Iboga Part 1: Meeting the Medicine

Post Iboga. December 22, 2019.

I am sitting at the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica. I have just spent 10 days in this beautiful country. I am a different person than I was when I got here.

I feel more present. More at ease with the flow of things. A little less anxiety-prone.

And I’ve had a deep experience of the truth. Of myself. Of what’s possible, in life.

What’s possible is real happiness. As I say that, I feel a swell of it in my heart. I feel my face lift into a smile. The truth.

When I arrived in Costa Rica I was picked up and driven to Iboga Wellness Center… the main attraction of my visit. Deena greeted me, all smiles and warmth; I was given a fresh coconut with a straw in it and given a little tour. Soon I met everyone. Four others besides me would be taking the medicine: Tiffany, Printassia (Tassie for short), Danny, Jesse. Then there were our guides: Gary, Levi, Deena, Mateo, Peter, and our personal film crew, Maria and Rob. Their presence was something special this week. We were all gathered here for something special… even more special than personal healing and transformation… we all came to share our journeys on film, in what will be a documentary about the amazing plant teacher and healer called iboga, and the ceremonial way of using it developed by the Bwiti culture of West Africa.

This was not my first time traveling to a foreign country to participate in a traditional plant medicine ceremony. Walking around the property, certain things immediately were familiar to me and sent me back in my memory to my Ayahuasca retreat of last year: hammocks, natural beauty, a guitar for communal use, plenty of comfortable seating in common areas, a communal eating area where we would be served three healthful and delicious meals a day, always paired with fresh fruit and fresh fruit juices.

I am a true Westerner in some ways, and one of those ways is a form of automatic anxiety about down time. So when I arrived I found myself wondering “What do I do now? Do I just sit and relax?” (There’s usually an undertone to that thought that implies: “Do I deserve this? Have I earned this? Have I done enough to justify doing nothing for a while?”)

I tried to make myself at home and get comfortable. I picked up the guitar and start plucking, grateful that I’d be able to make music while I’m here. Truthfully, all around me I was already seeing evidence that I was in good hands, that I’d arrived exactly where I needed to be.

The beginning of a long and beautiful week.

Iboga is a plant medicine. In other words, it is a plant, that is consumed orally, for the purposes of healing. Some call it a master teacher. Some compare it to Ayahuasca, a more well-known plant medicine (from the Amazon) that is used ceremonially for healing and spiritual awakening. Iboga and Ayahuasca are both ‘psychedelic’ substances, which means they alter your psychological state pretty profoundly and are capable of producing powerful visions and hallucinations.

The iboga plant

I first heard about iboga probably 5 or 6 years ago. I was stunned and amazed by what I read at the time – this plant resets opiate receptors, giving heroine addicts a fresh start without withdrawal symptoms?! How can that be true and also be so unknown! Occasionally I’ve asked others who are tuned into the use of psychoactive plants for healing whether they knew about the plant that could cure addiction. It seems like iboga has stayed out of most people’s awareness, despite our urgent need in the Western world for better treatment options for addicts. I rarely found people who knew about it, let alone people who had experienced it. All the same I was drawn to it. At the back of my mind I wondered, even then, can this plant help me stop binge eating? I sort of thought I would have to travel to Africa if I wanted to experience this medicine for myself, though. So I tucked it away, to be considered another day.

And then, years later and quite unexpectedly, the day came. I’d been looking for something in Costa Rica but I didn’t know what. I’d been working on my addictive and self-harming habits with food and was struggling to make significant progress. Iboga Wellness Center popped up on one of my many Google searches for “Costa Rica healing retreats”, and I immediately knew that this was what I’d been looking for. Within a few days it was official.

Even on Day 1, conversations are revolving around iboga. I was wondering if it would be better to go in with fewer expectations, but I am glad that there is so much being shared.

“The medicine always gives you exactly what you need.”

“Iboga is intelligent, and has a sense of humor.”

“Iboga knows.”

Stories of the plant, the teacher, the spirit. Good spirits. Laughter. Shining eyes. We are in good hands.

