Some Comments on Neoshamanism

I’ve been thinking some about arguments of authenticity and neoshamanism (non-indigenous practices that emulate indigenous shamanisms). And it really seems that we’re stuck in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation.

One of the biggest criticisms is that we aren’t doing things the same way as indigenous cultures. We don’t take long enough to train, or we’re too superficial, or we otherwise have no idea what we’re doing, because we have no animistic/shamanistic tradition inherent in non-indigenous American culture. We are a unique culture in that, more than any other, we have a wide variety of individual cultural influences from around the world, but no older base culture at the core. The indigenous cultures here, of course, were decimated by European colonists, and even if they hadn’t been, one can hardly say there was a monolithic Native American culture from Alaska to Brazil. Looking at what we have now, we don’t so much have a melting pot as we do a soup, sort of, a general broth but with individual bits and pieces of stuff retaining its own character, more or less. We can say we have American culture, but whose is that really? The culture of white middle-class liberals come up with, or working-class African American Baptists, or Hispanic migrants? What the media shows, the formermost of the three examples I mentioned, doesn’t nearly cover what it is to be American, just the most privileged iteration thereof.

Alternately, we’re supposedly doing it wrong because we are doing it like indigenous people, just not good enough. We’re only aping indigenous practices, from cultures that aren’t interested in having us participate in any form. But even if we did have more access, I do not think that trying to draw even more deeply from indigenous shamanisms is the answer to our dilemma. For example, I’ve seen what basically amount to shamanic tourist traps, where white people spend thousands of dollars to fly to South America to do ayahuasca intensives with people they’ve never met before in a land they’ll never permanently connect to, and then assume that’s a full-on initiation. Sure, you might learn some interesting techniques, but then you have to figure out how to use them in a different culture and a different landscape. And once you take specific practices out of their original context, they lose their meaning.

To an extent, all American neoshamans—and neopagans—have to adjust to this conundrum. One of the things that really interests me, for example, with reconstructionist paganisms is how the practitioners adjust to living in a land, culture and time that the cultural portions of their religious practices aren’t supposed to be connected to, and the individual interpretations and compromises fascinate me to no end. With neoshamanism being as heavily animistic as it is, and being more of an intensive practice than a religion, it’s especially difficult to introduce it to a culture that never had anything directly analogous to either animism, or the role of a shaman. There’s no convenient niche to fill; we have to chip it out ourselves, either modifying existing roles, or creating something entirely different.

Plus we’re not looking at small, relatively homogenous tribal groups. In a square mile chunk of Portland, for example, you can find people from dozens—or even hundreds—of ethnic backgrounds, religions, political affiliations, etc. Many of them may not have ever met their neighbors. As I blogged about over at the Wild Hunt a while back, most attempts to try to artificially build a tribe out of this sort of environment don’t work particularly well. And shamanism is something that grew primarily out of relatively small, cohesive groups.

Which leads to criticism with American culture itself. There are complaints that shamanisms within this culture reflect specific cultural elements that are often considered to be negative. The reality is that American culture (whatever that is) has a tendency towards individualism, instant gratification, and materialism. That’s part of what we have to work with. Neoshamans and neopagans can’t instantly shift the culture we’re immersed in; even our subcultures are still marked to a great deal by greater, more overarching tendencies. And no matter how much work we do on ourselves, we’re always going to be indelibly marked to some extent by our culture of origin and/or immersion. Additionally, if we’re going to do our work for the people in this culture, we need to meet them where they are instead of expecting them to be “more enlightened” or otherwise vastly different from the state we find them in. And remember—there are human beings involved here, not automatons or perfected higher selves.

So don’t be surprised when the fledgling attempts to try to create a shamanism for this culture end up being marked by individualism, instant gratification, and materialism to some degree or another. We may not want to stay there—but we have to start somewhere. Because we’re so attuned to individualism, for example, it’s no surprise that there are numerous interpretations of what a shamanism for this culture would be. Even within core shamanism, which started with Michael Harner, there are plenty of directions that the basic material has been taken in. This means there’s really no consensus as to what non-indigenous American shamanism is. There may never be, and there may always be disagreements as to what “real” shamanism is, in this culture and otherwise. Maybe we’ll end up with different shamanisms, somewhat though not completely analogous to individual tribal shamanisms, but with 300 million Americans, it’s hard to think that we’d be able to come up with a one size fits all praxis.

Think about it—we’ve really only been trying for a few decades at best to make something of a shamanic tradition in this culture. Even with as many people are interested today, that’s still only a very small portion of the population at large. It’s not like some greater movement such as feminism, where millions upon millions of people got involved as it gained momentum. So we have a relatively small number of people working within a relatively small amount of time to do something that involves not only creating a spiritual praxis more or less from scratch, but also altering the culture in which it is being created, often with conflict from numerous directions. That’s a pretty tall order, if you ask me.

