Walking the Talk However Far We Can

First off, quick note–I think I’ve mentioned a ritual I did in preparing a chicken a few weeks back. At any rate, I wrote an article about the process, and you can see it at Culinary Adventures of an Urban Shaman, via Key64.net. While I don’t hunt or fish for meat (though I’d like to), I do believe it’s important to honor the animals (and plants, etc.) who become our food and preserve our life. The article details the ritual I developed for honoring the spirit of a fre range chicken I prepared for supper one evening.

This ritual is a part of my recent efforts to boost the amount of environmentally friendly actions I take, both mundane and spiritual/magical. Therioshamanism, as I am developing it, is very much an Earth-centered path. When I work with deities, for example, I don’t simply see them as abstract beings, separate from the natural phenomena they “represent”. My patron Goddess, Artemis, with whom I will have been working for a full decade this February, is very much associated with the wilderness and the animals therein, as well as the Moon. To me, that means not only honoring her, but also doing what I can to preserve the wilderness, the animals, and to clear the sky so the Moon may be seen without the haze of pollution. Granted, Artemis is also the Huntress–which means she’s no vegan. (Then again, neither am I.) Between her, and the Animal Father who is also, of course, strongly associated with the wilderness and the creatures in it, you can see where a lot of my emphasis is.

It makes no sense to me, therefore, to turn a blind eye to the degradation of what these deities hold sacred. However, I do not live in ancient Greece, or paleolithic France. I am an urban American in the 21st century, and therefore my relationship to the environment is different from people in other cultures and times. To me, it’s not enough to celebrate Nature, when all around me it’s being destroyed through our actions. Where is the honor in that? If I talk about how amazing and wonderful Nature is for giving me life, and then ignore my impact on the land, water and air, then I’m not walking my talk.

Granted, we each have to come to our own balance. I still drive a car, though I use public transit to get to and from work, even though driving might be faster. I’m omnivorous, and meat takes a certain amount of land and other resources to produce, though I try to go for local, free-range meat when I can, and have been eating more poultry, smaller animals that require fewer resources to raise. I know not everyone can afford to buy organic. However, we can buy with an eye towards reducing packaging, recycle whatever we have the facilities for, make small investments such as a few canvas bags for groceries (guaranteed not to rip no matter how wet they get or how many canned goods you stuff in there!), and other such things. Being an environmentally-friendly pagan (or non-pagan, for that matter) isn’t about worrying about what you can’t do right now–it’s about what you can do, and being aware of the choices you make with regards to the resources and opportunities available to you at any given time.

For me, walking my talk means changing my everyday lifestyle, no matter where I live. I made my own bread for the first time this weekend, so I could have a little more control over what ingredients I used, and what went into my body. The clove of garlic that bravely put forth a bright green shoot was saved from the pizza sauce and is now in its own pot of dirt, growing happily, the start of what I hope will be an excellent garden someday. I want to buy a secondhand hand towel so I don’t have to dry my hands with paper towels at work. I can’t buy solar, can’t buy a hybrid, can’t raise rabbits or chickens for food–but I can do these things, and help make others aware of what they can do, inspire people to take a conscious look at the choices they have before them. And in the end, that’s enough, I think, to do what I can, and look forward to what may be later on as circumstances change.

Rethinking UPG

I’m currently most of the way through The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis, a new paperback release talking about the history of the study of paleolithic cave paintings in France such as Lascaux and Les Trois Freres. It’s given me a lot to think about, because it presents a lot of alternative theories to the ones I was most familiar with in regards to these works. For example, I had been enamored of the hunting magic theory that Henri Breuil put forth in the first half of the twentieth century and which Joseph Campbell elaborated upon; I hadn’t realized these theories had been seriously questioned later on. There are some pretty convincing arguments against them, though the jury’s still out (and probably always will be since we can never know for sure what the artists believed or why they created the paintings in the first place).

However, the thing that really struck me was when I read in one chapter about Curtis’ examination of the Sorcerer of Les Trois Freres, the painting of the deity that I call the Animal Father. Numerous people have attempted to decipher what animals his various limbs and features are reminiscent of. Just some of the ones that have been cited have been stag, bear, lion, wolf, horse, lion, and owl. Curtis himself saw the figure as primarily staglike, with some equine features besides. Looking at a reproduction of Breuil’s own tracing of the Sorcerer, I could see what he was saying, and the more I looked, the more I came to see that he really wasn’t any particular set of species, but a being all to himself.

This puzzled me. I had formerly seen him as a stag-lion-wolf-bear hybrid of sorts, as these were the animals he’d given me to associate with the equinoxes and solstices. However, now I wasn’t so sure. What was happening?

I decided the best thing to do was to go to the source, my usual answer to this sort of conundrum. So I asked the Animal Father what he had to say about it. “I am myself, that is all. I gave you those animals because you seemed to want to work along a four directions worldview. If that doesn’t work for you, let’s try something else until we find something that does”. Here, then, is one of the benefits and perils of creating your own cosmology and working largely with Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). You have a lot more flexibility, and you can tweak things to make them make more sense to you. However, what do you do when you end up finding that research indicates that your UPG can’t be objectively proven?

I’m not about to say “Well, this ended up being wrong, so the rest of it must be wrong, so let’s just throw everything out, and quit”. Baby, bath water, does that ring a bell? However, it’s okay to admit when something doesn’t work quite right. This is, after all, a path I’m creating for myself. Therefore, I get to decide the parameters. One of my guidelines is that non-religious sources are quite acceptable as source material, including archaeology, anthropology, and other “ologies”. So I find that some things that I had initially assumed were true, to include Breuil’s hunting magic theory, may not stand on as strong a foundation as I thought.

