Ross Heaven is a shaman, healer, international workshop leader and the author of nearly twenty books on shamanism, spirituality, healing and plant spirit medicine.
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All this month at Pagan Writers Community, we're celebrating Ross Heaven's most recent release Ayahuasca: The Vine of Souls, which came out in January this year with O Books.
We are starting out with a guest post from Ross, which is an extract from his book.
If this post inspires questions, either related to entheogens or shamanism, e-mail those questions to: email@example.com before the end of Saturday 11th October 2014. We will be putting the best questions to Ross, and seeking answers.
Death by Martian Shaman and the Ego of Western Do-Gooders:
Cautions for Western Seekers Drinking Ayahuasca
Cautions for Western Seekers Drinking Ayahuasca
A boy died in a jungle. Alone, on ayahuasca. It isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last, although the circumstances of this death were more unusual and tragic than most.
“There was a death recently at Shimbre [an ayahuasca centre in Peru],” writes Inspeyere at Evolver. “An 18-year-old kid passed away during ceremony… and it looks as though there was an attempt to cover up the tragedy and pretend he just ‘disappeared’. Mancoluto [the Shimbre shaman] and two others were put in police custody and the future of the retreat centre is at risk.”
Shimbre was notorious before it even opened – a multi-million dollar hi-tech dream-centre funded by Rob, a millionaire Wall Street financier who (in a familiar drama with Westerners) had drunk ayahuasca a few times in Peru, decided that his life was changed, that he was now ‘enlightened’, and that he was going to ‘save the world’. Work began on Shimbre almost immediately afterwards, as a vehicle for Mancoluto, Rob’s ‘guru’, to begin his job as our saviour. Mancoluto was not free of controversy - less ‘enlightened’ people might say transparent and easily-seen ego-riddled bullshit - either. He claimed, among other things – in a new age crap-spout familiar to me and, Im sure, to many others at this blog - to be descended from Martians by way of Atlantis and Lemuria, and to have the status (along with just four other people on Earth) of ‘First Level Shaman’ (note: there is no such rank among shamans). As such, he said, he had seven senses including ESP, telepathy and intuition, and was a pure-blooded Martian.
Inspeyere continues: “[This] maestro also had an extremely avant-garde approach to administering the medicine. Rather than prepare the brew himself… he bought it second-hand. He also didn’t sing icaros, but instead sang the same song about Las Huarinjas before sending the ‘ceremony’ participants alone out into the jungle. I repeat, alone out into the jungle. Yes, there were several minders, apprentices (oftentimes also under the influence of either San Pedro or ayahuasca) who were supposed to keep an eye on people. However, [participants] were spread out across at least an acre of raised walkways, each in individual tents on raised platforms… Mancoluto claimed that he was able to monitor everyone from up in his scaffold tower using his ESP and telepathy. [However] After sending all of the ceremony participants into the jungle he climbed into his room and would watch Peruvian soap operas while sitting on a bank of batteries. He said they didn’t need the circle, the group intention, the icaros, or his guidance to get the most from the medicine. In his own words, all that was just ‘therapy’ and therapy was for the weak. He wanted people to evolve, to awaken their DNA. To that end, he said ayahuasca was only useful as a purgative, a reset button, and that San Pedro was the true medicine…
“For experts and experienced psychonauts, such an experience alone with the medicine and the jungle could be a really beneficial thing, we rationalized. Maybe his goal of administering this brew to Wall Street would help influence the trajectory of global finance. Maybe he’s living the shaman dream? Now, in light of the death of an 18-year-old kid from Northern California and the subsequent cover up, I feel the need to come clean. Ayahuasca and San Pedro are incredible medicines with complex rituals and ceremonies developed over thousands of years of co-evolution between man and plant. They also contain various admixtures, depending on the preparer, and ayahuasca in particular is frequently mixed with potentially dangerous other plants. That is part of the reason so many practitioners stick to the dieta and the ritual, including the circle, the darkness, the group intention, and the icaros. While I am not experienced enough to tell anyone whether or not they should participate in a particular ceremony or with one shaman or curandero or another, I think it’s absolutely essential for people to do their homework. Find out what is in the medicine. Ask if a ceremony is traditional or avant-garde, and decide if it’s right for you. Make sure you’re not taking any medication or eating any food that is contra-indicated. The dieta is not just superstition, it can save your life!
