On the importance of ceremony

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This past Friday, the CHOICE! Film Festival hosted the screening of Birth Rites – a film about the issues aboriginal women in Canada and Australia face with the government removing them from their communities to give birth elsewhere. The film itself is worth watching: it illustrates the social fallout of such birth management practices and the need for aboriginal midwives working within the communities. After all, women in Canada are not flown to Denmark to give birth just because birth outcomes there are better. Yet aboriginal women within Canada and Australia are removed from their home for several weeks before birth, and are deposited alone, into an unknown city, a completely foreign culture, without any support systems, and often without anyone around who speaks their language. This is not good for birth, not good for the family and the community at large, and does not make sense financially as the costs for the government are high.

I found the pre-show even more enlightening. It was guided by Francine Payer, Aki Songideye Ikwe, Métis Algonquin of the Turtle Clan, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of 2, drum carrier, traditional dancer, seed keeper, spokesperson for the water and the forest, and carrier of the People’s Sacred Pipe. Respected grandmother at the Sundance and the Sundance community, she is the keeper of traditional wisdom. She spoke to the circle of us – women, men, and children – on the importance of ceremony and how the rights of passage are celebrated among her people.

She spoke of different roles of men and women: as women, we carry the water, while men tend the fire. Women have Rites of Passage, while men go on Vision Quests. She talked about separate circles for girls and women, and as girls have their first menstruation, they are welcomed, with ceremony, into the women’s circle. For a year after their first Moon Time, young women do not stay alone with a man, are not allowed to be around a baby, and would pick berries for the tribe without being able to eat a single one – to teach them control and how to say “no”. Women are present when their female descendants give birth. Grandmother Francine’s mother is alive, and so at the birth of her great-granddaughter, five generations of women were there, from the great-great-grandmother, to the baby being born. Even writing this gives me shivers: giving birth at home with supportive women myself, I can imagine how profound it would be to have all the living generations of your family be by your side in birth.

There are many more traditions, and it would have not been possible to cover them all within the short time we had. Yet Grandmother Francine brought up something very important. We have many, many rights of passage: birth is the first one, and then follow the milestones: first word, first crawl, first step, first fall, first period, first love, and on, and on. We can choose to celebrate any of these rights of passage, or pick specific ones. Each day is full of ceremony: opening a tap to get water is a water ceremony, stepping outside into nature is a ceremony, sitting down to a meal is a ceremony. Being mindful and fully present throughout our day, we can honour the water, the air, the meal. The ceremony is a mindset. Any ceremony can be as simple or as complicated as one wishes: whatever feels right and comes from the heart will make a fulfilling ceremony.

In the Western culture of constant focus on action and goal achievement, we create stress and hurt, yet have very few ways to deal with it, most of which are unhealthy. Focusing on the ceremony, on the other hand, can help us breathe deeply, process the stress and heal from trauma. Quiet meditation, self-knowledge, and social support are well-known for being the necessary facets of emotional health. Fulfilling ceremonies combine these three facets, by focusing on the importance of the rite of passage, letting one process it through a quiet contemplation, a trance, a dance, a song, a chant, or  through simply listening to the guide, often within a circle of supportive people with a similar mindset. We could learn a lot about the healing effects of ceremony from the traditional cultures.

Grandmother Francine has lead us in a water sharing ceremony, a strawberry sharing ceremony, and in honouring all four directions with a song. It was a wonderfully inspiring circle, and even my three-year old enjoyed following along.

After that evening, I have been more mindful of things I do throughout the day, and how many of them are a ceremony of their own. For instance, before breastfeeding, I kiss my baby, and tell her words of love as she gazes into my eyes. That is most definitely a meaningful ceremony: each time I feed her, I feed with love. When watering plants, I tell her their names. That is a ceremony, too. When sorting laundry, I sing to her. Beyond that, it becomes almost a game to spot every ceremonial instance we do not usually notice. If there is special clothing (or lack thereof), the action can be a ceremony if you are mindful: taking a shower is a cleansing ceremony that starts with undressing, entering a dwelling is a ceremony that involves saying words of greeting and removing your footwear, brushing your hair is a ceremony that involves a brush or a comb, as long as you are present during it. Putting down a yoga mat and stepping onto it is a ceremony, and the more mindful you are during your yoga or exercise session, the more attentive you are to your body’s signals, and the better results you are likely to achieve.

Coming back to the “greater” ceremonies in our lives, it seems we only acknowledge a few in Western society. Most of them center around birthdays (not so much around birth itself), anniversaries, weddings, religious and civic holidays. Yet we rarely celebrate coming into adulthood (I do not count getting drunk out of your mind when you reach legal age), starting and stopping menstruation, being pregnant (not counting baby showers, as they are more about the baby, not the mother’s rite of passage, and are usually driven by consumerist ideals), giving birth, becoming a parent, losing a parent… And as these personal milestones are lacking societal acknowledgement, so we, as individuals, are unable to effectively process the changes and stop treating them as meaningful.

The effects are far-reaching. So many women treat menstruation as nuisance or as torture and do not learn how to listen to their body, that they end up fighting their cycle and suffering through it, instead of learning to live in harmony with it. Many families lack support in pregnancy, and this most miraculous time often ends up being full of doubts, regrets, and stress. The majority of Western women grow up fearing birth, and often end up having traumatic experiences from lack of knowledge and trust in their body. Breastfeeding has been hidden by Western society for so long that many women end up having difficulties nourishing their babies, and people around them know little on how to support them. Grief and tears are endured in loneliness, as socially awkward and unacceptable, and we shove our strong emotions into far corners of our mind, so they stay with us and we do not heal. All of these trends take us further and further from knowing our body and our mind, and from being able to master our emotions when we are faced with milestones and new stages in life.

There are people who understand this and are bringing back ceremony. Women host Red Tents and Womb Blessings to share their experiences with the milestones of womanhood, to gain understanding of their cycle, to learn to harness the different stages of it, and to take charge of their fertility. There are Maiden’s Blessing ceremonies to celebrate a girl becoming a woman, with her first menstruation. There are Mother’s Blessing ceremonies to honour a pregnant mama and surround her with support. There are Crone’s Blessing ceremonies to honour a woman’s transition into menopausal stage of her life. There are Healing Circles to help heal emotional trauma experienced in birth, or when dealing with a sickness, or with a death of a loved one. All of these circles and ceremonies help us overcome what seems like insurmountable obstacles and show us that we are not going through the times of change alone.

Let us be mindful and present in the now. Let us pause and listen to our body and the world around us. Let us create meaningful ceremonies to mark the milestones we treasure, not just those the society acknowledges as important.


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