I see Jesse excitedly run through the room in his bathing suit, towards the pool outside. He’s several inches over 6 feet and still comes across as a giddy child. A smile spreads across my face, and I decide to join him.

In the pool I am pulled into Jesse’s story, the story of his scars. I hoped I wasn’t rude in asking, and he wasn’t shy at all about sharing.

“I jumped on a 230,000 volt transformer high on cocaine.” He tells me that’s enough electricity to power half of Vancouver city.

“I thought a film crew was following me and that they wanted me to do it.”

“I was what they call a trashcan junkie – some of everything, anything I could get my hands on – heroine every day because when you don’t you feel like shit, but mainline cocaine was my drug of choice.”

I had been wondering who my companion travelers would be, and whether any would be here seeking help with drug addiction. Jesse’s been clean for some months now. It turns out we’re all here for different reasons… though part of me sees it as variations on the same theme: we all needed help. We all had lost something basic about our happiness or our health. We were all at the end of our rope on some aspect of our lives.

“If this doesn’t work, then I want out” – was a sentiment I heard voiced by one or two.

Night one – after eating a delicious homemade meal we all gather around a fire to go over the schedule for the week and some instruction about how to approach the whole process. Our first ceremony would be the next day. It would be different for everybody. Sometimes the first time is devoted to cleansing and purging. Maybe there wouldn’t be visions; go in with an open mind. Iboga will see exactly where you are and exactly what you need. Write down the questions you want to ask. You can ask virtually anything you want, and iboga will help you find the answer – the exception being the answer to the question “What happens after we die?” – Iboga won’t give us that one. Gary chuckles.

Iboga will show you the truth of things. It’s up to us to look at the truth with an open heart. The truth can hurt, but it will set you free. This is a chance to see what’s false in your life, what doesn’t belong. Strive to know the truth and live by the truth. Iboga can help show us, but it’s up to us to do our part: to show up, to take it in, and to apply what we learn, earnestly, in our own lives.

Get plenty of sleep now if you can – you won’t be doing much of it this week.

There is a mix of emotion on night one. I think a few of us are anxious. Jesse is happy as a clam.

I retire early, which is the norm around here on non-ceremony nights, and head to my room to journal. I am buzzing with some anxiety already. What questions am I here to ask? I see already that I am afraid to see the truth. What am I afraid of finding out?

I think of my relationship, first. An area of my life where my thoughts are clouded, where doubt fogs the truth of things, where insecurity eats at me. What if the truth is that this part of my life doesn’t belong? What if Mathew and I got back together this year for nothing? What if the medicine tells me I need to be by myself again? Why is this terrifying to me? I write and write and write, crying. The medicine is already working on me, before it’s even touched my lips. I am grateful already for the process. I want to know the truth. Whatever it is, I want to know. No more uncertainty.

I flit my thoughts across the other areas of my life I hold so much uncertainty about: my career, my life purpose, my places of residence. Everything seems to be on the chopping block. Then again, it’s felt like that for a long time. Maybe soon I’ll have some answers.

I think about Edward, about our friendship, and the way it devolved into something dangerous. Why did that happen the way it did? What did I do wrong? How did I draw that to myself? How can I hold that in the highest light and move forward?

What other pieces of my past am I holding onto, and what can I release so that I can live more fully in the present moment?

I feel shame about everything. Underneath all my questions is the shame, a feeling that I’ve messed it all up, and that I’m destined to ruin all the good things that come to me. I hope the medicine can help me work on this part, too.

I want to call Mathew, but I hold it back. I don’t know the truth yet. I need to walk into this on my own two feet, eyes open, alone. I am here for myself.

Day two is ceremony day. Things will get going around 7:30 pm.

Tiffany says she barely slept, and almost had a panic attack. She’s here for her anxiety and depression, which she has tried to treat to no avail for years with various kinds of medications. She, too, is at the end of her rope.

During the day we all make space to be with ourselves and get clear on why we are really here, and the questions we want to ask. It’s an important aspect of “doing our part” of the work, making sure we show up ready to hear what iboga can tell us. Hearts open.

