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Ritual Cleansing

Ritual Cleansing:
For Oneself and,
Assisting as Another is Cleansed

In shamanism, the notion of 'cleansing' does not carry within itself some indirect religious criticism of that there is some 'impurity', in yourself that must somehow be washed 'clean' in order to step up before some universal tribunal. There are practices of self-cleansing that I like to pass forward, yet these have nothing to do with some universal gauging of goodness or badness, or right or wrong, clean or unclean, or anything of the sort.

Nor do I sit comfortably with the notion of doing the same for someone else for at least two reasons. First, as with the above, I have been entirely unable to discover any kind of universal 'clean or unclean' filter through which particular persons or acts could be definitively sorted. But the other reason is that the shaman is never actually 'doing' the work, whether it be cleansing, empowering, healing or whatever. It is the spirits who are doing the work and the shaman is more or less just along for the ride, perhaps serving in a rather humble assisting position to the spirits and the client, as an important and truly relevant kind of bridge between them.

So when we approach the topic of 'cleansing', it is imperative that we start out on some kind of solid footing so that we know where we are stepping and why.

There are two approaches primary cleansing situations to which I will lend a small overview, enough to get you thinking, and hopefully enough to get you started. They are Cleansing Oneself, and Assisting as another in their Cleansing.

On Cleansing Oneself
One of the things that I like to see included in a first level of shamanic study is a personal cleansing ritual with some kind of herb, such as sage. Here is the recent report of several students while they were learning how to do this. Without going into the details of the cleansing steps and why, it is helpful to hear the reports of practitioners who are thus engaged, as this assists us into reaching towards that experience ourselves.

In general, a practitioner engages in a kind of personally organized process of bringing his or her attention to important aspects of themselves and their life, recognizing the places where we want to do better, and getting back in contact with the ground beneath us and the world around us. At the same time, we are presenting ourselves to not just ourselves, but to the spirit world, and in this way reaching for their compassion and relationship.

Practitioner: "As I find with Reiki, I tend to get very warm or hot while holding an intention, and performing a ritual. The burning of sage immediately brings me to a safe place. I feel I can slow down, minimize my thoughts, and be in the present moment with the smell of sage.

Recently, while doing a cleansing, I took more time than I have previously. The sage seemed to light even quicker than ever, and hold the embers to create the smoke through to the end of the ritual. When I was thanking the Earth, I became very emotional. It felt that I was apologizing for all of what man has done to it, and feeling the sadness from Mother Earth. I continued to be thankful, and the feeling passed after a few breaths."

Steve:  That wonderful ability of sage to take us to that feeling is in part, I believe, related to the olfactory part of the brain being one of the oldest parts of us. My sense is that the sage is touching a very ancient chord in people, as do other herbs, that resonates on a level that reminds us of something that our ‘DNA’ has experienced and coded within us, but about which our conscious mind does not know, particularly in the forebrain which is a relatively new species development. In short, what I am saying is that it is likely that particular scents, such as of sage, take us back to our primal origins before we began to separate from the Earth.

Our emotional response to this seems to be related to the ability of this ritual to cut through our ‘gloss’ to who we put ourselves out there to be, and really get to who we are inside, and this is both refreshing and poignant, the latter due to the immediate recognition of any distance we have made from the Earth through our unconscious behavior. Though it may sound odd, I am delighted to hear of your sadness: it is a wonderful step beyond some kind of personal morality to be able to feel the sadness for what we have done as a species. 


Practitioner: “I didn’t have time to buy proper sage and a burning container in an esoteric shop so I had to improvise. I used a glass container within which to place tea lights and put sage in from tea bags.”

Steve:  LOL... this is fantastic! Well done! As with most any shamanic ritual, the point is not the words, things or movements, but rather, where the heart is. If for instance one is unable to use sage, no big deal. It is simply that the movements and meditations during the ritual, plus the scent of sage, combine to do a good job of coaxing our heart into the right place.

I suppose you could substitute Cheerios – you know, the breakfast cereal made of little ‘O’s? – instead of sage if it coaxed us into that heartfelt place. Until you are able to get some of the suggested ritual material such as sage, or if at some point in the future you do not have sage handy, don’t be concerned in the slightest. Just find another way of checking in and focusing your heart, and simply do that instead.

Practitioner continues: “I got through most of the ritual before the smoke vanished. I wanted to relight the sage and reached for the lighter but burned my thumb on the really hot metal. Waited a little while before I touched it again, with my other thumb, that is, managed to get some smoke going, and finished the ritual. I had to hurry through the ritual because the smoke never lasted that long.

