Social Justice and the Shaman as Intermediary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on “Justice” and the WM3

Here is what is making me the most concerned about the West Memphis Three. Well, okay. There are a lot of things that concern me about the situation. But this is what’s been foremost on my mind.

One thing I learned from my internship working with women fighting both addiction and criminality: Being in the criminal justice system does not leave one unmarked. The very setting of a jail or prison can be highly traumatizing, even if the often-cited prison rapes never happen. On the one side, you have the authority figures monitoring your every move, dictating what you can and cannot do, restricting you to a crowded, depressing setting for years of your life, and eventually wearing away your ability to function as an independent entity. And on the other side, adding more pressure, you have the prison population, many individuals of whom may be manipulative, threatening, violent, and more viciously hierarchical due to being in such close quarters with so few resources. Every day your health, mental well-being (and mental illnesses are disproportionately represented in this population), and even life may be in danger.

When that happens in a war zone, we call one of the potential results PTSD and we seek help for the soldiers (sometimes–I have my own criticisms of the military’s abandonment of their people). But do we think about PTSD in relation to prison populations? Or do we just assume that because these are “bad people”, they’re just getting what they deserved for whatever “bad thing” they did?

To me, while I acknowledge the lack of guilt on the part of the WM3, it doesn’t really matter to me whether a person tossed into that milieu is guilty or innocent. I am concerned for all. Prisons aren’t for rehab. They’re for keeping people locked up and brainwashing the general populace into thinking they’re “safe” because all those drug addicts and prostitutes and thieves and murderers are off the streets. But removing people from society only fixes a symptom, and “fix” is relative. It does little for the base problems which contribute to the social dysfunctions that lead people into criminality in the first place. It’s just easier to lock someone away and pretend they no longer exist than to take the time to dig through what may be a mix of years of trauma and abuse, mental illness, poverty, and other complex and difficult factors in each and every person in the system.

So when I think about the WM3, I wonder what two decades of institutionalization does to a young–now no longer so young–mind. Sure, they’re young enough that, under the best circumstances, they have a few more decades to live. But they can’t just leave that experience behind. It doesn’t end here, and the fresh start is a lie.

Bear Work and What Grad School Taught Me About Being a Shaman

So we’re down to the line here as far as grad school goes. In a week and a half I will be done with my internship, and with luck by the middle of September I will be able to put M.A. after my name!

It’s been incredibly stressful–not all bad stress, but still, stress has an effect. I haven’t had as much time to do a lot of my usual self-care techniques, but I have taken up meditation again. Brown Bear, who has always been my help with healing both myself and others, has been guiding me in meditation with small affirmations. These affirmations are to help me remember certain checks and balances against the negative effects of stress and other pressures. I have a small antique ceramic bowl in my ritual area that I’ve filled with small slips of paper with the affirmations written on them. I try to meditate at least once a day, though if I feel the need for more, the meditation is a brief break to help me ground and re-center myself.

Bear is coming back into my life more strongly, too. Not that s/he ever left, but school had a way of draining me to where I didn’t always have the energy to maintain my totemic and other spiritual connections as much as I’d like. Bear is patient with me, though, and that patience has been invaluable during this time. It’s not just that I appreciate being the receipient; it’s also good modeling to remind me to be patient myself, with myself and with others. I feel pretty confident that our work is going to continue and deepen as I enter this new phase of my life.

This sort of small, simple practice, while it certainly doesn’t replace more intense journeying, is just one of the things I’ve learned to appreciate more in the past few years. One of the main reasons I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in counseling psychology was that I wanted to be able to help more people. Outside of indigenous culture, the United States doesn’t really have a central shamanic role. There are, however, some professions that I consider to be analogous, to include counselor, and rather than trying to shoehorn post-industrial nonindigenous Americans into quasi-indigenous, pseudo-tribal artificially created pigeonholes, I see there being the greatest value in A) adopting those analogous roles, and B) if we feel the need for some archetypal shaman role, that we create it ourselves based on where we are, not where we wish we were. So for me, my training as a shaman hasn’t been at the hands of indigenous people, trying to convince them that this white girl is worthy of their amazing spiritual secrets, but instead in an education that is more tailored to what I’m used to. Not that it isolates me; on the contrary, my internship at a high-risk inpatient addictions treatment center has brought me into contact with an unprecedented variety of women from all sorts of racial, cultural, spiritual, familial and other personal backgrounds. I doubt I would have met any of them if I’d just hung up a “shaman” shingle and waited for people to show up.

Because let’s face it. Most Americans of all races wouldn’t go to a “shaman”, either because their religion forbids it, or they feel that sort of animistic practice is nutzoid. Native Americans are more likely to go to their own holy people and other such community figures. Most of the people who would come to me as a shaman are going to be similar to me–white, middle-class in origin, college-educated to some extent, and either neopagan or New Age of some flavor. However, people from numerous walks of life go to counselors, sometimes mandated by courts, but also often voluntarily. And I want to be accessible to all of these.

Even though I intend to go into private practice as a counselor once I graduate and get my degree, I am still going to keep my hand in on the community level, with some low-cost slots for the uninsured, as well as doing some research that I hope will benefit my internship site as well as the clients who use it. Yes, to an extent shamanism is about offering myself, but I can’t just go in saying “Here, take this!” As with any counseling or shamanism, it’s about finding out, collaboratively, what the client needs, and going from there. With counseling, I can offer a much wider set of possibilities to a broader range of clients.

