14 November 2009


In his paper, Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences Dr. Paul Meehl, psychotherapist and former APA president, pointed out that:

In one respect the clinical case conference is no different from other academic group phenomena such as committee meetings, in that many intelligent, educated, sane, rational persons seem to undergo a kind of intellectual deterioration when they gather around a table in one room.

He identified a groupthink process by which [t]he most inane remark is received with joy and open arms. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, this phenomena is not limited to psychiatric case conferences and appears to extend to any time a group of people get together, including in mailing lists, social functions, and professional get togethers. In many such groups a form of reinforcement occurs, negative opinions are not tolerated, and if the group leaned a certain way before getting together, they will lean more strongly in that direction after leaving the group.

According to Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling, based on Janis and Mann's A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment: Groups where groupthink is taking place have a tendency to pressure group members who dissent or challenge the groups collective beliefs; they will deny or dismiss or rationalize away evidence that is contrary to the way they already lean; and they will tend to develop a firm belief in their own ethical standing. Some members of the group may also take the role of mindguard--members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.


Evidence of these and other problems is not difficult to find in Neopagan circles. In larger groups, statements such as don't rock the boat are very common and tolerance can--ironically--become a buzzword for putting down dissent or enforcing the group's own ethical standards to the exclusion of others. It is not uncommon to see groups cast out, shun, or ridicule those who make statements that might be perfectly acceptable--if perhaps disagreed with--by any individual member independent of the group dynamic.

This group reinforcement mechanism is one of the ways in which group mythology can come about. Where people organically grow a set of beliefs about themselves and their group, simply as a function of people reinforcing each other without any form of an outside sanity check. Combine with a little UPG which may or may not be valid, and some interesting consequences can fall out of this.

This can also lead to individuals developing very particular views about the nature of what they do that may not extend to others doing similar work, but who are not a member of that group. Even if none of the issues of groupthink exist, there is a strong possibility of selection bias.

As spirit workers who deal extensively with UPG and spirits on the behalf of others this poses a particular problem for us, since it affects our ability to validate our experiences. The concept of Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis (PCPG) is particularly susceptible to this, since it is affected not only by cultural biases but by group dynamics of that particular group of spirit workers. A message from a deity or a spirit to an individual can take an entirely different timbre if there is a form of group reinforcement going on, and the potential for boundary violations goes up tremendously.


Combatting this is not easy, as groups serve numerous useful purposes. They form support networks, resources for ideas, and can provide sanity checks of their own. In a small community as Pagans or Spirit Workers, groups provide a great means of socialization, finding romantic partners, and finding clients.

How can one work with and exist within groups, while at the same time avoiding succumbing to groupthink? I do not have any solid answers here, but here are some possible things that can help, (adapted and influenced by Janis's work, but not taken directly from that):

  • Encourage dissent and actively solicit people's objections and doubts. Allow them to air such thoughts without censure. Let people finish their thoughts before objecting to them.
  • Keep conversation civil. People who disagree are not the enemy, they simply have a disagreement and may be operating from different, and still valid, premise.
  • Engage in critical thinking and analysis of your own ethical structures. The specific ethics that you follow tend not to be as important as that you are actively considering them.
  • Avoid generalizing statements such as "all" or even "most" without empirical evidence when talking about people (or spirits, for that matter).
  • Don't assume you are right about anything.
  • If asking for confirmation, don't tell the individual what you concluded.

The last point, in particular, is especially important. It is easy to introduce confirmation bias into a situation without intending to, simply by telling someone what you found before asking them to confirm it.

None of this can cure it, and the problem of groupthink is notoriously tricky in governments, businesses, and organizations all over the world. At the same time, it is something we need to be talking about, so that we can be better aware of it when it does come up.

Further Reading

12 November 2009

Stigmas on Mental Disorders

There is a huge stigma on mental illness and on mental health professionals in much of the western world, which gets in the way of honest discourse and helping people who are suffering from mental disorders. There is the attitude that psychology is an attempt to justify, rather than understand, and that mental disorders are a sign of an underlying character flaw, as opposed to a disorder or disease. Essay moved to Weaving Wyrd.

12 October 2009

[Admin Note] Sick

I've been sick for the past few weeks (word of advice: don't get the flu), but have several essays in the works for when I get better.

13 September 2009

Dual Relationships: Romantic Relationships with Clients

Paying attention to other ethics codes and looking at the reasons why, the answer to the sex/romantic dual relationship with clients issue can be summarized with a single word: Don't.

The problems with this are not abstract or theoretical. After studying the subject relatively extensively in the late 60's and early 70's, William Masters and Virginia Johnson put forth the statement that:

We feel that when sexual seduction of patients can be firmly established by due legal process, regardless of whether the seduction was initiated by the patient or the therapist, the therapist should be sued for rape rather than malpractice, i.e., the legal process should be criminal rather than civil.

Kenneth Pope and Valerie Vetter conducted research on the subject and found some tragic--and sadly unsurprising--results. Around 90% of patients who have had sex with a previous therapist have been harmed by it, and around 80% are harmed even when the relationship doesn't begin until after the therapeutic relationship ended.

Of course, reality is more interesting and nuanced than can be summarized in a single word, and as spirit workers we are faced with some unique challenges in this department. However, even if everything else I say about professionalism for spirit workers is ignored, this is the one thing I adamantly believe should not be. The risk for harm, unintentional abuse, and boundary violations are simply too great.

What Others Say

This is one of the older creeds among healing professions going back to the Nigerian Healing Arts. It is also found, though indirectly, among numerous shamanic cultures. Here are some general statements from other helping professions throughout the centuries:

Psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients. -- APA 2002 Ethics Code

Sexual or romantic counselor–client interactions or relationships with current clients, their romantic partners, or their family members are prohibited. -- ACA 2005 Ethics Code

Sexual intimacy with patients/clients is unethical. -- AGPA (American Group Psychotherapy Association) and NRCGP (National Registry of Certified Group Psychotherapists) Guidelines for Ethics

Massage therapists shall [...] Refrain from engaging in any sexual conduct or sexual activities involving their clients.-- AMTA (American Massage Therapy Association) Code of Ethics

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves. -- Hippocratic Oath

You should not tell what you have learned from the time you enter a woman's room, and, moreover, you should not have obscene or immoral feelings when examining a woman. -- Seventeen Rules of Enjuin

The details, of course, vary. The ACA bans romantic or sexual counselor-client relationships for a period of five years following the end of the counseling relationship. The APA puts the number at two years. Both state that the therapist/counselor should document whether the relationship could then be viewed as exploitive or whether there is a potential of harm to the client.

I personally feel that two years makes a good absolute minimum, and that five years is a safer number.

Doing Work For Significant Others

While the statement don't sleep with your clients is relatively uncontroversial, one of the subtle ways this can be come a problem is in doing work for someone who you already have a preexisting romantic relationship with. Because surely there's no problem with helping them ward their home, right?

Of course there is. Just because the romantic relationship started first, doesn't mean that the situation won't compromise your ability to heal and cause long-term trust issues in the romantic relationship.

This is where we get into what constitutes a low powered relationship. It is one thing for me to offer friendly advice, to help ward someone's house, to have them help me ward my house, to receive help from the spirits on the behalf of someone else in an emergency situation, and another for me to enter into a professional, deeper or longer term relationship with a client who I am seeing romantically. The former are lower-power and usually single shot and do not require an intimate, healing relationship with the individual. It is also best even if these lower power relationships are kept professional in attitude and demeanor while they are taking place, just to establish that sense of space while the work is taking place.

It is also a good idea to document when such things happen, and to talk about it with a Teacher or another spirit worker, just to make sure that everything stays above board. Do not be afraid to refer them to another individual if the situation starts to get too high powered or if the boundary lines start to blur.

To do otherwise, to make them your client, creates an unstable situation where the position of trust you share in one domain will cause conflicts in the other. It can make a relationship unintentionally abusive, and your focus cannot be entirely on healing them as your client.

