Some Thoughts on–Malaria?

I just got done reading The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria by Randall M. Packard, and published throguh Johns Hopkins University. It’s an incredibly fascinating read; while the writing occasionally gets into more academic territory, it’s still easily accessible by the layperson. I’m not any sort of medical student or health professional, but I do like to read about unusual things (I read a A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Mihm a couple of months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it).

Packard’s book on malaria captivated me for a number of reasons. I’m the kind of person who loves to read National Geographic cover to cover, so reading about the actual reproductive cycle of the parasites that cause malaria, including both the stages inside the mosquito and inside the human or other mammalian host, was interesting in and of itself. However, what really got me was how thoroughly the author described the economic, social and environmental conditions that historically led to malaria outbreaks as well as suppression/elimination, and how these patterns exist in malaria-ridden areas today. Essentially, malaria hits the poor the hardest, partly due to compromised immune systems from malnutrition, and partly because these people are the ones most likely to be exposed to malaria. Many people think of malaria as a tropical disease; however, it plagued the southern United States during the Civil War, and had a substantial presence in England for quite some time.

What really struck me with this book was the demonstration of how a problem can’t truly be solved with a single-focused attack. Packard made it very clear over and over again that simply throwing a bunch of chemicals–insecticides and suppressive medicines–has proven to be less effective and even counterproductive over the long run. Instead, he advocates a multilayered approach that not only takes individual regions’ needs and conditions into consideration, but looks at everything from the environment (standing water for mosquitos to lay eggs in) to economic issues (migrant workers moving in and out of malaria-plagued areas) to social status (the poor often have greater exposure to malaria and fewer resources to combat it with) and how neglecting any of these areas can sabotage efforts to control this disease.

This really got me thinking not only about public health issues and the problems in our own largely privatized health care system, but also about applying multilayered approaches to my own pet causes. Take environmentalism, for example. It’s easy for me to sit back and say “You should buy organic produce because it lessens the amount of chemical burden on the environment, and it’s better for you”. In some cases I’m preaching to the choir; a lot of people I know either buy organic, or are at least aware of and in agreement with the need to. However, in some places organic produce is a lot more expensive than conventional produce; I’m fortunate in that I’m in an area that’s very organic-friendly, so the prices aren’t that much more (and are often the same in the prime harvesting months).

Recession or not, there are a lot of people (including in the pagan/etc. community) who are living hand to mouth, or at least on a tight budget. Outside of that community, it’s the same. It would be foolish of me to go to someone who’s scraping by on food stamps and other social assistance, who may live in highly substandard housing, and say “Go buy some organic carrots for $2.99 a pound”. Chances are that person is going to be less concerned with chemical pesticides and fertilizers going into hir body, and more concerned with making sure hir body gets food, period. Add in that a lot of low-income neighborhoods don’t even have decent grocery stores, let alone easy access to organic produce, and I wouldn’t be doing much good.

However, let’s look at the promotion of organic produce from a multilayered perspective. Specifically, the most immediate problem we run into is money. People who aren’t making enough money usually aren’t interested in spending more than what they have to. At times when I was living on half a shoestring, I was interested in what was cheap, not necessarily what was organic or free range. Not having enough money can come down to several factors. Not having enough formal education can severely limit your job prospects, which can then limit your potential income. Inadequate transportation, either personal or public, can also contribute to limitations in employment. The same thing goes for the local job market–all the experience and qualifications in the world won’t do you any good when there aren’t any jobs to be had. Additionally, even when people have money, a lot of folks have no idea how to handle it. While knowing how to handle money, including even the simplest things like balancing a checkbook or knowing how to arrange a monthly budget, can go a long way in making one’s resources go farther.

A lot of the above issues then funnel into education. Some of it is access to formal education past high school, as well as convincing people to stay in high school and actually pay attention–assuming that the school is well funded enough to have the necessary materials to offer a decent education. College, of course, becomes a more expensive proposition each year, even for two year degrees and trade schools. On a more personal level, there are no formal instituted guidelines on how to handle money itself–we learn how to deal with money usually from family members, and if they don’t have a good relationship with money, chances are we won’t either. It’s no good having resources available–either formal education or financial know-how–if you have no idea why they’re important or what to do once you have them.

This then links into the allocation of public funding by the government. Since we have the War That Never Ends going on right now, a lot of money is getting shoved into defense. Imagine how much we could do for public education if we rerouted even a fraction of the defense budget towards public schooling and other education resources. Education starts at home, too–however, if your home life is punctuated by abuse, gang wars and shootings, rampant crime, and general social malaise, your education may have more to do with basic survival under environmental stress and pressure. And schools in such areas tend to be more poorly-funded, which certainly doesn’t help the situation any.

And this is just tracing environmentalism through economics, specifically the availability of money–and I’ve barely scratched the surface of that topic. Never mind widespread apathy, misinformation on all sides of the issue, lack of good solutions in some cases, and educating people about possibilities and what we can do. When you think about it, it’s amazing that things are as green as they are, relatively speaking!

I’m very glad that I read that book on malaria, because it really made me think. However, thinking isn’t enough. Thoughts need to be applied to perceptions, and perceptions need to inform our actions. I’m getting better at this process. For example, I have consciously changed a number of my habits to be more Earth-friendly. I never go to the store without reusable canvas shopping bags, and I’ve started tucking some clean used plastic bags for veggies and bulk items in there, too. I turn the water off when I lather my hands up with soap. I carefully consider a lot of my everyday purchases, from laundry detergent to kitchen implements to clothing, with things like transportation/shipping and origin of components in mind. And now I want to expand that awareness to include factors that weave into environmentalism. Healthier, happier people are more likely to be conscious of their actions, and may have less of an impact on the world around them. Additionally, social consciousness often links into ecological consciousness–a factory that responds positively to criticism about sweatshop labor may also do so with criticism of toxic emissions.

