Archives For neo-shamanism

Modern shaman and best-selling author S. Kelley Harrell’s new book, “Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism,” out May 30 from Soul Rocks Books, is a light-hearted and informative handbook introducing shamanism to today’s young adults and beginning seekers. Author and journalist Beth Winegarner’s latest book, “The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in The Crossfire and Why Teens Are Taking Them Back,” addresses how certain interests — including alternative spiritualities like shamanism, neopaganism and others — have been unfairly blamed for teen violence. Kelley and Beth got together for a chat about alternative faiths, cultural misperceptions and the importance of trusting youth as they find their own paths.

Teen_ShamanismBeth: I know practitioners within Santeria and Palo Mayombe who say that those paths are gaining in popularity among teens. Are you seeing anything similar with shamanism? Do you think more teens are feeling the call? Why does this book make sense at this particular time?

Kelley: I do see this is the case with modern shamanism. It makes sense to put this book out now because so many young people aren’t satisfied with the status quo of religious paths, lifestyles, gender issues, philosophies, and even career concerns, in general. Their processes and options are very different, even from when we were that age. There are so many conflicting messages in media, that having a supportive, yet, disciplined way to examine the unseen and engage with it, connect it back to mundane life, is very grounding.  Young people are looking for ways to bring personal meaning more into everything they do. That’s what rebellion is about. Expressing that need in a compassionately supported context ultimately benefits us all.

A key thing I see that’s different about young people, now, compared to older generations, is a lack of fear, which manifests in a couple of important ways. First, they aren’t afraid of intuitive or even supernatural experiences. They express being a great deal more capable to accept them for what they are. Even when they don’t have an understanding of what those experiences are, they don’t run from them. There’s a greater willingness to just accept that life is bigger without having to define that what means. Likewise, teens, today, aren’t afraid to diverge from their elders’ philosophies and viewpoints. While they may not wave that difference around, they recognize that they approach life differently, and seem more able to express compassion for difference, period. It’s when they are not shown compassion for the difference that shadow becomes a factor.

Side note, but I’m also tired of information on paths such as shamanism coming from outside the shamanic community. The broad resources that flit through media read copied and pasted from some 1970s text book. There is a real need to see the path as alive and evolving, and in seeing it as such, a possibility for personal connection to the unseen.

Beth: I hadn’t thought about the possibility that younger generations might be more open to supernatural experiences without being scared of them. I wonder if that’s a product of growing up in a more agnostic, or even atheist society, rather than being raised in more dedicated religious households and not being so exposed to the idea that anything outside the church is scary. One of the things I noted when I was researching “The Columbine Effect” is that kids — even young kids — have a very clear idea of what they’re comfortable with and what’s too scary or out of bounds. So even if they’re less afraid of things that might make their parents or especially grandparents uncomfortable, they still show a propensity for defining boundaries for their exploration.

Those findings connect with something I noticed in “Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism.” In the beginning of the book, you say that we often don’t think of children as wise. Where do you think that idea comes from, and why is it wrong?

Kelley: I think it comes from old virtues around control and a general need to see children as creatures to be shaped, rather than allowed to unfold. That ideology hasn’t worked for myself or anyone I’ve worked with. I find so many wounds around suppressing the wisdom of childhood. What’s wrong about that is obviously that it denies the intrinsic value of the child, though it also creates a rut in which adults become stuck and don’t grow. The education system in the US is a great example of that. Instead of realizing that forcing all kids down the same curriculum the same way doesn’t work, we keep finding ways to narrow the system. It’s a pattern of, “This is how we’ve always done it, ” rather than allowing individuality and creating ways to meet needs more openly.

TCE-frontcover-med copyBeth: I think that probably leads to something else I found in my research, which is that many kids explore a pagan or other alternative path in part because they become so disillusioned with the church or even with a lack of spirituality in the household, and they crave something that helps them create meaning in their lives and maybe also validates those kinds of supernatural experiences you mentioned earlier. Whether it’s neopaganism, Thelema, or chaos magic, these inquiries can turn into meaningful and sincere spiritual paths for teens. It might start out as rebellion but it turns into something else.