To illustrate, consider what happens if there are problems in the relationship, or even if you break up? Will they lose their spirit worker while simultaneously losing their significant other, should they? What if during a journey on their behalf you find out that you caused the problem that you are trying to help them with. What if it turns out that, as described in Sandra Ingerman's Soul Retrieval, you--entirely accidentally--steal part of their soul.

While all of these are manageable situations overall if the spirit worker and the romantic partner are different people, they can and do cause endless problems and are rife with potential unintentional abuses--let alone if either parties intentions are not entirely honorable.

In short, you can be their lover, you can be their spirit worker, but you cannot be both.


Although the prohibition against sex with patients reaches back beyond Freud, beyond the Hippocratic Oath, and at least as far as the code of the Nigerian Healing Arts, it was only with systematic research that began in the 1950s that the profession began to understand the depth, pervasiveness, and persistence of the harm that can result when therapists abuse their license, role, power, and trust. -- Kenneth S. Pope

The more we learn about shamanic practice and its links with psychology, especially now that our techniques are being used in psychological healing, the more it looks like the boundaries set by these other healing organizations--especially groups like the APA and ACA--are appropriate for us as spirit workers as well. We are members of a healing profession and our role as spirit workers is to help others, it only makes sense that we build our code of ethics off of others who are trying to do similar things.

Romantic relationships with clients are one of the most clear-cut areas in the domain of dual relationships. Fortunately, where professional and social relationships can be unavoidable in the communities we frequent, romantic entanglements are almost always entirely avoidable with existent clients, as is becoming the spirit worker for your current romantic partner.

Further Reading

10 September 2009

Dual Relationships and Ethics

As members of a healing profession we frequently run into one of the pitfalls of other healing professions: having more than one kind of relationship concurrent with, prior to, or subsequent to our professional relationship as spirit workers, occultists, or clergy. This relationship may be professional (e.g., someone comes to you for a soul retrieval who also happens to be your dentist), social, or financial in nature.

Many helping professions--from counselors and psychotherapists to clergy to doctors--have struggled with professional and emotional boundaries as they relate to dual relationships. As spirit workers our difficulties are not that different from counselors or psychotherapists, as we deal with many of the same forces in our client's lives.

Even so, we are faced with a variety of problems that make certain classes of dual relationships nearly unavoidable, and as spirit workers we operate in a realm with relatively undeveloped codes of professional ethics. Ellen C. Friedman, writing on the topic of the ethics of dual relationships and Wiccan clergy, states:

The lack of professional training for Wiccan clergy and the adolescent development of Wiccan ethics is a considerable problem. Wicca is a young religion and has yet to develop in these areas to the extent found in older religions.

In truth these problems are not unique to Wicca, and we could substitute Neopagan for Wiccan and be very accurate for most of the available trads and clergy out there. This is not to demean those who are out there and who are operating relatively in the dark, and there are some great programs, such as Cherry Hill Seminary out there, but there are very few good, comprehensive analysis of dual relationships in a pastoral setting.

I personally believe that it would serve us well to follow a similar code of ethics to that employed by counselors, psychotherapists, and pastoral counselors, or at least to use their practice as a starting point.

Dual Relationships Defined

The American Counseling Association's (ACA) 2005 Code of Ethics gives a great deal of guidance around relationships with clients, but--in a departure from previous versions of the guide--does not actually use the term dual relationships. This wasn't because the concept is no longer important, but rather because the term itself was problematic. To quote Dr. Rocco Cottone, who was on the ACA Ethical Code Revision Task Force:

When you sit down and analyze the concept of dual relationships, you will find that it relates to three different types of relationships: sexual/romantic relationships, nonprofessional relationships and professional role change. The first category, sexual and romantic relationships with current clients, is banned by the code of ethics because we have evidence of the damage that results. The second type of relationship, nonprofessional relationships, encompasses those activities where you might have contact or active involvement with a client outside of the counseling context. The third type of relationship that the old dual relationship term encompassed is a professional role change. An example is when you shift from individual counseling to couples counseling. Moving from one type of counseling to another with one client can be really confusing and ethically compromising.

So, in the end, moving away from the concept of dual relationships was really about the analysis of what the dual relationship term meant and the confusion it caused because of multiple meanings. The new ethics code addresses all three types of roles and relationships with clients.

Despite the split into three separate categories, there lacks an effective term--other than dual relationship--that covers all three under some other heading, and the term is still in common use among other therapeutic organizations. For example, the American Association of Pastoral Counselor's Code of Ethics echoes previous versions of the ACA's ethics codes, and states outright:

We recognize the trust placed in and unique power of the therapeutic relationship. While acknowledging the complexity of some pastoral relationships, we avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of clients. We avoid those dual relationships with clients (e.g., business or close personal relationships) which could impair our professional judgement, compromise the integrity of the treatment, and/or use the relationship for our own gain.

Due to the widespread nature and lack of a better term, I will continue to use the term in this blog to refer to all three categories mentioned by Rocco Cottone, without attaching any specific stigma to properly conducted dual relationships. These may, in fact, be beneficial or even necessary and this should be recognized where appropriate to do so. I will also break them down into separate categories where appropriate, so that each may be better addressed separately.

Separation and Boundaries in Pagan Society

One of the challenges that face modern day spirit workers is that it is difficult--if not impossible--to maintain strict separation from our clients. First, it is not uncommon for our client-base to come from within our chosen families, and for the groups that we teach or work for to be our close friends as well.

Some shamans live on the outskirts of the society they are part of for various spiritual or practical reasons, which can help provide this separation. For those of us who are not in that position, however, this poses quite a problem.

Friedman, speaking of Wiccan psychotherapists, says that:

Wiccan clergy psychotherapists appear particularly vulnerable to ethical dilemmas caused by dual relationships. Complications unique to Wicca include the intimacy required of its clergy within the ritual context and within their covens. Covens serve not only as congregation, but also as seminaries and in some instances as family of choice.

She then goes on to offer four alternatives: Avoid clients within the community, practice low-power relationships, negotiate each relationship on a case-by-case basis, and use established best-practices that involve consultations with others.

For spirit workers the first two options are clearly untenable since we tend to serve the communities that we are part of, and while we can occasionally do low-powered work for clients some of what we do (e.g., soul retrieval, serving as a medium to the gods) is much deeper and requires relations that are closer to that of a therapist.

What I suggest is that we approach things with a hybrid of the last two. This means:

  • Adopting our own ethics guidelines and best practices from those of other helping organizations, such as the ACA.
  • Document our agreements and the dual relationships that we have.
  • Consider how our dual relationships might be unintentionally exploitive or otherwise harmful to our clients.
  • Openly discuss--and negotiate--our boundaries with our clients, both from their perspective and ours, documenting the results.
  • Use lower powered but still professional relationships where appropriate--keeping with all of the above points--and not being afraid to refer people to others when we feel that our position compromises our relationship in some way.


This is merely scratching the surface. I am going to go more into each of the three types of dual relationship (social, sexual/romantic, and professional) and the challenges and guidelines for each of them in the upcoming posts. Feedback or suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Further Reading

08 September 2009

On Language and Civil Discourse

This week, President Obama is going to address the nation on the matter of healthcare reform. This is, in part, a response to a great deal of mudslinging that has taken place over the last few weeks, where labels such as "communist" and "Nazi" have been used both widely and incorrectly by opponents of this bill.

There are a huge number of legitimate discussions that we can--should be--having around the health care legislation, but we can't because we are overwhelmed by words such as death panels, rationing, and socialist.

My goal here is not to address the health care debate, but rather to talk about the uses and abuses of language. It occurred to me, while watching the debate, that this is something that comes up in religious debates (and any talk about BDSM, for that matter) all of the time. We see words bandied about that, even if they are true, are getting in the way of the important parts of the debate.

As the quote (attributed to Gautama Buddha, but disputed) goes, Words have the power to both destroy and heal.

These terms may--or may not--be honest expressions of feeling, but they are not honest, factual evaluations that others can or should use to make decisions. When emotive terms get used in these ways they tend to distort the debate and interfere with the process of rational decision making which, I tend to think, is precisely the point.

