The issue of control lies at the very heart of addiction, depression and most other forms of spiritual or emotional suffering; rather than accepting and embracing life in its entirety, we often feel the need to control it by clinging on to certain experiences and averting others. Yet the tighter we hold on, the less we are able to flow with the ever-changing stream of experiences that life throws our way, and we end up getting stuck in a loop that never seems to progress. Ibogaine and other plant medicines can help us learn to let go and be vulnerable, which is what makes them such powerful facilitators of recovery.
Most of us pick up an unhealthy need for control during childhood. We learn that some of our characteristics, tendencies, emotions and needs are unsafe as they cause others to scorn or reject us. As a result, we start trying to hide, suppress and avoid parts of ourselves as a means of protection. In doing so, we disconnect from a piece of our soul and create an inner emptiness into which experience and life are not allowed to flow.
Plant medicines heal by helping us reconnect to this part of ourselves and open up once more to feeling. The Bwiti, for example, achieve this by using iboga as a means of understanding that they each carry within them the souls of their ancestors and the light of the spiritual realm. As such, they are the physical vessel through which this spirit is able to remain present in the material dimension. They are the means by which the divine experiences life.
This leads to a profound reframing of their own value and purpose. Suddenly they become free to experience life without needing to control it, as they understand that experience is sacred and gives purpose to all of existence. Life will continue to be both joyful and painful, yet the Bwiti know that they are accompanied by their ancestors through every experience, and that by allowing themselves to feel everything rather than suppress it they also keep the ancestors connected to life. By experiencing life they nourish their soul.
Like the Bwiti, Westerners who wish to heal their soul using ibogaine or other plant medicines must understand that the key to recovery is to open up that inner void and allow experience to rush back in and fill it. When things get difficult and we feel the urge to shut down, we have to remember that vulnerability to experience is what makes life meaningful and gives the whole universe its purpose. In doing so, we give ourselves the freedom to mess up, to hurt and to let go of control.
This is summed up perfectly by the great Carl Rogers, who said: “I believe it will have become evident why, for me, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful and enjoyable do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process I have called the Good Life, even though the person in this process would experience each one of these at the appropriate times. But adjectives which seem more generally fitting are adjectives such as enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, meaningful.
This process of the Good Life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-fainthearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
Good recovery is all about self-love. This means living with respect, reverence, integrity and intentionality. Unfortunately, many of us acquire the habit of disrespecting ourselves at a very young age, which then becomes a lifelong pattern. Ibogaine and other plant medicines provide an opportunity to reconnect to ourselves on a more authentic level and begin changing this pattern, although it is up to us to continue to develop this connection and allow it to flourish after treatment.
Self-love begins with changing the narrative we have in our heads about who we are and what our purpose is. Invariably, this internal narrative is a result of our conditioning, which tells us that we are not worthy of love and respect unless we fulfil certain criteria. We learn that our “failings”, our bad moods and our needs are unacceptable, and that we must eliminate certain characteristics and feelings. Rather than loving ourselves for all of our gloriously messy human-ness, we start to narrow ourselves, adopt false personas, and reject parts of our soul.
The purpose of plant medicines like iboga, ayahuasca and psilocybin is to lead us back to the truth that has become lost underneath all that conditioning, and to help us rediscover the value of our lives. It is about reconnecting to the inner child that we have been neglecting for so many years, re-integrating this abandoned part of ourselves and becoming whole.
In order to maintain and deepen this healing process, we must show this inner child the love that it has been crying out for in our day-to-day lives. For example:
Virtually all forms of existential suffering come down to a disconnection from a part of ourselves that we learnt not to love when we were young. This can manifest itself through a wide range of symptoms such as addiction, depression, compulsive thinking or anxiety. The western medical establishment may like to diagnose these with separate labels, but self-love is the number one remedy for all of them.