And that’s one of the most valuable lessons I learned.

Hope For the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pagan Values Blogging Month: Judgment vs. Compassion

Note: I actually wrote the bulk of this weeks ago, but life has gotten incredibly crazy as of late thanks to school, my internship site, and a whole host of other things. Still, I wanted to get at least one post published for this theme. Enjoy!

Compassion: to feel with. In terms of human interactions, compassion is to allow yourself to not only feel for other people (sympathy) but to feel with other people (empathy). It is becoming an active participant in another person’s suffering. Or, if you want to take this beyond anthropocentrism, it is active participation in another being’s suffering. (It can also be applied to emotions other than those associated with suffering.)

Compassion, comparatively speaking, doesn’t get a lot of time in pagan discussion because it’s a “nice” emotion. Sometimes I feel that many neopagans are so afraid of being perceived as fluffy, frou-frou New Agers, prone to talking about “love and light”, that we create a front of cynicism and worldliness. We separate ourselves from those other people by seeming more serious, and denigrate the sensitivity that may be expressed by others. We think that because we aren’t just talking about The Secret and wrapping the entire planet in soft pink energy that we somehow have a more mature, developed way of approaching the world we live in. True, sometimes complex emotions are unnecessarily compressed down into 140-character sound bites on Twitter, and I could write a ton about how “the law of attraction” is stuffed full to overflowing with primarily white, middle-class privilege.

But what too often I see as being touted as an improvement over this sort of “fluffiness” is people extolling snark as a legitimate response to anything they disagree with and a way to bolster their in-group membership by rallying others in a dogpile over the target of their disdain. I see the people who spend the most time telling others just how wrong they are being lifted up as paragons of their traditions, while those trying to help people do things “right”, whatever that might be, are often struggling just to be heard. I see some pagans who are in a veritable emotional arms race to latch onto ever more aggressive and “not fluffy” deities, spirits, practices, etc., often insulting the practices of anyone less competitively hardcore as being less real or true.

All these things center on moralistic judgment as a value. It’s just one of the many violent forms of communication that so many of us have been socialized with and which we are told is the correct, tough, powerful way to communicate, no matter the expense levied to ourselves and others. I first became acquainted with the concept of a violent form of communication when I took a course on nonviolent communication (based on the works of Marshall Rosenberg) during my graduate counseling psych program. Rosenberg defines moralistic judgment, one of his “life-alienating communications”, as a judgment that:

…that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values. Such judgments are reflected in language: “The problem with you is that you’re too selfish.” “She’s lazy.” “They’re prejudiced.” “It’s inappropriate.” Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of judgment. (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 15)

A clarification: Moralistic judgment is contrasted with value judgment, which is used to judge which values are right for us, as opposed to applying our values to other people in a moralistic judgment. We can say what we value without determining whether someone’s agreement or disagreement with our values makes them good or bad people, right or wrong. When I refer to judgment in the rest of this post, to include as contrasted with compassion as a value, I will be specifically talking about moralistic judgment, not value judgment.

Many pagans value those who make moralistic judgments on others, whether it’s judging someone as less competent, less appropriate, or just “doing it wrong”. We may not want to admit this as a collective value, but it’s there nonetheless.

The thing about judgment in this vein is that it is often exceptionally self-centered. The person making the judgment is focusing on their feelings on the matter and expressing those feelings in aggressive, negative, hurtful manners, without ever taking the feelings of the other person(s) into account. Yet at the same time, it’s also a way for the person to relieve themselves of having to examine those feelings, because they’re focusing their response on someone else instead of looking at what prompted the whole mess in the first place. So a lot of the time this can be summed up with the thought process “Here is something that makes me feel in a way I dislike. I’m going to respond to my feelings by attacking what I perceive to be the cause, which is external to me”. While, for example, someone interpreting the goddess Morrigan as a loving mother isn’t nearly as dangerous to my health as someone pulling a knife on me, you would think that the insult was just as grave given the viciousness of the personal attacks I’ve seen that have come up as a response to “You’re doing spirituality wrong!” discussions. And never have I seen anyone doing the “correcting” take a look at why they feel so insulted about the idea of a cuddly carrion crow that they must make ad hominem attacks in addition to their history lessons.

Is it any wonder, then, that we adopt cynicism to protect ourselves?

Yet when we justify our cynicism and our snark and our aggression toward others, we are perpetuating the very cycles of violent communication that have contributed to us walling ourselves away from the world. In fact, I feel it is a tragedy how much we are allowing ourselves to miss out on when we approach the world through so many layers of defense. How much more intimacy and genuine emotion and honesty could we experience in ourselves and others if those defenses were no longer there? What if “feeling with” was the default, where we all mutually respected the vulnerability of everyone involved?

There are payoffs for compassion for yourself and for others. When you allow yourself to be open to both your actual feelings as well as those of the other person(s), you’re able to get a much more complete picture of what’s going on, and you can make a more informed decision as to how to respond (instead of instantly reacting defensively). This makes it more likely that everyone gets their needs met, because instead of communicating with more and more defenses, everyone is able to clearly state what it is they need, and is more likely to understand what’s preventing those needs from being met.

