Ritual and the Imaginal Realm
Encounter: The Shaman in the Modern World
’A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, you are being put in accord with what is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.’
The shaman dances with one foot in the everyday world and the other firmly planted in what the 20th-century French scholar and mystic Henry Corbin termed ’the imaginal realm’. The imaginal realm is very important to the shaman. Through his study of Persian and Sufi texts, Corbin discovered that this realm was believed to be a field beyond physical consciousness, a field that, though related to our imagination, existed independently of it.
Imagination is a powerful force that all shamans need to learn to use. Everything that has ever been created began as a dream or an idea — something imagined. And through imagination, we can connect to the imaginal world. My imagination is within me. The imaginal exists beyond me. There’s a difference between, say, imagining my great-great grandfather standing behind me and calling my great-great grandfather ’s spirit to stand behind me and share his wisdom with me. Whether I pay any attention to him or not in the imaginal realm, my great-great grandfather ’s spirit has an existence independent of me.
As we go further on our journey with the Inner Shaman, I am going to invite you to explore the unlimited power of your imagination. At the same time, I’m going to encourage you to root your consciousness in your physical body as much as possible. On my own journey, I’ve found that being focused and present in my body, heart and mind has been and continues to be the best way to open the door to and receive guidance from the imaginal realm.
THE WAKING DREAM OF RITUAL SPACE
The Inner Shaman’s number one method for accessing the imaginal realm is through what is sometimes called the waking dream of ritual space. Ritual space is a space of refuge and recharge for the Inner Shaman. And yet I meet many people on my travels who think of ritual as anything from a whole crock of mumbo jumbo to a downright dangerous pastime that will get you into trouble of all kinds. Such is the victory of organized religion and a certain rigid style of empirical thought that for many, ritual has become something to avoid and even be afraid of. Shamanism too. The story that shamanism is dangerous is at the root of the fear so many people feel when confronted with it. So before I invite you to enter into ritual space, it’s important to consider where this fear has come from.
For the shamanic traditions of the world, the powerful blend of state and Church became deadly with the witch hunts that began in Europe in the 13th century. Powerful propaganda backed up by fear and violence claimed that the old traditions were evil, dangerous and ultimately a route to eternal damnation.
Now, it’s true that there are and always have been some dodgy shamanic practitioners out there who have no moral issue with abusing their power for personal gain or, worse, to do harm. But dodgy practitioners are not unique to shamanism. They are to be found in every profession, often as a result of the fragility of the human ego. Knowledge of shamanism and shamanic ritual, like any power, can be used to harm or to heal. It’s down to us.
But back in medieval times, there was real danger in following the old ways. New stories were proclaimed from the pulpit and found their way into the human psyche. Sex was for procreation only, and the body and all of its ’unholy’ desires needed to be controlled. Revelry that celebrated the turning of the seasons was outlawed, the Earth became dark and the once magnificent Pan became the Devil. Cavorting with the spirits of nature was a sin. Heaven was far away and accessible only to those who kept the rules. A priest was needed as an intermediary with the divine. Sunday was the day to pray and rewards were to be had only after we had died, and then only if we had done as we were told.
The terrors of 700 years of Inquisition meant that any natural and independent connection to the divine had to be hidden. Parents had to teach their children to hide any difference from the perceived norm lest it be taken as a sign of some unholy association with some out-of-control force. I consider this massive disempowerment of human beings to be one of the greatest con tricks of all time.
Worse, once this marriage of state and clergy had taken centre stage in Europe, it went on tour, ’civilizing’ the rest of the ’uneducated world’. Numerous genocides followed as the colonizers inflicted their own version of ’divine love’ on anyone and everyone who happened to get in their way. In the world-view in which the most powerful story must dominate all other stories, the shamanic traditions of indigenous peoples didn’t stand a chance.
And then came science, and the whole shamanic story was relegated to the fantastical, the ’weird’, the exotic and the marginalized. If it couldn’t be measured, it didn’t exist.
Having acknowledged this historical backdrop, let’s bear in mind that for much of human history, ritual was as everyday as making a cup of tea in the morning. Connecting with the powers of nature to pray for a good harvest probably felt as necessary to our ancestors as going shopping does to us.
BALANCE AND RESPONSIBILITY
When I began working with ritual, the blend of the history of shamanism and having grown up in a culture where the rational was king meant that I had difficulty quietening my mind. I had to train myself to focus. And over time, I had to take my own healing journey with the stories that arose in me as I deepened my practice. As we go deeper, I am going to share the tools that I have found most effective in not just healing the past but transforming it into medicine.
