Keening: The Power of a Really Good Celtic Cry

Keening: The Power of a Really Good Celtic Cry

For the last ten days of April, I had the great fortune of attending the International Gathering of Shamans in Dunderry, County Meath, Ireland. The purpose of our gathering was to embark upon an Immrama, a Celtic “wonder voyage,” upon which we were to collectively and individually envision the times to come. We were challenged to engage our intent as healers and to focus with integrity and impeccability on both navigating and influencing the great transformation facing us, Mother Earth, and all of her inhabitants. We were each encouraged to be both the strands of yarn and the artisan’s hands as we weaved a global tapestry of the world to come.

On the second evening of our voyage, we found ourselves walking in silence to the cairn in the western field. We’d spent the day exploring Tara, the most revered coronation site of the High Kings of Ireland, where the Land of Faery is said to be present through the most gossamer of veils. After engaging in a ceremony in which we honored the Ancient Ones, the Sidhe (pronounced Shee), who live within the land, we split off into smaller groups of three (triskels) to begin our world-weaving.

After dinner, we gathered again and lightly touched upon our experiences in the triskels. Our discussion seemed to shift naturally into an observation that in order to create something new or to welcome in a profound shift or radical change in reality, death of the old must be fully experienced and embraced. (Upon reflection, however, I’m sure that our Irish shaman hosts, Karen and John, were simply deft at guiding our conversation in that direction.) One of the most profound ways that our ancestors learned to facilitate this process of fully engaging with death and the grief that accompanies it was through the ritual of keening.

And thus, with only the faint sound of pebbles crunching underneath our feet, our group of 42 crossed the small bridge traversing the creek that feeds the great pond on the property . . . and found ourselves in another world. The sun had set. The massive mound ahead and to the right of us took on a dark and bereft quality. Knowing this place from prior experience as a welcoming and nurturing womb-like space, the sadness it exuded took me by surprise, even though, intellectually, I knew the purpose of our evening’s work.

Into the Cairn
Nodding solemn acknowledgment to the Keeper of the Door, I stooped over and entered the earthen cairn, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness as I took the several steps through the passageway that then opened into the circular enclosure. In the center, arranged on thousands of small white stones, dozens of tea-light candles flickered, along with four larger wax cylinders set atop iron holders, their flames creating primitive shadows that danced upon the mud walls. We took our places on the benches encircling the center hearth, vaguely aware of three women crouched at the farthest point from the entrance, their faces veiled in black lace.

As my eyes adjusted, I saw a black cauldron, with a circumference of roughly a dinner plate, set at the head of the circle of flames, directly in front of the three women. The beat of a single drum brought us into focus, and then, almost imperceptibly, I became aware of a guttural moan, a moan that built and grew, slowly yet steadily. The sound seemed to come from the center of the cairn, from underneath the flames that now burned without flickering. The burden, the sadness, the unbearable weight conveyed by that moan caused the hair at the back of my neck to stand on end. Then a sudden, high-pitched wail scraped the marrow in my bones.

I sensed a collective choking-up, as about half of us let out involuntary cries ourselves. I could now sense, more than see, that one of the three was on the ground, rocking back and forth in a hopeless, self-comforting gesture that is universally human. Another slowly rose from her wooden bench and reached out to veiled guardians kneeling beside the cauldron. As the two guardians lifted her veil, she dropped to her knees and clutched at the sides of the cauldron, her sobs echoing and reverberating, her tears raining into the cauldron.

With no thoughts of sorrow, regret, or pain in my mind at that moment, I was intrigued that tears streamed down my face in sympathetic resonance with the woman’s anguish, and I allowed the tears to seep into the familiar and comforting cloth of my mesa (medicine bundle) that I clutched in my lap.

While I didn’t need to “know,” intellectually, the triggers of the others’ tears in order to elicit my own, I did notice that my tears were not self-sustaining. I combed my mind, my heart, for things I had not grieved in my life, yearning to give myself permission to weep from the core of my being. In this moment of reflection, I realized that I had already grieved those losses, failures, wrongs, and disappointments that had generated pain in the past. I’d expressed most of this grieving, either in the moment of the loss itself or as part of my growth process in training in the shamanic ways. In this moment, at least, my personal grief was sated.

