Envisioning Your Ceremony - The Power of Ceremony

The Book of Ceremony: Shamanic Wisdom for Invoking the Sacred in Everyday Life - Sandra Ingerman MA 2018

Envisioning Your Ceremony
The Power of Ceremony

While performing shamanic ceremonies, we open the door between our ordinary consciousness—who we are on an egoic and personality level—and walk through a veil that leads into the invisible realms.

You have to leave behind your ordinary thoughts about your day to cross the veil into the invisible and start your process of weaving a new life tapestry for yourself, your family, your community, and the world. Thinking about emails or what happened at work or concerns about issues in your life anchors you to the ordinary, preventing you from crossing to the unseen world and experiencing the power of the work.


The true magic in working with ceremonies is what occurs behind all the activity taking place. This is true with all shamanic healing and blessing work.

The space behind the drumming, the words, the dancing, and all the physical activity of ceremony is the deep silence of the void—the place before creation. In this silent space, your soul communes with the divine forces and the powers that be, working in partnership to manifest the intention of your ceremony.

The activity of ceremony gives us a way to feed and grow the seed of intention. We focus our body, mind, and spirit, making a path for the magic to occur behind the veil, between the seen and unseen realms.

When a master shaman performs a healing, the true work has nothing to do with the method performed. The healing happens in the sacred space of the void and through the light-filled presence of the shaman.

If you create sacred space, magic happens in your ceremony. You are operating on different levels of reality simultaneously. Your inner divine spirit and the divine power of the universe commune within the structure of the ceremony, allowing you in your humanness to participate and to show your commitment and intention to obtain your desired results.

I will now share with you elements that are essential in designing and preparing for a ceremony that you perform alone or in a group.


If you are working indoors, you want to find the appropriate room to work in. For example, if you want to work with fire, pick a room where there is a fireplace or a room where you can safely burn something small, like a piece of paper. Use a controlled flame, such as from a candle, and make sure all the ash goes into a bowl.

When your ceremony involves playing an instrument and stating your prayers out loud, find a room in which you will not be disturbed. A phone ringing in the middle of the ceremony might bring you out of sacred space, and you might lose your concentration and focus. If there are other people in the house with whom you feel shy about sharing your work, pick a time of day when you can be alone. Or simply ask everyone to respect your need for privacy.

If you play an instrument or generate positive spiritual power during your ceremony, pets in your house will be attracted and will want to be with you. You have to use your judgment. Having animals to love and support you during a ceremony is a precious thing, but they can be distracting if they get too active or noisy.

My cat would literally throw herself against the door of my office so that I’d let her in when I was performing any kind of ceremony. Once in the room, she would just lie down and purr. She became a great supporter of my work.

When working outside, find a location where you won’t be disturbed by the public. This place needs to feel safe to you. And when you go inside yourself and notice your feelings in this location, you should feel an inner smile or an inner “ah” that says to you, “This is a good place to work.”

Be aware that ceremonies generate a lot of good energy. I have taught at retreat centers where other groups are working. They tend to gravitate to the energy of deep and intimate ceremonies. I have gone back and forth on this issue. Sometimes I have explained to strangers showing up that this is an intimate healing ceremony for our group and ask for privacy. But I was at one retreat center where a couple showed up uninvited. They asked if they could keep their distance and just soak in the good, joyful, healing energy. How could I say no? And I’ve never said no again. This is something for you to decide if you do ceremonies in public places. Of course, if you are performing a ceremony for your community, then all members are welcome.

Once you discover a good place to work, I suggest connecting with the helping ancestral spirits of the land. The compassionate ancestral spirits of the land are human spirits who are now deceased but chose to stay on Earth, rather than returning home to Source, to protect and care for the land they so love. They love the land as much as we do. It is important for them to know the intention of the spiritual work you are doing, as they will support you. They sometimes will even help to create the perfect weather for you to work in.

Leave an offering for the helping ancestral spirits. In many traditional cultures around the world, tobacco and special foods and drink were typically left as offerings. You can leave organic tobacco, lavender, or some herb that has special meaning to you. I leave blue corn meal, which is a sacred plant that has deep meaning to me. Please be aware that animals will eat your offerings, so be sure not to leave out food or drink that might hurt an animal that ingests it.

