Directional No More?

I’m continuing to refine my ritual structure. If you look at the very early posts in this blog, you’ll note that my practice was originally pretty heavily influenced by my background in generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism; my first six months involved a directional/elemental approach to revisiting the basics to get some grounding, and to establish something of a regular focus. I’m really trying to get away from that. I can’t completely start over from scratch without tossing out all the valuable things that I’ve learned and developed over the years, but the past two years have involved a lot of reassessing what of my previous practice was something I wanted to carry over into my shamanic work, and what was simply something that no longer worked for me.

Since the very early time of my practice, I’ve done a fairly typical circle-casting, greeting totem animals I associated with the four cardinal directions–Gray Wolf at North, Brown Bear at West, Red-tailed Hawk at East, and a variety of animals, most recently Red Fox, at South. Along with these directional totems came the standard neopagan, derived from ceremonialism and old grimoires, elemental and other correspondences. And for years, that sort of abstracted structure worked pretty well.

However, now I’m really interested in creating a practice based on my immediate experiences and environment. Granted, to an extent there are still some things that don’t quite fit that model; for example, I’ve still never met a gray wolf in the wild, and my only experience with elk has been nearly getting run over by a pair of them in a dark field at night. My totemic work nonetheless is something that is still central to my path, and I’ll still continue to work with totems whose physical counterparts I don’t have much direct experience with, even as I increase my work with those whom I have, such as Scrub Jay.

But in thinking about how I want to structure formal rituals, I find that the cardinal directions don’t really have much in the way of personal meaning, and the totems I associated with them were mostly arbitrarily drawn from early neoshamanic readings, other than the South totem, who has always represented the change in my life at the time. Or, rather, it’s the concept of the directions themselves that don’t really resonate with me now that I’m doing more shedding of rote correspondences.

What is important to me are the natural landmarks and other phenomena found near the physical location where I am doing a ritual. For example, at home I have the Cascades to the east of me, the Columbia River to the north, Johnson Creek to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, all at varying distances. And that’s not even including the urban spirit of Portland and all that includes.

So I’m thinking that what I’m going to do is focus on, prior to the ritual, familiarizing myself with local landmarks surrounding the place where the ritual will happen. At home this won’t be an issue, but if I do any traveling, it’ll necessitate some research, as well as introducing myself to the Land itself, and seeing if any of the spirits in particular request/require acknowledgment or permissions. It seems more appropriate than simply greeting fairly generic directions, though it also takes more work (and some people may prefer the quicker broad-brush “spirits of the North, etc.” I’m not even thinking the actual directions they’re in in relation to me would be all that important in and of themselves, other than as a note of orientation (what if the biggest nearby body of water is to the traditionally airy east, not the watery west, for example?)

The thing I need to remember, as a final thought, is that this path is of my own creation. If I want to do it properly, I need to be deliberate about it, and have good reasons for what I do and why. There’s a lot of freedom in being able to create one’s path essentially from scratch, but there’s also the lack of inherent checks and balances that normally come from working within an established path, or developing with a group. I was talking to someone I met today at the Esoteric Book Conference about how I have people that I trade notes with and go to with questions. Sometimes the practices these people engage in resonate strongly with me. But I don’t just copy what they do and say I’m doing the same thing. Ultimately there’s a lot of “me” in what I’m creating, and if I just took things whole-cloth from others without really considering why I adopted those things, and whether they really fit for me, then I’d be doing everyone a disservice.

Thus it is that I’m rethinking the whole circle-casting-inspired, generic-correspondence-laden approach to opening a ritual that I’ve been used to, and trying to come up with something that better fits this thing that I’ve been putting together formally for two years now.

