The following is taken from the recording of a series of talks over a weekend workshop that I gave years ago to a small group of people whom I knew well and therefore with whom I felt confident sharing these sometimes personal thoughts. In transcribing the recordings, all the sessions were put together without noting where breaks occurred, and the frequent questions from group members were not included, only my answers. So, I ramble and even “go on” a bit more than would hopefully be normal in what I usually post on this website. However, in posting this here, I have left the transcription as it was, with the hope that even in its informality, perhaps because of it, it will be meaningful to some readers. Please be aware that the following contains my own ideas and experiences, and no matter what is said here, I do not pretend to represent any other person or any particular group’s perspective about ceremony. And finally, an outline made later from someone’s notes of the weekend workshop–an outline that I fear looks quite boring and pedantic, even though it is quite accurate to what I said!) is at the end.
It is good to be here! Thank you for coming. I want to say a few words to you tonight about something that is one of the most important things I know: ceremony and the ceremonial life.
Once, long ago, l was a child—a rather unusual child, but a child. I was not an orphan, but I was not a member of an ordinary family, either.
I was born in a charity hospital, and my mother and I were supported by a Methodist women’s group for the first two years of my life. My father was dead; I had seen him only once, l am told, before he died of tuberculosis.
My mother was there with me, loving me fiercely, but she was not ordinary, either. She had been crippled by polio when she was three years old, and she had not walked since. Furthermore, she been abandoned by her father as an infant, had been abused by her stepfather as a child, and had lost
both her parents by the time she was a young woman. So, she was no ordinary woman.
But believe me, she was the source of my life, and the energy between us was as intense as it gets. At the time of my earliest memories, my mother and I were very poor. We lived with relatives. My mother was taking in sewing to earn our living. It was at the beginning of the Second World War when the whole world was rocked by anxiety and terror.
Now, I get to the point of my story for tonight having to do with ceremony.
One of my first memories is of being a very young child, sitting on the floor, near my mother. My mother was seated at her old-fashioned non-electric pedal-type sewing machine. She was pushing the pedal with her one good foot; the hum and rhythm of the machine sounding a familiar drone.
Before me on the floor was an array of buttons. My mother saved buttons, every kind of button, every shape and color of button. She had several big cigar boxes full of buttons. She let me play with them to entertain myself, I guess. And, as I sat there on the floor, with all those buttons, I repeated an activity that I know I must have done many times, because in my memory it always feels so clear and familiar to me.
I lined up the buttons, arranging them over and over in various orderly patterns—by color, by size, by shape, in rows and columns and circles and zig zags and various other patterns. I can still, all these years later, remember the feeling of those buttons in my small hands, their roundness and lightness and coolness. I can remember how l felt about the big red buttons that my mother had sewed on a woman’s suit coat, and how l felt about the tiny baby buttons like the ones she put on a christening dress for someone’s child. And in my head, I spoke with the buttons and made up stories about them. I especially remember defending the little buttons from the large ones. That is one of my earliest memories.
Why has that experience stayed with me vividly, while countless others have faded away? I think it is because in that moment l was involved in a simple personal ceremony of great importance to me. I was bringing an orderliness out of the unconsciously felt insecurity of my existence, out of the awareness of my mother’s constant uncertainty. I was marshaling strength to deal with all the anxiety around me.
Manipulating those buttons, l was, unconsciously, manipulating the forces of life for my own well-being. I was creating, if you will, a pattern I could control. I was seeking to protect my little self, as I protected those little buttons. Certainly, l would say that l was performing an intuitive healing ceremony for myself, simple and instinctive as it was. And it helped me. It still does, incidentally, when I remember it.
The church we went to at the time no doubt had its own ceremonies to deal with the anxieties of its members and of the world at large. But I don’t remember them. I was too young, perhaps, for communal ceremonies to register with me, though they must have helped my mother.
Since there are always life experiences that involve uncertainty for us all, it is not surprising that communal ceremonies should occur. These communal ceremonies are for the purpose of enabling the community itself to deal with life’s challenges, and for people to exist in a healthy way as a community.
Navajo ceremonies, for example, involve many, many aspects—song, dance, art, myth, prayer, fasting, meditation, etc., but the whole of the ceremony is directed toward releasing the healing powers of right order into the world and into the patient for whom a “sing” is performed. Likewise, Buddhist mandala rituals, employing many of the same techniques, also have as their purpose the transformational process that heals by putting things in right order, in right perspective.
