Fried Brains and a Side of Expectations

Ugh. This grad school thing is quite possibly one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever taken on. I spent last Friday through Monday spending every day, all day, at school, getting my brain stuffed full of information. Not that this is horrible, of course, but other events have left me with little time to process all of it.

Saturday and Sunday were all ecopsychology. I got a LOT out of the two days, both theoretical and experiential. I’m already finding ways to weave it into my shamanic stuff as well, and in fact was able to work some of the material into my 21st Century Animism workshop at esoZone on Saturday night. I haven’t been doing much in the way of journeying and other formalities this month, since school has taken precedence. However, part of the reason I’m in grad school in the first place is to help integrate my spiritual/magical life in with the rest. The role of therapist is about the closest this culture has to a shamanic figure, and so it fits in neatly with everything else in my path. That being said, I’m not going to stop journeying entirely; however, I’m not going to kick myself too much for going a few weeks without when I’m occupied with activities that also contribute to my work with spirits. (The spirits themselves haven’t complained, either, FTR.)

As for expectations…I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about the motif of dismemberment and rebirth in shamanic practice. This is something that neoshamanisms have really latched on to; some people swear up and down that you cannot be a True Shaman (TM) unless you have gone through this experience–never mind that there are traditional shamanisms that lack this experience, or even any ordeal whatsoever.

I’ve seen this motif pop up in neoshamanic literature to the point where it’s become almost a cliche’. Often it’s used as part of guided meditations (not journeys), which are carefully scripted and there’s not a lot of room for individual experience outside of the script. I’ve even had it happen to me in things that clearly weren’t Major Initiation Rituals wherein my life was changed forever and I became a Real Live Shaman. Nor did I spend days and days recovering from the experience, and I’m guessing that most neoshamanic writers aren’t going to lead people through things that can potentially leave them insane and/or otherwise fucked up long-term.

So is this merely a watering-down of yet another traditional shamanic experience brought on by softer living? Or is it because this is one of the motifs that shows up commonly in anthropological literature about traditional shamanism, and therefore since the experts say it’s so, we come to expect it as part and parcel of any shamanic experience? Do we just expect that if we go through the right paces, say the right things, do the right rituals and read the right books, that we’ll someday find ourselves being eaten by bears, down to our bones, only to be recreated into an authentic being?

I have to wonder, too, about other patterns that neoshamans often expect to be there. Take journeying, for example. This is par for the course for Siberian and other shamanisms. However, it’s not universal. Korean shamans, for example, are more prone to channeling than flight, taking in rather than going out. And the same could be said for “sucking shamanism”, healing through the removal of illnesses by literally sucking them out of the patient’s body; or drumming; or the Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds attached by a World Tree; or shamanic sickness; and so forth.

Do we experience these things because they are objectively and near-universally shamanic? Or do we experience them because we expect to, because that’s what other people have experienced and we want to be like them? How much do we, even subconsciously, let our expectations control what we experience?

Food for thought…

I Went For a Walk in the Rain

I went for a walk in the rain today. We’re getting into the rainy season here in Portland–which means it’ll be soaking wet now til probably early to mid June. (And you wonder why the Pacific Northwest is so green!) I walked over to the park, watching the fox squirrels foraging for acorns and other things to store away for Winter. The sky was a very pale grey, almost white, and almost perfectly smooth except for the occasional lower-hanging cloud adding just a slightly darker grey splotch.

I deliberately went out while it was raining. I’m one of those people who prefers warm, sunny weather–summer’s my time. I’ve generally tended to see anything cooler than 70 degrees Fahrenheit as too cold for my tastes, and I usually walk around in several layers all throughout Autumn, Winter, and most of Spring. Plus, having worked in a few occupations where I was outdoors a good bit of the time, I’ve come to appreciate shelter.

I spent a good bit of today reading Ecopsychology, edited by Theodore Roszak, in preparation for my ecopsych class. I’m reading through the entire book, rather than only the assigned portions, because this is really what my main interest is in my grad school career. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, to be sure.

One of the themes that has really leaped out at me is that of the excessive, even neurotic, need for control in Western cultures, America in particular. One particular thread that I’ve been following is that of the need to control one’s environment to an excessive degree, even to the point of destroying other beings. Because we feel the need to exert our control over the environment, we have so manipulated the world around us that entire ecosystems have been utterly destroyed. Even if you consider global warming to be a natural phenomenon, there’s no denying the huge amount of deforestation going on worldwide, including in crucial rain forest areas–or the extinction of multiple species by human interference–or pollution in waterways (Cuyahoga River FTL!). We have most decidedly left our mark, and not in the best way possible.

