The Role of Teacher Plants in Healing Addictions


How Amazonian shamans are using ayahuasca, San Pedro and other jungle medicines to achieve up to 75% success rates in freeing people from addictions while the best Western models achieve only 30% success

By Tracie Thornberry with Ross Heaven


Synopsis: From her early teens for approximately 30 years Tracie Thornberry was addicted to alcohol and heroin. She undertook The Salvation Army's Bridge Program to attempt a cure, a process she began with nine other women. Seven dropped out and of the three who completed the program, two returned to alcohol and one of these subsequently died as a result of her addiction. Only Tracie remained clean and sober, an achievement she puts down to a reconnection with spirit rather than the treatment she received per se.


Following her recovery she trained as a drug and addictions counsellor, hoping to find a program that could offer more than the 30% average success rate claimed by Western therapies - or the 10% success rate she had in fact experienced. Her journey then took her to Peru and to meetings with shamans there who were using teacher plants like ayahuasca and San Pedro to yield recovery rates of up to 75%, far better than Western methods. She now runs the Tranquilo Addictions Release Program at The Hummingbird Healing Centre in Iquitos, Peru, using teacher plants and other shamanic methods as well as Western therapeutic approaches to help those who would like to be free of addictions.


In this article she reflects on the approach of the shamans to addiction and concludes that Amazonian methods work (and Western models often fail) because recovery relies on reconnection to the spirit and the self.


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It may seem paradoxical to use mind-altering substances to treat substance (and other) addictions but experience tells me that they can be extremely beneficial.


We need first to suspend any notion that ‘mind-altering' equates with ‘bad'. The fear of taking consciousness-expanding plants is as old as the Bible and in Genesis is thematically expressed as the Fall. The fruit of the tree of knowledge had the ability to transform a person into a God but eating it for this very reason was thought to be bad. The Indians of the Amazon, where I live, also view plant medicines as a means to empowerment and the experience of the divine but their beliefs around this are somewhat different to our own: they regard such plants as nourishment for the soul and venerate them for their healing properties.


I have also seen such plants have the remarkable effect of freeing a person from otherwise destructive patterns of behaviour as part of my research over a number of years to find a method of treating addictions that had a better success rate than the often-quoted 30% of Western treatment models.


Despite their low rate of success I have great respect for 12-step programs but suspect that their achievements are due, for the most part, to their openness to individual spirituality and the opportunity they provide for the addict to deepen his or her connection to a more spiritual life.


This is certainly my own experience. I was born in Australia in 1960 and after a traumatic childhood started using alcohol and heroin at age 15. My addictions continued for 30 years and I tried many ways to get clean including counselling, rebirthing, drug substitution programmes, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, AA and NA.


At the age of 44 I entered the Bridge Program, an intensive 10-month rehabilitation project. During this I developed my own relationship to  spirit and my addiction miraculously lifted. Shortly afterwards I discovered Buddhism and other spiritual practices and successfully continued my recovery with prayer, meditation and AA support.


I had started the Bridge Program with 10 other women, however, and      only three of us completed the course. Of these one subsequently died following her return to alcohol just a month after the course ended. Another is still struggling with addiction. Only I am clean and sober. When I consider what it is that separates us and ponder why I am so lucky, I can't think of much. We all received the same treatment, the same therapies and the same quality and level of care. The only thing I can think of is that I gained something they didn't: a connection to spirit which gave me the insight and strength to succeed.



Addiction - and not only to drugs – is, in my experience and my belief, a consequence of spiritual deprivation. At the core of all addictions there is a spiritual void. While there is no gene for addiction passed on from one generation to the next there may be some personality traits that make it more likely that a person will succumb to the addiction process as a result of this spiritual void. The addict relies on a drug (or food, sex, shopping, gambling, etc) to reawaken dull feelings; the dullness itself is a consequence of an emotional malfunction not of their making. This is the internal shutdown of vulnerability, which is our susceptibility to be wounded, a fragility that is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. When we flee our vulnerability we lose our full capacity for feeling emotion.


