Medicine and Healing

Owl Shaman Jaguar Medicine by Katherine Skaggs

Owl Shaman Jaguar Medicine by Katherine Skaggs

by James Pittman


A Cree medicine man traveled to a Unitarian Universalist summer camp beside a beautiful lake deep in the Adirondack mountains when I was there as a boy, and our community had the honor of welcoming him to the land. This man was on a mission to share sacred Sweatlodge Ceremony with people to help initiate a powerful time of change on Earth.  Such a ceremony was new to most (if not all) of us, and yet in our hearts we intuitively knew it to be aligned with our own spiritual beliefs and connection to our care-filled stewardship of the land. 

We learned so much from the spiritual “medicine” (as he called it, in language usage that was new to us) that this man carried. He carefully chose green saplings from the forest and blessed each one of us with a tobacco prayer before cutting, then in the same way, blessed each hole that he dug in a circle before placing one sapling in each and bending them together to form the Sweat Lodge. It was a way of care and respect that I had never before witnessed, will never forget, and hope to embody in my own life more and more. He placed the opening of the lodge to the East (as is the way), and the following day I experienced my first sacred ceremony.

The way the Cree Medicine man led that ceremony experience taught me profound lessons that I have learned more and more deeply again and again ever since, with every different ceremony and medicine tradition that I have been blessed to experience and learn about in life. It was the beginning of the process of me becoming a man, and of a medicine and healing path that I am soulfully here to share in a heartfelt way, as it was shared with me.

Great thanks and profound gratitude extend from my heart to that Cree man even to this day, and to all the human beings and more-than-human teacher spirits whom I honored and been honored to have learned from since. Please let me tell you about why, so that we might share together the healing medicine wisdom of ancestors.

Water is Life (blessings to those now at Standing Rock) and medicine. As are earth, air, fire, wood and metal. Dear friends Rios Ucayi, Nanay, Hoh and other rivers of the world are also medicine. Wise teachers Apu Wekuvtewa, Quemado, Ausengate and other great mountains of the world are medicine. Great ancient cedar and fir and other trees, rocks, animals and all other beings or “things” of this world are medicine.  You and I are medicine. In a shamanic worldview, everything is medicine, and everything can be poison; the difference between the two is dosage and intention. Please read that again and let it permeate, it’s important. 

The medicine of each being has a uniquely different quality, power and use, that can be activated with the keys of focused intention and gratitude. In talking about sacred plant medicines, I’m reminded of a time when a dear friend experienced immense stomach pains during sacred fire ceremonies in Guatemala. She asked the shaman who was with us if he could help to reduce her discomfort and pain. He replied with a smile, muttered something about going to the “farmacia”, which we did not understand since we were far from any town, deep in the forests near Tikal. It all became clear and we understood when he promptly vanished into the forest and shortly thereafter returned with a handful of leaves that he told her to chew and swallow — she did so and it quickly numbed her mouth and settled her stomach to at least be tolerable, though the deeper source of the pain took more time, intention and commitment to healing.

Shipibo healers and other seekers in the jungles of Peru, and other indigenous peoples, will often spend weeks to months or longer in “dieta” with a particular plant, usually eating very simple meals and often in isolation, so as to quiet the background stimulus from the world and listen carefully to wisdom teachings directly from that plant. This is how they learn what that particular plant medicine is used for, and when it should be used, as medicine. Those in dieta may also receive sacred Icaros (healing songs) to convey the power of the plant in ceremonies and use that energy for healing others. It might best be said that, whether literally or metaphorically, indigenous shamans learn about plant medicines through direct communication with nature. The plants speak to them from the spirit world to teach them about what they are for and ways they can build a strong relationship with its medicine. If this sounds fantastical, and is more easily accepted as metaphorical story, keep in mind that many ancient and indigenous cultures around the world have much more sophisticated information about and knowledge of the dynamics of stars and celestial objects than can be explained by the technologies they use. Many ancient indigenous civilizations have had mysteriously sophisticated ways of tracking the procession of the Equinoxes, a cycle far longer than the existence of many of these cultures, and extensive knowledge about star systems that western astronomers are only now learning about with new technology. Conventional western “modern” science has no way of explaining this.