This is especially true when those words have meaning and are being used out of context (e.g., Nazi) but it also applies to more straightforward emotional judgements, such as vile. Not that these words do not have use in public discourse, but it frequently seems that they are substituted for actual judgement, or to sway or convince people who might otherwise be undecided.

It is one thing to conclude that certain behavior is contemptible and to start out by calling another person contemptible. I've seen some statements that were so ridden with such statements that, while the author's vitriol was plain, I learned nothing of use about the group or individuals of whom they were speaking.

This seems to be particularly true in both religious and political discussions, where people seem to be quick to judge, quick to say UR DOIN IT WRONG, quick to dismiss, and slow to understand. Such tactics, however, get in the way of actual discussion about the important differences and can actually hurt the accusers argument.

This is, in essence, a plea for civility in public discourse on these matters. Please, by all means, continue to call others out when you see something amiss or to bring things to the light that need to be discussed, both in the political and religious arena. These are good and valuable things, but they need to be done with an eye toward civil discourse and an understanding that not everyone in the room necessarily is starting from the same premises.

Further Reading

04 September 2009

Book Review: Soul Retrieval, Mending the Fragmented Self

Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self by Sandra Ingerman (✭✭✭✭✬, 4.5/5)

I decided to read this book after reading Lupa's book review where she gave it "Five pawprints out of five" and concluded:

While there are occasional things I personally disagree with, overall I think this is a great text. Once I’m ready to do soul retrieval in practice, this will be an invaluable guide.

This piqued my interest enormously. I had seen this book on Amazon before, but given that it is from a Core Shaman perspective and I don't currently do soul retrievals I didn't pay much attention to it one way or the other. After some recent events have lead me to think that I have some soul fragments I will need to retrieve and after reading Lupa's review, however, I decided to go ahead and read the book.

I am extremely glad that I did. The content is well laid out and excellent. Safety and ethics are both discussed, and at no point does the author treat this as safer than dreaming, conflate it with guided meditation, or treat it as something that can be learned in a weekend workshop. She also addresses topics such as soul theft, rape, and incest and how soul retrieval works/can help with these.

She goes on to say that:

Learning to do shamanic healing takes time, lots of practice, and experience. I will share the details of my work to demystify it for you as you read on. I do not intend to teach you how to do soul retrieval in this chapter--that, I believe, is unethical. And I feel it is just as unethical for one to try soul retrieval after just reading this book.

If we truly want to honor the spirits and use the ancient ways in a powerful way, we must maintain integrity in the work at all times. Please do not dishonor yourselves, the people who are important to you, or the spirits by trying soul retrieval without the appropriate training.

Suffice it to say, after growing a little fed up with one of the most difficult techniques in shamanism getting relegated to being trained in weekend seminars, it was extremely refreshing to see this in front of the chapter on technique.

The book is spread into 11 chapters split into three parts:

  • Part I: The Soul and Soul Loss

    • Chapter 1: Soul Loss
    • Chapter 2: Soul Retrieval
    • Chapter 3: Tracking Lost Souls

  • Part II: The Search

    • Chapter 4: A Question of Technique
    • Chapter 5: Classic Examples of Soul Retrieval
    • Chapter 6: Community
    • Chapter 7: When Souls Have Been Stolen

  • Part III: Welcome Home, Healing Through Wholeness

    • Chapter 8: Effects of Soul Retrieval
    • Chapter 9: Relationships and Sexual Issues
    • Chapter 10: Life After Soul Retrieval
    • Chapter 11: Preparing for Your Own Soul's Return

The first part deals with the nature of soul loss, what soul retrieval can look like, the nature of the worlds, and the tools that a spirit worker might use in their practice. It provides an effective demonstration of the concept of soul retrieval, without requiring a detailed knowledge of existent jargon. I believe this book can be effectively read by someone who has just heard of it and is considering it as an option, as well as someone who is considering performing it in the future. There is something of value in this book for both groups, despite that soul retrieval is one of the more difficult areas of shamanism.

The second part goes into more details about the process of looking for souls, and goes into more depth with the mechanics of Ingerman's practice in this field. She also gets into examples of things that cause people to lose parts of their soul, including soul theft and the loss of community.

Part three talks about the repercussions, positive and negative, of soul retrieval and gives advice on what to expect from soul retrieval. She emphasizes the need for people to do this in their own time when they are truly ready for change in their own life.

Spread throughout the book are exercises designed to help with your own healing and understanding of shamanic practice, along with copious case studies derived from her own practice. In a sense, I feel like this was the book I was looking for when I read Gagan's Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet. Something filled with case studies that focuses on how this helps along with some psychological theory, rather than focusing on where the issues come from that shamanic practices might be able to help with.

On the issue of reality in this practice, Ingerman states that:

As you read this book and wonder whether or not what I am talking about is real, I ask you not to enter into a battle between the right brain and left brain. Simply read the material and experience it. After eleven years of working with the shamanic journey I know nonordinary reality is real. But I don't intend to convince you of that. For me, the big questions are these: Does the information that comes from a shamanic journey work? Does this information make positive changes in a person's life? If so, who cares if we are making it up?

Suffice it to say, given my own perspectives on the subject, this does it work attitude is something I am thrilled to see in well-regarded books on the subject, especially those published in 1991.


In aggregate, I felt that this book is excellent. I have some disagreements with the author, but they don't really detract from the usefulness or power of the book. She doesn't flinch for describing things as real, including interactions with power animals and the goddess Isis. My only real issues with the book are a lack of an effective index and that, while it discusses illness from a shamanic perspective, shows a lack of analysis on when soul retrieval might be counter-indicated despite a client's insistence of wanting to continue (admittedly, this latter is a difficult and somewhat fuzzy category, and likely beyond the scope of the book).

These, however, are functionally minor points. Highly recommended.

02 September 2009

Understanding, Skill, and Martial Arts

Since at least as long as people have been writing about martial arts, we see discussions of the form my martial art is better than your martial art. This ranges from feelings of philosophical superiority, to a belief that a single cage match ala UFC actually proves anything about the arts being practiced.

In the old fencing schools secret techniques abounded, which were entirely focused on keeping the individual alive by holding that the opponent had not seen the technique before and thus could not be ready for it. To quote Egerton Castle's Schools and Masters of Fence:

Each individual master taught merely a collection of tricks that he had found, in the course of an eventful life, to be generally successful in personal encounters, and had practiced until the ease and quickness acquired in their execution made them very dangerous to an unscientific opponent.

In truth secret techniques only get you so far and the artist matters more than the art. This doesn't mean that all martial arts are equal or that they take equivalent paths, nor does it mean that they don't have different focuses or aren't better suited to different types of people, just that what makes or breaks a school tends to be the teacher, and what makes a practitioner good tends to be that individual and the training they have received and not the style that they practice or any number of secret techniques that they might know.

One style and school might be more conducive to self defense, another might be more suitable to fighting in a cage, a third might be better fit for finding inner harmony. All three, given enough time and enough dedication, are probably useful for all three purposes, but their focuses are going to be different and they might be better for different types of people. They also will each achieve the pieces in a different order, and at a different pace.

What I tend to look for, on walking into a martial arts school to gauge the quality of the teaching, is to look at how faithful they are to the fundamentals. If I see sloppy stances, sloppy weight control, or poor attitude I am more likely to hold that against the practitioner or--if it is endemic--the school than I am the style, even if that style has a different set of assumptions or focuses from my own, and even if the students can kick everyone else around easily. Taekwon Do isn't inferior to Hapkido because the latter is more real world, it simply has different areas of focus.

Then there are the paths that harm or are actively dangerous. Recently I saw some people stretching in such a way that they are likely to destroy their knees, I've seen martial arts schools which are basically just excuses to beat up on the younger students, and I've seen more than a few black belt mills where the people graduating have paid a lot of money, but have not received a lot of quality training. I've seen other martial artists who sleep with their students, consensually, but this still tends to mean that either the relationship or the training--or both--will get compromised.

