The Quandary of the Other

As I was poking around in my garden today, pulling weeds, turning soil and traumatizing earthworms in preparation for early spring planting, I was thinking about some of the “why” of what it is I’m doing here with this whole shamanic experiment. Because it really is an experiment. I’m testing a whole bunch of concepts, most of which have been tried in varying combinations by other people, but not, to my knowledge, in quite the way I am.

What I was thinking about was an extension of my thoughts in my last column in Rending the Veil, In Defense of the BINABM. Many neopagans and others criticize the fact that Americans (and other Westerners) have a tendency to gravitate toward the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) like Grey Wolf and Brown Bear and Bald Eagle. And even I’ve done the same; hell, a lot of why I wrote DIY Totemism was to help people break out of the idea that those were the only totems with any power.

But I keep finding myself working with these BINABM in my shamanic work, and a large reason is because those are the animals most commonly in our cultural consciousness as being “properly totemic”. Rationally, some of us can realize that other animals have a lot of intense and amazing qualities we can learn from. And we can also realize that we downplay the importance of animals we have domesticated, partly out of guilt, and also out of familiarity. So we don’t really romanticize Domestic Dog, Cow or Pigeon in the same way.

Instead, we look to the totems of animals that many of us will never meet outside of a zoo or sanctuary, and maybe even not then. I mean, I’m a great example. I was only about two or three when my relationship (obsession?) with Grey Wolf began–way before I was cognitively capable of any sort of reasoning or belief. There had to be at least something cultural in there, from all the books (and, to a lesser extent in my case, television) and other media I had been exposed to even at that young an age. There’s something there, and it’s valuable in the practice of meeting people where they are.

See, all those BINABM? They’re one representation of the Other. Generally speaking, in American culture*, the only one I can really speak of with any authority, there’s a pretty severe tendency toward strict duality. We create dichotomies that are sometimes violently opposed to each other, and it’s tough to get people to consider the model of a continuum instead. This leads to a lot of really pointless arguing about everything from men vs. women to science vs. religion to my academic theory vs. your academic theory, in which people throw away the chance for a deeper, more integral understanding of reality in favor of planting a flag somewhere. Anything less than 100% dedication to your cause is seen as weak, untrustworthy.

I do believe there is a place for the concept of the Other, but it isn’t this either/or model. It’s the both/and. Just because I do not see myself as violently opposed to people of other races, cultures, sexes, genders, etc. does not mean I see myself as being the same as them, or being able to speak for them. Far from it. But neither do I see allowing their influence into my understanding of the world as a threat. And it’s the same way with “nature”. I consider myself ultimately to be a natural being; I eat, sleep, breathe, fuck, shit, and do a whole host of other things that require me to be connected to everything else. The fact that there is a city in the middle of my bioregion does not make the bioregion cease to exist. I do have to consider the things that make me different from other denizens of nature, like my frontal lobes, and the adaptations that frontal lobes have helped humans to create. Nature is still an Other, but not one which is entirely untouchable.

These are things I work with in my shamanism, deliberately, for myself and for those I offer my services to. These are the dualities I want to turn into continuums. Spirituality is seen as opposed to materialism. The body is seen as opposed to the mind/spirit/etc. And, drawing on both spirituality and ecopsychology, humanity is seen as opposed to nature. This insistence on either/or perspectives, as opposed to both/and, creates a very harshly delineated “Other”, one which must remain separate at all times lest we taint ourselves. And that includes the “Other” human beings.

At its most extreme, the “Other” manifests in things like deliberate and institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But sometimes it’s not that intentional. A really good example is in the tendency in both American nonindigenous shamanisms and neopaganisms, and in ecopsychology, toward tunnel visioning on dominant, largely white, culture as a basis. It’s not that white shamans and pagans and ecopsychologists are deliberately trying to exclude people of color. But let’s face it–all of these movements are largely perpetuated by white people, and that’s something we need to be aware of, not in the sense of “well, that’s just who’s interested”, but also what we may be doing that makes these movements seem less welcoming to people of color. It may just be that there’s not enough dialogue about issues of race and culture in shamanism and ecopsychology.

Or maybe we’re uncomfortable bringing up these controversial issues amid our pretty rituals and romantic wilderness idylls. I think Carl Anthony, in his interview with Theodore Roszak in Ecopsychology, really summed up this problem succinctly:

“Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and not be able to think like people of color?” (Anthony, in Roszak 1992, p. 273)

He’s referring to the well-known essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the granddaddys of environmentalism and its various derivatives in America. The phrase “Thinking Like a Mountain” has become bandied about pretty commonly among environmentalists and ecopsychologists as a way of reminding us to embrace the Other. Yet we feel it’s safer to deal with an Other that’s more distant–and, perhaps, one that can’t talk back to us so easily. After all, many Native Americans feel patronized and otherwise pissed off when white people claim to have had past lives as Indians, and let’s not get into the horror that is the “guided meditation” to “get in touch with your Native self” (yes, I’ve seen this and variations of it). Clearly we can get away with things like Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings in which we speak for beings we assume can’t speak for themselves–like mountains and nonhuman animals. Imagine, though, if we did a Council of All Races, in which a bunch of white people made masks to be like various people of color.

And that’s where we really need to be careful when we’re working with the concept of the Other, and more importantly, our relationship to it. Yes, it’s safer for me to work with abstract totems of various nonhuman animals who can’t complain if I misrepresent them, at least not in the same way other human beings can. But I’m also very aware of the limitations that my ritual work has in working with people outside of my cultural familiarity. As a shamanic practitioner, I know that the whole concept of “culturally neutral” is bullshit. Core shamanism, for example, isn’t culturally neutral. It’s white, middle-class, college-educated shamanism, even if all its practitioners don’t fit all of those parameters. And I know that’s what my shamanism is, too, because I’m the creator, and that’s the cultural background I have.

Here’s the thing. I grew up in a small town in the midwest that was almost entirely white. Then I moved to cities, but still gravitated toward subcultures that again were largely white. So my experience is almost entirely working with other white people, within a culture largely created by white people. Same thing goes for middle class and college-educated. These aren’t bad things, but my experiences are pretty damned limited, considering how diverse the population here is. So I have a lot of Others, as it were.

