Shamanism and Subjectivity

I think I’m just going to give up on trying in any way to prove that my spirituality/belief system/etc. has any direct validity for anyone besides me, and anyone who agrees to take part in my subjective spiritual reality. The seeds for this post took root while I was detangling the thoughts for the last one. I started thinking about the subjectivity of nonindigenous shamanic experience. On the one hand, you have core shamans and their ilk who experience shamanism as a relatively safe, defanged thing compared to traditional shamanisms. On the other, you have people who are doing their best to emulate traditional shamanisms, particularly the most dangerous parts thereof. And then I thought about my own experiences, which are somewhere in the middle.

I look at where my path diverges significantly from these two ends of the spectrum. I do experience journeying as being riskier than what a lot of core shamans describe. However, I don’t do the complete submission to the spirits that I’ve seen on the other end. I do my best to not take the spirits for granted, but I also maintain autonomy–as in D/s, I have hard limits to my vulnerability, and ways to enforce them. And that is what has worked well for me, even before I began working with shamanism. I haven’t had experiences that have deviated significantly from that balance. And the thing is, the people at each end of the spectrum could probably say the same thing for themselves, that their experiences fit within a particular style of shamanism. Additionally, they could probably all find other people and sources that corroborate with their own experiences.

Really, how can I prove any of them are wrong, that they haven’t had the very experiences they claim to have had? How can I necessarily say that my experiences with shamanism are more objectively valid when in the end I really don’t have more proof of being right than anyone else? Sure, there’s looking at the shamanisms of other cultures–but that’s other cultures. To an extent, cultural context is crucial. And if a large portion of shamanic practitioners in this culture are reporting a certain way of doing things, then I should not dismiss that simply because it doesn’t corroborate entirely with the ways other cultures have described their practices. There’s something going on there, and beyond a certain point I cannot judge the veracity of what’s happening. Maybe someone really is working with harmless spirits, and another with savage ones.

But what’s the point of trying to judge the objective reality of the experiences themselves? Sure, I can discuss the conflation of neoshamanisms with indigenous shamanisms, and explain that certain practices found in the former are in no way, shape or form a part of any of the latter. But how can I judge whether someone else’s journey was valid for them or not? And, more importantly, does it really matter whether it’s valid for me if it’s not my experience (and I’m not the client or otherwise involved)?

All I can really say for sure is that my subjective reality is real to me, and that it is necessarily filtered through my subjective perceptions. I would wager that a good part of the reason that other practitioners experience things so differently in a lot of ways is because their perceptions–if not their experiences in their entirety–are also subjective. I would also add that it’s very likely that as my expectations about the world, conscious and otherwise, shape my experiences, that it’s also likely that others’ experiences are shaped by their own conscious and unconscious expectations. If you expect that shamanism is like in anthropological accounts where it’s a highly violent, dangerous thing, then that raises the chances that your shamanic experiences are going to be violent and dangerous. Likewise, if you expect that journeying is safer than dreaming, then you’re more likely to have safer experiences.

I can clearly see where my own expectations about reality, and spirituality, and related concepts, resemble my experiences as a shaman. And I can see where my perceptions also shape these experiences. Therefore, at this point I’m going to maintain that while it’s not impossible that there’s an objective spiritual reality, I strongly believe that spirituality is heavily subjective regardless of the existence (or not) of objectivity. I can see the physical world around me, the trees, the stones, the animals, and can agree on that objective reality for the most part with other people–but the animistic
end of things, that’s another story entirely.

And I’m okay with that. I’m tired of the endless wrangling over who’s right, regardless of what spiritual reality is being argued over. I’d rather focus on developing my subjective spiritual reality, which I know is real for me, and which is effective for me. I’m not sure I really care how real it is for anyone beyond those who have agreed to take part in it, whether to learn more about it, or even adapt it to their own practices. Beyond those functions and practicalities, is it really all that important that I try to prove that the journeys and so forth that I describe here actually happened beyond the scope of my own perception? And is it important for me to measure my shamanic practice up against those of others for experiential (rather than historical or other factual) veracity? If I didn’t have the exact same sickness, or have the spirits treat me the same way, does it really matter?

I look at all the time people spend trying to get external validation. And I’m really thinking it’s a waste of time, at least for me. The need to prove an objective spiritual reality has been a weight I’ve been carrying too long. So–at this point, my running theory is that spiritual realities are largely subjective, and any objectivity is hidden to some extent by subjective perceptions. The quest for objectivity, in addition, is overrated. (YMMV, of course.)

Coming Up For Air

I haven’t journeyed since late January (in my defense, February is a short month!). But I did manage it anyway, despite the crazy schedule (more on that in a bit). When I arrived at my starting point, Bear (I primarily work with Alaskan Brown Bear, to be specific) was waiting for me intently. As soon as I arrived and we exchanged greetings, s/he led me off down the mountainside. S/he had me stop at a particular tree to rest, and told me to wait. Then she introduced me to (Sockeye) Salmon, who could show me the way to the Lower World, and how to get there when I needed to. I was surprised to find myself there, especially because there hadn’t been much in the way of a draw towards there, but I found myself suddenly plunged into the belly of the River Dragon of the Columbia, as it were, with Salmon taking me to the opening to the Lower World. I had to make myself tiny to get in–I could see the parasitic worms on Salmon’s side–but I made it through.

