An Introduction to Drum Journeying

I realized, after having someone recently ask me about basic shamanic techniques, that I really haven’t written much about the foundational nuts and bolts of what I do. I suppose it’s another case of me assuming that readers already have the basics of (neo)shamanism under their belts; it’s actually more of a challenge for me to write something on that most basic and bare-bones level because I have to think hard about things I normally take for granted. So I’m going to take a shot at explaining the basics of how I do drum journeying, and some starter points for readers as well.

Why drumming?

I’ve enjoyed dancing at drum circles for many years now. Dancing and drumming are effective forms of trancework for me, but trying to keep an eye on other dancers can be distracting, never mind dodging the occasional drunk person with poor boundaries. So I’ve learned to drum solo for my own personal shamanic work. It took some work, since I hadn’t really been a drummer before, but with practice I learned to go into trance while dancing (or sitting) and drumming, and now the action of drumming is closely interwoven with the trance state. The rhythm of my body beating the drum helps to lull me into the initial trance, and helps carry me deeper with physical cues as I drum faster or slower, louder or softer.

Drumming is one of the most common forms of trancework in shamanic practice; most (though not all) shamanic traditions worldwide incorporate drumming. Sometimes the drum is only a tool; other times it’s a vehicle to the otherworld; and still other drums are the map to get there. While shamanic drumming does rely some on keeping at least a very basic “heartbeat” rhythm, you don’t have to be a virtuoso. Also, it’s wonderfully universal experience; while their perception of the percussion may differ somewhat from hearing peoples’, those who are deaf can also make use of drums, shamanically and otherwise.

You may already have some experience with trancing while drumming. If not, the first thing you’ll want to do is to practice altering your state of consciousness to the sound of drums. There are lots of drumming CDs out there, and you can also find some free videos by searching for “shamanic drumming” on YouTube. If you’re lucky enough to have a drum circle near you, you can even listen in person; a lot of them won’t have a problem if you don’t drum yourself, so long as you aren’t disruptive. You can, of course, drum as well, but the main thing is to practice “sinking into” the drum beats regardless of whether you yourself drum or not.

Deerskin drum and beater by Lupa, 2012.

You will also want to practice drumming itself. Play with your drum; try out different beats, and see how each part of the head sounds–the tone near the edges may be very different from that in the center. Really listen to the drum’s voice and get to know it as an individual. Don’t worry about being technically proficient; don’t even necessarily worry about keeping a perfect beat, either. Just play with it and see what happens.

Once you feel comfortable enough with both skills, try bringing them together. You can drum at the drum circle, or drum by yourself and ride the rhythm you create. And most of all, practice, practice, practice. Nothing replaces that. You may find that you dip a bit into the spirit world as you’re practicing. That’s okay. Generally you’re not going to go in deep enough at this point to get in any trouble. If you have trouble “coming back out” again, ground yourself by getting up and walking around a bit (with company if you feel a bit wobbly) and eat something protein-heavy to settle your body down again.

What sort of drum do I use?

My personal choice has always been natural hide drums. My first one was a goathide bodhran, but my current journeying drum is a horse hide frame drum that I got after completing my first year of intensive Therioshamanic work. Horse has long been a totem of travel and protection for me, so it was fitting that the horse hide drum was the one who chose to work with me. Not only do I work with the physical drum, but also the spirits of the horse and yellow cedar whose physical remains create the drum, and the deer whose leg bone is the beater. She has a deeper voice, but varied, and I’ve gotten to know her voice well enough that I can play her without even looking at her and still know exactly where to strike to get the right pitch.

The spirit of the horse hide is also the ones who carries me to the spirit world. It’s safer to have a guide to take me there, and she has been known to rescue me when things got a little (or a lot!) too risky. She can move much more quickly there than I can, and can sometimes gain entry to places that I can’t go by myself. Plus it takes effort to move around, even in the spirit realm, so having someone to take the first leg of effort allows me to reserve my strength for once I arrive. There have even been times I was so tired afterward that she was the only thing getting me back home safely.

There’s a wide variety of drums out there; each with its own voice and playing style. A djembe is going to have a different personality than a bodhran, and they’re played differently, too. If you’ve spent some time at a drum circle you may already know what type of drum you prefer. However, if you’re still unsure, go to a drum circle or shop and check out how each is played. If you don’t have access to a drum circle there are videos of some on YouTube, though it may be tough to figure out which drum has which voice. And the same if you need to order your drum online–you can search for each type of drum and generally find lots of videos of people playing them.

One other consideration: despite my love of hide drums, I have occasionally regretted not having a synthetic drum as a backup. Hide drums don’t like moisture, and if I’m at an outdoor festival where it’s raining, my horse hide drum is going to sound flatter than a dead tire. Some people dislike synthetic drums because they’re, well, synthetic. However, you can imbue a synthetic drum with spirit in much the same way as vegan skindancing.