That’s why I’m training to become a licensed practicing counselor. Especially if I end up in an agency setting, I’m going to be working with clients from a much broader variety of cultural and other backgrounds than what I’ve previously been exposed to. My program is heavily engaged in issues of social justice, which has just helped to make me even more aware of my experiential limitations. It’s not that I’m flogging myself over being a guilty white person. It’s that I realize that my own limitations in dealing with people also limit my potential for helping other people. Becoming a trained counselor won’t automatically give me awesome multicultural skills, but my curriculum has included a lot of information and discussion about how to work with clients with significantly different backgrounds in a way that respects them as well as ourselves. This hasn’t always been a comfortable thing for me, because I have become aware of just how limited my experiences have been and how much I don’t know, but rather than drown myself in white-girl guilt, I’ve instead cultivated a curiosity of “If this becomes an issue, how can I broach discussion with my client of the best way to resolve it?”

And that is also part of my work with the Other. The Other isn’t just the exotic, the nebulous–it’s the immediate and very real. Some people may need to start with more abstract, removed Others, like animals and mountains. That’s okay–it’s where I got my start. But it’s why my shamanism isn’t just the formal rituals and the romanticization of other beings–it’s also a profession that brings me into contact with a whole host of people who can’t just be understood through a simple guided meditation or masked ritual.

* Or, more correctly, predominantly white “mainstream” culture.

PantheaCon and the Bear Performance Ritual

So at this year’s PantheaCon in San Jose, CA, I officially did my first big public group ritual. Ever. Really.

See, I’ve been feeling things converging toward taking my practice more public as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing, and when I’ve checked with both the spirits and human peers, I’ve generally been supported in this. So when the time came to submit workshops and other activities for this year’s PantheaCon, back in the fall, I decided to take the chance of doing a shamanic ritual there. I figured if it got accepted, then it would be a chance for me to really put what I’m doing to the test.

The more I actually practice my shamanism, the more I really find I dislike the one-on-one model of practice, where you just have the shaman and client in isolation, and it’s fairly streamlined, with a little drumming, but not much in the way of pageantry. And I’m really fond of the concept of sacred play and ritual theater as facilitating suspension of disbelief and magical states of consciousness. This is important to my practice because I work with the self as a series of systems–physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. I find it easiest to approach magical work from the psychological angle, but with the understanding that I’m affecting the whole shebang. And play is a great way to engage the psyche.

I also am of the opinion that shaman circles aren’t the way for me to go. I dislike being in a group where it’s basically (please forgive the saying) too many chiefs, not enough indians. Not only does the process have to be watered down to accommodate everyone, but personally, I don’t want, as the presider over the ritual, to be responsible for the safety of a bunch of people in the Otherworld. I do not agree with the common (though not universal) core shamanism assertion that journeying is safer than dreaming (and I don’t even think dreaming is always safe). Just because the place where, for example, Brown Bear lives is close to my starting point and is a relatively safe place for me, doesn’t mean that that place will extend the same courtesy to other people.

Therefore, my conception of a “group ritual” in my shamanic practice isn’t “we’re all gonna journey together and be this raucous drumming party romping through the Otherworld in search of soul fragments and cheap beer”. Instead, I’m fond of the model in which there is a presiding shaman who is the relative expert, and the rest of the community, whether it’s a long-standing one, or part of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, helps to create the space within which the shaman works. That’s where I’ve been trying to go with this concept of shamanic performance ritual.

Other than the Grey Wolf and Brown Bear rituals I’ve done in my home, I haven’t really been able to put this to the test in an actual group setting. I’ve practiced various elements in private in preparation, but nothing is the same as actually doing the work. So the PantheaCon ritual was a way for me to try out, with a larger group and in a different setting, these things that I’d been mostly developing in theory. And it was the first time I’d done work with an in-person client, which I’ll write about more in a bit. (My client had been very aware of this from the beginning and was more than happy to be my guinea pig.)

Because of the experimental nature of this ritual, I made it very, very clear both in the preparation workshop prior to the ritual, and right before the ritual itself, that if anyone did not feel comfortable participating in something that was still basically a work in progress, they were more than welcome to leave before I got started. Also, I specifically chose a ritual with Brown Bear because s/he is the totem I have had the most experience with in spiritual and magical practice; s/he has always been the first to step up when I wanted to try a new practice, and s/he has been my greatest guide in my shamanic work, even more than Grey Wolf. And we negotiated the parameters prior to the ritual itself, so that the ritual was mainly (though not entirely) a formality to enact what we had agreed. So there were a lot of factors in place to minimize potential disasters.

I also made it very, very clear that I did not want anyone following me into the Otherworld while I journeyed. Trancing during the drumming was fine, just so long as the people remained here, and I had (human) helpers keeping an eye on the participants to make sure everyone was okay while I was occupied with my work. I explained in great detail when everyone else would get to drum/chant/etc. along with me as part of helping to maintain that collective space, but I wanted to make the boundaries clear. To be honest, I was a bit worried since neopagans in general are used to a high degree of participation, and the shamanic circle is pretty common in and of itself, so I was worried that people might be bored, or not get what I was trying for. However, the orientation workshop served pretty well to make my points clear to folks what was happening, and why, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks.

So what, exactly, happened? Along with the above points, I spent the orientation workshop giving background on my practice over the past decade and change, how I was weaving various disparate threads of practice into a cohesive neoshamanism, and why. I answered questions and addressed concerns, and we all had a really good rapport together.

And then there was the ritual itself. There weren’t as many people as I thought would be there, fewer than twenty, but it was also eleven at night and we were scheduled opposite a drum circle (stiff competition when you’re dealing with a crowd used to being heavy participants). Still, it was a great group, and I was able to get right down to business.

My setup was pretty simple. I had brought my brown bear skin, from a very old rug, and laid her out on the floor with my various tools and offerings to Brown Bear on her. My drum was there, too, and my client had laid out his coat to lay on during the ritual. I also had a bottle of water and a bag of jerky, just in case my weird-ass metabolic issues decided to act up, or if I needed to bring edibles into the Otherworld with me (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

I started off with a warmup. I believe very much in the power of humor to break people out of their defenses, and so I started off with a few jokes, some banter, and a dirty political limerick, all of which went over quite nicely. It got people to pay attention to me and relax and laugh–and focus.

