Elk’s Journey, Elk’s Gift

Today I did my first journey for a purpose other than exploration. I’ve been doing a lot of internal work lately, trying to work through the unhealthy conditioning and behavior patterns associated with depression and especially anxiety. They’re not a constant active influence in my life, but they do have a tendency to pop up with the right amount of stress in my life. I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and since I had an open invitation from Elk for help with emotional regulation, I decided to take hir up on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to develop a more formal ritual structure, but not based on the generic Wicca-flavored neopagan ritual structure I used to use. One of the challenges of essentially creating a practice from scratch is that there’s no authority telling me “Well, you need to do things this way or that”. I’m the one who decides, for the most part. The spirits will occasionally have a suggestion, but as far as they’re concerned, most of this is for my benefit and (eventually) the benefit of anyone I do this sort of work for. I have a desire for formality, though, so it’s up to me to create something appropriate that works.

Before my break over the past few months, when I journeyed I basically asked the drum and beater if they’d work with me, and then we’d drum together and I’d head off to where I needed to be. As I’m coming back, though, I’m finding myself being more deliberate about things. I still ask the drum and beater–and the horse, deer, and elk spirits in them–for permission. But then I warm the drum up with my hand, and then the beater; this is inspired by Ravenari’s method of doing so, and the spirits of the drum and beater really seem to appreciate it. It also helps me to ease out of my everyday headspace with all the concerns and stresses and distractions, and into the focus I need for any sort of ritual work.

I also asked the horse spirit in the drum to carry me to my starting point, instead of taking myself as I normally do. She agreed, and it made the trip a lot smoother, again partly because it helped with transitioning from one headspace to the next. I’m a little rusty, particularly in maintaining the visual aspect of journeying (I’ve always had trouble with consistent, unbroken visuals), but I had a good connection, and even when I let my “sight” relax, I was still definitely over in the spirit world.

So the drum-horse got me to the starting point, and I got onto the ground and turned into a wolf. I then worked to pick up the scent of Elk, and went to find hir. I found hir down in a valley not too far away; s/he’s been expecting me. I went to hir asked formally asked for hir help, turning back to a human being. I then held out a small elk antler tine I had brought with me as a symbol of what we were creating. Elk flinched a bit, and said “That smells like Death. Here, let’s go put it in that stream over there to cleanse it”. So we ran over there, and I placed it in the water, feeling the cool stream over my hand as I looked at the antler against the stones.

Then Elk turned into a human with an elk’s head, and so I turned into a human with a wolf’s head to match. We sat facing each other and spoke about the work we wanted to do together with helping me with emotional regulation. Elk brought up how soon the bull elk would be going into rut, and would be a lot more easily provoked, both by each other and other beings. Like the elk, I can be aggressive when I want something and can’t immediately get it or perceive something in my way. However, Elk pointed out that the bull elk don’t use any more force than necessary, even in rut, because injury is a serious thing when you’re a wild critter. Most confrontations between bull elk only end in one running away, and fights often don’t result in serious injury. (It’s still a lot of work for the bull who has a harem, who may barely eat during rutting season!)

Elk put antlers on my head and said the tine I brought was appropriate because while I can wield my own tines and harm others with them, I can also be injured by someone else’s antlers. Therefore it’s important that I’m doing this regulation work to avoid not only exhausting myself with unnecessary effort, but also injuring others or bringing injury to myself that wasn’t really needed.

Additionally, Elk talked about how there is a season to all things. There are times to be aggressive to get what I want, but that’s not all the time. I need to learn which time is which. With regards to depression and anxiety, these conditions are attempts to gain control–which is an illusion. I can’t control the world around me beyond a very limited scope, and the anxiety and depression are my way of trying to grasp at control in a situation where I feel like things are getting out of control. These are obviously maladaptive, and the better choice is to learn to adapt and roll with the punches that life throws–because nothing is ever going to be perfectly safe and secure, and that”s alright. So instead of facing the world with antlers lowered and ready, I need to learn to relax and only react when it’s actually warranted, and only to the degree that it needs to happen.

Then Elk had me retrieve the tine from the stream so I could take it back home with me, as a physical reminder of my commitment to healing myself with Elk’s help. I then offered Elk a set of three brass bells that I had brought with me as a gift for helping me. Elk laughed and said that s/he would have done this for me anyway, but that s/he appreciated the gift. S/he told me I could go; I stood, and waited to watch hir leave, but s/he just stood there waiting for me to go! Finally, s/he snorted and stomped, and I took off, with hir laughing in amusement as I did so.