Compassion teaches better connection and general communication skills. There are pagans who claim to be nature-based, and yet it’s a surface-level connection based mostly on imagery and abstract concepts, without really feeling with other living beings, human and otherwise. Or they’ll talk about connecting with a tree in a meditation, but then they seem completely incapable of understanding why someone whose supposedly improper practices they just insulted is so unhappy about that judgment (when they really, truly deserved it for doing it wrong, right?). There are few more powerful ways to really connect with any other being than through compassion—to really open yourself up to what that other being is experiencing in that moment, not just through imagination and assumption, but through direct interaction. While you don’t have to divorce yourself from what you feel when, say, you’re in an argument, the quality of connection you can have together is much better when you’re able to really listen to what all parties are saying instead of only focusing on trying to get what you want. And that practice can help to strengthen not only that relationship, but improve all your relationships across the board, whether with another person, a deity, etc. And communication works much better when people are listening completely, not just harvesting choice phrases that they can then use to defend their own points without considering others’ thoughts in total.

And compassion takes bravery. Anyone can snap and snarl at someone else, and keep putting those walls up higher and higher, and feel safe and protected against the world (even if there’s no actual safety to be had). But it takes a lot of guts to face the risk of vulnerability that compassion requires. Sometimes that may end up being a situation where you’re the one feeling the sadness and hurt of someone targeted by a group of snarkers, and putting yourself at risk of drawing their fire by defending their target. Other times it’s more intimate and personal, really and deeply listening to a significant other you’re arguing with at the risk of “being proven wrong” by deciding their point is valid and thereby possibly sacrificing whatever you thought you were originally fighting for. To be compassionate takes a lot more work and courage than to simply continue being negative and defensive as a matter of course, and that effort builds character and emotional skills in a way judgment never could dream of accomplishing.

In the United States, the gender dichotomy is highly pronounced. While there have been some inroads in gender diversification, the overwhelming pattern is still that men are supposed to be masculine (stoic, not emotionally expressive, strong) and women are supposed to be feminine (emotionally expressive, weak, passive). Compassion is generally relegated to the latter artificial category, a sort of emotional ghettofication. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Terrence Real, in his book How Can I Get Through To You (which was an assigned text for my Masters-level couples counseling course), related a trip he made to Tanzania. He asked some of the local Masai what makes a great morani, or warrior. One very old man in the community answered thusly:

I refuse to tell you what makes a good morani…But I will tell you what makes a great morani. When the moment calls for fierceness a good morani is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. Now, what makes a great morani is knowing which moment is which! (Real, 2002, p. 76)

So much for the (largely male-and-masculinity-dominated) pagan warrior ethic that focuses mainly on being strong and protective. While there are certainly times and places for ferocity and aggression, like so many other people in the United States, American pagans in particular tend more toward judgment than compassion. The continuation of witch wars and snark communities, the divisiveness of “Well, we don’t do things like THEY do because WE’RE better”—these all have judgment at their cores.

I feel strongly that compassion is a worthy value for pagans to consider adopting more frequently. It takes work–I still slip up a good deal myself despite my words here–but it’s a good goal to work toward, I feel. If we want to reduce the prevalence of moralistic judgment and other violent forms of communication in our community, then compassion is a particularly effective medicine. When we feel what another is feeling, we cannot attack them without attacking ourselves (and if we have so little compassion for ourselves that we feel this self-sabotage isn’t a problem, so much more the reason to examine why this is). Through compassion we are disarming ourselves, but we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of finally breaking through a vicious cycle, and spending our energy on more constructive efforts than simply building more and higher defenses against others.

Sources:

Real, T. (2002). How Can I Get Through To You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. New York: Scribner. [admittedly very heterocentric, but a good book nonetheless]

Rosenberg, M. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press. [a bit outdated compared to Rosenberg’s more recent emphases, but still a worthy read]

“Natural” vs. Artificial”

One of the things that has bothered me for a while about paganism, environmentalism, and really, the way so many people in postindustrial cultures approach nature, is the concept of “natural” vs. “artificial”. In short, this is usually defined as anything made by humans, particularly things that can’t occur in any other way, such as petrochemicals or double-paned glass, being artificial. Artificial things are especially seen as bad things, so the emphasis is often put on human-made things that cause significant, widespread destruction to other parts of the environment, such as pollution or strip mining. I’ve seen many pagan folk refer to anything “artificial” with a sneer.

I just don’t like that at all. Here’s the thing. I am fully behind evolution as a base explanation for how various living beings came about. While I feel there is subjective value in things like creation myths, and I think they tell us a lot about the human psyche and methods of meaning-making, they do not replace evolution as the generally objective explanation for how we all got here in the first place. Stories of dragons do not carry more scientific weight than the fossil record.

Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.

So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.

So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.

Because we are also conscious beings aware of the many layers of cause and effect involved in our actions, we can perceive the impact we have on those other species over time, and many of us feel a sense of responsibility for that. And so we retell the story of what we have done. Because we have taken nest building to such an extreme degree, we set ourselves apart from all other animals.

But this doesn’t stop the fact that we are animals, and that ultimately what we do is natural. Overwrought, perhaps, in the same way that cancer is an overwrought creation of cells–but cancer is still natural, too, even if it is a horrible thing to have. (If we could create cancer at will instead of having it begin on its own, would we then refer to cancer as artificial?)