When I got there, (Grey) Wolf was waiting, just as anxiously as Bear had been. S/he took me to a place s/he had prepared, up on a ledge. There were blankets there on the rock. Looking around, I saw that the Lower World (what I could see of it) looked very similar to this one, though Wolf said that part of that was because I was on the boundary between the two, and it got weirder the deeper in you go.

We talked a good bit about my current state, how I’ve been run ragged by school and other things, and how since the move to the new place back in December I’ve been feeling disconnected from the Land. I haven’t really made the time to connect beyond the streets here, even though there’s a wetland a block over. Things keep seeming to come up. It hasn’t helped, either, that it’s been too cold to go out hiking; many of my favorite places are inaccessible this time of year. And it being winter, I simply don’t go outside as much as I do in warmer months.

I’ll talk more about the specifics of the previous paragraph in a moment; needless to say, Wolf’s advice to me was to spend time reconnecting to the Land, and engaging in my spirituality more. It’s good advice–the disconnection hasn’t been helping the situation. I also received offers for help from a couple of other totems regarding specific areas where I need some help, including one totem I’ve never been approached by before.

So–the problems at hand. There are a number of ways in which grad school has changed my life. One of the more obvious is the manner in which it manages to consume my time like the personification of Famine. While the commitments tend to ebb and flow over the course of the semester, there are weeks where all my free time belongs to assignments and readings and essays. This is mainly fixed by careful time management, and sometimes giving up fun things temporarily, but I also need to deal with my own stress when perceiving myself as more crunched for time than I actually am.

However, another effect of graduate school is that it’s caused me to become much more deeply immersed in my psyche. I’ve always been very self-aware; I’ve spent many years digging through my own wiring and conditioning, trying to figure out what makes me tick, and doing my best to replace bad conditioning with better. In fact, a lot of the magical and spiritual practices I’ve done have been aimed at personal metamorphosis through ritual psychodrama. This has generally worked well–not perfectly every single time, but I’ve made a good deal of progress.

It’s very common for psych students to do a lot of introspection, and I’ve been finding all sorts of new tools to mess around in my own head with (as well as potentially help others with down the line). The program I am in is particularly focused on self-awareness to the ends of self-care and being a better therapist, and so a lot of the classes deliberately challenge us to know ourselves better and more fully. Combining this with the fact that I’ve already done a lot of internal work, the result is that I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual processing things, and digging deeper into my own head. As I’ve already gotten rid of a good deal of the surface issues, I’ve been frequently hitting a lot of deeper, root issues, things that are a lot more painful–and a lot more firmly entrenched.

No, this hasn’t been easy. I’m pretty independent, and I’ve done my best to self-regulate, but I’m taking the opportunity to avail myself of the university’s free counseling services–at least once they have an opening for me. Until that point I’ve been utilizing a lot of self-care techniques, and relying on a few friends who are willing to help me work through some of the tougher moments. All of this is coming to a good result, but it’s been a challenge.

This all makes me think about the motif of the shaman’s sickness in conjunction with the cultural context I’m coming from. I’ve had a lot of cause to think about my cultural context–my social location, as it were–as I’ve been taking my Counseling Diverse Populations class, which has a very strongly emic perspective on working with clients from cultures and perspectives other than your own. For the first time, for example, I’ve been called on to actually think about what it means to be white, something I’ve had the privilege of not having had to think about before. It’s definitely made me think more about the concept of mainstream/dominant American culture, and how there are even more alternatives to it than I had originally conceived of. And I’ve been thinking more about shamanism within that cultural context.

I still maintain that “psychologist” is one of the roles that most closely mirrors that of the shaman in my culture, even though my understanding of my culture has changed. And I look at the sometimes agonizing experience of digging deeper and deeper into my psyche, into the Places That Hurt, and I wonder if that is a parallel to the shaman’s sickness found in some shamanisms (again, with the reminder that “shaman” in this instance is the borrowed-by-anthropologists version, not only the original Evenk usage of the term). I don’t have any major, disabling physical diseases; the few relatively minor chronic issues I have are easy to maintain. However, I can see where it took me years to overcome depression. And while I’m not sure a therapist would classify me as anything more than “stressed–please refer to graduate school for causes” at this point, some of the hardest moments in my life have been in the duration of working through the issues I’ve been dredging up as of late. Does it count as a sickness if it isn’t a long-term or permanent thing?

Of course, that also makes me wonder if, in a culture where physical illnesses are generally easily treatable (though a lot depends on insurance, etc.–that’s a whole political rant there), the shaman’s sickness isn’t necessarily a physical thing. And many cases of sickness were temporary, though severe. We know a lot less about the treatment of the psyche, in a lot of ways, than we do about the treatment of the body–especially if we’re trying to not just rely on pharmaceuticals to “maintain” an illness. So the psyche is more of a cultural vulnerable spot than the body in a lot of ways. Would it make sense for the challenges to come at that level more frequently in this culture, then?

I do know that what I’m going through is most certainly making me better prepared for my roles both as a therapist and as a shaman. In some indigenous cultures, if a shaman suffered from (and survived) a particular illness, s/he was seen as an expert in curing that illness. Does the same thing hold true for having survived repeated excursions into the depths of the self, with the result being a stronger, healthier person overall?

