Category Archives: Meaning

Why Do We Make “Nature” Based Spirituality All About Us?

A few times a month I get an email or other message from someone that goes something like this:

I saw such-and-such animal run across the road/fly into my yard/otherwise enter into my field of vision. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???!!!

My response is generally along these lines:

Chances are it was just going about its business and you happened to catch a glimpse of it. If you really, really think there was something spiritually significant about the event, try talking to the totem of that species to see whether it was anything of importance, or just coincidence. Otherwise, appreciate the fact that you got to observe a critter you don’t normally get to see.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the emphasis so many pagans and others place on animal omens and other supposed “messages from nature”. It’s as though we have to insert ourselves into every single sacred thing in (non-human) nature. We can’t just experience the wonder of a grove of old-growth trees, or the delightful surprise of a red fox racing across our path, or the split-second beauty of a meteorite flaring across a nighttime sky. No, we have to make it more meaningful to us in particular. We have to be the special centers of attention–“Nature noticed me! What a moving experience in which I was the special being chosen to have this amazing revelation given unto me by the spirits that have nothing better to do than place a well-aimed fox in my direction!”

I get that spirituality in general is, in part, a way for us to make sense of the universe and our place in it. And many of us were raised in religions and cultures that place humanity and our relationships at the center of everything. We want religion to give us all the answers and tell us what it all means for us. So it’s not surprising that when people enter into a version of paganism that’s expressly nature-centric, they still start with themselves and work outward. We want to honor nature (and, if applicable, the spirits and/or deities within it)–but we also expect to be paid attention to in return. We feel a bit cheated if nature doesn’t dignify our efforts to notice it with special signs and symbols meant just for us humans.

Yet every day, millions upon millions of animals, plants, fungi, weather patterns, geological processes, and other forces of nature go about their business whether we notice them or not, and it doesn’t change their experience much, if at all, just because we happened to be nearby. The fox only wants to get away from the potential threat we pose and continue on its merry way; the tree couldn’t care less whether we’re walking by so long as we don’t break off any branches; and the avalanche will come tumbling down by gravity’s pull regardless of how many hapless humans (and other living beings) are trapped in the way.

This isn’t to say there are never, ever any special moments in nature where we have that deeper connection, or where some spiritual being from the natural world makes contact with us. But it’s quite telling when the very first reaction someone has at seeing a bird in their yard is “What special message from the Universe does this bird bring to me? Why was I chosen to see this bird at this moment? Is it my spirit animal?” Not “Huh, I’ve never seen that species before; I wonder if they’re migratory?” Not “Wow, there’s a tiny dinosaur* flitting about my yard!” But “ME! ME! ME! MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

Okay, yes, that’s a bit hyperbolic. My point stands: we’ve been making nature-based spirituality more about us than about the rest of nature. Really, it’s an extension of humanity’s self-centered relationship to the rest of nature in general: for the most part, we only value it as far as we can get something out of it. We want stuff and things from the bounties of the Earth; we want our metals mined and our food harvested and our wood chopped down and we want it NOW. And our nature spirituality has gone in the same direction. We want a totem animal dictionary to tell us what a particular totem means for us. We use dried herbs and crystals in spells to make things better for us. We spend our Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations thanking nature for what it’s done for us. And we want those answers NOW.

It’s a long-ingrained habit, and I think we need to spend some time breaking ourselves out of that headspace. We don’t need to abandon personal meaning and messages entirely; they do have their value. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand one’s place in the Universe. Hell, I still write books that are largely about helping readers connect with totems and other spiritual nature-beings, to include for one’s own spiritual growth.

But my own practice has been steadily moving away from a human-centered nature spirituality. I have my totems and other guides, but the work I do with them is less about me, and more about them and their physical counterparts. When I am out hiking and I see a new species of bird I haven’t encountered before, I experience a great deal of wonder at the diversity of life around me; it’s an occasion to stop, count all the plants and fungi and animals and other things I see, and be amazed by it all. I don’t study spells or rituals any more; instead I read books and watch documentaries on biology and astronomy and physics and geology. I don’t celebrate the turning of the seasons with rituals about humans and our agricultural cycles, or projections of ourselves through anthropomorphic deities; instead, I go hiking and observe the shifts in nature, and I do volunteer work to clean up my adopted beach along the Columbia, and I ask my totems what more I can do for them and their physical counterparts. That’s why, more and more, my books have emphasized the two-way relationships with totems, what we can give back as well as what we can receive from them. As my practice goes, so goes my writing.

It is impossible to divorce spirituality experienced by humans from being at least somewhat human-focused; we are looking at the world through human eyes, after all. But if our nature-based paganism really is going to be about nature as a whole, and not just the celebration of humans in nature, then we need to be critical of how often we place ourselves squarely in the center of our nature spirituality. We need to stop asking what nature can give us and teach us, and instead focus more on what we can give to nature amid the constant pattern of take, take, take. Some pagans claim that paganism is a solution to more overbearing, dominating religions; yet if we’re going to truly and radically make naturalist paganism a path of relationship rather than dominance, I think we still have some work to do.