In a sense, we have run into an analogous situation in the Neopagan world. There is a lot of fighting back-and-forth between those who want to treat every path as equally valid, and those who view there as being One True Path, with many gradations in between. We see those who grudgingly acknowledge that other paths might be valid, but theirs is clearly the best. Some who will acknowledge and allow for any sort of variance in Neopagan paths, while simultaneously snubbing Abrahamic religions. We see others who think that Occultism--or worse, Shamanism--is something that everyone should do no matter what their background. There is also plenty of ur doin' it wrong for people who don't practice in a sanctioned way.

There are also cults, toxic relationships, bad boundaries, and dysfunctional group dynamics ranging from mild to dangerous spread throughout the Neopagan world. There are people who think that burning slips of paper will make everything better, and well-recognized authors spreading outright falsehoods, dangerous information, or encouraging destructive behavior in children. There are those who seem to think that the gods are there for you without ever yourself being there for them, and those who think that it is acceptable to take without giving anything in return.

There are also amazingly positive paths that engender healing, others that help focus discipline, and others which help us in touching Mystery.

The trick is that it is not always easy to tell, from the surface, what is going on. Years ago I was working at a university, and the guy who worked next to me doing data entry tried on a regular basis to get me to go to his church and attend his church events. He was mostly respectful of the boundaries I set: he wouldn't push if I said no, wouldn't try and actively convert me beyond trying to get me out to his church events, but he would regularly ask and we'd talk casually about religion and he'd talk about the salvation he found on this path. He was in a fundamentalist branch of Christianity and on a very straight and very narrow path, and believed that everyone would be better off on this same path and would find salvation through it.

Suffice it to say, such is pretty much the exact opposite of what I was looking for or what I needed.

As we talked, I found out more about history. He had been in a gang and had scars running down his face from being assaulted outside of his home with a glass bottle. He showed me pictures of his pets: a dog, a cock, and a Siamese fighting fish all of which he used to have fight other gang members animals for sport and cash. We only scratched the surface, but it was clear that his history was dark and brutal. For him, he needed the straight-and-narrow path, at least for the foreseeable future, and he needed the salvation and forgiveness he had found through Jesus the Christ of Nazareth. He accepted responsibility for his past, but had found a brighter future thanks to Christianity.

I would have preferred if he realized that I didn't need that same salvation and that my path could be different and I could still be happy with it, but I can't really fault him too seriously for--having found this happiness and this salvation--wanting to share it with others. I also can't criticize his having found this brighter future through Christianity, even though I feel that for me that such a path would destroy me, just as my path would probably destroy him.

The important thing is that there are things that we can learn from one another if we are willing to listen, and that neither path is invalid despite that both look very different. While I can sometimes look at something and say that is ineffective or that looks destructive, I can't always be sure that I am right so long as we are mostly staying within certain fuzzily-defined bounds.

I have no good answer on how we can tell which is which, because what is functional and healing for one person may seem like the epitome of Evil™ to another, especially if neither side takes the time to understand the other. What I would like to see is an opening of dialogues between disparate and disagreeing groups, done with understanding and compassion and without the need to prove one is better (or worse) than the other, done for the sake of sharing information and improving ourselves and our service to the gods and society. Done without distortions and with a great deal of self-honesty.

Then, perhaps, we can find our way forward.

Further Reading

Not Dead Yet

Just been very busy for the last few months. Things should be clearing up in a bit and I'll get back to posting essays ^_^

13 August 2009


One thing that I believe we as Spirit Workers need to be discussing in more depth is the nature of working with clients in a modern world. We are not the only form of spiritual or psychological healing out there, and this changes the nature of how we interact with our clients, how our clients interact with us, and how our clients find us. People who are troubled do not necessarily know who or what we are, what services we offer, and whether those services can work with their other options or are strictly antagonistic in nature. We are not the new kid on the block, but as more and more psychotherapists are drawn to shamanic techniques for their clients it is likely our skills are going to be in higher demand and our visibility is going to increase.

Further, as Spirit Workers, we struggle regularly with clients on issues of the Mind and Soul. We should be developing and discussing what our professional, ethical boundaries are with our clients and students and what our standards of care are when working with others. We are also going to be dealing with people who have serious problems--both psychological and physical--and we need to understand both where we can help and what our limits are.

Dealing with such issues, we are also going to start seeing the same issues in our group that psychotherapists deal with regularly: Burnout, Countertransference, Vicarious Traumatization, and Compassion Fatigue. We need to be having conversations about what these are and how we, as helpers, can deal with them in ourselves and others when they arise.

These are not an area to be treaded lightly into, because we are dealing with people's very souls (both ourselves and that of others), but it is something that we need to be having a conversation about. Part of my purpose in this blog is to start that conversation, and my Boundaries series has been part of that. I am going extend the concept and start writing a series of Professionalism essays, and encourage others to do the same. Under this heading I will discuss issues with being a Spirit Worker in modern society and the issues that come up in the course of acting in a helping profession.

Some possible topics that I want to eventually address with this series:

  • Professional Ethics/Boundaries
  • Limitations of Practice
  • Advertising
  • Shamanic Countertransference
  • Burnout

Essentially all of the aspects of being a modern helping profession that we must deal with moving forward.

20 July 2009

Mythos and Logos

There is a story about a German explorer and naturalist named Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859) and his investigation of the village of Atures. He was exploring through South America and found out about a tribe called the Atures who had been hunted to extinction by a people called the Caribs.

All that remained of these people were tombs in a mountain cave and a parrot that spoke forty words of their language. Humboldt is supposed to have wrote that:

It is to be supposed that the last family of Atures did not die out until a long time afterwards: since at Maypures - bizarrely - there still survives an old parrot that nobody, say the natives, can understand, because it speaks only the language of the Atures.

This is a potent image that raises a number of interesting and difficult questions. It can touch on a deeply emotional level, captured by Michelle Dockrey and Tony Fabris in their song Strange Messenger (full lyrics):

To those who study history, it seems a bitter curse
The loss of language terrible, the lost potential worse
Past and future stories multiplied a thousandfold,
Vanished out of history and never to be told

Were they beautiful and gentle? Would they call us friend or foe?
What wisdom did they live by? What secrets did they know?
It's a symphony reduced to what a single bird can sing
The forest lost their language, and they lost everything

So tell me, bold explorer, as you wandered through the leaves,
Did you ponder unknown losses that the very Cosmos grieves?
Was it halting? Was it flowing? Was it lilting and divine?
Was it fearless as your native tongue, mercurial as mine?
Would it pique a linguist's interest? Would it hold a poet's thrall?
Do the words of one strange messenger tell us anything at all?

There is haunting power here, and a very compelling story. It speaks to the very essence of humanity and conveys a thousand things with one image, that of a culture who was hunted to extinction and who's last remaining trace was found in forty words mimicked by a parrot.

The problem is that I can't actually confirm the veracity of the story of Humboldt's Parrot. Despite the citation, I've found some who say that--while the phonetic transcriptions of the language are there--that there is no mention of having found them out from a parrot. I can't even confirm this because I lack access to a good translated copy of his Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and my German isn't nearly good enough to read the original. Even if I could overcome this, I have no way of knowing is Humboldt embellished that one point (though prevailing evidence would seem to indicate that he didn't do such in general, how can I be absolutely sure?)

Really though, it doesn't matter.

Sure, there are areas where it does matter, as does the authenticity of those forty words. There are entire domains for which the veracity of such things matters. But as a symbol and as a legend for discussion of endangered languages or the human condition, it holds its power regardless of the veracity of the claims.

This echoes of Worf's statement in the Deep Space Nine episode "Once More Into the Breach" (season 7, episode 7), talking to Bashir and O'Brien who were discussing whether the story of Davy Crockett's death at the Alamo is real. O'Brien argued that it is absolutely true, Bashir argues that it is implausible at the extreme. Worf tells them:

You are both wrong. The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man and it does not matter how he died.

