standing in the gathering dark. Yet the world that enfolds me is utterly divine in its winter, coastal beauty, and I am immersed in a sea of living energy emanating from these plant beings. From the earth itself. With my mind hushed and bodysoul open, I am expansive and clear enough to sense the subtle realms of the Otherworld and know them to be true.

All of life is a prayer. Connected to the soul of the world, I have crossed the threshold and entered the Dreamtime of the plants.

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In the jungles of South America, among the healers and shamans (vegetalistas, curanderos, maestros) there exists an ancient practice of “drinking the plants”—a period of fasting or an extremely limited “dieta” (mostly plantains and unsalted fish) while ingesting brews of a specific plant for an extended period of days. Weeks, even. Beyond the health or medical benefits of absorbing an herbal infusion extensively, the real purpose is to allow the consciousness of the plant to enter a person’s body for the deepest healing work. Potentially, the plant spirit becomes an “ally” for that individual going forward.

The most widespread application of this practice is with ayahuasca, a psychotropic brew made traditionally from boiling two plants—the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and leaves of chacruna, Psychotria viridis, though other ingredients may be added—which is consumed in a ceremonial context, usually paired with a limited “dieta”.

Essentially, a “plant diet” can be undertaken with any non-toxic plant, though the effects of most garden variety medicinals are far subtler than the mind-ripping Master Plants. To welcome and feel these gentler beings, an extended period of fasting or restricted food intake, as well as abstaining from most stimulants and mood-altering substances (e.g. coffee, sugar, alcohol, drugs), while removing oneself from modern intrusions of technology and media, allows one to become more sensitive and receptive to the milder effects.

Nettles (Flickr creative commons)

I have been working with plants in a healing context for almost twenty years. Back in the late nineties, I was introduced to the power of essential oils by a colorful woman in Hawaii, whose pungent potions healed the bone-deep aches of my chronic knee and joint pain, and launched me deep into an enthusiastic study of scented, volatile oils.

Within a few years, integrated with my bodywork practice, I was a practicing holistic aromatherapist with a small, modestly successful venture called Deva Botanicals. Using high grade, independently lab-tested essential oils for synergies, salves and lotions (all co-created with Nature intelligences, another story in itself), my products found their way into the hands of clients, students, and the public—even well-heeled tourists at the Four Seasons Resort Maui, for whom I formulated a signature, therapeutic massage oil blended with pikake (jasmine), Atlas cedarwood, frankincense, ginger and vetiver.

An alluringly scented kitchen witch I was, yet in 2007, when the opportunity arose to reside again in Europe, I realized that it was impractical to move the business; international shipping rates would be too high for my Stateside customers (especially sending gallons of massage oil to Hawaii). It seemed that I was being guided in other directions.

I adored (still do) working with the scent-ual magic of pure essential oils and hydrosols, and it gutted me to relinquish something I had poured heart and soul into. Yet despite my deep-rooted belief in the demonstrated healing capacity of these essences, I sensed that there existed an entirely different level of working with plants or herbalism—a more shamanistic approach, if you will, connecting to the spirit of the plants themselves.

Curiously on cue, while living abroad I discovered the revelatory Plant Spirit Healing: A Guide to Working with Plant Consciousness, by Pam Montgomery, and sometime later, the work of master herbalist and Earth poet, Stephen Harrod Buhner; both of whom with their insightful books helped launch me into new realms of working with the consciousness of plants, not simply their energetic and medicinal properties.

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Roughly two years ago, familiar with the vegetalistas approaching of “drinking the plants,” I decided I would like to try an extended period of drinking a local, medicinal herb like dandelion, nettle, or perhaps lavender—plants that I have a deep, visceral connection to. It was an intuitive feeling, perhaps a whisper or subtle nudge from the plants themselves, but the timing didn’t feel quite right, nor did the place I was living. Ideally, I wanted to harvest whatever plant I was “dieting,” gathering it in the appropriate season from an unspoiled environment, away from roadsides and pesticides.

