Some Totemic and Related (Rambling) Thoughts While Writing

I have a few comments on other posts that I haven’t yet approved and replied to; it will happen, and thank you for your patience. In the meantime, I have put the better part of 10,000 words into a chapter on bioregional totemism for my next book, Neopagan Totemism. I had some random thought-tangents that I jotted down here as an aside.

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I haven’t talked a lot about my work with bioregional totemism, but I should. It’s been a crucial part of my work especially since moving to the Pacific Northwest, and especially Oregon.

Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay are good examples. They’re the two local totems I connected with first. Scrub Jay made a bunch of noise as soon as I landed safely in the inner northeast neighborhood of Portland that I call home. Sitting in my apartment in an old Craftsman house, I was quickly introduced to the “VWEEEEET! VWEEEEET!” of this cocky asshole of a bird. Since then, he’s helped me to become a part of Portland, both in navigating the human territory (hey, somebody’s gotta speak out against the epidemic of passive-aggressiveness here, and who better than Scrub Jay?), and in reminding me that even deep in the city I am surrounded by, and a part of, nature. Every time I start perceiving myself as detached from nature, along comes Scrub Jay to smack me out of that notion.

And then there’s Steller’s Jay. Not quite so pushy, and more prone to showing up in the forests and mountains, this totem is to the wilderness here what Scrub Jay is to the urban areas–a reminder of the balance of humanity and the rest of nature. Unlike many animals, Steller’s Jay isn’t so shy of humans that she won’t make an appearance on the trails, and her beautiful coloring easily catches the attention and acts as a portal to just how amazing her home really is. I even had art of her commissioned a while back (and at some point when I have some spare funding I need to get a companion piece of Scrub Jay).

I’ve connected to others since then, but these two were the first to welcome me here.

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We need to give ourselves more credit as a species. I see a lot of kowtowing to deities and other spirits only because they’re supposedly more powerful than we are. And yes, in their own bailiwicks, they can be pretty impressive. I stand in awe of Mt. Hood every time I see it, and all it’s apparently doing to the average eye is sitting there, being this massive mountain in the landscape. However, just because we don’t have the sort of magic that shoot fireballs from our fingertips doesn’t mean that we aren’t impressive. I think between the ubiquity of technology, our general understanding of how it works (as opposed to the mystery of magic), and the tendency to see technology as “evil” because some of it has had negative side effects (or intended effects), we really downplay what power we do have.

Technology, art of all kinds, spirituality–these and more really are testaments to our ingenuity and adaptability. We are apes with huge brains and opposable thumbs that we evolved as a response to environmental pressures, and we’ve utilized these developments to unprecedented levels. And yet we have myths of technology and art as our downfall. Icarus fell into the ocean and drowned because he tried to fly too high with his wings. Ariadne was turned into a spider because she wove better than a goddess. These and more discourage us from climbing higher.

Yes, we need to be very aware of the effects of our works. Climate change is, perhaps, one of the greatest examples. But look at our everyday lives. We don’t have to spend all winter in chilly homes where we huddle around a fire or temporarily warm warming pan for bits and pieces of comfort. We can heat an entire home to seventy-five or eighty degrees if we like, even if outdoors it’s below zero. The methods we use to do this need to be reengineered to not destroy the environment, but for fuck’s sake–I can walk around naked in my bedroom at three in the morning when it’s twenty degrees outside, while communicating on the computer with people around the world I’ve never met face to face, about stopping human rights violations in another place none of us have ever been to. I am alive because of good nutrition, and if it weren’t for antibiotics I would be dead multiple times over.

If that’s not power, I don’t know what is. And to only look at the negative effects is to disempower us, as much as the idea that our power is lesser because we know where it comes from. There may be deities of different sorts of technology and other creation, but it’s human hands that made it happen. We can be both powerful and responsible, but part of that is owning our power without shame, because shame makes us want to hide things, and hiding things is what leads to the sorts of problems we face today. By reclaiming our power responsibly and transparently, without shame or degradation, we can take a more honest assessment of the baby and the bathwater of the human condition.

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If having wildlife not run away upon your approach means you’re somehow spiritually advanced, then being swarmed by mosquitoes or rabid raccoons must be a sign of Bodhisattva status. Mosquitoes in particular are the messengers of the gods, carrying precious droplets of blood and malaria to the heavens. Every itch is a deity’s whisper of thanks, and the sacred scratching we respond with only serves to open our veins with further offerings of life.

Or something like that.