And yes, we’re going to make mistakes and fuck up royally as we learn through trial and error. And that’s okay. At least we’re doing something. At least we’re trying. At least we’re not being armchair critics on the sidelines. The people who do the work have my respect for doing the work, even if I disagree with the details of what they’re doing.

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Science and Spirituality

Recently I got into a conversation online with one of the many people who are convinced that at some point in the future, either something specific like December 21, 2012, or a more vague “When the Veils between the worlds fall”, “magic” will overcome “science”, and instead of having technology to guide us and lengthen our lifespans, we’ll all be able to shoot fireballs, heal instantly by touch, and ride dragons. Or similar things that are impossible in the current state of physics.

I’ve seen this entirely too many times in my decade and change in the pagan and Otherkin communities. Not only does it show an escapist form of wishful thinking that completely ignores the wonders and miracles inherent in the material world (I mean, come on–photosynthesis? Is totally cool.), but the argument also shows an ignorance of what science actually is.

Science does not dictate the nature of reality. No matter how much we know about, say, how physics works, we cannot change the laws of physics (as Scotty liked to remind us). We can change what we are able to do within the parameters of material reality through the understanding of that reality that science gives us. But science does not change the basic parameters of material reality.

Of course, when these people I speak of try to contrast magic and science, their general understanding of what “pure magic” is would violate the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and just about every other science out there–if it could actually do what they claim it can do. They point to situations where magical practice has apparently done the impossible, by creating changes in physical reality that aren’t supposed to happen. Confirmation bias aside, I’m guessing that all of these can be explained ultimately through science. The explanations may not be to the satisfaction of the imaginations (and wishful thinking) of some folks, but IMO, that doesn’t make those explanations any less important for being explained through “boring” science. After all, if you get the result you wanted, what does it matter?

I know the argument would then go that belief shapes reality, and the more people believe in science, the more science changes and shapes reality. Yet that’s a fallacious argument that again shows a complete ignorance of what science is. Science is compiling information about material reality based on controlled, empirical observations of that reality. In short, it is not manipulating reality, but merely observing it and recording what is observed. If that observation changed reality every time it happened, then the observations recorded would be nowhere near as consistent as they are, even after making allowances for human error. Yes, we change things within objective reality though our technology, but the technology does not change the nature of the objective reality itself.

And this is why I think that spirituality should not be placed in opposition to science. Spirituality that defines itself as completely unattached to science is in denial of the parameters we realistically work within every moment of our lives–to include the parameters in which we practice spirituality and magic. The splitting of science and spirit into two completely separate camps has done nothing beneficial for spirituality; all it has done is turned it into a tool for denialism and ignorance. Most of the observable effects are less drastic than the tragic cases of, say, children who die because their parents think prayer is a better cure for chronic illnesses than western medicine. But when we take science entirely out of our spirituality, we are in grave danger of imperiling ourselves on multiple levels–physical, psychological, and otherwise.

This is not to say that there is no room for suspension of disbelief. Science, for example, has not been able to prove the existence of souls, or an Otherworld, other than as psychological constructs. But when I journey, I journey with the mindset that I am going to an objectively real place where there are spirits, and where I am a temporarily disembodied spirit myself wandering through talking to animals. I realize that this is empirically unprovable, and you’re going to just have to trust me when I say I experienced it. But for me, in that moment, it is every bit as real as the physical world we all share.

However, when I come back out of the spirit world and regain my body, I become consciously aware again that there is a decided psychological angle to what I just did. It doesn’t in the least bit diminish my experience. Instead, it adds an additional layer of understanding to it, and enriches it by giving me even more language to communicate what I did. (While psychology is a soft science at best, it still contains more empirical evidence than most spiritual practices.)

And that’s the thing: science augments my spirituality. Knowing how photosynthesis works just makes knowing plant spirits that much better. Being aware of how stress affects physiological processes of the body adds value to meditation. Understanding the natural history of physical animals helps me know their totems even better.

I have more to say, but I am tired, and my words aren’t working as well as when I started this essay. Expect more in the future.

A Quick Thought on Critters

I’ve just started reading Denialism by Michael Specter (haven’t gotten deeply enough into it to determine whether I agree with all the negative reviews–which I haven’t read deeply anyway so as to not bias myself). It’s the latest in a number of influences ranging from a scientific-rationalist-transhumanist partner, to reading things like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, balancing out a lot of the more woo-woo reading and interaction I do. I’m of the firm belief that my spirituality does not have to be antithetical to science; in fact, I see science as an augmentation of my understanding of my cosmology. Totemism, for example, stems in large part from a metaphorical extrapolation of human observations of animal behavior. And there are plenty of ridiculous and even unsafe behaviors that can come as a result of being chronically ungrounded and out of touch with consensus reality (regardless of how much you personally disagree with that reality, it’s still important to be keenly aware of its existence and the mutual effect you and it have on each other).

