As long as there’s a searcher, there’s a treasure.
Whether ascending the stairs of Balkan ruin bars or discovering sacred ruins and wells on Inis Mor, I have always been looking for something more than what was offered. It has not always been a pleasant journey, but I have always been led by grace. Life presents us with lessons hidden in places we fear most to search. We just have to be humble and quiet enough to listen and look.
An invitation to a fire ceremony was just another step in that journey. So, sitting around a fire with strangers in the woods, I stared at a man spitting alcohol into a fire and chanting to a god or spirit with each breath. I wondered whether I was a willing member of a cult.
I am no stranger to being recruited to cult-ish events, so some may call me an easy target. I meditated with Harikrishnas on Washington D.C.’s Independence Day before fireworks shot from the top of the Washington Monument. His smiling face gleamed with the Summer sun above his white robe. The mantra meditation was pleasant in the still heat. I felt honored by his gift of free meditation beads. A vegetarian curry dinner at the group house was too good to pass up. Yet, when my car wouldn’t start on the night of the dinner, my intuition indicated that missing the dinner was not such an accident.
After work one weekday evening, I drove two hours to sit through a Transcendental Meditation Introduction. The interested group wore tailored shirts and dress pants while I had forgotten to take off my nametag from work. For almost an hour, I heard medical evidence and testimonials of how this particular form of meditation would burn away the fog that hung in my sky. The first session required me to bring my teacher a flower offering in a quiet ceremony along with a check for $1,000. Somehow, my eagerness for enlightenment stuttered at the price tag.
These experiences do not colour my impressions of either group or what they offer, but resistance was my guide to search elsewhere. I am sure there is gold hidden in either stream. I just didn’t have the patience to search beneath every rock or pan for crumbs. No, I wanted nuggets. Enlightenment bricks come in the brilliance bestowed by only God in a burning bush carved in rock on the top of a mountain.
I deserve something grand and spectacular. I’m here, aren’t I? Nobody asked me for my say as to be alive. So like a host does for an uncomfortable guest, why shouldn’t I get to pick the music? Let me set the vibe for the party.
In another step in my spiritual search, I wandered into a wooded area for this fire ceremony. It was a modest donation – nobody ever walked around with a bucket as an usher pressuring for payment. I knew little about shamanism, but the word suggested something ancient or hidden.
By a lawn chair alter.
The attire was casual as people began to find or assemble their lawn chairs in a circle atop a grassy mound. Except for the bray of sheep in the neighboring field, there was no idea of a goat at the ceremony. People passed around food they brought to share and everywhere, just beaming smiles. It felt like everyone had done some secret stash of drugs I had missed out on during our short walk into the woods. All were so peaceful and tranquil, but there was a tinge of anticipation as newcomers grasped for insight from return visitors.
I didn’t know what to do. It was as if I was at a theater, looking under my seat for a programme to clarify what I was about to observe. Or, more accurately, I was on stage looking for cues as to when I needed to speak. What are my lines?
Nobody needed to speak because the ceremony was a celebration, not a recitation. The drumming was fanciful and magical, wholly unusual and yet dull. I wondered what a passerby would see if they saw a circular group whacking animal skins in the night. He who looks upon it will see a reflection of what is inside – cultish fear if their mind is closed or entrancing—a carousel of conflicting perspectives in front of him/me. I was present, at times aloof, and felt more like an imposter than a willing recruit.
As organic as the crack of the fire, drumming began at one spoke in the wheel and rippled through the group. I listened at first until invited to contribute by a neighbor who brought me a handmade rattle. I thought only babies shake rattles, but for the group’s sake, I suppose I’ll give it a go.
One shake at a time and one reverberating beet after another, the rhythm began to sink into my bones. I became of two minds as if split with every beat. One rooted in spellbound wonder and pleasant awe while my spirit climbed the trunks and soared into the sky, riding the rising heat like a raptor. The other denied what the imagination yearned to follow. I shook my head like a dog to loosen fleas and returned to reality.
When a tall man dressed in simple clothes knelt next to the fire and began to chant under his breath spitting fragrant alcohol into the fire, I thought he must be the main event in the performance. Yet, the more I watched, shaking my rattle, I began to see that we were all glimpsing something profound and private. It was not a performance but a release or confession between his needing to get something out and the fire eating it up with every flame. He did what was called of him from someplace unseen and unheard to anyone other than him. The same guidance that had brought me to my seat in the circle brought him to the fire.
I wondered: Where’s my fire-breathing conviction or bolt of lightning? Why aren’t I starting a conga line around the fire? Am I too prideful and vain to feel God’s grip, even if it was tight around my neck?