Many people are still fed by the rituals and ceremonies of mainstream churches and religions. If they are, l rejoice. Many people, however, are not, for a variety of reasons. Sadly, some of these latter people, it seems to me, have thrown out the baby with the bath water, saying, quite correctly, that they are done with “empty and meaningless’ ritual and ceremony, while failing to see that they have the possibility of creating meaningful and powerful ceremony that would enhance their lives.
I do know by now that I need meaningful ritual and ceremony in my life to keep me whole. lt does not have to be the kind prescribed by a bishop or a creed. It does, however, have to speak to me, to my own life, my own needs.
We all perform many little ceremonial acts; we have many unconscious and conscious rituals. The way we brush our teeth. The way some basketball player dribbles the ball three times, every time, before he shoots a free throw.
We all have a ritualized and ceremonial life. Whether or not it is conscious, whether or not it is effective in fulfilling the purpose of strengthening us and healing us and bringing us into harmony and balance with life is sometimes else. It depends on a lot of things.
I remember another ritual, later in my life, just a few years ago, in fact. I was at the Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas, where l visit periodically to work with women prisoners there. On that particular day, we were just beginning whatever it was that we were to do when the prison chaplain came to the door and called called me outside.
I was told that there was a death message for one of the women prisoners in the room there with me. I was told the details, and l was asked to bring this woman with me to the psychologist’s office to
talk with her family on the phone. And I was asked to stay with her for whatever she might need from a spiritual advisor, as the prison calls me in my work. went back inside and asked the person who was there helping me in this work with the prisoners to take over the leadership of the group, while l took this woman away with me to receive this phone call.
Now this woman was almost illiterate. She had tattoos, well before many people had tattoos. She was in prison for driving the get-a-way car at a bank robbery. She had been in prison for several years. She was determined to be done with her drug habits when she got out of prison, but secretly I had my doubts.
She was nervous when she picked up the phone; she knew it was serious. As the tale unfolded to her there on the phone, she began to scream and to shake and to cry and to curse and to pray. She reached out wildly for me, digging her fingernails into my arm, though she didn’t even see me or anyone else, as she saw instead the story being told to her.
I wrapped my arms around her and held her, and it felt like I was literally holding her together, while she was told that her daughter’s boyfriend had gone psycho on drugs and had shot and killed the daughter, because the daughter had stepped between him and her grandmother, the prisoner’s mother, because he was about to shoot the grandmother, so he killed the daughter instead. Then, he had struck the grandmother and knocked her down. Two of the prisoner’s younger children had witnessed this, and, in fact, the man had taken one of the youngsters with him to drive a truck to get away; he was for some reason unable to drive. But the child didn’t know how to drive either, and she was so small that she would have had to stand up to reach the pedals and see out the windshield at the same time.
But she had done it somehow, at gun point; she had driven the truck out of the driveway, and the police and the FBI said that the gunman had threatened to kill the child if anyone interfered with his escape. So he had not yet been apprehended.
Now, if ever there was anyone in need of empowerment, it was this woman l was holding in my arms as she listened to this news. Afterward, the chaplain, the psychologist, and I used everything we knew, spontaneously, to help this woman.
But it is what happened the next time I visited the prison that I really want to speak about. I thought long and hard about what would be meaningful to this woman, what kind of ceremony we could do with her. I was stumped. Nothing seemed good enough, powerful enough. ln the end, l just gave up and did what felt right.
I brought with me a quilt, made by a friend of mine, in the pattern of a prayer wheel, a prayer wheel that had been a vision of mine that I had shared with my friend the quilter and with others, explaining that it was inspired by the meaningful symbols of the Native American pipe ceremony, where everything in the Universe and beyond is placed symbolically in the medicine pipe in the ceremony. The quilt is here, you can see it for yourself.
So at the prison, I spread this quilt out in the middle of the floor, and the women prisoners and l sat around it. We had used the quilt before, but once again I explained the many symbols on the quilt. And I explained the two outer lines of the design, lines that encircle the rest of the pattern. One of the lines represents that which is eternal, unchanging, everlasting. The other is that the constantly changing, coming and going, into existence and out of existence in life as we know normally know it. (This motif is echoed, of course, in every spiritual tradition, often in the most esoteric of terms.)