One of the big problems that progressives have is that we often have a habit of partitioning off our individual causes and try to make ours more “important” than others. This isn’t universal, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to work together when one person insists that women’s rights are the most important, while another argues that ending white slavery should take precedence, and never mind that person over there who’s screaming about the drowning polar bears. If we look at all of the issues–feminism, queer rights, first amendment rights, free vs. fair trade, environmentalism, public health, etc.–for long enough, we can find ties among all of them. That doesn’t mean that we can’t specialize; on the contrary, spreading ourselves to thin is as dangerous as turning a blind eye to others and only focusing on our pet causes.

But The Making of a Tropical Disease made me really realize just how intertwined all of the issues really are. Therioshamanism, as I’ve mentioned, is an ecologically centered paganism, focused especially (though not exclusively) on animals, physical and spiritual. It’s important for me to remember, though, that I can’t just limit myself to making donations to the Defenders of Wildlife and working magic to help eco-friendly bills pass. I also need to be aware of the pressures on the human beings who may be negatively affecting the fragile ecosystems. Many people involved in things like deforestation in the Amazon or poaching of African wildlife are people who are impoverished and just doing what they can to survive. They may not care so much that there will be no elephants or rain forests tomorrow, if there’s a chance they can eat today.

This will, of course, take more thought and consideration along the way. But on the more physical end of therioshamanism, this multilayered awareness has become more important and, in my opinion, more crucial. If this is to be an active spirituality, one that truly engaged the concerns that I have and that I am called to address and act upon, then I have to do more than offer lip service.

Ecoshamanic Training

So I’ve alluded to doing a rite of passage at the end of my six months, which will be the full moon just before the Spring Equinox. I’m pleased to say this will actually include a special treat for me.

If you’ve ever looked at my bibliography page, where I list the various written resources that have been a major influence on me in creating therioshamanism, you’ll notice that James Endredy’s Ecoshamanism is among them. It’s actually one of my all-time favorite books. It isn’t traditional shamanism; rather, it is a modern form of shamanism that is specifically focused on increasing not only awareness but action with regards to the natural environment and the damage that’s been done to it. Unlike some “green pagan” books that talk more about herbs, and crystals, and other such things, this one is full of dozens of practices and rituals that are specifically designed to bring the environment the reader is in into sharp focus, and make a very real connection between the abstract symbols many pagans work with, and the gritty, beautiful reality the symbols spring from. Basically, it’s a great “walking your talk” book.

Due to some creative budgeting on the part of my incredible partner, I will be able to go through the first and second initiations through Endredy’s Earth Spirit Foundation over a long weekend. It just so happens that these are going to happen right when my six months end–in fact, the first will be happening on a Wednesday and Thursday, the second on a Saturday and Sunday, and the full moon when the six months are up will occur the Friday in between. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Granted, I’ll be dedicating time and other resources to this endeavor that a lot of pagans either A) wouldn’t pay, or B) would invest in training with an indigenous practitioner to learn indigenous practices. However, I have very good reasons for what I’m doing. In regards to A), I believe in paying people for their spiritual services when payment is asked for. This isn’t Siberia, and I don’t have land that a shaman can borrow to use for grazing for hir personal herd of reindeer, so currency will do. And I know a lot of pagans have kneejerk reactions to money in spirituality in general, the whole idea that “You shouldn’t have to pay for spirituality!” However, as far as I’m concerned, this person will be dedicating four out of five days to intense instruction and guidance, using his own property and taking me (and whoever else may be there) to his personal power spots. For the second initiation, he’ll be staying up all night Saturday night while I go through the vigil, making sure everything goes right and no one gets hurt (it’s a mock burial). And a person’s gotta eat and pay bills, never mind however much he may have invested in his own education. So I’m not going to begrudge him what he asks, especially when a fifth of it goes into charitable causes.

As to B), I’ve said it before but I’ll explain again–I’m not interested in shoehorning myself into someone else’s culture where I’m not wanted. Therioshamanism is tailored to my cultural context–modern mainstream American with a neopagan influence. Ecoshamanism is right up my alley–it addresses some of the problems I face in my culture, without trying to push someone else’s cosmology on me. While I think that there’s value in learning indigenous practices, it’s not my personal choice. To me, being able to go through Ecoshamanic training is my version of learning that particular shamanic practice in the cultural context it was developed in. I may be a solitary, but I know that there’s a difference between reading someone’s teachings in a book, and learning about them from the author hirself. Sure, I could go dig a hole in the back yard and throw a blanket over it and bury myself that way–but then again I could also shove bone spars in my pectorals and call it a Sun Dance. I want to experience Ecoshamanism in its original context, which means going down and training with the person who developed it. That has a lot of value to me.

I’m quite excited about it, to be honest. Granted, the Friday in between when I do my more personal therioshamanic work will be….interesting. I’m going to be taking the beads and findings for my prayer beads and creating the actual necklace that Friday. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Animal Father or other entities made cameo appearances during the second initiation ritual. I have plane tickets and transportation, and time off at work. So now there’s only the time to wait, and in the meantime prepare through the rest of my Water month and the final month focusing on all four elements again.

Apparently, Answering Questions is Serious Business, Too!

Wow! Between the comments here and LJ, I had about four dozen replies! I’ve done my best to reply in turn, though here I’m going to address some of the common themes I saw in people’s replies. But I do want to thank you all again; this has really helped to give me food for thought, and readjusted my perceptions of Intense Paths to something more realistic. (I also have about eight billion more books to look up ๐Ÿ˜‰ Devious people, recommending even more books I can’t buy right this moment!)

So here are a few things I saw running through a lot of the responses:

–The big, bad changes are actually for mutual benefit (with a few exceptions).

This is actually in alignment with a lot of my experiences in the past. Let me give you a brief lesson in the history of Lupa. In 2002, I was living in Pittsburgh with my then-fiance with whom I had an increasingly unhealthy (for both of us) relationship. I quit a rather miserable job at a veterinary clinic and ended up working for Clean Water Action, an environmental nonprofit, as a field canvasser. I started in July, and in September I and three other people from that office got shipped out to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to A) help Democrat Tim Johnson win the senatorial campaign and B) inform the people of Sioux Falls that the Big Sioux River, their main water supply, was so filthy that there were measurable amounts of pig waste and pesticides in their tap water.

