This question is another that I see often in shamanism forums.
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Originally published at Pagan Square.
I’ve long wrestled with the concept of ‘life purpose.’ Foremost, it seemed limiting–just one? And it smacked of New Age woo. The true wrestling part, though, was that I felt a deep calling, always, like since I became aware that I was aware, between 5-6 years old. I didn’t know what the calling was, and for most of my youth I was satisfied to just recognize that it was.
In this series we’ve talked about needing humans as part of our spiritual support. I’d like to elaborate on why we specifically need groups as part of our spiritual support.
You would think that for animists, community is an easy one. The perspective of animism assumes awareness of, if not connectivity with souls. Most of us modern seekers project that view largely onto what we were domesticated to perceive as inanimate: trees, cars, rocks, clouds. Further, we’re more comfortable seeking soulful meetings with rattlesnakes than another person. Specifically, a lot of us are more at peace with solitary affinity, and avoid groups like the plague.
Not without good reason, of course. Most modern animists emerged from the church. We arrive back in the wild having chosen to leave an organized belief system that no longer works for us, and any structure that even remotely looks like it. However, when we make those kind of breaks, we realize in hindsight we’re leaving more than a belief system.
If you’re like me, having grown up in a small community that revolved around a tiny country church, my family and church social engagements were inseparable. The same people I saw at Sunday services, choir practice, and youth group, were the same people I saw at Sunday lunch, the Saturday matinee, school ballgames, and birthday parties, and holiday celebrations. They were the same people who gave my mom rides to work when the car broke down, had us over for cookouts, babysat me and my sister, and brought casseroles when there was a death in the family.
Despite however hypocritical, support is ingrained with the belief system; thus, when we leave the church, we leave such help behind. We are trained from an early age to believe that amenities are faith-based, and faith changes, they disappear with relationship. These mundane deal-breakers are like attempting to leave an abusive marriage. Congregation members stay with a faith they don’t really believe in because they can’t sustain without the material supports of the community. Ie, the community would disown them across the board, if they leave.
Likewise, the tangle of religion-of-birth and family can create incredibly painful interactions. Leaving can alter families forever, particularly if those relationships were already strained. Again, some people never break from the church because they can’t bear to lose family ties. Sometimes interconnection does come with strings, and we have hard compromises to make in extricating ourselves from them. This emphasis on situational support grooms us to put spiritual needs last.
Many of us also haven’t had good experiences with groups beyond church doors. Whether focused on earth-based spirituality, a specific cultural path, healing modality, soul practice, community interest, sport, or hobby, it isn’t long before we realize the problems of organization affect every collective. At some point in development, every group has power struggles, personality clashes, imbalance of support, a lack of necessary guidance. Such is the human plight of meeting in numbers.
All of these experiences with groups shade our ability to connect collectively, as animists. When we allow such painful experiences to shape how we come together in groups now, we miss a vital component of personal growth. Don’t misunderstand–there’s certainly room for a healthy, progressive solitary path in any -ism. My concern for whether such isolation is truly working lies in how overall spiritual wellbeing continues to develop and grow. In most cases, it doesn’t, not just due to going it alone, but from choosing solitary out of fear.
The reason we go offroad isn’t just rejection of the main path. It’s also rejection of that base need to group with other humans, and denial of the necessary hoops we must jump in our personal development to deal with the trappings that come with being an active group participant. It’s really no wonder that when I start talking about community to clients and students, their eyes glaze over, because they associate community with suffering. Their psyche folds under pressure from not being able to separate support from confinement, manipulation (perhaps even bullying), dogma, hierarchy.
How do we become animists or shamanists in isolation? How do we develop and maintain healthy boundaries between the personal part of our paths that can never be shared, and the part of our ever-conjoined paths that craves conscientious balance with others? We can’t, until we honor how we arrived where we are.
The ability to find a group now rests solely on healing the wounds from joint interactions past. It’s the healthy thing to do, but it’s also the responsible soul thing to do. When we carry old wounds and try to engage with a group, we’re ripe for having those wounds re-opened. For those particularly introverted, even the base dynamics of group interaction can send us recessing deeper into isolation.
By facing social hurts of the past, we learn exactly what our boundaries are in new collective interactions. We come to intimately know what qualities make a good leader, contributor, witness, teacher, and supporter. As we make heart connections with these roles, we learn more about how to support ourselves and others. We internalize the very thing groups sought to teach us to start with: the true delineation lies in what needs we are required to fill ourselves, and the ones we need filled by others.
