What’s the difference between medicine and poison?

by | Jun 28, 2018

Perhaps this joke is old, but it still strikes me as an acute observation. When does ‘medicine’ become co-opted to merely reinforce pre-existing identities and beliefs? When does the use of medicine turn into mis-use or even abuse? When does healing itself become a trap?
Perhaps this joke is old, but it still strikes me as an acute observation. When does ‘medicine’ become co-opted to merely reinforce pre-existing identities and beliefs? When does the use of medicine turn into mis-use or even abuse? When does healing itself become a trap?

There are all sorts of ways of looking at what constitutes medicine, and under this umbrella falls working with plant sacraments such as ayahuasca and the building of a repository of knowledge, skill and wisdom in an initiate’s medicine bundle, known as the ‘mesa’ in the Andean tradition with which I am familiar.

Though I am specifically addressing the latter here, the same difference between medicine and poison emerges – a split between discernment and indulgence; between shoring up an architecture of self and dismantling the edifice. We are human, though, and tend to chain ourselves to the pillars of identity no matter how absurd and vain such a posture.

What I mean to say is that in the midst of traversing the medicine-poison spectrum, the distinction is not always so clear cut. Consciousness is a borderless country.

And the punchline? The difference between medicine and poison, if you didn’t already know? Dosage.

Among my friends and colleagues for whom the mesa is a vital and virtual healing technology, one’s ‘medicine’ is always being cultivated, grown and refined. The journey never ends. It is also shorthand for the distillation of a lifetime’s experience. My medicine cannot be separated from the divergent pathways of my life, no matter how seemingly disparate and unrelated. In this understanding, there are no dead ends or pointless detours; no misfortunes and no mistakes. It is all medicine, all path, even when – especially when – some of those pathways take me into deeply uncomfortable territory where my vision is partially or totally obscured.

It reminds me of Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello’s quote that “Enlightenment is the absolute cooperation with the inevitable”.

The medicine is inevitable; my cooperation not so much, inhibited as I am by a controlling need to understand how all these parts fit together. I seem to have been in the midst of transition for the past eight years. Sometimes I called it crisis, until I learned not to feed the drama. Other times, I saw these endless transitions as a turning over of the soil. But still, I lamented the lack of solidity and yearned for clarity.

To turn to that other medicine for a moment, perhaps that’s why ayahuasca had always refused to play idol to my healing fantasies. To state the obvious, to be a way-shower means showing the way, not having my hand held in a cosseting vision of the future.

There are no guarantees, and how could there be? Guarantees attempt to crank the wheel of the universe according to my whims and collapse time around an imagined moment. That’s healing porn. Beware of the spirit of glamour and its inducements to certainty.

Transitions are my medicine. Instead of waiting for the surety that I had imagined would come with my arrival, now I can find stability in the shifting ground under my feet. Such is life. Such is the medicine path. The mesa has become not just symbolic of my life but the placeholder for its many energies. The mesa – along with its collection of kuya stones from the medicine wheel, various other power objects and the intangible product of my many intentions – is me and the container for my medicine.

In this context, can medicine ever become poison? Can I ever overdose?

I learned the hard way that what appears light is not always of the light. Darkness is the great womb. Somewhere in an out-of-date dichotomy between light and dark, I got stuck. It had seemed to my feeble ego (and still often does) that turning to the dark was counter-intuitive.

I was denying my own capacity for rebirth and allowed my medicine to become stagnant.

The good news, however, is my cooperation, though desirable, was never strictly necessary. I am not the author of this story. Moving through stuckness, having had the protracted experience of being stuck, is my medicine, too. Therein lies the cosmic giggle. In one fell swoop, a history of victory and defeat, triumph and disaster, is rewritten. How could I hold on to mistakes that weren’t really mistakes?

Beyond dualities, there is no poison. Only medicine. Only path.

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