Sunday, March 29, 2015

No Longer of the Streets?

I stopped posting in large part because I had to set aside my practice in favor of a massive material-world overhaul of my life. I am leaving the Bay Area! My partner and I decided on this about five months ago, and everything we have done up until now has been preparing for it.

We are leaving to live with his parents in a tiny town in the Catskills, in New York State. I will be surrounded by trees, there will be adequate water, the air will be clean and if I'm woken up by gunshots, it's deer season.

I'm nervous, because this actually means I need to pull together as a freelancer and learn to make cash without a clock to punch. However, both my overdeveloped work ethic and my sense of self-sufficiency will probably do me well as a freelancer, and...I will finally, FINALLY have time to write, paint, craft and practice my spirituality as integral parts of my life, instead of having only the scraps of time and energy for them that are left over after my job, commute and dealing with my terrible neighborhood.

It's a risk. But it is absolutely what I wanted, and I thank the spirits and many supportive humans for the chance to do it. The plan is to live with my partner's family while we refurbish an old school bus into an RV to live in. Eventually, we will start wandering across country. It's my desire to eventually buy a small patch of land outside a city to park the bus on and put down roots. Right now the Pacific Northwest is looking most inviting for political, climate and social reasons.

I'll be posting again on spiritual matters once the move is done and I am settled again. Meanwhile, the story of my trip can be found here:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Shamanism and Mental Health Part 1: Prejudice, and Differentiating Noise from Signal

“A shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic; the difference between the two is that shamans know how to swim in it.”  Terence McKenna

It should come as no surprise that people who practice shamanism have for centuries been mislabeled by outsiders as delusional or otherwise mentally unbalanced. After all, we talk to people who "aren't there" and follow their advice, our knowledge is holistic and intuitive instead of linear and canonized, we spend much of our time in rituals, meditations and practices that make little sense to those not in tune with the spirit world, and we tend toward introversion and eccentricity. But is there any truth to this "craziness" assumption? I'll be fair. Many spiritually attuned people are also very sensitive and ill-adjusted to mundane life, which means we're more vulnerable to psychological trauma. I myself deal with a layer cake of depression, anxiety and PTSD exacerbated by my apnea. So yes, I do technically fit into that box society labels "crazy". But the real question, when you get down to it, is not "do shamans often live with mental illness?", but rather "does their (potentially) living with mental illness invalidate shamanic experience and insight?"

Let's talk about bigotry for a moment. What is the quickest way to publicly undermine someone's point of view? Convince others that they are "crazy". In the minds of many people, mental illness removes a person's agency entirely. People with diagnoses, even non-psychotic ones, are considered less than full adult: an irrational inconvenience who must be humored and kept out of trouble, and whose presence is embarrassing by association. To be labeled as "crazy" is to be surrounded by people who will dismiss your thoughts, feelings, and often, your rights. The vast majority see nothing wrong with this; their prejudice is ingrained to the point of being almost unconscious. Add to that the lurking suspicion held by the general public that anyone with a psych diagnosis must be an inch from some news-making act of hideous violence, and you'll understand why the average person doesn't go around admitting to being on psych meds or seeing a therapist.

In reality, a person dealing with depression, anxiety, or even serious psychoses is almost never some gun-polishing loon with a head full of razor blades and poop. We're people dealing with an extra-painful problem which we can't get away from, which can make it hard for us to act normal or cope with lifeand that is it. The reason that so many people assume that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, disruptive and good for nothing is that most of us do everything we can to fly under the radar, and only the truly sick people can't manage it. The reason we do everything we can to hide our illnesses is so we don't have to deal with a bunch of ignorant, prejudiced people assuming we're all a hair's breadth from becoming the next Elliot Rodger. Basically, by driving our functional members into the closet, society ends up only seeing those of us too broken to hideand then assumes we're all like the ones you see on the street or the evening news.

In short: the idea that living with a mental illness invalidates someone's experience and insight is a direct result of widespread prejudice against mentally ill people. It has little bearing on shamanic work, unless the shaman is actively allowing any mental health issues to interfere with his or her work. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen. But part of being a responsible adult is making sure that your personal shit interferes with your life-upkeep as little as possible. This applies whether you're a CEO coming in every day during an audit even though your marriage is falling apart, a parent looking after kids while nursing a broken foot, or an intuitive worker advising someone while depression is trying to chew your self-confidence out from under you. You take care of yourself, you get help as you need it, but you do the damn job and you don't half-ass it. So it is with spiritual work as well.

But how do you avoid letting mental health issues affect shamanic practice? The same way that you winnow out ego-trips and flights of imagination in the search for spiritual insight: by carefully considering the information that you get from your experiences for veracity, quality and usefulness.

I once lived in a rooming house in Alameda that had a "handyman" living onsite. This guy had literally used meth to the point of permanent brain damage; his teeth were falling out, his mentality was unstable and immature, his memory made goldfish look brilliant and worst of all, he often hallucinated while using. The hallucinations terrified him, and he would come to me, knowing I worked with spirits, for reassurance that he was "actually seeing spirits" like me and not, well, hallucinating. I really had my suspicions about what he was going through, because even though he seemed receptive to actual spirit work, the whole "all my money goes toward meth" thing really pointed at another cause. So instead of answering him directly, I came up with a series of questions for him to ask himself when he "saw something". I have since expanded this list, and often use it to check myself against even if I feel fine.

