Guide to Using Salvia #
Salvia Divinorum #
Related to the common spices mint and sage, salvia divinorum is a member of the Lamiaceae family and endemic to the Sierra Mazateca in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico.1 Unlike mint or sage, salvia is psychoactive. The psychoactive constituent is a structurally unique diterpenoid called salvinorin A, a potent κ-opioid agonist.
Methods of ingestion include smoking, quid chewing, or tincture. The traditional method is quid chewing. Leaves are chewed and held in the mouth without swallowing for 10-15 minutes. The leaves taste like tea (camellia sinensis). The taste is not pleasant, but tolerable. [TODO: Try caraway seeds] The psychedelic effect comes on after about 10-20 minutes from the beginning of chewing and lasts 30-90 minutes. Use with a tincture is similar, but instead of leaves, extracted salvinorin A is held in the mouth with a solvent, usually ethyl alcohol. Smoking with a water pipe is another method. To receive a large enough dose through inhalation, leaves are fortified with salvinorin A to increase the concentration 5-60 times (or higher). When absorbed through the lungs, the psychedelic effect comes on rapidly and lasts for 5-30 minutes.
Subjective Effects in Passive Participants #
We summarize three placebo controlled studies.234 Healthy hallucinogen-using adults were administered inhaled salvinorin A. Two studies used eye shades with music while one study used a dimly lit room with no music. The Hallucinogen Rating Scale (HRS) consists of six subscales:5
|interoceptive, visceral, and cutaneous/tactile effects
|emotional and affective responses
|alteration in thought processes or content
|visual, auditory, gustatory, and olfactory experiences
|capacity to willfully interact with his/her “self” and/or the environment
|strength of the overall experience
Salvia was statistically significant on all HRS subscales. Some participants reported anxiety and dysphoria. MacLean (2012) found impaired recall and recognition. I will comment on these findings.
My Credentials #
What qualifies somebody to be an authority on salvia? I have no idea. Navigating salvia is not an activity like rock climbing where it is known that certain training is relevant to outcomes. Salvia does not come with a user’s manual. There is no correct way to use salvia. However, the same could be said about surfing. Suppose somebody goes out into the ocean with a surfboard for an hour. We may regard their experience as a success if they enjoy it. Or we could adopt a measure of success more comparable to sport surfing. In sport surfing, those who ride bigger waves more artistically are more appreciated. Following the analogy, I suggest that the extent of control is one way to measure a person’s expertise with salvia. This guide is not for everybody. I write with a definite opinion about the salvia experience. You may not agree. That is fine. Not everybody approaches a beach with sport surfing in mind either.
James Arthur described his multi-year exploration of salvia.6 In contrast, my approach requires little practice. Some can learn how to navigate in just a few sessions. Gravity waves, a colloquial way of referring to one of the things measured by HRS’s somaesthesia subscale, are the key to navigating salvia.
In attempting to document the subjective effects of a psychedelic, experimenters must try to minimize any expectations about what will be found. Unfortunately, prior research on salvia has often employed a passive participation paradigm; Participants were seated or reclined and not asked to do anything specific. This may be an appropriate starting point for typical psychedelics like LSD. However, for salvia, passive participation sets an expectation for a lack of volition. People get dissociated and endure difficult salvia experiences because they allow their minds to wander. It is not clear to me whether experimenter expectations about salvia can be minimized. How to stay focused and not dissociate is one of the primary themes of this guide.
Another research result, temporary memory impairment, I believe is a true finding. Rather than passive participation, an appropriate starting point for salvia is to exercise disciplined volition without much reliance on memory. What might this look like? It could look like a simple task such as origami or shelling soybean, without a flicker of distraction.
Above the Clouds? #
In describing how to navigate altered states, there is a certain apt analogy that I have heard from fellow psychonauts. Imagine an airplane sitting motionless on the runway waiting for takeoff. The airplane takes off, rapidly gains altitude, banks hard to change direction, and hits some turbulence. Suppose rain is coming down, there are lightning strikes, and the wind is constantly changing direction. Finally, the airplane breaks upward through the ceiling of the clouds. Although the airspeed keeps increasing, the ride is smooth and the sun is shining gloriously.
|above the clouds
Volition without distraction is how to navigate the transitional, unstable milieu of salvia.
Test Flight #
I favor the traditional method of quid chewing because more time is available to acclimate to the salvia experience. Although I have not checked personally, alcohol-based tinctures should work similarly. I am skeptical about the water pipe method due to the shorter duration of effect. To extend the duration, Christopher Solomon developed a special pipe that makes it somewhat easier to smoke five doses in sequence. I have not tried this pipe, but I suspect that the additional planning and decision-making required to use it would interfere with the process of acclimation, described below.
