Modern shaman and best-selling author S. Kelley Harrell’s new book, “Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism,” out May 30 from Soul Rocks Books, is a light-hearted and informative handbook introducing shamanism to today’s young adults and beginning seekers. Author and journalist Beth Winegarner’s latest book, “The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in The Crossfire and Why Teens Are Taking Them Back,” addresses how certain interests — including alternative spiritualities like shamanism, neopaganism and others — have been unfairly blamed for teen violence. Kelley and Beth got together for a chat about alternative faiths, cultural misperceptions and the importance of trusting youth as they find their own paths.
Beth: I know practitioners within Santeria and Palo Mayombe who say that those paths are gaining in popularity among teens. Are you seeing anything similar with shamanism? Do you think more teens are feeling the call? Why does this book make sense at this particular time?
Kelley: I do see this is the case with modern shamanism. It makes sense to put this book out now because so many young people aren’t satisfied with the status quo of religious paths, lifestyles, gender issues, philosophies, and even career concerns, in general. Their processes and options are very different, even from when we were that age. There are so many conflicting messages in media, that having a supportive, yet, disciplined way to examine the unseen and engage with it, connect it back to mundane life, is very grounding. Young people are looking for ways to bring personal meaning more into everything they do. That’s what rebellion is about. Expressing that need in a compassionately supported context ultimately benefits us all.
A key thing I see that’s different about young people, now, compared to older generations, is a lack of fear, which manifests in a couple of important ways. First, they aren’t afraid of intuitive or even supernatural experiences. They express being a great deal more capable to accept them for what they are. Even when they don’t have an understanding of what those experiences are, they don’t run from them. There’s a greater willingness to just accept that life is bigger without having to define that what means. Likewise, teens, today, aren’t afraid to diverge from their elders’ philosophies and viewpoints. While they may not wave that difference around, they recognize that they approach life differently, and seem more able to express compassion for difference, period. It’s when they are not shown compassion for the difference that shadow becomes a factor.
Side note, but I’m also tired of information on paths such as shamanism coming from outside the shamanic community. The broad resources that flit through media read copied and pasted from some 1970s text book. There is a real need to see the path as alive and evolving, and in seeing it as such, a possibility for personal connection to the unseen.
Beth: I hadn’t thought about the possibility that younger generations might be more open to supernatural experiences without being scared of them. I wonder if that’s a product of growing up in a more agnostic, or even atheist society, rather than being raised in more dedicated religious households and not being so exposed to the idea that anything outside the church is scary. One of the things I noted when I was researching “The Columbine Effect” is that kids — even young kids — have a very clear idea of what they’re comfortable with and what’s too scary or out of bounds. So even if they’re less afraid of things that might make their parents or especially grandparents uncomfortable, they still show a propensity for defining boundaries for their exploration.
Those findings connect with something I noticed in “Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism.” In the beginning of the book, you say that we often don’t think of children as wise. Where do you think that idea comes from, and why is it wrong?
Kelley: I think it comes from old virtues around control and a general need to see children as creatures to be shaped, rather than allowed to unfold. That ideology hasn’t worked for myself or anyone I’ve worked with. I find so many wounds around suppressing the wisdom of childhood. What’s wrong about that is obviously that it denies the intrinsic value of the child, though it also creates a rut in which adults become stuck and don’t grow. The education system in the US is a great example of that. Instead of realizing that forcing all kids down the same curriculum the same way doesn’t work, we keep finding ways to narrow the system. It’s a pattern of, “This is how we’ve always done it, ” rather than allowing individuality and creating ways to meet needs more openly.
Beth: I think that probably leads to something else I found in my research, which is that many kids explore a pagan or other alternative path in part because they become so disillusioned with the church or even with a lack of spirituality in the household, and they crave something that helps them create meaning in their lives and maybe also validates those kinds of supernatural experiences you mentioned earlier. Whether it’s neopaganism, Thelema, or chaos magic, these inquiries can turn into meaningful and sincere spiritual paths for teens. It might start out as rebellion but it turns into something else.
That said, many assume that kids who explore a non Judeo/Christian/Islamic path are only “dabbling” or “rebelling,” that children aren’t capable of seriously following a spiritual path they weren’t raised in. But what’s interesting among shamans, even modern shamans, is that the “call” often comes in childhood, doesn’t it? What makes shamanism different in this respect?