I’ll spare you the details; needless to say, having three months away from Pittsburgh was a major catalyst and broke me out of a bunch of stagnation in my life at the time. Upon my return I broke up with my fiance, took over our apartment, and proceeded to live on my own for the next three and a half years, with a couple of relationships along the way, as well as a fling or three. I also overhauled my spiritual practices, completely rediscovered myself more than once, and in short did all the self-searching and streamlining I hadn’t been able to do when A) living with my parents, including all the way through college, and B) living with a significant other. This included some pretty disorganized times, such as the eight months in 2004-5 where just about everything in my life changed. Then, more recently, 2006 had me move across the country, get married, go into an entirely new profession, get published, and a few other more minor changes.

So pretty much the entire time since the Autumn of 2002 my life has been in a state of flux to one extent or another. Looking back, while there was no doubt some pointless flailing along the way, I also did a lot of learning and cleaning out of things I didn’t really need. In a lot of ways, the events of the past five+ years have prepared me for where I am now. I can’t say I liked every change that occurred, but I can see where a lot of the major ones were learning experiences, or ways of clearing things out of my life that I no longer needed, but was loathe to let go of.

I’ve had some recent shake-ups, too, that have helped me to realize what’s necessary in my life right now, and what I can stand to let go of for the time being. I suppose my anxiety with the prospect of having even more things taken away “for my own good” is that I wonder how much more I really need, and also that I’m finally finding some sense of stability in life. For example, while my marriage isn’t absolutely, totally perfect and without flaws (whose is?) and we’ve had some shake-ups, a lot of the recent occurrences have shown me the strength in it. I suppose what I really want is to have something in my life that won’t change to the point of being lost to me, and that while it may evolve, it’ll still be there. I know change is normal, and particularly normal for this sort of dedicated spirituality, but I’m ready for at least some settling down, too. Buying a house in the next few years would be nice, for example.

On the other hand, I’m open to constructive change, too. I wouldn’t mind being self-employed, and being able to do so in a way that still lets me have a comfortable life would definitely facilitate my path. (Working two jobs, on the other hand, would not so much.) And that’s a related theme I’ve seen a lot–that it is okay to come to the table with my own agenda. There are certain things that I want within reason, and certain things that are off-limits. It’s been very reassuring reading about others’ experiences with this sort of thing, being able to negotiate rather than just taking whatever’s handed to you.

Just for the record, I haven’t had any indication, for example, that I’ll lose everything. I think the main concern is that I’ll dedicate enough time to shamanizing, and that it’ll be less about my life collapsing again, and more about shifting around priorities. Given that I don’t have children (nor do I plan on them), my husband is quite supportive of my spirituality, and I’m getting better at time management and self-discipline, the only things that would need to be removed are those that have become irrevocably harmful. In retrospect, that’s what’s been removed in the past, anyway.

–The false dichotomy of mundane/spiritual

This is something I’ve struggled with some. In my experience growing up in the U.S., you keep your spirituality distanced enough from your everyday life that you form a dichotomy between spiritual and mundane. Otherwise you risk becoming that person who only does what the Bible says no matter what, or refuses goes out of the home without a fifteen card tarot reading every day. In other words, it’s not cool to be Ned Flanders.

Additionally, being pagan, there’s that whole mentality among some, not all, non-pagans, that if you let your paganism permeate your life, you must be in a cult and you’ve been brainwashed and therefore your religion is bad for you. Or, alternately, you must have been one of those weird kids in school who read books on Wicca and you just haven’t grown out of it (because everyone knows that Christianity is a more grown-up religion than believing in all those gods and goddesses!)

Finally, in “conventional” neopaganism, there’s the much-flogged idea that you do your mundane actions before your magic–you send out resumes to get a job, and then do the job spell.

This perpetuates that dualistic perspective that I still deal with. So I really need to find ways to marry the two without either A) becoming completely out of touch with “reality” (however you want to define it, and B) accommodate the increased amount of spiritual woo I’ll most likely be dealing with. So it looks like a paradigm shift is in order. I’m already somewhat in the process of doing that what with making changes to my life to be more eco-friendly, as well as increasing the amount of daily communication with the powers that be that I have. That’s still not quite the same as being “on call” 24-7, though, and being ready to have my routine disrupted as necessary.

–Shamanism isn’t necessarily a permanent condition

First, I agree with the concept that we do get a few chances to opt out before taking the big plunge. I know one of these will happen at the end of my six months, where I’ll get to decide whether to move forward or not (though whether, if I refused, I’d get called again later is another question entirely–depends on how badly I’m wanted, I suppose). But another thing that brought up is the idea that one’s path can evolve even past shamanism, such as into another form of spirit work (some folks consider shamanism to be a type of spirit work) or other calling. This seems to be different from just backing out entirely; instead, it’s finding that shamanism no longer “fits”, and finding what fits better for who you are at that point and what’s needed from you.

–Remember, it’s not all horrible and terrible!

I think this reminder comes because so much of the modern material on shamanism is…well…fluff. Things like claiming the Native Americans are actually from Atlantis and making everything about crystals, etc. Part of why I’ve been focusing so much on traditional forms of shamanism is because I haven’t had that much exposure to it, and I don’t feel that a lot of neoshamanism goes deep enough, just based on my previous experiences as a magician. However, I think I sometimes veer too far into the “shamanism is not fluffy–it’s scary and dangerous and it’ll eat you alive!” stuff, and forget that there are good parts to it, too. I have to remember that just because my relationship with the totems intensifies, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll become more distant or harsh all the time. And for all the Animal Father may scare the hell out of me at times, he’s also been quite supportive at times, too. And I have to remember that while my training does help me become a better “vessel” for shamanizing, there are also things that benefit me personally as well.

