Elizabeth Cogburn is one of the modern pioneers in developing rituals and ceremonies that fulfill the goals described in Doris LaChapelle’s article in this issue. She brings to this work a background in philosophy, psychology, music, and dance. For more information on her work, you can write to her at 6741 Edgewood Dr., Albuquerque, NM 87107. Ross, husband of Deborah Koff-Chapin, has contributed much to the creation of this issue.
Ross: I HAVE THE FEELING that there are many people who have an innate understanding of what ceremony is about, but haven’t found or cultivated the context for it in their lives. What was your inspiration for ceremony and how did you cultivate it?
Elizabeth: We began from a fundamental, deep desire for ceremonials that belonged to us and had meaning in our own lives. We had been going to the ceremonials of other cultures, especially the Indian ceremonials along the Rio Grande, and felt greatly inspired by them. We felt as if we’d been somewhere that was inherently familiar, and we would come away asking, where are ours? It was then that we really set out to find our own ceremonials and ask the questions: what is a ceremonial made of? where does the impetus come from?
We began about 15 years ago with our longing and intention to connect with our deep selves, with each other (including non-human "others" and our Place of dwelling) and with God, through sound and movement. We wanted to find a Way that could include everybody who wanted to participate actively. We were frustrated being passive spectators watching "experts" performing.
We started with the drum, playing a simple one/one/one pulse – the heart beat of the universe – that anybody can learn; and with a circle of people dancing in their own natural spontaneous ways.
We used to greet the full moon rising over Taos and drum straight through to the sunrise. From those experiences we learned that if you let the drum show you the way, you will find all the songs in the universe emerging from that one/one/one pulse which is never boring but infinitely rich in its simplicity. We learned to tune our voices to the fundamental tone of the drum and to its overtone field so that everybody can join in the free song or in the chants that take shape as we go along.
Gradually the dance circle elaborated into a mandala. The outer Yang ring is "sunwise" with vertical movements, inside it the Yin ring turns "earthwise" with horizontal movements. Everybody practices the moving meditations in both of these rings as we have found that each one accesses very different experience and awareness, and being at home in both greatly assists balance and integration.
Inside these rings we created the Inner Court for the great variety of individual and group dances people were discovering. We clarified that our meetings in the dance would be more in a transpersonal mode than social-personal because we experienced more depth and latitude this way. We made other occasions for the social-personal dances. We found that we needed to take turns serving as "outriders" during the dances to protect the circle from disrupting visitors, and we developed "Soul Watchers" and "Dance Guides" in the Inner Court to assist people through deep experiences and heavy trances. We have created a safe and inviting dream-theater in which we may express parts of ourselves not accommodated in daily life and explore – try on – new patterns of being. We have a place to practice embodying our transformations.
One summer solstice we decided to raise a pole we had hung with objects holding symbolic meaning for us. We danced and sang with the drum around the pole from sunrise to sunset. It was very hot out on that cliff over the Rio Grande, but nobody left early and we felt a deep wonder and peacefulness when we bathed in the river in the dusk. That’s where our Sun Dance began.
Little by little we discovered another circle inside the Inner Court, right under the Sun Dance Pole. People moving in and out from the Pole in a gradually turning circle – the most deeply ecstatic dance for many of us. And like the pulse, very simple in form – anybody can come into it – although understanding it and really happening in it may take a while.
At our second Sun Dance the men and women decided to separate in the morning for special councils, bathing and other rituals. Those lodges have become one of the most cherished parts of the whole ceremonial (most especially for the men). Our reunions are always spontaneous improvisations full of excitement, laughter, beauty, tenderness and deep learnings.
The Long Dances evolved when we felt the desire to celebrate the other quarters of the year (solstice and equinoxes) and the cross-quarters (February 2, May 1, August 1 and Halloween). In those we enjoy various preparations, councils and practices leading up to dancing in the mandala all night on Saturday. One of the beautiful features of our mandala is that everybody gets to move around and be in different parts of it as they feel directed. Also everybody gets to sit in with the four-person drum, and we have learned to integrate other styles of drumming, work with rattles, simple flutes and other instruments in the improvised sound field. The pulse of the big drum is the great unifier, harmonizer, connector. The law of entrainment describes how all entities will come into coherence with the strongest pulse in the field. Understanding this is a big key to knowing how and why ceremonies work.
