Replying to Owl, and Fox’s Tour

I journeyed again today to tell Owl about my answer regarding the Upper World. When I arrived, Fox and Scrub Jay were there, asking for my attention. I asked them to please wait until I could give Owl my answer, and they told me they would wait with me for hir arrival. So I called to Owl, and asked hir to please share hir time with me, if s/he was willing. S/he flew overhead, and told me s/he’d give me time if I’d catch a mouse for hir.

So I ran off into the underbrush, trying to scent out a mouse. I found where they were hidden deep in the earth, and also places where they had once been, but weren’t any more. Fox then came and said, “I can show you where you can get a mouse easily–follow me!” So I did, running up the mountain with hir. S/he showed me where there was a hollow log with a family of mice inside. I chased them from end to end, until one finally slipped out, a little confused, then realized hir mistake and tried to burrow under the log. I caught hir before s/he could get out of reach, and carried hir in my mouth. I was a little lost by that point, but Fox came back and led me back down to where Owl waited. I was a bit concerned that Mouse would be unhappy about me catching one of hir young, but Fox told me, “Mice get eaten all the time, including by Owl. That’s just the way of things.”

So I brought the mouse to Owl, who told me to kill the mouse. I did, and gave the mouse to Owl, who ate the carcass in two bites. Then Owl told me to tell hir my answer. I explained that my only reason for wanting to go to the Upper World was out of curiosity and a desire to know what was up there. Owl laughed and said, “That’s good enough for me. Now, when you feel you’re ready to go up there, let me know and I’ll show you how”. Then s/he flew away.

Fox then told me to come with hir. S/he took me down the trail to the west, and showed me where Mole lived–a recluse, and not easy to get to come out, but valuable to know. Then we went to the waterfall, and watched the river dragons leaping ecstatically over the cliff, laughing gleefully as they did so. I got the feeling they were analogous to the spirits that showed up as blue flames on the trail to the Upper World, that the river dragons guarded the way to the Lower World. This was one point where I could meet with them when the time came to go there.

Then Fox took me back up the trail a ways to a place that I had been interested in before. I couldn’t go there in waking time, but I was perfectly able to do so while journeying. I sniffed around there a bit, and Fox told me that this would be a good place to “put things, create things, build things”. Basically anything from a shelter for myself, to a place to do a ritual as needed, and most importantly, one of many places I could cache things I might need later on. I need to have some things on hand for offerings and gifts, and also have the spiritual “versions” of certain ritual items that I possess physically. Plus, in case I receive any gifts in return, it would be a good idea to have a place to keep them. Fox told me things should be safe so long as I hide them well; there really aren’t many other people who journey there.

Then Fox and I went back to the starting place, and I came back home. I noticed that while I still waver in and out of my altered state of consciousness while I journey, I’m doing it less, and staying focused on the journey more consistently. Practice makes perfect, right? (Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.)

Look! A Post! A Long Post, Even!

I apologize for those on the LJ feed for this blog; there’s no way I can LJ-cut this post to make it shorter. Bear with me–I’m just trying to catch up after so long! Graci 🙂

I know I’ve been exceptionally quiet here (and elsewhere) lately. It’s been over a month since I posted, and over two months since I last journeyed. There’s been good reason for this. As I mentioned earlier this year, I was accepted into the counseling psychology program at a local graduate school, and am working on my Master’s degree. I don’t think I quite realized just how much of my life grad school would consume, and as my first semester progressed I found myself working harder to try to maintain equilibrium with the increasing demands on my time. It’s all been worth it, but it does mean that my active practice sort of fell to the wayside.

Fortunately, the spirits have been understanding. While grad school isn’t something that’s strictly shamanic, it does tie in with my practice on a number of levels, and so I am putting effort towards my shamanism even if it doesn’t involve drums and totems and so forth (most of the time, anyway…). In fact, I’ve been learning a lot of things that are highly applicable to my practice.

The most obvious is ecopsychology. Ecopsych involves the psychology of our relationship to the natural environment. An ecopsychologist may be concerned with the psychology associated with how people approach the environment, whether in positive or negative manners. Additionally, wilderness therapy and other practices focus on using the environment for therapeutic purposes. Ecopsychology is about as close to animism as you get in the Western mindset; it uses the language of psychology rather than religion, though there are some very strong spiritual themes within ecopsych.

