As the use and knowledge of Ayahuasca gains momentum across the planet, I contacted Ross Heaven, co-author of Plant Spirit Shamanism and author of The Hummingbird’s Journey to God, to discuss a somewhat lesser known plant, San Pedro cactus, the role it can play in helping us get to grips with the world, its relationship with Ayahuasca, and the cross-cultural use of plants for healing.
You’ve described your first encounter with San Pedro as less than spectacular. What was it about the plant and the experience that continued to draw you closer to it?
I first visited Peru about 10 years ago, ostensibly to drink ayahuasca, but an opportunity arose, seemingly by chance, to drink san pedro too. It certainly wasn’t part of my plans.
Ayahuasca was life-changing, as it so often is for those who drink it. In my case it led eventually to me leaving my well-paid job, selling the detached dream home and giving back the keys to the BMW so I could devote time to the needs of my soul and to what was real and important to me: working more closely with the plants and the healers I had met.
By contrast, San Pedro left me cold — physically as well as metaphysically. I drank it as part of an all-night ceremony at a site just outside of Lima with a traditional shaman working with what I have now come to call “old school” rituals. So I was first given a contrachisa (an emetic to get rid of the spiritual toxins in my body), then a singado: a tobacco and alcohol mixture which is snorted into the nostrils to clean your energy and bring good luck. It is acrid, acidic and drips down your throat like battery acid. So there was plenty of purging (i.e., vomiting) from me that night!
Then there were baths with cold floral waters, sprays with agua florida, gentle beatings with chonta (wooden sticks which are a typical feature of many san pedro mesas or altars) and calisthenics to perform too, all of it designed to loosen the energy and remove spirit intrusions. Almost as a footnote I was also given san pedro.
The night was freezing, I was tired and, with all that activity, there was hardly a moment to even engage with san pedro yet alone feel and experience the effects of the cactus itself — very much in contrast to ayahuasca ceremonies where, in the gentle warmth of the jungle, you are only asked to sit and listen to the beautiful healing songs of the shaman and allow your visions to unfold.
That first experience with San Pedro could have turned me off it forever. I mean, why would you bother with all that drama for so little effect when ayahuasca is profound and its ceremonies so healing and beautiful?
There was something about San Pedro though, some nagging feeling that it contained new answers for me. Perhaps I received more than I thought from that first ceremony but, if so, then it was at a subtle or unconscious level.
It was enough anyway to encourage me to seek out other healers and ceremonies, different approaches and different brews, until I finally found a shaman with a San Pedro that was of a wholly different order to the others I had drunk. That ceremony was an eye-opener. With the curandera (female shaman) La Gringa I realised during the course of a single ceremony what San Pedro had been trying to tell me for years.
There were two keys to this: firstly that while other shamans tend to brew their San Pedro for eight or even four hours, La Gringa cooks hers for 20 so it is much more potent.
More importantly, however, she has dispensed with the ritual dramas of the “old school” shamans I had been working with, so there are no distractions from the healing and visions the cactus brings. You are totally in the experience for several hours.
Her ceremonies are held in the daytime too so it is warmer, more comfortable and, more than that, you can see the world around you and it is alive with colour, spirit and beauty. You just can’t do that in the darkness of all-night ceremonies. What San Pedro had been trying to tell me for years is that the world is beautiful, but I needed to meet its spirit directly and in daylight in order to hear this message, and that had been more or less impossible in the other ceremonies I had attended.
Could you describe a particularly profound experience you’ve had with San Pedro?
Where to begin? Well, on that first daylight ceremony, for example, I became San Pedro.
Almost as soon as I drank it I began to experience little jolts of energy which felt like muscle cramps running through my body and, after a while of this, I grew intrigued as to whether I would actually be able to see my muscles moving under my skin so I held my arm up to study it. It was green, with ridges and furrows and its hairs were standing upright like spines. It took me some moments to recognise what it was or what it reminded me of, so I knew I wasn’t “inventing” or imagining it. It was only when I made the connection that I realised I was san pedro: it had totally taken me over and the jolts of energy I was experiencing were the cactus checking me out muscle-by-muscle cell-by-cell and healing the areas of weakness it found in me.
