I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

A PSA, and Escape to the Desert

First, a quick public service announcement: I got a temporary full time job over the summer doing mental health counseling at my old internship site, and so I’ve closed my art commissions list for the time being. You can read more at the link, but in short, I’m really excited about the job. It’s been wonderful working more in service with the non-human end of my community, but this will reconnect me with serving my human community (in more capacity than making artwork and writing things for them). Actually, let’s make it a pair of PSAs, since I wrote earlier this month about ethics and consuming animals: here’s a Kickstarter for those who want to support a more ethical approach to omnivorism. Now, on to the main event!


Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

So earlier this week my friend Emily and I escaped to the desert of Eastern Oregon to explore the John Day Fossil Beds. Neither of us had been there, and since my upcoming job will be keeping me in town during the week, I’m trying to get as much further-away travel done before it starts next month. We decided an overnight trip would be enough for this first excursion, and so she dragged me out of my apartment bright and early on Monday morning.

It would be impossible to describe to you every wonderful moment of this trip. We started our journey with a stopover at the Bridal Veil post office to give this ghost town survivor some much-needed business, and to stretch our photography muscles for the trip. Our journey through the Columbia River Gorge and then south into the desert was puncuated by windmills, abandoned houses, and many stops to marvel at vistas and break out the cameras. We managed to achieve the trifecta–we visited the Painted Hills, Clarno, and Sheep Rock units, and were able to explore each in some detail. We went to the Cant Ranch with its century-old house and rusted-out tractors, and we stayed the night in Dayville, Oregon in a little cabin guarded by two of the least threatening Golden Retrievers ever. We hiked in the Blue Basin surrounded by towers of azure-tinted tuff, and Emily watched as I scrambled down a river slope to investigate an elk skull a hunter had left behind. We thoroughly investigated the paleontology center, and each came out with a postcard adorned with fossil skulls. We came home on the 84 accompanied by a lengthy sunset in the Gorge and a half-moon surrounded by stars. In short, it was just about as perfect a trip as we could have hoped for.

People speak about the desert being lifeless. Those of us who have been there and who pay attention know better; it thrives, in clear and radiant defiance of the threat of scant water and harsh weather. We saw our first black-billed magpies and I snapped a picture of a Say’s phoebe. There were ravens and vultures and ospreys galore, robins and juncos and even a wayward Canada goose. I saw what might have been a pronghorn walking through the sagebrush in a dry creek bed. And the “alert” put into effect by the park–that we must be notified of the presence of wildflowers–served to introduce us to the local flora. Purple silky lupine and bright yellow balsamroot vied for attention among rabbitbrush and juniper berries, and as the days warmed up the piquant scent of the sage filled the air. Even a few hardy lichens flattened themselves against the rocks like dried crusts of paint daubed by an itinerant artist cleaning her brushes after completing the masterpiece of the Hills.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

And, of course, there’s the human life. Not much evidence remains of the original indigenous people who made a living in these exact spots, though we drove home through lands owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Picture Gorge is named for the pictographs left by some of the original inhabitants. The Cant Ranch exhibits, though mainly concerned with the primarily Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s, did allude some to the people they displaced. Both populations are impressive in their own way–the one for having created a way of life here for such a long and sustained time, and the other for managing to thrive even when dropped into the harshest environment many had ever experienced. I admit, though, that I felt a lot of frustration for the proliferation of fences along almost every road, warning off anyone of any descent from crossing over into “private property”. All these mesas and hills to be climbed and explored, and yet we were limited to the few trails in the Fossil Beds units. The human story, it would seem, is punctuated by barbed wire, even in its most open and rambling pages.

What struck me most about our trip, though, was just how evident the geological story is. The Fossil Beds are unique in that erosion has bared the layers of millions of years, sedimentation and lava flows and ash falls and flooding. You can look at a high peak like Sheep Rock and read the strata like a prehistory book. When you realize the highest crags of mesas near Picture Gorge are where the valley floor was seven million years ago, and everything has eroded since, you can imagine how high the ground would have been above your head now, and wonder at the immense span of time that it took to build up those landforms in the first place. All those millions of years alluded to in books and documentaries are set into stone here.

