The Quandary of the Other

As I was poking around in my garden today, pulling weeds, turning soil and traumatizing earthworms in preparation for early spring planting, I was thinking about some of the “why” of what it is I’m doing here with this whole shamanic experiment. Because it really is an experiment. I’m testing a whole bunch of concepts, most of which have been tried in varying combinations by other people, but not, to my knowledge, in quite the way I am.

What I was thinking about was an extension of my thoughts in my last column in Rending the Veil, In Defense of the BINABM. Many neopagans and others criticize the fact that Americans (and other Westerners) have a tendency to gravitate toward the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) like Grey Wolf and Brown Bear and Bald Eagle. And even I’ve done the same; hell, a lot of why I wrote DIY Totemism was to help people break out of the idea that those were the only totems with any power.

But I keep finding myself working with these BINABM in my shamanic work, and a large reason is because those are the animals most commonly in our cultural consciousness as being “properly totemic”. Rationally, some of us can realize that other animals have a lot of intense and amazing qualities we can learn from. And we can also realize that we downplay the importance of animals we have domesticated, partly out of guilt, and also out of familiarity. So we don’t really romanticize Domestic Dog, Cow or Pigeon in the same way.

Instead, we look to the totems of animals that many of us will never meet outside of a zoo or sanctuary, and maybe even not then. I mean, I’m a great example. I was only about two or three when my relationship (obsession?) with Grey Wolf began–way before I was cognitively capable of any sort of reasoning or belief. There had to be at least something cultural in there, from all the books (and, to a lesser extent in my case, television) and other media I had been exposed to even at that young an age. There’s something there, and it’s valuable in the practice of meeting people where they are.

See, all those BINABM? They’re one representation of the Other. Generally speaking, in American culture*, the only one I can really speak of with any authority, there’s a pretty severe tendency toward strict duality. We create dichotomies that are sometimes violently opposed to each other, and it’s tough to get people to consider the model of a continuum instead. This leads to a lot of really pointless arguing about everything from men vs. women to science vs. religion to my academic theory vs. your academic theory, in which people throw away the chance for a deeper, more integral understanding of reality in favor of planting a flag somewhere. Anything less than 100% dedication to your cause is seen as weak, untrustworthy.

I do believe there is a place for the concept of the Other, but it isn’t this either/or model. It’s the both/and. Just because I do not see myself as violently opposed to people of other races, cultures, sexes, genders, etc. does not mean I see myself as being the same as them, or being able to speak for them. Far from it. But neither do I see allowing their influence into my understanding of the world as a threat. And it’s the same way with “nature”. I consider myself ultimately to be a natural being; I eat, sleep, breathe, fuck, shit, and do a whole host of other things that require me to be connected to everything else. The fact that there is a city in the middle of my bioregion does not make the bioregion cease to exist. I do have to consider the things that make me different from other denizens of nature, like my frontal lobes, and the adaptations that frontal lobes have helped humans to create. Nature is still an Other, but not one which is entirely untouchable.

These are things I work with in my shamanism, deliberately, for myself and for those I offer my services to. These are the dualities I want to turn into continuums. Spirituality is seen as opposed to materialism. The body is seen as opposed to the mind/spirit/etc. And, drawing on both spirituality and ecopsychology, humanity is seen as opposed to nature. This insistence on either/or perspectives, as opposed to both/and, creates a very harshly delineated “Other”, one which must remain separate at all times lest we taint ourselves. And that includes the “Other” human beings.

At its most extreme, the “Other” manifests in things like deliberate and institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But sometimes it’s not that intentional. A really good example is in the tendency in both American nonindigenous shamanisms and neopaganisms, and in ecopsychology, toward tunnel visioning on dominant, largely white, culture as a basis. It’s not that white shamans and pagans and ecopsychologists are deliberately trying to exclude people of color. But let’s face it–all of these movements are largely perpetuated by white people, and that’s something we need to be aware of, not in the sense of “well, that’s just who’s interested”, but also what we may be doing that makes these movements seem less welcoming to people of color. It may just be that there’s not enough dialogue about issues of race and culture in shamanism and ecopsychology.

Or maybe we’re uncomfortable bringing up these controversial issues amid our pretty rituals and romantic wilderness idylls. I think Carl Anthony, in his interview with Theodore Roszak in Ecopsychology, really summed up this problem succinctly:

“Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and not be able to think like people of color?” (Anthony, in Roszak 1992, p. 273)

He’s referring to the well-known essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the granddaddys of environmentalism and its various derivatives in America. The phrase “Thinking Like a Mountain” has become bandied about pretty commonly among environmentalists and ecopsychologists as a way of reminding us to embrace the Other. Yet we feel it’s safer to deal with an Other that’s more distant–and, perhaps, one that can’t talk back to us so easily. After all, many Native Americans feel patronized and otherwise pissed off when white people claim to have had past lives as Indians, and let’s not get into the horror that is the “guided meditation” to “get in touch with your Native self” (yes, I’ve seen this and variations of it). Clearly we can get away with things like Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings in which we speak for beings we assume can’t speak for themselves–like mountains and nonhuman animals. Imagine, though, if we did a Council of All Races, in which a bunch of white people made masks to be like various people of color.