I was fascinated, awed and alarmed all at the same time — I didn’t know whether I’d ever make it back to human form. But my other experiences with entheogens had taught me that at times like these you simply must trust the plant so I relaxed and let it do its work. From then on I felt blessed and honoured to be in the hands of such a powerful healer.
I had a vision then where I saw and experienced myself cowering outside the walls of Paradise in a world which was as empty as a desert, pleading to be let back in but always receiving a gentle but insistent “no.” Even under the intoxication of San Pedro I knew that this symbolised my relationship to the world: that I felt alone and abandoned by God and that this was the root of all my failures and illnesses.
The message of San Pedro was to face my fears with dignity and to understand that everyone on this planet feels the same aloneness too; it is the cause of all our conflicts and terrors, but actually the world is beautiful and ours, just as we are its. We belong to each other so we are never truly alone and there is no need to feel afraid.
As soon as I realised that, a bolt of energy hit me full in the back and in the shock of it I took the deepest breath that I can ever remember taking. I had been suffering from the breathlessness of altitude sickness for a few days (I was in Cusco at the time, which is about 12,000 feet above sea level) but with that single breath I was completely cured. Furthermore, I somehow understood that I had got sick because I expected to — because I always did when I visited Cusco — and the power of my mind had created my current reality of illness while in fact there was nothing physically wrong with me.
“The world is as you dream it” as the Shuar shamans say. With San Pedro, more so even than with ayahuasca, you see how literally true that is. Since then I have met people who have been cured of all sorts of diseases — cancer, paralysis, pneumonia, grief, paranoia — by drinking San Pedro and arriving at the same conclusion that I did: illness is a state of mind and by changing our minds we can heal ourselves. I talk about some of these people in my book.
That healing with San Pedro lasted for 12 hours and what I have described here so far took maybe two, so there was a lot more to this journey than I have space for. The take-home messages, however, were that the world is a magnificent place where everything is allowed and there is no need to feel afraid or to manifest our fears as illness. We can walk the world with power, pride, dignity and courage instead, because “We are That” and we always have a choice.
You mentioned San Pedro as being “much better than ayahuasca for getting to grips with the world.” Could you elaborate on this?
My experiences with ayahuasca give me the sense that it frees the spirit from the body so that figuratively speaking (or perhaps sometimes literally) we can drift among the stars and see the order of the universe and the energy that underlies it, or meet others — plants, animals and people — on a spirit-to-spirit, soul-to-soul level. The healing comes when we realise that everything is energy, that this energy (or its manifestation as blessings, illness or misfortune) can be changed, and that we are all connected. The emphasis, however, is on going out, moving beyond the limitations of the body and the ego-concerns of our minds so we can come to know this.
For several years now I have organised trips for people to work with the ayahuasca shamans of the Amazon and have also run ceremonies of my own in Europe, and my conclusions are consistent with the experiences of others as well as some of the literature on ayahuasca and DMT.
With San Pedro, however, the overriding sensation is of bringing the soul of the universe into the body: a “drawing inward” so you understand your place in the world, the creative powers you have to shape and direct it and, above all, the beauty of your soul and the soul of the things around you.
With ayahuasca you may be lost in wonder at the magnificence of your spirit and the universe you are a part of but San Pedro is often more beautifully and gently humbling: you realise that even though you are magnificent you are no more amazing or significant than a house brick (which is incredible and alive in its own way)! But you are no less significant or wonderful either! Everything is equal, in balance, and perfect as it is.
The effect of San Pedro, then, is to teach you how to be “the true human” as one of my teachers puts it, and how to be and act in the world — with dignity, compassion and responsibility. If you like, it provides instruction for us in how to fall in love with the world again and with all that we are and have, instead of voyaging outwards to heal what we are not. As one of my participants expressed it, having drunk San Pedro, “I wanted to fuck the Earth!”
