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The Art of Invocation: Part I – Context and Cosmology

The Art of Invocation: Part I – Context and Cosmology

Introduction

(This is about a 15 – 20 minute read. For the TL;DR you can see the conclusion here.)

Over my years of study and practice I’ve participated in, coordinated, and facilitated a fair amount of ritual. The scope of which ranges from individual/personal ritual to group rituals upward of 50 participants. Some of these rituals, in person, others in online gathering spaces. Some with loose intentions and others with very specific intention. Over the course of time I’ve tracked the way that energy flows or, contrarily, hasn’t flowed on these occasions. In reflecting back on this, I’ve noted how invocation can have a great impact on how and/or if energy flows through a ritual. I have witnessed and practiced invocation in contemporary shamanic traditions as well as ancient African and Asian traditions and observed in my own practice how the invocations of these traditions impact the rituals that I perform. Simply said, a good invocation can really get a ritual off of the ground. So, I’d like to share with you what I have learned about invocation and how it can really shape a potent ritual.

What Makes for a Good Invocation?

To understand what makes a good invocation and why I contend that it’s an art form, we first have to understand the purpose of invocation. Some traditions have long traditional prayers as invocations. Some have short chants, songs or rhymes. Some have particular body gestures, drumming, or dancing and some have internal practices that are outwardly still. So what is it that these varied practices are accomplishing? The primary things that these methods facilitate are calling in the forces needed, creating a roadmap for the ritual to follow, and altering consciousness or inducing trance. Some of these outcomes are accomplished in one act. For example, lengthy prayer or African drumming, respectively, can both alert and connect with the appropriate forces while also inducing trance.

When done well, invocation announces the intention and it lays out a rough roadmap that provides perspective by which the trajectory of the ritual can be tracked from beginning, through middle, to end. It allows for perspective and creates context. Without a frame or context, it can be very difficult to track what is happening in a ritual—it can be very difficult to understand the significance of events or the messages of spirit communication that is coming through. This context, in part created by the invocation, provides a shared language by which the forces involved in the ritual can communicate. In a way, a good invocation can aid in divination regarding ritual outcomes.

How Does Invocation Set a Contextual Frame?

The first thing I would like to discuss is the importance of invocation in setting a contextual frame for a ritual. A good example of this is history—people having repeated the same or derivative actions for the same reasons over a long period of time. Invocation done in the manner of a pre-existing tradition sets a contextual framework based on how spirit communication has occurred in the past within that tradition. Essentially, forces become used to and/or appreciative of the way something is done and take said action as an instant cue to the part they are being asked to play.

As I mentioned above, a common language is needed between the ritual facilitator and/or participants and the forces being invoked in the ritual. When an invocation is done for particular spirits in a traditional way, this common language is already established. Both the spirits and the practitioners already have the context of the tradition, its stories, myths, and symbols and can use these as ways of understanding what is going on and what to expect. For ritual to be effective the forces being called upon must understand what it is that we are asking for. If we don’t have enough of a shared language or symbol set to convey that it can be difficult to get the message across… AND, if the message does get across, but we don’t have some sort of established context, it can be difficult for us to understand what the spirits need of us in order to accomplish the desired outcome. More simply put, without this context, even if our message is delivered, it can be hard to “hear” the response to our communication. Invocation is one of the ways of establishing this context, either within or outside of a tradition.

Invocation within a tradition calls on, by allusion, relationships between beings, forces, principals, and the spirit worker that are already contextualized within the tradition. In this case calling upon a particular force through specific language might be akin to saying to your friend, “you remember when we did that fun thing last memorial day? Well, we should do that again, today. That worked out great!” It refers to shared context between the spirit worker speaking the invocation and the spirits, beings, or forces being addressed.

Aside from the shared context, speaking elements of the stories around a spirit in an invocation can help to really powerfully draw it in. Some spirits just really like to hear about themselves. It makes them happy. Telling or alluding to these stories also leaves little room for ambiguity about who or what you are calling to, particularly as many spirits have many aspects, manifestations, or “faces”. In some cases, spirits will have alternate names that relate to different stories or aspects of themselves. These names can call in that specific story, its context and that aspect of the spirit with one word. It is as though these stories and/or names serve as an address to the force, being or energy you are calling upon. These stories (or names that contain a story) contain more information than the common name of the being, and thus speak more directly to the essence of what you are calling forth. Part of the spirit worker’s art of invocation is that we are condensing a lot of power into our words by choosing very intentionally the words we use in an invocation. A good invocation will make the space palpably filled with the forces you are calling on. It can be felt in the room. In some cases, just the presence of the forces in the room can be enough to begin to induce trance states.