Now, all that being said, I still love my John Muir quote at the top of the page–“In the silence of the wild, we find the home we lost in the city”. It is healthy to get out of our nests for a while and experience what ecopsychologists refer to as “soft fascination”. Soft fascination is a quality of something which draws the attention without demanding it; wild places have a tendency to be less demanding and more intriguing. There’s a lack of stress of the sort that we often find in our human nests, what with all the obligations and schedules and factors that we have to keep track of on a conscious level, as opposed to the largely unconscious awareness of our senses, where we are so used to processing sensory input that we don’t have to put much effort into paying attention for the most part. It just happens.

And yes, being out “in nature” is a different experience than being in, say, an urban community garden, or sitting with a pet in a small apartment. Nothing in urban Portland can duplicate for me the experience of standing at the very top of Kings Mountain, in hip-deep snow, with the wind blowing all around me and the sky blue up above, with the awe and terror of a place that could kill me if I didn’t take care.

But the “natural” vs. “artificial” divide undermines efforts to reconnect with the world around us no matter where we are or where we’re trying to connect . It still promotes this idea that we are separate from “nature”, and even if we idealize that nature, we are still setting ourselves apart from it in our perceptions. It’s just a different ideal than other people who separate themselves out because they see nature as bad, or dirty, or inconvenient, or only to be exploited. Separation is still separation.

Plus, as has been mentioned by numerous urban pagans and others, non-human nature is everywhere. A pot of geraniums on a porch is just as much nature as a grove of old growth conifers. Pigeons may be ubiquitous in the city, but they are as much blood and flesh and feather as the albatross sailing solitary over the ocean. Bricks and asphalt are ultimately made of stone, reconstituted. So why, surrounded by these plants and animals and minerals, do we not feel that we are natural, just as much as when we are far away from human influence?

If you want to differentiate between things humans create and things that occur without our help, that’s fine. But I would argue against this divisive duality of artificial vs. natural, where anything artificial must necessarily be not only antithetical to nature, but also subjectively wrong and loathesome. We also need to stop seeing ourselves as “unnatural” simply because we are so different from the rest of nature. If we are to reconnect with everything else, we have to stop perceiving ourselves as separate. That’s the first step in remembering that we never really left in the first place. From there we can then proceed to remembering those connections that remind us of the effect we have on everything else, which is the point that proponents of “artificial” vs. “natural” are often trying to make in the first place.

More on Being a (White) American Shaman

One of the comments to my last post brought up EXACTLY why I get so frustrated with (white, college-educated, more-or-less middle class) Americans saying they have no culture or that they should abandon what culture they have.

But–YOU CAN’T ABANDON YOUR CULTURE OF ORIGIN ENTIRELY. Not without spending many years completely assimilated into another culture, and even then your experience is always going to be different from that of someone who was raised in that culture by birth. For many American neopagans, the ingrained tendency toward things like independence, valuing intelligence, emphasis on having a great deal of personal choice and preference for having many options to choose from–these things are not going to just go away. The very fact that a person is trying to rebel against the culture of origin states that they feel that they can do so–and that’s a hallmark of that independence that I mentioned. You can’t start over with a blank slate. You just can’t. Your brain is not a slate.

I remember one attempted effort at community building that I was invited to. I sat for a few hours listening to an upper-middle-class white woman with Tibetan flags on the porch of her nicely restored two-story house talk about how disjointed and disconnected everyone in this society was, and how neighbors didn’t help each other any more. She talked about creating a network of people to trade skills, to barter what they had, to automatically help any one person in the group who had a need, regardless of that need.

And it sounded incredibly naive. Here I was, sitting in a group of about twenty people, and the only person I knew at all was my then-husband. How were we supposed to feel okay about offering up our services to strangers we’d never met, when we were raised in a culture that had a lot of mistrust worked into it? Before we could have some utopic vision of collaboration come together, we had to be able to overcome this enculturated mistrust. And yet the first thing we were talking about was what skills were represented. If I recall correctly, we had one person who had a trade–plumbing or electrician, I think–and about eight tarot readers–which spoke to the extreme homogenization of the group that was primarily present. So we ran up against another problem–the tendency to seek out People Like Us, and an inability to communicate with People Not Like Us.

I see people like these trying to do things like artificially create a cohesive community akin to that found in a more communally-based culture, and seeing the efforts collapse. It’s not that they aren’t earnest. It’s that they’re trying to create something that they have little to no direct experience of, and which goes entirely against what they were raised with. Most of us were raised with the concept of nuclear families as the central building block (albeit sometimes blended nuclear families thanks to the divorce rate), but still with that emphasis on the identity as an individual within that group, with strong loyalty toward one’s own interests, sometimes over and above the needs of the group. This runs counter to many communal cultures where you put the group first, and arrange your identity as an individual around that.

