Some Thoughts on “Justice” and the WM3

Here is what is making me the most concerned about the West Memphis Three. Well, okay. There are a lot of things that concern me about the situation. But this is what’s been foremost on my mind.

One thing I learned from my internship working with women fighting both addiction and criminality: Being in the criminal justice system does not leave one unmarked. The very setting of a jail or prison can be highly traumatizing, even if the often-cited prison rapes never happen. On the one side, you have the authority figures monitoring your every move, dictating what you can and cannot do, restricting you to a crowded, depressing setting for years of your life, and eventually wearing away your ability to function as an independent entity. And on the other side, adding more pressure, you have the prison population, many individuals of whom may be manipulative, threatening, violent, and more viciously hierarchical due to being in such close quarters with so few resources. Every day your health, mental well-being (and mental illnesses are disproportionately represented in this population), and even life may be in danger.

When that happens in a war zone, we call one of the potential results PTSD and we seek help for the soldiers (sometimes–I have my own criticisms of the military’s abandonment of their people). But do we think about PTSD in relation to prison populations? Or do we just assume that because these are “bad people”, they’re just getting what they deserved for whatever “bad thing” they did?

To me, while I acknowledge the lack of guilt on the part of the WM3, it doesn’t really matter to me whether a person tossed into that milieu is guilty or innocent. I am concerned for all. Prisons aren’t for rehab. They’re for keeping people locked up and brainwashing the general populace into thinking they’re “safe” because all those drug addicts and prostitutes and thieves and murderers are off the streets. But removing people from society only fixes a symptom, and “fix” is relative. It does little for the base problems which contribute to the social dysfunctions that lead people into criminality in the first place. It’s just easier to lock someone away and pretend they no longer exist than to take the time to dig through what may be a mix of years of trauma and abuse, mental illness, poverty, and other complex and difficult factors in each and every person in the system.

So when I think about the WM3, I wonder what two decades of institutionalization does to a young–now no longer so young–mind. Sure, they’re young enough that, under the best circumstances, they have a few more decades to live. But they can’t just leave that experience behind. It doesn’t end here, and the fresh start is a lie.

Bear Work and What Grad School Taught Me About Being a Shaman

So we’re down to the line here as far as grad school goes. In a week and a half I will be done with my internship, and with luck by the middle of September I will be able to put M.A. after my name!

It’s been incredibly stressful–not all bad stress, but still, stress has an effect. I haven’t had as much time to do a lot of my usual self-care techniques, but I have taken up meditation again. Brown Bear, who has always been my help with healing both myself and others, has been guiding me in meditation with small affirmations. These affirmations are to help me remember certain checks and balances against the negative effects of stress and other pressures. I have a small antique ceramic bowl in my ritual area that I’ve filled with small slips of paper with the affirmations written on them. I try to meditate at least once a day, though if I feel the need for more, the meditation is a brief break to help me ground and re-center myself.

Bear is coming back into my life more strongly, too. Not that s/he ever left, but school had a way of draining me to where I didn’t always have the energy to maintain my totemic and other spiritual connections as much as I’d like. Bear is patient with me, though, and that patience has been invaluable during this time. It’s not just that I appreciate being the receipient; it’s also good modeling to remind me to be patient myself, with myself and with others. I feel pretty confident that our work is going to continue and deepen as I enter this new phase of my life.

This sort of small, simple practice, while it certainly doesn’t replace more intense journeying, is just one of the things I’ve learned to appreciate more in the past few years. One of the main reasons I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in counseling psychology was that I wanted to be able to help more people. Outside of indigenous culture, the United States doesn’t really have a central shamanic role. There are, however, some professions that I consider to be analogous, to include counselor, and rather than trying to shoehorn post-industrial nonindigenous Americans into quasi-indigenous, pseudo-tribal artificially created pigeonholes, I see there being the greatest value in A) adopting those analogous roles, and B) if we feel the need for some archetypal shaman role, that we create it ourselves based on where we are, not where we wish we were. So for me, my training as a shaman hasn’t been at the hands of indigenous people, trying to convince them that this white girl is worthy of their amazing spiritual secrets, but instead in an education that is more tailored to what I’m used to. Not that it isolates me; on the contrary, my internship at a high-risk inpatient addictions treatment center has brought me into contact with an unprecedented variety of women from all sorts of racial, cultural, spiritual, familial and other personal backgrounds. I doubt I would have met any of them if I’d just hung up a “shaman” shingle and waited for people to show up.

Because let’s face it. Most Americans of all races wouldn’t go to a “shaman”, either because their religion forbids it, or they feel that sort of animistic practice is nutzoid. Native Americans are more likely to go to their own holy people and other such community figures. Most of the people who would come to me as a shaman are going to be similar to me–white, middle-class in origin, college-educated to some extent, and either neopagan or New Age of some flavor. However, people from numerous walks of life go to counselors, sometimes mandated by courts, but also often voluntarily. And I want to be accessible to all of these.

Even though I intend to go into private practice as a counselor once I graduate and get my degree, I am still going to keep my hand in on the community level, with some low-cost slots for the uninsured, as well as doing some research that I hope will benefit my internship site as well as the clients who use it. Yes, to an extent shamanism is about offering myself, but I can’t just go in saying “Here, take this!” As with any counseling or shamanism, it’s about finding out, collaboratively, what the client needs, and going from there. With counseling, I can offer a much wider set of possibilities to a broader range of clients.

