The Importance of Ritual Tools

First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.

Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.

To which I say: fuck that noise.

Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.

Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.

Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.

Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.

Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.

To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.

Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.

The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.

(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)

If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.

Replying to Owl, and Fox’s Tour

I journeyed again today to tell Owl about my answer regarding the Upper World. When I arrived, Fox and Scrub Jay were there, asking for my attention. I asked them to please wait until I could give Owl my answer, and they told me they would wait with me for hir arrival. So I called to Owl, and asked hir to please share hir time with me, if s/he was willing. S/he flew overhead, and told me s/he’d give me time if I’d catch a mouse for hir.

So I ran off into the underbrush, trying to scent out a mouse. I found where they were hidden deep in the earth, and also places where they had once been, but weren’t any more. Fox then came and said, “I can show you where you can get a mouse easily–follow me!” So I did, running up the mountain with hir. S/he showed me where there was a hollow log with a family of mice inside. I chased them from end to end, until one finally slipped out, a little confused, then realized hir mistake and tried to burrow under the log. I caught hir before s/he could get out of reach, and carried hir in my mouth. I was a little lost by that point, but Fox came back and led me back down to where Owl waited. I was a bit concerned that Mouse would be unhappy about me catching one of hir young, but Fox told me, “Mice get eaten all the time, including by Owl. That’s just the way of things.”

So I brought the mouse to Owl, who told me to kill the mouse. I did, and gave the mouse to Owl, who ate the carcass in two bites. Then Owl told me to tell hir my answer. I explained that my only reason for wanting to go to the Upper World was out of curiosity and a desire to know what was up there. Owl laughed and said, “That’s good enough for me. Now, when you feel you’re ready to go up there, let me know and I’ll show you how”. Then s/he flew away.

Fox then told me to come with hir. S/he took me down the trail to the west, and showed me where Mole lived–a recluse, and not easy to get to come out, but valuable to know. Then we went to the waterfall, and watched the river dragons leaping ecstatically over the cliff, laughing gleefully as they did so. I got the feeling they were analogous to the spirits that showed up as blue flames on the trail to the Upper World, that the river dragons guarded the way to the Lower World. This was one point where I could meet with them when the time came to go there.

Then Fox took me back up the trail a ways to a place that I had been interested in before. I couldn’t go there in waking time, but I was perfectly able to do so while journeying. I sniffed around there a bit, and Fox told me that this would be a good place to “put things, create things, build things”. Basically anything from a shelter for myself, to a place to do a ritual as needed, and most importantly, one of many places I could cache things I might need later on. I need to have some things on hand for offerings and gifts, and also have the spiritual “versions” of certain ritual items that I possess physically. Plus, in case I receive any gifts in return, it would be a good idea to have a place to keep them. Fox told me things should be safe so long as I hide them well; there really aren’t many other people who journey there.

Then Fox and I went back to the starting place, and I came back home. I noticed that while I still waver in and out of my altered state of consciousness while I journey, I’m doing it less, and staying focused on the journey more consistently. Practice makes perfect, right? (Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.)

You Mean I Have To Give a Reason?

I’ve started journeying again since the year turned over. Only once, but it was an important one.

I showed up at my starting place, in the form of a wolf per usual, and was met by the Animal Father. He carried me inside himself up the mountain to his home (no, it wasn’t squishy and I wasn’t making elbow room amid spiritual internal organs or whatnot–more like floating/flying up the trail, but feeling surrounding by the energy I associate with him). Then he set me down on the ground, and we began to talk about why I hadn’t journeyed in four months–or, rather, he began snarling at me about it. In fact, he ended up turning into a significantly larger wolf, bared fangs and all. This served primarily to put me on the defensive, rather than listening to what he had to say.

So he ended up turning into a mouse instead, which relaxed me quite a bit. We discussed the need for me to be journeying much more often–short version is, no more four month absences. This being the first week of school, I didn’t do the best job of increasing the amount of journeying I do, but now that I have a better idea of what my time commitments and schedule will be like, I have a better idea of where I can fit it in.

