Sunday, June 17, 2007

In Which I Fear the Gods Exceedingly: My Visit to the New York Shamanic Circle

It’s true, it’s true, I ran out on the shamanic circle. But let me explain.

There was a long buildup to this visit – it took forever to find out whether the shamanic circle was even going to meet last weekend. First I heard yes. Then I heard maybe and, then, again, call back later, because, maybe. My contact seemed unsure whether the guest-star shaman was going to show up at all. I called back the very day the shamanic circle was supposed to happen, which was a Friday, and was finally given a confirm, that yes, the shaman was coming, the newbie-friendly Open Circle was going to happen.

I had actually wanted to go to the Saturday session led by this guest shaman, wherein they were going to summon Ipupiara (a fresh-water dolphin) from the Ureu-eu wau-wau (the people of the stars) tribe, who was going to “share with us for the first time the concept and healing methods used in his native Amazon to remove evil spirits, evil eyes and attachment of bad spirits.” However, I was told that this session was not for beginners, and in any case it would cost $120. So I settled for the open circle.

The circle met at an elementary school in Tribeca, in a regular school building. I walked up to the main door, saw there was a receptionist, and thought to myself “Am I really going to ask this harried receptionist where the shaman is at? Is she going to think I’m totally out of my mind?”

I was tempted to just leave the building, but I have committed to my new religion-hunting hobby for better or for worse, so I had no choice but to ask. The woman was juggling three phone lines and a whole lost-looking family standing in front of her, but she immediately nodded and pointed toward the stairs. “Third floor auditorium.”

“Oh, good, an auditorium,” I told the Companionable Atheist. “This means we aren’t going to have to, like, interact.” I imagined the two of us sitting peacefully in the back of a large room, behind a couple of very high backed wooden chairs, as the shaman performed his art for a quiet, appreciative audience.

Instead, the third floor auditorium turned out to be a gymnasium, with fans blasting at all the windows, and mats laid out in a gigantic circle (a square, really) on the floor. About 40 people were already there, sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the mats. In the middle of the circle lay a stretched out sheet with a pile of ritual objects on it: candles, wooden rattles and drums, flowers, sea shells.

Though the room was mostly full, I walked over to the nearest mat, confident that people would scootch over and greet me with open arms, as they had greeted me basically everywhere else I had ever gone.

“Is someone sitting here?” I asked the closest woman. The woman stared up at me blankly. “Yes. See the handkerchief?” She turned away.

I backed away awkwardly and tried another gap on the other side of the room. “Excuse me, is someone sitting here?” Another blank stare. “Yeah.” I couldn’t believe it. I tried my adorable pathetic look. “Do you see anywhere around here I could sit? I’m having a hard time.” She shook her head. “No, I really don’t.” And again, she turned away.

Finally I just decided I was going to sit down whether they liked it or not, and if a spirit needed to move me, I would just move then. The Companionable Atheist and I squeezed onto the corner of a mat and I checked out the crowd, which included people of various ethnicities, in normal garb, with a touch of the hippie (a guy in a button-down shirt with a foot-long ponytail; a woman in a pastel cardigan with big seashell earrings). Some of them were super-hippied out (dreadlocks and batik overalls) but the rest were decidedly normal looking. In other words, it was no stranger looking a crowd than your average subway car contains.

A few minutes after we sat down, people started banging drums and hitting their rattles, in a pretty fast unison beat. I stole two rattles from the center of the circle, and was not yelled at for doing so. The banging went on for about 15 minutes, reminding me a little bit of the construction that is currently underway in my office building. I briefly worried that the entire 90 minute service would just be drumming, but eventually the drumming stopped and we got a “welcome everybody." The guest star, a shaman from Brazil, got a special welcome, and he gave a thoughtful nod of acknowledgment.

We passed a candle around the circle and said our name out loud, and the whole group repeated our names back to us. The shaman, a middle aged Brazilian guy with long hair, decent English, and a little bit of a paunch, told us, “Once a circle like this is created, it exists forever.”