In my next post (scheduled for next Monday) I’m going to go into more detail as to what that work might look like. (Hint: there’s no one true way!)

*Okay, so technically birds aren’t dinosaurs–but they’re directly descended from theropod dinosaurs, so the eight-year-old in me likes to think they’re just Dinosaurs 2.0.

Werewolf as Totem

Recently, a fellow Twitter user, @LilMissCoyote, asked me my opinion on “the ‘werewolf’ as a spiritually distinct entity from a wolf”. I gave her a quick answer, but I wanted to go into more detail now that I’m not limited to 160 characters at a time.

A werewolf, of course, is a human being who turns into a wolf, often during the full moon, though some werewolves are thought to have more control over the shift from one form to another. While the werewolf is best known from European mythologies, wolf and other shapechangers are spoken of worldwide. They are on the threshold between humanity and the rest of nature; moreover, they embody that liminal space. That is the first part of what makes Werewolf different from Wolf. Gray Wolf is its own being. While all totems can act as bridges between their species and humans, they are still, ultimately themselves. Gray Wolf is not human any more than we are wolves ourselves. But Werewolf is some of both.

The concept of the werewolf has its roots in the differentiation between humans, and all other nature. Once, we were just another animal in the landscape, struggling with other creatures for food, shelter, and safety. At some point we gained a certain awareness of ourselves as a species, and particularly what made us unique among animals. We noticed our unique ways of communication and the advanced tools we created and used. Eventually, we got this idea that these things made us not only special, but separate from other animals and the rest of nature. Some even considered us to be superior to everything else, somehow chosen by a higher power or made in the image of the Divine. We ceased to simply be “the People” among “the Ravens” and “the Tapirs” and “the White Oaks”, and lorded ourselves over the lot.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Romulus_and_Remus#mediaviewer/File:Estatualoba.JPGSo began our supposed separation from the rest of nature. So began the birth of the werewolf.

Wolves, you see, aren’t that different from us in personality. We’re both social and have something of a hierarchy in our family-based groups. Once we humans came down from the trees, ate more meat, and headed north, we discovered that we could learn a lot from our lupine neighbors, and in almost every culture that shares space with wolves, these four-legged creatures have featured prominently in our mythologies. They are charismatic megafauna, big and impressive and noticeable. And even today we share space with their descendants, domestic dogs who are our closest non-human companions.

Wolves, then, became our symbol of the rest of nature, and the werewolf the bridge between that and us. How a given community viewed werewolves closely reflects their feelings on nature as a whole; benevolent shapeshifters reflect a more respectable and close-by natural world, while vicious, terrifying monsters often herald a fear of what lies beyond the light of the campfire. In Europe, particularly as Christianity took hold, werewolves and their wolf kin alike were seen as symbols of evil and desolation, and wolves were slaughtered mercilessly to “tame the land”.

Today, all species of wolves are endangered to one degree or another–those, of course, that haven’t been driven extinct already. And more would be extinct, too, had we not had a shift in our own consciousness, particularly those of us in Western countries where the most damage was done. Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, as the modern environmental movement began to coalesce into more than a basic appreciation for nature, there came scientists and others who spoke up for wolves. Their narratives were not of bloodthirsty killers and two hundred pound monsters lurking in the trees, but of intelligent, family-oriented animals just as fragile and vulnerable to the challenges of the world as the rest of us. They awakened more and more people to the reality that we were more of a danger to the wolves than they were to us–and we were so close to killing them all.

Lon_Chaney_Jr.That change caught up to werewolves, too. Once a mainstay of horror fiction (and still keeping that throne, thank you very much), werewolves are being seen in a more sympathetic light. They may still be fierce and strong and capable of great destruction, but we get to see their softer, more relatable wolf and human sides–and even the occasional cuddliness, too. We see werewolf families, something Lawrence Talbot could never have dreamed of. We watch them muddle through dating and growing pains of all sorts, balance out a normal human lifestyle with the call of the wild, all to varying degrees of success.

And that’s how we see nature. No longer is nature something harmful to be tamed and turned to our service. Now we accept it as it is, value it for itself, appreciate it in all its blood and glory. We still allow it to have its fangs, but we no longer assume those fangs should not exist because they’re dangerous. And we see the need to preserve nature, kind or harsh, not just for ourselves, but for everything on Earth.

This is the primary lesson of Werewolf. Not bloodlust, not being a furry id, but balance, awareness, turning the strict duality into a continuum. Werewolf is the one who reminds us, more than any other, to come home to nature. Werewolf is the answer to the nature/human perceived divide, and the internal conflict we feel over what makes us unique as a species, and what of us weaves into the rest of nature. Werewolf allows us our individual adventures but waits patiently for us in the moonlight to show us our way home.

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http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Wolf_tracks#mediaviewer/File:Wolf_print_on_the_Anaktuvuk_River._North_Slope,_Alaska.jpg

When Meditation Becomes Mental Masturbation

I’ve always had a pretty psychology-heavy approach to spirituality, even before I went to grad school. I confess that I am one of those people who studied psychology in part to figure myself out; while in some ways I am a very capable, functional and adaptable human being, I do have my challenges. I’ve used therapy for years to help treat my anxiety and other idiosyncracies, but even when going on a weekly basis, I still have to attend to myself the other 167 hours. For a good long while I used meditation, with a strong focus on emotional processing, as a big part of my personal psychological toolkit.

