Reconsidering…

When I first started my shamanic path six months ago, I had the idea of creating a more formal practice involving the totems, skin spirits, and other animal spirits I worked with and who had been herding me towards the idea of shamanism. Therefore, I used the term therioshamanism as a convenient label, since in my mind to name something is to give it more form. “Therio” means animal, and I figured that since I’ve focused largely on animal spirits over the past decade and change, my shamanic work would follow the same trend. This idea continued as I developed a relationship with the Animal Father, protector and embodiment of all animals.

However, as my experiences have deepened, and I have begun to incorporate more sustainable practices into my everyday life, spiritually and otherwise, I began to find that my awareness was expanding beyond the animal spirits, that I was finding more connection to plants and the land itself. I didn’t think much of it, since I was still mostly working with totems and skin spirits. And wouldn’t environmental activism contribute to helping animals in preserving their homes?

This weekend shook me out of my stubborn adherence to animal-centric practice. Over the past few days I have been introduced to the Land as a whole—not just the animals who populate it (most of whom were asleep or hiding while I made my diurnal sojourns into the desert) but also a wide variety of plants, stones, and the spirit of the Land itself. I have spoken with a cliff covered in petroglyphs left by the ancestors of the Hopi Snake Clan, and with ancient juniper trees. I have had prickly pears and crucifixion thorns as my companions, and I have conversed with caves as I sat in their depths. My encounters with animals were brief, though special—a circling vulture, a hummingbird following me down a path as I walked blindfolded, tiny lizards, a startled kit fox in a tree.

All of these came together to contribute to the Land, sustained by it and being a part of its very fabric. Yet I persisted in my single-minded focus. How could I, an animal shaman, divide my time among the animals, the plants, and the stones, never mind the spirits of Lands in numerous places? After all, hadn’t it been the Animal Father who called to me at the beginning of my path? Hadn’t the animals been the ones who kept me company and taught me over the years? Was I losing my focus?

But as I continued to walk the Land, and especially when I took my solo pilgrimage to a personal power spot on Friday, where I spent five and a half hours with no one but the Land to talk to, I found it harder and harder to ignore the draw that it had on me as a whole. And as I watched my instructor, James, calling on all manner of spirits who aided him, from mountains to totems to various plants, I finally began to open myself up to the possibility that perhaps I’d been a bit hasty in assuming that my shamanic path would just be a continuation of my previous animal-based practices.

Finally, I gave in. One of the main themes of the weekend for me was learning to open myself up more to the Land, not just the parts that I found most interesting; in fact I think it was intentional that my interaction with other animals was minimal compared to the plants and stones. And once I opened myself fully, allowing the Earth to embrace me, calling on the Fire and telling it my story, I became aware of a much, much bigger picture.

As I worked with the Sun, and the Wind, and the Fire, and Growth, and numerous other forces of nature, the Animal Father tossed me an idea that I’m amazed I totally missed before (and yet my lack of observation doesn’t surprise me). He explained that like the Sun and Moon and Earth and Wind, he himself is the embodiment of a force of nature, specifically the animal kingdom. This makes sense to me on so many levels, not the least of which being why he didn’t “read” like other deities to me, and why he struck me as more primal than deities I’ve worked with in the past. Not that deities can’t be primal; however, there’s not the amount of anthropomorphization that often accompanies many deities. He is to the various Horned gods what Father Sun is to Apollo or Lugh; while the deities may be associated with these natural phenomena, they have become somewhat removed from their roles as embodiments of the phenomena themselves, acquiring other traits along the way. While there may be myths and stories involving the Earth Mother, the Sky Father, and other such entities, their primary role is still within the natural processes themselves.

Or perhaps it’s just my perception, that I find my connection with them not so much in the myths and stories, as in the direct interaction with them on a daily basis. I’ve known of people who worship Odin, Zeus, and other sky gods, or deities associated with the wilderness, or fertility, or death, and then deny that their religion is even remotely nature-based. There’s no getting around that here; what I am discovering is less a worship of a pantheon of deities, and more a worldwide pantheistic animism in which the spirits may be much bigger than ancestors or plant spirits. Beings such as the Animal Father seem more to be like animal totems—archetypal embodiments of natural phenomena (or specific animal species in the case of totems) that have connection to all of their “type”, but are independent beings. It’s just that the Animal Father and others embody much larger, more widespread phenomena.

Either way the truth may be, this weekend has made my way much clearer. While I am going to continue my work with the animals, I’m also going to broaden my experiences to a great degree. And this feels right. Not easy, not a cakewalk—the desert made it clear to me, for example, that while it allowed my presence for a few days, it could also kill me if it wanted, or if I didn’t respect it. There’s a definite respect here that doesn’t allow me to just waltz on in without asking permission. I’m much more aware of my place in the natural cycles, civilization or no.

