Sacred Medicines and the Power of Prayer by Stephen Gray
Prayer is of course a near universal human expression. Even if we put no faith in prayer ourselves, we encounter it around us throughout our lives. If my experience is at all typical, and in this respect I believe it is, most of us in contemporary western societies had no real idea of the true power of prayer. I certainly didn’t see that power around me during my childhood in the Anglican Church. In young adulthood I became deeply involved with Tibetan Buddhism. Although we did a lot of chanting and supplicating in some of our practices—and were generally very sincere about it—I don’t think most of us really believed that we were doing more than strengthening our own commitment through these recitations.
I had long been interested in indigenous spiritual teachings and practices and this interest eventually led me to a now seven-year involvement with the Native American Church (NAC.) One element of this interest was a curiosity about the spiritual potential of certain visionary plant medicines. My hope upon going to that first ceremony seven years ago was to find a safe and effective container for the use of plants like this.
What I discovered, even from that very first meeting, was that these were in fact prayer ceremonies and that I’d stumbled upon a stunningly different approach to prayer than anything I had previously encountered. I’ve been to several dozen NAC meetings since then and my understanding of what can be done through prayer has continued to deepen.
Since my intention with this article is to share some of that knowledge, it may be helpful to present a brief description of the environment and form of the meetings. Most meetings are held at someone’s request. The possible reasons for a meeting are many. It could be anything from a birthday to a baptism, an expression of gratitude for someone, or a request for healing.
The meetings are usually held in a tipi and last all night. After a few introductory words from the person running the meeting, known as the roadman, the sponsor is called upon to explain the reason for the meeting. That reason then becomes the “main prayer” for the night and the participants are expected to direct their prayerful intention toward that purpose for much of the night. In the hours before dawn we’re also invited to pray for those close to us in need of help and for ourselves.
As it is in numerous indigenous cultures, tobacco is considered a powerful sacred medicine in the NAC and is used to pray with in various ways during the ceremony. At the beginning of the meeting a pouch of tobacco and a packet of corn husks cut a little larger than rolling papers are passed around the circle. Everyone rolls one of these and begins to pray on behalf of the sponsor. Shortly after that the peyote medicine sacrament is also passed around the circle.
Not surprisingly, music is a central element of the ceremonies. There’s a large body of NAC prayer songs. If you’ve heard the peyote song recordings of Primeaux and Mike you’ll have a rough idea of what they’re like. The songs are considered to be the wings that carry the prayers and are sung through much of the night. A set of instruments consisting of the roadman’s staff, a gourd shaker, a sage stick, and a water drum move around the circle. Everyone who knows some songs leads a set of four. When the medicine takes effect and the energy really gets rolling, especially when there are a lot of experienced singers, I’ve often found the songs to be impossibly rich and moving. As one elder described it to me, when it’s really clicking the songs begin to sing the singers.
The water drum is a key player in the power of the prayer songs. As part of the planning for a meeting the roadman generally asks someone to “carry the drum” for the night. I’ve been told by elders that the drum is a living spirit. One drummer told me that he sometimes sees the energy moving out from the drum, carrying the intention of the singer.
The fire is also referred to and treated as a living spirit. The fire person for the night tends it with great care. The long, split logs are always kept in the same arrow shaped configuration and as the night progresses the coals are gradually formed into particular shapes, often a large bird like a phoenix or eagle. The roadman and other experienced members have occasionally reminded us to pay close attention to the fire. They say it has things to show us.
I said earlier that this environment introduced me to a radically different way to pray. As well as the potent mixing of music, medicine, and prayer, the other key ingredient of those meetings which struck me so forcefully was the way people pray. There are no books, no liturgy, no memorized prayers. From the start I was deeply moved and impressed by the eloquent, straight-from-the-heart talk I’ve heard again and again. People just express themselves. For example, around about dawn, the wife or close female associate of the roadman goes out to get a bucket of water and a ladle, then returns, places the bucket close to the fire, and kneels in front of it. She is given a tobacco to roll and begins to speak. These monologues or prayers often go on for close to an hour and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been moved to tears by the waterwoman’s words. One elder, Susan, who carries the female lineage for her people, told me that when she’s doing that morning water prayer she often has no idea what she’s saying. The words are just coming through her, sometimes even in the old languages that she somehow has to intuitively translate on the spot. One morning after a meeting she said that during one of those prayers she felt the distinct presence of perhaps hundreds of her female ancestors leaning over her and supporting her. When Susan told me that, another woman sitting nearby said she’d been at that meeting and seen those women lined up behind Susan.