Compared to other cultures, modern Western cultures are incredibly out of touch with the interconnected world we live in; we have done a marvelous job of denying any connection whatsoever (except for those we find to be convenient). American culture in particular has taken independence and self-centeredness to an extreme–some would say neurotic–state. Because of this, we have lost, as a culture, the ability to interconnect, not even just with the environment, but with other people. Any form of dependence on others is assumed to be bad, weak, and a threat to the strictly-held boundaries of SELF. And it’s that deep divide between Self and Other that really screws us over. Instead of having a permeable boundary that allows for fluid connections depending on context, we stay in the perceived safety of Cartesian dualities because we’re too afraid to venture beyond the known.

We have a deeply-ingrained terror of losing ourselves in the world. We grasp our precious control so tightly that we never learn what it is to really let go, and simply experience. Instead, any mention of loosening the grip at all causes a kneejerk reaction. Suggest to the modern American that as a culture we’re addicted to consumerism (and as a culture are in denial about it), and you’ll get a bunch of–you guessed it–denial. People don’t want to question their nice, safe boundaries.

Reading some of these essays today made me want to go outside of those boundaries. I’ve already been working against some of the cultural assumptions that, as an American, I’ve had pushed onto me from day one. I’ve been trying to slowly decrease my isolationist dependence on technology, even as I try to acknowledge my interdependence with other people, other animals, other beings, and recognize the impact my actions have (even if I don’t always make the best choices every single time). And I’ve been trying to make my boundaries between my Self and Everything Else less rigid, more permeable–but without the either/or terror that says “If you don’t maintain your boundaries just so, you’ll be swallowed up!” (I’ve been working on destroying my dualistic assumptions and replacing them with continuums for a while now.)

So today I took a walk in the rain to see if it was really all that bad, if it was everything I feared it would be. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. I wore proper clothing to keep me from getting utterly soaked, though in places where the rain did soak in to my skin, I relished the feeling of water, right next to my skin. I listened to the sound of the rain pattering down on my hat, on the ground, on the leaves in the trees. I thought about how the rain brings fertilization–not just in hydration, but in the fact that every rain drop forms around a particle of dust or other stuff, and this falls to the Earth to help replenish the soil. The rain captures nourishment that is afloat in the air–topsoil blown away, minute bits of bio-material–and returns it to the Earth. How can this be bad, in and of itself?

And as I swam through the ocean of air that we all are submerged in, nestled amid trees and grass and birds and squirrels and hills, I recognized what Laura Sewall, a perceptual psychologist, was talking about in her essay “The Skill of Ecological Perception”–that we do not live on the Earth–we live in it. Our perception of depth is anthropocentric–it starts from our own head, and expands outward. Yet we can reframe that depth perception in other ways, and see the world in a wholly different light.

“Wholly” is a wholly appropriate word here. When I allow myself to perceive that I am in the Earth and not just on it, when I see myself as within my environment and not merely looking at it, immersed without losing myself and my subjective perspective, I am not veering off into the other end of the dualistic perception of “inside/outside” or “Self/Other”. Rather, I am perceiving from a place of “both/and”. I am mySelf, and I am also part of the Other. There is no contradiction in this. It is the sticking point of dualism that makes the automatic assumption that you can’t be in two places at once–yet it’s all in how you perceive things.

As for the rain being “bad”? Sure, I don’t like being soaked to the bone on a cold day. But to borrow a thought from object relations theory–the well-adjusted person is one who merges both the good and the bad traits of something that is perceived. A mentally unhealthy person is one who literally cannot make that merge–who cannot see that either the Self, or Other, or both, are composed of both good and bad things. (This results in the paranoid-schizoid position proposed by Klein.)

So in an attempt to have a healthier, more whole outlook (and, as a sidenote, “health” and “whole” come from the same root word), I went out to appreciate the good things about the rain, without ignoring the bad. I enjoyed the rain, and appropriately protected myself from too much of it soaking into my clothing. I remembered that I am in the Earth, not just on it, and didn’t lose myself in the process.

The Journeying Continues…

Tonight I tried my first journey with a purpose beyond exploration. I had a favor to ask of Badger, and so I went to see hir. I had an offering in mind, something I could give hir now, and something later, if s/he would help me.

I asked Small Horse and Small Deer (the drum and beater) for their aid, warmed up the drum, then I played Small Badger’s song to ask him to help me to negotiate with Badger. He was quite pleased that I played the song for him and asked him for his help, though I may make it a habit to make a small offering besides that for the skin spirits and other helpers.

So we all went to go see Badger. I drummed for a bit to let Small Horse and Small Deer take me to the starting point. When I arrived, I sang Badger’s song as loudly as I could, just to let hir know I was there. In retrospect, I could have gone looking for hir, too, but s/he didn’t seem miffed about coming to me instead. This is probably at least in part because s/he was expecting me; we’ve already talked a bit about the situation, and this time I came armed with offerings.