It worked pretty well for several years. It gave me an outlet for exploring the weird twists and turns of my mind, particularly regarding my past. I grew up in a pretty safe and loving household, and even if I seemed to be a peculiar child, I was never, ever unwanted. But I also grew up with a constant onslaught of bullying at school, starting in second grade and going all the way to the end of high school. I had very few friends, and most of the ones I did have would often turn on me with no notice. For years I found refuge outdoors, alone and mostly unsupervised, able to immerse myself in the fauna and flora and fungi around me. But there was an additional trauma when the woods I took refuge in were suddenly and brutally bulldozed, and I found myself with nowhere to turn with my grief.

My twenties were tough, and I spent a lot of time trying to detangle myself from all these early influences. And for a while, it served its purpose. I gained more awareness of why I behaved in certain ways, and felt a little less like a badly programmed automaton. I even did some rite of passage work to banish certain behavior patterns or the effects of particular memories as a way of trying to reprogram myself.

But knowing how my brain worked and doing one-off symbolic actions wasn’t enough. In fact, beyond a certain point, it became counterproductive. I started spending too much time in my head, and would retreat into it as a defense against the anxiety, stress and other nasties that had plagued me for so long. I thought that if I could just tell my life story a little more clearly, I’d somehow be free of it, once that final piece was laid into place.

Yeah. About like that. http://bit.ly/Tcft0Q
Yeah. About like that. http://bit.ly/Tcft0Q
That’s not how it happened, of course. I just obsessed over my past more and more. More destructively, I was judging and measuring and nitpicking my every move and thought and trying to determine “Well, why am I doing this?” I was my own special little lab rat. I’d do a thing, and then I’d analyze it to death, and then I’d write up the “results”, usually on Livejournal. I don’t even want to think about how many pages-long posts of agonized processing I word-spewed onto the update page (thankfully hidden under LJ-cuts to spare my followers who didn’t give a crap what was going on in the deepest convolutions of my gray matter). It can basically all be summed up as “I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS THING FROM MY PAST BECAUSE I DID A THING NOW THAT REMINDED ME OF IT AND NOW I’M GOING TO TAKE AN EXACTO BLADE AND SLICE IT UP INTO TINY BITS AND SCRUTINIZE IT UNDER THIS MICROSCOPE AND LOOK AT HOW DEEP AND INTROSPECTIVE I AM EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO MEDITATE AND REFLECT AND PROCESS IT SOME MORE IT’S NOT MUSHY ENOUGH”.

This was all amplified when I ended up in a relationship for a few years with someone who also did a good deal of internal processing and past-picking. Now I had someone else encouraging me to dig deeper, spend more time “sitting with myself” and my problems and my pain and otherwise focusing on the stuff in my head. Some of their suggested techniques were different than what I was doing, but the result was the same–I stayed stuck in my head, a broken record skipping over the same crack again and again and thinking that the sound I made was the music I was supposed to hear. Eventually it became something of a horrible feedback loop between us, especially when we’d fight–instead of dealing with the problem itself, we’d take turns explaining exactly why we were each behaving the way we were, sometimes spending hours in this war-storying* circlejerk. Unsurprisingly, the actual thing we were fighting about rarely got addressed, and it would just come up again later. In the interim, we’d both meditate and otherwise “reflect” on ourselves and our quirks and flaws in an attempt to gain control of them, which invariably did little good. I was supposed to be visiting my past in these meditations as a way of giving myself control in my everyday life, but instead all I was doing was reinforcing the neurological pathways in my brain that led to the anxiety and other problems.

This approach to “fixing things” continued until I became involved with my current partner a few years ago and began trying the same processing patterns with him. Not too long into our relationship, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, and my immediate response was to open up the mental Rolodex of “Why is this happening? What patterns in my childhood led to this response behavior?” and so forth, going over the same tired examples in the hopes of finding some new little twist I’d missed before. He’d seen this happen a few times, and he’s a pretty observant person; I’ve actually learned quite a bit about empathy and active listening from him.

So he stopped me in mid-sentence. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Lupa, what are you trying to do? You’re not ten years old any more; you’re not fifteen, and you’re not twenty. You are who you are now, and you need to stop hanging on so tightly to who you were back then. Be here now.” And then instead of letting me continue to obsess over the reasons for my anxiety attack and what created my anxiety disorder in the first place and who bullied me, etc. etc., which kept my anxiety heightened until I exhausted myself, he carefully walked me through the anxiety, calmed me down, and grounded me in the present.