The Companionable Atheist and I looked at each other. We had already resigned ourselves to becoming Mormons in the afterlife (since they believe that people can be converted after their deaths), so the thought that we were already going to be claimed by a shamanic circle for eternity kind of threw us for a loop. “Can I be a Mormon and be in a shamanic circle?” I asked. I don’t know how anyone could find the answer to this deeply modern theological question, but somebody really ought to look into it.

Then four volunteers got up, lit big seashells full of some kind of spruce-smelling incense, and held them in front of each person in the circle. The people waved the incense onto their bodies like they were washing themselves in it, or swimming in it. I studied the gesture as it was passed around the room (maybe there’s a certain number of times you’re supposed to wash your head, and then your body, and then your head again), but I’m not sure I got it right. The volunteers didn’t care. They were nice, and they were patient with everyone’s different needs for incense bathing. I found this energy-clearing to be very enjoyable.

Then we cleared our energies with sound. The same volunteers came around and shook seashell rattles above our heads, in front of us, and in circles around us. This was also pleasant.

Then we faced in each of the four directions and at the request of the Brazilian shaman, repeated the Brazilian name for each direction. He himself was cool as a cucumber, but he got a little bit into the MC shtick here, telling us we weren’t reciting the names loud enough.

Then the drumming started again, and everyone started dancing, skipping or shuffling in a circle around the pile of ritual objects. Kind of a freestyle session, I guess. People were singing, howling, or chanting in monotone whatever they felt like saying. I stood and watched, and got kind of looked over by everyone as they passed me in their circle dance. Most of these looks were much friendlier than the freezing cold reception I’d gotten when I came in. Still, the scrutiny was intimidating, and the circling mob was starting to disorient me.

So I started cracking up. The grin that I always get when somebody starts telling me about energies came and parked itself on my face, and it wouldn’t go away. The harder I tried to restore my solemn Exploring Other Cultures face, the harder the grin came back. And soon, I realized it was hopeless. The freestyling was about to end, the journeys would start, it would get really quiet, and I’d be laughing uncontrollably in the back of the room. This would be embarrassing for me and offensive to the shamanic devotees. My energies would screw everybody up, and the healing dolphin would not arrive.

I got up and basically ran out of the room, with the Companionable Atheist (who had dutifully maintained his own poker face) in pursuit.

And that was the end of Exploring Other Cultures for that evening. I went home and had a couple of drinks, regretting that I’d missed the journeys (guided meditation), but glad that I’d left before anyone had to throw me out.

I don’t know why the shamans got to me so badly. I think it was the change in format – at most religious events I’ve been to, I’ve been able to sit in the back and watch (and pass judgment) on everyone without being watched in return. This won’t fly in a shamanic circle. Everyone watches your face, and I was positive that all the shamanic devotees were reading my thought bubble of “you guys are all crazy.”

Then again, I’m also fighting against the feeling of being part of a group, which is of course a very seductive feeling. If there are 45 of them, and only one of you, and they’re all doing the same thing and feeling the same thing and you’re not, their group behaviors, which would seem lunatic in any other context, create a powerful gravitational pull. But I couldn’t do it, just like I wouldn’t have been able to take communion. Ritual behavior has its own logic. If you do it - if you're part of the circle - that means you are it, and you are helping to create it. And I just couldn’t. I don’t believe in cleansing energies. I don’t believe that a shaman can see a cancer or summon a dolphin or cure an ailment. I couldn’t even stand watching people who did believe these things. The cognitive dissonance was just too great, even though if I met them in any other context, I might like quite a few of them.

It’s funny, I was recently taught about a text where the ancients are arguing this same point. In Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, there’s a passage where the rabbi tries to convince the king of the Khazars that his religion is the only true one. He does so essentially by telling the Khazari king that he isn’t going to try to convince him, because there’s no point. His own people have received God’s revelation, so he believes it. He says:
“If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?

The Khazar king retorts,
How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?

The rabbi reasons,
But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?

Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me.

The Rabbi:
How wouldst thou, then, if asked, describe him?