We have thoughts and emotions that block medicine for a time, in what the Shipibo people call a “choca”. Fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, dislike, hatred, intolerance, jealousy, envy and similar so-called “negative” feelings are the names we give to some of these chocas. (Eckhart Tolle) These feelings emerge as projections from our ego, and if held on to for too long tend to descend into physical form that we know as illness and disease. In the simplicity of their existence these feelings are not bad, but are heavy and not resonant or harmonious with the health and integrity of ourselves, our relationships and the sacred pattern of all things. We create these non-resonant patterns so as to learn from them, release them and thereby understand our own sacredness through natural ways of healing.

Love, joy, peace and other so-called “positive” feelings tend to be better aligned with the natural, sacred harmoniously resonant patterns and power of medicine. We remember this each time we release non-resonant patterns that we have fully learned from and are no longer serving us. Of course, sometimes this is not as simple as it may seem when such patterns stick around more deeply or longer than is comfortable or return again to test us.

Now, I realize the language here may be foreign to some, though I hope that in your heart you feel a sense of knowing these things to be true. Let me approach it from another angle, in case that helps.

In a conventional western sense of the word “medicine,” it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of pharmaceuticals prescribed are ultimately discovered in or sourced from forest plants. Yet, conventional western medicine has only achieved research on and identification of less than 5% of the incredibly biodiverse species in the Amazon rainforest, what botanist Richard Schultes called “The Healing Forest”, and other sacred forests of the world. As rivers in the Amazon basin and around the world are being poisoned with pollution from careless oil extraction and other heavy industry, as well as being impacted by deforestation, we are losing irreplaceable sacred medicines that far outweigh the value of the oil and timber being extracted. These sacred plant medicines hold the keys to healing addiction, trauma, thyroid and heart disorders, cancers, and many other — if not indeed all — illnesses and diseases. Beyond being the source of countless plant medicines, as perhaps the last remaining area of extensive healthy forests in a major river system on the planet, the Amazon rainforests are the lungs of the Earth producing more than 20% of the oxygen we breathe and is the source of more than 20% of the planets flowing freshwater supply.

Indigenous peoples with intact lineages of wisdom tradition in these and other places on Earth, have vast and extensive yet still only partial understanding of the full diversity of plant medicines. The means by which this knowledge is conveyed often occurs through shamanic methods and practice accessed within ceremonial rituals.  

We know in our hearts the truth of these healing medicine ways, yet we pretend to be asleep to this ancient natural wisdom as a game to understand it in its absence through remembrance. It’s a game we began with the creation of this world itself, so as to better understand ourselves, the Great I Am, and sacredness of all beings. The ultimate truth is that healing medicine weaves together and unites the heart songs of all beings, in a richly diverse and colorful mosaic that we know as life.

It is time for us all to wake up from this sleep, to change our dream of separation and the death economy to a new dream of the Earth and life. It is time for us to remember and begin once again to deeply honor and respect the precious medicine of our sacred shared home here on Earth. This reciprocity that we can and will offer to the spirits of Earth is what in Peru they call “Ayni” — a Quechua word referring to the sacred exchange of life force energy.  It is time for us to give sacredness back to ourselves, each other, and all of Our Relations.


James Pittman is a shamanic practitioner, whole systems designer, public speaker, professional coach and consultant dedicated to helping others remember their sacredness within our collective interconnectedness on Earth. He lives and works as a global nomad around the United States, the upper Amazon Basin and Andes mountains, continuing a lifelong love of wild places and 8 year passion for ancient wisdom traditions by training with indigenous elders and shamanic practitioners from diverse cultures of the Americas. You can read more on his blog, EARTHOME.