Iboga: The Holy Wood Which Cares for Us

We were sitting on the porch one morning after a meeting when Kanucas, my friend and a spiritual elder in the Native American Church, began speaking about a recent journey he’d made connecting him to leaders from other indigenous spirit-medicine traditions. He told us that a shared vision is arising from these cross-cultural wisdom keepers, a vision that indicates a leading role in the healing and awakening process for three particular plants: peyote, ayahuasca, and—to my surprise—iboga.

Peyote is used in ceremonial and healing work in many indigenous communities from Mexico to Canada, and ayahuasca is now spreading, through the work of the syncretic churches as well as the shamanic lineages, from its traditional Amazonian base throughout the Americas, Europe, and parts of Australia (so far.) But iboga? As far as I knew its use was limited to the religious and healing ceremonies of an obscure indigenous sect living in the jungles of equatorial western Africa as well as a few lone researchers in the west who had had some interesting successes using synthesized ibogaine in the treatment of drug addiction.

I originally wrote this chapter to include in my book Returning to Sacred World but changed my mind because of my lack of personal experience with the medicine. Since then, three or four years ago, there have been signs of the activation of the above mentioned vision about the spread of iboga. As with ayahuasca, non-Natives are learning to work with the medicine and guide people in ceremonies. The information here is condensed from my research. With the possibility that iboga use may be about to grow rapidly, it felt like a good time to help disseminate some reliable information on the medicine.

At this juncture, setting oneself up with an opportunity to take iboga or ibogaine is no easy task, and not an undertaking to be treated lightly. You can seek out and apply to one of the therapy oriented organizations using it in several countries (not the U.S.) for addiction treatment, programs that may cost anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 plus travel expenses. You could also fly to Gabon or Cameroon and look for a bwiti community who will initiate you. Such an excursion will also set you back a few thousand dollars. The new non-Native ceremonies appear to be coming mainly from Europe and are just now breaching the shores of North America. This doorway in may be the most accessible and affordable for most people interested in meeting this medicine.

Inspired by Kanucas’ story, I began to research iboga and became quickly impressed, in fact much more than impressed, by its unique and powerful action. It’s not for nothing that the word iboga comes from a verb in the Tsogo language, “boghaga,” meaning “to care for.” To provide some context for the discussion to follow allow me first to take you briefly to Africa for a little background.

Iboga, the sacred root, the “Holy Wood” as it’s sometimes described in its traditional locale, is taken from the root, particularly the root bark, of the eboga bush, an apocynaceous shrub that grows to about four feet tall in forests of western equatorial Africa. Those groups who use it in their ceremonial and healing work also cultivate the shrub in open village courtyards.

It’s generally agreed by the people of the region that the Pygmies of the area were the first to discover iboga’s capabilities and that it was used by them for perhaps thousands of years before other groups learned of its powers. The European explorers and interlopers had noticed iboga as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. As a kind of aside, in a classic irony, the interference of colonial authorities and entrepreneurs served to spread the knowledge of the sacred root throughout the region. Repression of religious practices and forced movement of labor threw people from many tribes into contact with each other and united them in determination to preserve and disseminate their practices. That sequence of events closely mirrors the process by which many tribes in the western United States discovered the ceremonial use of peyote.

The most common use of iboga now takes place in the context of the rituals of the bwiti religion. Along with its ancient historical ‘roots’ and long-standing traditions, bwiti, like other indigenous religions, has in some areas become blended with the Christian iconography brought by the Europeans. Currently there are estimated to be two to three million people, mainly in Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo, engaged with communities using iboga as its central sacrament. Though not totally without controversy, it’s fully legal to use iboga in these countries. It’s even been praised as a national treasure by Omar Bongo, the recently deceased President of Gabon (try that in the U.S!).

