I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

Masks in Ritual Work

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

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

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

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

Silver fox mask by Lupa, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!

It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.

However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.

What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.

Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.

I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.

I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.

But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).

Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)

Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.

The Core of my Spirituality

I’ve been on a HUGE artwork tear the past few days, in prep for something nifty I’m unveiling this Monday–Lupa-calia (yes, there’s a hint–it’s art-related!) While I’ve been doing so, I’ve been watching a LOT of various nature documentaries on Netflix. I find it entertaining that they call the sorts of things I like to watch “cerebral”, especially as some of what I’ve been watching has been things about the evolution of Homo sapiens. However, it’s ranged from that, to disasters that shaped the Earth and made life here possible, to what the nature of death is and how it’s ultimately defined.

The more I find out about the world, and indeed, the universe we live in, the more I fall in love with it and the more precious it becomes. On an immediate level I worry for the very near future of this planet and its inhabitants. The only people denying climate change caused by humans are the most stubborn and least willing to listen, those who desperately grope for anything to support their continued denialism.

But on a broader scale, all this research–and it is a form of research–is making my perspective continually less anthropocentric, and more awe-struck by the immense scale of time and space. We are not all-powerful beings, though our ability to manipulate our environments and ourselves is impressive. For example, if another asteroid like the one at the K-T boundary at the end of the Cretaceous hits the Earth, we would be just as dead as the dinosaurs; the animals that survived the chain reactions of natural disasters that resulted were mostly small burrowers. And yes, the Earth and the existence of life on it have survived several mass extinctions, but the scale of time it has taken to recover from these has been almost unfathomable, measured in millions of years. Being relatively large, calorie-hungry critters would definitely be a hindrance to our survival as a species if a disaster on that scale occurred–and if we keep up our actions, we may cause enough global climate change to test that hypothesis.

I am also less and less enamored of the claim that the Earth loves us, and that Nature cares about us. We are but a tiny brief blip in history; on the one-year calendar that represents all of time, we exist in the last few seconds of New Year’s Eve. We’re really not all that important, and why should we be more important than species that lasted for many more millions of years than we have? But I also don’t think “Nature” is angry with us, either. We’re talking about a planet that routinely obliterates entire ecosystems with massive volcanic eruptions and the like. While the Earth isn’t in as much of a state of upheaval as it was a couple of billion years ago, it’s still not exactly the safest it could be.

We’ve gotten complacent in the past couple of hundred years as the Industrial Revolution has caused some of us to live longer and be more insulated against illness, injury, and other such problems. For me, being more mindful of where we are in all of this has contributed a certain level of humility to my perspective. On a short-term level, sure, we’re doing some neat things, and there’s no reason not to try to make human existence as universally good as it can be as long as we’re here. And yes, the fact that we are conscious, aware, observant on a level that perhaps no other animal has ever been, is a damned impressive thing.

But we are just one of a plethora of amazing, fascinating, and uniquely skilled species that have graced this planet. Most are gone now. But as I trace the lines of my ancestors and their relatives far, far back, all the way to tiny bacteria, and before that, perhaps, chemicals that gave rise to DNA–my sense of my place in all this is that I am a much smaller, younger, and less overarching being than many humans would claim.

And I’m alright with that. They say spirituality is about feeling one with something bigger than the self. All metaphysics and otherworldly things aside, knowing that I am a part of this ever-evolving macro-eco-system Planet Earth, in an impossibly vast Universe, is enough of a spiritual core for me.

Art, storytelling, and shamanism my path

I have some half-formed thoughts about the recent integration of storytelling with my artwork, as well as the very deep, significant spiritual elements of the acts of creation. Yes, the coyote and wolverine are the most recent and obvious syntheses, given that each has a “new” myth to talk about its origin. But Anput was also a spiritual story, albeit one in which I featured as a main character, and which was not just a story that I created in my mind, but something that happened to me in working with that Goddess. Even Lady Red Riding Hood was story, rewriting the tale to better fit modern parameters, though maintaining its “once upon a time” feel.

I’ve long been a spirit-worker, evoking and invoking totems, animal spirits, deities and others. And the spirits have often spoken through my art, and not just the skin spirits that are in the remains themselves. I’ve even created numerous ritual tools and costumery over the years that could mesh with certain beings or energies in ritual.