1. How are you right now? Are you short on sleep or have low blood sugar? Are you upset to the point where you can't think straight? Are you having physical symptoms beyond mild chills and hair pricklings? Try taking care of yourself before resuming spirit work. Yes, physical extremes of exhaustion, hunger and the like are sometimes used to contact the spirit world, but without the skills and experience, you're more likely to end up "witnessing" your own random brain-crap.

2. What's in your bloodstream? Did you recently ingest anything known to cause hallucinations or paranoia? Are you sure? I'm the last one to knock someone for using entheogens, but there is a difference between using an intoxicant in a specific ritual way to reach out to the Divine, and using it for fun or from habit. Using any entheogen for its spiritual purpose takes practice and in some cases (as with Yaje), real training. Otherwise all that any drug in your system will do, for the most part, is amplify your flights of fancy or express things that exist nowhere but in your own head. These can be fun and useful, but the noise to signal ratio will remain pretty damn high until your body, mind and spirit really get to know the entheogen in question.

3. When does this happen? Do you see things and receive insights randomly? Near bedtime? When you first get up? When you are very tired? Sleep deprivation is another way to attune your mind to spirit, true, but that has to be done in a conscious, focused manner. If you're completely worn out and seeing weird stuff at the corners of your vision, chances are that it is a hypnagogic hallucinationbasically a bit of dream leaking over into your waking consciousness because you're super exhausted, are falling asleep, or just barely woke up.

4. Does attempting to focus on the spiritual communication clarify things or make the "communication" disappear or become incoherent? This again is a sign that you're having some sort of brain hiccup. A spirit or ghost generally responds to discovering it has gotten your attention by trying harder to keep contact instead of flitting away, though this is not always true. But severe lack of coherency and relevancy are big red flags.

5. Is it consistent? Do similar spirits show up and identify themselves regularly? Are their opinions consistent or do they constantly give conflicting advice? Does what they say conflict with something you know to be true? Does a spirit manifest whom you know, yet end up behaving completely off from anything in your experience or their legends?

6. Is it constructive? Do the spirits give good advice or babble inconsequentially? Do they advise you to do things that are destructive, negative or pointless, or does their advice help? Is it something you couldn't have known yourself, but which works for your situation?

7. Is it confirmable? If a spirit instructs you on a certain matter and you follow what they tell you, do you get a good result? What does practical research on that matter tell you? Have others who have worked with this spirit had similar experiences?

8. Does it scare you? Spiritual encounters can be pretty unnerving, especially when you're first getting used to them. But there's a difference between the apprehension of dealing with the unknown, the intimidated feeling of dealing with a powerful spirit, and the kind of terror that uncontrolled hallucinations often bring on. Yes, there are spirits out there that can evoke that level of fearbut you shouldn't be messing with them any more than you should be messing with meth!

9. What is your relationship with the spirit in question? Have you ever seen them or worked with them before? Do you know for certain who they are and what their nature and character is? If so, are they behaving in character? For example, anyone who as worked with Athena knows that she's hardly likely to show up in a chainmail bikini or a frilly pink dress (although if you work with, say, Eris, she may show up in both if she damn well pleasesor a gorilla suit, or anything else she wants. Tricksters, what can you do?). So if you're approached by a being who claims to be a certain deity or spirit but acts wildly out of character for them, you should probably question the genuineness of the experience. Alternatively, it could be another spirit messing with your head (I did mention tricksters, who are usually shape-shifters). Either way, the experience can be really fun, but don't expect to get anything useful out of it (unless the trickster slips in some bit of wisdom while you're laughing your ass off. They do that. But either way, take nothing that is said in a vision like that at face value).

10. Is there any self-consistency in your vision? If you are hallucinating or dealing with hypnagogic images they will tend to shift constantly in a manner that does not hang on any particular theme. For example, a jaguar spirit normally may shift in your mind's eye from an image of a jaguar, to one in another position, to a jaguar cub, to a carved jaguar statue and so on. A jaguar spirit will not suddenly turn into a rain of cookies, a singing cabbage, a Shadow Person, etc. and never even go back to being a jaguar again.

These kind of self-consistency tests are also used in lucid dreaming attempts. In order to determine their current waking or dreaming state, a person turns on or off the nearest lamp or light switch. If it does not respond, it is a clue that that person is dreaming. The same basic method can be used to tell spirits from hallucinations, fancies and dreams. If you go from speaking with your spiritual patron to being chased around by a flying gumball monster, well...whatever is going on, it's not an actual spirit. Generally when stuff like that happens to me, I realize that I'm nodding off and that the image is basically a pre-dream dream.

11. Do you have any neurological conditions that might affect your consciousness? I spoke recently with a person who had the horrifyingly unenviable experience of growing up in a very religious family while regularly experiencing intense "spiritual visions" caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. She described many as profound and very beautiful, and readily encouraged, examined and interpreted by her devout family. What came out of them was utter drivel, requiring spectacularly creative interpretation to reap anything of "value" from them, but because of her illness, they were utterly convincing.