“Hopefully this doesn’t create a backlash against the medicine, this is the first death I’ve heard of related to ayahuasca since I was introduced to it, and someone dies in America from a prescription drug overdose every 19 seconds. (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6101a3.htm).”
Mancoluto was eventually convicted for his part in this death, after trying to cover it up by dragging the body into the jungle and burying it in a ditch. The last I heard, he was given three years’ probation and the parents of the dead teenager were still trying to get his body returned to the States. Rob, the centre owner – once, and still, a Wall Street financial player – having invested millions in Shimbre, closed it and it is now a rich man’s folly waiting for the jungle to consume it. Two years before this incident Rob was apparently warned by the ayahuasca community about the unorthodox and dangerous approach of his shaman but he chose to ignore their concerns. Now he publicly condemns his guru as “evil”. But let’s remember that he once regarded him as the saviour of mankind.
There is nothing we can do for this dead boy now, but there are lessons we can take from this incident which might prevent the deaths of others – yours for example if you are tempted by the idea of ayahuasca. For, while I am certainly not excusing the shaman or the centre owner for their parts in this, they are not the only ones at blame. The whole episode was, in my view, preventable if only Westerners would get over the projections they all-too-freely make onto shamans.
Rob built Shimbre at a cost of millions primarily for Mancoluto, with whom, having drunk ayahuasca just once or twice, he claimed a ‘life-changing experience’. He lost it all and ended up lucky not to be facing manslaughter or murder charges since his dream – or delusion – cost the life of a young man barely out of childhood. And all because an otherwise intelligent man, possibly with good intentions, really believed in his Martian shaman. But he was not alone in this. The participants in ceremonies must surely have believed the hype as well or they wouldn’t have been there. What on Earth possesses us in the West that we are prepared to give away our power and commonsense on such a level as soon as the word ‘shaman’ is mentioned?
Here are the lessons I took from this event, and they are points to be aware of when considering any ayahuasca journey of your own:
1. Before joining any ceremony, at least know something about the centre you will be visiting – it’s history, its speciality if any (for example, my own centres in Iquitos and Spain, while offering ayahuasca healing in general, also had a special interest in helping people overcome addictions), its philosophy (does it believe that we are all from Atlantis, for example, or that its shaman is from Mars?), its successes or otherwise in dealing with the issues that you’d like to look at, and its reputation, as well as the reality. For example, one centre operating now in Iquitos has an international reputation, based solely on its own claims, of being all about ‘the light’ – ‘finding your light within’ and ‘expelling darkness’ etc. This is actually quite meaningless, if you think about it, and really says nothing. It is more of a pander to Western ideas and tastes. The reality, however, is that this centre is also well known in Peru because another ‘enlightened Westerner’ opened it by effectively stealing the land it sits on from a native shaman who had owned it for years. So much for following the light.
2. Find out about the shaman too – in facts, not flowery language. How long has he been an ayahuascero, who trained him, what plants has he dieted, and so on. Ayahuasca can be an extreme experience and to balance this and ensure your safety you need an experienced shaman who can hold and direct a ceremony. Any hint of flakiness from the person you are asking to take care of your body and soul, or intimation that he may lack experience, should be cause for you to think about looking elsewhere. In the case of Shimbre for example, the shaman thought he was from Mars and he wasn’t even an ayahuascero, he had trained as a huachumero, working with San Pedro, which is a totally different plant.
3. What’s in the ayahuasca? Most brews are simply a mix of the vine and chacruna leaves, sometimes with a little tobacco, sometimes with an admixture plant or two, such as chiric sanango, but some also contain brugmansia, which is an extremely powerful visionary plant in its own right. Some shamans also believe that it is directly associated with brujeria – witchcraft. I have drunk ayahuasca with brugmansia in it and, in itself, found nothing harmful in the plant (although it is essential to get the quantity right as it can be toxic at higher levels). It was a very intense and fast-moving experience, but I knew what I was getting into. I can imagine that someone unused to it, though, even if they have experience with ayahuasca, would have found it difficult and unnerving.
