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.

Today’s Hike

This past Saturday Taylor and I went with our friends innowen and Kender to Mt. Hood, where they showed us a couple of trails we hadn’t yet been introduced to. While one was still remarkably covered in about 5-6 feet of snow(!), the other was mostly clear, at least up the first half mile or so. If people and places can have relationships, then I think I seriously have a crush on Mt. Hood. There was some reciprocal interest, though that mountain strikes me as rather aloof at first encounter. S/he’d like me to get to know hir better, physically (rough terrain, more remote) and spiritually, before I try anything even remotely shamanic there. Which is fine by me; while I won’t go out there as often since it’s a decent drive out, an hour and change, I do want to spend more time getting to know Mt. Hood, who may end up being a good place to go when I want to get away from people and into more secluded areas.

The trip to Mt. Hood got me craving a solo hike, something that I’d been feeling a subtle pull towards for the past few weeks, ever since Taylor and I went out to the Multnomah/Wahkeena trails for the first time since last November. Now that’s a place that I have formed a good relationship with; we’ve adopted each other, as it were. Today was a great day for a visit–perfect weather, and though there were more people than I would have expected on a week day, once I hiked past Multnomah Falls themselves, it was pretty quiet traffic-wise. I saw all sorts of critters–ravens, shiny black millipedes with yellow spots down the sides, tons of butterflies, robins, and a hummingbird, among others. The plants are going crazy, too–it’s green as can be, and everything’s rebounding from winter just fine, other than a patch of conifers that seem to have been hit by some sort of disease.

I spent a good deal of the hike in an ongoing, mostly nonverbal conversation with the Land there at Multnomah/Wahkeena. While they feel like two separate places–I can tell a decided shift in energy on the trail connecting the two–they’re very close, so I usually just refer to them as one. I also spoke a good bit with the Water as s/he sang and danced down the mountainside; s/he gave me a blessing, telling me to cool myself off by splashing myself with cold icemelt on this warm day.

At first, I found myself getting cranky with the tourists there, especially since I’d been expecting fewer people. However, I remember the lessons I learned the last time I was there, with Taylor and worked on accepting that everyone else had as much right as I did to be there, and that they weren’t automatically going to go uprooting plants and stomping on bugs.

Then three things happened, all within the space of a mile:

–A group of four people, a few years younger than I, were coming down the trail above me on a set of switchbacks. One of them threw a rock down the mountainside and nearly hit me by accident, because they hadn’t seen me. They apologized when we met. Instead of getting angry, I just told them “Yeah, it’s a really bad idea to throw rocks here, because it’s really hard to see people on the trail”. They seemed to have learned their lesson pretty well, so I went on in good spirits, trusting that they wouldn’t do anything else foolish.

–Another guy, about the same age, had been following me for a ways. I let him pass me, and was a bit annoyed by him, particularly his shirt which said “Don’t like my attitude? Then stop talking to me”. (I tend to think that the trend in “cute and fashionable rudeness”, typified by such things as Happy Bunny and the aforementioned t-shirt is not something we really need to be encouraging in this culture. But maybe I’m just an old fogie or something–most of the people I see sporting such things are in their teens to early twenties, and I’m *gasp* pushing thirty…but I digress.) Not too much later, he came back down the trail as I was heading further on, and very politely asked me if I’d seen the party he’d been separated from. I told him everyone I’d seen matching their description had been going the way he was going, and asked him if he had their cell phone numbers. He didn’t, so I told him his best plan of action would be to head all the way back down to the parking lot and wait at the car. He thanked me, and also incidentally apologized for mistaking me for male, as I was wearing relatively gender-neutral clothing with my hair pulled back and my hat on, and I am not the most curvy XX-chromosome person in the world. I assured him that it was in no way an insult, and continued on my merry way.

–Maybe five minutes later, I rounded a bend and greeted a couple of middle-aged folks who were enjoying the day. They stopped me and asked if I had any food. Just their luck, I happened to have a couple of extra granola bars I wasn’t going to need. I tried to just give them to them, but they insisted on paying me, and the man pressed five ones into my hand despite my protestations. Normally I’d think $2.50 was pretty damned steep for a granola bar, but having been in a similar, very hungry situation, in their place I’d have been that grateful, too! I checked to make sure they knew where they were going, and that they had enough water, and we parted ways with a smile.

