What Does “Sacred Medicine” Actually Mean? Explaining This Phrase To Newbies
If you’ve been exposed to the likes of consciousness altering substances such as ayahuasca, huachuma, psilocybin magic mushrooms, iboga, or anything similar, it’s likely you’ll nod your head and understand when someone uses the term “sacred medicine.” There are plenty of people out there though that have no clue what “sacred medicine” means. I’m betting a significant portion of parents, friends and colleagues of whoever is reading this article, fall into that category.
I’ve used this phrase in conversations, asking afterwards if people knew what I meant, only to find out they have no idea (even though they’ve nodded their head in understanding). After appearing on a podcast recently and being asked what “sacred medicines” actually are, it got me thinking...
How do I best try and describe this phrase to someone that has little-to-no exposure to this paradigm, perhaps without mentioning the word “entheogen” or “psychedelic”, in an easily comprehensible way?
I thought that by trying to unpack the two words separately - “sacred” and “medicine”, it might help illuminate what the phrase actually means. The following is what I came up with...
IN THIS CONTEXT, THE WORD SACRED CARRIES SEVERAL MEANINGS.
Typically, the word sacred is used to indicate a connection to the most holy of religious realms, or the most profound of spiritual experiences; a concept or experience we might articulate as connection to oneness, the divine, the mystical, unity, or god...
(depending on what type of language you like to use.)
I totally understand that some of these words - such as god, carry some heavy connotations and stigma, but essentially what we’re talking about is something that allows a profound connection to something much grander than our individual sense of self.
Connection to nature. Connection to the universe. Connection to the life-force energy that resides in all things, known in different traditions as Qi, Chi, Prana or Kawsay.
When something is considered sacred, it's seen as something so important, something with a value system so high that we wouldn't want to see it compromised, destroyed or taken away from us.
And with it's capacity to help facilitate this deep connection, it’s typically honored, revered and even worshiped.
The sacred carries the potential to elicit a profound and powerful emotional response within us, evoking feelings of grandeur, awe, veneration, or ineffability.
Human beings are considered to be meaning-making-machines. We're likely to create and assign the deepest of meaning to the things that gift us with the above feelings and experiences. In this context of “sacred medicine”, the word sacred generally carries the implication of having some sort of ceremonial or ritualistic aspect to it.
Ceremony is the process of opening a space or ‘container’, either physically or mentally, around whatever it is that’s considered sacred, allowing an individual or a group of people to come together and develop a mindful relationship between whatever it is that’s considered sacred. In this respect, people generally come with some sort of specific intention for the ceremony, typically related to self-discovery, exploration, healing, growth, or connection.
Ceremonies and rituals that facilitate this connection to the sacred have been undertaken for hundreds if not thousands of years, by various indigenous cultures, with traditions full of ancient wisdom being passed down the lines to our day and age; some of which are practiced in a similar way today, some which have been adapted to fit into our modern era, and others that are relatively new to our contemporary times.
Either way, ceremony has the potential to create a space for people to cultivate a sense of something being sacred.
UNPACKING AND RECLAIMING THE WORD “MEDICINE”.
When we say the word “medicine” it’s typically associated with some kind of prescription or pharmaceutical drug dispensed by a doctor which someone takes when they’re sick. And when we’re talking about sickness, it’s primarily confined to the world of physical and mental health conditions.
Although this is a generalisation of how a great deal of interactions in the medical and health-care paradigm play out, it’s a generalization for a reason… someone presents to a doctor with symptoms of some sort, they’re often given a diagnosis within minutes, and then prescribed some sort of “medicine” to help treat the symptoms.
This is an incomplete picture though, because the symptoms are often times just that - surface level symptoms of a multi-layered and much deeper health and wellness issue. Prescribing pharmaceutical “medicine” to treat surface level symptoms is often considered putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.
When we’re considering what health, wellness and illness actually are, we have to look at things from a holistic framework.
It’s only in recent years that the mainstream paradigm has started becoming more attuned to more traditional and indigenous wisdom, which includes not only looking at health and illness from the physical and mental, but from the emotional, energetic and spiritual aspects of being.
From this context, the word “medicine” is not something that just treats surface levels symptoms, but something that helps treat the root cause of an illness and helps bring balance and harmony to all aspects of our human existence.
When you present to a doctor or general practitioner with physical symptoms of some sort, how often do they ask about your diet, your environment, your relationships, your beliefs, your values, your emotional health, or your connection to nature?
These are all pieces of the puzzle when it comes to holistic health and wellness. And from a traditional, alternative, or holistic standpoint, “medicine” is something that helps align and integrate these puzzle pieces for us.
For further clarity in this instance, perhaps we could also make a distinction between “medicine” and “medication”. Medicine being something that gets to the root cause of an illness and helps bring healing, balance and harmony on all levels. Medication being something that from a generalized Western viewpoint, treats surface level symptoms rather than the root cause of an illness.
So when we’re talking about “medicine” in this context of “sacred medicine” we’re talking about working with something that facilitates holistic healing. And this thing, is typically physical matter or material that we ingest or introduce into our body. Otherwise known, as a substance. Physical matter or material sounds very reductionist and mechanistic, but I use this phrase with the understanding that the word substance can carry some stigma around it too.
I can’t think of another word that best describes something neutral - without necessarily assigning positivity or negativity to it, that we ingest or introduce into our body. If we can get around the negative connotations associated with substance, perhaps we can stick with this word.
HOW DO WE SUMMARIZE THAT INTO A SUCCINCT STATEMENT?
I’ll give it a go...
“Sacred medicines include certain substances that help encourage health and wellness on a holistic level. Typically used in a ceremonial and ritualistic manner for hundreds if not thousands of years, they can facilitate self-discovery, personal growth, physical healing, psychological well-being, emotional maturity, profound feelings of awe and reverence, and connection; connection to deep elements of ourselves, connection to the natural world, and connection to something ineffable, much grander than our individual sense of self.”
Of course, they do much more than this, and there’s so much more to them. But it’s hard to encapsulate this rich, ever-expanding entheogenic world in a short sentence or two. However, with this framework and base-level understanding in place, hopefully it begins to set the stage for deeper discussions around the characteristics and qualities of some of these sacred medicines.
This could include everything from traditional and contemporary use, the consciousness altering and consciousness expanding nature of them, the challenges, the risks, the rewards, best practices, preparation, navigation, integration and everything in-between!
How do you personally explain “sacred medicines” to newbies?
Articulating ourselves and conveying the meaning we’d like to get across is often tricky at the best of times. Here’s hoping my attempt to unpack and create language around this phrase is beneficial. When it comes to languaging sacred medicines, it’s helpful to deconstruct this paradigm in a way that’s more easily understood for those who may have an aversion to terms like drugs or psychedelics.
Perhaps “sacred medicine” may not even be the best phrasing when it comes to languaging this realm. Since it’s used often, by myself and others, we best figure out a way to try and clarify what it is thatt we’re actually talking about!
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