The following essay is excerpted from Psychedelic Mysteries of the Feminine, edited by Maria Papasyrou, Chiara Baldini, and David Luke, published by Inner Traditions.
Looking back, my experiences as a little girl revealed the path I am on today, though it took another thirty-five years to get me here. As a child I was intimately connected with the fairy realms, searching my garden for their presence, which I felt very palpably. At the age of six, I used to sit beneath the boughs of one of the many evergreen trees that bordered the convent school I attended. On one such occasion I performed my first ritual, in which I brought a dear friend to my secret place where we pricked our fingers and mixed our blood together, declaring our bond as “Indian sisters.” How I knew to do that I do not know. I was a very imaginative and perceptive child and even had the ability to sense events before they happened. I later called these “confirmations” because I knew when the information came in there was no arguing or bargaining, and events always unfolded just like I imagined them.
With no mentor to follow on the shamanic path, I eventually became somewhat assimilated into the societal construct. All but gone today are the elder healers and seers who once held the respect of their communities and initiated the young.
However, as the pendulum has clearly swung far to one side it is now beginning to arc in the opposite direction. Growing numbers of people today are seeking greater meaning in their lives through the exploration of shamanic practices that include the use of psychoactive plants and fungi. Many are turning to the few cultures remaining that have preserved their connection with the shamanic mysteries, in the hopes of receiving guidance and initiation.
On my path as a visionary medicine woman I have come into connection with extraordinary women who walk to the beat of their own drum, indifferent to the pressures of societal conditioning. Over the years I have put forth recorded talks and interviews that have inspired folks to contact me for mentorship or to share their own experiences. The path we walk is a very old one, and women have been drawn to it for millennia. That this path entails the use of psychoactive plants and fungi makes it, on one hand, a threat to our strategically designed modern industrial society and, on the other, an absolute necessity as a potential pathway for the restoration of internal healing and balance that so many people are seeking today.
I had heard about Borka Cafuk through a woman who takes small groups to Borka’s healing sanctuary in Peru. On her website I was fascinated to read that in addition to her work with ayahuasca, Borka specialized in energetic disorders like entity possession, an ancient shamanic art I wanted to learn more about. We emailed back and forth and decided to record a conversation for Psychedelic Salon, a website I collaborate with.
Borka is a Croatian native who has embraced the traditional role of visionary shamanic medicine woman. She began as an environmental journalist in Eastern Europe. She explains that before she found ayahuasca she was always trying to find herself. She tried Shotokan, qigong, and meditation, but they did not fill the void she felt within. As fate would have it, Borka discovered the work of visionary ayahuasca artist, Paolo Amaringo, which ultimately led her to an ayahuasca ceremony in Spain. There she was told by the spirit of the medicine to travel to the Amazon. She resisted initially but eventually answered the call and began an apprenticeship with a shaman that dramatically changed the course of her life.
During her first ayahuasca ceremony with the shaman, another participant went into a violent tailspin, and a spirit entity that was attached to him attacked Borka. The experience was harrowing, and Borka explains that she was fighting for her very soul. The shaman eventually removed the entity, and it was then that she was told that her medicine path was to assist people who were suffering from entity possession. This was out of the question, in her mind, and she returned home, only to be plagued by fear and anxiety.
It was at that time that she became aware of spirit possession in the general populace. Borka recalled using the public transportation system and becoming aware of others around her who were carrying parasitic energies. She eventually realized that her path was to alleviate the suffering caused by parasitic energies that attach themselves to people through trauma, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and other means. This seems strange to twenty-first-century minds that have been steered away from their own indigenous beliefs, but on the entheogenic path, more is revealed, and more is understood.
Borka told me, “There is an important moment on this planet when decisions are to be made—whether we are going to walk on the path of light, whether we will evolve and change what is going on around the world, or we will walk on the path of darkness and destroy ourselves and everything going on around us.” In seeing the darkness held within others, Borka made a conscious decision to walk the path of light and use ayahuasca as an aid to help those struggling in the darkness.
Borka went on to open the Yanapuma Healing and Educational Center in Peru, where she works as resident medicine woman with clients who come from all over the world to heal emotional, mental, and spiritual imbalances. She possesses extensive knowledge of local healing plants and how to prepare and administer them. When she travels home to Croatia, Borka runs a small center called Durga’s Sanctuary, a place of respite, ceremony, and healing.