Like practices from around the world involving the use of entheogenic plants, the rituals in which iboga is employed are highly developed and detailed. Unlike with most other plant medicine practices, a strong dose of iboga is generally given only once in the life of an initiate, or banzi. This event is usually described as an initiation, and depending on the particular community and variation of bwiti, may typically be for boys and girls between ages eight and thirteen, or, in other places, available to people of any age. Bwiti communities hold ceremonies for a number of other purposes—healing work and important community celebrations and rituals—but except in rare circumstances a banzi will never again ingest anywhere near the large quantities of iboga he or she has taken in the initiation ceremony. From then on the banzi will only eat small amounts of iboga to stay alert and relaxed during all-night ceremonies.

The initiation ceremony in itself is an elaborate and life-changing event like nothing else. Again, there are numerous variations, with one group for example, Dissumba, conducting an initiation procedure that usually lasts anywhere from a week to a month. A three-day initiation similar in general to the one described below, however, is the most commonly practiced form of the ritual. There’s an excellent, detailed description of this version by Agnès Paicheler in the informative book Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism (2007) by Ravalec, Paicheler, and Mallendi.

Careful preparation is necessary prior to the actual initiation. The would-be initiate is required to obtain a number of articles to be employed in the ceremony, such items as loincloths for all those participating, powders for face paint, a mat to rest on (and ‘travel’ from), and several symbolic ritual objects. Similar to other ceremonies, such as with ayahuasca, there may be dietary and lifestyle restrictions in the day or weeks preceding the ceremony.

The first day of the initiation is considered a day of purification and further preparation for the soul journeying to take place. The initiate may be taken into the forest to collect the fresh iboga root and other plants used in the ritual, and then led through several other preparatory practices before being administered a small serving of iboga. This quantity acts to sharpen insight, improve stamina, and open the initiate to a frank discussion or confession with the guide, the nganga. A frequent aspect of this first ingestion involves vomiting, which functions to purify and detoxify in a manner similar to that in ayahuasca ceremonies.

On the second day the initiate ingests a massive quantity of iboga. A number of those experienced with iboga and ibogaine have said that a difference between iboga and other entheogens is that iboga focuses the journeyer very definitely and powerfully toward a direct encounter with his or her own unconscious, toward the specific, charged, and unresolved contents of his own library of memories. Western scientific studies have shown that the EEG readings taken from people experiencing iboga-induced visions are greatly similar to those experienced during REM sleep. The key differences are that while the dreams occurring in REM sleep are very brief and the information, as everyone knows, notoriously slippery to the grasp of recall and interpretation, the iboga visions last for hours and occur while the participant is fully lucid and said to be able to view the uncovered material in an impartial manner. As an aside, there is a distinct similarity in that regard to the effects of MDMA in therapeutic settings.

Numerous people have described the onset of these visions as very much akin to having a movie screen erected in front of them from which emanate deeply buried memories, typically from childhood, but, as bwitists and scholars have suggested, also often from the cellular memories of the “collective unconscious.” It is also apparently very common, and with African initiates nearly universal, to encounter one’s own ancestors in these visions.

Though the content and meaning of the visions may not always be understood right away it’s said that everything that occurs does indeed have meaning for the journeyer, that it’s all part of the focused work that iboga is doing, and that the released material will resonate and trigger the initiate in further learning and insight for months if not years after the experience. Bwitists say that the breakthrough resulting from the massive dose ingested in the initiation and the powerful support in that ritual container allows initiates to access some of the same mindstates in later ceremonies where only a very small, non-hallucinogenic quantity of iboga is consumed.

One of the reasons that no one familiar with it is concerned about abuse of iboga as a recreational trip is that this journey is generally described as a major ordeal, a rough ride, both physically and mentally. The direct psychoactive effects with both iboga and ibogaine can apparently last up to thirty hours. One has to be ready for this wrenching, powerful exposé, ready and willing to change. Basically, the iboga, which enters as a living entity, the spirit “who cares for us,” wants to clean you out and remake you as a reborn human being ready to live this life as a ‘real’ person, or as the Maya of Santiago de Atitlán in Guatemala would say, an initiated person.

