On the surface, Medicine for the Soul appears to be a no nonsense approach to the concepts and practice of shamanism with the opportunity to get a formal diploma from the Four Gates Foundation. The book does a good job of explaining common shamanic healing techniques and giving a how to description for students to follow. Unlike many books, there are no client testimonies or case studies. It may be possible to learn the early exercises without prior experience but it is hard to imagine someone succeeding in the more advanced practices without some one on one training. The information is not as complete as the subtitle would have you believe and there are some glaring omissions.

I found this book interesting as the author has either read about or participated in shamanism from vastly disparate places. His personal experience with Haitian, Celtic and Peruvian traditions is augmented by a knowledge of other shamanic paths. I particularly enjoyed the section on ethics with topics like the consequences of sex with students, legal issues and the need for insurance. All of this is from the perspective of its British author so the laws may not apply to the reader. I also got the sense that Ross Heaven likes to tread where others fear to go. There is a chapter called Counseling and the Future in which clients seeking guidance can be advised by the shaman who journeys to answer the question and does divination. The techniques are unorthodox in the normal sense of counseling and readers should be advised in the US, if you aren't licensed as a counselor, to avoid calling it counseling.

Each chapter begins with a couple sentence summary of content, suggested additional reading and equipment required to perform these exercises. At the end of each chapter is a quick test and at the end of the book are answers to the questions. This will give you an idea if you are remembering and learning the material. The actual course for diploma requires doing the shamanic exercises and writing about your own experiences in 300-500 words. Mr. Heaven states that if you pass his course you will be qualified to heal others. It is hard to say what else is required of diploma seeking students as those interested are advised to email for more information. I am not personally convinced that one could be competent after only completing one correspondence course. As his foundation offers in person courses, I expect students will be told eventually to enroll in these.

The first student exercises are to get familiar with shamanic journeying and shadow work. Find one's power and one's geis, then retrieve one's power and find one's power animal and tutelary spirits. If you have prior experience with journeying, you should be able to follow the exercises in chapters 1 to 3. I am not certain a person with no experience whatsoever will have luck getting into the altered state of mind. I've been to workshops where some participants couldn't. I read an interview with Ross Heaven online and he contends that you cannot become a shaman without using visionary plants by which he means hallucinogens. I'm not going to argue one way or the other on the merits of this but mention it because there are shamanic paths that require it and others that do not. This book only touches on the topic of ayahuasca and San Pedro and none of the exercises in Medicine for the Soul include them. He has written other books that go in depth on teacher plants. Chapter 8, Plant Spirit Shamanism, limits itself to the use of herbs.

By chapter 5, the student is supposed to be able to perform Spirit Extraction and Soul Retrieval. I discussed this idea with a number of shamanic practitioners and they all balked at the idea of learning to do this strictly from a book. When journeying to do soul retrieval, the shaman is visiting another potentially dangerous realm. The soul pieces that have been lost can be protected by dangerous booby traps. The shaman's spirit can get lost or be attacked. For difficult cases, a shaman may require the assistance of another shaman to execute the tasks safely. These concepts were not presented in the book. The question is does Ross Heaven not believe shamanic worlds are real places or does he not anticipate students will find their way to dangerous places?

Doing further research, I discovered that Ross Heaven is controversial in his native Britain. You can search his name and decide whether this matters to you. I am hesitant to recommend this as a guide for absolute beginners without the caveat that you shouldn't try all of this alone. As a stepping stone, it is a reasonable introduction. Try the first few chapters, if it goes well, find a good teacher and read the rest.

~review by Larissa Carlson

Author: Ross Heaven
Moon Books, 2012   
pp. 200, $22.95