Meet Rebekah Shaman, the western, urban shaman who can commune with nature
A shaman is a spiritual healer who uses altered states to help others find clarity and enlightenment. Often associated with tribespeople and black magic, it doesn’t put you in mind of an English woman of Jewish descent who lives in London.
Rebekah Shaman is a western, urban shaman. When I meet her, she is keen to impress upon me that there is no cultural appropriation in what she does. Rebekah doesn’t purport to practise methods from any particular tribe.
However, she spent months training with a master shaman in the Peruvian Amazon, has worked with tribes and is even the chair of the British Hemp Association (the industrial material, as opposed to cannabis). Read on to learn more about plant medicine, altered states and what it’s like to be a shaman in the modern world.
VT: What qualifies someone as a shaman?
"It’s a being. It’s not a doing. And there’s a very big distinction. It’s how you resonate with the natural flows of nature - how you connect with nature. For me, someone who is a shaman is someone who has realised that they’re part of this amazing planet where we’re not apart from it - we’re a part of it. A shaman is someone who helps bring balance back to a community and the environment."
VT: And who was the person you learned from?
"Don Juanito. He was my teacher. He called me in a vision when I was working in a hotel in Machu Picchu. I had an experience where I fell down a mountain after a big argument with the general manager of the hotel. I almost died but a tree saved me. That night, I went out into the Andes mountains and thought 'why did I survive?'
"When I fell down the mountain, it shook everything up and I thought 'why am I here?' And that’s when the shaman came to me in a vision and told me that he was waiting for me and that I had to come to him and he had the medicine and the answers for me. And I believe that as I was falling down the mountain, I was starting to prepare for death so I was releasing a lot of hormones and DMT and everything that the body does when it starts preparing when you’re starting to fall down a mountain."
VT: When you had the vision, did you have a name you were working with or just a sense of someone you needed to find?
"Just a real sense that he was there - that he was waiting for me. The moment I saw him is what I call a 'peak life moment' because the expectations were really high as well. He lived with his family so it wasn’t just me and him having to deal with all the issues that you have with the machismo stuff. I was very protected."
“Every plant medicine has a spirit - a consciousness - and I’m trained to help people connect to that consciousness”
VT: Is there a sexual aspect to the way that some of the teachings are done?
"No. But then, you always have an issue - and it’s not just in shamanism, I see it in yoga - where there is a sexual element that can come in through the teaching. Very often, people sleep with the teacher. It’s one of those things where you have the choice. I chose not to but sometimes it can be very difficult and I had to pay [Don Juanito] for not sleeping with him which was very difficult at the time."
VT: That life-changing moment where you fell down the mountain, how did that happen?
"It was a bit silly really. It was the afternoon. It was about 2 o’clock. I’d just finished lunch and I was running. I used to be a runner. Rather than go up the path I usually went on, I saw an animal track leading into the bushes. I was in a very bad mood. I was very angry and I just suddenly saw that path and thought 'ah f**k it I’m going to go that way'. I wasn’t really thinking. It disappeared but I didn’t want to go back. I have this thing where if I go forward, I’m only going forward. So rather than go back and retrace my steps, I just started to pull myself up this mountain. The sun was rapidly setting behind the other mountain and in the Andes it gets dark very quickly. It was very rainy and slippery. I thought if I start walking, I’ll find a path because something good always happens. So I kept on walking until I slipped.”
VT: One of the things you do is cacao ceremonies. What does this involve?
"A cacao ceremony is different for everyone but what I do is take people down into a shamanic journey to meet the cacao spirit. Every plant medicine has a spirit - a consciousness - and I’m trained to help people connect to that consciousness. I particularly work with ayahuasca, cacao and cannabis but I can do it with any plant medicines. So I have worked with more English plants but for me, cacao is a plant medicine which opens up the heart and reduces stress and anxiety and helps us see clearly."
“When I fell down that mountain, a part of me died”
VT: In the first talk of yours that I heard, I remember you saying that you can speak to plants. What do they say?
"Everything speaks to us. The trees speak to us, the moon speaks to us, the grass speaks to us, the animals speak, the plants speak. There is a DNA-connection to every living thing on this planet. Once you’ve built the bridge to understand and hear that language then the plants give what you need whenever you need it. Sometimes they can impart messages of clarity, guidance, focus - whatever I’m needing. And it’s the intention that you set. So if I’m feeling like I need some focus or some guidance, I’ll drink cacao or I’ll connect with the cannabis medicine and I’ll set the intention to ask the medicine what I need."
VT: Do you ever find yourself in debates with sceptics or do you try and keep sceptics away?
"No, never. Because what I’ve found, more than ever, is that most people are really open and interested in it so it’s not a 'woo woo' thing. It’s very scientific and everything I do can be proven. I’m not into believing something that doesn’t exist. So when I start talking about it, because I’m living it to the degree that I am, it resonates with people’s inner wisdom. You know when someone’s talking from a place of knowing or from a place of having read a lot and intellectualising. I find that when people come into my orbit, it awakens that latent part of them and they’re interested in it. So I haven’t met that many sceptics."
VT: Having spoken about the fact that everything is alive, is this pantheism?