I scrambled back up out of the valley to where the horse spirit was waiting. I climbed onto hir back, and s/he took me home. Soon as I came out of the journey and brought the drum back down again, I treated the drumskin to some mink oil; she’d been feeling dry and thirsty, and I’d promised her some treatment. Next, I drilled a hole in the elk tine, and put a piece of deerskin that Deer had donated to the cause. Here’s a pic:

As to the bells? Well, a while back, I believe it was Erynn who had suggested that I add bells to an elk antler that I didn’t know what to do with. So as my gift to Elk, I attached the bells to the ends of three of the tines and wrapped the rest of the antler in braided artificial sinew and waxed linen cord. The bells will later on be used in rituals as a way to help keep me oriented to where my body is so I can find my way back home. Here’s how it turned out:

So it was a successful journey overall, and I feel more confident in satisfying my need for structure. It’s all coming together, piece by piece.

An Update!

So obviously my posting frequency here has gone down significantly since I started school. My initial reaction when I realized I hadn’t posted in a while was to try and justify my absence. However, that also brought up a recent spiritual experience that I had. I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about really slacking off on journeying and other more “officially” spiritual practices and rituals. I’ve been making my usual observations of the world around me and everyday meaning-making exercises, as well as my usual awareness of my decisions and their impact–and, of course, continuing with school. However, I haven’t really drummed in months. And so my usual pattern was “Feel guilty about not journeying/etc. –> Tell myself that I’ll do it soon –> Not address the underlying barriers keeping me from accomplishing my goal –> Feel even more guilty” (wash, rinse, repeat).

So a few weeks back I was hiking on Mount Hood with Taylor, and had a bit of a discussion with the Animal Father about this whole situation while there. I went in bemoaning the fact that I’d been a slacker, and essentially poured forth all the diatribes I’d been heaping on myself because of it. And when I was done, this is what he told me: “Adjustment is going to be a constant state for you”. This startled me, because he’s been one of the biggest proponents of me journeying on a regular basis. And while the last time I went a few months without journeying he told me he didn’t want it to happen again, he explained that it was pretty apparent that as things stood right then, that just wasn’t going to happen–and that it wasn’t the end of the world.

That made me feel a lot better. I think part of what was keeping me from journeying was fear that the spirits would be displeased at my long absence. Since that conversation, though, I’ve checked in at a few crucial points, and while there’s a desire to connect, there’s also patience with my current situation, and understanding that it won’t always be this way–and that adjustment will indeed always be something that’s a reality in my exceptionally busy life.

This goes along with a greater effort on my part to change the way I approach doing things. I am a recovering workaholic, and my time management involves me pushing myself as hard as I can until I either reach the point of short-term burnout, or someone (usually, though not always Taylor) pokes me and says “Hey, this needs to stop–it’s causing problems”. This isn’t as productive as it sounds.

The thing is, though, it wasn’t until I stopped the guilt cycle that I started making actual change. Pushing myself less and pacing myself more realistically has been a process, rather than an event, and while it’s been slow, I have noticed changes. I’m better at reminding myself when I begin to feel stressed about my ever-present to-do list that “Things will happen in their own time”. And I’ve finally, finally, finally been able to find effective strategies for cutting down on useless internet time and creating more time to actually do things away from the computer.

So there will continue to be a smaller flow of posts than there was a year ago–and there’s nothing wrong with that.

ETA: Just wanted to add in this link to some thoughts over on my LJ that touch on some relevant topics here.

In other news, Scrub Jay and Stellar’s Jay have stepped (flapped?) forward to offer their aid in helping me connect with the Land and learn more about it. Scrub Jay seems to be more of a help with urban areas, whereas Stellar’s primarily aids with wilderness, though these are not hard and fast divisions. These are the settings where I see them the most, respectively. They help me in that whenever I see one of their children, it’s a reminder to me to be aware of the Land–not just in that moment, but as much as possible. It has helped; I finally remembered to pick up a couple of field guides for local plant life from PaperBackSwap.

I’ve been gardening again this year. Unlike last year, where it was containers only, I have a big planter box and a few extra patches of dirt, along with all the containers and a few extras. I also have slugs. And ants. And other critters vying for space and food. Plus the weeds. So this year’s gardening has been an object lesson in the balance between my own needs, and understanding that if I’m going to respect Nature, I have to respect it when it’s eating my garden. I still pull up the weeds, and I have beer traps out for the slugs until I can get my hands on enough copper wire/coffee grounds/egg shells to act as a deterrent, but I’m also aware that these are not just beings to take for granted as I do so.

