I am sometimes asked about the use of ceremony in healing, and whether ceremony in the context of psychotherapy has benefit. I believe that while the form ceremony takes in shamanic healing may be different from its appearance in psychotherapy, the essence remains the same. I also find that the intention brought to ceremony determines whether it has healing power.
Story is central to psychotherapy and to ceremony; ceremony and story are interwoven. Story invites a shared narrative and can be verbal or not. The best stories are ceremonies, enwrapping us in places, people, and history. They tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we might be going.
Healing ceremonies enfold us in stories of belonging and transformation. Rather than being purely personal, such ceremonies remind us that we are integral parts of an immense whole. They point to, or immerse us in, the deep river of meaning and connection underlying our brief passage through life, placing us in the transcendent, and assuring us that transformation and continuity are simply two aspects of the same structure.
Ceremony is large, consisting of the commitment to making ceremony, all preparations, the focused time of enactment, and the individual’s and community’s response to the ceremony. Ceremony can last three minutes or many months, yet it includes all of these ingredients.
Thus we touch many realms when we are carefully engaged in making ceremony. We are inviting the presence and participation of the many sides of Self, the non-human world, family and friends, ancestors and spirits, and the Creator. Of course, we are connected to all of the above all the time, yet it is human to lose track of this. We image we are alone on our journey. We may even believe our actions impact no one but ourselves. Ceremony reminds us that we are immense beings profoundly interconnected with innumerable others.
Many healing ceremonies require preparation. Before the ceremony we are encouraged to consider the state of our lives and the changes that might be necessary for us to return to a lived sense of connection and balance. We may be required to gather materials, place ourselves in a receptive mood, and consider our need for support and care post ceremony. Sometimes we may be encouraged to enlist family and friends in making preparations, and to arrange for a feast at the ceremony’s conclusion. Each of these steps is a vital aspect of the ceremony.
It is useful to remember that psychotherapy is, at its best, ceremony. Two or more individuals, including perhaps a family, sit together. The therapist holds the sacred space and pays close attention to the flow of story, emotion, and belonging through the room.
Sometimes those engaged in psychotherapeutic healing may decide a formal ceremony would be helpful. Then the intention behind the ceremony is clearly spoken, preparations are made, and a time is set. The structure of the ceremony is carefully considered, and decisions made; everyone present is invited to participate in the process. The ceremony may be enacted during the therapy hour, scheduled for another session, or arranged to take place at a time outside the usual therapy time. Extended social supports may be invited to attend.
When ceremony is conducted in support of shamanic healing, the process may be similar. While the shamanic healer may choose the shape and general time of the ceremony, the recipient/s of the ceremony are often deeply engaged in preparations for the event. After all, ceremony is done with individuals and communities, rather than to them. It is crucial participants feel a sense of deep engagement with, and ownership of, the event.
For me, discovering the myriad ways ceremony may aid the healing process, and how it may be used in our contemporary setting, is an ongoing adventure. My teachers say this has been so for a long time, although it has become more to the foreground with the loss of traditional knowledge as a result of colonization.
As our world changes we find ourselves addressing novel problems and conditions. Yet as bewildering as they may seem, these remain a part of human experience. Over the years ceremonies have changed their form to accommodate evolving need. This process will surely continue.