In my wanderings and readings I’ve run across numerous definitions of “shamanism”, ranging from “anyone who likes animal totems” to “you do whatever the gods tell you to whether you like it or not, and you have no choice”. What I have discovered here, or rather, what James taught me, is the definition that a shaman serves the community. In terms of ecoshamanism, this includes (but isn’t limited to) being a mediary between the natural world and humanity—which is pretty much what I’ve been trying for the whole time. He’s just done it more thoroughly and eloquently, and with a hell of a lot more experience! While I’m not going to give up my own “flavoring” and the useful things I’ve learned, I’m going to be incorporating a lot more ecoshamanic techniques in my practice, because they are exactly what I’ve been looking for.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of them before; I first read Ecoshamanism in 2006. However, there’s a difference between reading about something, and seeing it demonstrated. Having not only seen the ideas and practices in person, but actually being able to apply them practically for a few days, has made a huge difference, and made the impact that much greater. Now I understand more fully why you can’t just learn to be a shaman from a book; my own previous experiences showed me that to an extent, but this made a much more vivid point.

A good example of this is something quite simple—the titles Grandfather/Grandmother, Mother/Father, Sister/Brother as applied to the spirits of natural forces. I used to avoid using these terms like the plague, mainly because I thought that the neopagans using them were “just playing Indian” (especially since a lot of my exposure to them was through books that were steeped in mishmashes of practices presented as “genuine Native American”). However, I’ve spent the past few days working within a “nondenominational” shamanic path; James doesn’t claim that ecoshamanism is 100% genuine Huichol shamanism, though his training in the shamanisms of that tribe and shamanisms have influenced him to an extent.

What I found, as he referred to Brother Wind and Sister Water, Grandfather Fire and Grandmother Growth, and as I started to make my own connections with these great beings, was that these titles fit. The immense presence and power of these spirits didn’t require titles, but it seems almost inadequate to refer to them without the titles of respect and honor. I didn’t feel, as I used these titles myself, that I was “playing Indian”. Instead, I simply felt I was calling them by proper names; I felt humbled by them, and felt the need to give them respect—and this is one way of doing so. However, because they are familial terms, they also acknowledged my connection to the spirits, rather than distancing me even more. Some things are less about culture than they are about experience; as far as I’m concerned at this point, calling the wind my Brother is no more culturally-specific than being immensely grateful for a cool breeze on a hot day, or the power of the wind blowing on a mountaintop, or praying to a gale to spare you when you’re caught in a storm on the water. Being in awe of natural phenomena isn’t limited by culture; it is only limited by one’s perception which may or may not align with the perception of the majority of people in your culture.

So I have found a path that really fits, and I have found who and what I will commit to—the Land and all its denizens, whether that Land is the Sedona desert, or Multnomah Falls, or even a distant star. I think I can be comfortable saying “I serve the Land”, rather than “I am the slave of X deity and have no choice in the matter” or “Shamanism is all about fixing my psychological problems and all the spirits are there just to help me actualize my Higher Power”. Not that these can’t be valid paths, of course; YMMV. But this path, service to the Land, made a lot of things click into place for me this weekend. Of course, there will no doubt be more lessons to come, and more recalibration as I grow and experience more. This weekend offered me a lot of answers to what I’ve been seeking.

As to other aspects of shamanism, such as drumming, journeying, the Tree with Three Worlds, and other such practices that are common, I’ll wait and see what emphasis needs to be placed on each. While I will still most likely start spending more time getting to know the skin spirits and practicing journeying with drumming and other methods, my priority has become more about getting connected to the Land. I’ve learned some valuable skills that I’m taking home and applying in my own “territory” as it were; the Sedona desert was a good teacher, but that’s not my home. The mountains and forests and ferns, and the deserts on the east side of Oregon—those are my home, and those are the places that I will be trying to develop deeper relationships with.

Refocusing…

I have learned a lot over the past few days; it’s been an incredibly intense experience. Four days immersed in the Arizona desert, learning how to connect with the land in a deeper manner than I expected, and having some very powerful encounters with the land itself, has done me a world of good. I’ll probably be doing a series of blog posts over the next few days as the words come to me; there’s a lot to digest here. Needless to say, this has been a life-changing time for me.

In my last post, I talked about how there were going to be some major changes in how I do things. (Never fear, I’m not going to delete this blog, though the nature of the posts may change somewhat.) One of the most important realizations I came to was just how strongly neopaganism and the community have impacted how I go about things. Working with someone who is coming from a primarily shamanic background, to include extensive experience with indigenous practitioners, really pinpointed some very neopagan things I’ve been doing. This was further demonstrated when I took the lessons I had learned and put them to practice on my own. When I say “neopagan habits”, I don’t mean that every single pagan does things this way; rather, these are habits and patterns that I picked up from neopaganism in general, and which are an interpretation of my experiences thereof, not neopaganism as a whole. Additionally, they may be found outside of neopaganism as well–but this is where i picked them up, personally.

