My Writing Process; Or, How Lupa Makes This Blog Happen

Over the years I’ve had people ask me about my writing process, since I’m fairly prolific and have a few books under my belt. I’m not a writing coach and this isn’t intended as advice, so just take this as my own personal experience presented for curiosity’s sake.

A little background: I grew up in a household of people with excellent English skills. Both my parents are incredibly intelligent, as is my sister, and conversation was a big thing in our home. We ate supper at the dining room table every night instead of in front of a television, so I got used to having a time of day to connect with everyone through words. And my extended family is that way, too; family gatherings were mostly hours and hours of people chatting and even debating over assorted and sundry topics.

Moreover, I got a good education in how to write, and it all started with reading. Back when I was still a toddler in a crib my parents would put books in there with me. Sure, at first I’d just tear the pages out because hey–it sounded cool! But they also read to me a lot, and pointed out each word as they said it. By the time I was in preschool I was a book ahead of everyone else in our language skills module. Later on, from first through eighth grade I was put in a small private Catholic school that focused more on a solid education than on indoctrinating religion (though there were certainly religion classes, and Mass on Fridays). There was a very big emphasis on reading and writing as core skills, and the small class sizes helped, too. Plus when I went home at night my parents would check my homework and point out errors and how to correct them. So I was very, very fortunate in that I got a pretty good head start in basic language skills, and I can’t overemphasize that fact.

So that’s the background I came out of. What about my process itself? Well, first of all, I percolate–a lot. I can sit with a general idea for weeks, months, or even years before I finally let it out onto the page. When I’m out walking, or working out, or curling up to sleep at night, I’m often thinking about things I want to create, to include writing projects. It varies, of course, as to how long it takes me to get to the point where I feel ready to write about something. On the one hand, my totem stories usually come to me as I’m working with particular art projects, and as soon as the seed for the story appears, I put down the project and sit and write the whole thing out. At the other end of the spectrum, my totemic work can take years to develop before I feel it’s ready to share. I started working with animal magic in the mid-1990s, but didn’t start writing Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone until late 2004. And while I’ve only been writing about the plant and fungus totems for a year and change, I’ve been working with them to one degree or another since I moved to Portland in 2007. Part of why I haven’t written about that work as much is because it tends to be more subtle, and like the plants in my environment I’ve sometimes taken it for granted. But it’s also because, like the animal totems, I needed a few years of work before I felt comfortable writing with any authority.

There’s no set amount of time, of course, between when I think of or observe something and when I’m ready to write about it. But I am really lucky in that all that percolation makes it easier to write when it does come time to pick up the keyboard. Some people write multiple drafts on paper and in word processors, and that’s how they make the words happen. For me, all that percolation may not necessarily give me a set of words ready to go, but it does give me a whole image of what I want to express–it’s as pretty right-brained way of preparing to write, really. I percolate over impressions and ideas, and I visualize things quite a bit. Even if I imagine trying to explain something to an audience, in my imagination I’m showing rather than telling. This all means that when I start writing, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to write, and at that point it’s mostly a matter of choosing specific words and organization.

One other thing I’m very, very grateful for is that when I do write something, I can usually get most of what I wanted onto the page on the first try. I don’t remember ever having removed entire pages from something I wrote, and if you were to compare a first draft of one of my books with the final product, you’d probably recognize a lot of that first draft in it. I generally only do one full revision/editing session before I turn in a manuscript (or post to the blog here), because I’m generally pretty happy with what I’ve written. I do admit that I’m not as Type-A about my blog posts as I am about my books; I rarely have someone else look over something I write here, partly because it’s more personal, informal writing, but also because it’s not going to go too far beyond here–and no one else’s job is involved with it. With a book going to a publisher, I’m more than happy to play catch with the manuscript with my editor, though even then my book manuscripts have historically not needed too much back and forth. A lot of that is having had really good editors who make a LOT of good suggestions the first time through, so by the time we’ve both gone over the manuscript thoroughly, once is usually enough for all but some small details. I know some writers feel really antagonistic toward editors because some writers tend to be very protective of their baby manuscripts, but a good editor is there to help make your writing better, and even as happy as I am with my initial drafts I’m always happier with the post-editing version.

