A Modern-Day Ordeal

If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll notice that one of the themes I keep coming back to is Therioshamanism as a (neo)shamanic creation based on my own social and cultural background. The dominant non-indigenous culture in the US doesn’t have a clear shamanic figure, though I feel there are professions and roles here that can be analogous. On the one hand, American (neo)shamans may face accusations and feelings of illegitimacy, as though our lack of roots makes anything we do insufficient. And yet at the same time, there’s a great opportunity for creativity and flow in making something that is new and suited for the setting we found ourselves born into. I feel it is a fine balance between acknowledging how other cultures have formed their own shamanisms and related practices over hundreds or thousands of years, and making something that is uniquely ours instead of just wholesale copying. There’s a lot of trial and error, to be sure, and at times I really respect my fellow practitioners who are similarly trying to create something with no single existing cultural framework.

One of the themes that comes up as a topic of discussion is that of the ordeal. I have met people who claim that you must have an ordeal in a traditional manner–either a life-threatening physical illness, or a severe mental illness/breakdown–and that it absolutely can’t be a positive or constructive experience whatsoever. Nor, they say, is it something that you can openly seek out; it has to crash down on your head and ruin everything. Supposedly all these things separate the wannabes from the hard-core practitioners. I have a gentler approach. Not every ordeal a person goes through is a shamanic one; as attributed to John Watson/Ian MacLaren, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle“. What I think distinguishes a shamanic ordeal, at least in part, is whether it directly contributes to one’s work as a (neo)shaman. It may still be a great challenge with a significant risk of failure, but it can be something you willingly choose to enter into as a furthering of your path and development. In this, it doesn’t always have to be the initiatory ordeal; ordeals can also be ongoing challenges.

Many of the things I have gone through weren’t ones that I chose. I would be lying if I said that over a decade of bullying leading to the development of an anxiety disorder was something I decided to experience. At the same time, while it did directly lead to my walking this path, I could potentially have chosen other ways to focus the aftermath of those feelings. I could have ended up an addict trying to drown out the anxiety attacks and traumatic memories. I could have ended up a Catholic nun in a cloister, seeking refuge in a holy sisterhood. In short, I don’t feel that my eventual walking of a (neo)shamanic path was something preordained. But it’s where I ended up, and that personal set of decisions and paths has to be factored in as well as the cultural milieu.

Because I live in such a highly individualistic society, I don’t find it surprising that so many (neo)shamans enter their paths in part due to personal benefit–not in the case of “making lots of money”, but in “finding a focus for things that hurt” or “a way to grow in a healthier manner”. Rather than being a wholly self-serving path, though, (neo)shamanism has the added benefit of reminding us that we are part of a community, and emphasizing the need to be an intermediary in that community. Individualism is not in and of itself a bad thing, but sometimes the dominant US culture errs a little (or a lot) too far to that end. All things in moderation, to include self-identity and group-identity.

That being said, I don’t think there’s any shame in a (neo)shaman actively pursuing an ordeal in part to better themselves as practitioners and as people. The more any practitioner of any art, science, etc. knows and experiences, the better they are to serve their communities. This entire post came up in my head in part because I recently acquired my Wilderness First Responder training and certification. It was very much a challenge; for 8 days straight I spent 8-9 hours a day in ongoing training, to include daily hands-on drills and practice, plus an additional 2+ hours of homework every night. I had to process an immense amount of information each day and demonstrate that I understood its applications, and I went home every night almost too exhausted to do my homework. For those 8 days, WFR training was all I did–and there was no guarantee I’d pass. It challenged me in many ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and when I came out of it with my certification, it took me a while to absorb the reality that I’d succeeded.

Just as with going to grad school for a counseling Master’s degree, this is something that I chose to enter into despite the challenges because I wanted to be better able to serve my community. I spend enough time outdoors, both alone and with others, that I wanted to be able to act in case of a medical emergency. And as I do sometimes lead workshops at pagan events, to include some that are outside in fairly remote areas, I want to be able to take care of the participants on multiple levels. (Even if I don’t hold sweat lodges, I certainly haven’t forgotten about James Arthur Ray.) And even outside of a backcountry context, having basic first aid training could come in handy some day.