After this, I greeted the land spirits. I don’t do a circle casting, but I do like to greet the more prominent genii locii, and the four directions make convenient delineations. So I greeted local spirits like the Guadalupe river (who I went to visit shortly before the ritual) and both sets of mountain ranges, as well as evoking my connection to Oregon and the Columbia River, among others. I shook my Black Bear rattle and had everyone else drum, clap, etc. along with me. I ended each evocation with a yell, “HA!”, and by the time I was done everyone was yelling with me–which was great fun. I’m definitely keeping that.

Then it was time for the journey itself. I think this was the toughest part of the performance part of the ritual, because I had anticipated there being more drums than there were and therefore didn’t bother preparing myself to narrate during my journey, which takes more concentration. So people mostly were there watching me sit and drum, and make noise along with me, to help act as a heartbeat to help me find my way back. I need to either figure out how to deal with narration when there may be a lot of noise, or some other way to keep the other people occupied with something besides boring old me sitting and beating on a drum while my spirit’s off elsewhere. The risk of dramatic narration is that if I get too focused on telling people “back home” what’s going on, I find myself slipping back to my body before I’m done with my work. On the bright side, I found that having the heartbeat that people were creating helped me orient back to my body, which was a concern since this was the first big journey I had done from a relatively unfamiliar location.

Brown Bear was sleeping, of course, but s/he woke up long enough to tell me what I needed to do with the offerings to hir and the gift to my client. S/he said s/he wouldn’t come hirself, but that s/he’d send a part of hirself with me to help with the ritual. So I did what s/he told me to, and came back to do the work in this world.

Once I returned, I explained briefly what was going to happen. Then I draped the bear skin over me, and tapped out a basic beat for people to follow. I danced until I felt the spirit of the bear skin, and that tendril of Brown Bear’s energy connect in me, and I became a bear myself. I went to my client and sought out ill areas, and he told me later that the first place I homed in on was a place that had been hurting. I went to these places on his body, and I yanked out, for lack of a better word, buildups of “bad energy”. It wasn’t a full-cure–these are chronic conditions–but it was a way to clear out the crap that had built up on an energetic/spiritual level at the sites of these conditions and bring temporary relief. I then breathed in Bear/bear energy/power/whatever you want to call it into the voids left by these things I removed, snuffling and whuffing like a bear, and tearing out the bad with teeth and claws while putting in the good with breath.

I then gave the client a small gift, and told him what to do with it. Were he local to me, I would see about arranging this to be a regular thing, not as a cure-all, but simply as maintenance. Such as it was, he actually reported immediate, measurable physical improvements in his symptoms–whether you want to call this the placebo effect isn’t as important as the fact that the ritual did what it was supposed to do.

I danced Bear/bear back out, and then did another acknowledgement of the land spirits (again with that fun yell at the end!) I had checked on the other participants at a couple of breaks in the ritual itself, just to be sure everyone was alright, and then again at the end once everything was cleared out and I knew my client was okay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do such a great job of making sure I was okay. I spent most of the rest of the weekend pretty fragged and fatigued, partly due to not grounding properly, but also because I’ve found that shamanic work takes more out of me, physically and otherwise, than any other spiritual and magical work I’ve ever done–and that includes the crazy-ass chaos magic experimentation I did a number of years ago. I now have a much better idea of why people talk about the sacrifices associated with shamanic practice, and why my instincts were screaming at me to dig my heels in when the spirits were still unsuccessfully trying to convince me to do this stuff in the first place. Granted, I already had insomnia and metabolic issues, but they and the shamanic work like to play into each other post-ritual, and I’m still learning to find a good balance of self-care with this sort of work.

My client, and other people, really seemed to appreciate the ritual itself for a variety of reasons. And I learned quite a bit from it about how to proceed in the future, what worked, and what needs more adjustment. Most importantly, though, it reaffirmed for me that yes, this is what I need to be doing. More on that later. For now, I’m going to continue recovering, and assessing the results of my work.

The Importance of Ritual Tools

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

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

To which I say: fuck that noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Couple Thoughts on Shamanic Practice

One of my instructors at school (well, a couple of them actually, but one in particular) incorporates energy work into her counseling practice. She and I have had a couple of all-too-brief conversations about that, and my shamanic practice, and some related topics. I’ve been a bit on the hesitant side to talk too much about my shamanism in school, just because even though I’m at one of the most liberal schools in one of the most liberal states in the U.S., it’s no guarantee of acceptance. However, she’s encouraged me to talk to her about it, so I feel pretty comfortable.

Tonight I talked to her some about integrating shamanism and counseling. I have some misgivings about incorporating a lot of my personal practice into counseling, because it’s not exactly public-friendly. Aside from the fact that a lot of potential clients could be turned away by the “mystical woo-woo” aspects of it, either for religious or other ideological reasons, I’m not sure I’d be willing to share some aspects of my practice with clients for a number of reasons. There’s disclosure, and then there’s disclosure. And I don’t want to only attract clients who think shamanism is a-ok–that tends to be a fairly privileged demographic to begin with, and I don’t want to alienate people outside of it.

I’m beginning to see why core shamanism is gaining popularity among counseling professionals. It’s more easily digestible, and can be couched in non-shamanic language. A core shamanism-style soul retrieval could be presented as a guided meditation to “find your inner child” (or however you wish to describe the missing soul part), for example. But I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel A) integrating something I have ideological disagreements with in my personal practice, and B) how much creative description do you get into before you’re misrepresenting what you’re doing?

It’s something I’m going to keep thinking about. At the very least, I figure I need to have a number of years established as both a practicing counselor and as a practicing shaman before I entertain seriously combining the two.

