Why Basic Research Methodology Is Important To Magical Knowledge

Quick note–a couple of days after I wrote this but before it was scheduled to go live, I was interviewed regarding Otherkin on the Pagan Musings podcast with KaliSara and RevKess, as well as guest “Arthur”. It was a really good discussion; I jumped in about 45 minutes into the show as the special “surprise” guest. Take a listen if you’re interested; we get into what basics of what Otherkin are, but also some of the spiritual/religious and psychological elements of the phenomenon as well.

So. On to the intended post.

Recently on Livejournal I wrote a response to a post someone else wrote about proposed experiments to try to “prove” the objective existence of Otherkin. These experiments ranged from Kirlian photography to try to get pictures of phantom limbs, to using EEG to measure any neurological abnormalities in Otherkin compared to the general population. I feel it applies not only to proving Otherkin as something other than collective imagination, but also proving the objective existence of magic. Here’s what I wrote (with a couple of minor edits and some helpful links added):

With regards to experiments, most of the proposed quantitative experiments over time have been horribly flawed and have not been designed with solid research methodology. Here are a few particular potential flaws:

–Poor research design: A good piece of research starts with good design. What is the experiment meant to measure? How is it measured? Is it using any existing instruments, or is one created specifically for the purpose of that experiment? Is the instrument you’re using reliable–does it measure consistently? Is it valid–does it measure what you actually are trying to measure? Finally, the simpler, the better, especially in new territory such as this. Keep it to one independent variable and one dependent variable, if possible–and know which is which.
Confirmation bias: This is a BIG problem with anecdotal “evidence” of Otherkin, magic, etc. Confimation bias basically means seeing what you want to see, and excluding anything that doesn’t support your desired results. This is often done unconsciously. Example: I keep seeing signs that Tiger is my totem. I want Tiger to be my totem, so I give greater attention and value to things that support Tiger being my totem than not, even though, if the evidence is taken by the numbers, the evidence points toward Tiger not being my totem.
Sampling bias: This was a notable reason for why my surveys for the Field Guide were NOT formal research, and a big potential issue with trying to do any experimentation with Otherkin in general. Your sample is most likely going to be biased toward people who A) are willing to be identified in some manner as Otherkin and are not so paranoid as to assume even anonymous research may be used against them personally, and B) more often than not WANT for Otherkin/magic/etc. to be proven. It’s a small population to begin with, too, so you’re most likely going to have a small sample, which can heavily affect whether the research is even solid.
Confounds and Correlation vs. Causation: related to some of the earlier things I talked about, confounding variables are variables other than the identified dependent and independent variables that come into play and affect the results. Another, very closely related concept is “correlation does not equal causation”. Just because two variables seem to affect each other in one’s results does not mean that they automatically are causal to each other. There may be a confound or third variable that is the actual vehicle of causation, or the correlation may be coincidence. This is why multiple experiments need to be run, and the results thoroughly analyzed, before making any theoretical conclusions.
–Applying more significance to results than the statistics show: Statistics are how you analyse your results in various and sundry ways. They allow for a certain level of variation (such as standard deviations from the mean, or identifying outliers) and the statement thereof, and they also help you to rule out whether your results occurred by chance or not (whether your results are statistically significant or not). Through statistics you can use the hard data to determine whether or not you proved your hypothesis (or disproved the null hypothesis).

Because most “evidence” of Otherkin/magic/etc. is anecdotal, and experiments “proving” it often manipulate or inflate the significance of the results, and the best research so far has not supported the objective existence of magic and other spiritual things, any research done to try to “prove” Otherkin/magic/etc. on an objective level needs to be of the highest quality and avoid the above and other pitfalls.

I added one last postscript to my initial response:

(Or, tl;dr – a small handful of people who say “This happens when we do that” does not constitute proper research methodology and does not hold water when trying to prove anything objectively.)