So you can see that we do definitely have a form. We need it as our "thread through the maze." It helps us focus, shape and direct our energy. The form is not at all cast in stone. We are constantly changing it to fit new circumstances – dropping or adding parts, rearranging, elaborating, simplifying. Within this framework we are improvising, playing on the moment. And such a joy it is to have life companions dedicated to growing together as we co-create this strong guiding thread of meaningful ceremony-in-a-sacred- manner. The circle is always open to new people and we have the deep rewards of longtime relationships, of continuity, of loving witness and help in our passages; celebration of our doings and beings. The ceremonial reflects the living community of our planet and teaches us how to dance in union with our diversities.
Ross: I’m not sure if this is such a simple question, but it might help to give us more understanding: What is ceremony?
Elizabeth: First, let’s distinguish between sacred ceremonials, rituals, and other kinds of celebrations. A celebration can be a family or community expression of joyful praise, as when the troops come home from war, or when the astronauts return from the moon. A celebration can also mark a span of time – a birthday celebration, or an anniversary.
A ritual is a form of action done with intention – make a wish, then blow out the candles. Really, any action can be a ritual if it is done with an awareness that brings you more into connection with yourself and your world. Ritual is the means of connecting.
Ceremonial involves a number of rituals that are woven together into a whole for the purpose of effecting/changing/transforming a pattern of energy. Ceremonial can facilitate release, renewal, centering, inspiration, insight, vision. At the core of sacred ceremonial is the communication with Deity. The ceremonies come into being out of the felt need of the people. Somebody or some group needs something, wants something – tangible or intangible – and the sacred ceremonial process was discovered to be the most effective way to get results. All of manifest creation is energy in various vibrational patterns. All energy in the universe comes into form and changes form (transforms) through patterns, through systems. I believe that sacred ceremonial is humanity’s most highly developed meta-system for the conscious transformation of energy.
Ross: Could you give us a couple of examples?
Elizabeth: The old classics like dancing for rain, or the dances before the hunt; to change human energy from lethargy to excitement and passion; or dances to release pent-up feelings and restore harmony in the community; or dances to seek vision and transcend present limitations.
In the ceremonials of the New Song Community, one of the things we are dancing for is to stop war (that is, armed conflict as a way to settle differences). This is a "double header" in that we are also directing the energy generated in the dances into the collective consciousness to "juice" thought forms of creative life-promoting conflict resolution. This is the hundredth monkey process of consciously creating morphogenetic fields (morph = form, gen = birthing). We have also found that our involvement in the co- creation of the sacred dances is in itself a superbly satisfying alternative to war.
So we, the human race, followed our instincts and intuitions (inner teachings) and gradually through trial and error over thousands of years have evolved a very precise technology of conscious transformation through sacred ritual.
Ross: In a sustainable culture, what is the role of ritual and ceremony?
Elizabeth: Is sustainable culture even possible without meaningful sacred ceremony? In order for a culture to sustain, it has to be renewable and there has to be a mechanism for that renewing. There needs to be something that lifts people out of the everyday, that enables them to re-vision themselves and their myths. As the Balinese say, ceremonial is the pause for integration. Ceremonial lets us see ourselves as connected to something larger.
Every culture or group finds its own particular forms of ceremony. One of the big problems is that we humans seem to have an unfortunate tendency to become passionately attached to these forms, losing sight of the function and inner intention they are meant to serve. Leslie Silko speaks so eloquently to this error in her novel Ceremony where the Navajo medicine man instructs his student that the ceremonies MUST change as the situation changes, or else both the ceremony and the people will die.
