First Published by Llewellyn Inc. at www.llewellyn.com, Creating Ceremony.
For thousands of years, human beings have honored our connection to the earth, seasons, and major life transitions through ceremony, ritual, and storytelling. These practices are the sacred technology of indigenous people and are an inherent part of our past and ancestral wisdom. The purpose of creating ceremony is to honor the life-giving forces of our earth, to simply be thankful for our water, our air, our land, and the plants and animals that dwell on the planet with us. In these current times of disconnection, feelings of lack and poverty, and polluted air and waters, the importance of creating ceremony is becoming more apparent. When we perform a ceremony we are creating more balance inside of ourselves that enables us to connect and act in a way that is in harmony with each other and the earth. From the shamanic or indigenous perspective, honoring what feeds us, clothes us, shelters us, and enables us to live is crucial to our well being and brings us into a place of right balance.
In my upcoming book, Fire of the Goddess: Nine Paths to Ignite the Sacred Feminine, I use ceremony as one of the main ways to connect to our soul or spiritual self. In the West, many of us have been estranged from the words “ceremony” or “ritual,” as they may be associated with religion and dogmatic practices. Yet we find that we still create community when someone graduates, becomes pregnant, or dies. These community gatherings are the same as ceremony, regardless of religion or belief. Like ceremony, they create a space for people to gather, honor the person or event, and usually have a place for giving offerings. Yet, we can incorporate ceremony and ritual so much more into our lives and, when not constricted by following prescribed ways of connecting to our community and the earth, it can be something spontaneous and joyous. I have found that ceremonies are like seeds of light that are sprinkled in my life. The more ceremony I create, the more I allow myself to dissolve the smaller self into the connectedness of community and earth and the seeds of light expand outward like a web. These seeds then grow and illuminate my daily life, spilling over into the everyday actions. As that happens, we realize that everything is sacred, even the most mundane tasks like cleaning and paying bills, and our entire life becomes a ceremony.
When indigenous people create ceremony, they are actively seeking to dissolve their smaller selves and merge with the larger creative forces like the earth, the spirits, and the ancestors. We can also do this, as we are each indigenous to this earth. Each time we create ceremony, we feel spiritually nourished and align more clearly with our purpose. For example, creating a nature table or altar where we can place objects that inspire us (such as images of our grandmother, a goddess, or Buddha, or flowers or a candle) may be helpful. We are then physically communicating to our soul that these are qualities we wish to invoke in our lives. This also helps us to be more grateful for what we have in our lives, which then develops greater awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.
In Fire of the Goddess I explore several ways to use ceremonies to specifically connect to our inner sacred feminine. When we as both women and men tap into the power, love, and wisdom inherent on our earth and reflected in our bodies, we are able to heal, understand our life purpose, and create connection in our communities. Some examples for women are ceremonies to reclaim menses, croning ceremonies at menopause, and ceremonies to honor a pregnant friend. Men can benefit from creating ceremony to reclaim the transition into manhood and becoming a father. Both men and women together benefit from creating ceremonies to celebrate the earth, to give thanks, or to honor a person who has died.
Ceremonies can be intricate and elaborate (and include many songs, costumes, and instruments, as well as various people playing several parts) or they can be as simple as lighting a candle and giving thanks for our families, the food on the table, or the sunlight. What is essential to ceremony is the act of creating a physical form to represent your intention. Lighting a candle can signify gratitude, clarity, or awakening. Sprinkling water on our faces can symbolize cleansing or purification. Creating a wreath of leaves and flowers may portray connectedness, honoring life and things growing. Building a pile of stones can represent becoming more grounded. We might find that we start with creating simple ceremony and then grow to add different elements to symbolize more than one intention, or creating ceremony for a few reasons, such as purifying and manifesting.
Creating ceremony is the process of setting an intention and then using a form that symbolizes our intention, such as manifesting something into our lives. When we set our intention and then create and perform a symbolic action we are clearly communicating to our soul or subconscious that we are committed to creating abundance in our lives. This is very simple yet powerful because we bypass our conscious, linear mind and allow our heart to speak directly with the universe. For example, if we want to manifest a car or a new job, we could perform a simple ceremony of planting a seed, using the seed as a symbol for our manifestation. We can blow our intention into the seed and then plant it in the earth as a symbolic act; our seed will then sprout and come to life, giving us other gifts of air or food as well. By creating ceremony we are communicating from subconscious to conscious mind the freedom to take action and manifest. We are imbuing our wish or intention it with focused clarity or power, which has an effect on our life. Although the seed itself may not bring a car exactly, our focused intention will tune us in to ways that will help us manifest one in our life.
After setting an intention, we are ready to establish solid groundwork that will create an effective ceremony. I have found the following three aspects of ceremony to be helpful guides: making an altar, giving offerings, and creating sacred space. The first aspect is to create an altar or physical space to place symbolic items that represent different parts of the ceremony. An altar is simply a place that you designate as sacred. It can be a small shelf in your house, a table in your bedroom, an entire room dedicated to sacred space, or a mound of earth in the garden. Once you have chosen the space, you will want to clear it of any clutter, and perhaps but a nice cloth over it if is a table or shelf. Then, simply adorn this sacred space with things you like, such as images of things, people, or deities that inspire you; flowers and candles; incense and sage; and any other sacred objects that are meaningful to you.
