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Ross Heaven on 'Shamanic Quest for the Spirit of Salvia'

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1. Would you tell us about your prime motivation and inspiration behind writing "Shamanic Quest for the Spirit of Salvia The Divinatory, Visionary, and Healing Powers of the Sage of the Seers”?

Well, as I say in the book, there were a few reasons for writing it, but one of the main ones was that Salvia is developing such an unfortunate reputation as a “dangerous recreational drug” and there is a (misguided and ill-informed) moral outcry by the media to have it banned. The plant is an important shamanic medicine and I was sad to see it belittled like this and its healing potential denied as a result of media panics and bandwagon politics so I wanted in some way to redress the balance, to show the potential of Salvia to heal.

There are one or two books on Salvia but none of them look at shamanic work with the plant or its uses in healing, and most of them stem from the personal accounts of solo explorers. As J D Arthur, the author of one of these books, remarked: “My attempts to chronicle my own experiences presuppose [a] subjective interpretation. I have no idea if the experiences of others might parallel my own or be of a radically different nature.” Daniel Siebert, an early pioneer of Salvia, added that “Although it does seem to have a lot of potential, the use of Salvia as a therapeutic tool has barely been studied at all.” It was time for a book based on more than single-person reports so that wider and more objective conclusions might be drawn about the nature of Salvia and its applications for healing. That’s what I’ve done with this book, and what Salvia has to teach us turns out to be very surprising.

2. Okay for those who maybe just learning in your perspective, what is Salvia Divinorum?

Salvia is a visionary plant which is widely regarded as the world’s most powerful natural hallucinogen; in its extract form, according to some researchers, 20 times stronger than DMT, 200 times stronger than LSD. The Mazatec shamans of Oaxaca, Mexico, where Salvia grows, use the plant for divination, visionary, and healing purposes and know it by many names, all of which are associated with the Virgin Mary who is apparently regarded by them as the representation of its spirit (though I have my own thoughts on that). Among them are ska Maria pastora (the leaf or herb of Mary the shepherdess), hojas de Maria (leaves of Mary), hojas de la pastora (leaves of the shepherdess), hierba Maria (Mary’s herb), and simply, la Maria.

In its traditional shamanic usage the fresh leaves are rolled and chewed as a quid or made into a tea and drunk. When taken in this way the effects are usually (but not always) mild. When the active ingredient, salvinorin A, is extracted and smoked however (the more frequent way of working with Salvia these days) it becomes highly—sometimes shockingly—potent and its journeys often very strange.

3. In ancient times the Mazatec shamans of Mexico used it for divination, vision quests, and healing according to your book. Could you go into this with us?

For divination purposes it is best to diet the plant – a process explained in the book – which entails restrictions on certain foods and activities so that the spirit of the plant can be absorbed by the shaman and then teaches him, as an ally, the skills of future-seeing. It is possible to gain similar abilities by smoking the extract but the experience is much more bizarre and dramatic and requires you to learn the language of the plant so you can understand what it’s teaching you. Dieting the leaves brings a sense of prescience, an awareness of things to come, whereas the extract is more about seeing your life patterns and the choices you unconsciously make, and where these will lead unless you make changes.

As for healing, there are four levels of healing possibility with every plant:

1. The Plant as a Medicine. Used in the same way that any herbalist might, Salvia can treat stomach problems, rheumatism and depression, among other conditions. Drugs derived from the plant also show promise in cures for Alzheimer’s, AIDS, leukaemia and diabetes. Used in this way Salvia addresses the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the body; the material stuff that modern medicine and medical herbalism also concerns itself with. Modern medical treatments, however, are based on rather primitive ideas of direct causality and cure – i.e. that A leads to B, or that giving a patient Medicine X will clear up the disease in 96.4 per cent of cases – while shamanism also gives attention to the attitude, motivation and psychology of the patient, and to the spirit of the plant.

2. The Plant as a Spirit Ally. Beyond their purely medicinal uses, plants can also teach us about ourselves, reality, existence, and the wider patterns of our lives. To some extent this comes down to what shamans call intention or focus or ‘having a good concentration’: entering into a committed partnership with the plant with the express intent that it will reveal certain information to us or pass on certain powers, and that, for our part, we will pay close attention to the signs that it sends us and the changes it makes to our bodies in order to receive its messages and gain mastery of the new abilities it gives us. The shamanic diet is likely to be part of this arrangement.

