BOULDER, CO – Casey McCarthy and Dai Kato are licensed therapists associated with the Smart Therapy Center in Boulder, Colorado. They are also both seasoned Pagan practitioners, whose backgrounds and experiences in Paganism and beyond inform their “Whole Brain-Based Approach” to their work as therapists.
McCarthy and Kato sat down with The Wild Hunt’s Jake C. Leibowitz for a wide-ranging conversation about their work, the world we live in, and, at times, the very nature of Paganism and identity. This interview has been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.
The Wild Hunt: Casey, please describe your path or tradition.
Casey McCarthy: There are three. I am a Druid with Mountain Ancestor’s Grove, ADF. That being said, I consider myself a member of Mountain Ancestor’s Grove’s specific modality and not necessarily ADF as a whole. I am also a Norse Heathen practitioner, with an emphasis on combating hate ideologies in that community. I am also a Zen practitioner with an emphasis on bushido and Koji Zen.
TWH: How did you come to be walking these paths?
CM: I was raised from birth into a tradition of consulting with social structural groups in order to impact and drive social change.
TWH: What does your daily practice look like?
CM: Service work, from being a therapist to doing on the street activism, from working with groups doing anti-hate work to helping sex trafficking victims escape their captors.
TWH: In addition to everything else, you are a professional musician. How does music factor into your spiritual work?
CM: Music is a sacred practice for me. Every time I step into the studio or onto the stage, I consider it as stepping into a holy temple. Music is in everything, from vibrational frequencies that dictate our phenomenological reality, to our own heartbeat as constant rhythm.
TWH: Dai, would you please speak about your background and describe your path?
Dai Kato: I was born in Nagoya, Japan, which was the samurai capital in the 1500s. My neighborhood is from 1609, when they rebuilt Nagoya Castle, so I’m coming from core of samurai culture, which means lay practitioners – we are samurai, we cannot be monks, so we practice Zen and Shugendo, and martial arts, and arts – you know, tea and flowers – as lay practitioners. We don’t need to be yoga teachers or Zen teachers. We kept ourselves in a lay state to practice harder. So that’s where I’m coming from. But in this lifetime, I was born in Nagoya in the 70s and moved to United States to go back to grad school in the early 2000s. Then I ended up here, and I have been in Colorado for the past fifteen years. The first four years I spent in Steamboat. Mine is a nature practice, earth-based practice.
CM: Paganism without calling it Paganism.
DK: Exactly. Just be with nature.
CM: Without having to label it because once you label it, it becomes separate from yourself.
DK: Intentionally not labeling it.
TWH: How does your path connect to both aboriginal and modern Japanese Paganism?
DK: That’s a huge kind of confusion to me from the Pagan community, to separate Japanese Paganism, American Paganism, Native American Paganism, European Paganism. That’s all a non-Pagan statement. Paganism has to be one nature, one god, with everything. There’s no separation. This is not Pagan – this is still a Judeo-Christian view, to categorize and separate: “Japanese something,” “American something,” “Canadian something,” Black, yellow, red, Jewish, that’s all separation. I don’t think that’s Pagan, should not be Pagan. I’m worried about the future of Paganism in that way.
So what makes Japanese Paganism? Again, the separation. And what is Paganism? Don’t label even that, Paganism. Don’t categorize Japanese or American, don’t categorize modern or ancient. It’s the same human activity, wherever and whenever. So that’s the thing – you think those good things existed in the past, or a good thing is coming to the future. Based on these expectations, your practice is no longer authentic sometimes. You are still living in the past or future – past regret, future anxiety. But, again, here and now, we are enlightened or authentic beings right here. This is it.
So, again, the goal of Paganism can be right here, right now. The goal of everything has to be right now, right here. So, set up your goal right here, right now – not in future, and not regretting your past.
What is aboriginal? That’s a white-made word. It’s still a white colonialist word. Who are aboriginal Europeans? Who are they? Where? Who? Don’t put yourself so higher from condescending other human beings, using aboriginal, native, Black, Latino, yellow, red, calling people by color, that’s a white f—ing activity. It’s man-made, just recently, and we can fix this. Stop separating some humans as aborigine. That’s racism. Stop it. Period. They are same human. Why do you call that? So disrespectful, no? Are you aborigine? Who is aborigine? That’s racism. Don’t internalize racism, especially as people from other cultures, mixed cultures, are suffering from whitewashing. You know, my son is half-Japanese, half-American. I don’t want whitewashing.
TWH: Casey – during initial conversations to prepare for this interview, you mentioned encountering “rabbit holes” to explore in your practice. Is this something that happens frequently?
CM: My whole life is a rabbit hole. From birth I have never known anything else. This may sound pretentious, but I assure you I am merely stating my truth. I spent most of my early life training in rabbit hole-ology, and then in my late 20s, I had an initiatory experience that included four years of intense psychosis where I was truly and absolutely mad. From my vantage point, these days I view myself as existing on the other side of the mirror. It is actually extremely unnerving. Again, not at all trying to sound pretentious, it is less like I go down rabbit holes, and more so that I am the rabbit. In Western culture, when you go down a rabbit hole it’s a reference to Alice in Wonderland. It’s like when you go down spiritual rabbit holes, like when you go deep and you end up in really weird psychedelic places, or spiritual places.