For the sake of fairness, some individuals appear to have both epileptic symptoms and spiritual experiences at the same time. Another individual who suffered from multiple forms of epilepsy was Anneliese Michel. However, she also satisfied enough of the very strict conditions needed to authorize a Catholic exorcism, which is not easy, and includes details that epilepsy could not explain, such as professing secret knowledge about those attending the exorcism, revulsion toward spiritual items and speaking in languages the subject does not know. Felicitas Goodman, who covered the case in The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, theorizes that although Anneliese was epileptic, she was also an untrained medium facing a profound spiritual experience. Goodman, whose works often focus on her study of the trance state, shamanism and the human mind, explains that the trance state refers to a specific mental state which allows spiritual and psychic receptivitybut which can be hampered or negatively altered by certain psychoactive substances. She concludes that the anti-epilepsy medications (Tegretol, specifically) taken by Anneliese during her exorcism may have prevented her from entering a proper trance state, which would have allowed her to respond to the exorcism and resolve her spiritual crisis.

In the end, having a condition which causes visions and strange impulses would be very frustrating for any medium or shaman because it throws a lot of very convincing noise into the mix. That does not, however, mean that someone with TLE or another issue can't have a spiritual experience. It just means that they need to struggle even harder to work out what among their visions is real and valuable.

12. How emotionally invested are you in a certain interpretation of your vision? This is the biggest pitfall of all. Nothing can distract you from the truth like wishful thinking at the wrong moment, and if you're desperate for a specific answer, it can kill your ability to interpret and accept the actual message from the Divine. It can be so hard to resist this, especially if a friend or loved one is the one relying on you to find them a positive and hopeful answer. But you always have to remember that sometimes the thing the spirits need to tell you most is not what you need to hear emotionally at that moment, what the people you care about need to hear, or what your pride wants to hear. That's just how it is.

The most brutal example of this I can recall happened to an associate of mine in Tacoma who had just gone through a bad breakup. She entered trance to beg for guidance and ended up exploding in frustration because the only message she got was "tie your shoes now". She stormed out of her third-floor walk-up, stepped out onto the staircase, and...woke up in the hospital with a concussion and a fractured wrist. Culprit? Her Hello Kitty sneaker laces. After that, she always stopped and listened, and checked her shoelaces.

In the end, any shaman, whether neurologically and psychologically "normal" or not, is going to have to face these kind of questions when interpreting their and their clients' visions. If the shaman is facing an actual psychological or neurological illness, yes, it does make this somewhat harder, just as it makes everything in life somewhat harder. What it does not do is invalidate the knowledge, experience and skill of the shaman in question. The idea that it would is a simple matter of social prejudice.

Hopefully this list will help you when reflecting on your own trance experiences. 

Next Up in Shamanism and Mental Health: The shamanic approach to mental health issues, the significance of mental health crisis in shamanic spirituality, and the significance of rituals such as soul retrieval in the treatment of mental illness.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Final Follow-Up, and Why You DON'T Want a Lot of Divine Intervention

It’s been difficult to write about spirituality lately. The whole can of worms about sexually exploitative elders in the Pagan community left me wrestling with a lot of memories and crap that I honestly thought I had put to bed for good. It’s not easy to stop oneself from mulling over bad memories at times, but it’s necessary in order to move on. We only encourage the bad stuff to linger by dwelling on it so much. But sometimes it’s tough to remind oneself of that fact. I slipped a little, these last several weeks; it took me a while to be ready to move on.

In the meantime, I have been thinking a lot about relationships between deities and humans, and how Western culture especially leads us to having unrealistic expectations of the Powers that Be. Mainstream religion encourages us to seek a relationship which is both very dependent, and expects an awful lot from the deity or deities in question. I'm realizing more and more that not only is this not realistic—it isn't healthy.

One of the biggest pieces of misinformation put forward by popular religions is that spirits and gods will look after their adherents on a consistent basis. If something good happens, God blessed you. If something bad happens, God let it to punish you or teach you a lesson. Frankly I think that divine intervention simply doesn’t happen all that often. The spirits don’t generally swoop in like a parent protecting a toddler from the evils of the world. Why not? Here are three very good reasons.

  1. Most spirits and gods simply are not powerful enough to meddle with physical-world causality on more than a subtle and sometimes very gradual level. If they were, you would be hearing about it daily—and it usually would not be a good thing. The Evening News would be reporting events normally relegated to the pages of eighties-era tabloids—because what makes you think these beings would limit themselves to answering our prayers if they could affect the physical world so profoundly? Imagine the chaos when Poseidon, for example, lets us all know what he really thinks about the Pacific Garbage Patch. Or Thor gets into it with Hercules in the middle of a major city. Or Babaluaye gets sufficiently annoyed at anyone. And for those who believe in the Abrahamic God...have you actually read how much slaughter and destruction he gets up to with very little provocation at all? I don't know about you, but if my miracles come with a side of brimstone rain and horrible plagues, I don't want them.