3. As a Guide to the Spirits of Other Plants. Once it is a part of him the plant ally begins to teach the shaman about itself, about other plants and about how to heal (Mazatecs believe, for example, that Salvia will carry the apprentice to the ‘tree of knowledge’ in Heaven, where all healing plants grow and where saints and angels will instruct him in their uses). Since all plants are part of the same kingdom, that is, they have an affinity with all others and know something about the specific powers of each. Salvia as an ally, then, is more than just a healer in its own right, it becomes for the shaman a guide to the spirit world in general and an ambassador which will act on his behalf and introduce him to other plants. In this way the shaman becomes knowledgeable about a range of plants and their healing uses and has a guide in Salvia that he can call upon to lead him to those he needs to heal any patient, even if he is unfamiliar himself with the patient’s illness or the plants he may need to help him.

4. The Plant as Gateway to the Void, Where We Learn the Deepest Secrets of All. In my book this is represented by the consistent themes that emerge through journeying with Salvia. Perhaps the greatest of these is that there is nothing to the universe except what we make it. In this sense, we are God, but there is something else – some other force or entity which is beyond us and which, perhaps, will always remain unknown.

4. Would you share some experiences from people who have taken the plant with us?

Yes. These are a few accounts of participants which demonstrate something of how Salvia may provide us with insight into ourselves and help us to heal some of our problems.

John was a private healing client who dieted Salvia with me in Spain. When he first smoked the extract as part of a diet to help with problems related to social anxiety, he felt an immediate impact. “Some sort of brain surgery was performed on me”, was how later he described it, where he became aware of “the karmic circle of thoughts and how they get trapped in my head. There was something chaotic in my head that needed to be worked on. It was painful, being awake on the operating table, but that passed too. I realized that billions of thoughts are floating around us all the time, and we can cherry-pick them. When we choose one to latch onto we take ownership of it and then it becomes us. With Salvia objectiveness it is easier, if that thought doesn’t serve us, to just pick another.”

He became aware, that is, of how thoughts actually create reality – for example, that he would become anxious before entering a social situation and, as a result of that, think and act clumsily when he got there, so creating a ‘real’ anxiety. To deal with this he would drink to soothe his nerves, but this usually led to more problems as he got drunk, and therefore to further anxiety. Eventually, something which did not originally exist (since there was nothing to be anxious about before he left the house for his social engagement, as it hadn’t yet even happened) became something real purely though the power of his imagination. This is what he meant by his “karmic circle of thoughts”: he was trapped in a loop of unhelpful thinking and action.

What he realised through Salvia however is that there are billions of thoughts floating around us and we can choose whichever we want. (We create our universe moment-by-moment through our choices). Once he understood this it was easy for John to dismiss his anxiety altogether by breaking his usual circle of thoughts. In fact, on the last night of his diet a film crew arrived from England to interview me and record our ceremony, and John led some of it. For a young man with a history of anxiety just a few days before to be leading a ceremony on camera was a big step forward.

Anton joined me to heal a long-standing problem with depression and feelings of inferiority, sometimes leading to suicidal thoughts. He looked terrified as soon as he smoked Salvia and it seemed clear that the plant was taking a very direct, even confrontational approach to his healing. In response, Anton became confrontational too. He stood up; using his hands to scrape some invisible substance from his arms and legs. (He explained later that he was trying to remove a “new order of reality” that he saw engulfing his body). He then began speaking to me in a demanding way (there was certainly nothing ‘inferior’ about him now). I stood up too and held eye contact but did not interfere with his process.

“Reality was immediately cut in half” he said later. “I was [cut in half] too and a new atomic universe took hold of my right side. I was afraid and began to try to tear it off me. Ross was not Ross, it was just a name he called himself. I couldn’t even say he was human. I began speaking, asking, Who opened the interdimensional gateways? Then I became the guardian of those gateways and was trying to stop Ross, saying, No, you can’t enter. This is playing with fire. It scared me to realise how small this reality is and how thin – like a crust around something that contains all we know”.