If you believe in the legend of Humboldt's Parrot--as a legend--then it is a powerful and captivating image of loss. If you don't, if that symbol holds no power for you, then it is just a story, and how Humboldt got his forty words is only important from a linguistics and historical research perspective. It then doesn't matter overly much if he got them from a parrot so long as they are accurate.

In truth, one could even argue that it isn't important even then. Forty words of a tongue that no longer exists, with no written text, and only questionable translations (and possibly transcribed through a parrot) is of questionable use as anything but a symbol.

Today many people want to dismiss old stories--and those who follow them--because some people are inclined to take them literally and believe in their literal interpretation. Both the people who take them literally and those who dismiss them out of hand make the same error: Confusing mythos and logos. They treat myths, which are about deeper truths (see my essay on Crude Superstition for further comments on this) as if they were facts, and treat facts as if they were interchangeable with myths. This insults both science and spirituality, as it holds neither of them to their proper function. To quote Plato's Republic, Book II:

Neither must we have mothers under the influence of the poets scaring their children with a bad version of these myths--telling how certain gods, as they say, 'Go about by night in the likeness of so many strangers and in diverse forms'; but let them take heed lest they make cowards of their children, and at the same time speak blasphemy against the gods.

In most situations, the literal truth is relevant in one context, and the mythological, spiritual, or poetic truth is relevant in another context. Both are useful, but to confuse them weakens them both. It dilutes scientific inquiry by giving it things to accept regardless of the evidence to the contrary, as we see with the Young Earth Creationists. It dilutes spiritual pursuit by trying to find an objective truth in a symbol that may take subtlety different meanings for different people, and may help different people in different ways, as we see with the evangelical atheists who insist on trying to talk about the impossibility of Virgin Births.

A danger among spirit workers is to take stories that have been crafted--possibly a thousand years ago--and treat them as having truly taken place. If we accept the gods and spirits as real (which many, myself included, do) then some of them may (or must) have, but how do we know which ones? Do we favor Saxo's interpretations or Snorri's? What if they are both wrong? What if it was a story made up by a god to convey a certain message, but the original message has been garbled?

In truth, the question I like to put forward is what do you gain from this legend. If what you gain is positive and leads toward spiritual growth and healing, if that legend has meaning for you, then you can believe that it is true without necessarily accepting that it is real. If it doesn't, but it does for other people, then so long as they aren't trying to present it as a verified fact that you should accept as well there is no sense in trying to take away that healing image from them based on your own conception of how it should be used.

Further Reading

10 July 2009

Mundane vs. Occult

When reading Bear Heart's memoir, The Wind is My Mother one of the things that gets repeatedly emphasized is the importance of what most people would call "mundane" skills. He talks about the importance of noticing your environment, learning to move your eyes first to look at something rather than your head, and other things along those lines. While it is clear that he is capable of both sensing and manipulating energy (and medicine men doing such things as moving feathers with their mind).

What struck me is that just about everything he talks about "energetically" is, at its core, an extension of skills that--on the surface--have nothing to do with energy. It seems that most modern books on occultism reverse this: they start by talking about sensing and manipulating energy, rather than sensing and manipulating the environment around you and your own mind.

It was noted by Dion Fortune and has long been recognized by occultists that astral/energy constructs degrade in this plane unless they are anchored to something relatively tangible. Similarly, there are a lot of things that energy may facilitate, but you should start learning how to do it energetically by learning how to do it physically.

If you want to lose weight go ahead and say the appropriate incants, visualize yourself as thinner in a mirror, but combine it with diet and exercise. If you want to get a job you might be able to help by lighting a green candle and channeling energy to it, but that won't mean much if your resume is poor, you aren't a good fit for the job, or you don't look presentable.

Virtually everything we do with energy can be enhanced by studying related things that, ostensibly, don't involve it. Not that energy work and shamanism cannot help or augment the work, but frequently one should start learning the energy work components by learning the non energy work components.

Too often in the modern occult community, however, I see people who neglect the physical to learn the energy. They want to burn little slips of paper or purchase spells of ebay instead of working out, going through a Dialectic Behavior Therapy workbook, or seeing a doctor.

Want to learn how to use glamours to project an image? Work on your posture, mastery of facial expressions, confidence, and emotional control. Work on posture mirroring and study communication. Get your clothes tailored, hair cut, nails trimmed, etc.

Want to learn how to heal? Study trigger point therapy, shiatsu, and deep tissue massage. Study medicine or psychology, or learn herbalism. Study how the body feels to the touch when it is suffering certain ailments and when it is healthy, and how different people's bodies feel. Study how the body works, how it fits together, and what happens when various things go wrong.

Want to learn how to perceive energy around you? Start with perception of the world around you. Learn to not just passively observe the world and let it pass unnoticed, but to truly see the world and to remember what you see. Extend it beyond your sight: What do you hear, what do you feel? Can you separate out your perceptions from your feelings?

Are you sick? See a doctor (or psychotherapist, depending on the form of the illness). Don't just pray, burn slips of paper, and hope everything gets better: go see a specialist, ensure you are getting proper nutrition, etc.

On the flip side: There is nothing wrong with studying energy work to get better at a craft you are already practicing. The point is the need for understanding of the balance, and how one leads to the other. One can learn to perceive energy by learning to pay attention, and can learn to pay attention as part of learning to perceive energy.

You can also see a doctor while visiting an energy worker or shaman--it is like receiving two different forms of treatment, and those forms can be complimentary--though it is generally best if one knows about the other. This is especially true with things that affect your own mental health or which involve your own mind. It doesn't have to be one or the other, and frequently things in one area can be made stronger by work on the other.

To summarize, as the saying goes: Pray to God and row for shore.

Further Reading

05 July 2009

Prayer Beads 9: Brief Delay

Due to a variety of factors in my life and some poor time management, prayer bead analysis will be delayed this week.

02 July 2009

Boundaries IV: What is a Boundary?

Previously I talked about having healthy emotional boundaries and then I went on to give some application in relationships through humans to the gods (both when they are talking to you and when you are talking to them).

This essay is going to try and abstract the concept of a Boundary and talk about it in a little more depth, and discuss the consequences of weak personal boundaries.

In short, a boundary is the identifying line between you and that which is not you. These may be between two concrete individuals (such as that I am not the same person as my girlfriend), or between two roles in a person's life (e.g., professional boundaries), it can also be between you and something you've worked on (such as a piece of artwork). So far I have focused on personal boundaries and not professional boundaries, and I will approach the issue of professional spirit worker boundaries in a future essay. For the moment, let's talk a little more about the nature of personal boundaries.

Personal boundaries essentially indicate where you end and the other person starts. It comes down to understanding some things are yours to own, some things belong to others, and everyone is basically responsible for their own choices in life.

It requires recognizing that not only can reasonable minds differ, but that they frequently come from a radically different set of premises. Sometimes these beliefs can be harmful or beneficial, but having good boundaries involves recognizing that--good or bad--they are not you.

Examples of Poor Boundaries

People who have poor boundaries find it manifesting in a variety of different ways, depending on the severity and origin, and may not even realize that the problem boils down to their view of themselves as a distinct individual.

Examples of consequences of poor boundaries include:

  • Reacting strongly because someone has a different view than you, even if that opinion may be justified.
  • Not asserting/respecting/enforcing limits with a stranger, friend, coworker, or partner.
  • Placing your self worth in the opinions of other individuals.
  • Projecting your emotional state in to others (aka, projective identification).

There are many others, depending on the nature of the poor boundaries, but these four form a good starting point. Going in to more depth:

Separate Beliefs

One silly example gives us a good example of a mild, everyday situation in which poor boundaries might show themselves:

Even a situation such as your saying I thought the end of Harry Potter was ideal and appropriate, and someone else’s responding with How can you possibly think that?! The ending was totally contrived, is a small boundaries violation.

It isn't in having a different opinion from the individual, it is in the level and nature of the response: How could you possibly think that?! A more appropriate response might be Really? I thought the ending was totally contrived. They may agree or think that such doesn't matter and that it is ideal and appropriate for other reasons, they may disagree, but either way what each individual believes doesn't reflect on the other.

