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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As part of our Ross Heaven feature, we've put your PWC questions to Ross for his honest answers.
Mushrooms. I grew up on the borders of Wales in the UK, where some of the best mushrooms on Earth grow. In profusion. And I was first given mushrooms ceremonially by an old shaman/sin eater when I was still a young teen (an experience I wrote about in The Sin Eater’s Last Confessions). I got a bit blasé about it actually because there were so many mushrooms around. So, just to complicate my life, I decided at some point that I better get on a plane to Peru to drink ayahuasca, then another one to Mexico to work with salvia because those were obviously the ‘real’ medicines. It took me about thirty years to realise there was nothing wrong with mushrooms in the first place and all I needed to do was step outside my front door! I can be a bit slow like that. But I’m a huge fan of mushrooms again now, run ceremonies and workshops with them and am writing a new book on them. I suppose I could have written it thirty years ago but, like I say, I can be a bit slow on the uptake.
What do your family think of your path, do they share your shamanic outlook?
My kids have no interest whatsoever in taking any teacher plant or coming to any of my ceremonies. Apart from normal teenage dabbling with a bit of pot and ecstasy etc. they’ve never been interested in ‘drugs’ at all in fact and hardly even touch alcohol now. Their friends think they're nuts incidentally: “Do what? Your dad’s an ayahuasca shaman? And san pedro? And salvia? And mushrooms? And he offers them to you? And you say no??? My dad would kick my arse all over London if he ever even caught me with a joint and your dad’s offering you aya and you're turning him down??? I may want to kill you.” But, as far as I can tell, every kid on Earth thinks their parents are morons, their work is boring, and they know best. That’s one of our jobs as parents in fact: to give our kids something to rebel against, so my kids rebelled against me and became boring straights. What you gonna do? Seriously, they do respect the work I do because they see the results and read the comments from people healed by these plant ceremonies (of cancer, diabetes, paralysis, etc – which they know is serious stuff) but they have absolutely no interest in doing this work themselves.
What's your opinion on relaxing drug laws in countries like the UK and USA?
The ‘Just Say No’ and ‘war on drugs’ policies by the governments of some of those countries has succeeded brilliantly in increasing drug use, addiction and the wounding and killing of their own citizens by ensuring, for example, the continuance of inferior street drugs cut with toxic crap and the criminalisation of those who use drugs for taking part in a completely victimless crime which, by and large (compared to the number of deaths from drunk driving, cigarette smoking or prescription meds for example), harms no-one at all. It is the criminalisation in fact of the human mind and your God-given right to peacefully explore your own, so that everyone remains at the same dumb level as those who create such idiotic laws in the first place.
But, of course, those governments will continue their ridiculous campaigns and create more suffering for the people they are supposed to be serving because politicians are more concerned with saving face than doing their jobs and because their own drug running operations (through the CIA for example) produce the money they needed to fund their black ops. So it’s important to keep the street prices high, which legalisation wouldn’t help. What amazes me, actually, is that our politicians are so dumb that they really believe that we are too dumb to see what they're really doing and why.
My view on this issue is very simple: not only should all drugs be legalised immediately in all countries, but anyone who wants to be the boss of us (legislators, judges, politicians, teachers, etc.) should be required, as part of their election campaigns, to take a ‘drug’ like ayahuasca at least three times live on public television or they don’t get elected at all. Then they might actually know what they're talking about, be worth listening to and more inclined to do their jobs as public servants in the first place.
Is there any entheogen you haven't tried that you would like to?
Yes. I want to do some work with ketamine and I’ve been wanting for a few years to diet opium, which is a brilliant teacher from the limited experience I’ve had with it. I’m trying to grow the poppies now. And I haven’t yet made it to a Huichol ceremony with peyote.
Can you achieve spiritual and self-enlightenment without drugs?
Short answer: no, you can’t even grasp what real shamanism is or what a real ‘spirit world’ looks like without taking teacher plants in ceremony. If you want a longer answer there’s a radio interview here where I go into the whys of that statement more fully.
What do you consider your own purpose to be as a shaman?
‘Purpose’ makes it sound a bit grand. I’ve always said that being a shaman is no different from being a plumber or a bricklayer or doing any job. Does a plumber have a ‘purpose’? It’s simply the work we do. My job is to heal some people and to introduce or initiate others into shamanism through the teaching I do. So I suppose that’s my purpose.
Do you think your practises come from any one tradition – like vodou, do you still practise that? Or are you a mixture of different traditions?
The great shaman Bob Dylan put it nicely for me when he wrote (in Subterranean Homesick Blues, I think) “Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters”. Almost by definition, that is, anyone who actually wants to be the boss of us isn’t qualified or capable of doing that job and anyone who’s got a ‘bona-fide true-blue copper-bottomed real tradition’ to follow (like Simon Buxton’s ‘Path of Pollen’ for example – LOL) is almost certainly peddling you horseshit. The reason for that is simple: all traditions evolve, grow and adapt to human and cultural needs over time and space; nothing remains static if it wants to survive. Besides which, every shaman from any tradition puts his unique stamp on its practice, which reflects his own personality, understanding, continued development and experiential knowledge of what works for him. So there is no ‘tradition’ to follow.
My approach is, I think, commonsense: I’ve explored a number of different ‘traditions’ and I use the methods, techniques and medicine that works, wherever it comes from. The results are what matter to me – ‘does it grow corn’, as the expression goes; i.e. does it actually heal? I think it’s rather pointless to carry around a lot of garbage that has no useful effect whatsoever just for the sake of doing so.
