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.

You Mean I Have To Give a Reason?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So It’s Been About a Year…

This week marks a year since I started developing therioshamanism. I made the first posts here on September 20, but the idea was percolating for a few days beforehand, along with a few experiences that pushed me in this direction. I look back at those first posts, and holy cripes–there’s been a lot of change in the past year on many levels. For one thing, my practice is a lot less neopagan-y, and while I still value the input of books, I’m much more aware of just how important practice is in comparison. Books can give ideas, but unless I put those ideas to work, what am I really doing at all?

My first six months saw a lot of restructuring and cosmology-building, as well as figuring out what from my past practices was really useful, and what I could leave behind. After that things got a lot less linearly organized, and as I’ve evolved into actual practice beyond meditation, with activities ranging from writing songs for my guides to taking some exploratory journeys, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t about “Your first year should mean the accomplishment of this, and then the second year will bring that”. There aren’t degrees, and I’ve evolved at the rate I needed to. I think the structure of the first six months was exceptionally helpful in getting me started, but it fell away afterwards, and I think things went better for that.

I look back, and I see a lot of time spent working on figuring things out for myself. I see a lot of useful comments that helped me when I was trying to bounce ideas off others for feedback, and I see times when the spirits I work with nudged things into place just at the right time. I see some times of frustration, of doubt, and of insecurity, but I also see times of learning and victory and states of flow. I see where I fell flat on my face (usually due to my own actions), and I see where my spirituality contributed to my going back to graduate school. I’ve been to numerous places, physically and otherwise, and I’ve learned so much–not the least of which being the knowledge that I still have so much left to learn.

It’s been a good year overall. There’s so much potential before me, and while I’m not under the misapprehension that everything will be a cakewalk, there’s a lot of potential to create good things out of this.

So how did I celebrate? By hiking, of course. This was something more instigated by me and my need to mark the occasion, than by the spirits, who are working more along a “Okay, the time is right for this” “schedule”. I wanted to do a bit of a dedication ceremony for my new drum, and also wanted to make offerings to a few particular local guides associated with my sacred place in the Gorge (which is mirrored as my starting place when I journey in the spirit world).

So, having prepared the offerings, basic hiking supplies, and also having strapped my drum to the back of my pack, I hiked on up the mountain. I had just gone hiking with Taylor a few days before, so I was still a bit tired, and the temperature was in the nineties. I ended up taking a lot of short breaks on the way up. But I made it with no major complications.

A couple of auspicious occurrences happened on the way up. First, I found a deer leg bone. This is unprecedented, as I have never found anything more than a few stray feathers at this place, let alone bones. However, there was a slightly dirty but intact deer bone right in the middle of the trail in front of me. “Pick me up!” its spirit said. I did, and got an instant mental image of the bone as the handle for a drum beater. Now, the beater that I got with my new drum was well-made, but the stick that was the handle just didn’t really connect with me. So I resolved that once I got to the top of the mountain and to my place that I’d do a quick replacement.

The other occurrence traces back to some of my recent journeying. There’s a particular place I haven’t been able to get past due to certain spirits blocking it. I know I need to get up there, and I never have a problem getting up there in the physical world. As I sat resting near this place, Stellar’s Jay came swooping across, shrieking loudly as if to say “Clear the way!” I decided that next time I journeying I’d ask for Stellar’s Jay to help me get past these spirits.

Once at my sacred place, specifically the location that is the home of the Animal Father, I rested and refreshed myself. I then went around and placed the offerings in their proper places; these were not food, but rather small shiny objects that I made over the weekend. One was for the Land itself, and contained some of my hair. The others were for local guides: Stellar’s Jay, whose presence in the wilderness resembles (but isn’t identical to) Scrub Jay in the city; Northern Harrier Hawk, who is the raptor closest to me in this area, replacing Redtail back east; Great Horned Owl, who is a particular guardian of this place, and for whom the offering was less about me and more about the place; Raven, whose quorks have often accompanied me here; Douglas Squirrel, bold and brash, but with caution when it’s necessary; and Red Fox, who is rarely ever seen, but is a silent shadow here, and wanted to make hir presence known to me.

After the offerings were made, I redid the drum beater with the deer leg. Then I did my first journey with the new drum. I warmed the drum up with my hand, raising the energy of it and waking it up. Then I drummed slowly, gradually speeding up in a pattern that I’ve found to be effective for me. I saw the horse spirit in the drum, and learned her name (though I’ll refer to her from here on out as Small Horse, as with other skin spirits I work with). Then I began the formal journey.

