A Brief Response to a Few Replies…

…on my previous post. I’ll have more specific replies later, but here’s a thought.

I had to think about it a bit, the whole “softening up” thing. It’s not that I’m going to entirely stop criticizing anything I see as potentially off. I’m definitely still going to call out people who claim their practices are what they aren’t. And I’m still going to be clear about why I, personally, will not adopt certain things, such as the bulk of core shamanism, or the more severe practices at the other end of the spectrum that simply don’t fit my worldview, and suggest to others that they take these things into consideration for their own opinions.

However, I’m not going to go so far as to invalidate all the experiences of anyone whose practices significantly differ from mine. I can’t say for sure that if someone encounters relatively safe journeying conditions that their experiences are less valid; nor will I invalidate my own experiences simply because they aren’t as harsh as others’ (or, for that matter, assume that those other folks are “going too far”). I’ve been more critical of core shamanism than others, but I’ve had my personal misgivings with conceptions of deities and spirits that in essence say that we must give in to their every demand as a way to placate them because that’s the way it’s supposedly done genuinely. Either way, softer or harder than what I do, I’m looking at things from a more practical viewpoint, and less automatically critical.

So that’s a bit of a clarification. I’m not accepting things without consideration, but I am going to say that beyond a certain point my authority to criticize only goes so far because of subjectivity and the inability to climb into someone else’s head. I think a better criterion would be “Does it work?”. There’s also the argument over semantics and who’s a “real shaman”, but for the practices themselves, I’m going to be less liable to dismiss something because it involves things I personally disagree with.

Shamanism and Subjectivity

I think I’m just going to give up on trying in any way to prove that my spirituality/belief system/etc. has any direct validity for anyone besides me, and anyone who agrees to take part in my subjective spiritual reality. The seeds for this post took root while I was detangling the thoughts for the last one. I started thinking about the subjectivity of nonindigenous shamanic experience. On the one hand, you have core shamans and their ilk who experience shamanism as a relatively safe, defanged thing compared to traditional shamanisms. On the other, you have people who are doing their best to emulate traditional shamanisms, particularly the most dangerous parts thereof. And then I thought about my own experiences, which are somewhere in the middle.

I look at where my path diverges significantly from these two ends of the spectrum. I do experience journeying as being riskier than what a lot of core shamans describe. However, I don’t do the complete submission to the spirits that I’ve seen on the other end. I do my best to not take the spirits for granted, but I also maintain autonomy–as in D/s, I have hard limits to my vulnerability, and ways to enforce them. And that is what has worked well for me, even before I began working with shamanism. I haven’t had experiences that have deviated significantly from that balance. And the thing is, the people at each end of the spectrum could probably say the same thing for themselves, that their experiences fit within a particular style of shamanism. Additionally, they could probably all find other people and sources that corroborate with their own experiences.

Really, how can I prove any of them are wrong, that they haven’t had the very experiences they claim to have had? How can I necessarily say that my experiences with shamanism are more objectively valid when in the end I really don’t have more proof of being right than anyone else? Sure, there’s looking at the shamanisms of other cultures–but that’s other cultures. To an extent, cultural context is crucial. And if a large portion of shamanic practitioners in this culture are reporting a certain way of doing things, then I should not dismiss that simply because it doesn’t corroborate entirely with the ways other cultures have described their practices. There’s something going on there, and beyond a certain point I cannot judge the veracity of what’s happening. Maybe someone really is working with harmless spirits, and another with savage ones.

But what’s the point of trying to judge the objective reality of the experiences themselves? Sure, I can discuss the conflation of neoshamanisms with indigenous shamanisms, and explain that certain practices found in the former are in no way, shape or form a part of any of the latter. But how can I judge whether someone else’s journey was valid for them or not? And, more importantly, does it really matter whether it’s valid for me if it’s not my experience (and I’m not the client or otherwise involved)?