But seriously: Snow White is not a role model. This is not a Disney cartoon. I want the animals to run away. It means they’re healthy, and they don’t see me as a source of food. (Especially grizzly bears. And mountain lions. And mosquito swarms.) I am a lazy ape. If they’re doing the part of running away, it saves me the effort.

(Also, my tendency toward multiple instances of almost being run over by startled elk does not mean I am an Elk Shaman. Probably.)

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Social Justice and the Shaman as Intermediary

Right now, I’m pissed off about a number of things. I’m angry that the death penalty is still used in the United States, and that today two men, one of whom had a lot of evidence pointing to his innocence, were killed by lethal injection. I’m angry that racism still exists in neopaganism. I’m angry that many areas of neoshamanism still seem to be largely concerned with white people flying to “exotic” far-off lands and spending money that could feed families in those lands for months. I’m angry that pagans and shamans and their ilk aren’t questioning the inherent privileges associated with even being able to consider things like wilderness and environmentalism and sustainability.

We face HUGE problems these days. It’s not just whether the crops will fail or whether the next village over will send their warriors to attack us, though these can even today be massive localized catastrophes. Instead, we have systemic racism, sexism, and other inequalities and injustices. We have a precariously balanced economy based largely on promises and virtual currencies, and which favors increasingly unequal distributions of resources. We have wars involving unbelievably lethal technology, and those who suffer most are the most disempowered. Climate change is a scientifically proven reality, and regardless of whether we caused it or not, we still face the unknown consequences of this shift, never mind the things we are responsible for like numerous species extinctions. We are much larger groups of people, and our problems have escalated in scale to match.

And yet neoshamans persist in working with templates that are based on older, smaller cultures’ shamanisms. To an extent, yes, you can learn from your predecessors, but it doesn’t do a damned bit of good if you can’t apply it to your own community’s unique situation. We face greater systemic problems than ever. It is no longer enough to only treat the symptoms of the client. The shaman’s role is not just on the person-to-person level, though this is important, and will never cease to be important. But most of the material on shamanism out there is on that level alone. We need to refocus neoshamanisms in ways that increase the shaman-to-society level of engagement, because society is the matrix in which clients and shamans alike are conditioned, and an unhealthy environment makes for unhealthy people.

I maintain that the fundamental role of a shamanic figure–at least as close to anything “universal” as you can get with varied positions in numerous cultures–is as an intermediary. Shamans bridge gaps between their society and other societies; or between humans and the rest of nature; or the physical world and the spiritual world; or between the individual and their self; or some combination thereof. In order to do this, you have to be ready and willing to engage with your community to the fullest extent possible. You have to meet your clients where they’re coming from. Our job is to be the one willing to reach out when no one else will. We have to challenge our comfort zones to a great degree, more than the average person in our communities. And we have a lot more potential discomforts to face.

This is no easy task. In many ways it is every bit as challenging and dangerous, if not more so, than traversing the riskiest realms of the Otherworld. But it is our duty as shamans to be the ones to make the first move, to reach out into the uncomfortable spaces and extend ourselves towards those in need, even at risk to ourselves. Shamanism as intermediary work requires us to bravely confront both the internal landscape where our biases live, on through potential interpersonal conflict involving other individuals, and the greater systemic problems that we as a society face regardless of background (though our unique background does affect the angle at which we face the system). Neoshamanisms, for the most part, leave their practitioners woefully underprepared to approach the systemic level of things, especially the human systems.

This is what I propose we need to do as shamanic practitioners if we are to more fully take on a role as social intermediary:

–We need to stop hiding out in other people’s cultures, and root our neoshamanisms more consciously and deeply in our own.

All cultures have things of great value, and I love how globalization has allowed a greater and more varied interplay and exchange of ideas, practices, and materials around the world (though access to that interplay is still mediated to a great degree by various factors such as socioeconomic status and access to education). But cultural elements are not plug and play. If you take something out of its original culture, to include a shamanism, it is necessarily changed by exposure to the new context. Just as a shaman needs to be able to bring things back from the places s/he travels to and utilize it in hir own community, so we need to be better at integrating what we learn from other cultures into relevant frameworks for this one. Most clients in the U.S., for example, aren’t going to want to work with someone taking ayahuasca, let alone take it themselves. But what is the ayahuasca trip supposed to do, and what’s a corresponding practice that is more appropriate to this culture? Great, take your five-figure trip to Peru and have your seminar and special training–value what you bring home, but then make it useful to home. If you’re from Brooklyn, don’t try to be a Peruvian shaman in Brooklyn. Be a Brooklyn shaman who brought some neat stuff from Peru to add to your Brooklyn toolkit. (P.S. Yes, I know ayahuasca isn’t from Peru. The examples of ayahuasca and Peruvian shamanic retreats were two common examples, but not linked together by anything other than proximity in the same paragraph.)