Incidentally, I have never practised Vodou. I studied it and initiated into it because I got frustrated by reading uninformed accounts by anthropologists and/or sensationalists who had never been to the secret ceremonies (which only initiates take part in), just the public events which anyone can attend and contain no real information at all, and who were therefore repeating incorrect, incomplete and sometimes deliberately misleading ‘facts’ just to sell a few books. I initiated and became a priest so I know what Vodou really is but I only ever ‘practised’ it insofar as (apart from a lot of standard Catholic components laid on top of the more animistic African traditions) it’s pretty indistinguishable from any other shamanic approach in its beliefs and ways of healing, working with spirits etc.
Are you afraid of death?
Scared shitless. And at the same time rather looking forward to it. A bit like that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster ride: ‘Do I really want what’s coming next? Noooooooo. I mean yeeeeeeees’.
Life really ain’t all that, after all (especially looking around at the world right now and seeing the mess our glorious leaders have made of it, as well as the stupidity of a lot of the people who live here) so I’m quite looking forward to the next adventure. At the same time though I have grown rather fond of the comical shining idiocy of most of the human race. It’s a really engrossing comedy show, which I know I’ll miss, along with some other things. Like peanut butter. But then I think ‘ah, the hell with it. Move on, move on.’
Do you think you need money to access spiritual enlightenment? Like ayahuasca retreats cost a lot, what about people who haven't got money to get on a plane?
I really have no idea what ‘spiritual enlightenment’ is. I mean seriously. I see the words used a lot in new age books but I don’t know anyone who’s actually bothered to define (or perhaps even knows) what they’re on about when they write about stuff like that. I can’t even tell you what being ‘spiritual’ is in actual real life practice (is it doing yoga? Being nice to dolphins? Walking past a homeless person while chanting om instead of dropping a quid in his hat?), yet alone being ‘enlightened’. They seem like empty garbage words to me. But if you know what they mean (for you at least) and can find some way or getting, doing or being those things without spending money on them then I guess the answer to your question is no you don’t need cash. But, again, I'm the wrong person to ask because I really don’t know what we’re talking about here. I work with plants to help me be a better human (not a spiritual) being and so I can do my best for others from the position of a very un-enlightened, stumbling-through-it, trying-to-find-some-answers, pretty clueless, all-too-human dork like everyone else I know on this planet - including a lot of the people who write about ‘spiritual enlightenment’ and how to achieve it in their books, and are some of the most screwed up individuals I’ve ever met.
Aya retreats can cost a lot, true, if you're exclusively concerned with price. If you’re interested in the value you get from them however, you might find them pretty cheap. I mean, if you really need healing, for example, well what’s your life worth to you? I tell you what I find curious though: the people who tell me aya retreats are expensive and at the same time spend a couple of hundred pounds a week buying processed crap to pollute their bodies from supermarkets, a hundred or more every month getting their hair and make-up done, slapping toxic slime all over their kippers, and a thousand a year on their stress-inducing package holiday nightmare to Benidorm, and who see no irony at all in telling me why they simply can’t afford the “huge expense” required for their healing.
Your cover designs are awesome, do you get any say in the design?
Sometimes. My UK publishers give me far more input that the Americans. The Brits pretty much let me design my own; the Americans never do, and they almost always change the titles I give them as well – which sometimes get me (and them) into trouble, though they rarely listen when I tell them what’s going to happen. A classic was The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja, which was originally called The Four Gates to Freedom and was (and still is) about the medicine wheel as a tool for healing and self-understanding, illustrated with examples from the ‘warrior traditions’, including the Toltec, Samurai and, yes OK, the Ninja too. The Americans decided that Ninjas would sell more books however, so changed the title because the book had a few Ninjas in it. I told them the outcome would be that only martial artists would be really interested in a title like that and we’d then get it in the neck from the pissed-off Ninjas who bought it and really didn’t want to hear about Mexican bloody shamans, while the people we actually wanted to reach (those interested in shamanism and healing) would miss the point entirely. So guess what happened? Cue a load of letters from pissed-off Ninjas moaning about the book and reviews at Amazon from people saying they’d read more about actual Ninjas on the back of a cornflake packet. Well, duh; I could have told them that (and tried to!). The book’s doing OK in terms of sales, as it happens, but more by luck than design (or title). Having said that, their last couple of covers (for Cactus of Mystery and Shamanic Quest for the Spirit of Salvia) have been pretty rocking so I was pleased with those. Mind you, for the latter, I did have to correct a pretty glaring error when, at one point, they put the image of a Peruvian rainforest ayahuascero on the cover of a book about Mexican shamanism.
Do you find it hard to express yourself in words when you're talking about things you've seen and experienced in trance or on drugs? How do you find the language?
Yes, it’s almost impossible and even if I really try hard to describe my visions, then read it back to myself, I quite often end up cringing anyway at what a self-indulgent self-obsessed prick I sound. “Wow, ain’t I all that; look at my rocking visions!” At best, as I put it in a radio interview once, trying to explain an aya trip to someone who’s never drunk it is a bit like describing yellow to someone who’s never seen it. At worst I just sound like a knob who’s taken too many drugs (which is also true, I guess!)
What I try to do now instead is draw some useful conclusions – the teachings or the possible meanings – from the things I’ve seen or been shown in the trip so they might be helpful to someone else.
We will be launching a writing competition to win a signed copy of Ross' novel Ayahuasca: The Vine of Souls.