For People Who Are Following This Blog…

Hi, all!

Despite the fact that I closed this blog years ago and the top post reflects this, there are still new people following it. I’m afraid you aren’t going to get much content here. However! If you follow my current blog, A Sense of Natural Wonder, you’ll get to read my current writings. Just click on any individual post in the blog, and then on the right hand side there’ll be a place to subscribe to the entire blog.

You can also read my writing over at my shared blog at Paths Through the Forests. You’ll also be treated to the writings of my co-blogger, Rua Lupa! Again, on the right side of the blog, there’s a form to subscribe by email.

Thank you, and see you on my new blogs 🙂

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Activism, Apathy, and the Antidote to Burnout (Or, A Healthy Dose of Feel-Good-ism)

I’ve been mulling over some of the things we talked about in that interview I did earlier this month. The one that’s really standing out to me right now is burnout in activism, whether that’s environmentalism or human rights or spiritual freedom. Let’s focus on environmentalism in specific, just for simplicity’s sake.

The prevailing theme in environmental activism for the past several decades has been one of urgency, bordering (or crossing over into) doom and gloom. How much of ecological rhetoric is based on “This thing is horribly wrong, and if we don’t fix it WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE”? I don’t have exact statistics, but I’m on the mailing list of a number of environmental groups, and I try to keep tabs on ecological topics in the news. Most of what I see in my inbox and the headlines is negative, problem-focused.

There’s good reason for this: we do face some pretty serious challenges environmentally speaking. From pollution in the water, land and air, to the endangerment and extinction of species due to habitat loss and other factors, to climate change brought on by carbon production–each of these is a massive, complex problem incorporating many smaller, still serious problems, and there are no easy solutions. So it’s certainly not all sunshine and bunnies on the environmental front.

The media is another really significant contributor to this phenomenon. The fact is, bad news sells. So the headlines in the papers, on the nightly news, and on the news sites online tend toward the negative (and even the sensational). This includes news about the environment and our effects on it; when’s the last time you saw a front page headline about advances in solar power or the creation of a national park (did you know we got our newest national park just this year?) Most of what we get is pushed further back in the paper or lower down the page, and it’s usually bad news. So we get a constant stream of primarily negative messages from the media making us feel even worse about the situation.

Consider that this has been the prevailing theme of environmentalism for the past four decades. Individually and socially it gets really exhausting hearing bad news all the time, and when we don’t have good news to balance it out, we can start to feel hopeless, like nothing we do matters. It’s not that people don’t care about the environment; many people have varied concerns related to ecological issues (whether they label them as such or not). But when you feel like you’re facing the problem of “a billion cars in the world, all contributing to air pollution and climate change” or “poachers in countries on the other side of the world killed the last Western black rhinos” what do you feel you can do? Apathy starts to seem like a refuge from all the pain and grief over constant environmental losses.

Well, here’s the point where I yell “HEY, KNOCK IT OFF!!!!” at the media, and the doomsayers, and their ilk.

You’re perfectly validated in being upset and sad and angry and having all sorts of other feelings about ecological destruction in its many forms. And we shouldn’t stop pointing out the issues that need addressing. But for pity’s sake, can we amp up the positive news and feel-goodness some?

No, really. I mean it. We need more fluffy, kind-hearted, bring-on-the-light reminders that things aren’t 100% horrible. They’re not just Band-aids that make people feel good about, for example, recycling their aluminum cans. I mean, yes, okay, there are low-pressure environmental efforts that go no further than encourage people to do lightweight things like recycle or take public transit more or eat one meat-free diet per week, and to an extent they are only meant to help people feel good about taking that small action. But there’s nothing wrong with that! Making people feel good is a great plan!

Why? Well, for one thing, a lot of people respond better to positive ideas than negative ones. We need good news, especially at a time when we are bombarded with so much bad news. Good news keeps us motivated and engaged. We need opportunities to celebrate even the smallest victories, an important part of activism on any scale.

Also, praise goes over better than punishment. Yelling at someone and telling them what they’re doing wrong is more likely to make them resentful and defensive, and we’ve had a lot of yelling the past few decades. On the other hand, if you tell people what they’re doing right, it’s more likely to encourage them to keep up that behavior and potentially adopt other eco-friendly choices.