Take rites of purification as an illustration. They are regarded as essential and are practiced everywhere but they can take any number of forms – elaborate ones like sweat lodges, simple ones like the spoken prayers in the Mass. Sufis tell me that in desert crossings where water is not available, they use sand for the daily act of sacred cleansing. What matters is not the particular form but the intensity of your presence in your intention. Or, put another way, how clearly you are able to focus your feeling attention in holding the image of the meaning of the act.
Ross: Can you describe the generic components of a ceremonial? This might be a help to others interested in designing sacred ceremony.
Elizabeth: Well, I can tell you some of what we consider in the creation of New Song ceremonies, and I would like to hear what other people have come up with in their explorations.
The ceremonial begins with The Call, or announcement of the event, and with our commitment to be there. This sets into motion a flow of energy on many levels, so it needs to be done with a great deal of awareness.
The Preparations. The time spent in preparation is as much a part of the ceremonial as the main event. It is part of the action of getting both the outer space and the objects, as well as the human consciousness/psyche in tune with the purpose. All of the particulars must be attended to with heartful care and integrity.
The Gathering, the Welcoming. Greeting our host is the first matter that travelers attend to; not only our fellow human beings as sponsors, but the place beings as well. Wherever we meet, we are gathering in a "place." All places are communities of consciousness. We offer some gesture of acknowledgement, maybe a small gift or a song as an outward sign of our gratitude.
The Statements of Intention. What is the occasion? Why are we gathering? The ceremony and its purpose need to be clearly identified – name it to yourself in the clearest possible terms.
The Purification. The rituals of letting go of what is no longer needed for the journey; and the imaging of new forms, new ways of being that you want to take root-hold in your soul.
You must understand that all of these stages serve as "gateways" into a deeper consciousness, a deeper attunement with all of the energies – with one’s own inner Self, with each other in the circle, with all of our friends and relatives and even adversaries, with the land, the waters, the sky, and with all Spirit. The gateways help us enter into tuning together so that change and transformation can occur.
The Consecration of the Ground. Before a journey into Space, we must establish and order our Home Place – the Temple, the temenos of sacred space. This act of location forms a doorway into another reality. In our dances we establish the centerpole, and honor the four quarters, the above and the below; we recognize what phase the moon is in and where the sun is. We recognize where on earth we are.
The Invocation. Realize, of course, that there are many who will be attending the ceremonial other than human beings. Invoke the loving witness and assistance of your guides, guardians, and helper spirits.
The Telling of the Story. Sacred ceremony enacts and embodies various aspects of the guiding beliefs and myths of the people. Often appropriate parts of the story are retold, chanted, recited or read. In the New Song, we count ourselves among those who are helping to discover and embody a new story, so this part is especially compelling to us.
The Central Celebration. This may have many levels or dimensions of participation, and take a great variety of forms. Ours are rooted in sound, with the drum at the core, and dance including both pure movement and drama. The inner reality that we’re going for in the ceremony brings us into a constellation of things on the inner plane. As things change and realign in our inner world, so will they also bring corresponding changes in the outer world.
The Closings. An enormous amount of energy has been invoked in the ceremony, and the closing is an opportunity to direct this energy outward to serve the larger good. The energy is not ours to keep, but to direct. We offer our blessings and thanks of the attending guardians and helper spirits. In our closings there is a time of reflection and assimilation where we sit in silent meditation and witnessing in council. One of the questions we ask is how we will direct the energy back into daily life.
The matter of making proper closings is so important. On a grounded level, an act of closing pulls everything together, so we are no longer half open to a ritual state of mind where we might drive through traffic lights and such. Eating is a good way to end. It helps to ground the energy, and reestablish presence in ordinary reality.
Ross: The arts are an integral aspect of ceremonial. What is the connection between the Artist and the Shaman?
Elizabeth: All art and all theater is rooted in sacred ritual, in the shaman’s ritual. That’s what the history of art shows. In fact, it was not known as "art." "Art" is a modern notion for a product created by an "artist." The shaman’s art was really the result of a process of deep involvement in communication with own’s own inner being and with the Deity. An object was made with such exquisite perfection and beauty because that was the way to make the most effective connection with the forces of life. This was understood to be the way that one might live a bountiful and harmonious existence. We Westerners have taken these objects and proclaimed them to be "art," as if they were separate from a process of living. We need to be deeply committed to reconnecting with the roots of art, and to creating our lives in the Beauty Way. The unfolding of the images, the music, the dance, and the song within the ceremony is a way of revealing ourselves to ourselves. Through these modes we are able to bring into being that which was before only lurking in the wings of our consciousness.
