Category: Huffington Post

The Myth of Teen Violence and Spiritual Paths

What does it take to decode teenage America? How can we understand the confluence of factors behind rising crime rates involving our youth, changing sensibilities toward bullying, and violence in our society? Better yet, how do we inform ourselves and support young people in finding the facts? Every day I read articles asking these questions, and a San Francisco woman has devoted the last few years researching their answers.

2013-05-13-BethWinegarner.jpg A passionate supporter of social causes, a civic voice sounding our shifting cultural landscape, a wonderful mother, and a brilliant writer — meet Beth Winegarner. Creator of Backward Messages, a forum openly discussing social elements that feed violence in teen culture, and the media that perpetuates myths around them, Winegarner doesn’t hold back. She takes on sacred cows that have always clouded adult judgment where youth behavior is concerned — heavy metal, video games, the entertainment industry, and the occult. Her work deconstructs every façade that informs our policy, parenting, and perspectives on teens. Not stopping to just debunk socially accepted truths about teens behaving badly, her platform goes on to highlight the real issues creating problems. Among them she cites lack of mental health support, parenting, and in some cases, healthy social communities.

Having interviewed people from all walks of life to understand what creates the cultural myths of violence surrounding teens, a big trend noted in her work is young people turning from organized religion to earth-based belief systems. According to Winegarner, teens by nature “break away, to seek their independence and try on new things, because they’re in the process of learning who they are.” She noted that often those raised with a specific religion may strike out from that religion simply because it’s been a part of their lives and their families for so long. Teens raised without a specific spirituality may seek one out because they want something new.

Her research revealed more specific drives toward open spirituality than just innate rebellion. Drawing from the work of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in their book unChristian, of the majority religion, Winegarner noted that a lot of teens have “lost respect, because they find [Christianity] anti-homosexual, judgmental, or hypocritical.” However, this transition to a nature-based religion only reinforced a seeming turn to the dark side.

Winegarner cites common fear as the base reason that Nature religions are shunned by the overculture, a ‘what-we-don’t-know-will-hurt-us’ reaction. She also states that the presentation of various pagan faiths as scary or harmful in daily news reports and horror movies contributes to confusion around esoteric beliefs, tenets, disciplines, and rituals. Of them she says, “It can be tough to know what to believe.”

Of course, it’s anyone’s guess as to the intentions of such media influences, though their effects often work as deterrents. “You have religious leaders claiming that the Internet makes kids more prone to demon possession just by dint of the fact that it makes information about non-traditional religions more readily available.” That said, she noted that media such as books, films, or TV shows don’t necessarily change someone’s belief system or spiritual path. Her studies showed that while such may introduce young people to new possibilities, they were already open to change.

“I don’t know that they have much of an influence on shaping most teens’ beliefs, though they can be a catalyst in opening them to different modes of spirituality. A book like The Mists of Avalon or a show like Charmed might introduce someone to Wicca as an alternative path worth exploring.” She goes on to say that media certainly can play a role in spiritual change, and everyone’s got their own opinion whether that’s a good thing or bad thing.

In all, Winegarner is breaking into old territory in a poignantly new way. While she realizes the challenges in conveying her work and research, her commitment to redeeming teens and their unique culture are solid. “I strongly believe that there is good in all these so called ‘negative influences,’ and that the kids who seek them out know that. They know exactly what the benefits are and what they’re getting out of their interaction with these things.”

As a result, her view on these influences is more flexible, and her expectations of the overculture more stringent. “We need to stop trying to limit teens or take away the sources of culture, entertainment, reflection, and solace that hold so much meaning for them. When it comes to teens and violence, we need to stop blaming the wrong causes, because that prevents us from being able to stop teens from harming themselves or others.”

Learn more about Beth Winegarner and her publications at bethwinegarener.com. Arm yourself with information at backwardmessages.wordpress.com.

The Myth of Teen Violence and Spiritual Paths

What does it take to decode teenage America? How can we understand the confluence of factors behind rising crime rates involving our youth, changing sensibilities toward bullying, and violence in our society? Better yet, how do we inform ourselves and support young people in finding the facts? Every day I read articles asking these questions, and a San Francisco woman has devoted the last few years researching their answers.

2013-05-13-BethWinegarner.jpgA passionate supporter of social causes, a civic voice sounding our shifting cultural landscape, a wonderful mother, and a brilliant writer — meet Beth Winegarner. Creator of Backward Messages, a forum openly discussing social elements that feed violence in teen culture, and the media that perpetuates myths around them, Winegarner doesn’t hold back. She takes on sacred cows that have always clouded adult judgment where youth behavior is concerned — heavy metal, video games, the entertainment industry, and the occult. Her work deconstructs every façade that informs our policy, parenting, and perspectives on teens. Not stopping to just debunk socially accepted truths about teens behaving badly, her platform goes on to highlight the real issues creating problems. Among them she cites lack of mental health support, parenting, and in some cases, healthy social communities.

