Deconstructing the Totemic Guided Meditation

I’m still finishing up the book manuscript, but I wanted to take a break from writing to do some writing.

…wait, what?

Anyway, had this post idea come up and since it’s not going to take long to write it out, it gets to be my break from the much bigger, longer piece of writing.

I’ve been thinking about the structures within modern non-indigenous–neopagan, as I prefer to call it–totemism. One of the most common structures is that of the totemic guided meditation. There are countless examples of this; almost every book on animal totemism seems to have some version of it, and even Michael Harner included his own take in The Way of the Shaman in the chapter about finding a singular power animal. And yes, I wrote my own iteration of it several years ago which you can see in its entirety (and even use if you wish) here; it ended up as an Appendix in Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, my very first book.

So–this thing gets around a lot. Why? because it’s effective. As I have maintained in numerous places, the guided meditation gets a person in direct contact with a totem, but without suggesting a specific animal from the get-go. It’s better than totem cards because you’re not limited just to the animals in the deck. It’s an improvement over having someone else “read” you, because there’s no intermediary to potentially miss something in the translation or add in their own biases. And it allows you and the totem to explore and establish your own unique ways of interacting with each other from the beginning.

The totemic guided meditation also offers you a relatively “safe” place to visit with totems. One thing I discovered early on in this whole Therioshamanism thing is that unlike proper journeying, which takes you deep into the spirits’ territory itself (which can be quite dangerous), guided meditation creates a sort of neutral zone that’s more mediated and less likely to present any dangers. However, it still allows for free-form exploration and communication, assuming it’s not such a rigidly structured thing that even the dialogue is scripted!

And while most totemic guided meditations are supposed to only have you meet your totem, I have found that the same meditation, slightly tweaked, is also quite effective for continuing to use the “neutral zone” to meet with the totem for ongoing work together. It’s simply a matter of going into the meditation with the intent of talking to a specific totem, instead of leaving yourself open to meet any totem, if that makes sense.

So let’s look at the different parts of the basic structure of the totem guided meditation:

The Entrance: This is usually a hole of some sort, either in the ground or a tree, but I have also had people that I led through the meditation travel through a hole in the clouds, or in ice or other water; these were their creations, not my suggestions, as I don’t specify exactly what the entrance should look like. The entrance is the starting point, the threshold between this world and the next. Once you’ve taken that first step in, you’re on your way.

The Tunnel: Traveling through the tunnel is a transition; it allows both the mind and the spirit to make the changes from the waking world to the neutral zone the person is going to visit. The tunnel may be in the ground, through trees, water, etc. It may look the same the whole way through, although the interior has also been known to shift in appearance and even size the further one gets from the waking world. The tunnel is a necessary component in the meditation, because it allows for a gradual and smooth adjustment in consciousness and spiritual state, rather than a sudden, jarring shift. For someone brand new to guided meditation, just spending time traveling down the tunnel, turning around, and then coming back can be good practice in maintaining a basic meditative focus, without the additional pressures of being in a complex new environment. The tunnel is relatively simple, and generally only goes two ways, so it’s easy to come back home as needed.

The Neutral Zone: This is an open arena where the person can explore the environment and see what totems may present themselves in first time through, as well as a known location for continued work. It is nonphysical in form, but it is a midway point between the person’s psyche, and the external spiritual world (though the boundaries between the two are often very blurred). While Harner has people stay in the tunnel, or rather, the tunnel becomes the neutral zone, I like to have people come out into an open environment where they can meet their totems. Again, as with the entrance, I allow people to picture it for themselves, rather than suggesting a specific place. This is because I don’t want them to have expectations of what animals they should or shouldn’t meet; for example, if I tell them to come out in a Pacific Northwest rain forest, but their totem is Koala, then they’re less likely to make the necessary connection. I also suggest that people explore while they’re there so that they can find the place again later. Additionally, since it is a mediated setting, people do have more control over what happens there; for example, I tell people I’m leading in meditation that if they ever lose the tunnel and need to go back quickly, all they have to do is look down at the ground at their feet and the mouth of the tunnel will appear there, and they can go right back home. Finally, it’s important to note any changes made to the neutral zone, whether within a given meditation, or over time. They may reflect changes in the totemic relationship, or even the location of the place in relation to the spiritual world (for example, if the neutral zone starts slipping deeper into spiritual territory, it may take on a wilder, more chaotic nature).

