In this episode, I am speaking with Maya Shetreat, MD about how to use indigenous medicine and spiritual practices for to improve your health and grow emotionally and spiritually.
Table of Contents
In this podcast, Dr. Shetreat and I will discuss:
- The healing power of passionflower for anxiety and disconnection
- Forest bathing and why it has such a profound effect on us,
- The benefits of essential oils (and just how solid the research is on these oft-dismissed tools).
- Plant medicines with neuroactive and psychedelic effects – are they too risky to try?
- Cannabis and the endocannabinoid system
- How the default mode network influences your health and how spiritual energy is being overlooked in the fight against fatigue
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Ari Whitten: Hey, everyone. Welcome back. I’m your host, Ari Whitten. And now, I have with me my good friend Dr. Maya Shetreat. Who is a neurologist, herbalist, urban farmer, and author of The Dirt Cure; Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child. Which has been translated into ten languages.
She’s been featured in The New York Times, The Telegraph, NPR, Sky News, The Dr. Oz Show, and many more. Dr. Maya is the founder of the Terrain Institute where she teaches terrain medicine, Earth-based programs for transformational healing. She works and studies with indigenous communities, healers in Ecuador. And is a life-long student of Ethnobotany, plant healing, and the sacred.
I’m really excited for this talk because she’s going to be talking all about indigenous practices, spiritual practices, Sumac practices, and that whole angle and aspect to energy and to superhuman energy. So, welcome, Dr. Maya, such a pleasure to connect with you as always.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Pleasure to be here as always.
Ari Whitten: Nice. So, what do you got for us? Let’s get into it.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: All right. So, I’m going to start by just saying a few things about my journey to get to this point. Because I was, you know, prior to this life that I lead now, I was a conventionally trained adult and pediatric neurologist. Which was many, many years of, you know, being in a conventional medical system, a lot of years of training. And then, I went on to become an integrative doctor in the program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. I joined the faculty there, became an herbalist, and did a lot of work with kind of the science of the plants.
And then, one day my son who was my youngest got sick. And initially, he had had asthma and he was one year old and started having all of these symptoms that came up out of nowhere. Or seemingly out of nowhere. And that took me on a tremendous journey to learning about what was triggering it, and root cause, and for him it was soy. And I learned about soil and food, and why is soy so allergenic. And GMOs, and pesticides, and I wrote a book about it. And thought, “Okay. I know so much now. I’m an expert in this and I can help anyone.”
And I had to recover my son, you know, from all of the meds that he got during that period. It turned out he was allergic to soy. We took him off soy, he stopped having asthma, he got a lot healthier, it was wonderful. And I spent time, you know, giving him herbs, and supplements, and feeding him a really healthy diet, and getting him outdoors. And that worked wonderfully until he was about eight years old and we found mold in our apartment.
And he got sick again. And so, you know, after a whole rigamarole we moved out of our apartment and had the bathroom where this mold epicenter was totally gutted and cleaned the place, and just did dramatic things. And he was on herbs, he was on supplements, he was getting the food, you know. And we moved back into our apartment after it had been cleaned, you know, everything was done, and within two weeks of that time, he had a seizure. And it was in the bathroom. The bathroom that was the epicenter, that had been gutted down to the studs. There was nothing, nothing there. And he’d never had a seizure before.
And it was, you know, it was scary because that’s always as a parent, as a doctor, and, you know, I held him in my arms and I knew with certainty in that moment – even though I was an expert, even though I was the doctor, that probably in the world was doing work for integrative approaches to neurologic issues for children – probably one of the only. And I would have referred, you know, people would have referred him to me. And I knew holding him in that moment, that this was not something physical only. That there was something more going on, and that I had to learn that there was something about him and about this place we were in. And it was another level, basically, that I didn’t yet know. And that I was going to have to learn.
And that journey took me to a teacher, initially, who is a Ph.D. in ethnobotany, and fourth-generation Shaman. And I followed her to Ecuador, and I studied with her, and I studied the plants with her, and I studied with indigenous elders, and medicine people there. And then expanded that study to my own ancestral, you know, African Morocco. And really was brought on this journey to plants and to what we are doing when we are in connection to the Earth because the indigenous approach is a very different paradigm than the approach that we are accustomed to here. Where we think physical illness is what it is at face value, and you take pills to get better from it, and then you’re fine and you go on with your life.
There, there is an idea that all physical things start with your spiritual self. And your being in good relations. Being in good relations with yourself, with others, and with the place you are. So, I had this very powerful journey, and actually, it wasn’t something that was so distant or far from things that I knew and had sensed, but I had no real language for it. Because we really don’t have a language for it.
So, I want to talk a little bit about what those different kinds of practices are that indigenous communities and ancient communities were practiced and are still practiced to this day. That are things that make you feel or, you know, that give you the propensity to be superhuman. You know, but maybe we could just call that being, you know, incredibly optimal in physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Ari Whitten: Or we could call it being awesome.
The healing power of nature
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Yeah. Which it is, also. And what I love about this is that there is a sense that this is very cutting-edge information. And there is a lot of fascinating science around it, and at the same time, it’s very ancient. It’s really not new at all, in most cases.