Having interviewed people from all walks of life to understand what creates the cultural myths of violence surrounding teens, a big trend noted in her work is young people turning from organized religion to earth-based belief systems. According to Winegarner, teens by nature “break away, to seek their independence and try on new things, because they’re in the process of learning who they are.” She noted that often those raised with a specific religion may strike out from that religion simply because it’s been a part of their lives and their families for so long. Teens raised without a specific spirituality may seek one out because they want something new.

Her research revealed more specific drives toward open spirituality than just innate rebellion. Drawing from the work of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in their book unChristian, of the majority religion, Winegarner noted that a lot of teens have “lost respect, because they find [Christianity] anti-homosexual, judgmental, or hypocritical.” However, this transition to a nature-based religion only reinforced a seeming turn to the dark side.

Winegarner cites common fear as the base reason that Nature religions are shunned by the overculture, a ‘what-we-don’t-know-will-hurt-us’ reaction. She also states that the presentation of various pagan faiths as scary or harmful in daily news reports and horror movies contributes to confusion around esoteric beliefs, tenets, disciplines, and rituals. Of them she says, “It can be tough to know what to believe.”

Of course, it’s anyone’s guess as to the intentions of such media influences, though their effects often work as deterrents. “You have religious leaders claiming that the Internet makes kids more prone to demon possession just by dint of the fact that it makes information about non-traditional religions more readily available.” That said, she noted that media such as books, films, or TV shows don’t necessarily change someone’s belief system or spiritual path. Her studies showed that while such may introduce young people to new possibilities, they were already open to change.

“I don’t know that they have much of an influence on shaping most teens’ beliefs, though they can be a catalyst in opening them to different modes of spirituality. A book like The Mists of Avalon or a show like Charmed might introduce someone to Wicca as an alternative path worth exploring.” She goes on to say that media certainly can play a role in spiritual change, and everyone’s got their own opinion whether that’s a good thing or bad thing.

In all, Winegarner is breaking into old territory in a poignantly new way. While she realizes the challenges in conveying her work and research, her commitment to redeeming teens and their unique culture are solid. “I strongly believe that there is good in all these so called ‘negative influences,’ and that the kids who seek them out know that. They know exactly what the benefits are and what they’re getting out of their interaction with these things.”

As a result, her view on these influences is more flexible, and her expectations of the overculture more stringent. “We need to stop trying to limit teens or take away the sources of culture, entertainment, reflection, and solace that hold so much meaning for them. When it comes to teens and violence, we need to stop blaming the wrong causes, because that prevents us from being able to stop teens from harming themselves or others.”

Learn more about Beth Winegarner and her publications at bethwinegarener.com. Arm yourself with information at backwardmessages.wordpress.com.

Why Journeying Isn’t Shamanism

About Soul Intent Arts - Intertribal Shamanism“Journeying” is the term most often used to describe the process shamans go through to engage the spirit world. The word was associated with shamanic ecstatic trance by Michael Harner in the 1980s, which for those keeping ancient score, wasn’t that long ago. My emphasis on that recentness is that what has caught the attention of those attracted to shamanism in the modern context often isn’t actually shamanism. It’s a fabricated semblance of that spiritual experience distilled to a set of techniques appropriate for western people not to hurt themselves and others (again, Harner). It’s important to understand that journeying isn’t the summation of shamanism, or the role of shaman. In fact, many cultures and traditions don’t “journey” at all. Nonetheless, various techniques of ecstatic trance abound, though the purpose of this post is to unpack the notion of “journeying.”

Seriously. Read on.

Some call it ecstatic journeying or shamanic journeying, starwalking, skywalking. it is all a form of intended ecstatic trance. “Can’t everyone do that?” you ask.

We’re all wired for the capability, though no, we can’t all readily access that wiring, and even those who can’t don’t automatically understand what to do with it. Ecstatic trance requires training to do effectively and well. That training includes learning to set an intention, then traverse the layers of the spirit realm with one’s spirit guides for healing or insight retrieval, with the intention encompassing the duty to bring that wisdom back and make it active in the world. That part is often skipped, as if “journeying” is just the trip out of body. Not so. Effective shamanic trance includes doing something useful with that information, for the betterment of community.

Logistically how do you do it? It’s often done with drumming or other rhythmic induction, specific tempos induce a theta, or light dreaming, brain state. If you’re not sure what those things are or how to use them, this is when you find a mentor. Again, wired, but not active.

Journeying is often confused with pathworking, in which participants are guided in what to see and do. When learning to journey, a general framework is followed to access the ecstatic state, though what occurs once in the spirit realm is entirely organic. Upon mastery of theta trance, the framework used can be as unique as what occurs in the journey, itself, if a framework is necessary at all. As well, it’s associated with meditation and astral projection. Meditation can be any of a gajillion techniques geared for mindfulness–all of which are beneficial to effective trance work. They, however, are not the sum of shamanic trance. Likewise, astral projection is travel outside the body. It doesn’t encompass relationships to a specific destination, flanked with specific spirit allies who assist on that trek, or guidance in what to do once you get there. In short, pathworking, meditation, and astral projection aren’t equivalent to shamanic ecstatic trance.