I didn’t really think about the first incident in any meaningful way. However, when the second one happened, I started to make the connection between my lessons of tolerance from that Land, and what had been happening. The third incident was just the clue-by-four whapping me in the head. so I asked the Land what was up. S/he told me that s/he wanted me to help her help the people. We’d already established that s/he didn’t mind people being there, and made it hir task to educate them as much as possible about the need to preserve wild places like hir. S/he told me that I wasn’t particularly special, and that she talked to everybody there–I just happened to be one of the folks who noticed it on a conscious level. However, as our relationship has deepened, there’s been a greater need for me to make more of a commitment to hir, and s/he finally was able to get through to me what s/he needs me to do.

Today was an object lesson in some of the basics of what I can do for Multnomah/Wahkeena–pick up trash along the trail as usual, bring along some extra food and water, give people directions, offer a cell phone in case of need, bring a first aid kit, etc. In addition, I think I’m going to go ahead and go through first aid and CPR training as I’ve been meaning to for a while. And I picked up some volunteering information for the Multnomah Falls trail system in general; they need some help with general maintenance as well as information, so I may add that into my volunteering (along with my unofficial guide/guardian/etc. work that has been initiated today).

To finish up my hike, I went down the western part of loop around Wahkeena, my favorite part of that trail. And I got a few more affirmations that I was on the right path, figuratively and literally! First, at the crossroads where the connecting trail meets the Wahkeena loop, where I always sit and take a break, the Animal Father poked me and told me that next time I came alone, he wanted me to hike up to the place further up the mountain where I’d met him back last fall and where I’d heard him speaking through the owl’s hoot last time I visited with Taylor, and that he wanted me to bring my drum.

Then the very next people I met as I came down the mountain had a very friendly German shepherd, my favorite kind of dog, who came right up and said “Hi!” with a big slurp across my face (I don’t mind dog “kisses” at all–cleaner mouths than people, and I can always go and wash my face afterwards). After that I gave a few more people directions, and also showed another couple of folks where a Stellar’s Jay was hopping through the tree branches.

So overall it was a really inspiring day. I feel like I’ve made a major step forward in my shamanic path, since one thing I’ve known I’ve needed to do is care for the Land and maintain a good relationship with hir. I feel like I’ve been given a certain amount of responsibility that I’ve never been given before by the spirits, and I want to honor and respect that. I know there’s room for me to be, well, me, with all my mistakes and so forth, but I’m very much honored by what happened today.

Ever a Student…

Sunday afternoon, my husband Taylor and I went for a seven mile hike out at Multnomah Falls. It was the first time I’d been out there since last November, and I really had missed it there (it missed me too, apparently!) We went on a trail I hadn’t walked before, though Taylor had been there on his own. The weather was perfect, and I felt rested and energized–I didn’t really feel tired at all until the last mile. Of course, such a long hike called for a post-hike trip to Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest’s regional chain of sustainably produced, not-full-of-ick-and-grease, burger joint.

But I digress.

It being the first really nice weather we’d had in a while, and being a Sunday, people were out in force; Multnomah Falls is a popular place, and you have to do some hiking to get past the touristy areas. It took longer than I expected, and I started to get grouchy. For me, hiking is a way to get away from most people, not hang out with them. I started getting snarly after a while.

At one point I complained “I wish these people weren’t here. The sad thing is, they’re probably mostly just going to go back home and keep living their usual lives, never thinking about the connection between the pristine condition of this place, and their environmentally unfriendly actions every day”. To which Taylor (who is used to my rantiness on the occasions where my temper still gets the best of me despite my efforts to the contrary) replied, “So how do you know that’s what they’re going to do?” I think I sputtered something about the litter on the ground, and other such things. I tend to be territorial about places I like, even when I have absolutely no claim to them whatsoever (yes, it’s silly of me).