Kelley: It does come in childhood. I think shamanism is different in this respect because we are all born animists, which is realizing that all things are innately alive. Children pretend their stuffed animals talk to them. Plants, rocks, cars — everything is a companion to be interacted with, that contributes to the child’s understanding of life. We come in wired for that experience, then as we age into a social system larger than our immediate family–becoming school-aged–we are taught to shun that perspective. We’re taught that imagining livelihood is bad and displays immaturity, possibly lower intellect, or emotional problems. In that light, the connection between judgement of mental state and the unseen starts very early in life, as well. Our natural way of sensing and engaging life is quickly redacted.
Beth: You also write about the line between shamanic experience and what we might consider schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I’ve written a great deal about youth violence being linked to paganism, Satanism, the occult, etc., when in reality we need to look more at violent kids’ mental health and state of mind. How can parents, and culture at large, get better at telling the difference between a child who is experiencing visions or trance-journeys and one who is experiencing delusions induced by illness?
Kelley: In anyone, of any age, the difference between invoking trance and delusions is control. If a young person can control the unseen experiences s/he is having, that isn’t mental illness. If s/he can change the dialogue between self and spirit guides, that isn’t delusion. Control is the key component of trance work — moving into trance at will, directing what happens within, and leaving trance when desired — these are the intended, willed choices that a shaman makes. Someone who can’t control going into trance, who feels victimized or controlled by the experiences within trance, or can’t make trance stop, is experiencing a state of being that could be considered a mental or biochemical condition.
What do you think is the cultural motivation to assign ‘spiritual’ deviation to a youth’s errant behaviour , rather than explore it as the result of mental illness? How does this emphasis shape our view of young people, and these spiritual paths?
Beth: Well, keep in mind that until a few hundred years ago, we didn’t have much of a concept of mental illness at all; the feelings and behaviors we now recognize as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or even neurological issues like epilepsy and migraines, used to be explained in terms of demons and possession. And I think that when it comes to kids, the same social impulses that lead us to assume children can’t be wise or capable of their own agency have also given us the idea that kids aren’t capable of being very mentally ill, that it’s something only adults suffer from seriously. For example, a lot of people don’t think teenagers are capable of being sociopaths, but in Dave Cullen’s book on the Columbine High School shootings, he makes a very strong case for the argument that Eric Harris was a sociopath.
So, if you don’t believe kids are capable of being so ill that they’re likely to commit violence, it’s easier to look for other causes when they become violent. And if they happened to be exploring an alternative spirituality at the time, it’ll seem like an obvious culprit.
Of course, one of the reasons those explanations can make sense to people is that they don’t actually understand pagans or Satanists or occultists all that well. They’re relying on what they’ve heard on TV news or horror films, which is far from accurate. It’s like what you said about relying on the wrong sources of information about shamanism earlier. Instead, people who have a teenager exploring an alternative faith need to read and talk with legitimate sources. I talk about that a lot in “The Columbine Effect,” along with the ways various minority faiths and paths are misunderstood by society at large. So, what are some of the misconceptions people have about shamans and shamanism? Are those perceptions harmful to the practice?
Kelley: This is a personal button. The overlap of New Age ideology and earth-based paths hasn’t always been a service to shamanism. Out of the New Age movement, a lot fluffy, everything-is-always-good perspectives emerged, regarding shamanism. One of those is the idea that all mentally ill people are shamans, which is erroneously based on some nebulous tenet that tribal cultures revere the mentally ill as wisdomkeepers. This is always contrasted with the derision of the mentally ill in the west, which is virtually incontestable.
Every person contributes valuable intuitive insights, regardless of mental state. Everyone. No one is elite and special in that regard. The thing is, tribal spiritual leaders know the difference between someone who is mentally ill, and someone to whom they can completely turn over the spiritual reins of the tribe. Someone who can’t control their ecstatic experience isn’t acting in the role of shaman, and that is the difference. Being able to go into trance doesn’t make you a shaman. Having a spirit guide doesn’t make you a shaman. Just having visions or interaction with spirits doesn’t make you a shaman. Being able to bring those experiences back and shape them into some improved, manifest state for the community makes you a shaman. It’s not the technique, but the role. This has been a steep learning curve in the modern path.
How can practitioners of minority faiths bring awareness of their paths to wider society in a way that is non-threatening, yet informative? What I see is compartmentalization of faiths. Practitioners/Leaders of faiths are out there, writing, speaking, engaging in their own community. They don’t step out, often with good reason, based on maltreatment by the larger community. Rarely does wider society venture in to fact check, let alone learn more. How does that education happen?