However, this feels bigger. I feel like I’m adding to mythology, if that makes sense. The process of creation is simply the vehicle thereof. Perhaps it’s hubristic to say so, but it feels as though I am *adding to* these beings, with their consent and even invitation. Along with transforming the animal remains and their spirits, I feel I am also making a bigger transformation than before to the bigger beings, the totems and deities. If a totem, for example, is “made of” the natural history of the physical animal, its relationships with all other species, and the human observations as translated into legend, lore, and mythology, then I feel like I am making a bigger contribution to the ongoing, ever-developing mythology.

Like when I make a small pouch out of recycled rabbit fur, I am transforming the fur into something new, and I am rejuvenating the spirit with a new purpose–or releasing it from its container if it so wishes. But Domestic Rabbit stays largely the same; the pouch may be used to connect to Rabbit, but the change is only on this end. However, I look at my experiences creating the Anput headdress, and it definitely feels *bigger*. If you give me the generous allowance that my UPG is more than just something in my head, then I have been shown an element of this Goddess that may have been previously unknown, perhaps by even the ancient Egyptians. I don’t feel I’ve so much added something that wasn’t a part of her before, so much as I helped to shed light on it.

I’m not the only person to do this sort of thing; Ravenari has long been creating these inspired works. Her As Totems series largely comes from the individual totems pressing her into making portraits for them, or asking others to commission her (as with me and Steller’s Jay). She also learns more about the totems in the process of creating these works, hence her creating about the only totem animal dictionary I give any credence to. I give it more weight because I am aware of her process as well as her general familiarity with the animals and her shamanic skills, and I know how much effort goes into the contact with each. Whether she changes the totems, adds to them, or simply enhances the focus on certain parts, I can’t say. But it is very impressive to watch.

And it’s incredibly fascinating to be going through this process; the exchange of energy and ideas that I’m sharing with the deities and totems and spirits in this is beyond what I’ve done before. Whether you see me as connecting with independent beings, or being able to better access these archetypes and channel them through my work, I would appreciate your constructive feedback on what I’m trying to describe here. Anyone else been here?

Quick Note

Hey, folks, just letting you know that although I’m hella busy right now (as is normal) I’ve been reading the comments to my last post, and for the most part I haven’t really had anything useful to add, but I have really, really, really appreciated your perspectives. I’m really pleased to be seeing how much this resonated with people, and just the sheer diversity in the ways you all approach the same problem I discussed. Great stuff–and maybe some of you may feel compelled to write blog posts and such about this? I’d love to see more discussion!

There Is No Goddess. There Is No God.

Anthropocentrism: seeing human beings as the most significant beings in the Universe, or at least on Earth. I daresay that many pagans will argue that they aren’t anthropocentric, that perhaps they see the gods and spirits as more significant, or even all of us being equal, human and otherwise. However, in a broader sense, we are anthropocentric in that we have a tendency to align with and sometimes value what resembles us more over what resembles us less. We ally ourselves more with animal totems than plants, and even among animals we tend more toward liking or working with mammals than invertebrates.

And then there are our deities. With rare exception, all of the gods and goddesses are human in form, even if it isn’t their only form. And, with rare exception, all deities fall along a sexual dichotomy—female or male. Our deities are in our own form, whether we want to admit it or not. You can take a pantheon of deities and map out the human psyche to a great degree. (Whether or not the gods came from this mapping, or vice versa, is another debate for another time.)

I don’t feel there is anything inherently wrong with this. But when it is applied to specifically nature-based religions, which covers many neopagan religions, I have to question how much of Nature people really understand, and how much Nature is really being brought in as a basis for the spirituality in question.

Here’s why. We are most familiar with sexually dimorphic species, those that generally develop male or female reproductive structures, and we are a dimorphic species ourselves. Yet there are a wide variety of animals and plants that are not sexually dimorphic. Some, including but not limited to microscopic beings, reproduce asexually through division, budding, spores, parthenogenesis, and other ways of passing on genes without sex. And there are many species that either possess both male and female reproductive organs, or that literally change their physical sex as a natural part of their life cycle.

If we’re going by sheer numbers, sexually dimorphic beings are far outnumbered by the count of individuals—not just species—that are asexual or hermaphroditic. And if you want to include all of Nature, then you also have to include non-reproducing parts of nature, like stones and waterways.

