The Master Plant Experience

Chapter 2: Me and We

We know that a certain amount of suffering and challenge are an inevitable and inherent part of the human experience. Much as we may want to eliminate that, the nature of our current reality is that we all encounter difficulties over the course of our lives. The ten-million-dollar question is how do we become resilient in the face of those periods of inevitable hardship? How do we bounce back?

In Chapter 1, we discussed that a common underlying reason we suffer is because we live under the perception that we are separate, isolated, and not able to be seen for who we are. And those same perceptions of separateness are mirrored in our physiology – in how our hearts beat, how we breathe and oxygenate, our stress response, our posture, literally down to the function of our cells.

Yet everything mainstream we are told to do to “heal” perpetuates our sense of separateness – even from ourselves. We’ve come to see our bodies and their many parts as disconnected and divorced from us, to the point that we literally see fit to declare war on them. We wage war on our bodies, on fat, on germs, and on cancer, not to mention on the natural world – declaring war on weeds, bugs, and, of course, “drugs.” Yet as astrophysicist Hubert Reeves said, “We’re in a war with nature. If we win, we’re lost.”

What if we’ve been taking entirely the wrong approach to healing?

Famed humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s widely taught hierarchy of needs puts forth a model of society in which our physiological needs and safety are fundamental to our need for connection and self-actualization, which are portrayed as a proverbial cherry on top of higher priority “essentials.” One outcome of this model is the portrayal that survival becomes more primary than connection, which feeds our perpetual “war on” mentality.

It turns out, however, that Maslow’s theory was largely influenced by (some say generously borrowed from) a summer, in 1938, that he spent with one of North America’s largest indigenous nations, the Blackfoot people. There, he was deeply fascinated and moved by a community very different from his own, where self-actualization was the norm, which he defined as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” This approach included wide cooperation, generosity, minimal inequality, restorative justice, met needs, and a sense of satisfaction.

Yet Maslow went on to place self-actualization as the pinnacle for the individual to achieve. In contrast, the Blackfoot way of life assumes we’re each born self-actualized, as inherently sacred beings who deserve to be treated with dignity from our very first breath. Each person’s responsibility is to earn this status through continuous practice – with self-actualization serving not the benefit of the individual or as part of any hierarchy, but always in service to community. In turn, the community’s responsibility is cultural perpetuity – to make decisions informed by the experience of the seven generations before and to consider the consequences for the seven generations to come.

In this paradigm, self-actualization only has meaning in the context of community, lineage, and spirit – all of which ensure access to food, water, shelter, safety, and connection, as well as satisfaction and self-actualization for us and for generations to come.

No hierarchy necessary. Cooperation, kinship, sharing, service. Everybody takes care of everybody. Makes sense, right?

Given that Maslow was a product of the modern scientific paradigm of the times, the version of the Blackfoot worldview represented in his hierarchy of needs is no great surprise.

We’re still very much living in those times.

Modern science breaks complex systems into their parts and studies each in isolation. This approach was innovated in the 1600s largely by influential philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes, who believed that the human body was essentially a machine made up of various parts, such as organs, muscles, and bones. His concept of “mechanical philosophy” argued that the natural world and all living beings therein could be understood as complex machines made up of various parts that function together to produce the phenomena of life. He separated mind from body and science from religion, and in the process, transformed science into a sort of religion.

Over the ensuing centuries, Western science has taken a zealous approach of reductionism, operating under the belief that just as breaking a car down into the smallest parts possible should allow us to fully understand how the car works, so too should that work in living systems like our bodies or forest ecosystems. Scientists therefore explore the behavior of disembodied cells in isolation and extrapolate from their behavior in petri dishes what the cells might do in complex systems. Environmental influences are taken into account insofar as they’re considered confounding, or interfering with the true function of the cell. Even blood tests, bacterial cultures, and biopsies remove part of a living organism, analyze it in isolation, reduce it to its smallest parts, and then make assumptions about what that could mean in a living organism, according to our expectations. Undoubtedly that can sometimes be tremendously helpful. But what might we be missing?

The trouble is that we are not a collection of independent cells that work neatly side-by-side, but a robust, messy universe, filled with redundancies, in ongoing complex intelligent exchange. And this exchange is not just between parts of ourselves but also with the universe around us. This implies that much of science until now has been looking at and reporting a profoundly simplified – and at best, partially true – version of us.

Also, the modern scientific method operates with the understanding that we can be objective observers, yet by the principles of complex systems, the observer and the observed are unavoidably and irrevocably in relationship. We are inherently part of the experiment; always influencing the outcomes of science.

All of this to say: While the reductionist approach may have some merit, it’s been held up as the only way of knowing for centuries to the exclusion of all other approaches, and that is dangerous.