These all tie into my ongoing development of a (neo)shamanic role in my culture. I’m still in the process of developing what the counseling end of all this will look like (and I’m continuing to take a few courses through my alma mater), but each experience I have pulls it into more cohesion. I’m okay with it taking a while to come together; I’m still able to help people through writing and workshops and one on one work together. And I think whatever I end up with, it’ll be something that I feel fills that void, to an extent, that we have in this culture through the lack of a single shamanic figure. It’ll most likely be an ongoing work in progress, too, which I’m okay with. No system is stagnant, and if I can leave something for others to build on in the future, so much the better.

In my vision of a (neo)shamanism for my culture, I don’t see ordeals as being these uniformly awful things to be avoided. Challenging, yes, but there’s already so much negativity and discouragement here that I don’t want to include that idea of “it’s not real unless you hate it” in what I’m developing. I want to be a constructive practitioner, offering support and compassion to a community that’s all too often cynical and jaded, and I want to continue excising these things from myself. It doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the problems in the world, or the fact that some ordeals and challenges are unwanted and destructive and we don’t always come out for the better. But the skills learned in constructive ordeals can come in quite handy when dealing with destructive experiences in general, and isn’t being able to weather the storms better a good thing in general?

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10 thoughts on “A Modern-Day Ordeal

  1. I had a terrifying ordeal and I don’t think they are necessary. However, the important part of the ordeal is the change it causes in consciousness. I don’t know what this is exactly, but I think it can be accomplished in ways besides an ordeal, more subtly.

  2. Hmmm. Pneumonia at age 3 and 5 that almost killed me and both instances requiring hospitalization; almost drowned at age 6 and 10; almost electrocuted at age 11; multiple car and motorcycle accidents; and a 12-year first marriage to an abusive alcoholic that outweighed me by 100 pounds, was trained in boxing and muay thai (and used both aggressively against me), and that I only stayed in for the kids. 7 broken bones, over 300 stitches, numerous cigarette burns.

    Does any of that count as an ordeal? All were life-changing. (I had the “bullying through the entirety of elementary and secondary school” thing, too, including getting shoved face-first into a dumpster that almost took out an eye and required half a dozen stitches to close).

    ~Jennifer L.

  3. Thanks for sharing as you work out your spiritual practice. I find it to be a time of spiritual twilight as I rebuild my own formally shamanic practice, and in that state it can sometimes be hard to share what one is thinking. But we all need the encouragement as we put down the books and trends and create our own ways.

  4. What are your thoughts on life-changing moments that are built in such as discovering you are homosexual? Does being a “two-spirit” person in a Judeo-Christian world establish a threshold between one spiritual phase and another? I know a number of Neopagans left their previous religions on account of doctrine condemning their sexual nature. Would you consider the self-realization of being homosexual or the accompanying condemnation as the ordeal? Both? Neither?

      • I agree. This requires a very active and conscious reaction to an ordeal. I suppose the argument that it must be traumatic and completely out of your hands suggests a higher power has singled a person out and is calling them to a shamanic path, versus choosing to pursue that goal on your own and establishing your own ordeals/challenges.

        I probably hold my viewpoint as a result of growing up in a individual-centered culture where free-will is important. When people felt more subjugated by the powers of the world around them and/or their gods, it would be natural to take certain ordeals as portents that you were being called to service.

        So we have to ask ourselves: how much does cultural attitude play into the “reality” of the decision to be a shaman compared to submitting to mystical signs calling out to be a shaman?

      • I think the balance between those two influences (among many others) does have to vary from person to person, and culture does play a big part of it. Because we here lack an existing framework, things like personal crises are largely dealt with in private, so more is asked of the individual. We don’t have a bunch of people already prepared to catch us when we fall. At the same time, what we know of indigenous shamanisms is generally incomplete, and who’s to say a shaman from a particular traditional culture doesn’t also have their own smaller, personal ordeals as well as the big shaman’s sicknesses?

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