All Traditions Have a Cosmology

The existing relationships between forces within a tradition that we have been discussing are what make up what is called a cosmology. Cosmology is a group of interconnected and interrelating forces, principles, or energies that describe the functioning of reality within that tradition. Invocation is a call to different aspects of a cosmology—to the different interrelating forces in a way that supports the outcome you are seeking. So, a well crafted invocation first requires a sense of a personal cosmology. It also requires an intention of some degree or another, and an understanding of what forces within the cosmology are involved in creating the outcome that you desire. This is applicable regardless of whether the cosmology is personal or traditional.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about cosmology so that it can be…well, invoked, is the inter-relatedness of the forces. A big part of what makes for an artistic and power-filled invocation is an understanding of how the forces you are calling upon relate with one another. Let’s take the figure of Ganesha, the easily recognized elephant headed deity commonly known as the remover of obstacles, in the Yogic cosmologies of India. A popular story about how Ganesha got his elephant head demonstrates how the relationships between forces can be understood and leveraged to bring about desirable ritual outcomes.

In this (highly abridged) story, Ganesha, son of the Goddess, Shakti, and the God, Shiva, is born while Shiva is away in meditation. Shiva is away for such a time that Ganesha begins to grow up and takes to guarding the door to the house while his mother takes her baths. When Shiva returns from his retreat he is confronted by a young man at his door, barring his way from reuniting with his wife, the Goddess. Shiva demands that this stranger step aside and is refused by the young man. In a rage at being refused admittance to his own house and to his beloved wife, Shiva cuts off the head of the young man who stands in his way. Shakti, at hearing the commotion emerges from her bath to find that her husband has killed their son, Ganesha, and all sorts of chaos and destruction comes from her ensuing wrath. To conclude the story, Shiva recognizes from his wife’s anger that he has killed their son and replaces Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant.

If we look at this story in the light of our discussion on invocation, we might consider the forces involved. We have the god Shiva, who in the Shaiva traditions represents the absolute oneness of consciousness that is all things. We have the goddess Shakti who is the power of manifestation and differentiation out of that oneness. She also takes form as the evolutionary power that brings the individual back to recognition of and identification with the oneness. And lastly, we have Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and threshold guardian.

If we were a follower of this particular yogic path we might desire to approach the goddess, “resting in her bath”, in hopes that she might reunite us with the oneness or supreme reality, represented by her husband, Shiva. But if we are astute and aware of the relationship between all of these forces as outlined in the story above, we would recognize that we cannot forcefully approach the goddess without consequence. It would likely be a better idea for us to respectfully address the goddess’ guardian, Ganesha, first.

Indeed the internet is full of horror stories of people trying to forcefully awaken Kundalini (often referred  to as Kundalini Shakti, a form of the goddess) from its resting place at the base of the spine, thus being subjected to all manner of terrors. This is an example of how an understanding of the forces relevant to a situation and how they relate to each other is crucial to invocation. Before undertaking ritual actions that forcefully invokes the goddess in this example, one would be advantaged to know that there is a protocol and are consequences for not following it—to know the relationship between the forces involved.

The above is an extreme example to get the point across, but the principle applies for just getting results as well.

What is Your Relationship with the Energies You’re Invoking?

In addition to understanding how the forces or energies that you want to invoke relate to one another, you also need to have a good relationship with the forces that you are calling in. What is your relationship with all of these forces? The “rules” or how you might approach each force may change depending on you personal relationship with the force, being or energy at hand.

Take for example the Western occult tradition often referred to as Solomonic magic. The texts of this tradition outline extremely elaborate rituals for contacting the forces that make up the cosmology, involving a lot of crafting of materials, ritual cleansing, and complex prayers. These rituals take hours to perform, not to mention the time crafting the objects, finding the materials to make the objects, etc. It would be absurd in my opinion to do this every time you needed to make contact with a being, especially if you already have a solid relationship to them (public safety alert: if you are interested in this tradition, please go learn from someone experienced in it).