But when I got to this part about these two lines intersecting and overlapping around the circle on the quilt, this woman prisoner, whose one daughter had been killed and whose other daughter by now had been rescued from the killer but was in a state juvenile detention facility in protective custody, this prisoner began to speak. She began to trace her fingers along these outer lines on the quilt. And she began to speak, in her own uneducated slang, her broken English, about life and death, about the transitory nature of some things, and the eternal nature of love. She spoke of her daughters, of grief, of despair, of hope, of the love she knew would always somehow exist between her and her daughter who had died. She spoke at length, as if to herself, while the rest of us sat, mesmerized but at full attention, giving her silently all the love and support we all felt in our hearts. She had suffered greatly in the weeks since I had seen her.
Now, given a format within which to frame her experience, she proceeded spontaneously to perform this most amazing, simple healing ritual. She was getting some of the experience “outside herself,” as it were, by speaking the words, and she was no longer alone with the experience, as we were sharing it with her. And she was addressing not only us, but the Spirit of her daughters and of all the great powers represented in all the symbols of the quilt.
After she talked, I encouraged her to walk the intersecting lines on the wheel on the quilt, then to sit in the center, and to draw to herself all the healing powers of the universe that were represented on this quilt, this quilt that l had envisioned, and my friend had stitched, and others had used for their own prayer ceremonies.
She did so, moving slowly, slowly, while I drummed softly, and the energy in the room was extraordinary. Then as she sat in the center, she looked at all of us and smiled.
What a day that was. I shall never forget that day. Whenever I use this quilt, I think of her.
It is this sort of ceremony that I believe in. Ceremony that is created to fit the unique occasions of one’s life. Ceremony infused with meaning, both from all the spiritual traditions that have gone before us and also meaning from our own personal experiences. Ceremony witnessed by a supportive community. Ceremony that heals and empowers and restores to life that which has been pulled out of its place of harmony.
Because many of us have been brought up in a hierarchical culture in which the authorities in church or state have been empowered with the right to designate the time or style of ceremony, such as Christmas or the Fourth of July, we often neglect the possibility of creating our own ceremonies when we need them. Thus, we rob ourselves of a great source of enrichment.
Webster defines ceremony as “a formal act or set of formal acts established by custom or authority as proper to a special occasion, such as a religious rite; a conventional social act; behavior that follows rigid etiquette; empty or meaningless formality.”
That latter definition, empty and meaningless, is obviously not the kind of ceremony I am interested in fostering. We have had enough empty and meaningless formality in all too many spiritual traditions. That is why so many people are being drawn to create their own ceremonies, their own rituals that can be not merely conventional acts but are instead alive with personal meaning and power.
Such personally created ceremony may help to restore balance when there is imbalance, to restore harmony when there is disharmony, to restore health when there is illness, to restore purity after defilement, to renew, rebirth, reorient, to change, to help us to endure, to invoke or evoke aid or guidance or energy, or to facilitate a specific intention.
You asked for examples. One might, for example, have a ceremony at the beginning or end of any serious undertaking, at any time to give thanks, at a transition time such as when one goes to school, gets a driver’s license, gets a divorce, moves, changes jobs. Certainly, one needs ceremony to support oneself during the changes and chaos of puberty and midlife crisis, at a time of birth or death, marriage or illness, when seeking vision or guidance.
Some of the other typical occasions that may call for ceremony are at a birth or on a birthday, to name or welcome a child, at the beginning or breakup of friendship, at age eighteen or at any age when adulthood is reached, when one is vision questing, when one is first allowed to wear make-up or pierce one’s ears, when one’s world seems in a state of upheaval, on graduating from school, when a young person moves away from home, when one undertakes a new job, when one must deal with an adversary of any kind, , when one feels that he or she has been somehow violated or has somehow violated others or the moral standard by which that person abides, when a child is incorporated into a new family system, at midlife, at a time of illness, at a preparation for death, after a death, at the beginning or ending of any serious undertaking.
A ceremony, of example, can be held in which war veterans enter a circle of friends, ritualistically place something upon an altar, speak about their activities and their painful memories, and then listen to their friends as each in turn speaks words of understanding and reconciliation.
Or, a fire can be built ceremonially and each person attending the ceremony can burn some symbol of something they are ready to let go of.
A person can simply sit in the middle of a circle of people who focus loving, affirmative energy upon him.
