Postures for Pagan Community Development

by James Lawer

This is an highly simplified description of what happened on Saturday, October 6, 2012, in Casco, Maine. There was a swirl of preparatory activities during an entire year that are not being described; there was the final complete, daylong ritual itself that ought not be too carefully described. The story in its fullness belongs to the provenance of the Maine Pagan Community, to its bards, its wisdom-reachers, its recorders of the event, and to those who have picked up the staff that illumines them as not “followers” but as Carriers of the Way.

Even with the approaching rain, 30 people showed up. We blessed the rain for the time it was with us, danced in it with our ancestors, built a towering bonfire in our midst, created four directional altars, and on uneven ground crafted sacred soul relationships with the spirits of place, weaving threads of soul to each other.

This was the second time I had traveled to Maine to teach postures. Some of the participants of my first trip 2-1/2 years ago were present. In addition, during one of the Skype planning sessions a year ago, I introduced rattling/drumming as part of our process. Yes, even on a Skype call!

My time began Friday morning, the morning I left New York City via train to Portland, ME. I had had a dream in which I was conducting a Mahler-sized symphony orchestra, the auditorium packed full of those who had come—not for a quiet concert, but to be engaged in, with and by the music itself. From my journal: it is the bedrock sound of creation, the permeating tone within all things, by which the deepest connection between and to all things travels, the channel of fundamental relationship. The entire symphony begins with long, sustained low notes, E or E-flat, alternating between major and minor. It is the length of time needed for creation to emerge. On this tone, I—and all of us—can travel with unconditional acceptance and unfettered inspiration. The tone, the fundament tone, includes freedom from attachment.

That was how my day began. By Friday’s end, I had led a sweat lodge in Maine in Druid fashion, wherein were heard the rushing sounds of healing—sighs, tears, the quiet settling of the inner air. The next day, during Saturday’s visioning ritual, words were spoken regarding the “Oran Mor”, the ancient song of creation that is still being sung in everything. (One can do a Google search on “Oran Mor” to learn more.)

My original thought had been to do a healing posture. The two workshops that began the visioning ritual, however, addressed much of that. One of the men even described an entire healing shift in self-awareness that had happened during one of the day’s workshops. He emerged out of his shy aloneness to become one of the event’s most articulate philosophers. And that, I must say, was only one of a number of significant personal shifts that occurred as people opened up to each other. Gifts, some long dormant, became part of the dawning of a new community.

In summary, these were the dominant themes that led to my choice of a Posture:

  • culturally suffused inhibitions and fear;
  • conflicts within the Pagan community that had fractured or muted relationships;
  • lack of clarity about how to respond honorably to the apparent decline of American life, including the widening bifurcations of the class structure in this country;
  • open use of terms like “apocalypse” used to engage discussion about how to return to the cycles of nature in order to survive;
  • need to honor our elders, those in need, and consciously to pass on pagan ways to upcoming generations.

Overall, everyone there wanted to know how we could honorably rely on each other in the days ahead; consequently, great emphasis was placed on listening to, acknowledging and recording for later reference what it is that we have to give to each other for mutual support. In the flow of the ritual, even more skills, gifts and abilities arose.

With all that in mind, I chose to use the Empowerment Posture at this time. I did much of what we call the “Cuyamungue method,” though given the structure of the day the various components were integrated into the ritual itself in a variety of ways. For example, I woke up the rattle (even though it had been smudged earlier) by holding it in my hand and passing it into the flames of the fire, so that the circle could hear me call to my brother to wake up and help us out with his voice.

When the rattling began, the shift in each person and between them became visceral. Formerly hunched over people became proud and upright. A feeling of anxiety softened and dissipated into the witnessing birch trees. That was one reaction. For others, they found the posture hard to hold for 15 minutes, even though I had modified it into a standing posture, given the strain of the original itself. It was one case where holding the intention was not sufficient. I stood in the midst, walked around, did a full 15 minute rattling. The circle was transfixed by inner vision and by pain. Then, as we relaxed out of it, a most amazing thing happened. Instead of talking about our experiences, a song began to be sung. It was a new song written for this event, with three layers of text and melody on top of one another. People could sing whichever line they chose. New harmonies arose spontaneously. We could have sung into the night for an hour as we moved around the fire holding hands and singing:

The warp, the weft, the weaving,

When we gather, we are stronger.

Spinning threads from soul to soul.