One of the “neopagan habits” I’ve picked up has been wanting to try to put things in too a structured manner. I look back at the first six months, and while working with the elements on a month-by-month basis did help quite a bit, I can see where I focused too much on expecting things to go in a particular order, and to learn certain things. Not that I didn’t learn a lot; however, from here on out my approach is going to be more holistic—less compartmentalizing, more approaching the All of what I’m doing.

For instance, rather than expecting that the next six months will be spent getting to know my guides better, and then move on to other things, from here on out I’m going to let things be more free-flowing. I think I’ve been trying to direct my progress a little too much, breaking it up into easy-to-digest pieces. However, while it’s useful to be able to break things down, I’m finding that in practice it’s going to be better if I simply allow the lessons to come on their own terms. One very good reason is that, while my former way of doing things was well-intended, it was pretty slow. I would have to learn about each thing separately, and then try and put it all together. The techniques I have learned are valuable if for no other reason than they have a more complete perspective—instead of learning about Earth, then Air, then Fire, then Water, and so forth, I was immersed in the land, and all the elements, entities and components thereof. I found this to be much more effective. Granted, if I were a rank newbie to magic in general, I would probably want to learn some basic correspondences, just to get my bearings. However, I’m well past that point, and though my first six months were a good reminder, I think that the approach I have picked up this weekend will be a lot more effective and efficient going forward. “Let go and let gods.”

The other habit I picked up that I’ll be altering deals with books and expectations. Being in the pagan community since the mid-1990s, I’ve seen the tidal wave of fluffy, poor-researched source material that overran the big box stores, and I’ve seen the subsequent backlash of nonfluffiness. While I do completely support better research where historical and other verifiable information is concerned, I also have seen a rather unpleasant attitude that has arisen in conjunction with the “nonfluffy” movement. It isn’t universal among all “nonfluffy” folk, to be sure, but it exists among a minority.

Essentially, it’s an attitude of superiority, and an attempt to be more-correct-than-thou, no matter what. There’s also an obvious sense that the people get some smug satisfaction out of their destructive criticism, even if it’s couched in Authority and Experience. A healthy attitude, IMO, is one that corrects misinformation and disseminates good information, particularly in factual issues. (It’s not perfect, and may need to vent and bitch now and then.) However, I have seen in a minority of pagans a tendency towards mean-spiritedness and huge chips on shoulders. It’s not enough to offer naïve newbies good information, or to herd people away from known sources of bad information and internet trolls. These people, instead, seem to have taken it on themselves to try to be as right as possible, and anyone whom they disagree with is automatically WRONG. They go the extra mile to prove themselves, even going to the extreme of personal attacks and harassment. I’m not even talking about “bunny hunters” who chase “toxic bunnies” with their horrid misinformation across the internet, though I have my misgivings about that practice. I’m talking about stupid interpersonal politics and going out of your way to attack anyone you disagree with at any chance you get, without even considering the possibility that they might be right, and that you just might be–gasp!–wrong.

A good example is the issue of UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis), a topic I’ve seen a number of good, thoughtful posts on recently. There’s no rule that says everyone has to accept your UPG, or that you have to accept theirs. However, I’ve seen through the joys of the intarwebz a number of occasions where disagreeing with someone’s UPG wasn’t enough—the Righter-Than-Thous went completely Dalek in their attempt to EXTERMINATE! And their targets weren’t ungrounded flakes pulling things out of their asses and accepting it as holy writ; they were fully functional, experienced pagans who could show where the UPG they’d had had a positive impact on their practices, and who displayed a healthy amount of skepticism and reflection with regards to their UPG. For their attackers, though, if it didn’t match something in a book, it couldn’t possibly be real.

Most of the examples I’ve seen are less drastic than that. Still, there seems to be an underlying current of sneering at UPG, especially where it deviates from “known quantities”. There’s also a strong adherence to books and established traditions as being superior, to the point where I think sometimes experiential evidence is downplayed to the detriment of all involved. After all, having seen what happens when someone else claimed that, after one meditation, they had determined that the Native Americans actually came from Atlantis, not across the Bering Strait, who wants to chance being seen as equally weird and subject to ridicule? Because it’s not just the Atlantean Native Americans that get attacked–it’s people with things that may deviate a bit from traditional lore, but aren’t completely out of the question.

Where this ties into my recalibration is that the “you must back this up!” attitude has unfortunately rubbed off on me to the point where I think I’ve been a bit afraid to stretch my wings with my own experiences. Modern shamanism in the neopagan community is particularly contentious, because on the one hand you have people who read a few books and declare themselves real-live Native American shamans, and on the other hand you have pagans who opine that if you aren’t a part of a tribe, there’s no way you can call yourself a real shaman or function in that capacity, no matter how you work with the spirits. Scylla and Charybdis, indeed! And I think I’ve been listening to the latter people too much. Not that cultural appropriation isn’t an important topic to discuss, and not that I shouldn’t be aware of what I’m doing and what I’m calling “shamanism”; however, I think I’ve been trying too damned hard to prove that I’m not Fluffy McRunningWolf.

