Linking the Ancestral Chain: Integrating Tonawari Toad Medicine

Photo by Daniel Carl Fox

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in an indigenous tonawari ceremony, also known as bufo alvarius, 5-me0-DMT or toad. I sought this medicine because I wanted to mark a shift in my life as I move out of New York City after 12 years and enter a period where I will have no permanent home for an undetermined amount of time. I’m 30, I have very few physical assets, I’m carrying debt, and I’m quadrupling down on making things people don’t currently pay me for. I wanted to remind myself why I am choosing this magical, terrifying spaciousness over certainty. To carry that intention firmly into the unknown ahead and hold it above my head as the inevitable existential tides roll in and out. To make prayers of faith in the seeds I’ve planted and am waiting to bloom.

And the medicine gave me just that reassurance, but as a by-product of a gift far greater than I could have requested. It gave me a new understanding of what Mary Oliver calls “your place in the family of things.”

Tonawari is a medicine secreted from hormonal glands embedded in the back of the Sonoran Desert toad. The liquid is collected during a brief two week mating season, spread thin on a flat stone, dried, and broken into small, smokable crystals. The first thing I said upon coming back to my body after smoking it: “I can’t believe this medicine exists.” I’m staggered that the earth herself offers us deliverance from the shackles of the terrestrial realm and a direct experience of our infinite selves.

I must acknowledge the proliferation of this medicine in the west over the last decade from which I have directly benefited. It has also led to its abuse and destruction by opportunists looking to capitalize on psychedelic resurgence. Picture toads being mechanically flushed from their burrows in the desert at all times of year, taken into cities, repeatedly milked and eventually discarded far from home, disoriented and left to die. It’s devastating.

And the medicine won’t stand for it. When pharmaceutical companies questing for a hot new 5-me0-DMT-derived antidepressant purportedly removed toads from the Sonoran desert and flew them to labs in Cuba, the toads switched off their hormones and began to secrete only a poison that could not be ingested in any form. The medicine refuses to be colonized, but it is nonetheless under threat of extinction. I encourage anyone interested in this medicine to seek out indigenous practitioners who are in deep relationship with the earth that generates it.

Unlike other entheogens like mushrooms or ayahuasca, tonawari forces instant surrender, so that the self has no chance to struggle or make up spooky stories as it is pulled away. Within seconds of inhaling, you simply arrive on the other side. In the Nahuatlacas lineage carried by the medicine man who held my recent ceremony, tonawari has been known and shared forever. He experienced it for the first time as a small child, with no socially imprinted prejudices telling him that it might be scary or weird, and it has been a part of his life ever since.

Upon experiencing the medicine, it is clear to me why this ceremony is an intimate part of human experience on this planet in many indigenous traditions. It seems to behold human visitors with a giggle. Oh you again, come to take a peek? Tonawari creates a dimensionless vortex of visual and somatic communication far beyond anything that might be articulated by the human mind, but it is also deeply reassuring and familiar. It is a homecoming. Its lasting message is that you are ok, that you are perfect in your experience of humanness, that it is impossible to be outside of love. You are it, baby. Been here before. Been here forever.

Could you imagine living in a culture where we regularly gathered to hold space to remember our belonging to all things? To one another? If puberty were marked by this reminder? Grave illness? Death?

I grew up with minimal contact with extended family. I never met three of my grandparents. The one who is still living is too mentally ill to be in contact with my sisters and me. Growing up, I loved my mom’s stories about her grandparents and cousins, but they were characters from a storybook, totally removed from my lived experience. Needless to say, I’ve felt disconnected from the idea of “ancestors.”

The limited example of my own nuclear family fractured when I was young, coming to Shakespearean climax when my dad moved in with my mom’s sister and step-dadded my cousins on the other side of the country. Humans are beautifully adaptive, and this alienation forced us to make meaning elsewhere. My younger sister became an expert at adopting herself into the families of friends who have absorbed her into their vacations and holidays. My older sister created her own family, and thereby also gifted me a brother-in-law who once responded, incredulous, “Because that’s what family does,” when I didn’t understand why he wanted to help me move. And I seem to be on a quest to make the world my family, gathering a network of orphans everywhere I go. I’m obsessively collecting stories of wound-healing, creating a handbook to remind us that we are not alone.