You may be familiar with stories about the effects of focused group intention. One of the essential teachings of the NAC is that a prayer is greatly potentiated when all those present can settle their minds and bodies fully, get out of their heads, and enter into a concentrated shared focus—one mind. Kanucas, a respected roadman I’ve come to know, has been sitting up in these meetings for over forty years now. One night he told us that when he was young it was all experienced participants who could stay still in mind and body for the whole night, often not even getting up to take a pee. He said that, with the assistance of Grandfather Peyote, that undistracted focus and intention could accomplish just about anything.
Over the years I’ve heard many first-hand stories of remarkable healings—and seen a few myself. I’d like to share one of those stories with you. It comes from a Native man named Norman, who has told this story several times in ceremonies I’ve attended. His daughter, about twelve years old at the time of the event, was in a serious car accident and was taken immediately to hospital. When Norman arrived she was on life support. The doctors told him that her spinal cord had been damaged and that she would be permanently and severely brain-damaged and paralysed, if she even survived. They asked his permission to remove her from life support. Norman hastily arranged a prayer ceremony for that night and invited only a handful of experienced elders and friends. The group prayed all night for the healing of the girl and in the morning sent Norman off with a number of prayed-over objects and a small amount of the medicine. Arriving at the hospital, Norman asked to be left alone with his daughter. He placed the objects around her, put some of the medicine on her lips, and prayed hard. After some time the machinery she was hooked up to began to act up and a staff member came running into the room saying, “What have you done?” As Norman told us, within an hour his daughter was off life support and breathing on her own. She was eventually able to resume her education and has now completed high school.
I’ve learned from my experience in the NAC and from the comments of experienced elders that there are several key factors in the success of a particular prayer. First, it takes great confidence and conviction. Second, you need to be specific about what you’re asking for when you call on the Spirit to help out. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for, you might get it. Third, there are often complex forces at play. The mysterious ways in which the Spirit moves may bring changes that aren’t obvious or don’t appear on an expected timeline. It may take years for the prayer to take effect and Spirit may have other ideas for what the recipient of the prayer needs at any particular point.
I want to return briefly to this meeting of prayer and medicine. A wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that prayer can have remarkable, even miraculous effects. Clearly, it doesn’t require the admixture of plant medicines for prayer to work. With enough shared intention and confidence it may even be that we can help heal the planet and put it on a sane and sustainable path. However, healers in traditions that have used these plants often say that they strengthen the effects of their prayers and healing efforts on behalf of the patient.
Ayahuasca is one of the main shamanic medicines of the Amazon. Many of you reading this have likely heard something about it or even experienced it personally. A couple of years ago I participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru with an ayahuasquero named Percy. Before the ceremony got under way one night, Percy told us that he has a relationship with eight spirit doctors whom he calls upon to guide him through the ceremony. Someone asked him if he could contact them without drinking ayahuasca and he replied that, yes, he could, but that with the medicine in him the connection was much stronger and clearer. Kanucas has told us a few times that when he eats the peyote medicine he calls upon the Spirit and the Spirit talks to him. He’s said more than once that he means that literally. The Spirit tells him how to work with particular situations and individuals throughout the night.
So it seems that we in the modern societies have a great deal to learn at this time. The message coming from indigenous spiritual traditions, from the Earth peoples, from the plant medicine peoples, is that we’ve cut ourselves off from a potentially life-saving knowledge: that the world is alive in ways far beyond our current conditioned understanding, and that we need to reestablish that connection with the Spirits, with the living Gaian mind in its many forms.
I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite little passages, from a Native American elder and healer named Wallace Black Elk: “So I pray for you that you obtain the same power I have. You and I are no different. It’s just that understanding. You just drifted away from it, just walked away from it for thousands and thousands of years. That’s how come you have lost contact. So now you’re trying to find your roots. They are still here.”1
Stephen Gray was a student and teacher of Buddhism for many years and has been an active member of the Native American Church for the past seven years. He has written a number of articles for magazines such as Shaman’s Drum and Sacred Hoop on topics related to his forthcoming book Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality, to be published by O Books in November 2010. Stephen can be found, and contacted, at his website/blog www.stephengrayvision.com.