And that’s where we really need to be careful when we’re working with the concept of the Other, and more importantly, our relationship to it. Yes, it’s safer for me to work with abstract totems of various nonhuman animals who can’t complain if I misrepresent them, at least not in the same way other human beings can. But I’m also very aware of the limitations that my ritual work has in working with people outside of my cultural familiarity. As a shamanic practitioner, I know that the whole concept of “culturally neutral” is bullshit. Core shamanism, for example, isn’t culturally neutral. It’s white, middle-class, college-educated shamanism, even if all its practitioners don’t fit all of those parameters. And I know that’s what my shamanism is, too, because I’m the creator, and that’s the cultural background I have.

Here’s the thing. I grew up in a small town in the midwest that was almost entirely white. Then I moved to cities, but still gravitated toward subcultures that again were largely white. So my experience is almost entirely working with other white people, within a culture largely created by white people. Same thing goes for middle class and college-educated. These aren’t bad things, but my experiences are pretty damned limited, considering how diverse the population here is. So I have a lot of Others, as it were.

That’s why I’m training to become a licensed practicing counselor. Especially if I end up in an agency setting, I’m going to be working with clients from a much broader variety of cultural and other backgrounds than what I’ve previously been exposed to. My program is heavily engaged in issues of social justice, which has just helped to make me even more aware of my experiential limitations. It’s not that I’m flogging myself over being a guilty white person. It’s that I realize that my own limitations in dealing with people also limit my potential for helping other people. Becoming a trained counselor won’t automatically give me awesome multicultural skills, but my curriculum has included a lot of information and discussion about how to work with clients with significantly different backgrounds in a way that respects them as well as ourselves. This hasn’t always been a comfortable thing for me, because I have become aware of just how limited my experiences have been and how much I don’t know, but rather than drown myself in white-girl guilt, I’ve instead cultivated a curiosity of “If this becomes an issue, how can I broach discussion with my client of the best way to resolve it?”

And that is also part of my work with the Other. The Other isn’t just the exotic, the nebulous–it’s the immediate and very real. Some people may need to start with more abstract, removed Others, like animals and mountains. That’s okay–it’s where I got my start. But it’s why my shamanism isn’t just the formal rituals and the romanticization of other beings–it’s also a profession that brings me into contact with a whole host of people who can’t just be understood through a simple guided meditation or masked ritual.

* Or, more correctly, predominantly white “mainstream” culture.

12 thoughts on “The Quandary of the Other

  1. Lupa – you are such a deep thinker! Did you think that the animal spirits may be coming to you – to choose you, rather than the other way around? Ask them next time! 🙂 While I do not have the gift you do, I have worked with animal energies before – but they definitely chose me, not the other way around, and I knew it. After studying herbalism, it seems I am aligning more with the plant kingdom, but if the animal energies wish to show up, they do. Spider is a good one for that! 😉 And I look forward to your follow-up on this!

  2. This is a wonderfully written article. 🙂

    ~*Yet we feel it’s safer to deal with an Other that’s more distant–and, perhaps, one that can’t talk back to us so easily.*~

    See, I think this is true, and like you – I think it depends on the extent of one’s belief and the choices we make in those beliefs. For example, I believe the totems I speak to and work with, the gods who shake me by the scruff of the neck, the local land spirits, are as real as you or me. And as a result of that, they not only can talk back – but talk back loudly. Not just in my mind, but in ways that they can influence my life on a much grander scale as well.

    I’d say it’s likely a part of my PTSD, but I feel if anything, totems/spirits/kami/whatever you want to call them, can talk more easily to me (and vice versa) than people can. At least I don’t go on big antisocial benders with the spirits. In that sense, my life struggle has been more about embracing other people – every day people, even close friends – as representations of the Other, vs. the spirit worlds.

    I also feel that, as an animist, there is nothing remotely ‘distant’ about these beings. Sure – their totemic energies may be less *present* than the physical energy, but that’s no different, I think, than trying to access someone’s higher self when all you’ve got is their ego and their facade in front of you. It takes effort in both cases to create a sustained, meaningful, long-lasting relationship. And both parties have to want it.


    I’ve been thinking about it, I think the only culture I’ve really struggled to embrace (that I’ve discovered through research, anyway), is that of the Kanaima shamans. I try, but I think that is very much an ‘Other’ that I can find it difficult to connect to, embrace, understand.

    • I find that traumatic experiences in general put people closer to “crossing over”, and that can result in a more active relationship with spirits. It isn’t a healthy way to do it, and a lot of people think of these experiences as being all in the mind; but yes, I do think that as part of your PTSD you have become closer to the spirit realm.

