I recently got an email from someone who was interested in Vulture Culture, but felt like they couldn’t actually be a participating member of this “fandom” unless they were tanning their own hides and cleaning their own bones and otherwise processing their own specimens. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this, either. It’s great that so many Vultures are learning these skills, and DIYing their way through their hobby! But it’s not absolutely necessary.
I mean, look at me. I’ve been working with hides and bones and other specimens in my art for over twenty years, and if you count my childhood collecting I’ve been part of what would become Vulture Culture for well over three decades, longer than some Vultures have been alive. And you know what? I’ve never tanned a hide, and only cleaned a couple of skulls. I can dry-preserve wings, but that’s really about it.*
And that doesn’t make me any less sincere or valid a member of Vulture Culture than all those awesome DIYers out there. There are plenty of reasons someone might not get into the messier aspects of the hobby:
–No place to process a bunch of smelly, fresh specimens (or long-dead smelly ones, either!)
–No money to buy supplies, even the cheapest options
–No time to go through the lengthy processes of bone cleaning or fur and leather tanning
–No interest in doing these things, preferring other ways to participate
And there are so many ways to participate, just like any other fandom! You can collect your favorite sorts of specimens (I’m partial to skulls, myself.) Looking for animal bones out in the wild is also a popular pursuit if you have access, but other found specimens can include (legal) feathers, dead insects, shed snake skins, and so forth. Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy making art from specimens already preserved, or using them as art references for traditional media. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just liking to see pictures of other people’s collections, even if you don’t have anything yourself.
My point is, not everyone has to DIY their hobby. You can appreciate others’ efforts without feeling like you’re not as genuine a Vulture because you’re not out there saving every bit of roadkill you can find. Ultimately it’s all about your enjoyment, and if you’re too worried about “doing it right”, you’re not going to have fun! So relax, participate with Vulture Culture in whatever ways you see fit and to whatever degree you prefer, and allow yourself the freedom to explore without pressure!
* Because I wanted to shared these skills but hadn’t developed them myself, I hired guest writers for the how-to tutorials for my book Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I felt that made it a much more complete book on the subculture, and it gave some other writers a chance to show off their chops. But it also allowed me to stick to the things I really enjoy doing, like writing!
I am pleased to announce that I have released updated and annotated editions of my three earliest books: Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone; DIY Animism (formerly DIY Totemism); and Skin Spirits! These were originally published between 2006 and 2009 by Megalithica Books, an imprint of Immanion Press. My parting with them is on good terms, and I highly, highly recommend them for anyone wishing to go the small press route for either sci fi and fantasy fiction, or pagan and occult nonfiction. I’ve just been moving more toward self publishing for the bulk of my works in recent years and was given back the rights to these earlier works. (Both the anthologies I did for IP/MB, Talking About the Elephant and Engaging the Spirit World are now permanently out of print.)
I’ve completely redone the interior layout and covers of the books; the interiors are more compact to cut down on paper usage, and the covers feature my own photos and design. My material is much the same, though I’ve added updates where information has been outdated. I’ve also changed quite a bit as a practitioner, and I’ve annotated the texts to note where I either don’t use a practice any more, or wanted to clarify things that I felt needed a little expansion.
You’ll also notice that I’ve ceased using the terms “totem” and “shamanism”. I’ve chosen to do this as these terms were appropriated from the Ojiwbe and the Evenk, respectively, and while they have been used more generally in both anthropological and spiritual settings, I’ve decided to switch to more culturally neutral terms like animal spirit and animism. I’ve done my best to update the language in these early books to use different terminology while making the text still make sense, and keeping totem and shamanism only where I discuss indigenous practices.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
I am not a huge fan of “nature” as being separate from humanity. The perceived divide of “natural” and “artificial” may seem like a way to emphasize the non-human nature that we often seem to ignore, but it still reinforces the idea that we are somehow divorced from natural processes and cycles, especially in cities. I do, however, favor the concept of “wilderness”. It evokes a place where humans have not had nearly as much of a dominant place in the ecosystem, and we can see more of what the rest of nature is like when we are just another critter in the woods (or fields, or desert, etc.).
Like many other Portland residents, while I live in the city proper, I do get out quite a bit to the wilderness areas that surround the metro region. Usually I’m off to hide somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge or spending a couple of days at the coast, but I’ve ranged further at times, depending on the situation.
This is a lifelong habit, this seeking less human-populated places for recharging and respite. When I enter the wilderness, I feel as though I am immersing myself in a rich, lush energy, though the nature of that energy changes from place to place. The treasures of the deserts of Eastern Oregon are of a distinct quality compared to the conifer forests of the Gorge. And the genii loci of these places are their own beings as well, though like the boundaries of the places, large and small, they shift and blend and overlap, less distinct than our linear minds might prefer.
As much as I might like to stay immersed in wilderness forever, I also recognize that I am an urban creature. I have wants and needs and obligations that require more connectivity of a human sort. And, admittedly, I like comfort. Snow hiking is much more fun when I know I have a warm home to go back to.
But I don’t want to forget these places I’ve been, nor the often deep spiritual experiences I have while in their embrace, whether tender or terrifying. And so I collect small, single souvenirs for each place—a small stone, a Douglas fir cone, a piece of driftwood, a pheasant feather. I even got an antique glass jar lid from a local wetland that had been cleaned up after years of garbage being dumped there. And for every thing I take with me, I leave a bit of myself: hair, energy, water for a plant if I’ve enough to share. They come home with me, and I mark them with the date and the place as their number has increased with each place I become acquainted with.