I and others have often referred to watersheds as the hearts of bioregions. This is true; however, the (literal) bedrock of the watershed is the geology. Everything else in a bioregion–where the rain goes once it falls and whether it collects anywhere, what the weather and climate patterns are like, what flora and fauna can live there, etc.–all these are determined in large part by the geology of the place. The landforms in and surrounding the bioregion are the canvas upon which everything else there is painted. So it is in the desert. Forty-four million years ago, the places we visited were a lush rain forest, and the fossils from that time reflect that. The uplifting of the Cascade mountains to the west created a rain shadow later that began the process of desertification, compounded by multiple and varied volcanic activities in the area over time. From rain forest, the land changed to deciduous hardwood forest, then grasslands, and finally to the sage-and-juniper-studded desert of today.

Most of the time, the layers of ages are buried far beneath our feet, accessible only through the occasional cave or road cutaway, or the fieldwork of geologists (when funding permits). We don’t think about anything but the top layer, the part we think is the main player in our lives. But each stripe of soil and rock rests on another; it’s terra all the way down. Isn’t that the way it is with us, too?

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

I hope the desert with all its layers, visible and hidden, survives us. I have never seen so much land with so few roads; even in the Midwest rural areas where I grew up the spaces between towns was netted by county roads all over. Here, there were thousands upon thousands of acres broken up mainly by the barbed wire, a few roads, and the occasional agricultural endeavor. I hope I never live to see the Fossil Beds surrounded by cookie-cutter houses and billboards advertising new subdivisions “for those wanting to escape the city!” Here there are more than just traces of wilderness, more than just a scant reminder of what the land looked like before humans exploded into seven billion. And yet even I fall prey to the shifting baseline problem–my baseline is of sagebrush scrublands cut with fences and two-lane highways, grazed by cattle and sheep, and encroached upon by cheatgrass and the invasive tumbleweed produced by prickly Russian thistle. Three hundred years ago, only the sagebrush was here; the rest were yet to come. What to me might seem like an impossible walk back in time would be, to others, not just preservation but restoration.

I leave you with a few more pictures (as with all of the, you can click them to get bigger versions); in another century will these represent something long-lost? Perhaps if most of us can visit the desert and then kiss it good-bye again, rather than insisting on cohabitation, there will be the chance of continued hospitality without being ungracious guests.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

The Say's phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put. Lupa, 2013.

The Say’s phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put for more than a few seconds at a time. Lupa, 2013.

A Caution Against Pagan Fundamentalism

A caveat to start with: No matter how well a writer writes something, inevitably someone will misinterpret what they were trying to say. Such is the limitation of language. In that spirit, allow me to make one thing very, very clear before this essay even starts: I am not equating hard polytheism with religious fundamentalism. I am concerned that because of certain patterns I have seen among some, not all, hard polytheists, that this may, not necessarily will, in the future give rise to a form of pagan religious fundamentalism. Additionally, the “You’re wrong, I’m right” attitude that I’m observing is not limited to debates regarding polytheism, but other areas of paganism as well, and any of these could also give rise to a form of fundamentalism given the right circumstances. Polytheism happens to be the topic of the moment which finally gave me a chance to voice some concerns about fundamentalism in paganism that I’ve been chewing on a while. There. Now that I’ve said that, feel free to proceed.

I’ve been watching the recent discussion on several pagan blogs concerning hard polytheism, “bringing back the gods”, and so forth with some interest. I admit that the older I get, the more I am moving toward a more pantheistic viewpoint, with a good dash of humanism as well. It’s not that I discount the existence of the Divine, spirits, and so forth, but that my experiences with them simply haven’t led me to adopt a hard polytheistic view (and anyway, I tend more toward totems and nature spirits than gods).

