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.

Just Checking In

Yep, still alive and kicking.

The good news is that last week I got a job that’s 100% telecommuting; I’ll be starting at the end of April. This will give me several more hours a day, and I’ll be at home, which means I’ll be in a better environment for (among other things) continuing my shamanic work. It’ll also be a boon to my health, which has been suffering from not enough sleep and three hours of commuting per day. (The element of shaman sickness is no excuse to deliberately neglect one’s health–eating poorly, not exercising, and ignoring issues will not make you a shaman!)

Compared to my first six months, the time since I got back from Arizona has been relatively quiet. I’ve barely been upstairs at all; most of my time has been spent job hunting, recovering from long days at work, and trying to clear out some writing/editing projects. However, I’ve not forgotten what I need to be doing otherwise–no one will let me forget that!

I haven’t been doing much of anything active (other than daily prayers). But there’s been a lot going on anyway. My connection to the Land is growing stronger; there are times when I walk out of the house and the Land fairly “grabs” me, and my attention is fully focused on it as I walk. I am increasing my awareness of the world around me at all times–not just other people, but other living beings of all types, and the spirits therein. The openness that I first felt with individual elements in my first six months, and then with the Land in Arizona, has been a much more frequent companion of mine in the past few weeks.

It’s not always pleasant. There have been times where I’ve felt myself begin to “dissolve” into the consciousness of the Land which, although it is a state of consciousness that I’ll need in my work, is not so welcome when I’m out for a quick walk before heading back to a friend’s house to socialize. And I’ve become more aware of subtle, everyday interactions with other living beings on a more individual basis. I’m starting to look towards working not only with animal totems and spirits, but plant and mineral varieties as well. And my sense of place is becoming more acute as I open up more to the Land.

I am beginning to make a better relationship with the Land I live on, Portland and surrounding areas. She definitely knows I’m there, definitely recognizes me, and definitely wants my attention. She’s also most likely been helping me with arranging my life in a way more tailored towards my shamanic work. Once the job change occurs, I’ll be making better use of my time.

This does mean that my posts here will probably continue in the more recent frequency, since part of my goal is to reduce my time online. I have so much going on away from the keyboard that I want to–no, need to, really–be doing. I will still post here, and I’m going to shoot for once a week or so.

However, there’s a lot more going on under the surface that I really don’t feel the need to talk about right now. Which is fine. There will be time for talking at some point later. But now, I think, will be a cycle of more internal work, and thank-the-gods-I-can-get-away-from-the-internet-more!

Therianthropy (and Otherkin) and Universal Connection

I’m going to deviate a bit from the shamanic end of things and delve into some other thoughts–specifically thoughts sparked by reading Green Hermeticism by Wilson, Bamford and Townley. Published last year, it’s a marvelous work on hermeticism and alchemy with a strong ecological focus. I’ll have a review up hopefully by the end of the week over at Pagan Book Reviews.

The part that really got my gears going was in Bamford’s chapter, “Quilting Green Hermeticism”, specifically the section “Perception and Imagination”. It’s an examination of a way of perception that differs dramatically from most folks’ everyday perception. Found throughout various spiritualities and magical traditions, it is the application of the idea that all things are connected to the point that true perception involved not just observing and analyzing something, but instead breaking down our barriers and experiencing it, experiencing what it is to be it, identifying ourselves with it to fully know it. Bamford cites Paracelsus’ example of the Scammonea herb. Instead of only knowing facts and figures about Scammonea, Paracelsus says, “When you overhear from the Scammonea the knowledge it possesses, that knowledge will be in you just as it is within the Scammonea and you will have acquired the experience as well the as knowledge”. (p. 148)

This perspective also echoes the concept of the holographic universe, in which every individual thing contains a reflection of the All, the entirety of Existence (including beyond what we are aware of). It breaks down the habit of dichotomy and duality, and instead embraces the union of opposites. Rather than perceiving based on either/or, we perceive both/and. Green Hermeticism espouses a viewpoint that is based on the understanding that the entire Universe is alive and aware. Rather than looking at a bunch of individual components that are all separate from each other, we are encouraged to start by looking at the One Universe, and then move outward from there. However, Bamford puts this perspective much more eloquently than I can:

Hermetic thinking…works through paradox and metaphor (and patience) which essentially overturn the laws of logic in that they demand the ability to hold two contrary realities simultaneously in the heart/mind as a unity…Whereas ordinary thinking and science begin with a multiplicity of parts and somehow hope to move from the details of the many to some kind of wholeness or unity, Hermeticism begins with the unity or wholeness of opposites and seeks to realize their reality in the experience of the world. (p. 136, bold emphasis mine)

So what has this to do with therianthropy and Otherkin? A good deal. Back when I was writing A Field Guide to Otherkin, my editor (and husband) Taylor questioned the role of the concept of Otherkin (including therianthropy for simplicity’s sake). Specifically, he wanted to know what purpose the concept has beyond identity. That’s a damned good question, given that a significant number of Otherkin seem to be so concerned with remembering every single detail of their (assumed) past lives as a (insert nonhuman being here) that they never seem to think outside the identity box (Rialian has dubbed such people “identitykin”). While they are far from being the majority of Otherkin, identitykin are still pretty common.

And Taylor is far from being the only person who has raised the question of what good is being Otherkin besides having a nifty identity. How does being Otherkin benefit a person, other than perhaps explaining some questions about themselves? What does it do besides apply a label? That’s something I’ve really been focusing on since Taylor brought the query up to me well over a year ago. It’s not that I didn’t have purpose besides identity for my therianthropy, but I’d never really thought about it.

Reading the above ideas in Green Hermeticism helped me to take some vague ideas that have been floating around in my head ever since, and put them into something resembling a coherent idea. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the initial result. Please keep in mind that I only speak for myself; not all Otherkin work with magic and esotericism. Additionally, many Otherkin are leery of putting the concept of Otherkin into anything but literal, attempted objective terms; metaphor, subjectivity, and minority perceptions are often eschewed for fear of “invalidating” the concept of Otherkin in the eyes of others. (Never mind that what someone else thinks should have no bearing on the personal validity of one’s own experiences; if you’re trying too hard to please others, you’re probably distracted from more important things.)

The statement “I am a wolf therianthrope” boils down to this: while I am in a human body, raised by humans with human conditioning in human civilization, there is a significant part of me that says, sincerely, “I am a wolf”. It’s been there almost as long as I can remember, and no amount of denying it made it go away, so I simply integrated it, using the concept of therianthropy as a framework to understand it better. In doing so, I have opened myself to the possibility that I am more than what is apparent, and that the boundaries of identity are more fluid than commonly assumed.

However, I want to take this idea further. Let’s assume that the hermetic perception is correct, and that it is possible to not only know about, but to experience anything in this Universe–animal, vegetable, or mineral, as the alchemical trinity is composed. Let’s also assume that experiencing anything will allow the perceiver to fully understand that thing in a way that simply knowing about it cannot.

Having already experienced numerous times what it is (or what I perceive) to be a wolf as well as a human (the latter of which may be considered my starting point and home base), and, through invocation, having experienced (to a lesser, more temporary, degree) what it is to be various other animals, as well as deities and other spirits, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that I could extend that ability to experience toward literally anything. Since “wolf” is what I understand best through therianthropy (the idea that I am wolf as well as human), could I not take the lessons and dynamics learned through balancing wolf and human to begin to integrate other things into “I am”? Does being Otherkin give one a potential head start on union with the All, in that it requires a person to accept that s/he is not only human, but not-human as well?

If this is true, then it stands to reason that for some people, the concept of “Otherkin” can be taken far beyond mere identity. Of course, that gets into the argument of “Well, what if people start ‘becoming’ Otherkin, or adding new Otherkin selves like new clothes?” From a “normal” perception, that is a concern. However, it’s a perception that is based on division and boundaries, rather than unity and exploration of the unity through multifaceted experience. In order to make this exercise work, being able to adopt the latter, hermetic perception is necessary. Otherwise it’s kind of like looking at a 3-D movie through sunglasses instead of 3-D glasses with their red and blue lenses–right idea, wrong filter, and you miss out on the important parts.