These are the main thoughts I’ve had from reading over peoples’ responses. Again, I really appreciate the brain food, and people setting me straight on what the things I brought up are actually about. Y’all are awesome ๐Ÿ™‚

Quick Addendum to the Last Post

Just to make it clear, I’m also, of course, going to be trusting my own experiences in this regard, as well as what the deities/spirits I work with tell me they want from me. However, I do very much appreciate other peoples’ perspectives speaking from their own experiences. I know in the end that I have to work out the relationships that I get, and that what works best for me may not be what works best for others. But I do appreciate the clarification; I’ve gotten some good food for thought so far. Again, being solitary on a path that’s I’m creating myself (with the aid of the Powers That Be), it’s incredibly helpful to toss ideas at other folks so as to add in an extra caution against walking off a cliff, so to speak.

I’ll reply to comments later; the Plague has knocked me out, and I’m home sick, staying (mostly) away from the computer. Cheers ๐Ÿ™‚

Asking Questions is Serious Business!

Alright, I’m going to be asking for audience participation on this one. I’ve got a few questions about shamanism and the actual day to day effects thereof that I’d like some clarification on, if folks are willing to answer.

First off, I want to make it very clear that I’m not intending disrespect with any of these. There are some things that I’ve heard from people who have practiced shamanism that, quite frankly, I question. And although spirit work isn’t exactly the same, I hear similar things from spirit workers about the effects of their own relationships to the gods and spirits. Over the past half year or so–pretty much since I started heeding the pushing and shoving towards shamanism–I’ve run into more modern shamans and spirit workers who have the attitudes I’m going to discuss, and in the interest of trying to figure out what to expect, I’m asking for clarification on the whys of these perspectives. Additionally, it’s better than sitting here and making assumptions about thigs I haven’t yet experienced.

–Being a shaman will ruin your life.

I know some of this stems from the shaman sickness, the illness that comes of ignoring the call to be a shaman. I can’t say I’ve ever been deathly ill. I occasionally get asthma from acid reflux, but I do that entirely to myself through stress. The most impressive surgery I ever had was having a benign tumor removed from my hip when I was seventeen (it took all of ten minutes, or so I was told). I don’t have any immune disorders, and I outgrew my allergies once I became an adult (and even at their worst they just gave me sinus infections a couple times a year). Mentally, the most I deal with is depression from time to time, and nothing severe enough to warrant drugging myself.

As far as my personal life, it’s pretty good. I’m happily married; we’ve had our differences, to be sure, and there were times we really wondered what the hell we were doing, but we got through every situation and came out the better for it both as individuals and as a couple. I won’t say I’m the absolute bestest friend you’ll ever have in the whole wide world, but I do have a decent social life. I have a good job (though the schedule sucks right now) and I don’t have much trouble finding new contracts. Plus I have a good side career as a small-press author and editor, as well as artist.

So should I expect to lose all of that once I get into the meat of shamanism? Should I count on getting divorced, losing my job, going into debt, and having my health fall to pieces? Or do the trials I’ve been through count towards my total amount of suffering (like the eight month period in 2004 where I got dumped twice, moved three times, totalled my car, went into one of my worse cases of depression, and otherwise had my life explode?) Is it possible to be a shaman and still have a healthy mundane life? Or should I just give up on trying?

–The gods/spirits are bigger than we are, therefore we have to lie down and take whatever they give, whether we consent to it or not.

I see this a lot in classic mythology–the gods can be real bastards. However, this view of the Divine tends to be a minority in modern paganism. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but if the deities are living beings who are aware of the changes in the world, at least to the point that they understand that 21st Century United States culture is not the same as ancient Greece or paleolithic France, would they not also understand that how humans approach deities has changed as well?

My perspective on the Divine is very similar to this, written up by my husband. It’s a more egalitarian perspective, and it more accurately reflects the relationships I’ve had with both deities and spirits/totems over the years. Granted, I also haven’t been a practicing shaman over that time, so that probably affects my perspective.

Now, being involved in BDSM, I’m well aware that, for example, a Master/slave situation is more intense than a scene in a bedroom. However, both/all parties also consent to and want to be in that situation. So it would make sense to get into a similar role of sacrifice and devotion and giving up of free will to a deity–with one’s consent. However, I have to honestly ask, what happens when the deity-devotee relationship becomes abusive? Do we allow gods to do things to us that we would never allow another human being to do, just because they’re bigger? If a person is in a relationship with another person that makes hir miserable, hir friends tell hir to get the hell out. But do we do the same with deities or spirits?

And that leads me to my next topic:

–There’s no way out.

Shamanism has been described as something one MUST do, and if you refuse, the spirits make you sick. This isn’t just in modern shamanism, either, but in traditional shamanic societies worldwide. What if shamanism ruins your life? What if it makes you miserable? What if the deities and spirits leave you destitute in a hole somewhere, cursing the day they ever called you? Are you stuck? Or do we have room to negotiate? Again, in my experience, I’ve always had room to negotiate; however, again, I haven’t been a practicing shaman in that time.

–If you aren’t suffering, you aren’t doing it right.

Just like it says. How can something that a person complains about on a regular basis be worth it? If you aren’t complaining regularly, does it mean that you aren’t listening, or you aren’t really doing true shamanism? Should I look forward to being Our Lady of Intense Suffering?

Again, I’m not trying to be disrespectful; I’m exaggerating a bit, but I do want to know why these beliefs are in place. I won’t lie and say I don’t sometimes suspect dogma, but on the other hand the people I’ve met don’t strike me as blind fanatics, either, so I figure there are good reasons for these things. So I’m asking folks, if you will, to kindly fill me in however much you wish, so I have an idea A) of how accurate my perceptions above are, and B) what, realistically, I may or may not want to prepare for.

The thing is, I’ve got two months until I decide whether to continue to pursue this path or not, and whether I want to dedicate myself more fully to the Animal Father. The totems will stay regardless, but the relationship to this particular deity and this path is what’s at stake here.

