23 March 2009

The Importance of Associations

One of the first things that one comes across when researching deities and mystical paths are various associations. What color is used for this goddess? What elements? What symbols, runes, and astrological signs represent her? Which numbers? Can she be tied into the Tree of Life?

When I first started learning the elements, some of the first questions asked were of the form What types of rocks do you associate with air?

It can get truly baffling and in many respects is wholly ahistorical in nature from our perspective as Norse Occultists--associations were likely made, but probably not in the way they are being made today. There is a history of associations being made in this way which tracks alongside occultist groups such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, and we can see table after table of associations in the work of their members, many of which we still use today for our own work.

Unfortunately, associations--while everywhere--have been increasingly losing their relevance and meaning to many practitioners. We run into the immediate danger of treating a Deity as merely a set of associations and abstractions: Call Freyja for your love problems! Trouble with leadership? Go see Zeus! Need victory in your upcoming business meeting? Odin's your man! Numerous books, guides, and tables seem to feel that the best way to summarize Odin is to give him a neatly compartmentalized domain, a color, and an astrological association.

Beyond being disrespectful, this superficial trap demonstrates a lack of proper education and training in the mystical arts.

Read the rest of this essay over at Weaving Wyrd.

20 March 2009

Spiritual Direction

One of the things that Christian and Jewish traditions have that many Neopagan traditions do not is a concept of "spiritual counseling" or "spiritual direction" associated to clergy. This is a form of clerical counseling to help people deepen their own spirituality, deal with spiritual issues, and deepen their relationship with the Divine.

This is not counseling or psychotherapy, but borrows concepts from each. It is not necessarily mystical or shamanic in nature, though it may have those elements to it. While we may find such useful as part of the process, things like journeying, bloodwalking, divination, or any such tools serve is an auxiliary function to the far more important process of helping someone get closer to the Divine and live more fulfilled lives.

In a sense, this is part of what Spirit Work is all about, to quote Harner's The Way of the Shaman:

The shaman shows his patients that they are not emotionally and spiritually alone in their struggles against illness and death. The shaman shares his special powers and convinces patients, on a deep level of consciousness, that another human is willing to offer up his own self to help them.

For corporeal clients our job runs significantly deeper than helping them get rid of a blood debt, keep the faeries out of their house, or deal with the chitinous "pet" that has attached itself to a young woman's spine. In short, to paraphrase Bruce Schneier on security: spiritual direction is a process, not a product. It is not any one thing that we can do and then the obligation ends, but an ongoing effort that one makes in concert with individuals who are seeking meaning in their life. To quote Nathaniel Branden:

We humans have a need to feel we understand the world in which we live. We have a need to make sense out of our experience. We have a need for some intelligible portrait of who we are as human beings and what our lives are or should be about. In short, we have a need for a philosophical vision of reality. [...] But the need for answers persists. The need for values by which to guide our lives remains unabated. The hunger for intelligibility is as strong as it ever was. The world around us is more and more confusing, more and more frightening; the need to understand it cries out in anguish.

Helping others with this part of this process is a component of spiritual direction. Helping others finding meaning in their lives: not through dogma, not through platitudes, but within themselves and to--as Henri Nouwen discusses--use our own wounded nature to help others.

I am new on this path and I would be lying if I said I had even the most rudimentary questions, let alone answers, on how to begin this process. I have only minimal and somewhat scattered training in this, and am not even entirely sure what all goes into it, but it is a need that I see in people all around me.

Maybe one day, I will be able to help someone with it.

Further Reading

15 March 2009

The Word Should

One of the constant struggles that we face in our lives as humans--let alone spirit workers--is the challenging hurdle of the word should.

There are a thousand things in any given moment that one should be doing. I should be cleaning, I should be doing laundry, I should be exercising more, I should be researching the stock market, I should be practicing hapkido, playing a game of Go, or studying for an exam, or reading the sagas, or reading at all, or founding an LLP, or writing software, practicing energy work, or working harder at my job.

It is true, I should be doing all of these things, and a thousand other things besides. I should be doing a lot of things, and at any given moment those shoulds can come around to bite me, with two predictable consequences:

  • I cannot focus on an activity that I am working on, for knowledge of what I should be doing

  • Given multiple possibilities in a given moment, I can become paralyzed and fall into loops.

This advice has shown up in a variety of formats through the years, and it basically comes down to this: live in the moment. If you are going to goof off today, goof off. If you are going to work, then get things done. If you have set your mind to do something, then do it and don't keep putting it off.

Should is not a very useful word. It implies a judgement of myself that I have no reason to make, it implies outside expectations of me which are not necessarily there, and it implies goals in my life that I do not necessarily have.

