Since time immemorial plants have played a key role in human spirituality. Their sublime beauty, entrancing scents and sometimes their intoxicating fruits have always suggested a connection with 'the other world', the non - material world of Gods and spirits, demons and devils.
The world's earliest religions were based on earth-centred spiritual cosmologies often featuring trees as the primal source of creative seeds from which all aspects of the manifest universe first arose. Trees also served as the symbolic connection between the different levels of existence, the heavens above in its crown, the underworld beneath its roots and the world of human affairs around its girth. This world-tree and tree of life symbolism is universal and can be found among ancient cultures all over the world.
Beautiful gardens always induce a sense of the sacred and a closeness to the creative spirit, who delights in the play of forms, colours and scents of the creation. Even in biblical mythology heaven is imagined as a paradisiacal garden. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and it is often plants that convey the message of divine beauty and harmony.
But plants also played a more immediate role. Good scents were always considered as particularly pleasurable to the Gods, who were thought to delight in sweet, enchanting perfumes. Aromatic incense for example attracts their attention and not only opens their noses to the scent, but also their ears to the prayers conveyed by it. A sweet smelling dwelling was one where the Gods liked to visit, while bad smelling places were associated with nasty demons and other folks from the underworld. Scents also affect consciousness by acting on the nervous system. They can relax or stimulate, vividly recall memories or induce fantasies, dreams and visons.
Some plants also have the power to transport the spirit directly to another dimension. These plants are gate-keepers, they stand at the gate between this world and the spiritual world. Initiates, who partake of them are allowed a glimpse of that other world as they temporarily venture into this dimension. The spiritual world can be terrifying place. Such adventures are not for the faint of heart, which is why they were traditionally the domain of the spiritual guides of a community, nowadays usually referred to as shamans.
The work of the shaman is a difficult and dangerous path. Any 'temporary' excursion into the world beyond can become a trip with no return. Thus, this profession is not something sought after by most people of common sense. It requires extreme stamina and determination, inner strength and endurance of many a physical and spiritual ordeal. Shamans are usually chosen by an inner calling, they have no choice but to serve their community as ambassadors in the spiritual world.
In our western 'denaturalized' society we have lost touch with the spiritual world. Spirituality has become a marketing plot, for sale at weekend workshops by self-proclaimed gurus of any kind of 'intuited' persuasion. Inner experiences on the other hand, in as far as they are real, are often misunderstood as latent insanity that must be medicated and sedated.
We have lost touch with the spiritual forces that could guide us. Yet, in this sanitized, plastic fantastic, virtual world there is also increasingly an often completely misunderstood need for spiritual experiences and transcendence, for experiences that go beyond the material aspects of reality and touch on something 'beyond'. Such misguided desires often result in substance abuse. In the hope of accessing the spiritual dimension and connecting with Gods and spirits many such 'seekers' unfortunately only happen upon the demons of their own souls who, for the sake of a temporary escape from reality ensnare their spirit into addiction and abuse.
This is a sad symptom of a times that have become so divorced from the sacred that a need for meaning and connection to the spirit world results in droves of lost spirits wandering around in the 'in between spaces' of the nether regions, neither finding spiritual wisdom nor earthly fulfilment, - with nobody there who could guide them.
Of course, not everybody who uses drugs or 'sacred plants' to venture into the 'otherworld' ends up as a derelict drug addict, unable to integrate their experiences, but society's twisted attitudes to the whole issue stigmatises anybody who has an interest in exploring consciousness as a 'drug freak weirdo', and worse still, casts their endeavours into the realm of illegal activities, thus criminalizing their pursuits.
Obviously there is a true human need for transcendental wisdom and ecstatic experiences. The problem does not lie in the psychology of these misguided souls, nor in the 'drugs' that they use for their escapades. The problem lies in the fact that our society has destroyed any tried and tested paths by which one could access such realities and derive meaningful 'otherworld' experiences within a socially sanctioned cultural context that acknowledges spirit and matter as equally significant aspects of our human reality.
Since the sixties a small band of courageous scientists and researchers have devoted their work to exploring the frontiers of the mind and are trying to integrate ancient shamanic wisdom and techniques with modern psychotherapy. However, unfortunately their work today is still very much misunderstood by the public and continues to be persecuted by the authorities. The 'war on drugs' is also a war against this kind of work.
As a last consequence to living in harmony with nature, we must embrace the dimension of the sacred as an integral aspect of all manifest reality and encourage the exploration of consciousness that seeks to harmonise the aspects of spirit and matter within ourselves.
Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different...No account of the universe in its totality can be final, which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded (James, 1901/1958, p. 228).
© revised Kat Morgenstern 2003, all rights reserved.
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