In 1999, New Yorker Daniel Pinchbeck dropped $7,000 on a trip to the Equatorial African nation of Gabon, yearning for meaning and spiritual truth in a world that seemed devoid of both. The price included an introduction from the late South African ethnobotanist Daniel Lieberman to tribal members of the forest-dwelling Bwiti religion, who have ingested the root bark of Tabernanthe iboga — a perennial rainforest shrub with psychoactive properties — as a men’s rite of passage for centuries.
Similar to shamanic use of the plant medicine ayahuasca, a treasured sacrament of South American indigenous peoples for healing and divinatory purposes, iboga rituals throughout Equatorial Africa are sacred. During the ceremony, a large amount is consumed to evoke a near-death experience as initiates begin a “war of the self” by undergoing deep introspection in the spirit world, communing with ancestors and receiving guidance. Afterward, they become baanzi, or “one who knows the other world.” The Bwiti believe that before baanzi, you’re not fully a member of the community because you haven’t had a transpersonal experience to understand your place within the cosmos.
Known as the “Mount Everest of Psychedelics,” iboga is regarded as one of the most powerful mind benders on the planet, and per the Bwiti, a “super-conscious spiritual entity that guides all mankind.” It’s also known as “the stern father,” addressing the ingester with unwavering honesty, complete with visions of the darkest moments of their life.
It’s also the only psychedelic that can kill you.
Pinchbeck, a then-33-year-old journalist who described himself as a “typical Manhattan atheist, suspicious, cynical, disbelieving in metaphysical possibilities,” tells me he drove four hours into the dense Gabonian jungle alongside a shaman wearing a purple robe and a necklace of lion’s teeth who called himself “The King of the Bwiti.” The King had eight wives and fourteen children. He, along with an untold number of Bwiti initiates, led Pinchbeck to a river and made him strip off his clothes and put on the initiation outfit: tanned animal skins and shells looping across his chest. A white paste made from various plants was smothered on him, head-to-toe, and a red parrot’s feather was placed in his hair.
By casting off his clothes and donning the robe of the initiate, Pinchbeck had symbolically died. Soon, he’d be reborn.
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There’s a storied history of white people appropriating indigenous ceremonies without having much context for them. So much so that it’s become an industry onto itself, with “spiritual tourism” companies popping up throughout the world to help Westerners score (and consume) psychedelics like ayahuasca at white, foreign-owned retreats. “These spaces are exclusively for the wealthy and marketed toward Anglophone foreigners,” Eli Farinango, a descendant of indigenous healers, told Bitch magazine in June.
This trend now includes iboga. Iboga Experience, based in the Netherlands, asks on its website, “Are you stuck in your life, spiritually and emotionally?” If so, you can sign up for a three-day retreat, which includes airport pickup, vegan meals and free Wi-Fi, for $1,300 per person. Meanwhile, Experience Ibogaine, nestled in a gated community with ocean views “minutes south of the San Diego border,” offers a “world-class,” 12-day “medically supervised ibogaine treatment” for $7,000.
Clients have flocked to these programs in droves on their quest for enlightenment. “I was overcome with the most amazing feeling of peace and freedom in this therapeutic tropical environment,” reads a testimonial from Vivien, who spent time at The Avante Institute ibogaine treatment center in The Bahamas, which promises “compassionate care and luxury amenities” at affordable rates. “I felt the rush of energy entering my body and simply felt happy. I slept peacefully every night until I left The Institute three days later.”
Spiritual tourism, however, hasn’t brought nirvana to Equatorial Africa. Ngangas (shamans) in Gabon remain marginalized, while the sacrament of iboga is under threat. Demand is quickly overtaking supply, leading to corruption in the production chain, and the shrub itself is vulnerable due to the mass killing of iboga-seed-spreading animals like elephants. Fortunately, organizations like Blessings of the Forest are working to ensure that Gabonese iboga is protected. “Westerners often have preconceived and racist ideas about Africa,” explains Yann Guignon, the 44-year-old founder of the organization, which he codirects with his 34-year-old Gabonese wife, Marie Lou Miboka.
“The attitude of [Westerners] who come here is fucking clumsy,” he continues in a hard-to-understand French accent, noting that while Americans’ intentions aren’t always bad, their attitude usually is. “Americans come here to hold a rattle and a broom, put a feather in their hair and suddenly think they’re a shaman,” he adds. “Imagine an African guy going to the U.S. to have a root canal and then opening a dentistry clinic in Gabon upon his return. It’s even more sensitive, though, because iboga is medicating the soul.”