In the beginning, for most eager shamanic students, journeying is vivid, lush. Deep emotions stir and challenge how we hold our changed psychology in waking reality. For many, those first flights out fulfill a deep longing to connect, or reconnect as it were, with the unseen, that other belief systems or practices don’t provide. In those early stages, journeying seems to provide answers to everything, and for that reason it can be addicting, even escapist if not done with care.

Inevitably, though, the journeying process begs to deepen or to expand in some way that challenges the shamanist. Perhaps getting into trance becomes more difficult. The devices that facilitated it at first no longer smooth the path. The sensual experience internalizes. We begin to see that the spirit realms aren’t wonderland, serving up what we want to see, comfort, companionship. Its messages become less clear. Guides are absent or not as forthcoming. What happened? Why would a process that so fulfilled and provided stop working?

Traditionally, in indigenous and ancient cultures, shamans were chosen by heredity or transformation of a trauma (also called a shamanic death), while some were self-appointed. How they are revealed isn’t as significant as noting how shamans developed and were supported by their communities. Most modern students of shamanism come to it out of personal need, be that trauma or a sense of needing “more.” However, we are not a shamanic culture. We haven’t been surrounded from birth in an animistic life view that fosters our connection with the spirit world in and out of trance. As a result, we leave shamanic circles and classes to return to a mundane that doesn’t support our experiences. We don’t have the network of support to help us sustain the miracle of the ecstatic state beyond the journey. Thus, the journey process, itself, becomes strained. It becomes isolating.

That lack of network also tends to create the pattern of journeying only when something is wrong, when we feel a lack in our lives, or on behalf of others.  Shamanic trance isn’t self-help. in fact, shamanism isn’t self-help. In its full manifestation, shamanism is acting as the bridge between worlds, to bring healing to seen and unseen beings. Anyone who remains stuck in shamanic function as a mode of self-help is not a shaman. This is a modern misunderstanding of the role of shaman as distinct from the trance practice, and is largely the result of the renewal of shamanism happening alongside Reiki, tapping, and various other actual DIY modalities. When shamanism is considered DIY and self-help, a constant pattern of taking is established, creating an imbalance in how we relate to the spirit realm. When we take too much from the spirit realm, it becomes ill, unable to assist us. For this reason, balance must be observed in the role of shaman. We must see ourselves as facilitators of healing in all worlds, not just the one of humans.

Likewise, learning this method of soul travel and how to apply it well takes practice, time, and diligence. Without making it a daily practice as part of our personal spiritual discipline, we can’t evolve to be truly proficient at journeying, and we can’t begin creating ourselves as an animistic culture. We can’t become solid anchors engaging in waking what the spirit realm guides in trance. We aren’t proficient at manifesting that teaching if we don’t have solid roots in mindfulness, emotional maturity, and knowing our own boundaries and skills. These we learn from a teacher, a mentor, someone who actually does this work every day. This is why shamanisn can’t be learned from a book or in a weekend class. It’s not a technique, not a method; it’s a way of being.

Should journeying lose its initial luster, instead of forcing it to suit expectation and demands, dig deeper into formed being. Find a mentor and community who can support soul travels. Connect with the the spirits of immediate surroundings — familiar space, daily relationships, Nature. The more grounded we can be in the awareness that unseen reality is with us all the time, not just in trance, the more we lace spiritual interconnection through everything we do, the more readily trance comes.

Normalization of the journey experience isn’t failure. It’s natural, it’s progress, integration. The act of journeying is a relationship, not just the connections we make from it. At some point, it is right for the experience of trance to integrate, for us to become the embodiment of the community, connections, and wisdom we gain from it. Yet at the same time, we must hold our journey experiences loosely. Let the process unfold as it desires. Along the path of ecstatic journeying, we learn to trust the inner compass, not just to show direction, but when to be directionless, when to become the direction.

Tragedy, Collective Soul Loss, and the Healing Story

In shamanic work is the concept of soul loss, or when an aspect of the soul has become distanced (I describe it as “shelved”) and can’t re-engage with the earthly consciousness. Souls are infinite, made up of limitless soul parts that travel in and out of our awareness. This soul traveling is the natural progress of growth, widening our awareness, expanding our consciousness. In times of trauma, when a soul part leaves and can’t return to the earthly consciousness, that’s when problems arise: chronic illness, feelings of depression, lack of motivation, feelings of not being completely present. Such is the path of soul loss in an individual. When considering collective soul loss, these factors plus another comes into play, making mass soul wounding more challenging to heal.

Horrific, heart-wrenching tragedies, such as the killings at Sandy Hook, in Nigeria, China, Portland, Colorado, at Virginia Tech, Columbine, 9/11, cause collective soul loss. Natural disasters such as Katrina, Sandy, the 2004 tsunami, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, result in mass soul wounding. As a population watching tragedy from afar, once we can process beyond our instinctive reflex to assess self and realize we are physically unaffected by the disaster, our hearts go out to those who were. We grieve for those lost. We mourn for those who lost loved ones and survived. We devote compassionate support to the affected community, through donations, prayer, providing manpower. We watch through the haze of the media circus, judicial process, and/or legislative attempt to prevent future disasters, seeking release, perhaps even hope, vindication.

