Yet over the past decade perceptions related to psychedelic plant medicines have been changing rapidly, and the Western world is being inundated with stories of the incredible healing powers of what many are calling “sacred” plant medicines," such as ayahuasca and ibogaine.
A quiet movement lauding these ancient medicines as the quickest path to healing has grown louder, and conversations that at one time were seen as counter-culture are becoming more widely accepted. Spiritual thoughts leaders such as Deepak Chopra are now coming out on record and honoring the benefits, perhaps even the necessity for some, to pursue the use of psychedelics. In a new documentary about plant medicine, The Reality of Truth, he explains how plant medicines break down the artificial separations humanity places between itself and nature:
Science is based on a subject-object split, a separation that is artificial. The same electrical storms that create thunder and lightning in the sky create synaptic firings in my brain, which creates thought. We are part of a wholeness. They [plant medicines] give people what I wouldn’t even call altered state of consciousness, I wouldn’t even call hallucinations. They help people break out of the everyday hallucination of separation... And to the reality of truth. – Deepak Chopra
Science is now beginning to back up the anecdotal evidence with legitimate research that shows how using certain psychoactive substances, such as ayahuasca and ibogaine, in a therapeutic setting does indeed lead to exciting outcomes, especially when it comes to addiction. However, many feel the true power of a plant medicine journey is in its ability to promote personal and spiritual insights that guide participants towards a deep understanding of self and the world around them.
When a friend of Brandee Alessandra’s told her she thought plant medicine could help her heal past trauma, she initially balked at the idea. “I thought the person was crazy," she said. “I thought to myself, you’re going to take a drug to get spiritual? I don’t think so. I wanted nothing to do with it." Brandee’s reaction makes sense given her less than stable childhood growing up with a meth-addicted mother.
“We were kicked out of nine homes and I went to nine different schools by the time I was 11," she says. “Mom was often in and out of prison, and by the time I was eight I became the mother to my newborn brother. His crib was in my room and he relied on me for everything." Naturally, Brandee was suspicious of anything related to “drugs”, but it seemed that she could not escape from the dialogue. Over the next two weeks, Brandee says she was invited to four different plant medicine ceremonies, but it was the last invite that worked:
It was an incredibly spiritual and grounded woman whom I respected, and, as I came to learn, had worked with plant medicine for nearly three decades, who finally got through to me. She shared with me that this plant medicine was not a drug, but rather a natural substance derived from ancient medicinal plants... And that when utilized in the right way and guided by a trained shaman, a plant medicine journey is very spiritual and transformative.
Brandee decided to take the leap and met with a shaman. After discussing her options, she settled on a milder plant from South Africa called Kana. Once Brandee’s journey began, she says she was suddenly able to see herself through a new lens. All of her conflicting mind chatter simply stopped. “I could hear my own inner voice so clearly and strongly," she says, “and it was a voice I hadn’t really heard until then."
During her journey, Brandee could see with clarity how her lack of a real mother figure as a child, compelled her to be the mother figure to those around her. She saw that she was sacrificing her own personal joy by choosing to be in relationships with self-destructive men, but even more importantly, she realized her life’s purpose.
“Suddenly, my entire consciousness came to life,” she says. “It was so clear. I was shown how my entire life of playing the role of mother had actually prepared me for my true purpose: to mother and nurture myself and from that space I would use my gifts to support businesses and movements whose missions were to heal the planet."
Brandee says from that moment on she no longer carried the weight of the world on her shoulders and it wasn’t long before she had become an advocate and spokesperson for plant medicine, and along the way continued to meet like minded people. It was one of these meetings that led to her to her fiance Gerard Powell. It was synchrodestiny when they realized they both experienced healing through plant medicine and shared the vision of having a center in Costa Rica.
“I had a vision to create a life transformation program and live back and forth from Costa Rica," Brandee says. “That was 7 years ago and was a dream on my vision board while I owned an ad agency and didn’t like my work."
Brandee and Gerard both experienced less than stellar conditions during their own plant medicine experiences, and knew that they needed to provide a safe and comfortable experience.