Sure, money from spiritual tourism may trickle down to the community, but it also creates trouble, Guignon says. “If you give money to a pygmy, what do you expect him to do with it?” he explains. “Africa is a continent based on community, where everybody is equal. When American people come here and give lots of money to some guy, his neighbor will become very jealous, which has led to murders. Many villages in Gabon have collapsed. Much trouble has come to this community because of iboga tourism.”
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As dusk fell over The King’s village, Pinchbeck observed Bwiti men arriving in tribal dress — animal pelts and loincloths with limbs and torsos bare, their skin painted with white stripes and dots — some holding torches, others playing drums, rattles and/or the m’congo, a one-stringed mouth harp resembling a bow that Pinchbeck says “has the eerie tonality of a mocking voice.” They fed him large amounts of the iboga powder in a dry plantain, which tasted of “sawdust laced with battery acid.”
At a certain point, The King determined Pinchbeck was sufficiently medicated. Wobbly and confused, he was guided into a torch-lit temple and seated, alone, in front of a mirror surrounded by fern leaves and carved figurines. The King and elders sat to his left, while 30 members of the tribe filled a row of benches to his right. All the while, he was fed additional spoonfuls of iboga mixed with honey. The King instructed that any visions must be shared aloud, as they might be a message for the tribe.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” Pinchbeck says, describing a “guiding force expressing itself through a visionary journey.” Piece by piece, as he stared into the mirror, the pattern of his past began to flare up in his mind. He calls it “memory theater,” a scrupulous replaying of all the forces that shaped him into the man he’d become. “I reviewed the elements of my early life,” he says. “My parents’ separation, my father’s absence from my childhood, the imprint of my mother’s loneliness and depression, my own solitude and love of reading, the primal fear of monsters under the bed, the cave of darkness inside the closet…”
Memory theater is a trademark of any iboga journey, no matter the point of embarkation. “A woman I did a session with sat up after 16 hours and typed 34 pages, single-space, describing all of her visions,” says Richie Ogulnick, an American therapist and one of the main sources of ibogaine treatment in the U.S. The 70-year-old former jeweler from the Bronx, now living in Florida, has been conducting addiction intervention and psycho-spiritual iboga sessions since 1993, when he was first introduced to the medicine by heroin addict Howard Lotsof, considered the “Godfather of Iboga” and who is credited with introducing the sacred root bark to the West.
As Ogulnick tells me, Lotsof, who died of liver cancer in 2010, was given a dose of ibogaine in the early 1960s from a chemist in Staten Island who thought he’d “find it interesting.” Three days after ingesting it, Lotsof walked out of his Greenwich Village apartment, looked up at a tree, and for the first time in his life, he wasn’t afraid. After walking further, he realized he wasn’t in narcotic withdrawal, as he should’ve been. He returned to the chemist in stunned disbelief; the chemist gladly re-upped the supply. Lotsof dosed out five of his heroin-addicted friends, each of whom had similar experiences.
But it was Ogulick who actually brought iboga to the U.S. “I got goosebumps when I read the testimonials from Howard’s friends,” Ogulnick says. He scraped together a few thousand dollars and enough courage to fly to Cameroon in 1993, where he sought out an organic chemist in a burnt-out university who sold him 13 grams of ibogaine for $4,000, all the money he had in his pocket. Ogulnick hid the brick of powder in the routed-out sole of his shoe and flew back to New York to begin his exploration.
“Ibogaine will never be a drug of abuse,” predicts Ogulnick. While the trip does produce psychedelic effects, unlike its recreational cousins (LSD and mushrooms), ibogaine is mostly therapeutic in nature, often uncomfortably so. (It’s not uncommon to have a bad trip, especially if the individual is unprepared to face their personal history.) As such, ibogaine is rarely used by those seeking pleasure. “The healing process of iboga is arduous and not at all suitable for partying,” explains Ogulnick, who conducts sessions in a darkened room at a cost of $2,500 (though if a person has “sincere intentions” to make a shift in their lives, he accommodates them on a sliding scale).
“This medicine is geared for serious self-examination,” he repeats.