Beth: That’s an excellent question. As you point out, many don’t want to speak out in the larger community because they could face backlash. It’s already tough to walk an unorthodox path, which means many people don’t want to go the extra mile of being an ambassador for their faith. And in some cases, as with chaos magic and Satanism, I found that there was a vocal faction who decidedly didn’t want to work toward more societal acceptance. They enjoyed being seen as evil and scary by outsiders to their faith and weren’t interested in anyone accepting and tolerating them.
Fortunately, I think there are at least a few out there — writers, journalists and people who are willing to make themselves available to the press as sources — who are helping bridge the gap between spiritual communities who maybe don’t want to be their own ambassadors, and a culture who otherwise wouldn’t make the effort. Sometimes, this can unfortunately come across as one of those “Gosh, isn’t this weird/fascinating/cool” feature stories, but not always. For example, when the so-called “Craigslist killer,” Miranda Barbour, claimed she belonged to a Satanic cult, both the Satanic Church and the Satanic Temple — the ones who are designing the Oklahoma monument — were quick to talk with major news outlets and say, “This woman has nothing to do with us and we don’t kill people.” That’s exactly what we need more of, and it’s great that the Church of Satan Peter Gilmore, who comes across as a calm, diplomatic and sensible representative for a church that still has many of negative stereotypes to dispel. With time, more groups are learning that a spokesperson like Gilmore is a real asset, and I think that will help a lot.
Originally published at The Wild Hunt.
I’m elated to have with us today author and all-around mystic, Sandra Carrington-Smith. I’m particularly happy to have her because she’s a friend and North Carolina author, and because she’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Her story is unique, and I hope you enjoy learning about her.
How would you describe your work/path/art to a beginner?
My writing revolves around self-expression of inner truth. I love to talk about spirituality, and the way seemingly opposite paths can merge to create a powerful and solid system of belief. I find it harder to address a point using non-fiction, so I choose to do it with fiction. Novels paint mental pictures and they make it easier for the reader to absorb abstract concepts. My novels are suspenseful, but they are all heavily laced with spiritual reflections.
How did this work call you? At what life stage?
I started writing poetry when I was very young, but I didn’t go very far with it. Novel writing began when I was in my mid-thirties and it took me by surprise. The Book of Obeah was initially going to be just a short story that I was going to pen for myself, then it became infused with life of its own and decided it wanted to be a full-length novel.
Describe your experience of spirituality as a teen/young adult.
I grew up in a very eclectic system of belief. It was almost like being a small child raised in a family where several languages were spoken at once. It was a bit confusing at the time, but as years went by it became obvious to me that we all seek a very similar truth, and although we might follow different paths to get to it, the end goal is the same. The paths themselves aren’t all that separate if one looks at them with a clinical eye – we all strive to find God; God works through existing life forms and elevated forms of energy to help us evolve; we all are vulnerable to and afraid of evil.
How does that experience speak through your work, today?
My personal spiritual beliefs, which of course stemmed and evolved from my upbringing, play a tremendous part in my writing.
Sandra Carrington-Smith is an Italian-born author who relocated to the United States in the late 80’s after marrying a US soldier who was serving overseas. Although writing was Sandra’s deepest passion since childhood, her dream of becoming a published author had to be placed on hold for several years. Moving to a new country provided several challenges, the biggest one being the language barrier she encountered when she first arrived.
In order to become fully integrated, Sandra tapped into her love for reading, and over time her vocabulary grew extensively. She gave birth to three children and devoted most of her time to raising a family. By the time she was in her late 30’s, Sandra decided to revisit her old passion for writing, and penned a novel of paranormal suspense, The Book of Obeah, followed by a self-improvement book, Housekeeping for the Soul: A Practical Guide to Restoring Your Inner Sanctuary. Both titles were sold to the same publisher and released in 2010. Killer in Sight (A Tom Lackey Mystery) was released in May 2012, and The Rosaries (sequel of The Book of Obeah) was released in December 2012.
The Book of Obeah went on to win an international book award. It was released as an audio book in the second quarter of 2013 by Cherry Hill Publishing, and it is narrated by Dave Fennoy. The title is a finalist in the prestigious 2014 Audie Awards, in the category of thriller/suspense. Currently, Sandra is working on two new novels: Shadows of a Tuscan Moon and The Key. She lives in Raleigh, NC, with her husband, children and three cats.
I’ve worked with author, Heather Long, quite a lot, and I respect her tremendously. Today, she shares her thoughts on Summer Solstice, and
Summer Solstice, Midsummer, High Summer, Solstice Day—the longest day of the year is typically celebrated June 20-22 in the Northern Hemisphere (conversely this is also the same time as Winter Solstice in the southern, but that’s for another sabbat post here). The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year and derives its name from the Latin sol sistere, which literally means: sun stand still.