Somewhere along that road we begin to realize that we are more affected by the tragedy than we realized, and we feel guilty for that fact. We feel that because our lives were not directly impacted by the disaster, we shouldn’t be disrupted in the daily honoring of life. We shouldn’t be stunted or disconnected from our joy. We shouldn’t feel it as much as we do. We feel selfish for thinking that we need healing, and for turning that heart focus to ourselves, rather than those in the immediate community.

Guilt and ego are the key inhibitors to healing collective soul loss. To devote healing to the whole dynamic, to treat the wound of collective soul loss, we have to include ourselves in honoring what happened, how it left us feeling, and in the healing offered. We must grieve the dead, even if we didn’t know a single one of them. Have compassion for the survivors, and all of the dark days ahead of them as they put their lives back together. Support them and their community in the way that we best can without depleting our own resources. Then repeat that whole process for ourselves.

Animism teaches us that we are all connected in the web of all things. As trauma in our personal lives creates perceived fragmentation of our souls, so collective trauma results in the perceived tear in that web. Only by remembering that we are all connected do we heal. Nothing heals in isolation, but through the combined efforts of us all. We must do what we can to express support for the immediate community, then our healing efforts must turn to our own wounds, knowing that what we heal in ourselves generates healing for others. This is the shamanic narrative. Through the creation of our own healing stories and sharing them, we inspire others to speak their stories. We create a bond focused on collective healing, assuring wellbeing for all.

Take time to reflect on your healing story. Write it down, if it helps, or draw it, paint it. Express all of the feelings wrapped into your experience of the healing process, and know that in doing so, we all heal. We all move closer to wellness.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Mindfulness and Animism: The Art of Soul Healing

Originally published on the Huffington Post.  Follow me there for updates to my Huffington Modern Animism blog.

Dream Catcher, artist unknown

When I began my shamanic practice almost 15 years ago, I found very different cultural perceptions of modern soul healing than those I run into now. I’ve written about contemporary approaches to shamanism, and how we have remade our perceptions of soul healing. Many people now know what a shaman is, what a shaman does. They know concepts that a mere decade ago were shrouded in mystery: soul retrieval, soul loss, soul wound.

In the more recent years of my shamanic practice, I find a pervasive belief that soul healing should in and of itself be enough. There is an expectation that it’s a quick fix, a miracle cure for everything. Along with this travels the belief that we shouldn’t need medication, surgery, therapy, a balanced diet. Many people now believe that the singular trip to the local shaman should make us well and sustain us through our days. This hope is neither new nor culturally centric. Ancient and indigenous shamans informed us that soul healing, indeed, cured wounds and instilled miraculous wellbeing. Of course this doesn’t happen in occidental society where people try to keep their health with a good diet, exercise and supplements from keto ultra diet reviews online.

Modern reality shows us something different, however as this in-depth review tries to point out. Many seekers invite soul healing into their lives, then experience an initial phase of euphoria and wellbeing, only to eventually take on symptoms of dis-ease or imbalance again. It becomes curious then to explore why, when we are better informed and eager for healing, did soul healing work so thoroughly for the ancients when it doesn’t seem to for us. If belief in miraculous soul healing isn’t new, why are contemporary enthusiasts not receiving miracles? What function of modern life makes soul healing different?

The short answer to that question is mindfulness. Foremost, in ancient shamanic cultures, the soul healer was the doctor, the dietitian, the pharmacist, the therapist. Moreover, these mundane acts of healing were done with the intention of their spiritual significance alongside their physical and emotional properties. In ancient healing, the mindfulness of these important approaches to healing was inseparable from their spiritual counterparts. For the majority of contemporary wellness enthusiasts, body-mind-spirit are three vastly different territories that don’t overlap. Why would the difference in how we look at healing modalities and aspects of ourselves affect how we heal?

What our forefathers knew that we have forgotten is the significance of an animistic worldview. Animism extends far beyond seeing Nature as soulfully imbued or respecting the energetic validity of manmade objects. Animists realize that all things have souls, are connected, and interact within that bond. In other words, they all have agency. This life view formed the basis not only of spirituality for the ancients, it was the social construct that made tribal life thrive. It reinforced that all approaches to healing are of the soul, and that we are accountable for each other. The healing of one is the wellbeing of all.

Further, it made the concept of tribe much bigger than just consisting of humans. It honored that the space humans occupy is a living breathing part of community, and everything that dwells in that space is, as well. Significant to this concept is that shamans are active participants in this greater tribe, which not only benefits all involved, it provides much unseen support for the shaman to do her job.

Tribal support was a vital component of any mode of healing. Just as caregivers fed and tended the wounds of the healing patient, they also witnessed the healing story (shamanic narrative), provided accountability to stay on track, and could empathize with the healing path. In this way, the positive effects of a singular healing spread throughout the tribe.