I won’t play the dogma card and try to say that this absolutely must be the experience of a “true shaman” in this culture. But I believe that shamanisms adhere to the contours of the cultures they are a part of; the general themes and purposes may be the same, but I’m not sure I believe that a practitioner in the urban United States has to have the exact same experiences as a genuine Evenk shaman. My thought is that it’s up to us to create our own relationships with the spirits (albeit with a more realistic perspective on what nature and spirits are); looking to other cultures helps to an extent, but beyond that we need to remember where we are, and who we are working with.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. I am not an indigenous anything. I may be of European genetic makeup (as far as I know, anyway), but I am not European culturally. I am a white American, generally middle class of some sort, university-educated, geeky, neopagan, an urban dweller, and so forth. Ultimately, that is the cultural context I am coming from, and that is what needs to most inform my practice; even if my clients as both a therapist and a shaman end up being from different social locations, I need to have a firm understanding of where I am, so I can better orient myself to them. And the same thing goes for the spirits; the relationships that I have with them are largely informed by the people I come from, and solving the problems that result from a culture largely detached from nature.

Shamanism and Psychology

This is something I originally wrote up in a locked post on my Livejournal. I figured since it has some related ideas, I’d share it as well. Enjoy!

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I’ve noticed that since I started grad school, that (not surprisingly) I’m leaning more towards psychological explanations for spiritual things, though these have always been important to some extent. I haven’t entirely abandoned the concept of a relatively objective, autonomous spiritual reality of some sort. I’ve been down the road of entirely and exclusively embracing the psychological model of magic, and found it to be emotionally and spiritually unfulfilling. Additionally, there have been experiences I’ve had in my path that have given me cause to believe that it’s not just in my head, that to an extent I’m interacting with something other than myself, but interacting in a subjective manner.

I am less likely to surmise about the reality of spirituality outside of my own experiences through the lens of my subjective perception, however. There are certain things that are pet peeves, admittedly, like Michael Harner claiming that journeying is safer than dreaming (which, if you’ve ever read Eliade or any other accounts of traditional shamanism, is bullshit). But even so, I also factor in that my own experiences with journeying are filtered through my own mind, and so have to be subjective to some extent out of sheer necessity.

Even with the Harner thing, though, there’s a certain amount of leverage that psychology provides my basic argument against his claims. Let’s limit, for the moment, my shamanism to my psyche, regardless of what may or may not be going on outside my brain. In dreaming, most people are simply processing the events of the day. We may have nightmares, but most people are not trauma survivors dealing with debilitating flashbacks. For the majority of people, ordinary dreaming is a relatively benign, if occasionally weird or unsettling, experience. We can say that it’s “safe” for the most part.

Journeying, however, is something entirely different. Psychologically speaking, a shaman is a person who alters hir state of consciousness (usually, though not always, deliberately), often through potentially hazardous methods–entheogens (which, at the wrong dosage, may be very harmful), dancing and other physical exertion, deliberate mortification of the flesh, etc. Apart from the physical effects this may have, if you assume journeyers travel inwardly instead of outwardly, you are talking about someone who is exploring the depths of hir own psyche. The archetypes and motifs experienced along the way are the brain’s method of structuring the psyche.

In many indigenous societies, shamans are trained by their predecessors. This includes methods of not going batshit insane (and yes, these cultures generally know the difference between a shaman/holy person/medicine person/etc., and someone who is simply mentally ill to the point of impaired functioning). However, most core shamans don’t have a psychological background of any sort, and core shamanism such as it is is a woeful substitute, comparatively speaking. While this doesn’t render all core shamans ineffective, it does mean that often the seriousness and potential danger of journeying is underestimated.

Part of why I went into psychology as a career is to be a better shamanic practitioner. It’s also because “therapist” is one of the roles in this culture that approximates that of the shaman in indigenous cultures. However, honestly, I went into psychology for the significant reason of my own mental health. Specifically as a (neo)shaman, I know that I’m doing a lot of messing around in my head, regardless of whether that’s all there really is, or whether it’s a bridge into another reality external of my mind. Definitely not as safe as dreaming is for me.

I don’t see psychology as being diametrically opposed to spirituality; on the contrary, I see the latter as necessarily including a healthy dose of the former when it’s at its best. And, because I don’t agree with the claims that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”*, I believe that I need to have a paradigm for working as a shaman in this culture, the one I am a part of–and core shamanism doesn’t cut it. Yes, I know there are core shamans who are also psychological practitioners. That doesn’t mean I agree with their approach to shamanic practice.

* There’s no such thing as “culturally neutral”. The people who espouse “cultural neutrality” are generally middle class, often but not always academically trained, white people of privilege who deny that they have a culture because they’re blind to the fact that they are the dominant culture. Core shamanism is, at its root, an academic white guy interpretation of shamanism.

Shamanism and the Modern Attitude Towards Nature

I was talking over lunch with someone about what shamanism actually is, and specifically what I think it is. My initial explanation involved contrasting indigeneous shamanisms and modern neoshamanisms, especially core shamanism. My general working definition of a shaman is someone who is an intermediary between humanity, and the spirit world/nature. I equate the spirit world with nature, because I am an animist. However, I also perceive the dichotomy between the spirit world/nature, and humanity, as artificially created and perceived rather than actual. (I will sometimes refer to spirits and nature separately for the purposes of this essay.)