Ross: In the New Song Community, there has evolved what are called the "talking staff councils." Tell us about these and how they came about.
Elizabeth: Well, a number of years ago, human nature being as it is, our circle was in a time of big disagreement. I forget what it was all about, but we were really at a standstill, until one of the men came up with a way to break the logjam. He remembered the story of Homer telling how (during the battle for Troy) the Greeks were in similar disarray – everyone was fighting and arguing, all yelling at once and nobody listening – until Achilles came forward with a thing they called a "talking staff." According to the "rule of the staff" only the person holding it could speak and everybody could have a turn – but everybody had to listen to the others. We found a nice cedar staff and passed it around our circle under this rule. Of course we all felt much better to have our say and be heard, and the solution emerged.
Since then we have held formal Talking Staff Councils before and after every dance. The staff we pass is our medicine pipe. Its presence calls forth sincere speaking from the heart as we address a great range of topics. We speak to the biggest questions that come up in our lives, tell our stories (thereby piecing together the new story of us all), we reflect upon our experiences, witness one another, vision together and plan next phases of action in the world.
We open all Councils with the words one of the men from our circle heard in his dream: "Do you love yourself enough to listen with the ears of your heart to the other voices of yourself speaking?" We are learning to track and to cherish the diverse ways of perceiving and being in our circle of autonomous and different "others." We are learning to practice empowerment and enjoyment of one another.
I think one of the important things to realize about what the talking staff councils are doing is that they are inviting the visioning process of the community; they are inviting us to report on how we, in fact, find ourselves to be; they are a way of gathering information about the natural state of being human. We can’t know where to go and know what forms we need to create until we know where we are. If we simply continue to operate under old codes of shoulds and oughts, we conceal from ourselves how we, in fact, are.
Having the talking staff councils before and after the long periods of the dance has given us reflective rituals to help identify and make real together what has happened within the dreamtime of the dance.
Ross: Would you say more about "reflective rituals"?
Elizabeth: Being there in the Long Dance is like being in the dream together. As with sleep dreaming, it’s necessary to have a time when we reflect upon what has happened. To me, the dance ground itself is the original happening of the dream. It is the dreaming itself. It is the shaman’s meeting with the divinity and with eternity. But if we leave it there, the ceremony does not serve nearly so effectively in the process of evolving a culture. It is really necessary to reflect upon our experience. That is where meaning and wisdom are distilled. The councils help direct our energy and ground the vision into our daily lives and action.
Ross: Can you elaborate upon some of the common threads of learnings, the themes, or myths that you’ve been tracking in the dance over the years?
Elizabeth: Well, first of all, there was the recognition of cyclic patterns. It took us several years to discover how to move from the Sundance to incorporate the whole cycle of the year, and to realize that the cycle of the human soul can be integrated with the cycle of the seasons of the earth. There are very specific themes, or fields of consciousness, that are stimulated by each one of these seasonal ceremonies. For instance, when we do the Candlemas on the second of February, we are very deeply involved in acknowledging death and the process of dying and choosing our own death. When we move on the spring equinox, we are addressing the issues of taking on flesh. We find that there’s a deep place in each one of us where we are at least as reluctant to take on flesh as we are to die. So that’s one level, one dimension of it. The weaving of the cycles of the soul with the cycles of the seasons brings ourselves closer into being truly Children of the Earth. That’s certainly an ongoing, ever-elaborating field of discoveries. All ceremonial is an enactment of the myths that we live by. Ceremonial is the acting out of the Great Story that guides the people. And, as the elders say, "as you tell the story, it begins to happen."