The second essential aspect is making an offering. This is one of the most important actions in the sacred technology of indigenous wisdom. When I lived in India, I was surrounded by people constantly making offerings of coconuts, flowers, sandalwood, tikka powders, incense, and chanting. They would create the most beautiful plates adorned with these items and offer them to their ancestors, to the land spirits, to the animals and trees, and to their personal deity (such as Saraswati or Siva). When we do this, we are offering a small token of our gratitude and respect to the earth, water, and air; to other people and creatures that dwell with us; and the unseen world of spirits. This reminds us that we are interconnected with all things on earth and helps us to cultivate an open and thankful heart. Making an offering also reminds us that we take everything we need from the earth; it helps to cultivate right balance when we make an offering back as well. We may also choose to give specific offerings to the spirits that dwell on the land, to our ancestors, and to unseen guides and helpers. The more we offer, the more our hearts open and the more we have the opportunity to receive. Whenever someone in India, or most of the world, goes to receive teachings or healing or to make a prayer or intention, they always bring an offering. This is so important to ceremonial work and our life in general, to cultivate the act of offering and service to our earth and each other so that we can open to power, love, and wisdom within.
Next, we want to create a container or space to hold the intention for the ceremony. This helps to magnify whatever actions you perform and increases the connection to the spirits. Traditionally, many cultures use the elements of air, fire, water, and earth to help create sacred space. You may want to explore these elements and create simple ceremonies to honor each of them. For example, you can light a candle for fire, burn incense for air, fill a bowl of water for water, and sprinkle some salt for earth. Other ways to discover more about the elements is to write each one on the top of a sheet of paper and then make a list of your personal associations with that element. Do not try to analyze or over think this, just spontaneously make a list. For example, under water you may write: cleansing, purifying, ocean, liquid. You can add images, color and descriptions of the element to further connect with it. Another method is to visualize the element and evoke the qualities that you associate with it, such as the smell, color, or feeling.
Once you have visited each of the elements, you can also explore the four cardinal directions (east, south, west, and north). Calling in each of the directions (along with their associated elements) works to both honor these elements of earth as well as provide a potent space to set our intentions. Certain traditions associate specific elements with each of the directions (such air for east, fire for south, water for west, and earth for north). Although you may wish to use these, I also encourage you to explore each of the directions on your own as well, to find out more. Just as you did with the elements, you can make a list of qualities with each of the directions using words, color, and imagery. This creates a unique and personal relationship with the directions and is not bound by certain traditions. The directions and elements are directly influenced by the environment and natural world around us. Often indigenous peoples in the northern hemisphere dedicated fire to the south, while peoples in the southern hemisphere connected fire to the north, indicating the relation of the warmth in response to their location on earth. Where you live will have its own unique qualities with each of the directions.
The steps for creating a ceremony are as follows:
- Set an intention. Figure out what kind of ceremony you want to create. Do you want to bring more abundance into your life? Let go of something? Find a healing solution for yourself or a family member? Any kind of ceremony is fine, whether it is a spiritual question or a mundane matter. Some examples of intentions include:
- To honor and celebrate gifts from the earth
- To ask for healing for my daughter
- To manifest a job
- To honor the passing of a friend or family member
- To connect with the element of water
- To ask for spiritual guidance
- Design your ceremony. Once you have set your intention, create what you will do in your ceremony. Think about what items will represent the intention for your altar. Gather offerings for whoever is connected to your ceremony as well as offerings or candles for each of the four directions. Think of a way to represent how you can bring your intention into form. If you want to release something, you may want to write it down and then burn it. If you want cleansing, you can sprinkle water on your face. You might want to use song or drumming to magnify or increase the energy once you have created sacred space. Perhaps you want to include a few intentions in one ceremony; however, very simple ceremonies be just as powerful. You can easily add to the ceremony and allow it to be spontaneous and fun as well. Be creative! There is no wrong way to do a ceremony.
- Create an altar. Create an altar specific to your intention. If you are asking for healing for someone, perhaps put their picture or something of theirs on the altar. Flowers are a nice addition along with candles.
- Make an offering. Before you begin your ceremony, make an offering to anything that has helped you along the way. Perhaps offer to the spirits, Universe, God/dess, whatever feels comfortable. You can also make an offering to the earth. An offering can be a flower, sprinkling water or salt, singing a song, or shaking a rattle.
- Create sacred space. This can be done by calling in the directions and/or elements as you have explored above. You can also make offerings to each of the directions specifically. If you want to enhance the energy, add a song, drum, or rattle to help intensify the power that you are connecting to.
- Performing ceremony. Do the action you planned. Blow your intentions into a seed and plant them. Pour water on the earth to symbolize healing for the earth. Write down and burn what you need to clear. Perhaps you feel the need to spontaneously dance or add something during the ceremony.
- Close the sacred space. When you are finished, make sure to close your sacred space. Thank each of the directions and elements that you have chosen to work with.
From the shamanic perspective, when we make a ceremony we are communicating directly with the spirits. When we choose to make offerings to the spirits and align ourselves with them, we may find that they begin to talk back to us. Ceremonies may come in dreams or visions, and even if they seem peculiar, they often reveal something that needs healing in our lives. Indigenous people have been honoring the earth, her inhabitants, and the spirits for up to 50,000 years. Thus, we have thousands of generations that have evolved working with this earth and we do not have to look far to find that ceremonies have played a crucial role in our connections to this planet. By creating our own ceremony we too can reconnect with the earth, empower ourselves, heal, and transform into more balanced humans.