They used to have their own shelf, but eventually they migrated over to one of my two primary altars. You can see them scattered around the top of it here, amid the small stone animals I’ve used to signify directional totems for many years.The relocation of those stones and sticks and such is significant. For years I had a fairly typical generic Wicca-flavored neopagan altar, with the directional markers (animals, of course) plus the tools I used back then (athame, wand, etc.) and my image of Artemis, all from various places around the world and having more abstract than immediate symbolism. Once I began to embrace shamanism–and bioregionalism–more deeply, the tools I no longer used so often ended up on a second altar specifically for ritual implements old and new, and that’s when the gifts from the land spirits made their move.
It’s a beautiful weaving, actually. The centerpiece of the altar is a ceramic wolf-themed jug I made back in high school when I was first getting involved in paganism, and it represents me; it’s decorated with a pair of scrimshaw fossilized ivory necklaces that were instrumental in the processes that brought me to the Pacific Northwest. Immediately surrounding it are the four animal statues—Grey Wolf/North, Brown Bear/West, Red Fox/South, and Red-tailed Hawk/East—that survived the shift from my early neoshamanism and neopaganism, through my chaos magic explorations, and on into my more formal shamanic path. They represent the roots of my practice, like a volcanic core of basalt that has survived the erosion of softer stone surrounding it over time.
Radiating out from them, oriented toward the places they came from, are the reminders of the places I’ve been. They ground my practice more deeply in the place I am at. Not only have the spirits of place taken me in, but their other denizens have as well, and increasingly my altars are covered in gifts from other locals—the mule deer leg bone that is the handle of the beater for my drum, or the portrait that Steller’s Jay requested I get from the artist Ravenari in lieu of illegally possessing molted jay feathers.
Looking over these gifts, I can remember for a few moments—or longer, if I wish—what it was like to climb Dog Mountain in a November storm and nearly be blown off the summit; or the first time I met the Pacific Ocean; or the time I retreated to Bend, Oregon and found solace in the deserts there. I can remember the wildlife, and the plants, and the stones, and all the beings that come together in these places, just with these few small reminders.
And they’re all invitations to come back, to reconnect, whether physically or through journeying spiritually. Even the places that scared me weren’t out to get me; I simply wasn’t observing enough respect for them. Every visit is a chance to try again, to go in deeper, to give more of myself to the land spirits and see what happens next.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2012, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
The human brain is a fascinating thing. I had already learned a good deal about it just in personal reading, but when I went through my graduate program to get my counseling psych degree, I got a lot more up-to-date information. For example, I learned about the triune brain—the idea that we have the reptilian brain (the basal ganglia, the most primitive part of the brain), the paleomammalian brain (the limbic system) and the neomammalian brain (the neocortex). What I also learned is that this model is overly simplistic, that it doesn’t correspond as neatly to actual reptile and various mammal brains as is popularly assumed. Also, some non-mammalian species exhibit levels of intelligence and behavior that rival neocortical capacities, without an actual neocortex in the brain. And all mammals have some neocortical development, just not to the degree of humans. So, in short, the triune brain model has fallen out of favor due to its flaws.
Still, as very brief shorthand, the “reptile”, “old mammal” and “new mammal” models of the different sections of the human brain work if you keep its limitations in mind. It’s a good set of mnenomics to remember that the oldest portion of the brain (“reptile”) is that which is associated with primitive territorial and aggressive/defensive actions, the next part (“old mammal”) has diversified into more complex behaviors surrounding the care and feeding of young and other family as well as the first development of emotions, and the newest portion (“new mammal”) has even more complex social and communication skills, as well as planning and foresight.
My interest in it here is as a model for self-reflective meditation. Even as highly developed as we humans are, our brains often get the better of us, particularly the more primitive portions. We still can fall prey to uncontrolled and unexamined anger, territoriality (literal and symbolic), fear, and other such impulses. We fear the Shadow-self and often try to excise it. And the more primitive self sometimes manifests as unnecessary violence that too often gets justified in the name of religion and other ideologies. Wars are massive groups of “reptiles” in territorial conflict.
So much of spirituality and religion seems to be aimed at quelling or rising above what we perceive as the most animal parts of ourselves, whether that’s sex or violence or desire and need. Sometimes mortification of the body is used; other times, we receive punishment for exhibiting “base” behaviors”. Look at the concepts of sin and uncleanliness when applied to perfectly normal, harmless human behaviors like consensual sexuality. Or we try to escape the body and the physical needs through meditation and projection, and many of us are taught to idealize an afterlife where the gross weight of the body is left behind and we are made “perfect”. In any case, the animal self is all too often demonized and shunned.Yet the answer is not to further distance ourselves from these parts of who we are as human animals, but instead to reconnect with them. Our increasingly (perceived) detachment from ourselves as animals, the idea that we are “above” or “better than” animals, doesn’t take away the fact that we are animals still, including in our brains. No amount of rationalization or distancing will remove that, nor will any level of supposed transcendence. As long as we are human animals in human animal bodies, we are responsible for our human animal selves, motivations, and actions.
