Bioregionalism and the Genius Locii

I haven’t been posting much here lately; I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that graduate school is going to eat my life as long as I’m here, and I’m going to have to do most of my ritual work on breaks and during the lighter summer semester. I could handle it better when I was working forty hours a week, come to think of it. My once consolation is that the grad work, and the internal psychological development I’ve been doing as one result of it, are also an important part of my development of therioshamanism, so it’s not as though I’m not getting anything done. I miss regular journeying, and I’ll be glad when the semester’s done at the end of the month.

One of the valuable things I have been getting out of grad school has been the ecopsychology classes. This semester I’ve been taking the ecotherapy course; this is the second of two weekend-long intensives for it. Ecotherapy, in very brief, is utilizing the natural environment in therapeutic practice. This can include anything from having natural objects in one’s office, to wilderness therapy outings that last days or even a couple of weeks. Like ecopsychology, it’s not a linear, strictly defined set of techniques, but rather an integrative approach that can be applied to any formal school of psychological thought and practice.

One of the concepts we touched on today was that of bioregionalism. Normally Americans describe their location in terms of human phenomena–streets, addresses, buildings, and other such landmarks. I would describe my location as Portland, in the state of Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Bioregionalism, however, orients a person according to natural phenomena, both very local and larger ecosystems. So I would therefore describe myself as living in the Johnson Creek watershed, which is a part of the Lower Columbia River Estuary, which is part of the larger Cascadia bioregion composed of the temperate rainforests of the west coast.

This is a very different way of approaching one’s location, but it’s also exceptionally telling when thinking about the way we perceive the world around us and place our priorities. We are exceptionally anthropocentric in every portion of our cognition, emotions, and descriptions thereof; using the metaphorical imagery of other animals, for example, is usually about as far from that as most people get.

And yet ecopsychology calls us to not only consider the environment we are in (human and otherwise)–but it also calls us to identify and embrace our ecological self. According to Winter and Koger:

“We experience our ecological self when we feel the connection between our self and other people, other life forms, ecosystems, or the planet. We experience it when we sense a deep resonance with other species and a quality of belonging and connection to the larger ecological whole…the ecological self leads to environmentally appropriate behaviors, not out of a sense of self-sacrifice or self-denial, but out of a sense of love and common identity”. (1)

What does this sound very much like? Animism. Even if we don’t look at spirits as literal entities, a more metaphorical animism still provides a great deal of meaning to an ecosystem that we too often just see as the backdrop for the grand plans of humanity. It could be argued, of course, that this sort of modern storytelling and mythmaking isn’t even necessary to be able to appreciate the beauties and amazing phenomena of the natural sciences–and I would agree. Yet there is also value in this meaning-making process.

Bioregionalism gives more meaning to the natural phenomena that surround us. It takes the focus off manmade objects, where it has been almost exclusively for quite some time, and causes us to stop and think about that where that focus has been–and what we’ve been missing out on. We need that so much in this culture; we are so disconnected as a people from the cycles that we rely on. Not everything postindustrial is evil and wrong, mind you–but we do so much completely out of touch with what we’re affecting by our actions. Bioregionalism is just one of many ways to find reconnection, and as Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. Finding one connection invariably leads to another, and another, and we only cease finding connections when we stop looking–or caring. The bioregion is a series of connections that reminds us that streets and addresses are only one of many forms of connection.

This, the bioregion, is the genius locii, the Spirit of Place. This is the Land that I refer to. Not a singular spirit, of course, but one for each place, many overlapping and enfolding and not as linear as some might like. Like my home range, for example. There is the spirit of my garden, and all the individual beings in it. Then there are the wetlands that my yard drains into. And then, from the wetlands, we go right into Johnson Creek itself. These are all their own entities, and yet part of larger watersheds and waterways–and that’s not even looking at geology, or air currents, or, for that matter, the spirit of the city and neighborhood.