So why do we persist in applying a dimorphic dominance to our understanding of nature and nature-based religion? Because we know that best. Because it’s comfortable. Because for most of us as humans, being a human animal means falling into the categories of “female” or “male”. I don’t think most people realize just how many species aren’t dimorphic, so it just doesn’t occur to us to think of nature in any other terms—hence the Wiccan (and co-opted by other paganisms) Goddess and God mythos, and pantheons of male and female deities paired off together.

I would challenge readers to look at Nature, and nature-based religion, in different terms. Put aside, for just a few moments if you will, the idea of paganism as being about a God of the wild animals and war and phallus-shaped mushrooms, and a Goddess of domestic agriculture and family nurture and having a bun in the oven. Think about how we are outnumbered by the non-dimorphic entities of the world. Think of Gaea not as a loving mother Goddess, but as an all-encompassing Both/And deity who is all things. Allow yourself to see the Divine as including all reproduction of all types, not having a specific form, but being manifest in everything, from stones to amoebas to helium to cacti. If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, perhaps even try creating mythology about deities that aren’t dimorphic, aren’t anthropomorphic, aren’t even necessarily animals. What might that look like?

Even if ultimately you prefer a female/male dichotomy and dimorphic deities, you may find value in appreciating that that’s not all there is. And maybe if we can expand our minds beyond sexual dichotomy, we can embrace other continua. So many of our magical and spiritual correspondences are based on either/or pairings—female/male, light/dark, cold/warm, good/evil, etc. Even if we personally may still feel comfortable with a Mother Goddess and Father God or other similar duality, what if we could transcend more of these as a way of expanding understanding and consciousness?

On Totems and Categorizing

I’ve recently started working with Elk for help with emotional regulation. I’m working through some of the most deep-seated issues I have, and needless to say it’s been a real roller coaster–only not as much fun for me and those around me. Now, just out of curiosity, I did check a few totem animal dictionaries out of curiosity to see what Elk had taught other people, because s/he wasn’t who I would have expected to help me with this particular effort. I didn’t find anything specifically on healing psychological aches and pains, though I did find some emphasis on community involvement and intense emotions. This isn’t surprising, given the herd formation (particularly of females) and the aggression of bull elk during rutting season.

But then I found that I was really trying to come up with a label for Elk. Was Elk my emotional totem? My heart totem? My psychological health totem? My working through depression and anxiety totem? And I realized just how limiting a mindset that really is. Having been neopagan for over a decade, I can look at countless examples of books and other sources that treat not only totems but also deities and other beings as pigeonholed, categorized, and neatly shuffled into place, like so many correspondences. I even have heard plenty of pagans talking about which deity or totem or spirit to “use” for what purpose. Yes, different beings have their bailiwicks, but there’s almost no talk of the individuality and personal evolution of the spirits.

I decided I had to stop myself from doing was trying to put Elk into a category. I have the habit of thinking of Brown Bear as my healing totem, Whitetail Deer as my dream totem, and so forth, because those are the main ways they’ve interacted with me thus far. But I also know they’re not limited to these things, especially as I begin journeying again, and as my shamanic practice has deepened my relationships with them.

And that’s really one of my biggest complaints about the dictionaries–they unnecessarily limit our perception of what different totems can do, to the point where it almost becomes plug-and-play totemism. It’s a bad habit I need to get out of, myself. Totems are individuals; yes, they’re archetypal in nature, but archetypes continue to be shaped by the changes in what feeds and becomes them. For instance, our relationship as humans to elk as animals, as well as symbols, has changed over time, and from culture to culture. It doesn’t mean that older observations and relationships go away; they simply are joined by newer ones. And that all goes into the continuing evolution of Elk as totem. It’s that way for everything and everyone–we shape the world and the world shapes us, even if that shaping varies depending on the nature of the individual beings involved. Totems aren’t physical human beings or even physical animals, and to treat them as such is inaccurate.

At the same time, totems and other archetypal beings aren’t labels. Yes, it can be useful to have some shorthand ideas for casual discourse among totemists and others. But as I’ve maintained for years, what a particular totem tells me may not be what that totem tells someone else, and it’s ridiculous to expect that everyone will get the same message. Part of why I avoid going to dictionaries when I get a new totem or other animal spirit in my life is because I want to get to know them on our own terms, not bias myself by seeing what others had to say. Yes, I went and checked up on Elk in a couple of dictionaries, but that was after we’d already established some form of relationship, and I went in with curiosity, not seeking answers.