And one of the examples that I’ll give that I think is very simple is passionflower. So, passionflower is, you know, it’s the flower of the passion fruit, and they’re beautiful. And, basically, passionflower has the property of being very relaxing. Passionflower actually has been compared in a lot of studies to benzodiazepines like Lorazepam. And in these studies, it’s actually been to shown for things like moderate anxiety disorder, or presurgical anxiety – that passionflower has equal efficacy. It’s as effective as a pharmaceutical benzodiazepine in managing and alleviating anxiety. And what the studies have shown – there have been several studies and in the studies, basically, passionflower does not act as quickly as a pharmaceutical, but it also doesn’t cause the cognitive impairment that you might have using a benzodiazepine.
And it’s actually been shown to contain GABA in it. And GABA is a neurotransmitter, it’s an inhibitory relaxing neurotransmitter. And it’s also a supplement many people take. And it is found in passionflower.
So, just as an example, passionflower’s obviously been around for a long time. It’s been used in indigenous medicine for a long time, but we know now that the science, you know, this is cutting edge science because we’ve compared it to these things that we think are so technologically advanced. Actually, it’s equal in efficacy. And, in fact, really plants are the initial inspiration for many, many drugs. And the word drug is actually, it means to dry. And to dry because people would dry herbs and plants, and that was how they made medicine.
And there are all of these ways that plants heal. Plants are a foundational part of indigenous practice from being something that is sensory and beautiful to being nourishment, to being ingestion, to being actually clothing and shelter. And to being actually a source of awe and gratitude. Connection to place, connection to nature, connection to your culture and other cultures, and connection to memories, and ancestors, and eternal knowledge.
So, many of us know about the benefits of food, I think. I’m not going to get into that. But we understand, I think many people in this community understand that you know, this idea that food is medicine to us. And, you know, that’s a foundational idea that, you know, we have all of these bodies of science, and, you know, around epigenomics and nutrigenomics that really support our – the fact that food is really something foundational to our health.
But I want to think about it also in some other ways, like the idea of getting people flowers. And that may sound a little like, “Okay. Giving people flowers?” Well, think about it. In our culture, if you’ve gotten flowers have you ever given anyone flowers or received flowers? I’ll ask you that, Ari?
Ari Whitten: Only women, well, I was going to say, only women that I was trying to seduce, but I’ve also given them to my mother. And that definitely doesn’t meet that criterion.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Well, so, right, so we have these certain kinds of situations where we might give flowers, we might receive flowers. And that can be when you love someone, or you want to seduce them. It could be because you want to show appreciation to someone. And show them that you love them in a different way. It can be because someone’s grieving, right? Because we send flowers to someone who’s sad or who’s lost someone. So, there are all of these different reasons that we send flowers to people or give flowers to people.
But, why do we, it’s because flowers change us. Flowers, the experience of exchange, and flowers, in particular, they make us feel a certain way. And it actually changes our state of being. So, the reason I bring this up is because we can talk about this kind of energetic element of how we interact with plants and it’s sort of, I think, hard for a lot of people who live in the western world where that’s not really a thing, and there’s not a lot of language around it. You know, how do we change when we’re around plants, or when we’re around nature. Like when go into a forest or we’re on the beach. Our whole being changes when we are immersed in the natural world as opposed to being in our daily industrial or more urban lives, urban or suburban lives. There is a real difference. And some of us are obviously, you know, lucky enough to be in a more natural setting. But even then, you know, and I think you and I both know this when we’re immersed nature it changes us. We feel differently.
And, of course, there’s a huge body of evidence looking at things like forest bathing because it is a practice, a cultural practice, particularly in Asian countries – it’s prescribed. And a lot of the doctors there actually have now studied the benefits or the qualities of people who immerse in regular forest bathing. Which just means immersing yourself in the beauty of the forest on a regular basis. And what they’ve found is that people feel happier subjectively. They sleep better. They are more creative. Their executive function is more optimal. They focus better. And cortisol levels, so stress hormones, are lower. Their immune systems are more activated. Their natural killer cells, which is part of nonspecific immunity are actually amplified. And their anticancer proteins are also amplified.
So, by immersing yourself in the forest you’re getting so many benefits, so many diverse benefits that actually no pharmaceutical could ever confer. And so, these are these ways. Because, of course, then we start to ask ourselves, “Well, okay, so what’s really happening there?” Maybe it’s the microbiome of the forest, right? And that must be what’s doing it. Well, it’s not just the microbiome. You know, there’s no one thing, it’s like being in the sun, the benefits of being in the sun, and this has been looked at too, is not just about the Vitamin D. The sun is not only Vitamin D.
Ari Whitten: That’s the subject of my next book, so, yes, that’s one of my big objectives in the next book is to explain the many other dozens of other mechanisms of how the sun benefits our health beyond just the Vitamin D story.
The master plants and how they “train us to serve them”
Dr. Maya Shetreat: And that idea of get out, get your Vitamin D, like go outside and get your Vitamin D. Like sure, we do experience that as benefit, but these are such complex relationships that we have with these entities, these elements that are these eternal elements that we have evolved with over – since the beginning, since our beginning, and we have a relationship with them. And this is part of the indigenous wisdom and intelligence that has also evolved since the beginning, along with our relationship with plants, and the forest, and the jungle, and the sun, and the beach, and the water. You know, all of these different aspects of things.