Setting’s also important. It’s easier for me to write when it’s quiet, and I get really easily distracted if there’s a movie with dialogue going on in the background or if someone keeps interrupting me. On the other hand, I can be happy at a busy coffee shop where there are several different conversations going on at once, none of which involve me. I don’t need music or tea or aromatherapy, but I absolutely have to have a computer–ever since I got my first typewriter in the 1980s hand-writing just became too slow, and it’s easier to process my thoughts with a laptop now.

Finally, I have to time bigger writing projects carefully. If I’m on a roll I can type out a couple of good articles in an evening, but books are obviously more complicated than that. And when I do get into a longer writing project, I want to be able to focus all my spare time on it in one big block with as few distractions as possible. Because I’m self-employed my schedule has both more flexibility and more variability than it did when I had a regular 8-5 day job. But I also put in more time each week on “work” than I used to; 70 hour weeks aren’t uncommon for me, especially at the height of the festival season. And while I still love to write, my artwork is a big part of my income so I can only afford to take so much time away from it. So I basically have to orchestrate big blocks of time where I can get away without making art and focus only on the writing. (This also isn’t factoring in things like cooking, housework, errands, taking time off to keep from going crazier than I already am, etc.)

When I do make this time, though, I’m a marathon writer. It’s kind of an awesome thing to experience. You know the concept of Flow? It’s like that. Everything boils down to that project, and I can spend literally weeks tunnel-visioned on it. To be very honest, it’s one of those things that I live for, and when I get to have it, it’s one of the most blissful states I can achieve. I wake up in the morning with my ideas waiting to turn into words, and I go to bed that night knowing that I get to do it all over again the next day.

So there you have it–the amazing secrets of how I write! You’re welcome to ask me any questions; as I said, I’m not much of a writing coach so I don’t know how much I can help you with your writing, but I’m happy to share more about my process if you have questions.

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Masks in Ritual Work

I’ve had a few people ask me specifically about this topic as of late, so for the curious, here you go–a late Solstice present!

Some of you dear readers are already acquainted with the purpose of ritual garments and the like. For those who are not, the short version is that rituals are special occasions. It can be powerful to have a set of clothing that is reserved solely for spiritual practices. Just putting them on signals to your subconscious mind that it’s time to do special things you don’t normally get to. To an extent, it appeals to that part of us that likes to play dress-up with costumes and fancy clothes and the like–it touches on Homo ludens, the part of us that learns and develops through play. (Of course, as grownups we often feel we have to come up with some “serious” reason to dress up in funny clothes any time besides Halloween–though there are those of us who will come up with any reason to don a costume of some sort, hence steampunks and cosplayers and SCAdians and…)

At any rate, most religious traditions have some form of ritual garments that are worn by the officiant(s), and sometimes for the laypeople as well. Even churches are full of congregants in their Sunday best. These clothes and other wearables are also often a form of identifying people of a similar tradition–if you see someone with a kippah you can pretty well bet they’re Jewish, while someone wearing a cross is likely to be Christian of some denomination or another. In paganism, there’s no single set of garb that will denote “that person is pagan!”, though flowing robes, historical clothing, and a variety of symbolic jewelry (far from limited to the pentacle) will be in abundance at many pagan events. (There will also be a cranky minority grumbling about how we all need to dress like normal civilized people, not Harry Potter or our long-lost Viking ancestors.)

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Masks are a particularly specialized form of ritual wear. We most commonly focus on a person’s face when identifying them and communicating with them. (I’ve yet to meet someone who could tell who was approaching by carefully examining their elbows.) A mask covers up the face, and thereby the person’s identity. A person putting on a mask also temporarily puts on a different persona. Even someone trying on a rubber werewolf mask will briefly “get into it” by making claws out of their fingers and going “RAWR!”

We like to imitate other people and other beings. It’s a skill that we’ve evolved over millions of years as social beings. We like things we can relate to; it’s safer than being different. So we developed the tendency to imitate others in our social group (whether that’s goths or Young Republicans). And, by extension, we enjoy imitating other animals. Our ancestors may have done so in part to teach the young how to recognize threatening behavior on the part of other species, but these days we mainly do it–you guessed it–to play.

The masks help with that. Most of us could imitate a Tyrannosaurus Rex without any costumery–just stomp around with your arms pulled up close to your chest and roar! But put a T-Rex mask on, and you may very well find yourself hamming it up in order to make yourself even more convincing as a giant scaly lizard with big, sharp teeth and teeny arms.