I’ve also just begun to read Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind, an anthology edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist. While I’ve got a pretty good handle on ecopsychology in theory, I want more on the practical applications thereof, and while my ecotherapy class last semester was excellent, there’s only so much you can fit into a couple of weekends. Also, here’s an article on ecopsychology in the local paper, and here’s the very first peer-reviewed journal of ecopsychology, first issue available for free online.


Speaking of that, Chas Clifton posted a bit on ecopsychology, including a link to my last post on bioregionalism and the genius locii. Specifically, he observes that “But as an overarching concept…ecopsychology does not seem to have caught fire except in a low-level therapeutic way: ‘Gardening makes you feel better’.” Since my response is longer than my average reply, and it’s something that I thought would make a good topic for here anyway, I decided I’d write out my thoughts in this post.

Ecopsychology, not quite two decades from its initial inception as a cohesive concept as per Roszak et. al., is still quite a niche topic. I’ve had a good deal of exposure to it, but I also go to one of the most liberal schools in one of the most liberal American cities. I’m still finding out that not all psych grad programs are based in client-centered practices (which sometimes causes something akin to culture shock on my part), so I’m not surprised to consider that it’s very likely that something so nontraditional isn’t widespread in less liberal areas/schools/practices/etc.

One of the reasons I’m glad I got the ecotherapy anthology mentioned above is that we do need more practical applications of ecopsychology. What’s most commonly seen are either wilderness therapy retreats, or as was mentioned, therapists telling their patients to get outside more. What needs to happen, I think, is discussion of more ways to integrate ecopsychology into an actual clinical practice.

During the ecotherapy class, we discussed including questions about the environment in intake questionnaires; for example, “Are there any natural places that you feel close to?” or “Do you ever feel anxious about environmental issues?” Sadly, issues like these often don’t get brought up in more conventional therapy because it’s assumed that people don’t really feel emotions like grief for the environment, either on a small or large scale. One of the sadly ironic jokes that gets passed around is:

Client: I feel so upset about the environment; it makes me want to cry. I think I might be depressed because I’m worried about global warming, and species extinction, and just how big the problem is!
Therapist: So, tell me about your mother…

Another area where I see potential for more work is in addressing how environmentalists (and others)communicate information about issues. My instructor does a good bit of work with local activists; one of the points he (and other ecopsychologists) make is that guilt doesn’t work–and yet this is the tactic that activists have been using for decades. Guilt turns most people away, and often leads to counterproductive reactions (such as this new creation by Mike Judge, pointed out on Clifton’s blog–ouch!). While environmentalists may not intend to come across as holier-than-thou, because the messages we’re given to pass on are so often guilt-laden, it can be hard to avoid being otherwise.

In order to do this, we need to learn better forms of conveying our concerns. And this is where ecopsychology’s flexibility supports the relevance of numerous topics. One of my classes this semester is Communicating With Compassion; the textbook we’re using is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I just finished reading it today, and the class will be this weekend. Needless to say, I’ve picked up a lot of skills that are perfectly suited for not only being a better communicator on environmental issues myself, but that I can potentially use to help clients and others get away from the guilt-speak.

Ecopsychology isn’t a single model of therapy in the same way that, say, cognitive behavioral or client-centered therapies are. It’s more a way to approach all of these therapies, in that along with the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels of one’s psyche, there’s also the layer that resonates and responds to the environment one is in. This has often been seen in very narrow contexts, such as “home environment”, “work environment”, etc. (and can be studied in that respect in the field of environmental psychology). And because ecopsychology is a fairly amorphous field, not having tightened up into a rigid set of definitions, there are a number of things that could be considered “ecopsychology” that may not have that label on them, but which fit in anyway.

So I think ecopsychology, while it is still a niche, is a more powerful force than it may seem outside of that circle of folks who are immediately developing and utilizing it. Part of the solution to its low profile is defining more clearly what ecopsychology is or isn’t (and not cutting ourselves off from valuable resources in the process). Additionally, we need to be able to show even more that it has practical relevance, especially when managed care and other such forces continue to make CBT and other results-oriented, short-term therapies practically mandatory in some contexts where they may not be the most appropriate tools. I believe these will go a long way in helping to make it a more widespread and viable part of discourse and practice on psychology and therapy.