One of the things that I tell people curious about totemism is that one of the best ways to get to know totems is to study their natural history and biology, to get to know the physical animals attached to the totems. What I see all too often is a romanticization of animals, and a lack of understanding of actual animal behavior. For instance, there’s the oft-related myth that non-human animals never injure or kill another except in self-defense or for food. Yet this ignores a host of documented, and sometimes common, animal behaviors. Male lions taking over a new pride will kill the young of their predecessors so they can breed with the lionesses. Male dolphins rape females. Foxes and other canine/vulpine predators have been known to kill an entire flock of chickens (or, in the case of larger predators, sheep), much more than they can eat and cache.

And there are other projections of human ideals onto animals. Look at the lone wolf, for example. In American culture, rugged individualism is prized, and wolves are often seen as the symbol of the wild (independence). Thus the ideal of the “lone wolf”. Yet in actuality, a lone wolf is generally one who is marked for death if s/he can’t find a pack to join. S/he may be too old, or may have been driven from the family pack to avoid inbreeding. Hunting large ungulates, which are important food in cold months especially, is too dangerous to do alone–a single kick from an elk can snap a wolf’s jaw or leg, which is essentially a death sentence. Hence wolves having evolved to hunt in packs. Therefore, the lone wolf ideal is just that–an ideal, not reality.

Even concepts that were made in good science at the time can be changed. L. David Mech, for example, has publicly rescinded the alpha wolf concept he introduced way back when. That’s not a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. Science is not a perfect system, but it is designed to minimize errors. You simply can’t have a 0% rate of errors when dealing with human perception and behavior.

And natural history and biology are ways for me to gain better understanding of the totems and animal spirits I work with, as well as the greater cosmology (way of understanding the universe) I work with. I’m admittedly fond of myth and metaphor as structures for understanding, but I keep them in addition to, not opposed to, literal, materialistic, scientific explanations. I know, for example, that my perception of Brown Bear being a totem of healing for me has a good deal to do with human interpretation of certain traits and behaviors of brown bears, and the mythos that has grown up around that. That doesn’t mean that physical brown bears will walk up to me and give me a healing herb if I end up sickened in a forest in Alaska. I’d rather know how to safely avoid conflict with large omnivorous animals that could do me some serious damage if I don’t respect them and their territories.

I am even more convinced that one of the best ways to get to know more about a totem is to study the behaviors and other traits of its physical counterparts, whether you have access to the animals themselves directly or only through media. Not only does it give one better knowledge about the animal, but it also helps to reduce unhealthy romanticization that can give incorrect information about the physical animals, which can then lead to inaccurate public perception which can affect the realities of things like species management and reintroduction efforts. Yes, we want people to know that grey wolves are not the vicious killers that European-based folklore paints them to be. But we do need to acknowledge the complaints of ranchers who actually have lost stock to wolves; if they feel heard and included in the debates, then perhaps they’ll be more amenable to finding solutions that benefit the wolves but don’t leave the ranchers completely out of the loop. (Hence not hyper-romanticizing wolves as never, ever preying on livestock, etc.)

I have a longer post on science and spirituality I want to write at some point, the gist of which is “Science is not a way of controlling the world; it is a way of understanding the world. You don’t make reality happen through science, and it’s not some force to be combated with magic or spirituality. It’s simply a systematic way of perceiving the world in great detail, and that does not have to be antithetical to spirituality”.

Bear Ritual

Today I led my first “official” group ritual as a practicing (neo)shaman. Brown Bear has been nudging me to try out some of the ritual techniques and practices I’ve been developing over the past few months to see how they’d work out, and s/he said s/he had wanted a ritual hirself, so this was a good opportunity. I put everything together pretty quickly since it’s getting into hibernation time, but it all worked out.

We ended up clearing out the living room, moving the dining table into the kitchen temporarily, and pushing the couches against the walls. Then the little table in front of the TV ended up doing double duty as an altar and place to keep my ritual implements when I wasn’t using them. Here are a few pictures (apologies to those on the LJ feed who don’t have the benefit of an LJ-cut for this):



The hide covering the altar is an old skin, possibly bear but not entirely sure, that was left on my porch at our old place–we think we know who it was. It’s incredibly old, just about falling apart, probably from somewhere in the early 20th century. The other hide, the bearskin in the foreground on the second picture, is my ceremonial skin–she was an oooooold rug I got at an antique shop over a decade ago. I removed all the rug stuff, and while she’s very delicate, some mink oil helped to rehydrate her. Still, she’s many decades old, and I have to be very careful with her.