And that’s one of the most valuable lessons I learned.

Hope For the Future

So I am in serious crunch time with my Master’s degree program. Next week is finals, and I am due to finish my internship at the end of August. In addition to all this, I’m trying to take some opportunities with my artwork, along with working on a new book as well as finalizing the animism anthology I started at the beginning of this whole grad school thing. Between that busy-ness, and my spirituality being more drawn inward, I haven’t had a lot to say here.

However, all these things converged in an experience today that I thought was worth sharing. As preparation for evaluating my internship site (for those unaware I’m completing my MA in counseling psych), I’ve been sitting in on some of the therapy groups that I haven’t previously facilitated or co-facilitated, just to get a more well-rounded understanding of the program. Today’s group, comprised of women who have completed the inpatient portion of the program and are now in clean and sober housing, did some art therapy, creating boxes as transitional objects to help them stay focused on their recovery. While the original concept of a transitional object was concerning “blankies” and other things a young child uses to replace the bond with hir mother, it may also be applied more generally to other situations where an object stands in for as connection, particularly when in need of comfort. One of the common factors contributing lapse or relapse in many recovering addicts is a lack of impulse control. A transitional object can help the client “check” themselves and remind them there is an alternative to giving in to the craving, as well as reminding them of positive connections made during treatment and other recovery efforts.

It’s similar to what you see in magic and other spiritual practices–objects as reminders of a positive goal, concept, etc. The activity that today’s group engaged in–decorating boxes with decoupage/collage materials–could just as easily been a coven or other magical group spending an afternoon creating pocket shrines or other devotional objects, or items for spells and rituals. I tend to prefer magical work that utilizes such things, partly for the process of creativity, but also because I simply like having physical reminders of nonphysical things around me. The objects reinforce my perceived connection to what they represent. And, of course, the process of making the object adds intent and effort, making it more personal than simply buying a random box from the store (though a carefully planned shopping trip can also be a strong ritual in and of itself).

I was invited to create my own box along with the clients. While I spent some time observing facilitation, I did manage to put together some small and simple that spoke to current events:

Part of what I am going through right now is a lot of mixed feelings about my decision to be completely self-employed when I complete my internship. I’m intending to be an artist and writer part-time, since that business has been effective enough to essentially be a part-time job, and to open a part-time private counseling practice. This will help keep me from burning out on either endeavor entirely, and give me the sort of variety that I prefer. However, there’s a lot of fear surrounding this. I would be happier with more business capital saved up, though I’m better off than I thought I’d be. And even with that backing me, in this economy, and especially in the slump that Portland is in, there are no guarantees that even my greatest efforts will succeed. While I cannot speak for the experiences of my clients, I can see some resemblance between my fear of failure, and their own, though the particulars vary quite a bit. So this exercise in creating something to answer that fear was timely for all of us.

I started with an image of wilderness, Canyon Creek, taken from a travel magazine. This represented a safe environment, and one full of life and ongoing potential. I wanted to emphasize to myself that while things could always be better, I have lots of opportunities and I’m not starting from a place of desperation or emergency. I added a picture of a handmade wooden bowl from a wood crafting magazine. I love this sort of craftsmanship, and when I own a house some day I would love to fill it with this sort of uniquely crafted, practical creation. I found, in a home decorating publication, a photo of a weathered whitetail deer antler hanging on a cord; while much simpler than what I make, it stood in for the talents and skills I do bring to this situation, that I am not helpless and I have a lot to offer wherever I may go. Finally, I completed the box with a quote from Thomas Bailey Aldrich: “They fail, and they alone, who have not striven”. Just another way of saying nothing ventured, nothing gained, and a reminder to me that even in the worst-case scenario where everything falls to pieces and I am left with nothing, at least I tried going for a dream I’ve held for a very long time, and the success of which will be highly beneficial to me on numerous levels.

I’m going to be using this box to contain my fears. Any time I feel doubt or worry about the future, I’m going to write it on a small slip of paper, put it into the box, and let that hope for the future contain and surround the worries. While there may be genuine concerns at the heart of those doubts, I want to temper them with optimism. This is one way to remind myself of that.

Pagan Values Blogging Month: Judgment vs. Compassion

Note: I actually wrote the bulk of this weeks ago, but life has gotten incredibly crazy as of late thanks to school, my internship site, and a whole host of other things. Still, I wanted to get at least one post published for this theme. Enjoy!

Compassion: to feel with. In terms of human interactions, compassion is to allow yourself to not only feel for other people (sympathy) but to feel with other people (empathy). It is becoming an active participant in another person’s suffering. Or, if you want to take this beyond anthropocentrism, it is active participation in another being’s suffering. (It can also be applied to emotions other than those associated with suffering.)