–We need to stop hiding in the wilderness in order to “purify” ourselves of the “taint” of humanity.

This has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, if you haven’t been paying attention to recent writings here. As an ecopsychologist, I am fully aware of and supportive of the restorative powers of nonhuman nature, from gardens to wildernesses to a single potted plant on a sunny windowsill. Walking through a downtown city park is nowhere near the same as hiking through remote old growth forest. And the latter has benefits that many people may never find in the former. The problem is in seeing ourselves as divorced from the wilderness–and whether we justify it through saying we’re superior, or through saying we’re a blight, the consequence is still the same. We widen the artificial divide that we perceive between ourselves and everything else. Worse, those of us who have learned to appreciate “nature” deny others the opportunity to do the same when we enter into the wilderness to “get away from everyone else”, as though “everyone else” has no right to be there with us. Solitude is one thing. Solitude can be healthy. But when we reluctantly re-enter human civilization as some loathsome fate, we are less likely to see fellow humans as deprived of the slaking draught of wilderness we have received. Anyone is a potential client, and those who have the most negative view toward nature may be those who are in the most need of reconnecting with it in a healthy manner. If we see our role as facilitating that connection, we have to examine our biases against humanity as “the enemy”, and instead have compassion for those who may see the wilderness as a worthless or even dangerous thing. We can’t bridge that gap if we only spend our time on the wilderness’ side of things.

–We need to stop hiding behind the spirit world as a way to keep from engaging with the physical world.

Yes, many shamanisms are largely about serving the spirits. But what good is a shaman who can only interact with spirits, and can’t complete the connection back to the physical world? If you only spend your time journeying and only serve the needs of the spirits, then you’re only doing part of the job. And it’s easy to get lost in one’s own Unverified Personal Gnosis. I have seen entirely too many shamans, spirit workers, and other such practitioners blatantly displaying all manner of dysfunction toward themselves and others while justifying it as “well, the gods/spirits/etc. told me, and it fits in with the rest of my paradigm, so it MUST be true!” Word to the wise: be a skeptic, especially when you don’t have much in the way of external validation (and especially if your outside validation consists primarily of people who think and believe like you do). If your UPG is saying you should isolate yourself from people you normally enjoy spending time with (when engaged in healthy activities), or that you’re justified in self-gratifying behaviors that wreak havoc on the relationships and lives of others, or that you should make some drastic decision in the moment without considering other alternatives, then it’s a pretty good indication that you’re getting too detached from the physical end of reality. Would you do these things in good conscience if you didn’t have spirits supposedly telling you what to do? Are you just engaging in escapism to ignore the problems of the world and your own life? All too often shamanism and other spiritualities neglect to ground themselves in the physical for fear of being “disproven”, yet the strongest shamanisms are those that can successfully navigate both the spiritual and the physical.

–We need to stop hiding behind mental illness challenges as though they are the only things that define us.

Again, I am not talking about invalidating mental health issues that are genuinely debilitating. I am talking about ceasing to even try engaging with everyday society because of challenges associated with mental health, and calling it shamanism. Some shamans face pretty damned significant mental illnesses. However, there’s a huge difference between “I am a shaman with a mental illness but I do my best to work around it and use it if/when possible” and “I have a mental illness and that makes me a shaman/mental illness is what defines shamanism/mental illness IS shamanism/wheeee, I don’t need meds or treatment because I’M A SHAMAN!!!!” If you can make your condition work for you, great–I’m all for people making the best of a situation. However, once again, part of what is required of shamans is the ability to engage with general consensus reality, because that is where most of our clients are coming from/wanting to get back to. If you’re so busy being in your own alternative headspace that you’ve given up on even trying connecting with more conventional headspaces, and especially if you justify this disconnection as your right as a shaman, then you’ve lost that crucial ability of a shaman to fully bridge two (or more) disparate worlds–in this case, losing connection with the sort of headspace that many, if not most, clients are going to want to stay in, regain a place in, etc.

–We need to stop hiding behind the idea of persecution as an excuse to avoid engaging with people about whom we are uncomfortable.