We don’t, of course, need to swing all the way in the other direction and let our ids go wild in order to “be animals”. Yes, we are attracted on a certain level to the idea of unfettered fighting and fucking and competing relentlessly for resources to maximize the likelihood our genes will be passed on. But let’s not break out the blood sacrifices and wild orgies just yet. If we are to give honor to the evolution that has brought us to where we are, let’s not forget the compassion and humane treatment of ourselves and others that we have developed to a high degree (though we are not the only species to possess them). After all, we have seen the atrocities that have occurred when people display little to no control over their more primitive instincts at all. That’s where we get war, assault, selfish hoarding of precious resources, etc.
I propose, instead, a middle ground, one that allows us to aspire to the best of the uniquely human traits we’ve developed as a species, and also the more primitive foundations that we are built on. The goal is to first be able to identify what parts of the brain/self are active at different points, particularly those seen as negative; and second, instead of pushing them away, observing and knowing the impulses and feelings for what they are and thereby letting them have a place while keeping them in check.
And we’re going to do this by looking to our ancestors and our much-extended family for their experience and wisdom. In the second part of this series, I’m going to show you a guided meditation that you can use to contact animal spirits that correspond with the various layers of your brain as a way to begin this reclaiming of yourself as a human animal.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
When I’m making artwork, I often enjoy having some music or video going on that I can listen to and watch while I work. The other day I finished up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which I’ve been watching segments of over the past couple of weeks. For those who haven’t seen it, it is an epic, thirteen-hour-long exploration of the Universe we live in, from the atomic level to the entirety of everything, ranging from the Big Bang itself all the way up to the present day. In each of the hour-long segments, Sagan touches on many diverse sciences, as well as history, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines. He puts into layperson’s terms the processes of evolution, the geologic history of the Earth, and the origin of life on this planet and even of the Universe itself.
What I found most invaluable, though, was how the series gives us perspective of where we fit into the grand scheme of things. Until not too long ago, most cultures had a very human-centric view of reality, where we were at the core, and everything revolved around us in importance. Cosmos is both beautiful and controversial because it shows us how very small we are, but also what amazingly intricate and long-lived processes we are an integrated part of. There were many times throughout the series where I was reminded of just how impossibly vast the Universe is, how very tiny the Earth is, and yet also how we ourselves, and everything else, are made of stars–and just how unlikely was the chance that we and everything else on Earth are here today. As humbling as it is to realize just how tiny our “pale blue dot” is, Cosmos also dedicates time to showing what does make us, as a species, so significant in our knowledge of the Universe. As Sagan said in the introduction to the series, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”.
This is simultaneously humbling and inspirational. Much of human religion and spirituality is so heavily anthropocentric our spiritual cosmologies are largely concerned with the interest the Universe and its denizens have in us, and most of our deities are created in our very human image. Many of us never get further than “Earth” and “Sky” as the primordial, “biggest” concept-deities, because that’s how our ancestors understood it to be.* The celestial bodies we most acknowledge are the Sun and the Moon and our closest planetary cousins, but even astrology primarily concerns itself with how the positions of the stars and planets are important to us humans. And yet the Earth, and the visible parts of the Sky, are minute compared to the immensity they, and we, are a part of. It’s humbling because we find more and more that humans are far from the most important collections of stardust, and also inspiring because with every new discovery in biology, in astrophysics, and in so many other disciplines, there’s so much more we can know and explore about Life, the Universe, and Everything, even as laypeople.
I have, over the years, heard pagans and other such folk complain that there’s no real magic in this world, simply because we can’t do things like shoot fireballs from our fingertips or physically shapeshift or heal life-threatening illnesses with a touch. And yet Cosmos is a perfect illustration of the magic that is inherent to this physical reality. Look at evolution, for example. It is not just the “survival of the fittest”, as many oversimplify it. Rather, it is a many-generations-long progression of tiny shifts and alterations, and somehow one ancestral being has offspring which, over millenia, branch off into many diverse creatures. The phylogenetic Tree of Life is full to overflowing with living and extinct beings that are fascinating, beautiful, and inspirational simply by being themselves, without layering on subjective meaning like totemic lore or other symbolism. Or, on a smaller scale, I like to think about photosynthesis. The chloroplasts in plant cells, which are likely derived from cyanobacteria that formed symbiotic relationships with primitive plant cells, take sunlight and turn it into food. All the food we eat is created from sunlight changed into sugars by photosynthesis–we are eating transformed light waves**. How are these things not magical and miraculous, especially the more we know about them?
Cosmos is a massive journey through many of these manners in which star-stuff has formed over billions of years, and I can’t but think of it as revealing why the physical reality I live in is sacred. “Sacred” means “to inspire awe or reverence”, and with each new piece of knowledge about the Universe I acquire, the more deeply I feel that sacredness. Mythos and folklore and divine inspiration are great and beautiful things in the sphere of human experience, but if we are to understand the roots of those experiences, we need to dig into the (sometimes literal) dirt where those roots are grounded.
I think, perhaps, Cosmos could be in and of itself a ritual tool. Thirteen hours is a long time, and while most pagan rituals last an hour at best, there’s also something to be said for an immersive experience. So here’s a suggestion, whether you’ve seen this series in its entirety already or not: Set aside an entire day where you can be undisturbed, either alone, or with other interested, curious and respectful parties. Get comfortable. And then watch Cosmos from beginning to end. (Take breaks for the bathroom and food as needed, of course, but keep them short.) It will be a lot of information, and you may wish to go back at a later time and watch it over again in smaller segments. But this time, simply open yourself to the flow of information, and see how it affects you and your understanding of the Universe.