Tay then said, “You don’t know what these people will do. Maybe they are learning and gaining an appreciation for this place. And after all, if your role as a shaman means teaching people to appreciate the wilderness, maybe you need to remember that people need to have this opportunity. Maybe, like me, they’ll get it figured out in time”, and he had a point. When I met him, he wasn’t all that interested in environmentalism, though he wasn’t against it, either. However, I’ve had a pretty solid impact on him in our relationship, and he’s adopted a lot of the same practices and mindfulness I have. We’ve had some good discussions about it, and that’s gotten us both to think.

Then I decided to talk to the Land. I went on a side trail down to the river we were walking along, and opened myself to the Land. What s/he said supported what Taylor had told me. S/he said that hir role at this point was to teach people to appreciate what was still relatively clean, though a bit of pollution had taken its toll in recent years. S/he told me to bring people to hir and to help teach them that appreciation and to make that connection with their everyday lives, that places just like hir had been destroyed or were in danger from our everyday practices.

S/he talked to me further about the concept of teaching, and basically explained that I did not (as I had been concerned in the past) have to take on full time students at this time. Instead, I mainly need to be teaching various lessons through various means as I learn and become comfortable with them. So, for example, my Three Seeds workshop that I held a couple of weeks ago, wherein I brought paganism, environmentalism, and community building all together in the process of gardening, counts as one way of fulfilling this need. Another is a proposed series of animal magic classes I may be teaching later this year in Portland. I can start with relatively short-term, low-commitment things like this, and then work up to more intensive things as I go along. This is a huge relief, believe me!

So that was a good reminder to me, that if I am going to help other people to understand that the Land and all hir denizens are sacred, then I have to accept that they all have equal access, and that some of them unfortunately will still do dumbass things like litter, and break down saplings for no reason, and so forth–but others won’t. It’s a good reminder of one teaching of Wolf’s that really rings true to my experience–Wolf connects with all to connect with a few. One would hope, though, that more than a few would “get it”!

It is good to also be reminded that lessons come in many ways and many forms. (Another one of this basic things that is good to remember no matter how long you’ve been practicing!) Just another good reason to keep one’s ears and eyes open (and, sometimes, one’s mouth shut as well).

Later on, as we stopped at our usual crosstrails to rest before descending the mountain, I heard an owl hooting slowly and quietly maybe 200 or so yards away in the woods. at the same time, I felt the presence of the Animal Father. No, I don’t think it was a disembodied voice–I’d lay money down that there was a physical owl there. However, I firmly believe that deities, spirits, and other such beings may use physical phenomena to make themselves known. I do not think it’s nearly as common as people might think–just because a squirrel runs across your path, it doesn’t automatically mean that Squirrel is your totem. What separated this event from any other encounter with critters that day (including a chipmunk, a hummingbird, and a bunch of white butterflies) was that I definitely felt the Animal Father’s presence. He was pleased that I was there, out in the wilderness again. He likes being in contact with me there more than other places, and he simply dropped by to say so.

Since I’ve started my new telecommuting job, I’ve started my day with meditation. Wolf has made it clear that s/he wants me to start working with hir more intensely, so tonight I’ll go up and start working on a drumbeat and song for hir. I’ve been taking it easy because of all the changes recently, but the spirits are letting me know it’s time to get back to business, as it were.

Niche

First off, happy Earth Day! Here are some of my thoughts on this day, care of my Livejournal.

I’ve been thinking more, since I got back from Arizona, about my thoughts on what is being asked of me as a shaman. In the past month, my understanding of just what it is I’m supposed to do has deepened quite a bit. “I serve the Land” has become a good bite-sized summary. However, a post in a friend’s Livejournal sparked some thoughts.

S/he was talking about hir discomfort with the concept of “service”; hir personal interpretation of the word involved things that I’m also not a huge fan of–mostly having to do with unwillingness and feeling forced into situations and giving in to power-over. Basically, the idea that just because a deity or other entity is bigger than you, that you must give in, and that it’s a drudgery rather than a gift.

