Building The Shrines
We are instructed on how to build two alters on opposite sides of the room. In each case we start with silent prayer to set our individual and group intentions, then invoke out loud the specific spirit, or power, or force of nature we want to help and guide us in our endeavors.
The Ancestral Shrine is on the east side of the room, and is all in reds. Red cloths, red candles, red, pink, orange flowers, photos of people who have passed, images of our ancestors --members of your personal family, or of any lineage to which you lay claim. I brought a tiny buddha in a bird's nest, a Ganesh (the Hindu elephant god known as the Remover of Obstacles), a book of Chekhov, a replica of Shakespeare's crest, and a ceramic winged cupid that someone gave me mom in honor of my Valentine's Day birth.
On the west side was the Shrine of Forgiveness, all in blue, with bowls of water, blue, white, purple candles and flowers, images of those people, situations, events you wish to forgive or from which you wish forgiveness, along with any other images or objects which bring to mind the power and the act of forgiveness. I brought some personal photos, a small statue of K'wan Yin ("She Who hears the Cries of the World," the female embodiment of Avilokiteshvara, the buddhisattva of compassion), a little white rock shaped like a heart.
In the center, against the north wall, we built the Grief Shrine. Long branches were shaped into an arch, anchored at both ends with twine to a sturdy branch 12- 15 feet long running horizontally against the floor. This arch was supported with more upright branches, so the resulting shape was kind of like half a tipi or a shallow cave. Branches were woven thru the vertical supports, the outside was covered with bundles of evergreen boughs secured with twine, and finally blue, black and green cloth was included so there were no visible holes in the container formed by this altar. There was a large black cloth on the floor inside the shrine. The opening was lined with white candles. Once this shrine was dedicated no-one was to pass beyond the boundary formed by this candle line and nothing that passed into that space could be retrieved. Ever.
We were then sent outside to pray. We had been asked to bring things from home to represent the griefs we wanted to release, and now we were warned again that nothing that we placed on this particular altar would be returned to us-- anything we placed here would be taken away, that was kinda the whole point. We were told that no photos of living beings should be included, for instance. If you have a grief you wish to release with a living being you must find something to represent the grief, not the person. We were encouraged to find objects in nature to represent these griefs-- something prickly for a prickly situation, something slimy for a slimy situation-- and to also include an object dedicated to griefs we were not conscious of or had not named yet.
Each of us, outside and on our own, were to pray, clarify our intentions, find any objects needed, name out loud the grief each object represented and then spit on the object to seal the grief to it. Then we were to wrap our collection of objects with twine to make it into a single bundle.
When we were all assembled in the Shrine Room again, we were taught a simple chant, the drumming started and in our small groups of five we approached the Grief Shrine and tossed our bundles gently over the candle line. Once everyone had done this and returned to the southern half of the room behind the line of drummers, an area now referred to as The Village, individuals were welcome to go to either the Ancestor Shrine or the Forgiveness Shrine for prayer and meditation. Two people volunteered to be Gate-Keepers standing at east and west corners in front of the Grief Shrine to make sure no one crossed the line and to keep a helpful eye out for the grievers. The Grief Shrine is now open for business.
Whenever any one approched the Grief Shrine they were followed by someone from the Village to support and/or "hold space" for the Griever. You indicated you were a Follower rather then a Griever by raising a hand as you followed the person forward. You might then stand behind them, touch them or support them-- checking in with them visually, verbally, intuitively to see what might be helpful or needful and not intrusive.
The Follower's job is not to enter the other person's grief or to comfort or solve or fix or take away their grief. Your job is to witness, to support the Griever. All grief energy is directed to the shrine. Sobonfu's people believe that while grief is toxic for living beings, it is food and fuel for the ancestors. You honor them with your grief. Every tear, they say, is a prayer. In a sense, it does not belong to you, it belongs to them. We cannot carry it. It is not our job to do so.
Sobonfu stressed that grieving is not a performance-- it is not for anyone else's benefit, it does not have to look any particular way: it can be noisy or silent; angry or sad or even jubilant; it might be still or full of movement-- it is whatever you need it to be to release the grief you are currently holding somewhere in your mind, body, spirit and hand it over to the shrine. When you are done, you return to The Village, and your Follower will check in with you, maybe give you welcome back embrace --or not, it is up to you-- and then you both carry on with your own journey as members of this Village--singing, dancing, drumming, praying, meditating at one of the shrines. You can go to the Grief Shrine as often as you like and stay as long as you want.
A Follower might need to be relieved either because their own grief gets triggered, or because they get weary and less able to be fully present in some way. They then raise their hand with one finger if they need to be replaced as a Follower, or with two fingers if they need to be replaced and need to grieve themselves-- in which case two new Followers come forward to support both Grievers. The Gate-Keepers also keep an eye out to make sure these transitions happen seamlessly.
This went on all afternoon. When the dinner bell rang, Sobonfu told us we were welcome to break for dinner, but to be mindful about how we ate -- it is easily used as a distraction to interfere with or prevent grief. She reminded us once again to drink plenty of water, the more the better, to keep things moving and flowing within us and to help flush out any toxins arising in our bodies connected to the release of grief. We were due back in an hour.
Some of us choose to stay in the Shrine Room, which was to be open and occupied by volunteers thru dinner and indeed through out the night. In Sobonfu's village the Grief Ritual goes on non-stop for 72 hours, I believe she said. But she understands this does not work for westerners-- we need our meal-times and sleep-times, we have a different need for schedules. When everyone had returned from dinner break, we went back to the ritual. We all had the hang of the thing by now. We went until 9:30 or 10 p.m. and then broke for the night.
My girls and I went back to our cabin, full of stories. It was raining and quite cold. We considered another dark walk to the thermal baths, but opted for a trip to the bath/shower house instead where we could douse our physical beings with some much welcome bio-approved cleanser. Then we tucked in for the night, the stories dwindled, and we slept.
One More Day To Come...