In indigenous cultures, particularly prior to industrialization, life was/is a lot tougher, with shorter lifespans. While there was/is certainly natural medicine, herbal remedies, etc., there’s still a higher chance when you’re in a remote area of dying if, say, you get a cut that gets infected. Nature wasn’t/isn’t just something pretty that you look at out a window; it’s your life. It’s what you rely on. And you’re aware of that. This does not equate a romanticized view of nature as being all-loving and awe-inspiring. What it does entail is a more realistic perspective, and a rougher view of animism–spirits (nature) are to be placated because they can fuck you up. Spirits don’t exist just to help us happy little humans progress on our spiritual path. While indigenous spiritualities may involve structures for individual growth and change, they aren’t anywhere near the same as a lot of the crap you get out of New Age conventions and so forth.

What I’m trying to get at is that nature was never traditionally seen as nice and pretty to the exclusion of also being harsh and dangerous. This is completely a modern creation. And it is possible only because we postindustrial humans have convinced ourselves that we are separate from nature–and therefore we believe that nature’s nature has changed accordingly. Nature hasn’t changed, though. We’ve beaten it back to an extent with our technologies. However, if you put most modern citizens of the United States in the middle of a forest without a cell phone or other form of getting help, they’ll die. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and so forth are a reminder that we can still be very vulnerable to nature. All it takes is a dam breaking, a wall not holding, a lightning strike (or human error) in an area where brush has been allowed to build up, and you have something out of our control that we thought we had handled. Which is part of why these occurrences are so traumatic for the people they happen to–not just because bad things have happened, but because bad things have happened that we’ve convinced ourselves aren’t really a danger any more. Our illusion is safety has been shattered, rudely and violently. While I will agree that we’ve managed to insulate ourselves from certain effects to the point where we have longer lifespans and better overall quality of life (at least some of us, anyway), our place is pretty damned precarious.

And it’s the same way with spirits. I don’t agree with the core shamans who say that journeying is safer than dreaming, any more than I agree with people who think that nature can never hurt us because we have cities. The spirits haven’t changed much, just as nature in and of itself hasn’t changed. What has changed has been our attitudes towards them. Look at most books on totemism, or neoshamanism, or spirit work in general, and you get the impression that anybody can work with these beings with no problem, and that they exist to help us along our spiritual journeys–or at least are uniformly willing to do so because we are special little snowflakes. Yet when people read Eliade, or Vitebsky, or any other anthopological recording of traditional shamanisms, what gets glossed over are the dangers inherent in journeying, and the fact that in many traditions the spirits aren’t automatically your best friend.

In this culture, spirits and nature are seen in highly romanticized, “safe” manners, because we have fooled ourselves into thinking we can do so–just as we have fooled ourselves into thinking we no longer need to worry about nature, and are no longer part of natural cycles. Yet part of the reason I am being so damned cautious when starting out in my journeywork is because the shamanic practitioners I respect the most very often report that the deeper your experience journeying is, the more risk there is. In the same way, the more immersed we get in nature as it really is, the more risks there are. You’re less safe in the mountains than you are in a well-manicured lawn–but you’re also getting a diluted experienced of nature.

In the same way, I would argue that shamanic practitioners who “play it safe” aren’t getting nearly as much depth of experience as they could. While I’m still a relative neophyte specifically to shamanism, I have had years of experience with working with totems and other spirits in multiple spiritual and magical paradigms. And I know from that experience that the deeper you go, the harder and more potentially dangerous it is. The spirits that are working with me in therioshamanism are deliberately going easy on me for the time being, but it won’t always be that way.

So I have to wonder, when people talk about how loving and good and nice the spirits are, and how lovely and romantic nature is, just how deeply they’re opening themselves up to those phenomena. When core shamans talk about how safe journeying is, are they really getting that deeply into the Otherworld, to the point where they’re able to significantly detach from their own expectations? When people talk about how wonderful nature is, are they going out into places where they could ostensibly die–or at least being aware of them?

This is not to say that every “real” shamanic experience must automatically be a “KILLYOUANDEATYOU!” one. But we as modern shamanic practitioners in nonindigenous cultures need to be damned well aware that these things can and do happen, including during journeying. It is NOT safer than dreaming. It is NOT the same as guided meditation. And the fact that people, even in hospitals, and even spiritually “advanced” people, die from bacterial and viral infections, shows that nature surely isn’t always nice and loving to us special humans. I don’t think we need to resort to doing nothing but placation and DOOM. However, some healthy respect to balance out the “the spirits love us and just want to help us!” attitude would be a good balance.

Burying My First Cache

Tonight I decided to take Fox’s suggestion about creating caches of items in the Middle world for use while journeying. Something Ravenari mentioned to me at one point is taking the “essence” or “spirit” of a physical item with you while journeying, and so I wanted to experiment with that concept. So when I sat down to drum, I held in my lap my antler handled ritual knife that I’ve been using for over a decade through the various permutations of my magical/spiritual practice. Of all my ritual tools, I have the strongest connection to it, and the greatest amount of my energy soaked into it, so I thought it would be a good choice for something to hide and then find again. Granted, I might have taken something I was less attached to in case things didn’t work, but I wanted something I’d have a good chance of not losing.

I drummed, and when I got to my starting point, Fox arrived shortly thereafter. S/he took me to a particular pile of stones, made hirself small, and leaped down into the crevice. I did the same, and followed after hir, though not until I spent a few moments pawing at the crevice, trying to figure out how to make myself small, and hoping I didn’t get left behind! Fox led me back further under the rocks, and we got smaller and smaller and smaller, until we got to the very back of where we were going. There I saw a glowing patch of golden light, and Fox told me to place the spirit of the knife there. So I did, nudging it into place with my muzzle. I asked Fox who could see the cache, and s/he told me only s/he and I could. I asked why s/he could see it, if it was my cache, and s/he said “Because I’m the one who showed it to you, that’s why!” So now I’m wondering if Fox will show me more caches, or if other totems or spirits will, or if I’ll be finding or making some on my own, or some combination thereof.

