Monday, January 2, 2012

FAQ--a work in progress

1. Why do you call yourself a shaman?
I use the word "shaman" regularly simply because it is the most well known word in English for what I do. Period. There are those who go on about people from outside the Tungus culture using that word, but I think their case for cultural appropriation is a tad bit thin if all that is being used is their word for what is ultimately a highly varied global practice. If some jackass claims to be a Tungus Shaman just because the spirits talk to him, then we definitely have a problem. But Hindus don't generally complain when Pagans or others discuss the concept of karma; nobody whines because tete a tete, savoir faire or other French phrases have crept into the (admittedly kleptomanaical) English language. In English the word "shaman" has become a blanket term for a certain class of spirit-workers. It may not be anthropologically correct, but there you have it. Tiptoeing around the words "shaman" and "shamanism" because it's yet another of English's borrow words doesn't do anything but confuse English speakers.

2. How can you claim any sort of authority as a teacher?
I'm not. I'm merely stating what I have learned, what I believe, what works for me and what might work for others. Will I teach people if I am called to do so? Yes. Do I claim some special authority to do so? No. I have my experience, and the instructions I have received, and if the spirits send people my way I'll do my best for them. But I'm not Awesome Guru Chick or anything like that. I'm just me.

3. Are you a "core" shaman?
My first teacher was trained by Michael Harner, but she neither limited her teachings and work to his system, nor put me through his official "workshops". Nor is my own practice limited to core shamanic practices. I do not believe that shamanism can be completely extracted from any cultural context whatsoever, any more than human experience in general. To that end my shamanism has more to do with Mircea Eliade than Harner. My culture is Italian, Scots, American, urban, multiculturally-influenced, working class, humanist, naturalist, San Francisco Bay Area. It is also Internet, geek, gamer, netizen solidarity, and non-classist ethical anarchy. The spirits I attract vary greatly because of this, but the main ones are my rather scary Guardian and one of the local Tricksters.

4. Are you a shaman, a medium, or a witch?
...yes. :D But my primary work is shamanic.

5. What kinds of spirits do you work with?
Animal and totemic spirits are my primary focus, but I have worked with ghosts and ancestors, Pagan gods and possessory spirits such as Orixa.

6. Are you initiated under any Orixa or Lwa?
No. Nor do I claim to be.

7. Do you have a totem and spirit guides? What are they?
There are spirits I work with which are "public" and happy to be spoken about, and others that are more private. My most potent relationship that I can speak about publicly is with Raven.

8. Why do you stress morality so much?
I stress morality so much in large part because so many magical practitioners do not. There is a serious dearth of strong ethics in modern day Neopaganism; "harm none" is argued over more than it is practiced, people cast spells at each other thoughtlessly and there is little if any code of conduct for dealing with clients or the spirits. I have been the target of malevolent or manipulative spellcasting multiple times, harassed sexually (and then told to stop being so sensitive/being a prude/causing trouble) by so-called Pagan Elders, and seen my mate harassed sexually as well. I have watched shamans charging serious money for initiation or services, essentially shutting out anyone who cannot pay their exorbitant fees. And yet these people claim to serve the spirits, the Earth and its just goes on and on. Ethics are important. Honor is important. The world already has too many people in it who would wreck everyone around them for their own gain. They are the reason life is so unhappy for so many of the rest of us. Don't be one of them.

9. Who taught you and how long was your training?
I received healing and instruction from a core/eclectic urban shaman for three years. I joined an eclectic Pagan group headed by a Gardnerian and learned the basics of witchcraft, gemstone work, the formulation of magical oils and incenses, and the creation of magical tools. As a witch, I practiced solitary and in various groups for five years. I was a member of NROOGD (the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn) for two years before joining an African Traditionalist group and staying for another two. I received my Reiki I and II initiation during the same period. Due to abuse within my last spiritual group, I left off all spiritual pursuit and practice for a few years in order to focus on my mundane life. Once I had successfully overcome most of the problems thrown at me during this period, I found myself returning to my spiritual roots as an urban shaman, and have practiced regularly ever since.

10. Who initiated you?
Bluntly put, the spirits did--which is the only real way one can experience a shamanic initiation. It cannot be bought, it cannot be truly conveyed by another human being--the spirits themselves are the final arbiters and initiators. If you are called to the shamanic path you know it. Not as an ego thing, but rather because if you drag your feet or head in the wrong direction you will find your life going haywire in truly bizarre ways until you return to the path. Accepting the path, on the other hand, rewarded me with a sort of soul-deep conviction which is not ego-involved, and is thus unshakable. Earlier in my life I was deeply preoccupied with my lack of material-world credentials (or the money with which to buy them), but now I realize that that was because I placed the opinions of human beings over the truth of my calling. Such thinking is wrongheaded; if you have the skills, the favor of the spirits and the devotion, you don't need a piece of paper calling you an "official" shaman.

