Quick Note: Ecopsychology and Neopaganism

Just wanted y’all to know my first blog post is live at No Unsacred Place: Ecopsychology and Neopagan Relevance. Enjoy 🙂


Social Justice and the Shaman as Intermediary

Right now, I’m pissed off about a number of things. I’m angry that the death penalty is still used in the United States, and that today two men, one of whom had a lot of evidence pointing to his innocence, were killed by lethal injection. I’m angry that racism still exists in neopaganism. I’m angry that many areas of neoshamanism still seem to be largely concerned with white people flying to “exotic” far-off lands and spending money that could feed families in those lands for months. I’m angry that pagans and shamans and their ilk aren’t questioning the inherent privileges associated with even being able to consider things like wilderness and environmentalism and sustainability.

We face HUGE problems these days. It’s not just whether the crops will fail or whether the next village over will send their warriors to attack us, though these can even today be massive localized catastrophes. Instead, we have systemic racism, sexism, and other inequalities and injustices. We have a precariously balanced economy based largely on promises and virtual currencies, and which favors increasingly unequal distributions of resources. We have wars involving unbelievably lethal technology, and those who suffer most are the most disempowered. Climate change is a scientifically proven reality, and regardless of whether we caused it or not, we still face the unknown consequences of this shift, never mind the things we are responsible for like numerous species extinctions. We are much larger groups of people, and our problems have escalated in scale to match.

And yet neoshamans persist in working with templates that are based on older, smaller cultures’ shamanisms. To an extent, yes, you can learn from your predecessors, but it doesn’t do a damned bit of good if you can’t apply it to your own community’s unique situation. We face greater systemic problems than ever. It is no longer enough to only treat the symptoms of the client. The shaman’s role is not just on the person-to-person level, though this is important, and will never cease to be important. But most of the material on shamanism out there is on that level alone. We need to refocus neoshamanisms in ways that increase the shaman-to-society level of engagement, because society is the matrix in which clients and shamans alike are conditioned, and an unhealthy environment makes for unhealthy people.

I maintain that the fundamental role of a shamanic figure–at least as close to anything “universal” as you can get with varied positions in numerous cultures–is as an intermediary. Shamans bridge gaps between their society and other societies; or between humans and the rest of nature; or the physical world and the spiritual world; or between the individual and their self; or some combination thereof. In order to do this, you have to be ready and willing to engage with your community to the fullest extent possible. You have to meet your clients where they’re coming from. Our job is to be the one willing to reach out when no one else will. We have to challenge our comfort zones to a great degree, more than the average person in our communities. And we have a lot more potential discomforts to face.

This is no easy task. In many ways it is every bit as challenging and dangerous, if not more so, than traversing the riskiest realms of the Otherworld. But it is our duty as shamans to be the ones to make the first move, to reach out into the uncomfortable spaces and extend ourselves towards those in need, even at risk to ourselves. Shamanism as intermediary work requires us to bravely confront both the internal landscape where our biases live, on through potential interpersonal conflict involving other individuals, and the greater systemic problems that we as a society face regardless of background (though our unique background does affect the angle at which we face the system). Neoshamanisms, for the most part, leave their practitioners woefully underprepared to approach the systemic level of things, especially the human systems.

This is what I propose we need to do as shamanic practitioners if we are to more fully take on a role as social intermediary:

–We need to stop hiding out in other people’s cultures, and root our neoshamanisms more consciously and deeply in our own.

All cultures have things of great value, and I love how globalization has allowed a greater and more varied interplay and exchange of ideas, practices, and materials around the world (though access to that interplay is still mediated to a great degree by various factors such as socioeconomic status and access to education). But cultural elements are not plug and play. If you take something out of its original culture, to include a shamanism, it is necessarily changed by exposure to the new context. Just as a shaman needs to be able to bring things back from the places s/he travels to and utilize it in hir own community, so we need to be better at integrating what we learn from other cultures into relevant frameworks for this one. Most clients in the U.S., for example, aren’t going to want to work with someone taking ayahuasca, let alone take it themselves. But what is the ayahuasca trip supposed to do, and what’s a corresponding practice that is more appropriate to this culture? Great, take your five-figure trip to Peru and have your seminar and special training–value what you bring home, but then make it useful to home. If you’re from Brooklyn, don’t try to be a Peruvian shaman in Brooklyn. Be a Brooklyn shaman who brought some neat stuff from Peru to add to your Brooklyn toolkit. (P.S. Yes, I know ayahuasca isn’t from Peru. The examples of ayahuasca and Peruvian shamanic retreats were two common examples, but not linked together by anything other than proximity in the same paragraph.)