We don’t have to give up the Nature community for a human one. In fact, culling our feelings about interpersonal networking to support our spiritual path can inform and strengthen all of our other connections. As with learning what needs should be filled by whom, we refine when to turn to which community.
What needs does Nature fill for you?
What needs do people fill for you?
Who is your human community?
How do you bless it?
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The origins of our holy day icons are significant, though it’s easy to get ensnared in what symbols you “should” honor, what they’re “supposed to mean,” who gets to claim them, and understanding what they really mean to you. For that reason, in this exploration of seasonal totems I offer the entire Internet for you to peruse and learn about the symbols that have the most meaning to you at this time of year. My hope is that through sharing the seasonal totems that mean the most to me, that others are encouraged to cull out the holiday symbols that move them, connect with their power and bring them more deeply into personal holiday celebrations.
Totems, for most shamanists, are largely revered as soul animal kindred, though those who know me recall that I work extensively with plant and elemental spirits. Bear in mind as I explore the possibilities of holiday power allies that when I refer to totems I include animals, plants, minerals and elements. Generally speaking, totems are complex symbols that move us in some way. For me, the power of totems extends through several layers. I greet them as archetypes — collective traits found through the particular species, as spirits of nature, as an energetic manifestation specifically visiting me, which some refer to as “Unverified Personal Gnosis” (UPG), and as creatures of the wild, drawing from study of the totem’s behavior, habitat and anatomy.
Popular holiday totems today are mostly of Western European origin and influence, such as mistletoe, fir tree, reindeer, the Yule log, doves, geese, holly, ivy. More recent imports are the Mexican poinsettia and Middle Eastern persimmons and pomegranates. Most of my holidays totems happen to be among the fairly well-known; however, my reasons for including them may be a bit lesser common. Also, a couple of them aren’t typical at all.
Reindeer. The mythology that they can fly is attractive, though I work with their energy this time of year for their stamina. Reindeer are known to be resourceful in extremely cold, almost unbearable conditions, and they work well in large groups. I call reindeer in to help me get through the social anxiety that can come with holiday gatherings, to remind me that I can survive anything, well.
Yule Tree. I regard the Yule Tree as the altar hosting the entire season, and as my indoor connection to the frigid, wild outdoors when I least want to weather it. If there is one totem that I can’t do without, it’s the Yule Tree, which is usually some variation of a fir. From its branches hang decades of holiday memories and virtually every other symbol of the season, making it the center of sacred space in my home. At its base I leave gifts for those I love most in my life; thus, I imbue the tree with gratitude that I am able to give them gifts, and I feel an excitement for sharing that is greater than any other time of the year. To the tree itself, I’m grateful for its evergreen inspiration to persevere through all things, for being a symbol of beginning and ending, both at once.
Yule Log. The symbol of fire is potent this time of year, largely because I’m always cold, and because I want to be reminded of light, of inspiration, of a reliable rotation of seasons. Somewhere in my honoring of the season is a lighted fire reminding me that the sun is returning. It is also where I burn my summary of the year — what I’ve accomplished, and what I do not wish to carry forward — blessed with flame. The ashes are then scattered through the garden, to build the life of the near year. Both the log and the fire are relevant to this act. While the fire transmutes the sacraments of my own wellbeing, the log reminds me that I don’t have to be my only vessel. I don’t have to carry everything by myself.
Snowman. Yep. The snowman is shamanic in essence because mythologically it is the direct result of a manifest human creation taking on its own life force. It’s the shamanic narrative of entering some magical space and shapeshifting with the elements to return some inspirational spirit to the world, and carrying on its teaching long after the ecstasy has melted–with a button nose and two eyes made out of coal. If we have snow, there will be a snowman in our yard. And if we don’t have enough precipitation for frozen art, through the spirit of the snowman I recall the power of the elements to mirror myself, to remind me that everything is alive and looking back at me, extending an opportunity for partnership.
Rosemary. Yes, the culinary herb. I grow most of the herbs used in my cooking and ceremonies, and my relationship to this particular plant spans about 12 years. Rosemary figures into my ritual work often as a smudging agent, clearing away mental, emotional and energetic clutter. Tying into evergreen life force, consuming rosemary at this time of year gives me a sense of inner purifying and connecting with that renewable stream of life force. It reminds me also that ultimately, I consume life.