So that obviously colors my perspective on all this. I don’t have a stake in the proven reality of deities as independent entities, but neither does it bother me that some people do. What concerns me is the possibility of the rise of pagan religious fundamentalism. (Yes, I know there are polytheists dropping the term “pagan” from their experience because they associate it with Things That We Aren’t, but for the purposes of my discussion, polytheists are still pagan, in part so I don’t have to keep writing pagans/polytheists over and over.) Fundamentalism as a concept was originally described in certain areas of Protestantism in the early 1900s. These people had a very strict and literal interpretation of their religion, and today “fundamentalism” is often used to describe any of a number of religious perspectives that hold similar, inflexible views on God(s) and the way humans are supposed to act.

There are a lot of pagans (and other people, but let’s stick to pagans for now) who have had bad experiences as a result of fundamentalism, usually of the Christian variety. The community is full of stories of people growing up in strictly religious households and being treated pretty poorly for the mistake of exploring new beliefs. These could range from having their pagan religious tools and effects taken from them and destroyed, to being assaulted or thrown out of the home. Adult pagans have lost jobs, homes, and children due to religious persecution. Pagan prisoners are routinely denied access to religious materials and clergy, and it’s rare for a pagan clergyperson to be asked to lead a prayer in a civic setting where such things still occur. While Christian fundamentalists proper were not always the opposition in these cases, the attitudes of fundamentalism tend to leak out into the wider cultural consciousness (I’ll talk more about that in a minute).

With these consequences of fundamentalism in mind, it seems strange to see echoes of them in paganism. Yes, of course there’s the fact that people often subconsciously emulate the behavior patterns they were raised around, but surely that can’t be the source of every single instance of “You’re wrong, I’m right!” in paganism. And while not every one of those “I’m right!” instances constitutes fundamentalism, the long-standing tendency for some pagans to tell others “You’re doing it wrong!” seems to be heading closer to fundamentalism to a troubling degree. And so while I don’t want to point at any single claim of “hard polytheism is the best and only way!” as fundamentalist, because of the general trend I do want to put forth a warning against the dangers of falling prey to fundamentalist stances. Allow me to present a few points for consideration.

Not all pagans are theistic, and paganism is not just about the gods.

I really like Christine Kraemer’s Venn diagram in this recent post. It’s a reminder that “paganism” isn’t ONLY about gods, or ONLY about nature, or any other single influence. I agree with her when she she says in her own words (and italics), “for some pagans, polytheism is not a main focus for practice or belief.” Her post was in response to this one by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus whom I should mention, for disclosure’s sake, is a friend of mine and someone I respect highly. He wrote a really good essay (even if I don’t quite agree with all of it) that sparked a lot of discussion, and one of the key ideas was the possibility that the emphasis on “nature-based” paganism is to make non-pagans feel more comfortable with us, and that those of us who don’t embrace polytheism are making that choice because we’re uncomfortable with polytheism.

I’m not uncomfortable with polytheism. I spent most of my pagan “career” that started in 1996 being a polytheist to one degree or another. The shift toward pantheism has been a more recent thing, ironically brought on by my attempts to deepen my practice (another thing I’ll touch on more later). Being more comfortable with pantheism does not automatically mean a discomfort with polytheism, any more than choosing to be pagan means a discomfort with any other religion. If I’m uncomfortable with anything it’s the growing resemblance to fundamentalism I see in some sectors of hard polytheism, but that’s not why I am not a polytheist any more.

As my spiritual practice becomes more entwined with my path of service to the environment and to other humans, I find myself more and more rooted in this world. And my increased engagement with the physical world brings me closer to being a naturalist, with a combination of armchair scientific study and feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt direct experience. So pantheism–seeing the Divine as directly manifest in the natural world that I interact with–makes more sense to me at this point. Truth be told, my involvement with most deities, other than Artemis, has never been particularly deep. I worked with the Animal Father as part of a personal pantheon early in my Therioshamanism work, but he eventually faded back into the wilderness from whence he came, and the energy I touched with him I see in every living animal, and I connect more strongly that way. As to Artemis? She’s always been an internal part of me much as my primary totem Gray Wolf is; it’s hard sometimes to tell where the boundaries fall between us. These days I’m simply not that concerned with proving once and for all whether my invisible friends are independent beings or manifestations of human consciousness and myth, and I’ve never had much note from any of the beings I work with that suggested they cared what I thought, either. What’s important to me and to them are the immediate and measurable manifestations of my practice, whether that’s a shamanic journey or a day spent cleaning up litter along the river.