  2. The flip side of protection is control. The only consistent way that any being can protect you from all harm is to watch you constantly, and limit your activities, food, drink, entertainment, interactions and travels to those which minimize your chances of having accidents, meeting violent people, becoming ill or otherwise incidentally coming to harm. Now some people think that giving up free will and having a deity as their perpetual nanny would be a good thing. Fortunately, spirits tend to be wiser than humans, and generally don’t consider obsessively looking after us to be their job. Believe me when I say that this is for the best. For an idea of how this kind of benevolent, protective control would actually work out for humanity, have a look at Jack Williamson’s science fiction novelette “With Folded Hands…”, which nails it. As lovely as it would be to live in a safe, predictable idyll where human tragedies such as starvation and war never happened, the price would be to give up all freedom and most opportunity for growth as individuals. With no trials to face, no potential cost to anything we undertake, and no real control over our own choices beyond the little bit we are granted, we would quickly become stunted, dependent and childlike, leading limited and boring lives with little purpose to them. That's not paradise; it's prison. 

  3. The spirits’ point of view about our world, us, and our problems is radically different from our own, which can make it hard for them to understand and address our problems. Also, these beings, though wiser than mortals, are imperfect themselves, and can get mean, play pranks, or just make mistakes.  Also, most of our problems put them in a difficult position. They know that most human suffering is generally caused by humans, whether themselves, someone else directly, or through damaging social constructs (like America’s rising oligarchy). There isn’t that much a spirit can do to rescue us from ourselves and each other without directly violating our free will. Nor do many of the things that horrify us (loss of property, loss of our life or a loved one’s life) particularly bother a spirit who would see death, for example, as the mere loss of a physical shell, and separation between the living and the dead as very temporary. They don’t want us upset or hurting, but that does not mean that most spirits or deities really “get” mortal life and its trials. And if they don’t understand the problem, they can’t be much help even if they have the opportunity and ability. The spiritual traditions of many a culture are filled with stories of wishes granted without full understanding of their consequence, from the machinations of the Djinn to what happened when poor Eos asked that her mortal husband be granted eternal life—but forgot to ask for his eternal youth. You might fear death, but spending eternity as a cricket chirping away in a basket would be infinitely worse.

The point is that often we must find our solutions to real world problems within ourselves, those close to us, and our community. The spirits are not here to make our lives easier, as sad as it may be to give up that illusion. Teach us? Advise us? Reassure and comfort us? Bolster our strength and confidence? Give us an unexpected boost of serendipity sometimes? Sure. But taking care of ourselves and each other is our job. Even if the spirits could look after us like parents after children, they don't want to. Considering what the world and our lives would look like if they did, maybe we should be glad of that.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spiritual Leader, My Butt: Some Blunt Suggestions on How to Cope When an Elder In Your Spiritual Group Turns Out to be A Perverse Piece of Crap

As promised, below is a practical follow up to this post.
Here is a list of things that I wish someone had said to me before I ever joined the Pagan group where I was molested and harassed by an "Elder in good standing". Hopefully it will help others who encounter a group run or co-run by a predator.
A person in the role of religious leader commands a certain level of respect and trust from those within his or her group. However, there are always going to be some people who gain power, have it immediately go to their heads and start thinking that their leadership role in one aspect of life puts them above others in all aspects of life. They feel entitled to exploit those looking to them for leadership, and do it without conscience, playing up the "wisdom" and "initiatory knowledge" they offer in return. A particularly vile subset of these corrupt religious leaders extends his or her sense of entitlement to the bodies of adherents -- or to the bodies of their children. As much as we don't like acknowledging it, some Elders are completely corrupt, and some of those will either try to weasel into your pants or should never be left alone with your kids.

It's sad to think about, and sadder still to have to plan for. But if you don't face facts, and learn the warning signs of such predators, you and your loved ones end up more vulnerable to them.

If someone in your spiritual group has made you genuinely uncomfortable, ignored basic physical, emotional or privacy boundaries, made exploitive demands or tried to manipulate you, it doesn't matter what rank they are or which gods they claim love them. They have exceeded their rights and abused their authority, and regardless of whether the other leaders oppose or protect them, they do not deserve your respect. Certainly, they do not deserve your trust or your unquestioning obedience -- though this kind of person will demand it the most.

The first thing you have to do when someone in religious authority over you attempts to abuse or exploit you or your loved ones is to remove their power and influence over you. This must be done emotionally, intellectually, and most of all, practically. Get away from that person, get your loved ones away, and get your head clear on dealing with him or her after that. Exploitive leaders are very persuasive, and will try to confuse and manipulate you or those close to you. You have to firm your resolve against these people and anyone blindly defending them (which, sadly, may include friends or relatives), and ignore what the predators are saying. Any incidentally valid points in their statements are guaranteed to be swimming in gallons of self-serving bullshit.

