Posted by Jo Wunderly on Oct 14, 2016 7:26:23 AM
I knew Ruby’s former self for years and was familiar with the challenges she had in her everyday life. Anxiety and a sense of disconnect from life and her community often left her discouraged and exhausted. Psychotherapy and meditation had helped, but the improvements were slight and often temporary. When she embarked on a series of guided medicine journeys, alternately using MDMA (the pure form of the drug Ecstasy) and psilocybin (psychoactive mushrooms), her life began to change rapidly and in unexpected ways. Each time I saw Ruby it was easier to be around her; she seemed happier, more relaxed, and more generous toward others and herself.
I asked Ruby to let me interview her because I found her story inspiring and felt others could benefit from reading it. I think her experience can help people understand the difference between recreational use of Ecstasy and psychoactive substances and the profound work of inner transformation.
Ruby’s journey began when she noticed an unusually self-possessed woman leaning against a kitchen counter during a break in the somatic therapy workshop they both attended on weekends over a two-year period. The woman seemed relaxed, poised, and at ease, and at the same time lively and open. Getting to know Maria, Ruby learned that she was in her early thirties and had survived a life-threatening illness only two years earlier. Despite her thin frame, Maria exuded strength and inhabited space in ways Ruby knew she herself did not.
The two women discovered common threads—Maria had been practicing Tibetan Buddhism and Ruby was a Zen student. Ruby couldn’t at first make out what Maria did for a living, but gradually grasped that she is a curandera – a woman with special training in the use of plant medicines to guide others through deep personal transformation.
At this time in Ruby’s life, her mid forties, she had no actual reference for the work Maria described during their brief conversations. Over the span of the many weekend seminars, she began to inwardly consider medicine work for herself, yet there was remaining doubt to be cleared away. She said to Maria that her meditation practice seemed to be changing and improving her life sufficiently. Maria said meditation practice is often like taking a chisel to an ice block—there was change but it was slow. She said guided medicine journeying was like placing warming embers in the center of the ice block and enjoying a melting process; an experience that can range from slow and gratifying, to strong and cataclysmic. MDMA, Maria explained, is a heart-opening medicine that can discharge traumatic memory and also serves to build a foundation of trust with the practitioner. While working with these medicines is an ongoing practice, just one MDMA journey, Maria said, can be an amazing life changer.
Maria explained that, after three guided MDMA journeys, her clients are usually well prepared for a psilocybin journey. Getting to this point can take from a few months to a year or two, depending on how much time and space the client gives to integrating the changes into life after each journey. Moving on to psilocybin always brings some fear, mixed with the curiosity. Once it has been experienced though, many people choose to make psilocybin journeys a practice. Maria said she knows people who hold this practice for many years and they exude a grounded confidence that is inspiring.
During the year after the somatic therapy training ended, the seed that had been sown in Ruby germinated. She contacted Maria and set up her first preparation meeting.
At the root of all fears is the fear of dying. Perhaps the core teaching of medicine journeying is surrender, letting go into “really not knowing.” Conditioning and trauma melt away, allowing courage, curiosity, and alignment with a larger life to emerge.
The container for the work was strong. Maria met with Ruby before and after each journey to help clarify her intentions and support integration. Following shamanic principles, Ruby wrote down notes on the aspects of her life she was ready to shed and what she could imagine filling the newly cleared space. During this process Maria asked Ruby to give her a sense of her childhood history and any traumatic events she remembered. It turned out that these conscious elements worked hand in hand with the below the surface work of the medicines to manifest real change in Ruby’s life.
In between the journeys Ruby maintained a thread to Maria with occasional skype meetings to keep the inner and joint dialogue going.
Ruby’s meditation practice was an ally throughout. According to Maria, meditation and medicine journeywork compliment each other because, ultimately, they have the same effect on a person. She said clients who practice both experience swifter and farther-reaching results. Ruby felt that some of her preparation and much of her integration occurred in the silence on her meditation cushion.
Once Ruby moved on to psilocybin she noticed that each journey was radically different. In nature, mushrooms live off of dead things, turning to compost whatever was ready to be transformed. In journeys the mushrooms find where the next shedding is ready to happen. Ruby never felt the mushroom went wrong, though sometimes it took her a while to comprehend what happened and why.
Ruby’s first journey
With a sense of ceremony, the niños santos (“sacred children”, as the psychotropic mushrooms are called by the indigenous Mazatec in Mexico) were served to Ruby delicately arranged on an oval dish. She lay on a comfortable mat, covered with blankets and wearing a soft eye cushion to help direct the experience inwards, listening to soft music from nearby speakers, waiting for the psilocybin mushrooms to take effect.
Ruby felt welcomed immediately by the mushroom spirits—they showed her mesmerizing colors and moving patterns that would change as soon as she tried to focus on what was happening. Ruby soon learned not to hold on to any images or sensations, to let go of expectations and enjoy the ride. Gradually the experience deepened and the separation between observer and observed disappeared.
Ruby described part of her first psilocybin journey like this:
Following the call of a flute, I walked up the road from my house to a hilltop where there is a smooth granite outcropping with several grinding holes left by native American Nisenan. Seated around it were elders of various tribes, chiefs and medicine people. There were several representatives from the Nisenan and also colorfully dressed Mazatec medicine women. I was invited to join a discussion about the plight of the land and its destruction by newcomers.