11. Don't you know that you're going to Hell?
Nnnnnno. I don't, and neither do you. I think that anyone who seriously believes that God is some controlling, hyper-vengeful asshole who would literally torture someone forever for not following a single, narrow spiritual and moral path is not only wrong--they're a little messed up in the head. Nor am I about to get scared into converting. Pursuing this line of argument with me, therefore, is completely pointless. Have you considered instead that maybe nobody is going to Hell? That God wouldn't roast someone eternally for finite offenses--especially ones that are no actual "offense" to anyone with their head on straight? "You got tattoos. You like wool blends. One more for the lake of fire..." NO. That doesn't even make any sense. Only humans are that crazily judgmental--not God.

12.Why do you warn people about the spirit world?
There is an unfortunate subset of spirit workers who truly believe, bless their hearts, that all is love, light and positive vibrations in the spirit world. Unfortunately this is not and has never been the case. The idea that Spirit only exists in a positive sense is a new development among countless older traditions which show the spirits to have at least as broad a moral gamut as the human one. There are spirits that will play you. There are spirits that are benevolent if pleased and very dangerous when pissed off. Finally, there are the kind of spirits that should make you glad as heck for your Guardians. Just like you wouldn't automatically extend trust to every single human you meet, you shouldn't do it with spirits.

13. What is shaman's sickness?
Shaman's sickness has been called a part of a shaman's initiatory experience. I would go a step further. Shaman's sickness is the boot you get up your ass when the spirits are trying to get you to agree to walk the path. The more you fight or stray in the wrong direction, the worse it gets. Shaman's sickness may take the form of physical, mental or emotional illness, amazingly crappy luck, or spiritual trials that derail attempts to walk other paths. My own shaman's sickness was prolonged, painful, and required an uphill battle against almost all of the above trials. I am very grateful toward those who supported me during this time, and hope all the best for them. But it would have been better to simply stay on the path to begin with. The difference between shaman's sickness and ordinary life trials is that the sickness goes away once you have become a believing and practicing shaman. This does not mean that becoming a shaman will solve all your life problems. But I can say from experience that my life improved significantly as soon as I embraced the path.

14. For what reasons do you pursue shamanism?
Besides getting my butt kicked every time I stray off the path (this makes the spirits seem rather mean, and they're not; this is just what I am supposed to be doing), I've never felt more right about any decision in my life. But that is just the gut-level motivation. On a higher level, I'm here to work. A shaman serves the spirits and her or his community. If I benefit along the way, fabulous, but ultimately I'm here to heal, advise and empower others. I wish I could describe to you the feeling of wholeness I experienced when I performed my first house purification for a desperate client. For once my actions and my true purpose were in line with each other. I don't think I can heal the world or society, but I think I can help people that wouldn't have gotten help otherwise. And that is enough.

15. Do you use psychoactives in your practice?
Occasionally. My view on psychoactive plant allies is that they must be approached with reverence, respect, and a hell of a lot of caution. Every time I see something like Ayahuasca for sale over the Internet I cringe, because the sacred vine is absolutely not something that should be approached in the wrong way. It is not entertainment; it is a powerful and dangerous sacrament that demands education, the proper set, setting and attitude, and the help of other humans to approach it properly. Approach it improperly, and the ass-kicking you receive from Ayahuasca could land you in the hospital or worse when, say, you wander hallucinating into traffic. You have to know what you are doing, approach with respect, prepare yourself spiritually and physically, gain the permission of the plant spirit, and be very, very clear in your goals before picking up a potent and sometimes unpredictable tool such as psychoactives. To do otherwise is to risk being led astray spiritually while damaging your physical health with side effects or addiction. To beginning shamans I would definitely say: learn to walk the path without psychoactive allies well before you even consider developing a relationship with one.

16. Why Shaman of the Streets?
The truth is, if I had my way and a nice pile of money it would be Shaman of the Nice Little Cottage on Ten Acres of Mostly Wildlands Surrounded By Forest. But we don't always get what we want. I'm a city girl, transit dependent and fairly poor, so I can't even get out to the green wilds often enough to practice regularly in nature. Also, most of the people I work with are urban as well. Because of this, I make do with what I have. My current and more reachable dream is to have a space large and private enough for a shamanic practice with a dedicated space for clients and personal workings. But that is much more likely to be a converted warehouse space than a cottage in the woods.