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Some Musings on Bear Work

Aside from my emotional personal work with Elk, I’ve been exploring new territory with Brown Bear. As I’ve been returning to the more ritualized portion of my shamanic practice, Bear has been right there with me, telling me what s/he needs of me and how to do it. Part of this, of course, is for hir benefit; however, it’s also been great training for putting together the more formalized ritual practices I’ve been developing piecemeal for a while now. Much of this is stuff that I’m simply not able to talk about just yet–not out of any sense of “Woooo, I have mysteries that you can’t comprehend!”, but in the sense that it’s not yet ready for me to share, and the spirits would be unhappy if I brought it out prematurely.

Thinking back, I’ve realized that Bear has been the first one to step forward when I’ve wanted to try something new along (neo)shamanic lines. When I first started exploring totemism beyond Wolf, Bear guided me through some of my first rituals. And now s/he’s here again as my practice begins to branch out past my own personal needs, and I prepare to start shamanizing for others.

I was talking to Bear during a journey last week, and I told hir of my concerns as to whether I was “doing enough”. I talked about a friend of mine who is a much more experienced practitioner who’s been doing some serious work as of late. I look at what I do, and I feel like I’m such a novice. Even though I’ve been a pagan and magical practitioner since the mid-1990s, with shamanism I feel as though I’m just beginning to reach a new depth of experience that I really haven’t gone through before. This path has challenged me more than any other, though I think it took me until two years ago to really be ready for it. (Wow, has it been two years already?)

Bear told me that I’m giving myself more expectations and therefore more pressure than I need to. Even within a specific community, different shamans not only have different strengths and specialties, but also different commitment levels. If I end up not being as intense a practitioner on some levels as some other shamans in this culture, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not trying hard enough. There’s a tendency toward competition and one-upsmanship in American culture, and in many magical traditions it manifests as “Who can be the most non-fluffy?” Shamans may compare tough journeys and sacrifices as though the more you suffer, the better you do objectively speaking.

Yet Bear simply told me that we’ll see what I’m realistically capable of. I can’t just drop everything else in my life to try to eke out a living hanging up a shaman shingle. Granted, grad school and my future profession are linked to the shamanism, but I also have a life outside of that–significant others, friends and family, video games, Western martial arts, etc. Shamanism proper may never be an all-consuming things, and my “official” profession as a therapist may always eclipse the ritual work to some extent. But then again, it may not. Bear has a very wait-and-see attitude, and the long view of the fact that I’m only thirty, ideally I have a few more decades to live, and plenty can happen in that time.

So once again I’m grateful to Brown Bear for hir perspective and reminding me that this isn’t a competition; there are enough people (and other beings) in need that I don’t need to prove I’m more 1337 than the next shaman to be able to help.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part 2

Eeep. So this was a little later than “tomorrow”. But better late than never.

So I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the big OMGSPIRITUALEXPERIENCE I had when I was out on the wilderness therapy (WT) retreat. One of the tools used in WT is the “solo”, which is basically the really short, really watered-down version of what non-indigenous people assume to be a “vision quest”, though the WT people I was with were well aware of the cultural issues, etc. Anyway, a solo happens late in a WT experience (which generally will take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, depending on the program). It’s long enough for the individual person to have had a lot of experience not only with practical wilderness skills and teambuilding, but also to reflect on the problems encountered both in the backcountry, and in the setting that person left behind. The solo itself is where the person gets left in a particular spot for a matter of a few hours to a few days to have that time to hirself for reflection. After, there’s a period of time for reintegration back into the WT group, followed by transition back to the life left behind.

My solo was only a few hours, appropriate for a four-day retreat. We hiked up West Hardy Ridge, going about three and a half miles one way, with roughly 2,000 feet elevation, at a pace of about 3mph average. It’s rough, rocky terrain, especially higher up on the ridge, so it wasn’t easy going. In fact, it’s the toughest hike I’ve done to date; we didn’t stop for breaks, and my pack was about a fifth of my body weight since I took a lot of water to account for the 90+ degree heat.