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During the ceremony, Pinchbeck realized for the first time that alcohol was holding him back. A carousel of visions filled the theater, featuring him as a “drunken idiot” at parties and “blotting out” night after night. “There was a dark tinge of shame and self-disgust entwined in my overuse of alcohol,” he says, while in the same breath insisting the message was conveyed with love. “I felt a sense of humor in the medicine and calmly realized I didn’t need to do that stuff anymore.”
Bjorn Heijligers, a 6-foot-8, 44-year-old Dutch personal empowerment coach with a salt-and-pepper beard and booming baritone, echoes Pinchbeck’s recollection of tough love. He has taken five iboga journeys in all and tells me he had visions of the worst moments of his life: a daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years; an ex-girlfriend “at her most radiant, whom I’ve lost”; and a string of professional disappointments — all of which grew in steady crescendo, filling his body with pain. “Then it completely fell away, and I was left with images of my daughter, my ex-girlfriend, careers that hadn’t worked out, and I could observe them in pure masculine awareness. I realized that, ‘Yes, this all happened, and I’m still lovable.’ It gave me my first connection to unconditional self-love.”
Heijligers’ definition of addiction is any habit we do in order to prevent feeling an uncomfortable emotion — be it discomfort, loneliness or compulsion — because our cumulative mind associates it with death. “There’s a feedback loop in the way our brain architecture works that causes the dopamine pathways to protect themselves, so that any information that would threaten the dopamine supply is filtered out of conscious awareness,” Heijligers explains. And so, he considers iboga to be “a scalpel that precisely changes that dynamic in our nervous system,” opening us up to a deeper level of reality.
Along with Sy Tzu, a 46-year-old South African tantric shaman who’s guided more than 100 people through “the flood,” Heijligers oversaw the first-of-its-kind 30-day iboga microdosing program in May at a cost of $270.
As one of the 12 international participants, I received a 30-day supply of iboga in 600-milligram capsules, a relatively tiny dose. (For context, a complete flood can involve up to 30 grams.) Microdosing allows the medicine to build up in your system, providing many of the benefits without the intensity of a full journey (not much different than the many, many psychedelic microdosing techniques that have become so popular in the U.S. in recent years).
We were instructed to take one ibogaine capsule five days a week, and attend a weekly webcast to share our experience and receive guidance from Heijligers and Tzu (who also sells the capsules at iboga.org for $78 a month). “It’s like soul medication, whereas a flood dose is like going for soul surgery,” Tzu tells me via WhatAapp. “Energy is expanding as you work with the medicine. So you expand, integrate and expand, integrate, never slipping out of consciousness.”
We were paired with a “buddy,” whom we spoke to daily. Mine was William (a pseudonym), a middle-aged Danish man with multiple iboga flushes under his belt, whom I met on Facebook every morning at 7 a.m. Pacific time. As the journey began, we were asked to choose a “loving discipline” to practice every day — e.g., singing, journaling, meditation. I opted for regular morning exercise, a lifelong fleeting aspiration; William chose self-pleasure (i.e., mindful masturbation), and practicing the soprano saxophone (not a euphemism for the former).
Tzu explained that iboga is tremendously grounding and predicted the daily ritual would awaken our bodies and release enlightenment. It definitely did for me. After two weeks of microdosing and keeping a daily journal, I realized I’d worked out for 14 consecutive days — likely for the first time in my life. While I initially hesitated to credit the iboga, I wondered aloud to William if he’d experienced a similar intuitive compulsion for self-care. “It’s definitely the wood [i.e., what Tzu and Heijligers’ call it],” he said. “I have an internal sense of being better and acting on what I know is good. Something feels right, and then I do it.”
When I mention I didn’t feel high, like when taking other mind-altering substances, William explained that was the whole point of microdosing. “We’re not taking enough to be pushed out of our minds, but enough to access what lies beneath it. We usually fill that space with excuses, thoughts and voices, but something else is breaking true now.”
William added that he’d become aware of underlying emotions that triggered his myriad addictions. When he was stressed or nervous, for example, he craved a cigarette. If he were sad or self-pitying, he reached for a slice of cake. And when he got angry, he wanted to crack open a beer. “The space the wood creates allows me to pause and stay within the craving to really feel it,” he explained. It also kept him from filling it with his vice of choice.
“Ibogaine allows people to experience their reactive mind more closely and not respond in ways they have in the past,” Ogulnick explains.