We can channel that into ritual purposes as well. Instead of just pretending to be an eagle flying in the sky, flapping our arms while running around an open field for the fun of it, we can instead use that imitation to draw on the energy that is Eagle. By creating a mask that looks like an eagle, we get into that aquiline mindset even more deeply. The same goes for wearing masks for other totems, for deities, for spirits, and so forth. The mask allows us to set aside our own identity temporarily, and take on another.

Some people even feel this invites the spiritual being itself into us, through the process of evocation. In this way, the mask is a channel for that being to enter into the ritualist. When the mask is removed, the connection is severed. That’s part of why the process of removing the mask and other costumery should be done with as much care as the preparation of putting it on.

The construction of the mask adds another layer to consider. Using natural materials such as paper, grasses and other malleable plant material, wood, leather, fur, and other such things can help a person connect to the type of being that provided said materials. For example, when I wear a wolf mask, I am connecting to both the totemic, archetypal Wolf, and the spirit of the wolf who once wore the skin (which, incidentally, is one of the main reasons I work with these sacred remains and skin spirits in my art and spirituality).

The process by which the mask is made also contributes to its purpose. A mask may be mass-manufactured and still be effective, but a handmade mask may be created with the specific intent of embodying a particular being or spirit. When I make wolf masks, for example, I am intentionally working in the energy of both the wolf spirit and Wolf the totem. Creating masks and other ritual wear may be a ceremony in and of itself, depending on the artist, and some work only within a strict spiritual setting.

If you have a mask you would like to work with, here’s one possible way to connect with it:

–First, find a safe space where you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour, and preferably where you can move around unencumbered. Turn off phones and other distractions, and prepare the space for ritual however you see fit.

–Sit with the mask in your lap. Look at it, touch it, and otherwise examine it. What impressions do you get? How does it “feel” to you? What emotions does it evoke in you? Do you get the sense that it has a spirit or personality, or is it connected to some being already in existence such as a deity or totem? If it’s from natural materials, do you get a sense of the living beings they came from?

–If you feel comfortable, put the mask on. Don’t get up yet; just sit and wear the mask. How do you feel now? Do you feel your sense of self shifting at all? Do you feel closer to the mask and the energies it embodies?

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

–Again, if you feel comfortable, get up and move around a bit. Don’t rush it; if you don’t feel like dancing, walking is perfectly acceptable. See how that changes your perception of yourself and the mask. Do you still feel that you’re yourself? Do you feel different? How does it feel to wear the mask?

–Spend as much time wearing the mask as you like. If you feel scared or otherwise uncomfortable, sit back down and carefully take it off, then set it on the ground in front of you. Once you have taken the mask off for any reason, spend a few minutes grounding, without physical contact with it; breathe deeply and slowly, and come back to yourself. (If you feel really disconnected from yourself, recite your name, address, and phone number over and over again.) Reflect on your experiences with the mask, and write them down or otherwise record them if you wish.

This is just an introductory exercise. If you feel comfortable continuing to work with the mask, feel free to try it again, and perhaps elaborate on it. You can even create rituals specifically for the mask; for example, you can do a ritual to celebrate the spirit, totem, or deity it’s connected to, or incorporate it into Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations as appropriate. (If you choose to do so in a group setting, check in with the other group members first, and especially the ritual coordinator(s).)

On the other hand, if the mask makes you uncomfortable, spend some time trying to figure out why. Is there something about the physical mask you dislike? Or did the energy just feel too intense? Was it weird shifting out of your “normal” mindset? Give yourself a couple of days to sit with these feelings and examine them. One bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to get rid of the mask. If you like, try just sitting with it again, and perhaps striking up a conversation. Often the beings who scare us have valuable lessons through that fear, and many times aren’t as threatening as we first felt.

I do recommend sticking to one mask per ritual. It can be exceptionally difficult to shift mindsets mid-stream, as it were. One exception would be a deliberate transformation ritual, for example a rite of passage in which you start off wearing a mask that represents your old self, and then change to one that represents your new self.

Finally, what to do with masks that just don’t fit you in some capacity? I am a firm believer in “waste not, want not”. You can give the mask away to someone for whom it’s better suited. Or if you want to dispel the energy it carries, do a purification ritual to cleanse it; you may even wish to disassemble it and find new uses for the materials. You may also just wish to let it sit on a shelf a while, and perhaps later on you’ll feel better about it.

This, of course, is just the beginning! There are some good resources out there on further mask work; one of my favorite texts is Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, which came out a few years ago but still possesses a wealth of information, ideas, and rituals. And, as always, I’m happy to field questions as well!