Compassion, comparatively speaking, doesn’t get a lot of time in pagan discussion because it’s a “nice” emotion. Sometimes I feel that many neopagans are so afraid of being perceived as fluffy, frou-frou New Agers, prone to talking about “love and light”, that we create a front of cynicism and worldliness. We separate ourselves from those other people by seeming more serious, and denigrate the sensitivity that may be expressed by others. We think that because we aren’t just talking about The Secret and wrapping the entire planet in soft pink energy that we somehow have a more mature, developed way of approaching the world we live in. True, sometimes complex emotions are unnecessarily compressed down into 140-character sound bites on Twitter, and I could write a ton about how “the law of attraction” is stuffed full to overflowing with primarily white, middle-class privilege.

But what too often I see as being touted as an improvement over this sort of “fluffiness” is people extolling snark as a legitimate response to anything they disagree with and a way to bolster their in-group membership by rallying others in a dogpile over the target of their disdain. I see the people who spend the most time telling others just how wrong they are being lifted up as paragons of their traditions, while those trying to help people do things “right”, whatever that might be, are often struggling just to be heard. I see some pagans who are in a veritable emotional arms race to latch onto ever more aggressive and “not fluffy” deities, spirits, practices, etc., often insulting the practices of anyone less competitively hardcore as being less real or true.

All these things center on moralistic judgment as a value. It’s just one of the many violent forms of communication that so many of us have been socialized with and which we are told is the correct, tough, powerful way to communicate, no matter the expense levied to ourselves and others. I first became acquainted with the concept of a violent form of communication when I took a course on nonviolent communication (based on the works of Marshall Rosenberg) during my graduate counseling psych program. Rosenberg defines moralistic judgment, one of his “life-alienating communications”, as a judgment that:

…that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values. Such judgments are reflected in language: “The problem with you is that you’re too selfish.” “She’s lazy.” “They’re prejudiced.” “It’s inappropriate.” Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of judgment. (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 15)

A clarification: Moralistic judgment is contrasted with value judgment, which is used to judge which values are right for us, as opposed to applying our values to other people in a moralistic judgment. We can say what we value without determining whether someone’s agreement or disagreement with our values makes them good or bad people, right or wrong. When I refer to judgment in the rest of this post, to include as contrasted with compassion as a value, I will be specifically talking about moralistic judgment, not value judgment.

Many pagans value those who make moralistic judgments on others, whether it’s judging someone as less competent, less appropriate, or just “doing it wrong”. We may not want to admit this as a collective value, but it’s there nonetheless.

The thing about judgment in this vein is that it is often exceptionally self-centered. The person making the judgment is focusing on their feelings on the matter and expressing those feelings in aggressive, negative, hurtful manners, without ever taking the feelings of the other person(s) into account. Yet at the same time, it’s also a way for the person to relieve themselves of having to examine those feelings, because they’re focusing their response on someone else instead of looking at what prompted the whole mess in the first place. So a lot of the time this can be summed up with the thought process “Here is something that makes me feel in a way I dislike. I’m going to respond to my feelings by attacking what I perceive to be the cause, which is external to me”. While, for example, someone interpreting the goddess Morrigan as a loving mother isn’t nearly as dangerous to my health as someone pulling a knife on me, you would think that the insult was just as grave given the viciousness of the personal attacks I’ve seen that have come up as a response to “You’re doing spirituality wrong!” discussions. And never have I seen anyone doing the “correcting” take a look at why they feel so insulted about the idea of a cuddly carrion crow that they must make ad hominem attacks in addition to their history lessons.

Is it any wonder, then, that we adopt cynicism to protect ourselves?

Yet when we justify our cynicism and our snark and our aggression toward others, we are perpetuating the very cycles of violent communication that have contributed to us walling ourselves away from the world. In fact, I feel it is a tragedy how much we are allowing ourselves to miss out on when we approach the world through so many layers of defense. How much more intimacy and genuine emotion and honesty could we experience in ourselves and others if those defenses were no longer there? What if “feeling with” was the default, where we all mutually respected the vulnerability of everyone involved?

There are payoffs for compassion for yourself and for others. When you allow yourself to be open to both your actual feelings as well as those of the other person(s), you’re able to get a much more complete picture of what’s going on, and you can make a more informed decision as to how to respond (instead of instantly reacting defensively). This makes it more likely that everyone gets their needs met, because instead of communicating with more and more defenses, everyone is able to clearly state what it is they need, and is more likely to understand what’s preventing those needs from being met.

Compassion teaches better connection and general communication skills. There are pagans who claim to be nature-based, and yet it’s a surface-level connection based mostly on imagery and abstract concepts, without really feeling with other living beings, human and otherwise. Or they’ll talk about connecting with a tree in a meditation, but then they seem completely incapable of understanding why someone whose supposedly improper practices they just insulted is so unhappy about that judgment (when they really, truly deserved it for doing it wrong, right?). There are few more powerful ways to really connect with any other being than through compassion—to really open yourself up to what that other being is experiencing in that moment, not just through imagination and assumption, but through direct interaction. While you don’t have to divorce yourself from what you feel when, say, you’re in an argument, the quality of connection you can have together is much better when you’re able to really listen to what all parties are saying instead of only focusing on trying to get what you want. And that practice can help to strengthen not only that relationship, but improve all your relationships across the board, whether with another person, a deity, etc. And communication works much better when people are listening completely, not just harvesting choice phrases that they can then use to defend their own points without considering others’ thoughts in total.