After this, he asked me how my progress on getting to the Upper world was, since I’d been trying to figure out that conundrum. I told him I was still stuck, and he suggested talking to the resident Owl, one of the totems specific to the area I start my journeys in. So he called hir to show up, and we were joined by Great Grey Owl (totems, for me, are species-specific). S/he and I had a conversation about the Upper world, and why I was having trouble accessing it.

The main thing s/he asked me, and which I puzzled over afterwards, was “Why do you need to get up there, anyway?” And I honestly couldn’t give hir a good answer beyond “To find information”. Owl told me to come back when I had a better answer for hir, and flew away. For my part, I ran back down the mountain with this question burning in my mind. Scrub Jay (the totem this time, not just a scrub jay spirit) and Red Fox both showed up. They offered their help in navigating this world, and Scrub Jay additionally told me s/he could help with the Upper World when the time came. I noted this, thanked them for the offer, and ended up needing to head back home.

For a few days, I couldn’t really come up with a decent answer for Owl’s question. Then one day, as I was on a walk, it hit me–why did I need to get to the Upper World, anyway? I didn’t have a specific reason, a particular piece of information to seek out. The only reason I could think of was “Because it’s part of what shamans are supposed to do–right?” Same thing with the Lower World. And here we get to one of the downsides to not being a part of an established shamanic paradigm–there’s no one to explain why, specifically, I might need to go to one or the other, or neither for that matter. I could read books, but even there the material is limited. I can talk to other practitioners, but how much of what they experience will be relevant to me?

To be sure, journeying is intensely personal, and I think there’s more subjectivity to it than a lot of practitioners want to admit. This means I can potentially look at the different worlds in the shamanisms of other cultures. But would these motifs and experiences be relevant to me, in my cultural context? And how much standardization is there, really? After all, there are other things that are “supposed” to happen in shamanism that haven’t quite matched my experiences. For example, according to most texts on neoshamanism, you’re “supposed” to climb up and down a tree to travel to the various worlds. I climb a mountain instead, one that I’ve visited frequently in waking time. And what I am practicing isn’t necessarily what other people are practicing; I am developing my relationships with the spirits from scratch, not following someone else’s template of expectations. In fact, most of the examples of neoshamanism I’ve seen have a lot of fundamental differences compared to what I’m doing.

This still left me with the problem: if I don’t know what’s in the Upper World or what to expect there, how do I know why I would want to go there? And then it hit me, as I was walking–right after I was presented with that problem, Scrub Jay and Red Fox offered me a solution: Don’t worry about the Upper World right now. Look for answers and explorations in this world first. It’s the closest, and the one I’m most familiar with. Where better to get more practice with journeying than the layer of reality that I’m most accustomed to? Not that everything will be a cakewalk, of course. But it makes a lot of sense.

I’m willing to bet that I’m not the first novice (neo)shaman to get caught up in the “Oooooh, I get to explore the Other worlds!” thing, to the point of neglecting this world. Now, I do tend to be a fairly pragmatic person. I’m the kind who will take mundane solutions before leaping into magical practice. So it’s not surprising to me, this concept of checking around the spiritual portions of this world first, before travelling further afield. I think I just got caught up in that whole “Shamans travel to the Upper and Lower worlds” concept a little too much.

Some of the Middle world stuff will no doubt be “mundane” things–like my venturing into psychology as a profession, for example, or finding other “everyday” solutions. However, I would imagine that journeying, as with various forms of divination, will help expand my perception of possible solutions (altered states of consciousness are good for that). I won’t make too many assumptions, but I think for now my journeys are going to be focusing on what Jay and Fox have to show me. They’ve offered, and I’ll follow. I should probably go to Owl and let hir know my current answer (“I actually don’t have a need to go there yet”) as well.

Look! A Post! A Long Post, Even!

I apologize for those on the LJ feed for this blog; there’s no way I can LJ-cut this post to make it shorter. Bear with me–I’m just trying to catch up after so long! Graci 🙂

I know I’ve been exceptionally quiet here (and elsewhere) lately. It’s been over a month since I posted, and over two months since I last journeyed. There’s been good reason for this. As I mentioned earlier this year, I was accepted into the counseling psychology program at a local graduate school, and am working on my Master’s degree. I don’t think I quite realized just how much of my life grad school would consume, and as my first semester progressed I found myself working harder to try to maintain equilibrium with the increasing demands on my time. It’s all been worth it, but it does mean that my active practice sort of fell to the wayside.