In a serendipitous twist (isn’t that always how it happens?), a book fell into my lap that supported these inklings and encouraged me further. Sacred Plant Initiations: Communicating with Plants for Healing and Higher Consciousness, by Carole Guyett, a master herbalist living in Ireland, is a lovely work that focuses on “drinking” traditional plants of the British Isles. Undertaken in a ceremonial fashion, the “initiations” coincide with the eight celebrations (sabbats) of the Celtic and pagan calendar; an earth-based, cyclical approach that I found inspiring and affirming of my own intuitive inclination to start “dieting” with common garden plants for healing.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Nettle grows worldwide, and abundantly in England, especially along the hedgerows where I first came to know it in Kent. More than once I encountered its fiery, green touch whilst walking along footpaths or traversing country lanes, and before long the leaves found their way into a cup of steaming water to drink as an infusion. Easily harvested wearing gloves, its sting (which comes from hollow hairs that deliver a blend of fiery chemicals and acids formed in the glands of the leaf) is neutralized either by blanching, boiling, pulverizing, freezing, or drying.

As a healing herb, Nettle is excellent for detoxification, and supports our immune and stress response systems. It is noted for allergy sufferers, as well as being a powerful men’s tonic for the prostate gland and urinary issues. It reduces bleeding, helps with osteoarthritis and joint pain, and is helpful for skin issues. An “adaptogen” brimming with nutrients and minerals, it is particularly well-suited to supporting us at the change of seasons, when our bodies undergo a natural shift and stress.

Since living in England, I drink nettle year round, brewing a strong elixir from the dried leaves (when I don’t have access to fresh) and allowing it to steep overnight. Its taste is as green and refreshing as the deep emerald hue. I felt strongly that I should “diet” with this plant first, to meet it as a healer’s ally, but as winter descended, both my locale and the season seemed out of synch for an initiation with Nettle, which is best harvested in the spring before the flower buds appear (selecting young leaves and stems). In the California winter there is abundant lavender flowering in pots on my deck, and I have easy access to organic dandelions (consuming them every day in a salad for their incredible detoxifying and health building benefits), but when I sat with the question, meditated upon it—turning it over in my mind like a smooth stone to wish upon—I decided that Nettle felt most appropriate. And when I “tuned in” for higher guidance on the matter, I received a very strong yes.

Nettle elixir, in my bee embossed glassware from Provence

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Despite the use of dried, organic nettle leaves that I have not harvested myself (thereby giving thanks and offerings to the plants directly), I have prepared the dark green infusion in a ceremonial fashion; brewing it with prayers of gratitude and a smudging of holy, perfumed smoke, speaking aloud my intentions for healing, learning and transformation—casting them into the simmering pot like a witches spell.

My partner is away and, other than two English Whippets, our rented cottage is all mine to savour in the spirit of solitude. Television was long ago banished from our house, and life within these walls tends to be very tranquil. Yet for three days, I am slipping further into quietude by withdrawing from email, Internet and media feed, from telephone and from text messages, that I might sink as deeply as possible into an open, receptive state—one in which I simply sit, listen, meditate, journal, and drink cupfuls of nettle, both hot and cold. I am abstaining from sex. From work and interactions with others. Admittedly, the generally silent Whippets are a minor distraction, but such is life.

Preferably I could go away for three days of retreat and ceremony, withdrawing even more fully from the world by pitching my tent among giant boulders in the desert beneath a million stars, or renting an isolated cabin on a mountainside cloaked with fragrant pine. Yet this window of opportunity at home is what I have, so I’ve chosen to make the best of it—appreciating that at least I reside in a peaceful neighborhood filled with trees in a little town beside the blue Pacific.

While the setting isn’t perfect for a total retreat from daily life, I note the gradual, distinct settling in my breath and bones, an increased openness and expansion—this from an already very quiet, mindful existence of a reclusive writer. The disconnection from phone and Internet, from any temptation to suddenly Google search for an answer or factoid of information, the stepping away from work and demands of daily life (other than my dogs) while abstaining from food, all of this invites stillness. Slowly I am leaving the noisy realms of everyday modern consciousness, stepping closer to something timeless and true that still exists in the world.

Fasting is an ancient practice, both for healing and drawing nearer to spiritual realms, an approach that I have employed throughout much of my adult life—on detoxifying cleanses, “vision quests” and personal retreats. Moving past the rumblings of hunger, one descends into receptivity and silence, a clear wellspring from whence insight arises. Regardless of what comes from this initiation with Nettle, how good it is to simply withdraw once more from a habitual, daily mode of being. How very welcome this deeper silence.

