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Plant Spirit Shamanism
Since the beginning of human experience, plants have played a role in the evolution of our species, not only in the provision of food and medicine but in our deepest spiritual experience and the development of consciousness. Their form, beauty, enchanting scents, their healing and emotional qualities, have all provided a gateway to the Great Mystery of Nature, which our Celtic forebears called “The visible face of Spirit”.
Though our lands are no longer forested as they were, we try to recreate a sense of their beauty and tranquillity in our gardens, parks, and the green spaces in our cities, giving us at least a taste of Nature with which we can sustain ourselves against the soulless backdrop of the steel and concrete jungles that are our homes today. For many people, plants are still the messengers of divinity, harmony, and beauty. They are also the source of our health and wellbeing, not just as medicines but in their ability to relax, refresh, or excite us.
Some deep part of us knows that the healing power of plants is inherent in what they are as much as what they do. Flowers have a role to play, for example, in all of our most primal celebrations of life and death – birth and birthdays, comings-of-age, marriages, illnesses, funerals and deaths. They are there at the first ‘I love you’, and they are there for our endings too. Even after death our connection to the natural world continues and our spiritual destination in many religious myths is some form of paradise which is often symbolised as the “Heavenly Garden”, or the Garden of Eden.
Archaeology shows that plant spirit shamanism has been part of our healing experience for thousands of years, predating other practices by millennia and going back to a time when healers worked in harmony with Nature.
Plant shamanism is - and always has been – a person-centred approach and incorporates, in a holistic way, practices such as herbalism, energy work, aromatherapy, and counselling to provide a unique blend of therapies that is most needed by each individual client, based on the healer’s attunement to the state of balance or otherwise of that client’s soul. But it is also fundamentally spirit-centred, and all traditional healers – from the Curanderos of the Amazon to the ‘folk magicians’ of Ireland – regard plants as sentient, aware, intelligent, alive, and as ‘doctors’ in their own right.
Plant shamanism involves practices for meeting these spirits, such as shamanic journeying, soul retrieval, rituals using flowers and fragrances, offerings to Nature, floral baths for protection, and the use of visionary plants to find purpose, clarity, and new directions in life. All of these, to the shaman, are implied by the term ‘healing’.
WAYS OF HEALING
As a young boy, I was apprenticed to a Welsh sin eater – a ‘cunning man’, as they were called in Wales - who used plants and flowers in his healing work. One of his methods was to bury the name of a patient, etched on a piece of bone, in a corner of his garden, next to a patch of ‘sun flowers’. Each day he would say his prayers to the flowers, consulting with them on the condition of his patient, then squeeze a few petals so their aroma was released. As the scent drifted upwards, he said, a little more of his patient’s illness was carried away until he or she was healed.
This may seem like a strange approach in our culture today, but when I grew up and went travelling I found the same essential methods used in Haiti, Peru, Africa, Greece, America, Turkey… so it is not an eccentricity or even unique to Wales.
The world over, in fact, wherever shamans work with plant spirits rather than extracts and compounds as Western doctors do, it is understood that plants are alive, aware, and willing to teach their healing secrets. Plant spirit shamanism is therefore learned practically - by getting out into the fields and making contact with natural forces, not by reading about plants in some dusty library.
The sin eater communicated with plants in this way and knew several magical uses for them that they had told him of. For example, the ‘sun flowers’ he used were actually marigolds, but he called them sun flowers because they are “Bright like the sun” and warmed the soul with protection. It is interesting, then, that we find the same belief in Andean Peru, where rosa sisa (African marigolds) are also used for protection. Here, they are often planted by the door of a house, so if someone should pass by and give the ‘evil eye’, the flowers will catch these negative energies and protect the soul of the house from disease. The petals turn black when this happens, but revert to their bright colour when the energy is discharged through their roots to the soil. The sin eater I knew had never visited Peru and yet the message from the plant was the same: marigolds – “sun flowers” - protect.
WORKING WITH PLANTS
The key thing with plant spirit shamanism is to establish a connection with the plant. Once that is done, the plant spirits themselves teach you everything you need to know and reveal the many ways of using them in healing, most of which are very unlike the Western medical notion of ingesting them in a tablet or even a herbal form.
