Tag Archives: giftedness

O is for Other

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project (PBP). It’s the first one for the letter O. Or rather, it’s the only one for the letter O because I’ve just decided to officially go with one post per letter for a while because there are so many other things that occupy me right now that spirituality has taken a definite backseat.

At some point last year I realized that a huge part of my identity was tied to the concept of being “other.” In fact, the one thread that runs through my entire conscious life is feeling different from (nearly) everyone else.

I’ve been the only kid in my class who could read before she started school (I somehow taught myself but have no memory of doing that – one day I just could read). I was the only kid who didn’t belong to any religion during my childhood. I felt like the only girl who never understood the dynamics between boys and girls when puberty hit us all (and what I understood seemed incredibly stupid to me). I was the only girl who repeatedly got the key for the boys’ locker room at the local swimming pool (which was hugely embarrassing to me since I wanted to be good at being a girl so much). I was a very late bloomer in terms of physical development (and therefore was excluded from all teenage girl bonding over menstruation and such). I was the only one in my social circle who never had a “real” boyfriend during adolescence (and the two I was with barely lasted longer than a week or two that consisted mostly of me feeling pressured to be more sexual with them than I wanted to be, and I definitely wasn’t in love with either of them). I was the only one who read books on anti-psychiatry in eight or ninth grade (age 14/15) during school breaks (which got even weirder when people learned that I did this out of personal interest, not for a school project). I was the only one with tomato-red hair in my entire school when I was around sixteen (and got harrassed by strangers on the street for that on a daily basis). I was the only one in my class who would speak up on sexism and ask the philosophy professor to do a unit on feminist language philosophy (which he seemed delighted to do, earning me even more annoyance from my classmates).

I eventually became a lesbian along with being a feminist, which at least meant I wasn’t the ONLY one anymore. Suddenly, there was a whole community I could belong to. How completely exhilarating! If only I had managed to be the “right” kind of lesbian for that social circle. I was an utter failure at being butch or even androgynous (although I didn’t have the vocabulary to even talk about these things), I soon became fed up with sexuality being discussed only in relation to violence and abuse, and I – horror of all horrors! – wore a bright red gown from the second hand store to the ball to celebrate an anniversary of the local women’s (read: feminist and lesbian) magazine. With my big Doc-Marten’s-eque boots and a strange haircut. There was ONE other woman in the room who was also in a dress, and she was straight at that point (I think). Then I wanted to spend time with men again, because some seemed really great people to create really great events with, so I eventually lost my place in the lesbian feminist community for good. Instead, I reconnected with the leftist/punk subculture and went on to be the only punk lesbian in my city (an identity I was told I couldn’t take on by a so-called friend because it didn’t exist).

A bit later I was the (then-)only female member of a group of otherwise gay men who organized a weekly non-profit queer bar night. I went on to become the only self-identified femme in my queer-dominated social circle (I didn’t have much in common with the only other femme I knew of in that city), which got me ridiculed, laughed at, dismissed, and reduced to my outward appearance. It also meant that people questioned my queerness and my commitment to the queer community on a regular basis. When I went to a women’s dance every now and then, I still was the only one in a skirt. But hey, at least I had a queer social circle that made me feel like I belonged, even though I made people uncomfortable occasionally! That queer circle stayed home for large parts of my soul for about a decade (and I’m ever grateful for that). I could even integrate my interest in BDSM into it (and also gained a whole new community when I started exploring it in practice, even though I definitely remained at the fringes of that as well).

Then I got a partner who didn’t identify as a woman anymore but considered himself a transgender butch and went by a male name and male pronouns. We were the only couple of that kind in the local queer community (I was asked if I was straight now by people who had personally and directly witnessed me as a mover and shaker of the local queer community. I also lost an important lesbian femme friend and mentor over the transness of my then-partner). When I stopped drinking and smoking I also was the only one who did neither in my circle of friends (which excluded me from all those bonding rituals over getting drunk together, cast me as a party-pooper, and eventually played a large role in my stopping to go out or organize events with them altogether). In my new circle of friends(?) I was the only one with lots of tattoos and piercings and emotional ties to punk and DIY queer culture.

Eventually, I got back to university where I was almost the only student in all of my classes who was already over thirty (which at best helped me take up an unofficial co-teacher role and at worst isolated me once again). I often was the only one who seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter, and who had read all the homework assignments (at least this time I proudly claimed an identity as a “Streberin” – which doesn’t have an English equivalent but roughly is a combination of nerd/geek and teacher’s pet – instead of letting people shame me for my interest in learning things and thinking deep thoughts and discussing them in class). By that time I had also learned that I was “highly gifted” with an IQ that placed me in a minority of 0.13% of the population. While that explained a lot, taught me immediate patience with my fellow human beings to a degree I had never felt before, it also meant I suddenly had an acute sense of how different I actually was in that area, and that I really didn’t have much of a choice about that, either.  So I joined the local chapter of Mensa, where I was the only one who was that queer (even though I was barely out about it) and found that I could have a nice, fun conversation with some of the people some of the time, we never really shared enough areas of interest to turn these conversations into actual friendships (not to mention the casual sexism, racism, and queer hate that seemed to be a part of many equally casual conversations, or the general disdain for anything spiritual). Perhaps needless to say, I’m not a Mensa member anymore.