All I can really say for sure is that my subjective reality is real to me, and that it is necessarily filtered through my subjective perceptions. I would wager that a good part of the reason that other practitioners experience things so differently in a lot of ways is because their perceptions–if not their experiences in their entirety–are also subjective. I would also add that it’s very likely that as my expectations about the world, conscious and otherwise, shape my experiences, that it’s also likely that others’ experiences are shaped by their own conscious and unconscious expectations. If you expect that shamanism is like in anthropological accounts where it’s a highly violent, dangerous thing, then that raises the chances that your shamanic experiences are going to be violent and dangerous. Likewise, if you expect that journeying is safer than dreaming, then you’re more likely to have safer experiences.

I can clearly see where my own expectations about reality, and spirituality, and related concepts, resemble my experiences as a shaman. And I can see where my perceptions also shape these experiences. Therefore, at this point I’m going to maintain that while it’s not impossible that there’s an objective spiritual reality, I strongly believe that spirituality is heavily subjective regardless of the existence (or not) of objectivity. I can see the physical world around me, the trees, the stones, the animals, and can agree on that objective reality for the most part with other people–but the animistic
end of things, that’s another story entirely.

And I’m okay with that. I’m tired of the endless wrangling over who’s right, regardless of what spiritual reality is being argued over. I’d rather focus on developing my subjective spiritual reality, which I know is real for me, and which is effective for me. I’m not sure I really care how real it is for anyone beyond those who have agreed to take part in it, whether to learn more about it, or even adapt it to their own practices. Beyond those functions and practicalities, is it really all that important that I try to prove that the journeys and so forth that I describe here actually happened beyond the scope of my own perception? And is it important for me to measure my shamanic practice up against those of others for experiential (rather than historical or other factual) veracity? If I didn’t have the exact same sickness, or have the spirits treat me the same way, does it really matter?

I look at all the time people spend trying to get external validation. And I’m really thinking it’s a waste of time, at least for me. The need to prove an objective spiritual reality has been a weight I’ve been carrying too long. So–at this point, my running theory is that spiritual realities are largely subjective, and any objectivity is hidden to some extent by subjective perceptions. The quest for objectivity, in addition, is overrated. (YMMV, of course.)

Environmentalism as a Spiritual Practice

Recently I was at Fred Meyer (your usual grocery/department/everything else store, only unionized and with more sustainable choices). While picking up some socks for my husband, I happened to walk by a sale rack that was full of knee-high white socks with various environmental slogans on them (25% off, even!). “Oh, those are cute!” was my first thought. I almost thought about picking up a pair, but then read one of the slogans a little more closely: “Protect the Earth”, it said. That made me stop and think about the potential purchase. Just what was I about to buy? Socks made in China, out of cotton (which is one of the least sustainable fabrics due to the amount of resources used in processing it)–and since I mainly see socks as a necessary liner for shoes and boots in cold weather, I didn’t exactly need “cute” socks.

So I decided, “Okay, I’ll protect the Earth–by not buying a pair of probably-sweatshop-made, not-even-organic cotton socks that I don’t really need right now”. And walked away. I felt better about myself for having done that, not just because it’s better for the budget right now, as well as my attempt to lower my impulse spending, but because I did feel I made the more ethical choice in that case.

But it also made me feel more in line with my spiritual path. I claim to practice a nature-based path; multifaceted, but still focused primarily on the sanctity of nature. Environmentalism is one of the most physical manifestations of what it is I believe about reality. I do the things I do not only because of the physical realities (reducing waste means less in the landfill, etc.) but what I perceive as spiritual realities in my path (everything has a spirit, and one honors the Earth-as-a-being by reducing and even reversing the negative impact on it).

So I decided to assess my approach to environmentalism as a religion in and of itself, focusing on a few particular areas:

The Divine: I am unapologetically pantheistic. The Divine–whatever its nature may be–manifests itself in all things. “God” is not a presence up in heaven, with an antithesis in hell. “God” is right here, in every being, in every thing; just as each of our cells is a part of us, so are we all a part of the Divine. Now, is the Divine a personal deity who cares about every single one of us? Or is “the Divine” a catch-all metaphor for the sum total of Everything That Is, perhaps with collective awareness (or some other cohesive connection that we may or may not be able to comprehend)?

