A Brief Note on Diversity

Over at the Pagan Princesses blog, there was raised an interesting prompt: The Magic of Many Voices – What Does Diversity Mean To You?

Here’s my reply, for those interested:

Diversity means accepting not only the fact that there are people of numerous races, sexes, genders, sexualities, cultures, politics, spiritualities (to include none at all), physical and mental abilities and challenges, economic and educational levels, and other social locations; but also that not everyone has equal standing, here in the U.S., and privilege may be given to some simply by virtue of the accident of their birth. True acceptance of diversity is not just acknowledging the differences, but facing the hard truth that pretending to be racially color blind or culturally neutral does not erase discrimination, oppression, or social injustice.

Here in the States, those of us with privilege are all too keen to pretend that oppression is behind us–that racism no longer exists except in rare freak incidents on the six o’clock news; that Native Americans are no longer suffering from genocide; that women really are equal and that the streets are safe for us; that the ADA has taken away all barriers anyone with any disability may face; that no teenager exploring a spiritual path other than what they were raised with has to worry about being thrown out of the family and home; that America is a grand place of equal opportunity for all immigrants; and so forth. “Why can’t we just move on from it? Isn’t this all in the past?” Well, yes. We want it to all be in the past. But the reality is that it’s still very much a sad and anger-inducing part of the present.

To embrace diversity is not only to say “Yes, there are people different from me”, but also to say “Yes, there are people different from me, and they are beautiful amazing people, and many of them face terribly ugly experiences that I may be a participant in, even without intending to be”. To embrace diversity doesn’t just mean the quick glance at colorful cultures, or the brief peck on a cheek of a different color, but to wrap one’s arms around the realities of diversity, receiving not only the warm caress, but also feel the sharp thorns sink into the flesh.

And when we are fully aware of those realities, without turning inward into the guilt which is just more self-focus–our awareness changes our thoughts, our choices, and our actions, and that is where the larger social change is born.

Advertisements

The “S” Word

Recently I got into a Twitter conversation with a few awesome folks about the use of the word “shaman” for distinctly non-indigenous (and non-Evenk) practitioners. I’ve also read a couple of recent blog posts talking about the issue, or at least mentioning it.

I do use the term “shaman” self-referentially. I do not see what I do as being the same as what an Evenk shaman does, or what the holy person/medicine person/etc. of another indigenous culture does. Everything I do, I do with the conscious realization that I am a white chick from the Midwest, whose closest cultural appelation might be “neopagan progressive geek urban dweller who escapes to the woods when she can”. What I do is self-created and self-taught, honed by experience, but also by trading notes with other, largely non-indigenous practitioners. I am also aware that using a term that was cultivated in form and context in a largely collective, communal culture a half a world away, with largely male practitioners, and a decidedly not-urban landscape. I am quite familiar with the word’s roots.

But language is fluid. It grows, and it shifts, and it evolves over time. No matter how much we may rage against it, the current of language change can’t be stopped. It’s why I speak modern English, not any of the previous variants used by Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even earlier writers. English is especially notorious for nabbing whatever words it likes–as the infamous quote by James Nicoll goes, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. Which really does speak to the violence that English-speaking populations have done to others, admittedly.

And I do carry that knowledge of how the term “shaman” came to be assimilated into English with a broader set of definitions than the original. We first came by it through the work of anthropologists who were largely working from a Eurocentric perspective, studying people who were being oppressed, and sometimes contributing to that oppression, even if unwittingly at times, through patronizing or otherwise inaccurate portrayals. Later, the word was “borrowed” by neoshamanic practitioners, some of whom misrepresented what they were doing as indigenous. This helped the term “shaman” go from referring to a very specific practitioner in the Evenk culture, to being applied to just about anything that looks primitive (just try searching for “shaman” on Etsy sometime!).

Despite all this, I still use the term “shaman” for myself. In part, it’s because of familiarity. Just like “totem”, a lot of people in this culture have at least some vague idea of what a shaman is (in the broad sense), and it’s just easier than trying to use a new word and then explain it to everyone I talk to about this stuff, who will then most likely go “Oh, you mean like SHAMANISM!”