I am not, mind you, talking about directly engaging people who are real threats, those who have abused or assaulted us. I am talking about moving past dealing only with “people like us” in general. I keep coming back to the example of how most Americans wouldn’t go to a shaman because they think shamanism is immoral or crazy or otherwise discredited. Fine, then. Don’t engage with them as “a shaman”. There are plenty of other analogous roles in this culture that you may be able to draw on in addition to “shaman”, and which offer more perceived legitimacy that we can use to engage with a greater population in need. Again, it’s our job to make our way into that murky discomfort zone, to approach people that we may worry would persecute us if they knew we were “shamans”. We don’t have to use that word, though; instead, we meet them where they are and go from there. If you genuinely feel unsafe working outside of your preferred boundaries, at the very least take the time to examine why this is, and what would be the risks and benefits of challenging yourself, even if it’s only in theory. It’s preferable to assuming that anyone who is Christian, or a mental health care practitioner, or politically conservative, is automatically the enemy and therefore should never, ever be offered any sort of help because they might dislike us or discriminate against us. Owning your fear and your biases is action.

Do you see a pattern here? It can be summed up as “Helloooooooo, your clients are over here, and the best you can hope for is that they’ll meet you halfway–otherwise, plan to do more than your fair share of the walking”.

Social justice cannot be rendered by people who are not actively engaged in the society they wish to see justice in. Nor can shamans effectively shamanize if they turn their backs on the society that their clients are coming from. How one interacts with society is, to be sure, a personal set of boundaries. But how is it that so many of us will push boundaries in the spirit world, and yet won’t challenge physical-world boundaries, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our clients?

Coming soon to Portland – (Therio)shamanic Services!

I know a lot of my posts lately have been on topics other than shamanic practice in specific. That’s because most of my shamanic work lately has been very personal, in part because I’ve been preparing to change my focus. Specifically, now that I am done with graduate school, I am preparing to start offering shamanic services professionally here in Portland. While my shamanism is NOT professional counseling, and my counseling practice (which is still on the drawing board) will be its own independent entity for a variety of ethical and personal reasons, I will be able to utilize some of the skills from my Master’s work, as well as all the things I’ve been doing spiritually for the past 15 years, to be of greater service to the local community, as well as the spirits I have continued to work with.

This Saturday I will be offering totem readings at the grand opening of Conjure Works at 3352 SE Hawthorne. In addition to readings, at 2pm I will be offering a brief presentation on Therioshamanism, and what sorts of shamanic services I will be offering at this location, as the proprietress has kindly offered to let me use the space for my work. I’ll be offering more information online next week, but in the meantime feel free to come to the opening and be the first to find out what I have to offer 🙂

Wilderness and Privilege

I really need to change the quote at the top of this blog. I feel less and less like there’s a strict dichotomy between human habitations and everything else. Yes, wilderness is its own thing, and to be valued for what it is, and preserved as best as possible. But I’m feeling increasingly critical of the idea that cities are uniformly bad, that anything humans do or create is unnatural, and that you have to choose sides or else you aren’t a good enough environmentalist.

All these ideas of moving out to the country, living sustainably, or just spending more time hiking, camping, etc.–all these have something in common. They all assume that a person has the means to spend quality time outdoors. And that smacks of a great deal of social and financial privilege.

For one thing, it assumes that you have enough money to be able to drive out to the wilderness if you don’t already live there. It assumes you can buy or rent a car, and also have the necessary equipment to hike, camp, etc. once you’re out there.

It also assumes that you have the time to be able to do this. If you’re working two or three jobs and spending eighty hours a week working, you probably don’t have much leisure time to put toward outdoor activities.

And it assumes that you’ve learned that the outdoors is a good place to be, that you’ve had enough exposure for it to grow on you. Believe it or not, not everyone shares these social values. “So what about urban parks? We’re trying to get more of those for people who can’t get to the woods!” Well, yes, this is a good concept. However, parks are not uniformly safe places. Many urban parks are not outdoor refuges for nature lovers, but instead are settings for drug deals and other criminal activity.

If we are going to make the environment and sustainability relevant to more than just primarily white, middle class, educated people with enough spare money to live in safe neighborhoods and buy kayaks, then we need to look outside of that bubble.

We need to understand that for many people cities are their home, and this is not a bad thing–the cities may need restructuring on numerous levels to make them safer for the people who live there (and I don’t mean the process of urban gentrification). This needs to happen at the very least in conjunction with, if not before, greening and sustainability activities can occur. If your biggest concern is paying the bills and not getting shot, robbed or assaulted, then being introduced to Window Farms may not be very effective.

