Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Missing the relational point

By Cynthia Greenberg
I heard a story the other day. A friend overstepped some boundaries. He had taken liberties to 'make some improvements' in a shaman's ceremonial space. And he did it without first asking permission. On one hand it seemed innocent enough. Move in a few new stone people, cut back some vegetation etc, tidy things up a bit. The shaman was not at all happy about this. My friend did not understand why. I thought his confusion odd. This man is someone who wishes to be a shaman and who has more than a little ceremonial experience. I do not believe he would have rearranged the shaman's mesa, or picked up the shaman's drum and played it without first asking permission. He would not have walked into the shaman's home and started rearranging furniture!

Why does he have reverence for shamanic objects but not for the place from which the objects came: the actual place upon the earth? I don't know, but perhaps my friend lacks proper understanding about a fundamental part of shamanry (and animism): the importance of one's relation to place and the spirit of place.

I do believe my friend understands that a shaman's ceremonial space is sacred space. But curiously, he seems not to understand why it matters, why it's important and why there is a connection between place and shamanic power. Why is a ceremonial place a sacred space? It is sacred due to it's own inherent nature, and because of the spirits inhabitating the earth which provides the space.

The fact that the place is also powerful has significance because of the relationship the medicine man or woman has with it. In the best case it's a mutual agreement between human, earth and spirit(s). It's a shared power, a relationship that develops over time. It's a matter of attention, details, dedication, discipline and devotion. It is a creative dance that both bestows power and becomes an expression of power. This is not a power one approaches without respect or that one takes for granted, nor is it power that one consumes in order to manipulate, dominate or control. (Though, of course, that last point is a matter of debate and up to the individual shaman.)

What makes a place sacred? Well, for one it's sacred because we humans say it is. We live there, we meditate there, hold ceremonies there; perhaps we farm or have a garden there. Maybe it's sacred because our ancestors built monuments there, or because it's a source of a precious resource. Maybe it's sacred in a somber way for having been site of a battle or natural disaster. The point is we deem it sacred because of our interaction or that of our ancestors. We might also deem a place sacred due to our lack of interaction. Some places are so wild they seem to discourage human presence entirely. Or they are simply inaccessible.

'Sacred' indicates that we acknowledge more intimately our relationship to a particular place(s) on this earth. And earth acknowledges her relationship with us if we know how to listen for it. Listening, and learning how to, is a good part of what shamanry (and animism) is about. Some places on the planet are powerful because of existing natural forces. They are sacred simply because they are. Ever walked on a newly cooled lava flow? Walked among trees whose lifespans exceeds ours by a factor of five? Stood on a continental divide? Felt impossibly small in front of a thundering waterfall? In these places the raw primal presence of planet earth is strongly felt. It's a presence so much bigger than human people, that the tendency is for us to relate with awe and reverence. In doing so we acknowledge power. In some way that presence and its power also acknowledges us. Appreciating and allowing this presence to express itself through us is another good part of what shamanry (and animism) is about.


Understanding and cultivating a partnership with that presence of place is at the heart of shamanic connection to the earth. This in turn is one of the things found at the heart of shamanic power. It is very personal; a matter of individual style. And it depends very much on being allied (or at least on good terms) with the spirit(s) of the place. How can one wish to practice shamanry and not understand that? I am not certain, but i suppose if you didn't you could, like my friend, rearrange objects in a shaman's ceremonial space without first asking permission (from human or from spirit) and without understanding why that would be an unwelcomed gesture.