On Being a Pagan Omnivore

In case you don’t regularly wander the essay section of Witchvox, I have an article up there this week:

On Being a Pagan Omnivore

Here, I discuss the spirituality of eating meat. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on how vegetarianism/veganism can be spiritually fulfilling; however, how can those of us who prefer or even need meat in our diets go about it in a spiritually conscious way? Click the link to find out more.

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Composting as a Spiritual Act

I just got back in from taking the kitchen scraps to the compost bin in the back yard. We’ve had the bin out there for a couple of months now. There’s no real compost yet, but that’s mainly because I started it so late in the year. Still, things are breaking down some, and I’m sure once spring hits and it starts to warm up we’ll see more decay. For now, the pile seems to have a few resident moths, and that’s about it.

People have this idea that compost bins are smelly, probably because garbage is smelly. However, it all depends on what you put in the bin. If you don’t put meat scraps, fats, and other such things in there, you’re fine. And of course, don’t put any animal waste in there–who wants that going ultimately into their garden? Unless you maintain one pile for edible plants, and one for decorative–but even then, animal waste will smell. So we limit the scraps to vegetable matter, paper towels (we always buy the ones made of recycled paper and bleached without chlorine), hair, and eggshells. There’s no smell, and other than a bit of mold nothing really scary in the decaying process.

This is my first compost bin, and I’m rather proud of it. I went and got one of these for thirty-five bucks–took me less than five minutes to assemble. However, I could just as easily have used a stack of four worn-out car tires held in place with posts. Or, if we didn’t have access to a yard, I could have taken two big plastic bins and made a cheap and easy worm bin–that’d be great to go with some indoor container gardening. (One way or another, next year, I WILL garden!)

Composting is a spiritual process for me. Sure, it’s Earthy, and involves things decaying. But mine is a nature religion, thanks. I know some pagans cringe when the term “nature religion” is applied to what they do. Fair enough–if your gods have been abstracted away from the natural forces that birthed them, then I’m not going to try to force you into a compost-bin-shaped-pigeonhole. But for me, Artemis isn’t just the abstract concept of the Hunt and the Moon and liberty–she’s also the reality of blood and death, and the moonlight trying to shine amidst blinding artificial light and air pollution. The totems aren’t just aspects of my psyche–they’re embodied in every living animal out there, from the moth in the compost bin to the kitties snoozing at my feet. And I seek greater awareness of the physical reality of my spirituality.

I am constantly amazed to see the transformation that occurs in the compost bin. The ends of carrots and celery, this past summer’s dead tomato vines, are all transformed from brightly-colored things to somewhat of a mush and mixture of browns and greys (and don’t forget the pale green mold). Maybe this isn’t lead into gold, but it’s an alchemy all on its own. Unfortunately, humanity seems to do its damnedest to interfere with that magical process. Yard Work As Viewed From Heaven may be a humor piece, but it has a message.

Take fertilizer, for example. Nature provides its own fertilizer. When something dies, it feeds the living. Taking dead trees out of the forest weakens the soil, the tree could provide numerous nutrients to small animals and plants and bacteria. Ultimately, the dead tree would enrich the soil. But instead the soil suffers, having fed the tree but not receiving the nutrients back through decay. And, to bring things closer to home for a lot of us, when we cut the grass and bag the clippings, we’re taking away the natural fertilizer in that grass. You know where that fertilizer is going? Into the landfill. And do you know what happens to grass in a landfill? Absolutely nothing. It doesn’t matter how biodegradable something is–if it goes into a landfill, it’s not breaking down. There’s nothing to break it down. I remember as a kid I watched a 20/20 episode where the reporter went to a landfill and excavated through several years’ of trash. He found a carrot that was almost perfect, other than being shrivelled and dirty.

Decay does take a certain mixture of factors. In my compost pile, for example, I need to balance the “greens” (carrot ends and celery leaves) with “browns” (dead leaves, paper towels). A lot of people make the mistake of not having enough browns, which makes the decay go slower. Additionally, I turn over the compost whenever I add more to the pile to help all the compost get air, which promotes decay as well. I don’t think that landfill is getting nearly enough air.