I’ve been very interested in narrative therapy as well, which isn’t surprising given my background in English. Narrative therapy can refer to the use of storytelling–whether through writing, visual aids (artwork), or other creative means–to aid a client in being more open in talking about what s/he needs to work on. Additionally, the use of narratives can help a client find meaning in hir life, particularly when s/he may feel there is little connection between various events and entities that s/he encounters.

And I’ve also had some curiosity about Gestalt therapy. Some people primarily think of some of the more dramatic techniques, such as the empty chair. (I remember in high school seeing a film of a session where the client became angry enough to begin kicking the chair across the room!) “Gestalt” literally means “shape”, and like the Kanizsa triangle, Gestalt therapy demonstrates the whole of something, not just what is obviously “there”. It takes where the client is at the time and explores the context of the situation in detail–the people, places, and other influences that affect the client’s situation, as well as the manners in which the client acts upon the situation.

I’ll also admit that I found some bits of systems theory interesting. However, I’m still trying to wrap my head about Bradford Keeney’s Aesthetics of Change, which was by far my most challenging textbook this past semester. I’ll need to get a firmer grasp on it through Keeney and others before I can say for sure how much I want to incorporate it into my therapeutic practice in the future.

All of these areas of therapeutic practice focus on interconnection, something that is central to my shamanic practice. In the dominant cultural paradigm of the United States, we are encouraged to be isolated beings; we have the hyperromanticized “rugged individualist”. Yet we are part of numerous systems, whether we want to admit it or not. Everything that we do has an effect on something besides ourselves, and while many of these exchanges may seen to be insignificant, they can add up to create quite a change. (Or series of changes, really.)

Therioshamanism is much the same way. While a lot of my work focuses specifically on animals, I do not consider them to be separate from the rest of the world, and I do acknowledge the connections to everything else. Part of what I do is to act as an intermediary between the spirits and the human community. This need not always be direct things, such as journeying on behalf of another person. It can include passing along something that the spirits would like to have manifest in a way that is understandable to people I interact with. Often this happens simply through leading by example.

Take the gardening, for instance. Gardening promotes sustainable living, which eases the pressure on the environment in numerous ways–which is an effort that I’ve found is appreciated by the spirits I work with. Simply by geeking out about my garden on my personal blog, I managed to inspire a few other folks to start their own gardening projects this year. (It’s going to get worse this year–I have a yard now, and I still have room for all my containers. There shall be much growing of green vegetable-type things, and the blogging thereof!)

Of course, there’s a fine line between creating the world you want to see, and pushing an agenda on others. I learned a lot about boundaries in my ethics class this semester. While the boundaries are nowhere near as strict with something like shamanism (which isn’t regulated by any governing bodies or associations), it still gave me some good food for thought. And my primary focus as a therapist (and, for that matter, as a shaman, once I start actively working on others’ behalf) will be on aiding my client, not on making people see things my way. On the other hand, happier, healthier people are a part of the world I want to create, so hey–maybe part of my “agenda” will end up manifesting anyway!

Okay, so enough about graduate school. I’ve had a small group of students I’ve been passing along the basics of my practice to for the past couple of months. Weather, illnesses, scheduling conflicts, and other issues have given things a bit of a rocky start, but I’m pleased overall with how folks are doing. For privacy’s sake, I’m not going to talk much about the classes; needless to say, it’s a good group of folks that I look forward to working with for some time.

There are definitely challenges to trying to arrange even monthly meetings, as opposed to one-shot workshops or limited workshop series. While it’s been worth it so far with this group, I’m not 100% sure I’m going to make this sort of thing a regular occurrence. Some of it’s time issues; however, some of it’s also that so much of this stuff works best when self-directed, as it was created. I’m certainly not going to abandon my current group of students, but I may just eventually end up doing what I do best–write a book about it and let the readers take it from there.