For these reasons San Pedro is the perfect complement to ayahuasca and helps to ground our spiritual lessons within our bodies so that a code for living in “the real world” can begin to inform and empower us. On the trips I run to Peru we first spend time in the jungle with ayahuasca and then in the mountains to work with San Pedro and I think that this order of doing things is important, so we learn from the universe through ayahuasca and, through San Pedro, we can then apply that learning to the world and understand that we, too, are God.
Knowledge and use of Ayahuasca is growing across the planet, do you see a similar thing occurring with San Pedro? Why, or how, do you feel San Pedro has kept a lower profile than Ayahuasca?
It’s an interesting question. Andean shamans say that San Pedro has a certain “mystery” to it; that you have to in some way “earn” your relationship with it. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to develop my own connections to it. I doubt that their view is wholly true however, since I’ve taken many people to Peru to work with La Gringa and myself and they’ve got San Pedro’s message at the first ceremony they attended.
The “old school” San Pedro shamans do have a protective attitude towards the cactus spirit, though and in some ways I think that the rituals they use are a sort of mask they put up to its power so that not everyone is immediately granted the privilege of access to what they regard as its divine essence and teachings.
I’m not sure either that the time is right just yet for people to have full access to San Pedro, although that time will inevitably come. I think that the medicine for our times is probably still ayahuasca, so that we can experience and explore other realities and develop our understanding of oneness. The next evolutionary step may then be to bring this understanding into our relationship to the world and that is the job of San Pedro, but maybe we’re not there yet.
It is a discipline, after all, to apply the lessons of these sacred teachers to the world we live in and to act accordingly. Only the saints have managed it so far and most of us are not saints! So maybe we need to develop greater spiritual powers before that can happen. Ayahuasca is definitely an aid to that and an immensely valuable teacher. But give it a few years and when a movement has gathered of people who are aware of a deeper truth, then it may be San Pedro’s time. But, of course, that does not preclude anyone who feels themselves ready from exploring San Pedro now.
How do you feel the Spirits of San Pedro and Ayahuasca differ or relate?
The stereotype seems to be that ayahuasca is a female spirit while San Pedro is male. I’ve also heard it said that ayahuasca is serpentine, winding like a snake so we must track its meanings to decode what it is telling us, whereas San Pedro is “straight like an arrow” and takes you directly to the answers you seek.
As La Gringa — her feet planted firmly on the ground –points out, however, those are just projections. Her own experience is that ayahuasca is a male spirit and San Pedro the female but, at the end of the day, of course, they are neither. They are plant intelligences and energies. We may project onto them what we wish since we are the great creators and our minds can shape realities, but it doesn’t change their essential natures.
My perception of San Pedro’s spirit on that first daylight ceremony was of a matador, sword in hand, drawing a protective line in the desert sand to signify our boundaries and the power contained within them. A proud and dignified warrior-spirit. Interestingly enough, when I drank San Pedro with another person in the hills above Cusco she saw exactly the same thing. But I can’t say that this is San Pedro’s spirit.
I am reminded of Don Juan’s comment to Castaneda about Mescalito, that our allies take many forms (for Castaneda Mescalito was a moth) and the form that they take probably depends more on our own needs, psychologies and perceptions and is not a quality inherent in the plants themselves.
What have you discovered in regards to the cross-cultural use of plants for healing?
My earliest experiences of plant spirit shamanism were as a boy on the borders of Wales in the British Isles when I met and worked with an old sin eater and herbalist. Since then I have traveled to many different cultures to learn from the plants and the shamans and it has always interested me that the techniques and approaches they use are so similar. Why that should be, and how a sin eater in Wales could know the same facts about which plants would heal which particular diseases and then employ the same methods for working with them as a shaman in a small town in Haiti or a curandero in the rainforests of Peru was always a mystery to me. They’d never spoken to each other, after all, or learned each other’s techniques. They didn’t even know of each other’s existence.