In a way this is like courting. Once you have an established relationship, the “rules” may change. Some protocols may be initial measures that create the relationship, like showing someone you are courting that you really know and understand them in order to get their attention.

Additionally, in the example of Ganesha and the approach to the Goddess, you would need to consider your relationship with Ganesha. If you don’t have a good relationship with the gatekeeper how do you expect them to open the gate for you? This requires forming a good relationship with them as well. The point being, that all of this is in flux and interdependent. You must know the forces, know how they relate to one another, know how you currently stand in relationship to them and know what it is that you wish to accomplish.

Another example of how your relationship with the spirits relates to invocation would be a situation where you are working with the same energies, in the exact or similar ritual, in the same space repeatedly. In such cases the forces you are working with may already, “know the drill”, so to speak, and from time to time you might be able to get away without the whole rigmarole. In circumstances such as this, I have, on occasion, actually had forces ask me to “cut to the chase” when they already know the work that is needed and my invocation is carrying on too long. A force may also expect more from you over time.

All of this is to say, these things are variable to your specific relationship with the energies/forces/beings that you are working with. They will all have their own specific needs and desires, and just like relationships with living humans, the expectations of that relationship may change with time and circumstance.

Conclusion

Invocation can show up in a lot of different ways and have many components. Invocation is symbolic. Communication from the seen realms to the unseen realms always happens through symbol. These symbols can come in the form of actions, gestures, dances, gemetric visuals or arrangements, music, prayer, ritual silence, ritual objects, or any combination of this list. The art of invocation is understanding, on an embodied level, the relationships between the forces at hand (and their relationship with you, the “invoker”) and how to symbolically communicate with those forces through chosen methods of invocation in such a way that you get the attention and favor of the forces you wish to communicate with.

Invocation is like cooking. You have to understand the ingredients—to know what they are and how they play off of one another and to know what you’re trying to create with them. It is an alchemy that requires different measures of different compounds depending on a given situation, as well as the positionality of the person making the concoction in relationship to each ingredient.

There is a lot that can be said about this art, and I hope that this article is a beginning. I hope that it gets the wheels turning for you and helps you to experiment with invocation as a way to fine tune and further empower your rituals.

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Embodied Spirit Work & “Non-Ordinary” Reality

Embodied Spirit Work & “Non-Ordinary” Reality

In the world of “shamanic practitioners” the term “non-ordinary reality” has arisen to describe the states that a practitioner enters into to receive and interpret messages from Spirit. While this terminology has its uses, I find it problematic. The term non-ordinary reality suggests that the practitioner is entering into a reality that is separate from the one that we occupy every day. In my opinion this strips efficacy from the work of the spirit worker.

As a spirit worker I work with the reality of Spirit, of spirits, of the unseen, of archetypes, of the world psyche every day. To me, entering trance is not a matter of engaging in fantasy or some alternate reality which I find the term non-ordinary reality to allude to. The term was coined by Michael Harner, an American anthropologist turned “shamanic” healer who is largely responsible for the neo-shamanic revival of the past several decades. Most who market themselves as “shamanic practitioners” (myself included, though I no longer use that tittle in preference for the term spirit worker which feels more accurate to me) are, for better or worse, like it or not, downstream from Harner and his teachings.

The importance of this lies in the practices that Harner introduced, largely to the European diaspora in the United States. Harner introduced what he would term as “Core Shamanism”. I understand Core Shamanism to espouse itself as synthesizing what it considers universal aspects of indigenous, animist cultural views and practices surrounding the existence of spirits and spiritual healing in particular. I see this as an attempt to analyze the underpinnings of the technologies that the European world and cultures heavily influenced by the spread of European colonialism have lost contact with. In short, a revival.

There is much to be said and discerned about the ethics of such an undertaking, but that disserves an article of its own. Here, I am concerned more with efficacy than ethics. What I see as conspicuously and largely missing from Harner’s Core Shamanism and its descendants is embodiment practices and embodiment trance. This is odd for a system that claims to be universal as voluntary spirit possession, for example, is a massive, one might even say “core”, part of many of the worlds animistic traditions. This can readily be seen in many African traditions and traditions of the African Diaspora. It can also be seen in traditions from the Indian subcontinent, Himalayas, Indonesia, etc. Many “neo-pagan” groups in-CORP-orate (pun intended) these practices as well.