In relationships this comes up in the form of taking offense when it turns out that your partner's preferences are different than your own (True story: I had a girlfriend at one point who didn't like pizza and who declared--she never asked--that I didn't like pizza either and took semi-mortal offense when she found out that I did).

We also encounter this all of the time in the religious world. People who don't just disagree or who will state that some beliefs are wrong, but take extreme offense that others might see the world any differently and react emotionally to those differences. In general, so long as Safe, Sane, and Consensual boundaries are respected, I tend to take an attitude of Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay (YKINMYBYKIO).

Setting, Respecting, and Asserting Appropriate Limits

One example of something someone with healthy boundaries might say is:

Yes, I do care for you. And, I also have a need to be out of the house to see my friends at least one night a week.

This is asserting a self identity and protecting the core being of the self. Someone who has to check with their husband to see if it is okay (barring a pre-negotiated relationship in this regard, of course), or who says if me going out will make you lonely, I won't go is not asserting proper boundaries. No matter how much I may care for an individual, I cannot drop everything on a continuing basis for them and retain my own self.

Similarly, I cannot expect others to drop everything for me simply because I am upset or having trouble. Nor can I expect people to respect boundaries I have not informed them of. People who are not me cannot be expected to know what is on my mind and to know how I feel about things.

The dangerous other form of poor boundaries here is respecting limits that have not--and would never be--set or asserting unreasonable, overly restrictive, or counterproductive boundaries. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying I don't want to bother her when in truth both her boundaries and yours not only allow, but encourage, contact. It is also easy to feel like your boundaries are being violated by someone who isn't really encroaching (e.g., someone who can't stand having anyone over, even when the request is reasonable) or who has not received adequate communication.

Tying Self-Worth To Others' Opinions

We are what we are, and the words of others do not change that. Sure, praise may make us feel better and insults make us feel worse, but we are what we are. To go back to my first essay on boundaries where I quote Fuensanta Arismendi in Root, Stone, and Bone:

That voice told me that maybe I was indeed stupid and insane. If so, this was not because my father screamed so, nor was it my fault. Maybe I was intelligent and perfectly sane; if so, my father's screams did not change this, and it was not my merit. My father was unkind and uncontrolled and that was his behavior to own--not mine to own for him. So I took back what was mine: my self-worth--and gave him back what was his: his ranting. From that moment on, insults had no hold over me any more.

Insults lose their sting if we can take them in perspective and recognize ourselves as distinct individuals. Criticism of our work can be taken in beneficial way if we define good boundaries between ourselves and our work, since no matter how much of ourselves we put into that work it is not us. Praise doesn't go to our heads if we take it as a positive indicator of direction and not a validation of our own self-worth.

Projective Identification

One example of how poor boundaries can manifest is called projective identification, whereby an individual takes emotions that they do not want and puts them into another individual. To quote Babette Rothschild's book Help for the Helper:

When an infant's distress cannot be alleviated by his mother, he may feel himself to be bad--I'm inconsolable, so I must be a bad baby. Since feeling bad about onself is not a comfortable feeling, the infant may project that perception of badness onto his mother, believing her to be bad because she cannot calm him. When the infant is calmed, he then perceives himself to be a good baby, and also projects that perception onto his, now, good mother--She is able to care for me.

Similarly, if the mother has poor boundaries she may believe that her baby being inconsolable or in some other way a bad baby must make her a bad mother. A more confident mother with good boundaries will recognize that the child will eventually calm down, and how long it takes doesn't really impact significantly on whether she is a good or a bad mother.

Most people have done this to a greater or lesser degree, at least when we were growing up if not when we were adults. The child of a friend of mine when he was around 4 or so would say scare you when he was scared, indicating that you were the one who was actually scared. Many people know someone who, as an adult, will accuse someone else of the behavior they are showing (e.g., "stop shouting at me!" said in the loudest possible voice).

As we grow up we get better at discernment, at telling what is ours and what is someone else's and understanding it is okay that these are not the same thing.


These are just some of the many areas that poor boundaries can manifest themselves. Most people in society could stand, at a minimum, to tweak their boundaries.

As occultists, a strong sense of self is vitally important. We have to be able to discern what is us and not us not just with people or objects, but with who we want to be and everything from gods and wights to thought-forms that we deal with on regular basis. The place to start working on it, however, is in our relationships with other people and understanding our own, separate, identity as it exists independent from others.

29 June 2009

Link: On Shaman Sickness

Moonvoice has written an amazing piece on Shaman Sickness titled Shamanic Pathways 07 - A wounded shaman(ist)?.

I have some of my own thoughts to add to this, but I haven't been able to get the essay written, so I'll just provide the link that inspired such for now and write more on it later.

28 June 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 8: Sif, Heimdall, Tyr

In the name of Sif, Lady Gold-Tressed, may I take pride in my own skill.
In the name of Heimdall, Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, may I be able
to defend my own boundaries.
In the name of Tyr, Lord of Swords, may I walk with true honor in the world.


In the name of Sif, Lady Gold-Tressed, may I take pride in my own skill.

Sif is best known for the story of how she got her hair. In the story of Skáldskaparmál, Loki cut it off, then made nice by going on a quest to get the dwarves to make her new hair of gold and many of the treasures of the gods in the process.

One wonders how Loki got into a position to steal her hair in the first place, and there is a significant implication that she has taken at least one lover outside of Thor (in both Hárbarðsljóð and in Lokasenna). This, however, is a discussion for another time.

Almost nothing is known of her personally in existent lore, though a few people have taken stabs at it (some of it based on UPG, for example, there is a theory that Thor guards the perimeter and Sif makes the center clear and sacred). It may also be that she had an association to marriage: Her name is a cognate of the Old English word sib, which means affinity, connection, by marriage. The compound word byggja sifjar means to marry.

Pride is a much maligned feeling in modern society. The phrase pride cometh before the fall is almost totally ingrained in our society, and many if not most children have received--from some authority figure in their life--lectures about this villain called pride. Greek legends about the dangers of hubris are frequently required reading in school, and it is considered the root sin of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins.

Yet as the character of Mark Twain indicates in Disney's American Adventure in Epcot: Pride is a national passion and even those who overcome it are proud of their humility.

Yet pride doesn't necessarily have to be excessive, nor does it have to be combined with conceit, nor does it mean that your pride needs to be unjustified. To quote the usage notes from the New Oxford American Dictionary:

If you take pride in yourself or your accomplishments, it means that you believe in your own worth, merit, or superiority—whether or not that belief is justified (: she took pride in her accomplishments).


While no one wants to be accused of arrogance or egotism, there's a lot to be said for self-esteem, which may suggest undue pride but is more often used to describe a healthy belief in oneself and respect for one's worth as a person (: she suffered from low self-esteem).

So while excessive pride may be a problem, some pride in your accomplishments is a necessary component of self-esteem.


In the name of Heimdall, Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, may I be able
to defend my own boundaries.

The guardian of the Bifrost Bridge which forms the link between Asgard and Midgard. He is known by many names, and is noted as the father of mankind (in a somewhat literal sense) according to some of the myths. He is a watcher and a guardian, and it is his job to sound the horn when Ragnarok comes.

Defending your boundaries in today's society means more than just keeping an eye on the door or installing an alarm system. It means being proactive with watching your own emotional boundaries and sense of self. It means not having boundaries that are blurred with those around you, and enforcing those boundaries within yourself and too others before it becomes a problem.

The danger here is of keeping too close an eye on one's boundaries. On keeping out even those things that are good, or seeing the world in black-and-white terms. Defense takes on this meaning as well, since it does you no good to keep things out if you starve while on the inside. Thus we can say that defending your boundaries means letting in what you need to be in and keeping out what you need to be out, whatever forms these things may take.


In the name of Tyr, Lord of Swords, may I walk with true honor in the world.

Týr is a lord of justice and a very old god of war. His name derives from the Proto-Germanic *Tiwaz, and is also the name of the rune ᛏ.