It’s a question I’ve put to all of these healers and the answer has always been the same: “We asked the plants and they taught us how to heal.”
The biggest challenge in this for the Western mind is to take what they are saying literally. For us, it defies rationality that plants have intelligence, can communicate with us and have a healing intention, so we tend to dismiss the shaman’s words as a metaphor or a quaint misunderstanding of what Western materialist science “knows” to be true. But if we listen to what they say and allow, beyond our own paradigms and imperialist egos, that they may actually know what they’re talking about, then our eyes are suddenly opened and we understand that they are gifting us a profound and fundamental truth. In Terence McKenna’s words, that “nature is alive and is talking to us. This is not a metaphor.”
And then, of course, we have our own first ayahuasca or San Pedro experience and we know in our bones that plants are conscious, aware and intelligent and so much more evolved than us. They were the first citizens of this planet and have a wisdom which is ancient compared to our fleeting time on Earth.
The central cross-cultural instruction for working and healing with plants, then, is simply this: open your mind and listen and you’ll learn all that you need to know.
The world is changing. The current “global” (by which we really mean Western) financial crisis, property crash and environmental problems we face are evidence for many that our take on reality just isn’t working and people are, I think, inclined to look for new solutions which, paradoxically, they are finding in old ways. It is the shamanic wisdom-keepers who are providing the new (and ancient) truths which have real meaning and application.
Many people have found their answers in ayahuasca and in this sense have become the Earth’s pioneers seeking new worlds of understanding and, like early explorers and navigators, returning home with their strange fruits and wondrous tales of adventure. The next step is for these truths to become more widely accepted as self-evident and employed in this reality so we can all grow from them. This step, I think, is the work which will be aided by San Pedro and its time is now approaching.
Considering the transition of the generally accepted name of the cactus, from the traditional Huachuma (Andean), Achuma (Bolivian), to the Christian influenced San Pedro, in what ways is the cactus already affected, effected or deepened by cross-culturalization?
I’ve been talking about “old school” shamans — those with lots of ritual as part of their ceremonies and lots of Catholic symbols and artefacts too. La Gringa believes that this format is directly related to the coming of the Spanish and their imposition of a new cultural identity on Peru and its ceremonies, including concepts of sin and punishment which never existed in the country before.
Before the Spanish, she says, work with San Pedro was more natural and flowing and the plant rather than the shaman was regarded as the healer — very much like the ceremonies she now runs, in fact. She calls these a “backwards evolution” or devolution, back to the first ceremonial form these healings would have taken, where the plant itself is the maestro.
Her ceremonies are less ritualistic, take place in daylight because San Pedro takes power from the sun, and the brew is much stronger so the ceremony becomes an uninterrupted flow of communion with the plant spirit. This, according to her, is closer to pre-Hispanic rituals.
It is true that San Pedro ceremonies were undoubtedly altered by the beliefs and customs of other cultures, but strip these glosses away and allow the plant to speak for itself and its spirit remains as it ever was.
It is a strange God that San Pedro introduces us to though –at least as far as our Western mindset goes. I was re-reading Jim DeKorne’s book the other day and he says the same thing about other entheogens too: that under the influence of teacher plants, our quaint ideas about a loving father-God, the “old man in the clouds” who will solve all our problems for us, must inevitably vanish as we become aware of a deeper truth.
What San Pedro shows us, for example, is that there is no great cosmic father; instead we are responsible for ourselves. That might sound like a heavy burden to some people but in fact there is great freedom and power in this because we are also freed from rules and empowered to find our own ways. I suppose that the intelligence of the universe that San Pedro guides us to is still “parental” in a sense, but in the rather different sense of a father who gives his sons and daughters the liberty — without judgement — to find their own solutions and make their own mistakes.
There is no great sense of a loving overseer to the universe either, but rather a flow of energy which is ambivalent, just as electricity is not inherently “loving” but can be used according to our will to power a hospital, make food for friends or to charge an electric chair and kill someone we have chosen to despise. It is our intentions that count. What San Pedro does, however, at a very personal level, is show us the consequences of our choices. The outcome in most cases is that we naturally choose, without force or coercion, to act more lovingly anyway. We understand the power of our thoughts, words, choices and actions and we develop in compassion because we see the connections between us.