This means that instead of being problem-focused, we need to start being more solution-focused. Don’t just tell people what’s wrong–give them clear strategies for making the problem better. Use the constructive criticism sandwich: start off with a victory, then bring up a related problem, and follow up with constructive ways your audience can address that problem.

Make the solutions accessible, too–not everyone can convert to solar, for example, but their utility company might offer a green option, or they can find ways to cut down on household energy use. Be open to the possibility that not every proposed solution will work for every person, or that someone might not agree with you on the efficacy of a given solution even if they agree with you otherwise. Remember that you’re working for a common goal, even if the way by which you each do it may be different.

Now, as I’m writing this, I’m hearing in my head the voices of several cynical activists I’ve met in person or online over the years. “These people aren’t doing enough!” they’d say. “They’re just recycling because it makes them feel good, they don’t really care about the Earth, and [insert rant about a dozen other, often more complicated or inconvenient things they think people should be doing but aren’t]. WE NEED REAL CHANGE!!! We have to TELL THEM WHAT THEY’RE DOING WRONG BECAUSE IT’S URGENT!!!” and then proceed to yell about it to anyone they think is the problem. However, the number of people who respond favorably to this sort of aggressive activism is a lot smaller than the number of people who don’t.

Part of what we activists need to do is to accept that we can’t control other people and let go of the idea that we must make them behave a certain way. Let’s say I have (just throwing hypothetical numbers out there) ten people who have listened to me talk aboutrecycling. Let’s say maybe half of them do start recycling, and then the other half go back to their usual ways. But let’s say one of those ten not only recycles carefully, but also is inspired to find out other ways to reduce waste in their home, like making sure they use food before it goes bad, and then goes on to try other sustainable efforts which help them make a bigger positive impact.

But that one person has to come to that decision themselves. If I try too hard to make others do what I want them to, they’ll turn away and stop listening. If I insist that my way is the only way and they have no room to disagree or find their own solution, the result is the same. A person has to have their free will emphasized if they’re going to feel that the decision they make is truly theirs. And if they do indeed feel they made a personally empowered decision, then it’s more likely to stick and perhaps inspire them to try more if they’re so inclined. 

That’s why I feel it’s important to leave people feeling empowered as well as energized and enthusiastic about activism. It does involve some feel-good-ism. And it does need to be balanced out with some of the harder realities; if all you’re doing is some ego-stroking, you’re not going to give people goals to work toward. But we’ve spent so much time erring on the side of serious doom and gloom that I think we can afford to go a little overboard on the positives with a healthy dose of feel-good-ism.

So since I’ve been talking about making more positive themes in environmental discourse, and in giving people some concrete solutions to work with, here are a few suggestions lifted from a more rough draft of these ideas I posted on Tumblr a little while ago:

—Model good behavior. People are creatures of imitation. In the worst cases this turns out social pressure to act in negative ways, but you can also use the tendency to imitate in good ways. And it’s not just “monkey see, monkey do”. When I started gardening a few years ago, I had some friends give it a try as well, because if I could do it, hey, why couldn’t they? 

—Support the victories. Too often the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism is one of doom and gloom and panic. Being informed is crucial, but after a while all the bad news can wear down on even the most dedicated of activists. Part of the problem, too, is that the media tends to focus only on the worst possible spin as a way to get attention and sales; good news simply doesn’t make money. But it IS crucial when keeping people engaged in making the world a better place. So when an environmental org puts out an article on something they (we) managed to accomplish, spread the word!

—Make use of the constructive criticism sandwich. Studies show that if you praise someone and then criticize them, they’ll only remember the criticism—and again, not everyone responds favorably if they feel they’ve screwed up. So round out the constructive crit with another positive which can help give them the energy to go out and improve the thing you were critiquing.

“Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!

It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.

However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.

What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.

Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.

I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.

I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.

But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).

Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)

Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.

This is What’s Important

I had this wonderful idea that when I start telecommuting that I’d all of a sudden have lots of free time, and could do shamanic work to my heart’s content. Unfortunately, I’m all too good at sabotaging my own efforts. As a recovering workaholic, I’m very good at finding ways to fill up my time, and even though I’m not even working full time hours yet at my freelancing gig, I still find that I don’t really have enough time to do everything I want.

This has been a good challenge for me, though. Already I’ve managed to cut down a lot on my internet time; I’ve been staying almost entirely off of Livejournal for almost a week now, just to see how it frees up my time. And I’m trying to get better about managing free time, and not getting stressed when I find that it’s time to go to bed and there are still so many things left to do.