A woman going through menopause may be joined by her friends and family for a ceremony in which she officially takes up her own staff, which is at once an elder’s walking stick and a sign of her respected and powerful wise old woman status.
I also frequently recommend personal ceremonies done alone or with a trusted friend. Using the various techniques, symbols, music, candles, and other means to engage the senses, the intuition, and
the emotions, one may conduct any of these or other simple ceremonies:
A person may write out or paint his or her painful memories and then with ceremony, burn it. or a person may mold something in clay and then ceremonially dissolve it.
A person dealing with repressed rage may set up a ceremonial environment wherein he or she can destroy something, safely acting out the rage by, for example, breaking a dish or a memento.
A person can dig a hole or holes in the ground and add to it, symbolically or actually, the “manure“ (inner or outer) that they are ready to give over to be “compost“ for new growth, and then plant flower bulbs or seeds in the hole.
A person who for some reason feels demeaned or unclean may buy a whole new outfit, from undergarments on out, then take off their old clothes, take a ritual bath, put on the new clothes, and discard the old clothes ritually.
A person ashamed of or out of touch with his or her body may lock all the doors, burn candles, put on music, undress, and dance in front of a mirror, giving respect to their own disregarded beauty.
A person trying to evoke some attitude or change may set up a symbol of that on his or her coffee table and then every day place a flower or a feather or a shell or a candle in front of this object, indicating symbolically one’s devotion to this new attitude or way of being.
A person can purchase a piece of jewelry (I usually recommend a ring, since you can see a ring on yourself more easily than you can see a necklace or earrings that you wear) to represent something, such as, for example, strength or courage or confidence, and, after holding a ceremony in which you infuse that ring with all the courage etc. that you ever could need, you can remember, whenever you are in a challenging situation, to look quietly at or touch that ring to remind yourself of your own power.
A person who needs to make amends with someone else who refuses to make peace or to make amends with someone who is dead or moved far away, can nonetheless have a ceremony in which he or she makes peace within himself or herself about this issue.
A woman who is about to be married (thus honoring the “marriage goddess “) can have a ceremony with her bridesmaids in which they honor and talk about how the bride is to stay in balance with the other “goddesses“ that will remain a part of her life even after her marriage—such as her lusty or fickle side, her independent side, her “who needs a man anyway “ side, etc.
Do not neglect the physical possibilities—curling up in a ball and unfolding, marching briskly forward, lying down to rest, etc.
The various ways of creating personal ceremony is limited only by your imagination.
I’ve spoken a great deal now about ceremony in a general way. Let me be more specific. What is ceremony anyway?
First of all, for me, ceremony is an energy shift, an energy transaction. All true ceremony is a magnet for energy to be drawn to it, and all ceremony radiates out energy to the surrounding environment. Think about that for a moment. An energy shift. An energy transaction. The ramifications of these statements are enormous.
For this reason, those participating in ceremony should, in advance, give some thought to their own state of energy, and to their own boundaries or lack thereof, before entering into any ceremony. Each person should know his or her own physical condition and be rested enough or well enough or at least be prepared enough to deal with the energy of a ceremony. Each person should set his or her own version of safeguards against the possibility of “too much energy,” too much “off energy,” or a backwash of negative energy, etc. Many a .
person comes away from a ceremony drained, with a headache, etc., because they have neglected this essential preparation.
Although in one type of ceremony, most participants may be passive, while a leader or medicine person or priest is active and does the significant part of the ceremony, as in a ceremony where a medicine person performs activities over another person, or as in a Christian mass in which the priest consecrates the host and says the prayers, etc. , even in such ceremonies, there are really no “passive“ participants
Ceremony requires energy from each participant. Counselors and priests are (or should be) trained to lead or deal with the energies that come up in ceremony. But I feel that all persons entering into ceremony should be aware of these factors. I always ask that there be no observers in my ceremonies, only participants.
In such ceremony, all participants are active, while the leader has the responsibility to “hold the center,” keep watch, safeguard the environment, sometimes interpret or possibly alter the events, even sometimes orchestrate the energies, etc. (The “ceremony” of psychotherapy is such an event, incidentally.)
There is also a type of ceremony with designated roles for each person, so that there is mutual participation. These ceremonies are often powerful, but seem to be difficult to “puII off” when no one assumes enough responsibility for the ceremony or when there is conflict, subtle or overt, about how the ceremony is to go, etc.
