Dreaming the Dark - Celebrating Our Source by Lenore Norrgard
By the mid-1990s I had lived in the Seattle area for 20 years. In that time I had found that most people had one of two responses to the cold, dark, rainy weather that visited the region for six months of every year: Either we rejected it—escaping, if we could, to a warm, bright clime for however brief a sun fix; or we learned to become creatures of darkness, spending time outdoors throughout the winter and not minding the long, wet nights.
Either way, there was no question that the legendary wet darkness of the Pacific Northwest affected everyone deeply, creating a deep longing for spring. No wonder that the Winter Solstice took on a spectacular weight, and often was celebrated with abandon - nevertheless leaving folks with months more to slog through before the light really returned.
Observing this—coupled with my spiritual awaking in the mid-1980s, and with many years of reading, writing and dialogue around race, gender and language—gave me pause at the Winter Solstice. I realized that celebrating the return of the light rang false for me, that it felt not only like a denial, but a rejection of our actual experience.
Following intensive training in core shamanism with Sandra Ingerman and other faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in the early 1990s, I was comfortable with designing and performing conscious rituals for healing and positive transformation. During that period I also read Starhawk, most notably Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, which spoke profoundly about recreating our world through intention and action. The book affirmed Darkness as a place of creativity and mystery. I also was blessed with the opportunity to study ritual with Malidoma and Sobonfu Somé, Dagara teachers from West Africa.
During my early years of serving as a shamanic healer and teacher in Seattle, I witnessed clients and students struggle with the dark time of the year. In my bones I began to feel that what we needed at the Winter Solstice was a celebration of the Dark itself, rather than the return of the Light. Given the negative connotations that ‘Western’ culture projects onto the innocent Dark, I knew that such a ritual ran the risk of bringing up considerable fear for many people. I was concerned to find a way to manage the negative associations so that the ritual would be a healing celebration of Darkness as Source, and transmute fear. I didn’t want it to devolve into calling forth the very demons and devils our culture projects onto it, in hopes of keeping them at bay.
About this time, a shaman from Norway, Ailo Gaup, came to the U.S. to teach indigenous Saami traditions from far Northern Europe. During the Samhain weekend I spent with him, he introduced a Saami ritual form to bring through the spirit of the full moon for healing for the group. I asked him whether this form might be used to bring through other spirits for healing, and he said yes.
A ritual to honor the Dark began to take shape within me. Why not use the Saami form to bring through the spirit of the Dark for healing? Now, about three years from when the idea of a Solstice ritual to honor the Dark first took root within me, the time felt ripe and I felt ready.
In Fall 1995 I taught a Shamanic Empowerment Circle, in which people learned how to journey to access direct revelation from the spirit world. This circle had cohered into an intimate group in which people had taken significant risks and made great headway in personal and spiritual growth. At their request we extended beyond the usual eight weeks of instruction. Towards the end of this extension, I invited them to play a special role in the Solstice ritual I was planning.
At a special preparatory session I explained to them the Saami ritual form, and that we would use it to bring through the healing power of the spirit of the Dark. Upon hearing this several students took a deep breath. I explained that each of them now could make a journey to meet the spirit of the Dark before the ritual, resolving any questions or issues they might have.
Students were reminded that everything has a spirit, and every spirit has power and wisdom to share with us. Also, that things often are not what they seem, and the gift of shamanism is to begin to experience and dance directly with the Mystery of the Universe, rather than trying to figure it out, or control it. I reminded them that their own experiences had shown that the universe is a benevolent, healing place, and that the Dark is only the Dark—absence of light—a physical/energetic phenomenon neutral in value or meaning, until we load it on. They understood, and each agreed to meet the spirit of the Dark.
On their individual shamanic journeys, each met a different aspect of the spirit, reflecting the multitude of gifts the Dark offers us. As they returned from and shared their journeys, the energy in the room noticeably shifted, and we finished with a lovely warmth and wholeness. I described to them the ritual we would perform two weeks hence, and asked them each to bring a large scarf on that evening.
In the meantime I prepared a carefully written invitation to the ritual for students, clients, and some colleagues. I wanted to invite only people with whom I shared a bond of trust, to ensure a strong container for swimming against the cultural tide to honor this spirit.
I titled the event ‘Dreaming the Dark: Celebrating Our Source’ to emphasize the mystery, wonder and nourishment the Dark gives our lives, and wrote text noting some of the essential gifts the Darkness bestows upon us. I asked each person to bring festive food to share, and an object that represented for them some essential good they personally receive from the Dark.
Thirty-odd people attended the event. We began with cordial socializing over smoked salmon, berries, and other festive foods set upon an altar with a dozen candles blazing. When the time for the ritual arrived, we cleared the food and candles, locked the door, turned the lights low, and formed one big circle.