Teaching students has been my main activity associated with therioshamanism. As I mentioned, I haven’t journeyed in a couple of months. However, now that I’m on break, I have more time for such things. Unfortunately, since Taylor and I just moved to a new place, most of my stuff is still packed up. My plan for this weekend is to try and get it unpacked; I need to be journeying again. I’ve missed it, and I have some things I need to do.

I don’t think I realized just how grounding my practice has been for me. It helps to promote deeper connections with the world around me; instead of journeying, I’ve been going for a lot of walks, and otherwise engaging in a lot of little, everyday activities that remind me of that connection. I’m going to try to reach a better balance this coming semester so that I can have more time for my practice, even if it’s not as often as I’d like. Yes, the grad school stuff works into it, but the journeying in specific is irreplacable.

One last thing, speaking of connections. Back in November, I had some tattoo work done. When we first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I got my second wolf tattoo, this one on my left arm, not long after the move:

It symbolized the beginning of my relationship to the Land here. At the time I was in Seattle, where I ended up having less of a connection than I expected. Too big, too crowded, just didn’t sit well with me. However, it got me started, and a year later we moved to Portland–a much better fit for us.

So as part of an ongoing day-to-day ritual of connection, I had more work done to my left arm:

This is partly a portrait of Multnomah Falls (I had the artist take out the bridge; the Falls themselves will be added in later). It’s one of those places that I really connected with, and it was a fitting representative of the Land out here. The work isn’t done yet; this was about two and a half hours in the chair, after which I simply couldn’t take any more, even with the topical anesthetic. So I have an appointment come May to get it finished up. (If you’re interested, by the way, Alice Kendall over at Infinity Tattoo in North Portland is the artist; I highly, highly recommend here.)

While I was getting inked, I did do some journeying (so I suppose I can’t say I haven’t done any in the past couple months–just no drum journeying). I started off at my usual starting point, and travelled all around the general area, both Portland metro and the surrounding areas. I spoke with the Land about my relationship to it, as well as the various entities–human, other animals, plants, etc.–that I could help through the things I am developing. I don’t want to go into any more detail, but needless to say it was confirmation of a number of things. It was, to say the least, an incredible rite of passage–and it won’t be done til May.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I should be able to do some drum journeying in the next few days, to get back into practice.

The Journeying Continues…

Tonight I tried my first journey with a purpose beyond exploration. I had a favor to ask of Badger, and so I went to see hir. I had an offering in mind, something I could give hir now, and something later, if s/he would help me.

I asked Small Horse and Small Deer (the drum and beater) for their aid, warmed up the drum, then I played Small Badger’s song to ask him to help me to negotiate with Badger. He was quite pleased that I played the song for him and asked him for his help, though I may make it a habit to make a small offering besides that for the skin spirits and other helpers.

So we all went to go see Badger. I drummed for a bit to let Small Horse and Small Deer take me to the starting point. When I arrived, I sang Badger’s song as loudly as I could, just to let hir know I was there. In retrospect, I could have gone looking for hir, too, but s/he didn’t seem miffed about coming to me instead. This is probably at least in part because s/he was expecting me; we’ve already talked a bit about the situation, and this time I came armed with offerings.

Badger made hirself look very large and impressive, and s/he towered over me, even for being a normally close to the Earth animal. I was sufficiently awed, and s/he and I got down to business. I told hir what I wanted hir help with, and also what offerings I would make. S/he was surprised, though not unpleasantly so, that I was offering something now and something later. S/he knew how important this situation is, and also that it would take some time to complete. So s/he accepted, and I was happy. I sang Badger’s song for hir again, to boast about how wonderful s/he is, which tickled hir even more.

Then I came back, and sang songs for Small Badger and Small Deer, and played Small Horse’s drumbeat, though I don’t have a song for hir yet. I warmed the drum down, and set out to start making things happen on my end.

I am quite pleased to note that my ritual structure is coming together nicely. When I started all this stuff out last year, I was doing things in a much more generically neopagan manner. I did a circle casting with an athame still, and swept the place with a broom beforehand for purification. I won’t say that my ritual structure now is the exact same as such-and-such culture’s shamans do it, because it isn’t. However, the structure has changed quite a bit.