Who is in charge of this motley crew? Who holds the reins of this operation? Where there is a group, there must be a leader, right? And if there are any cultish cracks in any new gathering, the problems would begin with the leader.
Yet as I scanned around the group, no one person stood out on a pulpit or dressed in some ordained clothing. Aldo, the organizer who had guided us into the woods, sat with a soft indifference, dressed in black with a matching wide-brimmed hat. Once the night swallowed us under the trees, he became less of a body and more of a face illuminated by a cigarette and floating between blackness with a slight smile. He looked around the group without judgment, praise, or scorn, just gentle delight, not prideful but dignified and confident.
Just listen to the drum.
The journey, he explained, is more like a guided meditation. Even with a brief explanation, I knew this was where the rubber met the road; I was sure of it. If there was any shine of a philosopher’s stone in this gathering, it was sure to appear during the journey.
I closed my eyes with everyone else and listened to Aldo’s drum as he walked around the circle perimeter. With a welcoming kindness, his soft voice guided me into a tree trunk that I saw in my mind’s eye. Illuminated by bright white light, I saw an oak door with a black iron handle before me. I opened the door just as a loud crack from the fire pulled me back into my body and sat in the circle. My legs ached from the cold ground, and a loud thought fixed itself into my focus. “What are you on about? This journey is silly and just in your imagination.” But I was tempted by the vision and breathed my way back, asking myself, “Where was I?” I thought. “Oh, right, an iron door handle on an oak door.”
Back to the image of the door, I’ve seen plenty of wooden doors before, so I pictured one. Grasping the handle. Feeling the cold iron. Then… nothing. “And the slowing beat of the drum signals that the journey is coming to a close.” Without warning, it was over. Yet it could drum had slowed to a stop, and it Had I fallen asleep? No, I did not feel groggy or stiff from any slumber. Had I slept through the performance? Did I miss the main act?
I had waited through the cold night and could not remember anything beyond an oak door, and touching its metal handle after that was just blank, yet without a sense of any time passing if the lights had gone off and, with it, my senses. Yet, on top of my sharp disappointment was a blanket of the most peaceful comfort. Warm contentedness settled into every cell of my body like the last warmth from the dying fire, now just glowing coals in the center. I felt healed, yes, but of what or from what?
Trusting the experience.
When the flames were kicked out, and only glowing coals remained, we walked back to the car park and civilization in a silent line dotted by laughter. I looked up at the big moon looking friendly in the night sky and felt myself exhale. Not sigh. Just release.
No leader stole our attention or commanded our adoration, so any veneration came in the still present for nature. No phones, no technology, just an age-old practice of sitting around a fire listening to a story told to the beat of a drum. It felt more like we were creating a sacred space in a way older than history for nature to bring her love to us. To heal and flake away some of the tough bark that grows around us in the streets, shops, and schools. There, held by the oak trees, we were welcomed for who we were and wherever we came from, not despite our faults or past but because of them.
The most remarkable aspect of that evening was that nothing remarkable happened. No magic, no seance, no hypnosis. Sure, the firebreather did his fire-breathing-thing, but that was him. In the same way, he trusted his experience, I trusted mine, leaving me with a peaceful presence and curiosity. I did not feel that I had done anything wrong. I didn’t feel shame or disappointed at having had nothing happen as much as acceptance for what was. When I returned from wherever I went, I awoke clearheaded and present. Any clutter and chaos that came with me to the fire ceremony had burned up.
Hearing others’ experiences made it clear that nobody knew what had happened. Many had seen spectacular visions which pulled deep emotion from them. We all accepted the mystery of the evening, and I felt liberated in not knowing nor having to pretend to know anything more than anyone else. They came to experience the spirit of “what is” however it presents itself. There was nothing to know. Nothing to search for or understand. Nothing to probe for questions. Just the felt presence of being. And I could live with that then, and I still do.
Written by Colin Ward
Colin Ward likes to say he is an ex-economist and now a full-time student of “learning to let go”. He’s grateful every day for trading his Washington D.C. cubical desk for neolithic rocks and the sound of robins in Spring.
Colin works in the West of Ireland to connect lessons from his Shamanic Practitioner course with connecting with creativity. He creates conscious content with his podcast, A Quiet Voice, to invite listeners to begin their creative journey and reflect on their life’s mysteries for wisdom and insight. When we listen to our quiet, inner voice, we are led.
He co-founded NAMAWE Handcrafted Herbal Skincare in Westport with his partner, Maria, to connect natural organic skincare with self-care practices.