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  Plant Spirit Medicine - Workshop Notes

by Tom Billings

The following is not directly related to raw/living foods. However, it deals with an interesting approach to our relationship with food, and will likely be of interest to many raw/living fooders.

Eliot Cowan, a student of Native American Shamanism, gave a 2 hour workshop titled "Plant Spirit Medicine", at the San Francisco Whole Life Expo, Explorations in Natural Healing, on Sunday, 22 October, 1995. The workshop is based on Cowan's recent book with the same title. Below are my notes from the workshop. Contact addresses and my comments are given after the notes.


You are not just a body, mind, but also a spirit. For many, living in the fullness of spirit is rare. This is a tragedy, as you should live in the fullness always. Experiencing this fullness is what makes life worth living.

Because we don't live in the fullness, we experience pain and suffering. Our physical and mental ills are shadows of the problems in our souls. The younger generation is pampered, yet there is considerable suicide, showing deprivation in spirit. The job of healing has little to do with the body or mind, as the underlying problem is spiritual. Good news - the spirit can be reached. We can bring medicine to the spirit. To do this we must have intentions, as healers and patients, to reach the spirit.

You must know how to reach the spirit. Body to body is mechanical, mind to mind is not possible physically. Spirit to spirit requires heart. He then talked about 3 kinds of kissing (physical contact): one that is brief/physical and changes nothing, one that is more intense and can change your day (two minds meeting), and one so intense it can change your life (two spirits meeting). In healing/medicine, the same holds true.

Plant spirit medicine is spirit medicine. Plants are more similar to people than they are different. They have a physical body, a mind, and also a spirit. They are our brothers and sisters. An important difference: wild plants living in nature are living in the fullness of spirit. They are wise, and can teach us, can give us (spiritual) medicine. They will give us medicine for our spirit, if we only ask.

Plants are generous - all food comes from plants, and many other important things. Our lives depend on plants. But we have been asking plants for material things, not spiritual.

Eliot then told of an accupuncturist who told him that, "anything you can do with needles, you can do with plants". Local plants are much more powerful than non-local plants.

Eliot told of his first encounter with a plant spirit, who appeared in the body of a young woman with large wings on her back. He asked for her help with heart problems; she agreed and gave him a lecture on how to use the plant. She also said her brother and sister plant spirits would help. Eliot spent one growing season communing with the plant spirits, and out of that developed an herbal medicine system.

Q: What is the process to communicate with plant spirits? A: Two parts. First develop a relationship with a plant growing outdoors. Visit the plant, look at it, touch it, taste it, smell it, contemplate it. Second, meet the plant spirit and ask question: do you have medicine to share with my brothers and sisters? To communicate with the spirit, you must change your level of consciousness. The physical body cannot talk to spirits. We all regularly experience an altered state of consciousness - dreaming - in which we can interact with spirits.

Spirits are real, just don't inhabit the same level of reality as we do. In the dream state, we can access things we cannot access in the normal waking state. You must enter the dream state, while still awake, to purposefully contact the spirit. If you do it while asleep, you must dream purposefully and remember it.

Q: Please comment on the spiritual consciousness of the food we eat. A: Americans have lost emotional and spiritual contact with the food we eat. Eating should be a spiritual process, as it feeds and nurtures your mind and spirit. Because we have lost this contact, we grow food in a way that undermines its/our spiritual strength.

Eliot is currently studying with a Native American shaman in a remote area of Mexico. His teacher says that corn is God in the form of a plant. Eating should be a mutual relationship with God. He tells the story of his teacher finding that a scorpion sting was caused by failing to perform the corn thanksgiving ceremony.

The plants that we eat have consciousness, and it affects us. Not having a spiritual relationship (with the food we eat) causes illness.

Q: What is the difference between wild plants and domesticated plants? A: We think healing comes from procedure, technique, etc. It doesn't, it comes from a divine source - the same source that maintains the world. The object of procedures, techniques, is to ask for a healing to occur. To heal somebody is to bring them back to the magic of what they are.

The only plants that can bring you home to where you are, are local plants. Plants from China or the Amazon don't live in your area. The users of plant spirit medicine tell many amazing stories - vivid, magical dreams. Wild plants can do this, introduce you to the local magic. Plants that don't grow wild in your area are not in tune with the local area.

Q: What about artificial hybrids, and genetically engineered plants? A: That weakens the spirit - not good for food, or medicine.

Q: Is it OK to use non-native, introduced wild plants (that grow in your area) in plant spirit medicine? A: Yes, if it thrives in your area. Plants love to travel.

Q: Do local, indigenous plants have more food value than introduced, cultivated plants? A: Yes - similar to medicines. The closer food is to a crop that will thrive in the wild, the stronger the spirit.

Q: What about introduced, invasive plants? A: They generally can't gain a toehold except in areas ravaged by humans. Opportunistic plants thrive in disturbed areas. These plants are actually trying to heal the environmental damage; they are really healers.

Q: Can you give an example of a message from a local plant? A: From willow: "don't look down, look up". It is highly effective against depression.

Plants can talk to you, but only in the dream state. Eliot will soon start a year-long training program in plant spirit medicine, here in the San Francisco area. There will also be a separate, intensive, residential program in Mexico.

Q: What about the use of plant spirit medicine to change your consciousness, specifically the use of psychoactive plants? A: Shamans can access the dream state through one of three ways: 1) purposeful dreaming, or "lucid dreaming". This requires self discipline. 2) use of sound - drumming (Eliot uses this method in classes) 3) use of psychoactive plants to put you in this state. All three work. The third method can be a valid shamanic path, but it is misused in our culture, and it is easy to get lost and fall off the path. The third method is a risky path in our society.

Q: What about plants in a polluted area? Also, please define local. A: You don't have to use the plant's flesh, only its spirit, so pollution is not an issue. Definition of local (rule of thumb): anywhere within two day's walk

Contact address: (plant spirit medicine training courses)



1. An excellent, very interesting talk! Just wanted to mention some books of possible relevance for this subject. The first is of course Eliot Cowan's book, titled "Plant Spirit Medicine". Other books of possible relevance include "Spirit Healing: Native American Magic and Medicine", by Mary Atwood, and, for example, "Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light", by Namkhai Norbu. The latter book discusses purposeful dreaming from a Tibetan Buddhist viewpoint. There are a number of other books available on what is known as dreamwork or purposeful/lucid dreaming, from a variety of spiritual/religious viewpoints.

2. Classical Ayurveda (Caraka Samhita) calls for certain rituals to follow when gathering herbs for medicinal use. These are different from Cowan's approach via plant spirits, but the underlying spiritual principle is similar. To gather herbs for medicinal use, one should visit the plant on day one, and perform archana - flower offering, thereby worshipping the God within the plant. On day two, return and perform mangala charana: you must tell the plant why you want it, how it will be used, and ask its permission before harvesting. If the plant refuses, you cannot harvest it. (How do your hear the plant's reply? With your intutition or higher self.) Harvesting must be done in a ritual manner, with use of mantras/prayers.

Of course, very few people in modern Ayurveda do this. I happen to know one person who sells herbal medicines collected in the classical manner. The healing power of his herbs is truly astonishing. Unfortunately, so are the high prices he charges for them.

Tom Billings



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