So, people will say to me like, you know, “Plants, I’m not into plants. Like, fine, yeah, I’ll eat like a salad.” So, I always like to ask people, “Have you ever had coffee?” Because people will say like, “Eww.” Because coffee is a powerful plant tonic. And, you know, we think about it as caffeine and, “I need my caffeine.” Again, that totally reductionist way that we have in the western world of trying to basically reduce something down to one compound. But plants, like the sun, like the forest, are as complex as we are.
And they’re a universe. They’re a universe within themselves. As we are a universe within ourselves. And there’s an interaction. And when we interact one universe and another universe together, it creates all of these new entities. New never before seen entities. And so, coffee as an example, you know, is not just caffeine. But it is an array, a massive array of different compounds, and [inaudible] and bitter components that actually change our immune system. Change our stomach acid. Change our blood sugar levels, and change our way of thinking, and our way of engaging, right?
And in indigenous culture, a plantlike the coffee, coffee bean, is called a master plant. It’s called a teacher plant. Because it’s so powerful in the way that we interact with it. And I would say to you too if you don’t think plants are powerful and thoughtful in the way that they operate, think about coffee.
Think about how far people will go to get their coffee. We are slaves in a sense. And I just don’t mean coffee.
I’m going to give you another example. What about grass? I mean just the kind that grows outside, I’m not using a euphemism there. You know, people will spend hours every – like hours that they will say that they don’t have mowing their lawn, and watering lawn. We’re slaves to grass. Grass, you know, it’s like a meadow, it’s not anything we can eat, we’re not feeding it to anybody, you know. It’s literally, we have gotten into these relationships with plants because plants know – just as we try to manipulate plants, plants also, are in relationship with us. And get us to serve them.
Ari Whitten: This makes me think of Michael Pollan, and this was years ago that I remember him talking about this. But talking about how grass has successfully manipulated us into serving it, so we’ve helped it spread all over the world, and care for it. And intentionally plant it everywhere, and it really serves no purpose other than aesthetics.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Right. It’s just an aesthetic that we have decided is an aesthetic. I mean, in other words, it’s not anything – there’s virtually no benefit that we get directly from grass as opposed to, let’s say, dandelions. So, this is the irony, right? Is that – and I’m going to talk about dandelion in a minute – but dandelion has all of these medicinal nutritional benefits. And here we go around poisoning, really, poisoning dandelions and being agitated by dandelions which are a powerful medicine. Because there are marring our grass, right?
So, again this is really part of this understanding is it goes so deep, and it’s not just this one thing, but it’s about a relationship with plants, and understanding what plants do for us, and what we do for them, and how we serve each other. This is part of being superhuman, or being optimally human, or being awesome as you said.
So, you know, and then tea is another example of a way that we drink plant tonics all of the time. You know, whether it’s your English Breakfast Tea, or your Ribose Tea, or, you know, Chamomile, or some other kind of tea. Where we are engaging in a plant tonic.
Ari Whitten: I’m all about Macha.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Oh, Macha’s a good one. I just had my first dandelion latte recently.
Ari Whitten: Oh, really. Nice.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: And it was so wonderful because sometimes I really don’t have any – I’m sensitive to caffeine, and I don’t always want something if I’m out having a social experience. Which feels like a distant memory at this moment, but there was a time that happened.
Ari Whitten: Yeah.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: And, you know, I might meet someone in the afternoon, and I found this dandelion latte and it was so delicious. It was really good, so now my goal is to learn how to actually make that. I have been a slave to dandelion. I think dandelion is a wonderful plant.
The power of essential oils
Ari Whitten: Yeah.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: So, you know, then I would just say another example of the way plants influence us on an emotional level is essential oils. And I want to bring that up for a few reasons. Because essential oils have this wrap as being kind of woo-thing, and that they don’t have any science, and that it’s, you know, this hippy-dippy kind of, you know, nonsense.
So, what’s fascinating is that when I went to do the research for my last book, I went to look in the scientific literature around essential oils. I just wanted to know, like what’s really there. What was most fascinating is that there are so many papers on essential oils, and they are published by surgeons. And the reason is because surgeons faced severe refractory to antibiotics, meaning antibiotics could not treat them, wound infections. And that is something that kills people, or causes them to lose a limb, or, you know? So, surgeons were, I guess, at some point decided, “We’re going to look at essential oils.” And looked at the antimicrobial properties of all different essential oils. And guess what? Every single one they tested had strong antimicrobial properties.
Now, different ones were better for different things, you know, but it was fascinating because, you know, surgeons are talking about essential oils and their antimicrobial properties – you know we kind of have to listen because nobody’s going to say that surgeons are going around talking about woothings.
Ari Whitten: Maybe they just like to smell like patchouli in the operating room.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: I don’t feel like surgeons are like that. I feel like they’re exactly not like that, you know.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. I had the same experience probably four or five years ago by the way. I thought – I brushed off essential oils as nonsense, like hippie nonsense, new agey stuff. And then, I was really surprised when I first discovered how many research papers there are on the various effects. Moodboosting, brain-boosting, sleep-enhancing, you know, on and on and on.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Oh, all of it. And, you know, just – and this is actually not just essential oils, but if you smell a sprig of fresh rosemary, you improve your memory by ten and more times for a period of time after just inhaling it. And why I talk about this in terms of our emotional health too, is that scent is the sense that we have that doesn’t get processed anywhere else in the brain.
