Hitting the Books

Thank the gods I’m a bibliophile.

I don’t want to try to create therioshamanism out of absolutely nothing. Believe me, I tried figuring out things entirely on my own without any help whatsoever when I was much younger. It resulted in things like “I feel energy–it must be….A PSYCHIC ATTACK!!!” and “I KNOW that if I just TRY hard enough, I’ll be able to turn into a wolf for real! Okay, I’m doing it! I think….okay, any time now….is this where I’m supposed to clear my mind of all impure thoughts….?”

I very quickly learned the value of Talking To Other People Who Have Been There. Not only did they have suggestions from their own experiences, but they often provide suggested reading material. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both of these. You can’t ask a book a question, but in-person conversations don’t come pre-edited by professionals. So over time I learned how to determine which people were most likely flakes, which ones were strange but had solid ideas, and which ones were pretty close to consensus on a number of pagan and magical topics. I also figured out how to determine what sorts of books each (very general) type of person either wrote and/or recommended. (I also learned that “flake” and “consensus” could be pretty damned subjective, with people in general as well as pagan/occult folk.)

I have been talking quite a bit to friends and acquaintances about what I’m doing, playing mental racquetball by bouncing ideas off their heads. (They’re good sports about it.) However, I’ve also been reading (or re-reading) every book in the house on shamanism and related topics as a way of refreshing my memory on specific details (my memory is spotty, thanks to long-term sleep deprivation, one reason why blogging has become my friend). And I’ve been buying books as I can afford them; my husband has been pretty good about keeping me from decimating our budget by curbing my attempts to significantly reduce my Amazon wish list (to which I’ve been adding anything that’s been suggested or otherwise looks worthwhile)–and believe me, this is a tough temptation to fight off when I live a ten minute bus drive from Powell’s City of Books!

Let it be said that I realize books aren’t a perfect resource. But then again, neither are people-in-person. In fact, there’s no such thing as a perfect resource, which is why a combined viewpoint is best, as far as I’m concerned. However, given that I have three hours of commuting a day, five days a week, for the foreseeable future (or until my two and a half year contract is up) I have plenty of reading time. And I’m incredibly independent, so self-teaching isn’t a problem (with, as I mentioned, talking shop with others as a balancing point).

It’s been an interesting experience, particularly when revisiting books I’ve read before. For example, I recently finished reading Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman for the fourth time, cover to cover, since I got it a decade or so ago. Needless to say, I’m not as thrilled about it as I used to be. It feels incredibly incomplete; there’s something important about cultural context when it comes to shamanism, and the problem is that Harner does a shoddy job of removing the culture-specific context from the techniques. Now, granted, having been a Chaos magician for a few years (and still being influenced by it to some extent) the idea of boiling magic down to its bare-bones components isn’t unusual. However, Peter J. Carroll did a much cleaner job of it.

One book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and that will probably be a good guidebook for me is Piers Vitebsky’s The Shaman. It’s an anthropological look at shamanism in traditional societies worldwide. He does a good job of showing just how diverse the practices included under the umbrella of “shamanism” really are. For example, while he covers cultures that use soul-flight (such as the Siberian shamans), he also looks at the Sora of India, who utilize mediumship and channelling. Additionally, unlike Harner and other neoshamans, Vitebsky demonstrates how shamanism is for more than just healing, and how thoroughly enmeshed the shaman is in the community s/he lives in. While I don’t think I can become an uber-1337 shaman by reading this book a hundred times, it is *one* good model that I want to work with in creating my own (neo)shamanic system.

I have a number of other books, of course, on the reading pile. I want to re-read Hillary S. Webb’s Exploring Shamanism to see if I like it as much as I did last time; it’s neoshamanism, but the author is quite honest about that. I also recently got a copy of Graham Harvey’s Shamanism: A Reader, which I’m looking forward to digging into.

Not everything will be incorporated, of course. I recently gave a two-star review to The Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. And I’m not even going near people like Lynn Andrews or Brooke Medicine Eagle. I did get a copy of The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, mainly to say that I’ve read something of his cover to cover (I still don’t think I’ll be impressed, though, given all the evidence pointing toward don Juan Matus’ questionable existence).

I’m actually not looking for how-to books in specific. From what I’ve seen they tend to be primarily 101-level books that go over the same basic techniques. Rather, I’m interested in concepts. I have enough experience with magic in general (to include neoshamanic practice) that I can generally figure out how to do something even if it isn’t described in step-by-step detail. A good example of this is Eligio Stephen Gallegos’ The Personal Totem Pole. Gallegos is a psychotherapist who created a method of therapy involving meditating to find the totem animals of each of the seven chakras and having conversations with them to find out the roots of various issues. The book itself is actually a case study meant for other professionals to use, and doesn’t have any how-tos in it. However, reading through, it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do.

This doesn’t mean I don’t know everything. A recent experience with trance possession reminded me that there are certain techniques that, while I may know the general concept, require more than just flying by the seat of my pants. Which is where I start looking for more specific books–and start talking to people who have had this sort of experience. The sort of thing, though, that requires this kind of action is less likely to be found in how-to books, and more in discussions and studies. You can only go so deep with how-tos; when I write my own books, for example, I don’t give step-by-step instructions. Rather, I give the concepts, anecdotes that illustrate how I used them, and then some suggestions on how the reader might try incorporating the concepts into their own practices. And that’s what I’m basically after for myself.

(And yes, I am open to suggestions.)

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3 thoughts on “Hitting the Books

  1. Have you read Nevill Drury’s THE SHAMAN & THE MAGICIAN? Good stuff to be found there–but I would avoid Castaneda (the old fraud) like a giant, poisonous toad. I think imparting special status to others, instead of cultivating our “inner” shaman, is a mistake. Too many charlatans and I’ve always agreed with the sentiments expressed in the terrific title of one of Van Morrison’s album: no guru, no method, no teacher. We must experience things for ourselves, rather than put our faith in the perceptions of others.
    Thanks for this post, it was thought-provoking.

  2. I haven’t read it yet, though I’ve just added it to the Wish List (and it does look very good!) Thank you for the recommendation!

    I do want to read Castaneda, just to have read him–I think a lot of authors (including some not so great ones) have been influenced by him. I’m really wondering if some of the plastic shamans who claim to have been taught by Native Americans who haven’t been proven to exist are actually pulling a don Juan on everyone? I wouldn’t mind that sort of thing so much, if people were just honest about the fact that they created a teacher-figure to impart what they themselves have developed, or treated a spirit guide as a physical one that anyone could walk up to.

    It is a tough thing, sometimes, trying to tell the difference between a genuine mentor, and someone who’s just out for ego (and sometimes it’s really a matter of opinion). I’ve found my own balance in that regard for now, though I know some people feel the need for more supervision than I do.

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