Living With Ceremonial

.. and finding depth

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 29
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

Deborah is the artist who did the illustrations on the inside front cover and the back cover. Her work has also appeared in Parabola and Dromenon. In this article she shares her experience as part of a ceremonial community, exploring the kind of dramatic ritual that was so important for hunting and gathering cultures, but is completely unknown to most of us. The form of the ceremony will appeal more to some than others, but for me the exciting thing is that people are rediscovering and recreating powerful, deep rooted ceremonies in a modern, living way. For more information on creating similar ceremonials, look at Elizabeth Cogburn’s article in the Winter 81 issue of Dromenon, page 70.

WE HAD BEEN DRIVING for three days almost nonstop. It was long after dark by the time we pulled into the camp where we were to meet the others. It was quiet. A couple of familiar figures greeted us with warmth and excitement, and without much conversation we were shown where we could sleep.

As we set up our bed and laid down for the night, we breathed a sigh of relief that we could enter so quietly. We didn’t feel quite prepared for the intensity of greeting everyone at once, especially since we had been married only two weeks before. Here in our circle were people who had witnessed the development of our relationship, but had been unable to attend our wedding because of the distance. Over us was the wedding quilt to which so many here had contributed squares.

This was the gathering of the New Song Council, coming together for the twelfth annual "Sundance", a two week ceremonial around the time of the summer solstice. We had come from all over the country for this time of renewal with stories of the past year to share and questions of life and soul to address together. The essence of these we would take into the "Long Dance" under the centerpole to be played out, refined and transformed. Here the next pieces of the story would be revealed and seeded into our lives for the coming cycle.

We were awakened from our sleep with laughter, hugs and sharings from all of our friends. There wasn’t much time to linger, however, for we still had a full day’s journey to the ceremonial ground.

Leaving the campground behind, our caravan of cars and trucks began its pilgrimage into the mountains. We stopped occasionally to more fully take in the lands we were traveling through, and finally arrived at the narrow dirt road leading up to the mountain site. There was some concern among us, as night was already beginning to fall. Dark clouds were gathering on the mountain and a chilling wind with snow was blowing. Part of our concern was for Sara, the seven-month-old baby with us, the first of the new generation to be traveling to Sundance.

By the time we arrived at the top, the storm had cleared somewhat, and we greeted the land which was to become our village and ceremonial ground. At an altitude of ten thousand feet, our camp was just below a ridge surrounded by a ring of snow-capped mountains. Spring had only recently arrived at these heights, and the delicate, light green leaves of the aspen trees were opening.

At the center of the village was the kitchen tent. Nearby was our campfire, and a tipi for the elders of the group and the mother and baby.

We felt the journey we had just completed, as well as the work ahead preparing for the Long Dance, to be part of the ceremony itself.

For many months, Elizabeth Cogburn, the central carrier of the vision of the Sundance, and others of the council had been making preparations on both outer and inner levels.

The process of our ceremonials has been inspired by native peoples, but for the most part the forms have come from Elizabeth’s vision, and have grown from the lives of the people taking part in them. Each ceremonial is improvised upon a structure that has been established over the years. With each gathering it becomes more refined, growing from what has gone before it, and changes to more closely serve the needs of its people and the larger whole. In this sense it is a living tradition.

One of the challenges we face as we deepen from year to year is the integration of newcomers. This year each newcomer was paired with an experienced Sundancer who provided intimate contact for questions, guidance, and personal sharing. This relationship smoothed out many potential misunderstandings and emotional edges that are inherent in the integration of new people into an ongoing group.

The first week of Sundance is quite structured and focused on preparations for the Long Dance on the Solstice.

Each morning we do the "Body Poem" together, a sequence of movements and images developed by Elizabeth to loosen and stretch our physical bodies, energize us, and attune us to the group.

Periods in the day are given over to practice sessions with the drum, voice and simple instruments. The emphasis is on listening to the music as it comes from within, and harmonizing it with the music of the group. The simple repetitive pulse of the drum forms the center to which we always return.

Along with this we explore and refine the dimensions of the dance. Within the dance ground are concentric circles for the various qualities of movement. The "Yin Circle", as we call it, is a place for gentle swaying motions, while the "Yang Circle" is a place for more dynamic and forceful movements. Both of these emerge directly from the pulse of the drum, and their repetitive movements are given little elaboration. The intent is to pass beyond the initial stages of boredom into a state of meditation where we find ourselves being danced. Within these two outer circles is the "Inner Courtyard" for free-form dance and dramatic play. At the center of these circles, during the Long Dance, stands the centerpole – our axis mundi around which we dance our prayers.

During each afternoon within this intense week is a time of stillness and silence necessary for inner preparations.

Mealtimes are simple and informal providing a space for relaxation and sharing.