DK: So that represents the Western limitation or Western judgement – saying that going into yourself is no good. Going into the contemplative area is something bad from a Judeo-Christian perspective. As you know, very orthodox Christians prohibit contemplation, possibly to manipulate people into not thinking for themselves or trusting their own dignity, but only to trust your God on the outside, which is the church.
CM: Which is controlled by them.
DK: Exactly. It’s a brainwashing technique. English has lots of religious expressions, or value-added expressions. American culture and values have to be revised completely at this time, getting away from white imperialism or colonialism. I’m expecting the American Pagan to be a top runner, to deconstruct our, how do you say, congregations or cultish churches or groups.
There isn’t such a thing as rabbit holes; it’s a man-made cognitive idea. It’s all living in a fantasy. That’s American too. Heaven and hell, god, possibly good and bad, are cognitive functions. It doesn’t exist as is, but only in your brain. Your world is possibly on your cortex only.
CM: All of our phenomenal logical experience –
DK: The world you see only exists in your brain, and I’m seeing a different world.
TWH: What is the most recent rabbit hole you’ve encountered?
DK: The most recent rabbit hole is happening right now. It’s to try to avoid rabbit holes. Try to escape rabbit holes. It creates a whole f—ing transcendent level of idealization.
CM: Escaping the true rabbit hole by creating false rabbit holes.
TWH: Would you speak briefly about Shugendo and Jomon?
DK: Shugendo is an earth-based Buddhist practice, but in the 1850s, 150 years ago, the Japanese government Westernized their government. So as a part of this process, the new Westernized Japanese government prohibited practicing Shugendo and separated Shinto and Buddhism. Separation started, which is the Western style, and used Shinto and Buddhism, the same as the Christian church, to control people – you know, using religious buildings as city-registration centers, like for your birth certificate and those things. So they start manipulating these religions to control people after Westernization. This is the Western Judeo-Christian-style – the church is the center. It’s not nature is the center. Ego is the center, not nature. So that’s the good side and the downside of Japanese Western government.
With Shugendo, now we are going back 150 years ago, even in Japan too. There’s finally a revival movement coming. What we lost from Westernizing our country – because we lost so much juicy wisdom from just adopting Western culture, so I’m trying to revive real Japanese wisdom from before Westernization in the United States to cope with this tough COVID situation, because we are caught up in these Western ideas. We need to break it, the white-based western idea. We have to unite with people, we have to unite with nature, for sure. Then we’re going to finally release our unnecessary evils, going back to the Jomon area, which is no separation, no kidding, no cut-off, just life and adding.
The pottery-making process presents this concept or philosophy or mindset. You know, in the Jomon pottery workshop, we never cut off any clay – it’s only adding, adding, adding, to create something together. I organized the first American Jomon workshop five years ago in Boulder, Colorado, and last year we did the first Jomon outdoor firing outside of Japan, here in Colorado, to put the fire on. So I’m really looking forward to integrating bushido samurai wisdom, and also Jomon, which is the so-called native Japanese people’s wisdom, into the culture of the United States.
TWH: What drew the two of you to work together?
CM: Speaking from my perspective, I first approached [Kato] in the middle of a zazen. Something came through me and I felt like I had to break silence, which I know is sacred in zazen, but I just knew. For me at least it’s what we’re talking about. In that moment there was no separation between you and me. I was like, energy, right? There was no sense of, like, me, Casey, being drawn to work with you, as a person, because at that point we’d been sitting for, what, three days? Four days? So just in that moment I didn’t even feel like Casey, like Casey is supposed to work with this person. It was just like, I just knew.
DK: You are totally correct. Me too. Honestly, I’m not doing it. Something moved me, moves me to do this. You know, just like first time I came to Colorado in 2002, that was right after the death of Kobo Chino Roshi at the Shambala Mountain Center, so since then I’m kind of taking over his legacy. His vision was not just Buddhist. Same as I have, bringing more earth-based, warrior-based, bushido-based, nature-based lay practitioners – those are the key words we are missing after his death. So Casey and I try to revive the original spirit of Naropa or Shambala, which started in the 60s or 70s here in this country. This is who we are, and Japanese bushido is one of the core elements to revive in this movement.
TWH: Do each of you see common touchpoints with the other’s path?
CM: So, for me, it kind of comes back to the same thing we were just talking about, right? What is a “path?” If I step into my ego-self, I go, yes, I’m a Western, Pagan, Norse-Heathen, Druid practitioner, but I was also raised my entire life in a tradition, right? From birth. I’ve known nothing but magical training my whole life, right? And for me it’s like, asking the question how I see our paths crossing, for me it’s like it’s the path, which is like the Tao, right? You can’t speak it. You can only live it and embody it, so I feel like when people who have that perspective come together, we just walk the path together, but it’s the path that has no name, if that makes any sense. I’m trying to put it into words but there’s no words for it, so it’s hard.