Honestly, there were a few times where I seriously considered just sitting down on the trail and not going any further. I’m in good physical condition, but the many factors wearing at me combined to create a really tough challenge. I have a tendency to get frustrated when things go beyond a certain level of difficulty. But I did recognize that I was getting frustrated, and I was able to take a step back and observe myself in that frustration–and I was able to tell myself that it would pass, and that I had a goal worth going for. So I worked through the frustration, while acknowledging that I felt it, something nearly unprecedented for me (and also an important step in my Elk work).

We made it to the top of the ridge, and we were then escorted to our individual spots. I ended up getting a really choice one, a rock slide overlooking the Columbia River, surrounded by small conifers and underbrush. Granted, the rocks were all small, to the point where I really had nowhere comfortable to sit, and I had to secure my gear to keep it from sliding down the ridge. But other than that? Excellent place.

I took a little time to settle in, getting some water and food, and letting myself rest. Then I took in my surroundings in brief, just to get some orientation for where I was. My clearing was about fifteen feet wide, and the slide itself was roughly fifty feet long from the top of the ridge to where the brush began again.

Then I started thinking about how I should spend my time there. Should I do work with Bear, who had been wanting my time and attention? I’d brought my drum, after all, since it’s not heavy at all and hooks onto my pack nicely. Should I meditate? Should I try talking to the Land? I tried for the lattermost option, opening myself up and expecting a dialogue. Instead, the Land simply kept telling me to look at the plants. So I did. Though I didn’t know most of them, I took the time to study them in detail, how they grew together in layers from the ground up, and how I was surprised by how many deciduous trees there were mixed in there. Then I looked at the stones around me, and the fallen logs. And then I noted the animals, who are normally the ones I notice first.

First came the flies–not biting flies, thankfully, but sort of housefly-types. At first I shooed them away when they landed on my skin, and they persisted. But then I saw that what they wanted was my sweat–there wasn’t any water nearby, so moisture must have come at a premium on that hot day. So, exercising patience again, I let them land on me and drink their fill, even though it tickled, and there was part of me conditioned to feel revulsion at having “dirty” flies touching me. But once they were done, they left me alone for the rest of the time.

Much of my company was flies, a few spiders and other arthropods. However, I ended up with an awesome spot for birdwatching. I startled a scrub jay who was about to come in for a landing on a tree next to me, but then thought better of it after seeing me. There were some swallows (not sure of the exact species) flying overhead, and of course I heard the occasional raven. Later on, a quartet of turkey vultures came flying overhead, harried by a peregrine falcon (the falcons nest nearby on Beacon Rock). And then at one point I heard the “keeeeeer” of a bald eagle, and was fortunate to stand up quickly enough see a mature adult cruising parallel with the river, fifty feet away at the most!

What I realized in all this is that I saw so many things I would have missed if I hadn’t sat down to be patient. I have a tendency to be an impatient person, hence my common frustration. Being out in the woods like that, settling down quietly for a space of hours, showed me one of the many rewards of patience. In fact, this was a really good trip for Elk work in that vein. I had ample opportunities to experience the natural challenges associated with being in the wilderness and to face my own behavior patterns that came up as a result. And I came away with some good lessons.

I also actually got to do my first sort of “official” shamanic work on behalf of others. I know the human-based portion of my shamanic work has largely focused on myself and making myself a better vessel for this sort of thing, but I’m starting (finally!) to get to the point where I can do work for other people. It wasn’t anything too elaborate; one of the instructors for the course asked me to drum as part of the preparatory ceremony before we started out on our hike. (Ecopsychology doesn’t equal animism, but ecopsychologists do strongly draw on animistic practices in a secular context, such as the role of ritual.) So I very briefly explained the importance of my drum and what I was about to do, and told people that I would be calling on Horse, Deer and Elk, and that they were welcome to ask any/all of them for their guidance and protection on our “journey”, such as it was. And then I drummed while one of the instructors smudged all the participants with sage picked in eastern Oregon before we got going.

I’ve done some work since then, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet. Needless to say, things seem to be evolving more as I’m coming back to my practice more actively. But my wilderness therapy excursion was a definite turning point.