I’m pleased to say that my understanding of service has become more thorough as I’ve continued to develop my path and my relationships with the Land and other entities that I’m involved with. And I’m finding that it’s something I’m not opposed to, nor have I run up against any indication that I’ll be dragged kicking and screaming into virtual torture just because some god or another says I must or else.

I think the best way to explain things is that the more I learn about what I need to be doing, the more Right-with-a-big-R it seems. Much of what I’ll be doing already coincides with things I’ve already been putting into place, or am not adverse to doing. And as I’ve grown in my path, the parts of me that are more attuned to what needs to be done–for myself and for others–are coming to the forefront more. I am becoming, more and more, the person I need to be.

This isn’t just about self-improvement; nor is it just about giving up everything for the Land. What I need and what the Land and others need from me–these needs are not contradictory. They parallel each other so neatly that at this point I may as well not distinguish between one and the other. I can simply say, “This is what I need to do”, and I can understand that this covers everything and everyone I am involved with, including myself.

Were I another sort of magician, I might say that I am following my True Will. And in fact someone dear to me once told me that if you follow your True Will, you will find that the Universe aligns to accomodate you. I don’t think it’s so much that, as it’s a matter of finding your True Place in the Universe. I recently finished reading Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul (which I strongly recommend) and very much resonate with his argument that part of healthy human development involves finding your soul work–the place that is naturally yours in this reality. So it’s not so much the Universe remolding itself to accomodate me, as it is the Universe and I finding just the right combination for each other. After all, I am part of the Universe–I am the Universe. As are we all.

This doesn’t mean that the way ahead will be smooth sailing. You don’t just slide into your spot and sit on your laurels. Shamanism isn’t an easy path, and while I haven’t been through a bunch of horrible challenges that stretch me to my limits, I’m also still relatively new to all this. Seven months isn’t that long a time, relatively speaking, though I’ve done a lot in that time. But I don’t feel adverse about potential challenges ahead of me. Scared? Sure. But I’m not afraid of the Land, or the Animal Father, or anyone else deciding that I must suffer needlessly for their gain. Their agenda for me and my agenda for me are one and the same, or so it seems the more I understand it.

Essentially, I feel acceptance and peace with my path. I’ll still question things as necessary–who’s to say that I’ll never misinterpret what I hear/feel/etc. again? Better to be alert and aware than to blindly follow and potentially walk off a cliff because you lost the trail in your stumbling. But I am not a slave. I am not a toy. I am a part of the Universe, and on a more local level, I am a part of the Land I live on.

I think sometimes we humans get so wrapped up in power play–power-over, power-with–that we obsess over it and perhaps sometimes forget the possibility that there isn’t a power struggle going on, that it isn’t about hierarchy. Look at what assumptions people make about wolves–if you read some accounts of pack hierarchy, you can see the military-flavored overlay that has been applied to that social structure, and how lupine behaviors have too often been interpreted through human filters. Yet more enlightened, recent explorations of wolf behavior takes wolves as they are, without trying to push them into human pigeonholes. While there is hierarchy, it’s much more fluid than was originally assumed; the Omega, for example, isn’t just some poor beaten-up wolf that nobody likes, especially in the wild (captive wolves often show exaggerated hierarchical behavior due to being confined). Rather s/he has hir own place in the pack, and is accepted as such. Yet there’s still obsession over “Oooooh, the Alpha!!!!” when humans talk about wolves–no surprise that I’ve seen countless wolf therians and other wolf enthusiasts describing themselves as “alpha wolves”.

If we project our power play this much onto wolves, who are our fellow mammals (and from whom we may have legitimately learned some social skills way back when we were still getting used to not being tree dwellers, though chimps also offer valuable clues to our past), what’s to say we aren’t projecting similarly on our interpretation of noncorporeal beings such as deities?

For that matter, what’s to say that I’m not projecting my feelings of harmony and working-with onto my experiences? There’s no guarantee that I’m not also biased and that my path doesn’t reflect that. However, I also tend to believe that reality is a lot more subjective than many people are comfortable with. I’m not a solipsist–it’s not all in my head. However, I don’t believe in an objective reality that’s universal–our perception of reality will always add in a personal touch, so to speak. Even if what we’re being told is the same, our interpretation of it can vary widely from person to person, and even in the same person from time to time.

