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    plant medicine ego

    Plant Medicine and the Ego: A Process of Reintegration

    ICEERS | October 11, 2022

    Since launching in 2013, the ICEERS Support Centre has supported more than one thousand people who have had difficult experiences after working with psychoactive medicines, such as ayahuasca, San Pedro (huachuma), psilocybin mushrooms, and others. Support Center coordinator, Colombian psychologist David Londoño, has spent 17 years working with traditional Indigenous medicines, both as a patient and student. This article, which is Part 1 (Part 2 | Part 3) in a series outlining ideas and perspectives from the Support Centre, is an interview with David where he speaks in depth about the complexity of ego dissolution as related to master plant experiences. He explains how our ego is essential and how to develop a healthy relationship with it as opposed to “losing the ego.”


    What exactly is “ego dissolution”? 

    To answer this question, we first must think about the complexity of what the ego is. The ego is what gives us the sense of having a self. Ego comes from Latin, meaning “I”, and implies a psychic structure responsible for a complex series of functions that are fundamental to psychological health. Among other things, it distinguishes the inside from the outside. It is a boundary that gives you a sense of independence, separation, and individuality.

    For example, the ego helps you to separate your ideas and needs from mine. Imagine that the boundary of the ego is lost for a prolonged time, not for a few hours, but days, months, or years. You would then lose your sense of individuality and you may not know where your body ends, and someone else’s begins. You may not know your opinion on an issue or whether you need to feed yourself or not.

    If you don’t have a healthy sense of individuality, it can be very difficult to function in the world. We need a sense of self for many things: to finish a job, set boundaries with someone, or decide on who we vote for. In principle, the “I” has all these elements and more.

    In certain experiences with plant medicine, the sense of self may be temporarily suspended to some extent. People may feel united or part of something much larger. The sense of identity is broadened. They feel connected to the universe, the cosmos, and others. You become much broader than your individuality.


    Is that what is known as “transcending” the level of the ego?

    Exactly. There is a difference between transcending and abandoning or losing the ego. People experience this in other ways, for example with art, yoga, or meditation. It is a very central theme in some spiritual traditions and is considered a capability, or even a goal, of the human experience. In this context, the aim is not to lose individuality, but to expand and transcend duality.

    However, a different situation is when the ego is weakened in certain pathologies, for example in psychosis or depression. One way of looking at depression is when someone’s ego is in distress.

    From certain points of view, the ego has a bad reputation and is associated with excessive self-importance. Therefore, many people talk about the importance of “losing the ego.” They are referring to reducing the excessive arrogance that is so prevalent in the world we live in. However, these are different things. It is not about breaking or fighting with the ego, but rather building a healthy ego.

    Sometimes an experience with consciousness expansion can lead to egoic fragility. For example, an individual may feel invaded by the thoughts of others, lose the ability to choose, or cannot function in the world. There is nothing spiritual about that. It is a problem and therefore needs treatment. This is very different from a transcendent experience.


    At what point can this state be considered pathological?

    If you are having visions or extraordinary experiences within a ceremony, that is not necessarily “pathological.” It may be inherent to the healing process that is specific to the ceremony. But if the ceremony is over and days have passed, and you are still hearing voices saying you are Jesus and you must save the world, that enters into the territory of pathology.

    What is the difference? One is time and context. Certain phenomena are expected in the container of the ceremony. But if they happen outside this context, they are signs that something is wrong. That something needs to be observed and attended to. In traditional Amazonian medicine, it is understood that there are plants that can make a person more arrogant or haughty. Care is taken with them. Sometimes it is necessary to have a stronger ego to deal with reality, as is the case with depression.

    I recently took yagé with the indigenous Cofan people. I started to go deeper while working with them twenty years ago. I have become familiar with different lineages over time, but I must say that they are great masters of plants. I have observed their whole line of work on humility because ego inflation can happen when working with certain psychotropic plants.

    On one hand, there is ego loss. On the other extreme, there is ego inflation, which may happen to someone after an experience with plant medicine. They feel they are the center of the world, and their sense of pride is increased from an unhealthy point of view. I have often seen people whose narcissism has grown after taking plants. In the myth of Narcissus, Narcissus ends up drowning.

    I know someone with a narcissistic personality structure who at ceremonies saw himself as a powerful lion and the leader of the pride. This person felt that the plant was telling him he was a superior being. However, what appeared in his experience was what he already had inside: a feeling of being above others. For this person, it was a message from the plant confirming that he was special, not a mirror of what he had inside. It is easy to lose yourself if you are not able to understand, or work with someone to help you understand, that by seeing yourself as a lion the plant is showing you your pride and narcissism.


    Is there a personality type that is more prone to getting lost in these ways?