A Brief Response to a Few Replies…

…on my previous post. I’ll have more specific replies later, but here’s a thought.

I had to think about it a bit, the whole “softening up” thing. It’s not that I’m going to entirely stop criticizing anything I see as potentially off. I’m definitely still going to call out people who claim their practices are what they aren’t. And I’m still going to be clear about why I, personally, will not adopt certain things, such as the bulk of core shamanism, or the more severe practices at the other end of the spectrum that simply don’t fit my worldview, and suggest to others that they take these things into consideration for their own opinions.

However, I’m not going to go so far as to invalidate all the experiences of anyone whose practices significantly differ from mine. I can’t say for sure that if someone encounters relatively safe journeying conditions that their experiences are less valid; nor will I invalidate my own experiences simply because they aren’t as harsh as others’ (or, for that matter, assume that those other folks are “going too far”). I’ve been more critical of core shamanism than others, but I’ve had my personal misgivings with conceptions of deities and spirits that in essence say that we must give in to their every demand as a way to placate them because that’s the way it’s supposedly done genuinely. Either way, softer or harder than what I do, I’m looking at things from a more practical viewpoint, and less automatically critical.

So that’s a bit of a clarification. I’m not accepting things without consideration, but I am going to say that beyond a certain point my authority to criticize only goes so far because of subjectivity and the inability to climb into someone else’s head. I think a better criterion would be “Does it work?”. There’s also the argument over semantics and who’s a “real shaman”, but for the practices themselves, I’m going to be less liable to dismiss something because it involves things I personally disagree with.

Shamanism and Subjectivity

I think I’m just going to give up on trying in any way to prove that my spirituality/belief system/etc. has any direct validity for anyone besides me, and anyone who agrees to take part in my subjective spiritual reality. The seeds for this post took root while I was detangling the thoughts for the last one. I started thinking about the subjectivity of nonindigenous shamanic experience. On the one hand, you have core shamans and their ilk who experience shamanism as a relatively safe, defanged thing compared to traditional shamanisms. On the other, you have people who are doing their best to emulate traditional shamanisms, particularly the most dangerous parts thereof. And then I thought about my own experiences, which are somewhere in the middle.

I look at where my path diverges significantly from these two ends of the spectrum. I do experience journeying as being riskier than what a lot of core shamans describe. However, I don’t do the complete submission to the spirits that I’ve seen on the other end. I do my best to not take the spirits for granted, but I also maintain autonomy–as in D/s, I have hard limits to my vulnerability, and ways to enforce them. And that is what has worked well for me, even before I began working with shamanism. I haven’t had experiences that have deviated significantly from that balance. And the thing is, the people at each end of the spectrum could probably say the same thing for themselves, that their experiences fit within a particular style of shamanism. Additionally, they could probably all find other people and sources that corroborate with their own experiences.

Really, how can I prove any of them are wrong, that they haven’t had the very experiences they claim to have had? How can I necessarily say that my experiences with shamanism are more objectively valid when in the end I really don’t have more proof of being right than anyone else? Sure, there’s looking at the shamanisms of other cultures–but that’s other cultures. To an extent, cultural context is crucial. And if a large portion of shamanic practitioners in this culture are reporting a certain way of doing things, then I should not dismiss that simply because it doesn’t corroborate entirely with the ways other cultures have described their practices. There’s something going on there, and beyond a certain point I cannot judge the veracity of what’s happening. Maybe someone really is working with harmless spirits, and another with savage ones.

But what’s the point of trying to judge the objective reality of the experiences themselves? Sure, I can discuss the conflation of neoshamanisms with indigenous shamanisms, and explain that certain practices found in the former are in no way, shape or form a part of any of the latter. But how can I judge whether someone else’s journey was valid for them or not? And, more importantly, does it really matter whether it’s valid for me if it’s not my experience (and I’m not the client or otherwise involved)?

All I can really say for sure is that my subjective reality is real to me, and that it is necessarily filtered through my subjective perceptions. I would wager that a good part of the reason that other practitioners experience things so differently in a lot of ways is because their perceptions–if not their experiences in their entirety–are also subjective. I would also add that it’s very likely that as my expectations about the world, conscious and otherwise, shape my experiences, that it’s also likely that others’ experiences are shaped by their own conscious and unconscious expectations. If you expect that shamanism is like in anthropological accounts where it’s a highly violent, dangerous thing, then that raises the chances that your shamanic experiences are going to be violent and dangerous. Likewise, if you expect that journeying is safer than dreaming, then you’re more likely to have safer experiences.