This will also prompt more thought on labels, and our adherence to them. We use labels as convenient ways to communicate, and they have their place. However, we sometimes cling to them too tightly and don’t stop to think what those labels really stand for. Additionally, there’s that aforementioned tendency to want to try to put the concept of Otherkin (which is already highly questioned by skeptics) into as literal a format as possible to try to maxmize its legitimacy in the eyes of everybody, ‘kin and non-‘kin alike. To look at it through a perception that has been degraded for centuries as outmoded, crazy, and dangerous just makes people more insecure about it overall. Yet I believe if we are to truly understand and utilize the potential of “Otherkin” as a concept–and as, to be honest, a practice–then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfortable pigeonholes. There is a time and place, true, to argue legitimacy and literalism. However, I am speaking from a current headspace of transcendence and alternative manners of thought and understanding that flow beneath the surface of commonly accepted consensus reality. We already believe that we are Other than what our genes (and society) dictate we are, which challenges consensus reality enough as it is. There’s value in challenging it further, and this is just one potential way of doing so.

I am far from being an expert on hermeticism, so if there are any flaws in my logic on that account (or any other) feel free to constructively critique. (Same goes for anything else you may feel like commenting on.) This is a very rough draft of an idea, the first time I’ve been able to find anything even approaching the right words. I feel humbled by the eloquence of Bamford and his co-authors, who have expressed their ideas on green hermeticism most excellently. Still, this is a good start, and something I will continue to chew on, especially as the “Everything Is Connected” is a significant part of my cosmology. It may not be “pure” shamanism, per se, but it’s integral to what I’m personally working with.

A Question of Sheer Logistics

(As opposed to opaque logistics.)

I’m deeper into Eliade’s Shamanism, currently reading about some of the Siberian shamanic ceremonies, including the detailed description of the shaman’s experiences during a horse sacrifice. What has struck me with this is the elaborate structures of the ceremonies, and how they’re very much community-oriented events. Even a “simple” healing may involve the participation of at least the family of the patient, if not the community at large. The horse sacrifice and other journeying ceremonies may take days to prepare for, and last several days for the ritual itself. And this goes not just for Siberian tribes, but shamanic systems from around the world–while there are exceptions, in almost every culture there are at least some elaborate rituals for the more “important” shamanic activities. The “solitary shaman” seems to be a minority; while the shaman may not always be completely trusted in hir community, more often than not s/he is at least a part of it, at least in cultures where the people are in a cohesive unit rather than scattered all around.

I compare this to most of what I see in neoshamanism. Neoshamanism is, by the very nature of the cultures it’s prevalent in, more of a solitary practice. In America, at least, few people (comparatively speaking) need a shaman to shamanize for them. And among the subcultures where neoshamans are found, such as the neopagan and New Age community, there’s a definite lack of emphasis on the need for a clergy-type person to intercede with the gods and spirits. Why hire someone else to do it when you can learn to do it yourself? And people outside of these communities may see no real purpose for shamans that they assume are superstitious, crazy, or even evil.

One thing that I have noticed for myself (and this may vary from practitioner to practitioner) is that it’s a lot easier for me to hit a trance in a group setting. Some of it is energy; however, there’s also the atmosphere of sanctity, of celebration, and of mystery that helps to trigger an altered state of consciousness. The power of belief in one person can be strong, but multiply it by many–and that’s part of why group religions and spiritual practices are so popular. We feed on each other’s enthusiasm and belief.

Additionally, the more time that I take in setting up a ritual and making it just right, the more deeply I get into it. The act of preparing a place, going through specific ritualized preparations, and making it very clear to myself that I am about to step into a different headspace, all help with the transition of consciousness from one level to the next.

However, being one lonely person, there’s really only so much I can do. It’s kind of hard to set up a ritual psychodrama all by yourself, even without an audience. So part of what I’m going to have to ruminate on over the coming months is how to make up for the lack of group participation. Right now my rituals and journeys tend to be rather on the short side (a half an hour is average for a full ritual) and I will admit that I simply don’t usually get as much intensity as I have the few times I’ve done work in a group setting, though not necessarily as a part of a group. For example, wolf dancing is a lot more intense when I have my full pelt and I’m at a drum circle, than when I’m simply dancing to a drumming CD in the ritual room in our home.

Shamanism isn’t one of those things that really works effectively in a group where everyone’s a shaman, at least not unless A) you take turns shamanizing, or B) you stick to relatively mild things such as the guided meditation that lasts through twenty minutes of drumming. But I want to get into the more intense altered states of consciousness, and given how my mind works, I know that more elaborate ceremony is one of the keys of doing so.