For me, I find my connection to the Divine/God/whatever label you wish to use in the intricate ecosystems that wrap around the Earth. This includes human beings; we may pretend we aren’t a part of Nature any more, but any time a person catches a disease, or eats, or breathes, they are participating in the local ecosystem. That ecosystem may be largely dominated and shaped by humanity, but humans cannot live separate from all other beings in total. Nor can we subsist without “non-living” natural resources.

Maybe the only hell is the physical and psychological illnesses that often result from attempting to isolate the self from everything else. My attraction to ecopsychology is largely due to the perception that I and others have had that A) disconnection from the natural environment (and other ecosystems) very often has a damaging effect on people, individually and culturally. and B) many people respond favorably to exposure to natural ecosystems to whatever degree they are comfortable (factoring in things like agoraphobia, associations between wilderness and trauma, etc.). I want to help facilitate people’s reconnection to ecosystems, natural and otherwise, because as a general culture most Americans are suffering from one degree of disconnection or another–I know I have my own issues to work through in that regard, and I’ve seen it countless times in others. Rugged individualism is not good for the soul (literal or metaphorical).

Everyday environmental actions help me with this reconnection to the Divine/Everything That Is. Whether I’m in the garden growing the most locally available food there is, or making decisions in purchases based on sustainability, or repurposing an item that may be too worn for its original role, these things remind me of my connection, that I’m not just acting for myself.

Dogma: Because our understanding of the environment is constantly changing, both due to the tools at our disposal, and the changes in the environment itself, there’s no room for unchanging dogma, beyond “Do what is best for the environment without destroying yourself” (though there are a few extremists who believe the best thing would be for the entire human species to commit self-extinction). And I like that lack of overall dogma. It can be easy to fall into dogmatic, repetitive patterns, however, particularly where other people are concerned. It’s tempting to point out another’s flaws, to say “Hey–you didn’t recycle that piece of paper! For shame!” And we do need to speak up to others about the issues at hand, and what people can realistically do to help (as well as holding corporations, some of the worst offenders, accountable for their part in all this mess).

But few people like being forcibly converted to any belief system, whether it’s a recognized religion, a philosophy, or so forth. And the thing that I’ve learned as an environmentalist is that that whole adage about flies and honey is true. Just by blogging about my garden on my Livejournal, I’ve convinced several people to try their own hands at gardening. That’s a more concrete result than the times I’ve gotten up on my soapbox to preach the Good Green Word–I’ve mainly just gotten agreement from those who were already on board, and occasionally some disagreement from others. The constructive approach does indeed work better.

If someone doesn’t do things my way, I have to accept that that’s the reality. Trying harder to get through to that person isn’t going to help; if anything it’s going to alienate them. And my job is not to change people’s minds; my job is to offer information and set an example–and if someone chooses to emulate that example out of their own free will, to do what I can to help. People can convert themselves just fine without my help.

Mythos: A mythos isn’t necessary to environmentalism in general (and in fact some environmentalists distance themselves even from things like the Gaia Hypothesis, for fear of getting accused of idolatry by their own faith communities). For me, personally, though, the mythos grew alongside with my environmental action.

I have a whole other post brewing about subjectivity and belief, but for the moment here’s what I’ll say to this: The mythos of therioshamanism and my paganism in general provides me with additional meaning to the everyday actions I take, both with regards to environmentalism and with other aspects of my life. I don’t believe my actions are dictated by other beings, spirits and deities and such. But the purpose of the mythos, and the rituals and other practices surrounding it, is to find and define meaning apart from the actual physical activities and chains of events themselves.

Why? Why do we create art? Or music? Why do we indulge in this thing called “love”, instead of only thinking of it as a mess of hormones meant to bind people for survival reasons? Not that love doesn’t contain the hormones and messiness, but we don’t have to romanticize it in order to survive. Neither do I have to work with the mythos and spiritual beliefs that mesh with my physical everyday life. But I have the mythos, and I believe in love, because I want to, and I like to, and these things make me happy. And, as mentioned, they add meaning, and additional structure, which are also valuable.