Whether you buy or make a natural or synthetic drum, or even make one out of common household products, the important thing is that you have a good connection with it. You may find that it takes you a couple of tries to get the right drum. Just make sure that your old drum goes someplace where it’ll be appreciated. Consider making it a gift to a friend, or donating it to a music program for children.

(And, as a bit of shameless self-promotion, I make and sell hide drums as well.)

How do I warm the drum up?

If you’ll forgive the slightly risque comparison, even drums need a little foreplay. Some of this is to get an idea of what the drum needs–is it too humid? Too warm?–as well as to tone up head and your arm! More importantly, it’s a greeting to the spirit, who may be sleeping. And it’s just plain polite.

I first warm my drum up by rubbing my hand over it in clockwise circles, starting at the outer edges and spiraling inward. As I do so, I quietly call to the spirit of the drum, and ask her to wake up and join me. Once she’s ready, I pick up the beater and run it over the drum in the same pattern–not hitting the drum, just moving the head of the beater over it.

I also cool down my drum in the same way; once I have finished drumming, I run the beater over the head, only counterclockwise and moving out in spirals from the center. I then do the same thing with my hand, and if need be put the spirit back to sleep.

If your drum is one that needs tuning, now’s a good time to check. You can also look for damage and other maintenance issues. I like to treat my horsehide drum with mink oil to keep the hide hydrated and conditioned, and to help waterproof it a bit.

What sorts of drumbeats do I use?

Honestly, I’m a fan of single beats. The tempo and timing may vary, but I’m happier with a drum that I just hit with one beater, rather than something like a djembe that is elaborately played with two hands. I like starting out with a “heartbeat”–a single beat rhythm that matches my own heartbeat. The heartbeat in the drum does connect to my own heart, which is useful for keeping me from completely losing the connection to my body while I journey. Once the horse spirit is ready, I start drumming along with her hoofbeats instead, for as long as I am riding her in the journey. After that, the drumbeats often follow either my heartbeat or my footsteps (or pawsteps if I’ve shifted in the journey).

Again, play with the beats. I usually recommend the heartbeat when starting out and finishing, since it’s simple and easy to find. You may find that the beat naturally changes depending on what’s going on in your journey. You may also wish to create special drumbeats, such as for the beginning or ending of a journey, when a particular spirit arrives or departs, when you need to call on a spirit helper, etc. Many of these may develop organically, but if you have a specific idea in mind, try it out and see what happens. (If it’s for calling on a specific spirit, try it BEFORE you find yourself needing help in a serious journey!)

What happens when I drum journey?

As mentioned earlier, I always start with the horse spirit of my drum arriving to carry me to the spirit world. My “starting place”, where I begin every journey, is one specific spot out in the Columbia River Gorge. So the horse will carry my spirit over the land to get to that place, and then drop me off there. From there I can choose to go down a number of paths, or even directly into the forest (though the paths are safer).

As I am drumming, I can still feel my arms holding and playing the drum; the drum acts as an anchor to keep me from getting lost. And yes, sometimes my arms do get tired; I can feel it as I go through the spirit world, too, though I find if I rub my arms spiritually, it’ll help my physical arms, too. If I’m shapeshifted into a wolf or other animal in my journey, I can still feel the drum, though it feels sort of like a double exposure photo–both layers of “Lupa” are there, but they don’t quite match.

As mentioned, the drumbeats often change to match what’s going on. Many times this isn’t conscious, except when I am deliberately using the drumbeat to call a helper, to get an emergency ride from Horse, to honor a being, etc. Occasionally I’ll need to stop drumming entirely, if I m in a place in the spirit world where I need to be quiet. I still hang onto the drum, and as mentioned the basic heartbeat that I start and close every journey with allows my physical heart to beat in lieu of the drum as needed. I still resume drumming as soon as I can, though, as it helps keep me focused on the journey.

How do I care for my drum?

I mentioned earlier that I use mink oil to condition the hide. I also keep the drum out of damp places, and if it gets wet I air-dry it as quickly as I can. Unfortunately, I’ve had situations where a cup of water got dumped on a hide drum, and the entire thing had to be redone, so be careful around water!

Spiritually, sometimes I play the drum just for the sake of playing it. It’s a good bonding activity, and keeps us both in practice. she hangs out under my Bear altar, and while i don’t give her any special offerings (she just wants good basic care) you’re welcome to make offerings to you drum above and beyond keeping it in good condition. Some people like to purify their drums before and after a journey, and if the spirit of your drum is injured during a journey, make sure you tend to it before the journey is done.

What if I need to change the drum’s head?

Limited repair may be done to a drum head. Very small (pinhole sized) holes can be filled with a good epoxy; let it dry at least 24 hours before testing the playability. Be aware that this may not stop further damage to the hide once the stress of playing starts again.

Beyond that, you’ll almost certainly have to replace the head. Even with the best of care, eventually everything wears out, even good quality hide drums. If your drum’s head wears out or is irreparably damaged consider it not just a swap of materials, but a changing of the guard.

