Plant Spirit Shamanism by Ross Heaven and Howard G. Charing. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books/Inner Traditions International; 2006. 250 pages. ISBN 13: 978-1-59477-118-7. $16.95.
Some of those steeped in Western, reductionist, scientific rationalism, and current "biomedical" paradigms tend to believe that using medicinal plants for healing is comparable to using conventional pharmaceutical medicines. Those who agree acknowledge that plants contain bioactive constituents that interact with biological systems in ways that can have therapeutic benefits when used appropriately. In other words, botanical medicines are weak drugs, and under the correct circumstances, these drugs can affect the biological machine that is the body in ways that may prevent, alleviate, or even cure diseases or chronic dysfunctional states.
But there is nothing special, sacred, mysterious, or magical about this approach; the body is seen simply as a machine, and the right "monkey wrench," whether a botanical extract or the latest new product offered by the pharma/biotech industry, can be used to "fix" the machine. Today the use of botanical medicines in the context of biomedicine has been stripped of whatever spiritual, magical, ritual, or religious significance it may once have had, even though medicine itself is rooted in an earlier era in which medicine, magic, and ritual were inseparable and indispensable elements of an esoteric body of knowledge shared by witches (wise women), midwives, shamans, alchemists, herbalists, and other practitioners of traditional "healing arts."
If you are firmly immersed within a strictly biomedical paradigm and loath to acknowledge that healing has dimensions beyond the purely biomechanical, then not only will this book not speak to you, you will dismiss it as New Age claptrap. On the other hand, if you take a somewhat broader view of the art of healing, you may find much here that is of value. Authors Ross Heaven and Howard Charing acknowledge the validity of the biomedical paradigm-plants contain molecules that act like drugs-at the outset. They also point out that this perspective is impoverished, unless it is linked to the larger world of spirit, a more holistic realm in which plants are applied to the treatment of the mind, spirit, and the soul, as well as the body.
The authors do not dismiss the biodynamic properties of plants, but insist that true healing cannot take place without accepting and including these other facets of human experience and existence. In this respect, they advocate an approach to plant-based healing that is much closer to that of traditional healers. The latter usually recognize that plants and their constituents can have toxic or medicinal properties, but that is only a minor aspect of their healing properties. In their worldview, plants are intelligences. They have spirits, souls, and knowledge, just as we do. Also, much of traditional healing arts, like shamanism, is really about the mastery of techniques needed to communicate with plant spirits and enlist them as allies in healing practices.
This book is really a how-to guide for those who wish to understand, and perhaps learn to practice, some of the art of traditional, plant-spirit based healing. The introduction provides a lucid discussion of some of the issues and perspectives alluded to above, open-ing to the possibilities that lie beyond the strict, reductionist approach. It also explains the assumptions and "truths" that are familiar to traditional herbalists, shamans, and other traditional healers. One example is the concept of the doctrine of signatures and the notion that the healer and the patient must form a relationship with the spirit of the plant in order to invoke its healing power.
Each subsequent chapter then addresses an important aspect of traditional healing practices, inviting us, for the moment, to suspend disbelief and explore these more intuitive, distinctly non-scientific and yet still valid ways of understanding and applying a plant's heal-ing powers. Shamanism and the role of the diet as an essential part of shamanic training are addressed in the second chapter; the sacred hallucinogens, often integral to shamanic practices but by no means invariably, are discussed in chapter 3. Chapter 4 addresses the impor-tant concepts of soul-loss, spirit possession, and the roles of plant spirit medicines in treatment of both physical and mind/body illnesses attributed to soul-loss, possession, or loss of soul integrity. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the ritual and healing significance of aromatic plants, perfumes, and healing herbal baths. The final chapter ends with a heartfelt plea to guard against the loss of this unique and irreplaceable knowledge, and the human cultures, habitats, and plant species that are the repositories of this worldview.
The book is not simply a dry academic discussion of these topics, although that alone would be intrinsically interesting. Instead, it provides cross-cultural perspectives on all aspects of plant-spirit based healing. The book draws on examples from the authors' own expe-riences in South America, Haiti, and other indigenous cultures, and delineates the common threads among beliefs and practices that characterize plant-spirit healing the world over. Through this, we begin to see that while these practices may find a unique expression within specific cultural contexts, ultimately they all are rooted in much more ancient bedrock: the common experiences of a humanity evolving and surviving on a dangerous planet in which the power of plants to heal and harm was recognized, respected, applied, and often made the difference between life and death for individuals and communities. If all this were not enough, the authors also provide practical advice on how to adopt and utilize these practices in everyday life. Here the reader will find specific instructions on everything from how to encounter and enlist one's plant spirit ally to how to prepare herbal perfumes and baths.
Two appendices are condensed to lists of both Peruvian and Caribbean herbals, in which the folk and scientific names of the most common or significant species are listed, along with their medicinal applications and magical attributes. Also unusual, and useful, these appendices list "analogs and alternatives," that is, plants with similar medicinal or magical properties that may be used as suitable substi-tutes in case the Peruvian or Caribbean remedies are not available. A third appendix provides recipes and instructions for the use of vari-ous "hoodoo oils" that can be used for everything from speeding up healing to securing luck in love and business.
Not everyone will like or agree with everything in this book; I certainly didn't, but I did find it to be a useful introduction into aspects of botanical medicines and plant-based healing that are too often overlooked or dismissed in contemporary biomedically oriented texts on the topic. Whether you want to learn to practice plant-spirit medicine-or simply want to gain a better understanding of it-this book will be a useful addition to your botanical library.
-Dennis J. McKenna, PhD
Senior Lecturer and Research Associate
Center for Spirituality and Healing
University of Minnesota