Al Khazari:
In terms about which I am quite clear, and to these I could add others which were at first rather doubtful, but are no longer so.

The Rabbi:
In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: 'The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,' viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: 'The God of heaven and earth,' nor 'my Creator and thine sent me.' In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: 'I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,' but He did not say: 'I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.' Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

On its face, this passage seems perfectly reasonable. If you experience something – if its truth is proven to you directly – you should believe in it. But there’s a hole here, of course – through most of its history, Israel knew of God’s miracles through tradition rather than direct experience. Uninterrupted tradition, okay, that’s great. But doesn’t “tradition” kind of foul up the notion of proof?

The rabbi feels such a kinship, such a sense of peoplehood and of oneness with his ancestors that he believes whatever they tell him must be true. At first I thought that here was the difference between the ancients and the moderns – there is no group of people with whom I feel such a sense of kinship that I’d take whatever they told me on face value like that.

Then I figured out that wasn’t true. Most of the ludicrously implausible things that I believe have been “proven” (subatomic particles; the solar system) I am actually taking entirely on faith. Dave Barry has this great bit about how subatomic physicists actually spend their gigantic government grants on booze, then lie around, get drunk, point at their multibillion dollar equipment and shriek “There goes another one!!!” I believe whatever those guys tell me. My prophets are Google and the New York Times. Am I really better than the shamanic believers here here?

Then again, they believe that a magical person can heal their bodies by touching them and reciting things and talking to invisible, imperceptible beings. So, yes, I am.

Then again, throughout history, most people have believed in magic, in miraculous healing and in supernatural powers. Today, 73% of Americans believe in miracles, and 68% believe in angels. I look at these numbers and feel the “rational” world kind of dropping away. Robert Orsi recently wrote an essay in the American Scholar that argued that historians needed a new vocabulary to describe human interaction with the supernatural, which is, after all, the norm in human experience rather than the exception.

This is the language I’m groping for, too. “True” and “false” aren’t quite holding up to the challenge. Particularly in an elementary school gym, heated to 90 degrees and scented by incense, staring at two miracle-working shamans and the 45 shuffling, dancing, ululating, perfectly normal-looking New Yorkers who love them.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

In Process

Hi all,

This past weekend I visited a shamanic circle, which made me so uncomfortable that I had to leave in the middle of it. Stay tuned for a full account of this event, which may take me some time to put together.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Witch Class

Last weekend I went to a witchcraft class in the East Village. I was expecting gloomy Goths and unreformed hippies, the kind who still live in the woods around where I grew up in North Carolina.

Instead I found a really great witch, whom I will not name because I do not want to clog up her Google results. I'll call her Moone.

Moone was neither Goth nor scary aging hippie. She was a friendly, cheerful, bustling, buxom lady, maybe in her mid 30s, in a long flowing skirt and a bright green tank top that allowed much of the buxom to flow over the top of it. She'd just moved the class to a community center in the East Village since she'd overflowed her previous space. She was maybe Caribbean by way of Canada. She seemed to enjoy her religion a great deal.

I took an immediate liking to Moone, who waved us all into the pastel-colored community center and sat us down in a circle. There were a couple of earnest young men, one of whom was clearly the teacher's pet and had maybe had some kind of special relationship with Moone, or had at any rate spent a fair amount of time receiving private tutelage. There were a couple of earnest, adorable young women, one couple wo had rode in on a motorcycle, an 18 year old Goth who slept through most of the class (Sunday mornings can be hard on teenagers), a boomer-aged Hispanic guy who said absolutely nothing, and a couple of boomer-aged women who talked a lot. Like the kids in section who think they know as much as the professor. They drove me nuts.

Moone's two hour class (for which she charged the modest sum of $5) discussed some of her favorite spells and where one could find them. Apparently, many great spells can be found on the internet. And just to be clear, these spells require nothing sinister except maybe spending a little too much money at Whole Foods.

I'll provide one sample spell for you free of charge:

To Attract Money:

You'll need a green candle, 5 silver coins, a small jar filled with sea water, your magick wand, Money Drawing Incense, Mmoney Drawing Oil, Charcoal, Matches, and Jasmine< Basil or Marigold herbs or seeds.