17. How dare you work with spirits when you're not part of an indigenous culture!
I'll tell you what. If you have a problem with my working with and for the spirits, talk to them about it. It was their decision, and though I have embraced my path I have no illusions that I had much choice in the matter. This is not a matter of cultural appropriation, or appropriation of any sort, except in the sense that my ass was appropriated by them for their purposes. And I'm fine with that. If you really think you're so much of an authority that you can second guess the Powers That Be because you don't like my ethnicity, take your "how dare you" to them and see how they react. Chances are that they'll react the same way I do: "I don't have time for your up-in-arms, narrow-minded bullshit."

18. How dare you contemplate taking on clients when you don't have any kind of certification!
There is a sub group of urban shamans--let's call them $hamans--who firmly believe that the only way to become a genuine shaman is to attend schools, workshops, etc. costing several hundred to thousands of dollars. Essentially, they seem to want to turn shamanism into not only a financial venture, but a spiritual practice that is only fully accessible to those who are wealthy enough to have that kind of disposable income. To which I say: Like Hell. Not only is this completely divorced from reality--the spirits choose whom they will--but it goes against the grain of public and spiritual service that shamans are supposed to be about. When a $haman confronts me about my lack of an Expensive Piece of Paper, I ask them why they consider their system of teaching to be the only genuine one, and why they price everything so high that the poor can neither learn from nor by served by it. They don't tend to like that.

19. So what gives your work and practice its legitimacy aside from the spirits' support?
Twenty years of eclectic training and experience, hard work, an open and creative mind, a big heart and a listening ear. Did I mention common sense? I have a lot of that too. I won't bullshit you or try to "upsell" services to you, and I focus on helping my clients as opposed to making a pile of money. Also, in the end, what gives my practice its legitimacy is that I get results.

20. Can you give an example of a client you've helped?
My most recent client was a young woman who had taken in a couch-surfer who then died suddenly of illness in her living room. Since then she could not sleep in her apartment or use the couch that he had used, and complained of his body odor lingering to a nauseating degree throughout the apartment. This smell did not dissipate once the couch was cleaned and the apartment cleaned and mopped. I gathered my tools and went over on the day of the man's funeral. Upon walking into her apartment I detected, not the smell she had described, but an intense heaviness and sense of nausea to the atmosphere that was not relieved by opening the windows. No one could bring themselves to sit on the large, comfortable looking couch. For this home cleansing, I primarily used my fire bowl, censing with copal and two other resins in turn, walking around the entire apartment, making sure that the smoke got into every crevice, drawer, cabinet and closet. When the smoke reached the corner where the man had died, I heard a loud male moan; I rebuked the spirit and spent a lot of time rattling and censing that corner, finally putting down a plate of salt to "soak up" any remaining energy. I also spent extra time over the couch and in the bathroom, where the deceased had divided almost all of his time. By the time I was finished, the heaviness was gone and both the client and her parents were crashed out on the couch. I left with instructions to throw the salt in the outside trash after leaving it for three days. Three days later I received a call from the client's mother; she reported that the client was now able to use her apartment normally, and sleep there peacefully without nightmares. In addition the lingering smell of her deceased guest was now gone.

21. Do you drum?
A drum or the means to get one has not come to me yet. I generally use a rattle, which I make myself. Rattles have the advantage of being less noisy in an apartment setting, more portable, and a bit more flexible to use. They're also incredibly simple to play, making it easy for me to have someone rattle for me when I journey or work with both hands on something else.

22. How much do you charge clients?
I ask that people pay for materials and travel. My time and work can be compensated with a donation of a client's choice, or barter. I would rather be informal and accessible than end up treating my calling too much like a business. Doing so would shift too much focus away from the work at hand.

23. What are your views on other paths?
I agree with the "many paths" approach of Unitarians and certain Buddhists. I think that there is a lot of legitimacy and beauty to be had in various religions and spiritual practices. I also think it's entirely possible to live a full life without spirituality, though I know that's not for me. The basic question I ask any adherent (or non adherent) is, how's your heart? Are you happy? Is your path based in compassion and thoughtfulness? I would rather deal, for example, with a loving and true-hearted Christian than a corrupt and advantage-taking Pagan no matter how much more I can relate to Paganism. Anyway, it's not my business how other people choose to view and talk to the Divine, you know? Freedom of religion is a beautiful thing.

24. Why are you so OK with using technology when shamanism is a nature path?
Shamanism is not just a nature path, though that is where its most powerful roots lie. The modern spirit-talker needs to be able to survive and practice in environments overrun by human cityscapes and heavily informed by technology. A significant portion of human life happens online these days. The Net is now a vital part of society, commerce and education. Technological advances are helping those of us with health issues, like myself, live longer and better lives. Like those animals and plants which have learned to thrive in the cityscape and take advantage of its artificial environments, an urban shaman can make use of technological tools in her practice without compromising herself spiritually. 