The anger and debate seem to all be on the human side of things. When someone doesn’t perform a ritual properly, or refers to several goddesses as aspects of one Goddess, I haven’t seen divine bolts of lightning streak down and smite them. There are historical debates, of course, where we can argue the facts of what the people of such and such ancient and no longer extant culture did, but that doesn’t lead to proof of what a particular deity or spirit wants. It’s always the people arguing over whether a particular practice or belief is correct, sometimes to an absurd degree–I’ve seen people on Tumblr debate whether a store-bought strawberry tart was a fitting offering for Loki. Regardless, it always comes down to the “You’re wrong, I’m right” debate; it’s only the details that differ.

Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is characterized by people insisting that their way is correct and everyone else’s isn’t. It’s what keeps fundamentalism alive. As social creatures, we like having something sure to crowd around to unite us, and religion makes a great standard for rallying. Unfortunately, we also get this idea that the more right we are, the stronger we are, and so in order to increase our strength and security we have to prove our rightness. This fervor is part of how religion has very often been used as a tool for political and social machinations and power plays. The people involved are so focused on the surface message of “You’re wrong, we’re right” that they ignore the men behind the curtain. Look at the Crusades, for example; Pope Urban II called for them in part because the nobles in Europe were being rather rowdy, and he figured that sending them east under the guise of a holy war would at least get them out of the way for a while, as well as ingratiate him to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I who was being attacked by Muslim forces. Most people think it was just a matter of Christians versus Moslems in a grand melee for the Holy Land, but that was just the surface.

Religion in general plays on a lot of human behavioral tendencies, and while these can sometimes be beneficial, as in prayer and meditation to relieve stress and anxiety, and the benefits of a healthy community, fundamentalism has a poison to it. It’s divisive and exclusionary, and it builds identity not on connection but on isolation. And this isolation can be a very bad thing indeed.

Fundamentalism has a tendency to breed ignorance.

When you build your entire worldview on an idea, any opposing idea becomes a threat to that power base. There is absolutely no incontrovertible proof that any religious belief is more objectively and measurably true than any other, and the number of people who adhere to it does not increase its truth. Because we can’t prove a belief in the same way we can prove that gravity exists, or that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, or that a mammal’s fur retains heat, adherents of beliefs can sometimes become very insecure about what they believe.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strongly-held belief in and of itself, even if you can’t prove it. But one of the defenses against having your worldview shaken is willful ignorance. I would imagine that most, if not all, of my readers are aware that homosexuality isn’t dangerous, that gay people are not more likely to be sexual predators, and that if gays get married it won’t cause the collapse of civilization as we know it. Yet because the Bible happens to mention in a couple of places that homosexuality is a bad thing, there are people who latch onto that and who absolutely refuse to consider any other evidence to the contrary.

We live in a 21st century where for a lot of us (though certainly not everyone) we have an inconceivable amount of information at our disposal through the internet and other forms of media. Even a quarter of a century ago when I was in elementary school writing my first essays I had access to several different sets of encyclopedias, dozens of magazines, and thousands of books, just in my little school’s library. The information is there; ignorance is the choice to not access it. And, I suppose, for some people the idea that they might be wrong is a terrifying thing, so much so that they don’t step out of their safe sphere.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I might be wrong. There was a feeling of liberation a while back when I finally felt the tyranny of “I HAVE TO MAKE SURE I’M RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING” lift away from my shoulders, and I had the liberty to move through the world unencumbered by that obsession. And it allowed me to be even more curious about the world than I already was. A sure belief doesn’t have to extinguish curiosity, but my own experience has been that allowing myself ambiguity has freed me to focus more on exploration and learning for its own sake, come what may.