It boggles my mind that until that point no one had ever effectively done that for me before. I’d gotten a lot of dismissive remarks like “Just get over it” and “What are you making such a big deal for?” I’d gotten yelled at and bullied and retraumatized into shutting up by those who couldn’t handle what was happening to me any more than I could, even by people who were supposed to be helping me. And I’d both inflicted on myself and had reinforced by others this idea that if I just “sat with my past” it would fix everything and empower me to change; in the end, people who thought they were helping me by leading me deeper into myself were just perpetuating the problem and hurting me even more with their “expertise”. And yet someone who had only known me for a handful of weeks was able to see where I was stuck in my head and gave me a lifeline out of it.

It took me a while after that incident to break myself of the instant response of “INTERNALIZE! PROCESS! REFLECT!” whenever I got hit with stress. There were plenty of times where I realized, or my partner observed, that “Lupa, you’re doing that thing again. Quit it. Come back here.” And being that I was deep in grad school at the time, I was embroiled in upper-level psych and counseling classes that kept unearthing things in my head (this is why my program required every student to receive at least ten hours of therapy before starting their practicum). So it was a hard fight out of my internal cage.

But eventually I got there. I don’t remember the precise time when things shifted; like so much growth, it was gradual–as opposed to the sudden growth spurts I think I must have been expecting with every new revelation I discovered about my past during meditations and processing sessions. It’s been a couple of years at least, though, since I can remember it happening.

Of course, some things are still the same old Lupa–I still have anxiety attacks now and then, usually from fairly predictable stimuli. But at least now my panicking brain focuses on the here and now, along with some catastrophizing about the future. The catastrophizing I can get around by reminding myself that I’m looking at the worst case scenario and the future hasn’t arrived yet so it does no good to worry about it now, and so then I can get down to the business of the present. And because I’m shifting my focus to the present, I become aware, most of the times when an attack happens, that my mind is going haywire because my brain and body are flooded with fight, flight or freeze chemicals, and I hang onto that awareness til the chemicals flush out of my system and I can think rationally again.

More importantly, I’m not constantly reinforcing that connection with my past. While I have an understanding of how my past shaped who I am today, it’s no longer the central focus of my identity like it used to be. Instead, “influences from my past” is just one of many and varied threads of self that all weave together to create who I am in this moment. Nor do I have to nitpick every single thing I do under the magnifying glass of my past. If I happen to notice a connection between past and present, I note it briefly, usually with a bit of curiosity and “Huh, okay, that makes sense”. And then I move the fuck on with my day.

For me, some grounding techniques are less like the third prong on a plug, and more like sticking a knife into a live outlet. http://bit.ly/1ouNaoc
For me, some grounding techniques are less like the third prong on a plug, and more like sticking a knife into a live outlet. http://bit.ly/1ouNaoc
This is a big part of why my path has shifted so drastically to the physical in recent years. Pagans talk about “grounding” in the sense of visualizing one’s self being energetically rooted into the earth. Sometimes it involves symbols of nature, like pretending to be a tree and putting down roots, but it’s still a technique based on being in my head. The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I go back to what worked first in my life–I go outside, preferably alone and where it’s quiet. It allows me respite from my thoughts, and it does things that reduce the physiological causes of anxiety and stress, like lowering my blood pressure and letting my senses drift instead of focus hard. My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking. When I come back, my thoughts and plans are more calm and steady, not frazzled from reaching inside for THE ANSWERS.

Does this mean I’ve written off meditation entirely? Absolutely not. But these days I use it as an antidote to overthinking; my meditation is based in mindfulness, not magic. Even when I do guided visualizations I’m not trying to power my way through chakra blockages or go on quests to seek the grails within. Instead, what I visualize are things that reconnect me with the physical world. With my eyes closed, I try to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, or to remember where I am in location to a specific tree. And then when I open my eyes again, I am fully here and now again, not rabbiting off down some path to the mean old past yet again.

And that’s made all the difference. A few years ago, if I were talking about my relationship with meditation down the years, I’d be hyper-analyzing every detail of the story, and finishing it with “…and that’s why I am the way I am today! Look how smart I am for recognizing that!” And that’s it. This post is a curious note in my thoughts today, where I realized “Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!” And my response was “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” I thought maybe my cautionary tale would be of interest to some readers, maybe if others are stuck in the same headspace; I got out, and maybe you can, too.

As to my ongoing work to calm my anxiety? I acknowledge that my brain doesn’t quite work right; maybe that’ll change someday, maybe not, but I don’t need to try to figure out every single thing that led up to it being the way it is. It’s okay that I’m able to largely ignore injuries of the past and let them work on healing while I do other stuff. I’m like this little puppy with a busted leg all wrapped up, run-stumbling around Tumblr lately:

tumblr_n69yogDayq1qb5gkjo1_500

Like Tumblr user iraffiruse said about the pup:

Some people might feel sorry for themselves in this situation

Puppy don’t care

Puppy’s got stuff to do

Puppy’s got places to be

Puppy’s got people to bark at and things to sniff.

And I think I can relate to that little ouch-legged pup in that.

* War-storying is a term I picked up from when I was interning at an addictions treatment facility in my final year of grad school. It refers to a phenomenon in addictions treatment where the client spends their time telling and re-telling stories from their past to get an emotional rise out of themselves and, as they hope, their audience. It isn’t particularly effective, as it’s just reliving the experience rather than attending to its effects in the now. It’s also very similar to some of the “internal work” I was attempting to do.