There’s also a rattle made from a black bear skull and a deer leg bone that I use to call in the spirits, and a deerskin bag that holds some of my other Brown Bear items. The plate in the center has small Bear packets that would be given out during the ceremony. Leaning against the altar are my big drum, a small drum that was my starter drum but is now a spare, and the elk antler bells I made a while back. And the white fur is the wolf headdress and tail that I wear while journeying, as I journey as a white wolf. There’s also a very small bear statue on there, along with a packet of small bear fetishes leftover from making the gift packets for participants.

There ended up being seven of us total–me, Taylor, the three practitioners that I took on as students a while back, and who are now going off in their own unique directions with the material, and two other folks from the local pagan community who wanted to attend.

I began with rattling in the spirits that I wished to have in attendance, calling them each by the name they wished to be known by. I didn’t call in everyone, because not all the spirits would have been a good fit for this ritual. Black Bear also helped to let me know who to welcome. I then warmed up my drum, rubbing it with my hand and then with the beater. After that I called the horse spirit of the drum with a specific beat that I use.

Once that spirit came out of the drum, I began the journey drumming, and I asked the rest of the participants to drum with me to help me get to where I was going. I had journeyed to see Bear the day before to take hir a preliminary offering and to check in with hir about last details for today, but I didn’t want to make the assumption that s/he would automatically come to the celebration we had set up for hir. So I went with my bearskin spirit, and once we got to Bear’s den, I asked everyone to stop drumming since they had gotten me to where I needed to be, and to simply listen as I told what I experienced as it happened.

The bearskin spirit and I went down cautiously into Bear’s den, even though we had been there before. Bear was there, and grumbly because s/he was sleepy. I very carefully asked hir whether s/he would like to come with us to the celebration and to see the gifts for hir, and also to place hir energy/scent on the bear packets I had made. S/he grumbled some more, and then told me that if s/he was going to show up, I would have to dance for hir, wearing the necklace I had made for hir before. The bearskin spirit and I then retreated. I had been keeping the drumbeat slow and quiet throughout all this, trying to keep myself calm, but turning my back on Bear was frightening, and I fought to keep the beat slow and quiet as we went back up to the surface.

The horse of my drum carried me back as the participants all drummed and rattled again to help bring me back home. Then they drummed more as I carefully draped the bearskin over me, put the necklace on, and danced like a bear. It was odd, because I’m used to wolf dancing up on my toes (and I also walk on my toes as a matter of course), but bear dancing required me to stay on my heels. Plus the movement is much different, a larger animal, with a different heft of momentum.

And Bear did arrive, using the dance as a vehicle. I growled and whuffed and sniffed at the altar and the goodies on it–and the food people had brought, too. Once the dance was done, I talked a bit about my relationship to Bear, and also gave folks some time to interact with Bear on their own. Then we got to the food! I still held Bear inside me to an extent, and let hir taste the food through me. There were many good things–foccacia bread, and containers of fresh berries and grapes (which Bear loved). And I made cookies, too, with applesauce I made from scratch earlier this year and gave to Bear as yesterday’s offering. (Eating offerings in celebration is apparently a perfectly acceptable way to deal with the physical portions.)

Then once that was done, I thanked all the spirits for being there, most of all Bear, and we drummed for them a while, and I danced as I drummed. Then I rattled them back home, and saw the attendees out.

I got the permanent Brown Bear altar set up in my ritual/art room:


There’s the Bear bag, and also the assorted stone bear fetishes. There’s also a bear claw carved from horn that was offered by one person, and some sage and herbs offered by another, all of which will stay on the altar. And there are some spare packets from the ritual that will probably end up being gifted to people who could use a boost of Bear energy, as it were. No doubt I’ll add more stuff as time goes by, but that’s a good start. Incidentally, the table above it will be a Wolf altar, once the time comes for that. (The other hide is normally on my main altar, where I returned it after the ritual was done.)

Overall, I think it went really well. I was nervous as hell, but managed to keep myself focused on the ritual itself. The feedback confirmed that others enjoyed it, too. One of the things that concerned me is that in neopaganism group rituals usually involve a lot of participation on everyone’s part. The whole spectator thing is often considered to be “boring”, or so I had feared. But as a performance ritual, this seemed to work out really well.

The other thing I noticed was how quickly I got to my starting point with the help of everyone else drumming/rattling! It was like having a huge push behind me as the horse carried me there. Between that, and Bear’s den being very close to my starting point, plus it being a pretty straightforward, mostly pre-arranged task, the ritual itself didn’t last too long, under a half an hour [ETA: the portion prior to the food, I mean]. But it was strong, and I know I’m on the right track with this. There’s some fine-tuning that needs to be done, and things will get better with experience, but for a first time out, I’m really pleased, and everyone else (including Bear) seemed to agree.