    Two personality structures are more likely to enter into a pathological situation: one is a narcissistic personality and the second is a fragile ego. They both can lose the barrier that separates them from the world. This makes it more difficult to function in reality.

    During a plant diet in certain Amazonian traditions, they make sure to reinforce aspects of someone’s personality structure before the medicine is administered in order to avoid an experience of ego dissolution. When we don’t have a good guide, we generally don’t have access to the wisdom of how to work with them more carefully and wisely. This can lead to going to places we are not prepared for, and we could potentially get hurt.

    The same is true for meditation. There is a whole process of bodily, mental, and even ethical preparation before someone begins to have certain experiences of consciousness. This is because if you voyage without proper preparation, it can do more harm than good. The Global North is not aware of this. In a sense, we are learning.


    Is there a risk that a narcissistic or individualistic culture will accentuate these traits when encountering plants? 

    There is no doubt about it. I have seen people who take plants without adequate preparation and integration, and they become increasingly more paranoid over the years. Instead of healing, their neuroses or narcissism increases. I have seen people who, after thirty years of having plant medicine experiences, were unable to end their depression. Because of our cultural biases and the way we process plant work, we may run the risk of becoming more paranoid, arrogant, and narcissistic. That is to say, becoming sicker rather than healthier.

    We need people to guide us and help us process our plant experience so that we do not end up reinforcing the unhealthy aspects of our personality structure. When a person has a certain psychological structure, they often unconsciously seek to reinforce it rather than get out of it. It is like someone who starts to go to the gym to lift weights. They build a rigid physical structure that reinforces a rigid psychological structure. That happens to all of us. That’s why we need someone to accompany us and help us face our blind spots when we need them.


    How does integration work address ego dissolution?

    In my experience, when integrating ayahuasca work with people from the Global North, I most often see cases of ego inflation as opposed to loss of identity. This is because we belong to a very narcissistic culture. When a person has a loss of ego there was often something pre-existing and the experience catalyzed what was already there. This person likely had a fragile self already. Looking back, this type of personality is reflected in many aspects of relationships, work, and dreams. A crisis often reveals aspects that were already present in the person’s life but had not been detected before.

    These situations can be worked on with a combination of deep and prolonged psychotherapy and bodywork. Energetic and spiritual aspects of healing are used more often in Indigenous/traditional systems of medicine and generally have a more holistic approach. In traditional Amazonian medicine, some plants give you a deeper connection with the earth. The plant bobinsana, for example, gives you the ability to ground yourself. Botanicals that increase a sense of individuality are for someone who has self-esteem issues. Sometimes a psychiatric intervention can also help.


    A case study from the ICEERS Support Centre…

    Some time ago, a patient consulted the ICEERS Support Centre who had taken ayahuasca and had set the intention for his ceremony to “let go of his ego.”

    During the ceremony, he felt he lost his ego and had no sense of self. It was horrible for him. He was terrified and got lost for days. He was deeply disconnected from himself and others. He was unable to find his way around and was exhausted, extremely confused, and very lonely. Days after the ceremony, he was still terrified. His ability to work and cope with everyday life had been seriously disrupted. With no sense of himself, he could not make decisions or deal with his situation. He felt that he had ruined his life, there was no turning back, and perhaps he should go to a mental hospital.

    When he started his integration sessions with the ICEERS Support Centre, he thought the ceremony and the plant had damaged him and he had experienced a “bad trip.” Through working with him, he realized he did not need to lose his ego, but rather build a healthy, stronger ego so he could cope with reality. He understood that the desire to put the ego aside came from an attempt to avoid a deep pain that had been difficult to process. He was also able to link terrifying aspects of his experience in ceremony to his childhood, family, and his primary attachments. He then could find a clear track to begin working on himself.

    Through integration work, the client was able to understand that ayahuasca amplifies unresolved issues that were there before. He realized the experience was an opportunity for useful learning and self-awareness. In his own words, it went from being a bad trip to being a hard truth. Although it was difficult, it was also very useful. He made sense of his experience, including the difficulty and fear. He was able to start consciously working towards building a healthy ego rather than seeking to put it aside.


    The team at the ICEERS Support Center works from the belief that integrating the experiences with psychoactive plants in our societies includes responding to difficulties that may emerge. Ideally, this would be a response that is accessible, culturally sensitive, and community-rooted. An effective integration process can mean the difference between clarity and confusion, safety and risk, balance and imbalance.

    Through this service, people who have had difficult experiences can access up to five sessions with a trained professional free of charge or by donation. Learn more about the program here. In addition, those interested in more information about integration and the history of the ICEERS Support Centre can check out a recently published book by Marc Aixalà Psychedelic Integration: Psychotherapy for Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness.

    Categories: NEWS
    Tags: psychedelics , interview , hallucinogens , psychotherapy , integration