Every time I’ve journeyed so far, I’ve found myself in the form of a white wolf, and this time was no exception. The Animal Father approached, as numerous spirits of the Land surrounded us. He led me down a trail, then into the woods. He showed me an opening in the trees that he told me was the entrance to the Upper World. While he could go there, he couldn’t take me with him, and told me I’d have to find a guide to help me with that.

Next he took me to a small trickling stream across the path I had walked. He told me to start following the River Dragon down the mountain, starting at that stream. I bounded down along the stream as it joined others and got larger, until the River Dragon finally arrived at a specific point where s/he could go to the Lower World, but I couldn’t, same as with the Upper World. S/he suggested that I try talking to some of the fish about getting help.

Before I could do more, though, I heard a Douglas squirrel making an alarm call in the physical world, and was told I needed to go. The Animal Father told me as I began to head back that Douglas Squirrel would always tell me if I needed to go back, or if there was a threat. In this case it was good that I left when I did. While the place I was at is pretty secluded, and populated only by more serious hikers, there was relatively heavy traffic today. I managed to not be bothered during the journey, but after packing up and heading out, I ran into a pair of women not 100 yards away from where I’d been.

All in all, it was a good day. And it’s been a good year, too. I have accomplished more, spiritually and magically, this year than any other. It’s been intense, but overall positive. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.

A Slight Change in Plans

One thing about not being a part of a culture that has an ingrained shamanic path is that would-be shamanic practitioners don’t have much of a standard framework to go on, relatively speaking. A lot has to be done from scratch, including things like cosmology, relationships with spirits, ritual practices, and so forth. On the one hand, this can make it frustrating if you tend to worry “Am I doing this correctly? Should I maybe do it like those people over there? Or do I just read another book and keep listening to the spirits?” However, it can be advantageous in that it offers a decent amount of flexibility.

I did a drum journey to meet with the Animal Father tonight to try to confirm some murmurings I’d overheard from a few of the totems in the past several days. I first found myself clinging to the trunk of my tree, unsure whether to climb up into the branches, or down into the roots. However, I was told to simply drop off onto the grass, and start walking. I found myself in a forest that eventually led to a place here that is very special to me as well as to the Animal Father, but whose exact location is to be kept secret. I proceeded to a particular place, and made myself comfortable.

As I did, numerous animals came out of the trees. Some were native to the area, some were not. As they congregated, the Animal Father appeared as well, and approached me. He was smaller than I sometimes see him, maybe the size of a small black bear. He sat across from me and held my head in his paws and gave me a gift. Then he told me to stop drumming, and to lay back. I did, and he sat behind my head and held it in his forepaws again.

The short version of our conversation involved my work for the next several months. While I’m to continue creating songs and dances for the various skin spirits and corresponding totems I’ll be working with, I also am supposed to start doing more formal work with the totems and skin spirits who already have songs–Wolf and Small Wolf, Badger and Small Badger, Deer and Small Deer, and Coyote and Small Coyote. Additionally, I need to create songs for Bear and Small Bear as soon as possible.

Of these five, only Coyote and Small Coyote are of a species that I haven’t had much experience with. The others are ones I’m quite comfortable working with. In addition, I’ll be working with Horse, and my Small Horse will be my next drum. I’ve been pondering what sort of skin I’ll have on my full ritual drum (as opposed to the small practice drum I have right now), and last week I went to a drum circle where I had a chance to play drums of various sorts. The one that really stood out to me, both in sound quality and in spirit, was a 20″ horsehide with a cedar frame. I’ve had a relationship with Horse since I was a young teenager; it hasn’t always been a good relationship on my end, but Horse has been steadily, patiently there. Add in that Horse has historically stepped in on matters of travel, as well as crucial periods of growth, and it’s not surprising that I’d be drawn to a horsehide drum for journeying.

So, back to the journey at hand with the Animal Father. Once he said what he had to say, he went back into the woods, and the animals began to depart as well. I did stop Badger, though, to ask hir if she would be willing to work with me in a formal ritual. S/he asked me, “What will you offer me?” I replied “What do you want?” S/he stopped then, and looked very pointedly at me, then said “That’s a dangerous response at this level of the game. You’d be wiser to come in to such a situation with something already in mind to drive your bargain with. Come back when you have something to offer me”. Then s/he shuffled off into the woods.

This startled me momentarily, but in retrospect it doesn’t surprise me. While in the past the totems and other spirits I’ve worked with have been relatively lenient with me, shamanism is much more…hmmm…intense than my previous work, relatively speaking. There’s less room for errors (though I wouldn’t say no room for errors). And it was a good reminder to me to take care, that what worked before may not be the parameters I’ll be working with from here on out.