There’s also the option of asking people to aid with drumming, ritual setup, etc. However, while I think I could justify that for something like my eventual initiation into shamanhood (whenever I and the spirits agree I’m ready) I can’t be calling up folks once a week or more and saying “Hey, I need you to come over all day Saturday and drum and play this part in my awesome ritual where I’m the center of attention, etc.”. My friends love me, but not quite that much.

I can certainly set up elaborate rituals myself. Granted, I’d have to work on my short attention span, but that’s part of the point of this whole formalization process. However, again, unless I perfect at least quad-location (that bilocation is for wimps!), I’ll be limited as to how much I can reasonably do before worrying about the details distracts me too much from actual shamanizing. This seems to be my most realistic option at this point.

I know for a fact that bells and whistles, so to speak, make rituals more effective for me (plus the totems and other spirits seem to like the effort). And I know from experience that the more time I put into a ritual, the better results I’m likely to get. I’m just going to have to work around the fact that I don’t have a bunch of helpers or apprentices, and that my neighbors are more likely to complain about the noise than come help me drum in my back yard.

A Journey With Wolf

Last night I had my first journey, albeit not a very long or intense one. But it was a definite success.

I was practicing drumming last night upstairs in the ritual room. I had had to stop after a bit as the rawhide that I’d used to tie the goatskin onto the drum frame apparently still had tiny cow hair stubble all over it. The vibrations of the drum and my generally sensitive skin meant that my hand got irritated too quickly. So I took time out to wrap the cords in yarn; I wanted to use something not-animal, spiritually neutral as it were, since I already had a nice balance with the cow, goat and deer skins, and they didn’t seem to want another one added in. This made for a much softer grip, and the drum still sounds good.

I began drumming again, and managed about 10 minutes before I got into a decent trance, a bit deeper than what I normally get with guided meditation, though not as deep as what I can achieve with trance dancing. This was a rather nice victory, since although I’m pretty good with altered states of consciousness in meditation and dancing with someone else drumming, I wasn’t sure how I’d do as my own drummer. Not surprisingly, the rhythm worked similarly to that in drum circles, and the fact that I was drumming didn’t change that. In fact, it allowed my body a rhythm even as I was sitting down.

I wasn’t really planning on journeying, but I ended up there anyway. I’ve been intending to talk to Wolf for a couple of days about something private, and she* decided to take the opportunity to plop me down and talk already! I saw her quite clearly, though I wasn’t sure whether we were in a cave or a tent; it wasn’t very well lit and my visuals during meditation aren’t always as clear as what I hear. She told me to stop drumming as I’d hit the right level of trance and she wanted me to concentrate on her.

She told me what she wanted to tell me, then made it clear that I needed to go back downstairs and implement what I’d been told when and as I could. So I did, and oddly enough I didn’t get that woozy feeling I sometimes get from coming out of a trance too quickly.

I am rather pleased; I was a little concerned, to be honest, that I wouldn’t be able to hit a deep trance while sitting still. However, for having drummed for no longer than a quarter of an hour, and given that my arm wasn’t even beginning to get tired, I’m pretty hopeful, and I’m looking forward to honing my skills with this particular method of journeying. It’s nice, because it allows me to go places that I’ve been before, but it puts more of the variables in my own hands, literally. I don’t have to worry about having the drumming stop too soon, as happens with in-person drummers and drum CDs. I also don’t need to be aware of people running into me as occasionally occurs dancing at drum circles. I can control the temperature and the general ambiance, the drumbeats distract me from any outside sounds, and I can pretty much go uninterrupted. I’m glad I’ve been able to recreate alone the same essential experience that I’ve used so many times before in a group setting.

* Usually I refer to totems and other spirits with gender-neutral pronouns. However, if they show decided preferences, I use the appropriate pronouns. Some have been known to shift sex from visit to visit, as well as color and even subspecies. This isn’t surprising, given that I see totems as archetypal beings that are comprised, among other things, of all the biological information about an animal. So Wolf may show up as a male grey wolf one day, and a female black wolf the next.