Ceremony is also a funnel or vehicle for energy to move through, and it flows both ways. It is important to remember that in all true ceremony where there is an energy shift the energy flows both ways. If, for example, you are praying for someone who is caught in a negative energy field, and you make a connection with them, not only will they be affected by your access to positive energy, but you will be affected, on some level, by their negative energy. One should be prepared for that and be prepared to deal with that.
Ceremony is an alteration of consciousness, and to be effective must involve all layers of consciousness—personal, archetypal, transpersonal, etc. Let’s dig into that now…(this group knew what I meant by these differentiations; for your information, see elsewhere on this website).
Effective ceremony can transcend the personal realm altogether, taking one to transpersonal levels of energy and power; the use of masks and robes and other devices in some cultural ceremonies are meant to protect participants and enable them to function in these non-personal roles. One must be aware and focused and intentional in one’s participation in powerful ceremony.
Ceremony involves not only the intellect, but also the intuition, the senses, the emotions; it involves literal as well as symbolic consciousness….(again, for your information, see elsewhere on this website).
There are many techniques used throughout the world to alter consciousness in ceremony. Many of these are wonderfully effective. However, it is important to remember that techniques, symbols and artifacts are important, not so much in themselves, as in their purpose of facilitating the alteration of consciousness.
If there is no change of consciousness, the techniques or symbols are merely mechanical. Many people get so caught up in the “gimmicks” that they get distracted from the ultimate goal of the ceremony.
What are some of the techniques that can provide an alteration of consciousness? Music. Chanting. Drumming. Dancing. Storytelling. Meditation. Evocation of the senses through sounds, smells, tastes, sights. Use of, for example, gongs, bells, incense, banners, prayer flags, etc. Wearing or carrying symbolic objects such as a staff, cross, medicine bag, robes, jewelry, etc. Entering specific environments such as a mountain top, a cave, the ocean, a church, a sweat lodge, a circle, a medicine wheel; or entering into the dark or into the light. Sleep and dreaming. Use of symbolic objects.
A Roman Catholic bishop swings his incense burner, a Native American burns sage and sweetgrass, I may light a torch at an Earthsprings retreat–each of these different approaches are meant to change the energy. But note, this is very important:
To me, without a change of consciousness, symbols and ceremony are meaningless.
Many ceremonies of symbolic healing are long and repetitive. “They repeat the desired pattern over and over again until a connection is made and the same symbolic pattern lights up in the patient’s psyche.” The psyche is “driven into a state of receptivity.” Drumming and chanting are especially significant for this purpose of altering consciousness.
Chemicals are, of course, a way of altering consciousness, but not one that I am speaking about here. Indeed, ceremony is a means of reaching a spiritual “high” that is a healthy alternative to mind-altering chemicals. When one consciously enters into ceremony “in a sacred way, “ an energy shift can occur that brings about permanent change in one’s life, whereas positive changes brought on by chemical highs, however euphoric, are usually temporary.
Ceremony, as we said, involves focused attention and concentration. This focused attention involves, at the very least, a respectful inner stillness. At best it involves one’s fullest concentration, one’s constant awareness, however relaxed or meditative one might be, an awareness that one is involved in “sacred space and sacred time and sacred event.”
Ceremony is not an occasion for socializing. Many non-native people today are participating in drumming circles, sweat lodge ceremonies, and a variety of other cross-cultural ceremonies; one of the things such people need to know is that they are expected during ceremony to avoid talk, socializing or other forms of behavior that bring the ceremony down inappropriately from a transpersonal to a personal level.
How many times have I been at Native American ceremonies or a variety of other kinds of ceremonies where people who were “visitors“ were milling about, talking, smoking, taking pictures, and in other ways, causing a disturbance and detracting from the ceremony by their lack of focused attention. The same people who would not dream of getting up in the middle of their Christian church service and walking around and talking and otherwise making distracting noises while the choir was in the middle of singing or during the celebration of communion, will, nonetheless, do all of those things in the middle of other people’s ceremonies. People who would never interrupt the rabbi or the priest in the middle of a service and ask him to explain just what he is doing have no hesitation in interrupting a medicine person in the middle of his activities asking for explanations.
I choose to suppose that this is done in ignorance. Perhaps most people do not realize, for example, that for Native Americans, as for Sufis, Africans, and others, dance is a form of prayer, not as a mere entertainment. Nor do most people realize that drumming and singing done ceremonially in many cultures are also prayers.