My point is not to try to discourage people from improving on our culture. My point is that it’s time to quit denying that we have a culture that we come from, flaws and all. And it’s in our own best interests to play to the strengths of that culture. That doesn’t mean it has to be to the exclusion of learning from other cultures. But in order to get somewhere, you have to understand where you’re coming from and what you have to work with. Cultural elements are not plug-and-play. As I have complained many times about core shamanism (most notably this post), you can’t yank things out of a culture’s shamanism and plug it into your own and expect to get the same results. Shamanisms, like so many other things, are a product of the cultures they come from. Yes, there’s the universal human experience–for example, we have a common theme of a world tree/other vertical axis because we are upright, vertically-oriented visual creatures. But we cannot divorce this extreme macro experience from the less macro contexts of individual cultures (and subcultures).

So let’s look at the strengths of where I come from–middle class, college-educated, liberal white American that I am. Here are values that I have:

–Independence: I keep bringing this up because it is a strength. Because I am independent and was raised with the idea of developing myself strongly as an individual, I was able to create an ideal self to work toward. This included countering some unsavory trends that I found in the small town I did most of my growing up in–racism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc. My independence allowed me to deny those influences, among others.

–Self-reliance: While negatively this has been used to promote things like the misguided notion of bootstrapping, as with anything it can also be a strength. Self-reliance helped me in things like being self-employed, being experimental in my spiritual path, and being comfortable in being a solitary practitioner.

–Creativity: Ingenuity is a common thread in America. Just because it’s used for things like inventing a bigger, more gas-guzzling SUV or new ways to fuck over American workers doesn’t mean that’s all it’s for. Creativity comes up with everything from inventive protest signs to finding ways to solve the very real social, environmental, medical and other problems we face–as Einstein himself said, “”You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it”.

–Social justice: Yes, there’s a lot of injustice in this culture. But there are still many Americans who are dedicated to justice for all, including social justice. In my work in my internship, I am working with women straight out of prison who are recovering from severe addictions, and who have a high risk of reoffense. In my time here, I have learned a lot more about the efforts that are being made across the board to help “throwaway populations”, the ones that more privileged people want to pretend aren’t there, or are beyond help, just so they don’t have to put forth the work to help someone else. Just because these efforts don’t make exciting headlines doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

–Industry: That Protestant work ethic can come in handy, especially if tempered with other practices to keep it from turning into workaholicism. It’s part of what helps us actually get shit done. Surely American neoshamans can find some use for this trait?

–Opportunity: While some Americans are more stingy about it than others, we still have the core value of opportunity for all. What it takes for someone to have an opportunity extended to them, and to have the ability to actually take advantage of it, is variable from person to person and depends on a lot of factors. However, culturally we value finding and making the most of opportunities.

Things like strip malls, dishonest politicians, and massive SUVS–these are surface symptoms. It’s what they’re symptomatic of that’s really important. The values above are tools. Any of these can be used constructively or destructively, sometimes even in the same action or by the same person.

Like it or not, the values and ideals that you are exposed to for a large portion of your life do leave a mark on you that, for all intents and purposes, is indelible. You can add to your experiences and viewpoints, but there will always be at least a shadow of where you’ve been before. You can consciously claim to reject your culture, though in actuality you’re probably only rejecting certain elements of it. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to have tabula rasa, or that you’ll be able to acquire a new culture in the same way as someone raised in it. Nor can you create a new culture entirely unmarked by your past, or the pasts of anyone else involved in cutting and shaping whole cloth.

We need to own that fact. Instead of trying to claim we’re part of a cultural wasteland, I feel it is vital to embrace the strengths of the culture we do have. Disillusionment just creates illusions of its own. And those illusions can get in the way of actual progress in working against the very things we reject.

Still Not Dead

Though you might not know it from how seldom I post here. I’m still spending more time in the outdoors than anything else as far as my spirituality goes–that and still working with the skins and bones.

The thing is, for the past six months I’ve been going through that tear-down and rebuild process yet again, except it’s even more drastic and bare-bones than when I did it a little over three years ago when I started this blog. I had thought I had stripped my spiritual self naked back then. How little I suspected how much I had left to tear away.

I’m not entirely sure what things will look like for me in another six months, or another twelve. I don’t know how much my practice will resemble what I left off in the spring when this need to tear apart and rebuild came upon me so strongly that I had to act on it. My worldview has shifted so immensely, and yet I’m just nowhere near ready to talk about it yet. Not much, anyway. This is sort of my first attempt, maybe a pre-attempt.

So. I’ve still been hiking a lot, and going out to the coast, and taking my lover out into the Gorge. I’m still running a few times a week, which gets me out under the sky even when I’m too busy to do so otherwise. While ecopsychology isn’t as much of a part of my practice in my practicum as I thought it might be, it still has its own burner. I’m painting a bit more, too. Especially plants. For some reason, the flora of the Pacific Northwest have captured my imagination in my art, particularly my personal, private art. “I am a creature of conifers, ferns, and thick, green moss” indeed.

I’m almost afraid to write this, for fear it will become crystallized and stagnant by being placed into words. But the first thing that really seems to have coalesced into a statement of meaning is the phrase “In relation to”. On Halloween/Samhain, the day before my birthday, I went out to hike Drift Creek Falls. It’s my third year, but my first year going solo. Along with being an opportunity for a rite of passage leaving behind the last vestiges of what used to be married life, and back into a stronger singledom, it also ended up providing a valuable experience in getting to the core of meaning for me.