One of my biggest rules in magic/spirituality/woo/etc. is that it’s all well and good until it starts negatively affecting one’s mundane life–at that point, it’s time to take a step back and look at the situation with a detached eye, especially if it’s negatively affecting someone else. Now I know there are numerous self-professed shamans who have never had a problem, who seem to bask in Universal Love and Light, and while they may face dangers when journeying, their lives are otherwise healthy. Are they less shamanic than those whose lives have gone all to pieces?

What the heck am I getting myself into?

(Thanks in advance for perspectives, even if they end up not being easy to hear.)

Well, Water’s Off to a Great Start…

Wouldn’t you know it? I have a cold. Almost exactly three months after I got sick at the start of my Earth month, I’m beginning my Water month with another date with everyone’s favorite Rhinovirus. Gee, Bear, thanks for the reminder that I’m supposed to focus on healing this month.

However, as with the Earth month cold, I am paying attention to my body. Normally when I get sick I spend so much time kvetching about how awful I feel that I don’t stop to listen to my body. I just do like most folks do and play the body-dissociation game (if I ignore it long enough maybe it’ll go away!). The past two times I’ve actually listened–and my body has made it very clear what needs to happen: “I WANT FOOD. NOW. LOTS OF IT. STARVING.” So, having temporarily invoked The Thing That Ate Portland (or whatever major city is handy), I have consumed quantities of (mostly healthy) food, and felt better for it. I recovered quicker last time, and I’m betting on it again this time (though last time I also slept for something like sixteen hours right after it hit, not possible at the moment).

Still, does the lesson have to involve quite so much Kleenex?

And From Fire Into Water

Tonight was the end of my Fire month and the start of my Water month–the last single-element month of my six months. There’ll be the final month which will involve all four of them again, and then the Equinox will be the transition into the next phase of my training. I’ll admit I’m a bit nervous about what’s to come, but also excited. Still, I’ve two months to go before that point.

So, Fire. Fox seemed pleased with my progress, especially over the past couple of weeks after I talked to him about my frustrations with this particular element. He asked me to tell him about what I learned. I started with the fire in the body, metabolism, heat in the cells, and then moved onto the fire of the decay and rebirth cycle, and that change. We talked about changes and transitions (and have barely scratched the surface on that one!). And we talked about passion and creativity and drive, as well as the fear of being burned. He warned me against letting that fear hold me back, and told me Bear could help me with it more. Overall, I did better with Fire than I thought I would, and I feel more comfortable with it than I did at the beginning of the month. This is good, since I believe that it’s the elements we’re least comfortable with that we need to work with the most.

On to Water, then, and Bear. Normally Bear shows up to me as two bears, one male and one female. However, for the purposes of my Water month she chose to appear as the female brown bear rather than the male black bear. I’ll admit I was a little scared when I went to her. She’s always made me a little uneasy, because she’s one of those totems who’s been pretty stern with me at times. However, when I went to her she was incredibly warm and welcoming, which surprised me quite a bit.

Bear told me she only had two things for me to focus on this month–emotions, and healing. Not that this is the sum total of Water’s lessons, but these were the ones she wanted me to concentrate on in particular. I’d definitely agree with that assessment; the work of the past few months has asked a lot of me emotionally, and I’ve been looking forward to a month of healing! While emotions and healing may seem simple, they’re incredibly deep subjects, and Bear said they would be exceptionally important, both for my Water month and for the shamanic practice ahead of me.

I talked to her at length about her demeanor; I think I kept expecting her to lash out at me for some mistake or shortcoming. However, she made it very clear that she was quite pleased with my progress and very happy to see me. I told her I was worried about letting myself feel like I was unique to the point of letting my ego tell me I was this awesome chosen child of the cosmos, etc. You know what she said?

“Yes. You’re special. So is everyone else. Now get over it!” Then she laughed.

She told me to stop comparing myself to other people, and instead compare myself to myself (which isn’t the first time I’ve been told that!). She emphasized the progress I’d made, and told me she was really proud of me for it–which is great praise coming from her and the other elemental totems! She also said she’d been exceptionally worried about me (Mother Bear, indeed!) because the first four months had been really difficult on me, including emotionally. It’s not all things I want to talk about here, since there are a lot of private experiences, but she knows what’s been going on, and she told me she’d been looking forward to her month with me partly so she could “patch me up” after the rigors of the previous months. It’s not that she can’t be a tough beast when she has to be, but she told me not to worry so much about people’s scary stories about what shamanism should be–and instead listen to what she was doing right that moment. Just because Bear wasn’t dismembering me or lashing out didn’t mean she wasn’t being herself. It’s not all about the challenges and the difficulties, after all, and I think I’ve needed that reminder.

In reading the Water chapter of Starhawk’s Earth Path, I’ve been particularly struck by the concept of physical Water as Abundance. I think that may be my environmental focus for this month. I really like some of Starhawk’s observations on the nitty-gritty of the elements in particular, and she’s given me good food for thought with each of the element-specific months.

So here we go into Water!

If I Had a Hammer…

First off, thanks for the various comments to my last post. They made me smile, and were a constructive boost to the confidence. I do figure that if I end up doing something truly asinine that folks won’t just applaud and say “Hey, good going Lupa, you can do it, I love watching what you do!” ๐Ÿ˜‰ But seriously, I do appreciate the feedback, even if it’s just “I know how you feel!”

I was on a pagan forum yesterday, specifically a thread talking about shamanism (surprise, surprise!). It started out with someone asking for books and other resources on shamanism, then the obligatory argument in the replies over what shamanism is and the assertion that “You can’t learn shamanism from books!” as well as book suggestions of varying quality. Then one thread of the discussion veered over into modern shamanism, with the idea that people who trip on various substances are examples of shamans in postindustrial cultures. This was my reply:

I get irritated when people talk about how they’ve tripped on various substances, or survived the rave scene, or gotten pierced and inked, and that somehow makes them shamans. These are all *techniques* that can be a part of shamanism, but they are not shamanism in and of themselves. I doubt most of the people dropping acid or wearing candy and light sticks or getting yet another crappy nautical star on their skin have ever journeyed to the Otherworld and brought back something to benefit the community. Self-indulgence does not equal shamanism.