Bwitists, through their carefully designed ritual environment, treat this responsibility and opportunity with total commitment to the rebirthing process. In this container, iboga will be ruthlessly compassionate in showing you what you need to see. The following not at all uncommon testimonial seems to sum up the experience succinctly. “Your memory is like a movie. And it shows where you’ve gone wrong in life, and it shows you what you’ve got to do to correct it. It literally does that. I mean, you see everything.”

For much of this phase of the experience, initiates will likely be unable to do anything more than remain stretched out on the mat. But throughout the night, precisely designed activities and practices that maintain and support the situation are occurring all around them. The nganga will keep close tabs on the banzie throughout the night, sometimes expecting them to describe their visions. Playing of instruments, singing, and dancing are essential elements in the success of the work and function, among other purposes, as prayers to petition the spirits of the plant and the ancestors and bring them into contact with the banzie. As with other ritual environments such as the ayahuasqueros singing their icaros, the hymns of the Santo Daime, and the prayer songs in Native American Church meetings, the music is often incredibly beautiful as the community comes together in one heart-empowered mind.

The third day is the day of rebirth and after the initiate has been given an opportunity to rest a little, another series of ritual activities is undertaken to complete the process. The final all-night session includes ceremonial feasting and much verbal interaction as the community of bwitists welcomes the reborn person into her new condition and shares important information to carry her successfully into her life as a reconfigured and empowered initiate.

Perhaps because of bwiti’s firmly established and respected foundation and its large membership in the region, there is said to be in general an attitude of openness to foreigners, ‘westerners’ interested in coming to countries like Gabon to participate in such initiations. All who have experience with iboga say that there’s nothing about it that would invite pleasure seekers. The primary concern is that interested seekers be aware of the great power of this plant and of their own readiness to undertake such a demanding ordeal. Of course all concerned would want visitors to demonstrate the utmost respect for the environment they’re encountering.

According to those who’ve been there, visitors who undergo the initiation are not expected to do anything so radical as to leave behind the circumstances of their former situation and remain to live in Africa with a local bwiti community. No doubt the fervent hope and prayer of those who have given of themselves to these foreign initiates would be that they’d been successfully cleaned out and remade as people living in alignment with Spirit, individuals who would return to their own environment with an unshakeable commitment to contribute to the awakening of others and the healing of the planet.

“The suffering that could be eliminated by ibogaine availability would be staggering, both to the individual and society.”    Howard Lotsof  [from the youtube video “Howard Lotsof speaks about ibogain”]

The West’s involvement with iboga goes back nearly two centuries. The first mention of it in an English language book was in 1819. Beginning in the 1860s, samples were finding their way back to France and in 1889 a botanist by the name of Henri Baillon gave the plant the name Tabernanthe iboga H. Bn. In 1901 ibogaine, the primary (though not the only) psychoactive alkaloid discovered in the plant, was isolated and crystallized by Dybowski and Landrin. Noticeable scientific interest in ibogaine developed in the 1930s and 1940s, including from a certain Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who had opened a clinic at Lambarene in Gabon, and in whose honor the drug Lambarene was marketed in France to combat fatigue, depression and several other conditions.

It was mainly after World War Two that ibogaine, along with LSD and other substances, came to the United States. (Unsurprisingly, the C.I.A. got their mucky hands in there in the 1950s conducting experiments of dubious motive and method.) Probably the most significant single historical development worthy of note in the U.S. concerns Howard Lotsof, who in 1962, at the age of nineteen and several months into a burgeoning heroin habit, was given some ibogaine by a chemist friend who described it as “a thirty-six hour trip.” After twenty-three hours of exhausting psychoactivity followed by three hours of sleep, Lotsof awoke refreshed and was shocked to find he was experiencing neither withdrawal symptoms from heroin nor any craving to take it again.

The story that developed from there is far too complex and twisting to recount in this context, though readily accessible on various internet websites, including the online version of the book The Ibogaine Story by de Rienzo and Beal, as well as in the aforementioned book by Ravalec et al. In brief, Lotsof became, and still is, a champion of the ibogaine cause and since that time in the early Sixties there have been numerous attempts across the decades to gain funding for proper clinical trials on humans with a drug that showed promise far beyond any other known treatment for drug  addiction.