Yeah, I Don’t Like “The Secret” Either.

Last week Lon Sarver wrote a fantastic post called The Past is Not Gone, about how the Law of Attraction is utter bunkum. For those who aren’t aware, the Law of Attraction basically says that if you think reallllllly hard about good things, then good things will happen to you. It’s basically the New Age version of the just world fallacy, and I’ve seen it lead to some pretty egregious ignorance, up to and including people explaining away others’ disabilities, poverty, and misfortunes as “well, they just kept thinking negative things!” (Not to be confused with that other well-meaning-but-utterly-clueless claim that “Oh, they’re just paying off karma from things they did in a past life!”)

The great thing he does in this post is outline a number of people and forces in his ancestry that contributed to where he is today. Not all of them are pleasant; he points out where he personally benefited from Manifest Destiny (I can say much the same) and that he is descended in part from people who were once slaveholders. But that’s part of the issue of privilege or the lack thereof–the accident of our birth may confer or deny certain advantages, and not everyone gets to be the hero who overcomes a rough start. And anyone who doesn’t make it out of that hole, no matter how deep, is seen as a failure, and therefore they must have brought it upon themselves.

Here in the U.S., there’s a strong cultural emphasis on individualism (rugged and otherwise). The ideal is of one person in peak condition, able to attend to their own needs, and contrasted against the weak masses huddling together un helplessness. Yet as Rua Lupa, my co-blogger at Paths Through the Forests, pointed out yesterday, we are enmeshed in a complex web of interdependence with people around the world, not out of weakness but out of necessity. Just because we pretend it isn’t there doesn’t really make it go away; that trick doesn’t work any better now than it did when we were young children who thought no one could see us if we just closed our eyes.

We do the same thing with the rest of the world, too, human and otherwise. We consumers are deliberately kept from seeing the sources of all of our conveniences and trinkets, from pre-packaged food to fossil fuels to shiny diamonds soaked in someone else’s blood. In just a few decades, it’s become the norm to not have to think about where your food came from and what living beings (animal, plant, and more) died in its creation, who sewed your clothing together and how little they were paid, and other unpleasant realities.

And it’s that milieu of ignorance that births such codswallop as the Law of Attraction. The lotus-eaters who sit back and bemoan the state of the world and continue to think happy thoughts of manifestation are just another product of our denial. In order to really get things done in the world, we have to get our hands dirty, literally and figuratively, and meet the harsh realities of the world head-on. Action speaks louder than attraction.

At the same time, there is value in keeping an optimistic, if realistic, mindset. If you focus only on the bad news, it’s going to drag you down eventually, and you’ll find yourself unable to do much about anything. That’s why self-care is so important, not just for activists, but for anyone who faces any level of stress. It’s okay to appreciate the beautiful things in the world without automatically thinking “Yeah, but here’s the ugly side”. It’s fine to keep a positive outlook even when you’re in the thick of dealing with (rather than denying) big, scary challenges. We need a respite from the times that try our souls now and again.

The Law of Attraction, on the other hand, is escapism. Worse, it blames the victim. And even when a person really has done themselves a bad favor and made some unwise choices, all the Law of Attraction says is “Just think everything better!” That’s not much preparation for rolling up your sleeves and cleaning up the mess you’ve made.

In the end, it’s people wanting to have a simple answer for complicated problems because they just don’t know how to deal with them otherwise. While I’ve had times where I wished I could just wave a magic wand and make the bad things go away, I don’t try to make a life philosophy out of it. And that’s really the problem with the Law of Attraction–it tells you you don’t need to worry about things like privilege, and environmental injustice, and climate change, and the basic fact that life really isn’t fair and there’s no way around it. I think we all need a better set of coping skills than that to get us through.

Save the cod, not the codswallop!
Save the cod, not the codswallop!

A Rite of Passage At Both Ends

See that tiny little bar of metal in my hand? That was embedded in the upper edge of my navel for a decade, the one remaining piercing of a trio I got (navel, both ears) in 2004. These days getting your belly button pierced is a fairly benign modification; here in Portland even facial piercings often don’t register as odd. But for the person I was ten years ago, it was part of a personal revolution.

Everyone’s life goes through transformative periods, some longer and/or bumpier than others. I’m not talking the full onset of lycanthropy, of course, but the times that try souls–and personal resilience. Sometimes one event sets off a cascade of effects that brings a person’s whole life crashing down; any built-up stagnation comes pouring out in a series of messy floods. Eventually, out of this slippery mess slides not so much a phoenix reborn as a brand-new foal still coated in amniotic fluid, not quite sure what leg goes where, and in danger of being eaten by predators–but if the cards are right, that foal’s a unicorn and is going to go some great places once it figures those legs out.