–We need to stop hiding in the wilderness in order to “purify” ourselves of the “taint” of humanity.

This has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, if you haven’t been paying attention to recent writings here. As an ecopsychologist, I am fully aware of and supportive of the restorative powers of nonhuman nature, from gardens to wildernesses to a single potted plant on a sunny windowsill. Walking through a downtown city park is nowhere near the same as hiking through remote old growth forest. And the latter has benefits that many people may never find in the former. The problem is in seeing ourselves as divorced from the wilderness–and whether we justify it through saying we’re superior, or through saying we’re a blight, the consequence is still the same. We widen the artificial divide that we perceive between ourselves and everything else. Worse, those of us who have learned to appreciate “nature” deny others the opportunity to do the same when we enter into the wilderness to “get away from everyone else”, as though “everyone else” has no right to be there with us. Solitude is one thing. Solitude can be healthy. But when we reluctantly re-enter human civilization as some loathsome fate, we are less likely to see fellow humans as deprived of the slaking draught of wilderness we have received. Anyone is a potential client, and those who have the most negative view toward nature may be those who are in the most need of reconnecting with it in a healthy manner. If we see our role as facilitating that connection, we have to examine our biases against humanity as “the enemy”, and instead have compassion for those who may see the wilderness as a worthless or even dangerous thing. We can’t bridge that gap if we only spend our time on the wilderness’ side of things.

–We need to stop hiding behind the spirit world as a way to keep from engaging with the physical world.

Yes, many shamanisms are largely about serving the spirits. But what good is a shaman who can only interact with spirits, and can’t complete the connection back to the physical world? If you only spend your time journeying and only serve the needs of the spirits, then you’re only doing part of the job. And it’s easy to get lost in one’s own Unverified Personal Gnosis. I have seen entirely too many shamans, spirit workers, and other such practitioners blatantly displaying all manner of dysfunction toward themselves and others while justifying it as “well, the gods/spirits/etc. told me, and it fits in with the rest of my paradigm, so it MUST be true!” Word to the wise: be a skeptic, especially when you don’t have much in the way of external validation (and especially if your outside validation consists primarily of people who think and believe like you do). If your UPG is saying you should isolate yourself from people you normally enjoy spending time with (when engaged in healthy activities), or that you’re justified in self-gratifying behaviors that wreak havoc on the relationships and lives of others, or that you should make some drastic decision in the moment without considering other alternatives, then it’s a pretty good indication that you’re getting too detached from the physical end of reality. Would you do these things in good conscience if you didn’t have spirits supposedly telling you what to do? Are you just engaging in escapism to ignore the problems of the world and your own life? All too often shamanism and other spiritualities neglect to ground themselves in the physical for fear of being “disproven”, yet the strongest shamanisms are those that can successfully navigate both the spiritual and the physical.

–We need to stop hiding behind mental illness challenges as though they are the only things that define us.

Again, I am not talking about invalidating mental health issues that are genuinely debilitating. I am talking about ceasing to even try engaging with everyday society because of challenges associated with mental health, and calling it shamanism. Some shamans face pretty damned significant mental illnesses. However, there’s a huge difference between “I am a shaman with a mental illness but I do my best to work around it and use it if/when possible” and “I have a mental illness and that makes me a shaman/mental illness is what defines shamanism/mental illness IS shamanism/wheeee, I don’t need meds or treatment because I’M A SHAMAN!!!!” If you can make your condition work for you, great–I’m all for people making the best of a situation. However, once again, part of what is required of shamans is the ability to engage with general consensus reality, because that is where most of our clients are coming from/wanting to get back to. If you’re so busy being in your own alternative headspace that you’ve given up on even trying connecting with more conventional headspaces, and especially if you justify this disconnection as your right as a shaman, then you’ve lost that crucial ability of a shaman to fully bridge two (or more) disparate worlds–in this case, losing connection with the sort of headspace that many, if not most, clients are going to want to stay in, regain a place in, etc.