Very few indigenous medicine women can be found in our modern world today. In Oaxaca, Mexico, the art of mushroom shamanism is still practiced by certain women, one of whom is Doña Julieta Casimiro, an elder from Huatla de Jimenez and a member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. She is known as a wise woman or chota chine, which means “one who knows.” I have admired Doña Julieta for several years and have listened with great interest to the few interviews she has given.
Born in 1936, she married at seventeen and was initiated into the path of the mushrooms or niños santos (little saints) by her mother-in-law, a Mazatec healer and midwife who led mushroom ceremonies. Julieta took them with her mother-in-law and learned how to work with the power of the mushrooms, combined with the power of God, the Lady of Guadalupe, and other cosmological presences that lend their healing powers to the ceremony. This is a tradition that has been passed down through elders in her community for thousands of years.
Julieta explains, “Because we don’t have money for doctors, we heal ourselves with the mushrooms.” She makes it clear that the “little saints” are not drugs. “They are natural mind, because only the niños santos know about the Mother Earth and how to heal us. They spring from the earth and in working with them one is working with nature, with the Mother herself.” She goes on to explain how the mushrooms work: “They study us. They’re scientists, those little people. They clean you and they come from the Mother Earth. This will not hurt you, quite the contrary. It will go in your whole body and analyze what you need. It will go to where a person is sick inside the body or over the body or on either side. . . . You can be healed, little by little.”
On working in the capacity of a medicine woman Julieta says:
I believe that in order to dedicate oneself to this profession one must be very brave, very honest, and very humble. One’s heart must be clean for things to turn out well. The guide should offer a genuine security, trust, affection, love, and acceptance, because this is the most important moment and the patient must benefit from it. It’s the moment when the spirit finds itself at the highest point; it’s the moment of encounter with God. . . . It’s at this moment that she must use her entire being. . . . This is the ideal moment to show her power, her strength, her desire to achieve what has been proposed according to the case.
Julieta’s daughters work alongside her, having been trained by their mother for many years in order to carry the knowledge and pass it to their own children. For them, the “little saints” impart tremendous love, light, happiness, and hope. For us, these women carry an unbroken lineage that serves to illuminate and inspire our own sacred relationship with the “little saints” and other psychoactive offerings found in nature.
Over the past five years I have also come to know two very exceptional women. As practicing psychotherapists, they incorporate the mushroom into their professional practices. For obvious reasons, their real names and locations will be left unsaid. Their past experience and training differs widely, yet each professes to be in a kind of sacred or heightened relationship with the fungi teachers. Each woman speaks of having felt “called” to her respective entheogenic path, and both feel that psychotherapy is a perfect channel for a medicine woman of today. “We have to work with what we’ve got,” says one, “and psychotherapy is an excellent avenue through which entheogens can reach the people who need them the most.”
One therapist, “Beth,” contacted me after hearing a recorded talk I gave in Seattle. She asked if we could meet in person to discuss her work and “compare notes.” When we met, Beth told me she had worked for a number of years with a spiritual teacher as a means to clear early childhood trauma that held her back in relationships. Upon turning forty, she was compelled to take mushrooms, which she hadn’t taken since college. Her teacher agreed, suggesting that psilocybin might serve to offer further insight and possible closure.
Beth went on to describe a candlelit ritual in which she prepared a peaceful space and ate the mushrooms at night, lying down, eyes closed. Her experience revealed a number of areas within her life that required more than just superficial attention. She was shown how she’d been using her therapeutic practice as a diversion away from her own deep-seated pain, which she had “managed” but not healed. She was shown the initial trauma as a kind of “geometry” that energetically permeated her life moving forward, and she saw how it had affected her body, resulting in an autoimmune disorder that had plagued her for years. The autoimmune disorder, she realized, served as a kind of shield from intimacy, which had been an issue for far too long.
The experience inspired her to create a consistent ritual practice with the mushroom where she would “go in” on a lighter dose with specific questions regarding her physical and emotional concerns and receive insights not only regarding how to regain physical and emotional balance but also on the deeper reasons that contained the necessary teachings behind such challenges. This dedicated endeavor eventually inspired Beth to bring this same experience to carefully chosen clients whom she felt were ready for it.
For these sessions she works out of a ritual space separate from her office. She explains that “A separate ritual space imparts a sense of entering a kind of temple.” Beth feels this lends a heightened sense that something very special and unique is about to occur, and it invites the client to leave the conventional self behind and enter a far deeper state of being. Says Beth, “We’re going beyond the therapist’s couch and into the etheric planes where answers can be found.”
