Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) is a rainforest shrub of West-Central Africa. The bark of its root, consumed in powdered form, is powerfully psychoactive, triggering visions and deeply personal understandings about one’s life. Iboga is known as a formidable spiritual teacher who guides and instructs humans. In Amazonian terms, it’s a planta maestra, a teacher plant—one of the greatest of them all.
Soon after I started working with visionary plants, I began to feel a call to iboga, drawn by its uncompromising nature and the depth to which it works with trauma. In late 2016, I did a six-day iboga retreat in a private setting in Peru. Here’s what I learned.
Night 1: One Spoon
The first night is an introductory warmup, with a single spoonful of the Wood poured into our mouths. The powder has a mildly bitter taste, not bad compared to the vile concoctions I drink on dieta in Iquitos. Soon colors begin to swirl within my vision, a different palette than the Day-Glo hues I get with ayahuasca: this is an earthy palette, tinted with an opalescent sheen.
All the imagery is of real objects from this world, intricately beautiful patterns and textures. Through the night I see many images of little girls around three or four, innocently playing. A parade of African faces. Black fingers tipped with luscious purple and pink nails. A repeated image of clocks running backwards, time unwinding.
My intention is Release me from this trauma. Multiple rounds of surgery as a baby and child left me with deeply buried imprints of loneliness, terror and pain. In my previous work with plants, I’ve witnessed the past-life/ancestral actions that created this experience, as well as the strength of my soul that took on this karma at a very early age. This perspective erases any idea that I’m a victim, but by itself, it doesn’t free me of the traumatic imprints created by those difficult early experiences. So I’m coming to iboga, just as I work with ayahuasca and the plants of dieta, to ask for healing.
I sense that this force has the power to uproot the trauma planted deep within my being.
A flash of an intensely bright light in my right eye triggers terror in my gut. Glimpses of anesthesia, the sounds of surgery penetrating my unconscious ears: the brutal whine of a bone saw, power tools being used on my infant body. The memory of myself as a nine-month-old baby in the hospital. I cry when I recognise the wordless thought: There’s something wrong with me. That’s why they sent me away. I am bad.
I see how babies come into this world perfect, innocent and radiant … and how we mark them in the process of raising them, dimming the light of their spirit. We are all at the mercy of each other, I am shown. We are all in the hands of one another. And this vulnerability feels extraordinarily profound.
Iboga is not in me tonight so much as showing itself to me. I feel its tremendous power and force shining forth with the purity of nuclear fission, the implacable splitting of elements. “The Light of the Wood,” they call it. I sense that this force has the power to move—indeed, uproot—the trauma planted deep within my being.
Night 2: Four Spoons
Tonight is the Death Ceremony—a promising name—and we are all dressed in black. Servers come around every 45 minutes with another spoonful. I swallow two, pass on the third, and take a small spoon for the fourth and fifth, which instigates much purging.
Tonight, implacably and ruthlessly, iboga is showing me the extent to which trauma has conditioned my being, and it’s deeper than I’ve ever understood. Old patterns of behavior I thought I’d released years ago—self-criticism, hyper-vigilance, comparison, judgment—rise up zombielike within me, as strong as ever. I’m flinching at the slightest noise, startling at recurrent images of a menacing figure looming over me. I see how all the meditative and emotional work I’ve done over the years has helped me treat myself more compassionately, but it hasn’t touched the roots of this patterning. These remain, hidden deep within my being, for iboga to unearth tonight.
I’m a baby again, desperately needing something to trust in, and I can’t find it, inside or out.
My behavior, patterns of speech, actions or holding back—I see how these are not authentic expressions of my personality, but the result of trauma and its ensuing dissociation: random wreckage, reactivity born from pain. And I see how this causes more pain in the world.
To call all this discouraging would be a massive understatement. It’s paralyzing. It’s heartbreaking. It’s humiliating. The cumulative force of these revelations breaks me open into a new level of shame. As a psychotherapist, I know how shame and trauma intertwine. Tonight this is no theory, but a deeply visceral self-judgment: I am clumsy with human connection; I miss social cues; I freeze up—and I see how terrified I am beneath it all.
I wake up in the maloka the next morning, everyone lying peacefully around me. Platters of fruit, jugs of juice and cool slices of cucumbers are arrayed in front of the altar in welcome break-fast, as sunlight streams onto the jungle greenery outside. We’re in the Garden of Eden together.
We lie here together all through the day, floating in the bardo. The six-spooners are motionless on their mats across from me—very occasionally, I see an arm move. I’ve taken a smaller dose, but I‘m still receiving images, mostly of how I bonded with machines when I was an infant.