In Haiti, Peru, Brazil, Indonesia, and in our own Celtic past, there is a practice, for example, of taking floral baths, where flowers and herbs are added to blessed water. The sick person then bathes to wash away his ailments. These baths are not restricted to physical healing, but can be used to draw good fortune and change your luck (which is regarded as a real and tangible force), by making you more ‘open’ to the receipt of money, love, or spiritual power.
Other ways of working with plants include the making of pakets, ‘power pouches’ containing herbs that remove negative energies, while returning life force to the patient as the pouch is brushed over his body. The paket has similarities to the Amazonian chacapa, a bundle of dried leaves which has medicine powers to rebalance the patient’s energy field, and is rubbed over the body in the same way.
The seguro of the Andes, a bottle which contains a mixture of plants and herbs in Holy water and perfume, uses the same principles of spiritual connection with the plants. Here the shapes, colours, or qualities of the plants invoke various powers that the client wishes to draw in to his life. Round, golden, seeds attract money, for example, while cactus spines embody protection. The seguro, according to Andean shamans, becomes a “Friend”, you can consult with. Every time you speak out your problems to this friend, they are removed, while the powers of the plants draw good energies in.
One rule that comes up consistently in this work is that we must treat our plant allies with respect. In Haiti, healers literally pay the plants for their work by dropping coins at the base of the tree they’re collecting leaves from. They are then ‘fed’ and there is a fair exchange: we charge the plants with energy so they have the power to help us.
We must also treat plants kindly. Research shows that they have feelings, intelligence, language – even the ability to count and make music! - and they can sense our intentions and respond to our actions. If we treat them with love, they flourish and grow; if not, then their spirits die and we don’t have the healers we need.
GETTING OUT OF OUR MINDS
One of the biggest challenges for the Western mind in learning how to work with plant spirits is our cultural fascination with science and measurement. This socialisation into ‘scientific thinking’ is hard to overcome because, as part of it, we have been taught to stifle our dreaming and imaginative selves. Luckily, however, there are also plants which have a spiritual intention to re-establish our connection with the spirit-universe and open us up to the true nature of reality.
One of these is guayusa. In the Amazon it is known as “The night watchman’s plant” because of its ability to bring lucid dreams and dissolve the boundaries between wakefulness and sleep. Thus, the night watchman can take guayusa and nap, while remaining alert to the sounds and sights around him as he watches over the tribe.
The shamans say that in every country we have plants to cater for our own needs; thus, in Europe, it may be difficult to find guayusa, but a tea made of vervain, valerian, and chamomile will achieve similar affects.
Another way of getting ‘out of our minds’ is through a special state of trance consciousness known as shamanic journeying.
To take any shamanic journey, find a time and a place where you can be alone and undisturbed for 20 minutes or so, then dim the lights or cover your eyes, lie down and make yourself comfortable.
Most journeys are taken to the sound of drumming, which encourages ‘dreaming’ patterns to emerge in the brain, taking the shaman deeper into a more holistic experience of the world in its fullness. You can drum for yourself, have a friend drum for you, or use a drumming tape to guide your journey.
Expressing your intention and keeping this in focus is again important. Intention is the energy that guides the journey and enables you to engage with the mind of the universe so it can work with you.
You can try this yourself by setting your intention to meet with a plant ally – the consciousness of a plant that will guide you into the world of the collective plant mind. You do not need to have a specific plant in mind. Stay open instead to whatever comes.
As soon as the drumming begins, imagine yourself entering a place which connects you to the Earth in a way that is meaningful to you, then allow your imagination to take you where it will. All you need do is receive.
When your plant ally appears to you, spend some time in conversation with him or her (in the imaginative world, most plants take human form). Enquire about its healing gifts and the way these properties manifest in the plants themselves. Ask how you can work with this ally and the plants that embody him or her.
Visit your ally often in this way and you will learn more about the world of the
plants, the nature of reality and, indeed, about yourself, as part of this vast and
About the author:
Ross Heaven is a therapist, workshop leader, and the author of several books on shamanism and healing, including Darkness Visible, the best-selling Plant Spirit Shamanism, and Love’s Simple Truths. His website is http://www.thefourgates.com where you can also read how to join his sacred journeys to the shamans and healers of the Amazon.