The biggest mistake I made in this situation was caving in to pressure to minimize the severity of what my own attacker did to me. I did this because at his most blatant, he was following me around an event constantly sexually molesting me while I was too tranced out (and terrified) to do anything. The head of the House and several elders witnessed his doing this, and said and did nothing. I made the mistake of convincing myself that I was overreacting somehow, because "more enlightened" people watched the whole thing and didn't give a shit. Now I realize that that was because the House leader and other witnesses were terrible people, but at the time I believed in them and followed their lead. Don't do this, and don't listen to anyone who tries to do it to you.

Document your experiences. Names, dates, who was there, what the circumstances were. But don't wait until you have a lot of documentation to speak out against the abuser.

Don't be scared to act up...intelligently, and with the purpose of exposing the predator. My predator's "defense" was that he was possessed by a spirit at the time he went after me sexually...multiple times, with multiple spirits involved. (Apparently West African tricksters, Hindu deities and Aesir all really love my badonk and can't keep their hands off it). Now this was a guy who was pretty much infamous for faking possession; the other Elders joked that his possessions were basically "him channeling him" a lot of the time. Yet they accepted his excuse. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have turned this on its ear. "Oh, gee, I had no idea I threw a drink in your face and called you a lying old pervert with a raisin-sized weewee in front of everyone. I was possessed!" Ah, missed opportunities.

If you are safe and can manage it, tell your abuser in no uncertain terms to stop. Do not, however, threaten any consequences. These people are masters of ass-coverage, and will scramble straight into that mode the moment they think some consequences might come of their vile actions. If you tell them there will be reprecussions, especially if you get specific, they will start planning their "defense" -- usually a character assassination of you. So just tell them that what they are doing is wrong and that you won't put up with them doing it any more, and leave it at that. Don't give them a warning, and thus lead time, when it comes to your plans.

Standing up to them can also be good for you personally, though the exploiter's reaction can be unpredictable. Some will be scared off by a show of backbone. Others will throw a tantrum, or try to "test" the new boundary to see if they can overcome it. This is why it is usually best to make sure this confrontation happens in front of witnesses. Not only is it less dangerous, but there is a good chance that he will show something of his true colors when confronted. Provided that your group isn't solidly composed of idiots, at least some of the witnesses should take notice.

Sadly, don't expect that you'll be able to resolve the issue by confronting your exploiter. Not only will these predators deny any wrongdoing, but they'll do anything they can to gaslight you and anyone else involved into believing the same. If someone responds to your saying "stop constantly staring at my breasts, it's making me uncomfortable" with "oh, sorry" and no longer staring, they weren't trying to exploit anyone, they were just being mannerless horndogs. Real exploiters don't give a damn. If they had enough conscience to acknowledge that they were doing wrong, they wouldn't be trying to use you or your kids in the first place.

These people are guaranteed to seek out other victims if you won't cave in. That means that you have a moral obligation to say something to your group. This will not be easy. A lot of people respond to news like this by denying or minimizing any incidents, at least at first. Be ready with your accounts of what happened, including details like where and when. Expect frustration. Expect to find out who your friends in the group really are.


Start with a trusted authority figure or senior member of the group. If you don't trust anyone in power in the group, skip this step and get the HELL out of the group. If you can't trust them, they can only help you grow spiritually at a distance -- by serving as an example of how not to act.

Warn others who might be vulnerable. New members, young members, those wrestling with mood disorders or recent loss. If this guy tried to target your kids and he's still breathing, make sure that parents in the group know why you called the cops on him.

Expect backlash. If you found no reliable religious leaders to go to in your group, or did not go to all of them, the others are guaranteed to kick up a stink about it, especially if the police end up involved. One of the craziest reactions that I saw in my old group, and have heard about in others, was that a statement of intent to go to the authorities if action was not taken was viewed as a serious threat to the group -- while having a sexual predator in a position of power among them barely seemed to bother them. Even if the group as a whole finally comes around to face facts and support you, at least some of them won't, especially at first, and it is going to hurt.


Don't be surprised if challenging a well entrenched spiritual leader ends with your being cast out of the group. It isn't fair, it isn't rational, but for some reason a disappointing number of people will be more angry at the person who disrupts the group by seeking justice than at the toxic person who is causing actual problems. As an example, I gave the group leader the names and contact information of two other people whom my would-be predator had exploited sexually, and she never followed through. Her head remained firmly in the sand, and within a month I was out. It was painful, but it would have been less so had I prepared myself for the possibility.

Keep owning and standing up for the truth even if your spiritual group rejects you and claims you are lying or overreacting. This includes calling the police if your legal rights have been violated or your safety is threatened. Some may whine that the police may take the opportunity to harass the other members of the Pagan group, which is a possibility -- but only a possibility, whereas what happened to you and will continue to happen to others is actual reality. And let's be real: if the leaders of the group refuse to deal with the criminal in their midst in a way that protects other members, they have no damned business complaining when you're forced to go to outside authorities. They should have gotten off their butts when you came to them first.

Don't let yourself believe that your treatment by a corrupt group of flawed human beings is supported by the deities or spirits the group honors, that these Powers will reject you for leaving the group, or that you need the group to work with them. Seriously, if your spiritual group put you through the kind of Hell that mine did, you don't need it to work with the spirits. In fact, your spiritual relationships can only be strengthened once you walk away from a bad group, because you won't be wading through their crap while you seek spiritual truths.