The Animal Totems: In the deconstructed guided meditation, the totem is the goal, the manifestation of the intent. Finding your totem often implies success, though I wouldn’t interpret things that strictly, personally–there’s a lot that can go wrong even if you find your totem, and a lot that go right even if you don’t. I’ve elaborated almost ad infinitum elsewhere about what your totem can be, but it basically boils down to: pretty much any animal species has a totem, you’re not limited to a certain set number of totems, the number of totems you have throughout your life can change, not every totem is permanent, and yes, I consider extinct, domestic, and mythological animals to still have totems, albeit totems with a much different perspective on the world we live in. A totem is an intermediary between its species and the rest of reality, to include human beings, though contrary to some approaches to totemism, we are not necessarily the center of a totem’s purpose for existing! (In other words, totemism isn’t just about “Get a totem to make your life AWESOMER!”) What role the totem plays in a person’s life varies from individual to individual; some see them as primarily symbolic, while others spend their lives working totemism as a daily spiritual practice. Again, this meditation can be used to either find a totem for the first time, or continue meeting with it. Just start each meditation with the appropriate intent, even perhaps saying something like “I am going to travel to meet my totem for the first time,” or “I am going to go meet with [name of totem]” before going through the entrance.

The Tunnel Back: The trip back to the waking world is just as important as the trip down the tunnel in the first place. It allows the person to integrate their experiences during the meditation, as well as readjust to being “awake” again. Most people tend to come out of the meditation too quickly, and spend their time grounding in this world with food and other physical things. While this is not bad, I feel it speaks of impatience, and doesn’t take full advantage of this important transitional stage of the totemic guided meditation. I recommend that if you do this sort of meditation, try to spend as much time coming back through the tunnel as you did heading down it.

Troubleshooting: If you’re new to meditation, or if you aren’t a very visual person, you may have trouble staying “in” the meditation long enough to find your totem. If that’s the case, try (as I mentioned above) just exploring the tunnel for a while, then graduate to just exploring the neutral zone a few times without the intent of looking for a totem. Stay in as long as you can before you feel you can’t focus any more, though do try to give yourself time to travel back through the tunnel and make a smooth transition back to being awake. If you’re doing a meditation to find a totem for the first time, and no totem shows up, or isn’t clearly your totem, give yourself a break for a couple weeks at least, then try again. If you are unsure of whether an animal is a totem, and you can get close enough to talk to it, you can always try asking whether it’s your totem or not. Also, while most people only encounter one totem at a time, it’s not at all unheard of to meet more than one in one meditation, and in fact there are some meditation structures, such as The Personal Totem Pole Process, that are created around meeting and working with multiple totems at once. If you end up with a totem you’re not comfortable with, don’t fear the worst. Sometimes it’s the animals that scare us that can really teach us; same thing goes for the ones we think are gross, or not particularly flashy. Conversely, if you get one of the “popular” totems like Grey Wolf or Tiger, don’t assume that you’re just being egotistical. Let things play out as they will no matter what totem shows up; in the end, you’re the one who gets to determine whether an experience was valid for you, not some internet peanut gallery.

…and there you have it–a basic explanation not only of totemic guided meditations, but part of what makes them work. There’s a lot more I could say, but this is just a quick break to give my mind some rest from the big, long, kinda scary book manuscript I need to finish up! I’m open to any questions about this post, if ya got ’em 🙂

More Random Thoughts While Writing “Neopagan Totemism”

Coming down the home stretch on the manuscript of Neopagan Totemism, for which Llewellyn gave me a deadline of October 14. Had a few random brief thoughts, not all particularly serious.

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Carl Jung’s Shadow is no doubt quite acquainted with the evil that lurks in the heart of men (and women, and everybody else…)

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I just figured out one thing that makes my eyelid twitch about both Michael Harner AND Joseph Campbell: Harner’s “core shamanism” and Campbell’s “monomyth” are both attempts by middle-aged white male Eurocentric academics to erase cultural nuances in shamanic practices and mythologies, respectively, faux “culturally neutral” one-size-fits-all theory that actually favors what (at least some) white, male, Eurocentric academics think is important. Or as my partner put it, “they’re both academic reductionists”.

