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A Conversation with... Stephan Beyer, Phd, JD

Doctor of Religious Studies and Psychology, Author, Scolar, Adventurer and Expert on Jungle Survival and Plant Hallucinogens
Interviewed by Eden Kozlowski,
ATH Co-Editor of Meditation



Editor’s Note from Eden Kozlowski: No kidding, this man is a joy. Feel my gratitude?!! Have some fun and listen as Stephan (sacred plant expert, among other things), and I talk about mass culture, spirituality, reality (my favorite part), expectations and meditation.

Stephan Beyer, Phd, JD

Eden: Hello everyone, today we are going to have a lovely fireside chat with All Things Healing friend, Stephen Beyer. Hello I’m Eden Kozlowski, editor here on ATH. Stephen, how are you?

Stephan: I am wonderful. It is a great pleasure to be here talking with you.

Eden: Oh well thank you! Now I get to go over all about you! We’ve featured you many times here on our Shamanism page here at ATH but today I have you all to myself to talk about meditation, which I am very excited about. So let me go over some of your wonderful background: You were lawyer for 25 years in Chicago. Before that you received your doctorate in Buddhist studies. You lived in a Tibetan-Buddhist monastery for a year and a half, spent 12 years teaching religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and at the University of California, Berkeley. You published a book on Tibetan meditation 40 years ago, before anyone knew much about it. You got into wilderness survival, you studied and worked with indigenous people, plants, and you completed vision quest, and you have a wife and children, and now grandchildren. What an incredible life so far. What else can you add to this wonderful litany of experiences?

Stephan: Not much, you pretty much covered it [laughter]. The goal has been to have as much fun as possible in the shortest possible time. I recommend that to everybody.

Eden: Excellent. Well you have definitely done that. Let me ask you this first question. With your diverse background, and what I would call your profound spiritual work, can you tell everyone, what does meditation mean to you, intellectually?

Stephan: There are so many different kinds of meditation; there are so many different ways of going about trying to achieve some kind of… I’m not even sure what to say. The word spirituality comes to mind, but I think by today that word has become a kind of debased currency. For example, if you look at early Buddhist meditation, there different ways either of watching the world or of removing yourself from the world; there are devotional paths in many traditions; there have been lots of books written on the tremendous diversity of things that people do, whether they sit quietly in the forest or use sacred plants in ceremony. So I’m not sure I can answer the question.


But people seek experiences that are luminous and profound, that connect them to ways that are not greater but perhaps deeper than the way they would ordinarily live. I’m struggling here because it’s very hard to say; it’s not like I had thought this out and planned it. I think there are so many ways that people try to connect to a dimension of depth in their lives, all of which are, I think, in some way a kind of meditation.

Eden: My next question to you was going to be, what does mediation mean to you from the heart? But it might have been covered before but let me pose that and see if you have anything additional to say.

Stephan: No, I think there’s a lot of overlap there. Whether you find this dimension of depth -- of meaningfulness -- within, or you find this dimension of depth by mindfully viewing the world, or by a life of service, or by just trying to live your life in the best possible way, I think this dimension of depth and meaningfulness is something that everybody seeks, and unfortunately many people find themselves unable to find.

Eden: Why do you think that is?

Stephan: We are distracted, given false goals, systematically taught not to listen to each other. Our culture sets up a whole series of distractions and falsehoods about what is important, and people naturally listen to that.

Eden: Why do you think they do, just because it’s more in mass culture?

Stephan: Well, we do what we are expected to do, as a general rule. I could give you a lot of examples, but let me give you my favorite example, and this doesn’t even have to do with meditation -- the ways in which our culture portrays elders and especially elder men.

Our culture portrays elders as weak, foolish, befuddled by modern technology, inevitably sinking into intellectual and cognitive decline. This is the image that our society creates of older people, and especially older men. If you look at the way older men are portrayed in the popular media, they are portrayed as foolish, self-absorbed, and weak; and, because that is the picture that we have, I think a lot of people, especially older men, behave that way -- because that’s what they are expected to be. We do not have models in our culture of strong, brave, confident older men. We have a few -- Gandalf the White and a few other heroic elders -- but as a general rule we don’t. When you don't have a social model for something, then people don't do it.

So let’s bring this back around to meditation. Where are our cultural models of people who actively pursue the dimension of depth and meaning in their lives? Where do we see these people? We see people who are successful in business, we see people who own a lot of stuff, and we see people who achieve their goals by a kind of mindless aggression. The models that are set up for us are not generally models of people who meditate, who seek depth, who want to have lives of meaning. And so people don't do it, any more than, in the absence of models, older people see themselves as being heroic, strong, and confident.

Eden: You know what? The beautiful thing is that hopefully you and I will change both of those models, what do you think?

Stephan: That would be great! Any day you want, just let me know.

