Following the Wisdom of the Trees: Lebanon’s Shamanic Guide & Plant Medicine Woman
Meeting with Maya Abou Chedid, on Zoom, not even a month after Beirut’s devastating explosion, had me stepping into the interview in a tenderized state. Writing this preamble to that interview, a bit over three months later, I’m amazed by how easy it is to return to the feelings and impressions I had jotted down, which emerged when she came on the screen. These impressions will sound expected, perhaps, of a Shaman. A Medicine Woman. But they’re true.
Maya felt very soft, instantly. At first, it was easy to think of the word ‘fragile’. But ‘fragile’ was the wrong word. The right word feels like ‘delicate’, but not delicate in a way that is easily breakable. Delicate in the way she inhabits the world. She treads gently. You also felt a deep, rooted strength. A playful impishness and a wisdom. Earthy and airy. Like a very old person inside a pixie child. Like I said- maybe an expected impression of a Shaman and Medicine Woman. The fact that I felt like I could smell trees while we spoke might be another expected impression (or an invocation of my active imagination). I also felt her watching and listening to me in much the same way I watch and listen to my psychotherapy clients. This was an interesting experience. Otherwise, she was a regular, easy person to talk to. A fun-seeming, pleasant and intelligent woman, who likely gets up to most of the regular things that the rest of us do (in case I painted too fantastical a picture). I was intrigued and liked her instantly. This was our conversation.
Why don’t you just tell me what you do?
I’ll try to put into words as much as I can, but it falls under Shamanic practice (including Shamanic journeying) and Medicine work (which is connecting with Medicine Spirits- Nature and Helping Energies- and being guided by them while working with people). This has been a world that I’ve been living in for more than 9 years now. It was a transition from delving into Eastern philosophies- the world of yoga, the world of Ayurveda a little bit, the world of therapeutic Thai bodywork, prenatal work, meditation (Vipassana). All those bridges introduced me to what I was looking for in terms of connecting to Spirit and learning more through the vehicle of the body. How to touch the body, how to feel the energetics beyond the clinical, beyond the scientific studies. I had no idea I would be stepping into that world, being a scientist, you know (laughs). Obviously, I needed to be in touch with my own body and accept being in a body. This is where entering the world of shamanism through the Amazonian tradition was essential for my Soul.
So being a scientist, what had you studied before?
I studied molecular biology, genetics, and biochemistry. It was what is equivalent in Lebanon to a Maitrise in the french system (Masters). I had wanted to go to France and continue my studies…PhD and Postdoc and all of that, but instead I stopped my studies and decided to stay in Lebanon.I started working, moving from research in the laboratory field to more technical stuff, to companies, Then I ended up in clinical research for like 6 years. That was probably the most exciting field that I stepped into, until I realized I don’t belong to that field (laughs), due to many reasons.
Okay. Is there something that you’re happy to share that really led to that realization, drew you out of what you were doing?
You know going into the corporate world and all of that, I knew how to entertain the game that was being played but…it did not reflect who I am. And so there was a kind of a dissonance between playing a role, which I did really well, and me. Who I am. I think the transition was to allow me to be who I am, or to get to know who I am actually, because I did not know. And it’s an ongoing exploration obviously, but at least I’m more in line now between what I do and who I am. I don’t consider it work, it’s a reflection of me. I denied it for years, but trying to resist things did not work. So I stepped into alternative approaches, getting to know more about them, their philosophies, their science really, and I started feeling more. When I started feeling more, I started recognizing energy in a way that I had never experienced but a part of me already knew.
When I really stepped into the world of Shamanism, I didn’t know what Shamanism was. I stepped into that world because I didn’t want to relate to books anymore for a while. I needed a break from staying in the mind. I needed to connect to life at a deeper level.
I needed to start with “my own story”, and I always loved writing as a way to express myself, so after my experience in the Amazon jungle and some integration time, I am writing again. I find that words transcribed in stories are interpretations of each person’s experience and you know, if it touches someone that’s great. Everyone here has a story to tell and writing one’s own story with one’s own tools is what we are doing in this lifetime.
So talking about the kinds of alternative philosophies and therapies you mentioned earlier that were entry points for in a way. Those are more understood by people, whereas Shamanic Journeying is a whole other thing. How did you find that? Where did you find that?
When I started going to Peru, it was a first step away from going to the East- I wanted to go somewhere else. So I stepped into the West; I had no idea what that world was about, I had no idea what Shamanism was. You know probably I’d seen in movies, weird people chanting and doing stuff (laughs), but I did relate immediately so much to the nature aspect and the connection with nature as a primary guide.