So I’m going to continue de-conditioning that tendency to say “Bear is the healer, Deer is the dreamkeeper” because it’s too limiting, both for them and for others–as well as myself. It’s a really bad habit, and I suggest my readers who work with totems in a neopagan/neoshamanic sense take a look at similar patterns in your own views of the totems and other spirits you work with.

Okay, I’ll Play Along…

The pagan blogosphere seems to have latched onto this nifty declaration of International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It’s given me a good excuse to put down some thoughts that I’ve been having trouble putting into words as of late.

The biggest problem with trying to define “pagan values” is that, as others have noted both in this blogathon and before, is that “neopaganism” doesn’t describe just one religion–it describes a plethora of them. As Sannion pointed out, a lot of the time “pagan” often ends up being interpreted (not overtly, generally) as “Wicca, or Wicca-flavored”. Not surprising, since so many of us cut our teeth on books by folks like Scott Cunningham, and many pagans never really define themselves beyond “generic Wicca-flavored pagan”. From my experience in the communities I’ve participated in (both in person and online), and in going to a wide variety of festivals the past few years, “generic Wicca-flavored pagans” outnumber any other single group of pagans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means that there’s no simple set of pagan values when you have that much variety.

The other issue is that values are ultimately subjective. Even among members of the same pagan religion, you may have a wide variety of values that individual people adhere to, whether due to the tenets of their faith, or other factors informing their everyday choices. And I do mean that last bit–values do not only have to come from religious sources, though the two may inform each other to the extent that they may seem inseparable.

One of the things I’ve been kicking around in my head as of late is the idea that we (not just pagans) create religion (and, by extension in many cases, values) out of whatever comforts us. We may not consciously realize we’re creating religion, and as most people view religions primarily in a literal sense, some may be offended by the idea that their experiences are anything other than direct contact with the Divine/spirits/other intermediaries. Still, people seem to match their religious beliefs pretty well; the structures within which they interact with the Powers That Be connect to things that give them some form of comfort and security. (And I’ll most likely write about this more later when I’ve brought together my thoughts on it more cohesively.)

I know exactly where my comfort in Nature comes from. I was a weird kid growing up. While all the other girls in my small town Catholic grade school class were playing with Barbies and putting on kiddie makeup and starting to get interested in clothes, I was grubbing around in the woods catching garter snakes. I didn’t really have friends, for the most part, and got picked on a lot. My family loved me like nobody’s business, but I think sometimes they just didn’t know what to make of me. My only sibling was significantly older than I was, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone.

Living in a small town, I was able to run around our yard, the neighbors’ yard, and the Big Hill across the street where the retirement home was. I even repeatedly sneaked off to the semi-wooded lot on the other side of the hill, even though I was supposed to. (After all, that’s where the best place to find garter snakes was!) So I spent long days in cool shade on mats of moss and grass and clover, under poplar trees and juniper bushes, watching Monarch butterflies come out of their chrysales, chasing (but never catching) cottontail rabbits. When I was indoors, I was reading voraciously, getting every book on animals from the library that I could lay hands on.

Nature was comforting to me. When people were confusing, or mean, or simply didn’t get that no, I wasn’t interested in doing things their way, I knew I could turn to the natural world and find a place where I wasn’t judged. Sure, the animals ran away when I came stomping through the woods, but they did that to every human, and even to each other to an extent. That’s just the way they were. They weren’t out with an agenda beyond day to day survival, and they didn’t single me out. And in turn, if I was quiet (and lucky) enough, I got to observe the denizens of the wild and witness their goings-on with wonder (though this was easier with plants, which tended to just stay put regardless of how much I looked at them). And yes, I did tell stories to myself about Nature; there was more to it than just what the books said. I never told anyone about these personal myths, but they sowed the seeds for meaning-making.

This continued well into my mid-teens. When my parents and I moved to a new home in the very early 1990s, there was one of the last farms to survive the sprawling of my town right behind our home, and I had a few acres of woods that weren’t immediately fenced in to explore. I grew very attached very quickly, especially because it was bigger, with a creek running through it (I’ve always been attracted to running water), and more variety in inhabitants and geography. Even as I entered into the awkwardness of junior high, I continued to find the most solace in those woods.