It’s a delicate balance to maintain. On the one hand, if all I ever did was take these studies at face value, I’d have little to believe in. Even the more neopagan flavored things, such as my perspectives on totemism, have been created in recent decades, though they at least have the consensus of a number of people. However, I also don’t want to go down the road of the Irish potato goddess–UPG needs to be at least given a reality check.

And there is value in UPG. I’m not going to suddenly decide the Animal Father no longer exists; I’ve already have experiences that prove his objective existence, if only to me. But I am going to continue to consider the results of my meditations, journeys and other inspired experiences. As I have found in the past, sometimes it’s better to simply allow myself to believe something, rather than try to rationalize it to death.

In the end, flexibility is key. This is something that I am going to continue to develop over the years, a living, evolving path. That means that sometimes I’m going to have to scrap some things and start over when presented with new evidence. However, I’m in good company. Even the hardest of sciences ends up with new theories that overcome the old “truths”. It’s only when we stubbornly hang onto our dogma that stagnation sets in, and what may once have been a growing, evolving things turns to stone.

The Existence of Spirits

While my experiences with Chaos magic did a lot of good in that they really expanded my understanding of magic and how it works, one of the unfortunate side effects was that I absorbed the psychological model of magic a little too deeply. (If you’re unfamiliar with the models of magic, here’s their origin.) Essentially, much of the material I found on Chaos magic was slanted heavily towards a highly pragmatic, even solipsistic, psychological perspective of how magic worked. In this model, spirits, gods and other entities aren’t objective beings; rather, they are aspects of the psyche given form for our understanding.

It’s been about three years, maybe a bit more, since I hit the deepest point of immersion in the psychological model. I was still working with totems, but what I read rubbed off on me enough that I *talked* about them as if they were just internal. I don’t think I completely believed it; I’ve interacted with them for too long to ignore the signs that I interpret as proof of their objective existences. Still, this immersion in solipsism has clung to my personal cosmology since then, and it’s been damned hard to scrape off (kind of like hagfish slime). It primarily manifested as a doubt, “Am I really doing what I think I’m doing, or are the spirits I’m talking to all in my head? Are other people getting the real results, while I’m just talking to parts of myself?”

This has led to occasional issues with my magical and spiritual practices. Nothing kills the mood of a ritual quite like a nice big bag of doubt dumped into the middle of the room. However, I’ve been fortunate in that the spirits I’ve been working with have been good about tapping me on the shoulder and bringing my focus back to the ritual at hand. This has helped me to break the cycle of doubt-ritual fails-proof for doubt-etc.

It’s not even that I was ever 100% convinced by the psychological model. Rather, there was always a part of me that maintained, even at my most solipsistic point, that the spirits and gods are “real” in a literal, as well as mythological/metaphorical, sense. But that doubt would come in every so often and steal my confidence.

Some of my Air month work has served to finally kick that habit. I’ve been working on communication, which leads into being more open emotionally, energetically and spiritually. I have a tendency to be insular and introspective to the point where I sometimes get so wrapped up in my head and my concerns that I get a little too focused, and it’s not always easy for me to open up to others. Add in that I learned early on how mean people can be, and I’ve developed quite a defensive “shell”. But I’ve been making headway in the past couple of weeks in learning to open up more to people that I know I can trust–and also opening up to those who may not have physical bodies, but are no less present in my life. (And since they’re not limited by physics, they don’t have to wait for me to open the front door before visiting!)

I was talking to the Animal Father late last week on my commute home. We talked about my attitude towards spirits, and he pointed out that even sitting there talking to him I had that seed of doubt. He asked me if I was willing to open up that last little bit, to consciously choose the belief in spirits over the doubt in spirits. He emphasized that if I was going to journey into the spirit worlds more often, and if I was going to shamanize, that I was going to have to accept the cosmology I was creating entirely. This didn’t mean never questioning my perceptions, or being aware of potentially dangerous beliefs (such as, “God told me to shoot all the meter maids because God hates bureaucracy”). And it’s not even faith, per se, at least not in the stereotypical sense where you never question it, you just go with it.

But in order to do what I need to do in the future as I become more experienced and mature in my path, there comes a point where I have to unceremoniously toss the doubt out on its ear. It serves no purpose other than to trip me up, and any possible benefit it might have is covered, in a more healthy manner, by conscious appraisal of my progress, as well as trading notes with other magical practitioners to get some feedback on what I’m doing.

And so that’s what I’ve done. Belief is a choice. We may feel strongly obligated towards a particular beliefs, but in the end it’s still our decision as to whether we accept those beliefs in our lives or not (never mind the individual interpretation thereof). I choose to allow myself to believe that the Animal Father, the totems, the skin spirits, and all the rest, exist as objective beings, and the experiences I have are quite real. While there is a psychological level to my belief, and I can look at things from that perspective, I no longer feel that that is the only “true” level of spiritual reality. I’m still a big fan of the microcosm-macrocosm connection, but I’m much happier for having gotten rid of the doubt that has become more than useless.

Sunday’s Journey

I had intended to head out to Forest Park here in Portland this past weekend to connect with the Animal Father. Unfortunately, as those of you in the Pacific Northwest know, the weather was cold, wet, and windy–not a good combination for getting me out of the house. Still, I wanted to be able to spend some time with the god. Given that he’s not fond of visiting me at home in the middle of a city, I decided I’d go to him.

I decided to drum, since I need more practice with it. Per usual, I lost track of time, though this was longer than previous journeys. I allowed myself to relax into the trance. I found myself in a forest, somewhat like one I grew up near; however, as I walked down the path, I found myself going into a deeper, more primordial forest. I also noticed that I had taken the form of a red stag, the sacred animal of the Animal Father that represents the Autumn. Apparently, when in his domain, I take the form of whatever animal is strongest at that time of the year, or so I understood the explanation.