It may seem odd, on this nature-spirituality-themed blog, to suggest such long immersion in media. Yet not all media is created equal, and this series is much more information about the Universe than what we can immediately observe on our own, condensed into a few hours. Sitting in front of a television won’t show you the spirit of the land where you live, but it can offer you so much more backstory on its geology and biology and ultimate origin than you could get by watching the denizens of the land interact. It’s a complement to direct experiences with nature, not a replacement, and I see it as inspiration to make more forays out of our homes and into the world around us–and, perhaps, to support more exploration beyond where we can currently go. To know about evolution is one thing, but even scientists best appreciate it when they are able to actually see the plants and animals that resulted. (In fact, some of the most glorious marvels written about nature have been penned by scientists, not about things going on in laboratory settings, but our fellow beings in their own habitats–or the habitats themselves.)
Whether you choose to immerse yourself in a thirteen-hour marathon, or take Cosmos in multiple smaller doses, I encourage you to take what you learn and apply it to your experiences in the world around you. I know for myself that having more of the story has enriched my hikes and rituals outdoors, and I hope this can be a valuable resource for you as well.
* Ancient mythos from various cultures worked with what the people of those cultures knew at the time, with great wisdom but without the benefit of high=powered telescopes and other very helpful technology. However, mythology is constantly changing with the times, and a really good example of a modern mythos in the grand tradition that makes use of 21st-century knowledge, I recommend NUP’s own Restorying the Sacred column, with some lovely modern nature myths written by Eli Effinger-Weintraub.
** We are still unable to shoot fireballs from our fingertips. But isn’t it cool that in a way, through photosynthesis, we can eat fire?
There are many purposes for shapeshifting—celebration, drawing on the power of the being you’re changing into, learning to change yourself, etc. There are also many techniques, some stationary, others involving dance and other movement. This version of shapeshifting is quieter, and is primarily for the purpose of creating connection with, and fostering awareness of, other beings. It’s a way to begin healing the rift we as a species have created between us and the rest of the beings we share this world with. It requires a certain level of intimacy; you can’t become a being without having some empathy for it, and the world could certainly do with more empathy all around.
Although you can theoretically shapeshift (non-physically, of course) into any being (and I use that term to refer to animals, plants, waterways, mountains, and more), I recommend choosing a being who is physically close to you, such as a particular tree or waterway near your home, or a species of animal that you see frequently. Even in my fairly urban Portland neighborhood, I still have a huge maple tree right outside my kitchen window. No matter the weather or my state of health, I can still check on “my” tree to see how it’s doing, how many leaves are left today, who’s perched in the branches, and so forth. And I have a good vantage point to watch the crows, fox and grey squirrels, and scrub jays that frequent the tree and surrounding high places.
You’ve already created something of a personal connection there, but let’s talk about taking it further. How much time do you spend every day observing this being? If it’s something relatively stationary like a stone or pond, try to make a daily visit in all weather, at least as much as you’re able. Or, with animals, see if there’s a place where you can fairly reliably see individuals of the species, if not daily then at least regularly. Take note of what you see each time. How does the being change with the time of day, the weather, even the seasons? How does it fit into its niche in the ecosystem, and are there any changes in that over time? What about human impact?
Balance out all this experience with some research as well. Read about the being online and in books; talk to others who have worked with it. Get the objective viewpoint to balance out your subjective observations and impressions, and allow them to complement each other.
This all can be an investment of years. That’s okay. We spend years getting to know other people; it works for other beings as well. Even after you’ve tried shapeshifting to this being, you can still keep up the daily observations, just as you may regularly check in on loved ones.
There’s no single, universal “right time” to make the step from observation to shapeshifting. A lot of it has to do with mutual trust; a being that doesn’t trust you won’t open up, and it’ll be harder for you to be receptive to a being you’re wary of. When you feel the time is right, go to the being. If the being is stationary, ask to sit on, against, or otherwise near it. For animals, sit where you’ve been able to observe them best (hopefully by now they’re used to your presence). If you are unable to be at the place itself, such as for health or safety reasons, find a place at home or otherwise where you can meditate for a while, undisturbed, and perhaps have some reminder of the being you’re connecting with at your side.
If you’ve already “spoken” with the being or a spiritual representation thereof, great! If you haven’t done such communication yet, you may wish to use a guided meditation to introduce yourself. Here’s a simple one:Close your eyes. Relax. Breathe. Be aware of where the being is in relation to you. Imagine a shining cord extending from your third eye to the being—not quite touching, but inviting the being to make that last step to complete the cord between you. Once the cord is complete, greet the being, and begin the conversation. When you feel the time is proper, ask the being for its help with shapeshifting, that you want to have a better understanding of it by becoming, even just a little, more like it. Allow it to answer as it will, and go from there.
If the being isn’t ready, respect that. Keep up your visits, and when you feel ready, try asking permission again (unless you have gotten a very firm “No, never, not at all” from the being).
Once you have gained permission, then it’s time to try the shapeshifting itself. Go back to the place where you can be with the being without disturbance. Close your eyes, breathe, and relax. Be very aware of your boundaries, physical and otherwise—where “you” end and the rest of the world begins. Now imagine those boundaries are becoming much more permeable.
Make physical contact with the being or its representation, and allow the boundaries between you and it to be more blurred. You may feel as though you are “melting” into each other, or you may feel your own form change and move to be more like that of the being. You may even feel you are being carried along by the being, a sort of “rider”; there may even be multiple representatives if you’re working with a very social animal such as schooling fish. Any way it manifests, allow this change to happen, and observe how your perceptions and thoughts change as well.
