2016 was a year of healing exploration for me. After my mom died in January, I found traditional grief therapy harder to handle. I had gained a lot of healing in Grief Support Group after my brother died in 2014. By late 2015, I felt at peace enough with my brother’s death that I no longer needed to attend Group twice a month. And so, when my mom died in January 2016, I naturally went back to Group, expecting to find solace and peace there.
The first rule of grief support is that we do not compare losses but keeping that rule and being a support for the others in Group became increasingly difficult in the aftermath of my mother’s death. I was full of anger and bitterness after going through the loss of my mother just eighteen months after my brother died in such a similar, unexpected way. My brother had suffered a fatal stroke in August 2014 and then my mom had a fatal aortic dissection in January 2016. So, I started 2016 feeling full of grief, anger, frustration and resentment.
I eventually left grief support group to set out on my own journey of healing. I explored many different healing modalities that year from therapy to acupuncture to shamanic healing. I’ll continue to write posts on what I learned that year. For this week, I want to share a ritual practice I learned during that time that I further adapted and developed into my own personal centering practice.
After leaving Grief Support Group, I eventually found my way to a women’s healing drum circle. I found a group of women from different cultures and different walks of life who came together at least once a month to drum, chant and support each other. I remember my very first night at drum circle and immediately feeling at home and embraced by this community. I had lost my mother and needed this feminine energy around me. This became my new group therapy, a way for me to process my grief in a more “earthy,” less intellectual way. The group was led by an Elder named Starfeather who eventually took me on as a mentee and student for a short time. There are many different traditions and forms for calling the directions, I learned this form of from her.
Calling the directions is an ancient practice. It is a way for humans to symbolically connect ourselves to the natural cycles of the world around us. Native American Medicine Men and Women have practiced some form of calling the directions through the Medicine Wheel for generations. My teacher learned the Cherokee Medicine Wheel and so my practice has its distant roots in that tradition.
Starfeather and other Elders that I have worked with use Calling the Directions as a way to open up a “sacred space” in order to set the stage for our community to come together in support and healing. I often use this ritual as a way to begin my day and set the tone for my morning.
I will walk you through each direction and the symbols associated with each one. When we call the directions as a ritual practice, we spend a few minutes connecting with each direction. This can be done silently or with the use of words of gratitude that are authentic to you.
We begin in the East…
When possible, we would actually turn to face the to the East with hands open but at times, we would practice indoors in the circle and in those cases we would instead visualize and reflect on the direction of the East.
The East is the direction of the rising sun and as such it represents new beginnings: springtime and new life. Each direction has a season, a type of animal and a classical element attached to it; the animals of the East are the birds such as the eagle or hawk and the element is air.
Calling in the energy of the East means connecting with the hope that comes from birth and new beginnings. It’s also about taking a “bird’s eye view” of my circumstances, remembering that whatever struggle I’m going through now will pass like the wind.
Turning to the South…
I feel fortunate that, because of where I live, each direction matches perfectly with the actual relative geography of my location. I’ve spent my fair share of time in the Southern United States and the Mojave Desert of the Southwest and so when I think of the South I naturally think of heat.
In calling the directions, when we turn to the South, we call on the energy of summer days, the noonday sun, fire and playful spirit of coyote and other tricksters. The South represents the fire and bold confidence of youth. It motivates us to seize the day, take action and enjoy the good times in life.
Turning to the West…
While the East and the South were about new beginnings and the activity of life, the West is where we start to move into the more restorative, cooling and grounding energies: the yin to the yang of the East and South.
The element of the West is water and my favorite animals for the West are Mama Bear and Orca. Water has its own power, as Bruce Lee said: “it can flow or it can crash.” When we call in the energies of the West, we look for inspiration in the ability of water to flow and move with the challenges of life.
The West represents the season of autumn, a time of harvest and slowing down to reflect and prepare for the harsh winter months. It represents nurturing, maternal energy that cools and comforts us through hard times.
Next, to the North…
The last of the four cardinal directions is the North. The North represents the darkness of night and the cold of winter. As I turn to the North, I reflect on my ancestors and those who have gone before me on the spiritual path. The element of the North is earth and the animal is the bison.
When calling the directions, we call to the North to give us the strength and stability to weather the cold of winter. While the South was about action, the North is about patience and resilience.
I often pause when facing the North and take a moment to remember and connect with my lost loved ones. They are never truly gone as long as I keep their names and memories alive and shared with the next generation.
Above, Below and Within
There may be four cardinal directions on a compass but there are seven directions when calling the directions as a spiritual practice. Hmmm… seven directions and seven chakras, interesting…
“Above” refers to the higher spiritual planes but I also connect it to the Solar System and Universe we live in. Similar to how I described the Crown Chakra, we are “Star stuff” and so when I call the Above direction, I think of that connection with the stars.
Below is the ground beneath your feet. To me, it’s about expressing gratitude that I am even alive on this earth. It is the deep bow in gratitude to all the things and people who support my life.
We conclude this ritual by pausing and connecting with our internal state and intentions. To me, this moment is akin to the pause we take at the start of yoga practice. I place my palms together, close my eyes and turn my focus inward to connect with my own personal intentions.
We would typically open all seven directions at the start of Drum Circle and then conclude by reversing the process (i.e. North – West – South – East) to close the directions at the end of Circle.
Calling the directions has become an important personal ritual for me over the years. I have adapted what I learned from my teachers and made this practice personal to me.
Like the chakras, I see the directions and the four elements as valuable metaphors for the energies of our lives. Calling the directions helps me connect with the natural rhythms of the world. Just as seasons change and day turns to night, life goes through cycles and phases. I’ve found great value in mindfully connecting with that progression from sunrise in the East, high noon in the South, sunset in the West and nightfall in the North.
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So sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing such a personal journey. A really fascinating read.
What a beautiful path to peace you’ve found. We all have to grieve in our own ways and to be aware that something that worked for you before isn’t working again shows a huge strength in you. I chose not to seek counselling after my own loss, it didn’t feel like somewhere I would be comfortable. A bit like finding that some shoes no longer fit or you just can’t walk in them. When we recover from loss we need to find a comfy pair of slipper to wear on our journey to being at peace again. I’m glad you found yours.
[…] hard times like this, I turn to the north and ask: how did my ancestors get through the hard times of the past? The truth is, some didn’t. […]