Part of this is due to my beliefs. I no longer feel that I need to create a “world between worlds” to practice in, and I see all space as sacred, even if the Land in one place is tougher for me to connect with than in another place. While I greet the totems at the directions, I don’t do this as part of circumscribing a circle to divide me from the rest of the world. I don’t see myself as calling them, either–they’re already there; I need only remember that.

As I’m also focusing more on journeying, the ritual structure has evolved to support that as a central practice in many of the rituals, preparing me to go in, and helping me to come back out, as well as interact with the spirits at all points throughout. And the drumming has become much more prevalent, essentially having replaced the athame in greeting the directional totems and others.

Obviously, there are things that are in common between the previous structure and what I use now. But these are the most significant changes I’ve ever made, taking whole sections and tools and things out, and adding others in because they work better. It’s made things a lot more effective, even in this relatively short period of time.

So we’ll see how things progress, and what Badger ends up bringing about. While at an earlier point in my life, particularly when I was heavily into Chaos magic, I was very focused on the end results of my magic to determine my success. While that’s still important, what constitutes a good result may vary more than “I asked for X and got X”. It may be something as simple as “I asked for X, but Badger decided that Y would actually be better–and s/he was right”. Or it may end up being something much more complex, something that can’t be quantified in a linear, cause and effect fashion. “Success” is a very subjective notion, and a ritual that didn’t result in the intended way may still end up being more success than failure.

Not that I’d mind getting what I asked for, of course 😉

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.

Journeying vs. Guided Meditation

I know I’ve been a bit quiet lately. I have been journeying, though, primarily exploratory journeys to get used to the practice of it, and to also get an idea of the “geography” of the Otherworld, so to speak. I don’t really want to talk about a lot of the details, since this is part of the more private end of the path. However, here are a few highlights:

–I have a consistent starting point where I begin all my journeys. Physically, it’s a place I have a good connection to, though not what I expected. I’ve found myself starting here every time, so I think it’s a good sign.

–My “world tree” is actually a mountain. I’ve located the general vicinities of the entrances to the Upper and Lower worlds, but I can’t actually get to them yet (I’ve been presented with them as puzzles). None of this is at all what I expected, but it works.

–I have at least one, possibly two local-to-the-Northwest totems who want to work with me. One I was pretty sure about; the other one was a big surprise.

–I’ve encountered both totems and individual animal spirits while journeying. The totems are definitely more powerful; however, the spirits should not be ignored or dismissed easily.

Journeying is definitely not the same as guided meditation, IME. Guided meditation, from what I can tell, takes me into a “neutral zone”, where neither the spirits nor I have a distinct advantage. I have a lot more control over what happens, what my form is, what I do, etc. and it’s a lot easier to enter and exit.

Journeying, on the other hand, has turned out to be a lot more intense, and I am definitely out of my element there. I’m on the spirits’ turf, so to speak. I find that I tend to take one particular form there, and shapeshifting is much harder. Also, traveling is more difficult. Whereas with guided meditations I’ve been able to easily bypass blockages and manipulate the landscape, there’s no doing that with journeying. If someone says I’m not going past them, then there won’t be any sneaking, or flying up and past–at least at this point. Things that were feasible in guided meditations, aren’t so easy with journeying.

The other thing that I noticed is that the totems in particular are “more themselves” when I journey, especially when compared either to evocation rituals here on the physical plane of reality, or even guided meditation. I’m trying to figure out how to describe this…it’s not just that they’re bigger and stronger. It’s that when I journey, I can observe more of who and what they are, because this is where they’re native to. Conversely, I am more limited; only part of me travels, leaving my body behind. I never realized just how much of myself is wrapped up into my body. I wonder if there’s a spiritual counterpart, something that gets left behind when a totem or other spirit leaves to go to a neutral place, or to visit here through evocation/etc.?

Aside from the journeying, I’ll still be practicing songs; I still need to do songs for Bear and Small Bear. The songs and journeying are creating a nice variety for me that’s keeping me more engaged, especially as I’ve been getting busier.

The Return of Horse

Because I’m going to start doing more formal shamanic work, it became time to get a new drum. I’m still keeping the small goatskin drum I made for my Earth month a while back for practice purposes and backup as necessary (plus it’s quieter, good for apartment living). But I’d been told a while back that once I was ready to start practicing seriously, that I’d need to get a new drum for that. The timing was good–this is my last splurge for awhile, since I’m now a full-time student as of this week.