This approach to bioregionalism, in which psychology and ecology and spirituality all combine in varying manners, is just one of the reasons why I am incorporating a career in therapy in general, and ecopsychology/ecotherapy in specific, into my shamanic practice. As I have mentioned before, I see therioshamanism as an attempt–albeit still in its relative infancy–to create a shamanism for the culture I am a part of. In order to effectively incorporate the role and functions of “shamanism” as a broad, general concept into this culture, it is necessary to work within the parameters and language (not just English, mind you) of this culture. Psychology is something that, although it is not fully understood by everyone in my community and culture, is still recognized as a way of healing and of discourse and of creating connections and meaning. Granted, these are more abstract concepts than, say, journeying to speak to the spirits–but most people in my culture wouldn’t fully accept animism in its raw form.

So I choose to not only work with literal animism, but also with metaphorical animism, in part through ecopsychology and related disciplines. One thing I am learning as a future therapist who will be incorporating several styles of therapy in my practice is that a diverse toolkit is a great benefit. Along with such things as client-centered, Gestalt and narrative therapies, I can also have ecopsychology and ecotherapy, and I can even have some elements of my shamanic practice on the occasion I get a client open to such things. But despite the means, the end goal is still the same–to promote better connections between humans and community, humans and spirits/nature, and humans and the self.

1. Winter, Deborah Du Nann and Koger, Susan M. (2004). The Psychology of Environmental Problems, p. 193

Environmentalism as a Spiritual Practice

Recently I was at Fred Meyer (your usual grocery/department/everything else store, only unionized and with more sustainable choices). While picking up some socks for my husband, I happened to walk by a sale rack that was full of knee-high white socks with various environmental slogans on them (25% off, even!). “Oh, those are cute!” was my first thought. I almost thought about picking up a pair, but then read one of the slogans a little more closely: “Protect the Earth”, it said. That made me stop and think about the potential purchase. Just what was I about to buy? Socks made in China, out of cotton (which is one of the least sustainable fabrics due to the amount of resources used in processing it)–and since I mainly see socks as a necessary liner for shoes and boots in cold weather, I didn’t exactly need “cute” socks.

So I decided, “Okay, I’ll protect the Earth–by not buying a pair of probably-sweatshop-made, not-even-organic cotton socks that I don’t really need right now”. And walked away. I felt better about myself for having done that, not just because it’s better for the budget right now, as well as my attempt to lower my impulse spending, but because I did feel I made the more ethical choice in that case.

But it also made me feel more in line with my spiritual path. I claim to practice a nature-based path; multifaceted, but still focused primarily on the sanctity of nature. Environmentalism is one of the most physical manifestations of what it is I believe about reality. I do the things I do not only because of the physical realities (reducing waste means less in the landfill, etc.) but what I perceive as spiritual realities in my path (everything has a spirit, and one honors the Earth-as-a-being by reducing and even reversing the negative impact on it).

So I decided to assess my approach to environmentalism as a religion in and of itself, focusing on a few particular areas:

The Divine: I am unapologetically pantheistic. The Divine–whatever its nature may be–manifests itself in all things. “God” is not a presence up in heaven, with an antithesis in hell. “God” is right here, in every being, in every thing; just as each of our cells is a part of us, so are we all a part of the Divine. Now, is the Divine a personal deity who cares about every single one of us? Or is “the Divine” a catch-all metaphor for the sum total of Everything That Is, perhaps with collective awareness (or some other cohesive connection that we may or may not be able to comprehend)?

For me, I find my connection to the Divine/God/whatever label you wish to use in the intricate ecosystems that wrap around the Earth. This includes human beings; we may pretend we aren’t a part of Nature any more, but any time a person catches a disease, or eats, or breathes, they are participating in the local ecosystem. That ecosystem may be largely dominated and shaped by humanity, but humans cannot live separate from all other beings in total. Nor can we subsist without “non-living” natural resources.