4. Who makes the ayahuasca may also be a factor. At Shimbre the shaman did not make his own brew but bought it from another (or, rather, an actual) ayahuascero. In itself that may be no problem since quite a few ayahuasca centres buy in their brews at one time or another, but it’s still a good idea to know who made it and what his or her relationship is to the centre you’re joining. Brujeria – sorcery, or shamanic power plays - is far from uncommon in Peru and it is sometimes the case that one shaman will deliberately try to sabotage the ceremony of another by magical (or other) means in order to steal his clientele or because of jealousy, revenge or some other cause. A brew with a few unadvertised added ingredients would certainly be one way to do this.
5. Make sure your shaman drinks too. If he won’t drink his own ayahuasca or drinks from another bottle to the one he uses for you, there may be something going on that is not quite right. All ayahuasceros should drink their medicine in ceremony – it is their plant of power and it enables them to see what is going on for you and to heal your illnesses. If your shaman claims not to need ayahuasca because he has ‘Martian ESP’, it is probably better to just walk away. By the same token, if he drinks from a separate bottle it is likely that he is getting a different medicine to you and again it’s worth asking why. At the temple I wrote about earlier, for example, the one concerned with ‘light’, it was common during my stay for participants to be given one brew and the shamans, centre owner and other members of the ‘elite’ to drink from another bottle. Having established during the first ceremony that our brew was weak, I asked what was in the second bottle. It turned out that this was ‘special brew’ (or what I would call normal strength, effective ayahuasca). I ‘urged’ the shamans to give this to my participants as well and when that was done people actually got what they needed and had paid for – but it had to be ‘requested’; it was not given willingly.
6. How is the ceremony conducted? In the case of Shimbre, the shaman simply gave people ayahuasca and then sent them out into the jungle alone. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how crazy and dangerous this is. The jungle at night (and sometimes even in daylight) is no place to be wandering alone. It is easy to get lost, to trip and fall, to walk into a tree and hurt yourself or disturb a colony of stinging ants and suffer pain that lasts for days – and that’s without having ingested a strong psychedelic and, in this case, one which also contains brugmansia. I’m just surprised that there were no accidents at this centre before. The shaman is the protector of the ceremonial space and of participants. Once you are out of his sight he cannot safeguard you effectively and nor, it goes without saying, can he work on your healing, which is what you came for in the first place. At my ceremonies I advise people to remain in the maloca unless absolutely necessary and if they do leave it, to stay within range of my icaros, then return to the ceremonial room for the ritual closing of the event. I certainly don’t send them out alone and I don’t know any shaman who does, apart from those who claim a Martian lineage.
While it is a good idea to ask these questions, of course also keep common courtesy in mind. You want to make a good impression on your shaman too, before you put your life in his hands. If I receive an email from someone who seems to be demanding answers to a long list of questions (particularly if they include nebulous and un-thought-through ones like ‘What will I see?’ or ‘Can you guarantee that I will be healed?’) I have learned now just to hit the delete button since my experience with people like this is that they are too ‘in their heads’, the prisoners of rational thought who want concrete answers from somebody else, as if there is somehow a ‘right’ way to have an ayahuasca experience, instead of doing the work for themselves. On the other hand, I have no problems at all in answering sensible questions asked for genuine reasons, and nor do the shamans I work with.
Perhaps the key take-home message from examples like Shimbre is that shamans are not Saints and gurus, and I really wish that Western participants would get this message. It would make life so much easier for everyone, including themselves and the shamans they have come to work with. Shamans are not gurus or saints – but nor should we want them to be. For sure, we want them to be sane and safe, but by projecting our other illusions onto them – that they have all the answers and are the only ones who can save us – we give our own healing power away. By regarding them as ‘holy men’ who are ‘spiritually advanced’ and ‘enlightened’, we deny them (and ourselves) their greatest healing gift: that they are ordinary men and women who have been through their share of trials and found a way to heal by working with their spirits - and so therefore, with their guidance, can we. Beneath, or aside from that, they are just people like us, and they do not (and should not) claim to be ‘ascended masters’ or whatever other new age title the Western imagination wants to dump on them. The Lakota Sioux medicine man, John Lame Deer, put it well when he said that: “A medicine man shouldn’t be a saint. He should experience and feel all the ups and downs, all the despair and joy, the magic and the reality, the courage and fear of his people. He should be able to sink as low as a bug and soar like an eagle. You have to be God and the Devil, both of them. Being a good medicine man means being right in the midst of the turmoil not shielding yourself from it.”