An Introduction to Drum Journeying

I realized, after having someone recently ask me about basic shamanic techniques, that I really haven’t written much about the foundational nuts and bolts of what I do. I suppose it’s another case of me assuming that readers already have the basics of (neo)shamanism under their belts; it’s actually more of a challenge for me to write something on that most basic and bare-bones level because I have to think hard about things I normally take for granted. So I’m going to take a shot at explaining the basics of how I do drum journeying, and some starter points for readers as well.

Why drumming?

I’ve enjoyed dancing at drum circles for many years now. Dancing and drumming are effective forms of trancework for me, but trying to keep an eye on other dancers can be distracting, never mind dodging the occasional drunk person with poor boundaries. So I’ve learned to drum solo for my own personal shamanic work. It took some work, since I hadn’t really been a drummer before, but with practice I learned to go into trance while dancing (or sitting) and drumming, and now the action of drumming is closely interwoven with the trance state. The rhythm of my body beating the drum helps to lull me into the initial trance, and helps carry me deeper with physical cues as I drum faster or slower, louder or softer.

Drumming is one of the most common forms of trancework in shamanic practice; most (though not all) shamanic traditions worldwide incorporate drumming. Sometimes the drum is only a tool; other times it’s a vehicle to the otherworld; and still other drums are the map to get there. While shamanic drumming does rely some on keeping at least a very basic “heartbeat” rhythm, you don’t have to be a virtuoso. Also, it’s wonderfully universal experience; while their perception of the percussion may differ somewhat from hearing peoples’, those who are deaf can also make use of drums, shamanically and otherwise.

You may already have some experience with trancing while drumming. If not, the first thing you’ll want to do is to practice altering your state of consciousness to the sound of drums. There are lots of drumming CDs out there, and you can also find some free videos by searching for “shamanic drumming” on YouTube. If you’re lucky enough to have a drum circle near you, you can even listen in person; a lot of them won’t have a problem if you don’t drum yourself, so long as you aren’t disruptive. You can, of course, drum as well, but the main thing is to practice “sinking into” the drum beats regardless of whether you yourself drum or not.

Deerskin drum and beater by Lupa, 2012.

You will also want to practice drumming itself. Play with your drum; try out different beats, and see how each part of the head sounds–the tone near the edges may be very different from that in the center. Really listen to the drum’s voice and get to know it as an individual. Don’t worry about being technically proficient; don’t even necessarily worry about keeping a perfect beat, either. Just play with it and see what happens.

Once you feel comfortable enough with both skills, try bringing them together. You can drum at the drum circle, or drum by yourself and ride the rhythm you create. And most of all, practice, practice, practice. Nothing replaces that. You may find that you dip a bit into the spirit world as you’re practicing. That’s okay. Generally you’re not going to go in deep enough at this point to get in any trouble. If you have trouble “coming back out” again, ground yourself by getting up and walking around a bit (with company if you feel a bit wobbly) and eat something protein-heavy to settle your body down again.

What sort of drum do I use?

My personal choice has always been natural hide drums. My first one was a goathide bodhran, but my current journeying drum is a horse hide frame drum that I got after completing my first year of intensive Therioshamanic work. Horse has long been a totem of travel and protection for me, so it was fitting that the horse hide drum was the one who chose to work with me. Not only do I work with the physical drum, but also the spirits of the horse and yellow cedar whose physical remains create the drum, and the deer whose leg bone is the beater. She has a deeper voice, but varied, and I’ve gotten to know her voice well enough that I can play her without even looking at her and still know exactly where to strike to get the right pitch.

The spirit of the horse hide is also the ones who carries me to the spirit world. It’s safer to have a guide to take me there, and she has been known to rescue me when things got a little (or a lot!) too risky. She can move much more quickly there than I can, and can sometimes gain entry to places that I can’t go by myself. Plus it takes effort to move around, even in the spirit realm, so having someone to take the first leg of effort allows me to reserve my strength for once I arrive. There have even been times I was so tired afterward that she was the only thing getting me back home safely.

There’s a wide variety of drums out there; each with its own voice and playing style. A djembe is going to have a different personality than a bodhran, and they’re played differently, too. If you’ve spent some time at a drum circle you may already know what type of drum you prefer. However, if you’re still unsure, go to a drum circle or shop and check out how each is played. If you don’t have access to a drum circle there are videos of some on YouTube, though it may be tough to figure out which drum has which voice. And the same if you need to order your drum online–you can search for each type of drum and generally find lots of videos of people playing them.