Observing “Well, every time I do this, this happens” is fine if all you want to do is self-confirm a subjective experience. But if you’re trying to prove that magic really works as an independent, objective force (rather than your results being from your own psychological biases, or other external factors that are not “magic”), then you need more rigorous testing then just a handful of people doing the same spell, ritual, or meditation once or twice and comparing their results over coffee. Just because you claim you can replicate your results doesn’t mean that you can prove that your independent variable and your dependent variable are causative as well as correlated. Are you constructing your experiments with a large enough sample to make a statistical difference? Are you doing your best to rule out confounds and confirmation bias? Would your results hold up to heavy statistical analysis?

Every shoddily constructed experiment and instrument, every poorly interpreted or deliberately manipulated set of results, every anecdote held up as firm “evidence” across the board–all these things do absolutely nothing to further your cause, and in fact do much to harm it. This is one example of what happens when people push bad research into the general consciousness. (And before you say “Well, bad magical research never killed anybody!”, here’s a sizable collection of recorded instances of people being injured or killed by the misapplication of everything from faith healing to dream interpretation (and, apparently, also GPS systems.)

And before anyone tries to start a science vs. magic debate, or argue that there’s no such thing as objective reality, both derailments of which are going to get killed before they get on their feet because I do control the comments here*–my point that I am making is that if you are going to claim that magic can be proven through experimentation, then your methodology needs to not be half-assed. If you are going to claim that you have any authority on anything that involves proving something exists objectively, then you need to be literate in the methods used in proving something exists objectively. Finally, understanding the basics of research methodology is an incredibly valuable part of critical thinking skills, skills that are woefully under-represented in magic and spirituality, and really are a necessary part of being human.**

That last paragraph that I just wrote right up there? THAT’S the intended take-away. You want to prove magic (or any other similar force or concept) exists in an objective, consistently measurable manner? Then have the correct tools, and be willing to be wrong, if that’s where the evidence and statistics end up taking your research.

* I’m not avoiding them because I don’t think they’re good topics of debate, but I want to keep things focused on the actual topic I’m discussing here, rather than getting derailed. Thank you for respecting that.

** Even people who have never, and will never, run a formal experiment still benefit from knowing the basics of research methodology so that they can have a better idea of what the people who do those experiments tell the general public through their published results (and why that’s important to everyday life). Yes, people who are experts in their field and have access to knowledge and training the rest of us don’t do have an advantage and authority. But knowing the basic processes by which they acquire their knowledge, to include research methodology, can help those of us on the general level of “consumer” of information and products to have a better understanding of why, for example, “studies show Brand X is the best!” or parse out whether a news story on “This food/medication/material COULD KILL YOU” is worth paying attention to.

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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 🙂

Hope For the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Spring. There is food.

I am very nearly through with my degree work in graduate school, currently in the middle of my internship. Come September, I ought to be done and out on my own. This is a rather shaky proposition in some ways. The job market here in Portland is particularly bad, and since I am stubborn and refuse to leave this place that I love so dearly, I’m not about to go chasing jobs elsewhere. However, I’m happier when I’m self-directed anyway, and so the prospect of being completely self-employed, while financially risky, is at least more appealing on an emotional level. It’s quite within my grasp, too. The Green Wolf isn’t enough in and of itself to cover all my bills, but it’s a decent part-time job at this point.

I’m guessing you aren’t here to read about the mundane details of my life. And yet, these things are exceptionally important. While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is far from a perfect model of how all humans prioritize needs ranging from food to self-actualization (you can find self-actualization among the hungry, and self-blindness among the well-fed), it’s a good reminder that we human animals are embedded in multiple levels of being.

The physical gets a bad rap in spirituality a good bit of the time. In fact, “spirituality” implies “spirit, which is antithetical to flesh”. Okay, yes, that’s a rather simplistic definition. There are plenty of spiritual practices that involve the body in a very conscious manner. However, all too often within neopaganism in general, and even in neoshamanism in specific (though this is less common than in some other neopagan paths) the body is seen as a vehicle to transcendence. Being in the body is not seen as a transcendent experience in and of itself.