There is nothing in that description which says that the shaman will do your job of healing for you; only that he knows what you’re going through and has some ideas and techniques that can help you because they have helped him too. In this sense it’s no different from going to your doctor with a health problem. He understands your condition and, if you believe in his pills and potions, he may have some drugs that can help you, but he’s not going to take your disease on himself – it’s your problem and your responsibility to cure it with his assistance. Nor is it his job to tell you how to live or preach a gospel at you. He’s just there to help.
You probably wouldn’t throw yourself at your doctor just because he gave you a flu jab – so why do so many Westerners (mainly women, I have to say) offer themselves to shamans, almost, it seems, at the drop of a hat, just because he gives them a cup of aya? I have seen this process so many times in Peru, and the outcome is never pretty. The shaman, being a human being (and never claiming to be anything else), may very well accept your advances, but the likely result of this is only trouble. The Westerner is no doubt motivated by ego or some other less-than-useful drive: ‘to have the Master’. The shaman gets a pretty woman for the night, but he’s from a different culture where ‘relationships’ are not the same as in the West, and he may think that’s it: that you understand that you have been healed and now you are thanking him in ‘the way of Western women’ - but that you have actually been healed. Westerners, meanwhile, seem unable to separate the two and, raised in a consumer society, almost seem to want to possess and own the shaman and when that proves impossible, reject their healing too, sometimes crying ‘rape’ into the bargain. I have seen it happen countless times and the result is always the same: someone who had once been healed, through wanting too much, now leaves the jungle with nothing: not the shaman they wanted to own and no faith in their own healing either. Maybe that’s the Western way: all or nothing. But who is really exploiting who? And if the outcome is that you deny your own healing, then honestly, why even go there?
That is not to say either that there are not unscrupulous ‘guru-shamans’ who will take advantage of vulnerable Westerners, but it’s often a two-way process and it stems from the desire to turn our healers into our saviours and give away our power. Daniel Pinchbeck made a related and relevant comment on his Facebook page (September 24, 2012), remarking on, “How naive we [in the West] still are about what we call ‘shamanism’.”
He says: “In the Amazon, mastery of ayahuasca was an ambiguous skill, as the power gained from its use could be used to heal or kill. In many tribes, ‘shamans’ or sorcerers would drink ayahuasca to shoot magical darts at their enemies. Power – gained in any realm – always has this potential for dangerous ambiguity. Our language and concepts are not sophisticated enough yet to fully articulate the layers of ambiguity and complexity in practices that may ultimately be more magical than spiritual. In fact, the concept of ‘spiritual’ is a major problem for us. ‘Spirituality’ becomes an avoidance mechanism for many people. Personally, I don’t think someone is ‘spiritual’ if they meditate, do yoga, talk about Buddhism or drink ayahuasca – even if they do ‘energy work’ or ‘Tantric healings’ or whatever. All of that can be done to bring pleasure to the ego or enhance narcissism – in any case, these days it is not hip to not be ‘spiritual’ in some way. I also feel that ‘spiritual’ as a concept presupposes a dichotomy or dualistic split between spirit and matter that is an error in our understanding. The ‘true person’ of the Tao would be one who had integrated spirit and matter – the split only exists in our minds in any case. If we are forced to use the term ‘spiritual’ I would reserve it for those who have dedicated themselves to service in the world, and whose daily lives reflect their inner intention. I would measure their ‘spirituality’ by tangible results, by their impact on other people and on the physical world, not by avowed ideals. Clearly we need to become less naïve about shamanism – as well as spirituality in general. Shamans are not all good-hearted healers…”
I agree. But then, nor do most of them claim to be, and nor should we try to make them that by projecting our needs and illusions onto them. Ultimately, the facts of life are that we are responsible for ourselves. Remembering that could save you a whole lot of trouble if you ever make the journey to Peru (or seek shamanic healing of any kind) and, swept up in the romance and possibility of it all, decide to throw away everything that you’ve gained. “It is good to keep an open mind,” as the psychonaut and scientist John Lilly remarked, “but not so open that your brain drops out.”