About six years ago, I started exploring spirituality, initially by reading tarot. Once again, I was doing something that was definitely not considered good and worthwhile in the vague queer academic-activist culture I felt most connected to (when I finally started coming out about my interest, however, I discovered that there were indeed others, even though that still didn’t make a community). To this day, I haven’t told my mother or sister about my spiritual explorations (my father would also be on the list if he hadn’t died) because it’s just not something we do in our family. I found a good place to learn in the Aeclectic Tarot Forum, but I still was the odd one out whenever it came to things like sexual orientation (I was neither straight nor was I a lesbian or any other easily named queer identity), which impacted my readiness to even ask for relationship readings (especially after I once had a reader tell me that my transgender partner shouldn’t get surgery – and only admitted she hadn’t gotten that from the cards at all when I directly asked her about it, not to mention that I hadn’t asked about that at all). Nevertheless, it was nice to have a virtual environment where we could talk about a subject we were all interested in, where our identities didn’t matter that much. I met some really nice people there, including some who I now consider friends (and I don’t call anyone a friend easily).

However, my attempts at connecting with spiritually similarly-inclined people outside of the internet (e.g. at meet-ups or workshops) and at were not so successful. Neither have I found any spiritual path/tradition that I would have been able to adopt more or less as-is. The biggest part of this were issues around gender and queerness (about which I’ve written before (here, here, and here), so I won’t repeat all that.

After university, I started working my first full-time job (at the age of 36!) as one of two queer (but not out) employees of a small company of maybe thirty people. I was the only one who hadn’t studied what she was doing (so I lacked the cultural background of that discipline my coworkers and boss had), the only one with a decidedly crooked “career path.” I also was the only woman who wasn’t into fashion and who refused to conform with the femininity standard of that company. That excluded me from both the women and the men, and I think I was the only one who was never invited to a social get-together with my coworkers. My Beloved had by then decided to take some of the “official” steps that law and medicine offer for trans people in this country, so it became increasingly hard for me to even share my own queerness and that part of my life. Again, I was neither straight (and I think it showed), nor was I out as something people recognized.

With the decision of my partner to start living as a “man” full-time, I lost even more ties to the queer community because I just didn’t feel represented and invited anymore. Most of the time, there wasn’t even a label I would use for myself on any flyer that spoke to “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, intersex individuals, and their friends” – I’m sorry but I’m way more than a “friend,” I’m very queer myself but my queerness doesn’t even have a name (especially not in German). I started living in a strange place that really belonged nowhere (which is both figuratively and literally true because our apartment is in exactly such a place), and that made it hard to feel at home anywhere except in my own room.

There was a brief time where I found a place where all those identity markers didn’t seem to matter much at all, and that was during my training to be a hospice volunteer. We were human beings there, and everything that usually is oh-so-important either came up only a long way into the training or not at all (I still don’t know everyone’s day jobs or family status, for example). That was astonishingly nice, and it made me realize that I have no space like that anywhere else in the world. And that’s not because I don’t want to belong, because I want to be different at all costs. I just don’t, and I just am. There are hardly any spaces at all that aren’t fraught with all kinds of stories that usually end up reaffirming that I’m not “normal,” that I’m always the exception and never the rule, that I don’t fit in easily, and certainly not painlessly.

Sometimes I wish I could be a round peg in a round hole, just once, so I get a break. Because being different is exhausting. It costs so much energy. You constantly have to provide a running commentary of the world where you have room, where you can exist, where you are okay. All the time. Every day. Year by year. And then you haven’t even started to look for others like yourself so that maybe, on some days, you can have someone else tell you these things because you’re too damn tired to do so yourself (and do the same for them on other days). And then you haven’t even started to speak up and do something about it. Which takes even more energy, because then you will have to explain yourself over and over again, to people whose idea of a good time is provoking you on purpose, to people who tell you that you should be grateful for all the good things you have (and look how bad it is for those people over there in that other country!), to people who end up hurting you over and over again while telling you they didn’t mean to and therefore you shouldn’t be upset.

However, whenever I think of that theoretical fairy and the wish she’d grant me, no questions asked, I never ask for being “normal.” Because I like being different, as hard as it often is. I like being able to see how things like norms work. I like constantly having at least one foot on the outside for the perspective that gets me. I like the creativity required by having to come up with alternative narratives of mainstream stories, or repurpose and remix existing cultural content to include my experiences (this is definitely one reason why I’m very much in love with the idea of (non-canon) fanfiction/slash).

And, to make this post at least somewhat complete, I need to admit that it completely ignores the areas of my life where I am indeed a round peg in a very comfortably fitting round hole. Where I am not at all “other” in a way that would put me at a disadvantage. For example, I am white, well-educated, carry a passport of the Western European country I’m living in, and have grown up speaking this country’s standard language without any strong dialect. I have easy access to good, affordable healthcare and clean water. I am healthy and able-bodied and feel mostly good about my body. I have access to the Internet and several local libraries and can read/speak/write/understand two languages, one of them being English. I have a solid roof over my head and enough money to cover all necessities and then some. My family has very few issues with my queerness. I am constantly read as a cisgendered person (there were a few exceptions earlier in my life but they’ve all been a long time ago), and I seem gender-conforming enough to not be in immediate danger of being beaten up, raped, or killed for my deviations from gender norms (at least that’s true for where I live). I have never experienced a war in my country, I’m free to vote and say pretty much everything I want without serious danger of life and limb. And these are just off the top of my head.

But that’s the thing about privileges (and all of these are privileges in the grand scheme of things, so let’s call them that): they are very hard to notice unless you don’t have them all the time.  It’s only when you lose a privilege you once had or when you gain one you didn’t have all along that you even notice the effects of your own privilege without having to make a conscious effort. (Personally, I found this computer-game analogy an awesome way to think about having privilege and what effects it has on those who have it. Note: It can easily be adapted to also work for people who are not straight white men but still benefit from the privilege that comes with being one or two of these things.)