And I feel that’s a great shame, because the very act of living is an amazing thing in and of itself. Let’s take eating as an example. Many of us, especially in high-paced Western societies, have a tendency to rush through food. I mean, really–it’s called fast food for a reason! The center of the grocery store is full of prepackaged, processed, quick-to-prepare meals for the entire day. Now, admittedly, I partake of these a good deal, especially in the busiest part of my week when I have both classes and internship obligations to attend to. Sometimes it’s tough to find the motivation to make a meal from scratch.

And yet, the experience of making the food from scratch is, in and of itself, an act of self-care for me. I discovered a few years ago that I enjoyed cooking in part because it is its own alchemy. The proportions of seasonings and other ingredients have everything to do with the end result. And everyone likes good food better than mediocre or even bad food (though what falls under each category is wholly subjective, with the exception of spoilage/etc.).

Even if you don’t make your own food from scratch, and even if the food isn’t the greatest, you can still gain a good deal out of the very experience of eating. There is a concept known as Mindful Eating. This is the art of slowing down the process of eating, being more aware and immersed in that experience, and allowing food to BE the experience. It also makes us aware of the values and habits we attach to food. In this day and age, when so many of us are facing numerous health problems associated with unhealthy relationships to food and the body (I can point to a chronic case of acid reflux, for example), awareness of how these relationships manifest, as they are manifesting, is crucial to improving them.

And eating mindfully is spiritual. It creates a lot of the same states that many people seek in their spirituality. There is a transcendence of the ordinary, and an altered state of consciousness. There is great connection to something greater than the self–in this case, food can be the gateway to connection to not only the Land that grew it, but all the other living organisms that touched it along the way, human and otherwise.

But eating mindfully also grounds us in that most important microcosm–our body. It is the physical vehicle in which we can interact with this world we live in; the physical brain is the seat of the mind that we use to navigate nonphysical realities. Being present includes being embedded in the body. (Or as they say, “Be HERE now”.)

So much of our health overall depends on the health of our bodies. I know that my emotions and psychological health can be adversely affected by a lack of sleep or by low blood sugar or otherwise just feeling off physically. Since these things are indispensable to the process of experiencing, comprehending and processing spiritual activities, then it behooves me to take care of my body as best as I can. And since food is my body’s fuel, then I’d better be aware of what I’m putting into myself!

A lot of where my spirituality has gone as I’ve been largely “underground” for most of a year has been in approaching spirituality in the everyday. And I am amazed at what I find. There is no alchemy more important to a human being than the processes by which the body takes in air, water and food and uses the molecules to keep itself going. (Those with, say, food allergies are required even more than others to be aware of the delicate balance of introducing molecules to their systems.)

We don’t need to look to arcane processes to be able to find magic. We overlook the everyday, and yet we do this to our own detriment. Not that there’s no value to the more esoteric things, but really, if what you’re seeking is magic, then realize that it exists everywhere, and yes, is often the very same things that are explained in scientific terms–without the need for further elaboration.

The Importance of Ritual Tools

First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.

Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.

To which I say: fuck that noise.

Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.

Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.

Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.

Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.

Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.

To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.

Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.

The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.

(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)

If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.

Science and Spirituality

Recently I got into a conversation online with one of the many people who are convinced that at some point in the future, either something specific like December 21, 2012, or a more vague “When the Veils between the worlds fall”, “magic” will overcome “science”, and instead of having technology to guide us and lengthen our lifespans, we’ll all be able to shoot fireballs, heal instantly by touch, and ride dragons. Or similar things that are impossible in the current state of physics.

I’ve seen this entirely too many times in my decade and change in the pagan and Otherkin communities. Not only does it show an escapist form of wishful thinking that completely ignores the wonders and miracles inherent in the material world (I mean, come on–photosynthesis? Is totally cool.), but the argument also shows an ignorance of what science actually is.

