It’s late, I’m tired, and my body is creaking from the day’s work. I sit down on the edge of my bed, stretch and feel my back crack. I look up and there is a see-through old man, standing, with tears in his eyes. He wears a button up white shirt, black pants, and his face is crinkled with age lines. He asks “Can you help me?” I want to sleep, but I stay awake, listening to him as he describes a long, hard life with kids who all but abandoned him when he was on his deathbed.
Spirits aren’t always on our time schedule. Sometimes they come to us when we least want to see them. Other times, they make come when we need them, but we refuse to recognize it. And yet some others may simply come to people because they are bored and are looking for company. Too many people react to the latter two kinds of spirits negatively, without analyzing what is going on and what may have prompted a visit. It is like me coming to your house and asking for a cup of sugar, only to be screamed at and bounced out.
I propose that we treat spirits, human or not, more humanely. Have a weird, eerie spirit that lurks around your closet? Maybe it likes the energies you put there, like my books and mementos. Maybe it wants you to notice something about yourself, your surroundings or your life. More than likely, in my experience, it wants you to notice it.
Here we can find several questions: What kinds of spirits come to call? What should we do when they come to call? How will I know if I am dealing with a spirit or something else? If I don’t want spirits in my place, what should I do?
To answer any of these will require you to have an open mind about the existence of spirits, whether earthbound former humans, elementals, or just that eerie sense of a presence. If you simply can’t believe in spirits, it’s likely that most will leave you alone. If you’ve closed yourself off to them, your energies will tend to be inaccessible, and there’s not much in you to attract them. While there are exceptions, you generally have to be open to a visit to receive one.
For those whose spiritual, religious, or metaphysical outlook can include spirits, your experiences reflect how you view the spiritual world itself. If you think that most spirits are out to get you, then that is in no small part what you will attract, or at least see everywhere you look. If all you are looking for is an external enemy, someone to blame for your problems, or a fight to be had, that is all you’ll find, because you’ve narrowed your focus and energies to accept only these into your life.
If you are to more than simply throwing spirits off your spiritual front porch, I would recommend a more balanced approach, one which engages the spirits around you. There is a knowing that you have boundaries which are not to be crossed, but still allowing them to be crossed when you know a spirit is not intending ill will to you or loved ones. There is also temperance in the treatment of the spirits that you allow across that boundary, knowing that one experience with a certain kind of spirit may not translate to another. Just as humans are individuals so, too, I have found, are spirits.
What kinds of spirits come to call? Depending on you and your personality, as well as that of the spirits, a wide range may come. I’ll give some basic archetypal names, definitions, and examples that I have experienced to help give common ground.
- Earthbound Spirits
Definition: Spirits that once had a living body on Earth. Ghosts, specters, and many haunting human spirits are attributed as Earthbound Spirits, but they may also be animals and plants that once inhabited a space. Their “age” can range from the recently deceased to the ancient dead.
Example: An old man who had died recently came to me just as I was about to lie down, wanting to tell me about his life. He was “passing through” and stopped by to pay me a visit. He scared the hell out of me; I almost threw him out of my place because he didn’t know to “knock” on my boundaries (more on this later).
- Ancestor Spirits
Definition: Spirits that are related to a living person by blood, familial, or metaphysical ties. These spirits tend toward guiding, guardianship, or simply part and parcel of being part of a family. Experiencing ancestor spirits tends to depend upon one’s view of blood relations, family, and whether metaphysical ritual do or do not place one into a lineage or spiritual family.
Example: I have blood relatives that contact me, especially my sister who passed on before I was born. She does not guide me or guard me in any overt way, but we speak on occasion.
- Elemental Spirits
Definition: Spirits that are tied to the elements, such as gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), salamanders (fire), and undines (water). I know that some look on these aforementioned archetypal spirits as faeries, but I differentiate the fae from these, the former being a kind of spirit all unto Itself.
Example: The woods near my home have several spirits of earth that reside there, both in the ground and trees. Some prefer to be called tree spirits, noting that while they may rooted in the same element as earth spirits, dirt is not a tree and vice versa. These tend to be communicative when I am quiet or dead silent, and I “listen” with intent.
- Spirits of Place
Definition: Spirits that are the overarching spirit of a place, a being composed of the various energies of an area. Spirits of Place can be a grove of trees as much as they can be an entire city. City blocks, even if the city has an overarching Spirit, may have its own Spirit of Place. Similarly, it can be seen how neighbors contribute to the spirit of a neighborhood, whether by their attitudes, how they treat their homes, how safe people feel there. Like with an environment, even the decor of the place can influence how the spirit of the area is formed, or what parts of a spirit of place people interact with.
Example: The spirit of my nearby grove of trees is peaceful overall, concerned with keeping its area clean and growing. The spirit of my town is concerned with a growing drug problem, its streets having more homeless on it, and its degrading streets and sidewalks because of reduced work on them. The former is part of the latter, but is autonomous, existing within the energy pattern that forms the spirit of my town.
- Spirits of Purpose
Definition: A spirit that exists to perform a specific function, such as protection, guidance, etc. These spirits can be sent from a God/dess, be part of another spirit.
Example: As an example, spirit purely of growth exists to make things grow for good or ill, whether it is a tumor or a patch of grass. Another example would be a spirit of blight, who feeds on and seeks to expand it within its area.
- Constructed Spirits
Definition: Spirits who are specifically constructed by magical practitioners. These tend to have specific functions, but there have been efforts made to create whole spirits who have personalities and motives all their own.
Example: I have created a spirit to protect my car and its occupants from harm, fashioning them out of my own energy. A great example of creating a spirit was carried out by the Toronto Society for the Paranormal (TSPR), “The idea was to assemble a group of people who would make up a completely fictional character and then, through seances, see if they could contact him and receive messages and other physical phenomena — perhaps even an apparition. The results of the experiment — which were fully documented on film and audiotape — are astonishing.”1
- Totemic Spirits
Definition: Spirits that are the overarching spirit of an animal or entity that is revealed to a person. It can be representative of the qualities humans see in the being, or may inherently possess the qualities dependent on the spirit and human involved.
Example: A totemic spirit of the Dung Beetle came to me a few months ago in a meditation and has worked with me on rolling the “poop” in my life up and making use of it. In this role, it guides me and helps me out, and I honor it by giving offerings and listening to his wide range of bad poop jokes.
- Spirit Companions
Definition: A spirit that develops a deep connection to a human by intent of the human or spirit. It does not necessarily mean a romantic connection; it can also be a friendly or specific purpose-driven connection.
Example: Calling up a spirit, befriending it, and no longer calling upon it. Being able to call to it and speak with it, and vice versa, and letting it go when it wishes.
- Deity Spirits
Definition: A spirit sent by or representing a Deity.
Example: This could be something like a fae messenger from the Tuatha De Danaan. Alternatively, it could be something like the Metatron or Hunin and Munin from Norse mythologies, who are the spirits of Forethought and Afterthought that sit upon the shoulders of Odin.
So now that we have some definitions to work with, what do you do once you and a spirit meet? Well, be cautious unless you absolutely know the spirit and where it comes from. Essentially, treat it like any other stranger you would. Ideally, with respect, caution, and a give-and-take conversation until you know each other better. But how would you even talk with a spirit?
To start spirit communication, you should be able to do a few things first:
- Be able to ground your subtle energy, center it and your focus, and direct your subtle energies reliably.
- Be able to mark out spiritual space for yourself, such as casting a magick circle, or creating an astral temple.
- Having some method by which you can interpret abstract input / stimuli or input / stimuli from outside yourself; not everyone uses vision for this, though this method dominates most books. Some people “hear” the spirit world, whereas some may “feel” it. I use quotes because many rationalize or have translation from their subtle body/astral body into physical sensation so they can process what occurs in the spirit world. It differentiates from physically seeing an object in the spirit, to spiritually “seeing” it.
- Have a person or people with which to share the experience. Sometimes the best thing to have is a sounding board for your experiences. They can not only keep you grounded, but if you are stuck, can suggest ways of working with your circumstances, and help find solutions to problems you may have down the road.
- Be willing and able to set boundaries. Spirits should not feel they can wake you at all hours of the night, nor should you feel obligated to let them. You should also know when not to communicate with the spirit realm, and when too much is too much.
With that out of the way, what about some actual methods for spirit communication?
- Communication on the astral plane. If you know how to do this, you can project yourself into a protected neutral space and carry on a conversation. For tips on how to do this in depth, I would recommend picking up a guide such as Ted Andrews’ How to Meet and Work With Spirit Guides, or Christopher Penczak’s Spirit Allies: Meet Your Team from the Other Side.
- Communication by talking board. One of the most maligned ways of communicating with spirits, but in my opinion, in can be one of the most effective if you use it right. Using it wrong is calling out to any spirit with no protective magick circle or knowledge of how to clear out entities from a working space, and accepting whatever the spirit says to you, with this or any other method, as gospel. Using it right would be spiritually cleansing the area where you will use the board, casting a magick circle for protection and guarding you in the circle, and having items for a quick clearing spell for the circle on hand.
- Communication by fire, smoke, water, or similar means. Perhaps more abstract than the previous two, I have found this method works best when you elementally align it with the spirit in question. This is because, in my experience, beings like elemental spirits might be more apt to respond via a physical representation of their element. Simply lighting a candle and gazing into it may draw out imagery that you can interpret for yourself as to the intent of the spirit.
- Communicate via a medium. Someone who can help interpret the spirit world can be a great aid, or a great detriment. Open and honest communication (i.e. you respecting their boundaries, they not sugar-coating messages) can empower a great working relationship that can deepen both parties’ spirituality and depth of experience.
- Communication by manifestation. This may sound odd at first, but think of it like this: you want proof the spirit you think is reaching out for you is real. To prove to you that something is trying to communicate, you ask the spirit to give you signs and coincidences that speak to you that others may not catch. Although this takes a bit of open-mindedness and practice, the results can be very interesting. I will caution that this way is probably the hardest and has the slowest way of bringing out results from working with or communicating with a spirit. However, when deity spirits have gotten in contact with me with this method, the messages have been unmistakable and direct, placed in such a way that I know for me that it is not my subconscious.
There are far more means of contacting spirits than I have listed here. Almost every culture has had some way of speaking with the dead and other spirits; even Catholicism appeals to saints for a wide variety of reasons, from protection to selling your home.
The greatest challenge you may have once you open this door is learning to close it. So long as you have established boundaries, such as making sure spirits know what times are off limits, and keep to them, most spirits should leave you alone as you ask. Let’s say for the sake of argument that a spirit won’t stop coming around at bad times for you, or is trying to intimidate or control you; what do you do?
