Shamanism is a method of expanding spiritual awareness that involves communicating with the natural and spirit world. It has been around for thousands of years and very similar versions of it are found in many ancient cultures. It's a difficult concept to sum up in a few words, as Leslie Kenton acknowledges with some frustration. "Trying to explain it is so difficult!" she says. After all, advising someone to eat more raw carrots because it's good for them is a message we can all understand (even if we have no intention of eating the carrots). Sending someone to talk to a tree is quite a different matter. ("Sit or stand in front of the plant or tree and thank it for bringing its life into your circle of awareness. Now in your imagination honour the spirit of the plant and open your awareness to it".)
This may sound, ahem, a little strange. But Leslie Kenton is a seductive explainer. The walls of her tiny basement pied-a-terre in Primrose Hill are lined with books and CDs, many of them volumes on healing and alternative medicine. There are chairs, but on the floor is a white furry rug, which she prefers to sit on. Over a mug of ginseng tea, she explains that she has had a long-standing interest in philosophy, religion and anthropology. (She studied philosophy at Stanford University.) She was introduced to shamanism by Michael Harner, an anthropologist who has been visiting professor at Columbia, Yale and the University of California. She describes him as a latter-day Indiana Jones (complete with hat). Her book was spiritually endorsed on a shamanic "journey" into altered consciousness, or "non-ordinary reality".
Journeying into non-ordinary reality, aka the quantum realms, is a kind of self-controlled meditation, often achieved with the help of drums and rattles. Developing an ability to shift consciousness at will is the key to shamanism. While journeying, the shaman meets helpful spirits, sometimes in the guise of plants or animals. Everyone, says Leslie, has a "power animal" of their very own to help and guide and protect them. (Hers is a beautiful bird; yours might be a tapir or an aardvark.) Journeying, she says, is the most natural thing in the world. "Everybody can do it. I've never met anybody who can't. It's a way of linking people up to what they already know. We have been taught by our educational system not to trust ourselves or our instincts." She worked on Journey to Freedom with the help of 13 different spirits - hence the 13 "leaps" of the book.
Shamanism, she explains, can be used for healing or to tap creative energy, or to empower. "You can help people learn to trust their own inner know- ledge, their intuition and instinct, get them in touch with who they really are. Their lives start to work for them." One of its attractions, she says, is that it has no gurus or priests - it is a direct access to spiritual forces, accessible to everyone. "This stuff belongs to all people. People must be given the tools. I want to open it out, make it available to everyone, without any gurus. The book gives you the techniques to use - you're not following other people's rules."
She believes that over the next few years we will be hearing much more about shamanism - and that, far from being wishy-washy New Agery, it is directly linked to the latest scientific thinking. "In our society we don't talk to trees, but if you look at the research into consciousness there is a lot of research on how when people talk to their plants their plants grow better. I want so much to bring the science together with the experience," she says. "Journey to Freedom ties together emerging paradigm science, what you could call fifth-entity physics, with mythology, with religion, with psychology, with consciousness research." And, she says, it's time to get with it. "The capacity to shift consciousness is deeply ingrained in us but we have not been using it, but we need to because until we do, we don't have the power, the wisdom, the knowledge to go forward into the next century."
Keeping a detailed journal is essential to the would-be shaman. "Recording a shamanistic journey is a way to build a bridge between the ordinary, everyday world and the world of the poet, the world of the mystic, the world of the great scientist," says Leslie Kenton. "How did Albert Einstein create the theory of relativity? It came out of a shamanistic experience. He saw himself riding on a beam of light, and being a mathematician he came back and encoded that in mathematics."
Leslie Kenton has always been unconventional. She was born in California, the daughter of jazz musician Stan Kenton. She has four children, aged between 17 and 35, by different fathers, and, though she was briefly married twice, she brought them all up herself. "The first time I was pregnant my father said I couldn't keep the baby unless I was married," she says. "Nobody was taking that baby away from me. The second time, I was very ill. I developed a large tumour on my ovaries in my early twenties and I married a man who was like an older brother to me because I was frightened I wouldn't be able to look after my children. That's one of the things in my life that I really regret, because it wasn't a nice thing to do."