However, I will admit that I also feel a kinship to shamanic practitioners of various cultures. Note that I am not saying I feel that what I am doing is exactly what they’re doing. Many indigenous practitioners go through trials and training I can’t even imagine. Hell, even the non-shamanic rites of passage of some cultures would have me running hard in the other direction, happy to embrace my cowardice and childishnes (Google “bullet ant ritual” and you’ll see what I mean. Yikes.). But I have gone through my own challenges as well. Anyone who has been through graduate school knows that it’s meant, in part, to weed out those who aren’t quite a good fit for their chosen field. And the program I went through to get my counseling psych degree was both intellectually and emotionally challenging on a regular basis; there’s a reason one of the requirements for completing the program was getting at least ten hours of counseling as a client. All these things also contributed to my own growth as a shaman, parallel to their “mundane” purposes.

I choose the term “shaman” to acknowledge that I have been through these and other passages, even before the grad school process, that I have spent years cultivating relationships with the spirits, and doing work on the behalf of both them and my community (and I have a very broad idea of community, and it’s not all human). I don’t feel that it’s too proud to acknowledge the work I have shown, and to connect that to my efforts to be as close to a shamanic figure in this culture as I can be. We don’t have a single “shaman” role in this culture; it simply was never there. But I have chosen to live out roles that I feel are analogous, as much as they can be. I am doing the very best that I can with what I have on hand–and what I have is fifteen years of experience, reading, practice, mistakes, and a whole host of other day to day factors that have all built up into this path I am continuing to form as I go.

I feel that sometimes refusing to use the term “shaman” is a subtle way of saying–or fearing that someone will say–that what we do in this culture isn’t as good, or as effective, or as spiritually connected, as what indigenous people do. I am tired of the unspoken value judgement that says that non-indigenous shamanisms can’t be as good or as effective for the cultures they are created in because they aren’t as old or as well-traveled as indigenous shamanisms, that a non-indigenous person who goes and trains in Peru or Brazil or Siberia or even here in the states on a reservation is automatically practicing a path that is superior. Maybe that fear started out as a check on those who didn’t think about things like cultural appropriation, or who just read a book or two and called themselves “shamans”.

But I am tired of it being off-limits to people who have put in the work, just because that work may have been from a lot of solo trial and error instead of from a teacher of a long-standing tradition. And so as a way of acknowledging the work I’ve put into this path over the years, I use the term “shaman” in its broader context, with an awareness of its roots, a caution surrounding its weaknesses, and an eye toward its healthier cultivation in relation to a variety of traditions.

I am a shaman.

Deconstructing the Totemic Guided Meditation

I’m still finishing up the book manuscript, but I wanted to take a break from writing to do some writing.

…wait, what?

Anyway, had this post idea come up and since it’s not going to take long to write it out, it gets to be my break from the much bigger, longer piece of writing.

I’ve been thinking about the structures within modern non-indigenous–neopagan, as I prefer to call it–totemism. One of the most common structures is that of the totemic guided meditation. There are countless examples of this; almost every book on animal totemism seems to have some version of it, and even Michael Harner included his own take in The Way of the Shaman in the chapter about finding a singular power animal. And yes, I wrote my own iteration of it several years ago which you can see in its entirety (and even use if you wish) here; it ended up as an Appendix in Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, my very first book.

So–this thing gets around a lot. Why? because it’s effective. As I have maintained in numerous places, the guided meditation gets a person in direct contact with a totem, but without suggesting a specific animal from the get-go. It’s better than totem cards because you’re not limited just to the animals in the deck. It’s an improvement over having someone else “read” you, because there’s no intermediary to potentially miss something in the translation or add in their own biases. And it allows you and the totem to explore and establish your own unique ways of interacting with each other from the beginning.

The totemic guided meditation also offers you a relatively “safe” place to visit with totems. One thing I discovered early on in this whole Therioshamanism thing is that unlike proper journeying, which takes you deep into the spirits’ territory itself (which can be quite dangerous), guided meditation creates a sort of neutral zone that’s more mediated and less likely to present any dangers. However, it still allows for free-form exploration and communication, assuming it’s not such a rigidly structured thing that even the dialogue is scripted!

And while most totemic guided meditations are supposed to only have you meet your totem, I have found that the same meditation, slightly tweaked, is also quite effective for continuing to use the “neutral zone” to meet with the totem for ongoing work together. It’s simply a matter of going into the meditation with the intent of talking to a specific totem, instead of leaving yourself open to meet any totem, if that makes sense.

So let’s look at the different parts of the basic structure of the totem guided meditation:

The Entrance: This is usually a hole of some sort, either in the ground or a tree, but I have also had people that I led through the meditation travel through a hole in the clouds, or in ice or other water; these were their creations, not my suggestions, as I don’t specify exactly what the entrance should look like. The entrance is the starting point, the threshold between this world and the next. Once you’ve taken that first step in, you’re on your way.