I felt a sense of wholeness when touching the floor at the end of the ritual and the sharp pain I felt from my thumb somehow blended in with that sense of wholeness, rather than diminishing it. Afterwards, it occurred to me that I forgot to call in the spirits for their compassion – wasn’t that the point of the entire exercise and shamanism in general? Argh! I now have a blister reminding me to do that and to get some better sage and a burning container, asap!”

Steve:  Sounds like your first and second day of washing with sage was a real learning curve! I have some humorous and gently humbling memories of the same sort! We all do.

Our whole presentation to the spirit world is mostly about putting our heart in a strong, well-directed direction. We are not so much for trying to win the spirits over so much as we are simply showing to the world, ourselves, and the spirits that we can develop the right balance of being grounded, humble, and capable of strong intention and focus. Yes, we are calling on the spirits for their compassion, but this is different than it is for a lot of the world’s religions that ask for compassionate spiritual help.

We call on the compassionate spirits, but not for improving our lot in life, but for giving us the opportunity to step up to the plate and demonstrate our capability to do so. We want to show the spirit world and ourselves that we can to do our part when it comes to building a strong healing team with them and do our best work here on the planet. The spirits demand that we stand firmly on our own two feet. They’re not going to cut us any slack, or do our self-work for us. They want to see that we can do this, which is something that we need to see in ourselves as well. It is this way with any team: both sides size each other up and determine if the other is fit to do the work that shamanic teamwork demands.

The cleansing ritual with sage is many things, but it is also a regular reminder of where our heart wants to be in the world. Yes, the more we do it, the more we are reminding ourselves of this, and yes, the effects will carry over into our life. Remember, we are shifting a way of being, not just ‘doing something’ so that after doing it, that it is a ‘done deal’. Shifting a way of being is a process of transition, which more than likely began in the past and may accelerate in the present now that we give it more attention. Letting go, for instance, of what doesn’t serve us.

On Assisting Another in their Cleansing:
The practice of assisting another in their cleansing is completely different from what some people think of as 'Cleansing another'. The bottom line is that the shaman in nearly all of his or her work is not any more important than is a bridge is to someone crossing it. The shaman, in the case where someone wants cleansing, is thus a kind of bridge between the spirit world and the client, such that the client is assisted in opening their heart fully to cleansing, and that the spirits have the greatest access to the person as is possible.

Shamans never cleanse others. They simply do not have the ability! The only thing that an honest shaman can do is help connect people with the healing and divinatory power of the spirit world. Thus, this section is entitled 'On Assisting Another in their Cleansing' in order to draw specific attention to the fact that the shaman is simply a humble assistant, no more, to the spirits, and especially, to their client.

As with personal cleansing, I will not go through the specific steps or the 'whys' of the practice, but rather, will lend you the personal experience of one doing this work, so that you can get a sense of the dynamics of shamanic practice and what you might be engaged in if you choose to train in these things.

Practitioner: "One of my practice clients is very sensitive to any kind of smoke. I was wondering if essential oil would be good to use, or is it more the essence of fire that is at play here? My belief is that the primary key here is our intent. But, the element of fire is also in the mix. There needs to be a way to make this 'work' for this client because I'm sure this situation will arise again. So my question is, what do I do?"

Steve:  With respect to our assisting as another is cleansed, that’s a good question, and yes, you hit on what in this case may be the right answer: to use an essential oil, such as that of sage, in place of the burning and smoke.  For instance, a willowy, soft branch of a plant is often used in some parts of the world for this purpose of assisting another in their cleansing.
One might put a few drops of sage oil on such a plant, and in this case if the plant was soft enough, leaves might actually be lightly touching the skin/clothes of the client.

As you point out, it is the intention within the ritual that is the ‘fire’, and the smoke is just a vehicle for extending this kind of fervor to another person. If at all possible, I like to see one’s personal cleansing, and the assistance in the cleansing of another, done with sage smoke, although even there, I have had students with similar sensitivities to smoke also find that their deep intention along with the one who is being cleansed, maintains the grounding, centering, focus, and heart cleansing just as strong as when it is helped with smoke. Some in cleansing themselves use an essential oil on their hands and bring these to the various parts of their body as they move through an individual cleansing ritual. When assisting in the cleansing of another, the same principle can be used: a few drops on the ends of a soft branch would work just fine.

I also like to teach the use of a feather in assisting in the cleansing of others, and perhaps, if you do not have access to such a soft shrub branch on which you could place a few drops of sage oil, you might like to bring a feather out. It certainly can be done, and it will demand a large degree of openheartedness (a kind of devotional sense of service) to the other person. If done carefully and consciously, these alternatives can achieve the same result for both of you.