One other consideration: despite my love of hide drums, I have occasionally regretted not having a synthetic drum as a backup. Hide drums don’t like moisture, and if I’m at an outdoor festival where it’s raining, my horse hide drum is going to sound flatter than a dead tire. Some people dislike synthetic drums because they’re, well, synthetic. However, you can imbue a synthetic drum with spirit in much the same way as vegan skindancing.

Whether you buy or make a natural or synthetic drum, or even make one out of common household products, the important thing is that you have a good connection with it. You may find that it takes you a couple of tries to get the right drum. Just make sure that your old drum goes someplace where it’ll be appreciated. Consider making it a gift to a friend, or donating it to a music program for children.

(And, as a bit of shameless self-promotion, I make and sell hide drums as well.)

How do I warm the drum up?

If you’ll forgive the slightly risque comparison, even drums need a little foreplay. Some of this is to get an idea of what the drum needs–is it too humid? Too warm?–as well as to tone up head and your arm! More importantly, it’s a greeting to the spirit, who may be sleeping. And it’s just plain polite.

I first warm my drum up by rubbing my hand over it in clockwise circles, starting at the outer edges and spiraling inward. As I do so, I quietly call to the spirit of the drum, and ask her to wake up and join me. Once she’s ready, I pick up the beater and run it over the drum in the same pattern–not hitting the drum, just moving the head of the beater over it.

I also cool down my drum in the same way; once I have finished drumming, I run the beater over the head, only counterclockwise and moving out in spirals from the center. I then do the same thing with my hand, and if need be put the spirit back to sleep.

If your drum is one that needs tuning, now’s a good time to check. You can also look for damage and other maintenance issues. I like to treat my horsehide drum with mink oil to keep the hide hydrated and conditioned, and to help waterproof it a bit.

What sorts of drumbeats do I use?

Honestly, I’m a fan of single beats. The tempo and timing may vary, but I’m happier with a drum that I just hit with one beater, rather than something like a djembe that is elaborately played with two hands. I like starting out with a “heartbeat”–a single beat rhythm that matches my own heartbeat. The heartbeat in the drum does connect to my own heart, which is useful for keeping me from completely losing the connection to my body while I journey. Once the horse spirit is ready, I start drumming along with her hoofbeats instead, for as long as I am riding her in the journey. After that, the drumbeats often follow either my heartbeat or my footsteps (or pawsteps if I’ve shifted in the journey).

Again, play with the beats. I usually recommend the heartbeat when starting out and finishing, since it’s simple and easy to find. You may find that the beat naturally changes depending on what’s going on in your journey. You may also wish to create special drumbeats, such as for the beginning or ending of a journey, when a particular spirit arrives or departs, when you need to call on a spirit helper, etc. Many of these may develop organically, but if you have a specific idea in mind, try it out and see what happens. (If it’s for calling on a specific spirit, try it BEFORE you find yourself needing help in a serious journey!)

What happens when I drum journey?

As mentioned earlier, I always start with the horse spirit of my drum arriving to carry me to the spirit world. My “starting place”, where I begin every journey, is one specific spot out in the Columbia River Gorge. So the horse will carry my spirit over the land to get to that place, and then drop me off there. From there I can choose to go down a number of paths, or even directly into the forest (though the paths are safer).

As I am drumming, I can still feel my arms holding and playing the drum; the drum acts as an anchor to keep me from getting lost. And yes, sometimes my arms do get tired; I can feel it as I go through the spirit world, too, though I find if I rub my arms spiritually, it’ll help my physical arms, too. If I’m shapeshifted into a wolf or other animal in my journey, I can still feel the drum, though it feels sort of like a double exposure photo–both layers of “Lupa” are there, but they don’t quite match.

As mentioned, the drumbeats often change to match what’s going on. Many times this isn’t conscious, except when I am deliberately using the drumbeat to call a helper, to get an emergency ride from Horse, to honor a being, etc. Occasionally I’ll need to stop drumming entirely, if I m in a place in the spirit world where I need to be quiet. I still hang onto the drum, and as mentioned the basic heartbeat that I start and close every journey with allows my physical heart to beat in lieu of the drum as needed. I still resume drumming as soon as I can, though, as it helps keep me focused on the journey.