It goes straight to your limbic system. And so, it’s a direct hit to you and to your memories, and to your primitive brain, and it affects you on an emotional level. In addition to all of the other ways that it affects.
So, there is this incredible way, whether through essential oils, and I like it because they have been studied and there is data around the relaxing, and the sleep, and the cognitive benefits, and wound-healing benefits, and, you know, on and on. But, in fact, also there is an emotional benefit when you are smelling these different kinds of compounds that are coming through essential oils or, you know, picking that piece of rosemary and smelling it. Or basil or these different kinds of plants that cause you to have that emotional reaction. And that is an important part for indigenous communities of engaging with the plant. That’s the part of the relationship.
And, you know, you could think about it as, you know, when there’s somebody that you are in love with, you know. How good they smell to you, and what happens to you when you, you know, kind of catch a scent. And it could be, you know, a combination of things, but a scent of that person is that it can activate all of these kinds of feelings. And that is true also – we have that kind of love affair that goes on also with plants, and flowers, and aromatic herbs, and, you know, pine, fur leaves. You know, just think about all of these different – you know, mint, that might in some way activate you. And it can go in both directions, right? Something can repel you or the other way around, but what happens it creates these endorphins as if you are in love. And you are, but it’s with the plant, you know?
So, there is this way also in indigenous communities where plants act on a whole other level. They are about protection. They are about clearing. So, an example of that could be people will use a smudge stick where they bundle certain plants together, aromatic plants. It could be lavender, basil, and, you know, pine. Or it could be, you know, actually, rosemary is another one, and actually smolder it. So, light it, you know, light it on fire, blow it out. And let it kind of create a little smoke. And again, you know, they talk about clearing and using that to kind of clear the space energetically. When we’ve looked at it scientifically, what we’ve seen is that actually when you do that, especially in a closed space, the levels of organisms in the air that could be harmful decrease, especially in a closed space, for many, many hours. For as many as 16 to 18 hours after you do that.
So, certainly, you know, whatever’s happening on an energetic or spiritual level we may not yet easily be able to measure with the kinds of, you know, with the particular vehicles that we have right now. However, what we do know is, you know, if we’re looking, “Is the air cleaner in some way?” Yes, actually it is. And these are also used as – for some different kinds of plants, as an inhaler. The way we used something, you know, someone had asthma, you know, they use it with a little bit of smoke from certain plants that actually, you know, help people breathe better, you know, by expanding their airways.
So, there is this sense of, you know, it’s helping open things up, it’s helping you breathe, it’s helping you clean. And plants as protection can look a lot of different ways. You know, there are certain kinds of plants that are warm. Like seeds, seeds are a huge – a very sacred part of Earth-based cultures, because they’re these powerful – they hold memories, they hold DNA, they can last hundreds and hundreds of years and still in this little tiny package hold all of this potential to become something huge. Like, not just a tree, but a whole forest of trees from that one seed.
So, people will wear seeds and will interact with seeds. And, of course, I do that in a lot of different ways. And right now I was thinking there are a lot of places that have sold out seeds and I really wanted to grow my garden during this period. And I luckily, because I work with seeds, I was like, wow, I have sunflower seeds that I’ve worked with, I have corn that I keep like, you know, as making kind of designs and mandalas. And I’m planting my seeds, you know. It’s really, it’s this kind of insurance for life that you have in your, you know, when you interact with seeds.
Plants for transformation
I’m going to talk for a minute about plants for transformation. And there are a lot of ways that that’s used. So, painting plants on you is actually one way that plants can be used for transformation. But also, there are also kind of these teacher plants, psychedelics, and things like cannabis, and psilocybin, and Ayahuasca, that there’s been a lot of talk about. These neuroactive or psychedelics kinds of plants that have, again, really risen up, you know, after being suppressed and stigmatized and made illegal for a long time. And again, those of us who work with these plants, you know, are seeing this as a way that the plants are – you know, like for example, Ayahuasca, which is a ceremonial plant that grows in the jungle. We’re seeing, you know, we’re saying, “She’s coming out of the jungle.” Because it’s like she wants to be seen and she knows that she’s needed at this time.
In the same way that I think we’re learning about cannabis, right? That it was this stigmatized plant and it was like, you know, only losers did that or something, was sort of the mainstream narrative. And that it was, you know, terrible for you, a downhill slope, and all of that. And here we are suddenly, you know, understanding the science of the endocannabinoid system, and all of the benefits – and not just benefits, but in fact that there were all of these conditions that are all about endocannabinoid deficiency that were unsolvable. And the people were called crazy. And it was things like, you know, multiple miscarriages, or phantom limb syndrome, or colic – infantile colic, or you know, severe intractable migraines. Things that, you know, people have been told they’re crazy.
Ari Whitten: Even chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And a lot of these, one of the mechanisms, one of the important mechanisms that was just totally ignored and willfully ignored, because the science was there, was the endocannabinoid system. And so, these are ways that these teacher plants do have something to offer, but at the same time it is again a relationship and we have to always remember that we have to come with respect in these relationships with all of these powerful plants. Because like grass, and like coffee, and like many other plants we can actually, you know, be on the, you know, we can become slaves to the medicine, to the plants as well.