Or one could look at it as intellectual laziness–“Look! Everything fits neatly into this one universal template! I don’t have to think about anything else! Okay, so that in and of itself is reductionistic; however, I’ve met entirely too many people who think these “universal” models really ARE universal and everything ultimately can be shoehorned into them and somehow zombies.

…okay, maybe not the zombies.

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You know what my mental image of the Wise Old Wo/Man Jungian archetype is? The Old Women with potions and the Old Men with swords (and occasionally broken doors) in the original Legend of Zelda game for the NES. Or, alternately, Carl Jung holding up a battered old copy of The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious and saying “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”

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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?

Coming soon to Portland – (Therio)shamanic Services!

I know a lot of my posts lately have been on topics other than shamanic practice in specific. That’s because most of my shamanic work lately has been very personal, in part because I’ve been preparing to change my focus. Specifically, now that I am done with graduate school, I am preparing to start offering shamanic services professionally here in Portland. While my shamanism is NOT professional counseling, and my counseling practice (which is still on the drawing board) will be its own independent entity for a variety of ethical and personal reasons, I will be able to utilize some of the skills from my Master’s work, as well as all the things I’ve been doing spiritually for the past 15 years, to be of greater service to the local community, as well as the spirits I have continued to work with.

This Saturday I will be offering totem readings at the grand opening of Conjure Works at 3352 SE Hawthorne. In addition to readings, at 2pm I will be offering a brief presentation on Therioshamanism, and what sorts of shamanic services I will be offering at this location, as the proprietress has kindly offered to let me use the space for my work. I’ll be offering more information online next week, but in the meantime feel free to come to the opening and be the first to find out what I have to offer 🙂

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.

James Arthur Ray, Redux

So in case you haven’t heard, James Arthur Ray was convicted in the deaths of three participants in a sweat lodge he held back in 2009. The short version is that Ray strongly urged people, who were suffering more than is usual in this physically strenuous ritual in an improperly constructed structure, to stay in spite of vomiting and other symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion/stroke. Three people died as a result of overheating and smoke. Ray, who was running the ceremony (such as it was) was convicted on charges of negligent homicide.

While I feel terrible for those who died and those who loved them, and those who suffered and still suffer as a result of this monumental mishandling of people’s vulnerability, I’m not going to speak on that. Instead, I want to revisit my commentary from shortly after the initial tragedy. Amid other things, I spoke of the primary issue of competency:

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 still maintain that this is the cause of the deaths and suffering in that incident. During the trial, it came out that Ray was woefully incompetent and lacking training in a number of practices he used. This includes a lack of training in how to properly construct the physical lodge, and how to respond to a participant who is in physical distress. Additional testimony suggests that he even willfully ignored these factors, which affected his decision not to act.

I also continue to maintain that this does not prove that being non-Native, or that charging any sum of money, no matter how exorbitant, made people die. You can have a dozen white people charging $50,000 a head enter into a sweat lodge, and if they are properly trained in the construction and use of the lodge and ceremony and implement it to the greatest degree possible, then there is no greater chance of them killing anyone in there than any native person who has also received the same training and displays the same level of implementation. If Ray had happened to be Native in descent–and, hell, even if he had received the proper training but still chose to act unethically and dangerously–his being Native wouldn’t have done a single thing to protect anyone. Nor did the exact amount of money he received make him kill people. His attitude toward how to get the money was more to blame than that. You can point to any number of people who allowed the receiving of money to tarnish their judgment, but that doesn’t mean that there is direct causation between forking over cash and walking into a deathtrap, and the risk doesn’t automatically get higher with rising numbers.