And compassion takes bravery. Anyone can snap and snarl at someone else, and keep putting those walls up higher and higher, and feel safe and protected against the world (even if there’s no actual safety to be had). But it takes a lot of guts to face the risk of vulnerability that compassion requires. Sometimes that may end up being a situation where you’re the one feeling the sadness and hurt of someone targeted by a group of snarkers, and putting yourself at risk of drawing their fire by defending their target. Other times it’s more intimate and personal, really and deeply listening to a significant other you’re arguing with at the risk of “being proven wrong” by deciding their point is valid and thereby possibly sacrificing whatever you thought you were originally fighting for. To be compassionate takes a lot more work and courage than to simply continue being negative and defensive as a matter of course, and that effort builds character and emotional skills in a way judgment never could dream of accomplishing.

In the United States, the gender dichotomy is highly pronounced. While there have been some inroads in gender diversification, the overwhelming pattern is still that men are supposed to be masculine (stoic, not emotionally expressive, strong) and women are supposed to be feminine (emotionally expressive, weak, passive). Compassion is generally relegated to the latter artificial category, a sort of emotional ghettofication. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Terrence Real, in his book How Can I Get Through To You (which was an assigned text for my Masters-level couples counseling course), related a trip he made to Tanzania. He asked some of the local Masai what makes a great morani, or warrior. One very old man in the community answered thusly:

I refuse to tell you what makes a good morani…But I will tell you what makes a great morani. When the moment calls for fierceness a good morani is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. Now, what makes a great morani is knowing which moment is which! (Real, 2002, p. 76)

So much for the (largely male-and-masculinity-dominated) pagan warrior ethic that focuses mainly on being strong and protective. While there are certainly times and places for ferocity and aggression, like so many other people in the United States, American pagans in particular tend more toward judgment than compassion. The continuation of witch wars and snark communities, the divisiveness of “Well, we don’t do things like THEY do because WE’RE better”—these all have judgment at their cores.

I feel strongly that compassion is a worthy value for pagans to consider adopting more frequently. It takes work–I still slip up a good deal myself despite my words here–but it’s a good goal to work toward, I feel. If we want to reduce the prevalence of moralistic judgment and other violent forms of communication in our community, then compassion is a particularly effective medicine. When we feel what another is feeling, we cannot attack them without attacking ourselves (and if we have so little compassion for ourselves that we feel this self-sabotage isn’t a problem, so much more the reason to examine why this is). Through compassion we are disarming ourselves, but we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of finally breaking through a vicious cycle, and spending our energy on more constructive efforts than simply building more and higher defenses against others.


Real, T. (2002). How Can I Get Through To You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. New York: Scribner. [admittedly very heterocentric, but a good book nonetheless]

Rosenberg, M. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press. [a bit outdated compared to Rosenberg’s more recent emphases, but still a worthy read]

So You Want to Be an American Shaman…

A recent comment brought up a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. There was a request for more specific examples of how one can incorporate shamanism into general American culture (with the caveat, of course, that different subgroups in the U.S. and even individual people will react differently).

My personal favorite way is to find established roles in American culture that are more or less analogous to the shaman. There’s no single clear “shaman” role here, but elements of it may be found in several professions/callings.

The key in finding these roles is to look at the function of the shaman or similar figure in the cultures in which they are found, and then find roles in this culture that function similarly on some level. This is not a particularly animistic culture, and most people think the concept of spirits is either evil or insanity. Therefore there is only a relatively small slice of Americans who would be willing to consult a “shaman”. However, it’s still possible to fulfill the functions of a shaman while in a profession more commonly accepted here.

So what are the functions of a shaman? A lot depends on the culture, so please don’t take these as anything more than generalizations, but commonly:

–The shaman is a bridge between two worlds, whether between the community and a neighboring community, or the humans and spirits, or humans and non-human nature, etc. This can facilitate cooperation, but can also be integral to aggression, such as shamans working malevolent magic toward rival communities in times of war.

–The shaman is a healer, using physical and/or spiritual medicines and methods to cure ailments of the body, mind and spirit.

–The shaman is a mediator and may be called on to help with conflicts in the community.

–The shaman may or may not be an integrated part of the community, depending on culture. In some cases, the shaman functions as somewhat of a social scapegoat or outcast upon which the ills of the community are cast.

–The shaman is the keeper of rituals and lore, the applied mythology that creates meaning and facilitates passages in the community.

These are just some examples of functions of the shaman. So where are these found in American culture?

–Counselor/therapist: This, of course, was the path I chose. To my mind, one of the foundational functions of the shaman is as the mediator between worlds, and in addition to external relationships, this includes intrapsychic communication among different levels of the self. As a counselor, I will be helping people gain better insight into themselves and how their minds work, which can also be applied to clients’ relationships, life choices, and other external circumstances. While often shamans may go on journeys alone, in some cases they take the client with them into the journey. In the same way, a counselor may take a more directive approach in giving the client advice and prescribing treatment, or may be more collaborative and integrate the client in the decisions surrounding therapy–how much direction depends on a variety of factors including the client, what’s being treated, the “energy” of the individual session, and so on. In most cases the journey is into the psyche, not the Otherworld (though some would argue there’s no difference other than semantics), though some therapists, such as those incorporating narrative therapy, may help clients create and carry out personal rites of passage, sometimes even including friends, family and other relevant people.