Fortunately, the spirits have been understanding. While grad school isn’t something that’s strictly shamanic, it does tie in with my practice on a number of levels, and so I am putting effort towards my shamanism even if it doesn’t involve drums and totems and so forth (most of the time, anyway…). In fact, I’ve been learning a lot of things that are highly applicable to my practice.

The most obvious is ecopsychology. Ecopsych involves the psychology of our relationship to the natural environment. An ecopsychologist may be concerned with the psychology associated with how people approach the environment, whether in positive or negative manners. Additionally, wilderness therapy and other practices focus on using the environment for therapeutic purposes. Ecopsychology is about as close to animism as you get in the Western mindset; it uses the language of psychology rather than religion, though there are some very strong spiritual themes within ecopsych.

I’ve been very interested in narrative therapy as well, which isn’t surprising given my background in English. Narrative therapy can refer to the use of storytelling–whether through writing, visual aids (artwork), or other creative means–to aid a client in being more open in talking about what s/he needs to work on. Additionally, the use of narratives can help a client find meaning in hir life, particularly when s/he may feel there is little connection between various events and entities that s/he encounters.

And I’ve also had some curiosity about Gestalt therapy. Some people primarily think of some of the more dramatic techniques, such as the empty chair. (I remember in high school seeing a film of a session where the client became angry enough to begin kicking the chair across the room!) “Gestalt” literally means “shape”, and like the Kanizsa triangle, Gestalt therapy demonstrates the whole of something, not just what is obviously “there”. It takes where the client is at the time and explores the context of the situation in detail–the people, places, and other influences that affect the client’s situation, as well as the manners in which the client acts upon the situation.

I’ll also admit that I found some bits of systems theory interesting. However, I’m still trying to wrap my head about Bradford Keeney’s Aesthetics of Change, which was by far my most challenging textbook this past semester. I’ll need to get a firmer grasp on it through Keeney and others before I can say for sure how much I want to incorporate it into my therapeutic practice in the future.

All of these areas of therapeutic practice focus on interconnection, something that is central to my shamanic practice. In the dominant cultural paradigm of the United States, we are encouraged to be isolated beings; we have the hyperromanticized “rugged individualist”. Yet we are part of numerous systems, whether we want to admit it or not. Everything that we do has an effect on something besides ourselves, and while many of these exchanges may seen to be insignificant, they can add up to create quite a change. (Or series of changes, really.)

Therioshamanism is much the same way. While a lot of my work focuses specifically on animals, I do not consider them to be separate from the rest of the world, and I do acknowledge the connections to everything else. Part of what I do is to act as an intermediary between the spirits and the human community. This need not always be direct things, such as journeying on behalf of another person. It can include passing along something that the spirits would like to have manifest in a way that is understandable to people I interact with. Often this happens simply through leading by example.

Take the gardening, for instance. Gardening promotes sustainable living, which eases the pressure on the environment in numerous ways–which is an effort that I’ve found is appreciated by the spirits I work with. Simply by geeking out about my garden on my personal blog, I managed to inspire a few other folks to start their own gardening projects this year. (It’s going to get worse this year–I have a yard now, and I still have room for all my containers. There shall be much growing of green vegetable-type things, and the blogging thereof!)

Of course, there’s a fine line between creating the world you want to see, and pushing an agenda on others. I learned a lot about boundaries in my ethics class this semester. While the boundaries are nowhere near as strict with something like shamanism (which isn’t regulated by any governing bodies or associations), it still gave me some good food for thought. And my primary focus as a therapist (and, for that matter, as a shaman, once I start actively working on others’ behalf) will be on aiding my client, not on making people see things my way. On the other hand, happier, healthier people are a part of the world I want to create, so hey–maybe part of my “agenda” will end up manifesting anyway!