Then we came back out from under the rocks and returned to the starting point. I had forgotten to bring food for Fox, so I went off hunting and caught a Douglas squirrel for hir. S/he appreciated it, and ran off with the food. I then headed back.

To my understanding, caching the spirit of the knife (or any other thing I choose to take there) has two purposes. It allows me to access that thing while I’m journeying; I plan on stockpiling various things over there, such as things for offerings for the various beings I may work with. It also allows me more connections to the spirit world through the physical items themselves. The physical item and its spirit are still connected; the spirit’s just been moved to where I journey. I should probably find out if there are any specific things I should do to take care of the physical items, or any other considerations.

I have a few other specific things I’ll be taking over in subsequent journeys, things the spirits have told me are good for this sort of work. I want to keep exploring the Middle world, too, to see what’s out there.

Replying to Owl, and Fox’s Tour

I journeyed again today to tell Owl about my answer regarding the Upper World. When I arrived, Fox and Scrub Jay were there, asking for my attention. I asked them to please wait until I could give Owl my answer, and they told me they would wait with me for hir arrival. So I called to Owl, and asked hir to please share hir time with me, if s/he was willing. S/he flew overhead, and told me s/he’d give me time if I’d catch a mouse for hir.

So I ran off into the underbrush, trying to scent out a mouse. I found where they were hidden deep in the earth, and also places where they had once been, but weren’t any more. Fox then came and said, “I can show you where you can get a mouse easily–follow me!” So I did, running up the mountain with hir. S/he showed me where there was a hollow log with a family of mice inside. I chased them from end to end, until one finally slipped out, a little confused, then realized hir mistake and tried to burrow under the log. I caught hir before s/he could get out of reach, and carried hir in my mouth. I was a little lost by that point, but Fox came back and led me back down to where Owl waited. I was a bit concerned that Mouse would be unhappy about me catching one of hir young, but Fox told me, “Mice get eaten all the time, including by Owl. That’s just the way of things.”

So I brought the mouse to Owl, who told me to kill the mouse. I did, and gave the mouse to Owl, who ate the carcass in two bites. Then Owl told me to tell hir my answer. I explained that my only reason for wanting to go to the Upper World was out of curiosity and a desire to know what was up there. Owl laughed and said, “That’s good enough for me. Now, when you feel you’re ready to go up there, let me know and I’ll show you how”. Then s/he flew away.

Fox then told me to come with hir. S/he took me down the trail to the west, and showed me where Mole lived–a recluse, and not easy to get to come out, but valuable to know. Then we went to the waterfall, and watched the river dragons leaping ecstatically over the cliff, laughing gleefully as they did so. I got the feeling they were analogous to the spirits that showed up as blue flames on the trail to the Upper World, that the river dragons guarded the way to the Lower World. This was one point where I could meet with them when the time came to go there.

Then Fox took me back up the trail a ways to a place that I had been interested in before. I couldn’t go there in waking time, but I was perfectly able to do so while journeying. I sniffed around there a bit, and Fox told me that this would be a good place to “put things, create things, build things”. Basically anything from a shelter for myself, to a place to do a ritual as needed, and most importantly, one of many places I could cache things I might need later on. I need to have some things on hand for offerings and gifts, and also have the spiritual “versions” of certain ritual items that I possess physically. Plus, in case I receive any gifts in return, it would be a good idea to have a place to keep them. Fox told me things should be safe so long as I hide them well; there really aren’t many other people who journey there.

Then Fox and I went back to the starting place, and I came back home. I noticed that while I still waver in and out of my altered state of consciousness while I journey, I’m doing it less, and staying focused on the journey more consistently. Practice makes perfect, right? (Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.)

You Mean I Have To Give a Reason?

I’ve started journeying again since the year turned over. Only once, but it was an important one.

I showed up at my starting place, in the form of a wolf per usual, and was met by the Animal Father. He carried me inside himself up the mountain to his home (no, it wasn’t squishy and I wasn’t making elbow room amid spiritual internal organs or whatnot–more like floating/flying up the trail, but feeling surrounding by the energy I associate with him). Then he set me down on the ground, and we began to talk about why I hadn’t journeyed in four months–or, rather, he began snarling at me about it. In fact, he ended up turning into a significantly larger wolf, bared fangs and all. This served primarily to put me on the defensive, rather than listening to what he had to say.

So he ended up turning into a mouse instead, which relaxed me quite a bit. We discussed the need for me to be journeying much more often–short version is, no more four month absences. This being the first week of school, I didn’t do the best job of increasing the amount of journeying I do, but now that I have a better idea of what my time commitments and schedule will be like, I have a better idea of where I can fit it in.

After this, he asked me how my progress on getting to the Upper world was, since I’d been trying to figure out that conundrum. I told him I was still stuck, and he suggested talking to the resident Owl, one of the totems specific to the area I start my journeys in. So he called hir to show up, and we were joined by Great Grey Owl (totems, for me, are species-specific). S/he and I had a conversation about the Upper world, and why I was having trouble accessing it.