Guitars played, drummers began, and then the circle evolved into ecstatic dancing and honoring the altars. Finally, after some time, we settled down. At that point people began to share the visions that had arisen during the Posture, the dancing and the interplay of the freeform movement. Some of the visions were personal, and some became connective tissues between people.

The experience in Maine reminds me of an entirely appropriate use of Postures, that it is part of the overall ceremonial process. As we know, there are Postures we sometimes use to invoke ancestral or wisdom resources in order to evolve ritual, such as in the crafting of the Masked Trance Dance.

Some of what we heard were abilities to forage in the woods, to manufacture food stuffs for homes, technical knowledge in how to build homes, training to assist in the health and healing of people, among many other skills. It became known, for example, that several of us work with the dying, in helping people cross over and in helping those who have already died but who are having trouble moving on. [The word “psychopomp” has been used historically to name those who do this work. I will be returning to Maine to further this work. I already know which Postures I will be using as part of the workshops.] Why? I mean, Why would working with the dying be important in an emerging group? As someone pointed out, among the resources necessary in a sustainable group [within the cycles of nature] are those who help us die. Across the spectrum of sustainability, the Maine group discovered much of what they will need in the future—certainly not everything, but enough to craft a community.

But, and this is a huge BUT, perhaps the most significant benefit of the Posture experience in Maine was its ability to reinforce among the participants the power, the potency and the potential of a local expression of spirituality. Certainly we must address what we mean by the word “pagan,”—for example, are not all pre-contact Native American religions “pagan”? What is our relationship as Pagans to tribal cultures, many of whom are Sovereign Nations on this continent? If we are all “indigenous” to this place (not counting the political use of that term), how shall we relate as brothers and sisters of the earth? Shall we listen, side by side, to the spirits that come to us here? How shall Postures awaken that capacity to listen? Is listening only an individual achievement, or are there cultural and cross-cultural acts of listening? Are not all Postures pagan in origin, and therefore endowed with the earth’s natural wisdom? And again, why are we importing deities from thousands of miles away, deities that are not part of this land? And again, how can I be devoted to the preservation and sustainability of the land on which I have my home, if I cannot humbly feel the spirits who are alive next to my dwelling? And again, if my ancestors are Vikings and Celts (which they are for this writer), how shall the deities of my ancestors walk with me in the woods of Maine or in Central Park and relate to the deities among whom I am walking? And again, how shall the spirits of place in Maine be engaged in ways that will inspire life-giving responses (music, ritual, story, etc.) that might never be acknowledged (much less heard) in organized religions that originated elsewhere on the globe? And again, if we are truly to become intimate with the flow of cycles of nature, so that we can in fact survive where we actually live, how can Postures help us? And again, what does it mean to be a Druid in America, or a Pagan? What are our ethical obligations? If being a “pagan” does not mean fundamentally to be a priest of nature, then how cut off are we from reality? And again, given the vast repairs necessary for the well being of this continent, how can Postures—and which Postures??—best serve our healing?

We have much to explore.

Written with thanks to the Maine Pagan Peoples for the honorable service they do to themselves, to the immediate human and nonhuman communities around them, and to the larger flow of the earth.

About James Lawer:
James lives at the far edge of the North American continent, about 90 miles south of the Oregon border, among fog and redwoods, between the ocean and the near mountain wilderness, on a little bump of land called Eureka, CA.  His retirement has only made him busier but probably no less naughty.  He was raised in the Army, became a teacher, professor and United Church of Christ clergy, from which he exhaled a pleasing breath and became a Pagan Druid Priest.  He is Provost for the Druid College of North America, runs a sweat lodge in his back yard, plays the harp for personal pleasure, and is a Certified Teacher for The Cuyamungue Institute, specializing in Ecstatic Postures as rediscovered by Dr. Felicitas Goodman.  His personal motto is “Reclaiming the human capacity for ecstasy.”  Twice he has worked in the midst of death and dying, first for the UCC AIDS Ministry (No CA/Nevada Conference) at the height of the AIDS crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then for hospice, from which he retired.  Jim currently uses trance states, induced with the help of rattles and drums, to provide a context within which people may find connections to ancestors and to their own inner wisdom, in order to make meaningful transitions and expansions of consciousness.  He works with individuals and with groups.  His other motto:  “Laughter is a prophetic act,” and one of his closest friends is an old woman who was a street clown back in the day.