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Doctrine, Ritual, and Spiritual Development

By Rachael Watcher


Doctrine – the codification of beliefs, teachings, and practices – is an important element for established institutional religions. It clarifies what a religion expects of its followers, how to behave toward one another and Deity, ethics, an approach to celebration, as well as what to celebrate.

Offerings that are given to the fire during a ceremony include a candle, seeds, resins, wood, and copal.

Offerings that are given to the fire during a ceremony include a candle, seeds, resins, wood, and copal.

Indigenous practice, on the other hand, does not offer practitioners such straight-forward instructions about how we should live our lives. Instead we take discernment and clues from our rituals in approaching our spiritual and personal lifestyles. For us, living our spiritual beliefs every day through ritual is equivalent, or perhaps as close as we can get to the religious idea of doctrine, so important to Abrahamic traditions.

The spectrum of indigenous practice is wide and complicated. It begins with people living on the same land and practicing the same spirituality as their forbearers back to the ‘beginning’ oftime. But it includes those whose civilizations have adapted to Western technology but still remain true to ancestral practice. It includes those who are “indigenous” by blood but have completely adapted to modern religious practices, as well as those like myself and thousands of others who have gone back to our peoples’ roots to rediscover and develop a spiritual practice meaningful to us.

Understanding ‘indigenous practice’ is further complicated by people professing dual or multiple spiritual identities. I know of people who practice the rituals and spirituality of their ancestors and yet are devoted Christians. For indigenous communities, this seriously complicates matters. The one thing that binds indigenous practices together is that none of them have a written doctrine, a canon of faith. Many do not recognize the word religion as applicable to the practice or spirituality which shapes their lives.

Beyond the Written Word

Without a written guidepost, discovering what we feel, how we practice, is challenging. For the most part indigenous systems of spirituality are based in orthopraxy; that is to say, the right way of behaving or practicing. Doctrine does not exist. Starting my own journey, I asked a Mayan priestess what her beliefs were.

She drew a circle on the ground. “This,” she said, “is our cosmos, the place in which we live; everything is here.” Then she drew a line in the circle from top to bottom dividing it in half. One side was night, one side was day. She bisected the circle horizontally explaining that the top contained all that is in the heavens and the bottom was the Earth upon which we all walk and all within that. And she invited me to attend her ritual.

Tribes from different nations gather in Braziland share ceremony.

Tribes from different nations gather in Braziland share ceremony.

She began to make numerous offerings to each quadrant of the circle. Each had its own gods controlling the elements of that quadrant; five Gods in each quadrant, each with its own duties. As I relaxed into the ritual, making my own offerings, I began to understand the spirituality behind this particular Mayan practice. She did not have words for things like immanence or transcendence. She did not have words for pantheism or panantheism. She could have explained the proper way that one lives life in a spiritual manner, but it would have taken far longer than her simple explanation of which gods were in which quadrant and what their duties were.

As we lit that fire I felt an instant and powerful connection. I understood the unity that binds the earth, the heavens, day, and night. I understood the proper way of living and behaving toward one another as dictated by the Gods of that pantheon.

Nothing engages quite like practice; not reading, not listening. The complete engagement of mind and body is irreplaceable. Some time ago I had the privilege of hosting an indigenous person from South America. While here she invited a friend to come over and visit. She told her friend, when she arrived, that she was staying with a witch, at which point her friend refused to enter my home.

Rather than force the issue we decided to go to a nearby park and hold a ritual of safe passage for my friend to return to South America. The woman stood quietly outside the circle, doing nothing to participate. After we had created the circle and made offerings to various gods for her safe passage, we brought out cakes and wine as a celebration of the gifts of our Goddess.

Suddenly, the woman who had been silent to this point, broke out in song, her own gift to our Gods she later said. She was crying, clearly emotionally overcome: “How can I have listened to the bad words people say about witches? Didn’t they say the same about us and our belief in our gods? Our rituals are the same. Our prayers are the same. Truly our hearts must be the same. I now understand that you are my brothers and sisters. I understand why Rosalia has chosen to be with you.”

A Different Sense of Time

While I encourage participation in ritual when invited, it can be difficult for who don’t understand that time is mutable. I helped organize a gathering for friends in Southern California interested in experiencing the Mayan Fire ritual. Tata Apolonario, a Mayan who never curtailed a ritual for the sake of guests, was about an hour and a half into the scrying of the fire to see the future. He began noticing the squirming and covert glances at time-pieces around the fire. Finally he put things on hold and stood to face the attendees.

“Look” he said, “I see you all glancing at your watches and wondering when this will end. I’ll tell you now; it will end when it ends. That will be when the spirits of this place have a chance to speak. So put away your watches, stop squirming, and give over your energy, or leave.”

No one left and the ritual progressed smoothly for another three hours. That was brief compared to the 36-hour ritual later that year in the Guatemalan outback. I attended by invitation to participate in the B’aqtun, or ‘time of the ending’ of the long Mayan Calendar of Cycles.

Because the Guatemalan government decreed that the Maya would not be allowed access to sacred sites near cities during this time (an accommodation to the tourist trade), we traveled several hours into the outback to an ancient city built in a river valley. The river and its tributaries that had supported a metropolis were dry and weed choked. But from the top of the temple plateaus you could see the ruins of the city spreading out for miles in all directions.

Here we set up the sacred fire and began a drumming heartbeat that went on throughout the ritual. Musicians dragged heavy instruments to the site and played for the better part of the ritual, quiet only during the late evening and early morning hours. The entire process from the start of our spiritual journey to the finish was an inseparable part of that ritual.

Various visiting tribes from afar were asked to perform ceremony during this time of changes. I remember drifting in and out, doing my part with the drumming and ceremony, and in a couple of cases, being covered up when I fell asleep. It was definitely, in the vernacular of the 60s, mind bending, with permanent alterations. It was reminiscent of encounter groups 50 years ago. But rather than simply getting more connected to yourself, which it accomplished, this was a connection with deity and spirit in every sense – the spirit of the land, of those with us, of the reason for being there. This ritual was about attunement to the cosmos. All agreed that we had successfully completed the transition of the cycle of phases correctly and with due humility, though no one could articulate exactly how.

The Power of Fire

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to India for an indigenous gathering of about 450 people currently practicing an indigenous spirituality. The most valuable part of this meeting, it turned out, was a presentation of each other’s rituals, which went on throughout our time together.

A fire ceremony led by Tata Apolinario, a Mayan shaman, on the right. – Photo: Greg Harder

A fire ceremony led by Tata Apolinario, a Mayan shaman, on the right. – Photo: Greg Harder

On the last morning, all who had a fire ritual were invited to present them simultaneously. American Indian, Maori, Lithuanian, Hindu, African, Asian, Pacific Island groups and more presented at the same time. Everyone ended up visiting everyone else’s fire, and then someone started dancing! Then everyone was dancing; dancing around fires, between the fires, in the middle of the circle surrounded by fires. If you couldn’t dance you were put in a chair and carried as people formed a massive line continuing the dance for three hours.

I learned that fire rituals raise energy. This energy is unquenchable and, like fire, must burn down at its own speed. We skipped lunch that day. Almost everyone attending had a fire ritual, rituals that mirrored each other, so the energy grew quickly and fiercely. We recognized ourselves in each other’s rituals. It was amazing to realize that I could find within other spiritualities a kinship allowing us to celebrate together without words, without lengthy discussion.

Such rituals require an ability to forego preconceived ideas about the ways and means of connecting with Deity and understanding our behavior. But for me the results have been worth the investigation.