The main thing s/he asked me, and which I puzzled over afterwards, was “Why do you need to get up there, anyway?” And I honestly couldn’t give hir a good answer beyond “To find information”. Owl told me to come back when I had a better answer for hir, and flew away. For my part, I ran back down the mountain with this question burning in my mind. Scrub Jay (the totem this time, not just a scrub jay spirit) and Red Fox both showed up. They offered their help in navigating this world, and Scrub Jay additionally told me s/he could help with the Upper World when the time came. I noted this, thanked them for the offer, and ended up needing to head back home.

For a few days, I couldn’t really come up with a decent answer for Owl’s question. Then one day, as I was on a walk, it hit me–why did I need to get to the Upper World, anyway? I didn’t have a specific reason, a particular piece of information to seek out. The only reason I could think of was “Because it’s part of what shamans are supposed to do–right?” Same thing with the Lower World. And here we get to one of the downsides to not being a part of an established shamanic paradigm–there’s no one to explain why, specifically, I might need to go to one or the other, or neither for that matter. I could read books, but even there the material is limited. I can talk to other practitioners, but how much of what they experience will be relevant to me?

To be sure, journeying is intensely personal, and I think there’s more subjectivity to it than a lot of practitioners want to admit. This means I can potentially look at the different worlds in the shamanisms of other cultures. But would these motifs and experiences be relevant to me, in my cultural context? And how much standardization is there, really? After all, there are other things that are “supposed” to happen in shamanism that haven’t quite matched my experiences. For example, according to most texts on neoshamanism, you’re “supposed” to climb up and down a tree to travel to the various worlds. I climb a mountain instead, one that I’ve visited frequently in waking time. And what I am practicing isn’t necessarily what other people are practicing; I am developing my relationships with the spirits from scratch, not following someone else’s template of expectations. In fact, most of the examples of neoshamanism I’ve seen have a lot of fundamental differences compared to what I’m doing.

This still left me with the problem: if I don’t know what’s in the Upper World or what to expect there, how do I know why I would want to go there? And then it hit me, as I was walking–right after I was presented with that problem, Scrub Jay and Red Fox offered me a solution: Don’t worry about the Upper World right now. Look for answers and explorations in this world first. It’s the closest, and the one I’m most familiar with. Where better to get more practice with journeying than the layer of reality that I’m most accustomed to? Not that everything will be a cakewalk, of course. But it makes a lot of sense.

I’m willing to bet that I’m not the first novice (neo)shaman to get caught up in the “Oooooh, I get to explore the Other worlds!” thing, to the point of neglecting this world. Now, I do tend to be a fairly pragmatic person. I’m the kind who will take mundane solutions before leaping into magical practice. So it’s not surprising to me, this concept of checking around the spiritual portions of this world first, before travelling further afield. I think I just got caught up in that whole “Shamans travel to the Upper and Lower worlds” concept a little too much.

Some of the Middle world stuff will no doubt be “mundane” things–like my venturing into psychology as a profession, for example, or finding other “everyday” solutions. However, I would imagine that journeying, as with various forms of divination, will help expand my perception of possible solutions (altered states of consciousness are good for that). I won’t make too many assumptions, but I think for now my journeys are going to be focusing on what Jay and Fox have to show me. They’ve offered, and I’ll follow. I should probably go to Owl and let hir know my current answer (“I actually don’t have a need to go there yet”) as well.

Look! A Post! A Long Post, Even!

I apologize for those on the LJ feed for this blog; there’s no way I can LJ-cut this post to make it shorter. Bear with me–I’m just trying to catch up after so long! Graci :)

I know I’ve been exceptionally quiet here (and elsewhere) lately. It’s been over a month since I posted, and over two months since I last journeyed. There’s been good reason for this. As I mentioned earlier this year, I was accepted into the counseling psychology program at a local graduate school, and am working on my Master’s degree. I don’t think I quite realized just how much of my life grad school would consume, and as my first semester progressed I found myself working harder to try to maintain equilibrium with the increasing demands on my time. It’s all been worth it, but it does mean that my active practice sort of fell to the wayside.

Fortunately, the spirits have been understanding. While grad school isn’t something that’s strictly shamanic, it does tie in with my practice on a number of levels, and so I am putting effort towards my shamanism even if it doesn’t involve drums and totems and so forth (most of the time, anyway…). In fact, I’ve been learning a lot of things that are highly applicable to my practice.

The most obvious is ecopsychology. Ecopsych involves the psychology of our relationship to the natural environment. An ecopsychologist may be concerned with the psychology associated with how people approach the environment, whether in positive or negative manners. Additionally, wilderness therapy and other practices focus on using the environment for therapeutic purposes. Ecopsychology is about as close to animism as you get in the Western mindset; it uses the language of psychology rather than religion, though there are some very strong spiritual themes within ecopsych.

I’ve been very interested in narrative therapy as well, which isn’t surprising given my background in English. Narrative therapy can refer to the use of storytelling–whether through writing, visual aids (artwork), or other creative means–to aid a client in being more open in talking about what s/he needs to work on. Additionally, the use of narratives can help a client find meaning in hir life, particularly when s/he may feel there is little connection between various events and entities that s/he encounters.

And I’ve also had some curiosity about Gestalt therapy. Some people primarily think of some of the more dramatic techniques, such as the empty chair. (I remember in high school seeing a film of a session where the client became angry enough to begin kicking the chair across the room!) “Gestalt” literally means “shape”, and like the Kanizsa triangle, Gestalt therapy demonstrates the whole of something, not just what is obviously “there”. It takes where the client is at the time and explores the context of the situation in detail–the people, places, and other influences that affect the client’s situation, as well as the manners in which the client acts upon the situation.