Eden: Awesome! Well tell me about this: Your vision quest article in early Mahayana where you explore the roots and beginnings of vision and visualization in Buddhist meditation. For those who have never done a vision quest, tell me more about that, how did you prepare? What did you do, what did you learn?

Stephan: I wrote this article on the basis of Buddhist Perfection of Wisdom texts back in 1977, and it wasn't until many years later that I in fact did a vision quest of my own. I did several, and then I apprenticed to a vision quest leader and helped bring people into the wilderness for a vision fast. For those of you who don’t know about vision fasts, generally speaking, although there is a lot of variation, you go off in the wilderness and, for four days and four nights, you are alone in the wilderness with no food, no tent, no fire, and you stay those four days, by yourself in the wilderness, working on whatever it is that you need to work on, waiting for the spirits of the place to speak to you and lead you toward where you need to go.

Now, the reason I think of the article I wrote back in 1977 is because I’ve been asked about my chronology. I started out with a degree in Buddhist Studies, and I spent a year and a half in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and then I taught for about twelve years. Then I quit all of that and I become a litigator, a lawyer, for about twenty-five years. And then, through all sorts of happenstance, I circled back around and I began to study the sacred plants, especially as used in the shamanism of the Upper Amazon, and I wrote a book about that.

People ask me, is there a connection? If you think of life as being linear, it’s very hard to see a connection, but I tend to think that people’s lives move in circles. So when I think about the use of sacred plants, of psychoactive substances, and shamanism in the Upper Amazon and in the world generally, I try in my own mind to connect it back to my thinking about Buddhism. I came on this article that I had written back in 1977, and, to my amazement, the seeds of where I am now were already there. I said in this article that Buddhist metaphysics in the later period, Mahayana Buddhist metaphysics, is “in fact the metaphysics of the vision and of the dream. A universe of glittering and quicksilver change is precisely one that can only be described as empty. The vision and the dream become the tools to dismantle the hard categories we impose upon reality.” I was amazed; I had forgotten completely that I had ever written that, because it was exactly what I was thinking about -- the vision and the dream as central to visionary shamanism.

Eden: What is reality to you?

Stephan: What is reality? I don’t know -- but whatever it is, it’s more than we generally see. When I talk about ayahuasca, the visionary plants and shamanic visions, I say that right now, if I could only see it, this room where I am sitting is filled with the most brilliant tiles, the most brilliant tessellations of shapes and colors. It has door opening back infinitely into crystal palaces. Right now, running along my floor, if could only see it, are beautiful blue waters and green plants growing. Right now, if I could only see it, I am already in the land of myth and dream and fairy tale. Right now, I am living in the magical forest. Right now, to put it in Buddhist terms, if I could only see it, I am living in the Pure Land, in a Buddha-realm filled with jeweled trees and beautiful music and the singing of the plants. We only get glimpses of this. We hear the singing of the plants in faint echoes; out of the corners of our eyes we see the spirits who are waiting for us. Right now, we live in a land of depth and meaningfulness. Right now, we live in a place where miracles happen all the time. Right now, at this very moment, we are already in the magical forest.

Eden: I’m just sitting here very relaxed. That's what I believe as well and part of the work that I do, I get the chance, like you, to see some of that. So its so nice to sit here and talk with you and have our readers listen because it does offer, I don't want to say hope but it is kind of hope that there is so much more to life and so much more to existence. As I talk here with Stephen to shout out really to encourage you to find that depth within yourself or to find a teacher or to find something to help reach that and that's going to parley right into our next question. In our last interview you had stated, “I think we Americans are in too much of a hurry, we want an epiphany, a quick fix, a transformation, a profound and powerful experience. What would your advice be if you were talking to a child or one of your grandchildren here in the United States and you wanted to really get down on their level and tell them there is more to life? How would you simply tell them that there is more and to open their eyes?

Stephan: I would say: Minimize your expectation. I would say: Don't expect things, but just let them happen. I think in many ways this ties into mindfulness meditation. People who are going down to South America to drink ayahuasca sometimes ask me, What should I expect? What I say to them is that I have absolutely no idea what you should expect. The spirits are going to meet you where you are, and it’s not up to you to tell the spirits what you expect from them; they may very well have other plans for you. And you should go with no expectations, with an open heart, and let the sacred plants work on you in plant time rather than in human time. I think I would say the same thing to anybody who asked me about anything. I’d say: Don't have expectations.

You know there are four tasks of a warrior: to show up, to be present, to speak your truth with humility, and to give up attachment to outcomes. If I had to give advice -- and I am absolutely in no position to give anybody advice about anything; I have enough trouble finding my own path and sticking to it -- but if I had to give advice, I would point to those the four tasks of the warrior.