It’s time to stop trying to prove my authenticity. I’ve stated that I’m not a member of indigenous culture, and I’m learning from a variety of sources, from books to personal interaction with the spirits, and now some training in Ecoshamanism. I’m aware of cultural appropriation, and I have made my own decisions regarding my boundaries with that. And you know what? That’s all I need to say. Polite questions can be answered, experiences can be shared and notes can be traded. Constructive criticism is welcome, and I’m open to healthy dialogue. The rest can go stuff itself. What’s more important? Not being wrong on the internet and trying to convince some ass-umptions by people who don’t even take the time to ask what’s up? Or creating a healthy relationship with the land and showing others how to do the same so hopefully we can try to curb the path of environmental and human destruction we’re currently on? Somehow, what someone says on their Livejournal just doesn’t seem so important any more.

And I’m tired of working within the constraints of expectations, either my own or others’. I’ve spent too much time worrying about whether what I’m doing matches what others are doing, and not enough time simply experiencing. (More on that in a later post.) If you study shamanism in indigenous societies worldwide, while there are some common threads, there are also numerous differences and approaches. Shouldn’t this hold true with neoshamanism as well?

I do want to make something clear—I am not saying that structure and scholarship are in and of themselves bad things. However, what I am finding is, that for my own purposes, and the path I am walking, these are two elements that will need to be toned down some in lieu of more experiential and organic growth. It is part of my recalibration of what I’m doing. As always, YMMV.

Realizing…

I’m halfway through my weekend o’ work; today’s my day to rest before I go dig a hole in the ground tomorrow. I’m not going to say a whole lot; I’m still processing what I’ve experienced in the past two days, and preparing for the next two days. I’m also not sure how much I’ll talk about, and how much I’ll keep to myself.

One thing I will say though, is: there’s so much that I don’t know. I knew that before, but it really hit home this weekend. There will be some significant changes to the way I do things, to my expectations about myself and shamanism and what shamanism supposedly “is”; there will probably also be some major changes in my focus. I look at what I’ve been doing in the past six months, and in a way I feel like I’ve been sort of blindly stumbling around, looking for something and refusing to open my eyes–or, to be more accurate, my heart. Over-intellectualizing something this experiential doesn’t quite work, though I’ve always tended to slant more towards the cerebral side of things. Let’s just say that being immersed in experience has brought about some much-needed calibration

However, one thing I am learning is being humble without feeling humiliated. The former is an opening, a trusting vulnerability, and an acceptance of self. The latter is used to forcibly drag someone down, to force vulnerability on them and an ill-intended attempt to make someone accept things as they supposedly are. My initial reaction, when I realized that I needed to be going in a different direction, was to panic and think “Holy crap, I’m doing it all wrong! I must really be an arrogant fuck to think I was doing anything right; why the hell am I even doing this? What was I thinking? Maybe I should shut down my blog, because I didn’t enter into it the right way, and maybe it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe I should quit entirely, because I obviously don’t know what I’m doing!” And so forth.

But then I was told, by one of the spirits I was involved with, that I don’t have to throw it all out. Instead, I need to take what I’m learning and apply it to what I already have when I go home. Sure, I may discard some concepts and ideas that no longer really fit my experience (especially those due to over-intellectualizing), but I was already in the process of streamlining and realigning. Just because the process continues doesn’t mean that I’m completely screwed up. I need to honor what I have learned, and where I have come from, because it has led me to where I am now. It’s too tempting, I think, when people hit upon a major life-shift, to completely scrap everything from the past and have a “clean start”. Yet we can’t entirely divorce ourselves from our past; it’s a part of who we are. And I think it’s also a mistake to try to get rid of everything from “before”–baby and bathwater and all that.

The thing that I have to remember is that I wasn’t wrong, or bad, or stupid, for not doing things “right” prior to this weekend. Rather, I need to accept that that’s where I was at that point in time, and I hadn’t yet had the experiences that opened me up to what I’ve learned. Why beat myself up for not realizing something I’d had no exposure to? Instead, I’m learning to be more forgiving and understanding of myself, and accepting that I’m still learning; I don’t have to be perfect just yet (if ever).

And that goes along with the general theme of “opening up”. There’s a time and place to put up your defenses, but if you never learn to take them down when the time is right, then you miss out. My experience is deepening, and I’m finding that the amount of openness and trust that I had before won’t cut it, that I need to learn to give more. And that’s alright. I’m not a failure for not having realized this before. I’ve realized it, and I am putting it into practice–and that’s anything but failure.

