“Natural” vs. Artificial”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Being a (White) American Shaman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Not Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administrata and Self-Forgiveness

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

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

So. On to the main meat of this post.

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

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

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

Yes. Nail. Head. You got it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are my only choices? Unacceptable.

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

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

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

Wolf Skin Ritual

Aha! I think I figured out how to keep you folks with RSS feeds from getting slammed with all the pictures! Let me know if it works.

Anyway, today I did the ritual I had planned to retire my old wolf skin and dedicate the new one. Only a few folks showed up, but it was a good group, and it was a really successful ritual overall. I’ve got a full writeup and some pictures to share here–enjoy!

I’ve been dancing with this old guy since 2002:

He was my very first wolf skin, purchased in the late 1990s, and he told me before I went to my first pagan gathering that he wanted to dance with me. So I split him open, rigged him up with some leather straps to tie him to me, and we went out and danced at the fire circle, with great success! Since then, we’ve danced together around numerous circles. Sadly, I didn’t know much about taking care of hides til much later, and between rainy, damp nights in tents, and heat from the fires, he decomposed over time even though his was a pretty good quality tan.

So I recently made the final payment on my new wolf skin, and wanting to have him dedicated before going to a Beltane festival next weekend, today was prime time for making the ritual happen. Here’s a picture of him right after he arrived in the mail:

At some point I want to post a tutorial on how I got him from that to his present state, but now’s not the time.

So I got things set up for the ritual. Here are a couple of pictures of the altar:

There are some items from the permanent Grey Wolf altar in my art/ritual room, along with my Black Bear rattle which I use to call and send home spirits, a fern frond and a turtle shell of water that I use to purify the ritual area prior to ritual, my ritual knife, and a platter with pouches for part of the ritual later on. You can also see the two hides curled up together, and a collection of spare musical instruments, as well as my own drum.

I started the ritual with purification by sprinkling water with the fern, since I dislike smoke and therefore smudging. (Sprinkling water on people is especially fun depending on their reactions. I’m definitely keeping this!) I then called the various spirits and places of the directions to join us, along with a couple of other beings I wanted to invite, Grey Wolf included.

Then I picked up my old wolf skin and carried him around the altar, talking about our history together, how he taught me to wolf dance, and some of the things we had been through. I talked about how it was going to be our last dance together, and that this was a very special event. Then I put him on for the last time, and while the other participants drummed and rattled, we danced around the altar. I could feel how tired and worn-out he is, but he made a good go of it, and we ended it with three good, long howls.

Then I took him off, and I was crying as I did so. I thanked him one more time for the good years dancing together. I laid him out on the floor, and stretched out the new skin as well. I took the leather straps from the old skin and transferred them to the new skin, whom I had previously prepared.

And then I danced the new skin. And I could most definitely feel the difference! This guy was ready and raring to go! We didn’t so much dance as run, leap, pounce, and gambol. (Yes, I said gambol.) It was tough at times to get him to stay focused on the dancing, which was fine–I’m just glad he was so happy to be moving around again. There’ll be time enough to work out etiquette between us. It was good, though, and I’m looking forward to the fire dancing next weekend.

We then took a break to chow down on the potluck goodies people had brought, and enjoy some social time. After that, I had people bring the small leather pouches I had given them, and I cut off small bits of fur from both wolves and put them in the pouches. Mind you, I never give away fur from my personal wolf skins, so this was a really unusual thing–those who got them received very special gifts. And then I closed down the ritual, said farewell to the assembled (both corporeal and otherwise) and went to ground.

I put the old wolf skin on the permanent altar; here’s a pic:

You can see the Brown Bear altar beneath it, and also some assorted ritual and art effects on the floor at the base. No surprise, I’m already running out of room on the Wolf altar.

And while I didn’t have pics taken during the ritual, here are a few pictures of me in the new wolf skin. (No, that’s not my ritual wear–it’s the outfit I wore during the pics I took for the potential tutorial I may do.)

It takes a very large wolf skin to be able to fit over my 5’4″ frame like that. It’ll take some time for us to adjust to each other; I need to fit the straps properly, and add a couple of others. Also, my arms do fit through the holes that his forelegs went through on the front leg skins, but it’s a tight fit. It’ll loosen over time, though. Still, he fits nicely like my old skin did, and we were very comfortable dancing together.

Also, small bit of timing–my period started in earnest while I was dancing the new skin. Given that the moon is waxing, and Artemis has recently come into my life again, and I am a Luperca in the Ekklesia Antinoou it’s an interesting series of convergences to note.

Shamanism and Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.