–We need to stop hiding behind the idea of persecution as an excuse to avoid engaging with people about whom we are uncomfortable.

I am not, mind you, talking about directly engaging people who are real threats, those who have abused or assaulted us. I am talking about moving past dealing only with “people like us” in general. I keep coming back to the example of how most Americans wouldn’t go to a shaman because they think shamanism is immoral or crazy or otherwise discredited. Fine, then. Don’t engage with them as “a shaman”. There are plenty of other analogous roles in this culture that you may be able to draw on in addition to “shaman”, and which offer more perceived legitimacy that we can use to engage with a greater population in need. Again, it’s our job to make our way into that murky discomfort zone, to approach people that we may worry would persecute us if they knew we were “shamans”. We don’t have to use that word, though; instead, we meet them where they are and go from there. If you genuinely feel unsafe working outside of your preferred boundaries, at the very least take the time to examine why this is, and what would be the risks and benefits of challenging yourself, even if it’s only in theory. It’s preferable to assuming that anyone who is Christian, or a mental health care practitioner, or politically conservative, is automatically the enemy and therefore should never, ever be offered any sort of help because they might dislike us or discriminate against us. Owning your fear and your biases is action.

Do you see a pattern here? It can be summed up as “Helloooooooo, your clients are over here, and the best you can hope for is that they’ll meet you halfway–otherwise, plan to do more than your fair share of the walking”.

Social justice cannot be rendered by people who are not actively engaged in the society they wish to see justice in. Nor can shamans effectively shamanize if they turn their backs on the society that their clients are coming from. How one interacts with society is, to be sure, a personal set of boundaries. But how is it that so many of us will push boundaries in the spirit world, and yet won’t challenge physical-world boundaries, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our clients?

A Brief Quote

As an addendum to the discussion on “Natural” vs. “Artificial”, I was reminded of this quote that says what I was trying to get at:

It’s dangerous to think of ourselves as loathsome creatures or as perversions in the natural world. We need to see ourselves as having a rightful place. We take pictures of all kinds of natural scenes and often we try to avoid having a human being in them…In our society, we force ourselves into a greater and greater distance from the natural world by creating parks and wilderness areas where our only role is to go in and look…We lavish tremendous concern and care on scenery but we ignore the ravaging of environments from which our lives are drawn.” –Richard Nelson, as meta-quoted in The Sacred Earth, edited by Jason Gardner

This reminds me of Richard Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder, the byproduct of children no longer having access to wild, open areas to simply explore in and play, but instead being increasingly hemmed in and protected.

In order to connect, we have to allow ourselves to be connected.

“Natural” vs. Artificial”

One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.

I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.

Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.

So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.

So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.

Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.

But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)

Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–“In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.

And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.

But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.

Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?

If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.

Still Not Dead

Though you might not know it from how seldom I post here. I’m still spending more time in the outdoors than anything else as far as my spirituality goes–that and still working with the skins and bones.

The thing is, for the past six months I’ve been going through that tear-down and rebuild process yet again, except it’s even more drastic and bare-bones than when I did it a little over three years ago when I started this blog. I had thought I had stripped my spiritual self naked back then. How little I suspected how much I had left to tear away.

I’m not entirely sure what things will look like for me in another six months, or another twelve. I don’t know how much my practice will resemble what I left off in the spring when this need to tear apart and rebuild came upon me so strongly that I had to act on it. My worldview has shifted so immensely, and yet I’m just nowhere near ready to talk about it yet. Not much, anyway. This is sort of my first attempt, maybe a pre-attempt.