We know that the majority of hard-core substance dependent adults lived as infants and children under conditions of severe adversity that left an indelible stamp on their development. As a rule, whatever we don't deal with in our lives, we pass onto our children. Children swim in the parents' unconsciousness like fish swim in the sea. However, nothing is irrevocably dictated by our genes and there is much we can do.


All addictions share a common neuro-anatomic and neuro-chemical basis. All addicts are chasing the ‘feel good' chemical in their brains, in effect becoming addicted to their own brains. An addiction is characterised as any repeated behaviour, substance-related or not, in which a person feels compelled to persist, regardless of its negative impact on his life or the lives of others. So, how to rebalance this spiritual deprivation?



Spiritual awakening is no more and no less than a human being claiming his or her own full humanity. People who are able to ‘find themselves' in this way have no need to turn to addiction or to stay with it. Armed with compassion we recognise that addiction was the best answer we could find at one time in our lives to the isolation we felt from our true selves and the rest of creation.


Healing occurs in a sacred place located within us all: "When you know yourselves, then you will be known." This sacred space is, in my experience, best accessed using plant medicines - particularly ayahuasca, the vine of souls from the jungles of Peru, and San Pedro, the cactus of vision grown in the high Montana area of northern Peru - and it is the spiritual reconnection provided by these plants which accounts for the remarkable success that these medicines have in helping people to overcome their addictions.


Ayahuasca has been used for centuries by shaman in South America to heal people of all types of illnesses but ultimately, the most healing effect is the realisation that we are united with everything. After drinking ayahuasca many people see their lives as a whole as well as the patterns in their lives. It is common to feel a state of inner peace and clarity and many people become aware of their wrongdoings (to themselves and others) and have a desire to correct their lives. A strong, almost tribal, feeling of belonging – to the Earth and to each other – often arises within people who drink this brew and this has generally been lacking in those who have developed an addiction as a way of coping with the world. Ayahuasca allows a person to see deeply into themselves and I generally recommend first-timers to ask the all-important question "Who am I".


Similarly, San Pedro has the effect of re-connecting the addict with the world they have rejected or feel cut off from due to emotional trauma. The addict is able to see the world on a more energetic level and better understand the importance of their place in it. Addicts generally feel less connected to other people and one of the most remarkable effects of plant medicines therefore is that of social integration, where the participant is able to perceive the essence of others as well as themselves.



Treating addictions with plant medicines is not only about re-connecting spiritually with the world, however, although I think this is the most important aspect for the addict; it is also about treating the body for the damage done by substance abuse.


First, there is the diet. During ayahuasca or San Pedro treatments the participant is on a healthy diet containing no salt, sugar, oil, pork, alcohol or any processed or fermented foods. They may also be given ‘refrescas': teas containing beneficial herbs and plants. For example, manzanilla tea is good for the nervous system and aids sleeping. Bobinsena, a jungle bush with a delicate pink flower, is made into a juice used for strengthening and opening the heart. An infusion of the leaves of the coffee plant can alleviate some of the physical symptoms of withdrawal from opiates. Fluid extracted from the roots of piscidia aids in alcohol withdrawal, as does an infusion of the plant sombra de toro. Shamans also offer a number of different ‘banos' (baths) that use particular flowers, leaves, roots or bark to cleanse the person spiritually, physically and mentally. Tobacco is a particularly beneficial purgative for people with addictions and is a companion plant to ayahuasca which prepares the addict's body so the vine can work more easily.


In addiction the Rolling Stones lyric is turned upside down: you can sometimes get what you want, by try as you might, you never get what you need. Through the use of plant medicines such as ayahuasca and san Pedro however what we truly ‘need' in this world is revealed. The ever-agitated, ever-yawning emptiness that lies at the heart of addiction starts to fill. It isn't being replaced by another drug or addictive activity, but by ourselves, our essence, our true nature, our ‘self' as it is revealed through the plants - and once this ‘self' is known it can never be ignored or un-remembered again. Even if the addict relapses after plant therapy I suspect that the lapse will not last long because their spirit is now awake and will no longer tolerate self-abuse for any length of time.


