For some people, shamanic ritual is no longer a study topic for anthropologists, nor a New Age game. Ritual is a way of connecting more directly to divinity as expressed in the earth. As Rochelle Wallace and Richard Gossett demonstrate here, contemporary shamanic practice builds on our spiritual history while taking account of the world as it is.
Rick Gossett is a psychotherapist, pastoral counselor, and a United Methodist minister. Rochelle is a ceremonialist and facilitator of workshops and women’s groups. Both have trained with Michael Harner, author of Way of the Shaman, and they regularly lead workshops and shamanic rituals in addition to their other work. Contact them at PO Box 538, La Conner, WA 98257.
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
Across the doorsill where the two worlds touch;
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep!
– Rumi, 13th Century Sufi poet and mystic
As facilitators of experiential mysticism – and more specifically of shamanic techniques – we return again and again to Rumi’s poem as an expression of the shamanic experience. For indeed, the doorsill between the two worlds of ordinary and non-ordinary reality is round and open, beckoning those who have "eyes to see and ears to hear" to journey back and forth between the physical and spiritual worlds. For us, the shamanic journey is the heroic journey, undertaken to heal and empower not only ourselves, but each other, everything that is, and ultimately the Earth herself. This journey is open to anyone willing to go.
No matter what our ethnic backgrounds, all of us are native human beings. We are rooted in the earth. Our very cells contain the memories of 20,000 years of primal shamanic spirituality that has been forgotten in our modern culture. But we can re-member, we can re-unite the parts of ourselves and our reality that have been separate for too long. Many of our workshop participants find themselves in tears at the joy of "coming home," of recalling at an experiential level that we are indeed interconnected, that we are not separate or alone – and that the world around us is a living, breathing world of spirit, ready to help us as soon as we decide to ask, and to listen.
Shamanic work offers direct connection with the world of spirit – first-hand truth based on experience. It is our own experience with the Mystery that keeps our spirituality vital. Dogma and tradition, and the priests who are their keepers, play only a secondary role at this level of religious experience. As we directly encounter the Eternal Mystery, we honor it and find ourselves participating in it – learning that we too are a part of it, and it a part of us.
This Eternal Mystery lies at the heart of religious experience. As shamanic practitioners, we find ourselves called into relationship with the Eternal Mystery. We interact with power animals, spirit allies, plant spirits, Ancestors, and other manifestations of the Great Spirit-Eternal Mystery who are ready and willing to help us restore balance.
The common thread that runs through each person’s shamanic experience is that of the enchanted world, numinous with holiness, in which all things are alive and sacred. When we experience the meeting of the two worlds, we experience the healing of our separateness – the same separateness that has caused our culture to live in an "I-it" relationship that is destroying our Earth. With new awareness, we chant "Earth our body, Water our blood, Wind our breath, Fire our spirit." Once we move beyond metaphor and begin to know in a deep way that we are related intimately with everything else – that the very stones can speak to us, and we to them – then our lives and our actions inevitably begin to change. More and more, we give respect, honor and love to "all our relations"… to everything that is.
THE ECSTASY OF DIRECT EXPERIENCE
That ineffable point of experiencing the unity and sacredness of all things is the ecstatic experience of the shaman. Whether the emotion is joy or pain, the whole body/spirit/heart knowing that is the shamanic experience fulfills a deep primal need for the ecstatic that is basic to human existence. The ecstasy of direct experience of Spirit and Mystery heals and empowers in ways we are only beginning to understand, but which ancient shamans knew so well. Through the use of the ecstatic experience, we are reclaiming a tool to craft our spiritual lives, to create ceremony, to heal ourselves, and to heal the Earth.
In shamanic cultures, the fate of the world depends upon the ceremony, the dance, the chant, the journey into non-ordinary reality to find and restore balance. Just as an order of cloistered nuns believes their continuous prayer is crucial to maintaining a spiritual bridge between God and humanity, so too do the shamans sustain the life-giving flow of spirit. As we reclaim these traditions for ourselves, we enable the life blood of our Earth – the life blood of Spirit – to flow once again with strength and vitality. We empower the earth, and she empowers us.
But there are risks to this approach – we risk hearing things that wound us, that break us open so that new life might pour in. Suffering is inevitable in this journey. We must use it and let it go, thereby growing more compassionate in our relationships with all beings. Bliss, too, is inevitable, for we also risk getting well, being empowered, getting what we really want. Only when we are willing to risk, to experiment, to explore, to die and to be reborn, to take the step into the unknown as the beginning of our heroic journey, will we move on to becoming more truly who we are.
Perhaps the ecstasy of "dancing across the doorsill where the two worlds touch" can be expressed through the following excerpt from "Raven’s Sweat," a poem written by Rochelle after a sweat lodge ceremony:
As a newborn babe I crawl from my mother’s womb
And stand on wobbly legs in the new world;
Wash the new body that has just been
So tenderly born from a lifetime labor,
And walk to stand before the fire.