First, consider what worked well with the drum head you had, physically and spiritually. Do you want a similar one, or do you want to try something entirely different–a new hide, or even a synthetic? Do you feel you can change the drum head yourself, or do you want someone else to do it?

If you’re changing it yourself, treat the old head with reverence. The spirit’s not gone or dead; the form is just too damaged for its present purpose. Thank the spirit for its service and help and ask it what it would like to do next. Some may like a nice retirement, while others may wish to be incorporated into other projects. If the drum head is big enough and the damage is close enough to one edge or another, you may even be able to put the undamaged part on a smaller frame.

Make sure that the spirits of your frame and the new head are introduced before you put them together. You may even wish to let them sit next to each other for a few days before prepping the head to be stretched on. You may also wish to have the old head there as well, so it can pass on its experiences to the new one.

When you put the new head on, have a conversation with it about what you do and how it can help. See if you can identify the nature of the spirit in it. Ask it if it would like any particular offerings or other special care. Once the new head is completely dry, take the drum out for a “test run”. Play it just to get to know it as you did with the old head, learning the voice and feel of it, then proceed from there.

Conclusion

So there you have it: my attempt at explaining Drum Journeying 101. How’d I do? Anything else you may want to know about that I didn’t mention? (And, as always, thank you for reading!)

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Deconstructing the Totemic Guided Meditation

I’m still finishing up the book manuscript, but I wanted to take a break from writing to do some writing.

…wait, what?

Anyway, had this post idea come up and since it’s not going to take long to write it out, it gets to be my break from the much bigger, longer piece of writing.

I’ve been thinking about the structures within modern non-indigenous–neopagan, as I prefer to call it–totemism. One of the most common structures is that of the totemic guided meditation. There are countless examples of this; almost every book on animal totemism seems to have some version of it, and even Michael Harner included his own take in The Way of the Shaman in the chapter about finding a singular power animal. And yes, I wrote my own iteration of it several years ago which you can see in its entirety (and even use if you wish) here; it ended up as an Appendix in Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, my very first book.

So–this thing gets around a lot. Why? because it’s effective. As I have maintained in numerous places, the guided meditation gets a person in direct contact with a totem, but without suggesting a specific animal from the get-go. It’s better than totem cards because you’re not limited just to the animals in the deck. It’s an improvement over having someone else “read” you, because there’s no intermediary to potentially miss something in the translation or add in their own biases. And it allows you and the totem to explore and establish your own unique ways of interacting with each other from the beginning.

The totemic guided meditation also offers you a relatively “safe” place to visit with totems. One thing I discovered early on in this whole Therioshamanism thing is that unlike proper journeying, which takes you deep into the spirits’ territory itself (which can be quite dangerous), guided meditation creates a sort of neutral zone that’s more mediated and less likely to present any dangers. However, it still allows for free-form exploration and communication, assuming it’s not such a rigidly structured thing that even the dialogue is scripted!

And while most totemic guided meditations are supposed to only have you meet your totem, I have found that the same meditation, slightly tweaked, is also quite effective for continuing to use the “neutral zone” to meet with the totem for ongoing work together. It’s simply a matter of going into the meditation with the intent of talking to a specific totem, instead of leaving yourself open to meet any totem, if that makes sense.

So let’s look at the different parts of the basic structure of the totem guided meditation:

The Entrance: This is usually a hole of some sort, either in the ground or a tree, but I have also had people that I led through the meditation travel through a hole in the clouds, or in ice or other water; these were their creations, not my suggestions, as I don’t specify exactly what the entrance should look like. The entrance is the starting point, the threshold between this world and the next. Once you’ve taken that first step in, you’re on your way.

The Tunnel: Traveling through the tunnel is a transition; it allows both the mind and the spirit to make the changes from the waking world to the neutral zone the person is going to visit. The tunnel may be in the ground, through trees, water, etc. It may look the same the whole way through, although the interior has also been known to shift in appearance and even size the further one gets from the waking world. The tunnel is a necessary component in the meditation, because it allows for a gradual and smooth adjustment in consciousness and spiritual state, rather than a sudden, jarring shift. For someone brand new to guided meditation, just spending time traveling down the tunnel, turning around, and then coming back can be good practice in maintaining a basic meditative focus, without the additional pressures of being in a complex new environment. The tunnel is relatively simple, and generally only goes two ways, so it’s easy to come back home as needed.

The Neutral Zone: This is an open arena where the person can explore the environment and see what totems may present themselves in first time through, as well as a known location for continued work. It is nonphysical in form, but it is a midway point between the person’s psyche, and the external spiritual world (though the boundaries between the two are often very blurred). While Harner has people stay in the tunnel, or rather, the tunnel becomes the neutral zone, I like to have people come out into an open environment where they can meet their totems. Again, as with the entrance, I allow people to picture it for themselves, rather than suggesting a specific place. This is because I don’t want them to have expectations of what animals they should or shouldn’t meet; for example, if I tell them to come out in a Pacific Northwest rain forest, but their totem is Koala, then they’re less likely to make the necessary connection. I also suggest that people explore while they’re there so that they can find the place again later. Additionally, since it is a mediated setting, people do have more control over what happens there; for example, I tell people I’m leading in meditation that if they ever lose the tunnel and need to go back quickly, all they have to do is look down at the ground at their feet and the mouth of the tunnel will appear there, and they can go right back home. Finally, it’s important to note any changes made to the neutral zone, whether within a given meditation, or over time. They may reflect changes in the totemic relationship, or even the location of the place in relation to the spiritual world (for example, if the neutral zone starts slipping deeper into spiritual territory, it may take on a wilder, more chaotic nature).

