As a way to begin your apprenticeship with plant spirits, feel free to try the following technique. It may not turn you into as great a healer as [Huichol Indian shaman, Matsuwa] don Jose — that depends on whether you are as great an apprentice as he was — but my students and I have performed many healings with the power we acquired from the following method.

Put yourself in an open and receptive state. Consider this: the mind is not subtle enough to grasp spirit or make judgments about it. How can we know what is possible? The spirit that moves through a plant might have compassion for you and take a form your mind can understand. Before you go any further, thank the plant spirits in advance for their help and hospitality. Do it aloud. This will help open you, and the spirits will like it.

Keep thankfulness in your heart as you assemble the following materials:

• A drum and someone to beat it for you (or if these are not available, use a shamanic drum recording)

• A small amount of loose tobacco

• A reliable, easy-to-use field guide on the flora of your area

• A notebook and pen (colored pencils or magic markers are also a good idea)

Go for a walk outdoors at a time and place where there are many different kinds of wild plants growing. Wander with no destination in mind. When you come across a stand of plants that are especially attractive to you, approach them. Speaking aloud, introduce yourself by name, and explain that you have come to learn from the spirit of this species. Thank the plant for summoning you and for any help it may be willing to give. Since you are asking for a gift, it is only good manners to offer one in return: sprinkle the plants with a little tobacco.

Now turn to your field guide and identify the plant to which you are speaking. (Identification is usually possible only when the plant is flowering.) Make sure the plant is not poisonous. If you have even a slight doubt about its identity, have it confirmed by a qualified botanist. There are deadly poisonous plants growing in almost every locale.

Study the plant closely. Try to memorize the shapes, colors, and geometry. Make a drawing of the plant. Observe what kind of soil it grows in, what kind of light it likes, and how it relates to insects, animals, and other plants. Smell the different parts of the plant and then, after asking its permission and forgiveness, carefully taste a tiny bit of the flowers, leaves, and root, provided they aren't poisonous.

Now that you're familiar with the plant, begin to connect with it. Be still. Take your time. Become the plant. Experience the world around you as the plant does. At this point you may be flooded with images, feelings, or information. After you return to normal consciousness, jot down your experiences in your notebook.

Return to a quiet and comfortable indoor space. You will need a monotonous, steady drumbeat of two to four cycles per second, so prepare your drummer or your audio player. (If you're using a recording, it should be approximately ten minutes in length and should have a minute or so of faster-paced drumming at the end.) Make yourself as comfortable as possible. For most people, this means lying on your back with a pillow under your neck and/or your knees. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, relaxing more deeply with each one. Affirm your intention of meeting and learning from the spirit of the plant you are studying. Start the drumming.

With your eyes still closed, visualize yourself entering a hole in the earth, such as a cave, a spring, or an animal burrow. Once inside, you will find a tunnel leading downward. Go down the tunnel. Immediately, or after some time, you will see a light at the end of the tunnel; follow it. Move out of the tunnel and into the light. At this point you will have entered a different realm: the dream world. (If you don't succeed the first time, be patient. Entering the dream world takes practice.)

You may need to take a few moments to accustom yourself to the dream world. If you feel vague or distracted, remind yourself of your intention and then carry on. Once you feel confident, start looking for the plant you have come here to meet.

When you have located the plant growing in the dream world, look around. You will find a life-form associated with the plant. It might be a person, an imaginary figure, an insect, an animal, or even a light or a disembodied voice. Whatever it is, this is the form the plant spirit is taking in order to communicate with you. Approach the spirit and introduce yourself. Explain that you have come to learn, and ask if you may learn from this plant or use it in some way. If the reply is positive, then ask the spirit to teach you.

The teachings of plants come in many forms. The spirit may give you a classroom-style lecture. If so, listen intently so you can remember every detail. More often the transmission comes in nonverbal form. You may find yourself being swept into an exotic adventure. You may simply find that you experience intense emotions. In every case, the key is to remain attentive. Once you ask your question, whatever happens is part of the answer.

When you feel your dream is complete, return to the plant spirit and thank it for its help. As you take your leave, signal your drummer to give you a more rapid drumbeat. If you are using a recording, wait for the more rapid drumbeat. Quickly retrace your route: go up the tunnel, out of the hole, and return to your body. Take a few minutes of silence to mentally review what happened in your dream.

Slowly get up and record in your notebook every detail of your experience. Be complete and precise. No matter how vivid the dream, details will vanish from your memory over time unless they are written down.

Now is the time to start interpreting the dream material. Your dream may be self-explanatory, or it may require a lot of thought and contemplation. Some dreams yield their meaning only after they are illuminated by strange coincidences that take place later. This can take months or even years. Be patient.

Eliot Cowan in Plant Spirit Medicine