You will notice that you receive special help with your ceremony when you ask permission of the compassionate ancestors on the land. When the helping ancestors feel honored, they are always enthusiastic to help.

If you have a particular element in mind that you want to work with (earth, air, water, or fire), then you must find a location in nature where that element exists. For example, if you want to ask the sea to release you from a wound you are carrying, you need to work by the ocean. But if you cannot find the site you need locally, you can easily find a location in the unseen realms. In nonordinary reality, there are beautiful territories you can visit to perform ceremonial work—oceans, forests, waterfalls, rivers, mountains, and anything else you would need.

This is one of the benefits of choosing to work with a spiritual ceremony that includes a journey or meditation into the invisible, nonordinary realms. Another benefit is that it gives you the ability to connect with others over long distances and form circles in the unseen realms. Throughout The Book of Ceremony, this way of working remotely will be referred to as “virtual” ceremonies.

There are pros and cons in choosing whether you wish to perform a ceremony inside or outside. When working outside, you get to gaze upon the exquisite elements of nature. If you work with a group and use shamanic instruments such as drums and rattles, the sound gets diffused by the wind and more attention is needed to stay focused. But there is such a power in performing a ceremony outside in nature that most of my students prefer to work outdoors if weather conditions allow it.

People get so much healing from working in nature. It changes their mood, and afterward, their faces shine with light and love.

When you perform a ceremony inside, the energy is more contained and can oftentimes seem more powerful. The drumming, singing, or chanting can get quite loud, so there needs to be a discussion about keeping the volume to a level that supports the work while not becoming a distraction. It is common for one or more people to enter an ecstatic state during a ceremony and not realize how loud they have become. I instruct my students before an indoor ceremony to gently tap on the shoulder of someone who is in a state of ecstasy to lovingly let them know they are being too loud.


Every day is a good day to perform a ceremony. As I shared in chapter 1, shamans perform ceremonies based on the phases of the moon and where the stars are in the sky, or on the equinox or solstice, or when there is a need for a ceremony. Someone in the community might have a dream that signals a time to perform a ceremony, or the shaman might observe omens in nature that reveal the appropriate time.

If you have a strong need for a healing or a blessing, perform your ceremony when you feel called to do so. If you are welcoming a baby into the world, you want to perform the ceremony close the baby’s birth. There are other ceremonies where the timing will be obvious. When performing ceremonies to honor life’s changes, choosing to work on the full or new moon, during seasonal changes, or when an initiation or rite of passage is occurring are all good times to do your work. You might prefer to connect with the power of the sun and perform your ceremony at sunrise, dusk, or sunset, or you might prefer to do this work when the moon and stars are shining brightly in the night sky.

As shamanism is a way of life, you can be spontaneous with your ceremonies. You might find yourself out in nature and feel guided to pick up a stick and break it, signifying that you are ready to disconnect from an unhealthy relationship. Or you might be sitting in a beautiful place in nature and decide to use your breath to blow your old wounds into a stone and then bury the stone in the earth, always ending with gratitude for the earth’s ability to release the energy as fertilizer for new growth. These spontaneous acts are types of healing ceremony.


You want to prepare your materials before you perform your ceremony. The flow of your ceremony will not be graceful if you have to stop and search for an object you need.

Playing Shamanic and Spiritual Music

Music has a special power to engage us in ceremony, quiet our mind, and dissolve distracting energy. If you’re using recorded music, have your track ready to play. You may also decide to use shamanic instruments to help you focus on your work, such as a drum, rattle, flute, Tibetan bowl, click sticks, or bells. If it feels appropriate, you can make rattles by putting stones, crystals, or seeds in a bottle. You can find two sticks and click them together if you do not have a drum.

Drumming has been used universally by shamans for tens of thousands of years. Scientific research has shown that listening to monotonous percussion slows down our brain waves from a beta state, which is our ordinary state of consciousness, to a theta state. The change of consciousness produced by the theta state assists us in traveling from the seen into the unseen realms.

If you are not a shamanic practitioner, you might bring in any instrument or music that will support you staying concentrated on your intention leading to your desired outcome. Be sure your music is always chosen with the intention of creating a sacred space.