Note that I did not say that entheogens, raves, ink and steel can’t be part of shamanism. However, my point is that they do not, in and of themselves, make a person a shaman. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not the uber-authority on shamanism. While I’ve had plenty of experience with animal magic–which, again, may be utilized in shamanism–and I’ve run across information on shamanism again and again over the years, I am nowhere near being a full-fledged shaman myself. But tripping no more makes you a shaman than having a hammer makes you a carpenter, that much I’m sure of. Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t just sing about having a hammer–they sang about what they could do with it once they had it. In the same way, it’s not enough to be able to say “Ayahuasca” ten times fast; what do you do with the drink once you have it in you is more important.

I currently have three tattoos and a navel piercing. The first tattoo and the piercing were spontaneous rites of passage for me in which I got them partly to prove I could handle it (I’m absolutely terrified of needles!). In fact, while the tattoo had some other symbolic meanings attached to it, the barbell in my belly was purely for showing myself I could conquer my fear of needles at least that much. All three tattoos and the piercing were peak experiences; I hit deep altered states of consciousness, and they helped to push me from one stage of my life to another. But, ideally, everyone in a society goes through rites of passage. These rites in and of themselves, and peak experiences in general, do not make one a shaman by themselves. Again, they are tools that the shaman can use.

One thing that I have learned in the past few months is that there’s a very good reason I never really felt like I earned the title of “shaman”, even though I had neopagans over the years telling me it fit because of my animal magic. Back then a lot of it was because I didn’t want people assuming I was Native American–or, rather, that I was claiming to be what I was not. I’ve already had to deal with that to an extent with my artwork which has been occasionally mistaken for Native work (usually by non-Natives) because it incorporates things like animal parts and beads and such. While shamanism, of course, is found worldwide, most people automatically associate it with Native Americans, thanks in part to the New Age as well as pop culture. So I didn’t want to give people yet another reason to make assumptions about what I am not, and further confuse what actually is Native American.

However, issues of cultural appropriation and misidentification aside, the more I’ve studied shamanism and talked to people who practice it (as well as dipped my toes into the waters I’m learning about), the more it becomes even clearer to me just how deep, complex, and potentially terrifying the practice of shamanism really is. I was aware of it before, but the realities have been coming into sharper focus as of late. This is good, because I want to know what the hell it is I’m getting myself into before I get there, as much as possible anyway.

For instance, I know that my next tattoo will most likely be the one I get when the spirits and I agree that I’m ready to call myself a full-fledged therioshaman, when my training (but not learning) is done, and I can start shamanizing “for real”. That’s not going to be for a good long while, though, measured in years, not months. I already have a few ideas of how I can incorporate the actual act of getting the tattoo into the initiation ritual. The tattoo, however, will simply be a part of that ritual–the act of getting inked will not in and of itself be the ritual in total (there’ll be a lot more going on, both within and without). However the ritual occurs, though, it won’t be the tattoo that makes me the shaman. Rather, it will be a symbol of all the things I’ve learned, and all the things I’ll have committed to do from then on out, that do make me the shaman.

I’m also aware that there are things that a shaman does that aren’t as much fun as “dancer’s high” from spinning around a fire for hours, or getting ritual body art. Through both LJ and other venues, as well as talking shop with people in person, I’ve been able to hear about how intense relationships with deities and spirits can be. I’ve read accounts by both shamans and spirit workers about how demanding the various gods and spirits they work with can be, and I’ve also read some pretty harrowing accounts of journeys and other experiences that went the way they were supposed to, but were still terrifying and really shook people up. I’m not going to go into details, obviously, because they aren’t my stories to tell. Needless to say, these were the things that get left out of most books on neoshamanism, or get prettied up (as if the traditional “getting dismembered by wild animals during your initiation” experience is ever so much fun!). Granted, these are situations that the people willingly entered into, and while they may tell the terrifying tales of things they’ve been through, they still choose to remain in that role. I don’t believe that being a shaman means you have to give up having a backbone when dealing with the powers that be–if I were a helper spirit I wouldn’t want to be guarding a shaman with the constitution of overcooked spaghetti. But I do accept that shamanism does have its challenges, and that it isn’t always safe.

However, I don’t expect it to be all gloom and doom, either. As I’ve been improving my relationships with the spirits and deities I work with, with the totems and the skin spirits and the divine beings, I’ve felt our mutual love (or at least respect, in some cases) for each other deepen. I won’t devote myself to anyone or anything I feel doesn’t respect me back. Honestly, if I weren’t already deeply appreciative of the things that “my spirits”, so to speak, have done for me over the years, I wouldn’t be nearly as willing to dedicate myself more fully to them. This is a gift I offer willingly. Not because I feel guilted into it. Not because a deity bullied me into it and threatened to ruin my life if I didn’t obey. But because it is something I am willing to give, even if it means sacrifices of time and effort and temporary comfort. Granted, there may be the times when I sit and kvetch about things just to vent, but I don’t foresee getting into the spiritual version of an abusive relationship. (I retain the right to have a backbone at all times.) My perceptions may change in some ways, especially once I get through the preliminary training and into the heavier, more demanding stuff. But I won’t walk willingly into something that I think will make me miserable.

I know that shamanism isn’t all about getting inked, or dancing the night away. But what it is, is something even more valuable than peak experiences alone. I’ll know that when I get that tattoo, whenever it ends up happening, it’ll be a part of something much bigger than the temporary endorphin rush. The ink, the altered states of consciousness–these can all open us up to possibilities, and show us doorways to bigger and better things. But it does no good to only walk up to the threshold, turn around three times and walk back. I’ve seen the doors; I’m ready and willing to walk through them now.

Waiter! There’s a Spirit in my Drink!