Science does not dictate the nature of reality. No matter how much we know about, say, how physics works, we cannot change the laws of physics (as Scotty liked to remind us). We can change what we are able to do within the parameters of material reality through the understanding of that reality that science gives us. But science does not change the basic parameters of material reality.

Of course, when these people I speak of try to contrast magic and science, their general understanding of what “pure magic” is would violate the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and just about every other science out there–if it could actually do what they claim it can do. They point to situations where magical practice has apparently done the impossible, by creating changes in physical reality that aren’t supposed to happen. Confirmation bias aside, I’m guessing that all of these can be explained ultimately through science. The explanations may not be to the satisfaction of the imaginations (and wishful thinking) of some folks, but IMO, that doesn’t make those explanations any less important for being explained through “boring” science. After all, if you get the result you wanted, what does it matter?

I know the argument would then go that belief shapes reality, and the more people believe in science, the more science changes and shapes reality. Yet that’s a fallacious argument that again shows a complete ignorance of what science is. Science is compiling information about material reality based on controlled, empirical observations of that reality. In short, it is not manipulating reality, but merely observing it and recording what is observed. If that observation changed reality every time it happened, then the observations recorded would be nowhere near as consistent as they are, even after making allowances for human error. Yes, we change things within objective reality though our technology, but the technology does not change the nature of the objective reality itself.

And this is why I think that spirituality should not be placed in opposition to science. Spirituality that defines itself as completely unattached to science is in denial of the parameters we realistically work within every moment of our lives–to include the parameters in which we practice spirituality and magic. The splitting of science and spirit into two completely separate camps has done nothing beneficial for spirituality; all it has done is turned it into a tool for denialism and ignorance. Most of the observable effects are less drastic than the tragic cases of, say, children who die because their parents think prayer is a better cure for chronic illnesses than western medicine. But when we take science entirely out of our spirituality, we are in grave danger of imperiling ourselves on multiple levels–physical, psychological, and otherwise.

This is not to say that there is no room for suspension of disbelief. Science, for example, has not been able to prove the existence of souls, or an Otherworld, other than as psychological constructs. But when I journey, I journey with the mindset that I am going to an objectively real place where there are spirits, and where I am a temporarily disembodied spirit myself wandering through talking to animals. I realize that this is empirically unprovable, and you’re going to just have to trust me when I say I experienced it. But for me, in that moment, it is every bit as real as the physical world we all share.

However, when I come back out of the spirit world and regain my body, I become consciously aware again that there is a decided psychological angle to what I just did. It doesn’t in the least bit diminish my experience. Instead, it adds an additional layer of understanding to it, and enriches it by giving me even more language to communicate what I did. (While psychology is a soft science at best, it still contains more empirical evidence than most spiritual practices.)

And that’s the thing: science augments my spirituality. Knowing how photosynthesis works just makes knowing plant spirits that much better. Being aware of how stress affects physiological processes of the body adds value to meditation. Understanding the natural history of physical animals helps me know their totems even better.

I have more to say, but I am tired, and my words aren’t working as well as when I started this essay. Expect more in the future.

You Mean I Have To Give a Reason?

I’ve started journeying again since the year turned over. Only once, but it was an important one.

I showed up at my starting place, in the form of a wolf per usual, and was met by the Animal Father. He carried me inside himself up the mountain to his home (no, it wasn’t squishy and I wasn’t making elbow room amid spiritual internal organs or whatnot–more like floating/flying up the trail, but feeling surrounding by the energy I associate with him). Then he set me down on the ground, and we began to talk about why I hadn’t journeyed in four months–or, rather, he began snarling at me about it. In fact, he ended up turning into a significantly larger wolf, bared fangs and all. This served primarily to put me on the defensive, rather than listening to what he had to say.