We began with each person saying their name, introducing the object they brought and saying what gift from the Dark it represented. Each was then placed on the vacant altar in the center. In this way we built an altar to the spirit we would bring through: bed pillows representing sleep, eye pillows representing journeying, stuffed animals representing power animals or night-time friends, condoms representing sex, seeds representing germination, and so on.
Once the altar was built, the group invoked the helping spirits in the Dagara tradition, as I’d learned from Malidoma and Sobonfu Somé. This tradition involves the whole group singing to the ancestors, asking them to be with us. As each person sang from their heart, we felt the room swell with a loving presence.
I then asked three people to drum with me, and stationed each of us in the Four Directions. I demonstrated the slow, steady rhythm the drumming would take, and taught the outer circle the joik, or chant-song, that Ailo had taught us, to support the inner circle in journeying.
Once everyone was set, those who had prepared at the previous session sat in a circle on the floor with backs to the altar, facing the outer circle, with their thighs and arms touching. They draped their heads with their scarves to remove their individual identities and more easily bring through the spirit of the Dark. At our preparatory session I had instructed them that as the drumming and joiking began, they were to invite the spirit of the Dark to come into them and fill their bodies. They were to sit still until they were so filled with the spirit that they had to move, and at that point they were to rise and follow the promptings of the spirit to offer healing to those in the outer circle.
I asked those in the outer circle to continue joiking and drumming until I signaled an end to the ritual with my drum. I explained that those in the inner circle would bring through healing from the spirit of the Dark, and might bring it through by touching those in the outer circle. If, for any reason, anyone did not want to be touched, they could take a step back outside the circle, and their wishes would be honored.
We turned the lights completely out, and since the few windows were draped, it was very dark, with only four votives burning at the far corners of the room. We began drumming and joiking, and soon the room was filled with a deeply resonant, hypnotic sound. Some singers began to sway. In the darkness, we couldn’t see much of the ‘ordinary’ world. After some time, the first inner circle member rose and began slowly moving about the outer circle, offering healing. One after another, the other inner circle members rose and did the same. The drumming and joiking transported all of us outside of time, and it was difficult to know how much was passing. Once I sensed the ritual had reached its peak, I slowly brought it to a close.
In sacred silence we sat for some time with the reverberations of what had transpired. Then, quietly, I invited those who felt moved to speak their experience to do so, briefly.
No one spoke for some time. Then people began to describe their experiences of embodying the Dark, of receiving healing from the Dark, of visions seen, and teachings imparted.
Members of the inner circle described how, sitting with their backs to the altar during the ritual, they felt a hot pillar of fire rising from it. They were astonished that the Dark manifested as heat.
The first three years I hosted this ritual, the inner circle always felt a column of heat ascending from the altar. Different lessons were received each year. I remember, in particular, a teaching from the Dark about anger: that righteous anger is a power we can use to bring wholeness to our world, when it’s wielded in a conscious, healing way.
One of many things I came to understand through birthing this ritual is that the trepidation I felt was not due solely to the cultural baggage we carry around Darkness. I learned that the spirit of the Dark is the most primordial and powerful of spirits. It is of a size, consciousness and power beyond our understanding, and demands our utmost respect. To hold a successful ritual working so directly with this spirit required all the years I had spent on preparation. If you feel trepidation, respect it—it’s for a reason!
In Spring 2004 I had the opportunity to share this ritual once again, on a new moon night, with a circle that had been working together for some years. Again we felt the indescribable power and healing of the primordial spirit of the Dark. It reminds me of the Torah’s honoring of the Great One with the phrase, ‘I am that I am’. Several people approached me after the ceremony and told me it was the most powerful ritual they ever had experienced.
The Dark is a profoundly powerful, loving, primordial spirit who can bring us much healing if we approach it with care and respect. Engaging it in this way can also bring profound healing to a culture that has become mired in dualities and projections, and bring us home to the truth of being at home in the great web of creation.
In 2005, the annual Dreaming the Dark winter Solstice ritual was celebrated for the second year in Portland, another Pacific Northwest city to which it is well suited, and where I now make my home. Although participation in the ritual always has been by invitation, many people have learned about it through word of mouth and asked to attend. This year I am happy to welcome newcomers by making Dreaming the Dark the centerpiece of a two-day residential retreat on the Columbia River Gorge, open to all. If you would like to join us, call Circle of the Living Earth at 503.450.9991, or email [email protected] Details also are available at www.circlelivingearth.org.
Lenore Norrgard, MA, Harner Method Shamanic Counselor, was called to the shamanic path in 1987 and has provided shamanic healing, empowerment and instruction for nearly 15 years. She teaches quarterly Shamanic Empowerment Circles and an annual Shamanic Healing Apprenticeship Program. She is founder of Circle of the Living Earth and is a local and national leader in the practice of shamanism for peacemaking and social healing. Lenore can be reached at 503.450.9991 or [email protected], her web site is www.circlelivingearth.org. Copyright 2006 Lenore Norrgard. All Rights Reserved.