What is it like to be that being? How does it differ from being yourself? How do you feel? Is it fun? Scary? Do you feel curious? Are some things more important to you now than they were before, and are others less so? How comfortable are you in this form?
Is the being itself staying in contact with you while you shift? Try asking it questions, if you can, or share observations—after all, it’s the expert on being itself!
When you’re ready to come back, thank the being for its help. Then imagine what your body feels like normally, or state your name, your address, and other “human” things. Don’t rush it; allow yourself to ease back in, let the boundaries reform at their own pace. Once you’re awake, take some time to ground. Eat something protein-heavy, observe the way your hands move, recite the lyrics to one of your favorite songs. Do things that gently bring you back to being human.
After you’re done, think about how you feel about the being now. Do you have more empathy for its place in the world, and the challenges it may face? Do you feel differently about yourself and your own place here? What may you have learned from this experience that you didn’t know or understand before?
Do keep in mind that all of your impressions are still processed by your very human brain and mind, even in the depths of the shapeshift. You can’t entirely sever your connection to being human. It is a good idea to check your impressions against more objective information, and to have sensitivity toward whom you want to identify with. It may not cause much trouble for you to be convinced that mosquitoes really suck other animals’ blood because they want to steal their power. However, shapeshifting into American Mink, and then being convinced that you now have to free all the caged mink at fur farms, is a bad idea, no matter how deeply you may have connected with that spirit.
Done with care, shapeshifting can be a highly effective way to be more empathetic toward other beings, to raise our everyday awareness of their presence, and to foster greater consideration of them both individually, and as a society.
In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.
Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
There’s a recurring dream I have; it started when I was young. In it, I take my form as a white wolf. I’m in a forest, and the forest is burning. The tall pines and fir trees crackle and split in the flames around me, and I can hardly breathe for the stinging clutch of smoke at my throat. Hot embers scorch the pads of my paws. The tops of the trees begin to topple over, weakened by the flames, and the ground is suddenly made more hazardous with smoldering logs. If I could only find my way out…where is my pack?
I awaken suddenly, panting, startled, thrust back into my skin and flesh and bone all too quickly.
Human legend and lore is full of shapeshifters. Sometimes the changes are literal—physically transmuting the body into that of another animal, or even a plant or stone. Sometimes the person may become a breeze, or a waterway. Sometimes the change is conscious and consensual; other times…not so much.
There are other shapeshifters, too. They include those who take on many roles—Lugh Samhildánach (The Many-Skilled), who excelled at any task given, or polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci. Many people, from thespians to cosplayers, take on a new persona when they don particular clothing; we see this in the wearing of ritual regalia in many traditions as well.
Shapeshifting, for some, is only about taking on a role, wrapping a core self with a persona that may be worn or removed like clothing. But in a more ritualized, spiritual setting, shapeshifting is about becoming something other than ourselves.
The idea of stepping outside of the self and into another is often alarming to the Western post-industrial mindset. It brings up inaccurate images of mental illnesses, or at the very least identity confusion. We are taught that each person has only one identity, and while it may be tweaked a bit here and there depending on whether you’re talking to Aunt Mabel or your secret crush or a job interviewer, you’re still supposed to essentially be you.
Yet to be done fully, shapeshifting necessitates a very deep empathy with another being. Most of us don’t empathize beyond emotions; we allow ourselves to feel with another person’s pain, for example. But to really become another being, we have to open ourselves up beyond that, and set ourselves aside.
I am 23 years old, at my very first pagan gathering, a weekend celebration at Brushwood Folklore Center in New York. Night has long since fallen, and I am at the drum circle, with a fire burning brightly in the center. In my hands I hold my grey wolf skin that I have transformed into a dance costume with carefully tied leather straps. I have spent hours practicing dancing in it in my apartment for the better part of a year, but this is the first time I’ve been brave enough to dance in front of others.
I drape the hide over my head, slip my arms through the same holes that lupine muscle and bone once filled, and tie the hide to my head, wrists and ankles. I feel Wolf the totem, and wolf the spirit, slide over me with the hide, and I suddenly feel I am so much more than myself. I step into the lines of dancers circling around the fire again and again, and I—we, the wolves and I—begin to dance. And soon, it is just I, Wolf-I.
We require an Other place to shift into an Other self. It may be Other only in the sense that one’s physical setting has changed—going from work to home, for example. But the Other place may also be the land of dreams, or the spirit world of journeys, or a physical wilderness unlike one’s home territory—or a deliberate ritual setting.The dreamland is often the first place we experience shapeshifting of some sort, due to its universality in our experiences, as well as its mutable nature. The dreamland may alternately be described as the subconscious romping ground of our brains and the cumulative inner landscapes we have inherited from our many ancestors, or entry into an entire world apart from us where we might literally meet our ancestors, among other spirits.
As we grow older and become more integrated into relationships with other beings, human and otherwise, we develop the ability to make subtle changes in ourselves according to present company and setting. The shifts are largely unconscious, and we may only be peripherally aware that they’re happening most of the time. By comparing how we present ourselves in various situations, we can begin to better understand the processes by which we change.
Ritual is a deliberate shift. We put on special vestments, create ritual space, and utilize items that are unique to that setting. We may still remain ourselves, though yet a different part thereof. But some of us also become other beings entirely through invocation and similar rites. While our earlier experiences with shapeshifting may seem to be out of our hands—literally—practice does make perfect, or at least better.