Maybe the only hell is the physical and psychological illnesses that often result from attempting to isolate the self from everything else. My attraction to ecopsychology is largely due to the perception that I and others have had that A) disconnection from the natural environment (and other ecosystems) very often has a damaging effect on people, individually and culturally. and B) many people respond favorably to exposure to natural ecosystems to whatever degree they are comfortable (factoring in things like agoraphobia, associations between wilderness and trauma, etc.). I want to help facilitate people’s reconnection to ecosystems, natural and otherwise, because as a general culture most Americans are suffering from one degree of disconnection or another–I know I have my own issues to work through in that regard, and I’ve seen it countless times in others. Rugged individualism is not good for the soul (literal or metaphorical).

Everyday environmental actions help me with this reconnection to the Divine/Everything That Is. Whether I’m in the garden growing the most locally available food there is, or making decisions in purchases based on sustainability, or repurposing an item that may be too worn for its original role, these things remind me of my connection, that I’m not just acting for myself.

Dogma: Because our understanding of the environment is constantly changing, both due to the tools at our disposal, and the changes in the environment itself, there’s no room for unchanging dogma, beyond “Do what is best for the environment without destroying yourself” (though there are a few extremists who believe the best thing would be for the entire human species to commit self-extinction). And I like that lack of overall dogma. It can be easy to fall into dogmatic, repetitive patterns, however, particularly where other people are concerned. It’s tempting to point out another’s flaws, to say “Hey–you didn’t recycle that piece of paper! For shame!” And we do need to speak up to others about the issues at hand, and what people can realistically do to help (as well as holding corporations, some of the worst offenders, accountable for their part in all this mess).

But few people like being forcibly converted to any belief system, whether it’s a recognized religion, a philosophy, or so forth. And the thing that I’ve learned as an environmentalist is that that whole adage about flies and honey is true. Just by blogging about my garden on my Livejournal, I’ve convinced several people to try their own hands at gardening. That’s a more concrete result than the times I’ve gotten up on my soapbox to preach the Good Green Word–I’ve mainly just gotten agreement from those who were already on board, and occasionally some disagreement from others. The constructive approach does indeed work better.

If someone doesn’t do things my way, I have to accept that that’s the reality. Trying harder to get through to that person isn’t going to help; if anything it’s going to alienate them. And my job is not to change people’s minds; my job is to offer information and set an example–and if someone chooses to emulate that example out of their own free will, to do what I can to help. People can convert themselves just fine without my help.

Mythos: A mythos isn’t necessary to environmentalism in general (and in fact some environmentalists distance themselves even from things like the Gaia Hypothesis, for fear of getting accused of idolatry by their own faith communities). For me, personally, though, the mythos grew alongside with my environmental action.

I have a whole other post brewing about subjectivity and belief, but for the moment here’s what I’ll say to this: The mythos of therioshamanism and my paganism in general provides me with additional meaning to the everyday actions I take, both with regards to environmentalism and with other aspects of my life. I don’t believe my actions are dictated by other beings, spirits and deities and such. But the purpose of the mythos, and the rituals and other practices surrounding it, is to find and define meaning apart from the actual physical activities and chains of events themselves.

Why? Why do we create art? Or music? Why do we indulge in this thing called “love”, instead of only thinking of it as a mess of hormones meant to bind people for survival reasons? Not that love doesn’t contain the hormones and messiness, but we don’t have to romanticize it in order to survive. Neither do I have to work with the mythos and spiritual beliefs that mesh with my physical everyday life. But I have the mythos, and I believe in love, because I want to, and I like to, and these things make me happy. And, as mentioned, they add meaning, and additional structure, which are also valuable.

The Afterlife: I’m really not sure, honestly, what I think about the afterlife. I know that my body, which is made of all sorts of molecules that have been all kinds of things, will decompose and go on to become other things. Beyond that? Who knows for sure? I’ve mostly decided that I’m just going to wait until I die, and then I’ll know for sure. Yes, I have my experiences with spirits, which some think should prove to me that there is a spirit world. But I have no way of knowing that those spirits are real for anyone besides me. That’s not enough of a basis to form an afterlife on.