It seemed to me, in fact, that Salvia was showing Anton his beliefs about himself: the limitations he had allowed to engulf him in his life, ‘like a crust’ beneath which there was something bigger and much more powerful. He agreed. “There was something more [and] it was fathomless. The nothingness I saw was full…

“I felt better when I went outside to look at the stars and I was in awe of the sky. The beauty I saw was indescribable. Flowers blossomed from my heart and I felt Salvia as an ally inside me. She gave me a new sacred name. Today I feel I love everyone. My intention was to be fulfilled and I am.”

The outcome of his journey was that Anton felt a greater connection to everyone, and on their level too, not as inferior to them. He was able to see the beauty of the world, and of himself as part of it, and to feel love and fulfilment. These feelings were in many ways new to Anton and perhaps only the first steps on his path to recovery (or, more accurately, rediscovery), but they were also real and immediate and they gave him something powerful and positive to build from.

The second she smoked, Alex staggered across the room to another mat but she couldn’t lie still when she reached it. She was extremely agitated, screaming and begging us to “get me out of here.”

“It was a living nightmare” she said next day. “I became wallpaper in my family home but not on a wall, on the floor, and I was stuck with my family. My Salvia experience was like a conspiracy they had organized against me. My parents are dead now but I have one sister I don’t speak to: they always disliked me and thought I was mad because of my spiritual beliefs, and it felt like this experience was something they’d arranged so I would finally see that they were right and I was mad. I tried to pull the wallpaper off me but it was stuck, and as I pulled at it, it began to tear my whole body apart. I saw that Debs [my assistant] had become the same wallpaper and began to claw at her, trying to get it off her too, and she was also ripping apart. I was shouting, ‘Get me out of here.’ I felt betrayed by my family: they thought I was mad and wanted me to see what madness was like.”

Before she smoked Alex’s question to Salvia was a simple and practical one: should she leave Greece where she was currently living and move to the UK. She hated Greece and felt she was suffering from being there but didn’t feel comfortable in leaving her family and friends. After her Salvia experience she realised, however, just how much she was limiting herself and how illusory her thinking was: “Part of me wants to stay because of the sense of security it offers but I know now that it is a false security and I have no family there who would ever take care of me anyway”. In reality, her parents were dead and her sister wouldn’t speak to her, but in her fantasy she had a loving family; she had been prepared to stay where she and to damage herself in the process simply to live an illusion.

This case, as good as any, illustrates the difference between orthodox medicine and shamanic healing. A Western doctor might simply have prescribed Alex anti-depressants to deal with her current issues, or some other drug to quell her anxiety (and, indeed, they had done so in the past) but this would not have addressed the real problem or revealed its cause. Salvia did so in minutes and still gave Alex the choice as to what she wished to do about it, but now from an aware and responsible viewpoint.

As an addendum however, even though Alex’s entire mantra during her Salvia journey had been “Get me out of here” –a pretty obvious answer to her question you might think – she is still in Greece. Once again: we are given information and choices – even direct and obvious answers – but what we choose to do with them is up to us.

Commonsense would suggest that human beings use whatever freewill they have to act in their own best interests, but the fact is that they quite often don’t. They behave self-destructively instead, or in ways which harm others – it seems just to be a drive we have towards drama and death – and then justify or excuse their actions by reference to ‘principles’ or life stories and patterns. This is also what Salvia teaches: the madness of human beings and of what we take to be ‘real life’. Which in turn raises questions about just how free we really are.

Marla’s intention was to become more balanced and achieve her potential. The Salvia seemed to have less impact on her and she felt that she was able to “observe my own reaction to the whole process.” Later, she commented that:

“I was very concerned that I hadn’t smoked it right because I had no great visions or psychedelic effects but then I realized that I was speaking, except my words weren’t words. And I had the sensation that I was in two places at once, and that I wanted to be [in both places simultaneously], so something was happening. My body was filled with pins and needles and reality became metallic, matrix-like, as if it had been programmed on a computer.

“I understood that I wanted to be in two places at once because I had lost so much of my life to depression and I wanted to make up for it. I wanted to share my experience immediately with others as well and I realize now that was because my parents had never listened to me. They always wanted me to do things in the ‘right’ way, and [because of this] I wanted to check with others to be sure I’d had the ‘correct’ Salvia experience. I have never been certain that I’m OK and good enough. I have always needed confirmation and security.”