I can clearly see where my own expectations about reality, and spirituality, and related concepts, resemble my experiences as a shaman. And I can see where my perceptions also shape these experiences. Therefore, at this point I’m going to maintain that while it’s not impossible that there’s an objective spiritual reality, I strongly believe that spirituality is heavily subjective regardless of the existence (or not) of objectivity. I can see the physical world around me, the trees, the stones, the animals, and can agree on that objective reality for the most part with other people–but the animistic
end of things, that’s another story entirely.

And I’m okay with that. I’m tired of the endless wrangling over who’s right, regardless of what spiritual reality is being argued over. I’d rather focus on developing my subjective spiritual reality, which I know is real for me, and which is effective for me. I’m not sure I really care how real it is for anyone beyond those who have agreed to take part in it, whether to learn more about it, or even adapt it to their own practices. Beyond those functions and practicalities, is it really all that important that I try to prove that the journeys and so forth that I describe here actually happened beyond the scope of my own perception? And is it important for me to measure my shamanic practice up against those of others for experiential (rather than historical or other factual) veracity? If I didn’t have the exact same sickness, or have the spirits treat me the same way, does it really matter?

I look at all the time people spend trying to get external validation. And I’m really thinking it’s a waste of time, at least for me. The need to prove an objective spiritual reality has been a weight I’ve been carrying too long. So–at this point, my running theory is that spiritual realities are largely subjective, and any objectivity is hidden to some extent by subjective perceptions. The quest for objectivity, in addition, is overrated. (YMMV, of course.)

Coming Up For Air

I haven’t journeyed since late January (in my defense, February is a short month!). But I did manage it anyway, despite the crazy schedule (more on that in a bit). When I arrived at my starting point, Bear (I primarily work with Alaskan Brown Bear, to be specific) was waiting for me intently. As soon as I arrived and we exchanged greetings, s/he led me off down the mountainside. S/he had me stop at a particular tree to rest, and told me to wait. Then she introduced me to (Sockeye) Salmon, who could show me the way to the Lower World, and how to get there when I needed to. I was surprised to find myself there, especially because there hadn’t been much in the way of a draw towards there, but I found myself suddenly plunged into the belly of the River Dragon of the Columbia, as it were, with Salmon taking me to the opening to the Lower World. I had to make myself tiny to get in–I could see the parasitic worms on Salmon’s side–but I made it through.

When I got there, (Grey) Wolf was waiting, just as anxiously as Bear had been. S/he took me to a place s/he had prepared, up on a ledge. There were blankets there on the rock. Looking around, I saw that the Lower World (what I could see of it) looked very similar to this one, though Wolf said that part of that was because I was on the boundary between the two, and it got weirder the deeper in you go.

We talked a good bit about my current state, how I’ve been run ragged by school and other things, and how since the move to the new place back in December I’ve been feeling disconnected from the Land. I haven’t really made the time to connect beyond the streets here, even though there’s a wetland a block over. Things keep seeming to come up. It hasn’t helped, either, that it’s been too cold to go out hiking; many of my favorite places are inaccessible this time of year. And it being winter, I simply don’t go outside as much as I do in warmer months.

I’ll talk more about the specifics of the previous paragraph in a moment; needless to say, Wolf’s advice to me was to spend time reconnecting to the Land, and engaging in my spirituality more. It’s good advice–the disconnection hasn’t been helping the situation. I also received offers for help from a couple of other totems regarding specific areas where I need some help, including one totem I’ve never been approached by before.

So–the problems at hand. There are a number of ways in which grad school has changed my life. One of the more obvious is the manner in which it manages to consume my time like the personification of Famine. While the commitments tend to ebb and flow over the course of the semester, there are weeks where all my free time belongs to assignments and readings and essays. This is mainly fixed by careful time management, and sometimes giving up fun things temporarily, but I also need to deal with my own stress when perceiving myself as more crunched for time than I actually am.

However, another effect of graduate school is that it’s caused me to become much more deeply immersed in my psyche. I’ve always been very self-aware; I’ve spent many years digging through my own wiring and conditioning, trying to figure out what makes me tick, and doing my best to replace bad conditioning with better. In fact, a lot of the magical and spiritual practices I’ve done have been aimed at personal metamorphosis through ritual psychodrama. This has generally worked well–not perfectly every single time, but I’ve made a good deal of progress.