Take a passage from Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.” The worst thing you can do is feed into the spirit’s ego, or empower it by giving it your energy by freaking out. There are some tried and true methods I have used to make spirits leave if they will not do so of their own volition.
- Rebuke them. That’s right; the power of Me compels you. Or the power of your God/dess, your dishsoap . . . anything that gives you the feeling of power and control of the situation. Using an empowered object by your Will, magick, what have you, and projecting energies that assert your authority, in my experience, are highly effective. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Whatever you do, it just needs to either remind the spirit (or yourself) that you are in control of your body / place / etc., and / or that it has no power over you. The rebuking itself can be as strict as a demand followed by a spiritual boot to the ass to leave, to a simple “No, this is my space.”
- Calling on deity / spirits / etc. Don’t be afraid to call in family, friends, and / or allies to deal with a spirit that refuses to respect you and your space. From something as simple as wearing a grounding stone to bed or placing it beneath your pillow, to fashioning an egregores to take your “calls,” you have a wider range of options with help. It is not weak to ask for it, and it is not weak to say “I can do this much, and no more.” In fact, that is oftentimes harder, and better for all involved.
- Using a sigil. Sigils are shortcuts, graphics that can be word amalgamations, random scribbles, or made from a standard sigil creator. It can give you a direct line to the spirit involved, especially if a spirit “gives” it to you in telepathic communication or automatic writing. A sigil can empower your Will against or with the spirit it is of, or aligning your energies much more naturally with it because you are engaged with its symbol. This works like a sympathetic link, much like having someone’s hair, or an image of a person, one more way of energetically connecting to a person or thing. I have found the Rosy Cross of the Rosicrucians to be an effective method for making sigils, as I have combining letters into a graphic. For instance, TBL for Table, as shown here:
- Cleansing. From a shower to a full-on ritual with a censer and aspergillium, the rite is to cleanse a place or person of spiritual ties or excess spiritual energies. A shower can double as a cleansing area, whether you perform the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram in it or visualize the excess energies dripping off of your body as you clean yourself. The specifics of it are up to you; if you want to rectify or keep the relationship with the spirit, don’t cut off all ties with the cleansing, but target the rite to help cleanse the relationship itself. Again, using the shower method, you can visualize your connections as colored cords connecting you to the spirit, washed clean but not washed away. If you plan on having a long-term relationship with a spirit, this may simply be good spiritual hygiene on your part.
- Putting up “walls” / empowering your “shields.” Putting up shields is projecting protective energy to make a barrier, preventing contact you do not wish to have, and accepting that which you do. I tend to meditate every day on my shields, through visualization, meditation and other practices layering them up or performing upkeep so they continue to work the way I want them to. Putting up walls is intentionally arranging heavy amounts of your energies, and / or energy body, to block reception and oftentimes the giving off of certain energies. For instance, if you do not want any kind of spirit communication from the outside world, putting up walls (again, through visualization and the like) will block any and all spirits from contacting you. Think about this: you are effectively cutting yourself off from a form of communication. Before putting up walls, weigh the pros and cons. What are you cutting yourself off from? What are you allowing in? What are you keeping in with your walls?
Should you decide to communicate with spirits, your own experiences will tell you best how to do so. This text is just a beginning primer to get your ideas flowing, to ease you into spirit communication, and give you some solid ground to lift off.
- Wagner, Stephen. “How to Create a Ghost”
©2010 by Sarenth.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Not long ago I had the chance to participate in my first sweat lodge. I thought it might be useful to set down my impressions of the experience, for others who have never undergone it but who are curious as to what is involved, or may be thinking about undertaking the ordeal for themselves.
The sweat lodge is an ancient part of shamanism that is widespread around the world in various forms. It was the ritualized spiritual custom for many of the native peoples of North America. A modern secular derivative of the practice is the Scandinavian sauna. In the sweat lodge the body is subjected to prolonged exposure to high-temperature steam. This causes abundant perspiration, hence the name.
The lodge in which I participated was overseen by a group of shamans in my part of Eastern Canada, among them some of the Mi’kmaq tribe, which is the Indian tribe native to the province of Nova Scotia, and to other areas of the north-eastern part of North America, such as New Brunswick and northern Maine.
Prior to undergoing the sweat lodge, I had no first-hand knowledge of what it would involve, and did not know what to bring with me. I wondered if I would have to be naked in the lodge during the ceremony. Not to worry, everyone wore clothing of some sort. I was told that an old pair of jeans would be fine, but that I should bring along a change of clothing, since whatever I wore during the ceremony would get wringing wet. I wondered if I should wear shorts instead of long pants but was told by one of the people who planned to participate that, no, jeans would be fine. Mistake — but not a fatal one. Shorts are the clothing of choice for the sweat lodge.
The men generally wear loose shorts, and undergo the experience naked from the waist up. The women wear loose dresses or light tops, and skirts or shorts. In the sweat lodge ceremony I attended, the women were not naked from the waist up, which hardly seemed fair to me. Why should the men get to strip off their tops, but not the women? None the less, that’s the way it was. There is a general custom of modesty in the sweat lodges that are held across North America. However, everyone goes barefoot inside the lodge. No exceptions to this rule.
We were asked to arrive at the sweat lodge an hour before the beginning of the ceremony, which took place in a small clearing in a wooded valley at the end of a long private road, far from any human habitation. The result was complete privacy for the ceremony. Two lodges were being run simultaneously — one for men only in the smaller of the two sweat lodges, and another larger mixed group of men and woman in the bigger lodge. The men’s group consisted of about half a dozen men and the shaman who led the ceremony. I attended the mixed group, which had around eighteen or so participants, plus the person leading the ritual activities.
When I got to the clearing, a huge bonfire was blazing over a pile of stones. It was a nice, mild pre-spring day in Nova Scotia. Most of the snow was gone from the open patches of ground but the winter-browned grass and the sod were still frozen solid. The breeze was fitful and tossed the rising smoke of the fire in all directions, so that it was impossible to avoid it no matter where I stood or sat. Benches had been arranged around the fire, but the smoke was so capricious, no one could use them. We stood around talking while the stones got hot.
One of the organizers of the sweat lodge took me aside and gave me the low-down on what was expected. She told me that I would have to take off my boots and socks to enter the lodge, that it was necessary to crawl through the door and that I should not stand up while inside the lodge. All movement in the circular lodge was sunwise around the central fire pit. She warned that I should take off any jewellery as people had sometimes found that wearing jewellery during a lodge could result in burns on the skin when the metal of the jewellery became hot. She also told me to remove my contact lenses.
The larger lodge was a round, hut-shaped structure about twelve feet across and six feet or so tall. It was made of a frame of slender poles bent together, and was covered in fabric similar to blanket material. It had no windows of any kind, and a single door in the north side facing the fire, so low that it could only be entered by getting on hands and knees. This doorway was closed by a flap of fabric. Inside, the floor was bare turf. I noticed a small vent at the very top of the hemispherical lodge, which I presumed was there for ventilation, to prevent us all from suffocating.
I have to admit, after the recent disaster in the autumn of 2009 concerning a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, in which three participants were killed and 21 others sickened, being able to get enough fresh air was a concern in my mind. I was glad to see this vent, small though it seemed to be. It was baffled to prevent the entry of any light.
In the center of the floor there was a circular pit around three feet in diameter and about a foot deep. I knew in a vague sort of way what the pit was for, but did not have a clear idea of how it would work during the ceremony itself.
All these features of the inside of the sweat lodge I learned only when I crawled inside for the first time. Before that happened, we performed a brief ceremony while standing in a circle around the bonfire. Each of the six directions of space, and the center, was acknowledged successively in prayer. This was done in an interesting way. Volunteers were asked to speak for the directions. Those who volunteered did not recite a prepared script, but spoke spontaneously from their hearts as the impulse arose within them at that moment. This resulted in uneven prayers, some better than others, but it had a spontaneity that I liked.
When we addressed the east, we all turned to face the east; when we addressed the west, we turned to the west. When we gave thanks and acknowledgment to the earth, the downward direction, many of those present knelt and touched the ground, although this must have been voluntary since many remained standing. I chose to crouch as a mark of respect.
A little mix-up occurred in the sequence of prayers. It was supposed to be the gods of the center that were acknowledged last, but the person speaking for the center jumped in too early, and we ended up praying to the sky last. The leader of the ceremony joked that she was sure the gods would understand, and would not be angry.
Inside the Lodge
We all took off our shoes, lined up on the frozen grass, and crawled into the sweat lodge. The men took up positions on the right side, and the women on the left side, from the viewpoint of the door facing inward. There was enough space to crawl around the lodge sunwise between the seated participants, who had their backs to the wall of the lodge, and the central fire pit.
It was pretty cramped in there, and uncomfortable. The ground was cold and hard, and more than a little damp. The wall of the lodge was uneven. I found that I could not lean back against it without having a ridge of wood dig into my spine. There was very little room to put our legs. I tried sitting cross-legged for a while, but in the end extended my feet toward the fire pit. That seemed the most comfortable position. Nobody wanted to press against those beside them, so everyone was trying to avoid contact by scrunching up, but there was so little room in the lodge, contact was unavoidable. This may have been deliberate on the part of the leaders of the lodge. We were told that the sweat lodge is an ordeal, and that it is supposed to be uncomfortable.
It was time for more warnings. If anyone could not stand the heat a moment longer, they were to call out in a loud voice “open the door! open the door!” which was the signal for the door to be opened. It would have to be called out loudly because there was going to be a lot of noise during the ceremony. Anyone who could not take the heat would be allowed to leave the lodge, but we were all asked not to give in to the heat unless we absolutely thought we were about to die, because it was very disruptive to have to open the door in the middle of the ceremony. We were also cautioned not to crawl into the fire pit in the darkness of the lodge by mistake, because the stones in the pit would be very hot. Well, duh.
I sat there a little nervously, trying to adjust my legs to a comfortable position, but found that there was no comfortable position. I tried to keep the sharp edge of wood on the side of the lodge from digging into my back, but every time my shoulders slumped, there it was again. Even so, I was glad I was sitting on the outside rim of the lodge — some people were sitting in a second circular row in front of me close to the fire pit. I was glad for the coolness of the side of the lodge at my back, and for the coolness of the earth under me. I wondered if I would be the first one to crack from the heat and call out “open the door!” That would be embarrassing.