Beth described her process to me. Her client arrives in the early afternoon and is given a specified dose of mushrooms. The next five hours are spent lying down with a soft pad over the eyes while Beth is present to guide if needed. After the session, follow-up takes place back in the office when her client returns for his or her weekly session and engages the essential process of integration. She has had success with clients who not only suffer from depression and/or anxiety but also those who have been grappling with issues similar to her own. Beth states that all the clients she has worked with in this way have received relief in some form, along with tremendous insights. All have unanimously declared that they are better-off for the experience.
It was at a full moon ceremony for women where I met “Sarah,” who, after hearing me speak candidly about the work I do, privately confessed to me her own complicity in similar endeavors. Sarah had had a series of “solo initiations” wherein she engaged a number of different psychotropic substances over the course of her life. She said she prefers the mushroom because it is a natural substance from the earth and thus less likely to be corrupted. She also uses cannabis at certain times, particularly when spending time in nature.
An interest in counseling had eventually led Beth to a career as a psychotherapist in a large city. She has read prolifically on the effects of psilocybin for mental/emotional health and has little patience waiting for the government to catch up with the times and make these substances legal. Like Beth, she makes the mushroom available to certain clients whom she feels could turn a corner in their development after one or more sessions on the medicine.
Sarah explained that she conducts these sessions in her office. She and her client discuss dosage, and the session begins with her client lying down with padding over the eyes and soft music playing in the background. Like Beth, Sarah acts as guide, engaging in conversation if needed, but primarily acting as sentry while her client travels the inner layers of consciousness. She is careful not to get overly involved in her client’s journey, as she feels it is important that they receive as much direct insight as possible. She has had excellent success with these sessions and praises the mushroom for its ability to confer tremendous illumination when used intentionally under the right circumstances.
I asked both Sarah and Beth if they felt there was a tutelary spirit or spirits within the mushrooms, and I was answered with a resounding affirmative. Both women have a distinct sense of a guiding teacher presence that they feel informs their work, and both feel they made that acquaintance through their personal medicine journeys. Each has what they describe as a profound spiritual connection to the Divine, and both distinguish themselves from the conventional psychotherapeutic model in that they see the spiritual component as an intrinsic element of the human experience and one that must be included in the container of psychotherapy. Neither Sarah nor Beth carry medicine traditions passed down through their family lines, yet each has taken her cues directly from the mushroom teachers and has formed an effective, safe, and beautiful modality through which to assist their clients. Neither woman advocates the use of antidepressants but rather sees psilocybin as a potent ingredient within a thoughtfully composed program of therapy to restore their client’s well-being.
Herein lies an important consideration. Psychedelics present a problem for the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, which has enjoyed vast profits through the administration of antidepressant drugs. David E. Nichols, cofounder of the Heffter Research Institute, has this to say: “Many people also ask, ‘Aren’t drug companies interested in psychedelic medicine?’ The answer, unfortunately, is no. Psychedelic medicines have been around so long that they are no longer patentable, and they work after one or sometimes two treatments. There is no money to be made with a non-patentable drug that is given only once or twice in a lifetime. Typical drug treatments are given daily and the treatment can last years, or even a lifetime.” While there is hope that psilocybin will be made legal for therapeutic use in the future, the pharmaceutical industry will not likely support that scenario. However, as more people begin to turn from antidepressants to safer alternatives, it is going to be harder to ignore the promise that psilocybin holds for initiating profound illumination and self-awareness.
Uma is an herbalist and steward of botanicals that include rare psychoactive species. Over the course of her life she has studied with master herbalists who have deftly guided her on the medicine path. She has a heartfelt connection to the spirits of the plants and intuits their needs with great care and wisdom. She speaks of the profundity of intentional connection to the botanical world, saying, “Living harmoniously with plants is a divine dance.”
In her travels to Central and South America, Uma sought out rare plant medicines for propagation in order for them to become more widely available. The cuttings were taken to specific locations that were designed for their cultivation. Some of the plants collected were psychoactive. Those specimens were propagated and redistributed to specific areas that Uma determined would be safe for their unimpeded growth. Rescuing rare plants and psychoactive medicines from the ravages of industrialization has become her sacred activism. She is in partnership with Mother Earth and has committed herself to protecting and saving Earth’s precious botanicals as a moral duty to the planet. Uma shares her knowledge through mentorship and sometimes offers talks on her work where she will present some of the psycho-active plants she lovingly tends.