How do I care for my drum?

I mentioned earlier that I use mink oil to condition the hide. I also keep the drum out of damp places, and if it gets wet I air-dry it as quickly as I can. Unfortunately, I’ve had situations where a cup of water got dumped on a hide drum, and the entire thing had to be redone, so be careful around water!

Spiritually, sometimes I play the drum just for the sake of playing it. It’s a good bonding activity, and keeps us both in practice. she hangs out under my Bear altar, and while i don’t give her any special offerings (she just wants good basic care) you’re welcome to make offerings to you drum above and beyond keeping it in good condition. Some people like to purify their drums before and after a journey, and if the spirit of your drum is injured during a journey, make sure you tend to it before the journey is done.

What if I need to change the drum’s head?

Limited repair may be done to a drum head. Very small (pinhole sized) holes can be filled with a good epoxy; let it dry at least 24 hours before testing the playability. Be aware that this may not stop further damage to the hide once the stress of playing starts again.

Beyond that, you’ll almost certainly have to replace the head. Even with the best of care, eventually everything wears out, even good quality hide drums. If your drum’s head wears out or is irreparably damaged consider it not just a swap of materials, but a changing of the guard.

First, consider what worked well with the drum head you had, physically and spiritually. Do you want a similar one, or do you want to try something entirely different–a new hide, or even a synthetic? Do you feel you can change the drum head yourself, or do you want someone else to do it?

If you’re changing it yourself, treat the old head with reverence. The spirit’s not gone or dead; the form is just too damaged for its present purpose. Thank the spirit for its service and help and ask it what it would like to do next. Some may like a nice retirement, while others may wish to be incorporated into other projects. If the drum head is big enough and the damage is close enough to one edge or another, you may even be able to put the undamaged part on a smaller frame.

Make sure that the spirits of your frame and the new head are introduced before you put them together. You may even wish to let them sit next to each other for a few days before prepping the head to be stretched on. You may also wish to have the old head there as well, so it can pass on its experiences to the new one.

When you put the new head on, have a conversation with it about what you do and how it can help. See if you can identify the nature of the spirit in it. Ask it if it would like any particular offerings or other special care. Once the new head is completely dry, take the drum out for a “test run”. Play it just to get to know it as you did with the old head, learning the voice and feel of it, then proceed from there.

Conclusion

So there you have it: my attempt at explaining Drum Journeying 101. How’d I do? Anything else you may want to know about that I didn’t mention? (And, as always, thank you for reading!)

A Brief Poetic Interlude

Home, 5/5/2012

I love the sound of the paintbrush
Delicately moving across this drum.
The tiny tempo evokes the spirit
Of small, curious birds,
Translucent claws tapping against taut-stretched hide.

So sensitive is the skin, that from the lightest touch
A song emerges.
No matter how heavily the drum is beaten
No matter how loud the voice
I was here first
With my paintbrush made of birds.

WIP drum by Lupa, 2012

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 🙂

Skindancing: Shapeshifting Dance

You know how I got into making totem dance costumes in the first place? It’s because I wanted to dance in my own wolf skin! My old grey wolf skin, shown in this post, has been with me since about 1999. However, I didn’t start dancing with him until 2002, when I started going to pagan festivals. I had no one to show me how to wear him, so through a process of trial and error I figured out how to properly split him to wrap him around me, plus trying to find the best places to put the various leather straps to distribute the weight. And then I had to figure out that whole shapeshifting thing–not physically, of course, but allowing the spirit of the skin to “ride” my body, even as I felt, for the moment of the dance, what it was like to see through the eyes of a wolf. And I want to be able to share that with you, so here’s a brief tutorial on how to make it happen.

First, you need to know what skin you’re going to dance. You may, like me, prefer full skin dance costumes. However, that’s not necessary; you may be working with a headdress or tail, or even just a small skin pouch. You don’t even need actual animal parts–even vegans may participate in skindancing! What’s important is how you connect with the skin spirits, regardless of their “housing”.

If you’ve never talked with the skin spirits before, I wrote out my own method here; it may be useful to you, though you may find your own personalized way as well. Being able to connect with the spirit, whether you see it as a literal being or not, is crucial to shapeshifting dance. So before trying this more advanced practice, spend some time getting to know the skin you’re going to dance with. It’s especially important to be able to tell when the spirit is or isn’t wanting to work with you at a given time, because you’ll want to ask permission each time you want to dance with it or otherwise work with it.