Keeping an open heart lets your intentions travel into the power of the universe to be manifested. Listening to music, playing instruments, singing, and dancing are all ways to open your heart and move you out of your rational mind.

Gathering Items in Nature

When collecting items in nature, speak to their spirit before taking them for your altar or ceremonial work. For example, before using lavender as an offering, ask the spirit of lavender if it is okay to pick it. You can do this with all flowers, stones, and crystals you find to work with. Trust your intuition on the answer you receive. The spirit of nature speaks to us all the time. We just need to open our invisible senses to receive images, messages, and feelings.

Using Materials to Design Your Space and Ceremony

There are many ways to use objects in your ceremony. For instance, in preparing an object to burn in a fire ceremony, you might wind yarn around a stick to create an effigy, talisman, or power object that is empowered with your intention for healing or blessing.

If you want to put materials into water or earth for your ceremony, then gather objects from nature beforehand that are safe—such as a beautiful stone that has a shape that calls to you. Prepare by empowering the stone with a prayer that you release into the water or the earth. Or you might take some organic cloth and fill it with sacred herbs, tying it up into a small medicine bundle. Using your breath, you can blow in your intention before releasing it to the element you are working with.

You might use paper to write a letter to a person the ceremony involves, or to God, the goddess, or the power of the universe. You can write a word describing a wish or a quality you wish to release. Or you might draw a symbolic picture. The paper can be burned in a fire ceremony or buried in the earth.

I like to use a wonderful paper called dissolving paper. I have included the website where you can order this in the resources section at the end of the book. You can write on the paper what you wish to release or a blessing you wish to manifest. Then you put the paper in a bowl of warm water and watch it dissolve. The paper is made with materials that are safe for the environment. After the paper has dissolved in the water, you can feed it to the earth. As you can imagine, children love to work with dissolving paper in ceremonies.

Feathers are excellent ceremonial items. You can blow the energy you’re releasing into a feather and then shake the energy of your wound into the air, water, earth, or fire while focusing on the released energy being transmuted into light and love that nurtures the Earth and all of life. I do encourage you to know the source of your feathers. Many birds are being killed for their feathers because they are popular to use in ceremony. We want to make sure that we collect our feathers in ways that honor the spirit of the bird. This is true for any animal parts we wear or use in our ceremonial work.

If you are working with a Prayer, Blessing, or Wishing Tree (which I will describe in the chapters that follow), you will want to gather ribbon or yarn or make prayer ties that you will tie to the branches of the tree. The tree acts as a bridge between the divine and human realm manifesting your prayer. I love to watch how the wind will work with me as I tie on yarn I have spun on my spinning wheel with the intention of a healing prayer. The wind will often gather strength as I tie on the prayer, letting me know that my wish is being carried up to the creative forces of the universe.

Burning Sacred Herbs

Burning incense such as sage, juniper, palo santo, or other local herbs can help you carry your intention by asking the wind to take your wishes to the universe. Have ready the sacred herbs you plan on burning. You can use a feather to facilitate your work, as it will help you direct the smoke.

More Tools for Your Toolbox

Communities in shamanic cultures often work with fire to perform a ceremony, and it is seen as an intelligent being. Fire reads our heart and soul desires. Shamans have always worked with fire to get messages. A classic shamanic ceremony is to just sit with a fire or even a candle burning and to hold a question and look at the flame. You may receive your answer as a vision or a feeling in your body, or you may hear a telepathic message.

You might use art supplies that will help you to perform your ceremonial work. If you are working with a group, you can supply these materials for the group, or you can assign everyone different materials to bring.

Some people like to celebrate after a ceremony with eating special foods. Prepare the food before your ceremony so that your celebration becomes a fluid part of your ending.

Consider how to decorate the space you’ll be working in, indoors or outdoors. In a room, you might want to include a table with a beautiful scarf or tablecloth over it on which to place the materials and instruments you will use in your ceremony. You might burn some brightly colored candles. Flowers can brighten up a room and help you to feel that a special event is about to occur.

In using an outdoor space, I have seen groups use lanterns, votive candles, or tea candles to light a path to the chosen place of ceremony. Groups might build a beautiful arbor, made with vines or branches and flowers, that everyone passes through to represent leaving their old life behind. As each person walks through the arbor and emerges, they are welcomed into a new time of life and into a holy and sacred space.