Rather than saying I should do something, it is much more useful to say what I will do as distinct from what I am doing. Anything that I will do later can wait until what I am doing is finished. There is no sense worrying about it. By the same token, if I need to do something, then there is no sense postponing it.

13 March 2009

Lore and UPG

One of the things that I like about Ásatrú is that it accepts proudly the label "the religion with homework." Practitioners are expected to research and read everything from badly translated poems to sagas to commentaries by researchers on the field. In Wicca we would often see people come along who basically "became Wiccan overnight": they read one book and decided they were Wiccan. The problem with this is that "Wicca is a religion. It is not a club or an organization."

Read the rest of this article on Weaving Wyrd.

11 March 2009

Going Back to the Basics

In all martial arts--and indeed just about every skill--there is a continual emphasis "going back to the basics." My Hapkido instructor--an 8 dan in Tae Kwon Do and an 8 dan in Hapkido--says that there are still things in his first Forms that he is still working on. In rapier fighting, Hapkido, and tantojutsu we drill footwork to death, because everything else comes from it and "sloppy stances make sloppy technique."

In Lessons of the Fundamentals of Go Kageyama repeatedly emphasizes the importance of going back to the basics in all things: from Go to Baseball to Cooking, saying of Go that:

When a beginner learns the game, the first things he should learn are the fundamental skills. When he advances to the point where he begins to think of himself as a strong player, the thing he needs to do to become even stronger is to go back and study the fundamentals once more.

No matter how good you are or how good you think you are, it is important to go back and revisit the basics. Yet it is tempting to say "I know that" or to gloss over the basics of a craft that we think we are good at, yet this is a grave mistake, as we like to say in Hapkido: "To consider yourself as knowledgeable is to commit an error." Once I get to the point where I believe myself as knowledgeable, I know something has gone horribly wrong, since I should be realizing how much more there is to learn--not praising myself for how much I think I know.

Occultism has a lot of the characteristics of a martial art. It has a nearly infinite progression, and many of the techniques simply cannot be mastered without repetition and practice. Some of the techniques can cause real harm to the practitioner, the client, or someone else and some are extremely difficult to learn. It is important to build those basic foundations before continuing, to quote Diana Paxson in Trance-Portation:

Even, or especially, if you already have a given skill, you must practice it regularly--several times a week--for about a month, or until you feel ready to go on. Those with more experience may actually find some of the early lessons harder, as they may have old habits to unlearn. However, you will find that these skills, once mastered, are useful in themselves and may provide a foundation that can support the practice of more esoteric skills like oracular and possessory work.

Yet many times people like to treat occultism as if it had no learning curve. As if one can simply spend a few minutes, read a book or two, and suddenly be an expert. Many others--some of whom actually are quite talented--have let their success go to their heads in whatever role they fill. As a result, they gloss over the basics in their own practice, having lost sight of their importance. As a result, they stop advancing and stop improving.

Breaking it Down

Having established that basics are important, what are the basics? Many of these vary by tradition, I think for most occultist practices the following makes a good starting point:

  • Mindfulness practice
  • Meditation, prayer, and/or devotional work.
  • Grounding, Centering, Shielding

We can probably expand from there, but I throw those three categories of practice into "things you can't go wrong with," that anyone can learn and most people could benefit from knowing.

Mindfulness, as discussed previously helps us with the art of living consciously, of making each day count. The exact mechanism we use for the practice (I like mindfulness through breathing, but each individual may have different things that work better for them) can vary, but the essence of it remains the same: practice paying attention to something, practice seeing the world without preconceptions.

Meditation and prayer have a host of benefits for self-reflection and training the mind, along with getting us closer to the gods.

Just about every introductory book on some form of Occultism starts with Grounding, Centering, and Shielding in some form or another. Pathwalker's Guide starts out with a few basics in this area, Trance-Portation does as well. My Celtic Trad teachers repeatedly drilled into me "practice grounding, practice centering, practice shielding. If you do nothing else, practice those three." Everything else derives from them in some way, and they are the techniques that are most useful in our day-to-day lives.

Walking into a stressful meeting? Ground, Center, Shield.
Feeling overwhelmed at work? Ground, Center, Shield.
Roommate's depression rubbing off on you? Ground, Center, Shield.
Feeling anxious about tomorrow? Ground, Center, Shield.


It isn't a panacea by any means, but it is a good first step and it can't hurt. It is also fundamental to future practice, from thaumaturgy to theurgic magic, from journeying to blood walking, from Kabbalah to Shamanism, they all include some variation of grounding, centering, and shielding.

