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Consciousness, Ceremony, and Spirits


The role of a shamanic practitioner has traditionally been that of the bridge between the spirit world and the physical world. In my own practice I have several ways of interacting with the spirits. Some involve ceremony, some do not. In order to discuss such things, it is important to have a common language or reference points; thus we will first discuss the continuum of consciousness as it applies to this discussion, then the types of ceremony as they apply to this discussion. Lastly, I will describe the types of spirits with whom I commonly interact, and their relation to the common points of consciousness and use of ceremony in my own practice.

Common language

Continuum of consciousness

There is a continuum across which all people wander to a greater or lesser extent, of the types of consciousness in which they are engaged. There are different types of consciousness involved when one is chatting with a coworker, or when one is engrossed in a project or book or movie. There's yet another when one is doing the typical human multitasking: when he is listening to one person talk while at the same time thinking about what his companion is saying, how it relates to his own position, and at the same time wondering what he's going to make for dinner and planning out his evening. The classic role of the shamanic practitioner is to willfully navigate this continuum, thus allowing him to adjust his kind of consciousness to suit his task at hand. For the purposes of this discussion, I will address the range from fully present in the physical world and completely oblivious to the spirit world, to fully present in the spirit world and completely oblivious to the physical world. 

When one is fully present in the physical world with no spiritual awareness, one is unlikely to be interacting directly with spirits of any sort. When I refer then to being primarily in the physical plane, I am referring to that state where the practitioner is primarily focused on the physical world but still "has his eyes on" in that he is still aware of the spirits around him.

When I refer to one being fully present in the spiritual world, I am generally referring to being in a state of shamanic journey or some other trance state in which the practitioner navigates the spiritual planes and is at least theoretically no longer aware on a physical level. Here he interacts freely with the various spirits on their own level.

In the middle is the place where the practitioner brings a spirit to himself, or superimposes the spiritual world on top of the physical world, essentially functioning in both at once. This is not a state like that of journeywork in that while some form of trance is present, the practitioner is quite aware and active in the physical realm, and indeed his purpose is related to the physical realm (else he would likely have simply gone directly to the spirit realms for a much easier interaction).

These three points then will be the frames of reference from which we will discuss ceremony and interaction with spirit.

Uses of ceremony

Ceremony has several uses in shamanic work. In the very early stages, ceremony can serve no other purpose than to prepare the practitioner mentally for the work he is about to undertake. Indeed, sometimes it is the ceremony itself that triggers a mental change in the practitioner that allows him to interact with the spirit world at all. This is very common especially in the early stages of training in shamanic practice, and pop psychology might suggest ceremony's entire purpose is to induce a state of self-hypnosis in the practitioner and thus allow the encounter to take place.

Ceremony however can also serve to formalize an occasion. Performing shamanic work of any sort within a ceremonial setting can be the equivalent of setting up a formal dinner for a guest, or having an "on the record" conversation versus "off the record." Ceremony used in this way is very similar to the way dressing up for Church was explained to me as a child: God may not care what you wear, but the care you put into preparation helps show your sincerity. Ceremony in this way is also a way of showing respect, and some spirits will not have anything to do with a person without that respect being shown.

Still another use of ceremony is the classic "create a sacred space" scenario that is seen so commonly in a Wiccan circle. It separates what is outside from what is inside. This is ostensibly always the purpose of a circle and the ceremony surrounding, though when used specifically for this purpose (and not "just because this is how it is done") it can serve as a protection for those outside the circle from that which will occur within. It can also, in very particular circumstances, be employed to protect the practitioner himself from what he is about to undertake, or to protect the spirit involved in the interaction from those "outside."

Spirits, and the interactions therewith

Spirits of nature - present

To an animist such as me, all things have spirit. This includes the very computer I am writing this document on, and the pad of post-it notes sitting on the CPU just below the monitor. More classic examples can be found outside my office window, where the trees sway in the breeze and the spirits are obvious to the outdoors-minded. Dealing with these rarely involves ceremony of any kind, no more than there would be ceremony around stumbling into the office and mumbling good morning to coworkers on the way to the coffee machine (though you could argue that the first visit to the coffee maker IS its own ceremony, or ritual at the very least!). Likewise, a muttered "Good morning" to the computer requires no ceremony surrounding it. 

Generally when dealing with the spirits that are present at a particular moment, the practitioner will either have no level of spiritual consciousness at all (fully engrossed in the physical world, or perhaps the mental world or some other consciousness), or will have a low level of awareness and interaction, because the things of the physical world will be taking up his attention. A hello to something he passes by will rarely require any ceremony of any sort; even an adjustment of consciousness is rarely necessary because if the practitioner isn't already at least paying attention to the spirits around him he is unlikely to shift consciousness to say hello, then shift back to whatever consciousness he was in for whatever task was at hand (He'd be so busy saying hello to everyone he'd never have the chance to shift back!). I find it rare that a practitioner, on getting to the point where he sees spirits everywhere, entirely turns this off however, unless the spirits around him are a distraction that must be silenced for a deliberate purpose. As a result, the typical interaction is to treat them just as one would any other person one passes in the hall, with no real ceremony involved, but respect extended. 

On the other hand, there may be cases where a specific query is needed to those spirits that one sees every day. Just as one might take a coworker out to lunch to "get the good gossip," ceremony can be employed to interact with the spirits that are commonly present anyway. There is a slightly different feel to interactions within ceremony. Depending on the type of the ceremony a different scene is set; some might pull the spirit in to him and command an answer, others might offer a treat to the spirit of some sort as a bribe, or make deals, or interact with the spirit in whatever manner according to the practitioner's style. In whichever case, the ceremony involved usually includes setting protections for both those inside the working area and outside it.