The Tunnel: Traveling through the tunnel is a transition; it allows both the mind and the spirit to make the changes from the waking world to the neutral zone the person is going to visit. The tunnel may be in the ground, through trees, water, etc. It may look the same the whole way through, although the interior has also been known to shift in appearance and even size the further one gets from the waking world. The tunnel is a necessary component in the meditation, because it allows for a gradual and smooth adjustment in consciousness and spiritual state, rather than a sudden, jarring shift. For someone brand new to guided meditation, just spending time traveling down the tunnel, turning around, and then coming back can be good practice in maintaining a basic meditative focus, without the additional pressures of being in a complex new environment. The tunnel is relatively simple, and generally only goes two ways, so it’s easy to come back home as needed.

The Neutral Zone: This is an open arena where the person can explore the environment and see what totems may present themselves in first time through, as well as a known location for continued work. It is nonphysical in form, but it is a midway point between the person’s psyche, and the external spiritual world (though the boundaries between the two are often very blurred). While Harner has people stay in the tunnel, or rather, the tunnel becomes the neutral zone, I like to have people come out into an open environment where they can meet their totems. Again, as with the entrance, I allow people to picture it for themselves, rather than suggesting a specific place. This is because I don’t want them to have expectations of what animals they should or shouldn’t meet; for example, if I tell them to come out in a Pacific Northwest rain forest, but their totem is Koala, then they’re less likely to make the necessary connection. I also suggest that people explore while they’re there so that they can find the place again later. Additionally, since it is a mediated setting, people do have more control over what happens there; for example, I tell people I’m leading in meditation that if they ever lose the tunnel and need to go back quickly, all they have to do is look down at the ground at their feet and the mouth of the tunnel will appear there, and they can go right back home. Finally, it’s important to note any changes made to the neutral zone, whether within a given meditation, or over time. They may reflect changes in the totemic relationship, or even the location of the place in relation to the spiritual world (for example, if the neutral zone starts slipping deeper into spiritual territory, it may take on a wilder, more chaotic nature).

The Animal Totems: In the deconstructed guided meditation, the totem is the goal, the manifestation of the intent. Finding your totem often implies success, though I wouldn’t interpret things that strictly, personally–there’s a lot that can go wrong even if you find your totem, and a lot that go right even if you don’t. I’ve elaborated almost ad infinitum elsewhere about what your totem can be, but it basically boils down to: pretty much any animal species has a totem, you’re not limited to a certain set number of totems, the number of totems you have throughout your life can change, not every totem is permanent, and yes, I consider extinct, domestic, and mythological animals to still have totems, albeit totems with a much different perspective on the world we live in. A totem is an intermediary between its species and the rest of reality, to include human beings, though contrary to some approaches to totemism, we are not necessarily the center of a totem’s purpose for existing! (In other words, totemism isn’t just about “Get a totem to make your life AWESOMER!”) What role the totem plays in a person’s life varies from individual to individual; some see them as primarily symbolic, while others spend their lives working totemism as a daily spiritual practice. Again, this meditation can be used to either find a totem for the first time, or continue meeting with it. Just start each meditation with the appropriate intent, even perhaps saying something like “I am going to travel to meet my totem for the first time,” or “I am going to go meet with [name of totem]” before going through the entrance.

The Tunnel Back: The trip back to the waking world is just as important as the trip down the tunnel in the first place. It allows the person to integrate their experiences during the meditation, as well as readjust to being “awake” again. Most people tend to come out of the meditation too quickly, and spend their time grounding in this world with food and other physical things. While this is not bad, I feel it speaks of impatience, and doesn’t take full advantage of this important transitional stage of the totemic guided meditation. I recommend that if you do this sort of meditation, try to spend as much time coming back through the tunnel as you did heading down it.

