In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

I have spent the better part of two weeks being sick with a gut bug. I’m almost recovered at this point but am still fatigued enough that it’s going to be a couple more days before I can reliably leave the apartment for more than a little while. It’s definitely going to be a bit longer before I get to go hiking again. But even going outside so far as to walk down the block has been a challenge. I went out Friday afternoon to walk an errand, and was overjoyed to get absolutely drenched in the rain, simply because it meant I wasn’t inside.

Now, my apartment is a pretty cozy place to be. I have just about everything I need here–my work, lots of books, my computer, company in the form of my partner, and so forth. So being restricted to this place isn’t the worst thing in the world. Even on the days when I was so tired I mostly just slept, I had a nice, warm, comfy bed to snooze and snuggle in. I even popped open the bedroom window during the day so I could see the cherry and maple trees outside, with the squirrels and scrub jays and crows busying themselves with autumn chores. So it sure beat being stuck in a hospital somewhere (not that I was anywhere near that sick this time around).

Still, it wasn’t outside. And due to being sick twice now in the past month, my outdoor time has been almost nil. To be quite honest, it’s been driving me up the wall. Once festival season settled out for the year and I was able to get out more, I got used to my weekly hikes and other sojourns. And now they’re sorely missed. I’ve felt so starved for outdoor time that even walking downstairs to the mailbox or the car has felt like a banquet of smells, sights, and sounds for my sensory enjoyment.

The entire experience been an immediate illustration of the human need for nature. I noticed a definite difference between the first time I was able to get in the car and have my partner drive me to the grocery store, and the first time I was able to walk a mile around my neighborhood on one of the last sunny days. Sure, the former was a change of scenery, and the source of much-needed provisions. But the latter….that fed my spirit. I often take for granted just how much the trees and the gardens and the small creatures in my urban neighborhood improve my overall well-being. That first walkabout was a strong reminder of what had been missing. I went from a small space of a few rooms and the endless distractions of the internet, to a full, living world brimming over with flora and fauna. I encountered thousands of living beings–the last remaining orb weaving spider, chrysanthemums, moss greening the rain-soaked pavement, my fellow humans jostling for space in a small market.

I vary from day to day how much I’m able to get out, but every moment under the sky is precious now. It was before, too, but never to such a conscious degree. And every day I direct my efforts in growing stronger and healthier with the goal of being well enough to hike, even if it’s just a small hike. That’s what has helped keep my sanity intact in these days of illness and fatigue and confinement. Between my walks outside, and the promise of more wilderness, I can keep myself calm while I heal.

I am not an indoor wolf. I never had the ability to fool myself into thinking that the city was enough, that the virtual reality of the internet and all its shining interruptions could replace the living world. I have uses for technology, of course, but they are no substitute. I am a living, breathing, evolved being, and like my ancestors before me, I need open landscapes to roam. We may have developed some incredible and even beneficial technologies over the past century, but we are still the mammalian animal, Homo sapiens, and evolution doesn’t work so quickly that tech replaces biology.

So I wait as patiently as I can for my body to complete its healing process from this damnable illness, letting my immune system work its magic, and taking in calories and rest as I need to to help it along. And then someday soon I’ll find myself strapping on my day pack and picking up my hiking stick, and I’ll be on the trail again before I know it.

Souvenir

So in case you missed it, last week I got home from a road trip involving heading down to San Jose for PantheaCon, then heading back up the Pacific coast by way of highways 1 and 101. My partner and I ended up doing some inexpensive (read: free) touristy things. We also spent a good deal of time poking around antique shops and flea markets for inexpensive art supplies and other goodies. I didn’t have a huge budget, but I did find a few really nice things, particularly in the realm of beads.

So last night I made some time to just sit and make jewelry, since I’ve been itching to play with the new beads I got since we got home. The first necklace I made was one that I had been planning in my head as I was collecting beads and findings from here and there, and as it came together its spirit wrapped around me, cuddled up close, and refused to let go. Each bead I put on the wire told a bit more of the story of our trip, and when I was done, I had the perfect souvenir of our adventures together.

See, we started down in San Jose itself, once the convention was over. And when we escaped the urban areas and got into the wilderness, we were greeted by the beauty of redwoods, one of several new experiences for me. The same day I left PantheaCon as it closed was the first day I got to see redwood groves in Muir Woods. Later in the week we drove down the Avenue of the Gods, further north along the coastline once we had reached 1/101. And it was there that we stopped at a little independently-owned gift shop. Most of what they had were either out of my price range ($80 bowls made from redwood burls, totally worth the price for their craft) or not particularly useful to me (yet ANOTHER sweatshirt?) But I found a string of polished beads made from redwood scrap, and three little clusters of redwood needles coated in 24K gold, sitting forlornly on the clearance rack.

So those carried the energy of new experiences–the redwoods, the California coastline, my first coastal storm, and the seemingly endless road trip.

Later that day, we traveled along to Ferndale, a small town a little outside of Eureka. My partner wanted to check out all the restored Victorian homes and business buildings, and was not disappointed. There were gingerbread manses galore, and the downtown district was full to overbrimming with historic locations and 19th century construction that had survived storms and fires and neglect. We visited an artist who had made the town his home for many decades, who opened a studio not to sell his art, but to share it for free, and to teach people his crafts. We took pictures of lovingly cared-for houses and churches. And we explored a little general store of nouveau-vintage items, knickknacks, and an extensive display of period antiques for all to see. At this place I found several strands of glass beads, as well as some dyed freshwater pearls.

A few of these pearls, dyed green-gold, flank the redwood beads. The pearls represent the best of human contributions–creativity, conservation, and art–which were evident not only in Ferndale, but in various communities throughout our trip.

Across the Oregon border, not too far from home, we ended up in Waldport, one of a string of little coastal towns. While my partner chatted up the owner of a local knife and sword shop, I wandered over to a flea market across the street. I poked through various antiques and tchotchkes, and came across a veritable treasure trove of little wood beads of the sort that I use frequently in my jewelry. The seller wanted naught but a song for them, and I knew they’d get used, so they went home with me as well. And as I stepped back out onto the street with my little purchase, looked at the little rows of shops that characterize so many Oregon coast towns along 101, and breathed the salt-tinged air, I knew I was back home.

And these little brown beads–those ground the necklace. They’re not the most flashy ones, but they connect the islands of shiny redwood and pearl together.

And in the same way, home is what makes the moments of exploration and adventure stand out even more. It’s not that home is a bad thing; quite the contrary. My partner and I have created a cozy living situation together, and Portland is a good place to be right now. Home is a safe place to return to when the adventures are through for the time being. And the adventures are all the better when I know I have that anchor if I need it, if I start feeling overwhelmed by all the new things, or tired from driving. The shine and sparkle of new places helps me appreciate home more, and without my good home I couldn’t enjoy travel nearly so often on the occasions it happens.

The necklace I’ve created, then, isn’t just some shiny thing–indeed, I very rarely wear jewelry other than my usual wolf chain. So for me to keep something like this that I would normally release into the wild, as it were, is an occasion to be noted. Right now, as I am easing back into the routines and challenges of everyday life, I am wearing this necklace to remind me of those beautiful adventures and the healing they gave me. I carry with me the redwoods, and the gingerbread, and the crashing waves on bluffs. And I smile, and continue on with my day here at home.

Social Justice and the Shaman as Intermediary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sources:

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]