The Animal Totems: In the deconstructed guided meditation, the totem is the goal, the manifestation of the intent. Finding your totem often implies success, though I wouldn’t interpret things that strictly, personally–there’s a lot that can go wrong even if you find your totem, and a lot that go right even if you don’t. I’ve elaborated almost ad infinitum elsewhere about what your totem can be, but it basically boils down to: pretty much any animal species has a totem, you’re not limited to a certain set number of totems, the number of totems you have throughout your life can change, not every totem is permanent, and yes, I consider extinct, domestic, and mythological animals to still have totems, albeit totems with a much different perspective on the world we live in. A totem is an intermediary between its species and the rest of reality, to include human beings, though contrary to some approaches to totemism, we are not necessarily the center of a totem’s purpose for existing! (In other words, totemism isn’t just about “Get a totem to make your life AWESOMER!”) What role the totem plays in a person’s life varies from individual to individual; some see them as primarily symbolic, while others spend their lives working totemism as a daily spiritual practice. Again, this meditation can be used to either find a totem for the first time, or continue meeting with it. Just start each meditation with the appropriate intent, even perhaps saying something like “I am going to travel to meet my totem for the first time,” or “I am going to go meet with [name of totem]” before going through the entrance.

The Tunnel Back: The trip back to the waking world is just as important as the trip down the tunnel in the first place. It allows the person to integrate their experiences during the meditation, as well as readjust to being “awake” again. Most people tend to come out of the meditation too quickly, and spend their time grounding in this world with food and other physical things. While this is not bad, I feel it speaks of impatience, and doesn’t take full advantage of this important transitional stage of the totemic guided meditation. I recommend that if you do this sort of meditation, try to spend as much time coming back through the tunnel as you did heading down it.

Troubleshooting: If you’re new to meditation, or if you aren’t a very visual person, you may have trouble staying “in” the meditation long enough to find your totem. If that’s the case, try (as I mentioned above) just exploring the tunnel for a while, then graduate to just exploring the neutral zone a few times without the intent of looking for a totem. Stay in as long as you can before you feel you can’t focus any more, though do try to give yourself time to travel back through the tunnel and make a smooth transition back to being awake. If you’re doing a meditation to find a totem for the first time, and no totem shows up, or isn’t clearly your totem, give yourself a break for a couple weeks at least, then try again. If you are unsure of whether an animal is a totem, and you can get close enough to talk to it, you can always try asking whether it’s your totem or not. Also, while most people only encounter one totem at a time, it’s not at all unheard of to meet more than one in one meditation, and in fact there are some meditation structures, such as The Personal Totem Pole Process, that are created around meeting and working with multiple totems at once. If you end up with a totem you’re not comfortable with, don’t fear the worst. Sometimes it’s the animals that scare us that can really teach us; same thing goes for the ones we think are gross, or not particularly flashy. Conversely, if you get one of the “popular” totems like Grey Wolf or Tiger, don’t assume that you’re just being egotistical. Let things play out as they will no matter what totem shows up; in the end, you’re the one who gets to determine whether an experience was valid for you, not some internet peanut gallery.

…and there you have it–a basic explanation not only of totemic guided meditations, but part of what makes them work. There’s a lot more I could say, but this is just a quick break to give my mind some rest from the big, long, kinda scary book manuscript I need to finish up! I’m open to any questions about this post, if ya got ’em 🙂

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.

Grey Wolf Ritual

Today was the ritual for Grey Wolf. I hadn’t even consciously planned the ritual for today; I just chose a date that seemed convenient. Just so happens that tonight is a blue moon, and the Wolf Moon, or so I was informed. Which is funny, because I inadvertently scheduled the Brown Bear ritual on a full moon, too.

So Tay helped me clear out the living room again. I set up the altar on the coffee table; once again, apologies to those on the LJ feed as I can’t put in cuts from here:




I collected what little wolfish knickknacks I still have and put them on the altar; I’ve gotten rid of most of them over the years as I’ve downsized my collection of shiny objects. There was also the wolf skull that hangs with my collection, and a deerskin painting I did a number of years ago. The beadwork strips are the first two I ever did, way back in high school in the mid-90’s. That actually gives Wolf a connection to my artwork, since that all started with the beadwork (which I no longer do). The long green and brown thing with the bone spike on the end is a hair wrap I wore for a year, and there are a couple of other random things on there. And the wooden plate has the little gift pouches I gave to the participants.