One of the problems I have–well, sometimes it’s a problem–is that it’s hard to get my mind to shut up. I’ve never been good with “sit down and be quiet” forms of meditation. I can do them, but I don’t like them, and I normally don’t get a lot out of them. However, I was getting frustrated on my hike because I so often found myself spacing out and missing the place I was in while my mind was floating off in a dozen different directions. “How often did I get to come to this place?” I thought. “I shouldn’t waste my time here thinking about things that concern me back in Portland!”

So I decided to just shut the thoughts off. It took a little effort, but it wasn’t more than a few moments before I was able to clear my mind. The result was both startling and telling. My physical spatial awareness snapped into sharp focus. I became very aware of where I was with respect to every tree, stone and animal I could perceive within my vision, and I had a sudden sense of space that put me firmly within my environment. Things that I normally screened out, such as the subtle movement of my visual field as I walked, became more apparent. I became present in a way I very rarely get to experience.

I realized that this feeling I was having through conscious effort of clearing my mind in this specific environment was the same feeling I got when struck with wonder by a particularly beautiful wild place. Only instead of having to be smacked over the head by the experience to actually pay attention, I was allowing it in. And I felt that sense of connection with everything else that is at the core of so much that I think and do. I don’t go throughout my day with a constant sense of that connection, but I remember enough of the times that I have experienced it that the memory is enough to motivate my actions and decisions. My choice to buy recycled paper products, for example, is directly a result of feeling connected to trees that could be cut down for pulp, even if I am not feeling that connection at the very moment I am purchasing toilet paper made from 100% recycled office paper content.

And that sense of connection has always been at the heart of meaning and wonder for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt it so purely, though, without the trappings of religion and paganism and shamanism and spirituality. All those things? All those are abstractions of that feeling. This is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with emanations and symbols.

But one thing I have had many conversations with my lover about is how often people mistake the map for the territory. Therioshamanism, my forays into chaos magic, my extensive explorations with animal totemism–all of these are maps. The maps are meant to help describe the territory of the experience with the world around me, particularly but certainly not exclusively those wild places that are such pure wellsprings of meaning for me.

And I think that’s perhaps where I…well, I won’t say I went wrong, because I don’t believe there are wrong things in spiritual exploration, only meandering and detours and “this is where you happen to be right now”. But I think three years ago I was also searching for the territory without having the map in the way, and I just didn’t quite get as much of the map out of my perception. And now I’m much closer to experiencing the territory for itself.

Hiking in the forest, with my awareness of that place and my place within that place–that is the purest spiritual experience I have had. More than Otherworld journeying that takes me out of an important layer of myself. More than rituals that are supposedly in “a world between worlds”. More than gods of the forest, spirits of the forest, I connected with the forest.

“In relation to.” That is the key phrase. I am just rediscovering where I am in relation to everything else. I am going without my expectations that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden, and without anything other than my own perceptions. Let me see what I perceive there, without what I’ve been told by years of pagan books and festivals and rituals and networkings what should be there.

Let me make my own map in relation to the territory, and let me not mistake the map for the territory.

Administrata and Self-Forgiveness

First of all, I’ve realized that the FAQ and Bibliography for this blog are wayyyyyyy out of date. I know they’ve been linked to recently; please be aware that I need to overhaul them.

Also, I got a lot of comments on the racism post in particular; thank you so much to those of you who shared your thoughts. I’m mostly reading at this point, but I’ve really appreciated the insights people have provided. This is the sort of thing that makes putting this blog out there even more worth it.

So. On to the main meat of this post.

I recently read Coyote’s Council Fire by Loren Cruden. It’s a collection of interview questions with a variety of contemporary shamans and neoshamans, with each section opened by Cruden’s commentary on such issues as cultural appropriation and gender issues in shamanism and indigenous religions/cultures.

The first portion of the book is Cruden’s discussion on neoshamanism and issues of cultural appropriation. It’s by far one of the most balanced and thoughtful pieces of writing on the matter that I’ve read. While she acknowledges things like the romanticization of the Noble Savage, as well as the concept of privilege, she also makes a sympathetic argument for the need for non-indigenous people to develop shamanic practices that are appropriate for our own culture–not the cultures of our ancestors. A number of things she said resonated deeply; here’s a good example:

Caucasians [who practice non-indigenous shamanism] seem to be struggling in a betweenness. Those trying to transplant traditions from their European roots find their severance from the past frustrating. Those engendering new paths are mostly cobbling piecemeal structures out of eclecticism, and those seeking an integration of their cultural roots with their current life situations are contending with Native reaction and the difficulties inherent to such an evolution. It is an awkward phase needing both more sympathy and more useful questioning than it’s getting. (p. 23)

Yes. Nail. Head. You got it.

It’s no secret that I’m critical of the shortcomings I see in neoshamanisms in general, core and otherwise. Issues of racism and cultural appropriation, downplaying the potential dangers of journeying and other shamanic work, watering shamanism down into a milquetoast New Age pablum, core shamans claiming that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”–these things drive me up the wall, across the ceiling, and out the window. I don’t want people to stop practicing the way they practice, but I want to encourage mindfulness and discussion surrounding these and other issues.