Speaking of being a practicing shaman, I’ve also been doing some reflection as I’ve begun to shift over into doing shamanic work for other people. I finally feel comfortable venturing into that territory, with a good bit of caution and a lot of guidance. One of the things I brought up to some peers who have more experience than I do is: How do I find people to work for, or, perhaps more appropriately, how do they find me? We talked some about whether to approach someone who has expressed a problem I could help with or not that I feel reasonably sure would accept my offer of aid, and the responses ranged from “Don’t–just let them come to you on their own terms” to “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”.

I have had a couple of people approach me, so it’s not as though word of mouth couldn’t work, but it has to start somewhere. I’m most certainly not at a point where I could ostensibly hang up a professional shingle. I think I’d feel weird trying to “sell” myself in this regard, especially with my lack of experience in working for others. But I also feel ready to offer my help, and I have support from some–not all–of the spirits I work with, in that some feel ready to collaborate with me on certain things.

How has that worked for readers/other folks?

On the Recent Sweat Lodge Deaths

This has been bothering me all day, but I couldn’t really figure out how to articulate it until I was sitting working on some artwork tonight.

In case you haven’t heard, two people are dead and others ill after a sweat lodge held by James A. Ray, a proponent of The Secret, went awry. This is far from the first death caused by improperly constructed lodges; heart problems seem to be a common factor, as is wrapping the lodge in a layer of plastic (which is a bad idea all around, no pun intended). I first read about it at the Wild Hunt, and others have weighed in on angles such as pseudo-psychology and (not) cultural appropriation.

I think the issue that stands out to me the most is that of competency. In counseling, competency means having at least an adequate, if not superior, set of knowledge and skills about a given topic to be able to effectively help a client with a minimum of risk to their psychological health. One thing I’m learning in my classes on practical skills is that no matter who you are, you will always screw up. Therapists are human, and as much as one would like to be the most awesome, helpful, effective therapist ever, there will always be those clients who just don’t work out–and the ones that you really regret because you know you could have acted differently in hindsight.

Competency is an ethical issue designed to make sure that the chances of causing harm are minimized. For example, I’m on the adult track in my program. My classes are tailored toward working with adults, and my internship will be the same. Before I could ostensibly work with children, I would have to take steps to increase my competency through education and reading, at the very least. The same thing goes if I end up having a client referred to me who is of a special population whose unique situation I don’t have experience or knowledge of.

Running a proper sweat requires competency on a couple of levels. I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether indigenous spiritual ceremonies associated with sweats are inherently spiritually better than New Age or otherwise not indigenous ones, and whether these people died because the spirits were displeased. On a physical level, though, there is a definite need for competency–how to safely construct the lodge, how to prepare the correct sort of stone, how to monitor participants for health concerns, and so forth. Psychologically, too, there needs to be competency with any sort of rite of passage or other ritual that has the potential to shake a person out of their usual headspace. I have heard entirely too many horror stories in the neopagan community of ritual leaders who led people through a particularly moving ritual–and then didn’t stick around to pick up the pieces when a participant ended up with some trauma being dredged up by the experience.

What seems to have happened here is a lack of competency on a physical, and potentially psychological, level. Did Ray know about the risks of running a sweat with that many people and that sort of construction, and how to know when something was going wrong? Did he make it clear to people that, no matter how moving an experience they were having, if they felt ill they needed to get out, and they wouldn’t have failed for admitting their limits? Did he receive any sort of training that might have included how to address these and other concerns?

And I think this is something that neoshamans/shamanists/shamanic practitioners in general should be thinking about. Most of us don’t have access to indigenous cultures and their spiritual teachings (nor should we presume we have a right to such things). There’s no shamanism inherent to the culture I am a part of. But there are attempts to try to construct such a thing. The problem is that we’re starting from scratch, whether that means working with core shamanism, gleaning what we can from indigenous contacts, or trying to piece things together on our own.

How can we really gauge competency when there are so many people going in so many directions? There’s not a single non-indigenous shamanic path that doesn’t come under some scrutiny, whether from indigenous practitioners, or from neoshamans themselves. We aren’t going to get everyone to agree to some universal way of doing things. this survey from the Society of Shamanic Practitioners shows a bias toward a very specific, core-based manner of practice that I couldn’t finish because a lot of the questions simply didn’t apply to how I currently do things; same thing goes for others I know.

Some would argue that we have to do more in conjunction with indigenous cultures who have well-established shamanic systems (using the term shamanic loosely). While this certainly would give a person firm grounding in that culture’s shamanism, it A) supposes that a culture would be willing to share such a thing, and B) doesn’t take into account that many, if not most, of the practices and cosmologies found in indigenous shamanism aren’t going to do as well outside of their original cultural context. Nor will many Americans view things like journeying and ceremonies as anything other than “crazy stuff” or “devil worship”–which pretty much eliminates them as potential recipients of shamanic work. (On a side note, I’ve had people tell me I should just look to the religions of my ancestors. Beyond the fact that it’s Catholics way back, I fail to see how 1,000+ year old cultures from a continent away are going to be any more helpful in working with this culture than indigenous ones would be. I am not a circa 700 A.D. Slavic peasant.)

We could also try to come up with some standards and best practices for neoshamans, but who gets to decide what’s what? If we’re going by sheer numbers, core shamans are the most numerous, but most non-core neoshamans have some misgivings with core shamanism. And we’re talking about a bunch of people who are scattered across the country, not all of whom spend as much time on the internet as I do, and are not always particularly accessible or willing to network. It’s a much different context from a more localized, relatively homogenized culture. (I do think that talking more about this stuff, though, is highly recommended, even if nothing truly universal comes out of it. Peer review is a good thing.)

My own personal preference in gaining competency is to interweave aspects of my culture that are most analogous to what I understand shamanism to be, hence my working on a Master’s in counseling psych, since psychology figures heavily in my practice and general worldview. However, I also have the privilege of being able to get loans and go to school in the first place, as well as having enough of an interest and ability with psychology to make it worth my time. And people may disagree with various assessments of what a shaman would be in this culture.

Then, of course, there are those who would be thrilled if all us not-indigenous folks put aside these games of “shamanism” since we don’t have the level of competency indigenous cultures have. Both from a spiritual and psychological perspective, I can see great value in creating structures of meaning, rites of passage, and other things missing from large portions of this culture, and if the means and trappings in which some practitioners try to create these structures is misguided and appropriative, at least the general effort is of value and should be fine-tuned rather than scrapped entirely.