I raise my face to your infinite sky
And feel your touch of grace:
Your gentle raindrops kissing my skin,
Your singing wind that moves the trees,
The hot breath of your dancing fire,
Your wet, rich earth beneath my feet.
O Spirit, I recognize you now:
My father, my mother, my unseen lover –
You’ve been here always in all things;
In all things has your spirit lived for me;
From all things has your spirit loved me;
Through all things has your spirit touched me.
And never was I left alone, nor could I be
In this truer world of holy people
And living stone.
Late last Spring, we were overwhelmed by the tragedy of the oil spill near Valdez, Alaska. We heard from friends who lived in Alaska that the environmental devastation was far worse than news reports conveyed. A sense of helplessness hung over us. We wrote letters and tore up our credit cards, but it was not enough. There seemed to be little we could do to help heal our wounded Earth, short of going to Alaska in person.
We both experience the world as a spirit-filled place, so we knew there are other levels of reality we can affect. We turned our attention away from news reports and began to listen to our own dreams and spirit journeys. We heard the Earth crying out for healing. We began to gather information from our spiritual lives about how to create that healing.
It became clear to us that we should gather like-minded people together to plan a ceremony of healing and empowerment that would heal us as well as the Earth. So we passed the word around, rented an old grange hall, and gathered on a rainy afternoon to work on the ceremony. We weren’t even sure how to go about our task, other than to listen and be available to that inner voice of our spirit lives. We chose to use shamanic journeying – a specific technique of moving into non-ordinary reality in light trance, accompanied by drumming – to access information from non-ordinary reality for the creative work that lay ahead.
A SPIRIT CANOE JOURNEY
Because of the severity of the wounding at Valdez, we chose to do a spirit canoe journey – a group journey common to a number of shamanic cultures throughout the world – to get information for crafting our healing ceremony. (For a particularly perilous or difficult journey, joining the energies of a group will be more successful than one person journeying on his/her own.) This journey usually calls for one person to act as shaman while the others act as drummers and rowers of the canoe. With the help of power animals to steer the boat, they keep the shaman and the craft safe as they journey down a tunnel to the lower world.
In this case, however, our preliminary individual journeys selected two shamans from the group, a man and a woman, to go into the lower world, provide the balance of male and female, and retrieve separate parts of the needed information to be put together as a whole.
To begin, we invoked the spirits of the four directions, the earth and sky, and purified ourselves with sage and cedar smoke. Sixteen people formed the two sides of the canoe with their bodies, each seated between the outstretched legs of the person behind and all facing in the direction of Valdez. Lining the curved edges of the canoe were power objects from Alaska – rocks, feathers, shells, and Native art work – to help us find our way there. Two drummers took their places in the back of the canoe while the rowers tied bandanas around their eyes to create the darkness needed for journeying into non-ordinary reality.
The shamans began to dance around the canoe as the drummers kept time to the dancers’ rattles, until they felt themselves moving into the spirit world. The shamans’ power songs filled the lodge with sound and spirit, deepening the trance state needed for shamanic journeying. As the two felt the presence of their power animals and spirit allies, they stepped into the center of the human canoe and lay down beside one another.
With their rattles, the shamans signaled to the drummers and the rowers their readiness to enter the tunnel. The drummers began the fairly rapid, one-one-one beat of the drum, the sound that carries the journeyer on his/her quest. The rowers moved the canoe down the tunnel, watching for threshold guardians – any threatening animal or being – and protected the canoe and the people in it by calling out in the voices of their power animals while physically paddling the canoe.
The experiences of the man and woman who acted as shamans were identical up to a certain point. Both saw the canoe leave the tunnel and move out on the open sea near Valdez. Both experienced the animals of the region moving around and into the canoe with the rowers, drummers and shamans, imploring them for help, showing them their oil-covered bodies, crying out in agony for themselves and their young ones.
Both shamans soon met with a boat of Ancestor spirits, wise elders of the people of the land. The Grandmothers and Grandfathers were waiting to help with the healing, they said, but they needed our help to tow their canoe to shore, which both shamans did. As they moved toward the center of the oil spill, they saw, smelled and felt the devastation it had created: dead and dying eagles, sea otters, bears, deer, water birds, and more. They heard their agonizing cries and smelled the stench of death. Here their journeys parted, and each experienced what needed to be brought back to us to create our ceremony for healing the Earth.
THE FEMALE’S JOURNEY
The female shaman asked to be taken to the origin of the disaster to learn what might heal it. Immediately she experienced the canoe moving downward into another level of the lower world, under the water and deep into the earth. Unexpectedly she found herself in a cavernous, cold room covered with blood and oil. Before her, hanging from ropes and barely breathing, were row upon row of men and women, arms bound tightly to their bodies, legs tied together in a way that allowed no movement, mouths gagged, ears stuffed, eyes taped closed. She stood in horror at the sight, not knowing what to do. Her power animal moved to the nearest person and brushed a powerful wing over that person’s heart center. The ropes of bondage fell away. The power animal blew his breath into the dying person’s heart, where a dark ember began to glow with life energy. As the person moved, the power animal said to the shaman, "This! This is what you must do to heal Valdez, to heal the Earth. You and the others must heal the people. You must heal the separation."