That was my 2004, back when I was still living in Pittsburgh. In a space of about eight months I was dumped twice, moved three times, switched from a third shift job to a very early first shift one with a totally different skill set, and had the first really bad spike of anxiety in my independent adult life. Amid all that I decided that I needed to explore all the crazy things I never did as a fairly sheltered teenager years before, when I was isolated and friendless in a small town. I won’t go into too much detail about my much-delayed rebellion; suffice it to say the main things I retain from it today are a better understanding of Things Not To Do, my first tattoo, my preference for classic black high-top Chuck Taylors as everyday footwear*, and a hole at the top of my navel.

Everything but the shoes could be considered rites of passage to one degree or another. The piercing was probably the toughest of all in some ways, and certainly the most deliberate. I am not a fan of needles at all, and while I’m better than I used to be (I no longer panic while having blood drawn), at the time sharp things were a source of great fear. In order to confront that fear, I decided to get my ears and navel pierced. I figured they were the least likely places to experience nerve damage, and I’d already had my ears done once when I was a child (I eventually got tired of earrings and took them out) so the navel would be an additional challenge. Suffice it to say I went into the piercing parlor all by myself and survived the ordeal with nothing more than a chorus of “Ow, ow, ow”, but it was worth it for the adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment. I had survived something I had thought I’d never do, and I felt pretty damned brave. I used that experience to help me get through other tough times and to challenge myself further; there were literally situations in which I told myself “Look, you had a piece of metal shoved through your skin and got through that just fine. You can totally handle this, too.”

Up until this past Saturday, my navel had the aforementioned (and pictured) little banana bar of steel through it. It was the original piece of jewelry I got when I had the piercing done. I kept it in because by the time it healed completely, I’d already had my ear piercings close up after less than a week of having to take them out at work. I was reading utility meters at the time, and my manager, who had aspirations of being a petty dictator (emphasis on the “petty”) had told everyone that no ear jewelry was allowed, not even tiny studs, in case they got caught on underbrush or other hazards while playing “Find the Meter” in people’s landscaping. My mutant healing factor must have kicked in, and by day three of this policy, I was no longer able to force the earrings back into the holes at the end of an eight-hour shift.

But I still had my navel piercing, and I hung onto it like the last remnant of my freedom. It lasted longer than that job did, longer than my time in Pittsburgh (plus a year in Seattle), even longer than my ill-fated marriage. As I continued to move from apartment to apartment, dealt with divorce and learning healthier relationship practices, survived graduate school, and settled into self-employment, the piercing remained as a link to a younger, more chaotic self. Not in any bad way, mind you; I was quite fond of it, and still appreciated my bravery even a decade later.

It was not to remain that way, though. I’ve been prone in the last few years to assorted problems in my digestive system, some of which are probably genetic and others–well, who knows where the hell they came from? So I got pretty good at paying attention to any pains in my midsection. Every so often I’d have a little twinge of discomfort right around the piercing that would last anywhere from an hour to a day. I never thought much of it; maybe it was just getting caught on my clothing. But this past week I had pain there that, although it registered around a two on my pain scale, didn’t go away, and I decided that in order to help in a potential diagnosis, the jewelry had to be taken out. Maybe I had developed an allergy to the metal, or perhaps my body was just sick of it. But if I wanted to be sure that was all it was, I needed to eliminate the possibility entirely.

Now, I’d been wearing this thing for so long that the ball had gotten stuck on the end; try as I might, I couldn’t remove it. For a moment I had nightmare visions of having to snip off the end with a pair of bolt cutters and then file the edges so it wouldn’t tear me up on the way out–and then I had the brilliant idea of seeing if a professional piercer might have a better idea. So my partner and I headed down to Ritual Arts in the Hollywood District, where resident piercer Shane 7 Wolfe somehow sweet-talked that tiny, stubborn piece of steel into cooperating. (Seriously, if that’s not the mark of a good magician I don’t know what is.)

As it turned out, removing the piercing didn’t make the pain go away, and as it got worse, I made the decision Saturday night to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to wait until Monday in case it got worse, even though I wasn’t running a fever or showing other serious symptoms; I figured if I caught it early enough that at the worst I’d be sent home with some antibiotics. (The last time I waited on having abdominal pain checked out I ended up in the hospital for two days under IV antibiotics and the threat of surgery if I didn’t get better. Lesson learned.) It turned out to just be a mild intestinal virus from who knows where (maybe I didn’t rinse the dirt off the radishes I ate from my garden well enough?), and I was sent home with nothing more than a prescription to help with the pain if it got worse and instructions to just let it work its way through my system.

At this point I had the option to put the bar back in my navel. And I did seriously consider it for a moment. But then I thought back to all those times that I was worried by pain, and the confounding factor that the piercing entered into any potential assessment of the cause. I’m not likely to have my digestive system miraculously recover its intestinal fortitude (ha!), and it’s almost certain that as I get older (and especially now that the warranty has expired on my body, drivetrain and all) there’ll be more random flareups. So it’s more prudent to not complicate the matter any more than I need to.

And that choice became a rite of passage in and of itself. Whereas a decade ago the message was about bravery and facing scary things head-on, now that I’m well into my thirties I have more experience with those scary things. Rather than leaping in to engage them in battle, it’s a wiser choice for me to prepare for them if they make an advance. I’ve proven to myself time and again now that I’m more resilient than I sometimes think. I don’t need to look down at that little piece of metal to remind myself of that any more.