You might want to create rock sculptures that bring in a special energy. You may have seen rocks stacked on top of each other along walking trails. These are called cairns. They are often left as markers to help hikers follow a trail, but cairns are also built at ceremonies, oftentimes in the cardinal directions to mark a boundary so that the energy of the ceremony is contained. Or you can simply stack stones or place crystals in a circle, creating a boundary that helps members of the circle know where to stand.

Many people build medicine wheels, putting stones and natural objects in the cardinal directions and performing their ceremony within the medicine wheel. Some even create labyrinths by using rocks to create spiral paths that participants walk through to enter the ceremonial space.

Anointing Materials

In some ceremonies, we welcome each participant by anointing them before they enter the sacred space. The anointing might be done by placing a drop of water or a little daub of earth on a person’s third eye or on their crown. I’ve seen groups use the charcoal left from burning sacred herbs to anoint, as well as flowered or fragrant water. Anointing people as they step into the circle is once again a way of creating a separation between ordinary reality and sacred space. If you intend to use anointing, gather your materials in a bowl before the ceremony.

A Team Is a Powerful Tool

When I lead fire ceremonies, I ask for volunteers to create sacred space, spiritually cleanse the group as they arrive, build the fire beforehand, and safely put out the fire when we are done. I call these volunteers our fire keepers.

If you are working with a group, you can split up tasks of gathering supplies and decorating the space you will be working in. You might all choose to gather wood and make the fire together. Just remember to make sure that after all the preparation everyone is cleansed so that you are ready to officially begin your transformational work.


One way to create space is by setting up an altar. The purpose of setting up an altar in a room in your house is to help you move out of an ordinary state of consciousness where you are thinking about your day and move into a state where your psyche knows you’re getting ready for special work.

There are many ways to set up an altar. You can set up a very small altar by laying a cloth or rug on the floor of your room, on which you can place a candle, rocks, crystals, flowers, sacred herbs, and so on. Lighting a candle can signal that something special is about to occur. The flame of the candle represents spirit. Burn your favorite incense. You can place the photo of a loved one or spiritual teacher on your altar. Find special objects from nature to add power to your altar.

I live in the high desert in Santa Fe, where we are often in drought. I place a little bowl of water or rose water on my altar to honor the spirit of the land with the gift of water.

Discover for yourself which sacred objects call to you to create sacred space where you perform your spiritual work.

For many people, creating an altar provides a place of comfort to visit any time between your ceremonial work. It is a wonderful place to pray and will bring you tranquility as you sit in silence. After big transformations occur in your life, consider changing your altar to reflect the new phase of life you are stepping into.

You can create an altar outside where you do your ceremonial work. Gather beautiful objects that are meaningful to you and place them on the land. You can build rock cairns or medicine wheels in your special place. This is a wonderful way to bring sacred energy to your land where ceremonial work occurs.

You might live in an apartment or in an urban environment where you cannot keep a permanent altar outside. In this case, you can take home the objects you created your altar with. Or simply create a small altar of stones where others will not notice them. These stones will represent sacred space you can return to when performing your spiritual work.

Many years ago, I was teaching a workshop at a retreat center located in a stunning landscape. I sent my students out to create a personal altar on the land that they could visit every day and prepare before performing healing ceremonies. One of my students not only created an altar by a grand tree near a river running through the property, she also put a note on the ground to say this was her sacred altar. She put a rock over the paper so that it would not blow away.

The next morning, she was walking up to her altar by the tree to perform her preparatory work. Upon arrival, she found a deer urinating on the note that she left stating this was her sacred spot. The universe does have a sense of humor when we are learning how to work in harmony and balance with the rest of life.

Many of us travel with a portable altar to create sacred space in a hotel or a location we visit. Create a simple altar to take with you by using something like a jewelry box and filling it with a bit of sacred herbs, such as sage or cedar, and some small, special objects. You might use beads to create symbolic designs that have special meaning for you to make the box a sacred object. You can pack a small rug, bandana, or handkerchief that you can place your objects on. You might travel with a special photo, rock, crystal, or representation of a helping spirit to place on your altar. You might bring a votive candle to use when it is appropriate.