So, I want to say, you know, I talk about this idea of, you know, working with plants and working with ritual and ceremony, because that is another really important part of Earth-based communities is being in a sacred space, being in ritual, and being in ceremony. And there are a few different aspects that change us, and I think to make us superhuman and extra awesome, potentially, this is not in any way me recommending that people go do psychedelics. I don’t actually think it’s right for many people.
There is really interesting science behind it. There’s also a lot of other ways that we can have a similar benefit to the kinds of brain changes I’m going to talk about in a minute. So, I don’t actually think that that’s necessary to go and ingest, or smoke, or do any of things. But I do think it’s really interesting to understand that these were sacred plants since the beginning of time. There’s evidence that things like cannabis and psilocybin were used actually thousands and thousands of years ago in art and sacred temples. One reason it’s thought that cows were worshiped and considered sacred in Hinduism that it actually was rooted in the fact that psilocybin and certain kinds of psychedelic mushrooms grew in the manure.
Ari Whitten: Oh, wow.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: And that those were used for sacred ceremony for transformation and ritual. And so, I want to talk for a minute about what happens in that kind of – in a ritual moment and psychedelics can be one of those. But not only.
So, there is a part of the brain that is very pivotal when we are working with things like psychedelics. But also, it can be when you’re an experienced meditator. It can be when you do extreme sports. It can be near-death experiences. Not that we’re, you know, going after those in general. And it can be in ritual. And ritual and ceremony, which about stepping outside of time. It’s about stepping outside of the ordinary. And being a space that considered more sacred where you are kind of exploring things with different eyes and getting outside the typical way of thinking.
So, the default mode network is this area in the brain or areas of the brain that light up with activity when we have no real mental tasks to perform, okay. So, it’s sort of like our minds are wandering. And it’s daydreaming, it’s self-reflection, which sounds nice. But it can also turn into things like ruminating, and anxiety, and even to the point of things like obsessivecompulsive disorder. And it’s something consumes actually a disproportionate amount of the brain’s energy. And it alternates with attentional networks that draw your attention to the outside world. So, it’s sort of are you focusing inward and how much? Or are you focusing outside?
So, the default mode network is this really important part of the brain that is sort of your “me” network, okay? It’s sort of the conductor of the orchestra. And it manages and keeps all of these competing systems of the brain working together and keeps all of the other parts in check. And generally, it’s kind of inhibitory. It’s an inhibitory system which controls the limbic system. Which we talked about before which is your emotions and your memory, and it’s sort of this primitive brain. We call it primitive, I mean, I think we could probably reframe that. But it’s sort of a more – it’s sort of the more passionate and emotional part of your brain you might say.
But when you shut off your default mode network, which is inhibitory and suppressing, what can happen is your emotions and your memories, and your long-buried childhood traumas, even, may float to the surface. So, that’s interesting because, you know, that’s something a lot of us put a lot of work into avoiding, you know.
And so, the default mode network also allows us to do something called predictive coding. It allows us to predict what’s most likely to happen based on the least information available. And predictive coding is useful because if we had to assess every situation as if it were a new situation we would probably not survive. You know, because, you know, you see there’s a car coming around the corner and you know what can happen, you know, and like the car almost hit you that one time – then you’re going to remember and you don’t have to each time assess and relearn. Like, “Hmm, what’s happening? I see a car there.” You can put it together just based on a few details. The problem is that if you have these long-buried childhood traumas and you have these emotions and memories that are from way back, and you’re suppressing those things – it also makes it that you’re integrating all of those into the way you predict each situation’s going to go. So, you’re kind of living in a certain narrative that might not be an actual fully narrative.
So, sometimes it’s important to have experiences that inactivate that default mode network. In our society, we’re expected to have very powerful default mode networks. Because there’s a lot of, you know, you have to step up and be efficient and be successful. And there’s no time to kind of ruminate, there’s no time to really, you know, let go that sense of “me-ness” and achievement.
So, the kinds of experiences, as I said, that might inactivate it could be mystical experiences, and prayer, and meditation if you’re a really experienced meditator. These holotropic breathing, now we’re seeing a lot of this therapeutic breathing. That can actually also inactivate the default mode network and allow this kind of healing to happen.
Sensory deprivation, overwhelming experiences of awe, like being in nature actually can be profound moments that inactive the default mode network. And as I said, some psychedelics, fasting can do it, extreme sports can do it, near-death experiences. These are just some of the major examples.
So, when you don’t have your default mode network in balance, okay, so it’s sort of too little then you’re not suppressing enough and there’s more chaos. And that can be early psychosis, it can be kind of a magical thinking, it can also be seen in highly creative states or even in infant consciousness.
But on the other side where it’s too activated, you can have a rigid and restricted way of operating where you have depression, anxiety, obsessions, eating disorders, OCD, addiction. Which are a lot of kind of the Scourge’s of modern living, I would say.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. And I would say, you know, one other thing I want to kind of connect the dots with that you mentioned a couple of slides ago, is that this consumes a disproportionate amount of the brain’s energy. And I think a lot of people will resonate with the fact that anxiety, and depression, and obsessions consume a lot of mental and even physical energy and very much overlap with fatigue. I mean these things, I would say especially anxiety and depression, can absolutely be draining to one’s physical energy.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know the question is how, you know, by engaging in ritual and ceremony of various kinds – and this doesn’t have to be anything, you know, it can be something religious for some people. But it also can be, it can also just be something completely made of your own creation, you know. Or it can be something communal, like for some people it could be like engaging in like ecstatic dance, or a drum circle, or a ceremony, right? I mean different kinds of things where your engaging and, you know, on and on. You know these are the things that I teach about in my work.