In terms of good examples of how training the basics can work, Trance-Portation does a great job of breaking down journeying into it's fundamental basics which can be practiced again and again. I hope to see more books like it in the future.

Further Reading

10 March 2009

The Shaman and the Spirit Worker

In Raven Kaldera's excellent essay Classic Shamanism And Core Shamanism: Basic Differences he defines the difference between Core Shamanism, based on Harner's Way of the Shaman and other work, and what he terms "Classical Shamanism," which represents people who have been wholly claimed and taken by the spirits.

I am not a "Classical Shaman": the gods have not claimed me to that degree and I have not undergone shamanic sickness (at least not yet to the degree discussed), but I also find I have substantial differences with "Core Shamans." As Lupa of Therioshamanism recently stated:

I look at where my path diverges significantly from these two ends of the spectrum. I do experience journeying as being riskier than what a lot of core shamans describe. However, I don’t do the complete submission to the spirits that I’ve seen on the other end. I do my best to not take the spirits for granted, but I also maintain autonomy–as in D/s, I have hard limits to my vulnerability, and ways to enforce them. And that is what has worked well for me, even before I began working with shamanism.

This does not seem to be a binary (or a trinary) system. Some people lean closer to Core Shamanism, others seem to fall closer to Classical Shamanism. Some people who have not been fully claimed as "Shamans" still end up with "Shaman Sickness Light," and taboos can be binding and cause illness. I am not the equivalent of a brain surgeon in performing work for clients (far far far from it), but there are some things in shamanic practice that I believe can be widely learned by seekers who are dedicated and respectful, and that this is one of many paths of service to the gods. Basically landing between "teach anyone who is interested" and to teach spirit work to those "staring down the barrel of that divine cannon." That some things take months or years to learn, let alone master and have potentially severe repercussions (e.g., bloodwalking), and other things the rough basics of can be taught relatively quickly and safely and that a lot of people can benefit from (e.g., grounding), with a lot in-between.

I have to a greater or lesser extent chosen this path, and for a while I think I could have walked away without significant trouble and served in some other way, perhaps not even conscious of my role or task. Now I would have more trouble doing that, and later I might have more trouble still. I am mostly aligned to one tradition, but have debts and associations in several different traditions and have been told to take knowledge wherever I can find it.

I am finding a variety of people in this position. Not quite Core, not quite Classical, but borrowing elements from both. Feeling that Core Shamanism lack of emphasis on safety is worrying at best, that Harner's statement that journeying is safer than dreaming is dangerous (I've been attacked by things that "followed me home" before, and had visible claw marks on my astral body from the encounter), and finding themselves working mostly or entirely in a cultural context, while still not being "tapped" and called to be classical shamans.

I like the term "Spirit Worker," since I think it covers all three of these groups. We're all spirit workers, regardless of whether we are working with landwights, animal spirits, gods of various traditions, or "simply" journeying through the Nine Worlds. It applies to both shamans and shamanic practitioners of various sorts who--for all of our differences--have a lot in common.

One thing I am certain on is that all three groups need to be talking to one another and opening up respectful dialogues of communication. We should be talking about our experiences, about safety, about techniques, and about what each of us can bring to the table. I am also sure that no one's path is "better" and that I make a pretty poor arbitrator over other people's experiences and UPG. Quoting Raven Kaldera in his essay Shamanism and Neo-Shamanism: The Practical Divide:

We need to think about who our allies are, and how many of them we can collect. After all, that’s a very shamanic way of thinking: can I make an ally of that plant? That animal spirit? That piece of woods? That stone? That ancestor? That deity? Unlike the stark simplicity of monotheism, tribal shamans were judged by their having a lot of spirits, not just one or a handful. We can think in the same way for human allies.

What would it take to ally to other communities, even if there are some things we don’t see eye to eye on? Neo-shamanic practitioners? Neo-Pagans? Wiccans? Reconstructionists? Mystical Christians and Jews? New Age folk? Reiki people? Ecologists? Body modification spiritualists? One could spread the net even wider.

Further Reading

05 March 2009

Living Life in Circles

Recently I was reminded of this beautiful comic from XKCD. In the main text it reads:

The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breathtaking, and I'm sitting here refreshing my inbox. We live trapped in loops, reliving a few days over and over, and we envision only a handful of paths laid out ahead of us. We see the same things each day, we respond the same way, we think the same thoughts, each day a slight variation on the last, every moment smoothly following the gentle curves of societal norms. We act like if we just get through today, tomorrow our dreams will come back to us.

