Article by Tania Ahsan from Kindred Spirit Summer 2014
Shaman and author, Ross Heaven, is a controversial figure, described as the ‘Marmite of shamanism’; here he tells Tania Ahsan why he provokes such a strong reaction
Do you think shamanism is a subject that is open for everyone or are those in native tribal situations the ones best placed to gain from the practice?
Shamanism is open to anyone. It’s in our ancestry. We’re all from native traditions, wherever we live. It’s also not rocket science and not hard to ‘get’. Mostly it takes a change in perception, a new act of faith in the way the world works, and a new way of seeing: the undoing of the indoctrination of the world that we have been through. That’s actually the hardest part – to let go of stale ideas and illusions – but once it’s done, shamanism is easy.
The only place to learn really true shamanism, however, is in a tribal situation or with someone who has trained in that situation. Wishy-washy weekend warrior workshops and lessons in so-called ‘core shamanism’ in air-conditioned retreat centres and hotel conference rooms won’t do it for you, and are a ridiculous waste of time and money. I’m sorry if that’s a disappointment to some of your readers.
There was a recent report about an ayahuasca trip going wrong in the Amazon resulting in a young man’s death – do you think we need to be careful who we book plant medicine courses with?
Of course, although that particular event
was more a case of prejudiced, uninformed and inept reporting rather than anything that actually happened. The headlines were all about ‘weird and dangerous hallucinogenic jungle drugs’ and ‘malevolent witch doctors’, the implication being that ayahuasca or an evil shaman killed the young man, Henry Miller. The facts as we know them so far are a lot less hysterical however. They are that Henry got ill during a ceremony. Nobody else did. It was also his second ceremony, which he took part in because he said he didn’t feel much effect from the first. These facts suggest that the ayahuasca was
fine and, if anything, lacking in strength. When Henry got ill, the shaman acted responsibly by asking two of his helpers to take the boy to hospital. They put him on a motorcycle (the usual method of transport in jungle areas) to drive him there, and it seems he fell off. Early police reports say he most likely died from head injuries ‘consistent with falling from a motorbike’. As tragic as this event was, therefore, Henry Miller apparently actually died in a road traffic accident which had little to do with ayahuasca.
This is not to say that a ceremony like this is ever entirely safe and there have been deaths legitimately linked to ayahuasca and idiot shamans. People really need to wake up and realise that shamans are not all saints and gurus – but nor should we want them to be. We need to take responsibility for our own healing, our own safety and well-being, not expect someone else to do it all for us. That’s in fact how healing begins: with the realisation that this is our life, not somebody else’s. So, if you’re going into ceremony with ayahuasca, do your homework. This is a real and important issue, which is why I wrote
a book on it, called Ayahuasca: The Vine of Souls, which is a no-nonsense, no-frills guide to working safely with ayahuasca. I hope people read it if they’re thinking about attending a ceremony – because it might save their lives.
You’ve been described as the ‘bad boy’ or ‘Marmite’ of shamanism – do you court controversy on purpose in order to shock people out of their normal mode of thinking? Perhaps as an act of shamanic warriorship or as a teaching tool?
I’ve been called many things, some of them with only four letters, and many of them not very flattering. It’s funny actually what gets written about me by people who have never met me, spoken with me, attended one of my workshops, or even read one of my books, yet somehow they all seem to know me. It’s amazing the projections people have and how they get repeated ad nausea by people who, again, haven’t done the slightest bit of research themselves.
In fairness to these opinionated souls, I am a murderer of all sorts of sacred cows, a shatterer of false idols and illusions, a whistle-blower on frauds and fakers, so I guess that does make me controversial since so many ‘newagers’ and ‘weekend warriors’ are happy to simply toe the party line and believe any old crap they’re told – including the newage (in my vocabulary this word rhymes with sewage) adage that if they meet the Buddha on the road they should kill him. A lot of them will pin this saying on their fridge – then go right on defending their gurus and saviours, and pretending they’re ‘enlightened’ without actually doing the work. Whereas I’m happy to kill all the Buddhas I meet.
My stance is this: tell it like it is, as truthfully as you can – no frills, no bullshit, straight facts – and if that means I get a bad rep or that people are too scared of the bad boy to come to my workshops, that’s fine by me. Live and let live. I’m not about shocking people, not really even about ‘waking people up’; it’s just about being honest, and I’d rather do that than pretend.
The basic human condition is that we know nothing. We really don’t. Not a thing. Because there is no ‘truth’. Everything we believe in or think we know is just frills and fantasies, games we choose to play – and some of these games (‘my life isn’t worth living’, ‘fight for God and country’) will actually get you killed. My motto is this: question everything. Some people don’t like that because it shakes up their tidy illusory worlds, but if you just follow orders and question nothing your life isn’t worth much anyway – to you or anyone else. You’re really just a tourist here and wasting the oxygen my kids could use.
What advice would you give someone thinking about booking a plant medicine course?
Do it. It’s the only way you’re going to get close to the truth (your own truth anyway)
of human existence and to the knowledge of your soul, the secrets you keep hidden inside you, or your own life purpose and destiny. Yoga won’t do it for you, nor will sniffing crystals or channelling Pleiadian dolphins (at best they’ll make you feel better about yourself in this reality, but it’ll still be the same old self and the same old reality, never anything deeper). And if you’re interested in shamanism and really want to learn, plant medicine is the only way to do it. As I said, you cannot know the essence – or the actuality – of shamanism from the watered-down courses on offer because real shamans work with plant teachers.