Don't waste time wondering why the powers that be didn't help you. In case you have not noticed by now, gods, spirits and deities don't exactly come running to our rescue when we're in serious physical-world trouble. Sometimes they step in in a real way, but it's unpredictable; thus, you cannot rely on them to save you from that or any situation. You need to rely on yourself, on trustworthy human beings and on the knowledge and experience of those who have faced or documented similar things before you.

Think about it. Genuinely miraculous occurrences happen, but they're pretty damn rare. The Ultimately Powerful, Eternally Loving Celestial Babysitter image of the Divine got drilled into a lot of us as kids, but it's crap. If it wasn't, no child would ever starve to death, no one would ever get away with murder and we wouldn't be dealing with a corrupt-scumbag infestation among religious elders in the first place. In reality, if you want the help of the Powers That Be, expect to do a lot of real-world work too. They will guide you, help you, maybe provide serendipity here and there -- but it's no substitute for standing up and dealing with things yourself. Spirit work and the help of the gods supplements positive personal action. It rarely if ever replaces it completely -- even when we really, really need it to.

If the gods actually do punish the douchebag in question, expect a wave of denial that would swamp the Queen Mary to go through any group members supporting him. Example: some time after I finally told the group about my would-be predator, and realized that they wouldn't listen to or protect me, he actually did get hit with a well-aimed Karma Hammer. The accident happened on a day very sacred to his head deity, the circumstances were inexplicable, and they quickly led to his losing his job and being kicked out of his condo by his now ex girlfriend. I commented quietly to the leader of the group: "wow, I guess (head deity) really didn't like what he did to me." She hastily dismissed it, saying "No, He was clearly just pissed off about (something else entirely)." After all, in her mind what her butt-grinding buddy did to me was no crime, and clearly nothing that would anger a higher being.

Thinking about it now, she always was a real piece of work.

My advice is that on the oft chance that Something Does Happen, don't be surprised if deniers blind themselves to it. If they do, don't listen; chalk them off as the moral cowards they are, and ignore their excuse-making.

It's hard to know what to do when you have to leave a spiritual group thanks to problems like this. All the rage may prompt you to start a revenge campaign of spreading your story everywhere. That is up to you, but unless you're very careful and calculated about it, and are ready to deal with an explosion of wank from your former spiritual home, it may be more trouble than it is worth. However. There is absolutely nothing obliging you to protect a group that harbors and protects a predatory pervert. So don't think you have to bite your tongue, smile, and give some noncommittal answer about how it "just didn't work out" if someone asks why you left. Tell your story. Be completely honest. People will draw their own conclusions, and your former group will throw a giant tantrum if they find out. But not only does it get a warning out about the scumbag and his enablers -- it's also how you find out that you're not alone. If I had not shared my story, I would never have met two of that piece of crap's other targets, or learned of others within the community who have been wronged. Solidarity with your fellow survivors is powerful: it helps give back the voice that your predator and those who sided with him tried to take away.

Having a religious leader leap off his pedestal and try to land on you feet (or cock) first is painful. Having members of the group then circle the wagons against you hurts like hell, and so does watching other "enlightened spiritual leaders" go into such deep denial of wrongdoing that they even deny things they personally witnessed. Worst of all is realizing that it will be a hard, taxing fight to try and get any justice at all, that you will likely have to do it alone, that your detractors will defame you as crazy or a liar to discredit you, and that you can't expect to get any real vindication from it. My point is that however many of these things you end up experiencing, it's going to be rough to get over for a while. Therapy, spiritual work and support groups are all good options for getting through this time. But whatever you do, don't make your recovery dependent on seeing your attacker face justice or getting your former religious group to admit they were wrong. Realistically speaking, it may never happen, even if you go to the police. Seek justice, but do not rely emotionally on achieving it. It is a rare commodity in this world -- but one that will become less rare the more we keep fighting for it.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Revisiting the Unhappy Medium: Pagans Talk about Exploitive Elders

I just finished reading Lydia Crabtree's heart-wrenching article on the sexual exploitation currently being exposed in the Pagan community, The Fish Rots from the Head Down: Squid Eye and Sexual Exploitation. The first thing I have to say is: go read it. She describes the issue better than I could.

Since the arrest of Pagan elder Kenny Klein in March, the Pagan community is finally doing what it should have done decades ago: talking seriously, and in a very self-questioning way, about how much sexual exploitation is going on among us and what to do about it. As a survivor of some grotesque and blatant exploitation attempts, watching this all come out has caused me a lot of personal anguish. I know that the pompous ass who kept groping me and did worse with several others likely won't be among those facing the music. His House has already shown the extent they will go to protect him, and of course that will include lying for him as well as looking the other way.

In retrospect, the House was hardly into sexual ethics in general; it's possible that they literally believe that what he did to me was just fine. But whatever the case, they have his back. This whole blowup over Klein and the Frosts and various others has reminded me that Pagan hierarchies can be as bad as Catholic ones when it comes to butt-covering for the worst among them.