Use your imagination and feel excitement rising as you envision an altar for your house, office, the land you live on, or a park you perform ceremonies in, and a traveling altar to create sacred space wherever you go.


Once, in an interview about ceremony, the interviewer said, “You said something that I thought was really beautiful and interesting—that the elements that we might be working with and the helping spirits that we’ve invoked are reading our heart and not necessarily what’s going on in our mind. When I heard that, I asked myself, ’What does that mean, for an element like fire to read my heart?’”

I simply loved that question, and I would imagine many of you might be wondering the same thing. I love working with the elements. It’s one of my passions to teach people that the elements are incredible allies for us. Earth, air, water, and fire are alive. They are living beings. Just like a tree is alive, fire is alive too.

The elements are intelligent. They are nature, and nature is an intelligent force. I have watched the fire change how it burns when different people come up to the fire during a ceremony to state a prayer. I have watched—with ceremonial work—how the winds change to move a fire in a different direction. We can talk to the elements as allies in partnership, without trying to manipulate them.


The elements guide us through omens and signs. Years ago, I was teaching a workshop in Santa Fe during a terrible drought. Although we would be performing a fire ceremony at a beautiful fireplace in a meeting room, I still felt uncomfortable. There were trees outside whose branches were hanging too close to the chimney for comfort. Any spark could cause a devastating fire. I asked the land for an omen. I stated to the helping spirits that I was going to cancel the ceremony unless it rained for thirty seconds at 3:00 p.m. At exactly 3:00 p.m., it rained for thirty seconds. This was a great omen to proceed with our fire ceremony. I have continued trusting that the elements will provide omens.

The elements are always presenting signs for us. We have to be more observant of the behavior of nature when we hold a question. We are constantly receiving omens that light our path in life, but we also receive omens at ceremonies. Although there are times when we have to trust our common sense.

At the end of your ceremony, an eagle might fly overhead, symbolizing support from the universe. Or it might start to drizzle on you, which in the practice of shamanism is seen as a blessing. The clouds might clear just when you finish bathing in moonlight. Or a rainbow might appear while you are doing your work. A dragonfly or butterfly might land on your shoulder. Favorite animals might appear at your ceremony, letting you know you are on the right track. A raven might caw at the perfect moment. Claps of thunder might occur at potent times in your ceremonial work, providing an inner knowing that the universe is saying “yes” to your intention. The wind might stir, giving you a sign that your ceremony is complete.

If you are a shamanic journeyer, please understand that your power animal might not necessarily show up as an ally or an omen if it does not live in your locale.

Some omens are very easy to interpret. For example, you take a walk and hold the intention while receiving guidance whether the land you are walking on is the best place for your ceremony. A rainbow appears in the sky, making your answer obvious.

But there are some omens that are not as clear, and it takes time and patience before your inner knowing reveals the meaning to you. Start by asking yourself, “In my wildest imagination, what could this omen mean?” You can journal while holding the intention of your question, and you can journey, if shamanic journeying is part of your practice, or meditate on the answer.

Then there are the omens you might never interpret. I was once guided by my helping spirits to take a walk to ask for an omen to help me resolve a conflict with someone I had a deep connection with. As I walked, a hummingbird appeared and grazed my head. Then a hawk appeared and hit me in the head with its wing. Then they sat together, side by side, on a tree branch. That omen appeared to me in 1999. I still have not figured out the meaning.

Not always being able to interpret a sign is part of the nature of omens. As you continue to work with omens, you will find that many omens are obvious in their meaning, and you get more comfortable with not being able to interpret every sign shown.

Working with omens can be a passive process of observation. It is not an active process where you strain too hard on watching for signs. One time, I held the intention of asking to be shown how to balance my nervous system. Then one day, a shaman and friend sent me a spontaneous email about the joy she felt after taking a cold plunge. Next, someone out of the blue sent me an email talking about how being in cold water calms the nervous system. If I needed more signs, there was one more to come. I was having dinner with a shamanic teacher who is also a functional nurse practitioner. She told me how she was starting to alternate cold and hot water in her showers to heal her nervous system.

These events occurred within two weeks of each other, and without “straining” to watch for signs, I simply observed how the universe was lighting my path.

In the next chapter, I will talk about how to design a ceremony and about more elements that will facilitate successful and power-filled ceremonies.