My general diet is already extremely healthy, avoiding meat and alcohol, free of most stimulants like coffee and refined sugar; my body and energetic field vibrates with a very high, clear amplitude, supported by daily practices such as “earthing” and Qigong. Now with senses heightened by fasting and drinking only nettle “tea,” I feel the deeper—or higher—opening to other realms, as if a sheer curtain has been drawn back.

Whether seated wordlessly in the living room and gazing through the large front windows, walking the dogs, or simply standing outdoors beneath the sheltering limbs of the Grandmother, my entire being hums softly. The veil between worlds is gossamer thin. I feel the soft yet indelible touch of Nature upon me, and the spirit realm is very close, almost like a mohair blanket draped round my shoulders.

Admittedly, I am no stranger to the powerful Plant Teachers, as I call them. In the past year, I have undertaken multiple ceremonies with a Huichol shaman and “journeyed” with Master Plants—catapulted into realms beyond imagining to receive both powerful dismemberment and the deepest levels of transformation, where everything I thought I knew about healing (and reality) was totally obliterated.

(image credit: Flickr Creative Commons)

I do not know what will come from an initiation with Nettle, but as one who is clairsentient and clairaudient, I’m confident that I will experience something. At the very least, there are certainly health benefits from a detoxifying cleanse, nourishing my body with such a healing brew for three days. I struggle to lay expectations aside. Really, is this not the ongoing challenge of living a conscious life: to reel back our projections and simply open to what is, rather than what we think or hope a situation will be…?

My intention is to welcome this plant spirit however it shows up in my bodymind, to embrace it as a healing ally—one that may have something to reveal to me or perhaps not.

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The December day is cold but I find myself standing on the front deck, absorbing the spirit-stream of energy radiating from all the living ones around me, earth and sky included. My body feels like a pale green leaf translucent with light from the sun or illuminated by some sacred fire within. Bundled up in a cashmere scarf and warm jacket, seated on a chair parked in a sunbeam, I simply sit. Receptive. Listening. Feeling. I am totally in tune with a vibration of harmony, and nearly overwhelmed with the sense of gentle goodness, grace, and subtle magic.

One of the most powerful things I have learned in the past couple of years is that the heart is a primary organ of perception. As outlined in The Bones and Breath, in the final chapter “Wise Heart, Wild Soul,” recent studies have revealed that it is far more than merely a mechanical pump; greater than sixty percent of the heart is composed of neural cells, identical to those of the brain, and they work in the exact same way. In reality, the heart is actually a brain whose function is to interpret specific kinds of information—largely from the senses, primarily interpreted as feeling. A complex and incredibly rapid exchange exists between brain and heart; a two-way arrangement where impulses enter the heart and are transmitted to the brain, which then categorizes and sends this data back to the heart and throughout our being.

The heart also produces the strongest electromagnetic field in the body, detectable several feet away, one that can “entrain” all the other body systems, including the brain. (It also affects other fields it comes in contact with, human and non-human.) When the brain entrains to the heart and becomes “coherent” with its field and rhythms, a cascade of positive physiological effects floods through the body (including a lowering of blood pressure, increased production of immunoglobulin A, along with a host of beneficial hormones and neurotransmitters). These scientific studies of the heart reveal what the artists, poets, lovers, shamans, and healers have always realized: the organ of fire is our center of knowing.

In the modern world, most of us have been conditioned to place our seat of identity and consciousness in the brain. We function almost exclusively from a linear, analytical, rational mode, rather than a nonlinear, heart-centered, intuitive one. Men, especially.

Yet there is a direct response in the heart to what is presented to the senses.

It is this cellular response to our environment that has guided mankind for millennia, a knowing through the direct perception of nature/environment. It is a wholistic mode of cognition—often wordless—that is distinctly different from the rational, linear, analytic mode that now dominates our world.