But how do we allow these changes that we need to our default mode network so that it doesn’t become overpowering? And so, what happens when we start to have these mystical experiences that are so inherent to the culture of Earth-based communities and indigenous communities – it’s a normal part of culture. It’s a normal part of communal activity. This, you know, we could think of, you know, it’s part of – you know, if something happens to the – if someone, you know, dies, there’s grief ritual around that. That allows people to move through, you know, these different emotions and things, so that people aren’t holding onto it and aren’t stuck, you know, trauma that they might have experienced around it. And have that overactive default mode network.
So, in the mystical experience, we have these distinct networks in our brain that become less distinct. And we have these new connections that spring up between regions that would normally not communicate. And we operate with a greater flexibility, and interconnectedness, and increased mental diversity, and thinking outside of the box. And actually, people that have experienced the mystical will have long-term changes to their personality; to have more traits of openness.
So, these experiences facilitate neuroplasticity and I’m sharing this because, again, there’s just this idea that this is all woo and that this all, you know, a bunch of B.S. and, you know, people are just saying, “No.” We have really beautiful science, and this science is only growing day by day.
Ari Whitten: I think we should take a group of like a thousand people, randomly select a thousand people who think this is all woo nonsense. And have them do like a full dose of ayahuasca or psilocybin, and then poll them afterwards to see what percentage of them change. Granted, I’m just saying this humorously. Because obviously I know that there’s a potential for some people to have bad experiences, and some people to, you know, maybe who have too little of the default mode network already to have – to maybe go in a negative direction from it. But I just think it would be fun to examine how many of those people would change their views on to what degree it’s all woowoo mystical nonsense.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: But that has in a sense been done. Not exactly, but it’s been looked at in people who were dying actually. Where they got – it wasn’t totally random, but basically, people signed up for a study where they would either get a placebo or they would get psilocybin. And, you know, they were given something and, you know, had this experience. And so, what happened was that the vast majority of the people who ended up ingesting the psilocybin and it was done in a controlled setting without actually a helper person who helped the person who was taking the psilocybin, was there to help them through the experience. Were trained to do that.
Not necessarily mystical in a sense that, “Oh, like here we are in ceremony.” But something that was intentional and safe. And what they found is that the vast majority of them lost their fear of death. Totally lost their fear of death and came to peace with the fact that they, you know, were, you know, were end-stage, and that, you know, this was going to happen. And they just felt very peaceful about it.
And, you know, I think it’s fascinating because when have that, you know, those experiences that are mystical, you know, and I’m giving that one psilocybin study, there are many, many studies on psilocybin actually from all over the world. And, but again, it’s not the only way that we can have mystical experience by far.
Ari Whitten: Yeah.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: And I want to emphasize that.
Ari Whitten: There’s also – I think the original one from [Roland Griffith] out of Johns Hopkins found, I think, something like 70 percent of people who took the psilocybin, even when polled six months or a year later said it was in the top three most profound experiences of their lives. So, yeah, I definitely hear what you’re saying, that it’s been done. I still think that we should take a thousand people of the most skeptical.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Actually for addiction, it’s, again, you know, because we’ve, you know, it became, it was so underground, you know, same as with cannabis there’s this idea that there is this kind of bad, kind of sketchy sort of drug. And yet, you know, the side effects of it are actually minimal. And that’s been many, many studies. Including a government published a study in Europe. But at the same time for addiction, it actually – people have not just stopped smoking, but long-term. I mean there are almost no treatments that have the level of success long-term as actually psilocybin.
So, you know, again, the point of this is really, you know, we have good studies around that. Whereas around ritual and around, you know holotropic breathing we’re still building our, you know, our studies. But this is something very, you know, we can measure how much. We know when they started it. We know what happened before and after. You know, everyone can observe what’s happening there. So, what the hallmarks – following a mystical experience are – that first of all the insights during them are felt to be objectively true. Like revealed truth rather than insights. This is a hallmark, like universal to people who have experienced this.
There’s a loss of sense of subjectivity. There’s a sense that you have fewer boundaries between the self and the world. And that makes sense because we talked about the default mode network and we understand how there’s less of that sense of “me.” So, it brings to this idea of merging into a larger totality, a sense of nonduality, and being at one with nature is another one that is a hallmark of the mystical experience.
So, this is very much, you know, what we see in indigenous communities. In Earth-based communities, and actually, what we’re, I think, starting to move towards is this idea of we need to understand that we’re all connected. We need to understand that we’re at one with nature. That we are nature and nature is us, right?
So, you know, with that I think it also teaches us things like awe. I think it also teaches us things like surrender, which, you know, we’re experiencing, I think, many people now in the time of real uncertainty, you know, what does it mean to not be in total control. And how does that actually allow us to see things differently? And to interact with each other and the world and nature differently. To know that we’re not necessarily in control. So, that idea of surrender, I think is actually a really important part of being superhuman.