So. I’ve still been hiking a lot, and going out to the coast, and taking my lover out into the Gorge. I’m still running a few times a week, which gets me out under the sky even when I’m too busy to do so otherwise. While ecopsychology isn’t as much of a part of my practice in my practicum as I thought it might be, it still has its own burner. I’m painting a bit more, too. Especially plants. For some reason, the flora of the Pacific Northwest have captured my imagination in my art, particularly my personal, private art. “I am a creature of conifers, ferns, and thick, green moss” indeed.

I’m almost afraid to write this, for fear it will become crystallized and stagnant by being placed into words. But the first thing that really seems to have coalesced into a statement of meaning is the phrase “In relation to”. On Halloween/Samhain, the day before my birthday, I went out to hike Drift Creek Falls. It’s my third year, but my first year going solo. Along with being an opportunity for a rite of passage leaving behind the last vestiges of what used to be married life, and back into a stronger singledom, it also ended up providing a valuable experience in getting to the core of meaning for me.

One of the problems I have–well, sometimes it’s a problem–is that it’s hard to get my mind to shut up. I’ve never been good with “sit down and be quiet” forms of meditation. I can do them, but I don’t like them, and I normally don’t get a lot out of them. However, I was getting frustrated on my hike because I so often found myself spacing out and missing the place I was in while my mind was floating off in a dozen different directions. “How often did I get to come to this place?” I thought. “I shouldn’t waste my time here thinking about things that concern me back in Portland!”

So I decided to just shut the thoughts off. It took a little effort, but it wasn’t more than a few moments before I was able to clear my mind. The result was both startling and telling. My physical spatial awareness snapped into sharp focus. I became very aware of where I was with respect to every tree, stone and animal I could perceive within my vision, and I had a sudden sense of space that put me firmly within my environment. Things that I normally screened out, such as the subtle movement of my visual field as I walked, became more apparent. I became present in a way I very rarely get to experience.

I realized that this feeling I was having through conscious effort of clearing my mind in this specific environment was the same feeling I got when struck with wonder by a particularly beautiful wild place. Only instead of having to be smacked over the head by the experience to actually pay attention, I was allowing it in. And I felt that sense of connection with everything else that is at the core of so much that I think and do. I don’t go throughout my day with a constant sense of that connection, but I remember enough of the times that I have experienced it that the memory is enough to motivate my actions and decisions. My choice to buy recycled paper products, for example, is directly a result of feeling connected to trees that could be cut down for pulp, even if I am not feeling that connection at the very moment I am purchasing toilet paper made from 100% recycled office paper content.

And that sense of connection has always been at the heart of meaning and wonder for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so purely, though, without the trappings of religion and paganism and shamanism and spirituality. All those things? All those are abstractions of that feeling. This is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with emanations and symbols.

But one thing I have had many conversations with my lover about is how often people mistake the map for the territory. Therioshamanism, my forays into chaos magic, my extensive explorations with animal totemism–all of these are maps. The maps are meant to help describe the territory of the experience with the world around me, particularly but certainly not exclusively those wild places that are such pure wellsprings of meaning for me.

And I think that’s perhaps where I…well, I won’t say I went wrong, because I don’t believe there are wrong things in spiritual exploration, only meandering and detours and “this is where you happen to be right now”. But I think three years ago I was also searching for the territory without having the map in the way, and I just didn’t quite get as much of the map out of my perception. And now I’m much closer to experiencing the territory for itself.

Hiking in the forest, with my awareness of that place and my place within that place–that is the purest spiritual experience I have had. More than Otherworld journeying that takes me out of an important layer of myself. More than rituals that are supposedly in “a world between worlds”. More than gods of the forest, spirits of the forest, I connected with the forest.

“In relation to.” That is the key phrase. I am just rediscovering where I am in relation to everything else. I am going without my expectations that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden, and without anything other than my own perceptions. Let me see what I perceive there, without what I’ve been told by years of pagan books and festivals and rituals and networkings what should be there.

Let me make my own map in relation to the territory, and let me not mistake the map for the territory.