You can also see the Arctic wolf headdress and tail I wear when journeying, and the full wolf skin I’ve danced with for most of a decade. There’s my big drum, and a couple of spares, as well as the elk bells I made last year. Between the drums is the wolf fur coat that’s part of my costume, to be worn (of course) if I get cold. The blanket that covers the altar is just temporary, until in the spring when I retire my old wolf skin to altar guardian duty.

So once everyone got settled in, I did a brief explanation of what I was doing there today. I explained a bit of the context of why I’m creating therioshamanism the way that I am, with the cultural context and why I’m trying to revive performance rituals as an art form as well as spiritual practice. Then I picked up my drum and began to warm it up, explaining to people why I was doing that.

The journey itself was actually one of the fastest I’ve ever done. When I went to go formally invite Grey Wolf to join us, s/he said “Geez, you didn’t even need to come here; all you had to do was ask and I’d show up”. Which isn’t surprising given how omnipresent s/hes been in my life. But I wanted to be formal about things, and so s/he humored me. (“Should I have snarled and snapped at you when you showed up, just for show? Grrrrr! Look at me! I’m fierce!” s/he said.)

So then Wolf sent me back and said s/he’d follow, even though she knows the way quite well. When I got back and cooled the drum down, I then told the other folks there that now, instead of just drumming along to my single-note journeying beat, we got to do fun drumming! They began drumming, and I put my wolfskin on and began to dance (after taking the journeying headdress and tail off!) It was a bit of a sad event for me, since it would be the last full dance I’ll be doing with that skin. We slid into each other’s energy has we always have, and while the dance was indoors in a relatively small space, it was a good one. While I could wish for a place to do outdoor dancing around a fire on a regular basis, for now, the living room works.

Once I was done dancing, and while we still drummed, we talked some about what Grey Wolf was to us, our relationship to that totem. I also spoke a bit about my wolfskin and what we had done over the years. Then we took a break to enjoy the various edibles people had brought and ground a bit. Finally, I closed down the ritual, thanking Wolf and the other spirits who had been there for their presence.

After everyone left, I set up the permanent altar in my ritual/art room:

There were offerings a couple of people had brought that I added in. The wolf skull went back to its usual place on the wall near the altar, and the various skins went to their homes as well.

One of the things I noticed is that I enjoy throwing in little bits of explanation for why I do things as I do them, just to give people an idea of the reasons for things. I think I may make this more of a regular feature of the public rituals.

Also, while I’m still new to this whole group ritual thing, I want to try building up more formality around the rituals–for example, I would have loved to have had a themed potluck, preparing some kind of meat (maybe venison) for the occasion and letting people bring other things for Grey Wolf (with allowances for non-meat-eaters, etc.)

And it’s tougher to build up a good atmosphere for this sort of ritual indoors than it is outdoors, or in a space that is specifically designed for ritual work. But we work with what we have, and I’m sure I can tweak things to create a better setting as time goes on. While I’m very good at individual ritual, group ritual is still new to me, and so it’s going to take practice.

But overall, it went really well, and people seemed to get a lot out of it. Grey Wolf was pleased as well, and is happy to have a formal “home” within my home now.

My First Soul Retrieval

So today I was finally able to take the skills I’ve been developing over the past few years and put them into practice for a long-distance client, doing my first soul retrieval. I don’t want to give info on the client hirself, other than s/he’s had long-term health issues and some other deep-seated factors that had led to an overall feeling of “diminishment”. We suspected a lost soul fragment, but since there are other things that can cause the symptoms that were reported, I went in cautiously.

I actually spent several weeks conferring with my guides about this whole thing, since it was my first time through. Ultimately, Black Bear offered to help guide me through, which was very much appreciated since s/he has done spirit work with me before, though not of this exact sort. My client and I agreed on a time when we could both be available for this, and after a phone call to check in and make sure s/he was prepared and in a good place, and to find out which of hir guides I might run into, I began the journey.

As usual, the horse spirit in my drum came and picked me up as I started to drum. The drumskin was a bit damp from the weather here in the Pacific North*wet*, and her hoofbeats were muffled by mud along the river near my starting place–she needed to take me further up the river to meet Black Bear. She actually carried me inside her ribcage, moving her organs aside, for part of it. I found out later that this was because we crossed the river into the Lower World. Black Bear had apparently made a lot of arrangements on my behalf in preparation for this, for which s/he’ll be getting a nice gift from me. Next time I may have to be the one to negotiate with the River Dragon to cross to the Lower World, but this time I had a lot of help.

When we got to where Black Bear was waiting along the bank of the river, the hose told me she couldn’t go any further. So I stopped drumming, and began to shake my black bear skull rattle. I turned into a wolf, and Bear and I started off further up the river. The place we were at was not at all pleasant. Amid the water-smoothed stones under my paws there were lots of old, dry bones, crab shell pieces, and other dry dead things, dampened only by splashes of fetid water from the river–there was no rain here despite the clouds. There were animals all around, too, coyotes and hawks and deer and other vertebrates, but they were hostile, and Black Bear told me to stay very close so they wouldn’t bother me. Still, they made advances at us like wolves testing a buffalo cow and calf. It was very unnerving.