The Afterlife: I’m really not sure, honestly, what I think about the afterlife. I know that my body, which is made of all sorts of molecules that have been all kinds of things, will decompose and go on to become other things. Beyond that? Who knows for sure? I’ve mostly decided that I’m just going to wait until I die, and then I’ll know for sure. Yes, I have my experiences with spirits, which some think should prove to me that there is a spirit world. But I have no way of knowing that those spirits are real for anyone besides me. That’s not enough of a basis to form an afterlife on.

People have a hard time with impermanence. Even I have moments where I’m utterly terrified that there’s nothing beyond this life. But I try hard to avoid compromising the lives of others out of my fear of impermanence. If I want to convince someone that a particular practice is better for the Earth, I’m not doing it for the purpose of racking up bonus points with the Divine. I’m doing it because it’s something I feel will benefit those of us right here, right now–and future generations to come. I’d rather focus on this world while I’m in it, rather than looking forward to another world that may not even exist. I’d rather plant a garden than buy an indulgence.

Sin: I dislike the concept of sin. It’s such a dualistic concept. In my view, we make mistakes, we (hopefully) learn from them, we move on. I would say that deliberate destruction and greed are definitely bad things–but I hate the concept of “sin”, like something is automatically and completely antithetical to “the RIGHT way to do things”. Some things are most certainly bad for the environment, but referring to any action that’s supposedly anti-environmental as “a sin” seems too simplistic. Sometimes people make honest mistakes. Others don’t have the resources to be as green as they’d like. And since our understanding of what is environmentally friendly is constantly changing, what may be “bad” at one point may actually turn out to be better, or vice versa.

This could be a lot more complete, to be sure. I’m no expert theologian. But I wanted to get these thoughts out in their raw form; there may very well be more polished versions in the future. Constructive feedback is always appreciated.

Just a quick note….

I’ve been getting a few hits from a forum thread about therianthropy as religion. If you check the FAQ, I explain that the only connections between therianthropy and therioshamanism are a root word in terms, and the fact that I I.D. as a therianthrope myself. So no, therioshamanism isn’t short for “therianthropic shamanism”.

Cheers 🙂

A Note On My Work With Totems

I was having a conversation on another blog, specifically about shamanic performance and my plans for eventually integrating that into my practice. I’m a big fan of ritual psychodrama and the element of Play as a way to help observers (and participants, as applicable) of a ritual suspend their disbelief. This need not always be Dour and Serious and Grave. As far as I’m concerned, there’s plenty of room for fun amid the serious work at hand. Journeying itself is generally something I see as serious, and not to be taken nearly as lightly as it often is in neoshamanism. However, that doesn’t mean that other elements of a ritual, especially a ritual performance, can’t be fun.

And that led me to think about my own experiences with ritual as an enjoyable, fun experience, even as important things were happening. While I’ve only been developing therioshamanism for a year and a half, I’ve been working with some of “my” totems for over a decade now. I’ve worked with them in several paradigms, including but not limited to chaos magic, neoshamanism, and generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism. I feel comfortable with them, and I’ve found that at least in my own experience, they’re perfectly happy with ritual play, even preferring it to more “serious” rites. Not that there isn’t a place for the latter, but it’s interesting how they explained it to me.

I mainly work with mammals and birds (especially corvids) as totems, so most of this is informed by them. For these totems and their physical counterparts, play is almost always preferable to fighting. Just as it is with humans, play is enjoyable and fun (even if it does teach survival skills that may mean the difference between life and death). Someone might get injured by accident, but generally not to the extent that injury occurs in a fight. Injuries are a lot more serious for other animals than they are for humans in the 21st century. There aren’t antiseptics and antibiotics and bandages, and in many cases no one to fetch food for you or make sure you aren’t left behind. A broken jaw for a human means a trip to the emergency room, and maybe several months of recovery. A broken jaw for a wolf that just got kicked in the face by an elk means death by starvation.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the mammal and bird totems I work with don’t have a problem with choosing play over real violence. We can be more serious when and as we need to, but they don’t see a need for real violence with no real reason behind it. While I’ve no doubt they’re perfectly capable of biting me, so to speak, I’ve never had them do anything over the past decade and change to make me feel I couldn’t trust them overall. While some animals are quite capable of deception for survival, I haven’t had a totem resort to trickery just to watch me get hurt (not even Coyote who, for me, more resembles the animal than the deity). And I haven’t had them lay a bunch of unreasonable demands on me, though they’ve certainly guided me through some very difficult experiences.