However, I also admit that I can come down harder than I probably need to, not only on other practitioners, but also on myself. And a lot of that is insecurity. Nobody wants to be told they’re wrong. I know that no matter how carefully I tread, someone’s going to take offense to the idea that some white chick is practicing “shamanism”, and no amount of trying to explain what it is I’m trying to do will help. So I think sometimes I spend too much time worrying about whether some person on the internet will think what I’m doing is right, instead of being concerned with what I, anyone I do work for, and the spirits think is right.

I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I think it’s best to just leave other people to whatever’s going to happen, and if someone gets eaten by a grue while they’re out journeying, it’s not my problem. But then I also recognize that by not talking about something, I’m doing less to change it for the better (at least, my idea of “better”). So it’s not always easy to know what to say or do, when to say or do it, and at what point to quit.

But after reading that book, I do think I need to be more forgiving–most of all, of myself. This all stems from my own insecurity and projecting it outward. And that’s not good for anyone. So I think in addition to being honest about my potential shortcomings and flaws, I also need to be honest about my efforts and successes. And I need to be okay with where I’m coming from in all this, which is:

I’m a white American. I am not German, Czech, Austrian, Alsatian (woof!) or any of a number of other nationalities of my ancestors. I have never been in contact with any of these cultures or been to any of these lands, nor do I intend to change that. I have to start from the place where I am, the Pacific Northwest U.S. I intend to stay here. Which means that I need to work on creating and improving my relationships with the land and its denizens, physically and spiritually. This includes the human community as well as what people commonly think of as “nature”. Since I am not indigenous, I cannot assume that indigenous ways of relating to the land will work for me. So I’m on my own to a large degree.

I’m also convinced, by various experiences in my thirty-one years on this planet, that the world is alive in a way that most white Americans don’t see–I am an animist. And there are spirits who need me to do things for them, and also people in my community who need me to do things for them, and the manner in which these things are done often necessitates things like me going into the spirit realm (not physically, obviously) and certain ritualized practices designed to facilitate the necessary suspension of disbelief that will trigger appropriate psychological (and spiritual) states to get the job done.

But I am of a culture that does not have a set method of relating to the land other than as a commodity, and in which Christianity is the dominant method of engaging with spirituality, and other people are often competitors for resources. None of these suit me, and I will not shoehorn myself into something uncomfortable simply to be more culturally appropriate. So I find ways to recreate a “shamanic” role that fits this culture, but also answers my needs and the needs of those I work for.

Becoming a licensed counselor is one strategy, because it’s intermediary work and can integrate spirituality in some cases, but is acceptable in this culture for the most part. But that can’t be all of it. The need I have for mythos and ritual can’t only be limited to the carefully balanced parameters of ethics, competency and professional boundaries of counseling, even if I were to integrate a certain amount of core/neo-shamanism into it at some point down the line.

And that’s where a lot of the problem is. I work with animal and other nature spirits. I have been doing so for over a decade. But white American culture, however you want to define it, doesn’t have a set way of dealing with such animistic tendencies other than outmoded psychological diagnoses (“you’re all schizotypal!”) or a Christian (not THE Christian, mind you) opinion of “that’s evil”. There’s neopaganism, but that’s a huge umbrella, and there are plenty of controversies there, too. And, of course, there’s the plethora of animal totem dictionaries and related core/neo-shamanic material out there that shamelessly imitates indigenous practices without context or apology.

Those are my only choices? Unacceptable.

But I can’t just sit here and do nothing. Not when I know what needs to be done. Not when I have spirits (or, fine, figments of my psyche, if you want to see them that way) poking at me for attention as they have for over a decade. Not when I and others who are similarly rootless have a strong need for connection and ritual and mythos and meaning. Not when I am in a good place to facilitate these things for all of us, which can help heal the wounds and insanities of our culture which helped bring about a lot of the problems we (not just white Americans) are facing in the first place.

So I’m doing my best to find a particularly meaningful way to engage with the natural world (physically and spiritually), coming out of a culture that doesn’t possess existing ways to do so that satisfy me. It’s guaranteed that I’ll screw up sometimes, and that at some point I will always be doing something that will offend someone somewhere. So I do my best to educate myself about potential pitfalls, and act according to my conscience.

And that’s the best I can offer, which I think is pretty darn good, all told.

Shamanism and Racism

“Shamanism and racism”. Google that, and you’ll mainly get various pages referencing Shamanism, Racism and Hip-Hop Culture by James Perkinson (which, incidentally, is now on my wish list). There’s more when you do various searches for shamanism and cultural appropriation (without quotes). But it seems like most people don’t want to use the R-word.

And yet there is inherent racism in a lot of non-indigenous shamanic practices and trends. Not overt racism, but racism nonetheless. A few examples:

–White people traveling to far-off lands for the sole purpose of having shamanic “experiences” with “genuine tribal elders”. In many cases, these experiences are completely removed from the reality of their cultures of origin. This is especially pernicious in cases where participants are blind to the fact that members of that culture may be living in poverty, may be subjected to egregious human rights violations at the hands of governments and corporations, may experience daily racism (to include violence) from other residents who don’t go away when the seminar is over, and otherwise are not the mystical, quasi-Atlantean purveyors of super-secret wisdom.
–Core shamans claiming that core shamanism is culturally and racially neutral. There is no such thing as “culturally neutral”. Core shamanism was developed within a particular Western mindset, and its parameters and emphases reflect that. (I wrote more about this in this post a couple of years ago.)
–Shamans who turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the people who are able to afford their pricey weekend seminars and hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour consultations are white, middle class, and college-educated. What about everyone else, to include those who may not be able to afford health insurance but need healing, counseling, etc.? Alternative medical care may be one of the few options for the uninsured, but not if it’s consistently priced out of their range.
–Shamans who profit from the specific cultural teachings of indigenous people, but who give nothing back to those cultures, to include money made from shamanic consultations, workshops, etc. based on the teachings.*
–Shamans who ignore the fact that for the majority of the American population, the concept of going to a “shaman” is alien, offensive, crazy, or otherwise not viable. We do a great disservice to the people we could be serving when we stick within the narrow comfort zone of people who are enough like us to understand what we mean by shamanism. By assuming that, say, a Catholic Hispanic person who may see what we do as devil worship is just “unenlightened”, we refuse the possibility of meeting people where they’re coming from, which is a key component of fighting social injustices.
–Shamans who ignore the complaints of some indigenous people regarding cultural appropriation and plastic shamanism. Yes, it sucks being criticized, especially when it’s not constructive criticism, because we don’t like hearing what is being said. Yet ignoring the complaints because they don’t fit our preferences isn’t a viable solution. One of the most insidious manifestations of racism—and, indeed, social injustice–involves silencing minority voices.

It’s obvious that these examples reflect other social justice issues beyond racism, but let’s stay focused for the purposes of this essay. Nobody wants to talk about racism because nobody wants to be a racist. Here in the 21st century, racists are “bad people”, and to be considered a racist is to invite guilt and shame. (Well, in most cases. You do have those who openly embrace their racism as a positive character trait—but that’s another problem entirely. And there are those who have exchanged their inwardly-directed guilt for more constructive, outwardly-focused responses. But I digress.)

In fact, modern non-indigenous shamanic practitioners have gotten pretty good at dodging the issue of racism entirely. Many of the arguments reflect justifications for racism in society at large. Here are just a few I’ve run across commonly.

–“You’re taking this too seriously; it doesn’t really matter.” But it does matter. To the people bothered by it, it’s very valid. (I could probably turn the starfish story on its head with a different interpretation of “it matters to this one”.) And yes, I’m notorious for meta-meta-meta-analysis of everything. But so was Joseph Campbell, and he came up with some awesome (if sometimes biased) concepts about mythology. If it ends up that I’m overthinking things, so be it. At least I took the time to examine it. And I don’t analyze so much that I don’t also practice; I just practice with that analysis in mind. Unlike many (though not all) academics who are exploring issues of cultural appropriation and shamanism/neopaganism/etc. I am immersed in what I’m exploring. So it is relevant to what I actually do.

–“It’s just some of the Indians [or other indigenous people] complaining/I know Indians [or other indigenous people] who don’t mind sharing.” That may be. But your friends and colleagues do not speak for their entire culture, never mind all indigenous cultures. There are reasons these people are complaining, and those reasons need to be explored, even if it isn’t comfortable to do so. Ignoring them doesn’t help the discussion. Shutting them down because they say things we aren’t comfortable with is also not constructive. If anything, as those who are privileged, we have additional responsibility to listen.

–“White people get mistreated, too. Listen to all the complaining you’re doing about white people. Is that fair?” No, it’s not fair. But this isn’t about fair. It’s about actually paying attention to problems that your privilege lets you ignore on a daily basis. (If you’re unclear about what the concept of privilege is, please read Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.) A white person being called names for being white does not have the same historical and still-existing societal context of, say, a black person being called names for being black. And let’s not even get started on the gross inequalities that Native Americans have been and still are routinely subjected to. There’s a lot more to racism than someone not liking you.

–“Spirituality/shamanism/healing/etc. is for everyone. We should focus on erasing boundaries between cultures and races and other artificial divisions and just focus on being all human.” Well, yes, a world without racism and other social injustices would be ideal. But you don’t get there by ignoring issues of social injustice and pretending they don’t exist, or that you’re not involved. You get there by getting your hands dirty, taking responsibility for your part–intentional or not–in the problem, dealing with your own privileges, and listening to the people who are affected by the injustices. This is basically another iteration of racial colorblindness, which is a lot more counterproductive in deconstructing racism than some would assume.

I’ll say right now that I am most definitely not expecting everyone to agree with me. (In fact, I have my super-secret-shamanic-technology flame-retardant undies on, just as a precaution.) And I’m not perfect, especially when it comes to actions of cultural diversity. Most of this is still me chewing on thoughts, becoming aware of my shortcomings, as I’m immersed in a curriculum that focuses heavily on social justice in counseling. I’m well aware of the fact that my own cultural experiences have been pretty homogenous. I’ve been working to change that with my volunteering and graduate school efforts, which focus heavily on working with the formerly homeless, impoverished, recovering addicts, and other people whose experiences I couldn’t even begin to fathom personally. But that’s a small start, and it doesn’t automatically make me an expert on minority groups.

But I want people to be talking about this, even if some of the commentary ends up changing my perspectives somewhat. Even being “wrong” is better than being silent, and we all stand to learn from this discussion. Not talking about race just promotes racism.

*An excellent example of someone who does give back to the culture he learned from is James Endredy, with his Earth Spirit Foundations charitable programs.