–Doctors and other medical professions: A friend of mine became am EMT as part of her shamanism. Like it or not, the Western medical system is the dominant paradigm of healing in the U.S. This paradigm, however, is not as monolithically pharmaceutical as it once was, however. Preventive medicine is a bigger concern, and doctors are carefully integrating complementary medicines which are shown to be effective. When treating my acid reflux, my doctor, for example, is a well-established internist, but she consults her hospital’s database of treatments which includes both omeprazole and probiotics. Given that things like antibiotics and heart surgery are the reason that the average lifespan in the U.S. is in the upper 70s/lower 80s, any “healer” would be highly unethical to dismiss Western medicine entirely. In fact, a shaman should recommend whatever is most effective, not whatever is most trendy. This means that some shamans may want to get training in Western medicine, whether that’s first aid training, or medical school, or any point in between.

–Clergy: While the term “clergy” often brings up Christianity in most Americans’ minds, clergy as a function transcends religious trappings. A clergyperson is someone who is a spiritual leader in their community, who holds the rituals and mythos of the religion, and offers guidance within the structure of that path. Pagan clergy most often resonate with the role of shaman, but really, there’s nothing keeping a clergyperson of any other religion from also applying that function to themselves, other than personally perceived boundaries.

–Artist/writer/musician: The right-brained wellspring of creativity found in all arts is a wonderful tool for journeying and other practices of shamanism. A shamanic performance ritual, for example, relies a great deal on the suspension of disbelief to help the audience “know” that the shaman whose body is in front of them is also flying in another realm, perhaps even having turned into another animal or other being. Creative works, whether visual, auditory, etc. can all be portals to other levels of consciousness/planes of reality, and art may consciously be used to facilitate the same sorts of tasks that a shaman in another culture–who may also be an artist–may perform. The art does not have to be “shamanic” in nature; we do not have to take the methods of indigenous people instead of, say, acrylics and oil paints, scrap metal mixed media, DJing, spoken word, etc. What’s most important is the inspiration to shift one’s consciousness for a particular purpose.

–Scientist: One of the things that frustrates me to no end is the anti-science threads through spirituality in general, and neopaganism in particular. “Science” is seen as “cold”, “unfeeling”, lacking in imagination, etc. just because it doesn’t prove the objective experience of spirits and magic. Yet, to me, science is a source of great wonder and awe at the world around me. The Otherworld is an amazing place, and I don’t particularly care whether it’s all in my own head/collective consciousness or not, with no objective reality beyond the human psyche. But I do not try to put it in the same place in my cosmology as the world of atoms, or astrophysics, or the natural history of nonhuman animals, or photosynthesis. And to me, the things that scientists are discovering and exploring are every bit as important and inspiring as any journey I’ve had. The scientist doing research into new and uncharted territory goes into places where most people could never fathom and brings back information and knowledge to aid the populace. If that’s not shamanism, I don’t know what is.

These are just a few examples of analogous roles to the shaman in this culture. I’m sure my readership could think of more, and I’m certainly open to suggestions! So–whaddya think?

Shamanism and Racism

“Shamanism and racism”. Google that, and you’ll mainly get various pages referencing Shamanism, Racism and Hip-Hop Culture by James Perkinson (which, incidentally, is now on my wish list). There’s more when you do various searches for shamanism and cultural appropriation (without quotes). But it seems like most people don’t want to use the R-word.

And yet there is inherent racism in a lot of non-indigenous shamanic practices and trends. Not overt racism, but racism nonetheless. A few examples:

–White people traveling to far-off lands for the sole purpose of having shamanic “experiences” with “genuine tribal elders”. In many cases, these experiences are completely removed from the reality of their cultures of origin. This is especially pernicious in cases where participants are blind to the fact that members of that culture may be living in poverty, may be subjected to egregious human rights violations at the hands of governments and corporations, may experience daily racism (to include violence) from other residents who don’t go away when the seminar is over, and otherwise are not the mystical, quasi-Atlantean purveyors of super-secret wisdom.
–Core shamans claiming that core shamanism is culturally and racially neutral. There is no such thing as “culturally neutral”. Core shamanism was developed within a particular Western mindset, and its parameters and emphases reflect that. (I wrote more about this in this post a couple of years ago.)
–Shamans who turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the people who are able to afford their pricey weekend seminars and hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour consultations are white, middle class, and college-educated. What about everyone else, to include those who may not be able to afford health insurance but need healing, counseling, etc.? Alternative medical care may be one of the few options for the uninsured, but not if it’s consistently priced out of their range.
–Shamans who profit from the specific cultural teachings of indigenous people, but who give nothing back to those cultures, to include money made from shamanic consultations, workshops, etc. based on the teachings.*
–Shamans who ignore the fact that for the majority of the American population, the concept of going to a “shaman” is alien, offensive, crazy, or otherwise not viable. We do a great disservice to the people we could be serving when we stick within the narrow comfort zone of people who are enough like us to understand what we mean by shamanism. By assuming that, say, a Catholic Hispanic person who may see what we do as devil worship is just “unenlightened”, we refuse the possibility of meeting people where they’re coming from, which is a key component of fighting social injustices.
–Shamans who ignore the complaints of some indigenous people regarding cultural appropriation and plastic shamanism. Yes, it sucks being criticized, especially when it’s not constructive criticism, because we don’t like hearing what is being said. Yet ignoring the complaints because they don’t fit our preferences isn’t a viable solution. One of the most insidious manifestations of racism—and, indeed, social injustice–involves silencing minority voices.