Troubleshooting: If you’re new to meditation, or if you aren’t a very visual person, you may have trouble staying “in” the meditation long enough to find your totem. If that’s the case, try (as I mentioned above) just exploring the tunnel for a while, then graduate to just exploring the neutral zone a few times without the intent of looking for a totem. Stay in as long as you can before you feel you can’t focus any more, though do try to give yourself time to travel back through the tunnel and make a smooth transition back to being awake. If you’re doing a meditation to find a totem for the first time, and no totem shows up, or isn’t clearly your totem, give yourself a break for a couple weeks at least, then try again. If you are unsure of whether an animal is a totem, and you can get close enough to talk to it, you can always try asking whether it’s your totem or not. Also, while most people only encounter one totem at a time, it’s not at all unheard of to meet more than one in one meditation, and in fact there are some meditation structures, such as The Personal Totem Pole Process, that are created around meeting and working with multiple totems at once. If you end up with a totem you’re not comfortable with, don’t fear the worst. Sometimes it’s the animals that scare us that can really teach us; same thing goes for the ones we think are gross, or not particularly flashy. Conversely, if you get one of the “popular” totems like Grey Wolf or Tiger, don’t assume that you’re just being egotistical. Let things play out as they will no matter what totem shows up; in the end, you’re the one who gets to determine whether an experience was valid for you, not some internet peanut gallery.

…and there you have it–a basic explanation not only of totemic guided meditations, but part of what makes them work. There’s a lot more I could say, but this is just a quick break to give my mind some rest from the big, long, kinda scary book manuscript I need to finish up! I’m open to any questions about this post, if ya got ’em 🙂

Relevant to the last post….

I give you this, my poor offering to you:

(No idea why it’s cutting off one side. You can see the full version in the deviantART link in the next paragraph.)

Here’s what I put in the deviantArt description, in case you were curious as to how the hell this even happened (apologies for redundancy):

(Note: I made this in GIMP 2.0. I know next to NOTHING about GIMP 2.0 beyond what’s needed to crop and resize photos of my artwork. Please be kind–when it comes to this sort of digital…uh…manipulation, I don’t know a damned thing. If you decide to make a better version, at least link to this so people have context for what the hell this is all about.)

Okay, so I spent a good bit of this evening chewing my way through Jungian psychology in conjunction with writing the Archetypal Model of Totemism chapter for my next book, Neopagan Totemism, the manuscript of which is due to be turned in to Llewellyn Publications by October 14. Part of the chapter involves detangling Jung’s original conception of what archetypes are from all the New Age….uh….”creative licensure” with his work. (Needless to say, a lot of the “spiritual” interpretations of Jung are a far cry from what the man was originally trying to explain.)

While I was discussing some of Jung’s original archetypes, I was thinking about how my mental image of the Wise Old Man is the Old Man from the original Legend of Zelda, who prepares Link for the tough journey ahead with a sword, and then other iterations of the same archetype that provide him with better swords, advice, and occasionally the opportunity to bust down a door for no good reason.

And then I was thinking about Jung as the Wise Old Man, and how I could have used his help trying to decipher the brain-hurty New Age misappropriations of archetypes and such…and…well…this had to happen. Really.

(If you’re wondering, the book is The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, which does what it says on the tin.)
(Background image from here: http://www.effektd.net/?p=28. Picture of Jung from here: http://www.nndb.com/people/910/000031817/. Picture of book from here; http://www.amazon.com/Archetypes-Collective-Unconscious-Collected-Works/dp/0691018332/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318146366&sr=8-1.)

More Random Thoughts While Writing “Neopagan Totemism”

Coming down the home stretch on the manuscript of Neopagan Totemism, for which Llewellyn gave me a deadline of October 14. Had a few random brief thoughts, not all particularly serious.

****************

Carl Jung’s Shadow is no doubt quite acquainted with the evil that lurks in the heart of men (and women, and everybody else…)

****************

I just figured out one thing that makes my eyelid twitch about both Michael Harner AND Joseph Campbell: Harner’s “core shamanism” and Campbell’s “monomyth” are both attempts by middle-aged white male Eurocentric academics to erase cultural nuances in shamanic practices and mythologies, respectively, faux “culturally neutral” one-size-fits-all theory that actually favors what (at least some) white, male, Eurocentric academics think is important. Or as my partner put it, “they’re both academic reductionists”.

Or one could look at it as intellectual laziness–“Look! Everything fits neatly into this one universal template! I don’t have to think about anything else! Okay, so that in and of itself is reductionistic; however, I’ve met entirely too many people who think these “universal” models really ARE universal and everything ultimately can be shoehorned into them and somehow zombies.

…okay, maybe not the zombies.

****************

You know what my mental image of the Wise Old Wo/Man Jungian archetype is? The Old Women with potions and the Old Men with swords (and occasionally broken doors) in the original Legend of Zelda game for the NES. Or, alternately, Carl Jung holding up a battered old copy of The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious and saying “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”

**************