I came out of the woods onto a wide, open rolling plain. The grass was dry, as would be normal this time of year, and the sky was overcast. I wandered across the plain seeking the Animal Father. Suddenly, from behind me came a cave lion (the Summer aspect of the god); he acted as though he was going to attack me, so I lowered my antlers at him in a threat. Finally, he charged me and I kicked him, then I flew away in two enormous bounds that took me a mile away from him in seconds.

I ended up in a gully, and then looked up and saw Dire Wolf and Cave Bear peering over the edge at me, with no threat. Then they ran off, and I followed them. (I still haven’t figured out why Lion was chasing me.) When I made it to the top, I saw the Animal Father, and went up to him. He was enormous, filling the sky, but he made himself small so he could talk to me.

Some of what we talked about was private. However, he did ask me to start praying at both morning and bedtime (I’d just been doing bedtime) and to meditate once a day to touch base with the spirits. Then he sent me back home, the drumming gently easing me back, slowing down as I awoke. So far I’ve managed the prayers, though I got a little too busy for the meditation yesterday. I’m going to shoot for lunch hour as a good time to take a break.

I knew this request would come at some point, though it’s earlier than I expected. Still, I’m willing to work on it. I need more discipline, and this is a good start. The Air month has taught me some tough lessons already, and doing a daily practice will be quite a challenge for this spontaneous person! But for once I actually feel like I can do it. This whole therioshamanism thing has brought out an unprecedented level of commitment in me. Granted, there are things I’ve done longer, but not this intensely. I am feeling more confident in myself for this, and I’m really pleased with how my six months have been proceeding thus far. I feel like I’m gaining an even better understanding of what it is I’ve been working with over the past decade and change. Which just goes to show that even though you’ve done some more advanced magical/spiritual work, you can still benefit from the basics!

If I am going to end up teaching this to others down the line, though, it’s a really good thing I’m going through it myself. While the curriculum shouldn’t be cookie-cutter, it’s a good idea to teach things you have experienced yourself. While I haven’t run into any major snags so far, I have been through some difficult personal lessons as the spirits have helped me to become a better vessel for the tasks ahead. Better this way, than to expect that everyone will learn the material in the exact same way!

As for the month by month structure, I’m finding that the lessons from Earth are still reverberating through my life. This isn’t surprising; it’s not as though the spirits said “Oops, it’s the full moon, no more Earth for you!” The Earth lessons dovetail right into the Air lessons, and by the time I’m done I should have a really good basis to work from as I progress beyond the six months.

I’ll Take “Potpourri” For a Thousand, Alex

First off, I would like to thank all of you who have made constructive comments on this blog. It helps to get feedback, and some of the comments have given me some excellent alternate perspectives. Even those that give a bit of moral support or “Yeah, I’ve been there” are appreciated. So just wanted to say thank you 🙂

As for the potpourri, I’ve had a lot of random thoughts since my last post. Rather than bombarding you with a bunch of single paragraphs, I’ll condense and conserve.

I was thinking more about my earlier observation that healing has never been one of my fortes as far as magic goes. And I realized that maybe it doesn’t have to be. It’s not unprecedented for a shaman to be a specialist. While a lot of the traditional roles of shamans have been taken over by specialists in this culture–doctors, priests, psychologists, and grocers (the latter of which are involved in finding food)–that doesn’t mean that all shamans must be generalists. While I see healing as part of the “general curriculum” of shamans, this doesn’t mean that my primary focus has to be on healing arts. If I were to shove myself into a role, I’d say that what it seems like I’m getting nudged towards is a modern approximation of the hunting shaman–the one who contacts the Animal Master/totems/etc. about releasing a few animals for the tribe to eat. Now, granted, there are still people in the U.S. who hunt for food. However, I’m an urban kinda person at this point, so I deal more with grocery stores and farmer’s markets (stalking the wily Cherry Garcia!). So I see that role manifested as a person who deals with the “food totems” and asks them how I may help heal the damage done to them through abuse of their physical children. I also extend it to other species, wildlife that are extremely endangered, to see what I can do to help them. I may not be combing the wounded sea-goddess’ hair in the Arctic, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a task or three for me to do.

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I’ve been exploring the physical air some, observing its qualities. Now I realize even more why the element of Air is so associated with communication. It’s not just breath that counts, or wind–air is integral to our perception of light. While light can certainly pass through empty space with no problem, air often affects how we perceive it, whether through particles in the air, or air moving or otherwise affecting the objects that light bounces off of/illuminates to create our perception of colors. To give a negative view of this, it’s not just light pollution that makes it tougher to see the stars at night, but also air pollution.

Sound is also connected to Air. It travels upon the air, and once again the quality and temperature of that air can affect how we perceive it. The breath, of course, is the most easily observed example. However, humidity, temperature and speed of air can affect how quickly sound travels through it.

We swim through an ocean of air (I think Starhawk actually put it that way in The Earth Path). It is the medium, the matrix, through which we move. Maybe we can’t float (without help, anyway) but it carries so much to us. If I were to characterize just one of the elements as connecting us all, it would be air. The air I breathe as I write this has traveled through the lungs (or stomata, in the case of plants) of my ancestors and neighbors. It has traveled through numerous bodies, and will continue to do so (assuming, of course, that we don’t go and wipe out life on this planet thanks to our environmentally destructive foibles). Air truly is the element of communication for me, though I’d imagine if I were a fish, Water might be more important in that regard.

