Rapé, sananga, kambo, psychedelics: Why spiritual seekers seek pain
Recent encounters with a number of shamanic medicines whose most immediate effect is pain and physical discomfort led me to consider the role of pain in the psychedelic healing process.
A shamanic ceremony in which I recently participated included 4 types of medicines: ayahuasca, tobacco, rapé and sananga. While the first two are probably known to most readers (though some might be unfamiliar with consecrated use of tobacco), rapé and sananga seem to necessitate an introduction. Rapé, the better known of the two, is a shamanic snuff medicine. It is blown into the nostril by a practitioner who uses a pipe, causing a sudden burning sensation in the nose and the sinuses, as well as a running nose. Such uncomfortable sensations are followed by a number of supposed benefits. On the most immediate level, the use of the substance is followed by a feeling of clarity in the head and the nasal cavities. Other alleged benefits ascribed to rapé are significantly more dramatic. According to the site “Shamanic Snuff”, for example, rapé use “helps to re-align and open all your chakras, improves your grounding, releases any sickness on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels.”
I had known rapé before. The sananga, on the other hand, was entirely new to me. These “sacred” eye drops (colirio) are instilled in the eye by a practitioner, and are said to cause intense burning sensation, an experience which persists for a number of minutes, during which the patient is directed to breathe deeply and into the pain. Sananga is reported to sharpen visual perception and even allow users to experience a sort of infra-red night vision. Again, on the less immediate level there is talk of far more dramatic benefits. Sananga is said to solve a host of eye disease and also burn the inner anger residing in the individual, leading to an intense state of relaxation following the period of pain. The shaman who introduced sananga to me explained that the pain caused by sananga causes the release of endorphins, produced by the body to ease the pain. These endorphins stay in the body after the sananga is gone, leading to a feeling of utmost relaxation.
Personally, I have a strong aversion to sudden intense pain, plus I have ultra-sensitive eyes, so I gave up on sananga without a second though. However, I did have rapé blown into my nose, and I could see some of the appeal of the experience.
Having witnessed these two pain related experiences which are sought after by modern day spiritual seekers from within the ayahuasca subculture made me reconsider a third experience which is popular in this subculture and which involves intense pain. Some of the readers might have heard of the kambo frog extract, a medicine based on the venom extracted from the body of the giant tree frog or giant monkey frog and which is inserted into the body of the person being treated, causing extreme bodily discomfort which includes nausea, feebleness, and a dramatic swelling around the head which causes the person to temporarily resemble a frog. In the days following the experience, people report feeling greatly cleansed and invigorated, with some reporting dramatic reduction in the need for sleep and food. And again there is a host of alleged benefits from this profoundly discomforting process, including a reinvigoration of the immune system, detoxification of the liver and the entire digestive system, as well as the curing of a many of diseases from Parkinson to depression.
The protestant work ethic and the psychedelic work ethic
Considering these three phenomena of the rapé, the sananga and the kambo, all of which can be encountered mostly in relation to the milieu of ayahuasca communities, it seems as if a pattern is emerging: a growing popularity of substances which are used to induce pain or physical discomfort of sorts. This phenomena might not be all that new. As often noted by McKenna, alternative techniques for the achievement of altered, visionary states of consciousness traditionally included various types of pain and discomfort such as self-flagellation, self-mutilation, sleep deprivation, and prolonged fasting. Yet the question remains, why? Why do spiritual seekers seem so keen on experiences involving intense pain or discomfort?
Before we try and answer this question, it should be noted that the experience of pain and discomfort can be seen as an inherent part of the psychedelic experience in general , and not just in rapé, sananga and kambo. Some kind and degree of discomfort is invariably related to most types of purging psychedelic experiences. The degree to which the ingestion a plant hallucinogen is followed by the feeling of purging is generally dependent upon the degree of discomfort that is involved in its use. Ayahuasca, Peyote and even magic mushrooms, are notoriously known for their foul taste, and for the intense bodily (and mental) discomfort they cause, which commonly includes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, among other phenomena. Yet these plant psychedelics leave their users feeling purged and cleansed. Even synthetic psychedelics such as LSD often include a degree of bodily discomfort, and can feel purging to some degree. MDMA, on the other hand, is all joy and love with very little pain or discomfort, which is perhaps the reason why it has no purging effect. In fact, an intense MDMA experience is all too often accompanied by a devastating bummer or down.
Experiencing difficulty and illness to their fullness is an essential element of the psychedelic voyage. Such difficulty and illness can take both bodily as well as mental form, and its expression reaches its peak in death/rebirth experiences, in which the individual must die in order to be reborn again. Death as the ultimate form of illness leading to rebirth as the ultimate form of cleanse.
