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Calling the Directions

Calling in The Directions:
Thoughts on Shamanic Psycho-spiritual
Ritual Orienteering

I believe we are trying to rediscover Earth-centered spirituality. I don't mean just you and I, but rather, much of the contemporary world. And it’s not because we necessarily know this is what we are searching for, but rather, we feel a hunger inside for something real, something earthy and loose that we can sink our toes into and wriggle them around, such as in soil or sand.

I honestly think this hunger has a great deal to do with why you are here, and what led me in this direction those years ago. I know I sought out the sunshine when I was a little boy, looking for the square of light on the floor coming in through the window, where I would curl up and just relish feeling so comforted. Or smelling the primal earth after my father turned the soil and watered, with its heavy intoxication that is so much part of the breath of life.

So now as adults, I believe we are continuing this search, drawn forward by the scent of the soil and the warmth of the sun, feeling this deep need to reconnect with everything that is 'outside the temple walls.' Perhaps we were unable to find this kind of Earth-consciousness in the many monotheistic faith-based religions, though perhaps we got a sense of it while exploring Buddhism or Hinduism, or Daoism. Or maybe we were invited by a friend to go to a shamanic 'drumming circle' where someone would lead us on a shamanic 'journey'. And however we got here, we did

We are in a time of a growing interest and draw back towards a shamanic (or preferably, what I refer to as Earth-centered holistic) spirituality that has its foundation built in the roots and soil beneath our feet, its pillars in the trunks of tall trees and the firmness of towering peaks, its glitter of silver and gold in the sparkle of streams under the glow of the sun, its towering arches in waving branches overhead, and its painted ceiling in colors strewn across the sky as the sun descends, only to break into a twinkle of stars.

For many in the contemporary world, we come from places and lifestyles that have long been reinforcing our disconnection from not only our natural world, but from each other as well. Even when traveling to a gathering of people trying to rekindle a sacred connection with the Earth, the cars we arrived in separated us from the road and everything along the way, and kept us distant from the other travelers in their cars as well. Perhaps we arrive after a day spent at offices and workplaces, hidden away in buildings with walls that formed a shield between ourselves and the sun, sky and all living and non-living things. As we attempt to rediscover our real home in mother Earth, we come from houses that are not simply physically distant from one another, but planted in broad social cultures that normalize our hardly knowing each other. As a consequence, we find ourselves thirsting for connection after the streams of civilization separated us from our community of human beings and our extraordinary world.

The practice of Calling the Directions is an extremely ancient general ritual that is also recognizably similar in its core meaning throughout the world. Sometimes called 'Calling the Spirits of the Directions', or even 'Calling the Spirits,' it is a ritual whose purpose is to reconnect us to not just each other, but to the cycle of the day, the cycle of the year, that of the seasons, and to a lifetime. These are very human, very real cycles, that none of us are truly separate from. I believe there are important and fundamental psycho-spiritual and intrinsically human reasons why the essence of this ritual is so regularly found all over the globe.

I have simply taken to 'calling in' the directions by following through our geographical directions (East through North) in a clockwise fashion. For us in the northern hemisphere, I like to start facing the East, as this signifies the beginnings of things in the start of a new cycle. After all, it is where the sun comes up in the morning and where Spring resides in the cycle of the seasons! Eventually changing my direction to face the South, I like to call in the heat of summer, with all the building and creating that happens during this sort of noon-time in the cycle of a day. Proceeding to face the West, I eventually honor human reflection and the perspective that comes with aging, and the shedding of leaves in autumn, or the movement towards dusk in the cycle of a day. These things prepare us for winter, at which point we turn towards the North to acknowledge the time of quietly turning inward, letting go of the previous cycle, and looking towards a night of rest and a winter of hibernation.

As you can probably tell, this ritual sort of extends us out into the world around us, just as it calls this world into ourselves. And when these 4 directions in the several cycles are each recognized, groups of practitioners engaged in this often then proceed to acknowledge the Sky with all of the bounty of rain and sun that gives us life, and then the Earth, who provides us with nourishment, clothing and materials with which we live. Lastly, the ritual is often 'closed' with a recognition of all the beings around us in all directions; plant, animal, insect, whatever, who are honored as our kin, and thanked for all that they provide us along with our recognition of our deep bond with them.

Now of course, this is a very 'nutshell' sort of capsule of what is in fact a deeply moving and rich ritual that for every reason in the world is something that every human being in some way already understands. The beauty of this ritual is that in a very real psycho-spiritual manner, the multifold dimensions of a personal lifespan are brought 'in sync' with the concurrent cycles of days, seasons and lifetimes. The result is the raising of a particularly grounded and aware consciousness as each who engages in this practice reconnects intimately with the many dimensions of our Earth and our human existence.

Questions and Answers:

New Practitioner: "I don’t have a drum yet, and have been practicing calling the directions, but it definitely feels like I’m missing something... Do you have any suggestions?"

Steve:  Here are some suggestions: how about a rattle? A drum does not have to be used. Rattle is just fine.  A rattle can be easily constructed… use your imagination if you don’t have a rattle yet, and I am sure you could put one together that would work admirably! Or, just extend your heart and intention, and do it that way.

Or, people call the directions without anything, in fact, except their voice and heart. Nothing is missing, it is always a matter of where the heart and intention are settled. I have heard some people call the directions almost as a song, or poem. Again, it is where your heart is centered that is the important criteria.

