Shamanism and PTSD

A recent article in the weekly Colorado Springs Independent discusses using Michael Harner-style (I assume) shamanic techniques for veterans with PTSD.

Haggins says alternative practices heal what regular therapy cannot. Through shamanic ritual, he says, he can literally return a part of a soul shed on the battlefield. This is the procedure that Unverzagt, hesitantly, agreed to undergo in January.

The Cinematic Otherworld

About three weeks ago, I dreamt I was sitting with a group of people around a table in some sort of parapsychology lab. It was sort of like a séance, only instead of contacting spirits, we were trying to “make something happen.”

After one session, I went into an adjacent room full of computer equipment, etc., and found a a group of electronic cables had all fused into a big ball. Somehow this was significant — and somehow the affect of the dream was such that my unconscious dream controller pressed the “Abort!” button, and I woke up suddenly.

On some level, the dream reminded me of the 1990 movie Flatliners, in which a group of medical students try to create their own near-death experiences. There is Kieffer Sutherland as the bold leader (“Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it’s time for medical science to try.”), Oliver Platt as the over-intellectualizing Jew (“I did not come to medical school to murder my class mates no matter how deranged they might be.”), Kevin Bacon as the angry but good-hearted skeptic, and Julia Roberts as the girl who is one of the guys.

Sutherland’s character is actually expressing a very 19th-century notion, but let’s set that aside. Set aside too why some demented set designer felt that Bacon’s character should drive an Army surplus M751 truck — in Chicago.

All of the medical students who “flatline” find themselves in an Otherworld where they must confront people whom they wronged. On some intuitive level, I always felt that the movie might have captured a sliver of the after-death experience, just as The Cuckoo has an interesting shamanic sequence.

Or am I kidding myself? Is it possible to portray the Otherworld realistically on film? And what does “realistically” mean in such a context?

Sex in World Religions & Other Updates

¶ First, here is a better version of the Pagan rosary story, “‘Hail Persephone:’ Pagans Retool the Rosary,” which has a photo and also some of the rosary invocations.

Kimberly Winston’s article was also mentioned at the GetReligion blog on religion and journalism.

¶ My recent post on Carlos Castaneda must have reflected the zeitgeist. “The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda” by Robert Marshall treats him as “the 20th century’s most successful literary trickster.”

Castaneda was viewed by many as a compelling writer, and his early books received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Time called them “beautifully lucid” and remarked on a “narrative power unmatched in other anthropological studies.” They were widely accepted as factual, and this contributed to their success. (Thanks, Jason.)

¶ Those mysterious Etruscans . . . seem to have led lives filled with varied sex. (Site probably NSFW, unless you are a classicist.) These images and texts reflect the upper rungs of Etruscan society, I suspect. (Thanks: 2blowhards.)

¶ In case you forgot, “all acts of love and pleasure” are definitely not Allah’s rituals. In fact, nudity during sex invalidates marriage, says a high-ranking Islamic cleric. Some of his colleagues disagree, saying that nudity is permissible as long as you don’t look at your partner.

The most controversial anthropologist

One episode of a BBC series called Tales from the Jungle on famous anthropologists examines the “shamanthropologist” Carlos Castaneda (d. 1998), appropriately described as the most controversial anthropologist ever.

For those of us who can’t watch the Beeb, it is available in segments from YouTube.

There are also episodes on Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead.

Without Castaneda, there would probably have been no “neo-shamanism.” Without Mead appealing to Western notions of the noble–and sexy–savage, the “sexual liberation” of the 1960s would have lost one of its ideological underpinnings. And Malinowski, of course, largely shaped 20th-century ideas of ethnography.

The videos are a little hoked-up–and I wish that the BBC would consistently identify the talking heads on the screen. They do include Castaneda’s son and ex-wife, who in the video defend much of his research (although not his actions), and Jay Fikes, an anthropologist known for his work with the Peyote Way in Mexico and the USA, who is more critical.

The video focuses on the cultish last years of Castaneda’s life in particular.

For more on Castaneda, read Richard DeMille’s two books on him, as well as Dan Noel’s The Soul of Shamanism. Also the Sustained Action website.

Via Savage Minds.