On the night of the full moon, go into the woods or by the sea to a spot where four paths cross (if possible, if not, improvise). Here you will inscribe with your wand a large circle with a pentagram in the center. Dig a small hole in the very center and place the jar in it so the top half is exposed to the moonlight. Place the green candle on top of the jar. Light the candle as you chant the following:

My Lady of the Abundant Sea,
Bring me Wealth and Prosperity.

Now take the silver coins and place one on each point of the pentagram as you chant the following:

Silver Coins that Sparkle Bright,
Increase my Wealth Five-Fold This Night.

When the small candle is completely burned out, open the jar. Pick up each of the silver coins one at a time, an dplace them in the jar as you chant the following:

Earth to Sea, Earth to Sea,
Bring me the Money I Now See.
As I will, So Mote It Be!

Sprinkle a drop or two of water on the ground and thank the Goddess for her blessings. Bring the water home with you and anoint yourself with it every day until it is gone. Snuff out the candle and take it home to continue it's work. You can also carry a pouch filled with jasmine, basil and marigold seeds, drops of money oil, candle droppings. Place oil on hands and on all your bills.

During the class, we walked through spells such as these, and people raised their hands if they asked questions. They were mostly how-to questions, like "Where can I find almond oil" and "what if I hate the smell of jasmine." Moone's answers were generally kind versions of "do the best you can."

I actually really enjoyed the haphazard nature of Moone's witchcraft. If your spell doesn't work, maybe it just wasn't meant to happen, or maybe you had a cold, or maybe your prayer was actually answered, just in a different way. I got the feeling she didn't take the whole thing too seriously - unlike some of the "experts" in the room, who got in arguments with each other over whether you can use oil from the supermarket ("there are all kinds of bad energies in the supermarket") and whether you can really raise magical energies by having sex, or whether all those energies will just end up being dissipated because you'll keep getting distracted by the sex.

"I've done it," one of the middle-aged students said smugly. "You just really have to concentrate." She started lecturing the rest of the class about this, to our horror, and to the annoyance of Moone, who turned away towards her other students and mumbled "That's bullshit. Nobody can do that." Mostly, though, Moone took this counter-lecturing with good grace.

A confession: I used to do this. I don't even think my mom knew that. I went to a hippie school, and in the sixth grade, there was a witchcraft fad, the same way there would later be a Converse sneakers fad and a knitting fad. My inspiration was Joyce, a very cool fellow sixth grader, who even had an altar in her room (she kept precious stones there, and we weren't allowed to touch it, because it would disturb the energies). And, okay, I had some precious stones maybe sitting around too, and maybe I read some books from the library about making offerings to the earth and the different energies of different types of herbs. It was just - cool. I gave up more because I was embarassed about it than because I had any spiritual objections to it or because I "realized" it wouldn't work. I don't think I ever really thought it would work. It was just fun. I've always had trouble with the abstract nature of "pure" religion - with thinking about a God who cannot be imagined or described. Rituals you can hold in your hands are very, very appealing sometimes.

Witchcraft is also different from any of the other religions I've researched because it's so anti-authoritarian. You can go to conventions and group bonfires and rites and such if you like, but really, you don't have to. You can just do it on your own, like Starr, and cast a million protection spells on your kids, and find pretty stones, and oils that smell good, and rituals on the internet that feel right, or write your own. You don't have to go to anybody's sermon or donate any money to anyone. You don't have to take orders from anyone. Witchcraft supports eclectic, practical prayer, and you hold things in your hands that help you focus on your prayer, and nobody else really has to know.

At my job, I hear a lot of rhetoric about how great and important community is. But a lot of the time, community is just a group of people who tell you you're doing it wrong and drive you crazy.

Forget those people. Go out into the woods and light yourself some candles. Why not?