An Ecopsychological Alternative to “Maiden, Mother and Crone”

I’ve always had issues with the “Maiden, Mother and Crone” triad (which shall be referred to as MMC from here on out) in neopaganism. It stems from Robert Graves filtered through Wicca, but seems to have bled over into generic neopagan lore. While originally it was intended to describe certain supposed trinities of goddesses, it has since been applied erroneously to human women as well. Neither deities nor humans seem to do so well when shoved into archetypal pigeonholes–while I may see totems as archetypal in nature, it’s as representations of all qualities and associations of their given species, not as “Brown Bear is the healer, Grey Wolf is the Teacher”, etc.

It’s the humans in specific I’d like to talk about here. As someone who is deliberately childfree, I already have reason to dislike the MMC’s focus on the uterus and its functions as defining characteristics of what it means to be female. I used to subscribe to that whole concept that “fertility” could be symbolic as well, dealing in creative endeavors like artwork as one’s “children”. But that still limits women to “creative”, “fertile” and “nurturing” roles–as I mentioned to someone on my Twitter account, what about “Little Hellion”, “Hostile Corporate Takeover Organizer” and “Crazy Cat Lady With Attack Bengals” as archetypes? These are pretty limiting, too.

And then there are the awkward attempts to shoehorn men into similar categorizations, like “Youth, Warrior, Sage”, which at least have a little less dependence on the functionality of one’s reproductive organs, but are still unnecessarily limiting.

And this led me into irritation and annoyance with the whole gender binary thing and the Western adherence to strict dualities which seems to be especially pronounced in the States.

And then I got pissy about people mistaking the map for the territory.

And then I decided to finally write this damned essay, which has been bouncing around in my head half-formed for gods know how long.

See, I was changed a few years ago when I read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. It’s not as well-known or appreciated as its predecessor Soulcraft, but it was a really formative book for me. That’s where I first learned about the concept of ecopsychology, which isn’t so much a specific school of psychological thought as it is an approach to both theroetical and applied psychology that automatically factors in the human relationship to nature along with relationships to the self, other humans, etc. It ties in beautifully with animistic beliefs and practices and gives additional structure to these concepts. In fact, a number of ecopsychologists employ core shamanic techniques in their clinical practices. And this was the book that led me to research local graduate school programs to find whoever had ecopsych classes available, which in turn completely changed my life on a lot of levels.

Anyway, what makes this book pertinent here is that Plotkin has designed what’s essentially an ecopsychological developmental theory. The book focuses on what he has labeled “The Wheel of Life”. It’s modeled on Erikson’s eight stages of human development. However, where Erikson’s stages are largely tied to one’s neurological development and, to a lesser degree, chronological age, and also are weighted more heavily toward children and adolescents as developing human beings, Plotkin’s eight stages are not so strictly scheduled, and in fact a person may not necessarily go through all eight even in a natural lifespan. While the stages do correspond to Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Elderhood (as Plotkin terms them), these are more based on psychological maturity than physical age. A person may be well into physical adulthood, but still be somewhere in one of the two Adolescent stages in Plotkin’s model.

Additionally, the tasks that Plotkin proposes for each of the eight stages are much different from the tasks Erikson described in his model. Where the latter is based primarily in self-development focusing on life as part of human society, Plotkin creates a connection between the internal and external environments, as well as the human and nonhuman components thereof. There’s also a strong element of the Hero’s Journey, albeit without Campbell’s gendered interpretation thereof, in the development of the human being in the Wheel of Life. In fact, it’s entirely gender-neutral, which I thoroughly appreciate.

It’s a wonderfully pagan developmental model, though it’s not at all religious. I tend to recommend ecopsychology as a resource for nature-based pagans because it synthesizes psychology with mythology, spirituality (without specific religious trappings) and, of course, ecology. Again, it doesn’t espouse a specific school of thought; one culture’s mythology is not seen as superior to another’s. Rather, the function of mythology (and the other elements of ecopsychology) is what is explored and applied–similar to how I work with the function of shamanism in my culture rather than any prescribed, specific type of shamanism.