"Animism, if you want to put a label on it! It’s an ancient form of animism where everything has a spirit, everything is alive and everything has a consciousness. Ayahuasca builds the bridge - the DNA bridge - so that you can hear that consciousness of the plants and the trees. But when I did my apprenticeship in the Amazon, the leaf that I trained with wasn’t chacruna [DMT] which is the one which brings all the visions. What I took was tiwai which is another hormone altogether. It’s very dark and it can only be administered by a master shaman. Otherwise you can get very, very lost and very, very dark. And I didn’t realise that that was the plant I had trained with because obviously, they called it 'ayahuasca' where I was. It wasn’t until 2014, 16 years after I’d started my apprenticeship, that I took chacruna for the first time and realised that I had actually trained on a totally different plant medicine."
"For the first and last time, the Gabonese flew to the UK. The intention was to get my name and it was the iboga that gave me my name"
VT: So it’s a lot to do with altered states and perspective?
"Yeah. Imagine we’re tuned into a three-dimensional frequency. Drinking plant medicines, you just open up your frequencies, move along the line a little bit and you can connect with different radio stations. Once you’ve tuned in, just like on a DAB radio, you can press a button and you leap. You don’t have to go along the trip anymore. So now, I don’t have to tune myself - I’m tuned. So whatever I need, whenever I need it, I just press the button and I’m there."
VT: And when did you decide to change your name to “Rebekah Shaman”?
"No, I was given that name. [Laughs] There’s no way I chose that name. No one in their right mind goes around calling themselves 'Shaman'! That would be suicide.
"I kind of died in Machu Picchu. When I fell down that mountain, a part of me died. I was saved by the tree and I feel like it was my western, Jewish roots. Everything kind of died and I went to the Amazon and I trained with Don Juanito and then came back and published my first book in 2004, under the pseudonym 'Rebekita', which is the name the shaman gave me in the Amazon. Because even though I was using my birth name, it just didn’t feel comfortable with that birth name. People were calling me 'Rebekita' and I suddenly realised that she was an apprentice in the Amazon and I was seven years down the line and I’d done loads more than that. I was much bigger than that name. It didn’t fit me anymore. I felt like I’d outgrown it. I didn’t know what to call myself because I wasn’t that person who was born with all the Jewish connections - I had lost that. I was unsure of what I was merging into.
"I was in that place for two and a half years until I watched a programme about iboga on Tribe by Bruce Parry - the ex-soldier who went into different tribes for 30 days and did their rituals and their medicines. He went to Africa on one of the episodes and he took this medicine called iboga. And I saw that and got a very strong message that this medicine held my name and that I needed to go and do an iboga ceremony to get my name.
"So I put an intention out, on the winter solstice of 2006, that I would find an iboga ceremony that would help me with my name. So I was really clear that I would go and find my name and three weeks later, I was sitting in a cafe in Brixton and I overheard two people talking about an iboga ceremony. I went up to them and said I was interested and asked if there was a number. It was all very legal. All very open. Not like it is now.
"They gave me the name and number of this guy and I said 'hi, I’ve been called to do iboga' and the guy said 'I read your book six months ago and the iboga said you were calling for me. I’ve been waiting for your call. I know you’re coming and the Gabonese are flying over on this very special Spring equinox ceremony and I’m going to put you as one of the initiates'. For the first and last time, the Gabonese flew to the UK. The intention was to get my name and it was the iboga that gave me my name - Rebekah Shaman. That was the name that they gave me."
"The great thing about Skype is that it’s opened it up to do readings everywhere"
VT: I saw that you do tarot readings over Skype. Has technology and social media played a big part in how you connect with people?
"I think it’s helped. I’m not very good, personally, with social media. I prefer the much more personal one-to-one connection and I’m more about energies so social media I find quite difficult. It’s like internet dating. When you’re looking at a photograph, you can’t possibly know what energies that person is emitting."
VT: But something like Skype doesn’t produce enough of a barrier for you not to be able to tell someone’s future?
"I’m talking more about Facebook. The great thing about Skype is that it’s opened it up to do readings everywhere. I can do my shamanic work and connect with anyone in the world. Those one-to-ones are really amazing. It’s more the faceless Facebooks, Instagrams and Twitters that I find a little bit harder to gauge on an energetic level."
VT: Is it just a coincidence that a lot of your work has been to do with plant medicine and altered states and you’re also the chair of the British Hemp Association?
"[Laughs] I’m a plant medicine shaman. I was trained with ayahuasca, tiwai, in the Amazon, and other plant medicines, chiric, chacruna... I’ve dieted a lot of plant medicines out there in the Amazon. But I’m English and I feel like that training in the Amazon was to work with cannabis here for me. Personally, I’m a person who takes one thing and goes 100 feet deep with it. So for me, I like to master things. So ayahuasca I’ve been doing for 21 years. Cannabis I’ve been doing for 12 years. Cacao for six years. So rather than dabble with lots of different things, I like to work with one plant medicine and really dive deep, deep in and explore."
There are certainly a few interesting and unexpected aspects to shamanism - like that Don Juanito, the master shaman Rebekah had to pay not to have sex with, performed the shamanic wedding ceremony where she married her ex-husband.
However, one of the most interesting things Rebekah states seems to be a rebuttal to a question she's been asked before. She doesn't fit any sort of shamanic stereotype, not least because she doesn't live in a countryside retreat - away from the noise of modern life. But it's here, in the madness of the metropolis, that she feels she is most needed.
The next trip on the cards, so to speak, is a dark retreat where Rebekah will spend two weeks in cave meditating. This is in addition to her annual trip to the Amazon where she takes groups to connect with nature and explore different plants and their effects. She also regularly hosts cacao ceremonies in London and her second book, Beyond Illusion, is out early next year.