Tonawari linked up the broken chain. In two doses, I experienced my own birth through my mom’s perspective and released an existential load I had not realized I’d been lugging around until it was surging out of me. Most of that burden was not mine. It was ancestral. As I relinquished it, I understood the women that have come before me. I understood my inheritance: their sacrifices, their suffering, their wisdom. I understood the lineage of survival experience that has lead to my existence.

So many of the women who came before me had to protect themselves emotionally, physically, and spiritually for nearly their entire lives. I come most recently from a line of farm women who labored to keep big broods of children safe and healthy in the face of disease, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and abject poverty.

I remember as a kid telling my mom that it probably wasn’t such a big deal when a child died “in the olden days” because it was much more common. “I think it was just as horrible,” she told me. “Those mothers had feelings just as strong as yours. Just because they were very familiar with the hardships of life didn’t make it any less hard.” This revelation crystallized my compassion for all — past and present — who live close to loss. Yes, we suffer, and we also continue on with life. We create homes, raise our children, prepare meals, make music, dance, and pray. To take birth is to be traumatized. To be alive is to suffer. And by enduring, we learn.

Just as my ancestors acquired the survival mechanisms required by their environment, I acquired mine. For many years of my life, my default was to doubt and reject positive emotions like kindness, generosity, and love, most fundamentally. It made me a guarded, judgmental, and cynical adult that was desperate for the very things I pushed away. I consumed — alcohol, food, sex, and the internet — for cheap, brief hits of the belonging I craved. I inured myself to the barren reality of my insides. It is still an ongoing practice not to revert to the dark comforts promised by this mode of being.

Like no other tool in my life, psychedelic medicines have helped me excavate this instinct toward self-protection, while also asking me to love and appreciate it as a survival mechanism. Look, they say, this is a learned and inherited response to unpredictable anger and conditional love. That was clever! You made it! But you don’t need that any more. You are safe here.

I know that my armor continues to try to protect a radically — and some have accused me of naively — trusting heart that stretches bigger every day to try to absorb all the heartbreaking beauty of life on earth. But I am so clear that this disarmament is essential. Learning to meet anger, manipulation, and abuse with equanimity rather than violence in kind is an obvious and simple way for me to make my link on the chain worthwhile. To honor my birth. Slowly learning to be soft even though it makes me vulnerable to being hurt has been the key to loving and being loved. It has changed my standards for the environment I create with my presence, the universe I demand through my relationships.

How many have never received these messages of safety and belonging because they are barraged by threats in their day to day that require constant alertness for survival? To receive healing from psychedelic spaces like tonawari, one must open themselves to spiritual surgery. It is deeply vulnerable. It requires exposure and access to medicine, time off from jobs and relationships, and the protection of a non-predatory guide trained to watch over the body and spirit during surgery.

Here I am in 2019, willfully exploring my own consciousness in ceremonies as quintessential to humanness as eating food and having sex. I am free to do so in a world where so many are not. Having been afforded the opportunity to witness the ancient scripts playing out in my mind and body, I am devoted to creating spaces where this work is possible for all. Especially those who may be the first in many, many generations to be offered this basic human right to realignment and healing.

So in the weeks since tonawari — these strange, inward-driven, mercury-retrograding, depression-touching, winter-transitioning weeks — I’ve been making space for the lineage of wild women making themselves known to me. I’ve been thanking them. Asking them to talk to me. To teach me. To protect me. Inviting them to come with me as I shift my habits to be more of service to those around me.

Your existence is a miracle, they say. Honor it.

So here I am: a strange, beautiful desert cactus with a thick, needled skin, standing naked in the sun, offering my tender, pulpy insides and wild blooms to all that will behold me.

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