So, again, while San Pedro has no dogmatic pronouncements to make or any download of rules we must follow, the outcome of our work with this plant is to change us so that we do evolve and become more loving beings. It is a beautiful process but one which can be very different to those we may have experienced with other entheogenic teachers.
What are your thoughts on the issue of sustainability regarding these plants?
I suppose it is a judgement on my part but it bothers me when I see so many “spiritual tours” being advertised these days, where you can visit Peru for a week and stay in a five-star hotel, go on the obligatory Machu Picchu trip, explore some “mystical portal” or other, do a little yoga and, as part of the tourist experience, have an ayahuasca or San Pedro ceremony as well — all for “just $3,000”!
An itinerary like this seems to belittle the true visionary and healing experience and is therefore wasteful of these plants and not in keeping with either the spirit of ayahuasca or San Pedro. On the other hand, if — even by chance — they can reach one person and inspire them to heal or find out more about the truth of the world, then I suppose there may be a deeper purpose to the sacrifice than we know.
On the trips I run we work with not-for-profit centres which exist to preserve the rainforest and its healing traditions. For every drink of ayahuasca a new plant is sewn and another shaman is allowed to maintain and practice his art.
But that is just my choice. The lesson of San Pedro is that, in the widest scheme of things, there really is no right or wrong and no rules to follow, only actions and consequences so we cannot impose our views on others. They must decide for themselves.
My feeling is that we reap what we sew but we should also sew what we reap. If we do not we may deprive ourselves of the very healing we need since these plants will not be available to us for long. But we are the parasites of our planet and that, too, seems to be the story of our evolution and the lesson which we must all individually learn.
Has San Pedro, or any other plant, offered you advice regarding the ecological crisis or the so-called “planetary crisis”?
Well, of course, there is no “planetary” crisis. There is a human crisis but that is a different matter.
My experience with teacher plants tells me that our planet, as a self-sustaining organism, has a liking for, but no particular attachment to, human life and, as a self-healing and homeostatic system it has ways to cure itself of the downsides of our presence if that becomes necessary and it will, quite rightly, fight for its own 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 that is screwing up its system. 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.
Another analogy is an ant nest. As human beings we’re not going to go out of our way to destroy one but if its inhabitants start to become a nuisance or interfere with our quiet enjoyment of our own lives we certainly have that power. And to the Earth we are the ants. We should remember that and get to know our place.
Perhaps it is ultimately not in our destiny for the human race to ever be more than a trivial footnote to the pages of history, but that too 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 really 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.
This is certainly the message of the plants and particularly of san pedro. But then again, the lessons of history suggest that while self-serving governments, Big Pharma, and Big Oil run our planet, it is a message unlikely to be heard. It is simply not within their mindset or their range of perception and understanding to hear it.
My belief — I hope not too pessimistically — is that human beings have a limited time on Earth, and I’m relaxed about that. We all came here with the clock ticking after all. No one gets out alive.
For our children’s sake though I would love us to be able to change and I’m sure it’s possible, but it relies on us making appropriate new choices about how we see, feel and act in the world. San Pedro can help with this but it requires that people with the power to make changes choose to drink and explore its wisdom — and then to be all they are capable of being.
Ross Heaven, the founder of The Four Gates, is a psychologist, author, healer, workshop facilitator, and presenter. He has trained extensively in the shamanic, transpersonal, and psycho-spiritual traditions and written more than 10 books on the psychology of empowerment, shamanism, plant medicines, healing, and love and relationships.
His latest book; The Hummingbird’s Journey to God; Perspectives on San Pedro, the Cactus of Vision is the first book to be written about healing with San Pedro.
Image: San pedro cactus flowers in Cusco, Peru by Scott Peterson and Yumee Chung, used with permission.