In the West, we are not an animistic culture. Instead, we revere individuality. We don’t have a strong sense of collective responsibility, support, or giving, particularly as related to spirituality. Given that, often imbalance returns because we have no one in our everyday to talk to about our new balance. When we have no one with which to share our euphoria, we have no one to help us sustain its momentum. As a result, we don’t spawn healing in others from our healing stories. Our core beliefs don’t incorporate that the sickness of one indicates the dis-ease of all; thus, they can’t create healing for many from the balance of one.

Likewise, because we don’t have a sense of tribal connectivity, we don’t create healing constructs to support staying well past the initial euphoria. We don’t see other modalities of healing that would help with our recovery process as having spiritual power. We internalize a lack of connection to tribe as a separation of the aspects of ourselves: mind-body-soul. When we approach soul healing as “only healing that which is soulful or pertaining to the soul,” we miss vital opportunities for renewal and wellbeing on all levels. The isolated way in which we view soul healing modalities and community affects our ability to heal and stay well. When we focus only on what we perceive as the soul, we stop supporting the other layers of ourselves, we stop empowering ourselves to stay healed.

Spiritual healing isn’t a replacement for life skills. In the New Age we have been taught that we should only focus on the soul. As humans, separating concepts into compartments helps us work with them, understand them. As animists, we know that all things are soul — even these other layers of Self. When we devalue the physical and emotional components of ourselves, the message then becomes “If you heal the soul, the rest will follow,” perpetuating the myth that these levels of our being are separate to start with.

To create and sustain soul healing we must bring some sort of awareness into everything that we do. When we decide that we want to heal, we must become active participants in that process. This truth is the core of animistic perspective. In the West, often we don’t know how to be active participants, and soul healing, itself, doesn’t teach us. However, only part of soul work is spiritual. The rest is just plain work. If we don’t already have some way of holding mindfulness through the mundane parts of our day, we’re not going to suddenly have it when we approach soul healing.

Mindfulness is learned from meditation. Through meditation we learn to be in our bodies. We become present with purpose, without judgment. As we master these skills, we align with the layers of ourselves, which directly affects our ability to connect with others. As we connect with tribe, we maintain healing. With the ability to bring this open, interwoven world view into our spiritual practice and healing, the more likely that healing will root into our lives, and sustain.

It isn’t that our approaches to soul healing aren’t working. Rather, it’s that our way of holding our awareness doesn’t support our soul healing. Imagine how great it would feel to have a community that helped us hold our awareness toward wellbeing! That singular aid alone would vastly improve our balance. Perhaps the message from our animistic elders isn’t that we forsake other modalities of care in favor of soul healing, but that we begin to see them all as having value. When we can see the value of the many good things we do to maintain balance in ourselves, the more we will see evidence around us of balance supporting us.

More on the Huffington Post.

A Shaman’s Journey

When I was 5 years old, I asked my Sunday School teacher, a woman, “What if Jesus had been a girl?”

Raffaello Santi's Justice

“But he wasn’t,” she replied.

Unsatisfied, I asked again, only to receive the exasperated, recursive answer. My mother gave the same empty response later, in private.

It’s no huge surprise that when I was about 14, my many dissatisfaction with the Church overwhelmed my fondness for it, and I began to explore other spiritual paths. Coinciding with this transition was also the realization that intuitive gifts I’d manifested since childhood demanded open expression, and that the energetic truth of my femininity deserved acknowledgement on my spiritual path. By the time I was 17 I had separated from the Church and begun crafting my own relationship to shamanism.

That may not seem like a terribly logical leap on the surface, but for me it was sound. Emerging from a sexually-abusive childhood into young adulthood with full-blown PTSD, I needed help. As someone who was deeply intuitive and aware of the signals and messages from the unformed, I knew that aid could come from many levels of being. I also recognized that through my wounding, I was experiencing what is considered a classic “shamanic death.” I could feel the insight of my experience leading me, though I couldn’t emotionally accept it or understand in what direction we were headed. Also, in myself and the world around me I recognized a thriving Feminine Divine and a loving Divine Masculine who fully embraced Her. I wanted to learn how to incorporate these vital components into my spiritual experience. I needed to find a way to move through my life that enabled me to feel more whole. The trouble was, I had come through a tradition in which every belief had been told to me. I had no framework for delving into the wisdom and divinity of my own experience to find meaning, guidance. In short, I had no teacher.

So I became my own. I read everything I could find on shamanism, including Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman and Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Both tomes seemed informative enough on the philosophies driving shamanism, elucidating on the techniques shamans use to heal themselves and others, enlightening how one becomes a shaman. I felt novel kinship with their ideas, though something was still off. Among what these hallowed resources didn’t share was the presence of the feminine in the shaping of the shamanic legacy. In fact, at least according to the deigned grandfather of the modern shamanic movement, Eliade, there wasn’t one. I’d come all that way, struggling through soul healing and psyche reformation, breaking free from the limitations of my birth religion, only to be told that shamans weren’t women, either.