It’s very common for psych students to do a lot of introspection, and I’ve been finding all sorts of new tools to mess around in my own head with (as well as potentially help others with down the line). The program I am in is particularly focused on self-awareness to the ends of self-care and being a better therapist, and so a lot of the classes deliberately challenge us to know ourselves better and more fully. Combining this with the fact that I’ve already done a lot of internal work, the result is that I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual processing things, and digging deeper into my own head. As I’ve already gotten rid of a good deal of the surface issues, I’ve been frequently hitting a lot of deeper, root issues, things that are a lot more painful–and a lot more firmly entrenched.

No, this hasn’t been easy. I’m pretty independent, and I’ve done my best to self-regulate, but I’m taking the opportunity to avail myself of the university’s free counseling services–at least once they have an opening for me. Until that point I’ve been utilizing a lot of self-care techniques, and relying on a few friends who are willing to help me work through some of the tougher moments. All of this is coming to a good result, but it’s been a challenge.

This all makes me think about the motif of the shaman’s sickness in conjunction with the cultural context I’m coming from. I’ve had a lot of cause to think about my cultural context–my social location, as it were–as I’ve been taking my Counseling Diverse Populations class, which has a very strongly emic perspective on working with clients from cultures and perspectives other than your own. For the first time, for example, I’ve been called on to actually think about what it means to be white, something I’ve had the privilege of not having had to think about before. It’s definitely made me think more about the concept of mainstream/dominant American culture, and how there are even more alternatives to it than I had originally conceived of. And I’ve been thinking more about shamanism within that cultural context.

I still maintain that “psychologist” is one of the roles that most closely mirrors that of the shaman in my culture, even though my understanding of my culture has changed. And I look at the sometimes agonizing experience of digging deeper and deeper into my psyche, into the Places That Hurt, and I wonder if that is a parallel to the shaman’s sickness found in some shamanisms (again, with the reminder that “shaman” in this instance is the borrowed-by-anthropologists version, not only the original Evenk usage of the term). I don’t have any major, disabling physical diseases; the few relatively minor chronic issues I have are easy to maintain. However, I can see where it took me years to overcome depression. And while I’m not sure a therapist would classify me as anything more than “stressed–please refer to graduate school for causes” at this point, some of the hardest moments in my life have been in the duration of working through the issues I’ve been dredging up as of late. Does it count as a sickness if it isn’t a long-term or permanent thing?

Of course, that also makes me wonder if, in a culture where physical illnesses are generally easily treatable (though a lot depends on insurance, etc.–that’s a whole political rant there), the shaman’s sickness isn’t necessarily a physical thing. And many cases of sickness were temporary, though severe. We know a lot less about the treatment of the psyche, in a lot of ways, than we do about the treatment of the body–especially if we’re trying to not just rely on pharmaceuticals to “maintain” an illness. So the psyche is more of a cultural vulnerable spot than the body in a lot of ways. Would it make sense for the challenges to come at that level more frequently in this culture, then?

I do know that what I’m going through is most certainly making me better prepared for my roles both as a therapist and as a shaman. In some indigenous cultures, if a shaman suffered from (and survived) a particular illness, s/he was seen as an expert in curing that illness. Does the same thing hold true for having survived repeated excursions into the depths of the self, with the result being a stronger, healthier person overall?

I won’t play the dogma card and try to say that this absolutely must be the experience of a “true shaman” in this culture. But I believe that shamanisms adhere to the contours of the cultures they are a part of; the general themes and purposes may be the same, but I’m not sure I believe that a practitioner in the urban United States has to have the exact same experiences as a genuine Evenk shaman. My thought is that it’s up to us to create our own relationships with the spirits (albeit with a more realistic perspective on what nature and spirits are); looking to other cultures helps to an extent, but beyond that we need to remember where we are, and who we are working with.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. I am not an indigenous anything. I may be of European genetic makeup (as far as I know, anyway), but I am not European culturally. I am a white American, generally middle class of some sort, university-educated, geeky, neopagan, an urban dweller, and so forth. Ultimately, that is the cultural context I am coming from, and that is what needs to most inform my practice; even if my clients as both a therapist and a shaman end up being from different social locations, I need to have a firm understanding of where I am, so I can better orient myself to them. And the same thing goes for the spirits; the relationships that I have with them are largely informed by the people I come from, and solving the problems that result from a culture largely detached from nature.