I grew up in nature here in Lebanon. I used to spend most of my childhood between the Pine trees and the Olive trees and the Oaks. I used to leave the house for hours and come back. That was my playground. This is where I felt that I really belong…and so going to Peru the first time and experiencing plant medicine felt right. It felt right like nothing else had felt right ever. But my Shamanic practice began truly when I left the place I had worked and trained in for 4 years. I delved more into bringing the work that I’d done into a broader perspective, to make it practical for the place where I am, because I always knew I wasn’t planning to stay in the Amazon.
Okay. So I’m imagining you. You go to the Amazon, you go to Peru, you go through this process. If someone was listening to this, and I know it’s hard to understand if you’re not in the experience, but if someone goes to learn Shamanic journeying, about plant medicine, what does that mean? Specifically? What does that entail?
Shamanic journeying has been practiced for thousands of years. It is not a new technique. It was actually the foundation of tribes living together. It was included and still is included in rites of passage, vision quests and different types of guided meditations.
The world of plant medicine has always been here also. Our ancestors used plants much more than we do now. They had knowledge from the elder generation or from what the plants were showing them.
When it comes to plant medicine specifically, they are much more available for a lot of people lately, I’d say over the last five plus years it has surged. The use of plant medicines and extracts especially has become more and more available to order and do your own ceremony. That’s one of the ways the intelligence of plant medicine is reaching out, because people are asking for help, in their own ways. So nature is responding. Now how the use of that plant medicine is happening, this is where obviously everything comes into question. When it comes to learning, this requires dedication, discipline, trials. Messing up falling down, being left alone. Dying almost and being reborn, which in the Shamanic world is known as Initiation or rite of passage. Learning happens from the plants, but in traditions there also has to be some kind of guide, some kind of elder. Even though now often the learning can happen without an elder, be it a Curandero or a Curandera- Medicine man or Medicine woman, because now Shamanism is becoming so common, it can be accessed. There’s nothing right or wrong about that. What matters is the intention in the learning, in the journeying, and how that is refined over time.
The true healers, you feel that they are true medicine people. There is no doubt. When you are in their presence there is a sense of awe- this is truly an elder. Learning is an ongoing process. Shamanism is a life journey. There is no ‘you get this paper and you put it on the wall’. It’s not that. It is an ongoing process of tests, initiations. You finish one cycle and another one starts. It’s a commitment to life, to living life, being the best version of human being one can be. Learning is happening from one teacher to another, to another, from one spirit to another, to another. Obviously it is the plants that are the guides, but the refinement happens through the tests, through the trials, through the dark areas the Shaman gets used to navigating in order to get to a place of light. To a place of resolution, clarity, or truth. No one congratulates you in this field (laughs). No one says ‘yay, good on you, you did it!’. It’s just an ongoing process of learning that starts with a pull. A call.
Beautiful. There is one thing I wanted to clarify that you’d mentioned before I started the interview- ‘diets’. They seem to be a central part of Shamanic journeying. Do you mind explaining what those are?
Diets are a traditional way of either learning the medicine of the trees or healing from something specific that is not usually treated by modern medicine. Diets are usually proposed by Paleros or Paleras- experts in trees. That’s how they are known. They have dieted so many trees that they are able to prescribe a tree. So usually the tree bark or the scrubs of the roots or even the flowers of the plant are soaked in water. And it’s activated by the Curandero/a by invocation. The person who is dieting (the dietero/a) is isolated in the jungle for a chunk of time. Some 7-8 days, some two weeks, some a month, depending on what the person is doing- the purpose. The medicine in the tree or the plant is the medium to healing the person. Training happens this way, It’s the trees and the plants that teach. So if one is training, they need to diet. The diets are the way one learns the medicine if this is their intention. And the quality of diets, the space and cleanliness, the guidance of the diet, all affect how one integrates and learns “medicine”.
How does this look here, in terms of what you are doing since you’ve been back?
Since I came back here last year I’ve been holding little gatherings, inviting people to gather around the new moon and full moon. The moon was a helping spirit when I lived in the Amazon. She taught me to keep my head above the water. These moon gatherings have specific themes. They started happening organically. It wasn’t something that I forced at all, it’s just because I was listening, and I started really connecting with the land here on a different level. With the help of my previous guide and a great elder, shaman and psychotherapist – Sandra Ingerman who came into my life at the right time, I began to work with the land and the ancestors – the wisdom keepers that really knew how to live in harmony with nature.