Of course, that didn’t stop my studies or pursuits to find teachers, which I eventually did. It didn’t stop me from creating a thriving shamanic practice, Soul Intent Arts, or from being ordained as an interfaith minister in a Goddess-centric organization, or from pursuing a Masters of Divinity focused on shamanic study. In all, I took the off-road adventure, self-creating my own shamanic path without the guideposts and maps we are used to finding on spiritual quests, a feat common to many modern seekers on broken paths in this cultural melting pot.

Along that jaunt to manifesting myself in the spiritual truth best suited for me, I learned the many shrouded histories of female shamans. According to another revered academic, Ioan M. Lewis, shamanism was merely a construct for individuals — particularly women and gay men — to express otherwise socially unacceptable behavior, a description still embraced by many of our highest institutions of learning. But from women of various traditions I learned that females dominated shamanic roles in the ancient histories of eastern Asia, Africa, Siberia, and many indigenous North and South American tribes. In truth, women were scattered all through historic shamanic cultures, only the western curators of that knowledge omitted them, devalued their contributions. Through reconstructionist studies, I learned that women, and the feminine aspect, were vital figures in the spiritual movement that is now considered the Church.

Generally speaking, we still don’t incorporate the diverse path of shamanism into the modern study of it. We assume that by virtue of being Western-born and having the privilege to study whatever we choose, to elect the faith that sings most resonantly within us, that our presence as women on sacred paths, now, is enough. Yes, it is our destiny to look forward and blaze that trail into whatever fulfills our hearts most deeply. It is a gift and a responsibility to look back and know, to bless where we came from.

Now, when the history of anything seems too groomed to be true, too biased to be thorough, too tidy to be real, I remember the omission of women from the path of the modern shaman. I remember to look for those places from which she has always thrived and merely been hidden.

Pagan Is as Pagan Does

Soul Intent ArtsIn my shamanic practice, I work with people from all over the world. The first decade of working with others, easily three quarters of my clientele was international. That distant acceptance seemed to indicate that other cultures had a more accessible understanding of shamanism and of what someone acting in the role of shaman does. In more recent years the shift toward a wider range of healing paths becoming more mainstream has coincided with my client base being mostly within the U.S., with a good third of those people residing in my local area.

For those who don’t know, I’m a native North Carolinian and acting interfaith clergy. While there is strong support for and a very networked Pagan community throughout the state, half of my clients do not identify as Pagan. Specifically, they identify as various denominations of Christian. For some, stepping into a more mystical expression of spirituality is a comfortable and natural extension of their faith. Others don’t allow such an esoteric openness in their belief systems. Rather, they reach out to me because other venues haven’t brought them balance, including pastoral counsel with their own clergy.

Regardless of how they’re ushered into my work, it is within local circles that I encounter the most powerful misconceptions about shamanism. In talking with clients about how they find me, a startling idea emerged: For many of these clients the idea that I’m Pagan is softened by knowing that I’m a shaman, as if that role somehow makes the truth of my spiritual path somehow more approachable. Upon delving further into that assumption a deeper misconception was revealed: the assumption that I’m Native American. That I have a fine thread of indigenous blood runs entirely independent of my calling and choice to be a shaman. A handful of people besides myself would even know that fact, just as they don’t know that I’m Scottish, German or Irish. They don’t know, because it’s not relevant.

Had this assumption come up once or twice in the years of my work I’d consider it an anomaly — disturbing, but a fluke. The reality is, it’s come up dozens of times, leading to me to explore what drives it. Two base beliefs seem to lay in support:

  • The romanticized ideal of Native Americans being more spiritual than other cultural groups, an assumption that perpetuates the racist notion of the “noble savage.”
  • The replete misappropriation of all things shamanic to Native Americans, indicating a lack in base understanding of shamanism.

Both of these beliefs open a wide arena of cultural land mines, the least of which is cultural appropriation — the claiming of a facet of another culture as one’s own, historically for exploitation, personal profit or gain. Even though I do not claim the spiritual heritage of another culture, a good proportion of my clients assumed that I did, by virtue of projecting their ideals onto my heritage. That’s one problem. The other is that because they assumed my lineage, they rested comfortably in misunderstandings about my path. The message is that by assuming I’m Native American, my devotion to Earth religions is more OK than knowing I’m a modern Druid, Reconstructionist, Pagan.

Do most people not realize that in the animistic “country dweller” definition of Paganism, Native Americans are Pagan, under a diverse umbrella of spiritual traditions? Is there an instant, if not unconscious, distinction made between Pagans who are of European lineage and those who are Native American? And if so, does that not imply a judgement from many in the mainstream soul healing community that certain kinds of Pagans are better?

In the long run does it matter if the people who come to me for help know this distinction? Does it affect our work if they don’t know that shamanism is the tap root of all religions, branching through every culture? Probably not. All they know is something isn’t well in their lives and nothing else has brought relief.