Týr er einhendr áss
ok ulfs leifar
ok hofa hilmir.
Mars tiggi.
Tyr is a one-handed god,
and leavings of the wolf
and prince of temples

It is Týr who offered his hand in payment for binding the Wolf Fenris with the cord Gleipnir (open one).

Honor is an interesting concept among Heathens. We don't really have a Code of Honor such as bushido (武士道), but it is clear that there was a sense of honor nonetheless. This shows up, for example, when Egil says to his band that they should go back and acquit themselves as true warriors that is based off of a code of honor.

This code appears to be centered, not on a sense of self, but on how one would be perceived by society. Swain Wodening wrote that:

Honor or ár therefore is as much about how one behaves as it is about how one is perceived. There are many ancient Germanic figures that achieve fame through victories in battle. The hero Starkaðr, while very well known, and spoken of in the ancient literature, did not know honor in his life. Indeed, he was often subject to shame. He definitely was well known, and had success in battle, but as he was often the antithesis of Germanic ideals on what a hero should be, he did not know honor. Starkaðr lacked certain qualities that the ancient Germanic Heathens deemed needed to fulfill the Germanic heroic ideal. In essence, he did not do the good deeds needed to win public approval, and did do deeds that won him the scorn of many. It is safe to say therefore, that ár cannot be simply translated as fame or renown. Starkaðr, after all was very well known, but not necessarily liked. A better translation would be “well known for a good name.” This concept is seen repeatedly in maxims in Béowulf and the Hávamál. One's good name was thought to be everything to the ancient Germanic Heathen.

Kaldera puts forth that there is another form of honor that is not dependent on the views of others called (in Old English) mægen, which literally translates to Strength. He defines it as follows:

While showing oneself to be a keeper of one's word is good for building public trust, the concept of maegen stresses that this is a power to be built even in isolation, and that it is not dependent on the opinions of others. The idea is that every time you give your word and keep it, you build up a fund of power behind your word that gives it more cosmic impact. In this way, the maegen supports the vili. One's maegen can often be sensed by others, and those with strong maegen will be instinctively trusted more by those who sense it. It's more than just reputation, it's an actual force attached to the soul that can be felt and used.

We see here something that is worth cultivating, both for oneself and for others and for which Týr, a god of justice, is ideally suited.

26 June 2009


Coming in a little late to this, but a lot of people who I follow have posted something for International Pagan Values Blogging Month, so I figured that I would add my contribution.

Part of the problem with talking about values is that it can quickly get overly specific. One virtue frequently depends on another, and to quote Michael Murphy (as quoted by Walsh in The World of Shamanism), Every virtue requires other virtues to complete it. While we all agree in living ethically we don't all agree what those ethics entail.

Recently in a job interview I was asked what core values I clung to: what values that were deeply personal to me. What were, in essence, my core values by which I lived my life. It is one of the more unusual questions I've been asked, and my answer really ahd more to do with meta-values. Values from which everything else is subordinate to. The three I gave were:

  • All Knowledge is Worth Having

  • Self-Honesty

  • Kaizen

All Knowledge is Worth Having

This is the famous quote of Anafiel Delaunay in Jacqueline Carey's excellent Kushiel's Legacy series. Basically it comes down to this: There is no piece of knowledge that is so obscure and so arcane that it is not worth knowing. This isn't to say that there aren't opportunity costs involved, but what turns out to be of interest and of use later on is never clear when the knowledge becomes available.

This goes beyond the base memorization of facts. Facts are but one form of knowledge: there is also knowledge of the self and knowledge of skills. As the character of Russell learns in the movie Up: The wilderness, no matter how much you think you know about it, can be rather wild and will exceed your expectations. Yet this counts as knowledge as well.

It is also true that the important thing is knowing how to think, how to analyze, and how--ultimately--to learn. This is also part of knowledge and part of the process of acquiring it.

Every few months I see comments about how some group of engineering students (frequently Software Engineering) take "too much math" in school, when in truth those math classes are some of the most valuable they will ever take. They say that they will never use those classes in the real world and--in a very narrow view--they are right. The trick is that--as the saying goes--I advise my students to listen carefully when they take their last mathematics class, they may be able to hear the sound of closing doors. Not because knowing how to take a line integral in a complex plane comes up so frequently in my day-to-day job, but because the thought process and skill set that were acquired by taking such classes goes well beyond the base subject matter that was covered.

The same is true of Philosophy and is found in many other fields of study: the thought process and skills you gain while learning is more important than the material you cover.

This isn't to say that the material can't also be important: my first professional job out of college involved some of those areas of knowledge that people said I would never have a use for.

So we can say with some certainty that knowledge is a lifelong process and not a set of concise products that can be memorized and regurgitated. It doesn't come down to the classes you take, or the field you are in, or a table of numbers (though all of these can be useful and help you on the way), but in how you seek and gather and what you learn while on the path.

It is important to seek, it is important to learn, and it is important not to dismiss some tidbit of information or some skill just because you cannot presently see the use for it.


Loki is one of many teachers that tell us that if there is one person in all of the Nine Worlds that you cannot afford to lie to, it is yourself.

Honesty is a funny concept. On the one hand, when you lie to others, the question is why do you feel that it is necessary to lie to them? This is part of what Ayn Rand was saying when she commented that:

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked... The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on... There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.

The so-called white lie is told to keep the peace but serves instead to distort reality, because reality is not palatable a false, illusory reality is set up instead. In telling this white lie you are saying that peace of mind is more important than what has actually true.

Besides, it is a pain to keep it all straight.

On the other hand, it is easy to pretend to being honest while in truth infringing on the boundaries of others. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying that one is just being honest when in truth it is simply a mechanism for making the other person uncomfortable (e.g., by sharing too much information), or talking instead of listening.

It can also, when poorly phrased or when not combined with mindfulness, be used as an inadvertent (or worse, deliberate) weapon in the worst possible ways. It can lead to what are called you statements instead of I statements, said in the name of being honest.

There is also power in deliberately lying. A lie--told mindfully--can be used to illustrate the truth or protect oneself from harm. A lie by omission (especially of the form of simply stopping short or not bringing something up) can be used to give yourself time to work things out within yourself before telling the truth, to play nice in a social setting for the benefit of a third party, or temporarily avoid hitting people's triggers. Lying can be used as a tool by spies in order to gain information which is vital to saving lives, and denial and deception techniques have a long history in warfare.

The sagas are similarly filled with examples of people or gods being dishonest or--at a minimum--deflecting the truth slightly for a greater gain. These range from Odin lying about his identity when traveling to Egil pretending to be more drunk than he was, presumably in part to flush out an enemy. We also see in history everything from women lying about their sex in order to serve on the battlefield, or lying about their marital status to help avoid being raped, to being used to protect innocent lives in the Underground Railroad.

The difference here is in what the lie is used for, and whether it is told mindfully. While having a greater end is frequently important, we don't want to get in to a question of ends justifying means and what really matters here is whether the lie is mindfully said, or whether it is said unconsciously. Whether it is said because I am denying reality, or while fully cognizant of the actuality of the situation.

Thus while honesty may be a virtue, it isn't an absolute one and is one that must be balanced with other virtues when dealing with others. But self-honesty, being mindful of yourself and refusing to tell even the slightest lie to yourself to make yourself feel better, is another matter entirely. This is one area that I believe we cannot afford to skimp in, and one area whether the word radical is not merely warranted, but something to encourage.

There are reasons that might justify lying to others, but lies to yourself will always come back to haunt you in the end.


Kaizen (改善, literally "improvement") is something I have talked about before. It means continuous improvement in all areas of your life. In Walsh's The World of Shamanism he comments that in Western Philosophy we frequently make the mistake of believing that attention cannot be continuously sustained and he points out how in contemplative disciplines attention must be sustained.

Even if we cannot achieve the ultimate goal of perfectly sustained concentration, we can work toward it. We can build skills and slowly improve ourselves, so that even if we don't--or even can't--get there, we can improve ourselves and our abilities dramatically while working toward that as a goal.