A person may have a particular song that is his or her own personal medicine song that he or she has received from Spirit, so that the offering of that song deserves the utmost respectful silence and appreciation. It is a sharing of that person’s deepest power with those who listen. To refuse this gift by making noise or not paying attention is an insult that few of us would wish to give if we were more conscious of the other person’s culture.
How then can we avoid this? If we do not know all the nuances of cultural traditions, how can we avoid giving offence? Perhaps we can’t. But at the very least, we can pay attention. We can offer the kind of quiet, focused concentration that makes ceremony possible.
I often attend ceremonies of many cultures—Buddhist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Native American, Sufi, whatever—and what I try to do is to make myself as inconspicuous and silent as possible until I am told what is expected of me, while at the same tine offering my full attention and respectful willingness to hold the energy for whatever creative and life-promoting actions may be happening to bring into the ceremony transpersonal power.
Clear intentions should be set ahead of time for the ceremony. An intention for ceremony should be clear and straightforward and understood by all. Even if the purpose of the ceremony is broad, such as healing the planet, it is important to be clear about what the purpose is. We don’t want to limit Spirit in setting our intentions, but it is important not carelessly or casually just to “head on in and let’s see what happens.“ As the saying goes, “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it!”
I have a friend who always specifies in her prayers that Spirit do this or that “in a gentle manner that I will be able to handle.” Another prays that there be no “unforeseen negative consequences.” I think that is wisdom, a fine clarification of intention.
Anyone should know the purpose of a ceremony before getting involved so that your conscious intent can be aligned with it, so that your safeguards can be activated, so that you can add to the ceremony and not be a drain on it.
You have a right to know the purpose of a ceremony; although many Native American writers (obviously including me) say that non-natives ask too many questions, they would never expect anyone to enter into a ceremony without knowing its purpose or what was going to happen to achieve that purpose. You not only have the right, you have the responsibility to know. If you are the one creating the ceremony, you have the responsibility of orienting the other participants before the ceremony begins. If you are to be a participant, you have the responsibility to find out these things at a time and in a manner that does not distract from the ceremony itself.
Incidentally, it is traditional in Native American cultures that the person for whom a ceremony is being held (and/or his or her family members) bring some kind of gift to the leader, to the rnedicine person who is to conduct ceremony. This is usually a practical gift, and may take the form of tobacco, food, a blanket, or other forms. It is likely never money. Native people believe that medicine cannot be purchased but is always a gift from Spirit. A medicine person will staunchly refuse money for their ceremonies, but will usually accept gifts for food, gas, lodging, etc., when they are offered in the right “give-away “spirit.
What is that give-away spirit? Gift-giving is not merely a formality. Many people strongly believe in the notion of a “transaction “of energy; therefore, if they give away energy in the form of the gift, they leave a void that may be filled by Spirit. So, their giving away something to the leader is an essential part of the ceremony itself. The leader receives the gift, hopefully, not as a personal favor, but as a give-away to Spirit, a gift to the transpersonal power evoked in the ceremony. There is much to be learned from this giveaway attitude, particularly as it is an opposite to the “let me get mine first” attitude often found in the mainstream culture.
The next stage of creating ceremony is all too often minimized, that is the announcing of that a ceremony will happen, and its intention, and securing needed cooperation. Native peoples make much of this step. The person announcing the intention for ceremony must, well in advance of the ceremony, address literally the universe, saying who is speaking, and announcing what is intended. To be thorough, one carefully announces one’s intentions to the weather, to the earth, to the elements, to the four directions, to surrounding animals, plants, structures, whatever, to anything that may be an element in how the ceremony turns out, and so ultimately one evokes the cooperation of “all that is.“
Specifically to be notified are any persons who may wish to participate or any who may be affected consciously or unconsciously by the ceremony whether or not they attend. (Native Americans always try to notify the local medicine person in an area before a ceremony is undertaken in his or her “territory” since presumably he or she will pick up on the energy transaction). Don’t forget your own teachers, friends, or power people in your life that are connected to you or have done ceremony with you before; even if they do not physically attend the ceremony, they can help to hold the energy for you during that time.
Know the medicine you think is needed for the ceremony you are planning and be sure to evoke that energy in your announcement of your intentions and in asking for cooperation. Remember your ancestors. For example, for a ceremony of sight call on Aunt Susie who was blind, etc.
