Directional No More?

I’m continuing to refine my ritual structure. If you look at the very early posts in this blog, you’ll note that my practice was originally pretty heavily influenced by my background in generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism; my first six months involved a directional/elemental approach to revisiting the basics to get some grounding, and to establish something of a regular focus. I’m really trying to get away from that. I can’t completely start over from scratch without tossing out all the valuable things that I’ve learned and developed over the years, but the past two years have involved a lot of reassessing what of my previous practice was something I wanted to carry over into my shamanic work, and what was simply something that no longer worked for me.

Since the very early time of my practice, I’ve done a fairly typical circle-casting, greeting totem animals I associated with the four cardinal directions–Gray Wolf at North, Brown Bear at West, Red-tailed Hawk at East, and a variety of animals, most recently Red Fox, at South. Along with these directional totems came the standard neopagan, derived from ceremonialism and old grimoires, elemental and other correspondences. And for years, that sort of abstracted structure worked pretty well.

However, now I’m really interested in creating a practice based on my immediate experiences and environment. Granted, to an extent there are still some things that don’t quite fit that model; for example, I’ve still never met a gray wolf in the wild, and my only experience with elk has been nearly getting run over by a pair of them in a dark field at night. My totemic work nonetheless is something that is still central to my path, and I’ll still continue to work with totems whose physical counterparts I don’t have much direct experience with, even as I increase my work with those whom I have, such as Scrub Jay.

But in thinking about how I want to structure formal rituals, I find that the cardinal directions don’t really have much in the way of personal meaning, and the totems I associated with them were mostly arbitrarily drawn from early neoshamanic readings, other than the South totem, who has always represented the change in my life at the time. Or, rather, it’s the concept of the directions themselves that don’t really resonate with me now that I’m doing more shedding of rote correspondences.

What is important to me are the natural landmarks and other phenomena found near the physical location where I am doing a ritual. For example, at home I have the Cascades to the east of me, the Columbia River to the north, Johnson Creek to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, all at varying distances. And that’s not even including the urban spirit of Portland and all that includes.

So I’m thinking that what I’m going to do is focus on, prior to the ritual, familiarizing myself with local landmarks surrounding the place where the ritual will happen. At home this won’t be an issue, but if I do any traveling, it’ll necessitate some research, as well as introducing myself to the Land itself, and seeing if any of the spirits in particular request/require acknowledgment or permissions. It seems more appropriate than simply greeting fairly generic directions, though it also takes more work (and some people may prefer the quicker broad-brush “spirits of the North, etc.” I’m not even thinking the actual directions they’re in in relation to me would be all that important in and of themselves, other than as a note of orientation (what if the biggest nearby body of water is to the traditionally airy east, not the watery west, for example?)

The thing I need to remember, as a final thought, is that this path is of my own creation. If I want to do it properly, I need to be deliberate about it, and have good reasons for what I do and why. There’s a lot of freedom in being able to create one’s path essentially from scratch, but there’s also the lack of inherent checks and balances that normally come from working within an established path, or developing with a group. I was talking to someone I met today at the Esoteric Book Conference about how I have people that I trade notes with and go to with questions. Sometimes the practices these people engage in resonate strongly with me. But I don’t just copy what they do and say I’m doing the same thing. Ultimately there’s a lot of “me” in what I’m creating, and if I just took things whole-cloth from others without really considering why I adopted those things, and whether they really fit for me, then I’d be doing everyone a disservice.

Thus it is that I’m rethinking the whole circle-casting-inspired, generic-correspondence-laden approach to opening a ritual that I’ve been used to, and trying to come up with something that better fits this thing that I’ve been putting together formally for two years now.

5 thoughts on “Directional No More?

  1. A few thoughts:

    1.) The approach you describe probably works better for solo working than for group working.

    2.) The human body always provides us with a “directional” orientation–before, behind, left, right, above, below, within, without, now, then. later, approaching, receding, and other such. But bodily orientation alone may not aid us in navigation.

    I think that the key insight of the typical NESW orientation is a more or less fixed relationship to the global Earth and to any of its subregions. Change always encompassed by a shared frame of reference.

    3.) I’ve found that localization provides useful contacts with the landscape and spirits of place. That helps a practitioner gain a feel for immediate energy flows and patterns and sources of insight. That mountain, That watercourse, That stand of those kinds of trees. That animal/ And such.

    4.) I think that as practitioners become more comfortable with their developing skills, they end up doing both the shared and formal orientation and the personal and local orientation more or less simultaneously. It’s one of the things that adds richness to practice and roots it where it grows.

  2. I don’t work with the directions, before any ritual.

    I thank the land spirits for cradling me. I greet my gods (which often involves facing in different directions – wind blowing into my face for Vavale, the direction the sun is beating down for Karijiana, the moon for D’miezak’r and so on), and I ask the animal totems / perevrjni who I think will help me most next, and then I ask if anyone else wants to tag along.

    Directional worship pretty much stopped in 2000, when I abandoned Wicca and stereotypical ‘Jamie Sams’ neoshamanism. Directions are important, I still believe this symbolically too; that going certain directions in dreams, and so on, are very significant. Likewise I still use the directions and their symbolism in my rune-castings… but in ritual and certainly before journeying, directional worship or respect is not a part of my practices.

  3. What a wonderful post Lupa! Funny how I went through a similar process with the Elven Path a few years ago when this started (and I am STILL trying to improve it hehe)! You are so right – it isn’t about copying stuff down and just doing something without question. It is all about the experience, and knowing how, and why, to enhance it. I look forward to see what you come up with!

  4. I too tend to be a “free form Pagan”. However there are certain things that most rituals hold in common. A couple of the most important, at the beginning of a ritual are the grounding / centering and the creation of sacred space / time. The traditional neo-Pagan (is that an oxymoron?) circle casting accomplishes this, but as you note, may not resonate with the individual practitioner or with the particular ritual.

    In my prison work the four directions are very important because the guys have a strong need to connect to the greater whole, beyond the walls. In my individual work, particularly on my farm, I tend to relate to the specific place, tree or meadow and create my sacred space / time based on that rather than the cardinal directions.

    The time aspect is generally not given much importance in the generic circle casting but I certainly think it could be very important. As a spiritual guide once told me: “All places are sacred, especially here. All times are sacred, especially now.” I often will center based on the time of day (eg. sunrise), season, moon-phase or other time related factor. An important ritual most likely will be scheduled for an “important” time to give it more punch but it has been stressed upon me that there is nothing wrong with right now and right here.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve often felt, too, that some of the directional and elemental work is forced, arbitrary. Sure, the Mayans or whomever may have done it this way, but what does that have to do with me here in suburbia? And I’ve been so worried about doing it “right!”

    Yet as I’ve read and researched, I’ve discovered that there are so many variations out there–so it simply makes sense to decide what representations are best based on your own circumstances. Seems that’s what the Native Americans and other peoples did, after all!

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