But – importantly – do your homework first to make sure of the shaman you’ll be working with, the centre you’re going to, how the ceremony is run, etc, and to prepare yourself in advance. Plant teachers will provide you with a massive download of real information (not invented fictions and silly techniques) but you need to be ready, responsible and aware when you enter their world. You need a guide who knows his way around that world, who can hold you, escort you and bring you safely back, and who has his feet on the ground not his head in the clouds.
From left to right: The spirit of Salvia Divinorum, San Pedro, and Santa Muerte (Salvia) by Ross Heaven
Your art is very distinctive with strong South American influences. Do you see the creation of your art as a shamanic act as well?
Every real shaman is also an artist. It just seems to go with the territory. Pablo Amaringo was an ayahuascero and painter, for example; the San Pedro shaman Eduardo Calderon was also a sculptor; and La Gringa, who also works with San Pedro, is a painter as well. On every plant workshop I run we usually end up painting or drawing because doing so reconnects us with our dreaming selves and often reveals more about the plant journeys we have taken and their useful insights for our lives. Art therapists tell us that creativity is also healing in itself, releasing feel-good endorphins into our systems and helping us work things through.
I’m sometimes surprised by the number of people who freak out on my workshops though when I ask them to paint. “I can’t do that, I’m crap at art” they tell me – because someone else told them that they are, and that someone was usually a school teacher who, by definition, was not an artist himself and therefore unfit to judge anyone. Instead he was a robot, concerned with passing grades, following the system, and herding his students through a curriculum towards an exam. That isn’t art, it’s factory farming.
What I mean by art is free expression – throwing paint on a canvas or a rock or a piece of wood, rolling in it, pissing on it if you like, then setting the whole thing on fire if that’s the statement you want to make. Art is what has meaning for you, not pandering to somebody else or following the rules to get a GCSE and approval from someone who is irrelevant anyway. It’s Jackson Pollock, not Damien Hirst – a genuine act of shamanarchy, not going through the motions to make a fast buck.
My own art does, I suppose, have South and Central American influences since I spend a lot of time in Peru and Mexico working with the shamans there, but I’m actually more inspired by artists like Basquiat and Joseph Arthur (who are also poets and musicians) – raw, untrammelled, childlike, tribal art, since that is also the point in some ways of shamanism: to find our first selves again, unconditioned, indoctrination- free and back to our pure forms without the bullshit of the world imposed on us. That’s where healing is also found, in that state of innocence.
What are your ethics with regard to life and your work?
I try not to have ethics. They are false thinking and a complete waste of time.Everything is in flow, life and times and circumstances change, while principles hold us stagnant as the stale remnants of junk from our past. In my experience, that is, people who have ‘principles’ are usually anchored to a past state – normally a negative, fearful one – and have arrived at their inflexible codes so they don’t have to acknowledge old wounds or experience new hurts.
One of the basic teachings of the plants – and of quantum physics as it happens – is that, in the big picture, nothing matters because nothing is actually real. In the parallel universes we all simultaneously occupy we are all people – saints and sinners, murderers as well as our own victims – so everything we are or can be has already been done. Instant karma. It doesn’t matter if we choose to become serial killers – or to be Mother Teresa – because we already are those things. We have free will in this lifetime however, so we can choose to be whatever we want to be.
My choice is one of ideals not principles. Ideals are our stars. They guide us forward and help shape our evolution and destiny. Even values have merit because they uphold a current standard, as long as we do not stagnate by them. But ethics and principles are the tombstones of old wounds. They hold us back and are anti-evolutionary. My ideals and choices are these: so far as I am able, I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t hide the truth from people, and I try to do no harm. And if you took even just one of those things seriously instead of just giving it lip service that in itself would be the work of a lifetime.
In reference to some of your posts on Facebook, why are you so offensive towards vegetarians and vegans?
I don’t dislike veggies at all. My daughters have both been vegetarian from birth entirely through their own choices and I was also a veggie for years. What I take exception to are angry preaching fools who think they’re better than the rest of us, and most Facebook vegans I know fall perfectly into that category. I don’t know why they’re so angry – maybe they’re not getting enough protein – but their stance seems to be that they are more ‘spiritually evolved’ than us because of their choices and that we should all give up meat immediately to be more like them instead of the unevolved evil sods that we are.
Now that’s a pretty dumb idea for a supposedly spiritually-evolved person (and their anger and lack of humour also belies the spirituality they claim) since it is a first basic of spiritual knowledge that everything is alive and has consciousness – plants just as much as animals – and to hide that fact from yourself and claim the spiritual high ground just because you don’t eat meat is stupidity of the highest order. Human beings are walking death machines. Every time we breathe in we end the lives of billions of bacteria, every time we take a crap we destroy worlds for the microbes in our guts, every time we walk on the grass some small creature beneath our feet is probably crushed to death. But eventually we are also food for worms too. That’s the pay-off.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I have no interest in leaving a legacy. I hope that more people come to work with me while I’m still alive because that’s when my teachings are useful. When I’m dead they’re just stale ideas – and somebody else’s at that, not your own – and I hope those ideas die with me so it is like I was never here. I keep trying to persuade my publishers to insert a note at the end of my books: ‘Now you’ve read it, burn it’ for the same reason. But so far none of them will.