“Gerard’s first experience was in a tiny house with dirt floors, giant bugs, spiders and animals in it," Brandee says. "It was so filthy he couldn’t sleep on the bed. We knew we had to create a place to heal people with plant medicine that was safe, medically licensed and in a center that was beautiful."
From this shared vision, the Rythmia Life Advancement Center in Costa Rica was born. Brandee and Gerard partnered with Foster and Kimberly Gamble to create what they describe as the world’s first “transformation vacation." At first glance Rythmia seems to be a traditional yoga retreat. The renowned Shiva Rea has created the prana vinyasa yoga program there in fact, but in addition to yoga and an innovative plant medicine program, that is is said to be the first medically licensed, the resort offers what is labeled “a life transformation program," designed by Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith. The spiritual leader of the renowned Agape International Spiritual Center known for the practice and education of the New Thought-Ancient Wisdom tradition of spirituality.
Brandee is excited as she talks of what the resort has to offer. “You just need to experience it," she says. “People leave Rythmia with a greater sense of purpose and genuine sustainable happiness. Emotional traumas are healed, addictive tendencies are eliminated, balance is achieved... It’s an awakening to more of your authentic self. I tried every self help program I could find to heal myself. After 12 years I made tremendous progress but there were still deep wounds that I could not heal through trying to reprogram my mind. The plant medicine is like a life hack. It was like 10 years of therapy in one night and the plants heal through the mind, body and soul."
Brandee now spends time between Guanacaste, Costa Rica and Los Angeles, just as she envisioned seven years ago on her vision board.
Leah doesn’t often speak about the time she drank the powerful hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca during a week-long retreat in 2012. As a 43-year-old wife and mother of two teens, she has spent the last two decades taking care of her family, but at times she has questioned her choices. Was she supposed to be a mother? A wife? Leah explains that she often felt that she wasn’t sure she was living as her authentic self.
When Leah decided to engage in what is often called “psychedelic tourism," she wasn’t looking to experiment with drugs, nor was she looking to cure addiction or recover from severe childhood trauma; it was more subtle that. Two years prior Leah’s brother TJ, a Vancouver-based playwright, had been to the very same retreat, and he was very clearly positively affected, so much in fact that he has written several plays that include his ayahuasca experience. So, when TJ phoned Leah around the time of her 40th birthday, and asked if she would be interested in attending the same retreat, she had heard enough; she was ready.
Leah describes her experience as terrifying at first. She had learned that the first stage of her journey after drinking the ayahuasca brew, which is made of two different plants from the Amazonian basin, would most likely include vomiting. Like most people, Leah hated the thought of it, so she spent a good portion of her first journey fighting off the feeling to purge. She explains that by the time she gave up the fight, and allowed her body to finally release, she couldn’t really feel the affects of the ayahuasca anymore. She was drained and disappointed and knew she needed to change her mindset; she remembers telling herself, “You chose to be here; this is a ride, you’re on it, and you don’t get a choice now."
Leah let go of her fear of purging and several days later took a second journey with ayahuasca. This time, she feels she transcended. Leah says she found a connectedness to the world that she had never felt before.
“My parents are very very religious, Catholic, and I am not at all," she says. “I hesitate to say I am an atheist, but I just felt an absence of a sense of higher power.” Leah explains how, guided by a shaman, she saw a vision of the world as a giant highway and she could see clearly how all of humanity and nature was interconnected. “In this moment I felt the earth, the plants, everything as this symbiotic love force. I felt the love from everything.”
Leah returned to her life in Seattle and says the only word to describe how she felt, was euphoric. “I realized the universalism of our human experience, my particular suffering no longer mattered." Leah says after her plant medicine experience, she no longer questions her choices from the past, but looks forward to the future.
There are many that would like to see plant medicines become part of an overall healthy lifestyle and view it as yet another modality for spiritual and physical healing in addition to yoga or meditation. Of course, in order for plant medicines to become part of the mainstream, there would need to be changes to allow more access. In the U.S., drugs such as DMT, a component of ayahuasca, are considered a Schedule I drug making it difficult even for researchers to study them. As such, access to them as a catalyst to healing is underground and potentially very dangerous. Since many countries assign the same type of classification to all psychedelics, seekers of plant medicine must turn to safe alternatives away from home, such as Rythmia, that offer a plant medicine program onsite.