Ravenari made an excellent comment to my bunny hop post from the other day. This part in particular got me thinking:

I wonder as well, if that sort of familiarisation with each animal spirit (even onces youโ€™ve danced with before) is also a method to broaden your base of animal helpers. Because I feel that as you become more familiar with the energies as you skin dance, more will come through as clear helpers.

It’s one of those moments where I smack my forehead and say “Geez, why the hell didn’t I see that before?” This is sort of a continuation of our conversation a couple of weeks back about spirit helpers in general–and how it’s not a great idea to go journeying with just a power animal. I’ve been more aware since then of how the various spirits in my life interact with me, particularly as I walk along this particular path. I’ve been particularly focused on the totems, since they’re at the center of a lot of my elemental work in my six months. But I haven’t been too sure as to what would happen after March when the six months were up.

The Animal Father telling me he wanted me to work with the skin spirits on a daily basis after my six months was my first indication, along with him making it clear that part of the transition from the six months to the next stage of my training would involve dedicating myself to him. However, Ravenari’s comment above made it hit home to me that I’ll probably spend the second six months (at least) just working on strengthening my relationships with the spirits and determining who’s willing to help me and how. These first six months have been a process of cosmology building, creating the setting for the work to happen in, and next I’ll be figuring out who’ll be walking the path with me the most, at least to some extent–spirits may come and go as they please, as the relationships change, etc.

So this helps me make some sense of what’s going on. This is why I believe it’s crucial for those of us who work on a solitary basis to talk shop with others regularly. Other people can have perspectives on things that we may have totally missed. Ravenari is a practitioner of a traditional Russian form of animism/shamanism, and her viewpoint gives me something besides the neoshamanic/core shamanic/etc. material that’s a lot more common in neopaganism. It’s not so much that I think I should be a practitioner of Vilturj, mind you–it’s that what she says makes sense to me in a way that core shamanism and its derivatives haven’t, at least not on the subject of spirits. Most of the neoshamanic material deals a lot with the shaman doing most of the work, with little “interference” from the spirits. And, as she noted in her original post on the topic, it’s not a great idea to go journeying with only a power animal, because a power animal only has so much influence in certain places. (Granted, it’s dangerous to go alone, too.)

My point is that while I may not personally draw on every single thing Ravenari has in her practice, in both her original post, and her comment to my post about her post, she was able to offer me a unique perspective based on her experience. It may have gone against conventional neoshamanic wisdom in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean it can’t ring true to me, a neoshamanic practitioner. We don’t always have to toe the party line, and when something works with what I have, I’m going to run with it. And it does make a lot of sense that the various spiritual relationships I’ve been cultivating over the years–not just the skin spirits, but many others–would come into play as I started on my shamanic path. I think there was part of me that was expecting to have to find a whole new “set” of spirits for this work, and perhaps I will meet some new faces along the way, but it is quite comforting to realize that some of my best allies have been around all along.

All this does make me feel better overall about what I’m doing. I think there’s a certain amount of uncertainty that comes from “creating” your path rather than working with one you’ve been raised with. It’s so easy to be led astray by one’s own UPG; I’ve been exceptionally cautious about my discoveries. There are things that I’ve discovered but haven’t yet talked about or accepted because I’m still waiting to see if they pan out into something more substantial or not. But while I don’t expect to have everything I do verified by someone else before I accept it, the external validation I got in this case was a nice treat. Obviously, if the second six months end up being entirely different, then I’ll of course change my views. But the idea that cosmology comes first, then comes learning how to work with the spirits more effectively, makes perfect sense with what I’m doing.

One final thing I do want to make clear, on a bit of a tangent. I am not yet a practicing shaman, though I may refer to myself as a therioshaman for short. Therioshaman-in-training is a better term (but it’s a mouthful!). While I’ve made a few practice runs journeying with the drum, and done years of trance-dancing and shapeshifting, I won’t start with the actual shamanizing for a while yet. It looks as though the spirits want me to have at least a solid year of training in the basics–cosmology and working with spirit helpers–before I even get the bike with training wheels, never mind taking the training wheels off! Occasionally it’s frustrating, because I realize how much work there is to do once I am practicing. However, mostly it’s a relief, because I know I’m not going to get sent off unprepared. I know that shamanizing isn’t safe, that not all spirits are friendly, and not every journey will be successful. But I do feel that I am being directed through effective training, and it’s things like the experiences above, as well as the fact that both I and the spirits have been seeing a lot of very concrete progress come out of the past few months, that show me that I’m on the right track.

What Makes Me (You) Burn?

Fire is Action. But just as Fire is present in the candle flame as well as the inferno, so is it in the small changes as well as the large ones.

Despite Saturday being Live Like a Cat Day, I spent the day running errands. Of course, for me, that does count as being more relaxed than usual. I slept in til ten (I’m normally up at six during the week to get ready for my bus/train commute), then after breakfast I went out to hit the local Goodwill stores for some random kitchen implements and other things on the shopping list. A few hours later I came home with a pair of secondhand hand towels for my husband and me so we don’t have to use paper towels at work, a two dollar salad spinner (only missing a handle), a shirt and skirt (each one found at a different Goodwill), and a few other things that we needed around the house.

My quest was not complete, however. One of my most-wanted items for the day was a rolling pin. I have discovered the joys of making bread, and I want to make pizza dough, since right now I still rely on the overexpensive and preservative-laden Boboli crusts, which makes me sad ๐Ÿ˜ฆ . However, without a rolling pin, flattening the dough into the proper shape for the perfect pizza may be more of a challenge than I really want to try to tackle. That damned rolling pin became my Holy Grail for the day. You would think that an overstocked Goodwill with eighty billion Teflon-coated pots and pans, a sharp, poking sea of miscellaneous silverware, and more cups than the bra section at a Victoria’s Secret superstore, would have at least one solitary rolling pin.

Nope. I finally gave up, and headed to Fred Meyer to look for a replacement pair of Winter gloves for my husband*. Once the gloves had been procured, I went back to the kitchenware just to price their rolling pins. Lo and behold, the normally five dollar wooden rolling pin was on sale for four bucks. Normally, this would be the time when glorious light breaks through the glare of fluorescent lamps, and choirs of heavenly angels sing the praises of the successful quest. However, having become a more conscientious consumer, I took a close look at the label. “Made in Taiwan”. “Made of plantation wood”.