So I’m off today to do a bit of solo hiking; Sedona has some beautiful places. I’m not so much interested in the tourist traps and the more popular “vortexes”–but there’s a lot of wilderness out there that’s calling to me…

Well….This Is It…..

First, a quick note, partly for my own organizational purposes–my column in the most recent issue Rending the Veil ezine deals with the importance of cosmology in shamanic practice; it’s the first link at the top of the page. It deals with some of what I’ve learned in the past six months; feel free to click and take a peek.

This will most likely be my last post before I head off for my ecoshamanic work tomorrow. I’ll be doing the first two initiations that are offered, back to back. I’m looking at it more as one big long experience with a day break in between for personal reflection, which is just fine by me. Wednesday and Thursday will be the first initiation, which will involve a lot of exploring the local area down around Cottonwood, AZ, working with power spots, and really getting a hands-on experience with working with the land. While I’ve done some of that, from what I’ve read in Ecoshamanism, James has a very particular way of relating to the land, and I’ll be curious to get his take on it.

The second initiation is going to be even more intense. I get to confront my claustrophobia while being buried in the ground! There’ll be a lot more going on, too, but confronting that fear will be one element of it. I can’t say for sure everything that will happen (such is the nature of a personal rite of passage) though this will be part of my therioshamanic work as well; basically over the next few days I’ll have to make my decision whether to put up or shut up–keep going, or give up. And with some of the things that have been coming to the surface in my private internal/introspective work, I get the feeling that there will be a lot happening between now and next Monday.

I will say I’m nervous. Despite the fact that yeah, it’s going to be cool getting to go to Arizona, and getting to meet someone I really admire–there are some potentially really tough things I’m going to have to face, both about myself and about the path I may be further committing myself to. I have a choice; I can say yea or nay, and there will be later turning points as well. But that doesn’t make it an easy thing.

Beyond that….I’ll just have to wait and see. See you in a week.

Living My Spirituality

Earlier this week, someone on LJ tossed out a question about how we (the readers) incorporated our spiritual paths, the Great Work, etc. into our everyday lives. This was my reply:

For me, it’s a matter of taking my personal mythological cosmology–my spiritual understanding of the way the Universe works–and blending it with the mundane, everyday, physical reality. The former provides context to the latter, though they are not identical. So I look at my everyday actions and I think, “Does this correlate to how I believe the Universe is on all levels?”

That’s why I’m such a sustainability geek (though still a relative newbie to some of the more advanced practices)–because if I truly believe that the Universe as a whole is alive, and that the Earth is an organism, and that totems are the protectors of physical animal species, then my actions need to mirror that awareness and understanding.

There’s nothing that isn’t connected to my spiritual path. What there are, are areas that don’t align as well with my ideal path (True Will, if you will) as I’d like them to, and those are things I work on.

I think for some people, “spirituality” is primarily linked to rituals and rites, meditation and other specifically spiritual things where the “mundane” world is to be kept separate. I admit that even I can sometimes fall into the dualistic perspective, even though I damned well know better. Yet if I have learned nothing else from my first six months’ training, I have gained a more universal view of reality. I do, on a certain level understand that every single individual thing = a cell in a very vast body, so to speak. I describe myself as an animist and a pantheist; everything has a spirit, and all spirits are the piece of the Divine within all things.

However, there is a difference between knowing something, and acting on that knowledge. And that’s really what the question came down to for me. Living my spirituality means making my decisions based on the concept that what I believe is true–for me. It’s applied cosmology–taking one’s understanding of the world and choosing one’s actions based on that cosmology. Sometimes this has to be done consciously, especially when we adhere to a cosmology that we weren’t raised with. Additionally, even if we are raised with a cosmology, we may not actually apply it to what we do on a daily basis.

For example, let’s look at my animistic/pantheistic theological mash-up. If I believe that “God”–not as in YHWH, but as in the ultimate Divine–is within all things, which creates the spirits of animism, then there’s no such thing as a truly “dead” thing. There are things that are technically “without life” in the form of scientific definitions of life, but that does not mean they are without spirits. If I die, then when my soul/spirit leaves the body, there will still remain the spirits of my limbs, the spirits of the individual cells, the spirits of the atoms, etc. Additionally, there is a spirit in the plastic cup on my desk, which also has a spirit. Same thing goes for my car, my computer, my apartment, etc. Not all of these may be spirits of a sort of consciousness where I can communicate with them in the same way as, say, totems. However, I also can’t have a conversation in English with my cats. Does that mean they can’t communicate at all?