A Totemic Perspective on Spiritual Therianthropy

While therioshamanism isn’t “therian religion” or “therian magic”, my conception of myself as a therianthrope is a part of my spirituality. Therianthropy, for those who aren’t aware, describes people who identify in some (generally nonphysical) manner as a nonhuman animal. Some claim it’s a neurobiological/psychological disorder, that there’s something in the hardware that is wired “wrong”. Others see themselves as products of reincarnation, having had previous lives as nonhuman animals that inform who they are in this life.

And there are theories beyond that, though those are two of the most common ones. At this point, this is the multi-layered way I understand my therianthropy:

Psychologically: There are parts of my brain (I’d imagine the mammalian/reptile bits, the instinctual parts) that resonate more with “wolf” than “human”. I work with these parts best if I allow myself to personify them as lupine in nature. Also, on a “software” rather than “hardware” note, I had an early spiritual experience when I was a very young child with Wolf the totem, which really imprinted on my psyche; subsequent conditioning strengthened the identification with “me-as-wolf”.

Spiritually: As I said, Wolf the totem came to me when I was young, and has been a strong influence on my life ever since then. While I don’t think totemism = therianthropy, and not all therians have or even believe in totems, for me personally there is a link between the external Wolf totem and the internal me-as-wolf. (I’ll talk more about this in a bit.)

Metaphorically/mythologically: I’m a strong believer in the human need for mythology to be a complete person, along with more rational studies. Mythology speaks of metaphorical realities that are no less real than the physical one we primarily are used to. Just because something isn’t real on a literal level doesn’t make it all imaginary. So part of my personal mythology is that on a spiritual-metaphorical level I am lupine, while on a literal-physical level I’m human. Most people simply consider the latter to be more “real” and therefore more important.

So basically, the concept of therianthropy, and on a wider scale that of Otherkin, is a framework to help me understand the parts of myself that “human” doesn’t quite cover. While I consider the possibility that it may all just be in my head, I do know that I live a perfectly functional life even with this unorthodox belief about myself, and that on certain levels of my being it makes total and complete sense.

One thing that the therian community is quick to disclaimer is the idea that therianthropy isn’t totemism (as I mentioned earlier). This is because the community has dealt with a lot of people coming in and talking about having totems, and then asking if they were therians or not because of it. So the hard and fast line that’s been drawn is that therian = internal (you are the animal) and totem = external (the animal is your companion/guide/etc.). Seems pretty clear-cut, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not. This is all entirely based on my own experience, so have a grain or two of salt. One thing that I have noticed is that whenever I work with a totem for the first time, especially with regards to invoking the totem into myself, the totem leaves a piece of hir own energy within me, and takes a piece of my energy with hir in exchange. This acts as a sort of “homing signal” which makes subsequent invocations and even evocations with those totems easier. I’m not the only person to notice this, either; my husband, Taylor, has also noted it (I think it was in Inner Alchemy that he did so).

So thinking back to the first time I encountered Wolf the totem, as well as became aware of something in me that was lupine…I was a very young child at the time. Wolf made hirself known to me through what I can best explain as a “spiritual overlay” involving our German shepherd dog–the dog looked very Wolf-ish in that moment, and Wolf took that opportunity to make first contact, so to speak. After that point, I felt the part of myself inside me that was lupine in nature, though I didn’t, of course, recognize it for what it was. I just knew wolves were suddenly really, really cool, and a few years later decided that I should have been one instead of human. Of course, this didn’t go away, as “favorite animals” usually do after a certain point, but stuck with me to the present day.

What I’m wondering is if my therianthropy is a result of the cultivation of an early energy exchange with Wolf, and that since it happened at such a young age it became a formative part of myself. I can’t say this explains therianthropy for everyone; I’ve never heard of the exact same experience with anyone else, though I’d heard of experiences that are similar in certain ways (maybe a different age, perhaps, or another way of becoming aware at an early age).

And if that’s the case, I wonder if I can develop other theriosides through cultivating the internal connections I have with other totems, to the point where the identity as those animals becomes inherent instead of as a temporary identification through invocation. I’ve already theorized in Shifting, Shamanism and Therianthropy that shifting is a form of invocation in which the most nonhuman-animal part of the self is invoked. And “shamanic shifts” with other totems can be every bit as intense as a “therian” shift, at least for me. Plus, an experiment I did with myself a few years ago in which I divided myself temporarily into four personae to get to know different aspects of myself better resulted in a split not only in the “human” identity but also the “animal” identity, leading me to believe that the psyche is a lot more fluid than most people assume.