There are times, honestly, when all I want to do is throw my hands up and decide that we’re all arguing over completely subjective psychological meaning-making systems, and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but how you use it and for what purposes. Maybe we’d quit arguing over who believes the right things, and get rid of the red herrings of subjective authenticity, and instead get down to the business of dealing with what’s more objective. Whether I believe animal totems talk with me when I drum is a subjective issue, and again something that I sometimes think is wholly a structure of personal mythology. If I claim that what I’m doing is according to some indigenous culture I’ve never had any contact with, then it veers over into objective territory in that I’m making a verifiably false claim about the beliefs that could potentially affect the people whose legitimacy I’m trying to leech. And if I further use this to justify telling people to, say, drink bleach because Bear said that it’s good for what ails you, then we’re really into the objective, insofar as the actions I am taking extrapolated from my beliefs.

And that’s where I really think competency comes in. You can’t measure the legitimacy of whether the totems talk to me or not; there’s no such thing as spiritual competency in that regard, unless someone has some form of omniscience that I’m not privy to. (Gods know there are lots of neopagans and others who try their damnedest to measure the spiritual competency of others, especially others they dislike.) But you can measure one’s competency in psychological and physical terms. If I integrate shamanism into my counseling practice, no one can say whether, say, a soul retrieval was spiritually successful–but we can look at the client’s progress after that ritual and see whether it helped improve their psychological health. And if I decided to incorporate wilderness therapy in my practice and take clients hiking, my competency could be measured in terms of things like whether I have up-to-date Wilderness First Responder training.

As far as how much competency Ray had? There’s not yet enough information available, unless I’ve missed something. I looked on the bio on his website, and couldn’t really find anything to suggest he has any psychological training, or what sort of spiritual training he may have had (including that which may have shown him how to safely run a sweat). Hopefully more will come out in the wash. In the meantime, I think we need to focus less on things like cultural appropriation and the exact tools (physical and psychological) used in this case, and instead look at the people involved and how they were using these tools. Being a non-indigenous person running a sweat lodge does not automatically make you a potential killer. Being someone who doesn’t possess physical and psychological competency involved with the rite, regardless of the exact cultural trappings, is an entirely different story.

Okay, I’ll Play Along…

The pagan blogosphere seems to have latched onto this nifty declaration of International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It’s given me a good excuse to put down some thoughts that I’ve been having trouble putting into words as of late.

The biggest problem with trying to define “pagan values” is that, as others have noted both in this blogathon and before, is that “neopaganism” doesn’t describe just one religion–it describes a plethora of them. As Sannion pointed out, a lot of the time “pagan” often ends up being interpreted (not overtly, generally) as “Wicca, or Wicca-flavored”. Not surprising, since so many of us cut our teeth on books by folks like Scott Cunningham, and many pagans never really define themselves beyond “generic Wicca-flavored pagan”. From my experience in the communities I’ve participated in (both in person and online), and in going to a wide variety of festivals the past few years, “generic Wicca-flavored pagans” outnumber any other single group of pagans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means that there’s no simple set of pagan values when you have that much variety.

The other issue is that values are ultimately subjective. Even among members of the same pagan religion, you may have a wide variety of values that individual people adhere to, whether due to the tenets of their faith, or other factors informing their everyday choices. And I do mean that last bit–values do not only have to come from religious sources, though the two may inform each other to the extent that they may seem inseparable.

One of the things I’ve been kicking around in my head as of late is the idea that we (not just pagans) create religion (and, by extension in many cases, values) out of whatever comforts us. We may not consciously realize we’re creating religion, and as most people view religions primarily in a literal sense, some may be offended by the idea that their experiences are anything other than direct contact with the Divine/spirits/other intermediaries. Still, people seem to match their religious beliefs pretty well; the structures within which they interact with the Powers That Be connect to things that give them some form of comfort and security. (And I’ll most likely write about this more later when I’ve brought together my thoughts on it more cohesively.)

I know exactly where my comfort in Nature comes from. I was a weird kid growing up. While all the other girls in my small town Catholic grade school class were playing with Barbies and putting on kiddie makeup and starting to get interested in clothes, I was grubbing around in the woods catching garter snakes. I didn’t really have friends, for the most part, and got picked on a lot. My family loved me like nobody’s business, but I think sometimes they just didn’t know what to make of me. My only sibling was significantly older than I was, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone.

Living in a small town, I was able to run around our yard, the neighbors’ yard, and the Big Hill across the street where the retirement home was. I even repeatedly sneaked off to the semi-wooded lot on the other side of the hill, even though I was supposed to. (After all, that’s where the best place to find garter snakes was!) So I spent long days in cool shade on mats of moss and grass and clover, under poplar trees and juniper bushes, watching Monarch butterflies come out of their chrysales, chasing (but never catching) cottontail rabbits. When I was indoors, I was reading voraciously, getting every book on animals from the library that I could lay hands on.

Nature was comforting to me. When people were confusing, or mean, or simply didn’t get that no, I wasn’t interested in doing things their way, I knew I could turn to the natural world and find a place where I wasn’t judged. Sure, the animals ran away when I came stomping through the woods, but they did that to every human, and even to each other to an extent. That’s just the way they were. They weren’t out with an agenda beyond day to day survival, and they didn’t single me out. And in turn, if I was quiet (and lucky) enough, I got to observe the denizens of the wild and witness their goings-on with wonder (though this was easier with plants, which tended to just stay put regardless of how much I looked at them). And yes, I did tell stories to myself about Nature; there was more to it than just what the books said. I never told anyone about these personal myths, but they sowed the seeds for meaning-making.

This continued well into my mid-teens. When my parents and I moved to a new home in the very early 1990s, there was one of the last farms to survive the sprawling of my town right behind our home, and I had a few acres of woods that weren’t immediately fenced in to explore. I grew very attached very quickly, especially because it was bigger, with a creek running through it (I’ve always been attracted to running water), and more variety in inhabitants and geography. Even as I entered into the awkwardness of junior high, I continued to find the most solace in those woods.