I wore a T-shirt and jeans. Most other men were naked to the waist and wore shorts. I wondered if my extra clothing would make the ordeal more difficult for me. The person beside me told me that I could strip down to my underwear – nobody would mind – but I kept my clothes on. I wondered if the wedding ring on my finger would burn my skin, or if my metal belt buckle would burn through my jeans. We had been told to drink plenty of water, but I had only swallowed a single mouthful.
Part of the spiritual energy stimulated during a sweat lodge comes from this uncertainty as to what is going to take place. It is strongest the first time, when the person undergoing the lodge ceremony has no idea of what is about to happen. I was primed for a peak spiritual experience. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to come out of the lodge alive.
How the Sweat Lodge Works
The way a sweat lodge works is this — stones from the fire that are called “stone people” are carried into the lodge and placed one by one into the fire pit in the center of the floor. About eight stones are used, and each is around ten to twenty pounds in weight. They are so hot from the bonfire, that when they enter the dimness of the lodge, they glow red in their centers, and you can feel the heat radiating from them even from a long distance.
Since I’d never undergone a sweat lodge before, I had assumed that the heat came from the rocks directly, by radiation. Not so. The heat is in the form of steam, which is generated by pouring water from a bucket over the hot rocks using a ladle. The rocks are so hot, that when the water touches them it is instantly converted to steam. I was afraid the boiling water might splash over my feet, which were close to the pit, so I covered them with a towel, but I did not need to worry. The rocks are so hot, the water does not boil or splash, it is all turned to steam instantly. The water comes from a large bucket that holds around four gallons, which is set beside the fire pit next to the person in charge of the ritual. That person controls the steam.
There are three levels of heat in a sweat lodge, as I soon learned. There is the first level, when a stone is being lifted through the open door on the tines of a pitchfork to the warning call of “rock!” and then blessed with a scattering of herbs, which burst into little sparks of fire and smoke the instant they touch its glowing surface. All the rocks together radiate a large amount of heat that can be felt on the face and skin like the heat from a blazing fireplace.
The second level of heat is when the first ladle of water is poured over the rocks in the pit, and a cloud of white steam rushes upward with a great hiss like that of a giant serpent. It is many times hotter than the heat from the rocks alone. The steam rises upward to the roof of the lodge, and then rolls around and down the sides in a moving curtain, so that it first touches the participants on the head and the back of the neck. It is easy to feel on the exposed tips of the ears.
The final and most intense level of heat is when the door flap is sealed tightly so that no trace of light or air can enter, and the inside of the lodge is plunged into absolute darkness. The ventilation from the open door prevents the full effects of the steam from being felt, but when the door flap is shut, there is nothing to cool the inside of the lodge. The level of heat is magnified several times over. It is most intense a few seconds after the water is applied to the rocks, when the curtain of steam has had time to fly up to the roof and roll its way down the walls.
Each ordeal lasts as long as the water in the bucket. The faster the water is applied to the rocks, the hotter it gets. I half-expected the rocks to explode and scatter hot fragments over all of those sitting around the pit when they were hit with splashes of icy water, but was told that the rocks were basalt and very old, excellent for holding the heat without breaking down. And indeed, none of the rocks cracked.
We did not just sit there in the dark and suffer the heat. All the while the door was shut and the water was being applied to the rocks, the air was filled with the sound of a rattle being shaken and often with the rhythmic pounding of a flat shamanic drum. The leaders of the lodge chanted and sang songs, some with words that were recognizable, and others native songs that seemed to have no words, or only a few words repeated over and over. Everyone was encouraged to join in. Many people began their own chants and songs when the initial song was dying down, so that a continuous noise of singing and chanting was achieved. In part, I think this chanting was designed to distract the mind away from the ordeal of the heat, but in part it was an invocation to the spirits of nature that were being honoured by the ceremony.
We did four sessions in the lodge that afternoon — by that I mean four times when the door was sealed shut and the bucket of water ladled over the hot rocks. New rocks were placed into the pit for each session, so that they would be hot enough to turn the water to instant steam. The first session was devoted to honouring the Mother Earth and women’s mysteries. The last was free-form, during which we were invited to pray and speak as the impulse arose within us. Each session lasted around half an hour, and we opened the flap of the lodge and exited to cool off between sessions, and to drink water.
In the middle of the second session, the leader threw ladles full of icy water over the people inside the lodge. I think it was designed to shock us into a more intense self-awareness of the time and place. We didn’t know it was coming because of the pitch darkness. The first ladle-full caught me square in the face. It was quite a surprise. I suspect the leader of the session aimed it at me, because the experience was completely new to me, and I would have no idea it was coming, but how he managed to hit my face so accurately with the first shot in total darkness, I don’t know.
During the hottest part of the sweat lodge experience, it is difficult to breath easily. The steam is so hot and dense that it burns the insides of your nose, and if you try to breathe through your mouth, it burns your lips and tongue. We were told to breath through out bared teeth at those times. I found that this did not help much. It made my teeth too hot. The best approach, for me, was to breath very, very shallowly through the nose, and very slowly so that the steam was drawn in gradually, not fast enough to burn. The steam in the air can become quite dense. When the door-flap is first opened after a session, admitting light, the steam is so thick in the air inside the lodge that you can barely see across to the other side.
Needless to say, I got soaked to the skin at each session. Standing outside in front of the smoking bonfire served to half dry me off, but I was never completely dry before we crawled in for the next session. My bare feet on the frozen ground had the hardest time. They became numb but I was able to warm them by holding them up close to the bonfire, and that prevented them from being frozen too badly.
I learned that many of my fears had been groundless. My wedding ring did not burn my skin. Maybe this was because I took care to shield my ring from the direct contact of the new steam as it rolled around the lodge. I could probably have worn my contact lenses, because I kept my eyes closed most of the time inside the lodge. Since the darkness was total, there was not much point in keeping them open.
The herbs that were mixed with the water poured over the stones left a curious taste at the back of my throat for a time, but no ill effects. Apparently, it is possible to modify the effects of the steam by putting various herbs in the water. Each shaman has his or her own recipes of herbs to use with the water.
The Peace Pipe
After the four sessions in the lodge, participants were invited to sit around the fire pit inside the lodge with the door-flap left open, and share a peace pipe. Many chose not to do so, including myself, because they did not smoke and did not wish to expose their lungs to tobacco smoke, and this was fine with the leaders of the lodge. No aspersions were cast on those who stayed outside during the pipe ceremony.
The general mood inside the sweat lodge throughout all four sessions was one of joyful exuberance. Everyone was encouraged to sing, chant, and release their emotions, and everyone seemed to do just that. There was nothing heavy or forbidding in the ceremonies — it was all child-like happiness that comes from living in the moment. Prayers were given, spirits were seen by many of those who participated, and prayers were answered. A good time truly was had by all.
©2010 by Donald Tyson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.
This is the first in a series of articles in my column “Faith and Healing in Paganism.” I must say that I am eager to see where the discussion will go, and I hope you can share some of my excitement along the way.
The focus of this column will be on healing. The advantage of this focus is that it allows for articles on healing, pagan and comparative religious experiences, and cross-cultural perspectives on many pagan and magical practices. My specific approach as a healer is usually embodiment, or the experience of a person being inside their body, rather than being “in their head.” I am looking forward, in future posts, to writing on aspects of healing that seem to be problematic, but because of the larger debates going on, it is probably important to start with “faith” as a topic.
I feel some trepidation using the word “faith” in a pagan context. Certainly, I am unwilling to use it unexamined and undefined. That, then, will be the purpose of this first column: to look at the meaning of faith as a basic human experience of the numinous, and to look at what other meanings have been added to it, so that they can be stripped away, allowing the flowering of something that is more wholly pagan. In discussing faith in a pagan context, it will be critical to cut the core idea away from many of its associations and, in the long run, pagans will need to redefine “faith” to match pagan cosmology and theology.
Faith does not mean what we think it means.
An examination of the meaning of faith is, I believe, timely. In the news media, in current books and magazines, and on the internet, there are ongoing discussions of the meaning and importance of faith. The many authors all have different meanings for the word. Some imply belief alone, some mean unquestioning belief in a religious context, and others hold it to be an irrational belief in a system opposed to humanist rationality. While these may all agree with one another on some points, none of them reach to the core of the idea, or more accurately, the core of the experience of faith.
Faith is associated with the dominant monotheistic religions, as well as with “blind” belief. Just this week, as I was writing, Newsweek (February 22, 2010 edition) had two discussions about religion: one about Moderate Islam, and the other about the debates around teaching religion at Harvard. The cultural pitfalls that surround discussing religion and faith, the social dangers of disagreeing with someone else’s protestations of faith, and the general humanist vs. religious aspects of faith are all apparent parts of the cultural landscape. In short, everyone is talking about faith.
“Faith” is a dirty word in some circles, even, or especially, pagan circles. Yet at the same time, a religion free of “faith” would be a hollow thing. I believe that pagans should come to their own understanding of what faith is, recognizing the differences and similarities of their experiences to those of other religions. Faith is what happens to the human mind when it is confronted with spiritual presences that are vastly greater than us. For pagans, however, that is not some distant, solitary God. In my experience, there is an immanence to our spirituality, the awareness of the spirit in all things. This “spirit” is not somehow separate and directing, but interwoven and integral with the world. For pagans, such experience is not tied to removal from the world we live in, but rather it ties us more closely to this world. The clear experience of the “numinous other” does not have to happen only in some distant Heaven, but is just as valid as we stand here on the Earth.
Faith has come to mean many things, mostly as a result of our cultural exposure to Western Christianity. What has happened is that the simple, unclouded experience we could call faith has been redefined and informed by two thousand years of tradition based on different underlying assumptions of the universe — ones that, as pagans, we categorically reject. Perhaps the most important of these is the belief that the world of the spirit is remote, and somehow greater in power than the world in which we live. To hold the earth as sacred disrupts this separation; to hold the earth as inherently and simultaneously physical and spiritual is to begin to recognize that these divisions are not “outside” of us but “inside.” At the same time, as members of our culture, these are mental associations that we often unthinkingly accept. They are simply part of the way our culture and language are “shaped.”
For example, I would like to critique the idea that faith and belief are synonymous. This suggestion is not true, at least not as I am going to define faith below. Faith is a spiritual experience which can lead to belief, but it is not the same thing. Culturally, faith has come to mean “unquestioning belief.” Let’s look at the simple sentence, “I have faith in Sarah.” What does this generally mean? Well, if I read it, I would say that it means that the speaker has an unquestioning belief about Sarah. It probably does not mean that the speaker has had (or is having) a spiritual experience based on Sarah. This is a co-opting of the word “faith” for much more mundane reasons. It is this understanding of faith that I wish to escape. It might be easier, with all the associations that come with the word, to turn our backs on it, avoid it, and dodge the debate. That would mean that we have taken the easy way out. Instead, I suggest that we embrace the term, taking our place in the great intellectual and religious wrestling match that is going on around us. Some might argue that the specific word “faith” is not important. However, in the end, I cannot use a different term because faith is the best term for the experience I am discussing.