“Made in Taiwan” = “trans-Pacific shipping”, which = use of a ton of resources to get it from there to here. “Made of plantation wood” means that somewhere, probably in Asia, a rainforest or other sensitive ecosystem was decimated to make way for a monoculture for profit. I really, really don’t like supporting such things. By buying that rolling pin, I would be directly supporting an industry that burned huge quantities of fuel and created a proportionate amount of pollution just to get it (and a bunch of others) halfway around the world. I’d also be supporting poor use of the land somewhere on this planet.

I ended up buying the rolling pin, since it was the second to last one there. However, upon finding a pair of bread loaf pans of the type I was looking for (also on sale, and the very last two they had) I realized I hadn’t checked Goodwill for those while I was out. So I paid for my purchase, and headed back to the Goodwill-of-Many-Used-Kitchen-Implements, feeling guilty the whole time for my brand new purchase, and hoping I’d find good reasons to return the new items once I got to the thrift store.

Lo and behold, upon entering the aisles of Goodwill, I found a slightly used but quite usable pair of bread pans of the same dimensions of the ones I’d just bought. Taking this as a good sign, I crept up on the pile of wooden utensils. There, hidden between a banana hanger and some spoons, was a perfectly good wooden rolling pin. Elated, I took the pin and pans to the counter like I’d just won a trophy, and then headed back to Fred Meyer to return the new versions thereof. I even ended up saving a few bucks on the secondhand items despite the sale on the new ones.

So what the heck does a rolling pin have to do with Fire? (Other than the baking connections, of course.) Action, that’s what. Action, and passion, and awareness (Fire needs Air, after all, to exist). Therioshamanism is very much an eco-friendly path, and it is rooted in everyday reality as well as the spiritual realms. I came to the realization that one very positive aspect of Fire in my life is my drive to bring about positive change in my actions. The reason I opened this post with the Tale of the Quest for the Rolling Pin is that it illustrates my increased conscious action on a daily basis. In that moment I wasn’t just wishing I’d bought secondhand instead; I manifested it into my life, and made it real. So many times we think about what we’d like to do; putting those thoughts into action, making the change–that’s Fire.

I am passionate about eco-friendly choices in an urban lifestyle. Not everyone can afford to go completely sustainable; since at this point I’m limited to renting, and living in a city where the jobs are, I make changes where I can. However, it’s not always big, impressive changes, like buying a Prius or opting into 100% renewable energy through your local utility company. A lot of it is small changes on a daily basis–small changes that build up over time.

I’m still really struck by what I read in The Earth Path, not just in the Fire chapter, but touched on in several places. The natural balance of things requires both give and take. Take, for example, an apple core. We can only eat so much of it. However, the Earth can reabsorb all of it, even if it’s rotten. The energy and other resources in that apple core can then be integrated into something new. In the meantime, the flesh of the apple that we ate becomes a part of us.

The problem is that we cut off the return of resources to the Earth. Our waste–whether from our bodies or not–more often than not will end up in a landfill. Wasted food, sludge leftover from treatment of sewage, and other organics end up in a lined hole in the ground where they sit, cut off from the Earth from which they originated and to which they need to return. None of these organics need to end up there. Even sludge can be treated and turned into fertilizer (also lessening the use of chemical fertilizers).

Think of the Earth’s resources as money in a bank account. There may be a small bit of interest, but it’s generally not enough to keep up with our overspending. Humanity is an irresponsible teenager let loose in a mall with a credit card–every single day. Granted, we have to have some resources to ourselves–we need to have homes, and clothing, and other such things that we can’t send back into the Earth right away. But we throw away so much, and we take things we don’t really need.

It’s not just a matter of the big things, either. It’s the little things, as I’ve mentioned before. The ends of celery stalks and carrots. A part of a carton of milk that goes bad. The hair in our combs and brushes. All of these are things that could quite safely be put back into the Earth, but which we’ve been conditioned to toss it in the trash instead. And the more people do that with each year, the more slowly the Earth is able to refertilize itself. I’m sure at least some readers have encountered land that is too overfarmed and no longer has the necessary nutrients to produce crops–so chemical fertilizers are dumped on them, and then the fertilizers run off into the water, poisoning what lives in it or drinks it. If composting were popular on a large scale, we’d need a lot fewer chemicals.

It’s also reducing how much we take. The reason I’m so type-A about buying things secondhand is that I know that for every secondhand item I buy, that’s one less new item that will have to be produced–and one less discard in the landfill. I’ll even buy things I’m pretty sure other people won’t buy, like the salad spinner without a handle, or the hand towels embroidered with someone else’s initials. The more fuel we leave for the Fiery cycle of Change and Renewal, the better off everyone will be.

And that is part of the Fire that burns inside of me. It’s that need to make changes, to be more aware of and closer to that sacred cycle. Ever since The Earth Path brought me into greater awareness at the beginning of this month, the internal fire has burned higher, and I recognize that I have had a connection to Fire all along–I just didn’t always know it for what it was.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll ignore its other roles in my life, of course. None of the elements is a one-trick pony. And what Fire is to me, isn’t necessarily what it is to other people. So when you read about my experiences with Fire, or Earth, or Air, or next month’s work with Water, don’t just observe my experiences. Think about your own. Think about both the concrete and the abstract; both are important.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue with my last week in my Fire month, and work to create as healthy a bond as I can. I won’t lose Fire, of course, but the six months are meant to set a solid foundation in the elements.

* Caveat emptor–never try to replace your Winter gloves any time in the actual season of Winter. Try July, or August if you want sales. Goodwill had picnic baskets and sandals out, and somehow Fred Meyer had managed to stash away a tiny rack of gloves on sale that hadn’t gotten swept away in the “Never sell things when you need them” merchandising.