Drumbeats carry me into the journeying state; I can still vaguely feel my left arm pounding the beater against the horsehide drum held by my right. However, it is an arm covered in white fur. The fingers are shorter, stubbier, ending in claws, and growing less and less human as I watch. Were I to return to my physical form, I would find myself just as human as ever. But here, in the spirit world, my human form melts away—wolf-form is easier to travel in, easier to protect myself in. And there are beings who will only speak to me in this form, too. Humans can be scarier than wolves, you know.
Consciously shapeshifting into another being, especially with the aid of a representative of that sort of being, can be one of the most powerful acts of magic. The effects may be wide-ranging.
On an individual level, we may go places we couldn’t otherwise, in spirit and in emotion and in mind. We can break out of personal ruts, learn valuable lessons from the beings we become that we can then bring back to our human lives, and strengthen our imaginations and other creative spiritual skills.
We also stand to learn more about the world around us, to be more aware of the importance of other beings and places. It is harder to disregard someone that you have been yourself, even for a short while. Indeed, for many people what is most sacred is that in which we are most able to immerse or surrender ourselves.
Those sacred things that allow us to temporarily blur or remove our boundaries vary from person to person. I have limited my anecdotes to my experiences with Wolf and wolf spirits—partly due to tradition, and also to show that it’s possible to work with the same energy/being in different forms of shapeshifting. But it is quite possible to connect with a variety of animals, plants, stones, waterways, places, and yes, even buildings and statues and parks, through shapeshifting. This holds true whether it’s on an individual scale, or something as potentially elaborate as Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings.
In my next post, I’ll be offering more practical information on methods of shapeshifting, with a special emphasis on practicing it as a way of connecting with other beings.
Through three straight semesters, I learned the basics of ecopsychology and who some of the key figures were; I also explored how to incorporate a client’s relationship to nature in their therapy, along with family history, spirituality, and other important parts of the client’s experience. I even spent four days out in the woods with other students learning hands-on wilderness therapy techniques. (I also gave a presentation on how Alan Moore’s run of the Swamp Thing comic book could be used in ecotherapy, but that’s a story for another time.)
Not surprisingly, I discovered much that enhanced my neopaganism. Furthermore, I saw a wealth of material that could be relevant to neopaganism in general, as well as elements of neopaganism and related paths that could enhance the development and practice of ecopsychology. I wasn’t the first person to make the connection of course; on the contrary, some of the very foundational concept of ecopsychology are quite relevant to nature-based paganisms.
Here are just a few of the salient points:
–Ecopsychology helps to explore and understand the development and maintenance of a nature-friendly mindset.
Why do we enjoy being out in the wilderness? What is it that makes us respond better to a tree than a live plasma-screen movie of the same tree?(1) What are the effects of disconnection of nature, both on an individual and systemic basis? Ecopsychologists seek to not only find answers to these questions, but to utilize the information in helping clients achieve better states of mental health. Many pagans are already familiar with the relaxation that can result from a weekend spent camping, or the difference between an indoor and outdoor ritual; ecopsychology provides additional insight as to why we may feel that way.–Ecopsychology sets the individual firmly within the context of the ecosystem they are a part of, human and otherwise.
One of the criticisms that ecopsychologists have of much of modern therapy is that while the average therapy intake form asks clients about their family members, significant others, home life past and present, and other human relationships, it doesn’t ask about the client’s relationship to nature. As psychology, particularly applied in counseling, takes an increasingly systemic view of people and their mental health, research and anecdotal evidence alike deny the (particularly American) ideal of the “rugged individualist”. Rather than an island, each person is part of an interconnected greater system, and the natural world is a part of that. Ecopsychology gently reminds us that our very minds and perceptions are inextricably linked to our environment, something that many neopagans have been living consciously for years.
–Ecopsychology meshes well with nature-based religion.
From its inception in the late 20th century, ecopsychology has always been closely entwined with spirituality, especially (though not exclusively) nature-based spiritual and religious paths. Even the anthology Ecopsychology, which came out in 1995 and is considered one of the foundational texts of the subject, included an essay by Leslie Gray entitled “Shamanic Counseling and Ecopsychology”. Whether theistic or not, spirituality is an intrinsic part of the right-brained tendencies of ecopsychology, and paths ranging from neopaganism to Catholicism(2) have been explored within ecopsychological writings.
–Ecopsychology lends itself well to ritual practices.
Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings rite, and Mary Gomes’ Altars of Extinction(3), are just two of many examples of how ecopsychology has delved into ritual as a way of healing and processing the profound level of grief many feel at the destruction of the environment. Ecopsychologists recognize ritual as a structured way for clients to process and work through life experiences past and present; additionally, as many neopagan rituals tend to be focused on the bright, celebratory side, an exploration of the processing of grief may be valuable to our spiritual communities.
As you can see, just in these few examples there are plenty of areas of overlap between ecopsychology and neopagan interests and practices. Our relationship to the world, to include that expressed in spirituality, depends heavily on our perceptions and cognitions; we cannot experience and interpret what is around us without the filters of our senses and our thoughts. Ecopsychology is a formal, though often quite organic, exploration of that relationship between personal microcosm and universal macrocosm.
2. During my first ecopsych course, one of the co-authors of the excellent text, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, spoke at one of the classes. Those readers with a particular interest in interfaith dialogue may be interested in the book, though it’s an enlightening read in general.