Okay, so enough about graduate school. I’ve had a small group of students I’ve been passing along the basics of my practice to for the past couple of months. Weather, illnesses, scheduling conflicts, and other issues have given things a bit of a rocky start, but I’m pleased overall with how folks are doing. For privacy’s sake, I’m not going to talk much about the classes; needless to say, it’s a good group of folks that I look forward to working with for some time.

There are definitely challenges to trying to arrange even monthly meetings, as opposed to one-shot workshops or limited workshop series. While it’s been worth it so far with this group, I’m not 100% sure I’m going to make this sort of thing a regular occurrence. Some of it’s time issues; however, some of it’s also that so much of this stuff works best when self-directed, as it was created. I’m certainly not going to abandon my current group of students, but I may just eventually end up doing what I do best–write a book about it and let the readers take it from there.

Teaching students has been my main activity associated with therioshamanism. As I mentioned, I haven’t journeyed in a couple of months. However, now that I’m on break, I have more time for such things. Unfortunately, since Taylor and I just moved to a new place, most of my stuff is still packed up. My plan for this weekend is to try and get it unpacked; I need to be journeying again. I’ve missed it, and I have some things I need to do.

I don’t think I realized just how grounding my practice has been for me. It helps to promote deeper connections with the world around me; instead of journeying, I’ve been going for a lot of walks, and otherwise engaging in a lot of little, everyday activities that remind me of that connection. I’m going to try to reach a better balance this coming semester so that I can have more time for my practice, even if it’s not as often as I’d like. Yes, the grad school stuff works into it, but the journeying in specific is irreplacable.

One last thing, speaking of connections. Back in November, I had some tattoo work done. When we first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I got my second wolf tattoo, this one on my left arm, not long after the move:

It symbolized the beginning of my relationship to the Land here. At the time I was in Seattle, where I ended up having less of a connection than I expected. Too big, too crowded, just didn’t sit well with me. However, it got me started, and a year later we moved to Portland–a much better fit for us.

So as part of an ongoing day-to-day ritual of connection, I had more work done to my left arm:

This is partly a portrait of Multnomah Falls (I had the artist take out the bridge; the Falls themselves will be added in later). It’s one of those places that I really connected with, and it was a fitting representative of the Land out here. The work isn’t done yet; this was about two and a half hours in the chair, after which I simply couldn’t take any more, even with the topical anesthetic. So I have an appointment come May to get it finished up. (If you’re interested, by the way, Alice Kendall over at Infinity Tattoo in North Portland is the artist; I highly, highly recommend here.)

While I was getting inked, I did do some journeying (so I suppose I can’t say I haven’t done any in the past couple months–just no drum journeying). I started off at my usual starting point, and travelled all around the general area, both Portland metro and the surrounding areas. I spoke with the Land about my relationship to it, as well as the various entities–human, other animals, plants, etc.–that I could help through the things I am developing. I don’t want to go into any more detail, but needless to say it was confirmation of a number of things. It was, to say the least, an incredible rite of passage–and it won’t be done til May.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I should be able to do some drum journeying in the next few days, to get back into practice.

I Went For a Walk in the Rain

I went for a walk in the rain today. We’re getting into the rainy season here in Portland–which means it’ll be soaking wet now til probably early to mid June. (And you wonder why the Pacific Northwest is so green!) I walked over to the park, watching the fox squirrels foraging for acorns and other things to store away for Winter. The sky was a very pale grey, almost white, and almost perfectly smooth except for the occasional lower-hanging cloud adding just a slightly darker grey splotch.

I deliberately went out while it was raining. I’m one of those people who prefers warm, sunny weather–summer’s my time. I’ve generally tended to see anything cooler than 70 degrees Fahrenheit as too cold for my tastes, and I usually walk around in several layers all throughout Autumn, Winter, and most of Spring. Plus, having worked in a few occupations where I was outdoors a good bit of the time, I’ve come to appreciate shelter.

I spent a good bit of today reading Ecopsychology, edited by Theodore Roszak, in preparation for my ecopsych class. I’m reading through the entire book, rather than only the assigned portions, because this is really what my main interest is in my grad school career. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, to be sure.