It’s obvious that these examples reflect other social justice issues beyond racism, but let’s stay focused for the purposes of this essay. Nobody wants to talk about racism because nobody wants to be a racist. Here in the 21st century, racists are “bad people”, and to be considered a racist is to invite guilt and shame. (Well, in most cases. You do have those who openly embrace their racism as a positive character trait—but that’s another problem entirely. And there are those who have exchanged their inwardly-directed guilt for more constructive, outwardly-focused responses. But I digress.)

In fact, modern non-indigenous shamanic practitioners have gotten pretty good at dodging the issue of racism entirely. Many of the arguments reflect justifications for racism in society at large. Here are just a few I’ve run across commonly.

–“You’re taking this too seriously; it doesn’t really matter.” But it does matter. To the people bothered by it, it’s very valid. (I could probably turn the starfish story on its head with a different interpretation of “it matters to this one”.) And yes, I’m notorious for meta-meta-meta-analysis of everything. But so was Joseph Campbell, and he came up with some awesome (if sometimes biased) concepts about mythology. If it ends up that I’m overthinking things, so be it. At least I took the time to examine it. And I don’t analyze so much that I don’t also practice; I just practice with that analysis in mind. Unlike many (though not all) academics who are exploring issues of cultural appropriation and shamanism/neopaganism/etc. I am immersed in what I’m exploring. So it is relevant to what I actually do.

–“It’s just some of the Indians [or other indigenous people] complaining/I know Indians [or other indigenous people] who don’t mind sharing.” That may be. But your friends and colleagues do not speak for their entire culture, never mind all indigenous cultures. There are reasons these people are complaining, and those reasons need to be explored, even if it isn’t comfortable to do so. Ignoring them doesn’t help the discussion. Shutting them down because they say things we aren’t comfortable with is also not constructive. If anything, as those who are privileged, we have additional responsibility to listen.

–“White people get mistreated, too. Listen to all the complaining you’re doing about white people. Is that fair?” No, it’s not fair. But this isn’t about fair. It’s about actually paying attention to problems that your privilege lets you ignore on a daily basis. (If you’re unclear about what the concept of privilege is, please read Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.) A white person being called names for being white does not have the same historical and still-existing societal context of, say, a black person being called names for being black. And let’s not even get started on the gross inequalities that Native Americans have been and still are routinely subjected to. There’s a lot more to racism than someone not liking you.

–“Spirituality/shamanism/healing/etc. is for everyone. We should focus on erasing boundaries between cultures and races and other artificial divisions and just focus on being all human.” Well, yes, a world without racism and other social injustices would be ideal. But you don’t get there by ignoring issues of social injustice and pretending they don’t exist, or that you’re not involved. You get there by getting your hands dirty, taking responsibility for your part–intentional or not–in the problem, dealing with your own privileges, and listening to the people who are affected by the injustices. This is basically another iteration of racial colorblindness, which is a lot more counterproductive in deconstructing racism than some would assume.

I’ll say right now that I am most definitely not expecting everyone to agree with me. (In fact, I have my super-secret-shamanic-technology flame-retardant undies on, just as a precaution.) And I’m not perfect, especially when it comes to actions of cultural diversity. Most of this is still me chewing on thoughts, becoming aware of my shortcomings, as I’m immersed in a curriculum that focuses heavily on social justice in counseling. I’m well aware of the fact that my own cultural experiences have been pretty homogenous. I’ve been working to change that with my volunteering and graduate school efforts, which focus heavily on working with the formerly homeless, impoverished, recovering addicts, and other people whose experiences I couldn’t even begin to fathom personally. But that’s a small start, and it doesn’t automatically make me an expert on minority groups.

But I want people to be talking about this, even if some of the commentary ends up changing my perspectives somewhat. Even being “wrong” is better than being silent, and we all stand to learn from this discussion. Not talking about race just promotes racism.

*An excellent example of someone who does give back to the culture he learned from is James Endredy, with his Earth Spirit Foundations charitable programs.

PantheaCon and the Bear Performance Ritual

So at this year’s PantheaCon in San Jose, CA, I officially did my first big public group ritual. Ever. Really.

See, I’ve been feeling things converging toward taking my practice more public as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing, and when I’ve checked with both the spirits and human peers, I’ve generally been supported in this. So when the time came to submit workshops and other activities for this year’s PantheaCon, back in the fall, I decided to take the chance of doing a shamanic ritual there. I figured if it got accepted, then it would be a chance for me to really put what I’m doing to the test.

The more I actually practice my shamanism, the more I really find I dislike the one-on-one model of practice, where you just have the shaman and client in isolation, and it’s fairly streamlined, with a little drumming, but not much in the way of pageantry. And I’m really fond of the concept of sacred play and ritual theater as facilitating suspension of disbelief and magical states of consciousness. This is important to my practice because I work with the self as a series of systems–physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. I find it easiest to approach magical work from the psychological angle, but with the understanding that I’m affecting the whole shebang. And play is a great way to engage the psyche.