Ignorance is dangerous.

Again, having a strongly held belief isn’t automatically ignorance. But ignorance, when it happens, has its own dangers. When we tunnel-vision so tightly on a belief that we refuse to listen to anything else, it can hurt us and others. It’s been proven again and again that vaccinations have absolutely nothing to do with autism, and yet there are increasing numbers of parents in the United States who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the strongly-held (and incorrect) belief that autism is somehow transmitted through common shots. As a direct result, diseases we’d significantly reduced or even almost eradicated, like pertussis and measles, are on the rise, along with the highest rates of deaths from these diseases in decades. We can prove without a doubt, due to decades of statistics on vaccination effectiveness and illnesses and deaths from these diseases, that these people likely died as a direct result of lower vaccination rates. And it’s not just the people who chose not to allow vaccinations who suffer: the dead include unvaccinated children who could still be alive today had they been given routine childhood vaccines.

Sometimes ignorance is on a grander, even deadlier scale. People have slaughtered each other for millenia based on religious and political propaganda which very often doesn’t paint the whole picture (remember Mark Twain’s The War Prayer?) And while modern paganism has not birthed such theocratic efforts, perhaps it’s only due to a lack of numbers and chance, as well as the persistent tendency for pagans to eschew preaching and converting–at least toward non-pagans.

And, in and of itself, insisting that the gods are real, independent entities a la hard polytheism isn’t particularly dangerous. You can believe whatever you like and still not be a problem to others if you just leave it to yourself and those who agree with you. It’s the desire to make others agree with you that’s the problem. And that desire stems from insecurity in one’s own belief, with ignorance another common side-effect. Ignorance only allows a person to learn about other ways far enough to be able to rail about how they’re wrong, to have fodder for their fight. They can’t venture too far from those shaking beliefs they hold for fear they’ll fall and so, like a dog chained to a rickety old dog house, they bark and snarl at the world around them, only knowing of the things that come close enough to feel like a threat.

Maybe the surest counter to this dangerous ignorance is genuine curiosity, and an openness to the world. There’s a certain strength in being able to hold your beliefs even when you’re learning about others, not out of the desire to disprove them, but simply to know more about them. This isn’t just knowing the words of others’ beliefs, but opening yourself to why people hold them. A little immersion in this way won’t make a person a convert, and the potential for a change in one’s own worldview shouldn’t be reason to shut the rest of the world out.

Fundamentalism is contagious.

Most adherents of a religion are not fundamentalists. However, many adherents do have some beliefs they hold strongly, and their communities help them to bolster that faith. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s part of religious communities as vessels of social memetics. But as we can see throughout history, extremists of any sort tend to attract a crowd, and while some may discount them, others catch hold of their message. Sometimes that extreme eventually becomes the norm; look at how Christianity grew from a tiny little cult surrounded by other tiny little cults into one of the dominant religions on Earth. Unfortunately, sometimes the messages that are the most contagious are also the most negative.

I can tell you a story of this from personal experience. When I first started this blog in 2007, it was part of my quest for a deeper, more meaningful spiritual path. I had watched a number of people I knew in the pagan community engage in some truly beautiful devotional practices to deities and spirits, with wonderfully elaborate schedules of celebrations, and creative shrines and altars. While I had certainly had good experiences with the totems and other spirits I worked with over the years, I felt the need to have something similarly focused and devotional. You can look back at the first year or two of this blog to see where I was really trying to build that. Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I ended up finding my depth and meaning in a totally different direction, but that doesn’t invalidate the appreciation I still have for the devotions of others.