Contemporary shamanism is not about going backwards to regain some illusory original shamanic paradise. It’s about integration of what we now know. It’s about learning that where we place our attention is the main factor in how we experience life. It’s about building a bridge between the rational and the mysterious, between the known and the unknown. I know how often I’ve had to reassure my rational mind that I have every intention of continuing to respect it as a good friend and ally in learning how to put what I learn in ritual into practice in my day-to-day life. Strengthening the bridge between the imaginal world of ritual and the rational world of the everyday, is of vital importance so that we can travel safely and consciously between them. Making peace between them has been one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my own journey as a shaman in the modern world.
For anyone working with shamanism in the modern world, there is a need to balance the imaginal realm with what we call reality. Too much reality according to the rational mind can create too fixed a point of view. Too much of the imaginal realm can lead to one of the major shadows of shamanic practice — the disembodied, disempowered running away from reality that is often rooted in the fear that we will fail to bring our dreams into this world. I suffered from this for many years. Consequently, the shamanism I practised earlier in my life was more of an escape from the world than a harnessing of the inspiration I received in the imaginal realm. My own journey has partly been about coming into my body and heart, learning how to use my mind and accessing the power I need to bring my dreams to Earth.
The shaman knows that to make a difference in this world, they must gather and use power. If you choose to take this road, it is your responsibility, shaman or not, to ensure that there are people in your life who both support you on your journey and who are not afraid to challenge you. Whatever role we play in life, the more powerful we become, the more important it is to consciously and continuously dedicate the power we develop in service of life in a way that makes sense to the very soul of who we are. Any shaman or person of power who is not consistently doing this work is likely to fall prey to the temptations of power. A central part of my own training has been focused on recognizing the need for ongoing and fierce self-inspection, including in ritual space. And the stronger I become, the more vital is the honest mirroring of people further down the road than I am.
A few months ago, on my 55th birthday, I lit a ceremonial fire on our land and sat by it to drum and pray. It was a beautiful evening — bright, with a strong breeze blowing from the South West. I drummed and sang to call all my spirits and to call to the spirits of the trees, the river, the fire and the strong granite earth of Dartmoor beneath my feet. I was deep in the meditation, and in my inner world I was seeing beautiful spirits all around me. After a while, I heard the quiet voice of the Wise Elder inside me. It simply said, ’Ya’Acov, open your eyes. Everything you see in your imagination is right here. Go on, open your eyes.’
And so I did. I couldn’t believe the simple magnificence of the landscape I was in. The trees around me were dancing with the wind. The flames of the fire were dancing too. The stream just behind me was singing its springtime song. My heart was wide open and I felt delightfully defenceless. I stood up and started to dance and to say the prayers of gratitude that were apparently just waiting for me to voice them. The more present I was, the more I felt connected to both the physical landscape around me and the spirits of nature. The imaginal world was right there in front of me and I realized, with a wry smile, that with my eyes closed, I was shut off in the closed loop of my own imagination. With my eyes open, I felt a potent mixture of utter vulnerability and spiritual strength. And the more I played, sang and revealed my heart, the more those spirits and my own personal allies revealed themselves to me.
This recognition of the difference between being safely cocooned in the closed loop of my own imagination and revealing myself as I am to life was the first teaching of my 56th year. And in the months that have followed, I have noticed a subtle but telling difference in the level of connection I feel to both the imaginal realm and the physical world around me.
The ceremonies I hold today are designed as healing spaces in which participants get to value their creativity and to recognize the power they have to create with whatever hand of cards life has dealt them. In ritual, we can safely remember that a wild, raw, untameable dreamer is a part of who and what we are. A good shamanic ritual is a strong container in which we can remember what supports us, rebalance the light and the dark inside us and see things as they truly are. We can lift our awareness from the grindstone and see our lives from a wider perspective.
In order to support you in entering into ritual space, I have developed a nine-step process that maps how I construct, enter into and integrate the experience of ritual in a safe and rewarding way. These nine steps are good for all the rituals I will share with you in this book. Let’s go through them together and make a stronger connection between the imaginal world of the spirits and the physical world we are here to create in.
PRACTICE: THE NINE STEPS OF RITUAL
You will need a minimum of 15 minutes for this, but feel free to take longer.
Preparation and practice
I am going to describe each step in general and then invite you to do it.
1. Setting your intention
The intention for your ritual is the direction your inner compass is pointing in. The clearer the intention, the clearer the space. Intention is not a rigid thing, but since the mystery that ritual invites us to explore is so vast, focusing on one or two things at a time is helpful. When we visit our family in the Amazon, Manari tells the people we bring with us that staying with that focus is of great importance so that we don’t get distracted by all the things that come into view as we enter the imaginal realms.
Now set your intention for this ritual: to learn about the nine steps of ritual and to strengthen your ability to connect the physical and the imaginal.