Nevertheless, I  still consider “being different” a basic aspect of my life experience (if only because there simply aren’t many contexts in my everyday life where my otherness is entirely irrelevant and I experience pure “normalcy”/privilege, especially long-term). And yet, I wonder… What do I gain by repeating “I’m different” to myself over and over again? Is this nothing but special-snowflake syndrome and a case of first world problems? Would an increased awareness of my own privileges/”normalcy” (which I try to gain step by little step) eventually make me realize that my experiences of being different don’t really “count” compared to the lives of others? Why can’t I just see myself as belonging to the category of “human” instead of spending so much time focusing on what makes me different (I have been asked that and could only say that “human” is a much too large category to feel meaningful and provide me with a sense of belonging…)?

Yes, there will always be people who are a whole lot more different than I ever was or will be. Yes, they will usually also have a whole lot less privilege than I do. I definitely believe I need to work on at least acknowledging my “normalcy” privileges and then do my part in making things less unfair in general. I can’t just focus on my own minority aspects and ignore all the ways that place me in a position of undeserved and unequal power. But that doesn’t mean I have no negate my own experiences of being different and being shut out of the “center” and their emotional truths, nor do I have to beat up myself for having privilege that I mostly got completely by coincidence (no, I don’t believe in our souls choosing all these specifics of our life so that our souls can learn a certain lesson during yet another lifetime). Getting the balance right between the two is the real challenge here I think…

P.S. And now I’m wondering if this topic is “spiritual” enough to be posted on this blog and as part of the Pagan Blog Project… You know what? I don’t really care. Especially not since I have a hard time drawing a line between my politics, my everyday life, and my spirituality anyway. And why should I?

E is for Easy, effort, and expectations

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter E. It’s partly inspired by lcwards’s post on education and ego from last week, although it’s not a direct reply to it.

Someone recently said to me that some spiritual things were often pretty easy for me when I actually do them (and dare to do them). I agree that I often tend to imagine things to be a lot more difficult than they turn out to be when I get over myself and finally do them. And if they aren’t exactly easy (and not all of them were), they are still totally worth the effort. I also agree that things are often remarkably easy for me when I approach them in a playful mood. However, I find that I come across equally remarkable blocks when I try and develop some discipline and/or do things more seriously.

I’ve actually spent countless hours not doing things, procrastinating and distracting myself in whichever way was available (often by reading about other people’s experiences instead of doing things myself). I encounter a certain resistance within myself every time I’m about to practice something that’s not completely spontaneous and lighthearted. It’s true that I’ve gotten better at overcoming that resistance, but I still think I’m allowing myself to take the easy way out far too often. And why wouldn’t I, since that’s been one of the main lessons I seem to have learned: extra effort is usually not worth it. At this point, I have to take you on a quick tour through some points of my educational life to explain where I’m coming from in all this.

You see, in areas where getting better is or was important to me (e.g. writing, drawing), most of the feedback I got and get is that I’m pretty great already and that anything on top of that is unnecessary. I quickly learned that no one cared for, let alone appreciated the fact that I carefully researched even the last little date in the last little footnote of any of my academic papers. When I said that this or that piece of my writing could have been better, I was quickly assured that it still was worthy of the best grade – so why would I work harder when there was no recognition of my efforts to be gained, not to mention rewards or anything? When I said that I didn’t like this or that aspect of a drawing, I was accused of being overly critical with myself and told to be happy about my talent of which so many others apparently were jealous – so I eventually stopped trusting the judgement of others.

In short, I was torn between two very different “yardsticks” (if you’ll excuse the not-quite-accurate linear metaphor), the one that compares all of us with each other (the “universal” one, which was most often used by my teachers and classmates) and the one that compares me with myself (the “personal” one, which I’ve tried to use myself).

It was often very easy for me to get to the top of the “universal” yardstick without even trying very hard, so grades quickly lost their meaning for me, especially at university. I just became a person from whom an A was expected as the standard, both in the eyes of my teachers and my own. In fact, I eventually began to experiment to see with how little work I could still earn an A. Let’s just say it took very little work. More and more, I left things until the very last minute, until the approaching deadline created enough of a challenge to finally engage me on a level that felt right. (That pattern actually goes back to my time in school where in ninth grade or so I was once publicly praised for my homework writing and asked how long I had worked on it. I replied honestly that I had actually done it in the cafeteria in the 15-minute break before class. No, that still didn’t make anyone identify me as intellectually gifted. I had to do that mostly for myself at the age of 30.)

The exception to this rule were subjects that didn’t click immediately for me (e.g. math, sports, or music at school, or linguistics at university) and that I just couldn’t get interested in enough to try harder. At some point after geometry, math got so abstract (that is, it created no more “images” in my head and I couldn’t see any practical applications of it that I cared for) that I stopped understanding it easily. I couldn’t see any reason that convinced me that my time was well-spent at a day of swimming competitions, or any other competitive sport at that. Who cared if I sprinted a bit faster or slower, or threw a ball a bit further or not? I failed to see the importance of any of these competitions so I didn’t invest much effort into getting better in any of these areas. I wasn’t interested, therefore learning to make linguistic phrase trees or doing trigonometric functions or getting my body to move right to throw a ball further was hard. (In comparison, learning how to raise my eyebrows independently, mastering the choreography for my role in a stage musical, reading very theoretical queer theory, or teaching myself some basic SQL queries seemed both interesting and worth the effort and therefore activated my stubbornness to keep going until I had learned/understood them to the degree I desired. Just to prevent the impression that I’m basically just lazy and don’t want to work…)

My strategy of the least effort had the side effect that I eventually became convinced that if something was easy, the success didn’t count, and that making an effort was pointless because it wouldn’t be measured on the “universal” grading scale anyway. I always had a pretty good sense of how much effort I had invested in something and how “deserved” a grade/praise was in relation to that. My parents reinforced this connection, for example by not celebrating my (good, but not very good) final school degree with me (which to me was for once an appropriate relation between the minimal effort I had put into it and the result) but instead told me I could have done better if I had worked harder (which is true, at least to a certain degree).