Moone is great. You can hire her for private parties. Write me and I'll send you her email address.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Soporific Ethics, and a Great Central Park View: The Society for Ethical Culture, Manhattan

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about my experiences at the Society for Ethical Culture this weekend. The reason for this, unfortunately, is that it just wasn’t very interesting. And it was also a little depressing.

The Ethical Culturists own a truly gigantic building right on Central Park West. Their view of the park is fabulous. Their deal is that every Sunday, instead of a worship service, they have a lecture from an academic or somesuch person about an important ethical topic. Their slogan – displayed prominently in their sanctuary – is “Where People Come To Seek The Highest is Holy Ground.” They’d changed it to “People” from “Mankind” 20 years ago, and they were still talking about it. Three different Ethical Culturists referred to this change on three separate occasions over the course of 75 minutes. This gives you some idea of the glacial pace of change at the Society for Ethical Culture.

I walked into the ceremonial hall. Plain, simple, dark brown wood. Chairs instead of pews. Stained glass windows depicting families standing in noble postures of familial concern. (At the front of the room, instead of any kind of altar, they have a mirror…. You get it, right? You yourself are what is holy.)

There were about 35 people there. The demographic breakdown was as follows:

People in their 20s: me and my friend and another member’s young son (3 total)
People in their 30s: 0 total
People in their 40s: maybe 2 total
People in their 50s: maybe 2 total
People in their 60s, 70s, or 80s: maybe 28 total.

That was it.

Last week was the anniversary of the establishment of their Society, so they had an open afternoon lecture where members of the Society gave testimony about why they joined it. “Ooh, testimony!” I thought to myself. “Surely, through testimony, I will learn about the burning heart of this tradition – what draws people to participate in it and what binds them to it.” I thought about the Mormon testimonials I’d seen, where desperately sincere 20somethings stood up and talked about how Jesus and the Mormon Church had changed their entire lives, saved their souls, brought them deep spiritual contentment. I thought that this was going to be great.

Instead, five elderly members of the church got up and told very boring five minute stories about when they were young children on the Upper West Side, they realized that God didn’t exist, so they didn’t know where to go to find people like themselves, and then they found the Society, and everyone was so friendly, and everyone was so ethical, and now they sing in the choir.

That was it.

It’s too bad, really. You couldn’t find a nicer, gentler group of people who were more dedicated to left wing principles and to not doing anybody any harm. According to their literature – though I saw no evidence of this – they have a long tradition of social justice and social action. But what I saw was more like a group of kind elderly friends who agree on the principles of right living, and who gather and discuss these principles now and again. Well, honestly, even more passive than that - they listen to lectures on these principles. I saw no passion, no strength, nothing directed outward to the world.

The “Senior Leader” (pastor) seemed aware that this was an issue. He’d structured the afternoon meeting as an open house, so more people “from the community” would want to walk in and learn about what the Ethical Culturists did (in a gentle, non-judgmental, non-intrusive fashion). But there was nothing to draw us in. And the Senior Leader hardly seemed upset. Coming from the Jewish community, where testimonials about impending demographic catastrophe serve as preambles to just about every single goddamn communal conversation, I was totally startled by the Ethical Culturists’ calm in the face of their certain extinction. Particularly since most of them were Jewish.

Before the boring stories started, I actually asked the one member who seemed aware that newcomers were in the house, “Why is everyone here so old?” (Though I asked it more politely than that). She nodded thoughtfully and said that it was true, that virtually all the children and grandchildren of the Ethical Culturists had either become completely secular, or they had reverted to the religions of their grandparents or great-grandparents. She was not really sure why this was the case.

Are we really such primitive people that ethical behavior without any kind of smells, bells, rituals or supernatural beings holds no appeal for us beyond a single generation? I saw a dying culture last weekend. I saw a group that represented not the start of an enlightened new tradition, but that represented the end, the remnants of a progressive idea that had failed to perpetuate itself.

To tell the truth, I didn’t find it very appealing either. It was a bunch of Jews who’d built for themselves a very gentle, very secular kind of something that gave off a very polite little odor of twice-shampooed Episcopalianism or Methodism. I wish them the best of luck, but I’m never going back.