In previous blogs I have discussed how I had a sort of turning point in my external spiritual studies. There were, in truth, multiple turning points in my external studies, but I will discuss two here…
The first was an incident where I had paid a huge sum (for me at that time, poor and in graduate school, but really for anyone) to go to a shamanic workshop. This was from a well-known shamanic organization, and I was reasonably curious after reading books about the organization, at least to the extent of not going to any other workshop that year due to the cost.
When I got to this workshop I was astounded by the beauty of the place as well as the accommodations and food (the food was the best part in actuality). As I participated in this course my enthusiasm began waning, despite the fact that I met some wonderful and interesting fellow students there. This was all material that I had either heard before, or was material that was obviously lifted from a variety of sources. The mythology espoused, the indigenous stories, and even the framework for the organization was actually a mishmosh of ideas from indigenous sources, modern western energy work, eastern philosophy, and native american sources.
On top of that the mythology was simply not correct. I have loved mythology from many different countries from young childhood, and knew that what I was being taught was quite simply wrong, or rather a new-age version of characters and stories in order to fit a specific cosmology that the organization created.
On top of that I found that people reciting words from another language, singing songs from another language, and creating “ceremonies” supposedly from that language didn’t sit well to me. It felt wrong to say words I didn’t know the meanings of, and the “ceremonies” didn’t feel like they had any power to me, especially after my own spirit-led initiations. I recall one ceremony in particular in which we all had to sit in silence and supposedly be taken through rites that would change our lives. As I sat down in front of the shaman the distinct thought crossed my mind that “this was stupid”. It was all I could do to not laugh with this sudden realization. And it was. It was just silly, and was spiritual appropriation at the deepest levels, and I had paid a whole lot of money to figure out that this organization, and these courses, were a shallow mockery of the indigenous culture it came from, and were a much shallower experience than what I received on a weekly, if not nightly, basis in my bedroom at home for free.
The second was in a workshop a few years later. I had found a new teacher which I enjoyed, and who interweaved core shamanic work with spiritualist and tibetan spiritual traditions. Her courses were wonderful for where I was at personally at the time, and I am actually quite thankful to her for showing me that there were actually many modern spiritual workers/shamans who had gone through the organizations I had issues with and came out the other side still people of integrity, people willing to question and work with what was around them on a deep level and not go into the sort of spiritual immaturity of only wanting to work with certain people, beings, or energies because they are “good” or “white light”. But in this class I had just come out of a journey and looked around the circle… and realized that everyone in the circle was a white, middle-upper class white woman in her fifties. Obviously there were a few exceptions to this (myself included) but that was the basic archetype.
I never really fit in to those courses– I was always an outlier because I thought differently and saw things differently than other people. At first I thought that it was because of my age (and realistically it likely was that too) but I was quite discouraged in some ways after attending these courses because I always had to take another one– I never really quite understood or got what I was looking for… and I was growing more conscious of the fact that many of the practices (not all) were for rich white people who were at a specific point in there lives– their children had likely grown up, they had been married for some time, they had been working for some time– and they were wondering what else is out there. This is a fantastic realization, but it is incredibly far from what I was looking for. I really hope that those courses provide for that archetype what they need to feel fulfilled.
I often get asked how I have studied, befriended, or interact with physical teachers who are from much different traditions than I am (or was). And I would add on top of that, how do I study or work with cultures that are not being actively co-opted by the typical white male “explorer” archetype who pays someone from another culture large sums of money to act the part of a shaman at their workshops, or has taken teachings and added on the white dominator perspective along with mythologies from other cultures (typically Eastern notions of “karma” and such) with psychotherapeutic elements and new-age memes or thought patterns to make it easily digested by the middle age white archetype talked about above.
The truth is really that I have a very inquisitive Gemini-Capricorn sort of mind, and have an open mind as well as a lot of respect for cultures, traditions, and understandings that are “outside of the box”. This meaning the box I have created (and that we all create) of rigid beliefs, truths, and cosmologies that we feel are valid. I love hearing about ceremonies, stories/myths, and the daily existence and “mundane” reality of cultures and people different than my own. I find it fascinating that I interact with someone in China and they ask me if I have watched “House of Cards”. I love studying different folk traditions (medicine and magic) and am endlessly intrigued by the fact that someone from Slovakia, someone from the South (US) and someone from Morocco have similar thoughts on magical and medicinal effects of cinnamon.