I remember a student a few years ago who had a daughter who had a little two-sided kid’s drum that made a very different ‘thwap-thwap’ sound - not what many might consider the most beautiful of drum tones! – and it even had a Cinderella on it, I think, on both sides. The student was embarrassed when she showed up for class, as all the others had these fancy-dancy traditional drums and rattles and all. I quickly clarified to her what I am to you now, that it is the heart that matters, and drums and such are almost afterthoughts, and she bravely went ahead and used it with her healing practice. By the end of the course, she almost did not want to stop using the Cinderella drum, for so much good work had been done with it.

Whether you proceed by using your voice and heart alone, or by a constructing something from household materials, or get your hands on a straight-from-the-store single-sided elk drum made by some famous drum maker, it doesn’t make a hoot of difference. The difference is in you!
New Practitioner: “I have called the directions several times before. I still get nervous a bit when I do it. I feel small when I do it. I feel very vulnerable. I am very aware of, as how I see it, I am drawing to myself so much power. To me, it is almost like drawing in giant storms, that is, when I am calling them. When they get to me, the feeling I get is that unlimited power is around me and it is calm and gentle. When I did it this time, I felt much more relaxed while they were with me, more like dear friends who were with me.”

Steve:  Yes, we certainly can feel quite vulnerable and small when calling the directions! The closest I can make of this is that we are actually getting into a more realistic relationship with the directions, with Gaia. We humans strut around the planet like little Napoleons, and yet when we call the directions, it is impossible to maintain such an illusion.

Everything from giant storms, to huge winds, to seas, the fiery sun, sky, mountains and the very Earth herself: all of these become clearer to us. At the same time, the feeling is deeply grounding, and as you say, relaxing, for Gaia and all of her inhabitants have been our companions forever, in a sense, our dearest friends.

I actually have come to the conclusion that we are not actually brought more power when calling the directions, but that we are more aware of the power that has been there all along. I recall once sitting on the top of a steep hill in an Alaskan trip to visit Denali. Unfortunately, the mammoth mountain was completely enshrouded in clouds that day, even though the rest of that portion of the state was clear. The reason for this is that Denali is such a gigantic landform, that it actually creates its own weather around itself. Well, I was just sitting there, gnawing at a sandwich, and enjoying the misty, distant beauty of a haunting afternoon, full of all of Alaska’s deeply rich wildness, and then it happened. My mouth stopped chewing as I stared straight ahead, and gradually my gaze went higher and higher, as for some unaccountable reason for the weather pattern to break, the mountain showed itself.

There in front of me was something that so far exceeded my ideas of what existed, that all I could feel was awe, and a sense of being very small. I was a gnat on the side of this mountain, yet there was an accompanying feeling of power, as if just being in proximity to this giant lent me something that had been there all along, yet not realized. When we call the directions, it is like dissipating the mist between ourselves and this huge body of Gaia, and the consequence is that we feel her power, and the intense grounding that comes from such an intimate connection.

The ‘calling the directions’ process is certainly simple in terms of presentation. One of the reasons for having a ‘simpler’ ritual practice such as this, is that it is often used when you wish to bring a community into alignment with each other, and with Gaia. When kept basic, more people have the opportunity to pick up on it more easily. Part of the reason for this may be that it is constructed of the ‘roughhewn’ elements of nature, whereas more complex patterns, although easily found within nature, are not necessarily so easily spotted in their ‘roughhewn’ garb!

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in how one proceeds to do this: the practice I provide is only a generalized coalescence of many such practices. However, simple as it is, it does provide a fairly ready access to be able to experience the ‘point’, which is the development of a ‘synch’ between the practitioner and the larger cycles of nature and life. Once in ‘synch’, the ‘hollow bone’ is far easier to maintain: a kind of turbidity gets stirred up when we fall out of this… in some ways, consistent with the idea of falling out of the Tao.

The new practitioner inquires about this: "Do you mean 'turbidity' gets stirred up because there are more consequences once we become more conscious and sensitive to things, as in more repercussions for falling out of elevated states?”

Steve:  Excellent question. This is how I see it: ‘turbidity’ is quite the normal state of affairs for many of the people around us, but because it had become the norm, gradually they fail to recognize it for what it is. This getting ‘in sync’ with the cycles of nature is not without any less consequences, it is the nature of what these consequences are that is the difference. In a crude sense, if we look at life like a creek or river, it is the difference between pouring toxins into the creek, or creek-water into the creek… the flow continues, but the turbidity is the difference. When we become more conscious and sensitive, we can more gracefully direct our actions, knowing they have consequences, and that these consequences will either stir up turbidity, or not.

The development of a ‘synch’ between the practitioner and the larger cycles of nature and life is now done more consciously. Yet, all of this is both an ‘out there in the world’ matter of acts and consequences, and an ‘in here’ matter of acts and consequences: the inner world and the outer world reflect each other.

There is an old expression that rings true for shamanism: as above, so below. As we develop the awareness to direct our ‘outer’ life into a graceful relationship with nature and her cycles, and as this leads to a clarity and peacefulness in the ‘outer’ world, the consequences are equally felt in the ‘inner’ world. The aware practitioner working with the cycles of nature is likely (as above, so below) to have less ‘stuff’ going on within him or herself that could arise as something that could interfere with what in shamanism is that non-self-centered, compassion-filled, open and aware state known as the ‘hollow bone’.