Often in the evenings after dinner we are entertained around the fire by the storytellers of the group. Most inspiring has been Kathleen, Elizabeth’s 85 year old mother, who shares with us her wealth from a lifetime of storytelling. She is one of three generations of the Cogburn family from which our ceremonial community has emerged.

At this year’s Sundance, our first formal gathering early in the week was the "Talking-Staff Council". Here a staff is passed around the circle to be held by each one of us as we speak to a series of questions. We listen deeply to the voices within us and witness each other without judgment. The quality that is evoked may be suggested by the words that came to one of the council members in a dream:

"Do you love yourself enough
to listen with the ears of your heart
to the other voices of yourself speaking?"

As the staff is passed around our story emerges in a way that it never could through a single person.

We were presented questions which Elizabeth had drawn from meditations and dialogues with council members during the year. They addressed issues of both a personal and collective nature.

To whom are you devoted?
How do you sustain your love?
What do you do with your urge to kill?
What question would you have this council address?

The question on the urge to kill brought up varying and powerful responses during the council and afterwards, and raised more questions than created answers. We can’t in any way do justice to the totality of the issue here, but we might share some of the thoughts that came up.

Death is necessary for the continuation of life. Though we are rarely in direct contact at the moment of killing how can we acknowledge that we are not separate from the kill? How can we recognize and honor the spirit of that which we take? What can we offer of ourselves in exchange?

In honestly looking at ourselves, we all admitted that we had some kind of destructive tendency within us, such as smoking, biting finger nails, over-eating, illness, alienation, gossip or anger. These are all in some way expressions of the urge to kill. Rather than hiding from them, how can we acknowledge and honor this force, and transmute its energy for creative use?

On a global scale, it is so easy for those of us not directly taking part in exploitation and war to call for peace. Instead of denying and polarizing this energy, how can we acknowledge its power and possibility for positive action?

Later in the week, during the men’s council, a dream was shared that was very connected with the issue of the urge to kill. The dreamer saw himself with a large staff coming to meet another man. Rather than fighting to overcome his opponent, he felt he was coming to engage with his partner, to celebrate their energy and their strength. After sharing his dream, he expressed his desire to reenact it with us. It was during the Long Dance in the Inner Courtyard that this happened.

There was a feeling of excitement and trepidation among us as the dance grew nearer. This year we would hold the dance for 48 hours – from dawn through the day to dusk, on through the night, the following day, and through a second night until we again reached the dawn – all the while staying within the pulse of the drum and the dance. We would be free to take small rests when needed, though our first commitment was to maintain the focus of the dance.

At the first light of dawn we gathered for our procession up to the ridge to greet the rising sun. There was an expectancy in the air – not unlike the magic of Christmas morning. The long line of us wove its way along the path through the aspen forest and into the clearing beyond. As our procession climbed onto the ridge, our forms were silhouetted against the brightening sky. Grey clouds soon took on color with the first rays of the sun. We gently shook our rattles as we waited with anticipation. The sun then illuminated the very tops of the mountain peaks surrounding us, and as we watched, it gradually covered them with light. As we were touched by the first brilliant rays of the sun, we knew our dance had begun.

On our way down from the ridge, we gathered around our chosen tree, offering a song of thanks as we cut it from its roots. On our shoulders we carried it down to the ceremonial ground, where the hole was waiting to receive it. Lower branches of the tree were trimmed and laid around the hole. Waters we had carried from our home places were poured together into the hole. Sara’s mother unwrapped the umbilical cord she had been saving for seven months and gave this as her offering. Our many hands then lifted the tree and planted it as our centerpole.

Every gesture within a living ceremonial is an expression of an inner intention. Placing a tree in the ground ceremonially is more than just the physical act. It is an expression of the union between the two creative forces of the universe – male and female, yang and yin, projective and receptive. Vertically, it expresses the link between heaven and earth, our alignment with spirit. Horizontally, as the center of our local and planetary community, it represents the link between us all.

It is not the pole in itself that matters. It is a symbol we’ve chosen that serves to help focus our attention on our deepest desires.

Every symbolic gesture carries many levels of meaning physical/mental/spiritual, personal/universal. Its power becomes available to the degree that we empower it. Ceremony creates an opening to that power. It is very important, therefore, that a ceremonial have clarity, purity, and integrity of intention.

To open the Long Dance, we silently gathered in a large circle around the pole. We brought to mind our clearest intentions, as Elizabeth began a spiral, leading us around and around until we were tightly wound together at the pole. At the center, all became still. Deep within ourselves, and as part of this one being, we gave ourselves to the highest possibility of the dance. The spiral unwound and the pulse of the big drum began.

Lines formed in the Yin and Yang circles, moving in opposite directions. After a time, several people approached the centerpole to begin their prayer dances.

From the basic pulse, which continued throughout the dance, various qualities of music and movement emerged, which reflected our changing states of being. At times our energy reached crescendos, as musicians came into intricate syncopation. Dramas and clown dances were enacted in the Inner Courtyard, and powerful groupings of people concentrated upon their pole dance. At other times the pulse was slow and steady, rising and falling in a gentle continuum.

