Recently treating a patient with acupuncture for cigarette addiction, I recalled what my natural medicine friends from South America taught me about “Father Tobacco.” How he was called upon for peace treaties, used as an envoy to contact spirits, as a cleansing agent to rid the body of toxins, as medicine for colds and even asthma. I compared this with the scores of people addicted to tobacco; people who are unable to extract themselves from the habit even though it is known to cause disease, cancer and death. 

Then I thought about the coca plant. How special it is that the Kogi Tribe (in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia) and many other indigenous people can mix coca with lime all day long and have no ill effects. They call their coca leaf “Mother” and she is understood to protect and she holds their communities together. She sustains them to get through long workdays and aids as a sedative for a calm mind.

When traveling to the Sierra Nevada mountains I asked the great Kogi healer named Mamo Alfonso about the coca leaf. (Mamo’s are the shamans of the Kogi tribe, the spiritual elders. Alfonso is the Spanish name that this mamo uses when speaking to outsiders).

“For us the coca in the mouth is basically where we gain clarity, strength, stamina, wisdom — the coca tree is like a human also and the same way a person can help, the coca helps us, and that’s why when we are using it and having a conversation like that, it helps us keep our thoughts clear, focused, and  grounded — it’s like a person, it’s always present with us, helping us.” 

Compare this to how chemically produced drugs have torn apart the fabric of our western world. How the drug wars are being fought everyday to control the drugs seeping into our everyday lives. We see and know that heroin has become one of the nations biggest epidemics. The beautiful poppy plant is manipulated and groomed with harsh toxic chemicals, handed off through so many channels until it hits the street. Only a fraction remains of the natural plant and yet the profit street value is multiplied many times over. Similarly it takes 1,000 kilos of just pure coca leafs to make 1 kilo of cocaine. That translates to many football fields of growing plants just for one good party at the beach house. 

This is a shocking reality for Mamo Alfonso and the Kogi. “We don’t understand why the younger brothers and sisters did so much study and research in order to create something that is so harmful. WE don’t understand why such a sacred plant that has been used for so many years for a positive purpose… we still don’t understand why younger brothers and sisters would put so much energy into something so negative. There is nothing positive about cocaine… about the way it’s being used.”

But what about the Plant itself? If plants do have spirits, and those spirits have interactions with humans, then understanding addiction may require understanding this dynamic. While this viewpoint is strange to the biomedical and computer age world, it is quite standard thinking in indigenous populations, especially within the shaman lineages. The shamans are mediators between two worlds: that of the plant spirit and that of the human spirit. These are the healers and medicine gatherers who are said to have special techniques to commune with the plants.  

And so my thought is, can my patient truly heal her addiction without healing her relationship to the plant first? Addicts may stop smoking, stop snorting, stop drinking, but until the relationship with the plant spirit is healed, can true healing be experienced? 

“Yes, all the trees and plants in the world have a spirit and that’s why — if for example, they are going to build a house and they need wood they will do the proper pagamento to take the wood, they need to ask that particular spirit, because if they don’t do that the Mother of that particular spirit or being or that tree will get really angry. And that’s when problems arise. When we don’t do the proper offerings to take what we’re using. And yes every plant has a spirit but coca is the most important and powerful for us.”

I am sure we would have had a lot to learn from Mamo Alfonso and actually all the indigenous people that lived on these vast American lands long before explorers arrived. A land seized and immediately cultivated only for the production of its resources cannot survive. The ones in authority are now inherently lacking any understanding of the plant spirit; the plant being an object to be fashioned for one’s own pleasure and material gain. This is in direct opposition to the way the indigenous shaman relates to their powerful “allies.” These allies are seen as spirits with their own will and nature, some are mischievous, some vengeful, while others are deeply loving. But the main determinant of how the plant is received is in the intent of the collaborator. If you are open to the plant, the plant will show you its magic and healing capacity. If you are closed or selfish in your intentions, it will show you the same. 

And thus this brings us to our sad state of relationship with plants and also our perpetual relationship with addiction. Is it possible that we have replaced the vital mediator role of the shaman with the lower energy work of laboratory chemists and (in some cases) drug traffickers? Imagine the lineages of ancient healers being replaced by forces that mainly intend to make a selfish (and sometimes criminal) gain? How does the plant react in this new fucked up evolution? Can’t be good. 

So what can be done? By just recognizing this inherent disharmony is part of the solution, but here are other steps I think can go a long way in healing the imbalance.

1. If you have a serious drug addiction you will need to find support and get help and get into a recovery program. These ideas are intended to accompany or follow a rigorous and professional therapeutic setting, not to replace conventional recovery itself. These steps might be done years after one has begun mainstream recovery.

2. Visit the plant in its natural setting. Do this in the company of those who are in support of your recovery and who can hold you in a place of safety. Just spend time breathing and meditating with the plant, listening to the sound of your breath and hearing the thoughts that arise. Being in physical proximity to the plant reintroduces our natural relationship to its natural spirit. Here we begin to ask forgiveness for the part we played in its manipulation. We ask its spirit to leave our body and mind and be replaced with the healing nature that the plant was originally intended for. We also ask for forgiveness for all the other people involved in its harvesting, manipulation, manufacturing, trading and dealing. Then we can make offerings to the plant for renewal and blessings. Offerings could include things you find precious or sweet or things that the plant may enjoy (some fresh soil or natural fertilizer).

3. Cultivate a new relationship with a different ally that is safer to explore. This could include tea, mugwort, mint, many Chinese and western herbs. Ask a local herbalist who is growing local plants what would be a good choice to grow if you have a yard. If you are in an urban setting then just purchasing herbs from local markets grown organically would be a huge step forward. 

4. Start journaling with the plant. This may be a leap of faith for some, but if you would like advice on how to begin this process, please email me directly.  

5. Donate and support causes that help indigenous peoples. These are the lineage holders of the traditions, and we would be wise to keep the channels open and pure with traditional plant wisdoms. 

Special thanks to Mamo Alfonso, and to Tad Fettig for the top photo and to Ana Velasco for introducing me to to the beautiful Kogi peoples.