I’ll also admit that I found some bits of systems theory interesting. However, I’m still trying to wrap my head about Bradford Keeney’s Aesthetics of Change, which was by far my most challenging textbook this past semester. I’ll need to get a firmer grasp on it through Keeney and others before I can say for sure how much I want to incorporate it into my therapeutic practice in the future.

All of these areas of therapeutic practice focus on interconnection, something that is central to my shamanic practice. In the dominant cultural paradigm of the United States, we are encouraged to be isolated beings; we have the hyperromanticized “rugged individualist”. Yet we are part of numerous systems, whether we want to admit it or not. Everything that we do has an effect on something besides ourselves, and while many of these exchanges may seen to be insignificant, they can add up to create quite a change. (Or series of changes, really.)

Therioshamanism is much the same way. While a lot of my work focuses specifically on animals, I do not consider them to be separate from the rest of the world, and I do acknowledge the connections to everything else. Part of what I do is to act as an intermediary between the spirits and the human community. This need not always be direct things, such as journeying on behalf of another person. It can include passing along something that the spirits would like to have manifest in a way that is understandable to people I interact with. Often this happens simply through leading by example.

Take the gardening, for instance. Gardening promotes sustainable living, which eases the pressure on the environment in numerous ways–which is an effort that I’ve found is appreciated by the spirits I work with. Simply by geeking out about my garden on my personal blog, I managed to inspire a few other folks to start their own gardening projects this year. (It’s going to get worse this year–I have a yard now, and I still have room for all my containers. There shall be much growing of green vegetable-type things, and the blogging thereof!)

Of course, there’s a fine line between creating the world you want to see, and pushing an agenda on others. I learned a lot about boundaries in my ethics class this semester. While the boundaries are nowhere near as strict with something like shamanism (which isn’t regulated by any governing bodies or associations), it still gave me some good food for thought. And my primary focus as a therapist (and, for that matter, as a shaman, once I start actively working on others’ behalf) will be on aiding my client, not on making people see things my way. On the other hand, happier, healthier people are a part of the world I want to create, so hey–maybe part of my “agenda” will end up manifesting anyway!

Okay, so enough about graduate school. I’ve had a small group of students I’ve been passing along the basics of my practice to for the past couple of months. Weather, illnesses, scheduling conflicts, and other issues have given things a bit of a rocky start, but I’m pleased overall with how folks are doing. For privacy’s sake, I’m not going to talk much about the classes; needless to say, it’s a good group of folks that I look forward to working with for some time.

There are definitely challenges to trying to arrange even monthly meetings, as opposed to one-shot workshops or limited workshop series. While it’s been worth it so far with this group, I’m not 100% sure I’m going to make this sort of thing a regular occurrence. Some of it’s time issues; however, some of it’s also that so much of this stuff works best when self-directed, as it was created. I’m certainly not going to abandon my current group of students, but I may just eventually end up doing what I do best–write a book about it and let the readers take it from there.

Teaching students has been my main activity associated with therioshamanism. As I mentioned, I haven’t journeyed in a couple of months. However, now that I’m on break, I have more time for such things. Unfortunately, since Taylor and I just moved to a new place, most of my stuff is still packed up. My plan for this weekend is to try and get it unpacked; I need to be journeying again. I’ve missed it, and I have some things I need to do.

I don’t think I realized just how grounding my practice has been for me. It helps to promote deeper connections with the world around me; instead of journeying, I’ve been going for a lot of walks, and otherwise engaging in a lot of little, everyday activities that remind me of that connection. I’m going to try to reach a better balance this coming semester so that I can have more time for my practice, even if it’s not as often as I’d like. Yes, the grad school stuff works into it, but the journeying in specific is irreplacable.

One last thing, speaking of connections. Back in November, I had some tattoo work done. When we first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I got my second wolf tattoo, this one on my left arm, not long after the move:

It symbolized the beginning of my relationship to the Land here. At the time I was in Seattle, where I ended up having less of a connection than I expected. Too big, too crowded, just didn’t sit well with me. However, it got me started, and a year later we moved to Portland–a much better fit for us.

So as part of an ongoing day-to-day ritual of connection, I had more work done to my left arm:

This is partly a portrait of Multnomah Falls (I had the artist take out the bridge; the Falls themselves will be added in later). It’s one of those places that I really connected with, and it was a fitting representative of the Land out here. The work isn’t done yet; this was about two and a half hours in the chair, after which I simply couldn’t take any more, even with the topical anesthetic. So I have an appointment come May to get it finished up. (If you’re interested, by the way, Alice Kendall over at Infinity Tattoo in North Portland is the artist; I highly, highly recommend here.)

While I was getting inked, I did do some journeying (so I suppose I can’t say I haven’t done any in the past couple months–just no drum journeying). I started off at my usual starting point, and travelled all around the general area, both Portland metro and the surrounding areas. I spoke with the Land about my relationship to it, as well as the various entities–human, other animals, plants, etc.–that I could help through the things I am developing. I don’t want to go into any more detail, but needless to say it was confirmation of a number of things. It was, to say the least, an incredible rite of passage–and it won’t be done til May.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I should be able to do some drum journeying in the next few days, to get back into practice.

The Journeying Continues…

Tonight I tried my first journey with a purpose beyond exploration. I had a favor to ask of Badger, and so I went to see hir. I had an offering in mind, something I could give hir now, and something later, if s/he would help me.

