This post contains references that may be triggering for surivors of patriarchy.
If you haven’t seen it yet, last week Netflix debuted its new series Sense8. Created by the Wachowski duo (from whom we have The Matrix and Cloud Atlas) and writer and producer J. Michael Straczynski, it’s an understatement that the show takes viewers new places.
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.