Consequently, the only reason why I feel satisfied with my Master’s degree of a 1.0 (the best possible degree) is because I know how hard it was for me to settle on a thesis topic and limit its range and manage my time and organize my thoughts and know when to stop researching and what to include/exclude in the final paper. The thinking and writing itself was a breeze and actually fun much of the time. This thesis was the first time in my entire academic life that I ever genuinely feared I might not make it – and deeply cared about it. I handed in my paper literally ten minutes before the deadline. While I was extremely relieved and a little proud that I had actually made it, I still thought the paper itself was way below my standards. As soon as the damn thing had thumped on the bottom of the university’s mailbox, I started thinking how I could have done so much better if only I had been more organized (or had had more time)…

But I hadn’t been very organized for most of the thesis period (we get four months for writing 80-100 pages, which probably varies a bit from department to department and university to university), because I simply hadn’t learned how to organize writing a paper that I couldn’t write within a week or so. I never needed to make any long-term plans about my education, let alone stick to them. To this day, I still struggle to plan any long-term project that encompasses more than a few weeks. I have a horrible sense for how long things take and tend to vastly overestimate or underestimate the required time. Sure, I know all the theory about chopping the project into little bites and making measurable goals and allowing extra time in the schedule for the unexpected and prioritizing issues and so on. I’ve read a lot of books and articles about getting organized and stopping procrastination. I still have a hard time putting these things into practice. (Maybe I just don’t suffer enough from my current method…)

Let’s get back to the yardsticks, though. Of course my professors loved my thesis and both gave me straight A’s for it. And intellectually I knew they were right in doing so because it clearly exceeded the expectations of the “universal” yardstick. However, it still didn’t rate very highly on my “personal” yardstick. I knew this wasn’t the masterpiece it was supposed to be. I knew this wasn’t the sparkling bang to end my education with. It was a solid paper, but it wasn’t brilliant. On my “personal” yardstick, it certainly wasn’t worthy of the best possible grade. Needless to say, no one believed me when I said so. No matter to whom I confessed my disappointment with myself, they all reacted by assuring me that it had been more than good enough, that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, and that my insistence on failing my own standards was nothing but an exaggerated drive to be perfect. In the end, I just gave up and settled on accepting the grade for the effort of organizing my thoughts and my time, if not for the actual content of the paper. (And, yes, of course that is part of the work of writing a thesis, but that’s not my point here.)

And this is how the discrepancy between the “universal” yardstick and the “personal” one turned out to be majorly frustrating when it came to subjects I wanted to work and get better at. I simply never was challenged beyond a certain one-size-fits-all limit, which unfortunately usually wasn’t my size at all. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate my ability to quickly pick up new things, my curiousity for a wide range of subjects, and my often rather charmingly chaotic way of delivering remarkably good stuff at the last minute without anyone being the wiser about the drawn-out period of inaction and boredom and lack of structure that came before. I’ve become perhaps a little too enamored with the “not bad for five minutes” trick (where you pull off something that gets you compliments from the “universal” yardstick and that even qualifies as “not bad for the five minutes of effort I actually put in there” on the “personal” yardstick) for my own good.

At the same time, I crave for challenges of my actual skills/potential. Sometimes I manage to set them up for myself. Recently, I’m challenging myself with somewhat repetitive tasks which I usually avoid like the plague. Drumming every morning. The “deck of the week” tarot project. Acknowledging my Ancestors via my new altar dedicated to them (not yet a regular event, but an increasingly frequent one). I still notice that I need to infuse these things with enough variety to not get bored or I won’t do them. I also try hard to take up opportunities that take me out of my comfort zone more often than not, like doing a public reading that’s not at all about my academic skills, learning enough SQL to be able to do basic requests on my own, visiting a blind woman with dementia every week for several months and finding ways to communicate with her that were mostly about my heart and not my mind, learning a bellydance choreography even if I don’t enjoy it and would rather improvise… (Of course there are also challenges I don’t set myself for the time being: learning to drive a car or singing (again) in public are two of them. But I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually face even these two “demons.”)

Sometimes, however, I secretly wish for a teacher who would for once design tasks for me that are exactly the right kind and degree of a challenge. Someone who actually cares whether I get better in terms of my “personal” yardstick, no matter what the “universal” one says. Someone who sees through my excuses and demands that I do the work required of me, even if I don’t feel like it. Someone I would respect enough to actually trust them in this process. I most often think of such a teacher in terms of my spiritual development, but I probably would have taken one in another area of life as well, assuming it was important enough to me to make the effort. Unfortunately, I haven’t met such a teacher yet in these 39 years of my life, at least not that I’m aware. Several have come close, and I’m truly grateful for them and I certainly don’t wish to minimize the benefits I get from other teaching methods. I even learned a lot of valuable things from the teachers that rather dramatically didn’t work out for me. Still, there never was an acknowledged and committed teacher-student relationship (mind you, I’m not blaming anyone here, just stating facts!). So, alas, it seems I have to be my own teacher, with all the pitfalls this brings…

Or maybe I should look among non-human entities for someone suitable as a teacher. Which, now that I think of it, may actually be one of the main reasons why I so often feel a twinge of envy when I read how this or that deity took on the education of this or that person (despite all the aspects that don’t seem particularly envy-worthy, some of which I mentioned here). My “dirty little secret” desire for someone to teach and challenge me in the right ways may also be one of the reasons why I can relate so much better to the writings of people like Raven Kaldera, Galina Krasskova, and others who insist on discipline and emphasize the hard work necessary for certain paths compared to the writings of other people who are full of gentle pats on the head, cuddly “understanding,” and permissive forgiveness for the repeated failure to stick to just about any standard. While I do better when I’m criticized in a constructive way and when I’m given reasons why I should do this and avoid that, I suspect I could still use a relatively unyielding attitude with actual consequences for any “misbehavior” than one that never tells me a harsh truth directly.