And we need to look at the social biases associated with “cities bad, countryside good”. There is a core of racism and classism in there. Who lives in the worst part of cities? A lot of poor people, a large portion of whom are minorities. Not that less populous areas don’t have poverty, but it’s primarily white people with money who move to the suburbs or the country to “give the kids a safer place to grow up”. What if you can’t escape that? Are you less deserving of a safe place to live?

Additionally, as pointed out in this essay that I love, the acts of urban sustainability that are promoted as the cure for environmental ills not only again assume one has the resources to enact them, but also removes responsibility from massive corporations that promote the very same environmentally and socially unsound conditions that keep the impoverished poor. “Oh, look what I can do!” you can say proudly, all the while ignoring that there are systemic issues that don’t get as much press because they don’t feature white people with easy solutions.

So where does this leave us. Well, we don’t need to give up our camping and hiking and outdoor activities, but we need to find more ways to make environmentalism relevant outside of its “classic” context. This isn’t just supporting environmental groups and activities that focus on specific demographics of race, ethnicity, culture, etc. though these are good things.

It also means making environmentalism relevant to people who would probably not think of themselves as environmentalists per se. I don’t mean in the sense of saying “Hey! You should totally think this is important!” so much as looking at things like environmental justice. It’s looking at related issues like how people buy cheap material goods made in China from Wal-Mart because it’s what they can afford (or Wal-Mart is the only store in the area) and the manufacturing jobs are all overseas. If people can’t afford to spend greener because they don’t have money or access, then that makes jobs a green issue that can’t be solved with a compost bin.

Making it all about going into the wilderness means leaving behind the problems of the city–and abandoning the people still in it.

Why You Won’t Find Me At Burning Man

I have had a number of people recommend that I go to Burning Man over the past few years, especially now that I’m on the left side of the country. I never have gone, and I don’t intend to. Why? Because it’s not worth the environmental impact.

A significant number of Burners would probably describe themselves as environmentalists. The 2007 theme of the event was “Green Man”. And the Burning Man website has an entire section dedicated to environmental awareness. There’s also Cooling Man, which is all about carbon emissions.

And you know what? It’s all greenwashing. Carbon offsets are greenwashing. Claiming Burning Man is a “leave no footprint’ event is greenwashing. Here’s why:

–You have fifty thousand people–50,000, not 5,000–converging on one place, almost all traveling in some form that releases carbon into the air. Cars, buses, motor homes, planes, all these are releasing unnecessary amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.

–You have 50,000 people all walking, driving, biking and otherwise traveling over the same piece of playa year after year. That can’t NOT cause significant soil compaction. Soil compaction, even in a desert area, can have devastating effects on the environment. Plants find it harder to put down roots, and animals can have much more difficulty burrowing. Plus if a place does not have a lot of underground earthmovers such as earthworms, then the compaction can last for many years after the last person leaves.

–In addition to compaction, the ground is also affected by the raising of dust. This affects both air quality, and also damages topsoil (what of it is there in the desert).

–The wanton waste exhibited by certain “art” installations is appalling from a variety of levels. In addition to the carbon emissions of the Burning Man itself, you have things like a catapult hurling a flaming piano. What good does that do anyone? Air pollution? Minute particulate matter left on the playa despite “cleaning” efforts? And what of the waste of the piano itself? Surely there are low-income children with little to no access to musical instruments who could have benefited if that piano had been fixed up and donated to a needy school instead of being destroyed in the name of “art”.

–All that garbage has to go somewhere. Just because it’s no longer on the playa doesn’t mean it just disappeared. “Oh, but things get recycled!” Yes, if people remember to recycle them. And if they don’t end up in a landfill anyway. Bottled water, for example, since people have to bring water in with them. In addition to all the ethical and legal issues surrounding the privatization of water, there’s the issue of the bottles themselves.

No, I am not the perfect environmentalist. I am writing this up in Seattle, over a hundred miles away from Portland, where my partner and I have traveled for the weekend on a business trip. And no, I didn’t offset my carbon to make myself feel better with a greenwashed “solution”, because there’s no way to take back the carbon my car released, which is the main issue at hand. I vend at festivals, and I travel otherwise. I am a supporter of the concept of the green metropolis, and am a happy urban dweller.

But I don’t support the convergence of FIFTY THOUSAND PEOPLE–an entire city–to be constructed and taken apart every year at huge environmental expense. I don’t care how nifty the art installations are or how sincere the platitudes about the experience.

As far as I can tell, it’s not worth it. I don’t need to go there to verify that.