Remember, this business of announcing and seeking cooperation well in advance of the ceremony is most significant and is the part that is most often overlooked. Set aside specific time for it. Give it your full attention.
This is all very practical. Before I do any ceremony, for example, I may sit for a while with my hand on the earth in the location where I intend to conduct the ceremony. I look around me to notice whether there are ants or poison ivy or logs that snakes might be under. I notice whether I will have the sun in my eyes during the ceremony. I wonder what will happen to the firewood if a rain storm comes unexpectedly. I think about shade on a sunny day. I notice whether structures are light or dark or cold or echoing. Such communication with all that is in the environment of the ceremony is just absolutely essential. And I do not hesitate to tell you that I talk to “All My Relatives” and ask humbly that all the creative powers of life, in all its forms, in every time, join with me in the creation of this life-promoting ceremony. I know that I am heard and responded to by a loving universe.
There are, of course, energies that may not be or seem so loving, But I humbly acknowledge them as well, particularly those voices or attitudes inside myself.
I think it is essential to make peace with the enemy before ceremony. In Jungian terms, I acknowledge my own shadow side, the parts of me that may trip me up or handicap me in doing ceremony. I acknowledge, for example, that I am not good with machinery and that the projector or the music player could, if it chooses or if f don’t pay due attention to it by being sure to have it in good order, it could sabotage the best showing of slides or the best music meditation.
I also acknowledge the dark realities of death, pain, and suffering, and ask that I may come into right relation to them, indeed, that I may be in balance and harmony with all that is.
This so-called management of evil, as anthropologists refer to it, is often overlooked in creating ceremony, but it is overlooked at one’s peril.
A friend of mine had a very bad experience in some ceremonial work she did in a group. My friend sat first and listened to a man’s painful story of horror and to his desperate weeping. My friend went into a sort of archetypal pain that was more than her own–it was hers and the man’s and it was universal pain all at once–and she had a terrible experience. She had not paid attention to her own “semi-permeable membrane” that could differentiate what she could handle and what she couldn’t. We have to triage, as they do in hospital. We can’t personally take on the whole suffering of mankind, though it has to be honored.
Here is a story. My friend Robert Johnson went to India several times. Once, while there, he went to a traditional wedding in a remote village. The bride was radiant, the groom was gracious, the crowd was celebratory as the party proceeded outside in the village. Meanwhile, the bride’s brother was making his way on his belly in the dirt of the road ahead of them all. When Robert asked what this person was doing, he was told that it was a traditional way of maintaining balance by “honoring and gathering up the evil so that it did not fall upon the happy couple.”
Psychotherapists should perhaps pay attention to this ancient traditional notion of the ceremonial aspect of “managing the evil,“ or they may end up soaking up negative energy and carrying it home with them or transferring it from one client to the next.
One Native teacher of mine used to say that counselors and ministers were “garbage collectors” from other people’s psychic energy, and that those who work in these fields need to learn how to “clear the energy” after every ceremonial encounter.
Another aspect of this management of negativity involves dealing with the attitudes or energies of other people who are not participants in your ceremony and may be oppositional to it.
Every culture emphasizes the next stage of ceremony, that of purification, as being essential. In any true ceremony, one comes into contact with archetypal or powerful energies. Purification prepares one to deal with that. It also “clears the deck,“ leaving behind the ordinary cares of the day, the worries or other concerns that might distract from one’s participation in the ceremony. At the very least, I have a purifying bath before I leave for a ceremony; usually my purification is much more stringent.
Toward this end, it is helpful to have a time of introspection and listening for direction before the ceremony begins. Eliade said that “We get the impression that for archaic societies life cannot be repaired, it can only be recreated by a return to sources.” Listening, quieting, purification, clearing the deck, these allow us to return to sources.
As for the ceremonial space, purification may involve cleaning, ordering, the burning of incense or sage and sweetgrass (traditionally, sage to dispel any negative energy, sweetgrass to attract sweet energy)—any of these done consciously are helpful. It is easy to fall into habitually doing these symbolic and real actions in such a way that you lose awareness of their meaning; the actions then become empty and powerless formalities.
Posit a center of the ceremonial ground, which is, for the ceremonial time, in effect, the center of the universe. Every people, except perhaps modern western people, have had some place that they considered the center of the universe, the place from which aII power emanated. To some it is the kiva, to some that tree over there, to some this or that altar, to some a spring or a mountaintop, to some Rome, to some Mecca.