And furthermore, even if these spirits are not like me, does that mean I should treat them with no regard or concern? I’m not going to apologize to a hammer for using it to hit a nail (I’m not going to apologize to the nail, either). But let’s look at something else considered to be not-living by most scientists–water. Not the ecosystems the water itself supports, but the dihydrogen monoxide. Water does a lot of work. It bears everything from oxygen to plankton to silt to garbage without discrimination. Yet certain things that it carries may make it an unsuitable carrier for other things. If you put a poison in the water, then the water will no longer be able to effectively hydrate an animal or flush toxins from the animal’s body. Water’s ability to carry oxygen (besides that in its own molecules) is made all the more important when we look at oceanic dead zones, in which the oxygen level is too low to sustain life and numerous being suffocate. However, chemical fertilizers from farm runoff have created conditions that reduce the water’s capacity for oxygen.

So what does this have to do with animism? Compare these two sentences:

Go and pour a gallon of bleach into that creek.

Go and feed a gallon of bleach to your pets.

Which do you think most people are more likely to do? Granted, one would hope that people would choose to do neither, but every day much more than a gallon of bleach (and other toxins) is poured into waterways every day. Water is “dead”, and there’s apparently a lot of it. Well, there are lots of cats, too, but (hopefully) nobody’s going around and routinely disposing of factory effluvia by feeding it to them (one would hope the furor over the 2007 pet food recalls would demonstrate that people care about animals). But if you make a fuss about the same types of chemicals going into the water, fewer people listen, because to most people, water is “lower” than cats, which are “lower” than human beings.

To me, water is inherently no better than cats or humans. I may have subjective preferences–while I absolutely love my kitties, if our apartment caught on fire and I could choose to save either my husband or my cats, I’d definitely save the husband. (Sorry, Sun Ce and Ember!) But I would not stand by and watch a Cartesian fundamentalist throw rocks at a dog while preaching that the dog is just a meat machine and is yelping out of mechanical response rather than any genuine pain. If that Cartesian fundamentalist were throwing rocks into a river, I wouldn’t much care, since the water isn’t harmed by it.

However, the spirits in my husband, a cat or a dog, water and even a Cartesian fundamentalist are all worth considering on their own terms. I may not treat them all the same, but I do not think any of them are worth ignoring entirely and taking for granted. Consideration is honor. I honor a cat or a dog when I consider how my treatment of that animal affects hir health, happiness, and overall well-being. However, that consideration extends outward. When I have a dog, I train hir to behave and socialize hir so that s/he’s not vicious and a danger to other dogs, people, etc. I do this because the dog is worth considering, not just because I don’t want to deal with a potentially dangerous animal. However, what about consideration for water? Water is not an isolated thing; nothing is wholly isolated. The water itself, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules, may not be harmed by pollution, but every thing that relies on that water is affected, and the water’s spirit–never mind the physical qualities–is changed for the worse.

Granting that water has a spirit makes us more likely to pay attention to it. Anthropocentric viewpoints rely on nonhuman beings either having lesser spirits, or no spirits at all. However, if I see all things as possessing a spark of the Divine, then all things are worthy of my attention. They are all living, alive. As an animist, I am aware of the spirits in all things, and therefore am made more aware of my potential and actual impact on them, moreso than if I didn’t see them as having spirits.

I believe that water has a spirit; therefore, I do what I can to change my behaviors so that I minimize what I contribute, directly or indirectly, to the degradation of the water, and by extension all thing that rely on water. The same goes for the earth, the air, the animals and plants, all things. I don’t expect perfection; there are always things I could do to reduce my impact even more. However, I also have to, on a subjective level, balance my own needs. I am an omnivore, and I believe that killing a plant to eat is essentially the same as killing an animal. However, I also recognize that the way both plants and animals are often raised, killed and processed is bad for both them and the environment as a whole, including water. While I have not chosen to be a vegetarian or vegan, I do my best to buy organic produce and free range meat and eggs when I can.

Some would argue that I’m not doing enough. But living my spirituality is not about perfection. It is about being aware of what I am doing in the context of my cosmology. Even if I make the conscious choice to act against my cosmology for whatever reason, at least I approached the problem consciously–and I can keep that choice in mind for later opportunities. Maybe today I don’t have enough money budgeted out in the groceries for free-range meat and I want to be sure I can buy cold medicine to make my sick husband feel better, so I buy conventionally farmed meat instead. But the next time I go, when I have enough funding, Ithen yes, I can buy the free-range meat. Living my spirituality is not about fundamentalism and guilt. It’s about the awareness. I’d rather be aware of my choices and sometimes not do as much as I could because I consciously chose to, than do everything I can blindly without considering other impacts (such as making my husband suffer through worse cold symptoms and maybe even develop a respiratory infection because I just had to get free range meat or else I’d be a bad environmentalist!).

Living my spirituality is an ideal to work towards. It is an ongoing project and path. It makes me question what I believe, especially because I put what I believe into practice on a daily basis. And it makes me put my money where my mouth is. There’s room for adjustment and growth and change as needed on a moment-to-moment basis. The rituals and formalities help in their own way; they remind me of my purpose, and they are opportunities to learn more about the way the Universe works.