When dealing with the spirits that are present and obvious in a day to day circumstance, the use of ceremony is rare. If the practitioner is aware enough of the spirits around him on a common level, then the need to use ceremony to shift awareness is not necessary. If the spirit with whom the practitioner is interacting is one that is seen commonly, then ceremony is by definition not required to attract the sprit's attention (though may be offered as an enticement), nor is ceremony likely to be needed for protection of either practitioner, spirit, or "everyone else."

It should be noted that in interactions with these spirits a deliberate shift of consciousness out of the physical and into the spirit world is typically not necessary; they are accessible from this realm with a mere twitch of the mind. Shifting consciousness levels out of the physical may be necessary in the early stages of learning, before the practitioner can recognize them in the same breath as recognizing his spouse or children in the morning. That shift may be desirable, however, if the practitioner wishes to interact with the spirit in a manner inconsistent with the physical world (Such as shape-shifting to fly with a bird-friend or run with a horse-friend) or wishes to combine ceremony with journey to allow for interactions that are not possible while the practitioner is fully physically conscious and functional.

Spirits of nature - occult

I specifically chose the word "occult" in this case for its classic meaning, "that which is hidden." These are the spirits that are not seen every day, that are not associated directly with something commonly seen in the physical world. These are the spirit helpers or others of that nature, for whom there is no physical component and yet which are "of nature" in that they bear a strong relation to the natural world. An example would be a Willow spirit which is not any particular willow tree but is simply a spirit combining many aspects associated with Willow trees. One who referred to a helper spirit of "Willow" or "Wolf" would be referring to this type of spirit if not specifically using the term to refer to a particular tree or animal.

These spirits, especially when they are helpers, will often make themselves known to the practitioner while primarily physically focused; indeed, in the case of trickster spirits mythology is ripe with examples of these spirits getting people tangled into situations for which they are out of their depth. The warning that should be considered here is that one cannot constantly be covered by any protective ceremony, and that spirits of this type can creep up on a practitioner quite literally out of the woodwork; for this reason walking around "with your eyes on" and encountering unfamiliar spirits of this type should immediately send the practitioner into "handle with care" mode.

When the practitioner is journeying and encounters unfamiliar representatives of this type, one would hope that he would have his own helper spirits (also of the occult type) on hand to help him along. The good news is that typically this type of spirit, if it has mischief at heart, will most likely merely cause a tangle to the unprepared practitioner, a tangle that his helper spirits will most likely dig him out of with exasperated affection, and a valuable lesson will be learned. The bad news is that car accidents do happen, and a spirit distracting a practitioner at the wrong time can still harm the practitioner.

The ability to call his helpers, which are typically this type of spirit, to himself in the spirit realms is to me the hallmark of the journeyman practitioner. Until the practitioner is capable of this, he should never undertake a journey without some form of protective ceremony, nor should he ever go seeking a spirit without showing that small amount of respect. The ability to call occult nature spirits into the physical realm, on the other hand, is how certain types of professional work can begin, as the practitioner will no longer be relying on being in a (relatively vulnerable) full trance state to interact with spirits. If the practitioner can bring his helpers to him deliberately, can superimpose the two worlds and still listen to his helpers without self-delusion, then so long as he shows proper respect he is less likely to get himself into trouble from chance encounters with trickster spirits.

Spirits of spirit

These are the spirits whose existence is an abstraction for those confined to the physical realm. These are the spirits associated with the Mysteries, or spirits of the dead, angelic beings and other teachers who are rarely associated with something physical. This is where you might find those things which Plato might describe as that which casts the shadows in the cave of our existence; for example WILLOW, the essence of all things Willow. 

Interacting with these spirits will only occur on a primarily physical plane with no pull from the practitioner when the spirit decides to come knocking, and the practitioner is receptive enough to notice (or is forced to pay attention). This encompasses visitations from the beloved dead, or moments when it feels one is being guided in some particular manner. Typically these spirits primarily make themselves available in the spiritual realms, involving a full shift out of physical consciousness into spiritual consciousness. It is my opinion that the main reason for this is that the things these spirits bring to us are not well comprehended on a physical plane; generally returning from a journey with these spirits leaves me feeling like I knew something a few moments ago that I no longer have with me. This may simply be a personal limitation however. These spirits can usually be brought to the practitioner in the overlapping consciousness model, but in my experience maintaining the dual focus is most difficult for these spirits because their very nature pulls the practitioner away from physical consciousness. It also takes a certain flavor of relationship to bring this type of spirit to join the practitioner instead of the reverse.

Ceremony is very common in interacting with these spirits; indeed except in very specific circumstances it should probably be considered a necessity. Some spirits of this type will be quite casual - a recently departed ancestor for example - while others will almost certainly require every bit of etiquette the practitioner's helpers can teach them. Depending on the spirit one is visiting, the practitioner should at a bare minimum perform a "separation of space" ritual, if only to ease his own transition back to focus on the physical plane.


In this discussion I have classified spirits into three neat categories: Spirits of Nature seen in nature, Sprits of Nature that are hidden, and Spirits of the Spirit Plane alone. I have described the interactions with them in three neat categories as well: direct Physical plane interaction, Bringing the spirit to you in a Spiritual interaction on the Physical plane, and direct Spiritual plane interaction. I have also described ceremony as having three uses: Getting the correct mindset, preparing a formal setting, and creating a protective bubble in reality to separate that-which-is-within from that-which-is-without, and vice-versa. Unfortunately the world is not this neat, and all of these descriptions are merely frames of reference. Most interactions will most likely land somewhere in between these simple boundaries; as with most things, discrete definitions are rarely universal.

Copyright Jaelle Shadowdancer 2/21/05

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