As you decorate for this season, think about the totems that are important to you and the reason that they move you. Are they traditional to your family or religion? Have you discovered new totems as you explore personal meanings of the season? How do you incorporate totems into your ceremonies and observations? If you’re not sure where the totems of your holiday expression originate, look them up. Learning their history can help delineate their potency for you. And if you’re truly ready to embark on the spirit of the season, ask the totems of your holy days to speak their spirit of the season to you, themselves.
For a comprehensive study on totems and how to work with totems, check out Lupa’s Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic and DIY Totemism, and Peter Aziz’s Working with Tree Spirits in Shamanic Healing. Other great resources are Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak and Nature-Speak. These are great places to learn about totems and how to work with them, in general, and can significantly inform you of identifying new power allies for the holidays.
Mannaz – human– Again we have another reversed Rune presenting us with an opportunity to go deeper within. As Mannaz reminds us of the strength in human connection, the power of acting with All That Is, so it’s merkstave position calls us to be aware of when we are not connected, when we don’t feel part of the greater flow. Note that Mannaz is pictured upright, or bright-stave.
Last week, Eihwaz encouraged us to change, and Mannaz may be asking us to sit with the effects of that change. It calls us to put down rational thinking and go with gut feeling, which for some may be frightening to do.
Likewise, as this Rune is about connecting with other people, its reversed position gives caution to the way in which we socialize this holiday season. Calling to mind community concerns, it may be helpful to tend the web, itself. It may not necessarily be about any personal need, but to be aware of our interconnectedness, and perhaps give a little extra to the care of our bonds.
Also, Mannaz illuminates the human in balance with itself. Take time this week to address Mind/Body/Soul/Emotional needs. Just as you draw on support around you, truly, deeply support yourself. This act of self love is your calling, your gift, and your greatest secret potential.
As you come to terms with your own challenges in connecting, know that you’re not alone. Even through our isolation, we are joined. Everyone you know is going through something that leaves them feeling separate.
Mannaz isn’t without bright notes, regardless of position. Just as merkstave, it indicates feeling outside the web of All Things, so it portends our rejoining.
For several years I’ve made effort to talk openly paranormal experiences from the perspective of someone who views them not as Nature’s side shows or intrusive investigation into the spirit world, rather as an honest look into times that the unseen pokes back in startling ways. Ultimately, creepy experiences are still about spiritual imbalance and restoring balance where possible, and where wanted.
It’s that last bit that gets many psychics and intuitives who work with the dead, discarnate souls, and general bump-in-the-nightness into personal trouble. Many contemporary empaths bring to their work a good/evil dichotomy that implies where imbalance is observed, balance/healing must be done. My experience has been more along the lines of open dialogue, which implies listening to the distressed being’s story, as well as compassionate companionship in facilitating them to what they need. That may be total release, to move on to their next destiny. It may be a kind gesture that affirms them in some way. It may be realization that the dynamic is note mine to affect at the time.
Ultimately, my experience has been that healing can’t be forced on beings in the unseen, any more than it can be forced on those of us in the formed realm. That bit of insight, along with a few others came a a few years ago, in a blog post called, Six Things the Dead Want Us to Know About Life.
“Then he began to think of all the things Christopher Robin would want to tell him when he came back from wherever he was going to, and how muddling it would be for a Bear of Very Little Brain to try and get them right in his mind. ‘So, perhaps,’ he said sadly to himself, ‘Christopher Robin won’t tell me anymore,’ and he wondered if being a faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things” ~A. A. Milne, The Wonderful World of Pooh
I’ve been re-thinking the format of my blog, and in doing so would like to create a more open dialogue around modern shamanism and animism.
“That’s not so different from what you’ve been doing,” you say.
Well, yes, but after spending some time clarifying what I need to do on my personal path and in my work, I realize this blog isn’t doing enough. I’m still open to the reader Q&A format, so feel free to shoot me inquiries. The thing is, it’s hard to ask a question when you don’t know the subject well. While we have come a long way, culturally, in the twenty-five years of my study of shamanism, we still don’t talk about the lifestyle around a shamanistic or animistic lifestyle, which frankly, has a lot to do with the problems that arise when learning to journey. To identify my entries on this theme, I will be posting them under the category “Thursday Betwixt,” dedicated space in my blog to address a topic with a foot in both worlds.