So he ended up turning into a mouse instead, which relaxed me quite a bit. We discussed the need for me to be journeying much more often–short version is, no more four month absences. This being the first week of school, I didn’t do the best job of increasing the amount of journeying I do, but now that I have a better idea of what my time commitments and schedule will be like, I have a better idea of where I can fit it in.

After this, he asked me how my progress on getting to the Upper world was, since I’d been trying to figure out that conundrum. I told him I was still stuck, and he suggested talking to the resident Owl, one of the totems specific to the area I start my journeys in. So he called hir to show up, and we were joined by Great Grey Owl (totems, for me, are species-specific). S/he and I had a conversation about the Upper world, and why I was having trouble accessing it.

The main thing s/he asked me, and which I puzzled over afterwards, was “Why do you need to get up there, anyway?” And I honestly couldn’t give hir a good answer beyond “To find information”. Owl told me to come back when I had a better answer for hir, and flew away. For my part, I ran back down the mountain with this question burning in my mind. Scrub Jay (the totem this time, not just a scrub jay spirit) and Red Fox both showed up. They offered their help in navigating this world, and Scrub Jay additionally told me s/he could help with the Upper World when the time came. I noted this, thanked them for the offer, and ended up needing to head back home.

For a few days, I couldn’t really come up with a decent answer for Owl’s question. Then one day, as I was on a walk, it hit me–why did I need to get to the Upper World, anyway? I didn’t have a specific reason, a particular piece of information to seek out. The only reason I could think of was “Because it’s part of what shamans are supposed to do–right?” Same thing with the Lower World. And here we get to one of the downsides to not being a part of an established shamanic paradigm–there’s no one to explain why, specifically, I might need to go to one or the other, or neither for that matter. I could read books, but even there the material is limited. I can talk to other practitioners, but how much of what they experience will be relevant to me?

To be sure, journeying is intensely personal, and I think there’s more subjectivity to it than a lot of practitioners want to admit. This means I can potentially look at the different worlds in the shamanisms of other cultures. But would these motifs and experiences be relevant to me, in my cultural context? And how much standardization is there, really? After all, there are other things that are “supposed” to happen in shamanism that haven’t quite matched my experiences. For example, according to most texts on neoshamanism, you’re “supposed” to climb up and down a tree to travel to the various worlds. I climb a mountain instead, one that I’ve visited frequently in waking time. And what I am practicing isn’t necessarily what other people are practicing; I am developing my relationships with the spirits from scratch, not following someone else’s template of expectations. In fact, most of the examples of neoshamanism I’ve seen have a lot of fundamental differences compared to what I’m doing.

This still left me with the problem: if I don’t know what’s in the Upper World or what to expect there, how do I know why I would want to go there? And then it hit me, as I was walking–right after I was presented with that problem, Scrub Jay and Red Fox offered me a solution: Don’t worry about the Upper World right now. Look for answers and explorations in this world first. It’s the closest, and the one I’m most familiar with. Where better to get more practice with journeying than the layer of reality that I’m most accustomed to? Not that everything will be a cakewalk, of course. But it makes a lot of sense.

I’m willing to bet that I’m not the first novice (neo)shaman to get caught up in the “Oooooh, I get to explore the Other worlds!” thing, to the point of neglecting this world. Now, I do tend to be a fairly pragmatic person. I’m the kind who will take mundane solutions before leaping into magical practice. So it’s not surprising to me, this concept of checking around the spiritual portions of this world first, before travelling further afield. I think I just got caught up in that whole “Shamans travel to the Upper and Lower worlds” concept a little too much.

Some of the Middle world stuff will no doubt be “mundane” things–like my venturing into psychology as a profession, for example, or finding other “everyday” solutions. However, I would imagine that journeying, as with various forms of divination, will help expand my perception of possible solutions (altered states of consciousness are good for that). I won’t make too many assumptions, but I think for now my journeys are going to be focusing on what Jay and Fox have to show me. They’ve offered, and I’ll follow. I should probably go to Owl and let hir know my current answer (“I actually don’t have a need to go there yet”) as well.