And that’s where confusion about the appropriate yardstick comes in again in yet another way. Since I’m so used to finding that the “universal” yardstick doesn’t work well for me because it leaves me seriously underchallenged and therefore disinterested and demotivated, I’ve developed a habit of skipping over the basic 101 of most things I learn. This works well in a lot of contexts, and a lot of basics can be picked up easily along the way. Sometimes I need a little bit of extra tutoring about a basic concept I have missed, which I can usually easily explain by the fact that “I didn’t learn this the traditional way from the ground up.” So I rarely look like a clueless idiot, and I usually have at least enough theoretical grasp of things to not look like the newbie I actually am. Of course I also tried the “skip the basics” approach when it came to spirituality. I dismissed the “universal” yardstick as not relevant to me and just started somewhere in the middle. When I was looking for an alternative yardstick, I turned towards people I admired, the few people whom I respected as authorities (in the sense of “I truly believe they know their stuff”), people who – by definition – were anything but beginners. It probably doesn’t come as a suprise to anyone but me when I say that only looking to the “best” of any given field isn’t a good standard for a beginner, especially one who isn’t spectacularly talented at that (really, I’m not remarkably gifted in the spirituality department). Sure, such role models work well when one acknowledges the hard work they put into where they are today and then goes on to also work hard according to one’s own yardstick. But that’s not what I did. I used the yardstick of the achievements of the “best” to measure my own baby steps and worried about my inability to be able to do at least a little bit of the same. After all, who needs intermediate steps?! And hadn’t I been able to use this strategy successfully in so many other situations?

Apparently, however, this strategy didn’t seem to work all too well when it came to spirituality, despite some “easy” successes I experienced in the above-mentioned playful mode. At some point I just got stuck because I never did the work required to develop my skills. So I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that I need to seriously go back to basics and spend some time doing things like breathing, grounding, centering, trying to connect to my Ancestors, instead of jumping headfirst into the next shamanic journey without so much as a cosmology (beyond the “core” shamanic one of Lower/Middle/Upper World) to work from. Because playful shouldn’t be the only approach I can do. And since spirituality is important to me, I am actually motivated to finally learn some discipline in this area. Paradoxically(?), one reason for my willingness to do so is that I feel I’m not doing this just for myself.

That still leaves me without a good idea of the appropriate yardstick when I want to compare myself to others spiritual-wise. But maybe the important step for now is to focus on my own “personal” yardstick and be honest with myself about my lazy/fearful excuses. I’m trying to become a bit stricter with myself because I think I need some hard limits, some challenging challenges, and – if applicable – also some pats on the back if I did well. You know, these things that many (most?) other people learned at some point during their education…

C is for Choice vs. Calling (and Core Shamanism vs. Classic Shamanism)

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter C, and it’s almost on time.

I’ve tried to tackle the subject of shamanic practice as a choice vs. shamanism as a calling for a while now, and I don’t think I’m done pondering it. Nevertheless, I figured I’d post this as a sort of random waypoint on my path of making up my mind about this. Maybe writing it “out loud” will help me clarify some of it. If this seems contradictory or unclear that’s because this is how my thoughts look right now. Please expect some detours and maybe a dead-end or two along the way.

When I first got in touch with shamanism as something Western people practiced, it was in the shape of someone close to me who attended several classes of the European branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS), whose work is based on Michael Harner’s understanding of “core shamanism.” As I understood it from that person’s explanations and my later reading of Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman (first published in 1980), this “core shamanism” was supposed to be a non-culture specific collection of shamanic techniques and a quasi-universal framework for using them. Harner apparently derived the basic contents of his “core shamanism” from his anthropological studies of shamanic cultures in various parts of the world, where he found many aspects that seemed similar across cultures and therefore suggested to him that there was some underlying common ground to all of them. His idea was to avoid appropriating any specific culture and instead take the bare bones of the methods and teach them to other Westeners as a basis from which to develop/discover their own specific shamanic worldview.

At first, that sounded pretty good to me. After all, I knew there had been way too many Westerners already who had taken elements of other cultures’ spiritualities and used them completely out of context. Not only was that a politically problematic thing to do (colonialist exploitation, anyone?), but I also couldn’t help doubting that methods appropriate for people living in a totally different environment really worked more or less the same for Westeners in a thoroughly urban setting. So taking nothing but the culture-free techniques seemed like a good alternative to that. And unlike a gazillion New-Age crackpots whose writings I had encountered already, Harner seemed at least to have some kind of understanding of the problems that come with the Western use of non-Western culture. That alone seemed a lot in comparison.

Nevertheless, I remained skeptical about the FSS workshops I heard and read about. If nothing else, they seemed way to large to me – how would any teacher be able to even notice every student’s needs (not to mention their hangups, issues, and possibly even characteristics that made them thoroughly unfit for that kind of work) in a weekend workshop with  fifty participants? Or even twenty? I also didn’t like the idea that after the workshop people were basically left to their own devices. How would any teacher be able to remain available to their students should something come up when they usually didn’t even live in the same area, and were off to the next twenty-person workshop (or their own private practice or whatever else they did when they didn’t hold workshops) a month later? To be fair, I did hear of some FSS teachers who told their students that there might be unexpected aftereffects and to get in touch with them if they experienced any problems as a result of the workshop, but I have no idea how many students took them up on that offer and how they then dealt with that. But the more famous their name, the more in demand they were, the less individual attention they seemed to be able to offer their students. (Mind you, this is my very own outside perspective that doesn’t necessarily mirror how the students themselves experienced the workshops.)