I also am of the opinion that shaman circles aren’t the way for me to go. I dislike being in a group where it’s basically (please forgive the saying) too many chiefs, not enough indians. Not only does the process have to be watered down to accommodate everyone, but personally, I don’t want, as the presider over the ritual, to be responsible for the safety of a bunch of people in the Otherworld. I do not agree with the common (though not universal) core shamanism assertion that journeying is safer than dreaming (and I don’t even think dreaming is always safe). Just because the place where, for example, Brown Bear lives is close to my starting point and is a relatively safe place for me, doesn’t mean that that place will extend the same courtesy to other people.

Therefore, my conception of a “group ritual” in my shamanic practice isn’t “we’re all gonna journey together and be this raucous drumming party romping through the Otherworld in search of soul fragments and cheap beer”. Instead, I’m fond of the model in which there is a presiding shaman who is the relative expert, and the rest of the community, whether it’s a long-standing one, or part of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, helps to create the space within which the shaman works. That’s where I’ve been trying to go with this concept of shamanic performance ritual.

Other than the Grey Wolf and Brown Bear rituals I’ve done in my home, I haven’t really been able to put this to the test in an actual group setting. I’ve practiced various elements in private in preparation, but nothing is the same as actually doing the work. So the PantheaCon ritual was a way for me to try out, with a larger group and in a different setting, these things that I’d been mostly developing in theory. And it was the first time I’d done work with an in-person client, which I’ll write about more in a bit. (My client had been very aware of this from the beginning and was more than happy to be my guinea pig.)

Because of the experimental nature of this ritual, I made it very, very clear both in the preparation workshop prior to the ritual, and right before the ritual itself, that if anyone did not feel comfortable participating in something that was still basically a work in progress, they were more than welcome to leave before I got started. Also, I specifically chose a ritual with Brown Bear because s/he is the totem I have had the most experience with in spiritual and magical practice; s/he has always been the first to step up when I wanted to try a new practice, and s/he has been my greatest guide in my shamanic work, even more than Grey Wolf. And we negotiated the parameters prior to the ritual itself, so that the ritual was mainly (though not entirely) a formality to enact what we had agreed. So there were a lot of factors in place to minimize potential disasters.

I also made it very, very clear that I did not want anyone following me into the Otherworld while I journeyed. Trancing during the drumming was fine, just so long as the people remained here, and I had (human) helpers keeping an eye on the participants to make sure everyone was okay while I was occupied with my work. I explained in great detail when everyone else would get to drum/chant/etc. along with me as part of helping to maintain that collective space, but I wanted to make the boundaries clear. To be honest, I was a bit worried since neopagans in general are used to a high degree of participation, and the shamanic circle is pretty common in and of itself, so I was worried that people might be bored, or not get what I was trying for. However, the orientation workshop served pretty well to make my points clear to folks what was happening, and why, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks.

So what, exactly, happened? Along with the above points, I spent the orientation workshop giving background on my practice over the past decade and change, how I was weaving various disparate threads of practice into a cohesive neoshamanism, and why. I answered questions and addressed concerns, and we all had a really good rapport together.

And then there was the ritual itself. There weren’t as many people as I thought would be there, fewer than twenty, but it was also eleven at night and we were scheduled opposite a drum circle (stiff competition when you’re dealing with a crowd used to being heavy participants). Still, it was a great group, and I was able to get right down to business.

My setup was pretty simple. I had brought my brown bear skin, from a very old rug, and laid her out on the floor with my various tools and offerings to Brown Bear on her. My drum was there, too, and my client had laid out his coat to lay on during the ritual. I also had a bottle of water and a bag of jerky, just in case my weird-ass metabolic issues decided to act up, or if I needed to bring edibles into the Otherworld with me (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

I started off with a warmup. I believe very much in the power of humor to break people out of their defenses, and so I started off with a few jokes, some banter, and a dirty political limerick, all of which went over quite nicely. It got people to pay attention to me and relax and laugh–and focus.

After this, I greeted the land spirits. I don’t do a circle casting, but I do like to greet the more prominent genii locii, and the four directions make convenient delineations. So I greeted local spirits like the Guadalupe river (who I went to visit shortly before the ritual) and both sets of mountain ranges, as well as evoking my connection to Oregon and the Columbia River, among others. I shook my Black Bear rattle and had everyone else drum, clap, etc. along with me. I ended each evocation with a yell, “HA!”, and by the time I was done everyone was yelling with me–which was great fun. I’m definitely keeping that.

Then it was time for the journey itself. I think this was the toughest part of the performance part of the ritual, because I had anticipated there being more drums than there were and therefore didn’t bother preparing myself to narrate during my journey, which takes more concentration. So people mostly were there watching me sit and drum, and make noise along with me, to help act as a heartbeat to help me find my way back. I need to either figure out how to deal with narration when there may be a lot of noise, or some other way to keep the other people occupied with something besides boring old me sitting and beating on a drum while my spirit’s off elsewhere. The risk of dramatic narration is that if I get too focused on telling people “back home” what’s going on, I find myself slipping back to my body before I’m done with my work. On the bright side, I found that having the heartbeat that people were creating helped me orient back to my body, which was a concern since this was the first big journey I had done from a relatively unfamiliar location.