Shamanism and Psychology

This is something I originally wrote up in a locked post on my Livejournal. I figured since it has some related ideas, I’d share it as well. Enjoy!


I’ve noticed that since I started grad school, that (not surprisingly) I’m leaning more towards psychological explanations for spiritual things, though these have always been important to some extent. I haven’t entirely abandoned the concept of a relatively objective, autonomous spiritual reality of some sort. I’ve been down the road of entirely and exclusively embracing the psychological model of magic, and found it to be emotionally and spiritually unfulfilling. Additionally, there have been experiences I’ve had in my path that have given me cause to believe that it’s not just in my head, that to an extent I’m interacting with something other than myself, but interacting in a subjective manner.

I am less likely to surmise about the reality of spirituality outside of my own experiences through the lens of my subjective perception, however. There are certain things that are pet peeves, admittedly, like Michael Harner claiming that journeying is safer than dreaming (which, if you’ve ever read Eliade or any other accounts of traditional shamanism, is bullshit). But even so, I also factor in that my own experiences with journeying are filtered through my own mind, and so have to be subjective to some extent out of sheer necessity.

Even with the Harner thing, though, there’s a certain amount of leverage that psychology provides my basic argument against his claims. Let’s limit, for the moment, my shamanism to my psyche, regardless of what may or may not be going on outside my brain. In dreaming, most people are simply processing the events of the day. We may have nightmares, but most people are not trauma survivors dealing with debilitating flashbacks. For the majority of people, ordinary dreaming is a relatively benign, if occasionally weird or unsettling, experience. We can say that it’s “safe” for the most part.

Journeying, however, is something entirely different. Psychologically speaking, a shaman is a person who alters hir state of consciousness (usually, though not always, deliberately), often through potentially hazardous methods–entheogens (which, at the wrong dosage, may be very harmful), dancing and other physical exertion, deliberate mortification of the flesh, etc. Apart from the physical effects this may have, if you assume journeyers travel inwardly instead of outwardly, you are talking about someone who is exploring the depths of hir own psyche. The archetypes and motifs experienced along the way are the brain’s method of structuring the psyche.

In many indigenous societies, shamans are trained by their predecessors. This includes methods of not going batshit insane (and yes, these cultures generally know the difference between a shaman/holy person/medicine person/etc., and someone who is simply mentally ill to the point of impaired functioning). However, most core shamans don’t have a psychological background of any sort, and core shamanism such as it is is a woeful substitute, comparatively speaking. While this doesn’t render all core shamans ineffective, it does mean that often the seriousness and potential danger of journeying is underestimated.

Part of why I went into psychology as a career is to be a better shamanic practitioner. It’s also because “therapist” is one of the roles in this culture that approximates that of the shaman in indigenous cultures. However, honestly, I went into psychology for the significant reason of my own mental health. Specifically as a (neo)shaman, I know that I’m doing a lot of messing around in my head, regardless of whether that’s all there really is, or whether it’s a bridge into another reality external of my mind. Definitely not as safe as dreaming is for me.

I don’t see psychology as being diametrically opposed to spirituality; on the contrary, I see the latter as necessarily including a healthy dose of the former when it’s at its best. And, because I don’t agree with the claims that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”*, I believe that I need to have a paradigm for working as a shaman in this culture, the one I am a part of–and core shamanism doesn’t cut it. Yes, I know there are core shamans who are also psychological practitioners. That doesn’t mean I agree with their approach to shamanic practice.

* There’s no such thing as “culturally neutral”. The people who espouse “cultural neutrality” are generally middle class, often but not always academically trained, white people of privilege who deny that they have a culture because they’re blind to the fact that they are the dominant culture. Core shamanism is, at its root, an academic white guy interpretation of shamanism.

Shamanism and the Modern Attitude Towards Nature

I was talking over lunch with someone about what shamanism actually is, and specifically what I think it is. My initial explanation involved contrasting indigeneous shamanisms and modern neoshamanisms, especially core shamanism. My general working definition of a shaman is someone who is an intermediary between humanity, and the spirit world/nature. I equate the spirit world with nature, because I am an animist. However, I also perceive the dichotomy between the spirit world/nature, and humanity, as artificially created and perceived rather than actual. (I will sometimes refer to spirits and nature separately for the purposes of this essay.)