In this form of sensing, of reaching out, there exists a moment when both beings experience something unique in the other. It’s a feeling for which we have no word in our impoverished English language. The Athenians called such an awareness ‘aisthesis’: the experience of feeling the touch of life, of a particular kind of ‘other-than-human’ awareness upon us, in return. For the ancient Greeks, the organ of aisthesis was the heart, that part of us that is capable of feeling. It was understood that this exchange, this non-physical touch between humans and the non-human world, opens moments of perception and understanding, when insights flow into us that can arrive no other way.” (L.R. Heartsong, The Bones and Breath)

Simply placing our awareness on a thing—feeling it through our senses, wordlessly—initiates this heart-centered, intuitive mode and begins the brain’s entrainment to the heart’s field (thus triggering the beneficial physiological response and a different state of being). Immediately there ensues a shift in respiration. Analytical thinking or verbal cognition breaks the entrainment, and perpetuates the disharmony in rhythms between heart and brain.

This expansive awareness of my body and heart’s field, the feel of the soft touch of Nature upon me, is the threshold; the place where one enters the Dreamtime of the plants. It is a realm that is always available to us, but with our modern senses which are simultaneously overstimulated and dulled, we have mostly lost access to the subtle realms of nature … and the Otherworld.

With methods such as fasting, immersion in wild nature, learned practice, or via entheogens, our sensory gating channels open wider, dilating past habitually narrowed states. Along with the false perception of things as separate, the rigid boundaries between self and “other” begin to soften, increasing both our empathy and sense of interconnection. As real shamans do, we begin to perceive life not as an arrangement of disparate “things” but as a sea of energy. And there is a feeling of the heart’s field opening—expansion, receptivity, communion—along with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the living beings that we know as plants.

Truly, the plants give us everything, including the air we breathe, and despite that most people feel superior, we are utterly indebted to them.

“Drinking” the plants and initiations aside, it is in this heart-centered, receptive mode of expanded awareness that they begin to share their messages and healing energy with us (beyond the chemical constituents of their makeup), giving us a glimpse of their deeper nature—which is profoundly intelligent and creative.

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Several times throughout the three-day initiation, I lay down and close my eyes, journeying into a meditation of deep imagery (deep imagination, as come call it), following my own heartbeat like a shaman’s drum to an inner place where I can “meet” the spirit of Nettle, to dialogue with Her. And at night, there are dreams, equally full of messages, as the ongoing Dreamtime of the plants overlays directly with my own.

Nettle (Flickr creative commons)

As for my conversations with Nettle, the messages received, I will say little here, yet as with all my plant meditations and encounters, my understanding and vision of the myriad levels of healing expanded significantly—both the physical and spiritual (these are not really separate) realms. I grasp more fully the relevance of our daily lifestyle and diet, the impact of the energies we allow into us via television, media, and exchanges with others, along with the importance of the human energy field (and its integrity) for protection, balance and well-being. And more is revealed about physics of frequency, harmony and attunement. Little of this is new to me, but somehow the picture becomes more cohesive, and I better connect the interlocking pieces from an overlighting view.

Admittedly, the mystic in me wishes I could simply dwell in this realm; deeply in tune with the plants and nature’s intelligence, dreaming me awake at all times. Perhaps living in a secluded cabin on a mountainside or upon a wild mesa (both of which I have inhabited before), or in an adobe hut in the desert, where I drink the dry sunshine and sweet silence for days at a time. Yet I know that my work is to be in the world in a distinct, tangible way; offering something of beauty and value, while moving back towards teaching and hands-on work (from which I withdrew to focus on my own healing crisis and shamanic initiation last year).

Restorative and enlightening as deep meditations may be, despite the allure of satori and higher realms of consciousness and bliss, or even the shattering, healing power of an ayahuasca ceremony, our daily work is to walk a path of practice and action. Tending the sacred—whether that be our own body and spirit, the plants and wild ones in the garden, our children, or negotiating the daily path of relationship with our intimate partner/beloved.

I go on with my writing and the books, but I’ve realized that the heart of such words must center on healing and the healer’s journey. That is where my real power rests, my most authentic self—a man who walks with a foot in two worlds and belongs to different realms. And I am in service and profound gratitude to the plants, who are the real healers.

Each of us, in his or her own manner, must find ways of bringing a measure of goodness into the world, to contribute to the Great Work at hand—shifting humanity from being the single most destructive force on the planet to a life-sustaining, interconnected one instead.

And if we open our hearts and senses, the plants can guide, teach, and heal us … especially when we join them in the Dreamtime, at the threshold between worlds.

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