Perhaps, when so much of your existence revolves around survival and the cycles of life and death, having a chance to take a break and play is a welcome thing. I know it is for me; while the challenges I face every day are much different from those other animals in all forms face, I can still appreciate the time out that play provides. Hence part of my reason for wanting to incorporate ritual performance.

Coming Up For Air

I haven’t journeyed since late January (in my defense, February is a short month!). But I did manage it anyway, despite the crazy schedule (more on that in a bit). When I arrived at my starting point, Bear (I primarily work with Alaskan Brown Bear, to be specific) was waiting for me intently. As soon as I arrived and we exchanged greetings, s/he led me off down the mountainside. S/he had me stop at a particular tree to rest, and told me to wait. Then she introduced me to (Sockeye) Salmon, who could show me the way to the Lower World, and how to get there when I needed to. I was surprised to find myself there, especially because there hadn’t been much in the way of a draw towards there, but I found myself suddenly plunged into the belly of the River Dragon of the Columbia, as it were, with Salmon taking me to the opening to the Lower World. I had to make myself tiny to get in–I could see the parasitic worms on Salmon’s side–but I made it through.

When I got there, (Grey) Wolf was waiting, just as anxiously as Bear had been. S/he took me to a place s/he had prepared, up on a ledge. There were blankets there on the rock. Looking around, I saw that the Lower World (what I could see of it) looked very similar to this one, though Wolf said that part of that was because I was on the boundary between the two, and it got weirder the deeper in you go.

We talked a good bit about my current state, how I’ve been run ragged by school and other things, and how since the move to the new place back in December I’ve been feeling disconnected from the Land. I haven’t really made the time to connect beyond the streets here, even though there’s a wetland a block over. Things keep seeming to come up. It hasn’t helped, either, that it’s been too cold to go out hiking; many of my favorite places are inaccessible this time of year. And it being winter, I simply don’t go outside as much as I do in warmer months.

I’ll talk more about the specifics of the previous paragraph in a moment; needless to say, Wolf’s advice to me was to spend time reconnecting to the Land, and engaging in my spirituality more. It’s good advice–the disconnection hasn’t been helping the situation. I also received offers for help from a couple of other totems regarding specific areas where I need some help, including one totem I’ve never been approached by before.

So–the problems at hand. There are a number of ways in which grad school has changed my life. One of the more obvious is the manner in which it manages to consume my time like the personification of Famine. While the commitments tend to ebb and flow over the course of the semester, there are weeks where all my free time belongs to assignments and readings and essays. This is mainly fixed by careful time management, and sometimes giving up fun things temporarily, but I also need to deal with my own stress when perceiving myself as more crunched for time than I actually am.

However, another effect of graduate school is that it’s caused me to become much more deeply immersed in my psyche. I’ve always been very self-aware; I’ve spent many years digging through my own wiring and conditioning, trying to figure out what makes me tick, and doing my best to replace bad conditioning with better. In fact, a lot of the magical and spiritual practices I’ve done have been aimed at personal metamorphosis through ritual psychodrama. This has generally worked well–not perfectly every single time, but I’ve made a good deal of progress.

It’s very common for psych students to do a lot of introspection, and I’ve been finding all sorts of new tools to mess around in my own head with (as well as potentially help others with down the line). The program I am in is particularly focused on self-awareness to the ends of self-care and being a better therapist, and so a lot of the classes deliberately challenge us to know ourselves better and more fully. Combining this with the fact that I’ve already done a lot of internal work, the result is that I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual processing things, and digging deeper into my own head. As I’ve already gotten rid of a good deal of the surface issues, I’ve been frequently hitting a lot of deeper, root issues, things that are a lot more painful–and a lot more firmly entrenched.