Again it seems obvious now (but during the Salvia journey it is very easy to miss the ‘obvious’, which is why a period of quiet reflection is important afterwards) that Marla’s desire for balance had to do with her childhood experience of her parents, symbolised in her journey by her need to be in two places at once; that is, to please her mother and father at the same time who, it transpired, often had opposing views and rarely took her into account. “[They] never listened to me”. During her Salvia journey her overriding concern had been to know that she’d had the “correct” experience (even though there is no ‘correct’ experience) – i.e. whether she had done the “right” thing or been “good enough”.

Unlike her fellow participants Marla received no wild visions – hardly any visions at all, in fact, except of a reality that was cold and metallic (no doubt symbolic of her family home) – “as if it had been programmed on a computer” – but nor did she need them because the experience of her journey was the message. From it she learned more about the roots of her depression and gained insight into why she wanted to be “in two places at once”. To understand this and then let it go was the first step for her in achieving the potential it was her intention to find.

5. This is a wild card question. What would you like to share with us from your book with our readers?

Simply this: that everything you (think you) know is wrong. We live an illusion – if we live at all (the current theory of quantum physics – and Salvia is a very ‘quantum’ plant – is that we do not even exist in the way we believe we do but are in fact simulations in a computer programme – or computer game – being run by a posthuman society perhaps several hundreds of years into one of our possible futures).

The first thing most people ask when given Salvia is “Who am I?” All the scripts, the games, the beliefs we’ve bought into turn out to be illusions. We are nothing and everything, no-one and everyone, energy in flow and the rest is simply invention. With Salvia it is best to leave all your expectations (even of existing) at the door before you enter the ceremony because what you are about to discover will put a dent in them all.

If by ‘enlightenment’ we mean having our eyes opened to the facts, the cold, hard, truths of the universe and of ourselves, there is no better ally than Salvia. As I have said however, it can be an intense and frightening experience because it is so radical and real. There is nothing ‘fluffy’ about it and it does not concern itself (on the surface at least, and in its immediate effects) with ‘love and light’ or any other new age concept and platitude; it is reality laid bare in all its horror and beauty.

Even if we are familiar with other entheogens (or perhaps, especially if we are), we will most likely be unprepared for the impact of Salvia because the questions it raises are deeper, more significant and more immediate than other entheogens show us. Perhaps our age demands such swift and to-the-point directness since we seem intent on creating problems for ourselves arising from the ‘ape consciousness’ of those who lead us, and we are running out of options for their solution. We need answers fast and, Salvia gives us these answers – starkly, directly and unavoidably – to shock us out of our trance.

On top of this directness, Salvia has a language of its own which can be hard to understand. Maybe we need to evolve a little more to read it. It is a language of dreams; a fusion of mathematics and poetry. It does, however, make the alien landscapes you often find yourself in during a Salvia journey doubly strange and more difficult to navigate because the signposts are not in a familiar tongue.

None of this, however, is any reason not to work with Salvia – quite the opposite, in fact. Just because you don’t know the Spanish culture or language doesn’t mean you should never visit Spain. By going there at all you have a better chance of learning about the country than by staying safely at home where you never have to try. All pioneers and explorers have, after all, and by definition, gone to unfamiliar lands. If they hadn’t, we would still be living on a flat Earth and have never set foot on the Moon. Pushing back boundaries and finding new frontiers is how our race evolves – which, in one way, it could be argued, makes it our duty to explore and expand our consciousness so that evolution takes place at all. If we are not prepared to do that, then we are just tourists here; freeloaders who are willing to let others do the work for us so we are pulled along in their wake without much effort on our parts. We cannot complain about the world we get if we never put our own energy into shaping it.

6. What would you like to share with us about plant allies from your knowledge?

One idea I began to formulate during my writing of this book is what I call my ‘timeline theory’ of the plant-guided evolution of human consciousness, along with some insights into what these different plants have been teaching us and where they are leading us. It goes like this:

In shamanic terms (and as explorers of consciousness discover for themselves) all entheogenic plants have a personality and purpose. This is usually complex and not easy to summarise in a few words, but if I had to try I might say, for example, that ayahuasca take us out of the limited, Earthbound view we have of ourselves and into the wider spiritual universe so we can explore the fullness of our potential, while San Pedro brings us back to Earth with a new spiritual consciousness so we see our world and ourselves ensouled.