Like the stick figure in the comic, I don't have all of the answers here: "I don't know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become." I also don't know if the path I am on will ever actually get me there. I find myself trapped in the same loops as the rest of the world. When I get out of that mold, it follows similar routes to those I have followed before and I make slow progress on my projects.

Part of the challenge with unemployment is that it is easy to fall into a rut where you have all the time in the world and no time at all. Where you blink and go 'where did my day (week) go?" despite lacking firm commitments. The problem becomes exacerbated when we don't find a way to get out of the house or have some other form of changing external stimulus with which to index ourselves off of.

Yet at the same time it seems like a huge part of the struggle to become a spirit worker, priest, or monastic involves... repetition. Waking up at the same time to do a similar set of devotional rites. The process of kaizen involves making gradual changes in your actions over time by consciously and regularly repeating them, bringing them into your standard routine.

The difference is that one is conscious and the other is unconscious. I refresh my inbox generally because I am avoiding or postponing something I have to do: not because I actually want to see if I have mail. This can continue all day, and then suddenly you run into a situation where your day has vanished into "things I meant to have done." Your entire life can vanish this way, without ever meaning it to. In the Guy Lombardo song "Enjoy Yourself," we see the lyrics:

You're gonna take that ocean trip, no matter, come what may
You've got your reservations made, but you just can't get away
Next year for sure, you'll see the world, you'll really get around
But how far can you travel when you're six feet underground?

We want to think that we can just blink out today, then tomorrow, or the next, or the next, but "soon" I will find the time. then it never happens and we find ourselves years later having no idea how we got here. Suddenly it is "later than you think" in either the day or your life, and everything has gone by in a flash.

There are two aspects here that must be considered.

The first is that we have generally progressed farther than we think we have, but not necessarily in the ways we expected or know to look for.

The second is that, by falling into these patterns, we miss fantastic opportunities to explore life and the world around us, to advance in the things we claim we want to advance in, and to advance in areas of self development that we had scarcely even considered.

This is the key meaning behind Socrates's statement in Plato's Apology 38a, where he says that:

For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living - that you are still less likely to believe.

Another translation of this passage is the origin of the famous quote "an unexamined life is not worth living" and it is clear from context that exactly this sort of thing is meant. Acting without knowledge of why we act, repetition without meaning, unconscious actions that dictate the flow of our existence.

This doesn't mean that we can't "goof off," but as Bear Heart indicates in The Wind is My Mother, we should do so consciously. If you want to goof off today, then have a good time and goof off with no regrets. Go play video games, turn the cell phone off and go hiking, read a book, play with your kids or your dog, or just sit by a creek and stare into space. Enjoy yourself.

Similarly, if you want to be productive today, then the goal is to be productive, again without regret.

To bring things back to where we started, this is where daily devotional rites, monastic practice, etc come into play. It isn't that the repetition itself is bad. The repetition helps train the body and the mind and can be used to help us become more aware of ourselves. The act of practicing a Form/Kata regularly trains the muscles and the mind, it can reveal new things about our own body, the form, and the martial art itself.

The problem is in mindless repetition. Set out your goals and accomplish them, and that accomplishment may require training, and it may require repetition. If you are a spirit worker or if you follow a particular religious path (even one you are carving yourself), it almost certainly will. Whatever it is you need to be doing, refreshing one's inbox is decidedly not on the menu.

The same is true of social norms and taboos. What if we, as advised in another XKCD comic, "Do things without always knowing how they'll turn out." Examine our beliefs, leaving nothing as beyond question. Ask ourselves what makes an older practice worth emulating in a modern context, and question those same societal norms and taboos that we follow every day. Why are there men and women's bathrooms? Why can't men wear dresses? Why can't you romantically love more than one person at once?

Why shouldn't you walk down the street singing?

This doesn't mean that we should violate social norms for the sake of violating those norms, or that everyone should suddenly become polyamorous. Sometimes those norms are functional, or there are perfectly good reasons a given individual might choose to act in a certain manner, or why social norms are the way that they are. The problem is, again, with mindlessly following them without attempting to understand them or--worse--even noticing them. Some people get extremely defensive of them, because "this is just what you do," never once attempting to understand why things are the way they are.

Getting there from here

Okay, so the statements are easy enough, how does one actually accomplish this?

The short answer is that, like the stick figures in XKCD, I don't know. The longer answer is that I have an idea. Like with many things, this is a "process not a product." There's not really a sense of "UR DOIN IT WRONG," so much as "this is a long path up the mountain, and I may be required to backtrack along the way." The goal is forward progress, not necessarily actually reaching the top.