One thing I noticed about Bear was that s/he was very present and visible in a way my guides often aren’t when I journey. I know they’re there, but they’re not in my direct field of vision. It’s like Bear was more there than usual, and I suspect that if it had just been hir usual presence, I would have had to deal with the hostile animals attacking me, unless I showed myself to be as big and strong as Bear was today. Today, though, I was being protected on this journey.

As we were running along the river, we looked up on the mountain ridges to the north, and amid the trees we saw the lights from houses scattered all along. Finally Bear looked to one way up on top of a ridge, and said “That’s the one we want”. As we approached the ridge it was on, Bear veered off away from the river and to a trail leading up. It was a very narrow trail, with smooth stones, but it dropped off sharply into dark ravines on either side. Bear insisted on going first. “Stay very close to my back end”, s/he told me. “Don’t fart”, I replied. Bear laughed, and we started up the trail.

The climb was actually pretty uneventful–Bear made the way very smooth for me, the dangerous things stayed confined to the dark ravines, and there was no ursine flatulence. When we got up to the top, we saw a lodge like that made by some Pacific Northwest tribes in the middle of a clearing. There was a tall, very thin humanoid guardian spirit with a spear in front of it, with a white bone mask with two black eyes, stiff, grass-like hair all around like a halo, and wrapped in brown rags with no visible limbs or features below the waist, just a drape of rags. Bear told me that since I was the one who sought entrance to the house, I had to go first. This was scary, but s/he told me s/he’d be right behind me. So I cautiously went up to the guardian spirit and got hir attention. S/he didn’t act hostilely at all, simply waited for me to act one way or another. “I wish to know who is in that place,” I said. “Who wants to know?” the spirit replied. “I, Lupa, want to–” and then realized I’d just said my name, if not my legal one then one that I identify with very strongly.

Bear told me quietly to offer something in exchange for the spirit conveniently forgetting I’d said that. So I offered to dedicate something made out of mink skins I got recently to the spirit; while it wouldn’t belong to the spirit, it would have a little something to memorialize it, sort of like a bit of graffiti of someone’s name–not enough connection to the spirit to make it hirs, but kind of like “Kilroy was here”. This was acceptable. Bear then gave the guard a false name of mine to replace the true name that was taken back.

Also, when the spirit spoke with me, the bone face lifted up as if on a hinge, and a little brown weasel poked hir head out to talk to me–“Pay no attention to the weasel behind the mask”. It would have been almost funny if I hadn’t been in a situation where I could have been speared. I had no doubt that the weasel (or weasels, if there were others in there) could have made the “suit” act immediately. Still, in retrospect it was, ah, kinda cute. I wish I could draw better to show it.

I was allowed to approach the house, and I called through the blanket over the doorway that I wished to enter. I negotiated with a voice as to whether that could happen, and finally was let in. There was only one big room, and there were hundreds of weasels running all over the place, doing various tasks. At the very back of the room there was one enormous weasel reclining, with little weasels crawling all over him. Behind him on the wall were rows upon rows of clear glass jars, with colored balls of energy floating inside of them. I would find out later that the big weasel liked the smell of these, and so properly I could call him the Big Old Weasel Who Likes Smelly Things, but for short I’ll just call him the Old Weasel. He wasn’t the totemic weasel. Black Bear, when s/he shows up like a large bear like for this journey, feels like a small part of something bigger. The Old Weasel felt more complete–old, but not bigger than his appearance.

I approached him, but not too closely, with Bear beside me. I asked him if he had anything that tasted like my client, and I breathed out a memory of what s/he tastes like to me through our interactions. He breathed it in, and said yes, and picked out a particular jar full of yellow balls of energy–not a full soul fragment with a personality, but still a substantial part of my client that had gone missing. I told him I would like to give it back to her, and that I was willing to offer part of myself. I held forth a necklace that I had made before the journey.

Now, in the creation of artwork, there is always a piece of myself that goes into what I make. It’s a renewable energy, rather than the core energy that I was trying to retrieve for the client. So that’s what I had in the necklace. Bear also contributed, having me put a bit of black bear hair in the necklace.

“Let me smell you,” the Old Weasel said, “and see if I like it”. I approached closer, but then the Old Weasel lashed out with his huge jaws, and almost bit me. I leaped back, hackles raised. “Ha!” he said. “Almost had you. I could have smelled you across the room, you know”. Then he had a few of his small weasels bring out an empty jar for the necklace. “Not until you give me what I came for,” I said. “Very well,” and he had them bring the jar to me. I placed the necklace in the empty jar, and took the one with my client’s energy. I breathed in the essence of my client and put it in the place where I had stored hir memory.