One of the themes that has really leaped out at me is that of the excessive, even neurotic, need for control in Western cultures, America in particular. One particular thread that I’ve been following is that of the need to control one’s environment to an excessive degree, even to the point of destroying other beings. Because we feel the need to exert our control over the environment, we have so manipulated the world around us that entire ecosystems have been utterly destroyed. Even if you consider global warming to be a natural phenomenon, there’s no denying the huge amount of deforestation going on worldwide, including in crucial rain forest areas–or the extinction of multiple species by human interference–or pollution in waterways (Cuyahoga River FTL!). We have most decidedly left our mark, and not in the best way possible.

Compared to other cultures, modern Western cultures are incredibly out of touch with the interconnected world we live in; we have done a marvelous job of denying any connection whatsoever (except for those we find to be convenient). American culture in particular has taken independence and self-centeredness to an extreme–some would say neurotic–state. Because of this, we have lost, as a culture, the ability to interconnect, not even just with the environment, but with other people. Any form of dependence on others is assumed to be bad, weak, and a threat to the strictly-held boundaries of SELF. And it’s that deep divide between Self and Other that really screws us over. Instead of having a permeable boundary that allows for fluid connections depending on context, we stay in the perceived safety of Cartesian dualities because we’re too afraid to venture beyond the known.

We have a deeply-ingrained terror of losing ourselves in the world. We grasp our precious control so tightly that we never learn what it is to really let go, and simply experience. Instead, any mention of loosening the grip at all causes a kneejerk reaction. Suggest to the modern American that as a culture we’re addicted to consumerism (and as a culture are in denial about it), and you’ll get a bunch of–you guessed it–denial. People don’t want to question their nice, safe boundaries.

Reading some of these essays today made me want to go outside of those boundaries. I’ve already been working against some of the cultural assumptions that, as an American, I’ve had pushed onto me from day one. I’ve been trying to slowly decrease my isolationist dependence on technology, even as I try to acknowledge my interdependence with other people, other animals, other beings, and recognize the impact my actions have (even if I don’t always make the best choices every single time). And I’ve been trying to make my boundaries between my Self and Everything Else less rigid, more permeable–but without the either/or terror that says “If you don’t maintain your boundaries just so, you’ll be swallowed up!” (I’ve been working on destroying my dualistic assumptions and replacing them with continuums for a while now.)

So today I took a walk in the rain to see if it was really all that bad, if it was everything I feared it would be. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. I wore proper clothing to keep me from getting utterly soaked, though in places where the rain did soak in to my skin, I relished the feeling of water, right next to my skin. I listened to the sound of the rain pattering down on my hat, on the ground, on the leaves in the trees. I thought about how the rain brings fertilization–not just in hydration, but in the fact that every rain drop forms around a particle of dust or other stuff, and this falls to the Earth to help replenish the soil. The rain captures nourishment that is afloat in the air–topsoil blown away, minute bits of bio-material–and returns it to the Earth. How can this be bad, in and of itself?

And as I swam through the ocean of air that we all are submerged in, nestled amid trees and grass and birds and squirrels and hills, I recognized what Laura Sewall, a perceptual psychologist, was talking about in her essay “The Skill of Ecological Perception”–that we do not live on the Earth–we live in it. Our perception of depth is anthropocentric–it starts from our own head, and expands outward. Yet we can reframe that depth perception in other ways, and see the world in a wholly different light.

“Wholly” is a wholly appropriate word here. When I allow myself to perceive that I am in the Earth and not just on it, when I see myself as within my environment and not merely looking at it, immersed without losing myself and my subjective perspective, I am not veering off into the other end of the dualistic perception of “inside/outside” or “Self/Other”. Rather, I am perceiving from a place of “both/and”. I am mySelf, and I am also part of the Other. There is no contradiction in this. It is the sticking point of dualism that makes the automatic assumption that you can’t be in two places at once–yet it’s all in how you perceive things.

As for the rain being “bad”? Sure, I don’t like being soaked to the bone on a cold day. But to borrow a thought from object relations theory–the well-adjusted person is one who merges both the good and the bad traits of something that is perceived. A mentally unhealthy person is one who literally cannot make that merge–who cannot see that either the Self, or Other, or both, are composed of both good and bad things. (This results in the paranoid-schizoid position proposed by Klein.)