There’s this meme going around Facebook right now, saying “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new skill, your side hustle started, or more knowledge, you never lacked time. You lacked discipline.” Thankfully multiple people have already skewered it, but it continues to be shared around by the sort of person who is trying to one-up everyone else, or who’s just plain clueless–or, for that matter, just trying to guilt you into buying whatever they’re selling.
Now, there’s not a damned thing wrong with self-promotion. That’s how indie artists, authors, and other self-employed folks get the word out. You have to be able to talk good talk in order to get people’s attention. But leading with this meme? Guilting people for not leaping from sudden unemployment straight into the thick of the ever-shifting gig economy? That ain’t gonna fly, Brocephus.
You Have Good Reasons to Slack
Excuse me while I dust off my counseling psych degree a sec, here. *ahem* We are in a very sensitive, turbulent time right now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a century in the Western world. We are in a hugely traumatizing situation here. Not just for the financial losses, but the fact that COVID-19 has killed thousands of people and left many more with permanent lung damage. We still haven’t gotten a handle yet on exactly how contagious this thing is, how long you’re contagious for, or whether you’re immune once you’ve had it, assuming you survive. We don’t have adequate testing, emergency rooms estimate that for every positive test there are 10-20 people out there infected and untested, and everyone with a cough is suddenly Schroedinger’s COVID case. Governments worldwide are slow to react in spite of the rising death toll. People have had friends and family die horribly from this thing in a short period of time. Even people who didn’t already have issues with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses are feeling stressed, strained and scared–and, yes, traumatized. This image is guilt-tripping people who are actively being traumatized.
So we’re already starting with a populace that is dealing with this collective trauma, as well as whatever personal trauma each individual is experiencing. Not always easy to seize the day when you’re going through that. And I can think of a few other reasons that might further complicate this whole “Just get a side gig!” thing:
–They’re a parent who suddenly has all their kids at home, all the time, demanding time and attention and food, AND they still have to work eight hours a day from home, or maybe even more if their S.O. is unemployed/sick/etc. By the way, if someone trots out Isaac Newton or William Shakespeare or some other historical guy who managed to do epic things during a pandemic, remember that they usually had wives or servants to do all the laundry and cooking and cleaning and (if applicable) childcare for them.
–They’re disabled or chronically ill, and don’t have the ability/energy/etc. to just go and make something happen, just like that. Imagine if you just randomly got the fatigue from a really bad flu, and you never knew whether it was going to last a day or a month. And if you tried exerting yourself when you were feeling better, chances are you’d slip back into fatigue-land. That’s what a lot of my chronically ill/etc. friends have to deal with, to say nothing of issues with accessibility of resources for starting a side gig.
–They don’t have any money for the supplies needed to start a side hustle, or the supplies have been hoarded by hobbyists preparing for a Pandemic Staycation.
–They don’t have the skills for something that just requires what they already have (like, for example, writing on a laptop you already happen to own). Often these skills are things that can’t be perfected in a few weeks at home, but may take years to develop before they’re really marketable–like, for example, the skill to make a decent living on side hustles.
–They have anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions that make it hard to function even in the best of times, but even moreso in this…well…mess. Even people who were mentally healthy before are going to be developing diagnosable anxiety and depression disorders before all’s said and done. And speaking from personal experience, those of us who look successful on the outside can still be internally hamstrung by these conditions at times.
–Plus there’s the fact that we’re not supposed to, you know, leave our homes, which narrows down the field of potential side gigs by a lot.
Even doing something less financially-wrought like learning a new skill or subject takes time, energy, and sometimes money, any or all of which may be scarce for the reasons above and more.
Comparison is the Thief of Joy
I am saying all of this as someone who is arguably an expert on the side gig. I have spent the past eight and a half years 100% self-employed (and a lot longer doing it part-time) as an author and artist, able to cover all my bills and expenses, and for a time I was the primary breadwinner of a multi-person household. I have like ten different things I was doing for a living before this all hit, a pretty diverse set of streams of income, even if most of them just up and evaporated in the past few weeks. And while I’m definitely a hell of a lot leaner now than I was a month ago, I still have my head above water for the moment. So I think I know side gigs.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m overall healthy. I have a dog who is a lot less demanding of my time than kids would be. I have my own space where I can focus more or less without interruption. More importantly, I have the skills, the knowhow, the drive and the personality to go out and seek new opportunities. And I’m used to fluctuations in income, though admittedly this one’s unprecedented. Don’t gauge yourself by where I am now. I’ve spent twenty-two years building up my art business, my first book came out in 2006, and I’ve had a series of really good opportunities come my way that I had the privilege to be able to make the most of. I am not your measuring stick, so don’t say “Well, if she can do it why can’t I? I must suck!”
If you’re feeling crappy because you aren’t hopping to it and carpeing the diem and getting everything done, here’s what I have to say to you: Look, you just had your world turned upside-down. Job loss, scarce commodities, sudden lack of outside childcare, restricted movement and inability to be around much of your support system, and did I mention a pandemic is happening, too? Any single one of those things would be difficult for just about anyone to deal with, never mind all at once. And I don’t even know what all else has already been going on in your life–unstable or unsafe living situation, other health issues, breakups and other losses, interpersonal conflicts. You know, normal life stuff.