Aside from possession trance, other ritual is quite embodied as well. Think of the Lakota Sweat Lodge, the Sun Dance, and any number of fire, water or other elemental rituals from any number of traditions around the globe. Even the protestant Christian, fully immersive baptism in water! These all are all embodied and could not be the same without the effects and impacts they have on the physical human form. Raised in the Christian church and baptized at a young age, I still have a visceral mark on my psyche and soma from the ritual. I can readily access the physical sensation of entering and emerging from the water decades later. We are inseparable from our bodies and our bodies play an integral, and I would add crucial, part in our work with Spirit.

If we are not including our bodies in our work with Spirit we are often separating our spirit work from our lives as though it were somewhere else—a fantasy. This allows for a lot of things. It allows for us to create escapist fantasy that serve to protect us from our trauma. It can reinforce trauma-created stories around our separateness and beliefs that we are alone and not understood by others. Aside from that, it allows for parts of us, no matter how small or unconscious they might be, to not have to admit or experience the very real effects of a world inhabited by spirits that are not under our control.

The Western materialist world view often implies that it has knowledge of everything, or can know everything and thus creates the illusion of absolute control over our reality. The illusion of control that stems from excluding the body from spiritual practice not only decreases the potential efficacy of practice, but it also decreases safety by allowing us to believe that we are in control of the spirit world.

While there are many practices, teachings and safeguards that can be implemented in our spirit work, we cannot truly appreciate them if we hold the, often unconscious, belief that we are in control, that spirits respond to our every whimsy. By not grounding our work in our bodies, we can be prone to creating spiritual fantasy in which we are in control—we are just not working with anything “real”. Efficacious spirit work is not fantasy. It is real, sometimes dangerous, and changes and impacts us and the world around us.

My intent here is not to create fear of the spirit world, of the Other, but rather to contribute to what I experience as a more accurate view of spiritual reality. Driving a car is dangerous, but we minimize those dangers the best we can because we believe that the benefits outweigh the potential hazards. Like with driving, we can mitigate, but never totally eliminate the dangers that exist in the aspects of reality that we do not usually experience with our physical senses. However, we cannot do this if we are under the illusion that we are in control of the spirits. If we are out of our bodies and totally in our heads when engaging with Spirit it is all too easy to fall into this trap—for our trauma patterns to co-opt our spirit work—for our need for control to co-opt our spiritual work—for our desire for escapism and entertainment to co-opt our spirit work.

This is not to deny the very real phenomenon of “spirit flight” or the “out of body experience”. These phenomenon, however, are paradoxically—get ready for it—EMBODIED experiences. At least, embodiment increases the efficacy and clarity of these practices.

I will share some of the ways that I practice, personally and with clients. Personally, my main practice is in voluntary possession trance (read middle world merging in core shamanic lingo), yoga asana and embodied meditation. I also experience the majority of my shamanic journeys through the body, even though they are also inclusive of other than clairsentient forms of “sight”.

In my work with clients, I have years of experience in embodied, trauma-informed, self-inquiry work. In this work I guide clients into contact with the intelligence of their body, by which we are then able to access many levels of healing in a way that is inclusive of the body’s experience. I am also a massage therapist and bodyworker, and trained in a variety of energy work modalities, in addition to my work with spirits in and out of embodiment/possession trance.

In closing, it is import for us to have a through-line from Spirit into our everyday realities. Spirit work should effect all layers of our reality—physical, mental/emotional, etheric, and spiritual. This through-line is in some ways like an electrical circuit, if part of it is missing the circuit doesn’t function. The body is a vital part of this circuit.

Further resources that I recommend are:

The Body Deva: Working with the Spiritual Consciousness of the Body by Mary Mueller Shutan

The Importance of Grounding article by Mary Shutan (any and all of her blog posts realy)

Drawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession by Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera

I will also soon be releasing a series of baseline practices for embodied spirit work on YouTube. I’ll link those when they are complete.

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