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One of the issues with being a self-taught neoshaman, as opposed to a traditionally trained shaman, is that there isn’t a previously crafted cosmology presented to me by someone else. This means that it’s up to me to figure all that out, which involves essentially learning both from my experiences and observations, and what the spirits tell me. In one way it’s good because it offers me a lot more flexibility. Part of the reason I’ve never been big on learning under someone else is that I’d have to take on their cosmology to some extent. While I respect that people have different understandings of The Way Things Work, I want to work within my own understanding thereof. However, this also means that along with learning shamanizing, I’m also building a cosomology from scratch, albeit scratch that I’ve collected for over a decade.

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One element of my cosmology that’s recently fallen into place involves the Animal Father. He’s been rather quiet lately; he even sent Stag as his representative for my Autumn Equinox ritual. The only time I spend any significant time with him is when I’m hiking. I finally figured out that he simply does not like “civilized” areas. He stems (if my UPG is accurate) from a time when humans were ensconced in Nature, and his occasional forays into more paved-over areas have not been good. So he prefers to meet with me when I hike, though a park is acceptable if there are no other alternatives. This would explain why I was told to try to get out to hike at least once a month, and why he was quiet for the five weeks when I didn’t go hiking in October and November.

Right now it’s too late in the year to go out to the mountains; the trails were already icy last weekend. But there’s a large park on the west side of Portland that may work well for my purposes until the weather improves again. I just can’t get him to show up for more than a brief moment, even in my ritual room. Therefore, he sends emissaries in the forms of certain totems that are his own; particularly those I celebrate at the solstices and equinoxes–Red Stag, Dire Wolf, Cave Bear, and European Lion.

I may see about seeking out that park this weekend, if the weather doesn’t get too bad. If I can take public transit out there, so much the better.

Totems and Taboos (No Relation to Freud)

A private post on someone else’s journal got me thinking about the nature of the totems I work with. While I don’t consider totems to be the exact same thing as deities, I see them as the theriomorphic counterpart in a lot of ways. And while I have worked with a few deities over the years, my work with totems has been much more extensive.

The thing that I’ve noticed with totems, in my experience, is that relatively speaking they’re pretty laid back when working with me. By this I mean they don’t make difficult demands of me. They’ll make requests, but they seem to have a rather large amount of patience with my inconsistencies and mistakes. Rather than punishing me, they let me pick myself up, dust myself off, and go on–and may even give me help if I’m struggling.

I know, for my part, that there’s really only so much I’m willing to take as far as demands go. If I’m going to work within the parameters of a particular religion, spirituality, or deity/totem/etc., there has to be a good reason for it; it has to contribute to my growth without adversely affecting other areas of my life. I have had experiences where I thought my life was falling apart, but they always turned out to be for the best in the end–appearances may be deceiving. Still, I have my limits on how much I’ll take. While I definitely see the need for boundaries and respect those who go through some pretty intense experiences with some severe boundaries, that’s not where my personal allowances lie. I’m willing to compromise myself, but only to a certain extent. And I tend to prefer a primarily self-directed experience; the situation I’m in with therioshamanism and with the Animal Father is a first for my pagan path. There’s more discipline (though again, primarily self-directed, but with more outside structure) and I’m putting in more effort that’s not directed solely at myself, and learning more about generosity without being guilted into it. Even then, it’s more a partnership than anything; we all give something, and we all get something. I don’t feel like I’m being inconvenienced, only shown where I may give a little more than I originally thought I was capable.

I believe the totems respect my self-direction, and have for the duration of our relationship. They’ve sometimes nudged me to one side or another in an attempt to keep me from going too far over the edge, but they’ve not really openly interfered. Rather, they’ve trusted that I would end up at this point on my own power, a point at which I’m becoming much more receptive to working with them more regularly and with their needs as well as my own in mind. I’ve needed a lot of room, time and growth to get here, and they’ve been generous and patient in allowing me that space.

However, I also have to wonder how subjective the relationship is. How do we know that we’re doing it “right”, regardless of what we’re doing? For instance, I know some pagans who have pretty intense relationships with their gods, with a number of proscribed taboos and other restrictions. Yet other pagans work with the same deities and report a much more laid-back experience. Sometimes there are disagreements about how to “properly” worship a particular deity, with accusations of “You’re doing it wrong!”

I’ll admit I tend towards the more laid-back, free-form approach with both totems and deities. Honestly, a few of the situations I’ve seen or heard of make the gods seem more like the Boogey-man–“If you don’t do this *just* so, I’m gonna GETCHA!” (Or at least this is the sense I get from some of their more stringent devotees, who have conniptions over the antics of eclectics.) Granted, this is me looking from an outsider’s perspective, but I know that I wouldn’t be up for a relationship of any sort, deity or otherwise, that puts so many conditions and expectations on any of the participants.

However, I’m not here to judge others’ experiences; if this is what spiritually fulfills people, then that’s what’s right for them; different people have different needs. This includes when working with the same deity or other entity. But how do we tell who’s doing it right and who isn’t? Does the person with the more intense, sacrificial relationship automatically get more points with the Divine than the one who has a bunch of statues of deities from around the world on an eclectic altar?

I think my biggest question would be: what effect does a relationship have on an individual basis? Does the person get something out of the relationship, regardless of its nature, and is it worth the cost? For instance, people in very intense relationships may appear to be in the spiritual equivalent of an abusive relationship–yet this may be a positive experience for them (the same could be said of lifestyle submissives or slaves in a healthy BDSM context). And the aforementioned eclectic may have very close relationships with a diversity of deities, without ever worrying about whether it’s being done according to the correct breed of dogma. Yes, there needs to be room to give back as well; that’s been an important lesson for me of late. But I don’t want that gift to be wrested from my hands. Just as I do not make demands of the totems, so they do not make demands of me; we make requests of each other.