The farther north you are in the Northern Hemisphere, the longer today will be. For example, where I live in North Texas, the sun will rise around 6:20 in the morning and set around 8:38 in the evening, meaning the sun will be in the sky for 14h 18m 47s. Farther north in countries like England or in states like Alaska the day will begin around 4:30 in the morning and the sun will set around 9:20 in the evening for a whopping 16 hour+ day of daylight (London) and rise at 2:48 in the morning and set sometime around 12:48 a.m. the next day in Alaska for an amazing twenty-two hours of sunshine.
In every way, Summer Solstice is the polar opposite of Winter when night reigns and families huddled together to stay safe in the dark, Summer Solstice is about life bursting under the light, sharing, playing, celebrating and observing a day of light and laughter.
While the modern vernacular holds that Midsummer day is the beginning of summer, most pagans and more Wiccans observe it as exactly that – MID-summer. This is the high point of the year, because the days will grow shorter and shorter following this stretch of the wheel. In some ways, Summer Solstice actually marks the “end” of summer, and the turning of the wheel toward Lughnassad or Lammas Night in August. But more on that later.
Most of the holidays on the wheel of the year observe the seasons of the harvest whether it’s planting season, tending season, harvest season or the time for the crops to lay fallow. Summer Solstice actually marks the day of the very first harvests of those crops planted as far back as Imbolc and Spring Equinox. Farmers may gather their first bundles of hay and leave them to dry in the sun, or they’ll keep an eye on crops depending on how turbulent the storm season is…
…and as we all know this year it’s been very turbulent. Summer Solstice is a good time for picking herbs and fresh flowers. For example, today will be the day I cut back my rose bushes—they’ve been growing like weeds since spring, but they need to be pruned and shaped and many of those beautiful blossoms will come inside to fill the house with the fragrance of fresh blooms.
How I Would Celebrate
In many years past, I would head to one of the local lakes with a whole group—usually from different covens and traditions and we’d rent a huge campsite for the Summer Solstice weekend. We’d pitch tents and spend our days in the woods hiking, or in the lake cooling off. The real party starts at sundown, because it’s time to honor the sun with bonfires. While the Goddess is found in all of our rituals and holidays, Summer Solstice is unmistakably a day to honor the God aspect, to celebrate his service and blessings upon us. We could not have the green without the sun, we could not have life without the sun, we could not have our world without the sun.
It is also a day to celebrate the service of the Oak King, because it’s time for him to pass his torch to the duality of his aspect: the Holly King. The Horned One, most often perceived in Western culture as Herne the hunter, though of course he has many other names, also is represented by two aspects: the Oak and Holly Kings. In some traditions, a man would be crowned the Oak king and he rules from Yule to Summer Solstice, at the Solstice, the Holly King returns and he and the Oak King battle for the Goddess’ affections, and it is the Holly King who will rise and rule until Yule. (Yes I apologize for that rhyme). In some modern traditions, this is seen as more of a passing of the “torch,” an honor to all the hard work to get to the summer, a well-deserved respite for work done and the giving over of responsibility to see to the rest of the harvest and the falling of night to another.
Dancing around the bonfire, singing, canoodling (yes, I said canoodling), and the passing of the meade made at Beltane are all very typical ways to celebrate. But so are:
Seriously, the last is one I observe for some of the day—it is a day to celebrate that we exist at all. But if you spend your day outdoors in the sun, be sure to wear sunscreen. In Texas, it will be sweltering outside, the sidewalk will be hot, the air torpid, and the pool water warm like the bath—and we’re all alive because of this beautiful delicious heat from the sun.
In some traditions, this day is also the day when the heavens marry the earth, their long courtship and handfasting is done, now they will be blessed in a union. It’s also the month considered the most popular for weddings both because of the Solstice and the goddess for whom the month is named: Juno (Latin for Hera) – wife of Jupiter (Zeus) and goddess of marriage.
However you celebrate today, embrace the bounty in your life, dance, sing, and be merry. Because the days will grow shorter, the long nights will return and we need to carry as much of this sunshine forward in our souls as we can stand to carry.
Summer is one of those times when I don’t perform a ritual, but instead embrace the whole day. I’ll wake to the sun and spend a few hours outside that day, going for long walks and usually by afternoon, hit the swimming pool or the lake because it’s too hot for anything else. In years past, I’ve also used today as the day to weave a wreath with flowers and hang it out in the sun, then I’ll sleep with it. It’s a little way of bringing the sunshine indoors, but allergies aren’t always friendly to it.