Brown Bear was sleeping, of course, but s/he woke up long enough to tell me what I needed to do with the offerings to hir and the gift to my client. S/he said s/he wouldn’t come hirself, but that s/he’d send a part of hirself with me to help with the ritual. So I did what s/he told me to, and came back to do the work in this world.

Once I returned, I explained briefly what was going to happen. Then I draped the bear skin over me, and tapped out a basic beat for people to follow. I danced until I felt the spirit of the bear skin, and that tendril of Brown Bear’s energy connect in me, and I became a bear myself. I went to my client and sought out ill areas, and he told me later that the first place I homed in on was a place that had been hurting. I went to these places on his body, and I yanked out, for lack of a better word, buildups of “bad energy”. It wasn’t a full-cure–these are chronic conditions–but it was a way to clear out the crap that had built up on an energetic/spiritual level at the sites of these conditions and bring temporary relief. I then breathed in Bear/bear energy/power/whatever you want to call it into the voids left by these things I removed, snuffling and whuffing like a bear, and tearing out the bad with teeth and claws while putting in the good with breath.

I then gave the client a small gift, and told him what to do with it. Were he local to me, I would see about arranging this to be a regular thing, not as a cure-all, but simply as maintenance. Such as it was, he actually reported immediate, measurable physical improvements in his symptoms–whether you want to call this the placebo effect isn’t as important as the fact that the ritual did what it was supposed to do.

I danced Bear/bear back out, and then did another acknowledgement of the land spirits (again with that fun yell at the end!) I had checked on the other participants at a couple of breaks in the ritual itself, just to be sure everyone was alright, and then again at the end once everything was cleared out and I knew my client was okay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do such a great job of making sure I was okay. I spent most of the rest of the weekend pretty fragged and fatigued, partly due to not grounding properly, but also because I’ve found that shamanic work takes more out of me, physically and otherwise, than any other spiritual and magical work I’ve ever done–and that includes the crazy-ass chaos magic experimentation I did a number of years ago. I now have a much better idea of why people talk about the sacrifices associated with shamanic practice, and why my instincts were screaming at me to dig my heels in when the spirits were still unsuccessfully trying to convince me to do this stuff in the first place. Granted, I already had insomnia and metabolic issues, but they and the shamanic work like to play into each other post-ritual, and I’m still learning to find a good balance of self-care with this sort of work.

My client, and other people, really seemed to appreciate the ritual itself for a variety of reasons. And I learned quite a bit from it about how to proceed in the future, what worked, and what needs more adjustment. Most importantly, though, it reaffirmed for me that yes, this is what I need to be doing. More on that later. For now, I’m going to continue recovering, and assessing the results of my work.

Shamanism and PTSD

I found this nifty article about core shamanism and PTSD over at Letters from Hardscrabble Creek. This makes me very hopeful, as PTSD treatment is something I want to do some research on once I have my counseling degree. (Neo)shamanism fits quite nicely into ecopsychology–in fact, the first anthology on ecopsychology includes an interview with Leslie Gray, who created what she calls “shamanic counseling”, a hybrid of core shamanism and counseling techniques.

“But wait, Lupa, I thought you didn’t like core shamanism! Why are you singing its praises?” you may ask. Yes, I have some practical differences with core shamanism that lead to me not wanting to practice it myself as a (neo)shaman. However–and this is a big however–I’m also not going to be so territorial that I refuse to pay attention when something I may not incorporate into my own practices is showing significant results for others.

PTSD is different from a good number of mental disorders. It doesn’t respond to many common therapies in the same way that other disorders, such as depression, do–talking openly about what happened can trigger flashbacks and other symptoms which may be very severe. And, of course, as with anything, individual patients may respond differently. So it can be a lot tougher to treat than many other things.

Many core shamanic practitioners strike me as prioritizing the psychological and other technical aspects of what they do than the relationships with spirits, the latter of which is what I put first. However, in this case, the emphasis on psychology and healing seems to be exactly what hits the spot for some PTSD patients. Granted, I would really like to see formal research on it–anecdotal evidence is a good start, but if someone has published research on it, I’d definitely want to get hold of it. And I’d want to know about the long-term results as well, since I don’t believe in instant fixes. I’ve contacted Sacred Hoop Ministry, the folks mentioned in the article to get more information, because this does make me curious.

There is part of me that’s really curious as to whether non-core shamanic soul retrieval would have similar effects, for better or worse. Would one be more effective than the other? Would it depend on the patient? Or is it simply different ways of doing the same thing? This is in light of the fact that the views on journeying may be very different–Harner stated that the shamanic state of consciousness is safer than dreaming, while most non-core shamans paint the Otherworld(s) as a much more dangerous place.

Still, if it works, then I’m not going to complain about particulars. Despite my preferences and biases, ultimately I’m mainly concerned with what achieves changes for the better. There are too many serious problems that need solutions for us to be spending too much time arguing over things that may not ultimately be all that important.

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.

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.