To bring this back home, my relationship with the totems is decidedly unorthodox, and almost entirely created of UPG. I work with totems from different ecosystems. Granted, I haven’t met much in the way of those who have intense-to-the-point-of-distress relationships with totems (with the exception of those who go on shamanic journeys which may in themselves be intense). The closest I’ve seen have been proscribed taboos regarding not eating the meat or otherwise using the remains of the physical version of one’s totem–and many times that seems to be taken on by the person, not demanded by the totem.

So why is this? Are animal totems naturally gentler? Or is it because the majority of people who work with them today (in a neopagan context, at least, which is my context) don’t expect them to be anything but helpful, or at the most, neutral? If more people expected totems to be taskmasters, would there be more pagans making huge sacrifices of time, effort and convenience for the sake of totemic relationships?

Furthermore, am I doing something wrong because I’m not getting these great demands placed upon me as conditions of my relationships? Am I not giving enough because I still enjoy giving, or because I haven’t given to the point where it hurts, or because we make polite requests of each other? I don’t think so. I think we all end up with the relationships we need, though they may not be the ones we initially *think* we need. We may start out thinking we need A, but when we get A we may find that B is actually closer to what works for us, despite initial impressions. And we age and change over time, which may necessitate revised or even new relationships.

While I don’t think spirituality is all about what we can get out of it, I do think that our relationships to Spirit are a lot more subjective than sometimes assumed. Perhaps we are attracted to paths that appeal to us aesthetically; I have had success, for instance, with paths other than neoshamanism, but this is the one that has been best for me. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the systems, so much as it is finding my little slice of infinity. To limit the gods and other entities only to one way of perceiving them does a disservice to them. After all, our relationships with other people isn’t based on a single model. Perhaps the totems are kind to me, and perhaps with other people who expect a harsher relationship, they may bite more.

All I am sure of is that, in this moment, I have found what is most effective, practically and spiritually, for me AND for the beings I work with. That, to me, is the surest proof in the pudding. So I’ll continue with my request-based relationships unless/until the time comes to renegotiate.

Exercises in Perception

I’ve been attempting to get out and hike at least twice a month. It may get tougher as winter comes on and the roads become less reliable, but I’ll do my best–I may just end up going to a large park nearby if necessary.

I’ve been looking forward to today’s hike for a couple of weeks now. My husband spent the day at his life coaching classes, following the new stage of his own path, and didn’t need the car, so I had a perfect opportunity to spend as much time out in the woods as I needed to. I went out to my usual spot in the Columbia River Gorge. There are enough people there that I feel safe going out there on my own, but not so many as to feel too touristy. A nice balance all around.

Today I made it my goal to go all the way up to the summit of the mountain, which, if I went the whole way, would have added another mile and a half to my two mile hike up. I got up this morning a little before 9 am to get ready. The Animal Father nudged me and mentioned that meat and cheese proteins would be a good idea. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much beyond a partial box of precooked bacon that I used for pizzas this weekend, and some shredded cheese that I needed for supper tonight. Not wanting to detour to the store on my way, I opted to stash the bacon along with some trail mix and granola bars, and the big water jug (since I left the smaller bottle at work, not thinking).

So I got started on my hike right at 10am. Almost immediately I noticed that I was wearing out quicker than usual–I hadn’t even made it a quarter mile before I was out of breath and my legs started to feel like lead. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it up to the first stop, let alone the rest of the way up! But I decided to continue on; the message I got from the Powers That Be was “Slow down; take a break as needed; enjoy the scenery. You have all the time you need–don’t push yourself too hard. Allow yourself to be what you are right now”.

So that’s exactly what I did. I ended up stopping every couple hundred yards on the steeper parts, and took my speed down a couple of notches. Taking a layer off helped once I got warmed up, and I drank more water than I really needed specifically to lighten the load in my backpack. I figured, too, that I probably hadn’t gotten enough protein this past week; my appetite’s been a little on the low side. Still, with water and food and a good pace I managed to make it up to the first stop before the trail that went to the summit. Once I got to that point, it was time for a break. I ended up playing unofficial trail guide, helping the lost find their way at this crossroads. Having done a bit of reading on Jungian archetypes in storytelling as of late, I was rather amused at my temporary role as Gatekeeper.

I felt better after my break, so I decided to continue on up towards the summit. I only made it maybe another half mile, but that was all I needed–the rest of the trail was one huge loop that I went a little way down before I was told to go off trail to a small clearing–still in sight of the trail, but removed enough for some privacy. The clearing itself wasn’t very big, maybe eight square feet hemmed in by fallen trees covered in moss. But it was a nice patch of sunlight, too, and it was perfect for what I needed. So I set my stuff down in a corner and settled down onto the ground.

The first thing the Animal Father had me do was to lay back against a fallen log that had a nice layer of natural “mulch” on it. While there were some insects around, it wasn’t a highly creepy-crawly area, and so I didn’t end up swatting bugs the whole time. In fact, they didn’t bother me a bit, even though I knew some were around me. I spent about 15-20 minutes (times are estimated since I didn’t have a watch and wasn’t that concerned) doing so, allowing myself to ground and clear my mind of all the worries about things that might await me when I got back to the “real world”, and the other little annoyances that may interfere with meditation/etc. It was good to let everything clear out, including a couple of “false starts” as far as communicating with various spirits and entities went. I sometimes forget how useful relaxing thoroughly before making contact can be–makes it so much easier!

Once I was done, I sat up. I did a very mild invocation of the Animal Father–or, rather, he very “lightly” connected with my consciousness, just enough to help me shift my perception a bit. I had been looking for a bird that I heard a few yards away in the trees, and had had no luck in seeing it. The Animal Father slowed me down, and showed me how to take in what I saw without jumping from place to place to place. It was a much more deliberate way of seeing things. By that time the bird had flown off, but there was more for me to see.