So in an attempt to have a healthier, more whole outlook (and, as a sidenote, “health” and “whole” come from the same root word), I went out to appreciate the good things about the rain, without ignoring the bad. I enjoyed the rain, and appropriately protected myself from too much of it soaking into my clothing. I remembered that I am in the Earth, not just on it, and didn’t lose myself in the process.

Shamanism and PTSD

I found this nifty article about core shamanism and PTSD over at Letters from Hardscrabble Creek. This makes me very hopeful, as PTSD treatment is something I want to do some research on once I have my counseling degree. (Neo)shamanism fits quite nicely into ecopsychology–in fact, the first anthology on ecopsychology includes an interview with Leslie Gray, who created what she calls “shamanic counseling”, a hybrid of core shamanism and counseling techniques.

“But wait, Lupa, I thought you didn’t like core shamanism! Why are you singing its praises?” you may ask. Yes, I have some practical differences with core shamanism that lead to me not wanting to practice it myself as a (neo)shaman. However–and this is a big however–I’m also not going to be so territorial that I refuse to pay attention when something I may not incorporate into my own practices is showing significant results for others.

PTSD is different from a good number of mental disorders. It doesn’t respond to many common therapies in the same way that other disorders, such as depression, do–talking openly about what happened can trigger flashbacks and other symptoms which may be very severe. And, of course, as with anything, individual patients may respond differently. So it can be a lot tougher to treat than many other things.

Many core shamanic practitioners strike me as prioritizing the psychological and other technical aspects of what they do than the relationships with spirits, the latter of which is what I put first. However, in this case, the emphasis on psychology and healing seems to be exactly what hits the spot for some PTSD patients. Granted, I would really like to see formal research on it–anecdotal evidence is a good start, but if someone has published research on it, I’d definitely want to get hold of it. And I’d want to know about the long-term results as well, since I don’t believe in instant fixes. I’ve contacted Sacred Hoop Ministry, the folks mentioned in the article to get more information, because this does make me curious.

There is part of me that’s really curious as to whether non-core shamanic soul retrieval would have similar effects, for better or worse. Would one be more effective than the other? Would it depend on the patient? Or is it simply different ways of doing the same thing? This is in light of the fact that the views on journeying may be very different–Harner stated that the shamanic state of consciousness is safer than dreaming, while most non-core shamans paint the Otherworld(s) as a much more dangerous place.

Still, if it works, then I’m not going to complain about particulars. Despite my preferences and biases, ultimately I’m mainly concerned with what achieves changes for the better. There are too many serious problems that need solutions for us to be spending too much time arguing over things that may not ultimately be all that important.

Shamanic Performances

One thing that’s interested me since I started reading about shamanisms worldwide is the concept of a shamanic performance. It varies from culture to culture, of course, and not all indigenous cultures have this feature, but it’s pretty common. In a nutshell, the community (or a family, or other group) comes together and primarily watches as the shaman does hir thing on their behalf. It may be part storytelling, with the shaman narrating what s/he is experiencing during hir journey, or the shaman may not express what happened until after the fact. And while there may be elements of showmanship and sleight of hand, the process is quite serious when it comes down to it.

With the exception of seithr/seidr, I haven’t seen much information on shamanic performance in non-indigenous shamanisms (while seithr/seidr is Norse in origin, the majority of people practicing it are not native to Norway). Neoshamans who practice on behalf of others very often will do so on a one-on-one basis with individual clients. While this certainly isn’t unprecedented, since shamanic figures in indigenous cultures would generally work with people individually, the one-on-one structure predominates in neoshamanism.

While I don’t see anything wrong, per se, with the one-on-one ritual structure, I do think the more semi-public/public shamanic performance structure deserves more attention. One of the things that really fascinates me is how the element of performance can aid in the audience’s suspension of disbelief in a manner that is different from experiential rituals (wherein everyone participates in an active manner) or an individual client (in which the client is generally acted upon in some manner by the shaman, whose focus is solely on that person). I see shamanic performance as potentially drawing on some of the same elements of theatre–something that enthralls and engages the audience, and moves them in deep ways. With the addition of the esoteric elements of magical practice, the potential for group altered states of consciousness is even greater.