That said, many assume that kids who explore a non Judeo/Christian/Islamic path are only “dabbling” or “rebelling,” that children aren’t capable of seriously following a spiritual path they weren’t raised in. But what’s interesting among shamans, even modern shamans, is that the “call” often comes in childhood, doesn’t it? What makes shamanism different in this respect?

Kelley: It does come in childhood. I think shamanism is different in this respect because we are all born animists, which is realizing that all things are innately alive. Children pretend their stuffed animals talk to them. Plants, rocks, cars — everything is a companion to be interacted with, that contributes to the child’s understanding of life. We come in wired for that experience, then as we age into a social system larger than our immediate family–becoming school-aged–we are taught to shun that perspective. We’re taught that imagining livelihood is bad and displays immaturity, possibly lower intellect, or emotional problems. In that light, the connection between judgement of mental state and the unseen starts very early in life, as well. Our natural way of sensing and engaging life is quickly redacted.

Beth: You also write about the line between shamanic experience and what we might consider schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I’ve written a great deal about youth violence being linked to paganism, Satanism, the occult, etc., when in reality we need to look more at violent kids’ mental health and state of mind. How can parents, and culture at large, get better at telling the difference between a child who is experiencing visions or trance-journeys and one who is experiencing delusions induced by illness?

Kelley: In anyone, of any age, the difference between invoking trance and delusions is control. If a young person can control the unseen experiences s/he is having, that isn’t mental illness. If s/he can change the dialogue between self and spirit guides, that isn’t delusion. Control is the key component of trance work — moving into trance at will, directing what happens within, and leaving trance when desired — these are the intended, willed choices that a shaman makes. Someone who can’t control going into trance, who feels victimized or controlled by the experiences within trance, or can’t make trance stop, is experiencing a state of being that could be considered a mental or biochemical condition.

What do you think is the cultural motivation to assign ‘spiritual’ deviation to a youth’s errant behaviour , rather than explore it as the result of mental illness? How does this emphasis shape our view of young people, and these spiritual paths?

Beth: Well, keep in mind that until a few hundred years ago, we didn’t have much of a concept of mental illness at all; the feelings and behaviors we now recognize as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or even neurological issues like epilepsy and migraines, used to be explained in terms of demons and possession. And I think that when it comes to kids, the same social impulses that lead us to assume children can’t be wise or capable of their own agency have also given us the idea that kids aren’t capable of being very mentally ill, that it’s something only adults suffer from seriously. For example, a lot of people don’t think teenagers are capable of being sociopaths, but in Dave Cullen’s book on the Columbine High School shootings, he makes a very strong case for the argument that Eric Harris was a sociopath.

So, if you don’t believe kids are capable of being so ill that they’re likely to commit violence, it’s easier to look for other causes when they become violent. And if they happened to be exploring an alternative spirituality at the time, it’ll seem like an obvious culprit.

Of course, one of the reasons those explanations can make sense to people is that they don’t actually understand pagans or Satanists or occultists all that well. They’re relying on what they’ve heard on TV news or horror films, which is far from accurate. It’s like what you said about relying on the wrong sources of information about shamanism earlier. Instead, people who have a teenager exploring an alternative faith need to read and talk with legitimate sources. I talk about that a lot in “The Columbine Effect,” along with the ways various minority faiths and paths are misunderstood by society at large. So, what are some of the misconceptions people have about shamans and shamanism? Are those perceptions harmful to the practice?

Kelley: This is a personal button. The overlap of New Age ideology and earth-based paths hasn’t always been a service to shamanism. Out of the New Age movement, a lot fluffy, everything-is-always-good perspectives emerged, regarding shamanism. One of those is the idea that all mentally ill people are shamans, which is erroneously based on some nebulous tenet that tribal cultures revere the mentally ill as wisdomkeepers. This is always contrasted with the derision of the mentally ill in the west, which is virtually incontestable.

Every person contributes valuable intuitive insights, regardless of mental state. Everyone. No one is elite and special in that regard. The thing is, tribal spiritual leaders know the difference between someone who is mentally ill, and someone to whom they can completely turn over the spiritual reins of the tribe.  Someone who can’t control their ecstatic experience isn’t acting in the role of shaman, and that is the difference. Being able to go into trance doesn’t make you a shaman. Having a spirit guide doesn’t make you a shaman. Just having visions or interaction with spirits doesn’t make you a shaman. Being able to bring those experiences back and shape them into some improved, manifest state for the community makes you a shaman. It’s not the technique, but the role. This has been a steep learning curve in the modern path.

