Yesterday we were shocked and saddened to hear of shaman and author Ross Heaven’s sudden passing from this world. Ross was one of a kind and will be long remembered by the many people whose lives he touched. As well as writing many books and running courses, Ross ‘had time’ for people – he inspired, healed, supported and shared.
I will always be grateful for the support Ross gave a fledgling shamanic organization back in 2010, when he was one of the first shaman we interviewed for our new magazine. Ross then noticed we had Shaman Sham (a cuddly toy hedgehog received when we donated to a wildlife rescue centre) who had very itchy paws and liked to travel and meet new people. Ross kindly volunteered to accommodate Sham, first in Peru where they attended the 6th Annual Amazonian Shaman Conference, then later in Spain where Sham attended two of Ross’ courses, earning his ‘ologies’.
Ross had contributed other articles to Indie Shaman magazine since then and I’ve also had the pleasure of reviewing and endorsing some of his books. But I will remember him best as someone who, despite being known as a person who ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’, took the time to talk kindly to someone who, back then, didn’t really know what she was doing as a magazine editor!
Thank you Ross.
In tribute and with gratitude I’m sharing extracts from the original interview I did with Ross way back in 2010 (the questions are from Indie Shaman members).
p.s. If you would like to read the parts of Sham’s blog sent by Ross (who had a great sense of humour) they can still be found with the following links:
- Hanging out at Iquitos Peru and Ezekiel the Fish in Peru .
- Viva España , Course in Spain and Serpent and Condor – baths, bottles and ballyhoo
Interview with Ross Heaven, Indie Shaman Magazine, Summer 2010.
Indie Shaman: In The Journey to You, you say that your own initiation into shamanism began at birth when an emergency medical procedure was required to free the umbilical cord from your neck and save your life. You later moved to Ullingswick as a child and met Adam the Sin Eater. Do you think a Shamanic vocation is one a person can refuse?
Ross: Scholars of shamanism often talk about an ‘initiation crisis’ which precedes one’s (sometimes unwilling) induction into shamanism. This crisis may be of a physical nature such as an illness, or emotional like the turmoil caused at the loss of a loved one or a relationship break-up which throws your whole world into disorder so you no longer know who or what to trust. Or it can be spiritual or a mental breakdown of some kind.
What all of these have in common is that they really are break downs – of yourself and all you were before. They are also breakings away – from the life you have led, the conditioning you’ve gone through, the rules you have been taught to accept without question; from society really. Then when that is done can you enter the new world, rebuild yourself and re-member who you really are: unique and special and, to paraphrase the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, not a human being at all but a spiritual being who is having a human experience.
Is such a crisis truly necessary? Well, it is surprisingly frequent among the students who come to me. Indeed it is often the catalyst that brings them to the training. I would say then that this breaking away from society is important. In the language of the sin eater people must “make a refusal” to be bound by the rules of others which they know in their souls to be limiting and false so that they can find themselves again.
A crisis per se may not be necessary however as even the decision to train as a shaman represents a break from the consensus view anyway.
But can a shamanic vocation be refused? I doubt it. There is some yearning in the soul, some rejection of the unworkable norm which calls people to shamanise and if that is in you already then you can never truly ignore it; it is like an itch which demands to be scratched.
Indie Shaman: What advice would you give someone who for the first time is experiencing visions or has a sudden traumatic life event followed experiences they do not yet understand?
Ross: I have seen many clients who have complained of exactly that and the first thing I say to them is “Good for you! You’re normal – and awake again!”
I don’t know any children, you see, who are not capable of great creativity or able to talk to spirits and ‘imaginary friends’. My two little ‘apprentices’ now, Arthur (8) and Danielle (13), do it all the time, as all kids do, and they take to shamanism like it was the most natural thing in the world.
We were all kids once and so of course we retain that same capacity for visions and for hearing the whispers of spirit. It is just that for most of us our education, politicians, or even our parents have done their best to quell our instincts so we suppress our abilities although we never quite lose them. A sudden traumatic life event, as you put it, can cut through that conditioning however and teach us very dramatically and directly what is real and not real. This is the initiatory crisis which can lead to a re-membering of the self where in order to survive it we must put ourselves back together again in a new form.
My advice to those people who are going through this is straightforward: take a Shamanic Practitioner course or find a mentor to guide you so you can learn from others who have had the same experiences and gather techniques so you can meet the spirit world as an equal partner in the healing adventure. Then you will know that you are far from alone but part of the awakened elite and you will have the skills and understanding to work with your new abilities rather than feel yourself overwhelmed by them.
Indie Shaman: In The Sin Eater’s Last Confessions Adam suggests there are four orders of men; the Order of Priests and Healers, the Order of the Fortunate, the Order of the Dammed and the Order of Fools, to which order would you say you belong?
Ross: Yes, in Adam’s view there are four Orders – or types – of men and women. The Order of Priests and Healers are those who know their soul purpose and act upon it. Their job is to bring love to the world.
The Fortunates are those who only vaguely remember their purpose and are lucky that they act upon it, albeit unconsciously, in a way that does no harm. Most of us are in this group and create little acts of integrity and kindness from which others can learn and benefit, but usually by good fortune rather than design.