And then, one day…I came home on the school bus to find that my woods had been completely bulldozed to make way for a new housing subdivision. To say I was devastated, crushed, would come nowhere near describing how I felt. I honestly think that’s what touched off the depression I fought with for years afterward. I had lost my anchor, the place I went to when people simply didn’t understand. worse, I had lost a piece of my soul.

When I discovered paganism at the age of 17, a few years later, I immediately latched onto the nature-based aspects of it, especially animal magic and totemism. Neopaganism gave me a structure to try to rebuild the rapport I had had with Nature that had been so shockingly destroyed. In the few years between the destruction of “my” woods and discovering paganism, I had reacted so badly to the trauma that I distanced myself from nature as much as I could, and lost that innocent connection I’d had for so long. Even now I find myself having to fight seeing Nature in too many abstractions, trying to keep from mistaking the map for the territory. And yet, the older I get and the more of that initial connection I rebuild, the more comforted I am, and the more depth my relationship to Nature gains. Granted, I have a much healthier social life than I did when I was younger, but that hasn’t caused my comfort in Nature to cease.

So what’s the point to this long, rambly narrative? Where do values come in? First, I wanted to illustrate how our values–including those that are formed through religious experience–may very well be tightly linked to what comforts us. But second, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to show where my own values come from. Because, as I mentioned, I can’t blog about “pagan values”. They simply can’t exist in a universal form, not even those based on the assumption that pagan = reveres Nature. While I can argue up and down, for example, that you can’t separate an Earth or Harvest deity from the actual, physical Earth, there are numerous pagans who will deny that their paganism is Nature-based, instead saying that their religion is “based on the worship of the Gods” (never mind that their gods are personifications of natural phenomena), or some other explanation. (My rant about the artificial dichotomy of “natural” vs. “not natural” will have to wait.) It’s not that there aren’t other pagans whose values resemble mine; it’s that these values cannot be universally described as “pagan values”. But I can confidently extrapolate on my own!

If you look through the posts in this blog, it’s pretty easy to see where my values are. While I may not always be capable of acting in the most harmonious ways when it comes to valuing being a part of an interconnected set of natural systems involving numerous beings on all levels of existence and evolution, my values most definitely do direct the decisions I make–even if that means keeping certain ones in mind for later when they’re more feasible. Now, I am not a philosopher; while I’ve done a little reading up on the differences between values, ethics and morals in order to prepare for this post, the differences are still kind of fuzzy for me. So here are the essentials, and I apologize if these aren’t properly explained as “values”:

–Nature is sacred. Not just in an abstracted, symbolic, archetypal way, but in its very immediate physical reality, from the rich dirt that I work composted cow manure into every year before gardening, to the Columbia River Gorge where some of my favorite wild places are, to the countless microflora in my body, living in symbiosis with me (most of the time). It is sacred not only for its meaning, but for the very fact that without it, I die.

–The above assertion is not antithetical to scientific knowledge. When I say my prayers in the morning and evening and honor the Earth, the Sky, the Sun, the Moon, and others, I am not only saying these things to anthropomorphized symbols. I am saying them to the Earth that is the basis of my life-support system, and the Sky that contains the necessary atmosphere to create climates and weather patterns. When I journey and speak with totems and other spiritual beings, I am not only speaking to spirits, but to embodiments of entire species and natural phenomena that exist in a very physical way.

–The assertion directly above this one is not antithetical to the existence of a meaning-making system composed of my personal mythology, as well as the elements of greater cultural mythologies that interweave with it. When I say my prayers, I do not only say them to the physical manifestations of natural phenomena. I am saying them to the archetypal energies that have been built up around them through countless years of human attention and belief, as well as through the strength of my own connection and the meaning-making activities I have partaken in my entire life. When I journey to the totems and others, I do not only limit my knowledge of them to natural history, but also interact with totems-as-archetypes, vastly complex symbols that resonate with my psyche on multiple levels.

I endeavor to live in such a way as to honor all the above assertions equally. However, I do this with the understanding that ideals and reality may not always mesh well, particularly in the physical realm. For instance, I would love to be able to have a greywater system, and a yarden (yes, an entire yard converted to veggies and fruit!), and a number of other things that require me to not be a renter. Unfortunately, we’re still several years off from being able to buy a house. While I know that going vegetarian is better for the environment, I simply do not thrive well without meat (and yes, I’m currently going through medical professionals to see about this, just to see what’s up).

But there are decisions I can make, and have made, that are in line with my values. I am in grad school to get a degree in counseling psychology, and my emphasis (though not exclusively) is on ecopsychology, as well as narrative therapy and other tools for aiding others in meaning-making activities (and, of course, better mental health!). While I’m not yet a subsistence gardener, I’m doing my best to learn better skills as I go along. A lot of my day-to-day purchases have environmental impact in mind; I’m a frequent shopper at Goodwill and other thrift stores, and haven’t bought anything from a mall or a Wal-mart in years. These things are as much a part of my values, and really, my spirituality as a pagan, as any rituals, journeying, and other activities I do.

Paganism, for me, is not limited to the overtly spiritual practices, and neither are the values I associate with my paganism. If I do not do my best to integrate what I believe into what I do to the extent that is currently possible, then why do I believe it?

An Update!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bioregionalism and the Genius Locii

I haven’t been posting much here lately; I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that graduate school is going to eat my life as long as I’m here, and I’m going to have to do most of my ritual work on breaks and during the lighter summer semester. I could handle it better when I was working forty hours a week, come to think of it. My once consolation is that the grad work, and the internal psychological development I’ve been doing as one result of it, are also an important part of my development of therioshamanism, so it’s not as though I’m not getting anything done. I miss regular journeying, and I’ll be glad when the semester’s done at the end of the month.

One of the valuable things I have been getting out of grad school has been the ecopsychology classes. This semester I’ve been taking the ecotherapy course; this is the second of two weekend-long intensives for it. Ecotherapy, in very brief, is utilizing the natural environment in therapeutic practice. This can include anything from having natural objects in one’s office, to wilderness therapy outings that last days or even a couple of weeks. Like ecopsychology, it’s not a linear, strictly defined set of techniques, but rather an integrative approach that can be applied to any formal school of psychological thought and practice.