Those who have some knowledge of these matters will not be surprised to hear that the path of acceptance for ibogaine has been strewn with obstacles. Both iboga and ibogaine, though little known by the general public and rarely used, got caught up in the big sweep of the Sixties drug backlash, were banned in the U.S. 1968, and continue to languish in Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act.

In regard to the use of ibogaine in the treatment of addiction, ideologically motivated government and religious groups and individuals in the U.S. have repeatedly sought to prevent this acceptance. Further complicating matters is that as with other naturally occurring medicines, the iboga plant itself and its alkaloids cannot be patented and the patent for ibogaine has been held worldwide since 1986 by none other than the same Mr. Lotsof. As a result, pharmaceutical companies have shown little interest in it and have sometimes colluded in the creation of barriers erected against proper study. NIDA, (National Institute on Drug Abuse) funds about 85% of all addiction research worldwide and in essence has the final say on whether a new drug will proceed toward the marketplace. The various forces opposed to ibogaine, (without of course valid medical reasons), ensured that it never gained the required support from NIDA. At this point NIDA has given ‘final’ refusal to fund clinical trials.

Ibogaine has been called the “anti-drug drug” because of its repeatedly demonstrated ability to completely knock out the craving for addictive substances like heroin, methadone, cocaine, crack, methedrine (crystal meth), alcohol, and in some studies, even nicotine. Hundreds of studies have been conducted in the past few years alone and although the mechanics of this action in the brain are not as yet fully understood, the research so far has led to some tentative probable conclusions. Scientists have found that when ibogaine is consumed the body produces noribogaine, which—this is the complex part—blocks the brain’s receptors that control cravings. For the technically minded here’s a short quote from ibogaine.co.uk, “Animal studies have revealed ibogaine to be active at many receptor sites associated with drug dependence and its treatment. These include the kappa and mu opiate receptors, serotonin receptors, dopamine receptors, sigma receptors and the NMDA ion channel.”

Ibogaine is reported to have a similar structure to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which, along with dopamine, is well known for its influence on feelings associated with pleasure, well-being, and craving. Antidepressants like Prozac, for example, are called SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Interestingly, primary psychoactive alkaloids in psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD are also known to resemble serotonin.

The plain fact of the matter is that in almost all cases ibogaine eliminates the drug craving for a period of weeks. This is said to be the window of opportunity for addicts to engage in a process of reclaiming the will to live, of relearning the art of living. For that reason it’s more or less universally agreed that careful follow-up support and counseling are necessary, especially in those first few weeks. Some addicts have permanently given up their habit after one major ibogaine session while others have been assisted by a few further treatments, perhaps several months apart.

The healing thrust of ibogaine in regard to addiction has been described as twofold. Accompanying and following the chemical intervention in the brain is a psychological strategy. Just as with the iboga plant in the bwiti rituals, ibogaine leads the patient through a very powerful self-examination process. The images thrown up during the long hours of the encounter offer patients unarguable evidence of the sources and history of the struggles they’ve undergone and the choices they’ve made. They’re shown the destructiveness of their drug use and granted an unprecedented opportunity to make radical changes in their lives. In the experience described earlier of Howard Lotsof’s encounter with ibogaine, he said that the next realization he had was that the heroin he had considered a comfort in his life was in fact leading him directly away from life and toward death. He realized in that exact moment that he wanted to choose life over death.

An internet search turned up dozens of clinics in Europe and the Americas, (again, excluding the U.S.) legally sanctioned and prepared to treat addicts with ibogaine. My insider sources tell me clinics are gradually shifting over to the use of the iboga plant itself, apparently because it’s safer. Some of these clinics also accept people who want to employ the ibogaine for spiritual purposes.