The Damned also vaguely remember their purpose but, unlike the Fortunates, they manage through the life challenges they face to do more harm than good.
Then there is the Order of Fools: those who never wake up and remember their reason for being and so have no clear direction in life. They look for purpose in a million different places but cannot settle on any one and are therefore always busy doing nothing and getting nothing done!
Those four, for Adam, pretty much described all of human life on Earth.
Your question is where do I sit within this model of types? Well, Adam tried his best with me and taught me a lot about purpose so I’d like to say that I’m now fully enlightened and solidly in the first group – but I know I’m not! I certainly don’t radiate love and light (I’m not even sure I ever want to) and I’m definitely not a fluffy new age shaman.
I am, like everyone else, no matter what Order they belong to, a frail human dwarfed by the immensity of night. My personal challenge in this life is to come to terms with the injustice I see in the world and to be able to transmute that in a positive way rather than rail against it. I find that I’m usually too direct in my approach to injustice: I speak my mind, I say what I think and I hold those accountable who won’t take responsibility for their actions, so I’m certainly no Bono (more like a Geldof!) I recognise, however, that all of that usually sets up a negative pattern rather than leading to a pure and positive outcome so I’ve still got a lot to learn.
So in terms of Adam’s model I’d put myself somewhere between the Dammed and the Fortunates (because I’m not all bad, after all – who is?) but my teacher now is San Pedro (the cactus rather than the saint!) and that is something we are working on together.
Indie Shaman: You once asked Adam the Sin Eater; ‘How do we know what our Soul Purpose is?’ If someone asked you this what would you say?
Ross: They did! About a week ago on the Shamanic Practitioner course I was running in Spain. There are particular exercises I teach which enable people to discover their purpose but they’re a bit long-winded to go into here. So as a piece of general advice I’d suggest that anyone would benefit from reading Victor Frankl’s lovely little book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps and has a lot therefore to say about purpose and what makes life meaningful. The point is that there was always some reason; something a person loved and wanted to live for: to watch their children grow, to finish a good book, to dance, to make love, to drink a fine wine or whatever, and once this was known it provided a solid core that Frankl could build upon with clients who came to him who had lost their own sense of purpose and were close to ending their lives.
In a sense this is not so different from Adam’s idea that every action we take reveals our purpose – even those that are the most seemingly meaningless – if we just take the time to notice ourselves or ask ourselves the right questions.
“What do you live for? What do you yearn for? What would you give your life to defend?” Asking those questions of yourself is a start to understanding your purpose.
Indie Shaman: A request for advice – What advice would you give to someone wishing to undertake a Vision Quest?
Ross: I’d say do it, you’ll learn a lot! Practical advice: take water, appropriate clothing, a torch and the other essentials you’ll need and let someone know where you’ll be. Importantly, too: slow down to the pace of nature so you are aware of your surroundings and the signs and omens that nature will provide you with.
Then the most useful things to take with you are the four sacred questions which, if answered, will teach you all that you need to know about life and yourself:
Where have I come from? (i.e. What, really, is the story of my life so far? What themes run through it and how do I see myself?)
Who am I now? (i.e. How have all these factors, these themes and stories contributed to the person sitting here now? What of this serves me and what doesn’t?)
Where am I going? (i.e. What choices do I now make for myself so that my future feels right and true to my soul?)
Who will come with me? (i.e. As I leave this place to journey into a new future who are my allies and who do I sense will hold me back? What choices do I make in regard to all of these people?)
Indie Shaman: If someone comes to you for shamanic healing not knowing themselves what the issue is, how do you know if you are dealing with a fragment or a spirit, extraction or soul retrieval?
Ross: They often do. One of the common phrases people use when they come for healing is simply “I feel stuck” and they can’t tell you why or what that really means. That doesn’t give you a great deal to go on as a healer but over the years I have come to know precisely what that ambiguous little phrase refers to: in a nutshell, disconnection from God, love and purpose.
There are ways of tuning in to a client and diagnosing what is really going on as well. Smoke diagnosis, gazing, placitas (active listening, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul) and methods for engaging the energy field. These are all techniques I teach on the Shamanic Practitioner course for example and again they’re a bit too involved to go into here but, of course, the best advice for any shaman is to listen to your spirits. If you have a strong, trusting relationship with your guides and allies you will always know exactly what to do.
Indie Shaman: How important do you feel receiving plant consciousness is in terms of Shamanic practice in Western society?
Ross: The shamanic model we use in Western society is, I suppose, Michael Harner’s core shamanism which many people believe to be a real form of shamanism. Even Harner agrees that it isn’t; it is a composite of various shamanic systems he has studied, notably in the Amazon and Siberia, but actually if you took core shamanism to either culture they wouldn’t recognise it or know what it was. In fact there is an amusing story of one core shamanist who tried to teach the Kalahari Bushmen how to journey. The Bushmen use movement, dance and ecstasy to commune with spirit and, as I heard the story from someone who was there, they were first confused and then laughed uproariously at the earnest controlled rhythmic drumming and curious antics of Westerners!
