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.
We 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 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.