A couple hours before the ceremony, the nervous anticipation begins for me in earnest. We are all together as a group, talking and laughing. I am grateful for the distraction from my own thoughts.

How hard will it be? I know my process is already happening, that I’ve already done some of the ‘purging’ through my crying last night. How stern will iboga be with me? I want to walk in and surrender completely to the process, but I see in myself a deep fear that I am about to be punished for my wrongdoings. I feel both supple and guarded… open and trusting, yet already wincing and flinching. This is where I am, and the medicine will work with me where I am. The bigger part of me is in a trusting place and is ready to show up and let the process begin in earnest. I feel somewhat prepared for this after my experiences with Ayahuasca last year. I’m aware that it might get very uncomfortable, and that I’m capable of handling things when they get uncomfortable. I’ve been through a tough purging experience. I know I can do it again, and that no matter what happens, it will be okay.

We gather around the fire for ceremony a little before 8. Of our five guides, three have been to Gabon and been initiated into the Bwiti tradition as iboga providers; they are wearing traditional cloths, each colorful and unique.

The beginning of the ceremony is a fireside chat about Bwiti wisdom and the origin story of iboga.

The Bwiti culture, Gary tells us, is a spiritual tradition that is rooted in the study of life.

It is simple, grounded in truths that each person can verify for themselves. It is wisdom about the process of determining what is true, and the importance of building one’s life on a foundation of truth.

Here is what the Bwiti say about time. It is divided into five parts:

  • Everything before you were born
  • Your personal past: everything after your birth until now
  • The present moment
  • Your personal future: everything between now and your death
  • Everything after your death

The only part of time we should really concern ourselves with is the present moment. That’s where life is happening…. always.

Sometimes we spend time in the past or future, but neither of them really exist. We can’t change the past by thinking about it. And we can’t really change the future by thinking about it, either. We can only create the future through our choice in the present.

We are all equipped with six senses that we can use to determine “what is going on” in our lives: sight, smell, touch, taste, feel, and intuition. In order to make good decisions, we need to have a good understanding of what’s really happening in the physical world, and this comes to us through our senses.

The Bwiti say that to be 100% sure that something is true, you need to be able to verify it with three of your senses. It isn’t enough to hear about something. Even the past isn’t “real” by this standard – you can’t verify your memories with your senses. Again, all we have is right now: and to be here now means to be in our senses and actually perceive in real-time what is happening. Frequently, people are experiencing the “now” through the lens of the past instead of through their senses, and don’t even realize it.

Gary gave us a personal example of how, for most of his life, he wouldn’t dance, because of a belief he gained early on that he was bad and awkward at it, and that people would laugh at him.

This was just an idea in his head and had no basis in reality. Yet because he believed it, he was robbed of the joy of dancing for many years.

Fear is always an illusion, he told us. Can you see it? Smell it? Touch it? Taste it?

No. It doesn’t truly exist. It isn’t truth.

So one day he decided to conquer his fear of dancing, and he signed up for ballroom dancing lessons, and eventually a competition! At the beginning of competition day he was so scared that he was wobbly and shaky and misstepping to the music, but by the end of the day his fear had disintegrated – and he reveled in his pure enjoyment of the experience. What joy!

Be wary of beliefs, Gary tells us; they are dangerous. Some people believe so strongly in an idea that they will die for it. Like suicide bombers – throwing away the greatest gift of all, based on a belief about something they have no real knowledge about. Ask yourself if you hold beliefs that aren’t founded in reality. If you do – how is that helping you? How could it be getting in the way of you seeing things as they are?

The Bwiti don’t hold beliefs. They are interested in knowing, not believing. They are interested in real life, in living life to the fullest. And they have simple answers to the questions that plague some of us.

Questions like: What is life? What is the point of life?

To this they have determined: Life is a gift.

Think about it – did you pay money to make your life happen? Did you ask or arrange to be born? No… Your life was given to you.

The point of life… is to receive the gift. And most importantly, to be happy.