Given that possibility, do you really think I’d want to give up a relationship with the various deities and spirits I work with that’s based on mutual cooperation and willing service to each other, for one where I am a lowly being who does things because she must, where obligation is the name of the game? I’d rather make a difference and do what I need to do in a life where life doesn’t suck, than do the same in a life where I resent what I feel I’m forced to do. I know in the former case I’ll be a lot more productive and effective. And I think that suits everyone a lot more.

I have my niche–I serve the Land. The niche may change as time goes on, but I have it, and I’m happy in it. I’ll be making the most of it for the benefit of as many as possible.

Reconsidering…

When I first started my shamanic path six months ago, I had the idea of creating a more formal practice involving the totems, skin spirits, and other animal spirits I worked with and who had been herding me towards the idea of shamanism. Therefore, I used the term therioshamanism as a convenient label, since in my mind to name something is to give it more form. “Therio” means animal, and I figured that since I’ve focused largely on animal spirits over the past decade and change, my shamanic work would follow the same trend. This idea continued as I developed a relationship with the Animal Father, protector and embodiment of all animals.

However, as my experiences have deepened, and I have begun to incorporate more sustainable practices into my everyday life, spiritually and otherwise, I began to find that my awareness was expanding beyond the animal spirits, that I was finding more connection to plants and the land itself. I didn’t think much of it, since I was still mostly working with totems and skin spirits. And wouldn’t environmental activism contribute to helping animals in preserving their homes?

This weekend shook me out of my stubborn adherence to animal-centric practice. Over the past few days I have been introduced to the Land as a whole—not just the animals who populate it (most of whom were asleep or hiding while I made my diurnal sojourns into the desert) but also a wide variety of plants, stones, and the spirit of the Land itself. I have spoken with a cliff covered in petroglyphs left by the ancestors of the Hopi Snake Clan, and with ancient juniper trees. I have had prickly pears and crucifixion thorns as my companions, and I have conversed with caves as I sat in their depths. My encounters with animals were brief, though special—a circling vulture, a hummingbird following me down a path as I walked blindfolded, tiny lizards, a startled kit fox in a tree.

All of these came together to contribute to the Land, sustained by it and being a part of its very fabric. Yet I persisted in my single-minded focus. How could I, an animal shaman, divide my time among the animals, the plants, and the stones, never mind the spirits of Lands in numerous places? After all, hadn’t it been the Animal Father who called to me at the beginning of my path? Hadn’t the animals been the ones who kept me company and taught me over the years? Was I losing my focus?

But as I continued to walk the Land, and especially when I took my solo pilgrimage to a personal power spot on Friday, where I spent five and a half hours with no one but the Land to talk to, I found it harder and harder to ignore the draw that it had on me as a whole. And as I watched my instructor, James, calling on all manner of spirits who aided him, from mountains to totems to various plants, I finally began to open myself up to the possibility that perhaps I’d been a bit hasty in assuming that my shamanic path would just be a continuation of my previous animal-based practices.

Finally, I gave in. One of the main themes of the weekend for me was learning to open myself up more to the Land, not just the parts that I found most interesting; in fact I think it was intentional that my interaction with other animals was minimal compared to the plants and stones. And once I opened myself fully, allowing the Earth to embrace me, calling on the Fire and telling it my story, I became aware of a much, much bigger picture.

As I worked with the Sun, and the Wind, and the Fire, and Growth, and numerous other forces of nature, the Animal Father tossed me an idea that I’m amazed I totally missed before (and yet my lack of observation doesn’t surprise me). He explained that like the Sun and Moon and Earth and Wind, he himself is the embodiment of a force of nature, specifically the animal kingdom. This makes sense to me on so many levels, not the least of which being why he didn’t “read” like other deities to me, and why he struck me as more primal than deities I’ve worked with in the past. Not that deities can’t be primal; however, there’s not the amount of anthropomorphization that often accompanies many deities. He is to the various Horned gods what Father Sun is to Apollo or Lugh; while the deities may be associated with these natural phenomena, they have become somewhat removed from their roles as embodiments of the phenomena themselves, acquiring other traits along the way. While there may be myths and stories involving the Earth Mother, the Sky Father, and other such entities, their primary role is still within the natural processes themselves.