By composting, I’m returning some of what has been taken from the Earth and putting it back into the cycle, instead of the dead zone of a landfill. Rather than throwing away perfectly good, nearly free, fertilizer for the garden, I toss it into the compost bin and let it do its thing. It’s quicker than going to the store, and it keeps me locked into the cycles of Nature, instead of letting myself be drawn away from those cycles, pretending that they don’t actually affect me, numbed by the out of sight, out of mind of the landfill.

Much is made, in neopaganism, of the Wheel of the Year, and the mythology surrounding it. Sure, it’s important to pay attention to the Solar and Lunar cycles–but I think more is made of the symbolism and the abstract mythology surrounding those cycles, than the cycles themselves. It’s easy to get caught up in celebration in the living room with your coven or family or other group. But then, when everyone’s gone home, we can go back to our everyday lives, complaining about the weather and going to work far away from home and surviving trips to the crowded grocery store. The Sun God has been born, we know the sun will come back soon, and eventually we’ll switch back off of daylight savings time (and lose an hour of sleep).

Composting brings me into a cycle that hasn’t been so abstracted. There’s nothing glamorous about that pile of decaying matter in the bin. Nor are worms and moths particularly flashy. We have the Horned God, but we don’t have the Slimy God With Multitudinous Setae. Composting makes the processes of fertility very apparent to me in a way that the Sabbats and Esbats never did when I followed a more generic, Wiccan-inspired neopagan path. In that bin is death turning into the fuel for life. Next year, that compost can be mixed in with the Earth and feed tomato plants and mint and gods know what all else. It can feed the plants that become food for me. In that bin is nutrition cycling through one stage to the next. The compost is life.

This is why I’m so diligent about filling up the bucket of kitchen scraps. Every leftover scrap from making salad goes in there. Every paper towel that isn’t soaked in cleaning chemicals gets tossed in, and the hair from our brushes. Last night I poured the last of the milk on a bowl of cereal–unfortunately, the milk was spoiled (nothing says “Mmmmmmm!” like fluffy milk!). I drained the milk into the sink, and tossed the cereal into the bucket. Crumbs from the bottom of a bag of herb-flavored popcorn, every last bit of eggshell from breakfast–it all goes in there. Every bit of nutrition and energy that I can salvage gets poured back into that sacred cycle.

It’s not just a matter of waste not, want not, though that is a factor, too. It’s the fact that I have participated too much in breaking the alchemical cycle of decay, in taking the gifts of the Earth and locking them away in the landfill, away from where they could do any good. Some things can’t be composted–cardboard, for instance–but it can be recycled, and that in itself is a cycle that mirrors the natural cycle of decay.

As a species we’ve grown too detached from the cycles of Nature. We may still be ruled by them to an extent as mammals, but we tell ourselves we’re different. Composting reminds me that I am still very much a part of those sacred cycles, and that I have a very real connection to them even when I pretend otherwise. But I choose to engage in them again, to contribute to them and participate in them. I still haven’t figured out what I’ll do to celebrate the Equinoxes and Solstices, but I do feel comfort in at least one cyclical celebration–the humble, yet exceptionally important, joy of composting.

Feeling Small

A recent discussion on my friend Ravenari’s Livejournal got me thinking about my place in the grand scheme of shamanic practice. Ravenari is one of my go-to people, so to speak, regarding shamanism, particularly when dealing with traditional forms of shamanism. She practices Vilturj, a form of Russian animism with a rich collection of shamanic elements that she learned from certain family members (she’s one of the very few people that I would consider being in possession of a “family tradition” of any sort). While this obviously doesn’t make her an automatic expert on every single flavor of shamanism out there, she does provide some really good insight from her own perspective.