You don’t have to suffer from addiction to know that life can sometimes be overwhelming, and can temporarily lose all meaning and purpose. Yet addiction invariably occurs when it becomes impossible to connect to life in a coherent way, and self-medication provides the only relief from this void. Above all, therefore, addiction arises out of a frustrated search for meaning, and true recovery entails a profound reconnection with oneself, with life and with the world as a whole. Ibogaine and other visionary plants can play a huge role in this process, but it is ritual that provides the roadmap for navigating life’s ups and downs without becoming disconnected.
Unfortunately, however, modern Western culture is largely devoid of valid rituals, leaving many people feeling lost, isolated, worthless and empty.
What is Ritual?
Ritualising a behaviour creates a sacred container around it that separates it from ‘ordinary’ life. While the world outside of this container can sometimes seem chaotic and pointless, inside the ritual we can construct a semblance of meaningful order that gives value to our experience. Ritual therefore provides a lifeline that helps us remain on track when life becomes challenging; it keeps us connected to our identity and purpose and guides us towards unconditional self-love. The effective use of ritual can be seen in countless non-Western cultures around the world, with Native American peyote ceremonies providing a particularly beautiful example:
During these rites, the psychoactive peyote cactus is ingested in order to remove the veil between the physical and spiritual domains so that all of the counterbalancing forces of nature and the universe can be invited into the tipi: spirit and man; light and dark; masculine and feminine; life and death; day and night; material and divine. By entering the tipi, participants ritually return to the cosmic melting pot from which they were created, restoring their connection to the universal order that gives meaning and purpose to their lives.
Having rediscovered their true worth, individuals are now able to extend this ritual through their daily lives by acting in alignment with this renewed sense of identity and purpose. When times are hard and the conditioned narratives of pain, shame and inadequacy surface, ritual provides a way back to authenticity and a connection to meaning.
Indeed, every indigenous culture that uses visionary plant medicines recognises that it is the ritualised consumption of these sacraments that unlocks their healing power. In Bwiti tradition, for example, iboga is consumed as part of a ritual “crossing over” into the realm of the ancestors, where initiates discover their place in the cosmic chain that links past, present and future generations. This discovery then permeates their daily life, which they dedicate to “continuing the work of the ancestors”. Essentially, their whole life now becomes one continuous ritual as every activity is performed with a conscious intention and a respect for the value of life, which in turn provides the clarity, meaning and self-esteem to assist them through difficult moments.
Ritual in Addiction
Ritual may not help us control what is happening in the external world, but it does help us control our feelings by injecting a sense of value, order and meaning into a particular experience. Given that addiction stems from an unfulfilled search for these qualities in life, it is hardly a surprise that so many (though by no means all) people who suffer from addiction ritualise their drug use.
This may involve preparing drugs in a highly personalised and repeatable way, always using in a particular place, or a host of other aspects. Regardless of the ritual, the point is that it transports us to a separate space where we are in control of our experience, even if we believe we have zero control over anything outside of this container.
Like drug use itself, the rituals that accompany addiction are all part of the need to control our experience in a world from which we feel so disconnected. Yet they fail to achieve this because they don’t guide us towards any meaningful identity or purpose that can add value to life outside the ritual container. On the contrary, they amplify this sense of disconnection by reinforcing our understanding that our life only makes sense when we are using.
Ritual in Recovery
The key to a successful ibogaine treatment (or any other psychedelic treatment for addiction) is to create a ritual out of the entire process – just as would be the case in any indigenous culture that uses visionary plants for healing. One of the functions of pre-treatment preparation is to learn how to create a sacred container around the process, and to invite into this space all of the elements that you need in order to feel a sense of meaning and value. Doing so generates the respect, reverence, integrity and intentionality that are absolutely essential for a treatment to be effective.
It is this approach that truly unlocks the power of visionary medicines to reconnect us to our authentic self and facilitate recovery from addiction. Going forward, small daily rituals allow us to remain within this sacred container of meaningfulness as we go about our lives, extending the healing process and helping us stay conscious of our own value when challenges arise.