Demons, or spirit entities, are a very real thing in the beliefs of indigenous cultures. And one of the beliefs is that whenever a person is in a state of altered consciousness, a portal can open for these malicious entities to “possess” a person – and maybe hang around long after. Having said that, we know that when a person takes psychedelics they are entering an altered state of consciousness.
Our Western culture has gone gaga over psychedelic plant medicines, maybe you’ve noticed? There’s been a cascade of discussion and hype about using plants, such as psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote and ibogaine, for healing. All of these psychedelic plant medicines have a revered history in indigenous communities so Westerners, when using them, often lean heavily on the rituals and traditions that these native cultures have cultivated.
Of course, in regard to this, there’s a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and the disregard of the sacred cultural positioning of these medicines – but that’s a discussion for another day as it’s outside the scope of this blog.
Experiencing indigenous journey work
I recently spent a week at a retreat in Europe studying with a skilled medicine woman (she’s white and originally from Texas) in a facilitator training for those who guide psychedelic journeys. My current practice involves emotional and trauma release work optionally with microdosing psilocybin but I get requests for full-on psychedelic healing journeys – and I was drawn to this woman’s work to learn about indigenous approaches.
Part of the facilitator’s charm is her straightforward honesty including how others experience her work (which gets rave reviews by the way). But she candidly shared with us in a group discussion that one client called her (indigenous-inspired) methods “hocus-pocus,” referring to the mystical words, music and actions she employs to clear and hold space. This includes calling in the safety and guidance of the four directions – air, fire, water, earth; playing entrancing beats with hand drums and rattles, and indigenous chanting and singing. Also included are smudging agents like the ubiquitous sage and palo santo for clearing negative energies – an enduring practice during our time together.
The overarching reason for these various rituals is about what’s widely referred to as creating and holding space. The concept of “holding space” and how to do it is pivotal for anyone offering healing and ceremonial work, including myself. It’s vital that my participants, students, and clients feel safe with me and the environment they’re in and accept me as a trusted guide.
As a practitioner who works with emotional and trauma release, what I do is in stark contrast to indigenous ways of holding space. My methods are rooted in yogic traditions that tap into our invisible inner life and draw on expressive movement, mudras, mantras, meditation and breath work and, optionally, plant medicine – serving to strengthen our relationship with intuition and soul. In my paradigm, the “demons” my participants work with are their own difficult emotions tethered to unhealed trauma.
So encountering someone deeply rooted in indigenous tradition and ritual was a fascinating and markedly unique experience. An overarching focus of the indigenous in navigating psychedelic journeys is establishing a protective barrier to keep out negative entities. Among the other energy clearing and protecting techniques mentioned earlier, mirrors are covered because they’re seen as portals through which malicious entities can enter.
Demons or unhealed trauma?
There is robust debate around whether these experiences of entities are actually unprocessed trauma alchemizing itself as demons or monsters. Power of suggestion comes into the discussion because if a facilitator, whether it’s my local shamanic practitioner or a native shaman in Peru, is immersing participants in a paradigm that includes the specter of unfriendly entities, a person may mirror that perspective in their psychedelic experiences.
Reports of encounters with malevolent entities are not infrequent. Jules Evans, who writes the Substack blog, Ecstatic Integration, points out in a piece called: ‘Encounters with negative entities’:
It is quite common to encounter ‘entities’ — what other cultures would call spirits, angels or demons — while on psychedelics. A 2015 survey of 800 psychonauts by Fountonglou and Freimoser found that 46% of ayahuasca-takers reported ‘encounters with suprahuman or spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of DMT-takers, 17% of LSD takers, and 12% of psilocybin-takers.”
Jules also notes that one of his readers told him that, “I think shamans plant this idea with you when you arrive [in the Amazon]. They can help you expel your demons and you feel satisfied.”
Science vs Folk Medicine vs Religion
What complicates our understanding is that the field of trauma is an emergent science. We now know, for instance, that if a person experiences unspeakable traumatic events – often in childhood but just as well in war or a medical emergency – the brain, in an act of remarkable biological mental resilience, will disconnect the person from their body. You can imagine that if this dissociation arose during a psychedelic journey in the context of indigenous beliefs, the detachment a person feels from their body might easily be interpreted as a hijacking by unfriendly entities.
It’s intriguing to observe how trauma and its shadow elements can manifest in the deep recesses of our minds, influenced by our conditioning. For example, in the charismatic Christian religions, it’s important for believers to have personal encounters with the Holy Spirit, which often entails active movement and speaking in tongues. In Western therapy, there’s “inner child work” where one visualizes and connects with the younger version of oneself. Pairing either of these concepts with a psychedelic journey setting that supports the belief of malevolent entities – could be the catalyst that brings monsters to life.
In my emotional release work, participants are guided to go toward the painful emotions that they have fought so desperately to keep at bay. It’s freaking scary to go into the darkest parts of ourselves but that’s where relief and healing reside. And one might speculate that, particularly in psychedelic journeys, if we don’t go toward the dark, the dark comes to us – in whatever form we will it.
In the end, no matter how one meets the disparate parts of one’s shadow, these parts simply want to be seen. And regardless how these dark parts of ourselves manifest, I believe they are seeking the light so we can process and release them to restore the balance we so desperately seek.
What have been your experiences in this realm whether it’s been via psychedelics or otherwise? Please share your thoughts in the comments.