DK: It’s nameless.
CM: It’s nameless, yeah.
DK: You are correct, and I think it’s totally understandable to have this kind of more conventional Western view – setting a goal, create the path, and go there – but at the same time, it’s very important to balance. As you said, the path is not something you are making. And even more, a path is made by walking. It’s right here, right now. Don’t apply this future path that’s going to be there, that there is something exists in the future, a better path, or even something from the past, or that there’s a “bad path.” There’s no such thing. It’s all necessary for you to grow up, for you to be here and now. So give gratitude for all s— you’ve had in the past. Without this you are not same as you are right now.
CM: Or right now, or right now, or right now. Or right now.
DK: Exactly. It’s so tough to accept the scientific reality of “we are living here and now.” It is.
CM: And the moment you just spoke that, we are living right now- then it goes away. Then it’s nothing. There’s no substance to it, even the words you speak. There’s only now. And now. And now. And now.
DK: There’s a metaphor- you know, those two monks there by the river, and one young lady comes and, “Hey, I want to cross this river. Can you help me on your back?” And one monk said okay and put this woman on his back and crossed the river, and said bye-bye and came back. The other monk said, “You are not supposed to touch a young lady. You are in practice right now. What did you do? You can’t have a woman!” The other monk says, “Look at my back. There’s no woman anymore. Only you have a woman – in your mind. Don’t have it!”
TWH: What kinds of work have you done together to date, with The Smart Therapy Center and in other areas?
CM: Oh my god. Lots.
DK: We are conventionally working on psychotherapy and more practice, you know, showing more interest in martial arts, meditation – that’s outside of our therapy area. We call it authentic routine creation, so that’s a difference of our program, it’s not just therapy. We’re going to help them for a long time. As a lay practitioner they don’t need to vow deeply, or they don’t need to commit – it’s not too tight but not too loose. We’re creating community. To create authentic routines more and more, using this wisdom as we’ve described.
CM: It’s a hard question to answer, having done so many things in different areas, but for me, in terms of the work, I guess, it’s more philosophical. Like, you and I have been working together for several years now, really creating the conception of a philosophy, right? I feel like it’s from that place that any of the work we do, whether it’s reducing indigenous suicide rates, which is what we’re working currently, or working with veterans with PTSD and their suicidiality, or potentially working with de-escalation of law enforcement. We’ve done a lot of those things, you know, doing a beautiful concert with a Grammy Award-winning flute player. Those are all things we’ve done but I feel like the core of the work is really the philosophy behind how we do those things.
DK: So that’s tough work for us, to create the new philosophy of having no philosophy. So tough. It’s right here, right now. It’s very good to not live in the fantasy realm, some beautiful god coming in the future. We don’t have that. Right here, right now, that’s a philosophy. Form of no form.
CM: Right. Mind of no mind. That speaks to a lot of the bushido philosophy, and please correct me if I’m not explaining this, but it’s like, that’s a warrior tradition. If you are faced with a combatant across from you who is trying to f—ing kill you, right, you don’t have time in that moment for anything except just letting go, right? And at that point you just release, and its fate – or whatever you want to call it – is going to dictate whether he kills you or you kill him. That’s immediacy.
DK: The difference between farmers and bushi – like a samurai – is, of course, we share most of the things, but the only small difference we have is facing death, because we have a sword. There are samurai rules – once you touch your sword you can’t stop until you kill others or you kill yourself. So that’s responsibility of life, of having a weapon. That’s the samurai code. Even here too, when you have a gun you have to face your fear of death first, otherwise you mis-shoot from reaction, just like the police are doing.
So again, a program of helping people to accept this fear of death at this time, in the COVID world, is really beneficial for our society to have a stronger resilience, a stronger immune system. Instead of trying to escape from fear of death, it’s time to stop the world and face it, to integrate it into our bodies. That’s our program.
CM: It’s the application of that facing death, in a very real, tangible way, but applying the means toward peacefulness and also acceptance of personal responsibility. Again, if you have a sword that’s a huge responsibility. That’s the responsibility over life or death, right? That’s the largest responsibility. But like you were saying, a farmer also carries that, choosing which plants they’re going to weed.
TWH: What do you think the future holds for your collaboration?
CM: I feel like, given everything we just discussed and talked about I can’t answer that.
DK: It’s here and now. It’s happening.
CM: There is no future.
DK: So this interview is the future of our work, to bring in Japanese wisdom, especially from before the Westernization of Japan, to modern American culture. It’s so effective, so I hope the Pagan community can look at the work at this time, at what we’ve been doing, and think about the outside of box. The key is facing our own fear of death. Our uncomfortableness. It’s an uncomfortable time, but don’t escape. Just be in the body.