Once you have a good working relationship with the spirit, it’s time to try it on for size. A pouch will probably hang with no problem around your neck or from a belt, though it’s best to have at least some physical contact with it. However, something larger may take a little practice to get it to fit just right–every person’s body is shaped differently, and so one person may have to wear the same headdress further back or forward on their head than another one. So before you even get out to the dance circle, spend some time just wearing the skin in your home and learn to adjust its fastenings and your movements as needed.

If you haven’t danced much before, or you’re not feeling quite sure of yourself, you can try dancing at home as well. One thing I recommend to people is to either watch the actual living animals in the wild or at a zoo or wildlife park, or watch videos of them, to see how they move. Then imitate that to the best of your ability. In many cases we simply aren’t able to move in the same way–we can’t fly, for example–and you may have physical limitations particular to you that need to be factored in. Never fear–it’s not about perfection! Again, the connection is what’s important.

And that’s the other half of this practicing–you want to invite the spirit to be a part of you, and allow you to be a part of it, during this dance. For a while, it may just be you moving around, concentrating on just “getting it right”. However, eventually you may find that you can feel the spiritual boundaries between you and the skin melting away. (This is why I don’t line any of the dance costumes I make, other than as needed to strengthen older hides. Direct physical contact with the skin helps facilitate spiritual connection as well!) Take some time to keep practicing and getting to know each other as dance partners.

You may also find that the totem of the species you are dancing, as well as the individual spirit of the skin, may come to dance with you. This can be a VERY powerful experience, but it can also differ from just dancing with the skin spirit. It’s easier to get overwhelmed, but it’s also good practice in deeper spiritual connections and invocation. Have a plan to get out of the trance and ground yourself if things get to be too intense; generally speaking, a totem will leave if asked politely, at least in my experience.

Once you feel ready to do this in a group setting, such as a drum circle at a pagan gathering, there are a few things to be aware of. You may find yourself distracted the first few times you do this, either by trying to not get stepped on by other dancers, or being overwhelmed by all the drumming, or overheated by the fire. (If you’re wearing a full skin dance costume, wear as little clothing as you can and still be decent in the given setting–a swimsuit, for example. Yes, even in cool weather–fur and fire will make you warm in no time!) Don’t worry; it happened to me when I was first starting out, and I still have recent experiences where someone bumped into me and knocked me out of trance. That’s another thing–know who you can go to if you need some help grounding. Taking the skin off breaks the connection, but it won’t necessarily get you back to your baseline headspace. If there are no professional fire tenders, have a friend or two there who can help you come back to yourself.

An important note: Be aware of the animal’s behavior versus your own preconceived notions! I have seen people use skindancing and other shapeshifting practices to act out–basically using the imagery of Wolf to excuse their inability to control their own anger and aggression, for example. How much of yourself are you projecting onto the animal? How much aggression does the animal actually use on a daily basis versus what popular media states? Wolves can be aggressive, but they’re also highly social, and the pack hierarchy is much more relaxed in the wild, as opposed to in the sorts of captive refuge situations where a lot of observation has taken place. (Captive wolves tend to exaggerate the hierarchy due to being in such close quarters.) So dancing Wolf isn’t just about being a snarling beast embodying all the animal qualities we humans tend to repress; it’s also about being loving and playful and sleeping a lot after a big meal!

You don’t have to restrict yourself to just one animal, either. I primarily dance Wolf, but I have also dance Bear, Deer, Buffalo, Leopard, and many others. And even if you dance multiple skins of the same species, get to know them as individuals. Some like dancing more than others, and some just prefer special occasions.

There’s a lot more to this, but these are the basics. If you want to know more about my work with skin spirits, feel free to read more of the entries in the Skin Spirits category of this blog. You may also purchase a copy of my book, Skin Spirits, in the bookstore portion of my website. And I’m always happy to answer questions and give feedback as my time allows 🙂

Still Not Dead

Though you might not know it from how seldom I post here. I’m still spending more time in the outdoors than anything else as far as my spirituality goes–that and still working with the skins and bones.

The thing is, for the past six months I’ve been going through that tear-down and rebuild process yet again, except it’s even more drastic and bare-bones than when I did it a little over three years ago when I started this blog. I had thought I had stripped my spiritual self naked back then. How little I suspected how much I had left to tear away.

