The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies - Howard G. Charing 2017


Never allow your reality to be undermined.


I honestly can’t remember when I first met Howard. He comes and goes a lot, as many shamans do. I remember he once stayed in my house for a week or so as he was traveling around the United States. My house is set on a busy urban street just a few blocks from a popular beach and zoo. We would sit on my front stoop while he smoked his morning cigar, and together we would watch the summer parade of people on the street. I remember how delighted he was to find an old-fashioned barbershop just up the block.

We talked together for hours, about everything. I discovered a man who was deeply knowledgeable about shamanism around the world, particularly the shamanism of the Upper Amazon, a culture in which he had immersed himself for many years. He had long experience working with shamans in the region; he had published dozens of interviews with them. We found that we knew many of the same people; we shared our knowledge of jungle lore, traded stories of shamans both impeccable and perfidious, and spoke especially of his love and admiration for the shaman and visionary artist Pablo Amaringo.

I became aware of something that you will find to be true throughout this book: Howard is an enthralling storyteller. If you love stories—that is, if you are a human being—you are in for a treat.

It is easy to believe that Howard has been just about everywhere. He has performed psychic surgery in the Philippines, worked with some of the most respected shamans in the Amazon, produced intricate and colorful ayahuasca-inspired paintings, and was initiated into the lineage of the maestros of the Rio Napo in the Upper Amazon. He is now in Romania, living in Transylvania (not far from Castle Dracula), studying Romanian shamanism. I am not surprised.

It is important, I think, to underscore Howard’s unstinting devotion to what he calls the “Great Domain.” His first book was on Amazonian plant spirit medicine, for which Pablo Amaringo wrote the foreword. This was the start of an epic and productive collaboration. When Amaringo died in 2009, he left behind a mass of uncataloged paintings and hastily jotted notes. Howard, along with Peter Cloudsley, had been working with Amaringo for months to get his collection in order, annotate his more recent work, create a digital archive of his art, and protect his paintings from deterioration in their humid tropical environment. The meticulously cataloged and annotated collection became the basis for the remarkable and beautiful posthumous book The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo.

The book you now hold in your hands is another treasure. It is a storehouse of Howard’s knowledge, experience, and teaching. But it is more.

Psychologist James Hillman distinguishes between two basic orientations to the world, which he calls spirit and soul. Spirit, he says, is detached, objective, intense, absolute, abstract, pure, metaphysical, clear, unitary, eternal, and heavenly. Soul, on the other hand, is mortal, earthly, low, troubled, sorrowful, vulnerable, melancholy, weak, dependent, and profound. Spirit means fire and height, the center of things; soul means water and depth, peripheries, borderlands. Spirit seeks to transcend earth and body, dirt and disease, entanglements and complications, perplexity and despair, “seeks to escape or transcend the pleasures and demands of ordinary earthly life.”1 But soul, as Thomas Moore puts it in his anthology of Hillman’s writings, “is always in the thick of things: in the repressed, in the shadow, in the messes of life, in illness, and in the pain and confusion of love.”2

It is soul, not spirit, that is the true landscape of shamanism—the landscape of suffering, passion, and mess. Shamans deal with sickness, envy, malice, conflict, bad luck, hatred, despair, and death. Indeed, the purpose of the shaman is to dwell in the valley of the soul—to heal what has been broken in the body and the community. Shamans live with betrayal, loss, confusion, need, and failure—including their own.

In this book we have a remarkably forthright and detailed chronicle of such a shaman at work. Howard is first and foremost a healer and visionary, clearly situated in the valley of the soul, and he shares with us his visions, his practices, and his remarkable experiences. At the same time, we can watch him thinking through his healing practices and experiences, placing them within a wider—indeed, a global—context. He is a man at the intersection of many forms of shamanism, drawn together by his personal healing mission.

This is really three books in one. The first is Howard’s fascinating story, from the shattering accident that opened up his healing visions, to his meetings with teachers and shamans, to his own healing experiences and practices. The second is his exploration of what these experiences mean, his exploration of how these experiences and healings fit into a variety of current understandings of shamanism worldwide. And, third, the book is in itself a shamanic tutor, incorporating a number of exploratory exercises deriving from Howard’s many years of leading workshops around the world.

The book is the story of a modern Westerner discovering a healing gift, learning to use it, and striving to understand it. It is valuable for us all.


Stephan V. Beyer—researcher in ethnomedicine, shamanism, peacemaking, and the spirituality of nonviolence—studied wilderness survival among the indigenous peoples of North and South America, and sacred plant medicine with traditional herbalists in North America and curanderos (healers) in the Upper Amazon. With a law degree and doctorates in both Buddhist studies and psychology, Steve has been a university professor, a trial lawyer, a wilderness guide, and a peacemaker and community builder. He lived for a year and a half in a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas and has undertaken and helped to lead numerous four-day and four-night solo vision fasts in the desert wildernesses of New Mexico. The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian Institution has written, “Stephan Beyer . . . has an unparalleled knowledge of sacred plants.” He is the author of several books, including Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon and, most recently, Talking Stick: Peacemaking as a Spiritual Path.