For me it’s a question of how much integrity my path has if I leave clients making assumptions about my lineage and work that aren’t true. In my studies, personal spiritual discipline and work with others, I don’t feed the racist dispersions the western route into shamanism has cast; thus, I don’t want to mislead anyone about my ethical intentions.

For that reason I do take the time to educate clients who don’t understand how we arrived at shamanism in this age, and how I became able to carry a spiritual tradition forward in a new way that fulfills the needs of modern seekers while honoring an ancient tradition.

In the end, Pagan is just Pagan.

Emotional Avoidance and Disbelief in Death

“And as I have said to him a thousand or more times through the years, ‘Well isn’t life just a kick in the pants?’ — Esther Hicks, on the recent death of her husband, Jerry. Life sucks when someone close to our hearts passed away. If you are low on income there are plenty of options to hold budget budget funerals in Brisbane including cremations with no service.

It’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it — disbelief in death. Usually people contest life after death, or concepts like reincarnation. Yet, there are people who express that there is no such thing as death. Meaning, they believe that physical death is the birthing of the soul into some higher expression of consciousness, which remains undiminished and lives on. In this higher thinking, the physical path leading to death is insignificant.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

While I do experience that the soul in some guise persists after the form expires, I most definitely experience that our life as well as our physical death are highly relevant events in our soul’s growth. My reality perches on the cycles of Nature, which is comprised of seasons building and harvesting, death and rebirth. As an animistic spiritual occupant of the formed Nature realm, every season contributes something new, as does my emotional reaction to each season. Not honoring that death is part of the experience here — that it’s supposed to be — is lacking. Moreover, to expect there to be birth without death in Nature’s timing seems arrogant.

Am I’m splitting hairs? Is this just the difference between speaking literally and figuratively? Maybe. Maybe underlying such a belief is the distinction between finite physical death and spiritual infinity. Of late, though, I’ve encountered several spiritual healers, shamans, who insist that there is no such thing as death. Part of their practice hails death always as a joyful passage that should be celebrated.

To a large degree this belief is a New Age import of the “always be happy” variety. Given that context, I wonder how such healers work with grieving others. To approach death as nonexistent for yourself or your own beliefs is one thing. As a healer, to insist such to those in the midst of the emotional storm of grief baffles me. In fact, I find that treatment steeped in denial and emotional avoidance.

I admit, I’m wary of healers who seek a shamanic path with eyes trained only on what spirit guides say, to the detriment of acquiring skills in the pastoral counseling aspects of the shaman’s role. The human dynamic is nothing if not laced with sticky, often deeply troubling emotional states, such as grief. These emotions can’t be overlooked in the healing process any more than they can be avoided in life, itself. Talking with spirit ancestors for guidance and insight into healing is no substitute for being present and helping someone process grief after tremendous loss. Processing emotion is as essential to shamanic work as spiritual guidance. In fact, sometimes we can’t even hear the spiritual guidance until we process emotion.

Modern shaman Sandra Ingerman gives wonderful insight into moving through stages of grief in a recent article, “How to Deal With Grief.” Her approach to working with grief could be applied not just to the loss of a loved one, but to distress following any life transition.

We can only meet someone where they are. We cannot force them to be in an emotional place that they’re not, which means that in order to help them shift into a lighter state, we must possess skills that assist them in processing heavy emotions. Regardless of higher consciousness awareness of the soul’s infinite path, I see no value in complicating someone’s grief by insisting that the loss underlying it isn’t important.

Ultimately, if physical life didn’t play a significant role in the shaping of our soulstories, we wouldn’t come here. We wouldn’t do this dance through Nature’s seasons of constant progression and regression. We wouldn’t put ourselves through the emotional expanse of the human experience.

How do your beliefs about death and the soul help you cope with loss? How do they shape how you live?

Shamanism: Religion or Neurology?

In his recently released book, Shamanism — a Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and HealingMichael Winkelman sheds interesting light on the question of the true basis of shamanism.

Much of the research on shamanism gifted us from the academic community has straddled the fence between the esoteric and the scientific. A common position on what we call traditional shamanism — ancient and indigenous tribes with exclusive cultural rituals and cosmology — is that it is a religion. The more scientific avenue of neuropsychology offers the idea that some people with the right brain chemistry and the right cues happen to tap into shamanic states.

From what Winkelman suggests, none of this is accurate. Not only is shamanism not a religion (defined as a set of beliefs comprising why we’re here, how we got here, the deities who preserve us here, our rituals by which we thank them and a moral code that keeps us all in line), it’s also not set aside for a select few.

His research shows that nonverbal communication from the paleomammalian brain (limbic system) indicates a deeper level of consciousness at work. Nonverbal communication, such as dance, art, facial expressions, dreams, etc, Winkelman says is “primarily about the self and its emotional states in relationships to others” (p.19). In this observation he puts forward the idea that “the paleomammalian brain produces and uses expressions of the face, vocalizations, actions and gestures that provide information about others’ minds and their motives and internal states, creating a common or collective awareness, which is the basis of consciousness” (p. 19). In the context of soul healing, Winkelman is referring to the theatre of ritual and what we call the shamanic narrative.