Or perhaps it’s just my perception, that I find my connection with them not so much in the myths and stories, as in the direct interaction with them on a daily basis. I’ve known of people who worship Odin, Zeus, and other sky gods, or deities associated with the wilderness, or fertility, or death, and then deny that their religion is even remotely nature-based. There’s no getting around that here; what I am discovering is less a worship of a pantheon of deities, and more a worldwide pantheistic animism in which the spirits may be much bigger than ancestors or plant spirits. Beings such as the Animal Father seem more to be like animal totems—archetypal embodiments of natural phenomena (or specific animal species in the case of totems) that have connection to all of their “type”, but are independent beings. It’s just that the Animal Father and others embody much larger, more widespread phenomena.

Either way the truth may be, this weekend has made my way much clearer. While I am going to continue my work with the animals, I’m also going to broaden my experiences to a great degree. And this feels right. Not easy, not a cakewalk—the desert made it clear to me, for example, that while it allowed my presence for a few days, it could also kill me if it wanted, or if I didn’t respect it. There’s a definite respect here that doesn’t allow me to just waltz on in without asking permission. I’m much more aware of my place in the natural cycles, civilization or no.

In my wanderings and readings I’ve run across numerous definitions of “shamanism”, ranging from “anyone who likes animal totems” to “you do whatever the gods tell you to whether you like it or not, and you have no choice”. What I have discovered here, or rather, what James taught me, is the definition that a shaman serves the community. In terms of ecoshamanism, this includes (but isn’t limited to) being a mediary between the natural world and humanity—which is pretty much what I’ve been trying for the whole time. He’s just done it more thoroughly and eloquently, and with a hell of a lot more experience! While I’m not going to give up my own “flavoring” and the useful things I’ve learned, I’m going to be incorporating a lot more ecoshamanic techniques in my practice, because they are exactly what I’ve been looking for.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of them before; I first read Ecoshamanism in 2006. However, there’s a difference between reading about something, and seeing it demonstrated. Having not only seen the ideas and practices in person, but actually being able to apply them practically for a few days, has made a huge difference, and made the impact that much greater. Now I understand more fully why you can’t just learn to be a shaman from a book; my own previous experiences showed me that to an extent, but this made a much more vivid point.

A good example of this is something quite simple—the titles Grandfather/Grandmother, Mother/Father, Sister/Brother as applied to the spirits of natural forces. I used to avoid using these terms like the plague, mainly because I thought that the neopagans using them were “just playing Indian” (especially since a lot of my exposure to them was through books that were steeped in mishmashes of practices presented as “genuine Native American”). However, I’ve spent the past few days working within a “nondenominational” shamanic path; James doesn’t claim that ecoshamanism is 100% genuine Huichol shamanism, though his training in the shamanisms of that tribe and shamanisms have influenced him to an extent.

What I found, as he referred to Brother Wind and Sister Water, Grandfather Fire and Grandmother Growth, and as I started to make my own connections with these great beings, was that these titles fit. The immense presence and power of these spirits didn’t require titles, but it seems almost inadequate to refer to them without the titles of respect and honor. I didn’t feel, as I used these titles myself, that I was “playing Indian”. Instead, I simply felt I was calling them by proper names; I felt humbled by them, and felt the need to give them respect—and this is one way of doing so. However, because they are familial terms, they also acknowledged my connection to the spirits, rather than distancing me even more. Some things are less about culture than they are about experience; as far as I’m concerned at this point, calling the wind my Brother is no more culturally-specific than being immensely grateful for a cool breeze on a hot day, or the power of the wind blowing on a mountaintop, or praying to a gale to spare you when you’re caught in a storm on the water. Being in awe of natural phenomena isn’t limited by culture; it is only limited by one’s perception which may or may not align with the perception of the majority of people in your culture.