I Am Because We Are

The robust and rapidly growing science of connection explores the ways living beings – from cells to humans to entire ecosystems – interact with each other and the world around them. From the microbes living in our guts to the connection between our bodies, minds, and spirits, to relationships that we have with our loved ones, we are connected to others in a multitude of ways.

Leading up to and during the pandemic, we clearly saw this. We need each other. We wither without companionship. Just as the invisible relationships within us allow our bodies to survive physically, our relationships to people, place, and even the invisible allows us to find meaning and joy during challenging periods. Connection nourishes our hearts and souls.

All living beings rely on each other in a myriad of ways. Plants rely on soil, sun and mycelium for nutrients; insects and plants jointly survive through pollination; and animals eat insects and plants. In this web of life, all living beings must be connected to survive and thrive. Everyone needs everyone else.

We may think of community as the people we see at the grocery store, or the online friends we’ve made who post the funniest memes, or the neighbors on our block. All of those would be correct. But let’s take it just a little further.

A community is also a group of interdependent organisms growing together in a specified habitat. What if, when we thought of community, we included every cell, microbe, and drop of water within us? And everything around us? Sun, seed, soil, wind, water, and beyond?

What if we considered the terrain within and around us as our kin?

We know that swarms of bees and schools of fish can accomplish what one bee or fish cannot. We now know that forests work as communities both by sharing sunlight with one another, and through mycelial networks underground, sending support in the form of nutrients and phytochemicals. We are even learning that fungi are communicating with one another in a way that looks uncannily like human speech.

In Zulu, the term ubuntu means “I am because we are.” In other words, a person is a person through their interactions.

Human beings are social. We interpret stimuli based on possible social relevance. We spend tremendous amounts of time assessing our own and each other’s social relationships. The social brain hypothesis theorizes that our large brains evolved in response to the demands of our complex social systems.

If only we’d realized how complex our social systems really are.

All the way down to our mitochondria, the energy makers of our cells, we love to be connected and work together. Mitochondria do much more than produce energy; they act as sentinels in the cell, continually sampling the environment to determine safety based on infection, toxins, and other stressors and deciding whether the cell should live or die, a process called apoptosis.

If we were to picture mitochondria, we’d probably imagine that all mitochondria look exactly alike, along the lines of whatever illustrations we memorized from our high school biology textbooks. Turns out that’s wrong. Mitochondria are very individual in their structure, depending on their environment. When they are in what they perceive to be a “safe” environment, they are structured like branched spaghetti, exchanging information and nutrients and functioning at a very high level. When they perceive themselves to be in danger, they roll up like meatballs and don’t share information or nutrients – and thus aren’t able to function nearly as well – all in the name of protection.

Even our mitochondria become alone and isolated when they don’t experience their community (us!) as safe and supportive.

We already know from Chapter 1 that we are utterly dependent on our relationship with the billions of microbes that live in and on our bodies. But where do they come from?

When we come into contact with others – people, animals, plants, soil, water – we share microbes. It may sound a little scary, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our immune systems are social and thrive on meeting and greeting diverse organisms and compounds. Think of it as just another way we talk to one another.

As a result, we leave every encounter we have with another living being changed, with countless new organisms that speak to our immune and nervous systems and even to our mitochondria. Our mitobiome describes the communication between microbes and mitochondria, seemingly disparate but cooperative beings that reside in the universe of us that we now know evolved from common bacterial ancestry. The ongoing mitobiome conversation literally alters the mitochondrial messages sent to the nucleus – influencing transcription of hormones, cytokines, and neurotransmitters we make –based on their exchange.

We are not the same minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, in part because – depending on who we see and where we go – our microbiome is not the same, and that’s good.

Our shared microbiome is constantly shifting and growing, depending on how we feel, how we care for ourselves, and how we connect with family members, friends, pets and wild animals, as well as the plants we eat and tend, the soil beneath our feet, and the forests that surround us. These microbes support our digestion, immune systems, hormones, bones, and aging and help prevent us from developing disease. More than that, they communicate directly with our mitochondria to instigate cellular changes responsible for cravings, feelings, productivity, a sense of well-being, and even athletic prowess.

We are a series of infinite ongoing conversations made manifest, and our bodies are beautifully built to reflect this.

Our networks of microbes “talk” to our mitochondria, which “talk” to the cells’ nuclei, who then send out neurotransmitters, hormones, and cytokines to “talk” with other cells throughout the body. Our fascial network is now known to be a communication system of connective tissue that surrounds every organ and body structure, and talks by way of molecules, electrical signals and even photons. And researchers have recently discovered that the extracellular “space” surrounding our cells is not empty but comprises a communication network called interstitium, which connects every cell in the body. Some researchers are now calling interstitium an organ in its own right, due to its critical functions in regulating fluid balance, immune responses, and signaling.

