Spirit & Dream Animals by Richard Webster

Spirit & Dream Animals: Decipher Their Messages, Discover Your Totem
Richard Webster
Llewellyn, 2011
248 pages

While many books on totemism mention dreams as a way of discovering and working with totems, they generally don’t go into much detail about the process, other than “if you keep dreaming about this animal, it might be your totem”. Dream work is not my preferred way for totemic work, but I was impressed by this book, which is more in-depth on the subject than I’ve seen.

It does feel to me like the author is much more familiar with dream work than totemism. Even if you’ve no interest in animal totemism, this book has some excellent information on basic dreamwork, for which it is a valuable text. In just a couple dozen pages Webster imparts some wonderfull practical advice on how to work with your dreams, what they mean, and how to get the most out of that level of consciousness that almost everyone experiences every night.

However, the totemic information is good, if nothing particularly new–it’s pretty solid standard information like signs that may point to what your totem is, ways to work with your totem (like dancing!), and a bunch of historical and cultural information on animals around the world. Again, in not too many pages, he’s done a fine job of pulling together the basic relevant information for someone who may be new to the topic.

And that sort of rounds out the strengths of the book in my eyes. Webster has taken two topics and given great background on them, so someone who hasn’t done dreamwork can understand it, and someone who hasn’t done totemism can understand it, and then put the two together neatly. My complaint is that he didn’t go further with this–the practical material basically stops after “Here’s how to find out what your totem is”, and then the second half of the book is all totem animal dream dictionary. I recognize that the dictionary format is beloved both among dream writers and totem writers, but I lament that there wasn’t more “how to” material from this author. What else, for example, does he do or recommend to bond with your totem besides dancing? How can we work with our totems in dreams once we’ve identified them as more than just symbols? After all, totems are independent beings, not just quick lists of dream keywords and generic concepts. He’s got a good handle on things like lucid dreaming–how do we use it more in conjunction with totems, for example as a form of journeying?

If you’re looking for a basic book on animal dreams and/or totemism, this is good; as I said, the author clearly knows his stuff and conveys it admirably well. But I, greedy thing that I am, am left wanting more, because what was there already was so good.

Four pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Advertisements

Ecotherapy – Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist

Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind
Edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist
Sierra Club Books, 2009
312 pages

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this book since I heard about it in my ecotherapy class last semester. As soon as a copy was available at Powell’s Books, I picked it up and dug in. While a large portion of my interest in the text is as a future therapist, I’m reviewing it here because there’s a lot of relevant information for ecologically minded pagans regardless of career path; this is the same reason I also reviewed the original Ecopsychology anthology that this is a follow-up of sorts to.

I think I was expecting more hands-on, how-to techniques for “greening” one’s therapy practices. While there were some essays that dealt with this, many of them were more general ecopsychology theory, with some anecdotes from the authors’ experiences with clients. At first I was disappointed, but I thought about the nonlinear nature of ecopsychology, and decided that this was an appropriate approach anyway. So take this not only as a collection of ideas to weave into a therapeutic practice, but also as a more general overview of ecopsychology in the 21st century. I enjoyed all of the essays, but here are a few that stood out, particularly of interest to eco-pagans:

–“Ecopsychology as Radical Praxis” by Andy Fisher: An excellent argument on why it’s impossible to truly separate ecopsychology (theory) from ecotherapy (practice); it’s also the first of multiple essays in the collection that connect psychological practice to social issues and activism.

–Embodying Sentience” by Amanda Leigh Morrison: Eating disorders, body image issues, and our culture’s dis-connection from the physical body are examined from an ecopsychological perspective. The focus on reconnecting to the body as the vehicle in which we move in this world, and the important connection between physical and psychological health, may be old news to some pagans, but it’s an excellent interpretation of these concepts.

–“Transformation Through Service: Trans-species Psychology and Its Implications for Ecotherapy” by G.A. Bradshaw: No doubt probably one of the most controversial essays in this collection, this one examines the current ecological and psychological crises we face through the psychology of nonhuman animals, particularly the manifestations of stress and psychological disorders in these other beings. It’s a strong argument for treating animals not only humanely, but as other peoples.

–“Creative Restorative Ecotherapeutic Practices” by Mary Watkins: This long essay is valuable particularly for its ability to touch on just about all of the basic themes of the anthology overall: the harm caused by our hyperindividualistic society, the importance of rewriting psychological and social narratives, the controversies surrounding the act of “rocking the boat” that ecopsychologists and other critical psychologists engage in, the relationship between person and place, and building reconnection.

–“The Greening of the Self” by Joanna Macy: While all of the essays in the ecospirituality section of this anthology are well worth the read, this one was my favorite. Macy, ever the inspiring writer, gives a bright beacon of hope, showing three important ways in which people in Western cultures are losing the highly insular, small-ego focus, and developing broader, more interconnected ways of seeing the Self.

–“Altars of Extinction” by Mary Gomes: I cried while reading this account of ritual practices and altars set up to lost species; it’s a project I would like to take on myself when I have a little more time, and it’s one of the most concrete examples of an ecotherapeutic practice. Interestingly enough, this essay was originally published, in a different form, in a 2005 issue of Reclaiming Quarterly; the original essay, along with contact information for the author (in case you want information on the project) may be found here. The new version is definitely a good addition to the anthology.