“Do you have any more?” I asked. “Yes,” the Old Weasel replied, and pointed at eight more jars on the wall behind him. “You can have them if you bring me more of your smell. I like it.” So I’m going to be taking more necklaces to him. Since I’m menstruating, I’m going to make sure they’re made during that time, so I may make one a month for the next eight months, to give myself time to replenish.

We took our leave of the weasels, being sure to back out of the door so as to keep an eye on them. Then we went back past the guard, who couldn’t remember my real name. And when we got to the trail, it had gone all muddy, so Bear and I had a great time sliding all the way down the mountain like otters! We made it back down the river with no problems, too, even with the hostile animals, and my horse was waiting for me. I took my leave of Bear, and the horse took me back home.

I then breathed my client’s energy into the physical necklace I had made, letting it take the place of my energy that had gone to the Old Weasel in the necklace’s spirit form. I’ll be mailing it to the client, who will be wearing it for several days, until that energy reabsorbs back into hir. And I’ll continue this with the rest of the necklaces. I did a followup call with hir to see how s/he was doing and let hir know what happened.

I am exhausted. This was a really challenging journey, but it turned out well. I learned a lot, including some things for when I’m going to have to do this more on my own, making my own decisions and negotiations with the spirits myself. And it’s helped me to see how my strengths, especially artwork, can be woven into my shamanic practice, making it (relatively) easier to do. Most of all, though, this feels right, like I should be doing this.

Bear Ritual

Today I led my first “official” group ritual as a practicing (neo)shaman. Brown Bear has been nudging me to try out some of the ritual techniques and practices I’ve been developing over the past few months to see how they’d work out, and s/he said s/he had wanted a ritual hirself, so this was a good opportunity. I put everything together pretty quickly since it’s getting into hibernation time, but it all worked out.

We ended up clearing out the living room, moving the dining table into the kitchen temporarily, and pushing the couches against the walls. Then the little table in front of the TV ended up doing double duty as an altar and place to keep my ritual implements when I wasn’t using them. Here are a few pictures (apologies to those on the LJ feed who don’t have the benefit of an LJ-cut for this):



The hide covering the altar is an old skin, possibly bear but not entirely sure, that was left on my porch at our old place–we think we know who it was. It’s incredibly old, just about falling apart, probably from somewhere in the early 20th century. The other hide, the bearskin in the foreground on the second picture, is my ceremonial skin–she was an oooooold rug I got at an antique shop over a decade ago. I removed all the rug stuff, and while she’s very delicate, some mink oil helped to rehydrate her. Still, she’s many decades old, and I have to be very careful with her.

There’s also a rattle made from a black bear skull and a deer leg bone that I use to call in the spirits, and a deerskin bag that holds some of my other Brown Bear items. The plate in the center has small Bear packets that would be given out during the ceremony. Leaning against the altar are my big drum, a small drum that was my starter drum but is now a spare, and the elk antler bells I made a while back. And the white fur is the wolf headdress and tail that I wear while journeying, as I journey as a white wolf. There’s also a very small bear statue on there, along with a packet of small bear fetishes leftover from making the gift packets for participants.

There ended up being seven of us total–me, Taylor, the three practitioners that I took on as students a while back, and who are now going off in their own unique directions with the material, and two other folks from the local pagan community who wanted to attend.

I began with rattling in the spirits that I wished to have in attendance, calling them each by the name they wished to be known by. I didn’t call in everyone, because not all the spirits would have been a good fit for this ritual. Black Bear also helped to let me know who to welcome. I then warmed up my drum, rubbing it with my hand and then with the beater. After that I called the horse spirit of the drum with a specific beat that I use.

Once that spirit came out of the drum, I began the journey drumming, and I asked the rest of the participants to drum with me to help me get to where I was going. I had journeyed to see Bear the day before to take hir a preliminary offering and to check in with hir about last details for today, but I didn’t want to make the assumption that s/he would automatically come to the celebration we had set up for hir. So I went with my bearskin spirit, and once we got to Bear’s den, I asked everyone to stop drumming since they had gotten me to where I needed to be, and to simply listen as I told what I experienced as it happened.

The bearskin spirit and I went down cautiously into Bear’s den, even though we had been there before. Bear was there, and grumbly because s/he was sleepy. I very carefully asked hir whether s/he would like to come with us to the celebration and to see the gifts for hir, and also to place hir energy/scent on the bear packets I had made. S/he grumbled some more, and then told me that if s/he was going to show up, I would have to dance for hir, wearing the necklace I had made for hir before. The bearskin spirit and I then retreated. I had been keeping the drumbeat slow and quiet throughout all this, trying to keep myself calm, but turning my back on Bear was frightening, and I fought to keep the beat slow and quiet as we went back up to the surface.

The horse of my drum carried me back as the participants all drummed and rattled again to help bring me back home. Then they drummed more as I carefully draped the bearskin over me, put the necklace on, and danced like a bear. It was odd, because I’m used to wolf dancing up on my toes (and I also walk on my toes as a matter of course), but bear dancing required me to stay on my heels. Plus the movement is much different, a larger animal, with a different heft of momentum.