And before you say it, I know I’ve always said there’s no veil. There’s no line that says here’s Here, and———-there’s conveniently, separately located There, the official Other Side. Nonetheless, the need to articulate how that between experience feels and works in daily life requires some kind of identifier, and I’m not going to reinvent the conceptual wheel. Rather, I’ll just go with what we’ve got.
So here’s where this new direction starts: life after shamanic journeying. When I first discovered there were classes that taught shamanic techniques, that collection of techniques was put forward as shamanism. Well, they’re not =) What is even harder to process is that many are still presenting journeying and shamanism in that synonymous way–as if the ability to slide into trance makes one a shaman. Without celebration of our natural inclination toward trance states. Without discussion of what to do with the information stirred by the mere process of journeying. Without discussion of how life after that point changes–even if you have no plans to become a shaman. Without plans for how to carry the ecstatic experience into daily life–back to the foot in both worlds thing. Without provisions for how to recreate that ecstasy on your own.
Many present the technique of journeying as the feature distinguishing shamanism from other intuitive/psychic arts. It is. But that’s not all. I’ve said from day one of deciding–and it is a decision–to be a modern shaman, that anyone can see. We’re all seers, all intuitive. Going into trance doesn’t make you a shaman, it makes you human. It’s not a special skill reserved for certain people. But knowing what to do with intuition, how to respond to it, how to incorporate its wisdom into everyday life is a very special skill, that can–and should–be learned, for your own journeys, and especially if you want to work with others. Otherwise, dipping into journeying can make a huge mess, a spiritual crisis bigger than what brought you to learning the technique to start with.
To that end, a lot of people come to me, after a crash weekend course in journeying, needing to sort it all out, because that’s the part that can’t be taught in two days. Apart from the emotional fallout–which spans absolute ecstasy to horror, depression to joy, and everything between–that often occurs after learning to journey, the thing I hear most is how they can’t hold the ecstatic experience. They can’t recreate it the way they felt it in those early soul adventures.
The very first introductions we make, actively engaging the unseen, blow our socks off. Most definitely they alter our sense of self and Life, on a dime. Even people who consider their initial soul travels “unsuccessful,” with regard to meeting allies recognize the innate power of the altered state. In fact, often those with least expectation are the most deeply affected. Without fail, though, eventually the colors fade, the messages obscure. Sometimes communication stops short, and guides don’t even show up. Why?
Sure, part of that can be chalked up to dynamics. There’s something magickal about group sacred space, particularly when it’s created with the intention to facilitate and support shamanic journeying. Creating space in isolation doesn’t always get the same results, though if done with the intention of bringing in the totems in your familiar to help you hold the space, it can be even more personal, more transcendent. Another culprit is not observing ritual for journeying. The key thing to know about not being able to sustain the thrilling, vivid journeys of fledgling soul travel is… no one can recreate it that way, without manifesting through the rest of life what each journey teaches. Journeys become rote because shamanism isn’t just journeying.
It’s not a personal fault; it’s a deep component of our individualistic culture. We aren’t steeped in honoring the unseen through ordinary, commonplace gestures. Our standard mode of operation is one or the other–Here or There. We don’t recognize both at once. Even those of us on religious paths generally aren’t that thorough in bringing those spiritual tenets through all the days we’re not in earshot of the congregation. We are not known for walking our talk.
Without consistent observation of the unseen when we’re not in trance, it’s really hard to sustain exhilarating journeys into the Dreamtime. Journeying is all or nothing, in that to continue having life-altering experiences in trance, you have to manifest what you glean in them, in day-to-day life. What we do Here, directly impacts what we can achieve There. It’s all connected. When we water our houseplants, we have to consider our relationship to them, how our care affects them. When we walk through a space, we have to realize we aren’t just moving through it, but are engaging with it. When we encounter conflict, we mustn’t just rush to heal it, but consider its role in our story.
As seekers on a shamanistic path it’s not just suggested that we root into the unseen as deeply as possible, it’s expected. We don’t just roll up on the Other Side to learn things and heal ourselves or others. Relationships with Guides and totems need reciprocity as much as other relationships in our lives. Also, shamanic journeying isn’t just the formation of relationships to the spiritual allies you encounter in that state, it’s a relationship to journeying, itself.
Journeying is a lifestyle change. It gives you the seeds to grow what you need in your life. Unplanted, nothing can grow, Here or There. Planted, you grow everywhere.