In indigenous cultures, particularly prior to industrialization, life was/is a lot tougher, with shorter lifespans. While there was/is certainly natural medicine, herbal remedies, etc., there’s still a higher chance when you’re in a remote area of dying if, say, you get a cut that gets infected. Nature wasn’t/isn’t just something pretty that you look at out a window; it’s your life. It’s what you rely on. And you’re aware of that. This does not equate a romanticized view of nature as being all-loving and awe-inspiring. What it does entail is a more realistic perspective, and a rougher view of animism–spirits (nature) are to be placated because they can fuck you up. Spirits don’t exist just to help us happy little humans progress on our spiritual path. While indigenous spiritualities may involve structures for individual growth and change, they aren’t anywhere near the same as a lot of the crap you get out of New Age conventions and so forth.

What I’m trying to get at is that nature was never traditionally seen as nice and pretty to the exclusion of also being harsh and dangerous. This is completely a modern creation. And it is possible only because we postindustrial humans have convinced ourselves that we are separate from nature–and therefore we believe that nature’s nature has changed accordingly. Nature hasn’t changed, though. We’ve beaten it back to an extent with our technologies. However, if you put most modern citizens of the United States in the middle of a forest without a cell phone or other form of getting help, they’ll die. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and so forth are a reminder that we can still be very vulnerable to nature. All it takes is a dam breaking, a wall not holding, a lightning strike (or human error) in an area where brush has been allowed to build up, and you have something out of our control that we thought we had handled. Which is part of why these occurrences are so traumatic for the people they happen to–not just because bad things have happened, but because bad things have happened that we’ve convinced ourselves aren’t really a danger any more. Our illusion is safety has been shattered, rudely and violently. While I will agree that we’ve managed to insulate ourselves from certain effects to the point where we have longer lifespans and better overall quality of life (at least some of us, anyway), our place is pretty damned precarious.

And it’s the same way with spirits. I don’t agree with the core shamans who say that journeying is safer than dreaming, any more than I agree with people who think that nature can never hurt us because we have cities. The spirits haven’t changed much, just as nature in and of itself hasn’t changed. What has changed has been our attitudes towards them. Look at most books on totemism, or neoshamanism, or spirit work in general, and you get the impression that anybody can work with these beings with no problem, and that they exist to help us along our spiritual journeys–or at least are uniformly willing to do so because we are special little snowflakes. Yet when people read Eliade, or Vitebsky, or any other anthopological recording of traditional shamanisms, what gets glossed over are the dangers inherent in journeying, and the fact that in many traditions the spirits aren’t automatically your best friend.

In this culture, spirits and nature are seen in highly romanticized, “safe” manners, because we have fooled ourselves into thinking we can do so–just as we have fooled ourselves into thinking we no longer need to worry about nature, and are no longer part of natural cycles. Yet part of the reason I am being so damned cautious when starting out in my journeywork is because the shamanic practitioners I respect the most very often report that the deeper your experience journeying is, the more risk there is. In the same way, the more immersed we get in nature as it really is, the more risks there are. You’re less safe in the mountains than you are in a well-manicured lawn–but you’re also getting a diluted experienced of nature.

In the same way, I would argue that shamanic practitioners who “play it safe” aren’t getting nearly as much depth of experience as they could. While I’m still a relative neophyte specifically to shamanism, I have had years of experience with working with totems and other spirits in multiple spiritual and magical paradigms. And I know from that experience that the deeper you go, the harder and more potentially dangerous it is. The spirits that are working with me in therioshamanism are deliberately going easy on me for the time being, but it won’t always be that way.

So I have to wonder, when people talk about how loving and good and nice the spirits are, and how lovely and romantic nature is, just how deeply they’re opening themselves up to those phenomena. When core shamans talk about how safe journeying is, are they really getting that deeply into the Otherworld, to the point where they’re able to significantly detach from their own expectations? When people talk about how wonderful nature is, are they going out into places where they could ostensibly die–or at least being aware of them?

This is not to say that every “real” shamanic experience must automatically be a “KILLYOUANDEATYOU!” one. But we as modern shamanic practitioners in nonindigenous cultures need to be damned well aware that these things can and do happen, including during journeying. It is NOT safer than dreaming. It is NOT the same as guided meditation. And the fact that people, even in hospitals, and even spiritually “advanced” people, die from bacterial and viral infections, shows that nature surely isn’t always nice and loving to us special humans. I don’t think we need to resort to doing nothing but placation and DOOM. However, some healthy respect to balance out the “the spirits love us and just want to help us!” attitude would be a good balance.