Shamans work by decoding the shamanic narrative, the story presented upon journeying into the spirit world to find healing for themselves, an individual or their community. However, what Winkelman proposes here takes the insight of the shamanic narrative to another level. By viewing nonverbal communication as inherent to us all, he is saying that the shamanic narrative is hard-wired in us all. It isn’t just a random or fleeting spiritual vision detailing what soul healing one may need. This narrative truly is the story of one’s life and how it has been psychologically, environmentally, and cellularly shaped. Winkelman also suggests that beyond the trappings of ego and personal identity, we all share the same base narrative.

That this deeper level of consciousness originates with the paleomammalian brain and is processed in the “more advanced” neomammalian brain is also interesting. This observation suggests that not only was the development of nonverbal communication necessary for personal survival; rather, also the development of the shamanic narrative was necessary for personal survival.

According to Winkelman, “These aspects of consciousness play a crucial role in providing the sense of unity of assurance and conviction vital for self and species survival (Ashbrook 1993)” (p.19). The assertion that this level of consciousness is required for species survival indicates that through interconnected symbolism we aren’t just hard-wired for shamanism, we require it.

This discussion could easily put to rest arguments around shamanism being culturally centric, thus limited only to those of ancient and indigenous cultures, and that it is a religion. Our modern definition of religion is widely interpreted, though with regard to shamanism, it has always carried with it cultural implications. This definition has also always encompassed a suspension of reason or logic. In our legacy of anthropological studies of shamanism has always been the assumption that tribal cultures cling to shamanism because they aren’t civilized enough to know better. The fact remains, however, that our development of the neomammalian brain, which governs symbols and language, thus the ability to apply reason to our feelings, allows us to be aware that this nonverbal process is happening, and to creatively apply it. That level of brain development isn’t new or limited only to humans in the west.

Winkelman’s research shows that not only have we known this rich, nonverbal relationship to symbolism for a long time, we’ve been actively involved with this neurological process across our evolution as a species.

In this light, traditional shamanism is neither exclusive nor inclusive. Such limits do not need to be placed. There does not have to be comparisons or disputes between traditional or modern shamanism. Drawing on the same neurological processes, both accomplish healing outcomes different ways. In essence, some fry their eggs, some scramble them. Regardless, this is all of our brains on shamanism.

Samhain — Nature’s Holy Day for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

ForestIn the Northern Hemisphere, neopagans celebrate Samhain as the last harvest, the point at which the day has shortened and winter is setting in. Some modern pagans consider it the “witch’s new year,” though in other traditions, Samhain marked only the end of the year. The beginning of the year, the “new year,” came with the promise of light’s return at Yule, several weeks later. The span between the two stellar points was considered untime — a sacred experience outside our usual observation of time and space. Thus, an understanding of cyclic “Dead Time,” or “Dark Time,” entered our consciousness.

Seen as an auspiciously magickal time due to its precise occurrence between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice, Samhain was associated with the point between life and death. It was an occasion for bonfires, the alchemical recipients of fetishes representing requests for healing, needs to be addressed. There was dancing and expressions of gratitude for the harvest, food set aside for the ancestors and protective spirits. From this “thinning of the veil” sprang rituals honoring the dead, as well as acknowledging the need for light.

Despite celebration, it isn’t difficult to imagine that our ancestors despaired at the sun’s retreat. Even after a bountiful harvest, winters were hard. Without the comforts that keep us warm, fed, and well, back then people and livestock didn’t survive the elements. The psychological ramifications of fearing what must have been perceived as the planet forsaken are not to be underestimated. More than a mere lull between seasons, Samhain represented a snuffing of inner light. For this reason, the necessity of impeccably understanding the experience of consciousness between spirit and form was called for. How else would one mentally sustain a long, dark winter that bore no assurance of survival?

In our modern lives we don’t generally explore our capability of handling diminishing inner reserves unless or until we are pushed by circumstance to do so. We do, however, understand the shadowy presence of seasonal affective conditions that plague so many in the winter months. I’ve often wondered if we still honored Samhain as the natural time of purging of fear and uncertainty, if we would handle challenging times during the rest of the year better. If we wildly danced around fires facing our deepest insecurities, fears and hungers, knowing that nature would assure us exactly the courage, inspiration and hopes that feed us most, would we still find ourselves in shadow? Would we have as many fetishes to throw on the bonfire? Would we carry as much stress from one harvest to the next? Could we put our demons down?

I know it’s still several weeks away, but the last harvest is upon us, which means a chance to explore our own darkness and reserves is coming, too. Take some time now to think about the accomplishments of this year. What needs to be let go and thrown on a magickally purifying fire? What seeds should be carried forward to plant next year? What inner wisdom sustains us to know the difference?

I invite you to learn more about Samhain, nature’s holy days, and the role they play in cleansing and supporting a healthy human psyche in Barbara Ardinger’s “Pagan Every Day: Finding the Extraordinary in Our Ordinary Lives,” and Donna Henes’ “Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, & Celebrations.”