We are even connected – cell by cell, organ by organ – through our heart’s powerful electromagnetic field that entrains the brain and other organs in the body to all synchronize as one community. Based on modern understanding, the brain controls the body and serves as the home to our consciousness. But extensive laboratory research comparing EEG and EKG tracings shows that it is in fact our hearts that perceive and anticipate our environment before our brains. Our heart rate variability – the variation of pauses between our heartbeats – predicts our emotional state with impressive accuracy. In this way, our hearts act as organs of perception and communication by emitting a measurable electromagnetic “biofield” that can be detected up to ten feet away.

More and more, we are realizing we’re less one human organism and more like a rainforest, a swarm, or a universe inside a universe inside a universe. We just didn’t realize how robust these many systems were because until recently, we were too busy taking everything apart.

We’re seeing in real time that despite everything we’ve been told, we’re not independent and self-reliant. We are interconnected. We all have to care for and be cared for by each other. We have to create a society that encourages us to show up for each other and check on each other. And we must make decisions not from the top down, but side by side, in ways that benefit individuals and all living beings.

We can cultivate these relationships that nourish us. That begins with our relationship with ourselves. Think of our bodies as a series of nested relationships – microbiome, mitochondria, epigenetics, cells, fascia, heart, brain, and other organ systems.

We Are Made of Relationships

Let’s talk about our terrain. Our terrain is physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and ecological.

Terrain is within us; let’s call that the bio-terrain. It’s our heart, lungs, brain, gut, kidneys, bone, and blood. It’s our microbiome, the three to five pounds of invisible-to-the-naked eye bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites (that’s right!) that live in and on our bodies and keep us regulated and healthy. It also includes our DNA, our epigenetics, our emotions, our spirit, and our soul.

Terrain is all around us, too; our eco-terrain is sun, soil, seeds, wind, water, the food we eat, the people we surround ourselves with, the microbes around us, the art, the music, the toxins, the way we spend our time, even the news we consume.

Invisible conversations between all of these entities and elements influence us in measurable ways. For example, research shows that we are healthier when we spend regular time immersed in nature. “Bathing” in the forest regularly improves focus, executive function, and memory; reduces anxiety; promotes better sleep and feelings of happiness; lowers stress hormones like cortisol; boosts our immune systems; and reduces our risk of cancer. Spending regular time in sunlight (while avoiding sunburn) or getting our hands in the soil are two deeply evidence-based interventions that can help us become healthier and prevent illness. One 2016 study from the Karolinska Institute looked at thirty thousand women over a twenty-year period and found that those who assiduously avoided the sun doubled their risk of dying for any reason. In fact, the risk was considered equal to that of smoking cigarettes. A different study looked at healthy women who spent regular time in the forest and noted that their bodies increased production of natural killer cells and anticancer proteins. These benefits come simply by prioritizing an interaction between ourselves and the forest and sun.

We also rely on plant and animal communities around us in ways that are not immediately obvious. For example, research shows that when trees die, humans that live near those trees die at higher rates. This observation does not clearly reflect anything that we’ve yet been able to directly assess (like cleaner air), but rather what are likely complex relationships that are beyond our ability to currently measure.

And as we’ll soon see, forests themselves are living, intelligent organisms that depend upon all the many different organisms and entities for wellbeing, including miles of mycelium living in the soil beneath them.

When our inner and outer terrains are in alignment, we – and all living beings around us – experience greater health, wellbeing and balance.

Terrain is everything – from our body’s ability to protect itself and stay in balance; our mind’s sense of well-being; and our sense of purpose and joy to the food we eat; the land we stand on; and the quality of our connections to the visible and invisible world within and around us.

When we are facing health hurdles or other unanticipated life challenges, one course of action is always certain: attuning to and tending our terrain. When we are in physical, emotional, spiritual, and ecological balance, we become resilient and less likely to be derailed by any given stressors – personal or collective – from confronting novel organisms to political unrest.

This entanglement is good news. We need not think of ourselves as being entirely responsible for everything. We are intimately embedded in and thus supported by a massive life force. Our inner and outer garden is being tended to and nourished by vast numbers of beings. The task of our individual and collective well-being isn’t a job for each of us alone. It rests in the quality of our infinite visible and invisible relationships.

What this all means is that each of us is not just me but WE.

Everyone is in beautiful conversation with everyone else, and together, this becomes a diverse, complex concert that makes our bodies, minds, and spirits sing.

These conversations even transcend time and space. We think of our ancestors as distant from us, but even the lives of our ancestors are not long gone. They manifest through us every day. This is not a metaphor.