"But there are thousands, there are millions!" she cried, overwhelmed by the challenge presented to her. And suddenly, the Ancestor spirits were with her, moving into the rows of people, healing them one by one. "You must leave us here," they told her. "This is our gift to the people. Return to the other world to heal the people there. All of you on this journey must work so that the Earth may live."
As the canoe traveled upward to return to the surface of the sea, the shaman saw the waters ablaze with the same intense red as the glowing embers within the hearts of the revived people. The fire burned away the oil on the surface of the water and freed the living beings from the oil that covered them without harming their bodies at all.
THE MALE’S JOURNEY
Meanwhile, the male shaman’s journey took him just off shore at Valdez. There he saw the Ancestor spirits meeting other Ancestor spirits native to that land. He observed them all living in balance with the land, the sea, and the animals around them. He moved among people who taught him to "imitate nature and to seek balance in all things – body, mind, spirit; earth, air, water." Then a ceremony was performed to honor him, so that he might learn "to honor all beings."
The final lesson, or answer to his question about how we might heal the wound of the oil spill, was to "work in ceremony, at labor, and with prayer" – again, the body-mind-spirit union.
He returned to the canoe and called out to ask if there was "anything else he should know." The elders then rose from the surf on either side of an Alaskan Ancestor holding a swaddled child. The shaman walked across the water to where they stood. The elders towered above him, standing only waist deep in Prince William Sound, and looked down at him standing atop the waves. The Ancestor handed the shaman the child as a gift. The shaman had been given what he had come for: "Guardianship of the Earth."
When the spirit canoe journey was over, the shamans returned to share their journeys. The impact on all of us was immense. We saw parts of ourselves reflected in the rope-bound people, whose separation from the earth and from each other was the origin of the spill. We saw the importance of healing our separation from the spirit world. More importantly, we knew now that we were not alone in our efforts.
Perhaps the most healing and inexplicable thing of all occurred when the male shaman moved to each one of us and gently placed the newborn babe, full of innocence and trust and deepest wisdom, into our arms. As we welcomed the child into ourselves to nurture and protect, the Mystery was made known in our hearts.
After the journey, the challenge became one of sharing what we had learned and experienced. Using the insights brought back from the lower world, combined with information retrieved by individuals on their own journeys, we developed an all-night ceremony of healing for Valdez.
We began the weekend of ceremony by entering a sweatlodge to pray for guidance and purification, and to offer ourselves as instruments of healing. We chanted, rattled, cried and sweated our prayers in the dark, steaming womb of Mother Earth. Doubts were given over to the Great Spirit, offered to the Eternal Mystery, that we might help restore balance to our wounded earth and to her children.
The next afternoon we kayaked and motorboated from the shore near our homes to a small uninhabited island in Puget Sound. Our children danced with anticipation as we walked the perimeter of the island to feel the spirits of the place and to thank them for being with us. At dusk, we encircled the ceremonial site with candles, built a fire, and gathered around our ceremonial drum to begin our vigil. After smudging each other with sage and cedar, offering the sacred smoke to the four directions, the earth and sky, and lighting candles around a small cedar that became our Tree of Life, we settled down to share with each other what had drawn us to this place, and what we wished to offer that night.
Soon we began the drumming. The heartbeat of the large drum carried us through the night as we chanted, danced, journeyed into non-ordinary reality, meditated, prayed, and dreamed. Most people took shifts on the ceremonial drum, while the children slept in tents not far away, and adults shared responsibility for staying with them. Little talking took place once the drumming began; we spoke through chanting and simple rhythmic movement, and sometimes only through singing rattles and the shared heartbeat of the drum.
With the dimmest light of dawn the drumming ceased. We drew together at the edge of the silvery-grey water, silent as a great blue heron flew low before us, and a harbor seal quietly approached. Each of us brought a giveaway gift to the sea, a gift that was to be as sacred and precious – as precious as our "firstborn child," as one journeyer had advised. The giveaway was to seal our promise to heal the Earth. We placed our gifts onto a large cedar platter carved into the shape of a salmon. As the sun rose, two people paddled offshore near the place the seal had shown us, weighted the offering with stones, and sank it into Puget Sound as we chanted a song of blessing.
Honoring one of the power animals of our bioregion, Salmon, we broke our fasts by sharing a cooked salmon, with the first bite offered to the sea. Again in silence, we welcomed the Salmon spirit into ourselves, dedicating ourselves to its survival, and to the survival of us all. We had shared a timeless vigil of living prayer, "not to change God, but that we might be changed."
Having been touched by the Eternal Mystery, the lives of those who took part in the journey and the ceremony will never be the same. We were healed in ways that continue to manifest in our lives, and we firmly believe the Earth was healed too, for our healing is the Earth’s, and the Earth’s is ours.