My first experiences with rapé were during an Ayahuasca ceremony I attended a few years back. I had been familiar with the idea of plant snuffs that are blown up your nose during my years as an Anthropology student, learning about South American tribes that created a hallucinogenic snuff known as Yopo. The kind that was present was a finely powdered grey rapé made from wild tobacco and tsunu (tree) ash and was not hallucinogenic.
Starting the ceremony with a serving of rapé turned out to be incredibly helpful. I approached a person holding a long wooden and bone pipe. They were holding a handful of this grey powder in the other hand. When it first is blown there is a sharp and intense feeling as your wandering thoughts are dispersed bringing your attention to the moment at hand. The wide open mind is suddenly brought to the sinus area between your eyes and there your mind concentrates. Your eyes begin to water, some even sneezing as a response. I went back to my seat to meditate with it. As someone with a troublesome sinus I was somewhat uncertain about it at first. I would come to realize that rapé was the answer to my clogged sinus. Further, it also energetically prepared the nervous system for the other plant medicines that we were about to partake.
In time, I would come to develop a strong and healing relationship with this plant. It became a way to really understand the strength of tobacco, helping me redefine my relationship with it. There are so many different types of rapés that can be used for any number of different situations. Energetically it helps one tap into the essence of whichever plant is predominant in the batch.
In this discussion I will talk about the history of rapé and its use as a plant spirit medicine. I will then discuss the best ways to administer and begin working with this plant ally. Finally, I’ll talk about how tobacco has been used for prayer and how we can heal our relationship with it.
What is it?
Rapé (pronounced ra-PAY or ha-PAY) is a plant based snuff that is blown up your nose. It can be found in many cultures around the world and as such does not belong to any one specifically. However it is important to note that I will be talking mainly about the Amazonian rapé traditions. The use of rapé is known to date back for millennia.
In its most basic form it consists of two plants. The first is tobacco. Tobacco is ground to a powder or turned into an ash and is finely sifted until it is completely smooth. The second ingredient is what is known as tsunu ash. Tsunu ash is a type of ash that is made from certain trees. The tsunu is used alongside tobacco and/or other plants in the making of a snuff for a number of different reasons, including aiding in opening the nasal passage, clearing energy and even in some cases potentiating or activating other plant alkaloids. You will find many different types of tsunu ash used in different plant combinations. There will commonly be a third plant used, however it is usually dependent on the type of thing the individual is trying to achieve. Depending on the admixture plant, effects can range from healing, clearing, meditative and even psychoactive.
There are many, many types of rapé out there made from the many different plants of the Amazon. Many tribes from the Amazon will make their own types of rapés that is specific to their location. The Yawanawa of Acre, Brazil, in particular, are known to make some of the strongest rapés. With the growth in South American shamanism and spirituality, the usage of different plants has grown incredibly, making their way all around the world.
As a medicine, commonly used alongside Ayahuasca, it is considered by most tribes as containing a sacred plant spirit. During its preparation, the shaman will dedicate the whole of their attention to the task of collecting and preparing the plants to be used. A trance-like state is achieved and the dialogue between man and plant can begin. While some of the more simple recipes can be great for healing and detoxifying the physical body, there are a number of psychoactive plants that can be used for healing the spiritual body and mind. Plants such as Yopo or Wilka are more widely known to be used for a visionary experience. In the practice of plant spirit shamanism, creating and working with rapés can be a very important skill that leads to a powerful alchemy.
How to administer it to yourself or others?
Now that the use of plant snuffs is much more widespread, being brought to the rest of the world by traveling shamans and used by many healing communities, the depth of the work with it is becoming more known. Learning to administer this sacred medicine has become all the more important.
So how does one administer rapé? First, it is important to learn how to serve one’s self. You must learn what dosages work for you. There are countless admixture plants so it can take a lot of time and practice to learn the best dosage for personal use. As with any other plant medicine you will want to start small and work your way up to what is most effective. Many people are very sensitive to rapé and therefore it is very important to know this level.
There are two main tools one uses when administering rapé. The first is the kuripé. A kuripé is a small self-serving blow pipe to administer to yourself. The other tool is known as a tepi, which is a somewhat bigger blow pipe to administer to others. These two types of applicators are commonly made from bamboo or other types of wood, but can also be made from metal or even hollowed out animal bones.