Faith is personal and spiritual.
What I would like to do now is momentarily step aside from the above debate and talk about what “faith” means, not so much as a word, but as an experience. Behind the many uses of the word, I would argue, there is a simple experience of the Divine. Faith begins in the moment that one travels the road from “I believe in higher powers” to “I have direct experience of higher powers.” That is what faith, as a word, means here. This is not about blind belief, but about beliefs that seem blind from the outside because the person who carries them has based them on experiences that are personal and cannot truly be shared. Faith is about experiences that are beyond words.
Faith is a spiritual experience. The ideas attached to that experience, and used to interpret it, are actually a mental filter between the numinous and the everyday mind. Religion, in the context of numinous experience, is not so much a set of beliefs as an interpretive construct for understanding that which is purely spiritual — or perhaps more accurately, outside of everyday experience. Traditionally, in Western culture, religion tries to codify, interpret, and pass down to future generations these valued experiences. What the culture is less good at, in my opinion, is accepting that these beliefs are interpretations of something that was intensely personal and contextual. The words, and not the spirit behind them, are recognized as sacred. It is in this way that faith and belief have become entangled.
Faith is a key part of human religious experience.
What is faith, then? If it is not a set of blind, non-rational beliefs that we pass from generation to generation, then what? Faith, as I mean it here, is directly analogous to the Christian “state of grace,” the direct communication with something (usually represented as a god-figure) that informs and directs our experiences in the world. That sounds pretty heady, doesn’t it? Well, it is. This is not an experience that belongs alone to the Christian Charismatics, or the Sufis of Islam. It is a basic experience that belongs to all people. The religions themselves, the sets of beliefs that we share, are ways that we use to find meaning and relate these experiences in words. Faith, itself, goes beyond words. Faith does not belong to the part of the human mind that uses words.
Years ago, when I was being social with friends, a woman turned to me and asked, “Do you believe in witchcraft?” I looked back at her and responded, “Do you believe in rocks?” “But rocks exist!” “Yes, exactly.” My point then, as now, is that only ideas and beliefs can be analyzed for truth value, and that once we have experienced something, it is not a matter of belief. Moments of faith, therefore, are transformative. They realign our perceptions of the world. To wax metaphorical, belief alone can do no more than sow the fields of faith. That is not to say that belief is without merit itself, but it does mean that belief is not faith. Belief, however, does allow us to interpret and ascribe meaning to our experiences of the other.
With our hands, we reach out and touch rocks, and we know that they exist. Certainly, we can argue the implications of the idea of “exist,” and say that the meaning of “exist” that we use in our culture is probably horribly wrong, but we have no doubt that they exist. We can say that they do not exist outside of our own minds, and while that might be true, we can nonetheless pick them up, admire them, or make houses from them. By placing existence in our minds, we have simply changed the value of the word “exist.”
With our spirits, we can reach out and touch the numinous. With our spirits, we can look around us and see the effects of that spirit within the world. This is not something that is solely the purview of certain religions, but is instead something that is a part of all humans. Insofar as we are in touch with our own spirits, we are aware of the spirits of others. This recognition of the spirits of others is called “compassion.” This compassion is in fact a key aspect of healing work. It is important in Christian and Muslim faith healing, it is important in such modalities as Reiki, and is important in the practices of Buddhism. I am suggesting that these religions are all pointing to the same experience: the awareness, by means of our own spirits, of the existence of the spirits of others. But, let me throw in a word of caution. Compassion is not simply “being nice.” Compassion is not a weakness. And compassion is a virtue, but not the only one.
Like compassion, faith is an opening of a part of the human spirit to the outside. As a healer, I would argue that the opening to faith is a valuable part of being a healthy human. Faith is as much a part of us as “instinct” or “being grounded” (a term which I will argue in a later column has two separate meanings, depending on context). Of course, while we might like to be paragons of virtue, the purpose of virtue is to have something for which to strive, not berate ourselves and others for not living up to our beliefs.
Pagans will need to redefine faith to match pagan cosmology and theology.
For faith to be a useful thing for pagans, we must reexamine the foundational ideas out of which all other notions grow. These foundations will be different from those of the monotheistic religions of the world, but not unrelated. Faith should be a part of pagan religion, as should belief, but it need not be the sole foundation.
For this, we must remove from the term a belief that faith alone is the cornerstone of religion. With all this talk of faith, it would be very easy to slip into a position that it is the core of religion. But for pagan religious experience, it is important to relegate faith to a place where it is balanced with other aspects. Faith can be a guide, but reason, compassion, and grounded experience of both our culture and the world at large must be balanced as well. Faith offers one kind of truth, but that truth should be recognized for its value without being placed on an untouchable pedestal. The beliefs that come from faith must be recognized as personal and contextual. The experiences can be powerful, but it is sheer hubris to believe that they are more “true” or more “valuable” than other kinds of knowledge.
Pagan faith lends itself to being integrated into the wider, global world, without leaving us helpless to act in it. Pagan religions are, by their nature and creed, more accepting of a wider world in which there is a polyvocalism, rather than a single voice of Truth. For this, we must focus on living in the world as it is, not as we believe it should be.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
To begin, I must offer an unqualified spoiler alert. During the course of this article, I’ll be examining the complex and fascinating intersection between tribalism and mysticism, employing for reference points James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar, and the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. If you’ve missed either of these movies, please remedy this deficiency immediately, for cultural literacy’s sake if nothing else. I’ll endeavor to make this article accessible for everyone, including those who have missed one or both movies, so by the same token, don’t blame me when I ruin the movie for you. You have been warned. Additionally, I should make clear from the outset my intention isn’t to judge whether these movies are “good” — or even entertaining — in any traditional sense. I shall leave proper film criticism to those more educated in the nuances of the medium, or at least those with a somewhat more interesting point of view than my own. I’m much more interested in teasing out the lessons we might derive from science fiction about our own role as scholars and practitioners of the occult.
Regarding the inspiration for this article, I must thank the editor for her recent post regarding the movie Avatar. I had the pleasure of watching James Cameron’s beautifully rendered epic with several friends the weekend before Yule. If you haven’t seen this movie — Yes, the computer animation and the special effects are nothing short of amazing. Yes, the overall story arc proves exceptionally clichéd in places. I’ll stop short of calling it colonialist fetish porn, although other reviewers have leveled exactly this charge. (More of this anon.) Still, Avatar raises some meaningful questions about what being mystical means in relation with the rest of society.
In broad outline, the story arc of Avatar closely resembles that of the science fiction classic Dune. In Avatar, soldier-turned-mercenary Jake Sully finds himself on Pandora, an alien world largely inimical to human life; there the forces of human civilization are busily mining unobtanium, a rare mineral which is fantastically valuable back on Earth. Compare this premise with that of Frank Herbert’s Dune, wherein the young noble Paul Atreides moves to the desert planet Arrakis; Arrakis is a desolate and hostile world notable for being the only source of the spice melange, a mind-altering substance critical for interstellar travel and thus the continuance of civilization. Pandora is populated by the Na’vi, a supposedly primitive people who we learn are actually very much in touch with the rhythms of their world. Upon Dune, we have the Fremen, a deeply spiritual people whose survival skills are nearly as strong as their tenacious belief in prophecy and fate. Jake Sully finds himself among the Na’vi, and he learns not only the skills necessary to thrive within Pandora’s lush biosphere, but also an appreciation for the interconnected web of life upon Pandora. Paul Atreides, cast into the unforgiving wilderness during a coup by a rival noble house, becomes part of Fremen culture and learns the ways of desert survival. Both figures are eventually accepted by their respective adopted cultures. (Interestingly, in each case the protagonist must ride some dangerous beast in order to be recognized fully as an adult!) When human mercenaries arrive to drive off the Na’vi, Jake Sully successfully unites the various tribes of the Na’vi in a heroic campaign against the technologically superior humans. Paul Atreides, taking up the heavy mantle of messiah-figure, becomes leader of the scattered communities of Fremen in order to lay low the rival houses which conspired to bring down his family.
The patterns here mirror each other to no small degree. For our purposes, though, I should like to focus our attention upon the two spiritual cultures at work here — the Na’vi and the Fremen. Looking through critical eyes, we may find a surprisingly jarring contrast. While both peoples are undoubtedly spiritual, and — crucially here — connected with the rhythms of their respective worlds, the real-world analogues are very, very different. In the sky-hued and iridescent countenance of the Na’vi, we see reflected the shamans of Africa, South America, the Pacific Rim. In the wind-scoured and burning gaze of the Fremen, we observe nothing so much as the Islamic militant. By the artist’s design, we find ourselves inspired by the serene pantheism of the Na’vi. Conversely, we most often shudder when confronted with the naked, apocalyptic fanaticism of the Fremen. Whether these portrayals are even-handed or accurate, we will leave for another day. What matters here is this: Both the Na’vi and the Fremen are spiritual cultures which exist largely outside of the broader universes they inhabit.
This quality of apartness echoes the notes sounded by two authors here on Rending the Veil. In the Yule issue, Patrick Dunn observes that in the practice of magic there exists an element of separation, which “amounts to a cutting off not just of society but of the physical world.” (More on the second author — the insightful Ian Vincent — momentarily.) Dunn characterizes this process as “a turning inward” into the world of ideas. This inward focus is crucially important both for the Na’vi and for the Fremen, because both cultures are really defined by their inherent inwardness. When confronted with outsiders, both cultures act with some mixture of caution and hostility, attenuated for the specific encounter. When confronted by the beliefs and practices of outsiders, both the Na’vi and the Fremen instinctively close ranks and look inward, towards their own respective teachings.
In an article appearing in the March 1992 issue of Atlantic Monthly, noted political theorist Benjamin Barber described a cultural conflict he termed “Jihad versus McWorld” — in short, the conflict between the forces of tribalism and the forces of universalism. Jihad — speaking strictly in the context of Barber’s article — is the tendency to identify narrowly with one’s cultural, ethnic, or religious community. Jihad, in its extreme manifestation, is parochial tribalism taken to an extreme, coupled with suspicion or even outright hostility towards other cultural identities, whether tribal or universal. Jihad seeks to cut off the broader world, sequestering itself to prevent contamination by the external world. McWorld, on the other hand, is the homogenizing impulse which suggests all people are essentially equal, together with an essential disdain for the unique aspects of local and tribal identities. The universalizing paradigm of McWorld — at its worst — suggests all people are consumers within a world driven by culturally neutral economic forces.