Unfortunately, one of the things I also picked up from a few–definitely not all–of the people who inspired me was a thread of one-true-way-ism. Usually this would be people who were trying to reconstruct a particular ancient polytheistic pagan faith, and who were so dead-set on doing it right that they openly criticized anyone doing things differently. I suppose, having seen that modeled, I latched onto core shamanism as my target of “You’re wrong!”, and again you can read through some of my earlier thoughts in this blog. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my path, while I still have personal disagreements with core shamanism (especially when it’s presented as “genuine ancient shamanism”), I no longer feel the need to attack it as a whole path. There are people for whom it works just fine; in fact, I’ve seen some people in the counseling field integrate elements of it to help their clients in very genuine ways. How can I argue with that effectiveness?

Honestly, I feel like an asshole for being that heavily critical. It did speak to a certain level of insecurity on my part, and I feel bad that I probably influenced other people to be critical to a similar degree. Granted, I am not responsible for what people choose to do based on their interpretations of my writings, any more than the people who I saw modeling hyper-critical behavior were responsible for my wholesale attacks on core shamanism. But it does demonstrate the tendency of people to copy those they wish to emulate, sometimes without considering what it is, exactly, they’re emulating.

If proper fundamentalism takes greater hold in paganism, I worry about what direction it may take the community as a whole. Maybe instead of polytheists dropping out because they don’t feel any connection to everyone else, it’ll be pluralists fleeing the damning whip of fundamentalist criticism and harassment as the “You’re wrong! I’m right” arguments go from small bickering online to greater pressure to conform to one party line.

We do not need fundamentalism to be legitimate.

I’ve seen the argument that if we pagans are going to be taken seriously, we have to present a more hard-line, united front of beliefs. Supposedly because we’re a group of people with a wide variety of paths and faiths, this means that there’s no way we can rank up there with well-defined single religions–never mind that they at least have denominations that may vary widely from one to the next.

And yet I’ve seen some really admirable interfaith efforts on the part of people representing paganism in general. Look at what Patrick McCollum has been doing over the years in criticizing the “dominant religion lens” of Christianity in the U.S. He hasn’t only been advocating for Wiccans, but for pagans in general, and in fact his work could very well benefit people of many other minority faiths. He’s just one of many examples of how paganism can be a legitimate religious presence in the cultural and social consciousness without having to resort to fundamentalism for strict definition.

Final Thoughts.

As it stands, we are not embroiled in a massive pagan fundamentalism movement. I have no problem with hard polytheists wanting to define themselves more as such–or anyone else taking the time to more clearly explain who they are and what they believe and why. I don’t even particularly care about the existence of the ongoing “You’re wrong! I’m right!” argument that’s manifested in everything from the “Only Brit-trad Wiccans are REAL Wiccans” debate to the current trends toward a more hardline polytheism. What worries me is the possibility of any of the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” debates to turn into genuine fundamentalism with all its problems and poisons. I feel it’s better to bring it up now, before it ever happens–if it even ever happens for that matter–than after the fact.

Because I don’t feel I’m being too cautious about potential fundamentalism. We don’t really know for sure what happens when you offend a god, but we sure as hell know what happens when someone is so very focused on keeping others from offending the gods that they’ll go to extreme, dangerous, and even lethal lengths to prevent or avenge that offense. Even if that’s not a real threat in paganism today, let’s start creating a setting now that will keep it from being a reality in the future.

In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Out of the Crazy Closet

This is a post I’ve written and re-written a number of times. It’s probably one of the most difficult posts I’ve composed, simply because I feel so vulnerable about it. But I’m finally at a place where I feel comfortable sharing this here.

I have a mental illness, specifically Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It’s something I’ve struggled with for most of my life; I can remember its roots in being a particularly sensitive and easily-worried child still in elementary school (and it just got progressively worse from there). But I wasn’t formally diagnosed until a couple of years ago, when I was seeing my therapist for sessions during graduate school. I told her of my suspicions, as I’d read the DSM-IV cover to cover for my diagnosis class, and so we sat down with the book and looked at the criteria for a variety of conditions. GAD was the one that fit the best, and all of the criteria were very familiar to me.