How can practitioners of minority faiths bring awareness of their paths to wider society in a way that is non-threatening, yet informative? What I see is compartmentalization of faiths. Practitioners/Leaders of faiths are out there, writing, speaking, engaging in their own community. They don’t step out, often with good reason, based on maltreatment by the larger community. Rarely does wider society venture in to fact check, let alone learn more. How does that education happen?

Beth: That’s an excellent question. As you point out, many don’t want to speak out in the larger community because they could face backlash. It’s already tough to walk an unorthodox path, which means many people don’t want to go the extra mile of being an ambassador for their faith. And in some cases, as with chaos magic and Satanism, I found that there was a vocal faction who decidedly didn’t want to work toward more societal acceptance. They enjoyed being seen as evil and scary by outsiders to their faith and weren’t interested in anyone accepting and tolerating them.

Fortunately, I think there are at least a few out there — writers, journalists and people who are willing to make themselves available to the press as sources — who are helping bridge the gap between spiritual communities who maybe don’t want to be their own ambassadors, and a culture who otherwise wouldn’t make the effort. Sometimes, this can unfortunately come across as one of those “Gosh, isn’t this weird/fascinating/cool” feature stories, but not always. For example, when the so-called “Craigslist killer,” Miranda Barbour, claimed she belonged to a Satanic cult, both the Satanic Church and the Satanic Temple — the ones who are designing the Oklahoma monument — were quick to talk with major news outlets and say, “This woman has nothing to do with us and we don’t kill people.” That’s exactly what we need more of, and it’s great that the Church of Satan Peter Gilmore, who comes across as a calm, diplomatic and sensible representative for a church that still has many of negative stereotypes to dispel. With time, more groups are learning that a spokesperson like Gilmore is a real asset, and I think that will help a lot.

Learn more about Kelley’s work and writing at Soul Intent Arts.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Margaret Mahy (Photo: David Hallett)

Margaret Mahy (Photo: David Hallett)

That’s it for now, have a great day! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

I’m out of town today, attending a doctor’s appointment in Ashland, Oregon, so I don’t have the time to do my usual exploration and analysis of news of interest to the Pagan community. Instead, I’d like to offer some links from across the Pagan media world that have drawn my attention. So enjoy, I’m hoping to hit the Oregon vortex on my way home!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day, I’ll be back tomorrow.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The blogosphere is abuzz over the news that two people died, and several more sickened at a retreat held by New Age huckster, “Secret” booster, and two-time Oprah guest James Arthur Ray. The deaths occurred as a result of the careless use of a large plastic “sweat lodge” that held 64 people at the time of the incident (you can hear the 911 calls, here), and was the culmination of  a 9695.00-per-head “spiritual warrior” workshop.

In all, 21 of the 64 people crowded inside the sweat lodge Thursday evening received medical care at hospitals and a fire station. Four remained hospitalized Friday evening – one in critical condition and the others in fair condition … Among those sickened were a middle-aged man and a woman who were unconscious, according to a 911 call, and a third person who was found not breathing. “It’s not something you’d normally see at one of the resorts there, and it’s unfortunate regardless of the cause,” D’Evelyn said. Investigators were working to determine whether criminal actions might have been a factor in the incident, D’Evelyn said. The Angel Valley Retreat Center sits on 70 acres nestled in a scrub forest just outside Sedona, a resort town 115 miles north of Phoenix that draws many in the New Age spiritual movement. Self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray rented the facility as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that began Oct. 3 and that promised to “absolutely change your life.”

Well it certainly did change several people’s lives, two it changed rather permanently. It makes Chas Clifton wonder if you can sue your shaman, especially if you signed a lengthy liability-release form beforehand. Meanwhile, Gus diZerega and Kathryn Price NicDhana point out the dangers of this kind of ignorant appropriation.