The one thing that frustrated me was that there were so many essays that often the authors could only offer brief introductions to their topics. While some of them have books and other publications of their own, it’s still going to necessitate more research on my part. This isn’t a horrible tragedy, but there were a number of essays where I got to the end and wondered “Wait, where’s the rest? This is good stuff!”

The first portion of the book may not be quite so interesting to those not in the field of psychology, but the essays are worth a read nonetheless, if for no other reason than to shoot holes in the stereotype of the uncaring, distant, pagan-unfriendly therapist armed with a bunch of pills and strict diagnoses. Additionally, the eco-focus, along with a couple of really good essays on practical dreamwork, should offer more than enough fodder for pagan practices. Overall, I would most definitely recommend this to any neopagan reader; there are a lot of good ideas in here that could be as well adapted to ritual practice as to therapy (and often the twain do meet in this collection).

Five inspired pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Toltec Dreaming – Ken Eagle Feather

Toltec Dreaming: Don Juan’s Teachings on the Energy Body
Ken Eagle Feather
Bear & Company, 2007
256 pages

Note: This review was originally written for newWitch magazine.

I really tried hard to like this book. Unfortunately, I’m just too skeptical of the author’s claim that he met don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher of questionable existence, in the flesh. Additionally, saying that don Juan told him to learn from Castaneda’s books because don Juan’s English wasn’t good enough is suspect and sounds like an excuse for not using more reliable sources. The bulk of the source material is Castaneda’s works, which have been highly questioned in both anthropological and modern shamanic fields—and labeled as plastic shamanism by American Indian tribes in Mexico and elsewhere. Rather than backing up the shaky research with more solid sources, his bibliography is littered with more New Age fluff.

Poor scholarship aside, the techniques in the book are pretty good. It’s a heterogenous mixture of Eastern philosophy and New Age practices, aimed at helping the reader become a more effective dreamer. Awareness of the energy body, meeting with Death, and lucid dreaming are just a few of the topics covered. Eagle Feather is an excellent writer, and provides a good array of techniques to help build one’s dreaming ability. As a practical guide to dreamwork and related practices, this is a decent choice. And the author’s writing style is easy to read, punctuated by anecdotes that illustrate the material. Regardless of source, there’s some good, usable material available in these pages.

It’s just a shame that the questionable “Toltec” material wasn’t backed up by direct sources other than Castaneda. If you’re looking for good dream techniques or if you’re a fan of Castaneda’s works, this may be the book for you; however, take a huge lick of salt with it. If you’re looking for genuine indigenous shamanic practices, look elsewhere.

Two pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Dreams, Symbols and Psychic Power by Tanous and Gray – October BBBR

Dreams, Symbols and Psychic Power: Your Guide to Personal Growth
Alex Tanous and Timothy Gray
Bantam Books, 1990
216 pages

This month’s Bargain Bin Book review was a definite bargain–I found this little text in the middle of a parking lot while walking home from work one day. Deciding that the Universe must have wanted me to read it and review it, I placed it in my BBBR stacks. Having done the reading, I must preface this review by saying that the Universe has sent me a message that it hates me.

Okay, okay–maybe the Universe doesn’t hate me. However, this was a painful book to read. It’s basically a few chapters of halfway decent advice on basic dreamwork wrapped around a bunch of chapters of stereotype-laden dream dictionary.

The first chapter as a basic intro to dream interpretation. There’s a smattering of traditional psychological dream interpretation tossed in there, along with a bit of scientific information about what happens when we dream. I do feel like the authors were trying too hard to ascribe psychic and woo-woo powers to all dreams; I’m of the general opinion that most dreams are mainly our brain’s way of organizing thoughts and experiences from when we’re awake. However, for what the book is, the information isn’t all bad. The second chapter, full of advice on how to remember your dreams better, has a lot of value to it, and adds to the usefulness of this book for general beginners.

The dictionary part…well…I’m really not a fan of the stereotypical dictionary format in any form of spirituality or magical practice. Dream symbols are highly personal, and IMO it matters less what, exactly, you see, than how what you see makes you feel/react. There’s too much material in this book that prods people towards reading too much into something, or interpreting it in a stereotypical manner, rather than looking at the subjective qualities of a particular symbol. A few mentions here and there that dreams are personal won’t really offset the dictionary section of this book. The same can all be said of chapter five, which includes some broad assumptions about specific types of dreams, held up by a handful of anecdotes.

Chapter six is more useful because it includes open-ended advice on how to analyze your dreams. I really think that this book suffered for trying to pigeonhole things that are really very subjective in their interpretation, and overemphasized the recipe-book approach to dream interpretation. Had the book been more focused on the open-ended material in the second and sixth chapters, I think it would have been a much better work overall.

I might recommend this to a beginner with the caveat that chapters two and six are really the only useful portions. Other than that, though, the rest of the pages would make better pulp for new books.

One and a half pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?