I asked Small Horse and Small Deer (the drum and beater) for their aid, warmed up the drum, then I played Small Badger’s song to ask him to help me to negotiate with Badger. He was quite pleased that I played the song for him and asked him for his help, though I may make it a habit to make a small offering besides that for the skin spirits and other helpers.

So we all went to go see Badger. I drummed for a bit to let Small Horse and Small Deer take me to the starting point. When I arrived, I sang Badger’s song as loudly as I could, just to let hir know I was there. In retrospect, I could have gone looking for hir, too, but s/he didn’t seem miffed about coming to me instead. This is probably at least in part because s/he was expecting me; we’ve already talked a bit about the situation, and this time I came armed with offerings.

Badger made hirself look very large and impressive, and s/he towered over me, even for being a normally close to the Earth animal. I was sufficiently awed, and s/he and I got down to business. I told hir what I wanted hir help with, and also what offerings I would make. S/he was surprised, though not unpleasantly so, that I was offering something now and something later. S/he knew how important this situation is, and also that it would take some time to complete. So s/he accepted, and I was happy. I sang Badger’s song for hir again, to boast about how wonderful s/he is, which tickled hir even more.

Then I came back, and sang songs for Small Badger and Small Deer, and played Small Horse’s drumbeat, though I don’t have a song for hir yet. I warmed the drum down, and set out to start making things happen on my end.

I am quite pleased to note that my ritual structure is coming together nicely. When I started all this stuff out last year, I was doing things in a much more generically neopagan manner. I did a circle casting with an athame still, and swept the place with a broom beforehand for purification. I won’t say that my ritual structure now is the exact same as such-and-such culture’s shamans do it, because it isn’t. However, the structure has changed quite a bit.

Part of this is due to my beliefs. I no longer feel that I need to create a “world between worlds” to practice in, and I see all space as sacred, even if the Land in one place is tougher for me to connect with than in another place. While I greet the totems at the directions, I don’t do this as part of circumscribing a circle to divide me from the rest of the world. I don’t see myself as calling them, either–they’re already there; I need only remember that.

As I’m also focusing more on journeying, the ritual structure has evolved to support that as a central practice in many of the rituals, preparing me to go in, and helping me to come back out, as well as interact with the spirits at all points throughout. And the drumming has become much more prevalent, essentially having replaced the athame in greeting the directional totems and others.

Obviously, there are things that are in common between the previous structure and what I use now. But these are the most significant changes I’ve ever made, taking whole sections and tools and things out, and adding others in because they work better. It’s made things a lot more effective, even in this relatively short period of time.

So we’ll see how things progress, and what Badger ends up bringing about. While at an earlier point in my life, particularly when I was heavily into Chaos magic, I was very focused on the end results of my magic to determine my success. While that’s still important, what constitutes a good result may vary more than “I asked for X and got X”. It may be something as simple as “I asked for X, but Badger decided that Y would actually be better–and s/he was right”. Or it may end up being something much more complex, something that can’t be quantified in a linear, cause and effect fashion. “Success” is a very subjective notion, and a ritual that didn’t result in the intended way may still end up being more success than failure.

Not that I’d mind getting what I asked for, of course ;)

Shamanism and PTSD

I found this nifty article about core shamanism and PTSD over at Letters from Hardscrabble Creek. This makes me very hopeful, as PTSD treatment is something I want to do some research on once I have my counseling degree. (Neo)shamanism fits quite nicely into ecopsychology–in fact, the first anthology on ecopsychology includes an interview with Leslie Gray, who created what she calls “shamanic counseling”, a hybrid of core shamanism and counseling techniques.

“But wait, Lupa, I thought you didn’t like core shamanism! Why are you singing its praises?” you may ask. Yes, I have some practical differences with core shamanism that lead to me not wanting to practice it myself as a (neo)shaman. However–and this is a big however–I’m also not going to be so territorial that I refuse to pay attention when something I may not incorporate into my own practices is showing significant results for others.

PTSD is different from a good number of mental disorders. It doesn’t respond to many common therapies in the same way that other disorders, such as depression, do–talking openly about what happened can trigger flashbacks and other symptoms which may be very severe. And, of course, as with anything, individual patients may respond differently. So it can be a lot tougher to treat than many other things.

Many core shamanic practitioners strike me as prioritizing the psychological and other technical aspects of what they do than the relationships with spirits, the latter of which is what I put first. However, in this case, the emphasis on psychology and healing seems to be exactly what hits the spot for some PTSD patients. Granted, I would really like to see formal research on it–anecdotal evidence is a good start, but if someone has published research on it, I’d definitely want to get hold of it. And I’d want to know about the long-term results as well, since I don’t believe in instant fixes. I’ve contacted Sacred Hoop Ministry, the folks mentioned in the article to get more information, because this does make me curious.

There is part of me that’s really curious as to whether non-core shamanic soul retrieval would have similar effects, for better or worse. Would one be more effective than the other? Would it depend on the patient? Or is it simply different ways of doing the same thing? This is in light of the fact that the views on journeying may be very different–Harner stated that the shamanic state of consciousness is safer than dreaming, while most non-core shamans paint the Otherworld(s) as a much more dangerous place.

Still, if it works, then I’m not going to complain about particulars. Despite my preferences and biases, ultimately I’m mainly concerned with what achieves changes for the better. There are too many serious problems that need solutions for us to be spending too much time arguing over things that may not ultimately be all that important.