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Essential Ceremony Skills: Creating Safe Spaces with Sacred Medicines

As sacred medicine ceremonies expand all over the world, it has never been more important for facilitators and guides to have the skills necessary to create safe ceremony spaces. In the hands of facilitators who are not properly trained and equipped for all eventualities, things can go wrong during ceremonies, and participants can suffer mental and physical harm.

From energetic protection, to managing physical safety, and supporting participants during intense moments of their journey, the safe, qualified, and good ceremony facilitator must have an arsenal of tools at their disposal.

While this is the case for many different medicines, including magic mushrooms, San Pedro, or Iboga, the information in this blog will pertain primarily to ayahuasca ceremonies. Much of it, however, will come in handy for other types of ceremonies.

Let’s dive in.

Energy Management and Protection

When a sacred medicine, such as ayahuasca, is ingested, a portal of energy is opened up in that space. Without proper energetic protection, cleansing, and management, disorder can ensue in a ceremony space and negative energies or spirits may enter.

Even for the assistants in the ceremony, energetic hygiene is paramount, says Marc-John Brown, shamanic coach and mentor, founder of Native Wisdom Hub, and Head Coach at the Plant Spirit School Integration Coach Certification Program.

Brown encourages guides and assistants to ask themselves; What preparation protocol do I have if I’m going to step into a ceremony to assist a facilitator? How can I stay as close to the center of the medicine wheel as possible? If I venture away from this centeredness, what practices do I have to bring myself back to a centered state?

Brown advises that anyone supporting ayahuasca ceremonies have a good knowledge of energetic hygiene practices, such as shamanic drumming, space clearing and opening using tools such as sage, mapacho, or copal, as well as closing the space.

Participants are often told to stay inside the maloka, as the facilitator may not be able to control what happens energetically outside of the ceremonial space. Cleaning and replacing participants’ buckets also helps to keep energetic order and create more harmony.

Ultimately, it is up to the curandero – or ceremony leader – to energetically contain or protect the space. In Colombian yagé ceremonies, the taita uses the waira (rattle made of bundled leaves), plays the harmonica, and chants icaros to clear negative energies and harmonize.

In addition to cleansing the physical space, Marc-John Brown also advises that assistants get a sense of group dynamics before the ceremony starts. It’s about “being able to see what personality types or energies are inside the space, and having the courage to say to the facilitator ‘I feel this person might be better in this position’,” he said.

Ensuring the Physical Safety of Participants

Before any participant steps into the ceremonial space, it is paramount that retreat organizers have screened them for medical contraindications – whether that’s for any illnesses they have or medication they’re consuming. Non-qualified guides should refrain from giving advice around tapering off or mixing medications, and instead refer the participant to a trained medical professional who can support them.

However, even with a strict intake process, people do not always adhere to rules around contraindications and they may have a severe reaction, such as a psychotic break or serotonin syndrome in the case of mixing SSRIs with ayahuasca. Facilitators should be ready and trained for such scenarios.

For example, the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, states:

“In the Amazon itself, our safety provisions encompass staff trained in first aid, fully equipped first-aid kits, emergency protocols, permanent communications on and off-site (cell and radio), 24-hour transport to Iquitos, a contracted medical clinic in Iquitos, and 3-4 staff supervising each ceremony (2 facilitators, a door person, and a toilet assistant).”

In the case of an unexpected scenario that may lead to a person doing physical harm to themself or others, Brown recommends using shamanic healing techniques to calm the person, as well as being trained in martial arts and first aid.

Managing Overwhelming Effects

How overwhelming effects of the medicine are treated and managed differ from one context to the next. In the Shipibo-Conibo lineage, healers can use spiritual tools to be able to raise and lower the mareación (drunkenness) of the participant.

At the Ayahuasca Foundation in Peru, students of the Ayahuasca Curandero Initiation Course are taught how to do this:

“Another important understanding is how to raise and lower the mareación, the effects of ayahuasca, in order to achieve the optimal healing environment level for the most effective work to be done. Bringing on the effects, leveling them off, and lowering the effects are all important tools.”

In the EntheoNation workshop on Ayahuasca Ceremony Safety and Harm Reduction, Jerónimo Mazarrasa, Social Innovation Coordinator for ICEERS, noted the numerous ways in which guides and assistants can help to calm overwhelming effects during an ayahuasca experience.

“The main issue has to do with changing the situation, and bringing the person back to the present,” said Mazarrasa. “One way to do this is through taste. You can give them something to drink or something sweet.”

“You can also do this through smell and touch. There is the soplada with tobacco or perfume, which both smell,” he added. “Both of them have a wonderful effect of bringing people back to themselves. It’s a physical act of care – when the healer comes and blows tobacco on you, you know you’re being taken care of. That cannot be mistaken for anything else.”

Mazarrasa also noted changing the temperature, movement, or coming into contact with the ground and the earth as effective ways for a participant to come back to their body and the present when they feel the effects are too intense.

In Colombian yagé ceremonies, healers sometimes use ortiga (stinging nettle) to lower the vibration of someone who is having an overwhelming experience. However, many Colombian taitas note the importance of allowing the person to go through the process – even if it feels overwhelming to them – as that’s what the medicine deems they need to be able to heal. 

With the accelerating globalization of ayahuasca and plant medicines, the need for facilitators with the necessary skills to support the safety and well-being of participants grows too. Those looking to expand their ceremony skills should seek out professional training or the guidance of an elder to support them on this journey. 

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