I chose to go to Cedar Mountain Drums, which is in my neighborhood. I’ve been there a few times, including when I got the kit to make my first drum. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a drumming circle they held there and had a chance to play a number of drums. I hadn’t been sure what sort of drum I was going to get, so this was a good opportunity to try out different sounds and creations. The one that I kept gravitating towards was a large horsehide drum on a cedar frame; the sound was lovely, other than a tiny, barely perceptible vibration at the end of the note.

So when I went today to get my own drum, I headed towards the 17″ unbleached horsehide on cedar frames. I was fortunate in that the owner of the shop had just made a few yesterday, and though they were just a wee bit damp still, they had a very lovely sound. It took me a bit, but I settled on one that had not only a nice voice, but also a good energy to it as well. I picked out a beater as well, and was ready to go. I paid, brought the drum home, and it’s now sitting up in the ritual area along with the smaller drum:

I won’t be playing the new drum yet, not until the Equinox when I’ll be doing a private anniversary ceremony, since it’ll have been a year since I first started on this path.

I do highly recommend Cedar Mountain Drums if you’re in the market for a drum; the owner has 17 years experience in drum making, and runs a very good business.

It is appropriate that the drum ended up being horsehide. I’m finding myself reclaiming some things from when I was younger, things that I had rejected or gotten burned out on. One of these is my relationship with Horse. Horse was the second totem to come into my life, after Wolf. When I was a preteen, not long after I turned twelve, Horse came in to the point that s/he temporarily replaced Wolf for a few years, staying with me until near the end of my senior year of high school.

This was an incredibly awkward time of my life. I was not the most socially adjusted teen in the world, and ended up being picked on more than just about anyone in the school. It wasn’t any one thing; I simply didn’t fit in. Most girls my age had been interested in boys and clothes and makeup for a few years. I was more interested in grubbing around in the woods, reading books about animals, and collecting Breyer Horses. Being in a small town with a small student population that was particularly prone to cliquishness, I didn’t have much in the way of friends. So I ended up spending a lot of time alone.

There were various attempts, over the years, to try to get me to conform in one way or another–a new haircut, an attempt to show me how to use makeup, an inquiry as to whether I should maybe try to make friends with such-and-such clique (who had never shown anything but contempt for me). None of it worked. I tried a few times to be like other people and blend in–and the results were usually disastrous. I simply didn’t get it, and wasn’t interested enough to try any harder.

What Horse did was support my independence, and show me that I didn’t need to conform. Unfortunately, I ended up blaming Horse in part for what I perceived as too much sheltering and the continued proliferation of my social awkwardness–instead of taking responsibility for my actions, as well as understanding that I wasn’t responsible for the emotionally abusive words and actions of my peers. So I ended up pushing Horse away once Wolf came back late in high school. For years I denied any connection with Horse whatsoever.

What was I so afraid of? Honestly, I think I worried that I would lose what independence I did have, and get sucked into some life that I didn’t want to be a part of. I wasn’t secure in myself at all, even into my twenties, and it took moving out on my own, along with some hard life lessons, to really begin to formulate a solid sense of self. Sadly, some of that was so wrapped up in being a Wolf person that I ignored most other totems, and deliberately avoided Horse.

Now, as I’m approaching thirty and looking back at the last decade, I’m beginning to reclaim some of the things I let go of which in retrospect were things I really do value. I don’t blame myself or castigate myself for my previous actions; in a way, these things had to happen for me to learn. But now I can look at them with more confidence, and not be afraid. I can still make boundaries with the things that I know even more don’t suit me, but still accept that other things are alright.

This includes Horse. I feel very honored that s/he has chosen to come back into my life. I’m hoping we can talk more about my experiences as a teenager and how they shaped who I am today. And I’m looking forward to Small Horse’s guidance as my drum.