The good part about the internet is that if you are really open you can find likeminded people and groups to learn a lot from. A lot of information on the internet and in the typical Facebook group is sheer and utter b.s., people competing with one another to show who knows more and a whole lot of really confused people and beginners and people who have read a book pretending that they know everything to one another in an effort to pretend they are superior or are more advanced in a particular spiritual tradition. But there are groups, and people, who come together in a lot of internet forums who have been studying, working, teaching, writing, and having direct experiences at the level I have (and way beyond) who come from different backgrounds and cultures. And the ability to interact with people like this is beyond amazing.
My other suggestion is to not be an asshole. A simple suggestion, really. But simply because you have attended a few workshops does not mean that you know everything, or are entitled to any sort of knowledge or spiritual tradition. In spiritual traditions I have studied every single person has many stories about white people coming to them and wanting to learn from them. In modern day this may be someone from a spiritual tradition getting multiple emails from someone asking for free advice. In other instances it can be people approaching other spiritual traditions and indigenous cultures and feeling like they have an automatic right to that knowledge. This means that every single person from a different culture or tradition I have spoken to has told me of people coming to them wanting knowledge or wanting to work with them, not understanding that they are not entitled to do so right away, no matter their background.
These stories are common, but a healer I know (a curandero would be the common term) told me that someone had taken a curanderismo course online and then came to him assuming that she knew everything about curanderism and instead of watching him work respectfully began trying to interfere and interject in his sessions with her own ideas and thoughts, and pouted when the curandero told her that they could talk after he worked.
I have not worked with NDN traditions but since this is the dominant culture appropriated from and romanticized in the US, I will relate a simple story I heard from a man who was running a traditional sweat lodge. He used to invite people from all cultures because he wanted to be open and share his traditions with others. In his tradition there is a traditional sweat lodge done for just men at times. It is intended to be an intense bonding as well as highly spiritual initiatory experience. A woman came and caused a scene because she wasn’t allowed entry, and told the man running it that he was sexist, misogynist, and that he would get what “karma” was coming to him.
I also have many friends involved in Vodou and other spiritual traditions that are highly initiatory. This means that even people from that culture (Haitian for Vodou, but African spiritual traditions in general) do not receive specific knowledge until specific ceremonies are done. And that means that you have to work, study, and learn for a period of time before such ceremonies can be done.. and the spirits involved as well as the house you are involved with have to support you in receiving the specific ceremony. There are people who contact my friends wanting to be Mambos and Houngans (male and female priests of the tradition) without having the slightest idea what the spiritual traditions of Vodou actually are.
So no matter who you are, what you have studied, and what your experiences are, approach other spiritual traditions with respect and with a beginners mind. You are not entitled to knowledge based on reading a book, or a Wikipedia page. Many spiritual traditions take years of study before you even realize what they are. You are not entitled to the secrets, or advanced information of a spiritual path when you are a beginner. Quite frankly, it would likely not make much sense to you anyway. There is an odd sense of entitlement that people really need to break away from… and the competitive spirituality that makes people want to acquire other spiritual paths, traditions, “spells” and lore like it was clothing… we all want to be advanced yesterday, even if we just heard about a spiritual tradition today. Take a big breath, and start from the beginning of any new spiritual path you wish to study.
One last thing– it is easy to get stuck in the box of your own making. To not want to study or learn about other cultures. To create your own sense of ethics and entitlement and think anything outside of your personal worldview is wrong. It is really, really easy to stay with your own cosmology, your own ideas, and to reject anything and anyone outside of it. This world, our spiritual world, is a beautiful and joyous place. We can all learn from one another with respect and admiration, even if the traditions are not something we feel personally called to, even if they are outside of our cultural comfort zone. By approaching cultures, spiritual traditions, and people who have dissimilar ideas to our own we can really grow spiritually. Otherwise we are just keeping ourselves safe and in the same box of ideas, with the same archetype of people, as we always were in.