One of the concepts we touched on today was that of bioregionalism. Normally Americans describe their location in terms of human phenomena–streets, addresses, buildings, and other such landmarks. I would describe my location as Portland, in the state of Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Bioregionalism, however, orients a person according to natural phenomena, both very local and larger ecosystems. So I would therefore describe myself as living in the Johnson Creek watershed, which is a part of the Lower Columbia River Estuary, which is part of the larger Cascadia bioregion composed of the temperate rainforests of the west coast.

This is a very different way of approaching one’s location, but it’s also exceptionally telling when thinking about the way we perceive the world around us and place our priorities. We are exceptionally anthropocentric in every portion of our cognition, emotions, and descriptions thereof; using the metaphorical imagery of other animals, for example, is usually about as far from that as most people get.

And yet ecopsychology calls us to not only consider the environment we are in (human and otherwise)–but it also calls us to identify and embrace our ecological self. According to Winter and Koger:

“We experience our ecological self when we feel the connection between our self and other people, other life forms, ecosystems, or the planet. We experience it when we sense a deep resonance with other species and a quality of belonging and connection to the larger ecological whole…the ecological self leads to environmentally appropriate behaviors, not out of a sense of self-sacrifice or self-denial, but out of a sense of love and common identity”. (1)

What does this sound very much like? Animism. Even if we don’t look at spirits as literal entities, a more metaphorical animism still provides a great deal of meaning to an ecosystem that we too often just see as the backdrop for the grand plans of humanity. It could be argued, of course, that this sort of modern storytelling and mythmaking isn’t even necessary to be able to appreciate the beauties and amazing phenomena of the natural sciences–and I would agree. Yet there is also value in this meaning-making process.

Bioregionalism gives more meaning to the natural phenomena that surround us. It takes the focus off manmade objects, where it has been almost exclusively for quite some time, and causes us to stop and think about that where that focus has been–and what we’ve been missing out on. We need that so much in this culture; we are so disconnected as a people from the cycles that we rely on. Not everything postindustrial is evil and wrong, mind you–but we do so much completely out of touch with what we’re affecting by our actions. Bioregionalism is just one of many ways to find reconnection, and as Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. Finding one connection invariably leads to another, and another, and we only cease finding connections when we stop looking–or caring. The bioregion is a series of connections that reminds us that streets and addresses are only one of many forms of connection.

This, the bioregion, is the genius locii, the Spirit of Place. This is the Land that I refer to. Not a singular spirit, of course, but one for each place, many overlapping and enfolding and not as linear as some might like. Like my home range, for example. There is the spirit of my garden, and all the individual beings in it. Then there are the wetlands that my yard drains into. And then, from the wetlands, we go right into Johnson Creek itself. These are all their own entities, and yet part of larger watersheds and waterways–and that’s not even looking at geology, or air currents, or, for that matter, the spirit of the city and neighborhood.

This approach to bioregionalism, in which psychology and ecology and spirituality all combine in varying manners, is just one of the reasons why I am incorporating a career in therapy in general, and ecopsychology/ecotherapy in specific, into my shamanic practice. As I have mentioned before, I see therioshamanism as an attempt–albeit still in its relative infancy–to create a shamanism for the culture I am a part of. In order to effectively incorporate the role and functions of “shamanism” as a broad, general concept into this culture, it is necessary to work within the parameters and language (not just English, mind you) of this culture. Psychology is something that, although it is not fully understood by everyone in my community and culture, is still recognized as a way of healing and of discourse and of creating connections and meaning. Granted, these are more abstract concepts than, say, journeying to speak to the spirits–but most people in my culture wouldn’t fully accept animism in its raw form.

So I choose to not only work with literal animism, but also with metaphorical animism, in part through ecopsychology and related disciplines. One thing I am learning as a future therapist who will be incorporating several styles of therapy in my practice is that a diverse toolkit is a great benefit. Along with such things as client-centered, Gestalt and narrative therapies, I can also have ecopsychology and ecotherapy, and I can even have some elements of my shamanic practice on the occasion I get a client open to such things. But despite the means, the end goal is still the same–to promote better connections between humans and community, humans and spirits/nature, and humans and the self.

1. Winter, Deborah Du Nann and Koger, Susan M. (2004). The Psychology of Environmental Problems, p. 193

Shamanism and Subjectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmentalism as a Spiritual Practice

Recently I was at Fred Meyer (your usual grocery/department/everything else store, only unionized and with more sustainable choices). While picking up some socks for my husband, I happened to walk by a sale rack that was full of knee-high white socks with various environmental slogans on them (25% off, even!). “Oh, those are cute!” was my first thought. I almost thought about picking up a pair, but then read one of the slogans a little more closely: “Protect the Earth”, it said. That made me stop and think about the potential purchase. Just what was I about to buy? Socks made in China, out of cotton (which is one of the least sustainable fabrics due to the amount of resources used in processing it)–and since I mainly see socks as a necessary liner for shoes and boots in cold weather, I didn’t exactly need “cute” socks.

So I decided, “Okay, I’ll protect the Earth–by not buying a pair of probably-sweatshop-made, not-even-organic cotton socks that I don’t really need right now”. And walked away. I felt better about myself for having done that, not just because it’s better for the budget right now, as well as my attempt to lower my impulse spending, but because I did feel I made the more ethical choice in that case.

But it also made me feel more in line with my spiritual path. I claim to practice a nature-based path; multifaceted, but still focused primarily on the sanctity of nature. Environmentalism is one of the most physical manifestations of what it is I believe about reality. I do the things I do not only because of the physical realities (reducing waste means less in the landfill, etc.) but what I perceive as spiritual realities in my path (everything has a spirit, and one honors the Earth-as-a-being by reducing and even reversing the negative impact on it).