And Bear did arrive, using the dance as a vehicle. I growled and whuffed and sniffed at the altar and the goodies on it–and the food people had brought, too. Once the dance was done, I talked a bit about my relationship to Bear, and also gave folks some time to interact with Bear on their own. Then we got to the food! I still held Bear inside me to an extent, and let hir taste the food through me. There were many good things–foccacia bread, and containers of fresh berries and grapes (which Bear loved). And I made cookies, too, with applesauce I made from scratch earlier this year and gave to Bear as yesterday’s offering. (Eating offerings in celebration is apparently a perfectly acceptable way to deal with the physical portions.)

Then once that was done, I thanked all the spirits for being there, most of all Bear, and we drummed for them a while, and I danced as I drummed. Then I rattled them back home, and saw the attendees out.

I got the permanent Brown Bear altar set up in my ritual/art room:


There’s the Bear bag, and also the assorted stone bear fetishes. There’s also a bear claw carved from horn that was offered by one person, and some sage and herbs offered by another, all of which will stay on the altar. And there are some spare packets from the ritual that will probably end up being gifted to people who could use a boost of Bear energy, as it were. No doubt I’ll add more stuff as time goes by, but that’s a good start. Incidentally, the table above it will be a Wolf altar, once the time comes for that. (The other hide is normally on my main altar, where I returned it after the ritual was done.)

Overall, I think it went really well. I was nervous as hell, but managed to keep myself focused on the ritual itself. The feedback confirmed that others enjoyed it, too. One of the things that concerned me is that in neopaganism group rituals usually involve a lot of participation on everyone’s part. The whole spectator thing is often considered to be “boring”, or so I had feared. But as a performance ritual, this seemed to work out really well.

The other thing I noticed was how quickly I got to my starting point with the help of everyone else drumming/rattling! It was like having a huge push behind me as the horse carried me there. Between that, and Bear’s den being very close to my starting point, plus it being a pretty straightforward, mostly pre-arranged task, the ritual itself didn’t last too long, under a half an hour [ETA: the portion prior to the food, I mean]. But it was strong, and I know I’m on the right track with this. There’s some fine-tuning that needs to be done, and things will get better with experience, but for a first time out, I’m really pleased, and everyone else (including Bear) seemed to agree.

Some Musings on Bear Work

Aside from my emotional personal work with Elk, I’ve been exploring new territory with Brown Bear. As I’ve been returning to the more ritualized portion of my shamanic practice, Bear has been right there with me, telling me what s/he needs of me and how to do it. Part of this, of course, is for hir benefit; however, it’s also been great training for putting together the more formalized ritual practices I’ve been developing piecemeal for a while now. Much of this is stuff that I’m simply not able to talk about just yet–not out of any sense of “Woooo, I have mysteries that you can’t comprehend!”, but in the sense that it’s not yet ready for me to share, and the spirits would be unhappy if I brought it out prematurely.

Thinking back, I’ve realized that Bear has been the first one to step forward when I’ve wanted to try something new along (neo)shamanic lines. When I first started exploring totemism beyond Wolf, Bear guided me through some of my first rituals. And now s/he’s here again as my practice begins to branch out past my own personal needs, and I prepare to start shamanizing for others.

I was talking to Bear during a journey last week, and I told hir of my concerns as to whether I was “doing enough”. I talked about a friend of mine who is a much more experienced practitioner who’s been doing some serious work as of late. I look at what I do, and I feel like I’m such a novice. Even though I’ve been a pagan and magical practitioner since the mid-1990s, with shamanism I feel as though I’m just beginning to reach a new depth of experience that I really haven’t gone through before. This path has challenged me more than any other, though I think it took me until two years ago to really be ready for it. (Wow, has it been two years already?)

Bear told me that I’m giving myself more expectations and therefore more pressure than I need to. Even within a specific community, different shamans not only have different strengths and specialties, but also different commitment levels. If I end up not being as intense a practitioner on some levels as some other shamans in this culture, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not trying hard enough. There’s a tendency toward competition and one-upsmanship in American culture, and in many magical traditions it manifests as “Who can be the most non-fluffy?” Shamans may compare tough journeys and sacrifices as though the more you suffer, the better you do objectively speaking.

Yet Bear simply told me that we’ll see what I’m realistically capable of. I can’t just drop everything else in my life to try to eke out a living hanging up a shaman shingle. Granted, grad school and my future profession are linked to the shamanism, but I also have a life outside of that–significant others, friends and family, video games, Western martial arts, etc. Shamanism proper may never be an all-consuming things, and my “official” profession as a therapist may always eclipse the ritual work to some extent. But then again, it may not. Bear has a very wait-and-see attitude, and the long view of the fact that I’m only thirty, ideally I have a few more decades to live, and plenty can happen in that time.

So once again I’m grateful to Brown Bear for hir perspective and reminding me that this isn’t a competition; there are enough people (and other beings) in need that I don’t need to prove I’m more 1337 than the next shaman to be able to help.