Why am I saying all this? Because I am tired of seeing people who are right to be angry, infuriated, livid about what happened to a bunch of innocent people, turn their rage at a specific incident (or incidents, as this is not the first sweat lodge injury or death) into broad criticisms of A) non-Native people having anything to do with sweat lodges, B) anyone receiving money for Native or other spiritual/cultural practices, and/or C) the very existence of neoshamanism/non-indigenous nature religions/etc. Not only is it an inaccurate conflation of a number of factors that are not all causally related (and remember, correlation does NOT equal causation), but it is also ignoring the fact that there are plenty of non-indigenous practitioners of various related practices who, whether they receive money or not, are competent in whatever it is they do. You may not agree with the values associated with what they’re doing, but if they’re enacting things competently on physical and psychological levels, then you can’t accurately say they’re more likely to fuck things up, and trying to beat people with the red herrings (in this case) of racial background and filthy lucre is just going to distract from the actual problem at hand: this guy didn’t know what he was doing, and didn’t care to know what he was doing, to all appearances.

Let’s instead focus on increasing and maintaining competency. Not “What does this person believe?”, but “What is this person doing, and is it safe?” What reduces competency? Is it the proliferation of inaccurate information on how to enact certain rites when the correct information is often restricted in access? Is it people having unhealthy relationships with the money that represents resources for everyday survival? Is it mental disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it any/all of these and more? What can we do about these things that doesn’t just involve repeating “Don’t Pay to Pray!” and “You’re Doing It Wrong!”? How do we answer both the concerns of marginalized indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, and those of non-indigenous people who do find New Age and neoshamanic practices spiritually, psychologically, and personally fulfilling? This, I feel, is a lot more productive start to dialogue than the assumption that James Arthur Ray is the rule, not the exception.

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.

Yes, White Americans DO Have a Culture!

One of the things I’ve periodically bumped into as a justification for neoshamans and other neopagans to draw from indigenous cultures is that “white Americans don’t have a culture”. By this they generally mean that white American culture is limited to strip malls and fast food and pasty men in suits telling us how the country ought to be run. Somehow this then translates into a dichotomy where everything that seems antithetical to this construct is considered “good”. Hence we end up with a bunch of white people playing African drums, offering rum to lwa, and shoving New Age concepts into oracles based on “Native American spirituality”.

I’m not condemning drumming, white Vodouisants, or non-Native people having good relationships with Native cultures. However, if you look at the “cultural appropriation” category of this blog, I think it’s clear that I have some issues with the way in which a lot of pagan-type folk “borrow” from cultures other than their own. Often it’s a surface treatment of the borrowed culture, with little to no awareness of the power differential between the culture of the borrower and that of the borrowed.

The other issue is that the borrowers often forget that yes, they do have a culture that they’ve been raised with and which, whether they like it or not, permeates their lifelong conditioning and approach to the world. This is why there can be such conflict when they try to insert themselves in another culture–they’re bringing more cultural baggage with them than they want to admit, and if they aren’t admitting they have it at all, then the baggage is just going to sit there and be a big problem. Just because they don’t notice it’s there doesn’t mean others don’t, either.

Let’s look at one of the hallmarks of white American culture (and, admittedly, others, though the U.S. seems to have particularly latched on to it)–individuality. As a culture, white Americans value individuality above collectivity. “Do your own thing”, “the rugged individualist”, “the lone wolf”, “just do it”–these and so many more societal messages encourage us to work independently of others. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Valuing being an individual doesn’t automatically translate to having narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals often display a certain amount of unfettered creativity because they don’t feel held back by group norms. And people in a more individual-based society can still have healthy relationships. It’s just that values and mores may be somewhat different than in a more collective society.

Many indigenous cultures tend toward being more collective. Again, this is not better or worse, objectively speaking. However, there’s a huge difference between being raised in a collective culture, and trying to create community in an individual-based culture. The way one forms relationships, the values that are applied to those relationships, and the balance between self and others are ingrained from birth, and it’s harder to learn new ways of doing these things later in life, especially as an adult. It’s not impossible, of course, but it requires more immersion than what most neoshamans and neopagans who draw from other cultures experience.

Yet time and again I see pagans romanticizing collective cultures and demonizing individuality. In doing so, they ignore the conditioning they have as individuals and try to shoehorn themselves into some artificial community construct, or, alternately, attempt to join up with a more collective culture while approaching it with a largely individualistic mindset (which they often deny they have!) In the former case, all too often these artificial communities end up with short lifespans because no one really has the skills to be able to build their scaffolding from scratch. In the latter, there are numerous examples of well-meaning but clueless white people hanging around the edges of indigenous communities, hoping someone will take them in, or worse yet, inviting themselves into the community and creating quite a mess of things.