“The newage, pyramid-scheming, scam artist crammed 21 people into a plastic sweatlodge. In the hot, wet dark with the man who had no idea how to lead an Indian ceremony, and no connection to any culture that could have taught him how (or told him this was a really bad idea), they sweated for two hours… till two were dead, three were unconscious, and everyone else went to the hospital.  Hazmat teams and crime scene tape now surround the site. Native American ceremonial people from the area are saying that, by imitating a ceremony he was not trained to perform, this newage plastic shaman killed these people. I agree. They used materials in this fake ceremony that should not be used, they used things that were physically and spiritually dangerous. They payed $9,000 for a sad death at the hands of a greedy con man.”

The Beyond Growth blog, a longtime critic of James Ray, points out that these “large group awareness trainings” often push people past their safe limits through peer pressure and the fear of failure.

“I know several people who have gone to the hospital for various reasons after “large group awareness trainings” such as Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event.” … It’s time we brought these gurus to justice and demanded that personal change workshops be safe for all. When something goes wrong in such a seminar due to it being overly intense and dangerous, usually the victims are blamed for “not taking 100% responsibility,” thus dodging the responsibility of the seminar leaders. Personally, I think we should hold James Arthur Ray 100% personally responsible for the death of these two seminar participants, up to and including going to jail. Seminar leaders are responsible for making their workshops both effective and safe for all.”

Beyond Growth’s post also has a screen-shot of Ray’s creepy death-haunted Twitter posts made before and during the event, since deleted after the sweat-lodge debacle. I highly recommend reading his follow-up post “The Dark Side of The Secret” for more insight.

This mixture of cultural appropriation, magical thinking, New Age brainwashing, and a success at all costs mentality ends up creating unsafe environments for those merely looking to improve themselves. I’m not sure his liability release forms will protect Ray (not to mention Michael and Amayra Hamilton, who hosted the event) from the coming storm of inquiries, litigation, and increased scrutiny that are sure to follow. Lets hope this tragedy opens the eyes of those gulled by the Secret-peddlers and Plastic Shamans interested only in improving their bank-accounts, not your life.

You have to wonder if Slate.com is getting somewhat hard-pressed to find subject matter and writers for their regular “Faith-Based” section. How else to explain them getting journalist Robert Wright, author of several game theory/evolutionary psychology-boosting books, including his recent “The Evolution of God”, to write about Neo-Shamanism? Wright, who seems to be a proponent of the outmoded and inaccurate idea that monotheism is a more evolved form of belief than polytheism (Publishers Weekly points out that he uses a “naive and antiquated approach to the sociology and anthropology of religion”), is so eager to debunk popular myths about shamans that he makes some rather sloppy assertions right out of the gate.

“The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles.”

While there is certainly some significant overlap between modern Paganism and Neo-Shamanism, the latter isn’t a “subset” of the former. Nor is modern Paganism a subset of New Age spirituality. These are all distinct religious/social movements with different starting points, ideologies, and goals. Wright is confusing the overlap of practitioners and subcultures (and the tendency of some academics to lump them together for the sake of convenience) with some sort of neat nesting-dolls order of New Religious Movements. Meanwhile, before Wright talks about all the indigenous shamans who were fakes and confidence men, he wants us to know that he isn’t trying to offend.

“But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it’s great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don’t doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a “holistic vision” who selflessly sought to share that vision.”

So big of him, don’t you think? Despite admitting that some shamans may have indeed been honorable and wise, he still wants to point out that some were not. As if human nature hasn’t taught us that some people, no matter how exhaulted their status, can still take part in some very real moral failings and abuse their power. In fact, Wright pretty much admits that there may be some real value to various shamanic ideas and practices (he “praises” them by comparing their worldview to followers of early Abrahamic religions), he just wanted us to take off our rose-colored (shamanic) glasses.

“I’m for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don’t be under the illusion that you’re helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse.”

So to sum up, Neo-Shamanic adherents (who are a subset of Pagans, who are a subset of New Agers) need to remember that some indigenous shamans were fakers and frauds, but really, there is some  (early Abrahamic-esque) wisdom and good stuff to be found there. Heck, “ordinary consciousness could use some transcending”! So I guess now that the Neo-Shamans (not to mention the traditional indigenous shamans) have been taken down a peg by Wright, those crazy diamonds can all shine on. I have to wonder, was there really a point to this article? Did Slate.com actually pay him to just ramble on about animal bladders full of blood and how often shamans got lucky? Of all the topics he could cover, why was Robert Wright writing about Neo-Shamanism?

