It was my first introduction to sananga. The practitioner of the Kambo frog medicine ceremony carefully dripped the drops of sananga into my eyes in preparation for the Kambo ritual. I was informed that receiving the stinging sananga would center my energy releasing any energy blocks stored in the body, leaving me calm, grounded and open to receive the Kambo.
Sananga has been used by tribes in the Amazon for thousands of years. Sananga is a liquid derived from the shredded roots of the Amazon jungle shrub, Tabernaemontana sananho. Tribesmen typically used sananga drops to improve their night vision before a big hunt. More importantly, sananga was also believed to clear what the tribesmen call panema, or negative energy, which has accumulated in the body. It is panema that causes illness, depression, irritability, even bad luck and other negative states. Sananga is so strong that it is said to possess medical benefits improving near or far-sightedness and glaucoma by removing the outer layers of affected eye tissues.
Having been a spiritual “seeker” most of my life, I heeded the call to experiment with plant medicines. A few years back I began with the Amazonian tea Ayahuasca, then tried the venom of the desert toad Bufo alvarius, followed by the Kambo ceremony. These practices led me to discover the healing benefits of huachuma, the desert cactus, and now sananga, I was both perplexed and curious at the same time.
However, even before I used sananga, I wondered why anyone in their right mind would intentionally put liquid directly into their eyes that has the sting of 100 angry chili peppers? After the first time I exposed myself to sananga during the Kambo ceremony, I questioned my sanity. Was it not enough to ingest ayahuasca (DMT) in the middle of the Amazon Jungle? Was it still not enough to smoke the poison venom of the Bufo alvarius toad? And was it yet still not enough to have holes burned into my skin, to be plugged-up with the poison secretions of a tree frog? Apparently not.
I am now heeding the call to do a seven-day sananga challenge. This challenge involves dropping the stinging, burning sananga into my eyes for seven straight days. When I first began this practice, having sananga dropped into my eyes was a lesson in courage, breathing, energy awareness, mindfulness and trust. I still wasn’t sure what the actual benefits of this medicine were but I was willing to be open to its legend and magic. Improving my night vision for hunting in the jungle was not important to me so why would I continue such a painful practice? There had to be more powerful effects, and I longed to know and experience them.
The question remained, why would someone intentionally inflict pain on themselves in search of possible physical gain, emotional cleansing or spiritual awakening? Was physical pain a necessary step on the path to getting closer to yourself and to the divine?
I wondered if perhaps there was a metaphorical lesson in the sananga ritual, perhaps sananga was supposed to teach about acceptance of pain or how to transcend pain into pleasure. Or simply, was the pain a byproduct that needed to be endured while reaping its other proposed physical benefits? I began to question my own philosophical musings wondering if even these were influenced by my own Catholic upbringing that revered the value of pain and suffering in search of spiritual oneness with the divine. Thinking such thoughts, I couldn’t help associate masochistic tendencies with the practice of these powerful medicines, including practices like sananga.
I began to question whether I was a “spiritual masochist.”
For thousands of years spiritual masochism was not considered a pathology but a necessary path to enlightenment, for connection and oneness with the divine. As outlined in the article, “Masochism as a Spiritual Path,” the authors connect spiritual masochism to the very core of our humanity:
We need to move out from the onus of our egocentric ways of viewing life; to abdicate control as well as to take it. Masochistic submission, in centering on lack, inadequacy and weakness, puts us in touch with the entirety of our humanity. Full humanity requires surrender to the down side of life as well as the upside. Religious penitents knew of the soul’s need for suffering. They knew that it keeps us from having hubris, or the pride that keeps us in the limited perspective of having too much faith in our competence and abilities. The Christian and Eastern mystics knew that.
In this way, asceticism was yet another path to true humility by transcending the ego.
All throughout religious history saints from the Catholic Church were known for their piety and adherence to self-mortification and asceticism through fasting, flagellation, and sleeping on wooden boards. These humbling practices were reported by many of the revered giants of the faith including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa, and St. Francis. It was St Francis of Assisi who said, “Humiliation is the way to humility and without humility, nothing is pleasing to God.” (“Masochism as a Spiritual Path” http://www.waningmoon.com/darkpagan/lib/lib0025.shtml). This was also held by eastern mystics as well. Even the Buddha went through a period of renunciation whereas he began his spiritual journey by leaving all comforts behind in search of enlightenment or spiritual bliss. In some cases, the early ascetics even gave up food, eating only a few grains of rice a day in order to arrive at spiritual oneness.
The theme of sacrifice along with a voluntary abstinence from pleasure or comfort have been prevalent in almost every eastern and western religious and spiritual path since the beginning of time. It has always been thought that the most austere seekers had the greatest chance of gaining enlightenment in this way by currying favor with God. The idea of mortification /sacrifice in one’s daily life brings to mind the sect of the Roman Catholic Church, the Opus Dei, which was made famous in the movie “The DaVinci Code,” where a follower, Silas, is seen wearing a metal cilice and flogging himself bloody. Followers of Opus Dei believe in serving God fully and sanctifying one’s life wholly through daily work in the every-day of ordinary life. This devotion to God also included consistent, daily mortification of the flesh:
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[t]he way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: ‘He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.’”. The purpose of mortification is to train “the soul to virtuous and holy living” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, article on Mortification). It achieves this through conforming ones passions to reason and faith. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, internal mortification, such as the struggle against pride and self-love, is essential, but external mortification, such as fasting can also be good if they conform with a spirit of internal mortification.
In this way, sananga might be construed as a form of asceticism which, through the use of pain, draws those into greater connection with God. I believe it was having this knowledge buried somewhere in my subconscious that guided my sananga journey. In some way, I was welcoming the pain and discomfort with the hope of gaining greater spiritual insights and blessings. This practice showed me how sacrificing my comfort in order to deepen the connection between myself and God has been a driving impulse in my life.
Now, when reflecting on my call to do the seven-day sananga challenge, I am keenly connected with the goal of deepening my spiritual connection with the divine. Since I am not a hunter, I do not need keen night vision for hunting. Nor do I have glaucoma that needs to be healed. However, perhaps like you, I have a whole lot of inner panema that needs to be cleared. So, on my journey I go, to embrace the pain and sting in my eyes hoping I will come out on the other side a more grounded, devoted and humble being, hoping the sananga will burn away any hubris that has been holding me back and clouding my vision.