I’m not sure where I initially got the idea that shamanic work wasn’t just something one could play around with, but apparently I had (and have) a strong belief that one should be properly informed and prepared before taking any steps in a shamanic direction. I suppose the idea must go back a long time because I’ve felt the same about drug use, tattoos, ouija boards, extreme sports, or BDSM practices going back to at least my teenage years: If it alters your state of consciousness or has the potential to permanently change your body, you better know very well what you’re doing. Maybe it’s just an expression of a desire to stay in control on my part, but I believe in taking calculated risks. (Which doesn’t mean I’ve never had any not-so-pretty experiences in any of these areas. It just means that I knew what to do if a heretofore unknown boundary had been crossed inadvertantly. And often it simply meant that I stayed away from something altogether because I wasn’t ready to risk the worst-case scenario of what might have happened as a consequence.)

Oh, and while I’m definitely able to suspend my disbelief about a whole bunch of strange things if I trust the person who is telling me about experiencing them (e.g. talking to the Dead, seeing illnesses, shamanic healing of conditions termed incurable by Western medicine), I usually reserve actual, true belief for things I’ve experienced myself (e.g. non-binary gender, pain as pleasure, energy body parts or energetic shapeshifting, divination). There’s a lot that I consider to be theoretically possible, but I also know that people sometimes make up stuff they haven’t actually experienced/witnessed for many reasons. All in all, this general skepticism means I often just file away reports of extraordinary experiences other people claim to have had into the huge “maybe” archive unless I have good reason to turn them over to the “no, I don’t believe this happened to this person in this way” folder or the “yes, I believe that” one.

I can’t reconstruct which queer-trans-BDSM-spiritual link exactly led me to Raven Kaldera, but I eventually found him and some of his books and his many web presences. I don’t remember what piece of his writing I read first (Hermaphrodeities maybe?), but ever since my first encounter with his stuff I’ve had a thoroughly ambivalent opinion of what he had to say and the way he said it. He certainly deserves credit for speaking about difficult topics that I don’t see mentioned anywhere else (or didn’t, back when I started reading him). More specifically in terms of shamanism, he also deserves credit for pointing out that things are often difficult, dangerous, and not necessarily even the completely free choice of the practitioner/shaman (let’s not get into linguistics here just yet). I truly cherish his voice as a welcome deviance from the mass of other voices who claim to be able to teach “shamanism” in just a short weekend seminar or three, that every single one of us is able to learn this kind of stuff, that becoming good at it is largely a matter of practice, and that there really isn’t anything to fear as long as you have your Animal Guide with you (which often you just “fetched” only a few short minutes or hours ago). With that kind of context, an emphasis on the dangers and difficulties of shamanic practices really is badly needed. I also like his general non-nonsense approach and his dedication to making information available, no matter how controversial it might be.

Among the many things written by Kaldera I read over the past ten (or so) years, some of his texts particularly stuck with me. One of them is his comparison of shamanic practitioners and shamans. The main difference for him doesn’t seem to be whether one practices shamanism in a Western or a tribal culture, but the amount of choice (or lack thereof) one has about practicing at all. I recommend reading his article in full, but I’ll give a brief summary here.
What Kaldera terms “classic shamanism” and “shaman” refers to people who were chosen by Spirits to do this kind of work. They always experience some kind of serious physical or psychological illness at the beginning (so serious that there is a true risk of them ending up mad, dead, or both). They can’t just refuse and walk away from shamanic work whenever they feel like it without suffering serious consequences (see above: mad, dead, or both). And finally, they predominantly act in a position of service to both the Spirits (of a specific cultural context) and some kind of community.
In comparison, what Kaldera terms “core shamanism” and “shamanic practitioners” refers to people who basically keep their ability to choose when, where, how often, for whom, and even if they want to do any kind of shamanic work. There may be some minor ill effects from breaking deals with specific Spirits or stopping the practice altogether, but nothing serious. Shamanic practice may be a path of service or mainly a source of income, it may serve a community or just the practitioner themselves, it may be culture-specific or not. Generally, it’s all a lot less binding.
It should be said, however, that he implies no value judgment of the general abilities of shamanic practitioners, although it is hard not to notice his own preference for “classic shamans.”

A few years after I read this article for the first time, I met Mi-Shell Jessen, the first (and so far only) person I personally know whom I would call a “classic shaman” by Kaldera’s definition. She has become one of my most important (if rather informal) spiritual teachers, and a cherished friend as well. After meeting her, I can’t pretend I don’t notice the difference between her as a shaman/Kham and other shamanic practitioners I’ve met. It’s not like she’s a perfect human being due to that, or that she never makes any mistakes – in fact, she’ll be the first to tell you about her imperfections. However, unlike Kaldera, who seems much interested in keeping the “wrong” people out from his corner of the world, she seems to be focused instead on finding common ground even with people unlike herself instead of drawing lines between most kinds of “us” and “them” (I won’t speculate about the reasons for that because I know neither of them well enough to do so – if these are indeed facts and not just subjective perceptions). If nothing else, that makes her more accessible to me, which I’ve benefitted greatly from. But, yeah, Kaldera still has a point with that distinction between shamanic practitioners and shamans he makes.

So where does my own practice come into the picture here? Well. I asked a lot of questions about the FSS workshops and about other experiences of people I knew who said they used some kind of shamanic practices. I think I also eventually read The Way of the Shaman. The basic idea of journeying didn’t seem all too difficult to learn but I hesitated… for a long time. I fretted over the “right” starting place for journeying. I fretted over “what if it doesn’t work?,” and I fretted about “what if it does work?” Eventually, I used a CD that came with an introductory book on shamanism (inspired by Harner’s work but not directly authored by him or an FSS member). It seemed okay enough and incidentally also made a distinction between shamanic practitioners and shamans – which seems to be the norm with FSS-related material, by the way. I hated the extended narrative on the CD, and when the journeying part finally was supposed to begin, nothing much happened. I concluded I was a shamanic failure and left it at that for a long time.