Where these realisations take us as the plants begin their pilgrimage from a shamanic context and into Western awareness – that is, how their intelligence begins to subtly inform our scientific and rational endeavours – is interesting too. Ayahuasca has a long history of use by the shamans of the Amazon, for example, but only really began its migration to the Western mind in the 1950s and 60s. Once there and run through our rational-scientific filters it began to teach us what was important as our next evolutionary step and, in the late 1960s, ayahuasca took us to the moon. San Pedro meanwhile came more prominently to Western attention in the 1980s. The outcome of its Earth-based perspective, washed through our ‘thinking brains’ once again, was the birth of the environmental movement and the emergence of green politics. In this way, teacher plants have always been leading us and there are practical outcomes as their spirits fuse subtly with ours. What, then, are we to make of Salvia divinorum, probably the most important and challenging plant of our age? What is its purpose? What does it teach and where is it leading us?

It took 60 years for ayahuasca to become the ‘first plant of shamanic choice’ in the conscious Western world and 30 years for San Pedro to become known. Salvia, meanwhile, first came to our attention in the 1990s, through the work of Daniel Siebert, who was the first to extract salvinorin from it, but in terms of awareness it may even be the best-known of the three and that took around 15 years. Does anyone see a pattern here? A quickening? Almost as if things are speeding up towards an endgame…

The salvinorin experience is complex and deep (while also paradoxically simple and direct in the lessons it gives us), quickly and intensely shredding the veil which human beings have drawn over the nature of ‘true reality’ (whatever that actually means) and plunging the smoker into a strange and alien landscape where the answers he finds, while so incredible and shocking that he may almost wish they had remained hidden, have the ring of authentic and absolute truth.

Among these lessons are:
- That the world is not real
- That we are not ‘real’
- That we are creators but also created and at the whim of alien gods
- That there is no cause and effect (A does not lead to B)
- That time and space do not exist, and
- That there are other dimensions around us which we are also a part of and which influence our lives in unseen ways

The truth that Salvia gives us – in the words of the author Theodore Roszak – is that we ‘live as film, on a film… What is real lives behind, waiting to push through, swallow us up, reclaim us. It may not be nice.’

Its purpose, quite literally, may be to prepare us for travel to other dimensions, to other times, or to wake up to the fact that human life is over, that we are not real and we exist now as a simulation, as somebody else’s dream.

7. Do these plants like Salvia and Ayahuasca pretty much pop us into the afterlife aka spirit world? Is that what this is about in the long run? To gain knowledge of the other realms from whence we came and to where we will return?

Some people believe so – that Salvia takes us to the Land of the Dead. I am not one of them. I think it’s a plant which takes us to other dimensions, one of which may be the Land of the Dead, but the experience is bigger than that. I’d probably go along with the views of quantum physicists actually: that human beings are already dead and we exist now as simulations only. In other words, our everyday ‘life’ is spent in the Land of the Dead and Salvia just shows us the truth of that.

If what you’re suggesting is that plants like Salvia show us an afterlife or a spirit world anything like the sort of cosy ‘core shamanic’ or ‘new age’ idea of what that might look like, I’d say a very definite no. The Salvia universe is a cold, brutal truth and there’s not much welcoming about it. But if you want the facts of life (and death), there is no more direct teacher than Salvia.

8. What are you up to next books wise or projects wise? Any links you’d like to share please do as well. Thanks for this interview.

I’ve just finished writing a new book on ayahuasca. Funnily enough, I’ve written about half a dozen books on teacher plants like Salvia and San Pedro, but hardly anything on ayahuasca before now – which is strange since it was my first teacher (I’ve been drinking it since the 1990s) and because it’s such an obvious one to write about since the Western world seems hungriest, for some reason, for information on aya. Anyway, my girlfriend suggested it was time I wrote about the vine so I’ve done it.

Apart from that I hold workshops and ceremonies in Europe (possibly in America as well next year) and trips to Peru to work with the shamans there and with ayahuasca and San Pedro. All the information is on my website – www.thefourgates.org – or people can email me and I’ll send them a monthly update about what’s coming up. ross@thefourgates.org.

Publication brought to you by Inner Traditions where many fine books can be purchased.

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