Note #1: This four part series is a practical exploration of spiritual/shamanic practice. The series focuses on the spectrum of practice that includes cleansing, extraction, protection/boundaries, and connection – all of which are vital to maintaining integrity and spiritual health.
Note #2: Historic references in the following post are intended to broaden the opportunity for mindful practice. There are so many opportunities to deepen our daily spiritual practice through cleansing.
It seems somewhat self-evident that some degree of cleansing is a healthy practice for body, mind, and spirit. Too little can lead to health problems and disharmonies. Too much is obsessive. What is considered appropriate, in terms of method and frequency, may be culturally influenced and is somewhat dependent on available resources or specifically desired outcomes. For example: in some indigenous cultures, where weather may be cold or water scarce, variations on the sweat lodge are a practical method of general cleansing. Hunting parties have used sage and other plants as a specific cleansing that masks their human scent from the animals they plan to hunt.
What cleanses the body has often been seen as symbolically capable of cleansing the spirit. For example, ancient desert Peoples in the Middle East washed the feet of their guests as an act of purification. Shoes were made from animal skins, and were difficult to clean. If shoes were not-clean (dirty – probably smelly), it was important that the feet – now free of the shoes – be made clean. This practice extended into the washing of both hands and feet in holy fountains prior to entering a church or holy place. In addition, removal of shoes keeps out the sand, and marks a boundary between indoors and outdoors. It’s not a lot different from cultures that suggest or require the removal of shoes before entering the designated space. The use of incense in medieval churches was for more than driving out the bad spirits. It also concealed body odor. The point is that our spiritual methods of cleansing have often imitated practical methods of cleansing. What is literal can also become imaginal; a living interface between what is seen and unseen.
A recent experiment at the University of Michigan (Lee – 2010) seems to suggest that the phrase “I washed my hands of it” is more than abstractly metaphoric. The study concluded that people are less likely to feel the need to justify a difficult decision after washing their hands. “These [types of] thoughts are difficult to grasp. In the past few years there has been increasing evidence suggesting that for complex ideas we rely on physical experience to make sense of them.” In other words, a physical action can symbolize an abstract idea or thought. It’s basic human nature.
When focused intention and helpful spirits are combined with a physically symbolic act, the experience of cleansing disharmonious encounters and negative experience is magnified.
In 1986, at the request of helping spirits, I began running a spirit sauna in my basement (for about ten years). My ceremonies came out of instruction from my spirit helpers. Prior to consecrating the space, I wanted to do a little research on sweat bathing. I discovered that ritual cleansing, in a variety of forms, has been a worldwide human activity since recorded history. I discovered that the Finnish sauna had shamanic/spiritual roots. Inviting the spirit into a sauna was very much a part of their ancient tradition. I discovered that Peoples the world over recognized the potential of inwardly cleansing the spirit or soul while outwardly cleansing the body. I came to the conclusion that baptism probably had its roots in a symbolic physical cleansing. Phrases like “wash away your sins” refer to the spiritually symbolic significance of bathing.
In 1956, American anthropologist Horace Miner described an isolated indigenous population and their bizarre habits. For example, he wrote about their fascination with mouth cleaning, and the practice of ritually “inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.” The paper was satire. He was describing Americans brushing their teeth.
That article was tongue in cheek. But potential for cleansing is inherent in any physically symbolic act. Some cleaning is going to be maintenance. But we could carve out the potential for cleansing in our routines. We may need associative reminders. I have a dog-Buddha statue that associates with the cleansing tongue (the dog with Buddha nature), and also with meditation.
The bathtub could easily become one of our culture’s methods of a spiritual cleansing. Why it is that soaking in a tub with bath salts and lit candles is considered a feminine behavior? I would bathe thus, except I’m just too tall to find comfort in a bathtub. At any rate, the dominant means of cleansing in our culture is the shower. The fact that it has gotten so easy to shower and “wash off our day” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be empowering our soap as well. (“Please, oh soap, do not fall to the bottom of the tub and become a potential hazard. Rather, make this body clean so that I might, well, you know, do clean things.”) The truth is, whenever we add mindfulness to a behavior we deepen our experience. Perhaps you could tap a bell, or bow, or behold an altar of crystals prior to using the shower. And rather than singing in the shower, how about toning. It occurs to me that tones of Om are harmonious with water.
To cleanse our soul spiritually and emotionally of the daily dust of our lives is both natural and healthy. The ritual use of water, candlelight, incense, feather sweeping, mind sweeping (meditation), sound sweeping (toning, sacred music), and sweating are all possible mediums for spiritual cleansing. As cleansing becomes ritual, like the sweat lodge, it may combine prayer with ventilation and the expression of grief. Writing and working with an art form is intrinsically cleansing. Celebration can be cleansing. Humor can be cleansing. Forgiveness can be cleansing. Love can be cleansing. Sacred conversation can be cleansing. To wash ourselves in Divine light can be cleansing. Now we are moving down the spectrum toward connection.
Next up: extraction.