But in the end, what it comes down to is conscious awareness of what I believe to be true, and living my life to reflect that to the best of my ability under the given circumstances.

Therianthropy (and Otherkin) and Universal Connection

I’m going to deviate a bit from the shamanic end of things and delve into some other thoughts–specifically thoughts sparked by reading Green Hermeticism by Wilson, Bamford and Townley. Published last year, it’s a marvelous work on hermeticism and alchemy with a strong ecological focus. I’ll have a review up hopefully by the end of the week over at Pagan Book Reviews.

The part that really got my gears going was in Bamford’s chapter, “Quilting Green Hermeticism”, specifically the section “Perception and Imagination”. It’s an examination of a way of perception that differs dramatically from most folks’ everyday perception. Found throughout various spiritualities and magical traditions, it is the application of the idea that all things are connected to the point that true perception involved not just observing and analyzing something, but instead breaking down our barriers and experiencing it, experiencing what it is to be it, identifying ourselves with it to fully know it. Bamford cites Paracelsus’ example of the Scammonea herb. Instead of only knowing facts and figures about Scammonea, Paracelsus says, “When you overhear from the Scammonea the knowledge it possesses, that knowledge will be in you just as it is within the Scammonea and you will have acquired the experience as well the as knowledge”. (p. 148)

This perspective also echoes the concept of the holographic universe, in which every individual thing contains a reflection of the All, the entirety of Existence (including beyond what we are aware of). It breaks down the habit of dichotomy and duality, and instead embraces the union of opposites. Rather than perceiving based on either/or, we perceive both/and. Green Hermeticism espouses a viewpoint that is based on the understanding that the entire Universe is alive and aware. Rather than looking at a bunch of individual components that are all separate from each other, we are encouraged to start by looking at the One Universe, and then move outward from there. However, Bamford puts this perspective much more eloquently than I can:

Hermetic thinking…works through paradox and metaphor (and patience) which essentially overturn the laws of logic in that they demand the ability to hold two contrary realities simultaneously in the heart/mind as a unity…Whereas ordinary thinking and science begin with a multiplicity of parts and somehow hope to move from the details of the many to some kind of wholeness or unity, Hermeticism begins with the unity or wholeness of opposites and seeks to realize their reality in the experience of the world. (p. 136, bold emphasis mine)

So what has this to do with therianthropy and Otherkin? A good deal. Back when I was writing A Field Guide to Otherkin, my editor (and husband) Taylor questioned the role of the concept of Otherkin (including therianthropy for simplicity’s sake). Specifically, he wanted to know what purpose the concept has beyond identity. That’s a damned good question, given that a significant number of Otherkin seem to be so concerned with remembering every single detail of their (assumed) past lives as a (insert nonhuman being here) that they never seem to think outside the identity box (Rialian has dubbed such people “identitykin”). While they are far from being the majority of Otherkin, identitykin are still pretty common.

And Taylor is far from being the only person who has raised the question of what good is being Otherkin besides having a nifty identity. How does being Otherkin benefit a person, other than perhaps explaining some questions about themselves? What does it do besides apply a label? That’s something I’ve really been focusing on since Taylor brought the query up to me well over a year ago. It’s not that I didn’t have purpose besides identity for my therianthropy, but I’d never really thought about it.

Reading the above ideas in Green Hermeticism helped me to take some vague ideas that have been floating around in my head ever since, and put them into something resembling a coherent idea. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the initial result. Please keep in mind that I only speak for myself; not all Otherkin work with magic and esotericism. Additionally, many Otherkin are leery of putting the concept of Otherkin into anything but literal, attempted objective terms; metaphor, subjectivity, and minority perceptions are often eschewed for fear of “invalidating” the concept of Otherkin in the eyes of others. (Never mind that what someone else thinks should have no bearing on the personal validity of one’s own experiences; if you’re trying too hard to please others, you’re probably distracted from more important things.)

The statement “I am a wolf therianthrope” boils down to this: while I am in a human body, raised by humans with human conditioning in human civilization, there is a significant part of me that says, sincerely, “I am a wolf”. It’s been there almost as long as I can remember, and no amount of denying it made it go away, so I simply integrated it, using the concept of therianthropy as a framework to understand it better. In doing so, I have opened myself to the possibility that I am more than what is apparent, and that the boundaries of identity are more fluid than commonly assumed.

However, I want to take this idea further. Let’s assume that the hermetic perception is correct, and that it is possible to not only know about, but to experience anything in this Universe–animal, vegetable, or mineral, as the alchemical trinity is composed. Let’s also assume that experiencing anything will allow the perceiver to fully understand that thing in a way that simply knowing about it cannot.