I ordered dried leaves online from Arena Ethnobotanicals, a now-defunct herb vendor formerly based in Carlsbad, California. As I mentioned before, gravity waves are the key to navigating salvia. The distinctive waves cross-sensory modalities. For example, a single wave can be both visual and tactile simultaneously. The waves represent an opportunity for your attention to drift off into experiential repetition. This is the temptation that is bleeding through your senses.7 Salvia magnifies gravity waves, makes them obvious, but they are present in an ordinary state of mind, just subtle. I remember feeling the gravity waves as an infant. These are my earliest, not altogether pleasant, memories.
If your attention follows a gravity wave then it is like entering a hall of mirrors. The repetitions are not exact, but there is a mixture of distortion and repetition. An analogy is your appearance when you place yourself between two mirrors that are facing each other. The repetitions of the image are most accurate near the center of the mirrors and grow in distortion toward the edges. Beyond the edges are dissociation and hallucination. If you are alert enough then you will not dissociate but saccade your attention back to the center, the present moment.
Another analogy can be made with a bed sheet. The sheet may be disheveled, not tidied up since the previous night. The sheet represents your mind and the folds represent the gravity waves. This is not a perfect analogy because the bed sheet is static but the gravity waves are always moving outward, away from the origin. Try to find the origin of the gravity waves in your mind. Locate where they begin and stay centered, allowing the gravity waves to flow away from you. Do not follow the waves. The bed sheet will gradually smooth out as the folds are released and straightened.
Avoid the gravitational waves; Try to stay in the non-somaesthesia distorted deep now. [TODO: Does cold exposure help?]
Do not increase the dosage beyond 2-3g dried leaf until you can remain securely in a relatively sober state of mind. Higher dosage can make difficult trips more difficult. If you accidentally follow a gravity wave off into repetitions then you can lose consciousness for some indefinite amount of time. You can drift off and get lost in dissociation and hallucination. If you are vigilant, you should be able to watch the seconds count off on a clock or timer without distraction or getting carried away by the gravitational waves. Once you can remain at the origin, it should feel boring because there is hardly any somaesthesia distortion, just a concentrated sense of being present in a thoroughly ordinary and familiar location. Salvia offers no feeling of euphoria (or dysphoria), only concentrated awareness. Once you can remain at the origin, however, at least you can enjoy the feeling of being in control. This is your own feeling, not salvia’s!
So you dissociated. It happens to everybody. Design a least demanding environment with no insects, no sounds, no people walking around, no expectation to do anything unplanned, and no distractions. Under the influence of salvia, you are extremely susceptible to distraction. Pre-plan everything and follow the plan. For example, you may have decided to chew the quid for 10-15 minutes. After ten minutes, you may get caught up thinking about whether you have chewed enough and whether to stop after 13 or 14 minutes. Eliminate this distraction. Plan precisely and follow the plan. Avoid the need to make any decision. If salvia seems intimidating, recruit a trip sitter. However, as soon as you are comfortable, switch to sessions without a trip sitter. A trip sitter is another source of distraction. Are they paying attention to me? Do I appear deranged? Should I say something reassuring? Should I keep quiet? Even the most trivial questions can trigger disproportionate amounts of pondering and mental gymnastics. If you still run into challenges, take a step back. Give salvia a pause and work with a psychotherapist for a few months. Internal Family Systems is an excellent approach. Once you are better prepared, attempt another Test Flight.
In Control #
Once you are confident that you can remain at the origin, stand up. Walk around. Be forewarned that any distraction may cause you to dissociate and lose consciousness. This may seem precarious at first, but with a little practice, you can remain firmly in control. Salvia trains a mental focusing process similar to mindfulness, but differs from many types of meditation that also include some emotional focus. The salvia effect is orthogonal to emotion. Test your degree of control. Try reading a few sentences. Try cooking a simple recipe. Needless to say, do not attempt dangerous tasks like driving a car or operating heavy machinery. If you want to challenge yourself then I have an idea that I will save for the end of this article.
There are lots of videos on the Internet documenting people who are out of their minds after smoking salvia. Such trip reports can be entertaining, similar to narrative retelling of dreams. However, how much skill is required to lose control and act like a mad person? Why not try to meet the challenge of salvia skillfully?