I will never understand why it is so hard for so many members of religious groups to understand that if an elder in your community is exploiting people sexually, he doesn't deserve his title or your support. Maybe it's shock, maybe it's pride, but continuing to support such people is irrational, and it hurts and endangers people, including children. The fact that you trusted him with personal secrets, followed his lead, and believed in him shouldn't make you go into denial when it comes out that he's been harassing, exploiting or straight up raping people. It should make you angry, because he's been lying to you about his character and trustworthiness this whole time.

But more often than not, status and popularity win over truth, and the victim gets revictimized by the group through denial, ostracism, criticism, minimalization of the incident, accusations of being crazy or wanting just goes on and on. That is what happened to me, and what has happened to a lot of other people, including underage kids. The fact that these people are covering for sex offenders never even seems to register with them. Maybe they're just really good at buying their own lies.

Now however, the truth is starting to come out about predators in the Pagan community, and though it's painful to read about, it can only be for the good. These predators thrive on secrecy, and those who have protected them deserve to be questioned as well. If you will stand there and watch while one of your elders repeatedly gropes and grinds on a tranced-out neophyte, and not only do nothing but deny later that anything untoward happened, you don't deserve to lead anyone.

Some may fret over a potential "witch hunt" starting, but if you actually think about it, the chances of that are rather rare. This fear is a distraction from the truth, similar to MRA whining about false rape accusations. Our focus should be on protecting the actual, real victims of sexual exploitation, instead of protecting largely theoretical victims of false accusations.

I wish that I had some way of helping to fix this, besides speaking out against it and offering help to fellow survivors. All I really have to offer are suggestions on what to do when you find yourself in a situation like I did, or when you see someone else going through it.

It seems ridiculous to have to be telling people how to avoid creepy Elders and deal with their predation attempts, instead of telling these so called "spiritual leaders" to stop being horrible creeps. But none of them are going to change until their chances of being caught at it go up enough that it deters them. Preparing people to deal with these kind of situations is one way to help improve those chances, as well as help them protect themselves.

The guide to avoiding and dealing with these corrupt Elders deserves its own entry. But it can basically be boiled down now to one thing: if someone in your spiritual group is harassing you or trying to con you into sex, or if someone comes to you for help because they're being exploited, SPEAK UP. Kick up a stink before things get worse, make sure that those in authority know, and don't be scared to threaten wider exposure if they don't move their asses.

If they are as toxic as my old House, you will end up out on your ear, yes--but you will be infinitely better off for it, as they will have shown their true colors. And of course, you can never go wrong with simply leaving a group where someone in authority is making you feel uncomfortable, and letting people know why from a safe distance. Had I known then what I know now, getting away from the House would have been my first step.

I hope that one day, people who are targeted by sexual predators within the Pagan community are the ones being supported by the group. I hope that we reach the point where when someone is victimized, they can speak up and know they will be heard, regardless of the status of their exploiter. Maybe one day it will be the exploiters who end up being ridiculed and ostracized, instead of those of us whom they have hurt. I for one think that's something to work toward.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Check-in after a very long time....

I took a few years off from any real shamanic exploration, in favor of working on getting various health issues under control. As it turns out, I had both undiagnosed and improperly treated problems, such as my apnea, which was woefully undertreated, thanks to a negligent doctor having me on the wrong settings for years despite regular check-ins. Because of this, I was getting the functional equivalent of about four hours of sleep a night--upward from about two a night previously since I was little. That's a lot of sleep debt. Now that I'm under the care of a competent sleep doctor, I can much more easily focus--including on spiritual matters.

A whole lot has happened since I set aside my creative and spiritual life to work on core personal issues. My therapist, George, who supported me for years while I was in the worst part of my struggles, died last year. I owe him for getting me writing again, for helping me to get past the anguish of being betrayed by my spiritual group, for helping me reconcile with my family, for teaching me to manage my emotions better and for helping get my anxiety attacks under full control. The guy really helped me get my feet under me, and he remains an inspiration.

I have semi-maintained my altar and gear since shutting things down for a while. The only spiritual work I have done is a little crafting, a little advising. Now, it's time to not only move the altar but also revamp the whole thing. I need to make room for George on the memorial section, and my ideas of altar layout have evolved considerably. I am realizing that I was still trying to cling to practices that have no personal spiritual meaning, giving equal space for spirits I honor but no longer work with, and being lackadaisical about design. I'm an art major--I can do better.

As I prepare to take up my rattle again, I have been using a tool which I originally started working with a few months ago for stress and insomnia. Binaural Beats are a kind of sound wave therapy, and are also very handy for masking outside sound when you are trying to meditate or journey. I have had surprisingly good results after several weeks of trying it out--though only while using headphones. I'll probably do a more detailed write-up after another few months of testing.

Here is a link to a free Binaural Beats web site.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Unhappy Medium: Why I'm Not An Initiate in Any Possessory Traditions

I just had another run in with someone who was absolutely horrified that I have an altar set up and work with spirits at all when I am not initiated into his tradition. Because I am not, he claimed, I am automatically serving the wrong spirits, am being deluded by negative spirits, cannot possibly know what I am doing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. My twenty years of experience mean nothing to this guy; because I'm not doing it his way, according to his tradition's rules, I am incompetent, fooling myself and otherwise Doing It Wrong. And he topped it with another old saw: I am Endangering Myself.

