Decades ago, I spent a year exploring spiritually rich, off-the-beaten-path adventures in search of the sacred in India, Bali, Nepal, and Tibet. These cultures that changed me forever all had elaborate and intricate spiritual histories and rich traditions of music and dance, but a common denominator that jumped out at me again and again was a cohesive, inclusive fabric of connection and relating that honored the natural world.
In this fabric, truth and expression were multilayered and multidimensional. Things were not “this or that”—they were “this and that.” Dances were also songs and invocations, and we-the-living understood ourselves to also be the breath and beating heart of the ancestors who came before us and will come again, all of us born of a living earth.
My body’s response to the rather enormous paradigm shift was a distinctly memorable full exhale of “I really am welcome here, I really do belong,” versus the familiar held-breath of “how do I measure up?” Even more profoundly, I was opened to my own joyful tears of “I AM all of this, and all of this IS me.” Whether “all of this” was the perfect simplicity of a Tibetan monastery backed by the splendor of Mount Everest, the kaleidoscopic polyrhythmic Balinese Ketchak dance, or simply sitting by a stream after washing my clothes elbow to elbow with the villagers didn’t really matter. What mattered was the place of wholeness inside—receptive, alive, curious, connected, in awe.
I couldn’t bring Mount Everest, sixty Balinese Ketchak dancers, or even a jar of the humble stream home with me, but I thought I could learn how to recreate the sense of simplicity, wholeness, connection, and belonging that I had been privileged enough to taste. As it turned out, simply holding that intention created its own stream of events. Shortly after my return to San Francisco, Starhawk, the renowned ecofeminist and a leader of the modern goddess movement, appeared on my horizon. She brought the ways and wisdom of meaningful ritual and circle culture into my life front and center.
When I began facilitating my own circles and groups, I found that shared music and dance do hold us, as shared laughter and tears hold us—but when we create our songs and dances from the laughter and tears we have dared to open ourselves to experience together, right here, right now, with all their rawness and emotion—a culture of belonging is woven.
One of the many practices to evolve from these groups is to conclude our transformational workings of several months together by creating personal mantra-like chants that I call “songs of belonging.” To begin this process, I often lead a guided meditation using a frame drum to keep us focused as we drop in deeply and allow the root or essence of what is alive in us—what is asking for more of our focused attention—to surface, or perhaps something inside us that is longing to be transformed. We then meet in small groups (I am particularly fond of triads for this) to craft the exact wording for each person. When this is done we take a short break to gather props that might include a bowl of ocean water, peacock feathers, a Tibetan bowl, pillows, drums, and shakers.
When we reconvene, we first create sacred space by honoring the elements of earth, air, fire, and water with a brief verbal invocation, followed by dancing and drumming. We then take turns moving into the center, as one by one, we instruct the group in whatever we need to create our experience, then begin speaking the words of our mantra rhythmically over and over.
What happens next is never the same twice, but the rhythmic repetition takes on a life of its own as it is repeated by everyone. Sometimes allies from our small group chime in to remind us of a word or phrase that we may have left out in the excitement of the moment. Somewhere during that transition our phrase progresses to a song or chant, with gospel or kirtan, but almost always with harmonies or syncopations and more than a little laughter.
But that’s not all. Dancing happens. Sometimes wild dancing happens. Group massage happens. Stroking with peacock feathers happens. Hands-on healing happens. Drum jam and percussion rock-outs happen. And yes, tears of release happen. Not all at once, but somehow, as we create what is needed for each of us, we deepen and enlarge all of us.