Reaching Higher #
A dose of 3g of dried leaf is relatively forgiving. The gravity waves do not move too fast. Going from sober to 5g of dried leaf can be difficult to navigate. There is no margin for error. It may be easier to increase dosage in steps. Start with 2-3g of dried leaf. Chew for 15 minutes while you are vigilant to clear away distractions. Discard the spent leaf and let your head empty. Once acclimated to the altered state, draw out another 4-5g of dried leaf and chew. The effect of the increased dose is subtle. If you stay centered, it is almost as if it has no effect. However, salvinorin A is rewiring your brain. Hours, even days later, you may easily focus your attention with great intensity. Contrary to the salvia experience, there is no longer more than the ordinary risk of dissociation. You gain a double control. That is, you felt in control during the salvia experience and you can recall some qualities of the salvia experience at will. This may feel surprising, but salvia merely reveals to you a faculty that you always already had.
A Comment On Dosages #
Some people have reported that precise dosing is important for salvia and that the experience differs not just in intensity but somehow categorically depending on dose. My sense is that dosage only affects the intensity of the experience and not the fundamental character. Precise dosing is not that important; what is important is to acclimate to the altered experience at a low dosage of 3-4g before going higher. If you jump directly to a high dosage then it is highly unlikely that you will be able to remain lucidly centered in the present.
Why Bother? #
Salvia offers no feeling of euphoria and is not a social drug. Why bother using it? Salvia offers firsthand insight into human brain architecture. Did you know that the κ-opioid receptor has something to do with concentration? Now you know. Salvia offers neuroscience an opportunity to connect subjective experience and objective mechanism.
About the author #
I have practiced meditation for more than 30 years and worked as a software engineer for almost as long. I earned a Ph.D. in quantitative psychology from University of Virginia in 2016. I earned a rank of blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Future Research #
Revisiting Prior Work #
I have described a particular way to navigate the salvia trip. Those who learn this navigational approach, let us call them salvia surfers. Human research on salvia should be revisited to consider including a comparison group of salvia surfers. For example:
- Subjective effects: Relative to passives on the HRS, I would expect surfers to find less somaesthesia, neutral affect, less impaired cognition, less perceptual distortion, high volition, and similarly high intensity.
- Functional connectivity: Recent work has compared the brains of healthy hallucinogen-using adults with and without salvia.8 This prompts similar imaging experiments involving salvia surfers.
What is the salvia experience? #
Can we understand the parameters of the salvia experience in more detail?
- Probe the kinds of tasks that are feasible for salvia surfers to perform while intoxicated.9 Can we tease out the nuances of the memory impairments already documented by MacLean (2012)?
- As a sighted person, gravity waves often have a visual component. How do blind people experience the gravity waves? What about people with other disabilities?
As a performance enhancing drug #
There is at least one case report of sexual experience during salvia intoxication. Could salvia be combined with orgasmic meditation,10 a structured, partnered largely non-verbal practice of clitoral stroking?
Maqueda, A. E. (2018). The Use of Salvia divinorum from a Mazatec Perspective. In B. C. Labate and C. Cavnar (Eds.) Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science (pp. 55–70). Springer International Publishing. ↩︎
MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., Reissig, C. J., Prisinzano, T. E., Griffiths, R. R. (2012). Dose-related effects of salvinorin A in humans: Dissociative, hallucinogenic, and memory effects. Psychopharmacology, 226(2), 381–392. ↩︎
Addy, P. H. (2012). Acute and post-acute behavioral and psychological effects of salvinorin A in humans. Psychopharmacology, 220(1), 195–204. ↩︎
Maqueda, A. E., Valle, M., Addy, P. H., Antonijoan, R. M., Puntes, M., Coimbra, J., … & Riba, J. (2015). Salvinorin-A induces intense dissociative effects, blocking external sensory perception and modulating interoception and sense of body ownership in humans. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 18(12), 1–4. ↩︎
Strassman, R. J., Qualls, C. R., Uhlenhuth, E. H., & Kellner, R. (1994). Dose-response study of N, N-dimethyltryptamine in humans: II. Subjective effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale. Archives of General Psychiatry, 51(2), 98–108. ↩︎
Arthur, J. D. (2010). Salvia divinorum: Doorway to thought-free awareness. Simon and Schuster. ↩︎
Synesthesia juxtapositions the information from one sense into another (e.g., hearing colors). The medium where the gravity waves exist is not a sense per se, but a property of attention. ↩︎
Doss, M. K., May, D. G., Johnson, M. W., Clifton, J. M., Hedrick, S. L., Prisinzano, T. E., … & Barrett, F. S. (2020). The acute effects of the atypical dissociative hallucinogen salvinorin A on functional connectivity in the human brain. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1–12. ↩︎
Prause, N., Siegle, G. J., & Coan, J. (2021). Partner intimate touch is associated with increased interpersonal closeness, especially in non-romantic partners. PLOS ONE, 16(3), e0246065. ↩︎