Many of the psychoactive plants Uma grows are largely unfamiliar to the general public. Like her ancient medicine sisters before her, she grows them expertly and has cultivated a close kinship with the spirit teacher within each plant. Those fortunate souls who know her are given the opportunity to learn how to grow, propagate, and steward these sacred plant beings. Uma shares her expert knowledge not only on cultivation but also on the preparation of those psychoactive botanicals for ritual and communion with the plant teacher. Her wealth of botanical knowledge, wisdom, and experience makes Uma a kind of living national treasure.
My Own Journey
My own sacred work with the mushroom has profoundly informed my shamanic therapy practice and prompted me to write a book, Love and Spirit Medicine , that is a woman’s detailed telling of a year of dedicated monthly immersions into the mushroom’s vast, mysterious realms. It was only after many years of shamanic study that I was called to the mushroom, and it was nature that initiated me, as I had no shaman to guide my experience. My first journey took place within the mossy cathedral of the Olympic National Rain Forest. After a stirring communication with Mother Earth, I apprenticed myself to the mushroom teachers for the next year, each month venturing into the dark of night to lie by the trees and fall into a deep trance state. Over that year I came into an extraordinary connection with nature spirits. Most notably, one presented in the form of a white owl. The ancient lord of the forest, Pan, who was known as Cernunnos to my ancient Celtic ancestors, also came to me. They became tutelary spirits and began informing my therapeutic work and making themselves known through uncanny, synchronistic events.
A few months into my “training” I was shocked to find I had the ability to go into shamanic mediumship and channel teaching spirits. This is probably the most misunderstood form of shamanry and one of the oldest. It calls to mind the ancient oracles who imbibed a psychoactive inebriant that took them into ecstatic states wherein they could connect with the unseen worlds and share messages. This was primarily the domain of women such as the oracles of ancient Greece, the priestesses of Ix Chel on the island of Cuzamil, and the vo˛lva—the seeresses of the Norse traditions in whose graves were found henbane seeds, which produce a hallucinogenic smoke when burned. Still today in the Mazatec tradition it is the job of the curandera to transmit the messages by chant or song, thus embodying the ancient practice of mediumship under the influence of the sacred mushroom.
Barbara Tedlock, in her book The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, writes that “Shamans are seers, oracles, and oral poets, and their artistic language creates a healing path for their patients” (2005, 150). Furthermore, Tedlock points out an interesting difference in style between male and female mushroom shamans. In describing the ritual work of a gifted couple, Irene Piñeda de Figueroa and Roman Estrada, she points to Irene’s chants and discourse on the mushroom, describing her chants as, “emphasizing birth and agricultural growth, she sang of medicine, sweetness, and goodwill. She frequently repeated the words, freshness, tenderness, and happiness” (151). Tedlock wrote that Irene spoke of “searching, questioning, releasing, untying, and disentangling. Instead of calling upon a masculine deity or meteorological force for help in her divining, Irene spoke directly to the hallucinogenic mushrooms, requesting their aid in the cure of the sickness” (152). Tedlock described Roman’s technique as involving chants that “affirmed his sacred role as mediator between human and elemental powers that determine a person’s future. . . . As he confronted danger and promised to vanquish it by allying himself with the forces of nature he did battle with external political and social causes of illness, using bold, aggressive words such as danger and fear” (152).
This is a striking difference and calls to mind the ancient role of women as gatherers of the plants, nurturers of their communities, and midwives in both birth and death, while men assumed the roles of hunters and warriors and protectors of their communities.
Both Irene and Roman are mediums gifted with the power of the mushroom, and each takes on what seemed to be very natural and effortless aspects of their respective sexes. Irene clearly expresses decidedly feminine traits of nurturing, cooperation, and compassion in her ritual work, while Roman’s role holds the more masculine aspects of battling, aggression, and force. The two complement each other in their shamanic practice. They are not the only example in Tedlock’s book of male and female shamans who worked in a naturally harmonic way together.
In today’s world that is spellbound to the seductive wonders of technology and industry, the modern medicine woman casts her own spell. Hers is a spell that leads the suffering out of despair. Hers is a spell that calls back the wisdom ways of working with the earth, in harmony with nature’s laws. Hers is a spell that connects twenty-first-century people with a numinous magic they have long forgotten.
These extraordinary women are growing in number. May the spirits of the ancient wisdom keepers fill our hearts and minds with inspiration, curiosity, and courage as we traverse the mysterious realms of nature’s visionary offerings. May we lend our support to the extraordinary women who walk this ancient path.
Main image: Martina Hoffmann