Tantric Maps For Working With Plant Medicine
Articulating a clear map of consciousness allows us to point towards the true nature of the mind, which is ultimately beyond concept. Language can not capture it, but can only point towards it. Yet we need concepts and maps to orient us in the right direction. These same maps that guide us on the path of awakening that we receive from nondual Tantric traditions such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra from Buddhism and Kashmir Shaivsm and Sri Vidya from Hinduism, are also helpful in working with plant medicines, such as Ayahuasca and Soma.
On a basic level, Tantric yoga is refinement of the body-mind. Nondual contemplative paths in both Tantric Buddhist and Hindu traditions are rooted in this approach to sadhana, spiritual practice: rather than viewing the body as an obstacle to awakening, the body a vehicle for it. Awakening, moreover, is not simply about transcendence but also immanence. If the first part of the journey is about waking up, the second part of the journey is about waking back down into the body.
What is it that wakes up? Consciousness from its contents. Spirit from its identification with ego. Awareness recognizing itself.
As we’ll review in this post, what makes these plant medicines unique is that they contain both the masculine and feminine aspects of consciousness. While it is the energy of the psychedelic compound, DMT in this case, that provides the creativity and energy that offers insights and liberates, it is the intelligence of the beta carbolines in the peganam harmala (Soma) and the b cappi (Ayahuasca) that prepares the body-mind for cutting through to true nature and helps to continually refine it as awakening unfolds through deeper layers.
Ayahuasca and Soma are very similar medicines.
Ayahuasca is a brew made of chacruna and the banisteriopsis caapi (b caapi) vine; Soma also contains chacruna, but instead of the vine uses the seeds of the plant, peganam harmala (PH). In fact, the Soma could include any DMT containing tryptamine plant, not only Chacruna, but also Acacia or Charlie Ponga. Both the vine and the PH have the same alkaloids, or beta carbolines. The three key ones are: harmaline, harmine and tetrahydroharmine. Since PH is far more potent, one needs to consume much less. Personally, I have come to prefer PH to drinking the vine, and therefore Soma to Ayahuasca. One can capsulize the PH so there’s no need to drink it like the vine, which is even thicker and difficult to take down. This significantly reduces the potential for issues with nausea. I also find that the felt experience of the PH tends to be lighter–less heaviness physically and less darkness energetically–than I feel with the vine. My friend who has facilitated both medicines for over twenty years has found this to be the case as well.
Chacruna has the psychoactive compound DMT, so it tends to attract more interest, in particular with Western audiences. However, the beta carbolines in the PH and b cappi are just as important. A great deal of the unique benefits from working with Soma and Aya come from the intelligence present in the beta carbolines. There are some very potent health benefits that can come from consuming these beta carbolines. However, what I find most striking is the way the medicine teaches us about the nature of consciousness; specifically the ways in which the experience of drinking the medicine aligns almost perfectly with core teachings and practices of both Dzogchen and Nondual Shaiva Shakta Tantra (NSST).
Let’s begin with the view of NSST. While the metaphysics of Kashmir Shaivism are extremely intricate and complex, just focusing on the essence of the view offers a skillful means for working with the Soma. Let’s consider first principles. On the highest level, the formless, the true nature of the mind, is ultimately beyond concepts. However, on the relative level, the world of form and appearances, there is the masculine and the feminine. Consciousness takes forms through these energies because this physical form, this body-mind, only comes into existence through the union of the masculine and the feminine, sperm and an egg, through the intelligence of evolution and reproduction.
By default, at least after childhood, the default mode of the mind is dualistic, subject-object perception: I am a separate self “in here,” perceiving objects “out there.” There is a perceiver, the object of perception and the act of perceiving. One can say the same for all of the other sense doors, such as hearing and feeling. This is the triadic nature of consciousness. As we will explore in subsequent posts, subject-duality arises through the use of language, through living one’s life through the prism of concepts.
Awakening entails piercing through the illusion of separation created by the conceptual mind. Deepening into this realization brings a profound sense not only of freedom, but also of connection.
The masculine is personified as Shiva. In this system, Shiva is not a deity in a traditional, dualistic sense. He is not a separate deity to worship “out there.” Shiva is the masculine dimension of the nature of consciousness, for everything that we perceive in the world “out there” appears like a reflection in the mirror of consciousness. This is also true for the subject sense of self. The sense of an “I” or “me” rises and reifies, or makes permanent, the fundamentally impermanent ocean of consciousness. The ego is like a hand grasping in space that solidifies the fluidity of the ocean into objects that it then sorts and classifies into a hierarchy of preferences, directing attention to either grasp onto what’s pleasant, push away what’s unpleasant or ignore what’s neutral.
The mind makes sense through narratives, images and symbols. We anthropomorphize things in order to understand them on a deeper level. Shiva is a metaphor to represent basic qualities of the universe and of the mind, which of course are not separate from one another. The limitations of language reveal themselves here, for language can not capture the wide open freedom of the mind in a concept anymore than it can grasp the vastness of the universe. However, we need to employ language to begin to point people in the right direction, towards what is true beyond concepts. True transformation only comes through direct recognition and increasing stabilization of this realization in one’s moment to moment experience.
Shiva is the intelligence of the universe in its innumerable forms. The feminine, The Goddess, is the dynamism, the creative power, The Shakti that animates this intelligence—from the initial spark that lit the big bang to stars dancing across the sky to the dopamine firing into receptors in your brain. All of this, the union of intelligence and energy, of the masculine and the feminine, of Shiva and Shakti–is what animates the lila, or divine play, of life, both in the macrocosmic form as the entire universe as well as in the microcosmic forms of all appearances, including your own consciousness.