At any rate, she made a very profound (to me, anyway) observation on my practice. She had written a post about how having a single power animal isn’t enough when journeying into the Otherworld. While a power animal can perform some tasks, there are also areas that s/he may not be of much help. While not everyone may agree with this assessment, I think she made a good argument in favor of having a diverse “team” of helping spirits, rather than just the power animal that is relied upon so much in many forms of core shamanism and neoshamanism.

Now, when I’ve done guided meditation, and in my limited journeying experiences, I didn’t think I had a whole entourage of spirits with me. At most I either turn into the animal myself, or I have one animal next to me, or offering me a ride. There are others I meet along the way, but most of the spirits and deities I consider to be companions and guardians never show up in any visible way. I brought up this observation in this thread. Ravenari pointed out that although I may not “see” such folks as the directional totems, the Animal Father, etc. on my journeys, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. I may very well be working with a lot more entities during my experiences than I initially considered.

Although this does make me feel a little more like I’m “doing it right”, so to speak (since I did agree for the most part with Ravenari’s initial post) it is rather humbling. I don’t think this means there’s anything wrong with me or what I’m doing, per se, but it does make it clear that as far as shamanism in particular goes, there’s so much I don’t know even the very basics of yet. Granted, I have years and years of practice and learning ahead of me; I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a student in a way. But it does put things into perspective.

I guess the way I see it is like university degrees. I have a B.A. in English, but suppose I went back to graduate school and got a Master’s degree in English as well. I see that as similar to my work with animal magic in particular, animal magic from a neopagan perspective mixed with some chaos magic. However, delving into shamanism in a deeper way would be like getting a second Master’s degree in a different subject. I’d have already gained the basic tools for dealing with advanced academia, but I would still have to learn specifics. In the same way, my decade and change of experience with animal magic, as well as magic in general, gives me some tools to work with, as well as some of the basic “curriculum” of shamanism, but there’s a lot more for me to learn before I can say I’ve mastered the material in any way.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I can voice no opinions or comments, or that the experience I do have isn’t good enough. But this is why I like talking to other people; not only does it keep me in perspective, but it helps me to see things I might otherwise have missed.

Earth (Reprise)

As my work with the elements in my six-months continues, I’m becoming more aware of interconnections in my life.

A good example is one of the effects of my Earth month. During that time, I focused quite a bit on my body and physical health. One thing I became crucially aware of was what I take into my body–not just the obvious toxins through air and water pollution, but the more subtle things found in food. Sometimes it isn’t even about chemical additives as it is about quality. And I’ve been more interested in a balanced diet. My body usually starts craving fresh vegetables first, so that’s the first sign that my diet has gone to a particularly unhealthy point.

This greater awareness of my food intake has sparked a greater interest in cooking. I used to hate to cook. Last winter, though, I began craving my mom’s chili, and so I made a big pot of that. After that point I began to see how fun cooking could be, and came to regard it as a form of magic, bringing various elements together to create something new. (Kitchen alchemy!) This led to more interest in our pantry and what we kept stocked there, particularly how much of it was organic or otherwise relatively “safe”. While we can’t afford to get all organics, we buy what we can.

In turn, this has increased my awareness of where the food comes from, and who it impacts. This includes not just the people involved in the process, but the animals and plants themselves. My work with food totems works in with this awareness, and has actually helped me forge better relationships with them.

And all of this has gone towards changing my life in a very real, practical way. I am slowly improving my health through my diet, and supporting healthier, sustainable practices where I can. I’m putting more of my money where my mouth is, and being more considerate of my impact here.

So it is that my Earth month continues to cause very physical changes in my life for the better.

More Potpourri (Holiday Scented!)

Okay, so the holidaze knocked me out for a few days. However, I have been up to plenty, and here’s the round-up of what you missed via my limited web presence.

First, I’ve added a few new journeying blogs to the blogroll. Love, Hope and Life is Danmara’s journey in working with the gods, including both observations as well as practical matters, described as “a living devotion”. Cynanthropy is Solo’s explorations on further discovering himself as a canine therianthrope, as well as thoughts on cynanthropy in general. And Poison Hara is a personal account of working within the Deharan magical system detailed in Grimoire Dehara: Kaimana by Storm Constantine. Go take a peek, see what you think!