Receive the gift. Appreciate the gift. Experience the gift. Life is the greatest gift there is. The only Bwiti prayer is one that is offered earnestly every morning: Thank you, Creator, for another day.

More Bwiti wisdom… Our life has two components to it: the physical (external) world, and the spiritual (internal) world. The spiritual world is nothing woo-woo… it is, simply, the world that we are experiencing on the inside – our thoughts and feelings and ideas. Gary tells us that everything has a physical and a spiritual component, and that anything that exists in the physical world exists in the spiritual world first. Something has to exist as an idea before it can exist in form. On this vein of thought, if we want to make changes in our physical world, it will help us if we first align things in the spiritual world.

Gary tells us that Nature is full of helpful spirits who we can call upon and ask for help.

“You can connect with anything,” he says. And he tells us how to connect with any spirit.

“Say you want to connect with the spirit of the fire. You want to burn some things away in your life, and you want to ask the fire for help.

“In the spiritual world, there is etiquette that is not all that different from in the physical world.

“So first off, you set the intention to make a connection. Then, you introduce yourself. And when you introduce yourself, you state your full name at birth, and your mother and father’s full names at birth.”

Image result for fire images"

Fascinated, I silently look to the fire and decide to make a connection. In my head, and projecting to the fire, I say “Hello fire spirit… I am Emma Marie Arata, daughter of Margann Elizabeth Gnoss and Raymond Joseph Arata III. I want to tell you that you are beautiful, and thank you, and ask if you can help me burn away whatever in my life is no longer serving me…”

After an intermission, it is time for the medicine.

This is the first ceremony, and we will be dosed somewhat cautiously, in rounds, since everyone responds to the medicine differently.

Levi gives us each a spoonfull of rootbark – it tastes bitter and dries my mouth out, but it feels friendly to me… it feels natural. It is of the Earth. It tastes like wood. It is wood. I am trusting this medicine and welcoming it into my body. “Hello Iboga…” and I introduce myself to the spirit of Iboga, asking it to help me heal and help me live a true and happy life.

The ceremony continues by the fire. We are told to raise our hands when we begin feeling it strongly, so that we can be escorted to our mats in the temple. Until then, we stay around the fire listening to more words of wisdom.

Around the circle, our leaders each offer us bits of wisdom from the Bwiti that have touched their lives.

“Everything is nothing until you make it something.”

We are in control of how we interpret and respond to things. Nobody can force us to think or feel anything. There is never anyone to blame for our experience of life but ourselves. We can always choose our own way.

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

I have been so riveted during this whole conversation around the fire. The truth is ringing so clearly through the air. I am used to living in a world where the truth is fudged and fabricated, where subtle and severe forms of manipulation are commonplace. Now, here before me are people who have faced the lies in their lives and risen above, who are truly happy and clear and strong. They are reminding me of things that I knew, somewhere deep down once upon a time, but forgot. I see in their eyes more evidence that I am exactly where I need to be.

And of course… it’s so simple… when you stray from the truth, life becomes less stable and certain. The farther away you get from the truth, the more confusion there will be… inside yourself.

This is not how I’ve lived my life, up to now.

Later when the medicine kicks in, I will find myself asking: how long has lying been a habit of mine? How did I not know how dangerous that was? How could I be so careless? How many other people are suffering right now due to forgetting this basic truth?

Tiffany feels the medicine strongly, quickly, and raises her hand. The rest of us stay for another round of the medicine.

Mateo’s words are echoing like a bell of truth in my head as I raise my hand, feeling a strange calm and wobbliness consume my body. “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

I am gently guided away from the fire and to my mat, where I will be lying down, eyes closed and covered, until sunrise.

“Welcome, Iboga. Thank you for being here. Please help me.”


4 thoughts on “Iboga Part 1: Meeting the Medicine

  1. Pingback: Iboga Part 3: In-Between Two Ceremonies – Expressions from this side of the here & now

  2. Pingback: Iboga Part 4: Completion and Rebirth – Expressions from this side of the here & now

  3. Pingback: Burning Man 2022: Fire, Gifting, and Finding My Inner Bitch – Expressions from this side of the here & now

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