Shaman’s Drum’s new fundraising

Timothy White started Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism & Spiritual Healing in the mid-1980s, at the same time that Jay Kinney started Gnosis: Journal of the Western Inner Traditions.

In fact, I met both publishers on the same evening in San Francisco, at a publishing gathering where they introduced their new journals. As a graduate student in religious studies, I ended up writing frequently for Gnosis, but I always subscribed to Shaman’s Drum as well.

Both suffered a big hit in the late 1990s when a major distributor went under, owing them both significant sums of money. Jay Kinney closed Gnosis in about 2000 and went on to other projects; Timothy White and his wife, Judy, struggle on in Oregon.

Their latest plan is to organize a series of benefit auctions on eBay, offering such items as “traditional shamanistic craft items (drums, medicine bags and other items), original shamanistic paintings, collector’s prints and photos . . . . back issues and/or discount certificatesfor workshops and tours advertised in the magazine.”

They are also soliciting donated items to sell.

News of upcoming auctions is supposed to be posted on the Web site. It’s not there yet, but check back later.

Wicca: trendy, phony, and Constitutionally protected

If I were not teaching rhetoric, I would not have found Michael Medved’s column on Sgt. Patrick Stewart’s pentacle memorial while looking for a good political column for my students to analyze.

After insulting the religion–“it’s a trendy, phony potpourri of druidical, primitive and New Age elements that’s more a pagan cult than an organized faith”–Medved grudgingly admits that “the Constitution leaves no room for the government to discriminate against its adherents.”

Uh, OK, thanks, I guess. And we are a Pagan cult, in fact, if you want to be technical about it.

Meanwhile, his fellow columnist Dennis Praeger, who has been bent out of shape over a Muslim Congressman wanting to take his oath of office on the Koran, responds to his critics and adds,

I am a Jew (a non-denominational religious Jew, for the record), and I would vote for any Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, atheist, Jew, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Wiccan, Confucian, Taoist or combination thereof whose social values I share.

A couple of nights ago I guest-lectured via telephone to Jeffrey Kaplan’s class in new religious movements at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

I said that I thought that Paganism–Wicca in particular–was becoming the new designated Other on the American religious scene–and these columnists bear me out. Get used to “What about Wicca?”

However, I expect that it will be a long time before the first Wiccan elected to the House of Representatives has to worry about on which book to swear an oath. For the record, no holy book is required anyway.

Amtrak Heaven, Amtrak Hell–and all for Pagan Studies

Regular readers know that M. and I like train travel. We saw both sides of it on our just-completed trip to Washington, DC.

The Southwest Chief was on time to La Junta, Colorado, where we meet it, but the ticket agent was muttering about possible stoppage due to high winds.

Somewhere in western Kansas, we ended up parked for five hours. Apparently there is an Amtrak regulation against prairie travel when winds exceed 50 mph, and according to a crew member, winds at the Dodge City airport were 63 mph. Can those double-decker Superliner cars blow over?

Late to Chicago, we missed our connection on Capitol Limited to Washington, but did make it onto the Lakeshore Limited, which had been held in the station. Thus began the great Rust Belt tour: northern Indiana and Ohio, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and down the Hudson River to New York City. This time, our sleeper was one of the one-level Viewliner cars, designed to fit into Penn Station.

I could never keep count of all the old brick warehouses, piles of scrap metal, and empty factories. What is the quarter-mile long three-story white brick building in Utica, New York, that looks empty? There is just so much stuff in this country.

We arrived in New York about 8 p.m. and an Amtrak representative promised us seats on a regional train down to Washington, DC, which would have gotten us there by midnight–eight hours late, but we could live with it.

But what she did not tell us was that a freight train had derailed south of Baltimore, interrupting the “catenary” electrical system and stopping commuter trains in that sector. We got this sad news from the conductor somewhere around Trenton: our train would stop at Philadelphia.

It was too late for a Greyhound bus–the last one had left at 10:15 p.m. The rental car counters were all closed. Amtrak’s Philadelphia agents were flailing around, first promising buses and then saying that there were none, and that Baltimore was worse, anyway.