The ground under us was alive, pulsing with the rhythm of the earth’s heart. The distress of the earth was obvious and tears streamed down my face. I was grieving for the lost native culture, the destruction of the earth, and the confusion of my own people. I felt strongly that I was both of the earth and the earth was inside me. The land on this hill had been subdivided for a development and, if no one stepped in, the serenity of this place would be destroyed. I asked myself what part was I willing to take in healing this earth and the separation my people experienced? I made a pact then and there to do what I could to heal my people’s connection to self, community, and earth, and to stop the development on this hilltop.
Ruby’s next psilocybin journey took place two months later. This time much of the journey was in gray tones, bleak and desolate. For what felt like a very long time Ruby felt stuck in a sort of bardo place, a transitional space Tibetan Buddhists understand as one of many we pass through in the dying process. There was no way forward or backward–Ruby felt caught and miserable, trying to escape it only made it worse. When she focused on any visual all she saw was gray cracking and crumbling earthen ground. Ruby remembered complaining to Maria and in turn being encouraged to “stay with it”. Before it got better, it got still harder. Suddenly she was in the midst of reliving a drowning experience she’d forgotten but had been told about by her aunt. Ruby seemed to be drowning all over again and couldn’t get air. She was terrified. Maria again encouraged her to stay with it. She suggested Ruby get on all fours and push her shoulders against Maria’s body cushioned with pillows for resistance. Ruby remembered it was as if she was pushing through a stuck place. When she summoned all her courage and made an honest effort, everything changed. She felt released from a kind of hellish grip and slumped back onto the floor mat. The journey then smoothed out and became gratifying. In the days following Ruby felt rattled; as time passed she understood that this had been a pivotal journey. She needed to face her existential fears if the limitations that had existed in her life were to dissolve.
Ruby’s third journey took place in the coastal redwoods with a group of women and several guiding practitioners, including Maria’s own teacher. The journey started as night fell, the women were arranged in a large circle inside their sleeping bags. At first Ruby felt cold, chilled both by the fear of letting go, and by the chill of the fall air. Soon though, this journey opened up into one extended ride of bliss, of pure light and ecstasy. Ruby said she felt fully embodied and present, and yet her ego had dissolved. There was no interpreting of what was happening, just an ecstatic feeling of unity with all existence. It felt as if her heart might burst with love. At one point a koan came to her that she had recently been meditating with, “life and death is here, how do I cope with it?” Several times she touched the koan and dissolved into laughter. She could never make it to the last line where the teacher replies, “where is it?” There was no life or death, and no teacher or an “I”. She said it was like entering a koan through the backdoor, from the bliss body of true nature.
Intentions and Integration
During her first year of journeys, Ruby asked for pretty much the same things–grounding, a sense of belonging, relaxation. Looking back, she realized that her idea of what those things look and feel like was limited. First, the old ground she had built through great efforts had to be cleared so that a new foundation could take form at a pace she could integrate. Many things healed for Ruby including fear of the dark, fear of being alone, and fear of being overwhelmed by people.
Over the months that ensued with integration and more journeys Ruby became more aware of the return of her innate power. She became more courageous and confident, doing things she never imagined she would be able to do. She noticed greater trust in what appeared and saw reality more readily as good and kind. She learned to trust life and enjoy it.
Ruby asked Maria what place plant and other journey medicines have in the US and if they are gaining in popularity. Maria said this work departs from the western model that uses drugs to suppress illnesses and their symptoms, many of which have psychological roots. Published medical studies have shown that supervised use of MDMA and psilocybin helps people regain good quality of life after suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and various other disorders. Still, only a small number of people are able to get into legally run studies through the organization called MAPS, and through a few universities. Many more, like Ruby, encounter practitioners who work discreetly underground.
Maria said that steps have been taken towards re-scheduling MDMA for therapeutic use, which was made illegal in the mid eighties. She told Ruby she doesn’t mind that the progress is slow and mindful, unlike the wild enthusiasm and overselling of psychedelics that caused a backlash in the ‘60s.
Maria pointed out to Ruby that traditional indigenous practices have retained their value and sacredness because of the careful initiation of practitioners, a process that requires the real work to be done quietly and below the radar of mass culture. It would be a loss if the practices were watered down and offered by poorly trained people, without enough attention to preparation and integration, as is sometimes the case with Ayahuasca circles.
I told Ruby I didn’t need to be convinced, I saw how the changes in her were real, but others might have prejudices against taking substances to facilitate change. She said Maria had told her it’s a modern view to abstain from practices that include prayer and plant medicines for consciousness expansion and deep healing. It was once a widespread practice to seek the wisdom of plants. Indigenous people have retained this knowledge and we can relearn it from them. Fear is at the root of skepticism, and fear is a sort of prison. Ruby asked if I knew of other methods proven to bring about transformations as swift, effective, kind, and permanent as the one she advocated for? I didn’t. She said the places where modern life fragments and disconnects us from our body, soul, and spirit, are where medicine journeys work their magic. They have the power to return us to our innocence and give us back a life filled with joy and connection.
Feel free to check back for a “question and answer” section to be added soon. If you have questions for Ruby or for Jo you can send them to Jo.
This is a wonderful interview with Michael Pollan, writer of The Trip Treatment for the New Yorker.
Here is the full article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment
This article describes healing with MDMA (Ecstasy): http://www.oprah.com/health/PTSD-and-MDMA-Therapy-Medical-Uses-of-Ecstasy