I’ve always been fond of Homo ludens as described by Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (and yes, I do need to hunt down a copy of Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (Man the Player)). In the modern U.S., play in adults is largely forgotten outside of sports and the bedroom–and even then it can still often be stunted in both settings. The beauty of a well-crafted ritual, even as a spectator, is that it fulfills the need for play in our lives. It allows us to really let go of our inhibitions–not in harmful ways like getting smashed and having unprotected sex with someone whose name (and sexual health) you’re unaware of–but in healthy, aware, albeit often catalytic manners. It allows us to exercise our Imagination-with-a-big-I, the one we often stuff down into Being An Adult and which we mistake for shallower, relegated-to-childhood imagination. (Understand, of course, that children and grown-ups alike are quite capable of exercising Imagination as well as imagination.) The Imagination is not just daydreams that are limited to our brains and minds, but are a connection to Something More, whether you want to call it the Collective Unconscious, the Anima Mundi, etc. (For a really good treatise on these concepts, I would highly recommend Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality. Dense, but a delicious read with every bite.)

This is not to say that other ritual formats can’t exercise the Imagination and allow us to play; quite the opposite. However, something about the shamanic performance, in which there are tricks as well as journeys, sleight of hand as well as theurgy, and where the shaman gets to play a part as much as be hirself–this really appeals to me.

I see a couple of issues with actually bringing this into reality as my practice progresses. One is that there’s a definite stigma against deliberate showmanship in spiritual and religious practices in this culture. It’s assumed that any sort of chicanery will automatically be a lie, that it can’t be a vehicle for something greater. If I were to carry beads under my tongue, and suck out the illness from a person and put it in the bead, then display the bead as proof of my work, most people would say “That bead was in her mouth the whole time–what a sham!” Only a few would understand that the bead was a vehicle for the act, that it absorbed the illness and gave people a physical focus for seeing that illness leave the person’s body. In an age where many put faith only in the five physical senses and call that objectivity (regardless of how subjective our senses are!) any ambiguity is cause for suspicion. We’re not taught how to consider more than one form of reality simultaneously and with equal truth–we’re raised with either/or, not both/and.

Another problem is that the shamanic performance originated in relatively small communities of people who spent significant portions of their lives together. While I advocate bringing one’s shamanic practice (and other ways to aid) into the local community, even in the most liberal areas you can’t turn your neighborhood into a village and expect people to come out for rituals. I know there are pagans who are neotribalists, who want to artificially create communities and villages–but you’re not going to get the same infrastructure; this culture is just too different. I applaud efforts to bring people together, but I also believe in having a realistic expectation of the parameters you’re working within.

Somewhat related to that is that a lot of people, especially in the pagan/etc. communities, are more geared towards being practitioners than spectators. Neopagan rituals are very commonly interactive so that no one gets bored “just watching”. There are groups who may rehearse seasonal rituals to the point where they have a good theatrical element to them, but even then there’s still focus on making sure everybody gets to participate at least a little bit (again, more than “just watching”). And I’ll lay odds that the majority of pagans who say they’re interested in shamanism are interested in being practitioners, not spectators. In the pagan community, we generally intercede with the spirit world on our own behalf a good deal of the time (some of us, all the time!). Too many cooks, not enough diners.

I wonder, if my practice develops the way that it would, if there would be an interest in shamanic performances–rituals that people don’t necessarily have an active hand in beyond perhaps drumming, or (as in seithr/seidr, asking questions), but where people come prepared to appreciate the performance as well as the actual reason for it (healing, fertility, divination, etc.). I’m perfectly happy creating more interactive rites where appropriate, as well as one-on-one work, but there’s also a mutual attraction for me and the spirits I work with for the shamanic performance, where we do our thing on behalf of others, and the others are primarily witnesses to what happens.

I also wonder if there are (nonindigenous) groups/individuals who do this sort of shamanizing outside of seithr/seidr in any significant form. And if I have any misunderstandings about this ritual format, I’m always open for more information! This is something that’s still very raw in my conception of it, and a lot of it won’t fall into place until I move beyond the theory and into the practice.