Ari Whitten: Agreed, by the way. Yeah, I cannot agree with you more strongly. I think this is a huge aspect of it and I think, you know, there’s so much focus on sort of the biochemistry of optimizing one’s energy levels through purely nutrition, and supplements, and, you know, other lifestyle factors. And we look at the different biochemical mechanisms. And this dimension of spirituality, of connectedness with nature, with the world around us of surrender, these are things that can’t just be reduced down to, “Oh, take this dosage of this supplement to modify this particular mechanism.” Or, “Influence the expression on this gene.” This is another layer to the story that is just as important but is harder to get at and harder to quantify in an objective way.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Well, I would actually say it’s not necessarily that it’s hard to quantify in an objective way, but that we were not interested in doing it. I’ve gotten into a lot of interesting conversations. I’ve attended think-tanks. And in those think-tanks there are clinicians, there are scientists, leading scientists, and in you’re in this kind of conversation about complex issues.
Whether they’re medical issues or, you know, societal issues, or ecological issues, where you’re discussing what you see, you know, kind of from a clinical standpoint versus a scientific standpoint.
And when I’ve talked about plants, and I’m talking about passionflower, you know what I mean? I’m not talking about anything that kind of, you know, or rosemary – anything like that. But when we’re looking at studies on plants what, you know, what they’d always say to me – and these were brilliant people – they’d say, “Well, we can’t study the plant. We have to study a component of the plant.” That’s the only way. And I would say, “Yes. But the medicine of the plant is the whole plant.” It’s like I want to understand that Maya’s brown hair is what makes her like important in all of these ways. And it’s like, but there’s so many other things. Like why?
The power of gratitude
Ari Whitten: It’s the very specific, unique hue of your hair that defines everything that you just delivered in this presentation.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Right. What we’re talking about is really very much a different way of seeing science. So, and, you know, that’s another thing I teach about as well. We have this entanglement, biological entanglement with everything that we study for one thing. You know, where we are engaged, not just as observers, there’s no such thing as being just an observer. We’re always a part of it. So, really, you know, that’s obviously a very, you know, that could take us on a whole other road that we’re not going to go on right now. But the important point is I don’t think this is just another layer, I think this is a real deepening of our understanding of what health is and of what optimal health is and how to study that, and look at complex beings like human beings, or plants, or the relationship between them. And how can we look at that? Not as another thing we’re trying to separate out necessarily, but how can we start to look in a systems’ approach and a systems’ biology approach to really understand things in the complex form that they are, you know.
Ari Whitten: Right.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: So, I think that that’s really a question. And, you know, the last thing I would just bring up is the idea of gratitude. Because to me this is a very powerful concept that you know, we’re all, I think loosely engaged in. You know, like, “Yes. I should be grateful for this.” Or when things aren’t going well, or you know, whatever it might be. And that certainly, you know, in periods of surrender, and periods of uncertainty, and periods where we’re not in control, gratitude is something that becomes much more to the forefront, you know. That we suddenly are much more aware of being grateful for what we have. And even if it’s as simple as, you know – I know when I’m indoors all day, if I don’t feel I can get outside, and I’m, you know, in isolation or whatever it may be. You know, just looking outside and seeing the sunset that I’m lucky enough to get to see the sunset or the sunrise is something that can change the whole way that I’m experiencing my life and the world in that moment.
So, this idea of being in gratitude, and to my mind – and this is something I think that is a very Earth-based and indigenous approach is part of why we actually are here, right? Like what is our purpose, you know? Are we just here to kind of take things from the Earth or what? Part of our purpose is to be here in gratitude. Our gratitude and appreciation are a part of our purpose. And the way that I think we can look at that in the scientific approach is that we know that the heart has this electromagnetic field. And the electromagnetic field is very powerful. It’s actually the most powerful electromagnetic field in our body, and everything in the body entrains to the electromagnetic field of the heart. It’s synchronizes.
So, even the brain is synchronizing to the electromagnetic field of the heart. And in fact, when you have an EEG and an EKG recording at the same time, and there’s something about to happen, the heart knows a little bit before the brain. The heart actually has this intelligence and knows things before the brain.
And what’s fascinating about it is that when you look at heart rate variability, so you pull out certain, I’m not going to get into too much, but the way that the heartbeats. I’ll just say. You know, the variation in rhythm, you can actually predict someone’s emotional state. You can predict if they’re angry, or if they’re anxious, or if they’re concentrating, or if they’re meditating, or if they’re in gratitude and appreciation. And the reason I bring this up is because when someone is gratitude and appreciation you can see that they have this beautiful sinusoidal wave in their heart rate variability. And even looking at it kind of makes you feel calm.
It’s that wonderful of like this very beautiful sinusoidal wave. And we know that associated with that – if people get into that state, it’s called coherence by the Heart Math Institute. People who are regularly in a state of coherence, and this has been studied and published, they have lower blood pressure. They have better focus. They have lower cortisol levels. Lower stress hormones. They sleep better. Actually, if you look at all kinds of different psychiatric symptoms, they are less likely to have psychosis. They’re less likely to have issues with depression or even bipolar flares.