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So, Solstice. I decided that the Stag-Wolf-Bear-Lion progression really wasn’t resonating with me, and the Animal Father was fine with that. So I took the formality down a notch. For now my ritual will primarily consist of a nature walk at a nearby park, regardless of weather conditions.

Winter Solstice in Portland is pretty mild. It was in the lower fifties, with rain (a staple of Portland weather). As I walked, I saw a ton of fox squirrels bouncing around foraging. In other places I’ve lived, they’d be all curled up in their nests snoozing away the cold, but it’s mild enough here that I still see orb weaver spiders on occasion. I was treated to the sounds of Stellar’s jays screaming (an odd sound compared to the blue jays I’m used to out East) and the occasional caw of a crow. Because of all the rain, everything is exceptionally green except for the deciduous trees, which I think must lose their leaves here more out of propriety than anything else–though it does get colder once Winter proper hits. But the grass and moss are verdant, and the conifers don’t really shed that much in the way of old needles. Winter is relatively gentle here. (Of course, I mean relatively–I get cold at anything under sixty degrees Fahrenheit!)

Once my six months are up, right around the Spring Equinox, I may start using the Solstices and Equinoxes as turning points for focusing on the elements cyclically. For example, I may work with Air in the Spring, Fire in the Summer, Water in the Autumn, and Earth in the Winter. Or I might just take the time to review how I’m doing with all four elements, and maybe (or maybe not) choose to focus on whichever one needs the most work. I’m just really not big on celebratory rituals–if there’s a magical purpose, that’s fine, but I feel kind of odd doing a solitary celebration. It’s kind of like throwing a party with no one there–I mean, sure, the spirits and such are there, but it’s not really quite as much of a celebration without other people there in the flesh. Plus it helps to have a solid cosmology to tell you what, exactly, you should be celebrating. Right now the only thing that really stands out to me about Solstices and Equinoxes is that a lot has changed in Nature since the last one, and it’s a good time for transitions (hence the potential elemental workings starting on each one). The rest of the existing neopagan mythology surrounding the holidays has always left me sort of lukewarm–I see why people celebrate it, and I’ve done a few informal Sabbat celebrations with other people, but it never really struck me on any deep level. So for now, I’ll just take my walks and see what the Equinox brings.

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My Air month ended over the weekend. Hawk was quite pleased with my progress, and told me to keep it up. I have gotten better with communication overall, both with others and with myself. Granted, one month isn’t going to fix things. But I’m a bit braver about scary confrontations, and I’m a bit less “clammed-up” about my feelings. Plus I’m more aware of my actions, being conscious of the choices I make. The last one is tough for others to see, sometimes, because it mainly involves me making an effort NOT to do something (such as say something really dumb/insensitive/etc.) and being successful entails being quiet, or saying something more civil/thoughtful/etc.

I’ve been pretty good about remembering to record my dreams, though I’m much better about it during the week when I have a routine to work it into. I’ve also been remembering to pray both in the morning and evening, and meditate over my lunch break, about four times a week on average. My meditation has mostly turned into “Conversations with My Wolf Totem”, which is fine–Wolf has always been one of my main connections to the spirit world. I’m going to keep working on it, of course.

Being more aware of my actions has also helped to calm me down–which, appropriately, has meant that I haven’t had my asthma crop up (it did once in my Earth month, as a reminder to RELAX). I find that I can “ground” into the Sky as well as the Earth, with just as much ease. And, as I’ve started my Fire month, I’m finding already that the burning energy of the cellular breakdown of nutrients flares up easily in conjunction with the Earth and Air energy. It reaches out to the sunlight (even through the clouds) and connects me to the Sun, which is a primary source of energy and nourishment sustaining life here.