Over the years that we’ve been together the themes of our myth have evolved and are woven into our lives and the ceremonial. There’s a kind of floating field of consensus that the universe is made of energy, that energy is consciousness, that life is an inexplicable network of relationships, and that living beings are identified by relationship. We’ve always had a deep concern for human relationship, and for the relationship of humans with all others with whom we share life. I think that we’re involved in the view that the universe is constantly creating and re-creating itself. What is asked of the human race at this time is to realize that we are also choosing the lives that we’re living unconsciously. This is leading us into annihilation because we’re not looking big enough. We must now consciously choose our own evolution. We can no longer make choices for action in the world without realizing that every thought and every action is affecting the totality of the whole. I think that’s really fundamental.
The most important myth theme that we’re going into in our new cycle is gathered up under the metaphor, "the Healing of Jerusalem." In this, we take "Jerusalem" as a metaphor for the Holy City within each one of us, for the circle of us all with our uniqueness and our diversity. Now, the question is: how do we find the way that we all live together with the autonomous other?
Ross: What do you mean by "autonomous other"?
Elizabeth: The sense of the autonomous other first came up to us through our concern with issues of committed coupleness and with the questions of developing long-term dynamic relationships between the man and the woman. What we have not realized under the old patterns is that any couple relationship is made of two autonomous beings who are living in two very different fields of reference. On a more international level we can immediately see that we have autonomous countries living with very different perspectives. We, as Americans, have a very arrogant idea that we are in some way superior and that our way is the right one. What we’re having to learn – as nations and as men and women together – is that there’s more than one way of perceiving. That’s so important!
One of the greatest gifts of the talking staff is that it gives us a safe place in which to speak from where each one of us is really coming from. Gradually, we’re learning to track each other’s fields of reference so that we are learning to perceive in different language systems. We’re learning that the circle is there to empower each one of us: be gloriously who you are, and help me to become gloriously who I am.
I think one of the biggest myth themes we’re exploring is the win-win game which says that you do not have to lose for me to win. It is an age-old fallacy that for me to be empowered, I have to disempower you. There can be more than one winner. As the Zunis say in their rodeo, " . . . and the first winner is . . ., and the second winner is …, and the third winner is …." Everybody is counted as a winner.
The work of an artist emerges from a creative tension, a field of dynamic conflict. We need to find creative ways of expressing our enjoyment of opposition, of testing, of combat. One of the richest examples I’ve witnessed came from a dream that one of the men at Sundance had. In the dream, he was involved with other men in a combat dance with staffs – fighting to engage and empower the other – not to kill or injure each other. This dream was actually played out with staffs in a dance under the Sundance Pole – a deep, deep dance in which they were really flailing at one another with the staffs. They called to one another, fiercely, "look into my eyes! don’t fall away! look into my eyes!" The staffs broke into smithereens, and still, no one was hurt. They were out for the engagement. They were tracking, stalking, hunting each other, coming into combat with the intent to engage and empower one another – not to kill, not to destroy, not to injure. They were acting out and discovering a vital piece to the peace puzzle.
We’re taking this theme on through the next cycle of the ceremonial with a series of stalking, tracking and hunting dances. This has stirred very deep responses in many of the people, especially the men, who were at first terrified to think of the hunt because to hunt one another meant to kill. When we said the hunt is for the engagement rather than the kill, then we began to look further. We began to realize that as you go into the engagement, you are agreeing to die. You’re going into the engagement to change, and you will never be the same. To engage is to change. We’re gradually identifying what we’re calling "warriors of the heart" – those who are willing to hunt for the engagement, to be trackers and stalkers of the Way. One’s life is the hunting ground, the field of engagement; and relationship is the crucible of one’s evolution, one’s becoming, one’s growth.
I profoundly believe that living as Warriors of the Beauty Way is an alternative to war. The passionate involvement of the total being of each of us completely on the line creating an artful life brings us closer to enduring peace. The first work of art each one of us has is our lives, and if we have not created them in beauty, we have not completed our task. Mere utility is not enough. We haven’t really demonstrated the power and the possibility of the human potential if we haven’t created in beauty.