So why am I telling you this here, on my blog that’s supposed to be about shamanism? For one thing, it’s the platform I use the most for writing these days, and I want to have a basic “here’s Lupa on GAD” post that I can refer to when talking about this later on. Talking is good therapy for me, writing being included in “talking”. If being more open about my anxiety helps me to get better, then that’s an additional bonus.

I am a strong supporter of mental illness awareness and advocacy, moreso after having gotten my Master’s in counseling psychology. Even though I understand and empathize with my reasons for having stayed mostly closeted on this matter in the past, I have felt for a while like a hypocrite. I encourage others to be open about their mental conditions if they deem it the right time, and I feel that more open discussion about mental health, to include careful self-disclosure, can help facilitate better resources and less prejudice.

Yet I have hidden my anxiety away like a bad habit. Even having that degree, even having worked as a counselor, even knowing and believing beyond a doubt that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, my own fear–and the anxiety–kept me quiet. And now I’m breaking that silence. Why?

While I have not yet “officially” used my Master’s degree, having spent the year since graduation being a fully self-employed author and artist (and recovering from the stress of grad school and corporate life before that), there’s still the possibility that some day I may need to get a job as a counselor at an agency. Even though the counseling profession is supposed to work against the stigmatization of those with mental illnesses, there is still a strong taboo against mental health professionals who are mentally ill. Even though such professionals as Marsha Linehan (the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and Kay Redfield Jamison have publicly discussed their illnesses, the stigma remains–especially if you aren’t a well-established professional yet. So even though I did well in my year-long internship counseling addicts in an inpatient setting, and was open with my supervisor there about my GAD, and we worked together to make sure it wasn’t a liability, I still worry that other supervisors, potential employers, and the like may not be so supportive.

Clients can go either way. Some clients are put off by knowing their therapist isn’t perfectly psychologically hale, especially as mental health professionals are often idealized as “perfect authorities”. But some clients feel more comfortable knowing that the person in the chair across from them might know a bit about what they themselves have been struggling with. I never told any of my clients in my internship about my anxiety, but having GAD did help me to empathize more with them. It also made me more aware of my own boundaries, and where the GAD could weaken my ability to deal with sometimes very challenging clients.

Then there’s the more general stigma. Many people still equate mental illness with everything from homelessness to senseless shootings as in Aurora, CO. Mental illnesses are seen as ticking time bombs. Or they’re dismissed; we are told to “just get over it”. We who have these illnesses are marginalized and stigmatized. It’s easier to ignore us or make fun of us than to help us and try to understand the complexity of our different way of viewing the world. Some people still even conflate alternative spiritual views as a whole with mental illness, and there’s the chance that me being out of the crazy closet will just fuel their misconceptions.

Continuing to hide my anxiety disorder just perpetuates stigmatization. One of the most effective methods of teaching is modeling. If I model the idea that it’s okay to be mentally ill and open about it, if I can just talk about it like an everyday (albeit unwanted) part of my life, then hopefully I can help others to do the same, whether they’re mentally ill or not. I’ve gotten so many emails from people who have told me that my writing here, and in my books and other places, has been a huge help and inspiration to them. By coming out as having GAD, my hope is that I can continue to provide inspiration to others fighting their own battles with mental illnesses.

There’s one other reason I’m bringing my anxiety up here, and that’s shamanism itself (see? It IS relevant here!) There is a misconception that because some indigenous shamans have had mental illnesses as part of their initiations/shamanisms, that this means that you have to have a mental illness to be a shaman, or even that mental illnesses ARE shamanism. I find these to be inaccurate and dangerous conflations.

First, it’s demeaning to indigenous cultures to assume they don’t know the difference between someone with a mental illness, and a shamanic practitioner. While there is some crossover in some cultures between SOME mental illnesses and SOME shamanic and spiritual traditions, it’s specific in degree and nature in each culture and even each community, and to say that they all see them as one and the same is short-sighted and inaccurate.