Consider this metaphor of the night sky. The body of The Goddess is the stars, pulsating with divine energy, with Shakti. In fact, the root of the word “divine” in Sanskrit is Dev, which means “to shine” or “to illuminate.” It also means “to burn.” It evokes the intensity of the heat of that light. This energy throbs and pulsates, it expands and contracts, like the very nature of consciousness itself. But what allows the mind to perceive the luminosity of the stars is the darkness of the night sky. Like all objects, the stars appear in space.
This is why a popular image from Tantric mythology is The Goddess dancing upon Shiva’s body. The feminine is the creative power of the universe, but she needs the vastness and spaciousness of the masculine through which to move. She requires a stage upon which to perform. The dynamism of the feminine also requires the stability of the masculine to give her movement coherence. It’s the archetypal balance between order and chaos.
The masculine seeks to articulate clear maps, to create order from chaos through preferences and evaluations that construct hierarchy and direct attention where to move. It seeks to chart a path forward, but the very movement forward along this path is the unfolding of The Shakti. If the light of the masculine is order and coherence, its shadow is rigidity and dogmatism. If the light of the feminine is dynamism and creativity, its shadow is chaos and incoherence.
The Peganam Harmala offers grounding and coherence to the creativity and dynamism of The Chacruna. One analogy that some people might find helpful is that the relationship is similar to that between CBD and THC. Strains of cannabis that are very high in THC but low in CBD reveal the power of the THC but also its shadow. After sitting my first silent meditation retreat, I stopped consuming cannabis when I started to notice that it was simply scattering my attention. It unleashed the power of creativity but it lacked coherence. Once the legal cannabis market matured years later and I could be more discerning, I found some benefit in working with cannabis again. But I would only consume cannabis that has at least a 1:1 CBD to THC ratio or even higher. Like all other forms, which come into existence through the union of intelligence and energy, cannabis benefits from striking a delicate balance between order and chaos.
Shiva is also the prakasha, or The Great Light of Consciousness, the light that shines through each and every one of us. Shakti is the vimarsa, the reflexive power of this light to recognize itself.
When The Goddess leaps up from the vastness and emptiness of space that is Shiva, it springs forward, grasping onto pleasant objects or pushing away unpleasant ones. This is the energy underpinning the process of assembling and disassembling a self that is the ego. The ego is not the enemy, but rather a process that is itself the union of that divine intelligence and energy of the universe taking form through us. However, the ego is not who we are, but rather a more limited form of our true, divine expression. The ego is a process of veiling that obscures or covers over true nature, like clouds obscuring the true nature of the sky: vast, wide open, without center or edge.
Awakening is the movement of consciousness becoming conscious of itself.
It is when that Great Light of Consciousness, the sky like mind, turns and recognizes itself. This happens when the mind ceases to turn outward to the world of appearances and turns inward to rest in its own place. This is how our perception transforms from samsara into nirvana.
Beyond the mind’s preferences, there is simply The Great Perfection of consciousness. This is why the practice of Dzogchen has its name, for the most popular translation from Tibetan into English of Dzogchen is The Great Perfection. The true nature of the mind is always and already awake awareness. Like space, it can not be created or destroyed. The trick is to recognize it. It’s simple but not easy.
Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Shaiva Shakta Tantra offers a clear path for awakening to our true nature and for cultivating the deeper causes of human flourishing. Psychedelics, plant medicines, do not offer a path. However, they can serve as powerful accelerators for moving along the path. If the true nature of mind is simple, why is it not easy to recognize?
In Mahamudra, The Four Faults of Natural Awareness describes the nature of mind this way:
So close you can’t see it
So deep you can’t fathom it
So simple you can’t believe it
So good you can’t accept it
A contemplative path requires that we cultivate qualities of the heart-mind, the paramitas or perfections, especially patience. It’s also important to be gentle and kind, beginning with oneself. In the West, we tend to be impatient and want to skip straight to the highest teachings. It’s ideal to wake up as quickly as possible, not only for your own happiness but so that you can benefit others. Let this intention of bodhicitta, or awakened heart, fuel your commitment to practice.
However, impatience can be an obstacle that delays awakening. While we need to apply effort, we want to bring a quality of effortlessness to doing so. This dance between effort and effortlessness is an important dimension of sadhana, spiritual practice. Whatever you’re experiencing right now, feel into those sensations. Rest right there.
Like all forms of Tantric yoga, the Soma is a refinement of the body-mind. The harmala unties the knots, or granthis, in the nadis, or channels. Essentially, the Soma turns the body-mind into a conductor, enabling energy to flow more freely. The ideal is a super conductor in which there is zero resistance. It’s just the divine intelligence and energy of the universe in union vibrating through you, as you. Ultimately, it’s the power of The Goddess, The Chacruna, that cuts through to pristine awareness on the absolute level; on the relative level, She is the one who reveals the ways in which your karma, your conditioning, binds you.
This dance is not only the unfolding of karma; it’s also the lila, or divine play, of consciousness. There is the Buddhist truth of karma, cause and effect, our conditioning, but there’s also lila. Karma says everything happens for a reason. Lila acknowledges the role of randomness. On the absolute level, there is only true nature; on the relative level, the ego is wounded and needs to heal. The medicine allows you to open to and work with both of these truths. It helps you to manage this paradox.
Before we cross over to pristine awareness, it’s essential to prepare the body-mind through the harmala before cutting through with The Chacruna. We’ll explore these preliminary practices of preparing the ground in the next post.