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Excerpt from "Plant Spirit Medicine"

Introduction: Our Wisest Elder

by Eliot Cowan


When I began writing this book in 1991, I had been practicing and teaching plant spirit medicine for a number of years, and I had just begun an apprenticeship with a Huichol Indian shaman in Mexico. I felt his medicine and mine were both valuable because they promoted balance, even though most people I knew didn’t find balance very interesting at the time.

Back then it seemed the American way of life would go on forever. There was some lip service being paid to sustainability, but few were really concerned about it, and almost no one saw sustainability as having anything to do with spiritual healing. I was pretty much alone in my work, stubbornly exploring new territory that turned out to be very old. Restoring ancient ways of balance looked interesting to me in 1991. Today it looks necessary, it looks urgent—and I no longer feel alone.

The loneliness is gone largely because this small book brought many extraordinary people to be my students. Some of them became plant spirit medicine healers, some engaged with Huichol shamanism, and some explored and discovered other paths. Many are working today to make life satisfying and sustainable once again. Their good-hearted work is producing important changes. When I wrote the first edition of this book, for example, I pointed out that our young people did not have effective rituals of initiation into adulthood. I mentioned some of the resulting illnesses and sufferings, but I could offer no remedy. Today, thanks to the Sacred Fire Community, authentic initiation is once more available.

At the same time, much has been lost. Violence upon human beings and the natural world has escalated, while the keepers of wisdom have become an endangered species. Only a few years ago indigenous leaders and medicine people in the Peruvian Amazon were slaughtered by heavily armed police while attempting to save their forest homeland from corporate development. Sadly, this is far from an isolated case; the genocide of heart-centered people goes on throughout the “undeveloped” world, while the “developed” world becomes more aggressive as it falters and fails.

Where loss of habitat and outright murder are less intense, age and illness are claiming the wise elders. Most of the teachers I write about in this book are now gone. The great Huichol shaman don José Ríos (Matsuwa) died in 1990 at 110 years of age. Don Guadalupe González Ríos, with whom I apprenticed, died in 2003. The preeminent English acupuncturist, professor J. R. Worsley—my guide to the Five Elements—died the same year. Don José Benítez Sánchez, the Huichol artist and shaman who introduced me to don Guadalupe, passed away in 2008. The warm and funny Ute medicine woman Grandma Bertha Grove left this world in 2009.

Don Lucio Campos Elizalde, the weather shaman and healer, passed away in 2005 at ninety-three years of age. An outline of his life might give some feeling for what the world loses with the death of such an elder and what hope and guidance he leaves behind.

Don Lucio was born, lived, and died in the tiny village of Nepopualco, Morelos, in the central highlands of Mexico. He was a Nahua Indian. As a young man, he used to make long journeys on foot to the city in order to hear Spanish spoken. In this way he taught himself to be fluent in that language. His people were campesinos, or peasants, and don Lucio continued to raise crops and livestock throughout his life. In his early twenties he was struck by lightning. He fell into a coma and was in and out of that state for three years. The first year he spent traveling and learning in the realm of the weather beings: rain, wind, cloud, sun, ocean, and certain mountain beings, as well as their commanding Great Goddess, whom he called Santa Barbarita. The second year he dwelled with the plant spirits, and the third year he spent with the animal spirits. He emerged from those years as a man of knowledge and wisdom, which he shared generously with his people for the rest of his life. He had become an extraordinary healer, and his gifts benefited many people.

Don Lucio was especially devoted to Santa Barbarita, who gave him the task of helping people maintain a good relationship with the sacred weather beings in order to ensure beneficial weather for crops, animals, and humans. He applied himself to the instructions of the Goddess and became an important leader of traditional rituals related to weather. He identified and initiated many people who were themselves called to become “weather workers,” and he guided and supported them in their work. One result of their efforts was the unusually stable and beneficial weather patterns in that part of Mexico.

Toward the end of his life, don Lucio initiated David Wiley, an American living nearby in Mexico, into weather work. David showed exceptional promise; the older man made him the organizational leader for the group of non-Mexican weather workers who had gathered around don Lucio. This group was well loved by don Lucio, for they were the hardest working and most devoted to their path. In time, there were more foreigners than Mexicans under Lucio’s guidance. After ceremonies in Nepopualco, they would return to their homes and work to restore balance between their communities and the weather beings. In this way, important but long-neglected relationships began to be revived and restored.

Just before his death, don Lucio imparted to David Wiley special knowledge and blessings and made him his successor. Under don David’s care, the weather-work fraternity continues to grow and benefit many communities.

As wisdom keepers like don Lucio die, the cloak of elderhood is passed on to people of my generation—a generation born and raised in a society entranced by youth and uninterested in wisdom. Today our way of life is collapsing under the weight of its own greed; the need for wise elders has never been greater, yet there has perhaps never been a generation less prepared to provide wisdom.

