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Simply Ceremony

We have been working on the Fall calendar for JourneyWorks, and ceremony has a prime place in the schedule. A couple of days ago Jennie noted that we have been a bit lax in doing ceremony since our experience with the crow.  Last week I found myself in discussions with different folks about what constitutes ceremony. Maybe the persistent presence of ceremony in our conversations explains why I awoke this morning thinking about it.

Maine mushroomsWe all have ideas about ceremony. A couple of years ago a couple attended our Day of the Dead ceremony. At the end of the evening they said, “We didn’t expect the evening to be so Indian.” I don’t really know what they meant; perhaps they were expecting something more Latin. Other people have asked me about sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, neither of which I am trained to do. I’ve noticed many folks seem to equate ceremony with the ceremonial traditions of Plains and Southwestern peoples. That makes sense as those are very powerful traditions that are well documented.

We do ceremony that arises from shamanic training. Usually it is pretty straightforward. We light a fire, acknowledge the Directions, and request the presence of the Creator, Ancestors and spirits. We offer food, water, and tobacco, and light sage. Often we drum and journey. We give thanks for our lives and the bounty of the land, ask for healing for those who wish it, and close the altar, expressing gratitude to all who have participated. The altar is simple: a crystal or two, a few stones, flowers, and the other offerings. After the ceremony those present share food, stories, and dreams. It’s simple.

One of my teachers used to say that all that is really needed to create an altar is a single leaf from a supportive tree. Maybe the more elaborate ceremonies we humans create are simply extensions of that elemental altar and the relationships with ALL That Is the altar represents. After all, the altar is just a simple, sacred map of our relatedness to all of Creation, a reminder that we belong.

A decade or so ago I found myself in a cave in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. My teachers had told us the cave had been a place of ceremony for 20,000 years. They lit a candle, started some incense sticks, invoked the Directions and spirits of place, sang a couple of songs, said a prayer, and we were done. The ceremony took maybe ten minutes, yet more than ten years have passed and I’m still thinking and writing about it.

Jennie and I also do ceremony reflective of her Jewish roots and Buddhist training, and my Christian upbringing. Most of those ceremonies are also brief, although there are a few that are not. I remember those same teachers expressing confusion when asked about the conflict between their shamanism and their Catholicism. They simply do not experience any discord or conflict between the two traditions, nor do they understand the traditions to differ. They would probably say that after 500 years of intermarriage, it’s all good.

As we prepare for our very active Fall schedule, it is pleasing to reflect on ceremony. Ceremony is, after all, at the core of healing, and central to the work we do. It is, indeed, good.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

13 thoughts on “Simply Ceremony

  1. I have long thought that ceremony can be the bridge to our spiritual selves. I studied shamamsm with Micheal Harner and Sandra Ingermann in the 80s. I practiced some soul retrieval within the AIDS community for/with those who could not cross over. I studied healing modalities from around the world. Today my husband has been it significant nagging pain since April and I can do nothing to assist him. I once had a rich spiritual life and simply no longer have one. It has always been natural for me to deeply involved spiritually, then I would take a break. Now, I appear to be on permanent vacation.


    1. Liz,

      Reading your comment I was struck by what seems a deep spiritual thread /voice running through it. There are times when we cannot cure ourselves or others. Maybe healing can still occur. I believe even the best healers face illness and suffering they cannot mend. (Their own and others”.) At such times, a little compassion for ourselves is very helpful, if illusive. I hold the wish for your husband to find comfort and for you to be at ease.


  2. There’s a certain rightness about ceremony that you capture well … a healing practice and a devotion, an expression of awareness and gratitude. Although I was raised on ceremony of both the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churchs and the Roman Catholic Church, when I encountered shamanism I felt quite at home with its ceremonies, found them quite as profoundly moving and respectful. One of the most profoundly stirring ceremonies for me – and unexpectedly so because I didn’t know what it was about at the time – was a soul retrieval for a friend and his daughter, who had committed suicide by hanging herself in the front closet of their house. They are Native American and I went to be respectful and supportive and unexpectedly found healing myself.

    I hope you are doing well and that the new offices are working out.

    In metta,


    1. Thank you Jamie,
      We move Friday. I am often reminded that here in the Americas Christianity and shamanism have long been interwoven. I am also aware that the function of ceremony is ultimately to heal the community.


      1. On both counts, that is true. The gentleman with whom I studied shamanism was from a family with a long history of shamanism. His father was from a Native American tradition and his mother from a Mexican one and she combined her Catholicism with traditional spirituality. It was interesting and heartening experience.


  3. Reblogged this on Laurie Rohner and commented:
    There is something that tugged at me when reading this post. Simply said it is ceremonies connect us to Source. I realized I had forgotten that huge fact. Have you kept ceremonies in your life? Love this post. (Dreaming the World by Dr. Watson)


  4. My Catholic background has steeped me in ceremony. At this point in my life I have come to savor those of other traditions. Living in Northern Nevada, I’m fortunate to have so many opportunities to partake of those with Native American traditions. As I see it, they all lead to that Sacred Space, the Within.


  5. Michael, thank you for this detailed illustration of ceremony in your life. There is much to find in common, a big ocean to be part of. I do have one question: what do you mean by journey when you say, “Often we drum and journey.”?


  6. Am I mistaken but, the word ceremony was used as “conversation?” or is it sermonize? In any case, your piece speaks deep need for the soul to have rituals & ritualistically center ourselves ~ I thoroughly understand the intrinsic need to spiritually synchronize our routine. Thank you Sir. Sincerely Debbie


  7. Michael. You have given a precious gift of your vision of ceremony and ritual that is so painfully absent in our fractured and numbed out experience of the world these days.


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