And then, one day…I came home on the school bus to find that my woods had been completely bulldozed to make way for a new housing subdivision. To say I was devastated, crushed, would come nowhere near describing how I felt. I honestly think that’s what touched off the depression I fought with for years afterward. I had lost my anchor, the place I went to when people simply didn’t understand. worse, I had lost a piece of my soul.

When I discovered paganism at the age of 17, a few years later, I immediately latched onto the nature-based aspects of it, especially animal magic and totemism. Neopaganism gave me a structure to try to rebuild the rapport I had had with Nature that had been so shockingly destroyed. In the few years between the destruction of “my” woods and discovering paganism, I had reacted so badly to the trauma that I distanced myself from nature as much as I could, and lost that innocent connection I’d had for so long. Even now I find myself having to fight seeing Nature in too many abstractions, trying to keep from mistaking the map for the territory. And yet, the older I get and the more of that initial connection I rebuild, the more comforted I am, and the more depth my relationship to Nature gains. Granted, I have a much healthier social life than I did when I was younger, but that hasn’t caused my comfort in Nature to cease.

So what’s the point to this long, rambly narrative? Where do values come in? First, I wanted to illustrate how our values–including those that are formed through religious experience–may very well be tightly linked to what comforts us. But second, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to show where my own values come from. Because, as I mentioned, I can’t blog about “pagan values”. They simply can’t exist in a universal form, not even those based on the assumption that pagan = reveres Nature. While I can argue up and down, for example, that you can’t separate an Earth or Harvest deity from the actual, physical Earth, there are numerous pagans who will deny that their paganism is Nature-based, instead saying that their religion is “based on the worship of the Gods” (never mind that their gods are personifications of natural phenomena), or some other explanation. (My rant about the artificial dichotomy of “natural” vs. “not natural” will have to wait.) It’s not that there aren’t other pagans whose values resemble mine; it’s that these values cannot be universally described as “pagan values”. But I can confidently extrapolate on my own!

If you look through the posts in this blog, it’s pretty easy to see where my values are. While I may not always be capable of acting in the most harmonious ways when it comes to valuing being a part of an interconnected set of natural systems involving numerous beings on all levels of existence and evolution, my values most definitely do direct the decisions I make–even if that means keeping certain ones in mind for later when they’re more feasible. Now, I am not a philosopher; while I’ve done a little reading up on the differences between values, ethics and morals in order to prepare for this post, the differences are still kind of fuzzy for me. So here are the essentials, and I apologize if these aren’t properly explained as “values”:

–Nature is sacred. Not just in an abstracted, symbolic, archetypal way, but in its very immediate physical reality, from the rich dirt that I work composted cow manure into every year before gardening, to the Columbia River Gorge where some of my favorite wild places are, to the countless microflora in my body, living in symbiosis with me (most of the time). It is sacred not only for its meaning, but for the very fact that without it, I die.

–The above assertion is not antithetical to scientific knowledge. When I say my prayers in the morning and evening and honor the Earth, the Sky, the Sun, the Moon, and others, I am not only saying these things to anthropomorphized symbols. I am saying them to the Earth that is the basis of my life-support system, and the Sky that contains the necessary atmosphere to create climates and weather patterns. When I journey and speak with totems and other spiritual beings, I am not only speaking to spirits, but to embodiments of entire species and natural phenomena that exist in a very physical way.

–The assertion directly above this one is not antithetical to the existence of a meaning-making system composed of my personal mythology, as well as the elements of greater cultural mythologies that interweave with it. When I say my prayers, I do not only say them to the physical manifestations of natural phenomena. I am saying them to the archetypal energies that have been built up around them through countless years of human attention and belief, as well as through the strength of my own connection and the meaning-making activities I have partaken in my entire life. When I journey to the totems and others, I do not only limit my knowledge of them to natural history, but also interact with totems-as-archetypes, vastly complex symbols that resonate with my psyche on multiple levels.

I endeavor to live in such a way as to honor all the above assertions equally. However, I do this with the understanding that ideals and reality may not always mesh well, particularly in the physical realm. For instance, I would love to be able to have a greywater system, and a yarden (yes, an entire yard converted to veggies and fruit!), and a number of other things that require me to not be a renter. Unfortunately, we’re still several years off from being able to buy a house. While I know that going vegetarian is better for the environment, I simply do not thrive well without meat (and yes, I’m currently going through medical professionals to see about this, just to see what’s up).