No, this hasn’t been easy. I’m pretty independent, and I’ve done my best to self-regulate, but I’m taking the opportunity to avail myself of the university’s free counseling services–at least once they have an opening for me. Until that point I’ve been utilizing a lot of self-care techniques, and relying on a few friends who are willing to help me work through some of the tougher moments. All of this is coming to a good result, but it’s been a challenge.

This all makes me think about the motif of the shaman’s sickness in conjunction with the cultural context I’m coming from. I’ve had a lot of cause to think about my cultural context–my social location, as it were–as I’ve been taking my Counseling Diverse Populations class, which has a very strongly emic perspective on working with clients from cultures and perspectives other than your own. For the first time, for example, I’ve been called on to actually think about what it means to be white, something I’ve had the privilege of not having had to think about before. It’s definitely made me think more about the concept of mainstream/dominant American culture, and how there are even more alternatives to it than I had originally conceived of. And I’ve been thinking more about shamanism within that cultural context.

I still maintain that “psychologist” is one of the roles that most closely mirrors that of the shaman in my culture, even though my understanding of my culture has changed. And I look at the sometimes agonizing experience of digging deeper and deeper into my psyche, into the Places That Hurt, and I wonder if that is a parallel to the shaman’s sickness found in some shamanisms (again, with the reminder that “shaman” in this instance is the borrowed-by-anthropologists version, not only the original Evenk usage of the term). I don’t have any major, disabling physical diseases; the few relatively minor chronic issues I have are easy to maintain. However, I can see where it took me years to overcome depression. And while I’m not sure a therapist would classify me as anything more than “stressed–please refer to graduate school for causes” at this point, some of the hardest moments in my life have been in the duration of working through the issues I’ve been dredging up as of late. Does it count as a sickness if it isn’t a long-term or permanent thing?

Of course, that also makes me wonder if, in a culture where physical illnesses are generally easily treatable (though a lot depends on insurance, etc.–that’s a whole political rant there), the shaman’s sickness isn’t necessarily a physical thing. And many cases of sickness were temporary, though severe. We know a lot less about the treatment of the psyche, in a lot of ways, than we do about the treatment of the body–especially if we’re trying to not just rely on pharmaceuticals to “maintain” an illness. So the psyche is more of a cultural vulnerable spot than the body in a lot of ways. Would it make sense for the challenges to come at that level more frequently in this culture, then?

I do know that what I’m going through is most certainly making me better prepared for my roles both as a therapist and as a shaman. In some indigenous cultures, if a shaman suffered from (and survived) a particular illness, s/he was seen as an expert in curing that illness. Does the same thing hold true for having survived repeated excursions into the depths of the self, with the result being a stronger, healthier person overall?

I won’t play the dogma card and try to say that this absolutely must be the experience of a “true shaman” in this culture. But I believe that shamanisms adhere to the contours of the cultures they are a part of; the general themes and purposes may be the same, but I’m not sure I believe that a practitioner in the urban United States has to have the exact same experiences as a genuine Evenk shaman. My thought is that it’s up to us to create our own relationships with the spirits (albeit with a more realistic perspective on what nature and spirits are); looking to other cultures helps to an extent, but beyond that we need to remember where we are, and who we are working with.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. I am not an indigenous anything. I may be of European genetic makeup (as far as I know, anyway), but I am not European culturally. I am a white American, generally middle class of some sort, university-educated, geeky, neopagan, an urban dweller, and so forth. Ultimately, that is the cultural context I am coming from, and that is what needs to most inform my practice; even if my clients as both a therapist and a shaman end up being from different social locations, I need to have a firm understanding of where I am, so I can better orient myself to them. And the same thing goes for the spirits; the relationships that I have with them are largely informed by the people I come from, and solving the problems that result from a culture largely detached from nature.