Some, though, are less enthusiastic about rogue microdosing. “Jesus Christ, you got ibogaine mailed to you in the U.S.?!?!,” gasps Deborah Mash, professor emeritus of neurology and cellular pharmacology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine; founder and CEO of DemeRx, a clinical-stage drug company advancing ibogaine for the treatment of addiction; and an ibogaine expert who’s devoted her career to exploring, advancing and promoting its addiction-stopping capabilities.
It was “very, very, very dangerous” for me to ingest iboga purchased over the internet, Mash explains, since nobody entirely knows the side-effect profile. (Granted, it did come from a trusted source who provided guidance throughout the journey, albeit remotely.) Regardless, Mash believes the purported insight therapy evangelized by Heijligers, Tzu and William could be found in far safer psychedelics like psilocybin, which is currently being developed as an antidepressant for intractable depression, and MDMA, which is being developed for PTSD. Ibogaine has a very narrow therapeutic-to-toxic window, she adds, which is why it should only be used to interrupt the brain’s dependence on opiates, cocaine and alcohol — and only under close medical supervision. (Not surprisingly, Heijligers’ disagrees: “Iboga is used by the Bwiti tribe as a rite of initiation to make a man out of a boy. That’s pretty therapeutic, I’d say.”)
“People have died,” she warns. “I don’t recommend anyone who’s not suffering from addiction to take ibogaine because there are all sorts of medical issues.” She also notes that since iboga remains classified as a Schedule I drug in the U.S., it’s super illegal for me to have received a shipment of it and predicts I’ll be hearing from the DEA.
Changing the subject from my own use, I ask her to explain, in layman’s terms, why an Equatorial African root is such a promising addiction intervention. “Firstly, it isn’t a substitution therapy like methadone and SUBOXONE, which must be taken daily. You take ibogaine one time as a brain reset,” she says, explaining that in low doses, it gets converted to noribogaine, a potent serotonin reuptake inhibitor with a much longer half-life than ibogaine. Noribogaine elevates serotonin, resets opioid receptors and hits a mix of clustered targets in the brain’s addiction circuit, thereby blocking withdrawals.
“It’s Mother Nature’s addiction antidote,” she says.
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I wish I’d known that when I got sober seven years ago. It’s an eye-opening journey, for sure, and one I’d take again. Soon, you can too, as Heijligers and Tzu have plans to develop an iboga microdosing program in Oakland, which recently decriminalized psilocybin.
If you insist on traveling to Gabon, however, Guignon begs you not to disturb the Bwiti. He recently accompanied two Westerners into the bush who were worried they wouldn’t have enough food, so they purchased cake, candy and bottled water from a market before heading out. When they arrived in the village, the elders were insulted because the Westerners refused to eat the food that had been prepared for them and instead ate their cake (without offering to share with the villagers).
To avoid such insensitivity, Guignon recommends Westerners spend significant time (read: more than a week) at the Gabon-based Ebando, an NGO serving as a bridge to the cultural heritage of Central Africa with tolerant locals who speak English. “It’s a first step,” says Guignon, who serves as Ebando’s communication director. “We’ll show you different aspects of the culture and explain the reality of the country. If you decide you want to come back and go further, we can talk about introducing you to native villagers.”
As for Pinchbeck, 20 years after his Bwiti initiation, he admits there were times when he continued to drink too much, but now he drinks “just enough.” Presumably, next month that will include toasting the publication of his latest book, When Plants Dream, about the current global psychedelic renaissance.
Because despite the West’s inelegant introduction to indigenous plants medicine, he continues to believe that their potential is limitless. “Is it possible that other forms of sentience exist, in some way we don’t understand yet, in those other subtler dimensions that string theorists propose?” he wonders in the book’s introduction. “Could such entities enter and explore our world in the seemingly innocuous guise of shrubs, vines, fungi and cacti? When we deciphered the genetic code, biologists assumed we would discover that humanity possessed the most complex and advanced genome of all species. To our surprise, we discovered that many seemingly simpler lifeforms hid a far more elaborate genetic structure with a much larger genome than humans do (a mountain flower, Paris japonica, has a genome 50 times larger than our own species).
“Does this unfathomable complexity suggest these entities may know and perceive in ways we can’t yet discern? Are we getting a hint that our rightful place in the natural world is different from what we currently suppose?”