The past experiences of our ancestors are woven into our epigenetics and determine how our DNA expresses itself in tangible and practical ways. For example, significant events of our great-great-grandparents’ lives, such as famine, war, or farm chemical exposure, can affect how our genes express in the present moment. While DNA remains relatively stable over generations, the way it is read does not. Our epigenetics (meaning “on top of” genetics) are the labels that influence where and when proteins begin reading certain parts of DNA and where they stop, based on exposures to food, toxins, exercise, traumatic experiences, time in nature, and more. Think of them as yellow sticky notes all over our DNA that tell translating proteins to START HERE NOW. Or STOP. These labels help explain why we go gray, bald, or enter menopause at particular ages or even why familial conditions manifest in us or not.

What’s fascinating is that though our epigenetics are inherited, they are reversible. This is why it is said that when we heal ourselves, we heal generations both backward and forward. On the one hand, mystics have always maintained that time and space are nonlinear. On the other hand, the science of epigenetics demonstrates this phenomenon in ways even the field of genetics previously never would have imagined.

Our survival – and, more than that, our ability to thrive – begins and ends with this giant web of unseen connection that transcends time and space.

Part of what makes us unique is the invisible world within us. Some aspects can be assessed. Others cannot, at least not with tools we currently have, and some are esoteric and thus simply not measurable. We are each individual, with our own genes, our own microbial community, and our own inner terrain. We are each the result of a vast coevolution, a moment-to-moment outcome of ongoing countless microbial contacts and encounters with diverse beings. Nothing about this process is static. Each day, we are made and remade of complex symbiotic relationships and infinite encounters. We exist because of our relationships – beginning with microbes, food, dirt, plants, animals, water, air, and people. And these systems are self-organized; there is no hierarchy there.

Engaging with our terrain means cultivating intimacy and trust as we lean into all of these nested relationships and the natural cycles of Mother Earth. And as with any defining relationship, these invisible connections both hold us and challenge us. The trust we inhabit by embracing our role as Me and We permits us to stay more resilient, curious, and even playful in the face of mystery, which includes all that we don’t or can’t know. From this place, we can awaken to sense a numinous layer of communication, with opportunities and solutions that present in subtle and unexpected ways – in signs, symbols, synchronicities, and epiphanies. This attunement to our terrain invites us to remember the universal language that has no words, allowing us to rejoin a bigger conversation.

Master Plants Help Us Heal on a Community Level

In Western medicine, any conversation about the body refers only to the physical structure we inhabit. Yet as miraculous as our bodies are, they are not only physical – but also psychological, emotional, and spiritual. In fact, psyche means soul, or spirit. And beyond even that, our bodies are relational. They are part of a family, a community, a village – which means that if a problem arises within us, the community can be present to help. In fact, most cultures consider community intervention mandatory because the problems of one affect all.

As anyone who has dealt with a sick family member knows, no person in the family will function in quite the same way when their loved one is suffering, because everyone’s well-being is inseparable from the well-being of the one. And though we’ve strayed from this fundamental knowing in our “rugged individualist” culture, we’re paying a heartbreaking price in a plethora of ways. The truth of this interconnection remains inescapable for our families, communities, and society at large.

We are only ever as strong as the support we offer our weakest member.

Master Plants help us directly engage with the traumatized or compromised within and around us – be it our cells, our psyches, our souls, people, other living beings, and beyond. They offer us opportunities and guidance to find our way out of derangement and into a more profound experience of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, ecological, and relational balance.

The so-called “psychedelic renaissance” being touted in widespread headlines is really a renaissance of relationship. Because while these sacred plants work within us as individuals, they are considered also to recalibrate us on a community level – and not just the human community or even the greater-than-human community, but the ancestral community, the spirit community, and beyond. In an indigenous paradigm, none of us are mere “individuals” but rather custodians, in service to – and simultaneously part of – something much more. As such, these plants offer healing that includes and also goes far beyond each of us, which is why they can be so effective.

As we’ll see over the course of the coming chapters, Master Plants demonstrate how to shift our paradigm from “Us versus Them” to “Me and We.” The language of modern science is showing us ways that these plants boost our connectivity, empathy, gratitude, wonder and awe, and sense of meaning.

Indigenous people around the world have long engaged with psychedelic Master Plants as a way to contact with divinity that is considered to exist everywhere. That they impart knowledge of the therapeutic virtues of plants and fungi, as well as the sacredness of nature and all life, has earned particular plants the status of Teacher or Master. By offering a window into the depth of our connection – with ourselves, each other, the natural world, and the invisible –they show us how we can begin to cultivate greater compassion and self-compassion, trust, gratitude, and curiosity, so we can heal and grow individually, relationally, and communally.

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