Second, here in the dominant culture in the United States, it is downright dangerous to equate mental illness with shamanism. “Mental illness” is a broad, broad concept. If we include the various entries in the DSM-IV (some of which are developmental disorders rather than “sicknesses”), we’re talking everything from autism to depression and anxiety disorders to Cluster B personality disorders such as Antisocial and Borderline. If shamanism helps you deal with your mental illness better, whether as a client or a practitioner, great! But there is no cure-all or universal treatment for mental illnesses in general, and I oppose the broad-brush assumption that shamanism is the magic bullet.

And there is one more reason I am talking about my anxiety disorder here on my shamanism blog: I want to emphasize that for me, GAD is NOT a facilitator of my shamanism. I know some shamanic practitioners of varying traditions for whom their mental illnesses are assets, or at least tools. And some of them do help manage their illnesses with their shamanic practices.

But I know for a fact that I am not the only shaman who would give up their mental illness in a heartbeat if they had the chance. Reducing the stigma against mental illness doesn’t mean automatically stopping treatment and accepting things as they are forever more. I’m still trying to get rid of my anxiety disorder. GAD does not make me a stronger person. GAD is my weakness, my Achilles’ Heel. If I did not have my anxiety, if I could shuck it off of me like an overworn, stinking old coat, I would be so much the better for it. I could function better as a person, as a shaman, as a professional of several fields. GAD cripples me at times. It is not my friend.

Do you know what GAD is like for me? It’s daily, almost constant, worrying over things that I know I shouldn’t worry about, but that my limbic system tells me to be on guard against anyway. I’m not talking about being aware of spirits. I’m talking about nights of insomnia fueled by the fear that I’ll get up the next day and all my money will be gone, or that my partner will suddenly leave me for someone else, or that I’ll die of cancer before I ever get the chance to own my own home. It’s overreacting to small setbacks because my brain automatically catastrophizes and focuses on the very-worst-case scenario in perceived self-defense. It’s being irritable and short-tempered because everything just hurts, where emotionally and psychologically I feel like I’ve been flayed and every single stimulus is agony.

It’s being so exhausted from trying to keep my emotions on an even enough keel to be able to function on a day to day basis that I sometimes have to take a mental health day to recover from the fatigue of that daily battle. It’s the constant ache in my trapezius muscles because I carry all that tension and worry in my shoulders. It’s knowing that the chronic acid reflux the anxiety caused could kill me early with esophageal cancer. It’s knowing that I am at a greater risk of heart disease because my anxiety puts such constant heightened stress on my body, to include abnormal levels of adrenaline and other such chemicals.

None of these things make me a better shaman. Okay, yes, you can argue that my experiences have been “character building” and I’m a better shaman and person for having “resiliency” and “empathy” built from dealing with anxiety for decades. But some day I want to be able to say “I used to have GAD, but I finally overcame it, and I’m better for it”. I refuse to let go of that goal to settle for the consolation prize of “might as well just be a shaman since I’m nutty as a fruitbat anyway”. Part of being a shaman is healing others, but part of it is also healing the self, and even if I never do get completely better, I’m not going to stop trying to find my cure, and my path to a life without abnormal levels of anxiety.

So there you have it. I’m out of the crazy closet. And I want to note that I use the term “crazy” not in its derogatory manner, but tongue in cheek, and with a bit of cynical humor. When the anxiety really gets going, I really do feel crazy in that out of control, my-brain’s-been-hijacked way. But I’m so used to talking about “anxiety” in serious, overwrought tones that talking about “the crazy” or “I had too much crazysauce today” or asking my partner “You still love me even though I’m a crazy girl, right?” allows me to acknowledge it with some contextual silliness. Those I use it with know I’m not crazy in the stereotypical sense, but it’s a convenient code for the illness that pervades my life.

So hi, I’m Lupa, and I’m crazy. But I’m working on getting less crazy.

(As with all my posts, comments are screened until I decide they can come out to play. I know most, if not all, of you will be perfectly cool and supportive about all this. On the off chance someone decide to be an asshat, know that your comment will be BALEETED before it has a chance to gasp for its first breath of air.)

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.