Neither paradigm possesses an exclusive claim upon the moral high ground. While Benjamin Barber’s characterization of Jihad speaks of parochialism and even xenophobia, the impulse towards tribalism also preserves myths, traditions, and cultural artifacts, elements which resonate with older elements of our cultural and biological makeup. Left unchecked, McWorld reduces everyone to consumer trends and dollar signs. Still, the notion we all share an essentially universal identity as people grounds — morally and politically — the notion of universal human rights. We should also take note these two tendencies — the one narrowing our identity, the other broadening it — exist inside every single individual and across every single culture. Because these tendencies — considered philosophically — prove more ambiguous morally than Barber’s political focus, I will employ the terms “tribalism” and “universalism” throughout the rest of this article.
The respective worldviews of the Na’vi and the Fremen are strongly tribal in tone. Both cultures demonstrate elements of siege mentality, more or less justifiably, given the deleterious outcomes of each people’s interactions with the broader universe around them. The Na’vi find their very survival threatened by the arrival of humans, especially when the corporate authorities leading the occupation decides a Na’vi community must move to make way for the company’s mining operations. The Na’vi, however, perceive a broader threat to their way of life. Their fear finds expression in their ambiguous response to the school opened by Dr. Grace Augustine. According to the movie’s backstory, the Na’vi close the school because of its association with the occupation force; still, the tribe demonstrates an obvious and mutually held respect for Dr. Augustine.
Coupled with this tribalism we find a strong spiritual element. The Na’vi demonstrate a profound appreciation for the interconnected web of life around them, which translates into an essentially pantheistic worldview. The Fremen, on the other hand, embrace both fatalistic reverence for the wilderness and zealous devotion to prophecy. The broader universe crafted by Frank Herbert does include other religious expressions, notably the influential sisterhood of witches called the Bene Gesserit; still, the Bene Gesserit are only one player within a much larger complex of institutions. However important they may be for the story of Paul Atreides, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood cannot shape the worldview of the Galactic Empire to the degree the spiritual voices of the Fremen single-handedly define the culture of Arrakis. Indeed, tribalism and religion generally support one another. Spiritual traditions become an identity around which a tribe can find both root and shelter, and the resulting tribe then protects and perpetuates the dogma of the religion.
It’s not surprising that the universal tendency cannot so easily sustain this level of religious fervor. (Quite ironically, Western forms of mysticism — properly understood — exhibit an ineffable quality which precludes, and indeed transcends, the particular; sadly, this impulse seldom permits any real alliance between the broader universal impulse and the community of believers. Oh, and allow me to belatedly wish everyone here “Happy Holidays!” — See what I mean? ) Spiritual pursuits — including mysticism and magic — most often prove intensely idiosyncratic and deeply personal, and what is idiosyncratic and personal forever remains the enemy of homogenous community. The beings and phenomena of the astral realms — however the believer conceives them — become so many impersonal forces of nature of psychology, when cast beneath the relentlessly materialistic gaze of universalism. Tribalism, on the other hand, celebrates the personal myths and traditions which resonate with our primal selves most profoundly. Whether right or wrong, the tribal believer encounters Deity and the spirit world in ways more intuitive — more relevant — than the universal impulse allows.
The charge has been leveled that the story of Avatar amounts to cultural chauvinism, since the story shows an outsider who “out-natives” the natives, surpassing the wildest expectations of the tribal culture, in order to bring the disparate tribes together against their common foe. The damaging subtext, according to this deconstruction, belittles native culture by suggesting the natives could not themselves engage in such daring and heroic efforts in their own defense. We might well make the same inquiry of Dune, an endeavor further complicated by the fact the Fremen are notably guided by the prophecies of Dr. Kynes, another outsider who identifies with — and becomes part of — the religious conversation of the Fremen.
Before we can consider this train of thought, we must return briefly to “Jihad versus McWorld”. Barber himself suggests — in no uncertain terms — that McWorld is heavily favored within the broader culture wars. McWorld has the distinct advantage of looking past every possible division between diverse peoples as something essentially superficial. People are people are people, and when people who would otherwise belong to distinct cultural groups share this belief, then the universal tendency can bring to bear the full weight of the community during its battles with tribalism. A movement which embraces tribal thinking, on the other hand, devalues not only the broad, universal impulse which would homogenize the world, but also the surrounding tribal movements which fail to correspond with that movement’s identity or worldview. McWorld doesn’t need to divide and conquer; Jihad conveniently divides itself.
Herein we observe what I believe is the real reason why basically tribal peoples unite under someone like Jake Sully or Paul Atreides in the stories of science fiction. Their allegiance has little to do with the outsider’s physical or mental prowess, though both individuals are certainly remarkable and talented individuals. Neither the Na’vi nor the Fremen can be considered guilty of any misplaced reverence for the technological superiority of the outside cultures. No, the real strength of both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides lies in their cultural background. Both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides come from cultures which celebrate coming together for some common cause, and both are charismatic enough to communicate the benefits of intertribal cooperation to otherwise disparate tribes. The universal impulse which they champion isn’t superior morally to the tribal mindset. Jake Sully goes to war with the culturally arrogant and environmentally reckless corporate outfit he abandons, yet here we observe nothing so much as moral self-correction emerging from within the homogenizing force of McWorld. While Avatar shows clearly defined lines of good and evil, with Jake Sully representing the “good” aspects of universalism, and the corporation representing the “worse” elements, Dune adopts a more nuanced approach. Paul Atreides is clearly the embodiment of universal impulse among the Fremen, yet Paul frequently works from motives of vengeance and wrath, and his overall character remains morally ambiguous at best.
The defining element here isn’t the “advanced” culture’s psychological or moral superiority — Jake Sully and Paul Atreides are both uniquely talented individuals, yet this fact alone does not enable them to rally the disparate tribes and communities under one banner. No, the real conflict here is between the universal impulse and the tribal impulse, and here both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides claim their decisive advantage, since they emerge from universal cultures. (Of course, pragmatic advantage does not equate with moral worth, yet this is another discussion for another day.) In both science fiction stories, tribal peoples must adopt a more life-affirming version of the universalizing impulse which empowers their enemies, and Jake and Paul give them the tools to effect precisely this change.
What’s the takeaway for us as witches and magicians? Generally speaking, we are not the Na’vi, and we are not the Fremen. In the battle for the collective soul of our world, we are born into the universal impulse which suffuses the whole of Western culture. Every time we endorse universal human rights — every single time we look past someone’s skin color or sexual orientation — we affirm the universal impulse. Every single time we suggest in matters of religion there are many roads ascending the same mountain, we affirm the universal impulse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are life-affirming elements within universalism; any time we can tease those out, we add something important towards the health and sanity of our world. Our culture celebrates the universal impulse. We perceive in Jake Sully and in Paul Atreides noble protagonists who speak towards the most life-affirming incarnations of this mindset.
The practice of magic constitutes the crafting of paradigms. The doctrines of chaos magic make this aspect explicit, yet most introspective forms of contemporary magic embrace this notion to one degree or another. Even if the paradigm in question is nothing more than simple acceptance of some spirit world, the magician embraces a worldview apart from the cultural default of scientific materialism. And herein we see the “otherness” of the magician. Earlier within this article, I referenced Patrick Dunn’s treatment of the magician as something apart from the rest of the world. This impulse is tribal in tone. Equally tribal in aspect is the turning inward of the magician. I ran with the notion of inwardness as something defining about tribal societies, yet what this treatment misses (and what I believe Dunn catches) is this: The turning inward practiced by the magician is personal introspection; the magician remains ever the tribe of one. Choices about magical paradigm are made by the individual magician.
This idiosyncratic practice, this personal interpretation of our shared world, runs counter to the overall thrust of the universal impulse. And herein we discover the fundamental tension for those who practice magic within the Western tradition. We are children of the universal impulse which defines our shared culture, and yet we rail against (or subtly subvert) the homogenizing aspects of this same force. We are, to borrow an expression from Ian Vincent’s article in the Samhain issue of Rending the Veil, the “Tribe of the Strange.” We are those who step out of line, who dance with the unique beats of our own hearts. And it’s damnably difficult to step outside what the mainstream considers normal, without feeling a profound tension with this homogenizing force.
Friedrich Nietzsche, with his characteristic wryness, once proposed this tension conspires to prevent the emergence of genuinely great souls across humanity. The common people, bound together by simple and mutually held conceptual ground, are able to communicate with one another easily, facilitating their collective survival efforts. The great mind, upon the other hand, not only thinks “outside the box” of common thought, but also along unique lines distinct from other great minds. Unable to communicate either with the common people or with one another, they struggle in isolation to survive and reproduce. Now we might take issue with the notion that greatness contains some genetic component — Again witness the universal impulse at work! — and in fairness to Nietzsche, I think there’s some tongue in cheek which a surface reading of his work too frequently misses. Still, our own endeavor to preserve our individual uniqueness becomes doubly difficult, since nearly the whole of Western civilization remains indelibly universal in character. We are not the Na’vi, and we are not the Fremen. Simply phrased, we are not an inherently tribal people.
Nevertheless, the line separating the universal impulse and the tribal impulse, much like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous line between good and evil, passes through every human heart. We might favor one mindset or another — we might be born into one world or another — yet the opposing viewpoint remains within us, always there in potential. This latent potential is what gives Jake Sully the capacity to understand, however imperfectly, the pantheistic and animistic worldview of the Na’vi. Likewise, the nascent tribal impulse within Paul Atreides makes possible his tempestuous and fateful connection with the devout Fremen.
As the inheritors of Western culture, we are universal within our thinking. People are people are people, and there are many roads ascending the same mountain. This universal tendency is what inspires virtual homes like Rending the Veil, wherein we find many authors and readers, with many distinct viewpoints, coming together with the common cause of learning from one another. As witches and magicians, as members of the Tribe of the Strange, though, we are tribal within our thinking. We nurture and develop paradigms which oppose or subvert the homogenizing and materialistic tendencies of universalism. And while we may find meaningful spiritual traditions and covens which share broad elements of our individual magical paradigms, our paradigms remain forever individual and unique, for the paths of the mystic and the magician remain forever inward ones. The challenge here becomes one of balance and integration. Taken to their respective extremes, tribalism devalues everyone and everything outside the narrow definition of the tribe, while universalism devalues everything which renders the individual unique and special. How can we champion the life-affirming elements contained in these two impulses, without falling prey to those perilous extremes?