    We have the exact same philosophy down to the bullshit 'all spirits are good and beautiful and don't wish you harm' routine. As I like to tell people, Con artists die too.

    I agree with everything you say and have posted about it before myself. I am in awe right now. (Thanks for following my humble blog)

  2. Considering what I have read of your blog I could say the same thing. ^__^ Thank you for the poisons list, by the way; people need to know this stuff, especially Pagans/plantworkers and those who like exotic plants but have pets or small children. Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it can't freaking kill you.

  3. Yeah, I become afraid because there are certain pagan sellers/witches on Etsy selling portions of Fly Agaric Mushroom and Nightshade in "sealed bottles"--despite the questionable legality, the minute you accidentally drop the bottle or your kid or pet gets ahold of it, you're finished. The minute you touch a fly agaric your hours are likely numbered. That's why I also become worried when people formulate their own 'authentic' flying ointments. I think many people don't know what they're messing with. (I would cover more poisons if I could! There are just so many to choose from.) (People don't seem to think about the fact the chemicals from a toxic mushroom can get absorbed through the skin as well!)

    Yes, I look forward to your blog posts. :)

  4. The flying ointment thing. *cringe* I need to do some more background research and do a PSA about entheogens. Some of them are too dangerous to mess with unless you know precisely what you are doing.

    Are you familiar with the Pharmaco/Poeia series of books?

  5. I have not, though I would likely be fascinated by the series. (On the topic of medical shit I have a rather persistent case of Hypochondria that caused me severe problems before so I get perverse pleasure from reading about medical things.) On the topic of Shaman's Sickness, my own soul-sickness was psychological. I rebelled against my Catholic upbringing by becoming hard atheist and skeptical. I was severely unhappy and it spiraled down until my hypochondria got so bad I began to suffer debilitating panic attacks. When I say debilitating I mean it was impossible for me to leave the same room, and chair, for a couple weeks. I couldn't sleep for the nightmares. I saw so far into my own mind I felt forever changed by the experience. Somehow I had a "sudden awakening" and got rapidly better (without any drugs, by the way.). But spirits do tend to kick your ass until you get it.

  6. Check out the book section of the author's website over at I'm rereading them now. Eventually I'll have a recommended book section and they'll be right on the list.

    Wow. That was an intense initiation. Mine was more drawn out and involved an uphill battle on several fronts that started resolving as soon as I finally said "okay! I get it!" after being stubborn for years.

  7. I'm somewhat interested in 'The Poison Path' but it seems like the reviews claim it's largely on psycho-actives -- do you own it and is that the case? As someone who has no desire to touch psycho-actives and barely ventures into alcohol I am infinitely more interested in poisons as allies in spirit-working and herbalism than in mind-altering. (if you have any rec's for that they would also be fantastic.) Though the first book in his series seems really fascinating to me as well. Might have to snatch it. (Thank you for the rec.)

  8. My thought on psychoactives is that they're not a path for everyone (especially any beginners that are reading our convo), but their plant spirits should still be honored and their lore studied.

    In our culture the "beneficial poisons" of plant based psychoactives are too often treated disrespectfully as entertainment, or recklessly as a perceived shortcut to enlightenment. One of the things that makes these books so valuable is that Pendell, in his poetic and beautiful way, is showing us the reverence, respect and caution that is appropriate when dealing with powerful plant spirits and their physical essences. To be completely honest I wish he would simply come up with a general herbal, including a section on poisonous plants. Maybe some day...

    I will look for a spiritually based book on deadly plants, but this may be one of those books that has yet to be written.

    And now I want to write a review of the series just as an excuse to reread them again.

  9. I am of the same opinion as you. I think if you're drawn to the path of psychoactives and know how to use them, then by all means work with that in that respect. I'm not adverse to learning about them either, I'm just more interested in working with their spirits in an astral/totemic sense rather than a perspective/spirit/mind-altering one.

    Fun fact: My captcha was "Dimensins". Close enough.

    I can definitely see the beauty in the book, in the way he proclaims the virtues of plants society is (pardon the pun) deathly afraid of. I also would love a general herbal from him; just from the few pages I've seen he obviously knows what he's talking about.

    I do believe I've found the book I'll write. (HAHA. Kidding...mostly...)

  10. I understand. For example, one can only work with the spirit of Holly, or Nightshade, or...yeah. Working with the physical essence? Not advisable.

    ...hey, maybe that last bit shouldn't be kidding? The world certainly needs more good books in that vein....

  11. I feel like I would have to do extensive research and grow some before I'd be willing to write that book...but fate often throws us shit when we're at our least ready.

    (was researching Monkshod today. Not a friendly way to go, really.)

    But yes, the world always needs more books...