People have a hard time with impermanence. Even I have moments where I’m utterly terrified that there’s nothing beyond this life. But I try hard to avoid compromising the lives of others out of my fear of impermanence. If I want to convince someone that a particular practice is better for the Earth, I’m not doing it for the purpose of racking up bonus points with the Divine. I’m doing it because it’s something I feel will benefit those of us right here, right now–and future generations to come. I’d rather focus on this world while I’m in it, rather than looking forward to another world that may not even exist. I’d rather plant a garden than buy an indulgence.

Sin: I dislike the concept of sin. It’s such a dualistic concept. In my view, we make mistakes, we (hopefully) learn from them, we move on. I would say that deliberate destruction and greed are definitely bad things–but I hate the concept of “sin”, like something is automatically and completely antithetical to “the RIGHT way to do things”. Some things are most certainly bad for the environment, but referring to any action that’s supposedly anti-environmental as “a sin” seems too simplistic. Sometimes people make honest mistakes. Others don’t have the resources to be as green as they’d like. And since our understanding of what is environmentally friendly is constantly changing, what may be “bad” at one point may actually turn out to be better, or vice versa.

This could be a lot more complete, to be sure. I’m no expert theologian. But I wanted to get these thoughts out in their raw form; there may very well be more polished versions in the future. Constructive feedback is always appreciated.

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.

Fried Brains and a Side of Expectations

Ugh. This grad school thing is quite possibly one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever taken on. I spent last Friday through Monday spending every day, all day, at school, getting my brain stuffed full of information. Not that this is horrible, of course, but other events have left me with little time to process all of it.

Saturday and Sunday were all ecopsychology. I got a LOT out of the two days, both theoretical and experiential. I’m already finding ways to weave it into my shamanic stuff as well, and in fact was able to work some of the material into my 21st Century Animism workshop at esoZone on Saturday night. I haven’t been doing much in the way of journeying and other formalities this month, since school has taken precedence. However, part of the reason I’m in grad school in the first place is to help integrate my spiritual/magical life in with the rest. The role of therapist is about the closest this culture has to a shamanic figure, and so it fits in neatly with everything else in my path. That being said, I’m not going to stop journeying entirely; however, I’m not going to kick myself too much for going a few weeks without when I’m occupied with activities that also contribute to my work with spirits. (The spirits themselves haven’t complained, either, FTR.)

As for expectations…I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about the motif of dismemberment and rebirth in shamanic practice. This is something that neoshamanisms have really latched on to; some people swear up and down that you cannot be a True Shaman (TM) unless you have gone through this experience–never mind that there are traditional shamanisms that lack this experience, or even any ordeal whatsoever.

I’ve seen this motif pop up in neoshamanic literature to the point where it’s become almost a cliche’. Often it’s used as part of guided meditations (not journeys), which are carefully scripted and there’s not a lot of room for individual experience outside of the script. I’ve even had it happen to me in things that clearly weren’t Major Initiation Rituals wherein my life was changed forever and I became a Real Live Shaman. Nor did I spend days and days recovering from the experience, and I’m guessing that most neoshamanic writers aren’t going to lead people through things that can potentially leave them insane and/or otherwise fucked up long-term.

So is this merely a watering-down of yet another traditional shamanic experience brought on by softer living? Or is it because this is one of the motifs that shows up commonly in anthropological literature about traditional shamanism, and therefore since the experts say it’s so, we come to expect it as part and parcel of any shamanic experience? Do we just expect that if we go through the right paces, say the right things, do the right rituals and read the right books, that we’ll someday find ourselves being eaten by bears, down to our bones, only to be recreated into an authentic being?

I have to wonder, too, about other patterns that neoshamans often expect to be there. Take journeying, for example. This is par for the course for Siberian and other shamanisms. However, it’s not universal. Korean shamans, for example, are more prone to channeling than flight, taking in rather than going out. And the same could be said for “sucking shamanism”, healing through the removal of illnesses by literally sucking them out of the patient’s body; or drumming; or the Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds attached by a World Tree; or shamanic sickness; and so forth.

Do we experience these things because they are objectively and near-universally shamanic? Or do we experience them because we expect to, because that’s what other people have experienced and we want to be like them? How much do we, even subconsciously, let our expectations control what we experience?

Food for thought…