The complete answer — should there be such — rests outside the scope of my article. I can only propose what might be the path towards an answer, since the real solution occurs within genuine introspection and open-minded dialogue. We are the Tribe of the Strange, and we must learn how to embrace both our strangeness and our latent tribal impulse. By our strangeness, I mean those unique paradigms and practices which make us witches and magicians. Our strangeness transcends any particular affiliation; by the very nature of our craft, our personal introspection transcends even spiritual tradition or coven. Still, this strangeness makes all the more urgent our collective efforts to communicate with one another as one singular tribe. We might not — cannot, really — agree upon every issue, and we must be okay with such differences. We must develop a common dialogue, however, should we wish to resist as one tribe the homogenizing elements of universalism which would deny our spiritual birthright. And we develop this common dialogue via the universal impulse which we inherit from our broader culture, just like Jake Sully, and just like Paul Atreides. Science fiction teaches us how to tease out the life-affirming aspects within our cultural makeup, without falling prey to xenophobia or to homogenization. Let’s continue the dialogue of our strange little tribe, here and elsewhere, embracing both our own unique greatness and mutual respect for one another.
©2010 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Christopher Drysdale will join Rending the Veil as a columnist beginning in our Ostara issue.
Pasty-skinned, the office-boy who has seen too many days inside the cube-farm slowly makes his way up the mountain path. Trees loom on either side, and he greets each as a new friend, with his eyes if not his voice. In places, the trail is worn by the seasonal runoff that heads to the stream below. The sound of the brook, fast moving in this season, covers the sounds of jets flying overhead, and the sounds of trucks struggling down a nearby highway.
Clattering against his side is a plastic water-bottle. In his backpack is a small rattle, bought at a pow-wow, and a drum bought at an online store. In outward appearances, there is little that resembles his spiritual ancestors who walked this land, and likely the lands of his blood ancestors. What right has he to be called a shaman?
The myth of the Noble Savage runs through most of our popular culture and media, from the famous words that Chief Seattle never spoke, to the “wise old Indian” in Natural Born Killers, to the “wise old Indian” in Thunderheart, to the “wise old Indian” in Poltergeist II. Yet it is not only Native Americans who are subject to this artistic brush: in media it is often a combination of a darker skin color and an assumption that foreigners, rural dwellers, and colonized peoples are somehow more pure and live “closer to the earth.” Their lack of technology is seen as a rejection of our culture rather than lack of access to the means of production.
Media representations of stereotypical “natives” are so pervasive that it would be impossible to tell our stories without them. However, for those who study the “other” in one capacity or another, it is critical to realize that for the most part these supposedly non-Western characters are, in fact, written by Westerners themselves. The “Truths from the Earth” that the characters spout are often created whole-cloth by the Western authors, or at best pre-digested through several Western sources and made more palatable for the Western audience. The “natives” are characters serving a purpose in a Western story, and the final product is one hundred percent Grade-A Western.
The idea of the Noble Savage was originally a European response to the excesses of European colonialism. Early colonialists thought was that the native peoples (who were being massacred or co-opted as forced labor for European profit) were somehow lesser humans. These were the same beliefs that bolstered slavery in America up until the time of the Civil War. Eventually, especially in literature, there was a counter-movement to these ideas. The “Noble Savage” was a cultural construct by the West, projecting their ideas of a “pre-civilized” man who was filled with good manners, wisdom, and knowledge, virtues the writers felt were lost to the West. These beliefs came from the same sources of philosophy and religion that started many of the Utopian movements that helped populate America. At their core was a belief that mankind, left to his own devices, would be more civilized than civilization could make him.
The earliest portrayals of the Noble Savage are representative of a belief that mankind is inherently good, a concept that speaks to Western culture steeped in Christian tradition. The idea of the Noble Savage is an origin myth, a cultural statement about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it. Origin myths are core statements of meaning, loci of interpretation, and bases of authority. They are not just stories, and can encompass anything from the Biblical “Garden of Eden” to the story of the founding of a corporation. Setting aside the bias of Western ideas on what makes a creation myth, they are stories of how things came to be the way they are. And because they are told as stories, there is no need to “prove” their underlying assumptions.
The true Noble Savages are not members of some far-distant tribe in a land unspoiled by Westernization and Globality. Neo-shamans are the true Noble Savages, standing as part of and yet in counterpoint to the frenetic civilization that surrounds them. In a culture caught between Enlightenment notions of what man might become and the cold, hard realities of biology, neo-shamans in particular live in a tension between the spiritual and the physical. The parts of ourselves that we push away become our spiritual guides and help us take part in a deeper, richer version of a whole human being. We become not just members of our culture, but of a longer and deeper tradition of meaningful human life.
Just as non-Westerners are the imagined “other,” so is the world of the spirit. Neither of these ideas are part of our shared everyday life. These two ideas are linked, not in truth, but in our imaginations. With the simple logic of the imagining mind, making connections where it will, both non-Westerners and all things magical are “other,” and so are connected metaphorically. This link is not a new idea, nor a purely Western one. While there is no logical truth to it, in the world of metaphor the magical “other” is a very powerful image. It is further supported by the stories with which we surround ourselves, and there are many stories that tap into this myth. As a lens for truth and cultural understanding, the Noble Savage myth is rotten to the core. But as a lens for looking inward into ourselves, and as a lens for looking at our own culture, this archetype is both powerful and wise.
The people of the Western world, for the most part, no longer sit around hearth-fires in the cold of winter retelling the stories of their people. The fires we sit around are blue lights seen through neighbors’ windows, flickering their own stories at us. We no longer sing as we work; many of us listen to our personal music devices in isolation and outward silence, sitting in front of computers in small, ergonomically designed “cubes.” The communities we create, the myths we retell, seem to be very different from those of long ago. In some ways they are, but at the core they are still much the same. While the names and the faces change, the stories that are told touch on many of the same themes as before. Where they change over time, it reflects our changing views of the world and what it means to be human.
The postmodern world is not only inundated with the interactions of people, but also with all the stories they have to tell. The dominant stories of the West: through novels, movies, and television all, are often new ones reflecting the cultural change that has occurred in the past century-and-a-half of industrialization, or perhaps reach as far back as five centuries to the beginning of the era of the Enlightenment and European colonialism. It was then that the story of what would become the United States of America began. The myth of America is the myth of a new country, a break with the past. The myth of the West, stretching from the Enlightenment, is also that of a break with the past. Neo-shamans more than others, as carriers of the myths of culture and as those who work in relationship with the land, should strive to be aware of its history and, truthfully, prehistory. While the people who live atop the land may have forgotten, the land itself remembers.
If neo-shamans are to have authority to speak, and to have relationships not just with people but with spirits and with the land, then we should know the whole story. Not just the histories of our own people, but of all people, of the animals, and of the land itself. The cultures that thrived on the land and the ways they propitiated its spirits are important, not because we should mimic these rituals ourselves, but because we need to enter into our own relationships with these same spirits. The authority of neo-shamans, just as much as that of the “shamans” in traditional cultures, depends on their relationships with the land and the plants and animals that survive on it. Western neo-shamanism looks different from other “shamanisms,” fits into a different culture, and has different stories and assumptions. Nonetheless, at its root it is not an attempt to mimic other cultures. Western neo-shamanism is ‘its own thing.’
When neo-pagans perform ceremonies honoring Mother Earth, this is not simply a myth from elsewhere, from antiquity. If it were, it would have no relevance to our daily lives. The ritual is expressing something in our culture, and about our culture. Insofar as we attribute these beliefs to the “other,” to the “ancient,” we are challenging models of authority within our culture using authorities from elsewhere — we are writing and accepting new origin myths that express a different truth about who we are as human beings.
Drawing on creation myths, the quintessential origin myths, is a common part of shamanic practice across the world — authority often extends from origins. For an American, “The Way the West was Won” is just as much a creation myth as the “Garden of Eden.” The “Noble Savage” as the ‘pure other’ is an appropriate image for spiritual renewal. Western myths are part of our rich lore: to identify with the “victim” in the myth allows us to reclaim the parts of our own culture which were lost in the dream of “progress.”
Western thought is bound up with concepts of linear time and progress. From the Christian Bible’s “Revelation” to science’s “heat death,” the universe and all things in it are seen as having a beginning and an end. At the same time, most short-term change is seen as “progress” trending from less complex to more complex, from worse to better. Just as computers get faster every year, all change is seen as “progressive” and inherently positive. While science has much to offer, for those who bridge to the world of the spirits, this perspective is not particularly useful. Yet these ideas have become dominant and intertwined with Western thought and knowledge. It is no surprise that those who are called to step away from this perspective might look elsewhere for models of time and space.
As Western thought is tied up with linear time and progress, the non-Western, the “other,” is merged in our minds with all that is not part of the Western stereotype. Attempts to reclaim things lost to the juggernaut of “The West” (a broad generalization) wear the veil of “the other,” and we are quite capable of reworking other belief systems so that they become part of our own culture. This process is not unique to the West: any culture that accepts an idea from another culture changes the idea so that it fits into the matrix of its own culture and lives. Usually, in fact, individuals within a culture change the ideas in many ways, not all of them agreeing with one another.
Neo-shamans live in a world of changed and challenged assumptions, different from the dominant cultural dialogue of positivist science. The practitioners break away from the dialogue limiting the importance of spiritual existence to the afterlife, away from any notions of a transcendent deity. They are, in their very essence, liminal: living in two worlds, or in two perceptions of the world, at the same time. By their very nature, they challenge both the dominant physical and spiritual authorities of our culture, and try to maintain a relationship with the land and with spirits, neither of which are particularly valued by the dominant views. Yet the neo-shaman, as the speaker for that which does not have a voice, is a darling of our myths, of our popular culture. Americans, at least, always root for the underdog.
Neo-shamans speak with the authority of Western myths. They are not some expression of a universal “shaman,” but a part of American culture growing from our own traditions and histories. They are the inheritors of a world of colonialism, of the myth of progress, and of stripped away meaning. Yet they also see something deeper in the world, and are called to do what they do. They are indeed inheritors of duties and responsibilities, whether they have the right to use the word “shaman” or not. Through their nature, and training, they are responsible to both the spirits and their communities.