But I did hang onto it as a memento. It has a safe place in my home, and I’ll run across it every so often and remember. It’ll be a while before the hole in my skin closes up, too, and there’ll always be a scar to remind me of my brave act. I must admit that I prefer not having that constant feeling, ever so small, of something being there, moving around., filling up space. Even with today’s challenges, comfort has become more of a priority than ever, and I’ll take this little bit of comfort that moves me a little more into a new stage of life.

* I’ve been trying to find a sweatshop-free alternative that’s available consistently in the U.S. ever since No Sweat Apparel discontinued their lookalikes a few years ago and went wholesale-only. I’m aware of Autonomie’s Ethletics, which are a good option, except none of the distributors seem to ship to the states, and gods know how much that would cost even if they did. Suggestions are appreciated.

Our Birthdays Are Not As Important As We Think They Are

Recently on Facebook someone passed along a little “quiz” about one’s birth number and what it means in your life. You take your birthdate (for example, 1-1-1901) and you add up the numbers (1 + 1 + 1 + 9 + 0 + 1 = 13, and then 1 + 3 = 4). Supposedly your personality is somewhat influenced by this number; a four, for example, may mean you’re a practical, down to earth person, while an eight means a flashy show-off (or something like that; I didn’t save the post that had the information). If you Google “birth number” you’ll get a bunch of other metrics by which you can be categorized–some only look at the day of the month you were born, others consider the day to be a “primary” birth number while your day plus month plus year is only secondary, or the big add-up is your life path number, and so on.

How well does the Gregorian calendar match up with the seasons, anyway? http://bit.ly/1irJUGR
How well does the Gregorian calendar match up with the seasons, anyway?http://bit.ly/1irJUGR
The thing is, it’s based entirely on one of hundreds of calendars that have been developed by humans over the millenia, the Gregorian calendar, which was finalized in 1582 AD, itself an update to the Julian calendar of 46 BC, itself a modification of the older Roman calendar. And the Roman calendar was simply an attempt to try and rectify the 365 day year with the twelve lunar cycles (and a few extra days) in that time. But the choice to go by the moon is just a choice, not a mandate; the Mayan Tzolk’in and Haab’ calendars are based on twenty day cycles, for example. Plus the number we assign to the year is based entirely on when people think Jesus of Nazareth might have been born, and therefore associated with one religion in particular; it’s hardly the only system for counting and numbering years that’s existed in the history of humanity.

Then there are the traits that people supposedly have simply by virtue of being born on a particular day of the month, or because the day, month and year numbers associated with their birth according to the Gregorian calendar happen to add up to a particular sum. I looked up the “meanings” of these numbers from a bunch of different sources online, and not only did I find some disagreement on meanings, but I could see traits in almost every definition that described me to one degree or another. Of course, these descriptions were so vague that they probably could have been made to apply to almost anyone–and that’s really how this whole thing works, isn’t it? You’re seeking your importance anywhere you can, to include mostly arbitrary human-created patterns, and giant cosmic cycles that really have very little to do with us at all. It’s quite self-centered.

Which reminds me of the discussion on anthropocentrism in spirituality that Alison Leigh Lilly has been thinking about the past few months. She’s perhaps gentler about it than I am, but we both have criticisms of the idea that, as she so neatly puts it:

Anthropocentrism is the philosophical view that human beings are separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, possessing intrinsic value that other beings and entities (such as plants and non-human animals) lack. (Source.)

Now, it’s perfectly natural to favor our own species. The ability to differentiate between one’s own species and another is a very, very ancient ability indeed, and humans have turned that into a particularly complex ability to define “us vs. them”, both interspecies and intraspecies (and sometimes both at the same time!) Trouble is, we might have gotten a little too good at it.

From
http://bit.ly/1mXzQbg
We are products of a combination of nature and nurture. Every living being is born with a set of DNA passed down from its ancestors; how the genes are expressed, and which ones are expressed at all, are significantly affected by the environment the being grows up in. This is backed up by a mountain of scientific evidence. While we’re still figuring out some of the details, like the proportions of nature to nurture in individual situations for example, we have numerous examples where there’s a clear causation between Factor A (in the genes or the environment) and Result B (in the living being). And this is a phenomenon that affects every single living being on Earth, humans being just one species among the rest.

The birth number thing is just the opposite–it’s based entirely on one particular way in which humans divide up time, and assigning values to numbers that have absolutely no basis in anything objectively provable, and then saying “this number unlocks the secrets of who you are! Aren’t you special!” And somehow this is supposed to have as much of an effect on who you are as a person as billions of years of cumulative evolution of life on this planet. Let’s say I gathered 10,000 people who believed in birth numbers and considered the fact they’re fives to be an important thing, and then another 10,000 people at random from the population of the world whose birth number is five regardless of whether they believe in birth numbers or not, and then a sample made of 10,000 people pulled from the population at random regardless of birth number. And then say that I was somehow able to interview them all over a long enough period of time to see how well they matched the supposed profile of someone whose birth number is five. I would be willing to bet everything that I own that the first group (“Yay, we’re fives!”) would have a higher rate of self-reporting that they matched the “five profile” than the other two groups. Moreover, I predict that the self-reported results of the second group (the fives who may or may not realize they’re fives) would NOT show a degree of statistically significant difference from the results of the third group (drawn from the general population regardless of birth number). (On the other hand, if I was able to somehow objectively observe every person in all three groups in their everyday lives to see how many exhibited the traits of a birth number five, I’m willing to bet that all three groups would have about the same results, and the people whose birth number was five would have about the same range of personality traits as the rest.)