To begin serving yourself, one takes a small amount of rapé and places it in their hand. Take the receiving end of the kuripé and evenly flatten it to break any chunks that might be stuck together. A good amount for a beginner is about the size of a dime once it has been flattened. You will scoop half of this amount into the nasal end of the pipe. Make sure it goes into the pipe itself and does not stick to the tip by lightly tapping the end. Release all of the air in your lungs, breathe in, place the tip into your nostril and blow. Then you will repeat with the other nostril. In the case of a clogged or difficult sinus, it can sometimes help to have the mouth slightly open to open up a channel for the air to travel. When receiving rapé, the body will normally want to tense up and hold the mouth tightly shut. Know that this act is one of healing. It is important to be relaxed when serving yourself or others. In this way you can develop your technique of serving.
The type of blow you use can change how the rapé is received as well. It is an art that in time can be learned. Different types of rapé require different techniques of blowing to achieve the best effects. A good method to use would be to start blowing slow, quickly speed up and then stop the breath. This way the person who is receiving is not hit suddenly with a strong dose. It can help prep them in the moment of receiving. However, some rapés work best with quick and hard blows. I encourage one to experiment.
After receiving it is recommended you breathe through your mouth. If you breathe through the nose, it is likely the medicine will end up in the back of the throat leading to coughing or gagging. After about 1-2 minutes, slowly and gently begin to breathe through the nose. You may notice a buildup of mucus, as different rapes will cause different levels of mucus. You will want to hold the rapé in for at least 3-5 minutes (if possible) before blowing your nose. While it is usually safe to swallow it, this can sometimes cause nausea for those with sensitive stomachs. Effects will likely last 10 minutes or longer, depending on the type of admixture plants within it. Different types of rapé can lead to meditative, energizing, or visionary experiences.
To serve others, the process is quite the same but instead you will use the tepi. It is always important to ask those who are about to receive if this is their first time, or in the case of experienced rapé users, how much they prefer. Look each other in the eyes and take a moment to acknowledge the ritual at hand. A note on serving others; be careful not to hold the tepi at eye level as the other individual can potentially breathe out through the pipe and blow the rapé into the server’s eye. Depending on the plants that are being used it can potentially damage the eye.
Ritualizing the Experience
The more one works with rapé medicine the deeper the relationship they can cultivate with the plant spirit. As a spiritual practice, it can become very important to ritualize the experience. And everyone has their own ritual practice. Here is a short ceremonial framework for the use of rapé and creating a safe container to work with this plant medicine. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. How many servings there will be is up to you. However, it is important to wait at least 15 minutes before serving anyone a second time.
First, it can be important to get into a meditative mindset. This is especially so if the rapé you are using has visionary qualities. Sit comfortably with the medicine and the serving pipe by your side. It’s always good to have tissues present as well. Begin having everyone present sit comfortably with their eyes closed. Concentrate on the breath. Try to notice if there are any discomforts or pains in the body or mind. Set the intention that you are doing this for healing purposes. It can also be helpful to suggest everyone take a moment to set their intentions. The person who is serving will then stand up and face east, the direction of the rising sun. Blow air through the serving pipe towards the east and, with your intention, see it blow away any imbalances in this direction. Then pivot right and do the same with the south, west, and north. Then blow the pipe up towards the sky. This calls in the direction of the divine. Then blow the pipe downwards toward the earth. With intention, this shows that you are using this medicine to manifest healing on earth and in our bodies (as aspects of earth). It is a presentation of the pipe that begins the ritual in this way. Finally, hold the serving pipe at the heart center. Meditate momentarily at this place, as here is where all of these directions meet. In this way then you have called the spirits of the four directions, to the sky above, and the earth below.
Sit back down and call the first person to come up. When they sit before you, hold the serving pipe near their heart momentarily, thereby placing their heart at the center of the directions. Ask them how much they want but try to keep talking to a minimum. Be sure to look them in the eyes to get a sense of where they are at mentally and physically. This also creates an energetic connection between you and them. Begin to load the serving pipe. Once loaded be sure to point the serving end at them at all times. This creates a connection between them and the medicine. Then serve. You can take as much time as needed between each nostril, but try not to take too much time. It’s also worth noting that it is very important you do both nostrils, as doing just one can create both a physical and energetic imbalance within them.