He had me look down at the ground right in front of where I sat, about a twelve inch square space hemmed in by logs and sticks, as well as my legs. Then he told me to look very carefully at every individual thing I saw. I spent quite a bit of time studying fir needles in different colors, tiny little fir cones the size of my thumbnail, and two little mushrooms, each of a different species–I think I focused on about three square inches total. It was fascinating, the mixture of colors and textures of twigs and leaves, cones and needles. Occasionally an itsy-bitsy spider (with no waterspout nearby) would walk through, reddish brown with translucent amber legs, body no bigger than a poppy seed.

After what I think was about 15-20 minutes of this, I turned a bit and focused on an inch-long beetle, either dark blue or black, crawling through the leaf litter. Normally insects that close to me creep me out just a little, the worry that they’ll crawl on me or get into my bag. However, I thought about what it might be like to have a chipmunk bounce through the clearing, and the delight that might cause. I took that sense of wonder, and applied it to the beetle–and spent a number of minutes watching this tiny little animal share my space for a bit. (Crab would be proud, since once of her first observations was that I felt detached from arthropods because of the exoskeleton/endoskeleton thing.)

Then came the third exercise. The god had me look at a spot directly ahead of me, about ten feet out. I did this for several minutes until my perception began to narrow down to just that spot–extraneous thought floating through my mind stopped, and nothing else mattered except for that tree trunk. Next, he had me look at a leaf on a log about twenty feet away. My focus became sharper. However, at the same time, I found myself suddenly aware of everything in my field of vision. It was like one of those Magic Eye graphics, only instead of seeing a 3-D image where a 2-D pattern had been, my awareness of everything I saw suddenly popped into prominence, even though the center never wavered from that leaf. I took in falling leaves to my right, blowing branches to my left, clouds of insects dancing across the clearing–but I stayed focused on the leaf.

Finally, I looked out to about thirty-five to forty feet away, about as far as I could make out in the dense trees ahead, and focused on a small patch of sunlight through the leaves. By this point I was quite nicely nestled in an altered state of consciousness, and it was no trouble to continue to see everything at once. Everything became interconnected rather than being individual branches, leaves, trunks, bushes, etc. I saw angles, and colors, and lines, all creating one big tapestry–and once again, my focus stayed on that one sunny spot.

Then, for some reason, I began blinking very rapidly, in bursts of fifteen to twenty seconds, about half a dozen times in a few minutes. This created a temporary strobe effect similar to that gained by use of a Dreamachine or Mind machine. I couldn’t keep it up for very long, but I could tell that if I had kept it up, I would have slid into a much deeper state of consciousness. I believe this was meant to be a cue that at this point in such a meditation, the introduction of another form of sensory stimulus could be useful (I was still aspecting the Animal Father to an extent at this point, and I am pretty sure this was his doing).

At this point, it was suggested that I “come back up for air”, ground myself, eat a bit, and then start heading back down the mountain. So I did, stopped at the crossroads to record everything in my written journal, and then had a very refreshing hike back down the mountain–I felt tired from the hiking, but very recharged from my experience.

I think the main theme for today was in perception. I have the short attention span and impatience of many of us raised in the era of television and increased commercial stimuli, as well as the instant gratification of web surfing. Additionally, living in an urban area I’m exposed to numerous stimuli on a daily basis, from negotiating traffic (whether as a pedestrian or, less frequently, a driver), to keeping an eye on other people, to looking to see if my bus is arriving, and then some. So I’ve become very conditioned towards favoring quickly changing stimuli–I used to actually have trouble watching movies all the way through, and I still occasionally will get up in the middle of an hour long show (on DVD–I don’t watch TV on a regular basis) to wash the dishes or check my email. I found that this actually hindered my experiences in the woods–I’d miss small animals on the side of the trail because I wouldn’t look long enough to see them there, and I didn’t enjoy the scenery as much because I’d be looking all over the place.

My fatigue made me stop and really look at things as I was climbing the mountain; additionally, continued use of my elemental exercises helped me to connect to where I was. But it was the final exercise in perception that really cemented in me the need to be able to focus longer. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it; working magic naturally requires focus. However, over the years I found myself finding ways to alter my consciousness more quickly so I could get into the ritual in less time, and I think this hampered my ability to hit deeper states of consciousness. Since deeper trances (such as those used for journeying and soul retrieval) are something I consider necessary to learn for therioshamanism, it’s not surprising that I was shown the importance of changing my perception, and told that I needed to practice this as I’ve been doing the elemental work.

Again, this seems like an incredibly basic exercise–and it is. However, I’m finding that being able to start all over at the beginning, rebuilding from the ground up, has been exceptionally healthy for me, just in the few weeks I’ve been doing it. I’m paying closer attention to my health, and making steps to make my life a better place for learning and developing. It’s not an instant cure-all, of course, but it would seem that answering the urge to formalize my path has had a lot of added benefits.

Oooooomennnnssss, wooooooooo!

Heh–I’m feeling just a little silly. Sleep dep’ll do that to me now and then.

Just as a side note, while it is my amazing and great intention to post here every single day at least once, if it doesn’t happen, it’s not because I don’t love you 😉 Mainly it’s going to be due to either A) too much stuff happening (e.g., work, taking a vacation from teh intarwebz) or B) not enough stuff happening (e.g., can’t think of anything to write about, ebb in spiritual/magical activity for a few days).

Now, to the post itself.

I’m nowhere near being the biggest fan of omens. I like Occam’s razor; it’s a good tool to have on hand when dissecting spiritual experiences. To put it very briefly, it states that the simplest answer is the most likely. Therefore I tend to look askance at the idea that because you see a crow outside your house every morning, that must mean that Crow is your totem. (Have you asked your neighbor where all that bird food is going?)