Blessed be and may your summer solstice be filled with the creative passion of the light.
Find Heather’s Chance Monroe series, below:
Available worldwide, Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism.
I recently had the honor of writing for TarotWikipedia, on life as a modern shaman.
To many who find the modern shamanic path, the summation of that work is learning to journey. Sometimes called skywalking, starwalking, or soul flight, journeying is the term most often applied to ecstatic trance. It is the cognisant dreaming state of willing an aspect of the soul to travel out of the body, into a destination in the spirit realm, for benefit of self, other, or community. That’s a mouthful, yes, and it’s intense travel.
Many learn to journey by taking classes taught by someone who has mastered the technique. It’s actually not hard to find classes on ecstatic trance all over the world now, often flavored with many cultural influences. Certainly many books and websites outline various approaches to spirit travel. This jaunt into the unseen is not just an exercise in experiencing the self out of form, but an opportunity to map the Dreaming, to greet spirit guides and totems, to heal, to bless. The act of shamanic journeying, itself, becomes a relationship one has with All Things.
I teach ecstatic journeying, and have since 2000. I’ve mastered the technique of journeying, despite that it dips and dodges, shows me new faces and territories, then swings out and loops back to familiar climes and allies. The thing that I work on to this day is rooting into everyday life what my shamanic journeys teach me. This is the part that can’t be taught in a weekend class, or perhaps even through years of classes. This grounding is the part that can only be learned by doing it, everyday, all day, through every aspect of life.
Learning to journey isn’t a technique, it’s a lifestyle change. I tell this to students who take my classes; I’ve said it repeatedly in the many articles and essays I’ve written on modern shamanism. Ecstatic journeying changes our lives. It rearranges our synapses and priorities, and allows us direct contact with the spiritual manifestation of all that our imaginations can perceive. When we journey, we return changed in ways that can’t be planned for, and most certainly can’t be ignored. That attention must be given in sharing, doing, being, creating the world of imagination–where we live.
Originally published at TarotWikipedia.
Today’s the day: my new book, Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism releases world wide. To celebrate the occasion, all summer Intentional Insights will host leaders in Pagan and shamanic communities, artists, authors, and activists in the Teen Spirit Wise Voice Series. These fabulous people have come together to share their stories on exploring spirituality in their young adulthood, what spiritual traditions they honor now, and how the offroad experiences of their youth influence their work and path, now.
It goes without saying that the book, itself, is the culmination of years of work, study, and soul relationship-building, on my part. Honestly, when Alice Grist told me her plans for the Teen Spirit series, I cringed. The teen years were hard enough the first time, I didn’t really want to revisit any of it if I didn’t have to. Of course, that was me being selfish, because when I did finally give in and reflect on what was happening in my life on many fronts, at that time, I realized that baptism by fire for what it was, and I knew I would write this book for one simple reason: Nobody has to do it that way anymore.
That’s it, really. If we’ve learned nothing in the modern shamanic movement, which is what’s happening, if you haven’t looked around, it’s that we are our own tradition, now. We are no longer in the shadow of traditions spanning a history that was always eventually going to birth us. We are no longer pioneering a movement to begin; we’re in it. We are many paths aligned by timing and geography, reconnecting very personally with the sacred in a way that changes how we go forward, for all time as a culture. It’s time to realize and celebrate that fact, and look to building the foundation from which those who come after us will blossom.
We’ve obsessed about where we’ve been, taken a lot of shit for where we’ve come from. As we continue to find our shamanic roots, it’s time to share ecstatic vision for where we are going. We have the opportunity, now, to engage a new audience, a young audience. We have a collective opportunity to offer access to a tradition most of us didn’t have, and couldn’t even identity.
What became evident in talking with those in this blog series is that we all share a few common traits. We knew at a young age that we were experiencing life differently. For whatever personal reason, the collective directive that led us away from that knowing was to placate others, to make their lives and experience easier, more comfortable in approaching us–a pattern that for most lasted into adulthood. Another commonality made me laugh–the repetition of the phrase, “There was no Internet back then,” hinting at how just the advent of that one little thing would have left us feeling supported, connected, and possibly more educated about our worldview.
And now, we can offer so much more to those seeking, today. We have living, breathing, thriving shamans in active traditions all over the world to honor. We have each other.
Yes, those featured in this series share stories of challenged pasts, some of which are painful to read. What we have in common about our present is this: We recognize the shift in young adulthood that impacted our spiritual path forever, and through sharing our stories, want to encourage you to stay the course.
It’s worth it.
You’re not alone.
Subscribe to Intentional Insights, a blog for sacred community.