Ordeal Medicines and Personal Development (originally posted 2017)
As a friend scorched holes into my skin with a burning stick I prepared myself to receive the medicine. My friend is a kambo provider, and kambo is a venomous secretion from an Amazonian frog which is traditionally applied directly into the blood stream via open burns in the outer skin. These burns expose your capillaries directly so that the medicine can go straight into the blood – peptides in the venom then carry themselves directly across the blood brain barrier and cause a profound reaction. Sweating, increased heart rate, body heat, intense tingling through the body as well as throbbing in the skull, body aches or pain, cramps, shaking, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, swelling of the hands and face…. Reading the list of common reactions you may wonder why someone would ask another person to apply this venom directly into their bloodstream, or why someone would call it medicine… Isn’t medicine supposed to be some easy pill you take to make you feel all better?
In our culture we have been taught to look for quick fixes. We want things now and we don’t want to work for them or sacrifice to get them. If we are sick we often just want whatever makes us feel better the quickest. But the short cut is not always the best way. Take cold medicines for example – your body is trying to push toxins out through nasal mucous but since you don’t like having a runny nose you take a medication that keeps the mucous and toxins in your body. Or in the case of heartburn and indigestion – your stomach acid is not acidic enough to properly digest food so you take an antacid to stop the burning sensation even though this antacid further basifies your stomach acid and makes your future digestion even worse. These are just two examples of ways we use medicine to run from our problems instead of solve them. We want medicine to be easy and quick, so we sacrifice our future health for momentary comfort in the present.
This can create problems in all areas of our lives, and one of the most noticeable areas this affects us is in our mental health. When difficult emotions arise or we experience traumatic events our culture teaches us to bury these emotions and keep them to ourselves. Put on a happy face and buck up! This type of emotional repression does great harm to us as individuals and communities and the effects of these habits accumulate overtime which leads to the mental health crisis many modernized countries are experiencing these days. It is difficult and scary to face fears and emotions or to talk about them with others and ask for help, so we take the short cut and just ignore our problems… But in the long run this makes everything harder as the problems do not go away when ignored but only fester and accumulate. Eventually people can become overwhelmed and overburdened by stress and worry which can lead to nervous breakdowns, mental illness, and even physical illness as the body does not function optimally when under great stress.
More traditional medicines often looked very different then the quick fixes we have today. If your digestion was poor you wouldn’t take an antacid for quick relief – instead you would change your diet and put some work into your healing or maybe even try fasting to let your body’s digestion recover. If you had a cold you didn’t fight your body’s immune response by taking cold medication but you let it run its course while strengthening your immune system, or maybe took a sauna to help you sweat it out. People were taught to deal with their problems and face them head on rather than fear and repress them – and this created greater long-term health and inner strength.
In many cultures not only do people work through their problems directly, but they may even use ordeals as training to help them be strong and hard working. So we have ordeal medicine as a way of treating illness, and also as a way of training and preventative medicine. In indigenous cultures when young men go on a vision quest they are learning to face their fears as well as the discomforts and challenges of fasting alone in the wilderness. This teaches inner strength and courage which manifests itself in all areas of life and it helps people develop into strong members of society. When you get sick this strength helps you choose the healthiest way to work through your illness, and when confronted with emotional problems or traumatic events it helps you face and work through the discomfort rather than repress it. These habits teach you to strive for what is in your best interest rather than just what sounds easiest in the moment. Doing what is right is not always easy in the moment, but it almost always ends up being easier in the long run because of how many problems it helps you solve (rather than avoiding the issues which just makes problems accumulate over time).
In the case of my experience with kambo I had to confront my fears of physical discomfort. I knew I was about to be burned and that the venom applied to those burns would make me experience extreme discomfort and even pain – but that discomfort only lasted about 30 minutes, and afterwards I felt great. Kambo is known to strengthen the immune system, remove toxins from the body, increase energy, focus and awareness, and even align the spirit in a way where you feel more connected to your personal flow and life. It is hard to describe how beneficial this medicine is, but my experience was well worth the short time of discomfort that led to all these benefits.
In different cultures around the world there exist many different medicines that could be considered ordeal medicines. In some cultures tribal members will fill gloves with bullet ants which have the strongest sting of any ant – they then wear these gloves for an extended time while the ants bite their hands causing them pain so extreme that many people will feint. The people do this to teach themselves to embrace discomfort and be strong – this teaches you then to not avoid hard work, not avoid unpleasant medicines and not avoid unpleasant emotions. It teaches you to be strong and courageous. In other cultures people might practice vision quest or difficult pilgrimages. People may expose themselves to sleep deprivation, fasting or extreme weather conditions to help themselves build strength. Many people use cold water immersion as a way to strengthen the immune system, or try sweat lodges for healing, or eat unpleasant herbs and foods for health reasons. All of these practices involve facing discomfort because you know it is good for you. This is doing what is best for you and others whether or not it is pleasant and it leads to benefits in every aspect of life.
Ordeal medicine is a test of your equanimity. With the kambo there is a natural inclination to resist the discomfort and react to it, but that is not how you actually want to respond. If you try to hold down the nausea or fight through the discomfort or repress it you will get overwhelmed and the experience will be much more difficult. If you instead face the discomfort and embrace it while trying to relax as much as possible you will get the best results – the experience won’t be as painful, you will have a deeper and more effective purge, and you will be more aware of the experience and how it relates to you personally. By embracing discomfort that is good for you your experience changes into one of alignment with your highest good. When you run from discomfort that is really in your best interest you end up fighting yourself and resisting your own benefits and success.
How you show up in ceremony is often how you show up in life. When you show up to ceremony determined and strong it becomes easier to show up to life the same way. Ceremony in many ways is training for life, and in this way life can become one great ceremony. If you practice facing the discomforts of ritual and medicine with equanimity you can teach yourself to act the same way on a day to day basis which will benefit your physical, mental and emotional health. And not only will this help you show up better for yourself – but everyone in your community will benefit as you become more present and powerful in your own life. By healing and empowering ourselves we heal and empower the world together.