Exploring Sacred Reciprocity at the Psychedelic Psychotherapy Forum

By Andrea M. Langlois, MA

Oct 3, 2020

When contemplating the gifts that I, a non-indigenous woman, have received from plant medicine traditions, several questions arise: How do I reciprocate? What meaning do I make of this bond that now exists between myself and traditional knowledge and medicine carriers? And more concretely, what does circulation of wealth look like within the psychedelic community?

In his seminal text “The Gift” (1925), French anthropologist Marcel Mauss explored the role that gifting plays in traditional cultures, from the Polynesians to the Haida, as an obligatory system that binds people together in a whole. Within these systems, each gift is part of a system of reciprocity in which the honor of giver and recipient are engaged.

Furthermore, and perhaps most interesting when we bring these concepts into the realm of plant medicine traditions, he writes of traditions where it’s considered that the gift itself has a spirit.

In writing of Maori perspectives, he says: “The obligation attached to a gift itself is not inert. Even when abandoned by the giver, it still forms a part of him… For the taonga [present of something] is animated with the hau [spirit] of its forest, its soil, it’s homeland and the hau pursues him who holds it.”

This spirit obligates the receiver to give a gift of their own, which is the motivating force behind the obligatory circulation of wealth in these communities and with their neighbours. Gifting creates bonds between peoples, since “to give something is to give a part of oneself.”

Marcel’s work has deepened my exploration of these questions, which only started getting louder after the 2019 World Ayahuasca Conference in Girona, Spain, where the theme of “sacred reciprocity” floated to the surface in a multitude of presentations and conversations.

One example was in the provocative talk by Jeremy Narby, explored how White people have been extracting countless resources from the Amazon for decades, with ayahuasca being the most recent.

Many ayahuasca drinkers say that their time in the jungle has changed their lives, he said. “What did the Amazonians people who attended to them get out of it? Perhaps some payment, but probably nothing quite so life-changing.”

Narby suggested that undoing this imbalance and making our relations with Amazonian people more reciprocal is the “work of a lifetime.”

Since that time, I’ve been exploring what this work might look like and how the psychedelics community can engage in “sacred reciprocity” with communities that have stewarded ayahuasca, iboga, mushrooms, etc., for generations. If these gifts we’ve received have a spirit, how do we honour these gifts and play our role as givers as well as recipients?

At the upcoming Psychedelic Psychotherapy Forum, I’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with Duncan Grady, Jazmin Pirozek, and Claudia Ford where we will explore some of these questions. In preparation for the event, I interviewed each of them and we planted the seeds for the dialogue.

For Duncan Grady, Ph.D., psychotherapist and elder of the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society in the West Kootenays, BC, thinking about sacred reciprocity means going beyond money and barter.

He said, “If I give you this and you give me that, that’s one thing. That’s not sacred reciprocity. I may pay you for ceremony, but how am I going to receive it?”

“Sacred reciprocity is allowing myself to be touched rather than grasping, wanting, clinging, the energy of allowing myself to receive what I am not wanting necessarily, but everything.”

For Grady, sacred reciprocity is developed in how we live what we receive, the teachings, the lessons. It is in honouring the lessons that we engage in reciprocity.

In our conversation, Jazmin Pirozek spoke of the importance of reciprocity before the gift is even received. Jazmin Pirozek is First Nations and is a student of Amazonian Traditional Medicine.

She said, “When I go to collect plants, I gift them tobacco smoke, the plant inhales it and acknowledges the exchange. The spirit in the plant then knows that I am aware of its spirit.”

Gratitude is of critical importance, according to Pirozek. She spoke of a class of worldviews that occurs when some Westerners go to drink ayahuasca in the Amazon – that they just go to take and how she has shared with people how important gratitude is and finding ways to be reciprocal.

Claudia Ford is a midwife and ethnobotanist, who studies traditional ecological knowledge and is on the faculty at State University of New York, Potsdam. For Ford, reciprocity is one of the three Rs that she has learned from indigenous peoples – respect, relationship, and reciprocity.

With regards to engaging in learning with and from other cultures, respect is of critical importance, she says. “What does it mean to respect knowledge that is not from your lineage and that you might not understand?”

In most cultures, she says, relationships underpin everything – between humans and with the natural world. We can only exist as humans because of our relationships with plants.

Reciprocity, in Ford’s perspective, is the framework that has to do with exchange and gratitude. She points to the work of one of her teachers, the renowned ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer who writes extensively about the “honorable harvest” and not taking more than one needs, leaving some, and being thankful to the plant for what they’ve given.

Ford noted that currently capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy have gotten in the way of balanced reciprocity. The sovereignty of plants is not recognized and extractive ideologies have thrown things out of balance.

The textured and deep perspectives of Grady, Pirozek, and Ford lay the foundation for a fulsome conversation about how these perspectives can inform how we engage in sacred reciprocity in psychedelic communities.

>> Join our Roundtable Discussion on “Sacred Reciprocity / Plant Medicines” during the 2020 Psychedelic Psychotherapy Forum on Wednesday, October 14th from 12:15pm PST – 1:15pm PST, where we will further weave this important dialogue.