So when confronted with sightings of animals, I tend to look less at the esoteric meanings of said critters, and more at where their closest habitat might be, whether they’re known to be territorial, etc. A common example I like to use to illustrate this point is the hawk. Raptors in general have gained in numbers, especially in the past couple of decades, thanks to the ban on DDT. For those who aren’t aware, DDT was a pesticide in use until it was banned in the early 1970s. DDT would wash into the waterways where fish would absorb it. Certain species of raptor, including some hawks, which ate fish would absorb the DDT, which then caused thinning of egg shells, leading to fewer successful hatches. Hawks are territorial as well, and are somewhat adaptable to urban areas (or at least the suburbs, though I once saw a hawk down a pigeon near the baseball stadium in downtown Pittsburgh). So if you start seeing hawks regularly, chances are good you have a mated pair whose territory includes your home.

Ironically enough, it was a hawk that sparked this post. Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen very few hawks–only one in Seattle, and until recently, none in Portland. I’ve actually seen more bald eagles than hawks. However, yesterday as I was walking from work to the train station, I saw what looked like a juvenile Northern harrier (marsh hawk) fly right overhead. Now, this isn’t surprising–though I work in a suburb of Portland, it still has a lot of greenspace, including some wetlands, perfect for more adaptable species. I’ve seen muskrats in the grass right next to the sidewalk, less than a yard away from me, and there’s a blue heron in the marsh near my building. So a hawk isn’t surprising.

However, the reason it made me take notice was that in my elemental totem ritual this past weekend, one thing that Hawk, my East/Air totem, specifically mentioned the fact that I hadn’t seen very many physical hawks here, compared to the Midwest, where I saw redtails all the time. It was a nice reminder that Hawk was still here, even though of all the directional totems, he’s the one I’ve worked with least on a magical level.

However, more importantly than that, it was a reminder of something from that ritual. I was told to spend some time this month (every day, preferably) observing the interplay of the elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) in my life in different environments. Now, while I mean well, I can be a procrastinator, and I also have a spotty memory–which means I don’t always do what I’m told, not because I’m being willfully argumentative, but because I either forget it or don’t get around to it. So the vivid vision of the first hawk I’ve seen in Portland was a good mnemonic for this.

Ordinarily, I would have just seen the hawk as a hawk, and considered it a cool thing. However, because of the temporal proximity to the ritual and the nature of Hawk’s conversation, and the fact that the sighting triggered a specific response (hello, Pavlov!) I considered it to be an extraordinary experience. Do I think that hawk materialized only to remind me of Hawk-like things? Nope. However, I do like the idea of synchronicity, and this was a vivid example.

It reminded me, reflecting on it at the bus stop this morning, of something I read in Lon Milo DuQuette’s The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed ben Clifford*. DuQuette, speaking through the fictional (though no less entertaining and educational) Rabbi Lamed ben Clifford, makes the point that everything in the world is a message to him from G-d. Now, there are several ways this could be interpreted. One way is the “Everything is an OMEN!!!!” (in an omen-ous voice, no less!) method, in which anything even remotely out of one’s usual routine is seen as important (and often negative). Then, of course, there’s the option of just ignoring everything (but where’s the use in that? You need to pick up the phone at some point.)

I tend to see things as variable in importance. Looking at the beauty of Nature, that’s the Divine saying “Hey, look at me–I’m gorgeous! And balanced! And you’re a part of this, too, remember!” And being with my mate is “Love is a wonderful thing, and it bestows blessings (even if there are occasional curses)”. These are important, but relatively everyday. Occasionally there’s something more specific, a “Wake up and pay attention!” kind of thing. And that’s how I saw the hawk yesterday–not as something that was manifested solely for my benefit, but as part of the interwoven complexity that is the Divine.

This doesn’t mean I never get premonitions, of course. I’ve had those times when my intuition went *ping*, and I knew something big was in the offing. But I don’t generally get them through as indirect a means as seeing a hawk fly by–usually the experience is anything but ambiguous, and there’s no doubt in my mind.

And sometimes it’s nice to just enjoy watching a hawk wing its way across the marsh–that’s magic in its own right, as far as I’m concerned.

*Hell yes! I’m a Chicken Qabalist!

Who is the Animal Father?

You’ll see references to “the Animal Father” throughout this blog. This is my personal conception of deity that I work with in Therioshamanism right now. Allow me to explain.

I believe that the Divine is infinite, or about as close to infinite as it gets. As a pantheist, I believe that the Divine is within all things, and that all things (physical and otherwise) compose the Divine just as cells compose a body. I also believe, as a polytheist, that there are numerous individual deities from pantheons around the world, and that they are individual, independent beings that reflect qualities of the cultures they come from*. Finally, I am an animist, and I believe that everything has a spirit of sorts (including deities); that spirit (or soul, if you will) is the spark of the Divine manifest in each thing.

I don’t believe the Divine can be limited to one human perception of it. We “create” or “discover” (depending on how you view mythology) individual deities that represent a very small facet of the Divine. We gravitate towards deities that resonate with our values, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. Likewise, deities may call to people they resonate with. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all religion–or a one-size-fits-all view of the Divine.

I also have no problem with UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). While I think it needs to be treated with care and a lick of salt, I do not believe that the only people who can converse with the Divine and have Divine revelations are clergy. I am a pantheist–everything is Divine–and the Divine is imminent, which means we all can talk with “God/dess”. IMO, the idea that Divine revelations are rare and reserved only for the holiest people is something that has been used to control the masses for centuries–if you don’t let people think for themselves (even if it’s to decide they want to stay within the parameters of a given religion) they’re much more malleable. As with anything, I think it’s important to question our perceptions, but I apply that to anything, from religion to politics to love to determining whether we want to live in a certain place or not.