Most recently, she lived for three and a half years with a man 30 years her junior, though now she shares her Pembrokeshire home just with her two bearded collies, Sunshine and Moonbeam, and her two Burmese cats, Cappuccino and Carciofo. "The relationship is intact; we are still very close and love each other very much, but he has things he has to do with his life. He is very much younger than I am and he has to go off and seek his fortune," she says.
She has lived in her Welsh village for 20 years, in a house once owned by Virginia Woolf; avoiding the urban dinner party circuit suits her very well. "I have nice relationships with people in the village but it's just 'Hi, how are you, how are the dogs?'. I am quite reclusive by nature. I am very close to my family and I have two or three very good friends, but I don't like dinner parties. Personas go to dinner parties, not people." Her working life and her private life she tries to keep apart. "I'm so out there when I'm writing, I need silence and inner life when I'm alone."
Whatever one's personal view of raw foods and non-ordinary reality, she is a shining advertisement for what she preaches. She is in her mid-50s but looks years younger, with lovely skin and hair. And she is a powerhouse of energy; she arrived for this interview from one engagement, and afterwards was heading straight off to give a lecture. ("This is an easy day! You should see tomorrow!")
She is currently writing a book on herbs, and spending time in New Zealand to do the photography herself. Her second novel is in the pipeline, as is a script for a film adaptation of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and she is talking to television companies about making programmes on shamanism. She has run workshops all over the English-speaking world for years and now teaches two-day courses in shamanism. Later this year she will lead a group on a two-week trip to Peru, to visit sacred sites like Machupicchu and learn from Peruvian shamans. This will be a full-monty physical, spiritual and psychological detoxification. She particularly enjoys teaching. "You attract the most amazing people. You'll have a member of the European Parliament sitting next to a bus driver sitting next to a Jungian analyst sitting next to a painter sitting next to a road builder and all of them are so vital. The response that one gets is pretty remarkable."
Leslie Kenton has great faith in her ability to spot things before everyone else cottons on. "When I first wrote about detoxification, people said 'What?' Nobody had ever heard of it before. When I first wrote about a high-raw diet as a way of healing, nobody had ever heard of it. I wrote the first article in Britain in a mainstream magazine on meditation and again people said 'What?' Now everybody knows about these things." Whether, in five or 10 years' time, every magazine in the land will be running features on contacting your guardian spirit or communicating with your herb garden remains to be seen. But the mainstream media is already running regular features on dream analysis, tarot cards and runes; there are "psychic" agony aunts and every paper has its astrologer. Shamanism seems no less unlikely (certainly no sillier). In the meantime, Leslie Kenton carries on her pioneering path. "The beauty that evolves from people who begin to work this way is dazzling. It's like walking in a garden and seeing plants you've never seen before, each of which is unique. I love it so much."
'Journey to Freedom', HarperCollins, pounds 16.99. For workshop details, call Bright Ideas 07000 782494.
IN HER OWN WORDS...
"A lot of people have had the experience of having lost their souls. It's particularly true of women because women are the servers in life and it is so deeply ingrained in us. After many years of doing what other people want or expect, you no longer hear the whispers of your own soul."
"I hate gurus. I'm not going to be one."
"It is quite normal to have a lot of 'junk' thoughts enter your head while you are meditating - stuff like, 'I must remember to buy tomatoes'."
"I love teaching. The only thing I don't like about it is that you tend to get people that think that you really know something. It's not true. These are only techniques. I can say, 'Here they are, try them, but actually you're the one who really knows something, not me'."
"Organised religion tends to be highly orientated towards the control of the people it claims to be freeing. Some religions have endless lists of dos and don'ts. Others traffic in fear, based on the notion that our god is the only god. This kind of religious indoctrination dwarfs your sense of self and tries to turn you into an automaton who follows rules slavishly."
"Don't worry if you believe nothing of what I've said so far. That's normal. In fact I think that's important. Each of us begins to journey full of scepticism. This is exactly how it should be."