I’m not entirely sure what things will look like for me in another six months, or another twelve. I don’t know how much my practice will resemble what I left off in the spring when this need to tear apart and rebuild came upon me so strongly that I had to act on it. My worldview has shifted so immensely, and yet I’m just nowhere near ready to talk about it yet. Not much, anyway. This is sort of my first attempt, maybe a pre-attempt.

So. I’ve still been hiking a lot, and going out to the coast, and taking my lover out into the Gorge. I’m still running a few times a week, which gets me out under the sky even when I’m too busy to do so otherwise. While ecopsychology isn’t as much of a part of my practice in my practicum as I thought it might be, it still has its own burner. I’m painting a bit more, too. Especially plants. For some reason, the flora of the Pacific Northwest have captured my imagination in my art, particularly my personal, private art. “I am a creature of conifers, ferns, and thick, green moss” indeed.

I’m almost afraid to write this, for fear it will become crystallized and stagnant by being placed into words. But the first thing that really seems to have coalesced into a statement of meaning is the phrase “In relation to”. On Halloween/Samhain, the day before my birthday, I went out to hike Drift Creek Falls. It’s my third year, but my first year going solo. Along with being an opportunity for a rite of passage leaving behind the last vestiges of what used to be married life, and back into a stronger singledom, it also ended up providing a valuable experience in getting to the core of meaning for me.

One of the problems I have–well, sometimes it’s a problem–is that it’s hard to get my mind to shut up. I’ve never been good with “sit down and be quiet” forms of meditation. I can do them, but I don’t like them, and I normally don’t get a lot out of them. However, I was getting frustrated on my hike because I so often found myself spacing out and missing the place I was in while my mind was floating off in a dozen different directions. “How often did I get to come to this place?” I thought. “I shouldn’t waste my time here thinking about things that concern me back in Portland!”

So I decided to just shut the thoughts off. It took a little effort, but it wasn’t more than a few moments before I was able to clear my mind. The result was both startling and telling. My physical spatial awareness snapped into sharp focus. I became very aware of where I was with respect to every tree, stone and animal I could perceive within my vision, and I had a sudden sense of space that put me firmly within my environment. Things that I normally screened out, such as the subtle movement of my visual field as I walked, became more apparent. I became present in a way I very rarely get to experience.

I realized that this feeling I was having through conscious effort of clearing my mind in this specific environment was the same feeling I got when struck with wonder by a particularly beautiful wild place. Only instead of having to be smacked over the head by the experience to actually pay attention, I was allowing it in. And I felt that sense of connection with everything else that is at the core of so much that I think and do. I don’t go throughout my day with a constant sense of that connection, but I remember enough of the times that I have experienced it that the memory is enough to motivate my actions and decisions. My choice to buy recycled paper products, for example, is directly a result of feeling connected to trees that could be cut down for pulp, even if I am not feeling that connection at the very moment I am purchasing toilet paper made from 100% recycled office paper content.

And that sense of connection has always been at the heart of meaning and wonder for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so purely, though, without the trappings of religion and paganism and shamanism and spirituality. All those things? All those are abstractions of that feeling. This is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with emanations and symbols.

But one thing I have had many conversations with my lover about is how often people mistake the map for the territory. Therioshamanism, my forays into chaos magic, my extensive explorations with animal totemism–all of these are maps. The maps are meant to help describe the territory of the experience with the world around me, particularly but certainly not exclusively those wild places that are such pure wellsprings of meaning for me.

And I think that’s perhaps where I…well, I won’t say I went wrong, because I don’t believe there are wrong things in spiritual exploration, only meandering and detours and “this is where you happen to be right now”. But I think three years ago I was also searching for the territory without having the map in the way, and I just didn’t quite get as much of the map out of my perception. And now I’m much closer to experiencing the territory for itself.

Hiking in the forest, with my awareness of that place and my place within that place–that is the purest spiritual experience I have had. More than Otherworld journeying that takes me out of an important layer of myself. More than rituals that are supposedly in “a world between worlds”. More than gods of the forest, spirits of the forest, I connected with the forest.

“In relation to.” That is the key phrase. I am just rediscovering where I am in relation to everything else. I am going without my expectations that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden, and without anything other than my own perceptions. Let me see what I perceive there, without what I’ve been told by years of pagan books and festivals and rituals and networkings what should be there.

Let me make my own map in relation to the territory, and let me not mistake the map for the territory.