While I have plenty of other things on my plate right now, it’s something I’m going to continue chewing on, so to speak. After all, it took me a quarter of a century to get to where I am with Wolf, and the two cases of people I know who “became” Otherkin through magic were not just “Hey, let’s burn a candle and turn into a (insert being here)”. But it’s something I’m going to continue working with as a potential explanation for at least my own therianthropy.

And it raises some questions. Does the fact that I can point to a potential outside influence that “made” me wolf mean that I’m not a “real” therianthrope? Must the internal and external realities always be split into a dichotomy, or can it be more of a continuum? If I were to attempt to strengthen my internal bond with a totem besides Wolf, would there be marked differences in the quality of the connection? Would there be something that always made that connection different than the one to Wolf?

And, in the end, does it really even matter, as long as I’m satisfied with my relationship to the entities I work with, and to myself?

Dum Ditty, Dum Ditty, Dum Dum Dum…

A quick administrative note–Wordpress isn’t always showing me the comments on posts, so I sometimes have to refresh the page to actually get them to show up. You may have to do the same if you clicked on a post with comments, just FYI. This seems to be a recent thing.

Now, getting to the main topic of this post, I’m betting at least some of you recognize the source of the subject line. <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Fingers-Thumb-Bright-Early-Books/dp/0394810767″>Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb may not be great, academic reading–but it was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I always remembered the “Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum” bit. Great fun.

Of course, it wasn’t just the monkeys that were so entertaining–it was the drums. (And violins going “Zum zum zum, but I don’t play violin.) And, sure enough, last night I finally got to play my drum. I’ve been a bit delayed in doing so, even though it’s been dry for well over a week. Time restrictions and being worn out from said time restrictions have prevented me from really being in the mood to go up and work any sort of magic, let alone getting to know my drum. But last night I managed to set aside a bit of time before I got too worn out (many props to my mate, Taylor, for doing the dishes even though it was my turn!) and went upstairs to get better acquainted with the drum and beater.

I sat down and asked them both permission to pick them up; they were only happy to oblige. So I did, and after greeting the skin spirits in them, I began to tap out an irregular rhythm, more to get acquainted with the sounds of the different areas of the drum head than to hit any sort of trance. I’m thinking I may not have gotten the drum head quite as tight as I could have; the voice is a bit deeper than on drums of the same size that were made by the drum shop owner. This isn’t a big deal, except that the spot at the very center of the drum is a bit flat, voice-wise. I’ve experienced this with other single-headed drums, including bodhrans, but the tone might have been improved by a little tighter skin. No worries, though–the surrounding areas had a beautiful variety of sounds.

I found a sweet spot to the side with a really nice tone, and then began to experiment with tempos. I’ve heard that 180-220 beats per minute (BPM) is considered to be particularly conducive to trance work, though I’ve also heard claims of speeds up to 330 BPM! I think 3-4 beats per second is about what I can handle right now, so that’s what I experimented with.

I only drummed for a few minutes, though I was happy to note that my arm didn’t get tired. I should hopefully have the stamina to last an entire journey, though I’ll want to practice before then. If I can get to the point where I can drum continuously for 30-40 minutes, I should be good. I’ve talked to a friend who is a shaman who said that when she journeyed and her arm began to feel tired, her arm, foreleg or wing (depending on her shape in the journey) would feel a bit sore, but not to the point of distracting her out of trance. I may be a bit concerned with my wrists and hands still being a bit weak, though I don’t think the spirits will be offended if I end up having to wear wrist braces. Maybe I can start a shamanic trend 😉

I found a good pace, somewhere probably around 200-220 BPM, where I began to feel the tugging of trance at the edges of my consciousness. I’m going to experiment a bit with different speeds, but this one seems pretty likely. The aforementioned shaman had talked about how her drumming pace varied throughout the journey, so I may see if the same thing happens to me.

Once I was done for the evening, I thanked the drum and beater and placed them back on the floor in front of the altar. It was a good experience, if a little short. I’ll probably do more over the weekend once I don’t have work to contend with.