For the week of 4 December 2016
In which motivation is of the essence.
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?
Available now for pre-order on Amazon and other stores, Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism — for the spiritually curious youth in us all.
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.
In discussing the challenges sustaining relationships with guides can pose, I bring up a topic often overlooked in many esoteric arts circles, not just in modern shamanism: personal truth, or as it is more commonly called Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG).
Most of us come from religious paths that strictly forbade us to act as our own spiritual conduit with the Divine. Part of what leads us to a more direct path is realizing the lack in such spiritual tropes. Yet, I see this same trap wrapped in different words and habits in esoteric arts all the time. I’ve known people who won’t order food from a menu without asking their guide’s input, first. I’ve known others who firmly believe that a ritual to Air won’t evoke the favor of the element if it isn’t done precisely so, every time. I’ve known intuitives who were called upon to assist in emergencies but declined because they didn’t have their portable altar with them to create sacred space. I’ve known people who never once uttered an insight of their own, replying “Well, my guides say ____,” or “I can’t comment until I ask my totems.”
How we roll with our Spiritual Council is exactly that–our relationship with our personal spirit allies. Part of the shaman-guide relationship is knowing its boundaries, with regard to spiritual discipline and possibly even health. I’ve got my own sacred eccentricities. I’ve had plenty of times that I became static in my process. Above all else on my path, I’m an advocate of results and growth, and I find that when I inhibit my instinctive responses, I stop getting meaningful results from my actions.
We’re creatures of habit, and the one thing that focused, dedicated journeying will teach in a hurry is dynamic self-reliance. Yes, the core component of a shaman’s effectiveness is committed relationship to spirit allies, though that doesn’t mean to the effacement of self. The idea that we sacrifice our innate wisdom at the feet of our guides is really no different from the rigid doctrines that talked us out of our spiritual knowing.
Soul allies don’t want to be a crutch or habit. They don’t want to be a convenient escape, or to keep circling the same healing wagons with us. In fact, projecting that wisdom can only come from guides eventually strains our relationship with them. When we stop forcing their counsel out of habit, the emphasis on belief that we need to ceases, and a willingness to enable direct experience with personal truth emerges.
Our guides want and need us not to just explore and implement UPG, but to stand in it. Not once, but over and over. That’s the thing about truth. Even if core truths we knew of ourselves at the age of four are still true, the ability to hold ourselves open to the possibility that they can change creates the evolving atmosphere for them to remain true.
Years ago, a dear friend summed it best: “We find truth, we know it, then we set it down, and back gently away.”
We must make peace with the demand to become active participants in our own Spiritual Council. However uncomfortable we find the idea of being ‘wise,’ or ‘aware,’ part of our job in self-healing is defusing the ego charge of these concepts. That charge runs the gamut of not believing that we can be wise, to believing we don’t have the right to be, and fear of being misled by our truth. We forget that the body has its own wisdom. Soul components of ourselves can make meaningful contributions to our spiritual path and practice.
Given that, how do we discern UPG from the insight of our guides? Do we even have to? How much does ascribing the source of insight matter, as long as it rings true? These are individual considerations with which we all must find balance. I don’t always know precisely where an insight came from. I do hear my guides’ different voices, along with that of higher aspects of myself, my body, an individual organ, the grass. For me, what it comes down to is having developed a keen ability to pin-point my truth, and actually listening to it, acting on it when I hear it. In the end, I don’t care where it came from. I’m just glad I could receive it.
When we can accept our personal truths, our life view shifts from the divisions of Here and There, to the moment, to no veil, to All Things. The power of spirit teachers doesn’t weaken when we initiate ourselves as allies. If anything, it strengthens.
See for yourself. They can take it.
Read other posts in the Thursday Betwixt series.