So I have found a path that really fits, and I have found who and what I will commit to—the Land and all its denizens, whether that Land is the Sedona desert, or Multnomah Falls, or even a distant star. I think I can be comfortable saying “I serve the Land”, rather than “I am the slave of X deity and have no choice in the matter” or “Shamanism is all about fixing my psychological problems and all the spirits are there just to help me actualize my Higher Power”. Not that these can’t be valid paths, of course; YMMV. But this path, service to the Land, made a lot of things click into place for me this weekend. Of course, there will no doubt be more lessons to come, and more recalibration as I grow and experience more. This weekend offered me a lot of answers to what I’ve been seeking.

As to other aspects of shamanism, such as drumming, journeying, the Tree with Three Worlds, and other such practices that are common, I’ll wait and see what emphasis needs to be placed on each. While I will still most likely start spending more time getting to know the skin spirits and practicing journeying with drumming and other methods, my priority has become more about getting connected to the Land. I’ve learned some valuable skills that I’m taking home and applying in my own “territory” as it were; the Sedona desert was a good teacher, but that’s not my home. The mountains and forests and ferns, and the deserts on the east side of Oregon—those are my home, and those are the places that I will be trying to develop deeper relationships with.

Animal Father =/= Horned God

Over the weekend I came into the possession of a marvelous set of eight-point red stag antlers, a vintage mount on a velvet-covered board. My original intent was to incorporate them into some sort of artwork. However, not long after I brought them home, the Animal Father started hinting that he’d like them as part of a personal shrine, since Artemis has one herself. (We’re still debating, since I had some ideas for these antlers, but I’m also not completely opposed to keeping them around–and the stag spirit wouldn’t mind, either.)

This whole business with the antlers brought up something that I’ve been aware of since I began working with the Animal Father–he is not the same deity as the Wiccan Horned God, or the various horned deities who get tossed under that aegis from time to time (Cernunnos, Herne, etc.). Yes, he’s depicted with antlers, but he has made it very clear to me that he is is own being, and that the Horned God motif doesn’t fit him.

One reason is because he has a much less “human” feel to him than the Horned God. He would never be found on horseback, with or without the Wild Hunt. He is only as anthropomorphized as is necessary for humans to interact with him, and to bring forth the melding of humanity with other animals. As he is a patron of shapeshifting, something that primarily concerns humans, having some human traits helps to connect him, in our minds, to that particular practice. However, he is no more (or less) human than he is any animal. Even in his anthropomorphic form, he is much less humanoid than many other deities. Most depictions of the Horned God and various associated deities show a rather normal looking man, maybe with a beard–and antlers. In fact, the antlers, and maybe a couple of dead pelts, are all that really show the Horned God as being an animal deity. One could easily see a humanoid Goddess lying in the grass with the humanoid-with-horns Horned God. However, rutting with the Animal Father might be just a little too close to less savory practices.

Additionally, while the Animal Father does have antlers in the most common depiction of him, he is not a “stag god” as the Horned God has more and more come to be in modern paganism. Nor is he limited to hoofed animals, or mammals, or vertebrates. He could actually show up as any animal or combination of animals; he is the Animal Father, and he could be anything from a worm to a whale. While he could show himself as entirely human, he generally does not, particularly in this day and age where humanity is so far removed from its animal self. It would be a most unpleasant experience for him, to my understanding–we’re talking about a deity who much prefer to meet with me out in the wilderness, rather than my ritual room or even the nearby park. The wilder, the better. To draw from the energy of modern humanity, even with the remaining indigenous hunter-gatherer and agrarian cultures, would be too alien an experience for him. So he chooses to appear only as part-human when necessary.

The antlers have become well-known, and he knows that they would be quite evocative for me, though he would want me to incorporate other animal parts to the shrine as well, if I give in to his wishes. The culture he came from and the pagans he has since worked with are most familiar with large mammals in their religions. These tend to evoke a lot of primal feelings in humans, moreso than, say, carp or June bugs. So he most often wears the guise of creatures that cause us to remember that we, too, are animals, and we can only distance ourselves from Nature so much.