So, recognizing that I am not there, how can I start to make forward progress? To quote Nathaniel Branden in his essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

The great, glaring gap in just about all ethical systems of which I have knowledge, even when many of the particular values and virtues they advocate may be laudable, is the absence of a technology to assist people in getting there, an effective means for acquiring these values and virtues, a realistic path people can follow. That is the great missing step in most religions and philosophies. And this is where psychology comes in: One of the tasks of psychology is to provide a technology for facilitating the process of becoming a rational, moral human being.

While he was speaking specifically to ethical systems, his statement applies just as well in our current dilemma: How to become what we want to be. Now that we know the goal state, psychology is a natural place to look to figure out where we want to go.

As humans, two of the natural tools in this area that you almost can't go wrong with are kaizen and mindfulness. There are other tools (one category of which I'll talk more about briefly later), but at least from what I've seen it never hurts to start here. The other technique that is available to us as occultists is transformative magic, for which I'll mostly leave off with a book reference to Runes for Transformation by Kaedrich Olsen.


Mindfulness is, as Elizabeth Vongvisith put it, "the art of paying attention." It is approaching life, the universe, and everything without assumptions or preconceptions, without letting your body or your mind go fully on autopilot. One of the early mindfulness meditations that is widely recommended is simply noticing your breath. The inhale, the exhale, what do each feel like? What muscles move? What triggers it?

We needn't take this to the level of Sir Francis Galton, who Dion Fortune reports in Psychic Self Defense, saying that he" experimented with mental control of respiration, and having obtained it, found that the automatic function had fallen into abeyance, and he had to spend three anxious days breathing by will power and voluntary attention until the automatic function was re-established."

Control of these processes isn't really the goal, but rather, observation. In the book Emotional Alchemy, which combines mindfulness with schema therapy, one of the early meditations involves a glass of a flavored drink. What makes you reach for it to take a sip? Notice the anticipation as you bring it to your mouth, the saliva response, how the glass feels in terms of temperature, condensation, and texture. What does it look like? How does it look as you tilt the glass?

The important thing is noticing these things, things we normally take for granted. As I sit here typing this I consumed an italian soda. I remember the taste, the texture, and so on for the period after I first got it. I think I barely tasted it after the first few sips.


Kaizen (改善, literally "improvement") is a word that gets abused by business consultants, but which has real, practical application and meaning. According to Wikipedia, kaizen is a "Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement throughout all aspects of life." It is the process of gradually making improvements to yourself.

For example, let's say that you want to change 10 things about yourself. Space them out over a week or a month, gradually adopting one at a time. That way, if you have trouble with one, you have still adopted all of the others leading up to that point. If you try and adopt all ten, not only are you less likely to succeed (it is easier to succeed at one thing at a time than ten), but regression on any one area may lead to regression in all of the other areas.

Rather than berating oneself for behaving a particular way, it is much more constructive to break down why one is that way and, knowing that, establishing a plan to move forward.

Generally, however, it is not enough to simply say "I will do these things this week, and those things next week," we need something more robust. This is where psychology comes into play in a big way: helping us achieve what we want to become.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

What will work for any given individual is up for debate, but one of the broader approaches I like are cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), and specifically mindfulness-based cognitive therapies (MBCT). While full psychotherapy generally involves a psychotherapist, there are tools here that we can look at and adopt in our daily lives. I'm not going to go too in-depth here, since I am far from an expert and most of this deserves more than the small space I can give it here.

The core of MCBT is not to try and push the negative thoughts and emotions out of the way, but to notice them and accept them without judgement. Just like with physical reflexes, we can develop emotional "reflex actions" called schemata that the events around us can trigger. These schemata form a sort of "mental short-cut," and most people tend to build a variety of such shortcuts into their lives going back to childhood. The first step in this process is in determining what these patterns are and understanding them, not trying to sweep them aside or berating ourselves for having them.

One of the areas within this is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which purposes that the core to many of these problems comes down to the acronym FEAR:

  • Fusion with your thoughts
  • Evaluation of experience
  • Avoidance of your experience
  • Reason giving for your behavior

Essentially: Acting without being mindful, subconsciously finding a way to "protect yourself from it" through avoidance, and then back-rationalizing how you acted or are acting. It then advises us to ACT:

  • Accept your reactions and be present
  • Choose a valued direction
  • Take action

There is more to it, of course, but this is fundamentally where much of this starts. Determine and accept where you are, be present, and make a decision to be something else.

This is definitely a "process" and not a "product." You cannot "fail at mindfulness" in the general case, but only stumble along the way and evaluate in retrospect. "Was I being mindful? What can I do in the future to be more mindful?" Rather than berate ourselves for being something we're not, we look instead to change ourselves to what we want to be.

Further Reading