Eventually, like some other passengers, we partnered with a third traveler and rented a cab. Yes, from Phillie to Washington by taxi, driven by an immigrant Indian driver who knew how to get onto Interstate 95 south, but after that had no idea where he was going.

Neither M. nor I knew our way around either. Fortunately the other guy knew the main roads–and somewhere in the south part of downtown, the brotherhood of cabdrivers was invoked: our driver pulled alongside a DC cab, rolled down his window, and shouted [assume melodious Indian accent]: “Where is Hotel Washington?” And soon we were there, heads hitting the pillow about 3 a.m.

And so I slept until about 10:30 a.m. and then trudged off to the Convention Center, arriving late for the all-day Pagan studies conference, but delighted to be there and able to say that I had paid all that money out of my devotion to Pagan studies.

It was totally worth it.

On the return trip, we were only slightly late into Chicago and right on time in La Junta. Boarding the Southwest Chief in Chicago, we looked around and realized that we were in the same “roomette” in the same sleeping car that we had just vacated six hours earlier. That never happened before. Perhaps it was . . . a sign.

Thursday, Nov. 16, apparently was no picnic for air travelers either. I spoke to one attendee who had been dropped in Pittsburgh and sent by bus to Baltimore. Others had similar stories. The travel system is complex and fragile. One thunderstorm at an airport can back up air travel all around the country, so I cannot be too hard on Amtrak for its high-wind policy.

On the other hand, I have been talking with Customer Relations and will be seeking some sort of refund, having bought Chicago-Washington sleeper tickets but having been dumped in Philadelphia.


A fall from a height

I am in Colorado Springs today, where famous evangelical pastor Ted Haggard’s fall dominates the news.

Frankly, to borrow the name of a better-known blog, I just don’t “get” his kind of religion. A 14,000-member megachurch? Why? So you can sit on your butt and be preached at and sung at among a huge crowd of strangers?

My dislike for Haggard’s approach is more than theological. It is partly aesthetic–the whole megamall megachurch entertainment thing. And it’s partly because of the way that New Lifers regarded the most interesting parts of Colorado Springs (such as the Old North End and Tejon Street) as controlled by Satan or something. I wrote elsewhere that they do not understand the gods of the city, only the gods of the suburban shopping mall.

One excerpt: “[Jeff] Sharlet makes a good case for New Lifers as exurban parasites, taking the services that the city provides but being unwilling to pay for them, either financially or psychically.”

Anyway, he is toast now, although there will probably be some sort of public-repentence-as-career move. From a Christian perspective, LaShawn Barber’s coverage is about the best.

And that’s the news from “Fort God.”

Ojo de dios

The new issue, no. 65, of Shaman’s Drum reprints a portion of Visions of a Huichol Shaman by the anthropologist Peter Furst.

Furst has spent much time among the Huicholes, who live in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental and who are sometimes considered one of the least-Christianized tribes. Their religious use of peyote gives us an idea of how it might have been used in pre-Conquest times. You can see historic film footage of Huichol peyoteros in Phil Cousineau’s documentary on the Native American Church, The Peyote Road (Kifaru Productions, 1994).

An exhibit of Huichol yarn paintings with shamanic themes is now touring. If you live near Charlotte, North Carolina, go see it while you can.

Huichol people had been making art for a long time by pressing colored yarn onto a beeswax backing, usually on gourds. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Mexican curators and anthropologists encouraged the making of rectangular yarn paintings on wooden panels that could be framed and sold. Some artists developed narrative pictures based on shamanic journeys.

Another Huichol artifact was the yarn-wrapped cross, called a “god’s eye” by the early anthropologist Carl Lumholtz–Peter Furst considers that to be a misnomer and calls it a “four-directional protective prayer object.” A fancy example is shown here.

Separated from the Huichol context, god’s-eyes became an icon of Southwestern-hippie decor in the mid-1960s. As I was starting high school, my stepfather was offered a high-level job in the New Mexico state education department, and I was all set to move to Santa Fe and decorate my white-walled bedroom with god’s-eyes. But he took a job in Jamaica instead, and we went there. Later, for many years a small god’s-eye, matchsticks wrapped with thread, hung from the rearview mirror of my faithful Ford F-100 pickup truck. I called it my “spiritual compass.”