Badger made hirself look very large and impressive, and s/he towered over me, even for being a normally close to the Earth animal. I was sufficiently awed, and s/he and I got down to business. I told hir what I wanted hir help with, and also what offerings I would make. S/he was surprised, though not unpleasantly so, that I was offering something now and something later. S/he knew how important this situation is, and also that it would take some time to complete. So s/he accepted, and I was happy. I sang Badger’s song for hir again, to boast about how wonderful s/he is, which tickled hir even more.

Then I came back, and sang songs for Small Badger and Small Deer, and played Small Horse’s drumbeat, though I don’t have a song for hir yet. I warmed the drum down, and set out to start making things happen on my end.

I am quite pleased to note that my ritual structure is coming together nicely. When I started all this stuff out last year, I was doing things in a much more generically neopagan manner. I did a circle casting with an athame still, and swept the place with a broom beforehand for purification. I won’t say that my ritual structure now is the exact same as such-and-such culture’s shamans do it, because it isn’t. However, the structure has changed quite a bit.

Part of this is due to my beliefs. I no longer feel that I need to create a “world between worlds” to practice in, and I see all space as sacred, even if the Land in one place is tougher for me to connect with than in another place. While I greet the totems at the directions, I don’t do this as part of circumscribing a circle to divide me from the rest of the world. I don’t see myself as calling them, either–they’re already there; I need only remember that.

As I’m also focusing more on journeying, the ritual structure has evolved to support that as a central practice in many of the rituals, preparing me to go in, and helping me to come back out, as well as interact with the spirits at all points throughout. And the drumming has become much more prevalent, essentially having replaced the athame in greeting the directional totems and others.

Obviously, there are things that are in common between the previous structure and what I use now. But these are the most significant changes I’ve ever made, taking whole sections and tools and things out, and adding others in because they work better. It’s made things a lot more effective, even in this relatively short period of time.

So we’ll see how things progress, and what Badger ends up bringing about. While at an earlier point in my life, particularly when I was heavily into Chaos magic, I was very focused on the end results of my magic to determine my success. While that’s still important, what constitutes a good result may vary more than “I asked for X and got X”. It may be something as simple as “I asked for X, but Badger decided that Y would actually be better–and s/he was right”. Or it may end up being something much more complex, something that can’t be quantified in a linear, cause and effect fashion. “Success” is a very subjective notion, and a ritual that didn’t result in the intended way may still end up being more success than failure.

Not that I’d mind getting what I asked for, of course 😉

State of the Lupa

I updated the therioshamanism FAQ, since it hadn’t been done since last April, and a lot has changed since then.

It amazes me just how quickly things are changing. I’m used to things developing with some advancing through leaps and bounds, sudden shifts upward that carry me along. However, in the past year, and especially the past half year, the process has been accelerated. A lot of this, I think, is because I’m applying myself more than I ever have before I started this whole therioshamanism thing. I’ve been doing a lot, including things I don’t blog about but that are important anyway. It’s become a day-to-day practice, even if every day doesn’t always include journeying or rituals. It’s been a very intense time.

It almost feels, in a way, like I’ve reached a new level of actualizing, of tapping into potential I hadn’t been in contact with before. I knew that formalizing my spiritual path would create some changes for the better, but I wasn’t expecting the kind of experiential growth I’ve been through. I’ve made progress in the past, but there’s more fluidity, continuity, and meaning in it this time through.

Take the teaching aspect, for example–the fact that I’ll be teaching therioshamanism to others is part of what prompted me to change the FAQ, since a lot of it was based from a solitary perspective. I’ve taught via workshops and books for several years now, and I think I’ve done pretty well with it. However, when I started all this I hadn’t intended it as anything except a path for myself.

Back in November was when the spirits first started urging me to pass what I’ve been learning on to others. At the time, I told them I wanted my six months’ initial training to be done before I even considered it seriously. Even then, it took another six months after that.

I wouldn’t have agreed to it if I didn’t feel comfortable where I am now. Anyway, I won’t be teaching everything there is to teach. Instead, I’ll be guiding students through the six months’ training, which is really the only structured part of this whole path. And that’s mainly to give them the context and parameters that I’ve developed for therioshamanism. After that initial training is done, we’ll all practice as individuals, and come together once a month to trade notes and troubleshoot. There won’t be any degree system, and rites of passage will be organic and personal. I want to maintain enough control to be able to decide what therioshamanism is and isn’t, but I want those I teach to feel comfortable with experimenting within those parameters.

I feel like the personal part of my practice is accelerating as well. I can’t get into details right now, but I am very quickly coming to better understand and develop a formal ritual structure that will facilitate journeying and other practices. The spirits and I have been bouncing a lot of information and ideas off each other, thoughts and aesthetics and considerations. Things that have been vague forms in my head for literally years are coming into sudden, sharp focus. I think the roots of therioshamanism go deeper than I thought, and I only recently became conscious of what was growing there.

Things are coming together nicely, and I’ll be curious to see where I am next September.