I’m a baby in the hospital again, and everything within my field of vision is hard, cold, noisy, bright, and frightening—the very opposite of what a baby needs. I fold my arm over my eyes, seeking a refuge that just isn’t there, feeling the overwhelming shame triggered by the probing gaze of the masked faces hovering over me, the doctors and nurses trying to fix me. I’m a baby again, desperately needing something to trust in, and I can’t find it, inside or out. I cry, feeling raw and vulnerable and right back at that age.
Iboga shows me the degree to which I am unfree to live my life, boxed in by self-inflicted limitations, the aftermath of self-protection.
I feel the desperation, the confusion, the disconnect I felt back then. Over and over again I try to release, to surrender into my heart, my body—but these are not available to me. How can I allow the release that so desperately needs to happen, if my nervous system is fighting at a survival level to push it all away? It’s like trying to roll up a carpet I’m standing on. This reactivity is the nature of trauma, I know. I need touch, resourcing, support, but I soldier through without asking for help. As in so much of my life. I feel I’m on my own.
Night 3: Two Spoons
The ceremony is starting again, and so is the music: maddeningly repetitive hyper-speed recordings of the twanging magonga, a bizarre emanation of the plant’s energy that feels capable of transporting us to a different realm all by itself.
I don’t need much more tonight. Iboga is still in my system. Two small spoons, and I’m flying. This time the energy is intensely physical, vibrating my cells, shaking things loose. Lights flash in the corners of my vision in blue and green arcs. Tonight is the Rebirth Ceremony; we are all dressed in red, and we are all supposed to dance, and although I do at the beginning, I quickly become so dizzy I have to lie down. I vomit a few times, and with the last few heaves I get the message: This is the old fear leaving your body.
No more medicine is served, but we maintain our retreat for the next three days, continuing to integrate together. I am feeling increasingly unsettled, a strange deep vibration rumbling through my body. Occasionally I get phrases (“You need someone who hears your words,” I hear, and I realise, Huh, maybe nobody did) or images (that disturbing bright light again), or emotions (a sense of fear centered in my forebrain; layer after layer of sadness). I want to hide somewhere safe, feel comforted and protected—but there is no safety anywhere, and I feel the same despair I felt back then.
Faced with overwhelming experiences as a baby, I had to harden to protect myself. That holding is still happening inside me, although the threat is long gone. Iboga shows me the degree to which I am unfree to live my life, boxed in by self-inflicted limitations, the aftermath of self-protection.
On a short, mosquito-ridden walk past the pond, something shifts inside of me. The effort of pushing down these overwhelming feelings, yet carrying them around inside me my whole life, suddenly catches up with me in this moment, and I am suddenly and simply Done. Completely Done. I can’t go on living like this any more. Something has to change. Either this dies or I die are the words that rise up inside me, and I don’t much care which happens—that is how Done I feel. This is my soul speaking, wanting to live fully, before it’s too late.
In meditation that evening I get the message: The plants can heal this. Iboga, ayahuasca, the plant teachers of dieta … together they will heal you. Indigenous plant medicine is the path for me, the belated remedy for the barbaric treatment that restructured my body but damaged my infant soul.
The weeks following are a rough ride, exacerbated by the need to pull myself together to present a workshop a bare three days later, and a questionable decision to join several ayahuasca ceremonies the following week. If iboga opened up a borehole, ayahuasca brings up even more trauma, raw lava flowing upwards into the light. Crawling back home to Pisac, I spend a few weeks lying low. Very, very low. Iboga is working within me; I can feel it in my physical brain as well as in my energetic field.
My dreams show me the ongoing process, their images revealing me trapped in a few dingy rooms, limited by habit and by fear. One night I am told, You need gentleness; another, Your structure needs to be of love—and in the dream I see, and say, But it’s made of fear. Those reflexes of bracing, cringing, withdrawing are so deeply ingrained in me. I’m getting a hard lesson on the work that visionary plants can do with early trauma, and the support that’s needed in that process. It will prove to be invaluable in my professional work; at the same time, it’s really, really tough.
Then, around the six-week point, something shifts, radically. My life explodes into activity: communication, connections, writing. I feel like I’ve emerged into a new level of functioning. It’s a welcome relief.
I don’t have a tidy ending for this story. I intend to write more about trauma and plant medicine, from both a personal and professional perspective. The plant dietas I’ve done since my encounter with iboga have been powerfully transformative, each releasing another chunk of trauma. It feels like change is happening within me at the pace a plant grows; slowly, organically, naturally. I figure I’m in graduate school for plant medicines right now. Iboga is a master professor. I will study with him again.
Want more info? Here’s a link to some good posts on iboga by Stephen Gray: