Administrata and Self-Forgiveness

First of all, I’ve realized that the FAQ and Bibliography for this blog are wayyyyyyy out of date. I know they’ve been linked to recently; please be aware that I need to overhaul them.

Also, I got a lot of comments on the racism post in particular; thank you so much to those of you who shared your thoughts. I’m mostly reading at this point, but I’ve really appreciated the insights people have provided. This is the sort of thing that makes putting this blog out there even more worth it.

So. On to the main meat of this post.

I recently read Coyote’s Council Fire by Loren Cruden. It’s a collection of interview questions with a variety of contemporary shamans and neoshamans, with each section opened by Cruden’s commentary on such issues as cultural appropriation and gender issues in shamanism and indigenous religions/cultures.

The first portion of the book is Cruden’s discussion on neoshamanism and issues of cultural appropriation. It’s by far one of the most balanced and thoughtful pieces of writing on the matter that I’ve read. While she acknowledges things like the romanticization of the Noble Savage, as well as the concept of privilege, she also makes a sympathetic argument for the need for non-indigenous people to develop shamanic practices that are appropriate for our own culture–not the cultures of our ancestors. A number of things she said resonated deeply; here’s a good example:

Caucasians [who practice non-indigenous shamanism] seem to be struggling in a betweenness. Those trying to transplant traditions from their European roots find their severance from the past frustrating. Those engendering new paths are mostly cobbling piecemeal structures out of eclecticism, and those seeking an integration of their cultural roots with their current life situations are contending with Native reaction and the difficulties inherent to such an evolution. It is an awkward phase needing both more sympathy and more useful questioning than it’s getting. (p. 23)

Yes. Nail. Head. You got it.

It’s no secret that I’m critical of the shortcomings I see in neoshamanisms in general, core and otherwise. Issues of racism and cultural appropriation, downplaying the potential dangers of journeying and other shamanic work, watering shamanism down into a milquetoast New Age pablum, core shamans claiming that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”–these things drive me up the wall, across the ceiling, and out the window. I don’t want people to stop practicing the way they practice, but I want to encourage mindfulness and discussion surrounding these and other issues.

However, I also admit that I can come down harder than I probably need to, not only on other practitioners, but also on myself. And a lot of that is insecurity. Nobody wants to be told they’re wrong. I know that no matter how carefully I tread, someone’s going to take offense to the idea that some white chick is practicing “shamanism”, and no amount of trying to explain what it is I’m trying to do will help. So I think sometimes I spend too much time worrying about whether some person on the internet will think what I’m doing is right, instead of being concerned with what I, anyone I do work for, and the spirits think is right.

I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I think it’s best to just leave other people to whatever’s going to happen, and if someone gets eaten by a grue while they’re out journeying, it’s not my problem. But then I also recognize that by not talking about something, I’m doing less to change it for the better (at least, my idea of “better”). So it’s not always easy to know what to say or do, when to say or do it, and at what point to quit.

But after reading that book, I do think I need to be more forgiving–most of all, of myself. This all stems from my own insecurity and projecting it outward. And that’s not good for anyone. So I think in addition to being honest about my potential shortcomings and flaws, I also need to be honest about my efforts and successes. And I need to be okay with where I’m coming from in all this, which is:

I’m a white American. I am not German, Czech, Austrian, Alsatian (woof!) or any of a number of other nationalities of my ancestors. I have never been in contact with any of these cultures or been to any of these lands, nor do I intend to change that. I have to start from the place where I am, the Pacific Northwest U.S. I intend to stay here. Which means that I need to work on creating and improving my relationships with the land and its denizens, physically and spiritually. This includes the human community as well as what people commonly think of as “nature”. Since I am not indigenous, I cannot assume that indigenous ways of relating to the land will work for me. So I’m on my own to a large degree.

I’m also convinced, by various experiences in my thirty-one years on this planet, that the world is alive in a way that most white Americans don’t see–I am an animist. And there are spirits who need me to do things for them, and also people in my community who need me to do things for them, and the manner in which these things are done often necessitates things like me going into the spirit realm (not physically, obviously) and certain ritualized practices designed to facilitate the necessary suspension of disbelief that will trigger appropriate psychological (and spiritual) states to get the job done.

But I am of a culture that does not have a set method of relating to the land other than as a commodity, and in which Christianity is the dominant method of engaging with spirituality, and other people are often competitors for resources. None of these suit me, and I will not shoehorn myself into something uncomfortable simply to be more culturally appropriate. So I find ways to recreate a “shamanic” role that fits this culture, but also answers my needs and the needs of those I work for.

Becoming a licensed counselor is one strategy, because it’s intermediary work and can integrate spirituality in some cases, but is acceptable in this culture for the most part. But that can’t be all of it. The need I have for mythos and ritual can’t only be limited to the carefully balanced parameters of ethics, competency and professional boundaries of counseling, even if I were to integrate a certain amount of core/neo-shamanism into it at some point down the line.

And that’s where a lot of the problem is. I work with animal and other nature spirits. I have been doing so for over a decade. But white American culture, however you want to define it, doesn’t have a set way of dealing with such animistic tendencies other than outmoded psychological diagnoses (“you’re all schizotypal!”) or a Christian (not THE Christian, mind you) opinion of “that’s evil”. There’s neopaganism, but that’s a huge umbrella, and there are plenty of controversies there, too. And, of course, there’s the plethora of animal totem dictionaries and related core/neo-shamanic material out there that shamelessly imitates indigenous practices without context or apology.

Those are my only choices? Unacceptable.

But I can’t just sit here and do nothing. Not when I know what needs to be done. Not when I have spirits (or, fine, figments of my psyche, if you want to see them that way) poking at me for attention as they have for over a decade. Not when I and others who are similarly rootless have a strong need for connection and ritual and mythos and meaning. Not when I am in a good place to facilitate these things for all of us, which can help heal the wounds and insanities of our culture which helped bring about a lot of the problems we (not just white Americans) are facing in the first place.

So I’m doing my best to find a particularly meaningful way to engage with the natural world (physically and spiritually), coming out of a culture that doesn’t possess existing ways to do so that satisfy me. It’s guaranteed that I’ll screw up sometimes, and that at some point I will always be doing something that will offend someone somewhere. So I do my best to educate myself about potential pitfalls, and act according to my conscience.

And that’s the best I can offer, which I think is pretty darn good, all told.

Shamanism and Racism

“Shamanism and racism”. Google that, and you’ll mainly get various pages referencing Shamanism, Racism and Hip-Hop Culture by James Perkinson (which, incidentally, is now on my wish list). There’s more when you do various searches for shamanism and cultural appropriation (without quotes). But it seems like most people don’t want to use the R-word.

And yet there is inherent racism in a lot of non-indigenous shamanic practices and trends. Not overt racism, but racism nonetheless. A few examples:

–White people traveling to far-off lands for the sole purpose of having shamanic “experiences” with “genuine tribal elders”. In many cases, these experiences are completely removed from the reality of their cultures of origin. This is especially pernicious in cases where participants are blind to the fact that members of that culture may be living in poverty, may be subjected to egregious human rights violations at the hands of governments and corporations, may experience daily racism (to include violence) from other residents who don’t go away when the seminar is over, and otherwise are not the mystical, quasi-Atlantean purveyors of super-secret wisdom.
–Core shamans claiming that core shamanism is culturally and racially neutral. There is no such thing as “culturally neutral”. Core shamanism was developed within a particular Western mindset, and its parameters and emphases reflect that. (I wrote more about this in this post a couple of years ago.)
–Shamans who turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the people who are able to afford their pricey weekend seminars and hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour consultations are white, middle class, and college-educated. What about everyone else, to include those who may not be able to afford health insurance but need healing, counseling, etc.? Alternative medical care may be one of the few options for the uninsured, but not if it’s consistently priced out of their range.
–Shamans who profit from the specific cultural teachings of indigenous people, but who give nothing back to those cultures, to include money made from shamanic consultations, workshops, etc. based on the teachings.*
–Shamans who ignore the fact that for the majority of the American population, the concept of going to a “shaman” is alien, offensive, crazy, or otherwise not viable. We do a great disservice to the people we could be serving when we stick within the narrow comfort zone of people who are enough like us to understand what we mean by shamanism. By assuming that, say, a Catholic Hispanic person who may see what we do as devil worship is just “unenlightened”, we refuse the possibility of meeting people where they’re coming from, which is a key component of fighting social injustices.
–Shamans who ignore the complaints of some indigenous people regarding cultural appropriation and plastic shamanism. Yes, it sucks being criticized, especially when it’s not constructive criticism, because we don’t like hearing what is being said. Yet ignoring the complaints because they don’t fit our preferences isn’t a viable solution. One of the most insidious manifestations of racism—and, indeed, social injustice–involves silencing minority voices.

It’s obvious that these examples reflect other social justice issues beyond racism, but let’s stay focused for the purposes of this essay. Nobody wants to talk about racism because nobody wants to be a racist. Here in the 21st century, racists are “bad people”, and to be considered a racist is to invite guilt and shame. (Well, in most cases. You do have those who openly embrace their racism as a positive character trait—but that’s another problem entirely. And there are those who have exchanged their inwardly-directed guilt for more constructive, outwardly-focused responses. But I digress.)

In fact, modern non-indigenous shamanic practitioners have gotten pretty good at dodging the issue of racism entirely. Many of the arguments reflect justifications for racism in society at large. Here are just a few I’ve run across commonly.

–“You’re taking this too seriously; it doesn’t really matter.” But it does matter. To the people bothered by it, it’s very valid. (I could probably turn the starfish story on its head with a different interpretation of “it matters to this one”.) And yes, I’m notorious for meta-meta-meta-analysis of everything. But so was Joseph Campbell, and he came up with some awesome (if sometimes biased) concepts about mythology. If it ends up that I’m overthinking things, so be it. At least I took the time to examine it. And I don’t analyze so much that I don’t also practice; I just practice with that analysis in mind. Unlike many (though not all) academics who are exploring issues of cultural appropriation and shamanism/neopaganism/etc. I am immersed in what I’m exploring. So it is relevant to what I actually do.

–“It’s just some of the Indians [or other indigenous people] complaining/I know Indians [or other indigenous people] who don’t mind sharing.” That may be. But your friends and colleagues do not speak for their entire culture, never mind all indigenous cultures. There are reasons these people are complaining, and those reasons need to be explored, even if it isn’t comfortable to do so. Ignoring them doesn’t help the discussion. Shutting them down because they say things we aren’t comfortable with is also not constructive. If anything, as those who are privileged, we have additional responsibility to listen.

–“White people get mistreated, too. Listen to all the complaining you’re doing about white people. Is that fair?” No, it’s not fair. But this isn’t about fair. It’s about actually paying attention to problems that your privilege lets you ignore on a daily basis. (If you’re unclear about what the concept of privilege is, please read Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.) A white person being called names for being white does not have the same historical and still-existing societal context of, say, a black person being called names for being black. And let’s not even get started on the gross inequalities that Native Americans have been and still are routinely subjected to. There’s a lot more to racism than someone not liking you.

–“Spirituality/shamanism/healing/etc. is for everyone. We should focus on erasing boundaries between cultures and races and other artificial divisions and just focus on being all human.” Well, yes, a world without racism and other social injustices would be ideal. But you don’t get there by ignoring issues of social injustice and pretending they don’t exist, or that you’re not involved. You get there by getting your hands dirty, taking responsibility for your part–intentional or not–in the problem, dealing with your own privileges, and listening to the people who are affected by the injustices. This is basically another iteration of racial colorblindness, which is a lot more counterproductive in deconstructing racism than some would assume.

I’ll say right now that I am most definitely not expecting everyone to agree with me. (In fact, I have my super-secret-shamanic-technology flame-retardant undies on, just as a precaution.) And I’m not perfect, especially when it comes to actions of cultural diversity. Most of this is still me chewing on thoughts, becoming aware of my shortcomings, as I’m immersed in a curriculum that focuses heavily on social justice in counseling. I’m well aware of the fact that my own cultural experiences have been pretty homogenous. I’ve been working to change that with my volunteering and graduate school efforts, which focus heavily on working with the formerly homeless, impoverished, recovering addicts, and other people whose experiences I couldn’t even begin to fathom personally. But that’s a small start, and it doesn’t automatically make me an expert on minority groups.

But I want people to be talking about this, even if some of the commentary ends up changing my perspectives somewhat. Even being “wrong” is better than being silent, and we all stand to learn from this discussion. Not talking about race just promotes racism.

*An excellent example of someone who does give back to the culture he learned from is James Endredy, with his Earth Spirit Foundations charitable programs.

Some Comments on Neoshamanism

I’ve been thinking some about arguments of authenticity and neoshamanism (non-indigenous practices that emulate indigenous shamanisms). And it really seems that we’re stuck in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation.

One of the biggest criticisms is that we aren’t doing things the same way as indigenous cultures. We don’t take long enough to train, or we’re too superficial, or we otherwise have no idea what we’re doing, because we have no animistic/shamanistic tradition inherent in non-indigenous American culture. We are a unique culture in that, more than any other, we have a wide variety of individual cultural influences from around the world, but no older base culture at the core. The indigenous cultures here, of course, were decimated by European colonists, and even if they hadn’t been, one can hardly say there was a monolithic Native American culture from Alaska to Brazil. Looking at what we have now, we don’t so much have a melting pot as we do a soup, sort of, a general broth but with individual bits and pieces of stuff retaining its own character, more or less. We can say we have American culture, but whose is that really? The culture of white middle-class liberals come up with, or working-class African American Baptists, or Hispanic migrants? What the media shows, the formermost of the three examples I mentioned, doesn’t nearly cover what it is to be American, just the most privileged iteration thereof.

Alternately, we’re supposedly doing it wrong because we are doing it like indigenous people, just not good enough. We’re only aping indigenous practices, from cultures that aren’t interested in having us participate in any form. But even if we did have more access, I do not think that trying to draw even more deeply from indigenous shamanisms is the answer to our dilemma. For example, I’ve seen what basically amount to shamanic tourist traps, where white people spend thousands of dollars to fly to South America to do ayahuasca intensives with people they’ve never met before in a land they’ll never permanently connect to, and then assume that’s a full-on initiation. Sure, you might learn some interesting techniques, but then you have to figure out how to use them in a different culture and a different landscape. And once you take specific practices out of their original context, they lose their meaning.

To an extent, all American neoshamans—and neopagans—have to adjust to this conundrum. One of the things that really interests me, for example, with reconstructionist paganisms is how the practitioners adjust to living in a land, culture and time that the cultural portions of their religious practices aren’t supposed to be connected to, and the individual interpretations and compromises fascinate me to no end. With neoshamanism being as heavily animistic as it is, and being more of an intensive practice than a religion, it’s especially difficult to introduce it to a culture that never had anything directly analogous to either animism, or the role of a shaman. There’s no convenient niche to fill; we have to chip it out ourselves, either modifying existing roles, or creating something entirely different.

Plus we’re not looking at small, relatively homogenous tribal groups. In a square mile chunk of Portland, for example, you can find people from dozens—or even hundreds—of ethnic backgrounds, religions, political affiliations, etc. Many of them may not have ever met their neighbors. As I blogged about over at the Wild Hunt a while back, most attempts to try to artificially build a tribe out of this sort of environment don’t work particularly well. And shamanism is something that grew primarily out of relatively small, cohesive groups.

Which leads to criticism with American culture itself. There are complaints that shamanisms within this culture reflect specific cultural elements that are often considered to be negative. The reality is that American culture (whatever that is) has a tendency towards individualism, instant gratification, and materialism. That’s part of what we have to work with. Neoshamans and neopagans can’t instantly shift the culture we’re immersed in; even our subcultures are still marked to a great deal by greater, more overarching tendencies. And no matter how much work we do on ourselves, we’re always going to be indelibly marked to some extent by our culture of origin and/or immersion. Additionally, if we’re going to do our work for the people in this culture, we need to meet them where they are instead of expecting them to be “more enlightened” or otherwise vastly different from the state we find them in. And remember—there are human beings involved here, not automatons or perfected higher selves.

So don’t be surprised when the fledgling attempts to try to create a shamanism for this culture end up being marked by individualism, instant gratification, and materialism to some degree or another. We may not want to stay there—but we have to start somewhere. Because we’re so attuned to individualism, for example, it’s no surprise that there are numerous interpretations of what a shamanism for this culture would be. Even within core shamanism, which started with Michael Harner, there are plenty of directions that the basic material has been taken in. This means there’s really no consensus as to what non-indigenous American shamanism is. There may never be, and there may always be disagreements as to what “real” shamanism is, in this culture and otherwise. Maybe we’ll end up with different shamanisms, somewhat though not completely analogous to individual tribal shamanisms, but with 300 million Americans, it’s hard to think that we’d be able to come up with a one size fits all praxis.

Think about it—we’ve really only been trying for a few decades at best to make something of a shamanic tradition in this culture. Even with as many people are interested today, that’s still only a very small portion of the population at large. It’s not like some greater movement such as feminism, where millions upon millions of people got involved as it gained momentum. So we have a relatively small number of people working within a relatively small amount of time to do something that involves not only creating a spiritual praxis more or less from scratch, but also altering the culture in which it is being created, often with conflict from numerous directions. That’s a pretty tall order, if you ask me.

And yes, we’re going to make mistakes and fuck up royally as we learn through trial and error. And that’s okay. At least we’re doing something. At least we’re trying. At least we’re not being armchair critics on the sidelines. The people who do the work have my respect for doing the work, even if I disagree with the details of what they’re doing.

Bear Ritual

Today I led my first “official” group ritual as a practicing (neo)shaman. Brown Bear has been nudging me to try out some of the ritual techniques and practices I’ve been developing over the past few months to see how they’d work out, and s/he said s/he had wanted a ritual hirself, so this was a good opportunity. I put everything together pretty quickly since it’s getting into hibernation time, but it all worked out.

We ended up clearing out the living room, moving the dining table into the kitchen temporarily, and pushing the couches against the walls. Then the little table in front of the TV ended up doing double duty as an altar and place to keep my ritual implements when I wasn’t using them. Here are a few pictures (apologies to those on the LJ feed who don’t have the benefit of an LJ-cut for this):



The hide covering the altar is an old skin, possibly bear but not entirely sure, that was left on my porch at our old place–we think we know who it was. It’s incredibly old, just about falling apart, probably from somewhere in the early 20th century. The other hide, the bearskin in the foreground on the second picture, is my ceremonial skin–she was an oooooold rug I got at an antique shop over a decade ago. I removed all the rug stuff, and while she’s very delicate, some mink oil helped to rehydrate her. Still, she’s many decades old, and I have to be very careful with her.

There’s also a rattle made from a black bear skull and a deer leg bone that I use to call in the spirits, and a deerskin bag that holds some of my other Brown Bear items. The plate in the center has small Bear packets that would be given out during the ceremony. Leaning against the altar are my big drum, a small drum that was my starter drum but is now a spare, and the elk antler bells I made a while back. And the white fur is the wolf headdress and tail that I wear while journeying, as I journey as a white wolf. There’s also a very small bear statue on there, along with a packet of small bear fetishes leftover from making the gift packets for participants.

There ended up being seven of us total–me, Taylor, the three practitioners that I took on as students a while back, and who are now going off in their own unique directions with the material, and two other folks from the local pagan community who wanted to attend.

I began with rattling in the spirits that I wished to have in attendance, calling them each by the name they wished to be known by. I didn’t call in everyone, because not all the spirits would have been a good fit for this ritual. Black Bear also helped to let me know who to welcome. I then warmed up my drum, rubbing it with my hand and then with the beater. After that I called the horse spirit of the drum with a specific beat that I use.

Once that spirit came out of the drum, I began the journey drumming, and I asked the rest of the participants to drum with me to help me get to where I was going. I had journeyed to see Bear the day before to take hir a preliminary offering and to check in with hir about last details for today, but I didn’t want to make the assumption that s/he would automatically come to the celebration we had set up for hir. So I went with my bearskin spirit, and once we got to Bear’s den, I asked everyone to stop drumming since they had gotten me to where I needed to be, and to simply listen as I told what I experienced as it happened.

The bearskin spirit and I went down cautiously into Bear’s den, even though we had been there before. Bear was there, and grumbly because s/he was sleepy. I very carefully asked hir whether s/he would like to come with us to the celebration and to see the gifts for hir, and also to place hir energy/scent on the bear packets I had made. S/he grumbled some more, and then told me that if s/he was going to show up, I would have to dance for hir, wearing the necklace I had made for hir before. The bearskin spirit and I then retreated. I had been keeping the drumbeat slow and quiet throughout all this, trying to keep myself calm, but turning my back on Bear was frightening, and I fought to keep the beat slow and quiet as we went back up to the surface.

The horse of my drum carried me back as the participants all drummed and rattled again to help bring me back home. Then they drummed more as I carefully draped the bearskin over me, put the necklace on, and danced like a bear. It was odd, because I’m used to wolf dancing up on my toes (and I also walk on my toes as a matter of course), but bear dancing required me to stay on my heels. Plus the movement is much different, a larger animal, with a different heft of momentum.

And Bear did arrive, using the dance as a vehicle. I growled and whuffed and sniffed at the altar and the goodies on it–and the food people had brought, too. Once the dance was done, I talked a bit about my relationship to Bear, and also gave folks some time to interact with Bear on their own. Then we got to the food! I still held Bear inside me to an extent, and let hir taste the food through me. There were many good things–foccacia bread, and containers of fresh berries and grapes (which Bear loved). And I made cookies, too, with applesauce I made from scratch earlier this year and gave to Bear as yesterday’s offering. (Eating offerings in celebration is apparently a perfectly acceptable way to deal with the physical portions.)

Then once that was done, I thanked all the spirits for being there, most of all Bear, and we drummed for them a while, and I danced as I drummed. Then I rattled them back home, and saw the attendees out.

I got the permanent Brown Bear altar set up in my ritual/art room:


There’s the Bear bag, and also the assorted stone bear fetishes. There’s also a bear claw carved from horn that was offered by one person, and some sage and herbs offered by another, all of which will stay on the altar. And there are some spare packets from the ritual that will probably end up being gifted to people who could use a boost of Bear energy, as it were. No doubt I’ll add more stuff as time goes by, but that’s a good start. Incidentally, the table above it will be a Wolf altar, once the time comes for that. (The other hide is normally on my main altar, where I returned it after the ritual was done.)

Overall, I think it went really well. I was nervous as hell, but managed to keep myself focused on the ritual itself. The feedback confirmed that others enjoyed it, too. One of the things that concerned me is that in neopaganism group rituals usually involve a lot of participation on everyone’s part. The whole spectator thing is often considered to be “boring”, or so I had feared. But as a performance ritual, this seemed to work out really well.

The other thing I noticed was how quickly I got to my starting point with the help of everyone else drumming/rattling! It was like having a huge push behind me as the horse carried me there. Between that, and Bear’s den being very close to my starting point, plus it being a pretty straightforward, mostly pre-arranged task, the ritual itself didn’t last too long, under a half an hour [ETA: the portion prior to the food, I mean]. But it was strong, and I know I’m on the right track with this. There’s some fine-tuning that needs to be done, and things will get better with experience, but for a first time out, I’m really pleased, and everyone else (including Bear) seemed to agree.

On the Recent Sweat Lodge Deaths

This has been bothering me all day, but I couldn’t really figure out how to articulate it until I was sitting working on some artwork tonight.

In case you haven’t heard, two people are dead and others ill after a sweat lodge held by James A. Ray, a proponent of The Secret, went awry. This is far from the first death caused by improperly constructed lodges; heart problems seem to be a common factor, as is wrapping the lodge in a layer of plastic (which is a bad idea all around, no pun intended). I first read about it at the Wild Hunt, and others have weighed in on angles such as pseudo-psychology and (not) cultural appropriation.

I think the issue that stands out to me the most is that of competency. In counseling, competency means having at least an adequate, if not superior, set of knowledge and skills about a given topic to be able to effectively help a client with a minimum of risk to their psychological health. One thing I’m learning in my classes on practical skills is that no matter who you are, you will always screw up. Therapists are human, and as much as one would like to be the most awesome, helpful, effective therapist ever, there will always be those clients who just don’t work out–and the ones that you really regret because you know you could have acted differently in hindsight.

Competency is an ethical issue designed to make sure that the chances of causing harm are minimized. For example, I’m on the adult track in my program. My classes are tailored toward working with adults, and my internship will be the same. Before I could ostensibly work with children, I would have to take steps to increase my competency through education and reading, at the very least. The same thing goes if I end up having a client referred to me who is of a special population whose unique situation I don’t have experience or knowledge of.

Running a proper sweat requires competency on a couple of levels. I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether indigenous spiritual ceremonies associated with sweats are inherently spiritually better than New Age or otherwise not indigenous ones, and whether these people died because the spirits were displeased. On a physical level, though, there is a definite need for competency–how to safely construct the lodge, how to prepare the correct sort of stone, how to monitor participants for health concerns, and so forth. Psychologically, too, there needs to be competency with any sort of rite of passage or other ritual that has the potential to shake a person out of their usual headspace. I have heard entirely too many horror stories in the neopagan community of ritual leaders who led people through a particularly moving ritual–and then didn’t stick around to pick up the pieces when a participant ended up with some trauma being dredged up by the experience.

What seems to have happened here is a lack of competency on a physical, and potentially psychological, level. Did Ray know about the risks of running a sweat with that many people and that sort of construction, and how to know when something was going wrong? Did he make it clear to people that, no matter how moving an experience they were having, if they felt ill they needed to get out, and they wouldn’t have failed for admitting their limits? Did he receive any sort of training that might have included how to address these and other concerns?

And I think this is something that neoshamans/shamanists/shamanic practitioners in general should be thinking about. Most of us don’t have access to indigenous cultures and their spiritual teachings (nor should we presume we have a right to such things). There’s no shamanism inherent to the culture I am a part of. But there are attempts to try to construct such a thing. The problem is that we’re starting from scratch, whether that means working with core shamanism, gleaning what we can from indigenous contacts, or trying to piece things together on our own.

How can we really gauge competency when there are so many people going in so many directions? There’s not a single non-indigenous shamanic path that doesn’t come under some scrutiny, whether from indigenous practitioners, or from neoshamans themselves. We aren’t going to get everyone to agree to some universal way of doing things. this survey from the Society of Shamanic Practitioners shows a bias toward a very specific, core-based manner of practice that I couldn’t finish because a lot of the questions simply didn’t apply to how I currently do things; same thing goes for others I know.

Some would argue that we have to do more in conjunction with indigenous cultures who have well-established shamanic systems (using the term shamanic loosely). While this certainly would give a person firm grounding in that culture’s shamanism, it A) supposes that a culture would be willing to share such a thing, and B) doesn’t take into account that many, if not most, of the practices and cosmologies found in indigenous shamanism aren’t going to do as well outside of their original cultural context. Nor will many Americans view things like journeying and ceremonies as anything other than “crazy stuff” or “devil worship”–which pretty much eliminates them as potential recipients of shamanic work. (On a side note, I’ve had people tell me I should just look to the religions of my ancestors. Beyond the fact that it’s Catholics way back, I fail to see how 1,000+ year old cultures from a continent away are going to be any more helpful in working with this culture than indigenous ones would be. I am not a circa 700 A.D. Slavic peasant.)

We could also try to come up with some standards and best practices for neoshamans, but who gets to decide what’s what? If we’re going by sheer numbers, core shamans are the most numerous, but most non-core neoshamans have some misgivings with core shamanism. And we’re talking about a bunch of people who are scattered across the country, not all of whom spend as much time on the internet as I do, and are not always particularly accessible or willing to network. It’s a much different context from a more localized, relatively homogenized culture. (I do think that talking more about this stuff, though, is highly recommended, even if nothing truly universal comes out of it. Peer review is a good thing.)

My own personal preference in gaining competency is to interweave aspects of my culture that are most analogous to what I understand shamanism to be, hence my working on a Master’s in counseling psych, since psychology figures heavily in my practice and general worldview. However, I also have the privilege of being able to get loans and go to school in the first place, as well as having enough of an interest and ability with psychology to make it worth my time. And people may disagree with various assessments of what a shaman would be in this culture.

Then, of course, there are those who would be thrilled if all us not-indigenous folks put aside these games of “shamanism” since we don’t have the level of competency indigenous cultures have. Both from a spiritual and psychological perspective, I can see great value in creating structures of meaning, rites of passage, and other things missing from large portions of this culture, and if the means and trappings in which some practitioners try to create these structures is misguided and appropriative, at least the general effort is of value and should be fine-tuned rather than scrapped entirely.

There are times, honestly, when all I want to do is throw my hands up and decide that we’re all arguing over completely subjective psychological meaning-making systems, and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but how you use it and for what purposes. Maybe we’d quit arguing over who believes the right things, and get rid of the red herrings of subjective authenticity, and instead get down to the business of dealing with what’s more objective. Whether I believe animal totems talk with me when I drum is a subjective issue, and again something that I sometimes think is wholly a structure of personal mythology. If I claim that what I’m doing is according to some indigenous culture I’ve never had any contact with, then it veers over into objective territory in that I’m making a verifiably false claim about the beliefs that could potentially affect the people whose legitimacy I’m trying to leech. And if I further use this to justify telling people to, say, drink bleach because Bear said that it’s good for what ails you, then we’re really into the objective, insofar as the actions I am taking extrapolated from my beliefs.

And that’s where I really think competency comes in. You can’t measure the legitimacy of whether the totems talk to me or not; there’s no such thing as spiritual competency in that regard, unless someone has some form of omniscience that I’m not privy to. (Gods know there are lots of neopagans and others who try their damnedest to measure the spiritual competency of others, especially others they dislike.) But you can measure one’s competency in psychological and physical terms. If I integrate shamanism into my counseling practice, no one can say whether, say, a soul retrieval was spiritually successful–but we can look at the client’s progress after that ritual and see whether it helped improve their psychological health. And if I decided to incorporate wilderness therapy in my practice and take clients hiking, my competency could be measured in terms of things like whether I have up-to-date Wilderness First Responder training.

As far as how much competency Ray had? There’s not yet enough information available, unless I’ve missed something. I looked on the bio on his website, and couldn’t really find anything to suggest he has any psychological training, or what sort of spiritual training he may have had (including that which may have shown him how to safely run a sweat). Hopefully more will come out in the wash. In the meantime, I think we need to focus less on things like cultural appropriation and the exact tools (physical and psychological) used in this case, and instead look at the people involved and how they were using these tools. Being a non-indigenous person running a sweat lodge does not automatically make you a potential killer. Being someone who doesn’t possess physical and psychological competency involved with the rite, regardless of the exact cultural trappings, is an entirely different story.

A Brief Response to a Few Replies…

…on my previous post. I’ll have more specific replies later, but here’s a thought.

I had to think about it a bit, the whole “softening up” thing. It’s not that I’m going to entirely stop criticizing anything I see as potentially off. I’m definitely still going to call out people who claim their practices are what they aren’t. And I’m still going to be clear about why I, personally, will not adopt certain things, such as the bulk of core shamanism, or the more severe practices at the other end of the spectrum that simply don’t fit my worldview, and suggest to others that they take these things into consideration for their own opinions.

However, I’m not going to go so far as to invalidate all the experiences of anyone whose practices significantly differ from mine. I can’t say for sure that if someone encounters relatively safe journeying conditions that their experiences are less valid; nor will I invalidate my own experiences simply because they aren’t as harsh as others’ (or, for that matter, assume that those other folks are “going too far”). I’ve been more critical of core shamanism than others, but I’ve had my personal misgivings with conceptions of deities and spirits that in essence say that we must give in to their every demand as a way to placate them because that’s the way it’s supposedly done genuinely. Either way, softer or harder than what I do, I’m looking at things from a more practical viewpoint, and less automatically critical.

So that’s a bit of a clarification. I’m not accepting things without consideration, but I am going to say that beyond a certain point my authority to criticize only goes so far because of subjectivity and the inability to climb into someone else’s head. I think a better criterion would be “Does it work?”. There’s also the argument over semantics and who’s a “real shaman”, but for the practices themselves, I’m going to be less liable to dismiss something because it involves things I personally disagree with.

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 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.

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.

Shamanic Performances

One thing that’s interested me since I started reading about shamanisms worldwide is the concept of a shamanic performance. It varies from culture to culture, of course, and not all indigenous cultures have this feature, but it’s pretty common. In a nutshell, the community (or a family, or other group) comes together and primarily watches as the shaman does hir thing on their behalf. It may be part storytelling, with the shaman narrating what s/he is experiencing during hir journey, or the shaman may not express what happened until after the fact. And while there may be elements of showmanship and sleight of hand, the process is quite serious when it comes down to it.

With the exception of seithr/seidr, I haven’t seen much information on shamanic performance in non-indigenous shamanisms (while seithr/seidr is Norse in origin, the majority of people practicing it are not native to Norway). Neoshamans who practice on behalf of others very often will do so on a one-on-one basis with individual clients. While this certainly isn’t unprecedented, since shamanic figures in indigenous cultures would generally work with people individually, the one-on-one structure predominates in neoshamanism.

While I don’t see anything wrong, per se, with the one-on-one ritual structure, I do think the more semi-public/public shamanic performance structure deserves more attention. One of the things that really fascinates me is how the element of performance can aid in the audience’s suspension of disbelief in a manner that is different from experiential rituals (wherein everyone participates in an active manner) or an individual client (in which the client is generally acted upon in some manner by the shaman, whose focus is solely on that person). I see shamanic performance as potentially drawing on some of the same elements of theatre–something that enthralls and engages the audience, and moves them in deep ways. With the addition of the esoteric elements of magical practice, the potential for group altered states of consciousness is even greater.

I’ve always been fond of Homo ludens as described by Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (and yes, I do need to hunt down a copy of Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (Man the Player)). In the modern U.S., play in adults is largely forgotten outside of sports and the bedroom–and even then it can still often be stunted in both settings. The beauty of a well-crafted ritual, even as a spectator, is that it fulfills the need for play in our lives. It allows us to really let go of our inhibitions–not in harmful ways like getting smashed and having unprotected sex with someone whose name (and sexual health) you’re unaware of–but in healthy, aware, albeit often catalytic manners. It allows us to exercise our Imagination-with-a-big-I, the one we often stuff down into Being An Adult and which we mistake for shallower, relegated-to-childhood imagination. (Understand, of course, that children and grown-ups alike are quite capable of exercising Imagination as well as imagination.) The Imagination is not just daydreams that are limited to our brains and minds, but are a connection to Something More, whether you want to call it the Collective Unconscious, the Anima Mundi, etc. (For a really good treatise on these concepts, I would highly recommend Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality. Dense, but a delicious read with every bite.)

This is not to say that other ritual formats can’t exercise the Imagination and allow us to play; quite the opposite. However, something about the shamanic performance, in which there are tricks as well as journeys, sleight of hand as well as theurgy, and where the shaman gets to play a part as much as be hirself–this really appeals to me.

I see a couple of issues with actually bringing this into reality as my practice progresses. One is that there’s a definite stigma against deliberate showmanship in spiritual and religious practices in this culture. It’s assumed that any sort of chicanery will automatically be a lie, that it can’t be a vehicle for something greater. If I were to carry beads under my tongue, and suck out the illness from a person and put it in the bead, then display the bead as proof of my work, most people would say “That bead was in her mouth the whole time–what a sham!” Only a few would understand that the bead was a vehicle for the act, that it absorbed the illness and gave people a physical focus for seeing that illness leave the person’s body. In an age where many put faith only in the five physical senses and call that objectivity (regardless of how subjective our senses are!) any ambiguity is cause for suspicion. We’re not taught how to consider more than one form of reality simultaneously and with equal truth–we’re raised with either/or, not both/and.

Another problem is that the shamanic performance originated in relatively small communities of people who spent significant portions of their lives together. While I advocate bringing one’s shamanic practice (and other ways to aid) into the local community, even in the most liberal areas you can’t turn your neighborhood into a village and expect people to come out for rituals. I know there are pagans who are neotribalists, who want to artificially create communities and villages–but you’re not going to get the same infrastructure; this culture is just too different. I applaud efforts to bring people together, but I also believe in having a realistic expectation of the parameters you’re working within.

Somewhat related to that is that a lot of people, especially in the pagan/etc. communities, are more geared towards being practitioners than spectators. Neopagan rituals are very commonly interactive so that no one gets bored “just watching”. There are groups who may rehearse seasonal rituals to the point where they have a good theatrical element to them, but even then there’s still focus on making sure everybody gets to participate at least a little bit (again, more than “just watching”). And I’ll lay odds that the majority of pagans who say they’re interested in shamanism are interested in being practitioners, not spectators. In the pagan community, we generally intercede with the spirit world on our own behalf a good deal of the time (some of us, all the time!). Too many cooks, not enough diners.

I wonder, if my practice develops the way that it would, if there would be an interest in shamanic performances–rituals that people don’t necessarily have an active hand in beyond perhaps drumming, or (as in seithr/seidr, asking questions), but where people come prepared to appreciate the performance as well as the actual reason for it (healing, fertility, divination, etc.). I’m perfectly happy creating more interactive rites where appropriate, as well as one-on-one work, but there’s also a mutual attraction for me and the spirits I work with for the shamanic performance, where we do our thing on behalf of others, and the others are primarily witnesses to what happens.

I also wonder if there are (nonindigenous) groups/individuals who do this sort of shamanizing outside of seithr/seidr in any significant form. And if I have any misunderstandings about this ritual format, I’m always open for more information! This is something that’s still very raw in my conception of it, and a lot of it won’t fall into place until I move beyond the theory and into the practice.