“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” – Cherokee Saying
During my time in the early 2000s working in a recovery center for substance abuse and addiction, I learned about Native American smudging rituals from, Goodteacher, a colleague of mine who was of Lakota descent and very attuned to practices of his Native spirituality. Smudging is also known as the Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing, and is when certain herbs and grasses considered to have sacred properties are burned to cleanse an area or person of negative energy. In the belief system behind this cleansing ritual, smoke is said to attach itself to negative energy and as the smoke floats away, the negativity is carried with it.
At the suggestion of Goodteacher, I took the opportunity to sit in with a group during a summer evening and experience a smudging ceremony. We were outside in a public park, but smudging of the self need not be outdoors. There are different ways to perform the ceremony of smudging, as based on variations in beliefs between groups or on personal preference.
The method I learned began with an invokation to the ancestors; we called upon the wisdom of those who have taken care of this earth and learned the ways of this life before ourselves, and we thanked them for their wisdom. We then called upon the four basic elements of our existence, earth, air, fire, water. We thanked the elements for all that they give to us. We also turned to face North, East, South, and West to be sure gratitude was sent out through our world in all directions. And then we sat, and our ceremony leader, Sheila Quiet Dove, a woman of European and Cherokee bloodline, walked to each of us and wafted smoke from a small bundle of herbs lightly over our bodies.
“Picture the negative thoughts, ideas and actions you want to rid yourself of now,” Quiet Dove told us. “Focus on these negative energies that are interfering with your ability to live each moment fully.” Similar to Kundalini yoga, relaxation, and meditation techniques, we closed our eyes and focused on our breathing while the smoke danced over us, wrapped us in itself briefly before spiraling its way to the evening sky.
While the smoke raced away on breezes, we opened our eyes and cupped our hands, given this last instruction in the ceremony: “Any negativity left in you now, picture it falling like dust into your hands. Now blow into it, let it blow away. Let it follow the smoke onward and away from yourself. You have made the choice to let it go, and the Great Spirit takes it away because this is your choice.”
And that was that, and it was refreshing. The sage and other dried herbs were fragrant and peaceful; everyone was smiling; the birds settling into their trees as the sun dropped further to let night move in were singing their evening, nesting songs; there was the general sense that there was a positive aura of energy that each of us, and all else in the perimeter of nature we were occupying, was basking in. There was a zero amount of negativity for the time being; we had decided that this is what we wanted, and knowing that it can’t exist at all times made us appreciate it more.
My understanding of prayer and other spiritual/religious rituals: when we perform these rituals, it is not necessarily about whether or not there is the God many of us believe in to listen to our needs. It is about how performing these rituals produces positive thought and energy within us. Our rituals bring us comfort and optimism, they allow us to expand our minds into greater possibilities about existence and into greater capacity to feel connected to everyone and everything we share our world with. I don’t mind when others lack belief in religion or God; not everyone needs or wants the belief. We are who we are and we understand our reality in the way that is best suited to us. I do not believe there is a right way or a wrong way to believe in regard to religion and God.
To believe does not mean to injure others–mentally or physically–for not, just as not believing brings no right to injure those who do. Atheism and deism can live in the same space and not interfere with each other; we don’t need to fear those who pray or burn herbs or leave offerings in temples, and we don’t need to fear those who give thanks for having a life without believing in a creator to thank. We are who we are, and we all need our own thoughts, rituals, and belief systems to find our connections to and optimism in this world.
For me, it was the study of science, of how this world is composed in materials and systems and structure, that brought me back to a connection to the single concept given a name by many groups of people throughout history: God; Wakan Tanka, or Great Spirit, or Great Mystery; Yaweh; Allah; Brahman.
This is me, it may not be you. What seems important in spiritual practices, is simply that we find optimism–a reason to be thankful, a reason to live, a reason to love others, a reason to enjoy our time here.
This is why, no matter who you are and what you believe or do not believe, you might find some type of spiritual or religious practice that works in your life on your terms.
Among spiritual practices of my chosen faith and from the many other faiths I’ve had the honor to learn from, smudging is one I like to keep in regular practice. To be honest, I rarely use the herbs, I simply sit, focus on what I need to release in order to make myself a little heathier in mental and physical capacity, and when I’m ready to make the choice to give these negative energies away so that I’m not slowed down by the weight and doubt they clutter my mind with, I cup my hands and blow into them, imagining I can see particles of negative energy drifting onward, like smoke.