A while later, I took a class on “chakra harmonization” because it was taught by a then-friend who seemed trustworthy enough for me to even venture into the territory of spirituality or energy work-related classes. Amongst some other things, we learned to do a certain kind of visualizations there, and during one of those an animal appeared rather unexpectedly for me. I was very moved and impressed by that but couldn’t find any useful guidance about what I had experienced in that workshop or from that person. That didn’t help with my perceived readiness to explore energy-work or spirituality much further, so I focused on reading tarot again and let everything else fall aside.

But I still felt drawn to shamanism, if only because I often react with “I’ll show you!” to an initial failure. So, after some more fretting, I asked someone close to me to journey to bring me a “Power Animal” like they had learned to do in the FSS seminars. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but I didn’t get it. Instead, I got an animal that made sense on some level but that didn’t really stick around for long. I suppose I’m at least partly to blame for that because I never really believed it was truly “mine” to work with. Well, if nothing else, this experience taught me to do these kinds of things myself and not try and let someone else do the difficult work for me.

Eventually, I tried journeying on my own again. I had someone a little more experienced next to me (that close person I spoke of), but we each did our own thing. My stated intent was to take a first peek at the Lower World to get to know it a little (you may realize that I’m still using core shamanic terms here because I acted within that framework back then and still lack more accurate and more specific terms to describe what I experienced). Well, I ended up being beheaded, burnt and eaten by Spirits during that very first “real” journey I took (and that’s pretty much the kind of stuff that happened during every single journey I did since then – which weren’t all too many, mind you). So what do I do with that? Of course, being skeptical as I am, I immediately questioned this experience. Maybe I had just read too many accounts of the significance of dismemberment journeys and now my mind/unconsciousness made up variations of the theme over and over again… And, if it was actually for real, what did that mean about my shamanic abilities? And why on earth did I even worry about that since I was pretty clear that becoming a professional shamanic practitioner (let alone a shaman) wasn’t even something I secretly dreamed of?!

I think it was at that point that I started reading more. But most of the stuff I came across either just repeated Harner’s core shamanic beliefs (which offered nothing helpful to me) or was so “out there” that I couldn’t see a relation to my own life and experiences. Not to mention the endless parade of people tacking the “shamanic” label onto everything even remotely related to nature and spirituality. Which left me in a strange kind of territory: core shamanism didn’t seem to offer what I was looking for (or maybe I just didn’t find the right practitioners of it because those people were busy doing their work instead of posting stuff on the internet or writing books) and classic shamanism seemed completely out of my league.

I still eventually took a basic class with the European branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, taught by this guy. I told myself I would be then able to use it to take advanced classes with the FSS later, should I want to do so. After already resigning myself to not being able to participate due to signing up when the class was already full, I still managed to get into the class via the waiting list, so I figured it was indeed the right thing to do for me. I’m afraid I can’t say too many positive things about this particular class and teacher, though. While we were explicitly told that we wouldn’t learn how to be a shaman in that class (or any of the FSS), we were all too soon doing exercises where one of us was called the “shaman” and the other the “client” or “patient” and our work was referred to as “shamanizing.” This may have been sheer verbal laziness on the part of the teacher, but it did nothing to keep up any distinction between us and other shamanic practitioners or shamans. We were also taught that everyone was able to journey, although not everyone might be able to do so on their first try. Those that didn’t manage to journey were basically left alone and told they should try again later. At some point someone asked if we should always do what the Spirits told us, and we were told to please use our common sense. I tried to bring up the idea of serving the Spirits instead of the other way round (because I still don’t believe that any Spirit is just sitting around like a bored waiter waiting for us to show up so they can take our orders or that they work with us for completely selfless reasons), but that line of thought was first ridiculed (by making me appear as if I would stupidly follow any instructions by any Spirit no matter what) and then quickly ended (mostly because I decided it was pointless to further discuss this point in this context). And don’t get me started on one of the songs we learned there, which goes like this: “I have spirits, spirits have I (repeated 3x); I, I, I” – that’s way too much “I”/ego for my taste (and no, I don’t “have” Spirits, even though I may carelessly say so in some spoken discussion – but I certainly won’t sing it to them)!
Oh well. I still learned a whole lot of things. Mostly that these kinds of classes are definitely not the right way for me to learn any of this (I’d rather muddle along on my own). And what aspects of Western teaching of shamanic practices I find highly problematic, especially now that I have experienced them myself. I’m just glad that I waited so long before I took that class and that I had already encountered some other perspectives on shamanism before I did. (To be fair, I’ve met other people who took FSS classes who were able to focus on the beneficial aspects of them much more than I was. Their accounts therefore are rather different from mine. So I don’t claim any objective truth here.)

So I come back to Kaldera (and by now also Galina Krasskova and some others who seem connected to them in some way) again and again, for reasons still not entirely clear to me. I often leave these pages (digital and printed) both impressed/delighted/inspired and alienated/furious/hurt (going by a quote Kaldera often uses – “‘Tis an ill wind that blows no minds” – I suppose he’d count that as a success). And I kept wondering: Could I even be a serious shamanic practitioner if I didn’t experience some kind of dramatic shamanic initiation similar to what Kaldera’s “classic shamans” experienced? Assuming I was given the choice, would I pay that kind of price? And then, again: Why was I even worrying about that when I had no desire whatsoever of becoming any kind of Spirit worker beyond my own personal practice?
Well. I do have very high standards for myself (which I often fail to meet), so I don’t usually measure myself against average people in any area – not even where it would be highly appropriate for me to do so. But being mediocre just won’t do. So I look towards the most serious practitioners/shamans I could find – and of course find myself lacking. I worry about a potential step #357 of a “shamanic path” when I haven’t even taken step #3 – which is probably not surprising given that I rarely learn things in their proper sequence and often jump in at around step #15 and pick up the basics I missed somewhere along the way, usually without anyone ever noticing my haphazard ways.
On some days I think I should just come to terms with the not unlikely possibility that I might indeed be spiritually/shamanically mediocre. Not completely head-blind (yes, I read a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a young adult), not entirely useless in that area, but also, for once, most certainly not among the best in an area I’m actually interested in. That in itself would probably teach me a whole lot of valuable lessons.