Additionally, the conflict between individual and collective ways of being manifest themselves in some of the more arrogant manners of cultural appropriation. These tend to be along the lines of “My spirituality is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, and if the gods/spirits/etc. talk to ME, then I can work out whatever relationship I want with them and no one else matters!” Granted, this is an extreme; I am quite individualistic in my approach to totemism and my insistence that in this culture it’s better to work out individual relationships with the totems. However, I also urge people to be aware of cultural appropriation when looking at any other culture’s totemic system, and to be mindful of where they’re coming from when approaching those other systems.

My point in all this is not to say individuality is bad and collectivity is good. Individuality in and of itself, again, is not a bad thing. What this is meant to be an example of is how ignorance of one’s own culture of origin can seriously affect interactions with other cultures. And it affects the continuing formation of neoshamanism.

See, one of my biggest gripes with core shamanism in particular is that so many people claim it’s “culturally neutral”. Which is bullshit. Core shamanism is white, college-educated, middle-class shamanism. Only people with the greatest amount of privilege would have the audacity to say that what they’re doing has no cultural trappings, because they’re the only ones who have enough privilege to ignore cultural differences. That’s part of what privilege is about: you have the option of ignoring everyone else, while everyone else has to pay attention to you.

And I see this time and again with white neoshamans. “We have no culture, so we can plug our shamanism into other people’s cultures.” It’s racist, and it’s also separating neoshamanism from the possibilities it could have in the culture that produces so many neoshamans. If we’re so busy trying to be like other cultures, is it any wonder that we have an increasingly negative view of our own?

So how do we white American neoshamans change this? Well, first of all, by admitting that we do have a culture, which, yes, does include things like strip malls and suburbs, but includes a whole lot else, too. We need to be exploring our communication styles, our values, our biases, and how this affects our interactions with others. We need to stop looking at our culture as something to be ignored or demonized (but not go the opposite direction and try to elevate it above everyone else–white supremacy is bad, mmmkay?) And we need to understand that even “white culture” is a broad artificial construct, that the concept of “whiteness” was created to try to marginalize racial and ethnic minorities, and that there are a lot of nuanced subcultures under the umbrella of “white culture”. Plus there’s the issue of intersectionality–we are not just our race, but our sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and numerous other things that make up our social location. We can’t ignore these influences and just say we’re “culturally neutral”. It’s impossible.

Most of all, we need to stop with this whole “All people are one people” thing. Yes, it is good to acknowledge interconnection and universality. However, “all people are one people” is too often used in the same way as “I’m racially colorblind”–a nice-sounding way of absolving one’s self of the hard work of admitting there are still very real inequalities, and saying “we are all one” does jack shit to actually address or do anything about those inequalities. It’s little consolation to people who are stuck on the bad end of those inequalities, and again “we are one” originates uniquely out of a place of privilege.

And “we are one/all people are one people” is too often used to justify cultural appropriation. After all, if we’re all human beings, then we all have the right to use whatever cultural or spiritual trappings we like, right? We’re breaking down the barriers and boundaries between us, aren’t we? Except a lot of the time it’s the people who are more empowered who are busting down the defenses of minorities who use those boundaries to feel more protected. Just read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, for example, and you can get a pretty good idea of why so many Native people are so distrustful of white people–and why walking in saying “We’re all brothers and sisters” just ain’t gonna cut it.

So I challenge you to start thinking about this stuff if you haven’t already. If you’re a white, middle-class, college-educated American neoshaman like me, look at how your culture–and other social factors–affect your shamanism. If you glorify indigenous cultures over your own, look at what you dislike so much about yours and see whether that’s really warranted. Chew on this stuff. See what you make of it.

ETA: 11 September, 2012 – The comments on this blog, to include this post, are screened. If you’re going to just leave vitriolic screeds against one group or another, don’t bother. They’ll just get trashed. If you want to constructively add to the conversation, whether you agree with what I say or not, that’s fine. But ranty bits about how “all members of [group] are [stereotype]” aren’t going to see the light of day here. This is a very sensitive topic, and I don’t want this to devolve into people virtually screaming at each other. It doesn’t do anyone any good, and it won’t help you feel better, either.

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.