The point with plant consciousness: that it is sentient and has its own will and intent to heal. It is like drinking the universe and finding your place within it; quite different in quality from journeying as it is taught in the West.
I am aware, of course, that ayahuasca may not be something that appeals to Western practitioners but then every plant, every aspect of nature, has its own intelligence too and, approached in the right way, can lead to an expanded understanding of the world. At the very least if you have plant allies on your side you will become a more effective healer and will also know how to prescribe herbs for your clients so they can take a more active role in their own healing – which has to be good, doesn’t it?
If some writers are to be believed the drum, too, was never a part of our native shamanic practices (at least no archaeologist or anthropologist has yet dug one up) but plants always have been so if we want to be true to our roots (no pun intended) as Western practitioners and to work with the tools of our culture I would say that a connection to plant consciousness is essential.
Indie Shaman: What do you consider to be the importance of the energy field in Shamanic Work?
Ross: In healing work it’s vital. For ‘energy’ read ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ (which is how indigenous shamans see it) so if the energy body of your client is full of holes, shot to pieces, out of alignment or spread too thinly because its boundaries are weak, where do you suppose the power from a power retrieval or the soul from a soul retrieval will end up when you return it? In Outer Mongolia most likely if there is nothing to hold it in!
When I teach soul retrieval work we always begin with the energy body and learn how to see it, to map it, rebalance it, cleanse it and provide it with solid boundaries. Then when power/energy/spirit is returned it will not simply leak away again because you have given your client a solid container for it.
It is the same with spirit extraction. Harner writes that when we are power-full we cannot get ill because we are filled with energy and our boundaries are solid. There’s some scientific evidence that says much the same thing. But if your energy body is not in good shape it is so much easier for intrusive energies to enter it and make us unwell. Again, you need to know how to create a clean, safe, well-protected container for energy so intrusions like this can’t get in.
Indie Shaman: You have now written over 10 books. Which one would you recommend for someone with an emerging interest in shamanism to start with?
Ross: On the face of it it’s an odd choice but I’d suggest The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja. Don’t let the title fool you. Publishers often change the titles of books, sometimes against the wishes of the author, and I begged and pleaded with them on this one to leave the title as it was (it was originally called The Four Gates to Freedom) but they felt that Ninjas would sell better in the US and ruled me out so now I’m stuck with having to explain that to everyone who asks!
In fact there’s not a whole heap about Ninjas in it. It’s really about the medicine wheel, the journey we’re on through life, the enemies we might face and the allies we can make of courage, power, vision and enthusiasm. The model it uses is somewhat similar to the one explained by Castaneda’s don Juan and, in fact, as one of my scathing critics put it in a book review, “there’s more in it about the Toltec tradition than there is about Ninjas”. Well yes, I could have told you that.
Indie Shaman: In your Author’s Note in The Journey to You written in 2001 you say we are living in desperate times turning away from spiritual values, disregarding the environment and with increasing trends of violence, prejudice and economic disarray. Have you seen any improvement since you wrote that and what is your hope for the future?
Ross: Well, I’d like to say all hail the prophetic genius who wrote those words! But actually it’s no laughing matter. The book came out in January 2001, and in less than a decade I’d have to say that things have got steadily worse. We’ve had (to name a few) 9/11 and the ensuing ‘wars on terror’, the pensions scandal, the mortgage scandal, recession, unemployment, the housing crisis, all of which have left the UK on the brink of bankruptcy. The environment has finally become a huge issue but there’s not much to be done about it now. According to James Lovelock, the originator of Gaia Theory, we are already past the point of ‘no return’ and we’ll just have to live with that. The list could go on but you get the point.
What drives those who claim to rule us is still greed, short-sightedness and inertia so I really don’t think much will change in my lifetime. But then, we have to remember that the Earth itself is never really in any danger. Our politicians talk about a ‘planetary’ crisis but actually there isn’t one. There is a human crisis but that is a different matter.
My experiences in nature and with the plants tell me that our planet, as a self -healing and homeostatic system, has ways to cure itself of the downsides of our presence if that becomes necessary and it will, quite rightly, fight for its survival if need be.
Some of the environmental changes we are seeing now may be evidence of that correction but while we regard them as problems, to the Earth they may simply be the sore throat and runny nose of a cold which is a healing response to a virus (us) that is screwing up its system. And even if all human beings were, like so much mucus, wiped off the face of the planet tomorrow, the Earth would survive and so would its other species.
Perhaps it is ultimately not in our destiny to be more than a footnote to the pages of history, but that is a matter of choice and negotiation between ourselves and the planet we are a part of.
If we intend to survive then we need to learn the ways of co-operation, consideration and compassion and not just give lip-service to them – and to understand the deeper truths of the world and ourselves.
I’m hopeful that this can be done but it starts with us and perhaps what it requires is that we seek the wisdom of our plant spirit allies who have been around a lot longer than we have and seen many of the Earth’s species come and go. I am sure that they have plenty to teach every one of us.