It is a lost and desolate people who have no center. Once the earth herself was considered the center of the universe. Then it was seen that the earth revolved around the sun and the sun became the center of the universe. Then we realized that the sun was only one small part of the vast galaxy, and so now there is a general feeling in our culture of a loss of center that there is no center of the universe, or, if there is, no one knows where it is.
But native peoples and ancient peoples and spiritual peoples have all had the wisdom to know, as modern physicists do, that the universe is inter-dependent and interpenetrating, and so any place can be the center, if we establish it so. So, we have merely to posit a center, to establish a center and to say, and mean it, that, for now, for me, this is the center of the universe, so that power may flow outward from this center to all involved in the ceremony. The center may be the center of a fire, the center of a circle, etc.
One simple way of positing a center is to construct an altar. It can be simple or elaborate. It is often powerful to have every participant in the ceremony place something of his or her own upon the altar for the duration of the ceremony.
The next stage of creating ceremony involves assembling, focusing attention upon the ceremony, and enacting the ceremony.
Let me speak now about after-ceremony activities. Careful attention should be paid to closure.
Powerful ceremony evokes all kind of energies, and all too often highly effective leaders who arouse many affects in people rush the time of closure and leave people in an upheaval or worse.
At the end of ceremonial time, it is good to remind people that they may be in an altered state of consciousness, even without being aware of it, and that they should be especially careful about that as they drive, for example. Frequently people tell me they get lost on a familiar highway, get a ticket for speeding when they didn’t realize they were speeding, drive an hour out of the way because they weren’t paying attention, etc.
Finally comes the stage of reentry into ordinary life. This is usually the most difficult stage of true ceremony. One has been on this incredible journey, in this loving atmosphere, in this extraordinary experience, and now one must go home and deal with quarrelsome kids or the floor to be mopped. Those people back at home who have not had the privilege of being in the kind of spaces that the person coming out of ceremony has been may naturally feel left out and may be semi-consciously resentful or jealous or grumpy or sad or feeling neglected. Being gentle with them and oneself is important to avoid conflict or energetic whiplash.
If a person involved in deep ceremony does not plan well and allows too little time for closure and reentry, they experience tiredness or a sort of short-circuiting of energy. People who run out to do ceremony on their lunch hour and expect to go back to work, people who plan to go home after a weekend event and have a dinner party…well, you get the picture. Leave plenty of time and quiet space for yourself to absorb, contemplate, sort, and interpret aII that has happened to you if you hope to get the most out of your experience.
Then, of course, pay attention to your dreams, before, during, and after ceremony. Not only to dreams, but to your waking visions and fantasies and creative urges.
And, lastly, know that the effects of ceremony last long after the ceremony ends. Prayers uttered in a ceremony in January, for example, may not have their answers manifested until November or even years afterward. Do not quantify your experience too soon and therefore fail to notice aII the results of it.
I guess at bottom, what l want to say is that ceremony is important, that anyone can create meaningful ceremony for their lives, and that a life lived ceremonially can be powerful indeed. We must not, l feel, leave it always to others to create the ceremonies by which our lives are lived, nor must we be trapped in meaningless or rigid ceremonial traditions.
Now I’ve talked a lot. Lest I take myself too seriously, here are two other voice, coming from different direction.
Here are two quotes l would like to read to you. One is written by Leslie Silko, a Native American writer, from her novel Ceremony. The second is a quote from a medieval Christian Monk called Brother Lawrence. Here are the quotes.
First, Brother Lawrence:
‘The time of action does not differ at all from that of prayer; I possess God as tranquilly in the bustle of my kitchen—where sometimes several people are asking me different things at one time—as if I were on my knees before the Blessed Sacrament…It is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God.”
And now, Leslie Silko:
“There are some things I have to tell you,” Betonie began softly. “The people nowadays have an idea about the ceremonies. They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done, maybe because one slipup or mistake and the whole ceremony must be stopped and the sand painting destroyed. That much is true. They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed.”
“…He was quiet for a while, looking up at the sky through the smoke hole.
“That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle’s claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see in, many ways, the ceremonies hare always been changing…At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong.”
“…She taught me this above all else; things which don’t shift and grow are dead things. They are things the witchery people want. Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it. We won’t survive. That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more.”
For a PDF file of the outline of the content of main points of this workshop, please click here.