I am certainly not ready to serve any community in any spiritual function (if you don’t count sharing my thoughts in online spaces, which for the purposes of this argument I indeed don’t count). From what I hear, I should be grateful for every day that the choice about my path remains firmly my own. As a result of what I’ve seen and read about the work and life of a “classic shaman” in the Western world (or elsewhere), I’m actually taking great care not to send out an accidental wish to the Universe to “make me a shaman.” At the same time, I still occasionally worry that I’ll never be good enough to do that kind of work – and I’m not even sure it’s only my ego that’s speaking there. And even while I worry I’m also sure that the worrying is pretty pointless: If I believe that the Spirits pick the shaman, and the shaman doesn’t have all too much to say in that deal, then it won’t be my choice anyway whether I am ever called for that job. Because that’s exactly the point about a calling, isn’t it: lack of choice.

So I keep reading/listening and struggling. And every time I find a little snippet of something that has some practical application in my own life as it currently is. And then there’s Mi-Shell Jessen again, who reminds me in a positive-sounding way that there is a lot of inhabitable space between not having a spiritual life at all (which is where I originally started at) and being a full-blown shaman. Not to mention that growing into a shamanic worldview as an adult may take some time, and that I’ve still just started out on my path. In other words, don’t obsess about where this is leading you but be present for the path as such.

Either way it can’t hurt to learn more, just in case someone else needs this or that skill at some point. And really, truly studying something is also a skill I never acquired. It just wasn’t necessary. I usally pick up more than enough by passing through, by skimming, by transferring knowledge from other areas, by thumbing through, by looking over people’s shoulders, and occasionally by asking a few questions and experimenting a bit on my own. And I’m not saying that to brag, I’m just neutrally describing my usual mode of operation. And this is exactly why I’m so proud that I’ve actually developed a nearly-daily spiritual practice (even though I regularly doubt that I’m doing it “right”). To pick up my drum every morning and do at least a short round of prayer(?) to the directions/elements, my Ancestors, and the main Animal Guides I have encountered so far, even if I can’t really focus, even when I’m already late, even when I have to skip breakfast to still be able to leave the house on time, even when I’m sure no one is really listening is a huge accomplishment for me.

Believe me, I’ve questioned the way I’m doing it countless times. Is it appropriate to use a melody from a song of an unremembered source (possibly Native American)? Is it appropriate to use English words even though my first language is German, I live in Germany, and my Ancestors are at least predominantly German as well? Am I using the right elemental and other associations for the directions? Which Spirit Animals do I include in my song (all of them that ever appeared to me on a journey or otherwise? only the main two ones? the main two plus any recent appearances?)? Etc. But for now I’ve decided that it is better to go ahead with something unfinished and thoroughly imperfect (another lesson for me!) than to pause everything until I have figured out what spiritual tradition I actually belong to.

And this is something I am grateful for when it comes to the Harner kind of “core shamanism” I encountered: it enabled me to learn a basic method for journeying into the Spirit World without having to pick/find the right specific culture/tradition first. One may of course question the value and realness of the experiences I’ve made so far (in fact, I’ve done that myself countless times!), and I’m probably still guilty of lacking basic protection skills when it comes to journeying. But still I feel I have something to start with. Because apparently spiritual learning and explorations don’t always follow the ideal path of learning each step after another, at least not for me.

That said, I haven’t journeyed for months now, ever since I took that FSS workshop. In fact, that’s been nearly a year now. I keep wondering about that tradition thing and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need some kind of framework/cosmology that I can use without feeling that I’m just borrowing someone else’s stuff because I don’t have any of my own. So maybe it makes sense for me not to journey at all right now (although it’s not a conscious choice, it just “doesn’t happen”). Maybe it makes sense that I’m pondering my Ancestors so much lately. After all, that’s the one starting point that Galina Krasskova recommends strongly in her own blog (I’m still reading my way through her archive, which is definitely worth it, and I’m still slowly taking a small step or two towards following some of her advice), and it does make sense to me. I’m still not sure how to get in touch with my Ancestors (or, somewhat relatedly, the Spirits of the Land I’m living on) without outright journeying but I hope I’ll find a suitable way. I’ve also decided that it won’t hurt if I learn a little bit about Germanic/Norse mythology because it does seem wrong to just give up this territory to the Nazis (old and new). I have no idea if I will eventually find my spiritual home in that area but if nothing else I will learn interesting new things.

So I guess my main question at this time is this: What do you do as someone interested in an animistic/shamanic worldview and practice who does seem to have a choice about things and still doesn’t want to be an idiot about it? After all, having a choice doesn’t necessarily make things easier in terms of making good choices – and especially because I have a choice I’d rather not exploit people or other living beings (including Spirits), act stupidly and/or disrespectfully, and generally do things “wrong”… Your thoughts and ideas are – as always – welcome!

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For further insight into the debate about “core/Western shamanism” and “classic/indigenous shamanism” see these articles. I’m sure there are many more but these are the ones I came across recently, so these are the ones you get.

[Edited to add (17 February 2012): Corrected some grammar mistakes today.]