Once everyone has been served, everyone can take a moment to meditate with the medicine, concentrating on their intentions. Using a group intention can also be very powerful in this situation. This is also a good time to sing songs or say prayers. After a little while everyone can blow their nose, spit, or even continue meditating if they feel called to do this. Take a moment to thank the rapé. Thank everyone for being present to do this medicine work. To seal the work, everyone can join hands for a moment, intone an AUM, say Aho, or even cheer and clap.
A Shift in Perspective: Healing with Tobacco
Since starting to work with rapé, I found one of the biggest challenges for me was healing my relationship with tobacco. Being a plant of power and prayer, it is found today to be one of the most abused plants around the world. The casual way it is dealt with has led to a number of diseases and addictions. And certainly rapé can be abused as well, just like any other plant medicine. What sets apart the use of plants in a way that is beneficial rather than abusive is intention. One can work with a plant quite often but if the intention is one for positive transformation (and importantly if one is being honest with themselves) this is ok. This is the same for any plant medicine.
The use of tobacco has been quite the journey for me. It was only after I started working with rapé and jungle tobacco, such as Mapacho, that I began to see the importance of using it responsibly and in a sacred way. In a world where so many people smoke cigarettes, it is all too easy to abuse this plant. In Amazonian shamanism tobacco is used in a number of different ways. Beyond prayer, it can be used to “clean” the body energetically. The shaman will blow the tobacco on themselves and others to purify them. According to La Gringa, an Andean San Pedro shaman, in Ross Heaven’s Cactus of Mystery, “It is good to blow the smoke over people if they are going through a tough time or have stuck energy within them. The smoke frees it up.” Used in a way similar to sage or Agua Florida, the smoke can neutralize negative energies. According to Stephan Beyer in his Singing to the Plants, “Mapacho, tobacco, is the most important and almost universal shamanic plant in the Upper Amazon. In many ways tobacco is more sacred than Ayahuasca. Tobacco smoke invites and feeds the spirits; tobacco smoke purifies and protects the body; tobacco nurtures the magical phlegm; infusions of tobacco bring contact with the spirits.” It should be noted that Mapacho is many times stronger than the normal tobacco found in cigarettes and as such is generally not inhaled.
In this way it can be used to treat physical wounds as well. According to George Sword, a Lakota shaman, in James Walker’s Lakota Belief and Ritual, “The medicine bag has ten medicines [including]…Canli Wakan (holy tobacco): used for wounds; smoked in a pipe by all present and the pipe pointed towards the wound.” Similar to the rapé ritual as outlined above, through a group intention and activity, the tobacco is believed to heal wounds. It is believed that all physical ailments have a spiritual cause. We petition the spirits through the act of smoking tobacco with intention. As Walker continues, “filling the pipe is a rite, lighting it is another rite and smoking the pipe is still another rite; that either one or more of these rites may be done without either of the others, and the significance of the rite depends on how it is done.” In this way, we can see the importance of the tobacco medicine and the tools to which we use to partake of it.
The more one uses different types of rapé, the more they will learn of its healing properties. Many types of rapé will create a lot of phlegm and even lead to purging in some cases. Other rapés will be quickly absorbed, thereby creating a different effect. Similar to the Ayahuasca purge, the rapé goes in and takes out all of those bad things that harm us. Yet, we must use our intention to focus our behavior. When using tobacco of any kind one should be fully present in the moment. It is only when we become distracted that we lose sight. The power of tobacco can then potentially overcome us, leading towards abuse and addiction.
Tobacco is used for prayer and contemplation. It can be used to cleanse and purify the self energetically. It creates a sacred atmosphere to which we can be one with the divine. When we burn tobacco holding our intention in mind we are causing alchemical change and entering into a dialogue with the spirit realm. And yet with such a power comes great responsibility. The power of tobacco is not one we should take lightly. The casual user can quickly be overtaken by this power, leading to dependency and physical harm. We don’t think about these things since it has become so commonplace in the world, we forget it is a responsibility.
Tobacco is a holy and beautiful plant spirit. It is important we come to know it as a plant ally. This is particularly so for us that work with this plant in a less than sacred way. Let us learn from it the secrets it holds.
It is my hope that by sharing this information on how to properly handle tobacco based plant medicines and how to administer rapé to yourself and others, that we can begin to overcome the abuse of plant medicine through casual thought, something that is all too prevalent around the world. Once we are able to enter into the present moment and set an intention of healing, we can once again cultivate a healing relationship with one of the most powerful plant medicines on this plant.