I do think that Unverified PERSONAL Gnosis is, well, *personal*. It’s not about huge proclamations for everyone in the world, or even everyone in your apartment building. It’s a personal message from the Divine, and it’s important to question what we think we’ve perceived to make sure there wasn’t an error in communication somewhere along the line. So therefore my personal mythology about the Animal Father is something I limit to my worldview alone.

I do still, of course, acknowledge the Divine overall, and it is my relationship to the Divine (basically, everything that is) that determines things such as ethics. All people decide what their personal ethics are–even if it is a *choice* to follow a particular set of rules laid out by someone else. I simply take more into account than what one particular sliver of the Divine says.

So, anyway, the Animal Father–who is he? Well, this particular cave painting has always struck a very deep chord with me. It’s been speculated, by Joseph Campbell and others, that this is a representation of a paleolithic deity, the Animal Master (to use one of Campbell’s terms). He is the keeper of the animals, the deity that paleolithic hunters and/or shamans appealed to in order to have a successful hunt. You can still see this concept in various indigenous religions; a well-known example is Sedna from Inuit mythology. The shaman must travel down to her home deep in the ocean and comb her hair to convince her to release the whales, seals and fish to live on. So the concept of a deity that watches over the wild creatures isn’t so far-off, and while there’s no proof that such a deity existed all the way back to Paleolithic times**, my experiences say otherwise. The deity I speak to, whether he actually is a remnant of an older time, or simply a new mask of God that has been given to me by the Divine using ancient imagery, speaks to me on a fundamental level. Alternately known by people as the Sorceror, the Antler Shaman, Animal Master, etc., the name he gave me to use is the Animal Father.

“So aren’t you just making up a deity?” Maybe I am, though I prefer to think, as I mentioned above, that the Divine has simply given me a particular mask to understand it through. People have been “making up” deities for millenia. Again, allow me to remind readers of the correlation between the personalities of deities, and the cultures they come from. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing its pantheon, as well as its religious precepts. Anyway, I believe that this is an aspect of the Divine I have been given, rather than creating it myself, a process that has hardly originated with me.

Beyond that yes, I’m aware of the pitfalls of creating own’s own religion primarily from scratch. Yes, I’m aware of the possibility of self-delusion. Yes, I do keep close tabs on myself. No, I don’t think that my religion has to apply to other people. It is, after all, *personal*. However, this is something I’ve been actively working with for over a decade. I may not be perfect, but I’m not just leaping into this, either. I’m basically organizing things I have discovered are true for me, and this is a recent revelation that works in nicely with the rest. I don’t think I’m the first person to go through this process, though many people do so via committees. I’m not a committee kind of person.

This is what works for me, and while it may be incomprehensible to a lot of people, it makes perfect sense in my mind. (Reading Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell may help you understand my mind a little more, by the way.)

So enough of that–back to the Animal Father himself; he is personified by that particular cave painting, though he is NOT the cave painting itself, any more than Jesus *is* the cross with a statue of a person on it. There’s a difference between deity, and representation of deity. My primary focus in my spiritual path is with animal totems; I’ll explain my conception of them in more detail in a later post, but the short version is that totems are archetypal beings that represent all the qualities of a particular species–both the natural history, and the human mythology and lore created around the animals. I work with other animal spirits as well, but that’s the main group. So it’s not surprising that I ended up with a(nother***) deity that has a strong influence over wildlife in general.

From talking with him, I’ve found that the four animals that compose his image are: red stag, dire wolf, cave bear and cave lion, all paleolithic animals contemporary to his original time period. I’ve assigned each one to a solstice or equinox for the purpose of celebrating the turning of the seasons. Stag is Autumn, Wolf is Winter, Bear is Spring and Lion is Summer.

Our relationship is to mutual benefit. He’ll teach me what he has to share about working with totems and other animal spirits, as well as spiritual/shamanic practices in conjunction with a closer relationship with the land, and I provide him a connection in this world. As the wild has slowly declined (particularly in France, his place of origin), so has his influence over the physical realm. While I don’t see myself as some great propher or guru of the Nature God, I’m not adverse to a relationship with a deity that includes practical ways of helping this world as well as other layers of reality (without having to go around and tell other people that their religious beliefs are wrong/evil/etc.).

So that’s a very basic rundown of what’s probably one of the more (relatively) far-fetched parts of my religion. When it comes to deities, most people are comfortable going with one crowd or another–safety in numbers and collective consensus. I don’t believe that my quest to seek my own version of “truth”, to include my personal view of the Divine, is any less valid. Unorthodox in several ways, to be sure, but in the end, the best determinant of whether something is true for a person or not is how well it meshes with a *healthy* perspective. This view of the Divine supports my assertion that Nature (along with everything else) is sacred, and that it’s important to be aware of the impact I have on other living beings, to include nonhuman animals. In fact, being pagan in general has taught me that everything *is* interconnected, and that there needs to be a balance between my own needs and the needs of others. It’s also demonstrated that the connections others have with me can be harmful or helpful, and that just because I’m connected to a person, it doesn’t mean that I can’t weaken a harmful connection to lessen the damage.

* To repeat an anonymous quote, “You know you have created God in your own image when your God hates the same people you do”.

** Recent speculation about Neanderthal burial sites, in which specific items such as flowers were buried with the dead, indicates a very possible belief in the afterlife even that early.

*** My matron Goddess for the past decade has been Artemis; however, she has temporarily lessened her influence to allow the Animal Father to come in and work with me more.