©2010 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
“Where there is money, you have cheats. The two go together.” — Eric Cantona
“Send lawyers, guns and money — the shit has hit the fan.” — Warren Zevon
I was looking at how modern Western “Shamanism” is a mix of ideas borrowed from various native traditions (often without either respect or understanding). I also noted that sometimes the matter of “authenticity” to an existing tradition was not the most significant point — that there are people who seem to have a genuine call to serve their tribe/ culture/ whatever and attempt to honour this vocation as best they can with the tools and ideas they have at hand. Authenticity to this impulse, if done sincerely and thoughtfully, can matter more than devotion to tradition. The question of how all this becomes even more complex when adding commerce to the mix, I left to examine at a later date.
In between then and now we have had a tragic example of how badly that mix can go wrong.
The story of how three people died and dozens were hospitalised as a result of taking part in a “spiritual warrior” sweat lodge held by James Arthur Ray has been heavily discussed, both within the occult community and outside. (A good primer on this can be found at the Wild Hunt blog, and the Wikipedia biography of Ray is also of use.) There’s been an awful lot said about Ray’s particular variation on the New Age Guru — much of it perhaps better left for the legal apparatus.
What is extremely clear, both from reports of those who were involved in the fateful sweat lodge itself and Ray’s own words (on his website — to which I will not directly link — and in his many media appearances) is that his primary focus is money. What’s also clear to me is that his “theology” emphasises something I consider to be one of the nastier habits of many mystical systems — that the soul is far more important than the body.
I think those two points are deeply related.
The idea that spiritual purity and earthly success reflect each other — whether one calls it the Law of Attraction, Prosperity Theology or what have you — may seem to contradict the idea that the soul is more important than the material world. I think that it’s an inevitable result of how soul/ body dualism is usually expressed in the West.
The idea goes:
“Money is power. If I have money, I am powerful. If there is a God or spiritual force, then surely my power and position show that God favours my endeavours. If not, surely I would be poor and powerless.”
Add to this the concept that the soul is immortal and thus above/ better than the body. . . and you get the justification for an awful lot of cruelty and privileged behaviour.
“You’re poor? That means your soul is weak, that God does not love you.”
Then, up steps the Guru.
“I can make your soul better. I can bring you wealth in this world and the next. But in order to show you are ready, that your are committed enough to begin this process, you have to make an offering. A sacrifice to the coming purity of your soul and the inevitable favour of God.”
“That’ll be ten thousand dollars, please. Here’s your receipt.”
If you’re the Guru and your prime interest is making money, it’s quite an effective sales technique — and provides a lovely example of just how powerful the Guru’s mojo is. After all, look how much money he has! He must be good at this!
. . . and if you should fail at the various little tests at the weekend spirit warrior workshop. . .
. . . if you can’t break a board with your hand after an hour of preaching (rather than ten years of martial arts training and physical conditioning). . .
. . . if you can’t stay conscious in a sweltering hut covered in plastic tarps with no water or ventilation. . .
. . . if you die while under the Guru’s tender care. . .
. . . well, that’s a shame. At least your soul learned something. Better luck next incarnation.
This is not to say that it isn’t possible for mystical pursuits to have an effect on the material world — I wouldn’t be much of a magician if I believed that. I also know that spiritual development can demand a heavy toll on the body of the practitioner, that the shamanic path often relies on stress, shock and fear as methods of altering consciousness. But it infuriates me when Gurus and teachers blithely assume that a purified soul is worth any cost to the body.
(It’s exactly the same attitude that leads to exorcisms resulting in the injuring or death of the subject — as long as the “demon” is driven out and the immortal soul saved, it’s considered a price worth paying. As someone who strove to protect in every way those under his care as a professional exorcist and curse-breaker, it disgusts me when the supposed pursuit of spiritual purity is used as an excuse to torture, maim and kill.)
Ray is an especially clear example of how modern conceptions of the shaman are far too often expressed. His publicity makes a great deal about his experiences with several “authentic” native traditions, but also borrows heavily from the layman’s version of quantum theory. . . while showing a painfully superficial understanding of both. There’s a lot of lip service to concepts such as (one of my all-time favourites) becoming a “spiritual warrior” without actually having any martial training or combat experience whatsoever. There’s also the classic come-along of his Deep Inner Knowledge of Mighty Secrets of Power which he will share with you. . . for a hefty fee.
And what he’s selling is such a superficial version of wisdom, a weak dilution of knowledge. Shamanism For Dummies.
He, like so many New Age gurus, sells the illusion that someone can become a powerful magician or shaman without actually putting in the work — the months and years of practice, study and trial it takes to develop yourself. This isn’t just cheating his clients, it’s insulting to those who actually have done the work. It also gives a dangerous impression that Ray and his ilk are far more competent in these matters than they actually are. Ray claimed he was an expert, an authority in this field and as a result people trusted him with their lives and souls — and he wasn’t even able to work out that people in hot rooms need to breathe.
I think the thing about Ray that stood out for me most is how utterly plastic and shallow, how inauthentic in every sense, he seems. He comes across as nothing so much as Tom Cruise in Magnolia. . . I can picture Ray running around a stage, his little wire microphone stuck to his head, declaiming, “Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!” No master of the occult arts — just a salesman.
(An effective salesman, though. Bear in mind he’s still open for business and people are still going on his retreats.)
It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for teachers of mystical knowledge — or that they shouldn’t be compensated for their time and services. As I said about the appropriation of native techniques, it’s about not taking the piss — not getting greedy, not assuming that everyone has the same strengths and abilities, not caring how hard you push the bodies of those under your tutelage as long as your idea of the soul is satisfied. When you think like that, it’s easy to forget that a person is mind and body and soul together — and that their existence does not come with a price tag.
Although their focus is mostly on the mysticism of the Indian subcontinent, the Guruphiliac blog has an excellent perspective on the money-grabbing (and ass-grabbing) side of so many alleged spiritual masters.
I also strongly recommend the two-part post at “Thoughts from a Threshold” which gives excellent advice on safety in ritual spaces, which is one of the few positive benefits to come out of the Ray affair. Part 1. Part 2.
Next time on Guttershaman — more on money and New Age, tricksters and con men. Possibly even Rainbow Unicorns.
©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Ian Vincent was born in 1964 and is a lifelong student of the occult. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying wider aspects of the Art. He blogs on magical theory.
Mystery of mystery
White light within the Flame
The Hidden Fire
Is the Heart of Nature.
The brilliant Light
Erupts from Yoni
In the scream-cry-chant of Birthing
Cosmic, Whole, All Embracing
Light beyond all lights
Body of Flaming Sun
Of crystalline brilliance of full glowing moon
All rays of Star-Light
The Flame of the World
The Flame of the Altar
The Flame that is the blazing aura
Of a Stalk of Wheat
A Branch of Offering
The Tree of Life;
The shimmering Light that is HER
Is scattered as an ever out-rippling cascade of Stars
Shining forth from Her Heart,
Creating the Stars- the Sun and Moon
And the glimmering life in Every Living Thing .
Mystery of Mystery
Reflected in a million smiles, a million lives,
A million Minds- One Mind
Into awe and love that is endless and deep.
Hekas, Hekas, Este Bebeloi!!!
A New Life is Born!
I hear music in the chilling winds from the sea.
It is wailing my lonely cry, “Come back to me.”
In loneliness, my heart aches so I want to die.
Winds, blowing over the sea, sing my mournful cry.
Yesterday my darling and I strolled hand in hand
On the shore, barefoot, digging our toes in the sand.
Mist from the sea breeze bathed our tear-stained faces,
As we built air castles of faraway places.
With hearts breaking, we knew our dreams could never be.
No tomorrows together, we would ever see.
Then from me, the Death Angel carried her away.
In memories, I live the dreams of yesterday.
Through the veil of the wind, I see her lovely face.
From the wings of the wind, I feel her warm embrace.
In whispering winds, I hear her calling to me.
The wind echoes my lonely cry, “Come back to me.”
©2009 Tina L. Salley. Originally published in The Poetry of Life:A Treasury of Moments by the American Poetry Association, ©1987 by Juanita McIntyre. Tina L. Salley represents the poetic estate of Mrs. McIntyre. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
As human beings, we necessarily craft metaphysical paradigms which explain our perceptions and direct our actions. Whether we believe in Providence or in Lady Fortune determines whether we acknowledge some propitious turn of events as divine blessing or else merely good luck. Whether we believe in the inherent dignity of human life crucially affects how we approach questions of personal and societal ethics, as does the manner in which we interpret ambiguous terms like “dignity” and “human life.” Inextricably embedded within every bare perception lies the question of interpretation, and our interpretations have for their bedrock our philosophical and magical paradigms.
Oftentimes, human beings simultaneously harbor two or more paradigms which — considered reflectively — prove mutually repugnant. This confused state of affairs can preserve human life and society, as the extreme conclusions of any one paradigm are tempered by rival belief systems, yet such ideological inconsistency can also inflict significant levels of cognitive dissonance and psychological stress upon those who straddle opposing viewpoints over prolonged durations. The Chaos Magicians within our midst might well regard the ability to dance across multiple paradigms as virtue rather than liability, at least when the pragmatic incorporation of any and all viewpoints occurs consciously and reflectively.
Speaking for myself, I am not so sanguine about the postmodern approach which Chaos Magic takes towards reality — I believe against all odds there is an intelligible cosmos which admits human apprehension! — although I think there are lessons to be learned from an introspective consideration of the paradigm or paradigms to which one holds. In this essay, I wish to examine some common interpretations of that most ubiquitous of paranormal phenomena, the ghostly haunting, and specifically what these explanations suggest about the underlying magical paradigms. My aim here does not encompass the proving or disproving of any particular phenomena. I will not explain what ghosts are, or how such ephemeral beings might interact with the realms of the quick, at least in any definitive or authoritative sense. Rather, I wish to think about how we think about ghosts, and then examine what these thought processes say about us. (To any Zen Buddhists out there, you may fairly assume I am traveling in the opposite direction; in fairness, I am doing so reflectively, and since space-time is essentially curved we might safely assume given enough time we shall meet upon the other side.)
The original impetus for this essay began with idle musings around Samhain, when the Mists which apparently divide the material and the astral grow especially thin. While reflecting upon the nature of ghosts, I found myself face to face with a logical conundrum. There are basically two schools of thought concerning the origin of an active, apparently self-aware haunting. The simplest interpretation, by and by, says the haunting wherein the ghost interacts both with environmental changes and with living people represents the human soul of the deceased, still present in some meaningful sense within our pre-afterlife world. When people die, goes this theory, some people get “stuck” — most frequently due to exceptional life circumstances — and cannot move beyond their earthly existence. (Strictly speaking, this explanation does not require belief in some specific afterlife, or even belief in any afterlife, although one seldom holds the belief in ghosts without some concurrent belief in the afterlife.)