2. Physical preparation
Preparing yourself by taking a shower, wearing comfortable clothing and preparing some food for afterwards makes the entrance into ritual and the re-entry into everyday life smoother, while slowly and quietly preparing the space you are working in by beautifying it, setting up a small altar (see below) and preparing any music you may need gives your psyche the time to recognize that you are about to enter ritual space. (I will talk more about music in a later chapter.)
It is also important to tell any people who share the space you will be working in that you are preparing for ritual and to negotiate needs (yours and theirs) before you begin.
Invocation is the bridge between the everyday world and the imaginal world. It means calling your allies into your awareness and your space. Over time, your relationship with the universal allies such as the elements will deepen if you give them your attention. And as you work more with the Inner Shaman, you will discover your personal allies, or what a shaman calls their spirits. For now, your invocation will focus on calling the elements into the four directions around you and sensing those elements inside you. I will talk more about getting to know your allies, both universal and personal, as we continue our journey.
· Standing at the centre of your space, turn to the South and, by paying attention to the physical earth that your body is made from, call your awareness of Earth as an independent elemental power and ask this element to be in the South of your circle, for instance: ’I call the power of the Earth from the South. Please come and show me how to connect the Earth of my body with the body of the Earth so that I can learn to stand up on solid ground.’ In the same way, in the East, call Fire, in the West, Water, and in the North, Wind. (If you already have experience of working with the elements in different directions, this is not a problem. In reality, all elements are in all directions.)
· It helps to have a simple physical representation of each element that you can place in the four directions. This can be as simple as a piece of paper with the word written on it or as complex as something you have made to honour that element.
· I was taught that dedicating your work right at the outset by saying the words ’For all my relations’ out loud makes the wider context clear to you. Why not say them now?
4. Acknowledging your condition
In order to work effectively, acknowledging the simple truth of your condition as you begin is vital. Ritual is not an escape from reality but a deepening of our relationship to it. Once we honestly acknowledge where we are, our capacity to be creative with it is restored.
· I suggest that you do the Awakening the Dancer practice again with the clear intention of getting a deeper sense of your condition and inviting the dancer to find the shape and expression of how you are right now. Include anything that has arisen for you in reading and working with this chapter. Acknowledging what is true makes more space for the heart, and this is always good for ritual.
5. The focus
Your Awakening the Dancer practice will bring you into the here and now, focus your attention and open the door to the imaginal realm where you can do your work and receive guidance.
· Without expectation, turn your attention to each direction and each element, one by one. Staying in movement, invite the element within you to show you how it moves. Have a simple dialogue, introducing yourself and offering any gratitude you can (this is mightily important). Be open to any guidance that comes from each element as you open yourself to it.
The five elements
6. Bringing back the gifts
This stage of ritual is to do with recognizing what you have received and naming it. Ritual space is very much akin to dreaming. And just as when we wake from a dream, it’s easy to forget the details of what we receive. I always have a notebook with me in ritual. Writing notes or drawing images or symbols that represent the gift of the ritual in physical form is all part of this stage.
· So go ahead now and make a few notes in a journal fit for purpose.
This is the work of paying attention to how we are going to plant the seeds of the ritual into the garden of our life. It’s a time for clear thought and mindful enquiry into what changes we may need to make so that the gifts of the ritual can grow.
· Take some time to think about how paying attention to these elemental powers may be helpful to you in your day-to-day life. How can you deepen your awareness of them and your relationship to them? Think of one simple action you can take in the days to come that will help you to know that you are integrating this ritual, for instance thanking the Waters of life when taking a shower, thanking Fire when you cook or thanking the Breath of life when you take your first breath in the morning.
8. Closing the space
Just as we invoked our allies at the beginning, it is important to release them at the end.
· Thank and release the allies you called. It takes some time to get used to speaking out loud to spirits that you can’t usually see, but your voice is an important tool.
9. First steps
The final part of any ritual takes place over the hours and days that follow. It is to consciously take the small steps that help you to know that you are planting the seeds from your ritual. The only difference between a vision that remains in the imaginal world and one that becomes an everyday reality is the action you take.
Since practice makes the master, I suggest you practise these nine steps often, so that they become natural to you. You are gathering the tools and preparing the ground to meet the Inner Shaman. With their help, over time you will develop the art and structure of ritual that work best for you.
Before we continue, a word to the wise: the Inner Shaman knows when they need help and will avail themselves of it whenever necessary. On my own journey, I have often had the need for external human support, whether in the form of a good therapist, a mentor or a practitioner of the healing arts. This is not a sign of weakness — quite the contrary. Transcendence happens from time to time and it’s a wonderful blessing. But it doesn’t replace the need to own your history and transform your relationship to it. Modern therapy and trauma work can help and are complementary to shamanic work. If at any time you find that the practices I invite you to explore bring up material that is difficult to handle by yourself, please get the help you need.
In the next chapter, we will work with a really helpful practice that I have found is universal to shamanism. Let’s take a deep breath and dive in.