From our bodies to levels beyond the physical, all was in motion surrounding a still place at the center. In this stillness our patterns were dissolved, to be re-formed through the molds of our intentions.

A warm sun took us through the mornings, while a chilling rain fell as we danced through the afternoons. With a timeless quality we continued through the nights.

Experienced Sundancers took their turns at "Soul Watching", attending to the outer and inner needs of the group.

At times during the day, Sara, with her mother, would join us in the dance. With eyes filled with wonder, she would reach out to touch the big drum, or move with us in her mother’s arms. It was a joy to have them among us, as well as a responsibility to attend Sara’s needs while not disrupting the focus of the dance.

By the last night we had become so at home in the life of the dance that we felt we could have continued on for several days.

As the third dawn finally approached, our energy gathered and intensified. Once again, we came together in a procession up to the ridge to greet the sun. In our closing spiral we focused all the energy that had been generated by the dance, and in a moment of stillness, gave it to the highest Will.

The rest of the day was given to silence, time alone, and sleep.

In our talking-staff council the following day, the power of the dance was still present as we addressed these questions:

Who do you stand for?
What boon do you ask?
Give us a kernel of your gleanings from the dance.

This opportunity to give word to our elusive experience helped to integrate its many levels into our lives.

The days after the Long Dance are unstructured and open. There is time for long walks, conversation, journal writing, music and dancing, drawing, storytelling, sharing skills, or time to do nothing. This can be a very enriching and creative time, or for some, who may not be used to such an unstructured schedule, this time may pose a challenge.

A great deal of energy is created by the the dance. Rather than dispersing immediately and dropping the energy, we stay on to live in the field that has been created. The Long Dance is felt as the "climax" of our gathering, and the time afterward, which is used to digest and integrate what has happened, is felt as the "completion".

Reentry into our lives after the ceremony can be very challenging. As things have changed and realigned in our inner world, so will they bring corresponding changes in our outer world. In this sense, the ceremonial continues. It is important that we remember and stay clearly aligned with our deepest intentions. With attention and care, the patterns which have been stirred up in our lives can be reformulated in fruitful ways.

Along with the subconscious transformative effects from the ceremonial, there are conscious direct learnings that can be applied to our lives.

For example, in the dance we are free to engage in many archetypes, and be both participant and witness at the same time. At home as well, we can play many roles without being caught within any one. The witness in ourselves allows us to see beyond these roles we play, to the patterns of the larger story. If a role does not seem appropriate, we are free to choose another.

Within our own relationship, we have chosen to integrate and apply the [earnings from the ceremonial. Our relationship began and deepened at Sundance. After meeting two years in a row, we asked the questions, "Can we take the tools of balanced and dynamic relationship which we have been practicing at Sundance, and apply them to a sustained, committed relationship? Can we share our daily lives with the spiritual integrity that we experience when dancing together under the pole? Can we take home the spirit of the ceremonial?"

Now, two years later, we are looking at a further deepening of the meaning of these questions; toward expanding the commitment of our relationship to include other people on a day to day level within community.

At present, Sundance is a central focus of a community spanning the country. Many of us have regional circles which gather periodically in the year to create ceremonials. Especially at these times, we exchange letters, call each other by phone, and link up in spirit through the dance. The annual Sundance has been our bond across time, distance and the diversity of our ways. It has been a place to focus on our growing edges and questions, to meet in a space beyond our personal daily lives, and to refine and transmute the patterns of our lives. In this sense, it is a very powerful crucible.

As we look toward a sustainable daily life, we feel the need to move into closer proximity with others. A community grounded in place can bring together the various aspects of a whole life, supportive of family, right livelihood, and appropriate relationship with food, shelter and living on the earth.

An essential aspect of this vision are times to gather periodically in a ceremonial space beyond our daily concerns. Many see ceremony and ritual as habitual or dogmatic; as a crystallizing element in culture. Living ceremony is just the opposite. It puts our lives into a larger context, and acts as the "refiner’s fire" for transformation and renewal.

We have recently moved to the Northwest, and are getting to know communities here. These have particular interests and identities which, though very different from the New Song Council, are in many ways complementary. In being here, we are experiencing many of the elements of grounded community life. Our vision and identity has been broadening, and as well, our appreciation for the experience we’ve had with ceremonial has been deepening. In this new situation, we are finding a place for certain aspects of our lives and work that needed another context to come into fruition. This does not deny our relationship with the New Song Council, but rather, enriches it.

The intimate contact between communities can be mutually enriching. No one group can create a sustainable culture. Each has something to contribute to the whole, and within a larger supportive context, each can deepen within its chosen focus without becoming narrow in its vision. This extension of communities to one another within a larger vision may be the next step in developing sustainable culture. And we all have our parts to play.

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