And that’s something I came to realize this weekend as I was writing about the term “therioshamanism”. “Therio” already refers to the animal spirits I work with, and the spirit and physical animals that are part of my “community” as a shaman, and for whom I will be shamanizing once I’m trained. However, one thing I’ve noticed during my first six months is that my training has reminded me that I am an animal. I’m not just talking about my therianthropy and that which is wolf in me. I’m talking about myself as the human animal–maybe something I need to know about even more than me-as-wolf. My training has not only gotten me in more touch with my instincts, but has helped me to have a better awareness of my physical body, my needs and my health. The therianthropic aspects are there, but they aren’t necessary to this aspect of “therio”. I could be not a therianthrope, and it would still be the same.

Back on the main topic, those are the main reasons that the Animal Father is not the Horned God. I did a flocked post in my Livejournal about the antlers and the Animal Father, and had a couple people tell me that they’ve actually worked with him before, or are otherwise familiar with him other than through my work. This pleases me–perhaps I’ll have something besides my own UPG to go on as time goes on. Not that my UPG isn’t “good enough”, as it were, but it’s nice to get some external validation.

ETA: Another consideration: I’m not an expert on Indo-European mythology. However, a bit of research brings up potential links between the Hindu Pashupati, and later horned deities such as Cernunnos. Assuming that the Animal Father does stem from the painting at Les Trois Freres (if not earlier) then he would still predate the proto-Indo-European peoples (from whence both the Indians and the Celts sprang) by several thousand years.  Thoughts?

Has It Really Been Five Months?

Tonight I finally did my ritual to officially finish off my Water month and head into the final month of my six months. I know the full moon was a few nights ago; however, I caught yet another cold which developed into a sinus infection, and Bear told me to spend a few more days healing (she didn’t mind keeping me a bit longer). However, the transition has happened, and the last month has begun. Once again, as with my first month, I examine all four elements together, only with the experience of the previous months to use as well, and reflect on what I’ve learned so far. It’s definitely going to be a powerful experience.

The Animal Father called me into the ritual room and had me sit in the center where the four directions/etc. meet. Then he told me to start drumming. At first I got distracted by the drumbeat; I kept speeding up and slowing down, and I was a bit irritated with the tone because the drum head was just a little bit damp. But he reminded me to focus, and over time I felt myself at the center of all four of the directional totems–Wolf, Hawk, Fox and Bear. It was an incredibly powerful combination, the totems and the god, all there at once. And apparently, this is supposed to be my starting point for journeying in general! No wonder I’ll need practice.

The Animal Father had me recount, briefly, what I had learned from each of them. We distilled these into four basic values:

North – Wolf – Earth – Grounding
East – Hawk – Air – Communication
South – Fox – Fire – Love (Passion)
West – Bear – Water – Healing

These are very much shorthand for a lot of complex concept and multifaceted interpretations. It’s easier to say “Grounding” than “Finding the basis of what’s most important in your life; figure out where you stand and where you’re coming from; etc.” as well as extending concepts to other people, other beings, the world around me, and so forth. “Grounding” is therefore a convenient tag for something much bigger.

I felt very safe and very centered during this time; it was much stronger than the neopagan circle castings I gave up early on in my therioshamanic work. I had a very clear idea of my cosmology, and it imprinted itself more strongly on my brain. However, I’m still building up endurance in my rituals, so the Animal Father had me begin to drum down again, to say farewell to the totems and to get myself downstairs and fed. We’re going to work on lengthening my rituals over time, especially as I start doing more complex things, but for now I need to be focusing on consistency.

So I’ll be spending the time between now and the spring equinox not only preparing my everyday life for a schedule change to allow more time for shamanic work, but also reflecting on the cosmology I’ve helped to develop over the past five months. It still has a very neopagan feel to it, which is fine, because it’s built on the concepts that I’ve adhered to most strongly in the past twelve years. But we’re definitely taking it to a higher level here, as far as intensity of work goes. I’m excited, and nervous, but also confident in my ability to continue with this.