Wednesday, 23 July 2014

An extraordinary Italian Shamanic ritual

Interestingly, especially for Italian events, nearly everybody was on time for a 0930 start, directly after breakfast this morning. We all went up to the third floor meeting room (see the photo from the day before yesterday) to find our entrance blocked - we weren't allowed into the large group space in our usual desultory and disrespectful way.

Instead, we had to take off our shoes and leave them in the ante-room, form an orderly queue and keep quiet. Can you imagine it! One hundred and thirty people, mostly Italians, being asked to queue and stop talking...

Once the room was ready, a reception committee was formed on the other side of the door - and we were allowed in, one at a time. One of the more experienced group conductors hugged each of us, and then passed us on, by the hand, to the 'reception committee' - which was a gaggle of children just inside the door. One of the children held our hand and led us to our allotted place, with the gaggle of them accompanying each of us. Then the gaggle returned to base to bring the next person in.

Our allotted places were at the end of a large forming circle of people, all holding hands, who were gently swaying to soft Native North American chant music. The chairs has all been put to the sides, and there was a small table in the middle of the room with a bowl of water surrounded by foliage. The whole circle filled up in about half an hour, I think about 130 people; nobody said a word during this time. Some special arrangements were made to accommodate people who did not understand or could not tolerate it - one person near me, for example, needed to be held in a secure hug throughout the process by one of the group conductors. Once the group was complete, we were asked to sit or lie wherever we liked, and were given a short powerpoint presentation explaining the development of the ritual over the 38 years of the method's development. 

It started with an Ethiopian Catholic priest, who ran it as a semi-religious event with a strong Christian and Catholic structure, metaphor and iconography. Later in the group's history (I suspect when the Ethiopian priest died), there was a Zen Buddhist influence with the ritual (which marks the mid-way point of the intensive week event) being based on Buddhist practice and ritual. More recently, it has changed to have a Native North American Shamanic structure, content and process. We were informed that there were no satisfactorily respectful terms for 'Native North American' in existence, which did not suggest its brutal colonisation. So the 'Dancing People' was used, with an explanation based on the shape of the American continents: North America being the male dancer, South America being the pregnant female dancer, and Middle America being where they were holding hands.

As the four elements were evoked in the description of the ritual to come, the auspiciousness of the morning's windy weather was acknowledged and we were all invited to dip our hands into the ceremonial bowl of fresh water and wipe our faces with it. I presume the earth was represented by the hard floor on which we sat, with the fire being the extreme emotions that were to come.
"Dancing on the edge of chaos"

Once everybody had dipped their hands in the water, the main part of the ritual began. We were asked to close our eyes and gently move around he room, to soft 'Dancing People' music. Bumping into people was part of it, and we were to acknowledge them with a short caress or touch, then move on. This must have lasted ten or fifteen minutes before we were asked to remain in contact with whom we bumped into (or move on to choose another person if not happy with our first contact) and start with a deep, long, intensive hug. This is all still with our eyes closed. We were then taken through a routine to slowly explore and caress the whole body of the other person. It started with the head and shoulders, and arms and back. We were then led to the chest and asked to ignore the sexual significance of it, and continue the same process of appreciating and cherishing the other person's physical body through touch and caress - often quite hard, as well as softly. Then we were encouraged to move to the bottom, legs and feet, and finally to the whole person - before being asked to move on again, our eyes shut all the time. I do not know who she was, and never will.

Once everybody was moving again we went through several stages of an intense crescendo – all still with our eyes shut (though that wasn’t absolutely possible in the later stages!). First we were to walk in small circles, and then to choose a direction and move that way whoever got in our way with determination that that was ‘our chosen direction’. Then to change direction, and keep repeating it.

During this time the gentle music faded out and the drumming started. It gradually became faster, louder and more frenzied as our movements become more forceful and determined. The final instruction was to dance as if nobody was watching (and indeed, if all were following their instructions, nobody was watching!) - and be absolutely free to do whatever movements you wanted. 

When I thought that the drumming couldn’t get any more extreme, it did. And then again, and again. We were also now being implored to vocalise - first our names, which soon became increasingly primitive, loud and elemental. I lost my sense of time, and was only limited by my middle aged cardio-respiratory system and general unfitness. But after I don’t know how long, it did stop – and everybody collapsed onto the floor in sweaty heaps – mostly connected to others by minor or major physical contact, with quiet Dancing People’s chants and pipe music playing. After another indeterminate time, the music faded away and we were slowly coaxed back to Wednesday morning in a third floor conference room, somewhere in Italy.

The ritual was the prelude to the ‘transitions’ – where people who were chosen and judged ready by the group conductors – were then invited to undergo the 'transition' process. Closely aided and supported by the group conductors and numerous others, they were led into an extreme emotional state, and then, after the extreme regression, swaddled and slowly supported back to a normal level of consciousness. Two happened in the time we had – both extremely moving and painful to witness – but it would feel disrespectful for me to describe them in any more detail here. Suffice to say that they were very different.

Then another marvellous Italian pranzo (lunch).

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