But there are decisions I can make, and have made, that are in line with my values. I am in grad school to get a degree in counseling psychology, and my emphasis (though not exclusively) is on ecopsychology, as well as narrative therapy and other tools for aiding others in meaning-making activities (and, of course, better mental health!). While I’m not yet a subsistence gardener, I’m doing my best to learn better skills as I go along. A lot of my day-to-day purchases have environmental impact in mind; I’m a frequent shopper at Goodwill and other thrift stores, and haven’t bought anything from a mall or a Wal-mart in years. These things are as much a part of my values, and really, my spirituality as a pagan, as any rituals, journeying, and other activities I do.

Paganism, for me, is not limited to the overtly spiritual practices, and neither are the values I associate with my paganism. If I do not do my best to integrate what I believe into what I do to the extent that is currently possible, then why do I believe it?

An Update!

So obviously my posting frequency here has gone down significantly since I started school. My initial reaction when I realized I hadn’t posted in a while was to try and justify my absence. However, that also brought up a recent spiritual experience that I had. I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about really slacking off on journeying and other more “officially” spiritual practices and rituals. I’ve been making my usual observations of the world around me and everyday meaning-making exercises, as well as my usual awareness of my decisions and their impact–and, of course, continuing with school. However, I haven’t really drummed in months. And so my usual pattern was “Feel guilty about not journeying/etc. –> Tell myself that I’ll do it soon –> Not address the underlying barriers keeping me from accomplishing my goal –> Feel even more guilty” (wash, rinse, repeat).

So a few weeks back I was hiking on Mount Hood with Taylor, and had a bit of a discussion with the Animal Father about this whole situation while there. I went in bemoaning the fact that I’d been a slacker, and essentially poured forth all the diatribes I’d been heaping on myself because of it. And when I was done, this is what he told me: “Adjustment is going to be a constant state for you”. This startled me, because he’s been one of the biggest proponents of me journeying on a regular basis. And while the last time I went a few months without journeying he told me he didn’t want it to happen again, he explained that it was pretty apparent that as things stood right then, that just wasn’t going to happen–and that it wasn’t the end of the world.

That made me feel a lot better. I think part of what was keeping me from journeying was fear that the spirits would be displeased at my long absence. Since that conversation, though, I’ve checked in at a few crucial points, and while there’s a desire to connect, there’s also patience with my current situation, and understanding that it won’t always be this way–and that adjustment will indeed always be something that’s a reality in my exceptionally busy life.

This goes along with a greater effort on my part to change the way I approach doing things. I am a recovering workaholic, and my time management involves me pushing myself as hard as I can until I either reach the point of short-term burnout, or someone (usually, though not always Taylor) pokes me and says “Hey, this needs to stop–it’s causing problems”. This isn’t as productive as it sounds.

The thing is, though, it wasn’t until I stopped the guilt cycle that I started making actual change. Pushing myself less and pacing myself more realistically has been a process, rather than an event, and while it’s been slow, I have noticed changes. I’m better at reminding myself when I begin to feel stressed about my ever-present to-do list that “Things will happen in their own time”. And I’ve finally, finally, finally been able to find effective strategies for cutting down on useless internet time and creating more time to actually do things away from the computer.

So there will continue to be a smaller flow of posts than there was a year ago–and there’s nothing wrong with that.

ETA: Just wanted to add in this link to some thoughts over on my LJ that touch on some relevant topics here.

In other news, Scrub Jay and Stellar’s Jay have stepped (flapped?) forward to offer their aid in helping me connect with the Land and learn more about it. Scrub Jay seems to be more of a help with urban areas, whereas Stellar’s primarily aids with wilderness, though these are not hard and fast divisions. These are the settings where I see them the most, respectively. They help me in that whenever I see one of their children, it’s a reminder to me to be aware of the Land–not just in that moment, but as much as possible. It has helped; I finally remembered to pick up a couple of field guides for local plant life from PaperBackSwap.

I’ve been gardening again this year. Unlike last year, where it was containers only, I have a big planter box and a few extra patches of dirt, along with all the containers and a few extras. I also have slugs. And ants. And other critters vying for space and food. Plus the weeds. So this year’s gardening has been an object lesson in the balance between my own needs, and understanding that if I’m going to respect Nature, I have to respect it when it’s eating my garden. I still pull up the weeds, and I have beer traps out for the slugs until I can get my hands on enough copper wire/coffee grounds/egg shells to act as a deterrent, but I’m also aware that these are not just beings to take for granted as I do so.