Eden: I love that. I do a lot of work with kids these days. If parents are listening as well as listening to Stephen’s words, I have to reiterate that children, at least the one’s I’ve experienced and my belief is that especially coming into the world right now, are ready. They are ready, wanting a deeper experience and many of them are expecting it. I hope that you will be there to provide that for them. Stephen, I want to know what’s going on in your world right now, what’s new? Any new books coming out? What’s the story?

Stephan: Well, first of all, I’m writing a novel that has to do with what one character in it calls “sacred justice,” as an alternative to the kinds of punitive and hierarchical justice that we see in our cities and our system now. So I’m writing a novel about the changes that occur in an inner city urban neighborhood when people start putting into practice some of the insights of indigenous and sacred justice systems.

Eden: That sounds very neat, when are you thinking this is going to be completed?

Stephan:  I’m actually putting it up on the Internet right now, a chapter at a time. If anyone wants to look at it, it’s at whitehairedman.blogspot.com. I try to put up a new chapter every couple of days.  

Eden: You know you are connecting yourself more to Gandalf every moment that we talk.


Stephan: That's wonderful. Thank you. Gandalf the White is definitely one of my heroes. I actually have a picture of him up on my wall. This man with the long white hair swinging his sword in battle -- I love that.

Eden: This is lovely. Is there anything else we should note? I’ll go ahead and tell our readers that down below this interview will also have a bio of Stephen and all of the websites, facebook, and all that good contact information from him.

Stephan: You could tell your readers to buy my book on shamanism -- I don’t mind selling copies of my book. The name of the book is Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Meztizo Shamanism from the Upper Amazon. You can buy it on Amazon, and, if you are possessed by a desire to have the book immediately, if you are listening to this and you just can’t wait, it is on Kindle, I think for about sixteen or seventeen bucks, and you can have it right away.

Eden: Fabulous. Well as always, Stephen and I have spoken before and done some works together in the past. You are, not to sound corny, a bright, shining star. I really enjoy talking with you and having this interview. I just feel lighter. Its nice to know that you are out there in the world doing what you do.

Stephan: That is so nice of you to say. It is always wonderful to talk to you.


Eden: Thank you so much for this and readers, again bio down below, reach out, see, and check out his books, his page. He’s a wonderful individual.

Stephan: You are very welcome. I enjoyed it.



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More about Stephan V. Beyer, Phd, JD

For more than 40 years, Steve Beyer has been fascinated by the sorts of anomalous human experiences that have been ignored, marginalized, and pathologized by mainstream psychology – meditation, hallucinations, lucid dreams, shamanic visions, out-of-body experiences, delusions, visualization, false awakenings, apparitions. His published books have dealt with subjects from Tibetan Buddhist ritual meditation to ayahuasca shamanism in the Upper Amazon.

Steve has doctoral degrees in both religious studies and psychology, and has taught as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, the University of California - Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union.

Expert in both jungle survival and plant hallucinogens, he lived for a year and a half in a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas, and has undertaken and helped to lead numerous four-day and four-night solo vision fasts in the desert wildernesses of New Mexico. He has studied the use of sacred and medicinal plants with traditional North America herbalists, in ceremonies of the Native American Church, in Peruvian mesa rituals, and with mestizo shamans in the Upper Amazon, where he received coronación by banco ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho Jurama. The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian Institution has praised his “unparalleled knowledge of sacred plants.”

Steve has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Shamanic Practice, and currently serves on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service. His most recent book is Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon.

For more info, visit: www.singingtotheplants.com and thewhitehairedman.blogspot.com
Singing to the Plants blog: www.singingtotheplants.com/blog
And for news, discussions, announcements and videos, join the Singing to the Plants Facebook group.

On Amazon: www.amazon.com/dp/0826347304


About the Interviewer

Eden Kozlowski's passion is to move people into the calm and peace of their being and help them take responsibility for their work, life and health.

is founder/CEO of her dynamic meditation/mindfulness-based company out of Akron, Ohio USA – Just Be, LLC as well as a contributor to The Huffington Post and Co-Editor on the Meditation page at All Things Healing. Formerly an advertising creative director and VP out of Atlanta, Georgia, Eden now speaks, teaches, presents, facilitates anything and everything regarding meditation/mindfulness. Practicing since the year 2000, she started as a six-year student of Dr. Neala Peake’s (Co-Founder of ATH). She currently holds weekly classes, retreats and private sessions in person and via skype as well as in mindfulness and stress management at corporate, health and educational facilities.

See her interviews on ATH with 
Dr. Judith Orloff, psychiatrist and NY Times best-selling author; Sona Mehring, Founder and CEO of Caring Bridge; Elizabeth Lesser, Co-Founder of the Omega Institute; and Sarah McLean, the "face of mainstream meditation."


Website: justbemeditation.com
Blog: The Huffington Post
Facebook: www.facebook.com/JustBeMeditation
Twitter: @JustBeMeditate

Akron, OH USA





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