I get bullshit arguments from people like this about once every few months. Smugly convinced that theirs is the One True Way, and that they have the right to judge other people's practices by their standards even if that person is from another system altogether, they universally claim to have my best interests at heart while insulting me, talking down to me and picking away at my beliefs. I need a formal teacher, they claim--and I should pack up my altar and avoid anything spiritual whatsoever until I find one. So when I engage them and ask, "OK, so, are you planning to teach me or help me find a teacher, or are you just here to try and shut me down?" they hem and haw or say it isn't their responsibility or that they don't know anyone in my area--and so on, and so forth. People like this would rather have me back at the point I was before the Umbanda house sucked me in: alone, desperately looking for a teacher and crying daily because I need spirituality in my life but couldn't find anyone reliable to teach and initiate me. The joy and satisfaction I get from working with my spirits and helping other people is nothing more than a dangerous delusion, they claim; without their in-group's stamp of approval, I actually have nothing.

That this is horseshit should be self-evident to anyone with any sense. But it always upsets me. Not because I think there's even a particle of truth to their judgment of me, but rather because it brings back some very painful memories. You see, there are reasons why I do not have a formal initiation into any traditions, and it all boils down to one painful truth: People Suck.

First off, you have a lot of mediums who will not teach white people period, and have plenty to say about why. White people are culture vultures. White people won't take it seriously enough. White people just want instant gratification and won't stay the course. White people just think ATRs are trendy. Blah blah stereotype blah. Because I'm white, people like this feel free to tell me that I'm wrong for even seeking out training, for the above "reasons". I can't even walk into a botanica to buy a freaking bottle of Florida Water without being stared at, and if I ask questions I run into a wall of Spanish and suspicious looks. I'm sorry that so many white people actually have jackassed around with other people's traditions, but I don't want to waste my time trying to convince some paranoid, bigoted person that I'm sincere and hardworking when I know it won't work. I have tried it multiple times before and they never budge a single inch. And why would I want to learn from someone like that anyway?

Then you have people who would be happy to teach me--for a great big giant pile of money. Oh, and please ignore the fraud reports and complaining former customers and initiates. Or the fact that I seem to know more about the spirits than they do. Pay no attention to the money-grubbing fake behind the curtain...

Some teachers are competent, openminded and willing...but they are invariably several states away.

And then there's the Umbanda house. The biggest reason why I'm not initiated and not part of a group has to do with the trauma I experienced at the hands of the one group that would take me without demanding piles of cash. Read carefully, because this is the only time I am going over this.

In the House there was an Elder. He was the only one who was willing to explain things to new people on a regular basis, he showed interest in us, and he was the only one who actually watched the new mediums during trance to make sure we wouldn't get into trouble. Sounds like a great guy, right? Except that the information he gave out was incomplete, skewed and riddled with lies. That and he started sexually molesting me during bembes.

You read that right. This guy would follow me around, check to see if anyone was looking, and grab my breast or my crotch or shove his cane between my legs. He spent one event literally following me around grinding against me while pretending to be possessed--and none of the others did a single thing to help me even when I walked up to the other Elders while he was doing it so that it was happening in front of them. I was too shocked and scared to speak, and that just encouraged him. Either he would pretend to be possessed and molest me that way ("oh, the spirits are just getting frisky!"), or he would wait until I was too tranced out to defend myself and start in on me. It was terrifying. But at the time I bought into the lie that I HAD to initiate, and so I tried to stay on in the hopes that he would lose interest. But it only got worse. Finally, in desperation, I demanded that something be done or I would call the police.

The Umbanda house's other elders responded, all right. They labeled me as "crazy", "oversensitive", and "prudish", and threw me out. It did not matter to them that six other women in the wider community had accused him of the same thing. It did not matter that they had witnessed him doing those things to me. I was "stirring up trouble" and so they got rid of me.

It was the last straw. Since that time I have practiced alone, and been very reluctant to try again with another group. In fact, I only started networking with members of other possessory traditions again about three months ago. VERY tentatively networking. You don't get burned this many times, and to this extreme, without a teensy little bit of reluctance.

So whenever some jackass comes along and tries to tell me that I MUST initiate, and must not practice in any form without an initiation, I feel like screaming. "Initiate with whom? How the hell do I find someone unprejudiced, reliable and local? And HOW THE HELL DO I KNOW THAT I CAN TRUST THEM?" But I doubt said jackass would care. My story, what I've suffered, what I've learned, the efforts I have made or how my life has improved since I went back to solitary shamanic practice don't matter to them. All they see is someone going it alone whom they want to shut down. And the more it happens, the more reluctant I am to associate with other mediums AT ALL.

I've shed enough tears over this. The next one of them who tries to tell me that I MUST STOP PRACTICING, THE SPIRIT WORLD IS FOR INITIATES ONLY is getting the link to this page, and a hearty GO FUCK YOURSELF. They would take from me what I cherish in the only form that I can practice it, and what the hell gives them the right?