Historically, my spiritual life has been one of the first things to suffer when I’m overloaded. When I have physical deadlines to meet, and physical people yammering at me to get such and such done, and other physical projects to be completed, nonphysical concerns get put on the back burner. It’s not that I don’t want to be tending to spiritual matters, but my priorities have often been canted towards the material plane.

I think on some level I keep waiting for the spiritual smackdown that so many seemingly more serious practitioners speak of. It’s the idea that you can’t ignore your spiritual functions, and if you do, horrible things will happen to you. I don’t doubt that horrible things may indeed happen. However, I haven’t had things happen that I’d call horrible; I haven’t had all “my” spirits abandon me, or get in the way of things that are getting in the way of my spiritual life.

What I have had is pretty consistent pressure, both from within and without. It’s harder and harder to ignore the spirits, though on my end I’m also trying harder to stay “tuned in”. This means that I’ve slowly been increasing my reliability in my forays upstairs, as well as other things that need to be done.

Tonight I went upstairs, even though I was tired, just to touch base. I spoke with Small Wolf (the skin spirit–I am going to use these naming conventions to differentiate between totems and skin spirits of the same species). He noticed I was feeling frustrated about not doing more, not being up there dancing every night and working magic and making more connections–basically not taking advantage of every free moment I have. And you know what he told me? The same thing he’s told me several times since I started working with him more regularly: “You’re here, right now. That’s all that matters.”

And he’s right. I know that by some standards, my schedule is sloppy. I have never been able to handle a daily schedule, beyond saying prayers every night–and even then occasionally I fall asleep before I remember to say them. Despite the fact that I’ve managed to do a lot on my spiritual path, creating my own magical systems, I still sometimes feel a twinge of shame that I haven’t yet defeated my lack of a scheduled practice. It’s not that what I’ve done hasn’t been fruitful; however, I’m well aware of how much better my practice could be if I put something into it every day. It’s not about what I try–yoga stretching, various meditations, nature walks–but about my own tendencies and habits.

But I am making progress. The very fact that I am still committed to this path almost eight months after I started it says a lot for me. I’ve walked other paths for longer, but this is the most intense one I’ve had. I can look at my path since accepting the call to shamanism, though, and see that I have become better, relatively speaking. Despite my too-full life, I have managed to work with Small Wolf three to four times a week for the past couple of weeks, which is more than before. And I’m still focused on continuing this path, even though I sometimes get flustered because I see so many potential things I could be working on with it, so many tasks I could be taking on.

A lot of what I’ve been doing has been my usual manner of doing things–not on a schedule, but merely taking opportunities as they come up. Things like connecting to the Land when I go outside (or when I travel), and talking to the spirits of the plants in my garden, or remembering not to buy chemical-laden products because the Land protests at the potential effect, or my recent experiences with Water and Squirrel. However, I still make it upstairs some nights each week, and I haven’t forgotten. And each time, Small Wolf is right–each time I go up there is one more time than before. It all counts.

Ever a Student…

Sunday afternoon, my husband Taylor and I went for a seven mile hike out at Multnomah Falls. It was the first time I’d been out there since last November, and I really had missed it there (it missed me too, apparently!) We went on a trail I hadn’t walked before, though Taylor had been there on his own. The weather was perfect, and I felt rested and energized–I didn’t really feel tired at all until the last mile. Of course, such a long hike called for a post-hike trip to Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest’s regional chain of sustainably produced, not-full-of-ick-and-grease, burger joint.

But I digress.

It being the first really nice weather we’d had in a while, and being a Sunday, people were out in force; Multnomah Falls is a popular place, and you have to do some hiking to get past the touristy areas. It took longer than I expected, and I started to get grouchy. For me, hiking is a way to get away from most people, not hang out with them. I started getting snarly after a while.

At one point I complained “I wish these people weren’t here. The sad thing is, they’re probably mostly just going to go back home and keep living their usual lives, never thinking about the connection between the pristine condition of this place, and their environmentally unfriendly actions every day”. To which Taylor (who is used to my rantiness on the occasions where my temper still gets the best of me despite my efforts to the contrary) replied, “So how do you know that’s what they’re going to do?” I think I sputtered something about the litter on the ground, and other such things. I tend to be territorial about places I like, even when I have absolutely no claim to them whatsoever (yes, it’s silly of me).