You’re Not Lazy, or Screwing Up, or (Gods Forbid) Undisciplined
It is totally okay if all you’re doing right now is surviving. It’s okay if you feel like you’re drowning, overwhelmed by all that’s happening both on a global level and more personally. It’s okay if all you can manage right now is to get out of bed and stumble through each day a moment at a time, struggling with a tidal wave of emotions. It’s okay if you’re just trying to keep your kids busy, dealing with a crowded home every single day, or trying to keep COVID-19 at bay. It’s okay if, instead of firing up DuoLingo or opening an Etsy shop, you spend your evenings vegging to Netflix or reading a book or playing hours and hours of Animal Crossing.
Not every moment in your life has to be about being productive even in the best of circumstances, and that goes exponentially so right now. Be patient with yourself, and be kind. You may be one of those folks who literally has to spend all their time scrabbling to try to cover the bills or get some leeway from bill collectors, and you have to dedicate your waking time hunting for resources just to try to get through this week. Believe me, I feel for you, I have a lot of friends in that situation right now, and I hope all of you can find some relief and assistance.
May I suggest something? If you have the energy for something more than the bare essentials of getting by, put that energy toward self-care, whatever you can manage under the circumstances. You can use it to recuperate, to rebuild your emotional and physical resilience. That way if things get rough again in the future, you have more internal reserves to build on. If your usual methods don’t work or aren’t accessible due to lockdown, ask others what they’re doing to keep themselves grounded in this trying time.
Just because you have more time doesn’t mean you don’t have to throw yourself right into something productive! Don’t feel pressured to just go-go-go the moment you have a little freedom to move. If you do decide you want to try a side gig, or a new skill, or learn all about some specialized topic of interest, go for it! If you have the energy and attention and opportunity to pursue something new, it can be a great coping skill during this traumatic time. Just don’t pressure yourself; keep it fun.
One last thing: I want you to save the image I have at the top of this post. And then if you see someone post that meme, saying “Come on, you lazy bums, get up and make that side gig happen! Learn new stuff! Do all the things! No excuses!” you pull out this version, and you look at the edits, you remember that it’s okay to be where you are, and you get back to doing things at your own pace no matter what someone else says. (I find visualizing stapling a printout of the edited version to the offender’s forehead to also be therapeutic, but that may just be me.)
Hang in there, okay? It’s going to be a rough time, but you’re not alone, and what you’re feeling right now is shared by so many people. So just let yourself be where you are in this moment, and we’ll see what hope tomorrow brings. And remember that whatever you’re capable of in this moment: it’s enough.
The last few weeks I’ve felt like I was preparing for a storm.
Here on the coast, we get winter storms that come in off the ocean with a salty chill; they whip raindrops and sleet through the air like birdshot. From October until May I keep a radar map open in my browser so I can track them as they approach, and I get emails telling me when particularly bad storms are on their way (1). I go through the same preparations each time, too: make sure I have water saved up, make sure I have enough food, make sure the car has gas if I need to use it as a backup source for charging phones, check the animals’ shelters to be sure they’re securely tucked away. Check, check, check the boxes.
And then when everything is buttoned up, I return to the house, change into warm, dry clothing, and I wait. Sometimes I curl up under the covers, and hide, listening to the wind as it pushes at the windows and flings rain on the roof. Often my dog joins me, curled up on her bed on the floor, feeling secure in my company.
Most of the time the power stays on. Our local utility district is good at stormproofing the infrastructure. But I always have to be prepared in case it goes out, making sure there’s enough firewood for the wood stove, and candles, and oil for the lamp.
Chores have to be done, too. Animals need to be fed and watered, eggs need to be collected, loose tarps and other items need to be tied down. I gear up in layers and a raincoat and wait for a lull, however slight, then get through the work and come back home. Sometimes I have to duck into the barn when a particularly bad squall hits, and shelter for a few minutes as it blows itself out.
Eventually the storm passes, though some may last for a day or more. I check for downed trees and other damage; we’ve been lucky on that account. I take a moment to appreciate the rain that the ecosystem here needs so much, and that I have safe shelter to hide in.
The last few weeks, though, feel like I’ve been going through these preparations all over again, even though the storm season is more or less done. The first weekend in March, when the advisory was “no group activities over 500 people”, I vended at the under-500 Northwest Tarot Symposium, my first–and possibly last–event of the year. I wore a mask because I managed to catch a cold right at the start of it, and even though that particular coronavirus isn’t as terrible as COVID-19, it’s still not something I’d like to share with people.
And I was grateful for the income, because I didn’t know when such a thing would happen again, and because it allowed me to prepare. Food for me and the dog and the chickens, gas in the car, toilet paper because somehow that was becoming a scarce commodity and I was down to my last couple of rolls anyway. Check, check, check the boxes again.
That was two weeks ago. The storm is rolling over, dark clouds unfurling to blot out the stars. This time, though, there is no radar. Nothing tells me for sure when it will end, and the moon will shine her silver light down again. No one can say how bad the damage will be, what the cost of cleanup will come to, and how badly we will pay for the delay in preparation.
And now, I wait. I stay safe and warm and dry in my wing of the house, isolated from my landmates. I eat good food, and I create, and I rest. I watch my fish in their aquarium, flitting through the leaves of the plants and playing in the aerator bubbles. The trails are all closed, so I only go out for food or medicine. On nice days I can still take my dog for a walk on the empty beach by the house, reveling in the sun that brings a sparkle to the water and a gleam to the dampened sand. It is a much-needed respite, but I know that I always must return to the safety of home, especially if dark clouds loom on the horizon.
No one knows how long this will last. And so, each day, I prepare.