In addiction our energy circuits are so thoroughly connected to the target of addiction that we no longer have use of our reasoning ability; we surrender our power instead to the substance or behaviour. Plant medicines reveal to us the sources of our unhappiness and once we make conscious our emotional needs it is impossible to forget them so we have to make choices.


Making choices is an active power; it makes us want to change those parts of our lives that are no longer appropriate, and changing them inspires us to challenge other aspects of our lives that are less than satisfactory as well.


Much of this process may be painful which is why it is so important to embark on this type of therapy in a controlled environment with an experienced shaman or therapist. "The problem is not that truth is harsh but that liberation from ignorance is as painful as being born". To heal however, we must "accept the pain involved in recreating yourself afresh" (Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire).



Ayahuasca has been used traditionally for centuries to enable shamans to communicate with the plants and animals of the jungle. In this way the shaman comes to know the significance of every individual animal and every single plant and to understand why each species has its necessary place in the circle of life. The shaman utilizes the visionary effects of ayahuasca to travel to this place of "true reality", often referred to as the ‘blue zone' where he can explore the secrets of the world and heal sick members of his tribe.


The shaman believes that all that happens in the mundane or visible world finds its causes in this true reality. This is what we see when we drink ayahuasca with a shaman: our true nature as we are naturally intended to be and where we fit into the great web of life.


This is also why I recommend that people trying to overcome an addiction drink ayahuasca first and San Pedro some time later. Ayahuasca shows the participant the truth of his life and this is often a harsh reality to come to terms with. San Pedro is a gentler teacher. With San Pedro we are shown the beauty of the natural world and our place within it. This can still be difficult, especially for those who have grandiose ideas about their own importance as they will have to confront their new awareness and understanding of the equality of all life. For an addict who has felt separate and alone for much of his or her life, however, it can be a very powerful, life-changing and life-enhancing experience.


Having the right setting in which to experience these teacher plants is almost as important as having a good shaman and therapist. The addict needs to be away from everyday stressors and situations that exacerbate his or her feelings of separateness and isolation. The best setting is somewhere in nature, in the jungle, a forest, or a mountain; somewhere where we naturally feel more connected to and at peace with the world. It is easier to get in touch with plant spirits in an environment like this and easier to make contact with your own spirituality when you are not trying to manage a busy urban lifestyle.


This really is just commonsense but some people who choose to try plant medicines don't realise that three important factors need to be in place to reap the full benefit of the experience. First it is necessary to find a shaman with knowledge and integrity; secondly, a natural setting is important which enable you to break away from everyday life and thirdly you must set clear intentions. An intention to get to know yourself and to accept the teachings of the plants, no matter how harsh they may seem at first, is a good place to start. Ask the plants "Who am I" and expect an honest answer.


Ayahuasca and San Pedro are not ‘miracle cures' but they certainly open our minds and hearts and offer a more successful alternative to Western methods of treating addictions. They also put the responsibility – and the power – for healing back on to the individual, giving the addict clarity about the cause of his addictive behaviour and the possibility of choosing a more beneficial way of being in this world.



Tracie Thornberry is a counsellor specialising in drug and addictions therapy. Professionally trained and qualified she integrates shamanism, plant spirit medicine and work with ayahuasca and San Pedro into her therapeutic programmes to lead people to wellness through her Tranquilo Addictions Release Program.


Tranquilo operates at The Hummingbird Healing Centre in Iquitos, Peru, which Tracie founded and runs with Ross Heaven, the author of Plant Spirit Shamanism (about healing with ayahuasca and other plant medicines) and The Hummingbird's Journey to God (about healing with San Pedro). For more information on the Centre and its healing programs visit

Ross Heaven is a therapist, workshop leader, and the author of several books on shamanism and healing, including

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