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Which brings me to the beginning of my Fire month. Fox met with me to figure out what I should focus on. Sex and sex magic will be part of it, though for personal reasons most of that will remain private. However, there are also a lot of changes going on in my life (though this seems to be a semi-regular thing for me) and part of the Fire month will involve being more responsive and flexible with change. Also, reading through Starhawk’s The Earth Path, I gained a new appreciation for energy as an interconnected web among all things, and the implications thereof. It’s not that this wasn’t already a part of my perspective, but the six month process has done a lot for magnifying certain aspects of my beliefs and showing me what I really feel is central to my path.

I think the lessons in communication from the Air month will be broadened in the Fire month to include numerous types of communication, not just person to person. The importance of what we take into ourselves and what we put out, which I first concentrated on in the Earth month, is also revisited, though on a more energetic rather than physical scale. Fox instructed me to get outdoors at least a couple of times a week for purposes other than walking to and from work and the train station, even if it’s just to go to the park nearby. I get unhappy and sluggish if I stay away from the wild too long, and even a trip to the park can be an energetic quick fix, though I should still get out to hike in wilder areas when I can.

Fire has started pretty well, burning off impurities created as byproducts of communicating about some unpleasant things during my Air month. I’m looking forward to the rest of the month.

Journeying Blogs

Last Tuesday, I requested links to blogs that dealt with people’s spiritual journeys. I wanted to introduce the initial round of journals to give readers an idea of who else is out there recording their journeys in the blogosphere. As I add new links, I’ll post intros to them as well.

★☆天死☆★ is Technobushi’s account of post-paradigm-shift explorations and thought processes. His interests, as ganked from the About page, include “Astronomy, cosmology, chaos magic, chaos theory, occult, mindhacking, reality-hacking, altered states of consciousness, memetics, technomancy, technoshamanism, abnormal psychology, psychology, cybermancy, techno and industrial music, to name a few.” This one promises some truly unique observations on spirituality in the 21st century.

Imagine Your Reality is my husband Taylor’s life coaching blog. While life coaching, in and of itself, takes a much broader view than only spirituality, Taylor has some good insights, spiritual and otherwise. He’s being trained in Whole Person Design life coaching, which supports a holistic view of the person that acknowledges and makes use of the various interconnections both within and outside of an individual. Spirituality is woven in with advice and observations as he walks his path.

Limen: Thoughts from a threshold includes observations on everyday spirituality from a pagan perspective. Part receptacle of essays and part daily record of progress, it’s an accessible and inviting read, and I’m curious to see where it goes.

One Pagan Group – Some Assembly Required – while my main focus with this section of the blogroll is to detail individual journeys, I do like this blog that records the efforts involved in forming Hemlock Vales Protogrove, ADF. Most folks encounter groups once they’ve been at least somewhat established, so the actual process of getting everything organized in the first place is already taken care of. This allows an intimate look into the nitty-gritty of one group’s seeding and growth.

Reconnecting to the Otherworld is another neoshaman’s journey towards creating a stronger personal path. There are a couple of neat posts detailing things like cosmology, as well as meditations and other miscellany. Well-written and a good read all around.

Searching for Imbas – as author Erynn Rowan Laurie deepens her practices of filidecht, the Irish Celtic poetic mystic tradition, she uses this blog as a record for her own journey. Given that there’s not a lot of first-hand information about this tradition, this is definitely a blog to keep an eye on.

Shadowolf – a relatively new blog that offers practical meditations in the process of seeking balance within the self. Should be an interesting eclectic pagan path to watch.

The Quest is a particularly unusual story, involving a Christian mystic who is in the process of also training in Ancient Order of Druids in America. The mixture of traditions is incredibly interesting, and I’m really curious to see how this one progresses.