I would like to propose the Wheel of Life as an alternative human developmental model in neopaganism, replacing the constricted, outdated, and ultimately historically inaccurate MMC triad. This goes for any and all derivatives, which are necessarily based on a flawed system. I haven’t used it nearly as much as I would like, but it’s something that I have integrated into my personal, private view of myself for a while now. Nature and the Human Soul is still in print, and I can’t recommend it enough, whether as an alternative to the MMC, or simply as an effective structure for greater understanding of the self.

The Quandary of the Other

As I was poking around in my garden today, pulling weeds, turning soil and traumatizing earthworms in preparation for early spring planting, I was thinking about some of the “why” of what it is I’m doing here with this whole shamanic experiment. Because it really is an experiment. I’m testing a whole bunch of concepts, most of which have been tried in varying combinations by other people, but not, to my knowledge, in quite the way I am.

What I was thinking about was an extension of my thoughts in my last column in Rending the Veil, In Defense of the BINABM. Many neopagans and others criticize the fact that Americans (and other Westerners) have a tendency to gravitate toward the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) like Grey Wolf and Brown Bear and Bald Eagle. And even I’ve done the same; hell, a lot of why I wrote DIY Totemism was to help people break out of the idea that those were the only totems with any power.

But I keep finding myself working with these BINABM in my shamanic work, and a large reason is because those are the animals most commonly in our cultural consciousness as being “properly totemic”. Rationally, some of us can realize that other animals have a lot of intense and amazing qualities we can learn from. And we can also realize that we downplay the importance of animals we have domesticated, partly out of guilt, and also out of familiarity. So we don’t really romanticize Domestic Dog, Cow or Pigeon in the same way.

Instead, we look to the totems of animals that many of us will never meet outside of a zoo or sanctuary, and maybe even not then. I mean, I’m a great example. I was only about two or three when my relationship (obsession?) with Grey Wolf began–way before I was cognitively capable of any sort of reasoning or belief. There had to be at least something cultural in there, from all the books (and, to a lesser extent in my case, television) and other media I had been exposed to even at that young an age. There’s something there, and it’s valuable in the practice of meeting people where they are.

See, all those BINABM? They’re one representation of the Other. Generally speaking, in American culture*, the only one I can really speak of with any authority, there’s a pretty severe tendency toward strict duality. We create dichotomies that are sometimes violently opposed to each other, and it’s tough to get people to consider the model of a continuum instead. This leads to a lot of really pointless arguing about everything from men vs. women to science vs. religion to my academic theory vs. your academic theory, in which people throw away the chance for a deeper, more integral understanding of reality in favor of planting a flag somewhere. Anything less than 100% dedication to your cause is seen as weak, untrustworthy.

I do believe there is a place for the concept of the Other, but it isn’t this either/or model. It’s the both/and. Just because I do not see myself as violently opposed to people of other races, cultures, sexes, genders, etc. does not mean I see myself as being the same as them, or being able to speak for them. Far from it. But neither do I see allowing their influence into my understanding of the world as a threat. And it’s the same way with “nature”. I consider myself ultimately to be a natural being; I eat, sleep, breathe, fuck, shit, and do a whole host of other things that require me to be connected to everything else. The fact that there is a city in the middle of my bioregion does not make the bioregion cease to exist. I do have to consider the things that make me different from other denizens of nature, like my frontal lobes, and the adaptations that frontal lobes have helped humans to create. Nature is still an Other, but not one which is entirely untouchable.

These are things I work with in my shamanism, deliberately, for myself and for those I offer my services to. These are the dualities I want to turn into continuums. Spirituality is seen as opposed to materialism. The body is seen as opposed to the mind/spirit/etc. And, drawing on both spirituality and ecopsychology, humanity is seen as opposed to nature. This insistence on either/or perspectives, as opposed to both/and, creates a very harshly delineated “Other”, one which must remain separate at all times lest we taint ourselves. And that includes the “Other” human beings.