I’ve also just begun to read Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind, an anthology edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist. While I’ve got a pretty good handle on ecopsychology in theory, I want more on the practical applications thereof, and while my ecotherapy class last semester was excellent, there’s only so much you can fit into a couple of weekends. Also, here’s an article on ecopsychology in the local paper, and here’s the very first peer-reviewed journal of ecopsychology, first issue available for free online.


Speaking of that, Chas Clifton posted a bit on ecopsychology, including a link to my last post on bioregionalism and the genius locii. Specifically, he observes that “But as an overarching concept…ecopsychology does not seem to have caught fire except in a low-level therapeutic way: ‘Gardening makes you feel better’.” Since my response is longer than my average reply, and it’s something that I thought would make a good topic for here anyway, I decided I’d write out my thoughts in this post.

Ecopsychology, not quite two decades from its initial inception as a cohesive concept as per Roszak et. al., is still quite a niche topic. I’ve had a good deal of exposure to it, but I also go to one of the most liberal schools in one of the most liberal American cities. I’m still finding out that not all psych grad programs are based in client-centered practices (which sometimes causes something akin to culture shock on my part), so I’m not surprised to consider that it’s very likely that something so nontraditional isn’t widespread in less liberal areas/schools/practices/etc.

One of the reasons I’m glad I got the ecotherapy anthology mentioned above is that we do need more practical applications of ecopsychology. What’s most commonly seen are either wilderness therapy retreats, or as was mentioned, therapists telling their patients to get outside more. What needs to happen, I think, is discussion of more ways to integrate ecopsychology into an actual clinical practice.

During the ecotherapy class, we discussed including questions about the environment in intake questionnaires; for example, “Are there any natural places that you feel close to?” or “Do you ever feel anxious about environmental issues?” Sadly, issues like these often don’t get brought up in more conventional therapy because it’s assumed that people don’t really feel emotions like grief for the environment, either on a small or large scale. One of the sadly ironic jokes that gets passed around is:

Client: I feel so upset about the environment; it makes me want to cry. I think I might be depressed because I’m worried about global warming, and species extinction, and just how big the problem is!
Therapist: So, tell me about your mother…

Another area where I see potential for more work is in addressing how environmentalists (and others)communicate information about issues. My instructor does a good bit of work with local activists; one of the points he (and other ecopsychologists) make is that guilt doesn’t work–and yet this is the tactic that activists have been using for decades. Guilt turns most people away, and often leads to counterproductive reactions (such as this new creation by Mike Judge, pointed out on Clifton’s blog–ouch!). While environmentalists may not intend to come across as holier-than-thou, because the messages we’re given to pass on are so often guilt-laden, it can be hard to avoid being otherwise.

In order to do this, we need to learn better forms of conveying our concerns. And this is where ecopsychology’s flexibility supports the relevance of numerous topics. One of my classes this semester is Communicating With Compassion; the textbook we’re using is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I just finished reading it today, and the class will be this weekend. Needless to say, I’ve picked up a lot of skills that are perfectly suited for not only being a better communicator on environmental issues myself, but that I can potentially use to help clients and others get away from the guilt-speak.

Ecopsychology isn’t a single model of therapy in the same way that, say, cognitive behavioral or client-centered therapies are. It’s more a way to approach all of these therapies, in that along with the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels of one’s psyche, there’s also the layer that resonates and responds to the environment one is in. This has often been seen in very narrow contexts, such as “home environment”, “work environment”, etc. (and can be studied in that respect in the field of environmental psychology). And because ecopsychology is a fairly amorphous field, not having tightened up into a rigid set of definitions, there are a number of things that could be considered “ecopsychology” that may not have that label on them, but which fit in anyway.

So I think ecopsychology, while it is still a niche, is a more powerful force than it may seem outside of that circle of folks who are immediately developing and utilizing it. Part of the solution to its low profile is defining more clearly what ecopsychology is or isn’t (and not cutting ourselves off from valuable resources in the process). Additionally, we need to be able to show even more that it has practical relevance, especially when managed care and other such forces continue to make CBT and other results-oriented, short-term therapies practically mandatory in some contexts where they may not be the most appropriate tools. I believe these will go a long way in helping to make it a more widespread and viable part of discourse and practice on psychology and therapy.