Tay then said, “You don’t know what these people will do. Maybe they are learning and gaining an appreciation for this place. And after all, if your role as a shaman means teaching people to appreciate the wilderness, maybe you need to remember that people need to have this opportunity. Maybe, like me, they’ll get it figured out in time”, and he had a point. When I met him, he wasn’t all that interested in environmentalism, though he wasn’t against it, either. However, I’ve had a pretty solid impact on him in our relationship, and he’s adopted a lot of the same practices and mindfulness I have. We’ve had some good discussions about it, and that’s gotten us both to think.

Then I decided to talk to the Land. I went on a side trail down to the river we were walking along, and opened myself to the Land. What s/he said supported what Taylor had told me. S/he said that hir role at this point was to teach people to appreciate what was still relatively clean, though a bit of pollution had taken its toll in recent years. S/he told me to bring people to hir and to help teach them that appreciation and to make that connection with their everyday lives, that places just like hir had been destroyed or were in danger from our everyday practices.

S/he talked to me further about the concept of teaching, and basically explained that I did not (as I had been concerned in the past) have to take on full time students at this time. Instead, I mainly need to be teaching various lessons through various means as I learn and become comfortable with them. So, for example, my Three Seeds workshop that I held a couple of weeks ago, wherein I brought paganism, environmentalism, and community building all together in the process of gardening, counts as one way of fulfilling this need. Another is a proposed series of animal magic classes I may be teaching later this year in Portland. I can start with relatively short-term, low-commitment things like this, and then work up to more intensive things as I go along. This is a huge relief, believe me!

So that was a good reminder to me, that if I am going to help other people to understand that the Land and all hir denizens are sacred, then I have to accept that they all have equal access, and that some of them unfortunately will still do dumbass things like litter, and break down saplings for no reason, and so forth–but others won’t. It’s a good reminder of one teaching of Wolf’s that really rings true to my experience–Wolf connects with all to connect with a few. One would hope, though, that more than a few would “get it”!

It is good to also be reminded that lessons come in many ways and many forms. (Another one of this basic things that is good to remember no matter how long you’ve been practicing!) Just another good reason to keep one’s ears and eyes open (and, sometimes, one’s mouth shut as well).

Later on, as we stopped at our usual crosstrails to rest before descending the mountain, I heard an owl hooting slowly and quietly maybe 200 or so yards away in the woods. at the same time, I felt the presence of the Animal Father. No, I don’t think it was a disembodied voice–I’d lay money down that there was a physical owl there. However, I firmly believe that deities, spirits, and other such beings may use physical phenomena to make themselves known. I do not think it’s nearly as common as people might think–just because a squirrel runs across your path, it doesn’t automatically mean that Squirrel is your totem. What separated this event from any other encounter with critters that day (including a chipmunk, a hummingbird, and a bunch of white butterflies) was that I definitely felt the Animal Father’s presence. He was pleased that I was there, out in the wilderness again. He likes being in contact with me there more than other places, and he simply dropped by to say so.

Since I’ve started my new telecommuting job, I’ve started my day with meditation. Wolf has made it clear that s/he wants me to start working with hir more intensely, so tonight I’ll go up and start working on a drumbeat and song for hir. I’ve been taking it easy because of all the changes recently, but the spirits are letting me know it’s time to get back to business, as it were.

Comments!

Hooray! I’m caught up on comments! Feel free to go to Therioshamanism if you left a comment to see what I had to say.

I do want to say thank you again for the ongoing comments. It’s nice to know that there are people reading, and that there are people who are inspired, and who have been helped, and sometimes who just want to say “I agree” or “Have you thought of it from this perspective instead?”

An Administrative Note Regarding Comments

Well, three notes, actually.

1. WordPress, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to want to consistently email people when new comments are made to posts they’ve already commented in. So it may be worth your while to go back and check comments you’ve made; I usually reply to all comments to a post.

2. I have started moderating comments, mainly because I’ve seen a bit of a jump in spam comments on my other blog, Pagan Book Reviews. I usually moderate comments within 24 hours during the week.

3. For those of you reading this on the Livejournal feed, I’d prefer it if you posted your comments on the WordPress blog rather than to the LJ feed post–I don’t get comment notifications for the latter. You don’t have to have a WordPress account to do so.

Thanks 🙂