The Native Healing circle and Smudging
As I am attending a native healing circle tonight, I thought it was fitting to discuss the healing or talking circle and smudging, which often go hand in hand. What I mean here is that smudging will pretty much always be part of a healing circle (at the beginning) but you can also smudge on your own whenever you feel like it. Let’s start with the concept of smudging. As it was told to me by an Elder, smudging is like bathing in the herb medicine. You push the smoke on you as though you are washing away “dirt” or cleansing yourself.
In other words, smudging can be thought of as a purification ceremony, a native american healing ceremony. Plants, our living relatives, or more accurately, medicine, are used for this ceremony. Plants such as sage, sweetgrass or cedar. They are gathered fresh in nature in a ritual where only what is necessary is taken and something is often given back. For example, some will leave tobacco as an offering for the plants. That’s what I do when I go pick sage or cedar. Tobacco also being a sacred medicine, not to be overused or abused. I am also talking about a natural tobacco, not a chemical full tobacco. Each Elder might have a different blend of medicine. When taken, the plants are prepared and then grounded and mixed together.
Within the teachings of the Medicine Wheel, the four medicines are tobacco, sweetgrass, sage and cedar. Tobacco comes from the east direction and represents balance. Sweetgrass comes from the south and represents kindness and positivity. Cedar is the western direction and represents harmony. Finally, sage is the northern direction and represents protection from negativity (the meaning might vary according to each nation). When smudging, one will place grounded medicine in an abalone shell and light it. Using an eagle feather (connection to the Creator), one will keep the smoke active. You do not use your breath to keep the smudge going, as it would be giving your strength away. The setting below (mine) is pretty representative.
What you also see here are medicine bundles or sticks. I personally use sage. When smudging I can also light up a sage stick and use the resulting smoke. The smoke acts a container and holds me and my experiences while I smudge.
Sage and smudging
Sage especially cleanses and purifies you and your life of negativity. When lighting the smudge, one will face the East direction, the direction of the beginning, of birth. I personally always start by smudging my feather in the four directions. One will often “wash” their hands in the smoke, before bringing some to their eyes, mouth, ears (think of the three monkeys saying here). We do this as well to protect us against words of others that might offend us, visions that might trigger us and find the words to say what we need to say. You can also “wash” smoke over your head, up and down your arms, your legs and behind you. As I learned tonight (yes I am adding this later at night….), you can start by bringing smoke up your left arm (as you bring strength in toward your heart), and down your right arm (to give part of yourself) then up to your heart and down your legs. I personally finish with bringing smoke to my heart four times and end with saying All my Relations. When alone, smudging for me, is always followed by a prayer. I call upon the great Creator to assist and guide me in my thinking, feelings and actions. I ask for guidance, strength, protection. It’s a personal moment to connect with my higher power. I also express gratitude for my blessings and for those around me and pray for my family and friends. I end my prayer with Miigwetch (meaning thank you) and once again Mitakuye-Oyasin.
In a group, as a healing circle, smudging will often begin the ceremony, as a way to invite the spirit world in and feel connected. Someone will typically go around the circle holding the abalone shell with the medicine and an eagle feather in their right hand. Each person then smudges. When done, you can send smoke to the person holding the smudge and say All my Relations. When someone is smudging, others will pray for that person and those in the circle.
Well, as far as a talking circle goes, it typically begins with a smudge followed by words and/or a prayer from the Elder. Some will speak in their native language, some won’t. But it is a way to give thanks to the Creator, invite the Creator in and recognize those in the circle. Some will also suggest a theme for the circle. An Eagle feather is then passed around and those who wish to share can one after the other. Cross talk is at a minimum as only the person holding the feather is supposed to talk. The feather is passed around in a clockwise fashion.
I wanted to show you the beading at the bottom of the eagle feather above. The stem of a talking or smudging feather is often beaded like that. When one is sharing, one can stroke the feather or play with the beads, as a way to relax. People tell their story, both aspects they are happy about or struggling with. Others listen. Native people believe in the power of talking, of letting it out in a safe environment. Our experiences and memories always remain with us. But in the circle, we release them to look at them, explore them and the associated emotions. We then put them back in our head always remembering how to deal with them. The ancestors, centuries ago, all sat in a circle and talked it out. That is how problems were solved, how healing took place. At the end of a circle, the Elder will often say concluding words or a prayer. It is meant as the name implies, as a healing process, as a way to connect with the Creator, the spirit world and receive guidance. Although it can be distressing for some (as they share painful experiences), the group remains as a container and holds of those painful experiences, just like the smudge would, helping one another. The Elder is also there to guide, redirect and soothe. It is a personal and group process (similar in a sense to group therapy) that has taken places for centuries.
P.S. The concept of balance is also important within the Native culture. The balance between the feminine and masculine energy, what some will call the ying and the yang. When I attended circles within the correctional setting, men would thank me for balancing the circle with my feminine energy. The woman gives the gift of life, has the sacred power of birth, expressed for example when one has her periods. However, a period (or when a woman is in her moon cycle), signifies a birth, the power of birth. A circle represents a spiritual rebirth. The sacred power of birth and the power of rebirth cannot be mixed together. Therefore, a woman in her moon cycle should not attend a ceremony or at least should pass when it is time to smudge.
All My Relations