Somehow, miraculously, the cloak is put on and wisdom reappears: A don Lucio sees fertile ground in the soul of a David Wiley. The soil is cultivated, and since the old man’s death, a conventional American business consultant has grown into a wise elder himself. In a few years, the younger man tends a flourishing of the tradition such as the older man had not seen in his long lifetime.

One function of an elder is to demonstrate the wisdom of our wisest elder: the natural world itself. I say “demonstrate” because talk is not enough. I can say, “The natural world sustains itself with balanced relationships, and it can also restore balance, healing, and sustainability in human life.” This may sound appealing, but as an idea it is soon drowned out in the din of other ideas clamoring for attention. Even if you agree with it, nothing will have changed from thinking about it. An experience, on the other hand, can be denied and even forgotten, but it cannot be unexperienced. Experience changes you forever.

When your heart is touched by the medicine of a plant spirit, you feel the love and wisdom of the natural world. Ideas do not deliver the same touch; therefore, this book is not a theoretical treatise or a how-to manual. Mostly this is a book of stories, because stories aim for the heart, where experience lives.

Plant spirit medicine works partially because it has broad perspective. It does not look only through the eyes of physics and chemistry; it sees human beings as expressions of divine natural forces. It plumbs the human mind and emotions. It gives paramount importance to spirit, the mysterious core of our lives.

My apprenticeship, initiation, and work as a marakame, or shaman in the Huichol tradition, steeped me in a perspective larger than the one I had in 1991. I find myself now with even deeper appreciation for the medicine of the plant spirits, and I’ve tried to share that appreciation with you. While Huichol shamanism is not the subject of this new edition of Plant Spirit Medicine, the shamanic perspective brought forth new chapters and improved the older ones. I trust you will feel enriched by it as I have, seeing how this mysterious healing weaves into our relationships with ourselves, our loved ones, community, ancestors, worldview, and the forces of the divine natural world.

By way of tipping my hat in respect, I will mention that the Huichols are an indigenous people whose once-extensive homelands have been reduced to some rugged areas in the western Sierra Madre in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango, Mexico. Like all indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, the Huichols have been and are being hard pressed by the dominant culture. Unlike most indigenous groups, though, they have never been conquered, they have not converted to foreign religions, they have not lost their language, their communities are functional, and their ancestral spiritual traditions are still robust. This is not to say that life in a Huichol village is idyllic. The people face many problems: they have few possessions, scanty modern education, little money, and no reliable friends in high places to protect them from the predators who circle around their natural resources. Even though their lives are hard, the Huichol know who they are, where they are, and what is important. Their world is not a world of inert “things”; it is a living world of divine feeling and expression. They live in a mood of restrained joy mostly unknown to Western people.

Like Huichol medicine, plant spirit medicine is low tech; it produces healing purely through good relationship with the natural world. In this way it is not simply a relic of the past; it is also a medicine for the present and the future. Whether you consider high technology a blessing or a curse, we are now confronting this reality: the world cannot support the extraction of resources; production of heat; and contamination of air, water, and soil necessary to build machines and keep them running. High-tech medicine is already too expensive for most of humanity. Like everything unsustainable, it is destined to become more extravagant and rare until there is a collapse of the unbalanced system that props it up.

No doubt collapse will produce hardship and even tragedy, but it will also bring us back to what traditional healers and indigenous elders have always demonstrated: plants, animals, rocks, water, fire, wind, and the entire natural world know us and love us as grandchildren. We don’t have to steal from them because they have what we require, and they are glad to give it to us. We are just asked to follow a simple rule: take only what you need and give back something that satisfies the one you’ve taken from.

These pages open to the medicine dream of the natural world. It is a big dream; all plants live there. You and I live there too.

How do we get to the medicine of the dream? How does it work? What exactly is it anyway? You will find some information here, but explanation is not my task. My hope is that this book may be the medicine. And my prayer is that it may touch you as you read.

In 1986 the American healer, Eliot Cowan, discovered the power of plant spirits to heal the human spirit. He has been practicing and teaching Plant Spirit Medicine ever since. His book, first published in 1995, re-introduced this neglected ancient practice to the Western world, and the current edition of Plant Spirit Medicine is enriched with perspectives he gained as an initiated elder shaman in the indigenous Huichol tradition of Mexico.

Mr. Cowan is also the founder of an important home for ancient wisdom teachings – the Blue Deer Center (www.bluedeer.org) in the Catskill Mountains of New York. For almost forty years, Eliot’s teachings, healings, writings, ceremonial work and community service have changed the lives of thousands of people in many countries. Purchase your copy of Plant Spirit Medicine by visiting www.bluedeer.org or soundstrue.com.


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