Looks like there may be some trouble in the shamanic community. Simon Buxton, author of the book “The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters” is being accused of fabrication and having the book ghost-written. This might not be a big deal if it was from a disgruntled fan, but the accusations are (allegedly) coming from his former writing partner and fellow shaman Ross Heaven. Heaven, author of “Vodou Shaman: The Haitian Way of Healing and Power” (more on that in a moment) has posted (or allegedly posted) a review claiming he wrote most of the book.

“I notice some questions here from reviewers about whether this book is a true story or not. Since I actually (ghost)-wrote most of it for Buxton, allow me to answer the question and advise potential purchasers categorically that if you choose to buy this book, you will purchasing a work of dramatic fiction which, furthermore, was largely unwritten by Buxton himself. Buxton’s major contributions to the book as I recall them, in fact, were his accounts of how to keep bees and if that is what interests you then you should enjoy this book. Other parts of the story, however…came directly from my imagination…I am disappointed, therefore, to see Buxton presenting this book as a work of his own and, moreover, describing it as a non-fiction book of his personal shamanic experiences. Had Buxton pitched this as a fantasy novel or a work of shamanic fiction, it wouldn’t have made a bad read. Had he presented it as a semi-fictional account which included the dramatic embellishments of a ghost-writer or even a ‘collaborator’, it would be accurate. But he did neither.”

Buxton’s book, which won an award from Ash? Journal and the praises of pop-star Tori Amos is the current heavyweight on the neo-shamanic scene. It should be interesting to see how Heaven’s allegations play out. Depending on the ghost-writing deal (if that is indeed the case) Heaven may be prohibited from legal action regarding the work, and there is always the possiblity that this is a case of sour grapes (or bitter honey if you prefer) since he isn’t pulling in a percentage of sales and isn’t credited on the book.

Heaven himself isn’t free from controversy however, It seems there is an ongoing dispute between Heaven and Mambo Racine an American convert to Haitian Vodou who makes money performing initiations in Haiti for curious seekers (including Heaven at one point). Racine posts the following in the review page of his “Vodou Shaman” Amazon page.

“Helllo! I am Mambo Racine Sans Bout, the same Mambo Racine about whom Ross Heaven has so many nice things to say in his book, “Vodou Shaman”. It is with some regret that I must warn the prospective reader that most of what is in this book never actually happened – Ross is willing to say anything for a buck, apparently. He never let me see what he was writing until the book was published, and I never imagined he would make up so many stories! Now that I have refused to support his activities he is very angry with me, but the fact remains that this book is 99% BUNK.”

Another reviewer named “AE” on the page calls Racine a charlatan and re-posts a scathing letter from Heaven about Racine.

“Kathy [Mambo Racine] has been spouting for 2 years, without proof, that I revealed djevo secrets in my book, Vodou Shaman. And for 2 years I’ve been saying the opposite and asking for evidence. None has ever arrived…what happens in spambo’s djevo (all these “great and mystical blessings of Guinea” that spambo keeps spouting about), is a big fat boring zero. What you WON’T get are the proper passwords (and, yes, there are more than one), be shown how to call or control spirits, taught any liturgy (or why Vodou is the oldest religion, according to spamflaps), prayers, or songs, shown any magic, the correct use of the asson (or passwords for it) – or, in fact, receive anything of use or value – and no further teachings will follow (I’ve received nothing else from spambo – apart from BS – in the 5 years since I initiated with her). What you will do is lie on a dirt floor, bored, for the best part of a week and maybe if youre un/lucky (depending on your perspective) spambo may drop by a few times if she’s not too stoned to bore you still further with BS. If you’ve got a spare $2,500 lying around I cant think of a better way to waste it.”

Strong stuff. There are two ways you could look at this. Either Ross Heaven is a man of integrity who keeps getting mixed up with charlatans and con-men, or, he is a canny opportunist stirring up controversy to inflate his own status. Considering how little I know of these various controversies I’ll refrain from making any final judgements in the matter. Here you thought our Witch-Wars were bad!