Having already experienced numerous times what it is (or what I perceive) to be a wolf as well as a human (the latter of which may be considered my starting point and home base), and, through invocation, having experienced (to a lesser, more temporary, degree) what it is to be various other animals, as well as deities and other spirits, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that I could extend that ability to experience toward literally anything. Since “wolf” is what I understand best through therianthropy (the idea that I am wolf as well as human), could I not take the lessons and dynamics learned through balancing wolf and human to begin to integrate other things into “I am”? Does being Otherkin give one a potential head start on union with the All, in that it requires a person to accept that s/he is not only human, but not-human as well?

If this is true, then it stands to reason that for some people, the concept of “Otherkin” can be taken far beyond mere identity. Of course, that gets into the argument of “Well, what if people start ‘becoming’ Otherkin, or adding new Otherkin selves like new clothes?” From a “normal” perception, that is a concern. However, it’s a perception that is based on division and boundaries, rather than unity and exploration of the unity through multifaceted experience. In order to make this exercise work, being able to adopt the latter, hermetic perception is necessary. Otherwise it’s kind of like looking at a 3-D movie through sunglasses instead of 3-D glasses with their red and blue lenses–right idea, wrong filter, and you miss out on the important parts.

This will also prompt more thought on labels, and our adherence to them. We use labels as convenient ways to communicate, and they have their place. However, we sometimes cling to them too tightly and don’t stop to think what those labels really stand for. Additionally, there’s that aforementioned tendency to want to try to put the concept of Otherkin (which is already highly questioned by skeptics) into as literal a format as possible to try to maxmize its legitimacy in the eyes of everybody, ‘kin and non-‘kin alike. To look at it through a perception that has been degraded for centuries as outmoded, crazy, and dangerous just makes people more insecure about it overall. Yet I believe if we are to truly understand and utilize the potential of “Otherkin” as a concept–and as, to be honest, a practice–then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfortable pigeonholes. There is a time and place, true, to argue legitimacy and literalism. However, I am speaking from a current headspace of transcendence and alternative manners of thought and understanding that flow beneath the surface of commonly accepted consensus reality. We already believe that we are Other than what our genes (and society) dictate we are, which challenges consensus reality enough as it is. There’s value in challenging it further, and this is just one potential way of doing so.

I am far from being an expert on hermeticism, so if there are any flaws in my logic on that account (or any other) feel free to constructively critique. (Same goes for anything else you may feel like commenting on.) This is a very rough draft of an idea, the first time I’ve been able to find anything even approaching the right words. I feel humbled by the eloquence of Bamford and his co-authors, who have expressed their ideas on green hermeticism most excellently. Still, this is a good start, and something I will continue to chew on, especially as the “Everything Is Connected” is a significant part of my cosmology. It may not be “pure” shamanism, per se, but it’s integral to what I’m personally working with.

Meeting Crow

Tonight’s skin dance was with a crow spirit. Since crow feathers are illegal to possess in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, I have a couple of wing fans, arm bands, and a tail made from black dyed feathers and inhabited by a crow spirit I evoked. We first danced together; then when it became apparent that the ceiling was too low for me to flap my wings, so to speak, I sat down and continued to meditate with the crow spirit.

S/he made a few requests besides more space (outdoors when possible). S/he wants to work primarily during the day, not surprising since crows are diurnal creatures (despite cheesy Halloween decorations featuring corvids at night). S/he also said that when hir week to be introduced to me more deeply came about in my second six months, that s/he wanted me to study the crows in my neighborhood to get a better idea of how they move. As I mentioned in my work with the pheasant skin spirit, I’m nowhere near as familiar with birds as I am with mammals, so it’s going to be an entirely new area of study and practice.

As far as what the crow spirit wants to work on with me, a lot of it focuses on trickery. Not so much pulling pranks on others, but the fine art of deception in the spirit of “every actor is a liar”. Costumery and subterfuge are a big part of this crow spirit’s experience, since s/he wears non-crow feathers that are disguised, feathers that came from male and female birds both and contributed to an androgynous energy. S/he is the Mastress of knowing when to hide the truth and when to reveal it–not so much to cause harm to others, as to protect the self and loved ones (such as being in the closet out of necessity). S/he is very concerned with image; not just the shallow surface, but what the image can either reveal or conceal, and how the surface and what’s under it interact. In this s/he can also teach honesty, showing how to make the ouside better reflect the inside, even if it’s scary. If I end up incorporating sleight of hand and visual trickery in my shamanizing, s/he’s willing to help with that, too.

The crow spirit is also a resourceful one. S/he knows as much as s/he does in large part because s/he talked a lot with the totemic Crow about what I might need help with. Additionally, being an urbanized animal, s/he had to adapt to humanity and the changes we often bring, as well as exploiting our civilization for an easier life. Scavenging is an art form to this one.

There’s a lot to the crow spirit. It’ll be interesting to see what s/he has to teach in more detail when the time comes to work with hir more intensely.