Learning at the Feet of the Plant Teachers: Part 1

In this 4-part series, Jonathan Goldman, Founder and Director of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen in Ashland Oregon, explores the risks of unqualified Ayahuasca use and proposes a guild for safe, ethical plant medicine practices.

Overview: This is the first of a five-part series titled “Learning at the Feet of the Plant Teachers,” by Jonathan Goldman, Founder and Director of the Santo Daime-based Church of the Holy Light of the Queen in Ashland Oregon. In this series, Jonathan recounts a powerful experience with Daime (Ayahuasca) and emphasizes the importance of responsible use in spiritual ceremonies. He warns against the dangers of seeking guidance from untrained shamans, highlighting the potential for psychological harm. True healing, Goldman argues, is a long and challenging journey, not a quick fix. Goldman expresses concern over a recent surge in the popularity of plant medicine use, which has unfortunately coincided with a rise in unqualified practitioners. He worries that improper ceremonies conducted by these individuals can lead to negative experiences and damage the reputation of plant medicine as a whole. He also criticizes those who exploit this growing interest for personal gain. To address these issues, Goldman proposes the creation of a "Guild of Entheogenic Practitioners" across the upcoming parts of the series. Stay tuned for the following parts of the series where Goldman delves deeper into solutions and the potential benefits of this approach.

Learning at the Feet of the Plant Teachers: Part 1

I’m on a flattened mountain top in a remote village, a self-selecting spiritual community of 50 or so people in rural Brasil. It is January 5, 1988, and it is nighttime. The 160 people who have come to participate in the ceremony that is about to begin have hiked up the switch-back road to get to this moon and star-illuminated landscape. I am at this moment in a rectangular, barn-like, simply constructed wooden building — the community’s church — with 150 Brasilian people — men, women, and children — and 7 of my fellow Americans.

We are about to initiate a ceremony that will have most of us — actually the Brasilians — dancing and singing all night long. I will not be among the dancers and singers. I will spend the majority of the next ten hours sitting on a bench with my head in my hands, alternately feeling nauseous, seeing visions that will henceforth guide my life, and looking up at the people dancing and singing and thinking, “No way they are drinking the same thing I drank.”  

I walk up to the window cut out of a wooden wall at the back of the church. There is a man waiting for me. He’s wearing a white suit, the formal uniform of the spiritual community I’ve traveled 5,000 miles from my home in Boston to be part of for the next month. He hands me a glass filled with an amber-colored liquid.  I look around at the assembled congregation, full of people I don’t know who speak a language that sounds to me like birds singing in the trees.

I look at the rectangular table in the center of the room, on the center of which is a cross with two crossbeams rising out of a six-pointed star. My Jewishness — dormant but ever present — is being thrown into flux bordering on panic. Have I stepped into a pogrom?  I am wondering what possessed me to do such a thing as come here from my comfortable life in an urban neighborhood in Boston to this foreign (in so many ways) place.

That feeling of being a fish flopping around will increase many-fold in the coming month that my little group and I will spend alternately participating in these ceremonies and doing intensive group therapy. But in this exceedingly strange moment, at the point of diving off the boat into the ocean, I am, bizarrely but truly, here by my own choice. And although, unbeknownst to me, my gringo mind, my concepts of who I am, what this life is for, and my infantile ideas of what spirituality, healing, and devotion are about, are already on the way to being blown up just by being extracted from my comfortable middle class American life and plunked here on this mountaintop, I’ve also always been a bit of a cliff jumper. My earliest prayer that I remember making at 8 years old was, “Don’t let me be bored.”

I take the glass from the calm man in the booth. I drink it down, just like everyone else in that room. Little did I know. Like, nothing did I know.

That cup of bitter tasting liquid was my first of what has now been thousands of glasses of Daime. I have subsequently had the profound honor of handing many more thousands of cups of the sacred tea to people in ceremonies I’ve led over the last 29 years. If you had told me then that my life would be dedicated to doing that when I was standing in that line in that first ceremony, I would have told you to keep your day job, because you sure were no kind of psychic. Me, a leader of a gnostic, esoteric, syncretic, Christian, Amazonian based spiritual path? That I would learn Portuguese, go to Brasil multiple times a year for the rest of my life; that I would smuggle Daime in my suitcase through customs for decades; that I would go to jail and subsequently lead the process of legalizing my religion in the face of government resistance. Not a chance. Why would anyone do such a thing?

It turns out the answer is, “Because they were called, answered the call, and then said yes over and over again.” And because when the Divine Ones select someone to do a mission that is off the charts, they choose someone who likes jumping off the charts.

Jonathan Goldman, Founder and Director of the Santo Daime-based Church of the Holy Light of the Queen in Ashland, Oregon.