This is part of the point of kaizen: It isn't in being something great, it is in the process of continually improving ourselves in small ways. So I can't be the person I want to be tomorrow, but can I be a better person tomorrow than I am today? That is, in the end, what matters and--after thousands of days--maybe I will become that person, or the person I wanted to be turns out not to be that great after all, but regardless of what happened to my goal, I will be a much better person for the journey.

21 June 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 7: Odin, Frigg, Thor

In the name of Odin, the All-Father, One-Eyed Master of the Runes, may I be opened to ecstasy and inspiration.
In the name of Frigga, Mistress of Fensalir, spinner of clouds, may my home be a frithstead where all are welcome.
In the name of Thor, Lord of Thunder, Master of the Winds of the Western World, may my strength never fail me.


In the name of Odin, the All-Father, One-Eyed Master of the Runes, may I be opened to ecstasy and inspiration.

Óðinn is an extremely multifaceted deity. He, along with his brothers Ve and Vili, created the earth from the body of the giant Ymir. He is the Allfather (Alföðr) and leader of the Æsir, he is the terrible one (Yggr), the Raven God (Hrafnaguð), and the Grey Bearded (Hárbarðr) wanderer, he is Beloved (Uðr) and the Hanged One (Hangi), and many many other things besides.

As such an eclectic god, there are numerous perceptions of him and--more than virtually any other deity--two people who follow the same god can come away with dramatically different impressions of him and relationships with him. As with any god, some may follow one aspect and others may follow another, but even then Odin has a stunning array of aspects.

I follow Óðinn in his trickster, magician, and wanderer aspects. Mine is the Óðinn who hanged for nine days and nine nights in a quest for knowledge, mine is the Óðinn who wandered the world in search of knowledge, who spent time in a skirt with Freyja to learn seiðr, and mine is the Óðinn who stood across from Thor (Þōrr) on the opposite riverbank and refused to ferry him across. I do not interface with him as a death god or a god of war, I don't talk to him as a Shaman-King or as the Allfather, and only rarely as a god of victory. I never see him in Asgard (Ásgarðr), and will generally either meet him while out and about or go to him at the Chair/High Seat (Hliðskjálf/Hlidskjalf) which exists outside of Asgard and overlooks the Nine Worlds.

One thing that is widely recognized is that he is a god of ecstasy. Not in the modern sense of feeling "overwhelming happiness," but in terms of "involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence." It comes from the Greek ekstasis, meaning "trance, distraction" which comes from existanai, meaning to "displace" or "drive out of one's mind" (as in existanai phrenon).

Ecstasy has long been recognized as a potent force for Shamans. William Fairchild, in his work on Shamanism in Japan says of ecstasy that:

Ecstasy is absolutely necessary for shamanism. It is a special kind of ecstasy-a transformation into another personality. By ecstasy the shaman contacts transcendental beings. This ecstasy may be migratory-contact outside of the body. or possessive-transcendental beings enter the body.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is a fundamental force behind human achievement. It is what comes in a flash of insight, allowing us to connect the dots in intuitive ways. One of the meanings of the word is "the drawing of breath." As we say in Hapkido: If you aren't breathing, you are dead. Breath also has a long history in Northern religious thought.


In the name of Frigga, Mistress of Fensalir, spinner of clouds, may my home be a frithstead where all are welcome.

Frigg is the wife of Odin and described by Snorri as the "foremost among the goddesses." She is said to have a remarkable gift of insight, but while she may teach the technique of it does not share what she sees.

Her hall in Asgard, Fensalir, stands for Marsh Halls and she is known for the goddess of hearth and home. I have now heard from several sources (including someone who was tapped by Frigg) that the people who are hers first feel like they need to clean house. Not just pick up, but a good deep, thorough cleaning.

The book Zen and the Art of Housekeeping talks about something called CHAOS: Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. This is something that I struggle with daily. By having a clean place, we can be more comfortable with ourselves in entertaining guests, in having people over, and in performing those activities that encourage Frith within our group.

Frith, meaning "peace; freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security" is a very important concept to the Northern Tradition religions. Svartesol points out that the word has somewhat subtle connotations and is often confused with a similar term, but it basically comes down to the peaceful bonds you build within a group. She says of it that:

[I]n a frithstead you can have a violent disagreement with someone and still know at the end you will not have a knife in your back, whether literally or figuratively. Frith does not mean everyone agrees on every issue and completely loses their individuality to be absorbed by the greater whole. But it does mean working together for the greater good, and keeping good will within the process, including not betraying or otherwise deliberately harming someone within the innangeard.


In the name of Thor, Lord of Thunder, Master of the Winds of the Western World, may my strength never fail me.

Thor, a red-headed god, is widely known as a friend of mankind. He is the one who protects Asgard and Midgard from the Jotuns--the forces of the wilds, of nature, and of chaos.

He was an extremely popular deity historically, though in modern times Odin frequently gets more attention among many heathen groups. Part of this may be ahistorical, but it may also be that Odin's domains--ciphers, knowledge, and problem solving--have more relevance for many of us in the modern world. Still, Thor plays an important part in protecting a space and--along with his wife Sif--helping make a place sacred.

Protecting others requires that our strengths--no matter what those may be--be there when we need them. My strengths that I use to defend others do not come down to brawn, but are bound up in my mind, my observational skills, and things along those lines. While it would be bad if my physical strength were to fail me, most of the time physical strength is the least important thing and vastly overrated.

One of the most frequent comments I make to lower belts in Hapkido is "you are using too much force."

Yet in all of these things--whether the strength is physical or mental, whether it is from bashing things with a hammer, building fortifications, getting others out of danger, or volunteering at a safe house--Thor's presence is still there.

18 June 2009

Boundaries, Part III: Speaking for the Gods

In my first essay on Boundaries I talked about the emotional boundaries between people. My second essay on Boundaries talked about how to react when someone comes up to you claiming to have a message from a deity, or even your personal deity.

I had intended, in the third essay, to talk about the boundaries between you and the gods, as touched on by Piper in her essay on Service, but realized that first I needed to write about the boundary between you and another individual when delivering a message.

It has happened to numerous people I know on several occasions: they will be journeying, or talking to a god or spirit of some form about a (potentially unrelated) topic, and a message will come up intended for a particular individual (or group of individuals) who weren't originally the topic of discussion.

These messages may range from benign to severe in their implications, and there may be a variety of reasons a third party may be chosen to deliver the message. Sometimes, that third party may not even be aware that they delivered a message or what its contents were. The reasons and forces involved may not always be clear, but there are always reasons for it.

On the other hand, it is very easy when doing this to allow one's own perceptions to interfere, to cast individual desires inadvertently as messages from the gods, or to otherwise allow the filter of your mind to interfere with your own signal on this matter. No matter how certain one is, there is always a chance--no matter how small--that they are wrong.

There are also problems in interpretation. Several people I work with have received messages either directly or through an intermediary where the giving of the message was more important than that they follow the message's contents. Further, the message may take a meaning to the listener that the speaker is not aware of.

It is also very easy to take a message to the effect of "If you feel that X should do Y, why don't you tell them that yourself?" and translate it to "Odin said to tell you that you should do Y."

Knowing exactly what is going on with such a message is nontrivial even if you are 100% certain of it's origins and content. Let alone if you can't be.

Telling the difference between a message from the gods and your own subconscious is nontrivial, and while mindfulness is tremendously helpful in this discernment, it is not completely perfect. Even if the gods are completely objective entities, their representation within my own mind will never be. This means that while I may transmit a message believing it is from the gods, it cannot be my responsibility to ensure that the contents of the message are followed.

These are healthy boundaries. After having delivered the message, they get to check on it. Their conversation with the deities may go any one of a number of directions that you are not privy to and not responsible for. If they choose not to check or not to follow the advice, or choose not to tell you what they discovered, it is not your responsibility to make sure that they do or to remind them in any way.

Besides, if the deity in question really wants the message delivered, most are capable of delivering through some other channel if confirmation is needed.

I will talk more about this topic when I discuss boundaries between Spirit Workers and gods.

Further Reading