So I decided to assess my approach to environmentalism as a religion in and of itself, focusing on a few particular areas:

The Divine: I am unapologetically pantheistic. The Divine–whatever its nature may be–manifests itself in all things. “God” is not a presence up in heaven, with an antithesis in hell. “God” is right here, in every being, in every thing; just as each of our cells is a part of us, so are we all a part of the Divine. Now, is the Divine a personal deity who cares about every single one of us? Or is “the Divine” a catch-all metaphor for the sum total of Everything That Is, perhaps with collective awareness (or some other cohesive connection that we may or may not be able to comprehend)?

For me, I find my connection to the Divine/God/whatever label you wish to use in the intricate ecosystems that wrap around the Earth. This includes human beings; we may pretend we aren’t a part of Nature any more, but any time a person catches a disease, or eats, or breathes, they are participating in the local ecosystem. That ecosystem may be largely dominated and shaped by humanity, but humans cannot live separate from all other beings in total. Nor can we subsist without “non-living” natural resources.

Maybe the only hell is the physical and psychological illnesses that often result from attempting to isolate the self from everything else. My attraction to ecopsychology is largely due to the perception that I and others have had that A) disconnection from the natural environment (and other ecosystems) very often has a damaging effect on people, individually and culturally. and B) many people respond favorably to exposure to natural ecosystems to whatever degree they are comfortable (factoring in things like agoraphobia, associations between wilderness and trauma, etc.). I want to help facilitate people’s reconnection to ecosystems, natural and otherwise, because as a general culture most Americans are suffering from one degree of disconnection or another–I know I have my own issues to work through in that regard, and I’ve seen it countless times in others. Rugged individualism is not good for the soul (literal or metaphorical).

Everyday environmental actions help me with this reconnection to the Divine/Everything That Is. Whether I’m in the garden growing the most locally available food there is, or making decisions in purchases based on sustainability, or repurposing an item that may be too worn for its original role, these things remind me of my connection, that I’m not just acting for myself.

Dogma: Because our understanding of the environment is constantly changing, both due to the tools at our disposal, and the changes in the environment itself, there’s no room for unchanging dogma, beyond “Do what is best for the environment without destroying yourself” (though there are a few extremists who believe the best thing would be for the entire human species to commit self-extinction). And I like that lack of overall dogma. It can be easy to fall into dogmatic, repetitive patterns, however, particularly where other people are concerned. It’s tempting to point out another’s flaws, to say “Hey–you didn’t recycle that piece of paper! For shame!” And we do need to speak up to others about the issues at hand, and what people can realistically do to help (as well as holding corporations, some of the worst offenders, accountable for their part in all this mess).

But few people like being forcibly converted to any belief system, whether it’s a recognized religion, a philosophy, or so forth. And the thing that I’ve learned as an environmentalist is that that whole adage about flies and honey is true. Just by blogging about my garden on my Livejournal, I’ve convinced several people to try their own hands at gardening. That’s a more concrete result than the times I’ve gotten up on my soapbox to preach the Good Green Word–I’ve mainly just gotten agreement from those who were already on board, and occasionally some disagreement from others. The constructive approach does indeed work better.

If someone doesn’t do things my way, I have to accept that that’s the reality. Trying harder to get through to that person isn’t going to help; if anything it’s going to alienate them. And my job is not to change people’s minds; my job is to offer information and set an example–and if someone chooses to emulate that example out of their own free will, to do what I can to help. People can convert themselves just fine without my help.

Mythos: A mythos isn’t necessary to environmentalism in general (and in fact some environmentalists distance themselves even from things like the Gaia Hypothesis, for fear of getting accused of idolatry by their own faith communities). For me, personally, though, the mythos grew alongside with my environmental action.

I have a whole other post brewing about subjectivity and belief, but for the moment here’s what I’ll say to this: The mythos of therioshamanism and my paganism in general provides me with additional meaning to the everyday actions I take, both with regards to environmentalism and with other aspects of my life. I don’t believe my actions are dictated by other beings, spirits and deities and such. But the purpose of the mythos, and the rituals and other practices surrounding it, is to find and define meaning apart from the actual physical activities and chains of events themselves.

Why? Why do we create art? Or music? Why do we indulge in this thing called “love”, instead of only thinking of it as a mess of hormones meant to bind people for survival reasons? Not that love doesn’t contain the hormones and messiness, but we don’t have to romanticize it in order to survive. Neither do I have to work with the mythos and spiritual beliefs that mesh with my physical everyday life. But I have the mythos, and I believe in love, because I want to, and I like to, and these things make me happy. And, as mentioned, they add meaning, and additional structure, which are also valuable.

The Afterlife: I’m really not sure, honestly, what I think about the afterlife. I know that my body, which is made of all sorts of molecules that have been all kinds of things, will decompose and go on to become other things. Beyond that? Who knows for sure? I’ve mostly decided that I’m just going to wait until I die, and then I’ll know for sure. Yes, I have my experiences with spirits, which some think should prove to me that there is a spirit world. But I have no way of knowing that those spirits are real for anyone besides me. That’s not enough of a basis to form an afterlife on.

People have a hard time with impermanence. Even I have moments where I’m utterly terrified that there’s nothing beyond this life. But I try hard to avoid compromising the lives of others out of my fear of impermanence. If I want to convince someone that a particular practice is better for the Earth, I’m not doing it for the purpose of racking up bonus points with the Divine. I’m doing it because it’s something I feel will benefit those of us right here, right now–and future generations to come. I’d rather focus on this world while I’m in it, rather than looking forward to another world that may not even exist. I’d rather plant a garden than buy an indulgence.

Sin: I dislike the concept of sin. It’s such a dualistic concept. In my view, we make mistakes, we (hopefully) learn from them, we move on. I would say that deliberate destruction and greed are definitely bad things–but I hate the concept of “sin”, like something is automatically and completely antithetical to “the RIGHT way to do things”. Some things are most certainly bad for the environment, but referring to any action that’s supposedly anti-environmental as “a sin” seems too simplistic. Sometimes people make honest mistakes. Others don’t have the resources to be as green as they’d like. And since our understanding of what is environmentally friendly is constantly changing, what may be “bad” at one point may actually turn out to be better, or vice versa.

This could be a lot more complete, to be sure. I’m no expert theologian. But I wanted to get these thoughts out in their raw form; there may very well be more polished versions in the future. Constructive feedback is always appreciated.