The first and most important lesson I learned from that moment and those that have followed is that my primary job, in every venue, is to choose faith, be curious, be comfortable in not knowing how the thing is going to resolve, refuse to follow fear, activate and choose to follow grounded, discerned intuition, recognize truth from almost-truth from utter bullshit, and keep saying yes, most especially when my ego wants to say no. Because whatever I think is going on isn’t even a thimble full of water in the ocean of inner reality.

There are consciousnesses that know way, way more than I do, see farther and deeper than I can even imagine, want what’s good for me and for all beings, and will guide me to play a part in the plan for that goodness if I let them. When I choose that approach, life is then a mystery path to be semi-blindly, intuitively, curiously walked, rather than a scary journey to be feared and desperately and ineffectively controlled. That moment of intuition-informed leap of faith when I accepted that glass of Daime, when I said yes against all logic, has led me to be the co-pilot of a life in these 35 subsequent years that is profoundly more interesting, strange, and amazing than what I could ever have imagined and planned. That’s the promise and the challenge of the true spiritual path. And I admit that there have been moments, more than a few, over the years when I have dope-slapped myself and said, “What was I thinking?” That’s part of any deal that is a real deal. Because the medicine path is just that — a path. And the path works to make you a true representative of it in spite of, and making use of, your fears and resistance.   

The second hard lesson, which I am still reluctantly learning, is patience. Every prayer I made that night, each one made subsequently, and every prayer I came to realize I had subconsciously made in my whole life before I came to the Daime — and which brought me to the Daime and the life it has given me — has been answered. Always in ways more creative, complete, and challenging than I ever expected, and in ways which take way longer in their seemingly meandering answering than I in my gringo omnipotent impatience have wanted. I expected the universe to rearrange itself for me. Instead, I have been progressively and profoundly rearranged by it.

Santo (holy) Daime (die-me) is an Amazon-origin tea made up of four organic elements: A jungle vine, called in the Daime world Jagube (jah-goo-bee). A leaf of a bush in the coffee family, called “Rainha” (hai-een-yah) or the “Queen,” and water, cooked for hours on fire

“Daime” means “give me” in Portuguese. It is the imperative form of the verb. When we drink Daime, we are in effect saying, “Give it to me!” It is made in an elaborate, labor intensive, sacred ceremony. These 34 years after my initiation into the world of sacred plant medicine, that tea is known throughout the world by what has become a generic name, Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca and Daime share a physical body. The same ingredients in Daime are the basic ingredients in Ayahuasca, although some shamans add other plants to their ayahuasca brew. Their spiritual nature is different from each other. Daime and Ayahuasca are like twins: same genetic body, individual souls. The consciousness that deigns to inhabit the physical body of the tea is particular to the path of which the tea will become the sacrament.

At that moment in 1988, almost no one outside of South America had ever heard of Daime/ayahuasca/hoasca/yajé. I certainly had not. How its use has spread from its humble, semi-secret origin among the tribal and then urban poor people of the Amazon rainforest and a few shamans in South and Central America, to literally every corner of the world, is the subject of study and wonder. I have my point of view on the phenomenon, which I intend to share with you as we go on. I’m telling you this origin anecdote so you will know that I come to the discussion from the inside of the story. What I will convey to you comes from my experience. When I began drinking Daime, if you wanted to drink that tea, you had to go to a remote mountain top in Brasil or to a clearing in the Peruvian or Colombian rainforest under the guardianship of an indigenous shaman, or to a tribal village in the Amazon. At the most recent count, if you are presently in Los Angeles on a given Saturday night, you can choose from 60 Ayahuasca ceremonies to take an Uber to.

I had come to Brasil on the say-so and gentle but insistent invitation of a Brasilian man named José Alberto Rosa. José had been my psychotherapist for three years in Boston. Upon the completion of our therapy, he had organized this trip of his former clients to the community of Céu da Montañha (Heaven of the Mountains) near the small town of Viscónde de Mauá, about four hours southwest of Rio de Janeiro. His hook to get us there was that he promised we would be able to do the equivalent of ten years of meditation and ten years of psychotherapy in a month. And, by the way, they drink this tea and they sing songs all night long.

I was at a pivotal moment of my life, although like most of us blind amnesiac humans, I didn’t know how pivotal. I was 37, ripe for my mid-life crisis. I had been practicing acupuncture for twelve years. Being one of the first acupuncturists outside of Asian communities in the US, I had a large and thriving practice. I had two small, rambunctious, smart, and fascinating children with my life partner, Jane. I had done intensive therapy with José, arriving at a state of good-enough normalcy. It was all good enough. And I was bored with my work and suffering with an incessant inner itch. I chose to trust José, as I had when he had guided me in clawing my way out of the pit of anxiety I had lived in for most of life. I was normal enough, functional enough to live a pretty good middle class American life. And a small voice in me kept saying, “So what?” Hey, ten years of therapy and ten years of meditation in a month? Good deal, right?

So off we went to Brasil.

Girl with Plant
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