So since then I’ve been doing this and also some private ceremonies with people that I schedule every week. Ceremonies are really three parts: preparation, then ceremony, then integration. Ceremony includes preparation and integration. Integration is an ongoing process- it’s life really. The Shamanic follow-up through integration helps the person remain connected with their inner guidance and intention. Preparation is essential to build trust.
Working here has shown me that the medicine works everywhere, and the medicine is everywhere. And even with the stories this country has been through, the land is expressing every kind of wisdom, but few people are listening.
Every gathering we do in a different location and I ask for permission of the land, and do the physical cleaning- removing all the trash, cleansing it energetically, and then setting the ceremony and starting. I have mainly moved online for groups, but continue some private sessions in person.
Lovely, okay so you have these group moon ceremonies which you’ve moved online, and you do these individual ceremonies. How do people seek you out?
I left Facebook 6 months ago (laughs), so I’m only active on Instagram- I post about the ceremonies and integration work a few times per week. I’ve started building a website. So I’m available through those formats and by email. Most people contact me by email or through the phone.
I don’t work under any umbrella anymore, which I’d done for a long time. My whole journey was pushing me into stepping into my own being. I tried for years to fit into hierarchies and did my very best but I drastically failed (laughs). Everything was obviously preparing me for this. Now I collaborate with people. For example, I am collaborating to prepare for a ceremony at the end of this week.
This collaboration next weekend- it will be a month from the explosion. Do you mind telling me about this collaboration. What is it going to be?
Yes of course. So this came up last week, during a walk. I was hiking with some friends and we were talking, and one of them lives in Achrafieh and his house got quite damaged. He was saying ‘we need to do something’. I had already planned and cancelled two group walks in Achrafieh, in silence with candles. One was scheduled on what ended up being the day of the demonstration, which was Friday August 7th. It was a huge demonstration in Martyrs square. And another walk I had planned ended up being the day they had announced the (Hariri) verdict. I had not intended for it to coincide with any activism taking place, and so both were cancelled. It felt like ‘what am I doing and why am I doing this?’, khallas I’m just going to drop it because it’s not working. I was trying to do something that would at least allow some kind of grief, reconciliation, anything related to stopping, and crying. Feeling the loss. I felt this was important.
So last week while having a hike we were talking about that specifically. I thought and everyone resonated ‘the only thing that feels right is to do a memorial altar’, because no one really stopped and placed a picture anywhere except in front of specific houses. It was personal rather than collective acknowledgement. A few days after the hike I went down to Achrafieh and I walked, and I called on the guidance of the space itself to help me find a place in Achrafieh where the altar could be set. The stairs of Mar Nkoula (St Nicholas) in Gemmayzeh called out. I checked with the person I was hiking with- his name is Sherif Aoun by the way- and he said ‘let’s do it’. So we got in touch with some people we work with in the healing field, and after our call today we are going to do a little ceremony cleansing, sweeping and releasing- preparing the space. We are also going to have an artist paint something symbolic on the wall- not the explosion itself but what it has instigated. It will be covered on social media, and we are inviting more people. It is really about allowing grief, a full grief cycle to happen, rather than cutting it because of induced resilience that has us moving in automated ways.
You can’t stand right away! You need to stay down. It is ok if you stay down, it’s all good, we’ll hold space for you to stay down. I’ve been there, and I was alone, and I would have appreciated being with others going through something like this. No one is going to take anybody’s pain, but at least being witnessed and acknowledged in this process. In order for this to be reconciled there has to be a kind of process. Creating the altar honors our mental loss, as well as the souls that have been lost, and not just the souls that have been lost in this explosion. All those who passed away and were not seen here. The souls of every being, not just human. And the losses of the land. This is the heaviness in Beirut, and this is the energy that has to be reconciled. This would invite a new kind of seeing things. Not repeating the same patterns. Allowing a place of grief to be honored.
The Sacred Memorial Altar was created a few days after our interview, on the one month marking point of the explosion. It is symbolically represented with the above painting by artist Mariam Hamieh (check out more of her work @latelier.de.mariam). The ‘Light a Candle’ ceremony gesture is still held every month at 6:08pm, with the next one in just a couple of days- on December 4th. You are welcome to join.
If this interview has piqued your interest in Shamanic journeying or plant medicine, we are happy to announce that Maya is one of the therapists offering free healing after the Beirut blast through The Wellness Circle. A little bird has also told me that she might be writing for The Wellness Project very soon too…
You can also find her @maya.abouchedid.
That’s all folks. As always, please let us know your thoughts, ideas, and experiences in the comments. We love hearing from you.