Plus I’ll see what Horse has to say about the future, not just the past. I’m aware, for example, that the hide that is on my drum almost certainly came from a horse that died in a slaughterhouse. This is a charged issue; on the one hand, it’s been considered a victory that horses are no longer able to be legally slaughtered in the United States. However, this has led to an unexpected side effect–horses are now being shipped further away into even less humane facilities in Mexico. I wonder what Horse and Small Horse will have to say about this issue.

I am grateful for the return of Horse. May our relationship be renewed, and be healthier than ever.

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.

Locos and Locals

My efforts towards creating songs for my dancing skins and their respective totems continue apace. I haven’t been blogging much about it, because it would essentially be “Today I practiced Deer’s song more, and came up with a drum rhythm for Small Deer”. Not particularly riveting when you’re not directly involved. However, I thought my recent work with Coyote was noteworthy.

For all my work with the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM), I’ve only worked with Coyote in a limited way; once was in a ritual to help protect hir physical children. I also sporadically worked with hir a few years ago when I was more heavily into Chaos magic. At that time Coyote was teaching me a bit about facing my fears, with one particular memorable incident where s/he helped me as I drove my car down a very steep icy hill one winter without panicking! Coyote and Small Coyote were the most recent volunteers to step forward in this endeavor, and so I started with Coyote’s song.

When I speak of Coyote, I don’t only refer to the Coyote referred to in the myths of a number of Native American tribes. Coyote-as-totem, to my understanding, shares some overlap with that other Coyote, but is not one and the same. My experience with totems has been that while they may have a number of bailiwicks, their initial connection with me has a more specific focus, and then as we work more I learn more about what that totem has to offer.

This time, Coyote mainly told me to sing about change and adaptability, as well as the illusory nature of subjective perceptions of reality (though not in those exact words!). While s/he briefly touched on creation myths and the Trickster archetype, these plugged into a main theme of Change. To be honest, I was a bit worried about working with Coyote in a deeper sense. Some (not all) of the Coyote people I’ve met have been chaotic in a very unhealthy, destructive manner; other people talk about Coyote the way that some practitioners of Asatru talk about Loki–a dangerous being that you shouldn’t bother with if you can help it. However, this initial reconnection with Coyote seems to be on common ground that I can understand and have experience with. I don’t expect everything to go smoothly or perfectly–but I don’t expect that with any of the totems or other spirits I work with. Sometimes the lessons we learn are difficult; and if Coyote will be dealing with Change, then it won’t be surprising if there are tough things to learn. However, if I can learn more adaptability, so much the better–that’s one thing I need more of. While I can roll with the punches, I could stand to be less stressed about life’s ups and downs. I think, perhaps, the fear of chaotic change may make some people afraid of Tricksters in general–who wants their lives entirely shaken up? What I understand so far, though, from my work with Coyote is that she’ll help me to learn ways to cope with chaotic changes, both in myself and in others.

I’m also slowly beginning to shape very rudimentary connections with the locals, as it were. Living in urban Portland, the vertebrate animals I tend to see the most are scrub jays, crows, and fox squirrels, with the occasional robin or kestrel. I don’t even see that many insects beyond the pollinators in the garden.

I’ve seen criticism in various online communities of neopagan totemism, specifically regarding the fact that many people seem to have totems whose physical children they’ve never seen. I’m a good example. Wolf’s been in my life since I was very young; however, I’ve only interacted with wolves at rescue facilities, and only on the outside of the pen. I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild, and never really been to a secluded enough place that could realistically support them. Yet Wolf has been one of the most persistent presences in my life over the years.

I did read something that actually makes a good deal of sense to me in Totem Popularity Contests: Why Some Totems Are More Popular Than Others, written by Ravenari. While all of her points are excellent considerations that I think should be talked about more, I particularly am interested in the last one, the idea that “Some animals are popularity-contest winners”. In my experience, there are totems who are more outgoing than others, and there are some who couldn’t care less whether we work with them or not.

While it’s a very, very rough comparison, and should not be seen as a one-to-one parallel, I think we can look at some pre-Christian religions that had large numbers of deities, including a major pantheon. The Romans are a good example; while they had their major pantheon including Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, etc., there were also countless minor deities, local deities, demi-gods, and so forth. It’s not entirely inconceivable that within a neopagan context, where we have the influence of that somewhat tiered structure, that there could be some totems who roughly correlate to a major pantheon, perhaps due to a greater tendency to interact with more people.