There exists a competing explanation for the existence and nature of ghosts, one fairly well documented in the contemporary occult community. By this reasoning, a ghost isn’t the same being as the deceased individual; rather, the deceased leaves behind a mental and emotional imprint which a sympathetic nonhuman spirit then animates. I presume we’re all familiar with this phenomenon on smaller scales; if you’ve ever walked into a room and felt some inexplicable “vibe” — whether good or bad — then you’re at least familiar with the sort of psychic residue I’m describing. Spirits tend to manifest where this psychic imprint aligns with their own natures and aims. When the deceased leaves behind some especially potent psychic imprint, or when such an imprint is fueled by the emotional charge of those who mourn the loss, then the Mists grow very thin indeed for those spirits in tune with the mental and emotional state of the deceased. The result? A “ghost” which manifests through the psychic imprint surrounding certain deaths.
This latter theory accords better with my personal sense of things, and especially my belief in reincarnation. (I should also add my definition of sympathetic spirits does not generally include what certain strands of Judeo-Christian thought would regard as demons. While I remain skeptical the ghostly presence watching over little Sally really is Grandpa, I’m reasonably certain the manifestation in question isn’t some machination of Satan. That’s not to say there aren’t dangerous ghosts out there. There are dangerous people across the world, and dangerous people leave behind dangerous imprints, which dangerous spirits then inhabit. Nevertheless, I stand by my conviction most spirits are like most people — basically good at heart, sometimes selfish, essentially looking for love.)
This belief in the “ghost” as spirit-animated imprint points towards the thorny problem of personal identity. If the nonhuman spirit animating the psychic imprint does so self-consciously, then there is little issue here; at this point, the “ghost” becomes the Trickster — epitomized by The Magician within the Tarot — although mayhap one who operates with benevolent ends in mind. Some variations of this theory take one additional step, suggesting the animating spirit may inhabit the psychic imprint so completely the spirit forgets its own identity as an independent being.
Now the issue of personal identity begins to take shape. I inquire of myself, as student of the occult: Who am I? Everyday I wear masks, glamers which I adopt and discard as my circumstances require. Here I am child, and there I am lover. Here I am teacher, and there I am student. These masks develop and evolve as I develop and evolve, although we might push too far, were we to identify me as the mere sum of such mutable projections. I am process, perhaps — a ripple of interconnected events and perceptions fanning out across space-time. And yet what are these events? My intellectual processes? My emotional responses? These are certainly the ephemeral things which leave my mark upon the psychic fabric of the universe, and were some spirit to inhabit my energy signature, the workings of my mind and my heart would be the medium through which such manifestations might happen. The warmth I bring to this room, wherein I gathered many times with family and friends — this emotional energy proves the gateway for spirits of warmth and benevolence. The wrath I displayed in another place — such anguish and terror becomes the gateway for much more malevolent spirits. The kindnesses and cruelties we bring into the physical world inevitably set the stage for the spirits who might follow afterward.
If the nonhuman spirits animating such energetic signatures merely echoed the ambient emotions, then we might have little cause to worry about personal identity; we constantly return the smiles and the scowls of those around us, all without losing any meaningful sense of who we ourselves are. Meaningful empathy towards, and interaction with, those around us normally doesn’t compromise our sense of personal identity, and we have no reason to believe spirits should materially differ from us in this regard. And yet ghosts do more than merely resonate with the ambient psychic energy; they actively mimic certain mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the living. The question then arises: How deep does the psychic imprint run, and how much could the animating spirit really lose itself within the impression?
If some living human being lost all memory of her own identity, and moreover fully believed herself to be some other individual, we would consider her at the very least deeply delusional. If I develop amnesia, and then believe myself to be Bill Clinton, I would be regarded as lunatic, and mayhap rightfully so. The mere belief — even when passionately held — that I am someone else does not make this belief true in any meaningful sense. And yet what if the psychic imprint which the spirit accesses runs deeper? If I had all the memories, together with the intellectual and emotional responses of Bill Clinton down into the most minute of details, then might I in some meaningful sense be the former United States president? Returning to my own (non-presidential) identity, if my own memories and psychic processes could be uploaded into some simulacrum, would this simulacrum then be me? These are the questions of science fiction, of course, although actual hauntings challenge us philosophically precisely because they represent the possibility of such transference. If the imprint runs deep enough, and if we are equal to our mental and emotional activity, then how can we genuinely separate the nonhuman spirit from the deceased individual? The very hypothesis may fall to its own definitional vagaries.
There is one possible solution, although this approach suffers from its own difficulties. We might choose to define ourselves as something apart from the things which leave our mark upon the psychic backdrop. Mayhap we are something other than our mental and emotional activity. Together with the mind and the heart, we are flesh and we are soul. These latter two constitute our own animating force, the means and the will by which we translate the desires of mind and heart into action. For ghosts, the normal definition of flesh in inapplicable, although such beings generally possess the ability to impose at least limited alterations upon their environments, whether through fluctuations in temperature and electromagnetic fields, or through full-blown telekinetic or ectoplasmic phenomena.
Very few people who believe in ghosts would suggest personal identity remains strictly tied with the physical corpus, since ghosts by their very existence challenge this notion, and yet methinks we hold very solid philosophical grounds to challenge an enduring connection between personal identity and the physical manifestation, since this physical manifestation is liable to constant flux, constantly absorbing and expelling elements without any actual destruction of the underlying identity. We might say the same thing of the mind and the heart, and yet there exists this at least intuitive difference: While the complete transference of the mind and heart into another vessel might stretch our sense of personal identity, we would intuitively recognize the simulacrum receiving the psychic imprint as the original individual, whereas changes to the mind and heart strike into the very core of who we are.
There remains under consideration the personal spark of will, sometimes termed the soul. I remain uncertain whether we can meaningfully separate the will from the remaining aspects of human identity, yet making the endeavor in the abstract, we discover something very much like the physical corpus — an animating force which translates mental and emotional desires into meaningful action across our shared world. We constantly “breathe” the ambient psychic energy; much like the flesh, we observe elements enter into the will, and we observe other elements depart. I am reluctant to give some primacy to our mental and emotional aspects, and yet these seem to define us in ways more enduring than the constant flux of energies which mark the flesh and soul. And again, if the psychic imprint runs deep enough — if this imprint contains something enduring about ourselves, then does our identity change with the animating force? And if we answer this question in the negative, then does our hypothesis merely confirm the ghost is — in some meaningful sense — one and the same with the deceased?
Within this especial moment, I cannot answer these questions. I most certainly cannot unlock such conundrums for you, my dearest readers who have patiently endured unto the end. You may harbor a magical paradigm in which such questions are meaningless. Or the nature of ghosts may raise different questions within your own unique paradigm. I hope my personal reflections here encourage you to reflect upon your beliefs and your paradigms, in order to tease out what naturally follows from the assumptions you might make about your world. As always, I welcome your thoughts upon this most mysterious of subjects.
©2009 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
If you’ve read much of my writing, either online or in books (especially DIY Totemism), you’ll know that I have a tendency to advocate working with totems other than the Big, Impressive, North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) that so often show up in totem animal dictionaries. I’ve worked with extinct totems, microscopic ones, and even the totems of “food” animals that we commonly think of only in terms of eating their flesh. And I’ve done more work, since starting on a specifically shamanic path, with the totems of local species.
However, I do believe there is a certain cultural value to the BINABM. As I’ve developed therioshamanism, my own non-indigenous, non-core shamanic path, I’ve paid close attention to how my cultural context — white, middle-class, college-educated American — has affected my approach to shamanic practice. And I’ve also paid attention to how other shamans in my culture, core shamans and otherwise, are informed by that culture.
The animals that are the most common totems in a given culture are animals that are important to the people of that culture. In indigenous cultures, these are often the animals who are most commonly hunted for food and other resources, though this is not universal. In our culture, we actually often vilify the domesticated animals we rely on for food and resources, and even the wildlife we hunt is seen less as a living being, and more as a rack of antlers to be turned into a trophy of one’s supposed prowess. (What sort of prowess may be left to the imagination.)
The animals that are valued as totems in this culture are generally the BINABM. They’re big and impressive, noticeable and showy, and generally are strong (and usually predatory). These limitations have often been criticized, and I’ve been a frequent critic. It’s not that these animals don’t deserve attention, but there are others besides the few dozen BINABM that keep showing up in the dictionaries. However, when trying to construct a cultural shamanism in a culture that doesn’t really have a cohesive shamanic path, you have to meet the culture where it is.
By this I mean we’re going to introduce shamanism into a culture that, while it may be influenced by cultures that have had some form of shamanism, has never had a shamanism of its own, at least not recognized as such. Animism really isn’t a central, recognized part of what is thought to be mainstream American culture. This is why I sometimes question the wisdom of trying to be “a shaman” in this culture, at least if the goal is to try to work for people besides white middle-class New Agers with a lot of money to throw around. There are a lot of American demographics where that just won’t fly.
But besides that, we can be pretty confident that a lot of the wild animals that are valued by this culture are also the most common totems in this culture — Wolf, Brown Bear, Eagle, etc. So if we’re going to weave any sort of animistic practices, whether shamanism or otherwise, into the culture at large — or at least connect with more individual people — then the BINABM can be an excellent gateway, as it were. The charismatic megafauna already do their part to introduce concepts of ecological preservation to people who might not otherwise even think of themselves as environmentalists, so why can’t the BINABM function in a similar way with animism and spirituality in general?
I honestly think this is a big reason why, even with my work with lesser-known totems, as I’ve become more involved in shamanism I’ve had more of the BINABM wanting to work with me more deeply. A lot of my work is going to be with people who may not consider themselves animistic in any sense, but who could still benefit from, say, the imagery of animals, and who may find the BINABM to be familiar and comfortable due to cultural connections. I have, for example, a deck of Susie Green’s Animal Messages deck that I’ll have available as an icebreaker once I start my counseling practice — if a client is having a hard time getting started talking, I can have them pick a card out of the deck and then tell me why they feel like that animal that day. The deck is mainly BINABM, which should help more than a deck of obscure animals a client may not know how to connect to.
So please don’t think I dislike the BINABM. They definitely have a place, and I’ve become more aware of that in a cultural sense. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.
©2009 by Lupa.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Lupa is the author of Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, A Field Guide to Otherkin, and co-author of Kink Magic, among other works. You can read her blog at http://therioshamanism.com and see her website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com.