I drummed myself back home, as it were, and got myself grounded with some good food. I’m going to have to think of something significant that I can offer; what I’ll be asking for will be bigger than what I usually do, and more will be asked in return. I’ve had a lot of leeway in the past with regards to offerings, but if I’m going to be stepping up to do more serious shamanic work, I’m also going to have to accept the changes in how things work.

Which is fine; I expected this would happen. Am I worried? Some. As I said, there’s less room for errors. But I wouldn’t be going forward if I didn’t feel confident in my ability to adapt and grow. And the timing isn’t surprising. Next month it’ll have been a year since I started on this path; before that I’d been working with totems and animal spirits for a good decade from a neopagan (and sometimes Chaos magic) perspective. So it’s probably to be expected, at least to an extent.

I’m still here, amazingly enough, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what’s most important.

Bear as Mediator, and Belief as Psychology

I’ve taken a break the past week from drumming and other shamanic practice, as a number of other things have hit me from a variety of directions. On one hand, the Animal Father has been persistently reminding me of my responsibilities, particularly my primary project right now with the drumming and dancing. However, Bear has been countering some of his demands, reminding him (and me) that I need to rest sometimes, and that it’s okay to take a break now and then. Bear has always been supportive of me taking care of my health, and not just physically. This isn’t surprising, as I’ve always associated hir with healing. However, s/he’s really stepped up as I’ve been on this path, which is more demanding than what I did in the past, to remind me of balance and burnout.

I was thinking the other night–what if Bear, and the Animal Father, and all the other spirits I work with, are just aspects of my psyche, figments of my imagination? What if there’s no objective reality in what I’m doing? And I thought about it for a while, and realized that even if that were the case, I’m still happy that the Animal Father and Bear are talking to each other. While I don’t believe, personally, that they’re all in my head, I do see their influences in my life, and the corresponding behavior patterns I have. I do tend to push myself pretty hard sometimes, and I need to remember that I don’t always have to stuff as much activity and achievement into one day that I possibly can. (Not surprisingly, one of the biggest advocates of me remembering this has been my husband, Taylor, who incidentally is one of Bear’s own.)

Back when I was more heavily practicing Chaos magic, I spent some time stuck pretty firmly in the psychological model of magic, the idea that it’s all a part of our minds, complex as they may be. I eventually gave up on that model, and also distanced myself from Chaos magic somewhat, because for me personally I found it to be an ultimately empty and disheartening perspective. While I value psychology quite a bit (as my current studies and entrance into graduate school should indicate), I see it as just one layer of reality. I see reality as being multilayered, and the layers are more a convenient form of description than a concrete structure–they aren’t exclusive of each other. So I can look at something from a psychological perspective, and then examine the same thing as an animist, and then combine the two together for a third viewpoint. And I don’t believe that the psychological perspective is superior to the animistic one, or vice versa. Each perspective is a set of tools and pictures that allows me to better understand whatever I encounter, and the more perspectives I have access to, the more thorough my understanding. This is why I draw from multiple wells–psychology, neuroscience, animism, both traditional and neo shamanisms, basic quantum physics, and so forth.

However, it is not my knowing these things that is important alone. Instead, what also must be taken into consideration is how I utilize them–and that’s something that doesn’t necessarily come out of a book. I can theorize all I want, but unless I actually use what I have learned, all it is is a bunch of words. It’s taken me a while to loosen my grip somewhat on my enamorment of academic understanding; I haven’t let go entirely, and I still find value in it, but I don’t place it on the high pedestal I once did.

And I look at my situation, and I consider what’s more valuable. Is it more important that I should scrape together whatever mythological, psychological, and historical evidence to support the eclectic, syncretic path that I am composing as I go along? Or should I value the experience and the lessons learned more than that? While I don’t believe that we should ignore the experiences of others as they’ve been recorded over time, I do think that subjective, personal experience has an edge in one’s personal practice. Even if it isn’t corroborated by any known, previously existing religious path, if it’s leading the person who follows it to become a better person and/or make the world a better place, then I don’t think that its novelty should be too weighted against it.

To be sure, I don’t support the deliberate misrepresentation of one’s path. However, I think sometimes people try to separate out the historical/factual/etc. correctness of a path while failing to consider the experiential value of it. And you can’t separate the experience from the facts when judging the path as a whole.

So I accept the distinct possibility that there’s no way to prove that what I’m doing is anything beyond my subjective perceptions, and that the connections to other shamanisms are ultimately tenuous at best. However, that possibility is only part of the story, and it surely isn’t enough to discourage me from having experiences that I find to be not only personally beneficial, but which encourage me to be more aware of the world around me and what I can do to improve it.