There are also a few truly underground groups operating below the legal horizon in the U.S. who offer the treatment very cheaply, but knowledgeable sources caution strongly against going that route. At bargain basement prices it’s highly questionable such organizations would be able to afford all the necessary support systems such as medical testing, trained professional personnel, follow-up care, and consistent quality of product (I’ve come across the figure of $600 as the cost to clinics for one dose of the medicine).

Those with expertise working with iboga or ibogaine also caution in the strongest terms about taking either of these substances outside the guidance of highly experienced and ethical professionals or communities like bwiti. There are distinct life-threatening dangers that can and have happened. Several kinds of heart conditions are strongly counter-indicated for iboga or ibogaine use. These medicines also have the unusual property of significantly potentiating the effects of other drugs and medicines. More than one death has been attributed to addicts overdosing on what would normally be moderate doses of drugs like heroin during or shortly after extended sessions with ibogaine. It’s claimed that with proper medical testing and close monitoring by professionals throughout the session these dangers are nearly completely eliminated in comparison with almost any other medicine. It’s worth noting here that there are over 100,000 deaths ascribed to the use of prescription medicines each year in the U.S. alone.

On the assumption that iboga and its main psychoactive alkaloid ibogaine have an important role to play in the healing and awakening process, there’s a key issue of concern. Despite the highly unfortunate obstacles placed in front of the acceptance of ibogaine as a treatment for addiction, research is increasing each year and there’s a strong likelihood that synthetic versions of ibogaine or ibogaine analogues—patentable of course—will at some point in the next few years successfully navigate their way through the labyrinth toward the marketplace. Most likely the chemists will be able to remove the elements which trigger the so-called hallucinogenic aspect of ibogaine and in general smooth the whole drug experience out so that only the physical effect of chemical dependence interruption remains. Of course the irrational fears of many who would otherwise rise up in arms will be mollified in this way.

But there are two serious and related problems with that direction. The as yet incompletely understood psychological aspect of ibogaine’s work—particularly through the movie-like visions that flood the patient’s consciousness with the release of specific, detailed, highly-charged repressed memories—would be eliminated. According to those experienced with the bwiti initiation process and the therapeutic work with ibogaine, this is an essential part of the healing process. The patient gains tremendous insight into the genesis of his problems through this psychological intervention. The physical intervention alone may give addicts the window of opportunity needed to make a change but not the clear understanding that may make the crucial difference in the choices they make when they return to the world they briefly left behind. It may also not be too cynical to suppose that the pharmaceutical companies would like to patent a drug that patients would need to take on an ongoing basis.

The related concern is that bwitists and others would also assert that this psychological process is guided by the spirit or spirits of the plant. Some call it the deva of the plant, the one who cares for us. Initiated, experienced people from indigenous traditions wouldn’t even bat an eye at that assertion. Vincent Ravalec, who has himself undergone a traditional bwiti initiation in Gabon, suggests, for example, that would-be initiates gather as much information as possible about their ancestors—grandparents and the like—because they very well may meet one or more of them in the iboga realm and these ancestors may act as guides, allies, and protectors.

It’s also been pointed out before that the modern mechanistic/rational mindset conceptually separates the physical from the spiritual but that in reality there is no separation between matter and spirit. The physical intervention of a plant like iboga in interrupting the chemical dependency pathways in the brain has the active intelligence of the plant deity behind it.

One aspect of the vision for the central role to be played by the three sacred plants is that their growing influence will come out of the sharing of the knowledge of their traditional practitioners, and that in this way of bringing many more people into shared knowledge of the vision to heal the world the toxic sludge of medical/scientific officialdom could be largely ignored and bypassed. We already have the examples of the Native American Church and the shamanic ayahuasca traditions as models for this direction.

The vision being transmitted by Spirit, by the ancestors, aims to disseminate and strengthen the prayer for the healing of the planet, in part by encouraging people from different traditions to share their understanding and create linkages with others of similar mind from around the world. Part of the vision, or prophecy, suggests that in this way a far more powerful intention may coalesce which will gain increasing influence on several levels and may in fact become strong enough to create the kind of world inscribed on the hearts of the awakened and the awakening.