At its most extreme, the “Other” manifests in things like deliberate and institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But sometimes it’s not that intentional. A really good example is in the tendency in both American nonindigenous shamanisms and neopaganisms, and in ecopsychology, toward tunnel visioning on dominant, largely white, culture as a basis. It’s not that white shamans and pagans and ecopsychologists are deliberately trying to exclude people of color. But let’s face it–all of these movements are largely perpetuated by white people, and that’s something we need to be aware of, not in the sense of “well, that’s just who’s interested”, but also what we may be doing that makes these movements seem less welcoming to people of color. It may just be that there’s not enough dialogue about issues of race and culture in shamanism and ecopsychology.

Or maybe we’re uncomfortable bringing up these controversial issues amid our pretty rituals and romantic wilderness idylls. I think Carl Anthony, in his interview with Theodore Roszak in Ecopsychology, really summed up this problem succinctly:

“Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and not be able to think like people of color?” (Anthony, in Roszak 1992, p. 273)

He’s referring to the well-known essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the granddaddys of environmentalism and its various derivatives in America. The phrase “Thinking Like a Mountain” has become bandied about pretty commonly among environmentalists and ecopsychologists as a way of reminding us to embrace the Other. Yet we feel it’s safer to deal with an Other that’s more distant–and, perhaps, one that can’t talk back to us so easily. After all, many Native Americans feel patronized and otherwise pissed off when white people claim to have had past lives as Indians, and let’s not get into the horror that is the “guided meditation” to “get in touch with your Native self” (yes, I’ve seen this and variations of it). Clearly we can get away with things like Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings in which we speak for beings we assume can’t speak for themselves–like mountains and nonhuman animals. Imagine, though, if we did a Council of All Races, in which a bunch of white people made masks to be like various people of color.

And that’s where we really need to be careful when we’re working with the concept of the Other, and more importantly, our relationship to it. Yes, it’s safer for me to work with abstract totems of various nonhuman animals who can’t complain if I misrepresent them, at least not in the same way other human beings can. But I’m also very aware of the limitations that my ritual work has in working with people outside of my cultural familiarity. As a shamanic practitioner, I know that the whole concept of “culturally neutral” is bullshit. Core shamanism, for example, isn’t culturally neutral. It’s white, middle-class, college-educated shamanism, even if all its practitioners don’t fit all of those parameters. And I know that’s what my shamanism is, too, because I’m the creator, and that’s the cultural background I have.

Here’s the thing. I grew up in a small town in the midwest that was almost entirely white. Then I moved to cities, but still gravitated toward subcultures that again were largely white. So my experience is almost entirely working with other white people, within a culture largely created by white people. Same thing goes for middle class and college-educated. These aren’t bad things, but my experiences are pretty damned limited, considering how diverse the population here is. So I have a lot of Others, as it were.

That’s why I’m training to become a licensed practicing counselor. Especially if I end up in an agency setting, I’m going to be working with clients from a much broader variety of cultural and other backgrounds than what I’ve previously been exposed to. My program is heavily engaged in issues of social justice, which has just helped to make me even more aware of my experiential limitations. It’s not that I’m flogging myself over being a guilty white person. It’s that I realize that my own limitations in dealing with people also limit my potential for helping other people. Becoming a trained counselor won’t automatically give me awesome multicultural skills, but my curriculum has included a lot of information and discussion about how to work with clients with significantly different backgrounds in a way that respects them as well as ourselves. This hasn’t always been a comfortable thing for me, because I have become aware of just how limited my experiences have been and how much I don’t know, but rather than drown myself in white-girl guilt, I’ve instead cultivated a curiosity of “If this becomes an issue, how can I broach discussion with my client of the best way to resolve it?”

And that is also part of my work with the Other. The Other isn’t just the exotic, the nebulous–it’s the immediate and very real. Some people may need to start with more abstract, removed Others, like animals and mountains. That’s okay–it’s where I got my start. But it’s why my shamanism isn’t just the formal rituals and the romanticization of other beings–it’s also a profession that brings me into contact with a whole host of people who can’t just be understood through a simple guided meditation or masked ritual.

* Or, more correctly, predominantly white “mainstream” culture.