However, let’s say I ran another experiment, this time focusing on long-term negative effects of the stress responses that are ultimately rooted in hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution. I’d have 10,000 people who spent 50% or more of their childhood until age 18 in a war-torn location, 10,000 people who never spent any time in a war-torn area, and 10,000 people chosen at random regardless of background. Judging from my own research and psychological training regarding anxiety disorders and other long-term negative stress responses, I would predict that the sample from war-torn areas would show a much higher rate of these responses and their corresponding effects on the the brain and body as well as psyche. The 10,000 people who had never been exposed to war may have a lower than average rate of stress responses, though other factors like domestic abuse and other non-war-related causes of long-term stress responses could complicate the findings.

This is not *quite* how evolution works, by the way.  http://bit.ly/1lHoatg
This is not *quite* how evolution works, by the way. http://bit.ly/1lHoatg
Still, the difference between the two experiments stands: you can clearly measure the effects of genetics and physical environment on living beings, human and otherwise, in a way you cannot measure with something like birth numbers. This means that I am much more likely to take to heart a profile that is based on my place as an animal, with all the evolutionary history I have behind me and how I respond to my environment, than a profile based on the numbers that happened to be assigned to the day I was born (itself an event that had more to do with my development and my mother’s body than the numbers on the calendar). And what I say about birth numbers can also be applied to any of a number of other esoteric systems that supposedly predict or declare who you are.

Now, with all that said, I do not take the reductionist view that all we are is a bunch of neurotransmitters swimming around in meat suits; I’m more of a romantic than that! If you personally find value in things like birth numbers and other numerological concepts, or astrology, or divination by birds, or whatever other structure for meaning you choose, by all means go for it! One of the things that–as far as we know right now, anyway–is particular to our species is an intrinsic need for meaning of some sort. It may just be a side-effect of the big brains we evolved, but the numerous religions, philosophies and other structures we’ve created point to our desire for meaning, to include meaning that we feel is personally relevant to us as individuals. And that’s okay; better to embrace it if it leads a person to a more mentally healthy, happy life.

http://bit.ly/1jpA8ae
http://bit.ly/1jpA8ae
Where I feel the waters get muddied is when people look at something like a birth number (or similar thing) and assign it the same level of importance in the formation of who they are as a person as, say, the environment they grew up in. While a lot of people see their birth number or their daily horoscope as a mild curiosity or something to wrap into a more multi-faceted understanding of self, there are also those who swear up and down that these things hold great sway over who they are as people and even base important decisions on them. By giving things like birth numbers so much weight we may be ignoring the much vaster effects that nature as a whole, not just the human-specific portions of it, has on us. If you’ve had a traumatic history to the point where the effects are having an ongoing significant negative effect on your life today, you’re probably going to look for solutions so you can get better. But if you’re focusing mainly on the calendrical circumstances surrounding the moment of your birth and not paying attention to research on PTSD and how trauma can permanently affect your brain and body, you may have a much tougher time getting the necessary tools to heal yourself.

Meaning-making comes into play, too. There’s a definite difference in depth of understanding both of ourselves and of our place in this world and the universe at large. Birth numbers say “You are who you are because some human decided at some point that this number that happens to coincide with your birthday means this special thing about you”. Nature says “You are who you are in part because of the experiences of countless living beings over three and a half billion years and the tools they left you as a result”. Birth numbers say “You share traits X, Y, and Z with a bunch of other people whose birthdays happen to add up to the same number/who were born on the same day of any month”. Nature says “You share a portion of DNA with every single living being that has ever existed on this planet and will ever be here. Look to your development before you were born, and you see the history of life unfolding in the space of nine months. You, humanity, are just one of countless species that have walked this earth, moved through these waters, glided through these skies.” (Granted, these interpretations are influenced by my personal biases, but there is a lot more time and knowledge associated with evolution than birth numbers.)

You can have both your birth number and your evolutionary history as important things in your life, of course. Bringing things in from the huge-picture view to the more personal, we each get to choose our own meaning-making structures, and that’s part of what gives humanity its glorious diversity even among all the things we share in common. Personally as well as in the big picture, I find a lot more meaning in my species being one of many jewels in the crown of the Earth, an ever-changing display, than in trying to figure out whether my life path is following the proper profile of a “nine” or not.

(I’ll still happily sing you “Happy Birthday” on the anniversary of your entrance into this world if you like, though. I still think that’s important.)

http://bit.ly/1oIIVcM
http://bit.ly/1oIIVcM