Wildspeak (the blog) is a counterpart to Wildspeak (the site), viewable in the shamanism links on the left sidebar. Ravenari, the writer/artist behind it all, is a practitioner of a shamanic path that hybridizes Vilturj, an exceptionally rare Russian shaman tradition that some of her family practice, and her own relationship to the natural elements of the area of Australia she resides in, particularly the Koondoola bushland. Ravenari is one of the shamanic practitioners I respect the most, and while the Wildspeak site contains a lot of good information, I’m glad she’s mapping out her personal progress in this blog.

So that’s what I have so far. Go, take a peek, and see where other people’s journeys are taking them! Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration, a kindred spirit, or a step on your own pathway.

Rethinking UPG

I’m currently most of the way through The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis, a new paperback release talking about the history of the study of paleolithic cave paintings in France such as Lascaux and Les Trois Freres. It’s given me a lot to think about, because it presents a lot of alternative theories to the ones I was most familiar with in regards to these works. For example, I had been enamored of the hunting magic theory that Henri Breuil put forth in the first half of the twentieth century and which Joseph Campbell elaborated upon; I hadn’t realized these theories had been seriously questioned later on. There are some pretty convincing arguments against them, though the jury’s still out (and probably always will be since we can never know for sure what the artists believed or why they created the paintings in the first place).

However, the thing that really struck me was when I read in one chapter about Curtis’ examination of the Sorcerer of Les Trois Freres, the painting of the deity that I call the Animal Father. Numerous people have attempted to decipher what animals his various limbs and features are reminiscent of. Just some of the ones that have been cited have been stag, bear, lion, wolf, horse, lion, and owl. Curtis himself saw the figure as primarily staglike, with some equine features besides. Looking at a reproduction of Breuil’s own tracing of the Sorcerer, I could see what he was saying, and the more I looked, the more I came to see that he really wasn’t any particular set of species, but a being all to himself.

This puzzled me. I had formerly seen him as a stag-lion-wolf-bear hybrid of sorts, as these were the animals he’d given me to associate with the equinoxes and solstices. However, now I wasn’t so sure. What was happening?

I decided the best thing to do was to go to the source, my usual answer to this sort of conundrum. So I asked the Animal Father what he had to say about it. “I am myself, that is all. I gave you those animals because you seemed to want to work along a four directions worldview. If that doesn’t work for you, let’s try something else until we find something that does”. Here, then, is one of the benefits and perils of creating your own cosmology and working largely with Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). You have a lot more flexibility, and you can tweak things to make them make more sense to you. However, what do you do when you end up finding that research indicates that your UPG can’t be objectively proven?

I’m not about to say “Well, this ended up being wrong, so the rest of it must be wrong, so let’s just throw everything out, and quit”. Baby, bath water, does that ring a bell? However, it’s okay to admit when something doesn’t work quite right. This is, after all, a path I’m creating for myself. Therefore, I get to decide the parameters. One of my guidelines is that non-religious sources are quite acceptable as source material, including archaeology, anthropology, and other “ologies”. So I find that some things that I had initially assumed were true, to include Breuil’s hunting magic theory, may not stand on as strong a foundation as I thought.

It’s a delicate balance to maintain. On the one hand, if all I ever did was take these studies at face value, I’d have little to believe in. Even the more neopagan flavored things, such as my perspectives on totemism, have been created in recent decades, though they at least have the consensus of a number of people. However, I also don’t want to go down the road of the Irish potato goddess–UPG needs to be at least given a reality check.

And there is value in UPG. I’m not going to suddenly decide the Animal Father no longer exists; I’ve already have experiences that prove his objective existence, if only to me. But I am going to continue to consider the results of my meditations, journeys and other inspired experiences. As I have found in the past, sometimes it’s better to simply allow myself to believe something, rather than try to rationalize it to death.

In the end, flexibility is key. This is something that I am going to continue to develop over the years, a living, evolving path. That means that sometimes I’m going to have to scrap some things and start over when presented with new evidence. However, I’m in good company. Even the hardest of sciences ends up with new theories that overcome the old “truths”. It’s only when we stubbornly hang onto our dogma that stagnation sets in, and what may once have been a growing, evolving things turns to stone.