There’s a huge scientific literature around being in a state of coherence, in that state of gratitude and appreciation. It changes our bodies. It changes our brains. It changes our mental state. And, you know, things like PTSD or violent video games actually get you out of a state of coherence, you know. There are a lot of things about modern living actually that disrupt our state of coherence. But being in that state of gratitude and appreciation is incredibly important for our physical, emotional, and mental health, and I would say also, spiritual health. So, you know, I think that’s this beautiful scientific evidence that shows that we are meant to be here in gratitude. And that’s another element.
And I would just end by saying, you know, we’re all connected, and we evolve together. These plants and, you know, the forest, and the Earth, and as, you know, spiritual as that may sound, I think we have a lot of evidence that this is true. And not only that this true and important, but in fact, it’s necessary for us to be functioning at our most optimal.
Ari Whitten: If I could mention one thing there. I like what you said at the very end there. I think it’s so important because I think the big question from all of this in my mind is – is it possible to be optimally healthy in the absence of connectedness? In the absence of connectedness to the world around you, the people around you, to nature. You know, my wife was just telling me the other day, you know, we were looking at some various news things that were going on and she said, “You know, we’re so sick right now. We’re so out of harmony. We’re poisoning ourselves on a daily basis with what we eat, and the way we live our lives, and what we put into our brains. We are poisoning the world around us. We’re causing the mass suffering of millions, billions of animals. We’re causing the extinction of animal species. We are out of harmony, and out of connection, and awareness of our connectedness to even ourselves, and to the world around us.”
And I think the question is, for me, is it possible to be optimally healthy and have superhuman energy let’s say in the absence of any awareness of this connectedness – in a state of being so out of harmony? And I think, for me, the answer is being in harmony with that, being in connection to all of that is a hugely important aspect of optimal health.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: For me, I would say that there is absolutely no way that we could be optimally healthy without it. And I think, you know, I always talk about, right, our bio-terrain, our bodies, which could include also our emotional terrain, you know, spiritual terrain, our mental terrain. But, you know, our bodies and kind our eco-terrain, the terrain that is around us. Whether it’s seed, soil, water, wind, sun, you know, plants, and animals, and all of the things that are around us. And I think right now, what we’re seeing in this period where we are going through a very challenging time with this virus is we’re really seeing that being out of alignment is putting us, ourselves, at huge risk. Because part of why things like this may happen, and why they think there may be more things like this in the future is because we’re getting rid of the biodiversity of the world. And we’re getting rid of the landscape and the habitat of animals that really – we shouldn’t be in this kind of contact with. That are wild and that need to have their own landscape to live in. And by doing the destruction that we’re doing, and by bringing these wild animals out of the wild, and by, you know, eliminating their landscape we’re actually putting our own selves at risk. We’re reducing biodiversity and that’s the biodiversity of our microbes, and it’s biodiversity of the natural world and the animals. And there is a harmony that does exist, and what we’re seeing is what happens when we’re out of harmony. And how disruptive it can be to our entire society in the whole world, you know, and what that really means.
So, I think this is, you know, this period is a real lesson for us in, first of all, taking a look at – not letting ourselves be distracted from the suffering that we all experience in our various ways and even that we’re causing, you know. That we’re not allowed to busy ourselves out of that. But also, to really start to think about how we could be in better alignment and how we need to. We have really no choice but to be in better alignment if we want to remain optimally healthy and superhuman, but even just healthy period.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. I think, you know, everything you’ve expressed here may very well be the single most important message of this entire summit, you know. If I could choose of all these different, you know, 50/60 talks in this entire summit, if I could choose one message that people were going to take away from this entire thing of all of the different speakers’ talks – every specific thing that was mentioned, every tip for energy and health, if it were my choice, if this were the one thing that I wish you would come away with, it would be what you’ve expressed here.
So, I really want to thank you for sharing your wisdom with everybody listening. I think this is just incredibly important and profound for people to let all of this sink in and really internalize it. And hopefully, start turning this into a practice or a series of daily practices to start to embody these things that Dr. Maya has talked about. Thank you so much for coming on, Dr. Maya. If people want to follow your work, if people want to – I know you have a certification program with the Terrain Institute, if people are interested in getting certified through you what’s the best way to do that?
Dr. Maya Shetreat: They can go to my website at drmaya.com/certification and I have other classes and programs as well and I’m very active on Instagram. So, that’s just at drmayashetreat, and they can come find me there as well.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Do you want to leave people listening with one sort of last bit of final words of maybe how they can start to internalize all of this and practice it in their daily life? Or just one kind of summary thought?
Dr. Maya Shetreat: I think that a gratitude practice, particularly one that connects you with nature, the natural world is something you can do just for a few moments every day. And if you don’t already, that’s a very powerful way to start to engage in that state of coherence. Which can start to transform everything else. I love to teaching about ritual and ceremony and how to go much, much deeper into these practices. But that’s something simple you can do. And obviously, if you can, if you are lucky enough to be able to do it, immersing yourself in nature, you know, and making that a priority when you can.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Thank you so much, my friend. For everybody interested in following her work drmaya.com is the website. It was a pleasure as always and I hope to talk to you again very soon.
Dr. Maya Shetreat: Ari, thank you so much for having me.
The healing power of nature (06:46)
The master plants and how they “train us to serve them” (14:43)
The power of essential oils (20:20)
Plants for transformation (28:15)
The power of gratitude (50:00)