Continuing with the pantheon comparison, and especially within a neopagan/modern pagan context, most of the people today who work with the Olympians have never been to Greece, or any of the places where these deities originated from in pre-Hellenic times (or, for that matter, where they travelled to in ancient syncretic blending). So is it really surprising that many people haven’t actually ever “met” their totems “in real life”?

That being said, I do think there’s a lot of value in working with local spirits; some would argue that in order to really practice shamanism that it’s a requirement. I’ve spent much of my time, especially since last spring when I went to Arizona, connecting with the Land here as a whole. However, I’m beginning to make more specific connections. Scrub Jay in particular stands out to me, though Squirrel has also made hirself known, albeit in sometimes irritating ways (squirrels in the attic, squirrels in the garden!). There are a number of plants, one tree in particular, that have become particularly important. And, of course, there’s my ongoing “romances” with several individual places, such as Laurelhurst Park, the Multnomah-Wahkeena trails, and Mount Hood.

I’m willing to bet that the quality of the relationships that I create locally will be different–not necessarily better or worse–than those that I’ve created with the BINABM. Historically my work with the BINABM has primarily involved more overarching concepts, especially involved with personal metamorphosis; for example, Deer has always been the Dreamkeeper for me, and Bear has taught me a lot about healing and balancing it with the ability to bring harm. It will be interesting to see how working with the totems whose children live in the same environment I do will go. Of course, this is mainly conjecture at this point, and the actual results remain to be seen. But that’s what this journal is for–recording of my thoughts as I go along, and later on I can look back and see whether I was right or not!

For now, I’m going to continue focusing mainly on the songs I need to be writing. I’ve asked the Powers That Be whether I should be doing something else, but the message is generally “Nope. Keep writing the songs. Once you have them, then we’ll get into more detail of what you can use them for. Still, keep your eyes and ears open.” Which is fine; I tend to do better focusing on one main thing at a time, building on what’s come before.

A Successful Ritual

Tonight was the totemic drum and dance ritual. It went quite well, even with a relatively small turnout, and I was able to rework the format to fit the smaller group with a more personalized ritual. All told, it was about an hour and a half, one of the longest rituals I’ve done. And it was also my first planned group ritual which, all things considered, turned out better than I expected. (Of course, I do want to give credit to the other participants, corporeal and otherwise, who really helped to make it the awesome experience that it was

I started out with a brief meditation for everyone to get focused on the ritual ahead. Then I called the totems and other spirits of the four cardinal directions, as well as the Animal Father. I asked Small Wolf to aid me in evoking Wolf as the first (nondirectional) totem called, and we danced together. Then, the bulk of the ritual involved me and the other participants taking turns calling on individual totems, then drumming and dancing for each one to invite them in and to honor them, as well as give them the energy we raised.

I danced each totem’s energy as s/he arrived, and ended up dancing some new ones that I’d never worked with before. That was definitely good exercise for my ability to invoke! (Totemic improv theatre?) I was amazed at how energized I felt; I had assumed that dancing new totems would wear me out. Whether it was the general energy of the ritual, aid from the individual totems, or a really good burst of adrenaline (or some combination thereof), something kept me going longer than I normally am able to, even with a normal, nonritualized drum circle.

Then, at the end of the ritual, I acknowledged that there were so many totems that we hadn’t had time to mention, but that we were grateful for anyway. I bade farewell to all who had arrived, and ended the ritual.

I really needed this experience tonight. I’ve been feeling altogether too stagnant lately. I came home tonight with a renewed sense of purpose, and a good reminder of just why it is I’ve been dedicating time to “that shamanism stuff”. I have a much better idea of group ritual structure that works, and despite my nervousness at the beginning of the ritual, I’m more confident in my ability to participate in a group setting as a facilitator. However, there are some things that I’ll also be borrowing for my personal practices as well. All in all, another piece of the puzzle fell into place tonight.

There will be more rituals like this, though I’m not sure how often they’ll be, and I also need to fine-tune the format, especially if I get a group that’s too big for what we did tonight. But this is a good start.

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.