Thursday 30 October 2014

Ross Heaven - Q&A

Ross Heaven is a shaman, healer, international workshop leader and the author of nearly twenty books on shamanism, spirituality, healing and plant spirit medicine. 

Find him on his website or email to receive his free newsletters and updates.

As part of our Ross Heaven feature, we've put your PWC questions to Ross for his honest answers.

What was your first experience with entheogens?

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.


If you would like to know more about Ross, check out his guest blog Death by Martian Shaman.

We will be launching a writing competition to win a signed copy of Ross' novel Ayahuasca: The Vine of Souls.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Ross Heaven in October

This month at Pagan Writers Community we are celebrating the release of Ross Heaven's Ayahuasca: The Vine of Souls.

Ross is a shaman, healer, international workshop leader and the author of nearly twenty books on shamanism, spirituality, healing and plant spirit medicine. 

Ross is published by O Books, and you can find him on his website or email to receive his free newsletters and updates.

In honour of the occasion, we are bringing you a whole heap of goodies :-


Have a read of Ross' Guest Post

Do you have a question for Ross? 
E-mail it to by the end of Saturday 11th October 2014.


We will select the best of the questions and publish Ross' answers.

Ross has agreed to give away a signed copy of his book! We will be holding a writing competition to select the winner.


At the end of the month we'll announce the winners of the goodies and publish their entries online.

We'd really like to thank Ross for being a guest author at Pagan Writers Community and for generously donating his work.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Guest Post: Ross Heaven - Death by Martian Shaman

Ross Heaven is a shaman, healer, international workshop leader and the author of nearly twenty books on shamanism, spirituality, healing and plant spirit medicine. 

Find him on his website or email to receive his free newsletters and updates.

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: 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
Ross Heaven

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. (”

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.”