      I also hope that as you heal, you can retain that close relationship. If it does fade, remember that sometimes the mind closes briefly so it can heal a part related to that experience, and then opens up again when it’s ready to accept things as they are. (That’s been my experience, and what my guides have been telling me.)

    • Yeah, this ties in, too, with that locked post you made where there was discussion about community-integrated vs. community-isolated shamans. I think it makes a hell of a lot of sense that since even in small communities there were often multiple types of shaman, who may have had different roles and comfort levels in the community, that now that we have these enormous, globally-active communities, there’d be even more variety and movement.

      See, for me, it does take effort to do more than cursory communication with the spirits. Not tons and tons, unless I’m doing serious journeying, but I bet it does come easier to you than to me.

      As to the distance, I was mainly going for the perceptions most people here have, which is having a definite divide between humans and Nature/spirits. The spirits are still closer to me than to most folks, and I see them as much more immediate.

      • “I think it makes a hell of a lot of sense that since even in small communities there were often multiple types of shaman, who may have had different roles and comfort levels in the community, that now that we have these enormous, globally-active communities, there’d be even more variety and movement”

        To a degree, there is; but on the flipside, the more globalised culture gets, the more homogenised it gets too. That’s why – I believe – almost everyone thinks ‘shamans’ are Core shamanists if they’re neo-shamans, and American Indians or Siberians if not.

        So in smaller communities, you have accepted variations of behaviours that would now be – in many corners – considered mental illnesses because they’re no longer in the mainstream paradigm, and don’t fit in the globalised homogenised consciousness of what ‘shamanism’ is.

        It’s sort of a catch 22 that there are more opportunities to diversify as the culture grows, and yet less opportunities to be accepted by that culture if you *do* diversify. You get stuck in situations where neo-shamanists have to really *fight* to be distinguished from Core Shamanists in their practices. Instead of the assumption = ‘shamanism means a variety of practices, and cultures, whether contemporary or not’ you often have the assumption = ‘shamanism = Core shamanism or plastic shamanism.’

        It drains me to journey, always; I can just get to where I need to go quickly, these days. If my tiredness is anything to go by, it may even be that the cost of being able to just ‘be Over There’ by wanting to be Over There and applying the right lateral step to it, is me falling asleep midway through the journey state.

  3. I saw someone a bit ditzy who during an outdoor ‘find your totem animal’ ritual had a mouse jump in her hand. Instead of going ‘oh, cool!’ she said ‘that’s because I’m a *tiger*’

  4. Well said. No only is Harner the demographics you noted, but core shamanism is at heart Christian. It’s all about black/white, good/bad. That’s an extremely polar projection. And not polar bear!


    Am RT this on FB. I’m so code.

    • *nods* That’s a good point. It’s tough to get past our roots. Stephen Larsen made a similar observation in The Shaman’s Doorway (which is fresh in my mind since I just finished it–great read on the mythology and psychology of shamanism!)

  5. It’s a bit of a conundrum, this exploring the “other.” In my own experience, I don’t feel as much of a connection to African American (or, more specifically, African) culture as I do to things European or even Native American. Asian and Islander influences end up in the middle somewhere. I see your point about being aware of the other and creating dialogue, but I wonder if it’s simply a reflection of who we are. If we’re basically white Europeans living in North America, then it makes sense that we’re drawn to the corresponding spiritual heritage.

    But it’s more complicated, isn’t it? Our wider culture, for better or worse, has told us younger whites that “it’s a black thing, so you wouldn’t get it.” We’re constantly reminded that we cannot possibly understand African culture (since we never did, originally) or that of African Americans. There’s the whole legacy, also, of devaluing these cultures and mocking them. So to take steps to open a dialogue with “other,” whites need to be pretty confident in the “purity” of their motives, don’t you think?

    To your other point about our tendency to label things as “either/or”–that’s one reason I’m attracted to shamanism, since it offers more freedom. Our Christian/Western foundations have created this tendency, I believe, but shamanism offers us an opportunity to move beyond. But it isn’t easy and it we won’t ever “arrive,” I don’t think. I think shamanism offers us Westerners an opportunity to push the boundaries and stretch ourselves. Certainly sounds like what you’re doing. And we each have different areas to explore. Keep pushing!

  6. I think it’s not even so much an issue of how pure our motives are, as it is simply being aware of our reasons regardless of subjective “purity”. I figure if we go in aware of what we’re doing, to include awareness of both our successes and mistakes, and we’re as honest and genuine as we can be about it, that’s a good start.

    There are cases of either/or, good/bad outside of monotheistic religions, but I think the approach to these polarities is a bit different. The concept, for example, of “hot” vs. “cold” things in Malawi culture isn’t so much about good/bad as it is situational needs. A person who is already “hot” doesn’t need more “hot” activities or other influences.

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