It almost seems as if the psychedelic experience and perhaps the visionary experience in general have some kind of protestant ethic which is supported by the body and the nervous system. Drugs which only make you feel good, but don’t challenge you, like cocaine, heroin and speed, also precipitate a down which occurs once the drug is out of the nervous system, and are also the ones that make you addicted. By contrast, drugs whose use involves a great degree of physical discomfort, such as the natural psychedelics, are non-toxic, non-addictive and leave you feeling purged. No pain, no gain. It’s also almost as if psychedelic use supports a kind of spiritual protestant work ethic in which one has to suffer in order to rise and soar.
This is particularly ironic and interesting since the protestant work ethic was one of the major reasons why people in the west came to distrust psychedelics in the first place. During the 1960s psychedelic controversy, psychedelics were often portrayed as “cheap thrills”, thrills that get their users to a state of “instant nirvana” too easily, without having earned it honestly. Participators in the psychedelic debate such as Timothy Leary and Sidney Cohen used to argue about whether relishing the view from the top of the mountain is the same whether you got there using a ski-lift or after a long a and arduous hike; The top of the mountain being, of course, the mystical experience, arrived at through sustained spiritual work, or through the use of drugs. Cohen maintained that “the mountain climber has sweated and striven against the dangers. His view must be different from the ski lift rider’s because it incorporates the struggle and the triumph.” “The shortcut may get you to the same summit. The view may be the same, but what a difference between the one who sweated and struggled to get there, and the one who rode to the top on the back of a chemical carrier.” Timothy Leary, on his end, insisted that “It’s not a case of either/or, it’s both/and. If you want, you can sweat and suffer hiking today, and you can choose to zoom up tomorrow using technology … all the secrets of life are shortcuts. I think people deserve every revelation they can get.” Does a chemically triggered spiritual experience have the same value as one arrived us through hard, laborious work, and is it even legitimate? Such questions were high on everybody’s mind in the 1960s moral discussion about psychedelics.
The protestant work ethic also played a central part in the social discussion about psychedelics users. Hippies were accused of being lazy, unproductive, and disruptive of the work ethic. The hippie ethic which replaced work with play was a main object of criticism in papers written by psychiatrists who were concerned that psychedelic use could lead to a “generation of psychedelic dropouts”, and worried that psychedelic users would “never be able to gain the lost ground” leading “less productive … lives.”
In my PhD research The Psycho-Social Construction of LSD: How Set and Setting Shaped the American Experience 1950-1970, the issue of the protestant work ethic proved to be the ethical crux of many of the objections to psychedelic use in the 1960s. In many ways, it remains so to this day. Yet, if there is a psychedelic work ethic which can be found in psychedelic use and in psychedelic communities particularly, perhaps protestant ethicists need not be so alarmed. In the Santo Daime church, ayahuasca ceremonies are habitually referred to as “works,” a term which emphasizes that the ceremony demands concentrated effort and dedication on the part of the practitioner. Members of the church “work” with the ayahuasca brew with the purpose of channeling its energy into purposeful, constructive activity. The degree to which the practitioner is able to “work” with the energy lucidly and dedicatedly determines, to a great extent, the benefits to be reaped.
The bodily (and sometimes also mental) discomfort and pain which is involved in many purging and vision-inducing practices seems to be an almost inherent part of the experience. It is not that different from life, really. Jerking our bodies out of their comfortable state of rest and equilibrium is often necessary for transcending our limits and achieving a greater degree of wholeness and well being. Examples can include every day activities such as physical exercise, physical work, or even stressful events (speaking in front of a crowd is one my favorites). It is through the dedication, devotion and intention which one puts into the process of confronting one’s difficulties and challenges, that one is eventually able to transcend them. Protestant work ethicists can rest. Psychedelicists do have a work ethic, it’s just another type of work they do.
 Sidney M.D. Cohen, The Beyond Within: The LSD Story (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 98.
 Richard Alpert and Sidney Cohen, LSD, ed. Lawrence Schiller, PDF Version. Available online., n.d., 44, http://www.scribd.com/doc/9639651/LSD-Richard-Alpert-Sidney-Cohen.
 Timothy Leary, Flashbacks, 1st ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher, 1983), 52.
 Finally, what Cohen and Leary both seemed to overlook, to my mind, was that this was not a question of both/and, neither a question of either/or in the sense meant by Cohen. If psychedelics do indeed take you to that final stage of the spiritual road, as Cohen seems to suggest, then one needs to be honest and note that the question is not whether to get there easily on the ski-lift, or more arduously on the hiking trail. Considering the length and difficulty of the spiritual path and the very few who reach its conclusion and achieve the mystical states induced by psychedelics on their own, it should be noted that the vast majority of the population would never reach that summit at the end of the spiritual path without psychedelics. The choice, in most cases, is not between getting to the top on the ski-lift or getting there hiking. Rather, it is getting there and observing the view after riding the psychedelic ski-lift or never getting there at all.
 Donald B. Louria, “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” New England Journal of Medicine 278, no. 8 (February 22, 1968): 435–38, doi:10.1056/NEJM196802222780806.
 E. Robbins et al., “Implications of Untoward Reactions to Hallucinogens,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 43, no. 11 (November 1967): 994.