Yet I knew there was no lack of fodder for grief in our group. Children lost, marriages threatened, dreams shattered — many were facing huge challenges to their equilibrium in their personal realities. As my companions let go into the waves of tears and sobbing, I experienced a curious ebbing and flowing of engagement. In the moment I would hear a new or different “voice” in the cairn, my heart would reach out, reach across the inner sanctum in which we found ourselves, aching to wrap that person in my arms and tell him all would be well. Then, only moments later, a sense of detachment would come over me. No, I would hear whispered in my mind. This is a place where true grief can be experienced and purged. In this moment, the root of the profound sadness, regret, or loneliness being experienced is not — and cannot ever be — okay. And that, in itself, was the beauty inherent in witnessing this pain.

And so, as the ritual progressed, I felt myself bearing witness to the tears of the world.

Taking Turns at the Cauldron
After each of the three had experienced her turn at the cauldron, others seated in the circle were invited, as moved by spirit, to approach and take their turns weeping into the collective’s tears. With an almost eerie prescience, the guardians seemed to know when a person was ready and would gracefully approach the griever, taking her gently by the arm and guiding her to her knees before the iron receptacle.

The grieving ebbed and flowed. Tears, wails, sobs, and throaty, mournful moans would build to a caterwauling crescendo, then die down, exhaustion and completion settling into our bones. In one of these lulls, a shriek emanated from one of the women to my right. I could not tell if it was a scream or a howl of laughter; its essential nature straddled both realms. Did it really matter?

I was seated between two men, shamans I had known for at least five years. One was an American who was richly ensconced in the cultural imperative of the U.S.: men do not cry (this, despite his absolute “understanding” of the essential error of that way of being in the world). The other was European, and his heritage made tears more accessible; nevertheless, I initially sensed, fully present in both, the inherently masculine discomfort toward this exercise. I wondered if they, too, were experiencing my nearly overwhelming compulsion to comfort the others. How did they feel when I wept into my mesa? Did they want to reach out, touch my arm, hold my hand, or pull me close — as I did when I finally heard each of them “give in”?

Most of those who chose to approach the cauldron were women, and each one reflected a precious and unique flavor of sorrow. But it was those few men who approached the cauldron that impacted me most profoundly. Perhaps it is because I’ve spent all of my adult life surrounded mostly by men. Perhaps my sensitivity comes from experiencing the gift of being married for nearly 29 years and giving birth to and raising three sons. For whatever reason, I found my resonance most deeply felt — and thus generating the hottest of tears — as I cried with the men who stumbled toward that cauldron and wept for themselves, their beloveds, and the world. It grieved me to know how sensitive these men are and to imagine how much it must hurt to keep that pain locked away in the dark, repressed and unexpressed. It made me weep to know I was part of a culture that promotes such disconnection with self.

As I sat observing myself and my reactions, entering into the experience fully and then withdrawing just enough to contemplate it all from an observer’s perspective, I felt a subtle yet distinct shift beyond the personal grief and into the global. I could feel that some of the tears being shed were for the suffering of entire cultures, species of creatures, all of humanity, and even Mother Earth herself.

Slowly, one by one, we retreated from the cairn as moved by spirit. Some paid a final visit to the cauldron to shed a few final, private tears. I simply bowed, in gratitude, to the three and wiped into the cauldron the tears I’d shared with my mesa.

The Wisdom of Releasing
The wisdom of embracing this ritual at the outset of engaging in our weeklong “world work” as shamans was clear. As wisdom-keepers, as those who’ve been asked to be the pathfinders for others, we hold the space for all humanity to begin imagining a world that transcends pain, that transcends fear and lack, and that transcends our unconscious ways of being. By permitting ourselves to experience and release the grief and guilt we feel as humans for what we’ve done to ourselves, to each other, and to the Earth and her children, we suddenly find ourselves capable of holding the space that is beyond grief. And that is our job: holding that space. We know that beyond grief is a world that is perfect in its imperfection — and requires no tears. It is to that world we must welcome our brothers and sisters.

Lisa JG Weikel is a student of shamanism and the author of Owl Medicine.

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