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.

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2 thoughts on “Coming Up For Air

  1. The way I figure it, a shamans sickness is something pretty darned epic.

    However, that doesn’t mean you aren’t or can’t be a shaman. I mean I would personally be pleased if I hadn’t gone through some of the devastating illnesses I have had.

    Another aspect of a shaman, especially in a “Celtic Shamanism” mindset (I am not acknowledging whether or not Celtic Shamanism is authentic or not, merely examining the paradigm) is not the shaman sickness, which seems to irrelevant, but instead being taken to the otherworld, initiated there, and also being kind of an outcast, on the fringes of society.

    You might find that if you look to Northern European “shamanism” that your experience will fit more closely. Despite the fact that you are American–I think these things can still inform.

    I have not seen much in the way of illnesses being prescribed for Northern European shamans.

  2. Good to know you’re taking care of yourself in the midst of your studies. It’s so simple yet true that whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed and unable to handle a particular situation, it’s usually due to a lack of time outdoors.

    In this post, as you’ve done in the past, you touch on our own culture as Americans and how that relates to shamanism. I’ve been thinking more lately about our own culture and how a shaman would fit into it (especially for those of us who aren’t psychologists!). Don’t have any answers yet, but surely there is a way. Surely there are cultural traditions and rituals that can somehow be adapted in order to become a more “authentic” American shaman. Seems it would help us avoid appropriating other cultures in order to fill in those gaps. It’s probably all right under our noses anyway, but we’re just too close to see it.

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