The smell of something makes it real for me.
The scent of a moment sets a place, a person—be they blissful or repugnant—on the pages of my mind with an indelible sensory ink. In the case of the ancient, aboriginal healing ceremony I attended, a smell turned most of my stubborn, limiting habits right-side out.
Baptism, Sun Dance, Salat, the sacred fire festival of Beltane; each only a drop in the holy bucket of ceremonies celebrated throughout humanity. All ceremony is as unique as a finger print, and to be immersed in the full blissful extent of any ritual, one must let go. For some of us, this letting go entails loosening the death grip of fear, judgment, and skepticism. It is a bigger ask than chewing off one’s own arm.
Despite my inner tug-of-war between exhilaration and cynicism, I carry a deep abiding love of all things ceremonial. I’m sure there are molecules and nucleotides in the spiralling rungs of my DNA that predispose me to the intoxication of collective intention. If a ceremony is based in love, I can place a temporary gag order on my inner critic long enough to feel the beauty of ritual.
This silencing of the skeptic has always been possible until the day I attended a Yuwipi ceremony. It was there, in a room void of light, I realized two exquisite truths: Up until that pitch-black moment, I had only been a voyeur to all things spiritual. And the genuine depth of ceremony is sometimes found in a level of letting go that is akin to a divine cage match.
It is a rare opportunity to participate in Yuwipi. This traditional Lakota ceremony is something people wait years to take part in. For me, however, it was a matter of 24 hours between hearing the word “Yuwipi” for the first time and being plunged into the ceremonial blackness. Something greater wanted me there. All of me. And that something greater was warming up, stretching, and ripe with the intention to turn me right-side-out.
There are two details about this particular ceremony that require sharing. First, the room held 60 people sitting on the floor in two circles, one nested inside the other. Second, from 9:00 p.m. until 2:30 a.m., all windows and doors remained covered, submerging the room in a singular darkness like I have never known.
One might surmise this darkness served as sensory deprivation. Quite the opposite was true. It opened the world that my skin knows, that my ears feast on, that my nose navigates. Phones and other electronics were not allowed. All devices had to be removed, or the ancestors would not come. With the inconspicuous electronic interference gone, the relief was palpable. All that remained was the humming energy of human flesh and prayers zigzagging through the black.
If you’ve been blessed to hear aboriginal drumming and singing, you can likely recall the feel of your cells stomping in your chest. Sitting in a pitch black room only a few feet from a group of Native drummers and singers turns those prancing cells into something that swallows and churns and bone-rattles you until your soul is as real as your flesh. And when the soul is revealed, it brings you to the best version of yourself. However, getting to this best version of you often means crawling and clawing over heaps of stinky, psycho-emotional crap.
The rankest bags of trash in my pile are the trifecta of doubt, judgment, and fear. That night, these three headless horsemen of my psyche rode in sending my musical bliss into a headlong tumble. They hissed, “This is a bunch of bunk, there are no spirits here.” They whispered, “This love you’re feeling in your belly is gas and those tears on your face are a result of fatigue.” They muttered, “That presence you feel is no ancestor, it’s the person next to you getting in your bubble.”
These naysayers circled on lame nags, jerking me around like professional hecklers. My body grew sore and weary. My belly ached from hunger; my mind cramped from lack of digital connection. The pessimistic horsemen wound a ragged rope of self-criticism around my ankle and dragged me away from the bliss of drumming and singing.
And that is when my sense of smell set me free. My body sat upright. Leaning forward on my hands, I huffed the air, a bloodhound on the scent of truth. With nasal passages far more open than my heart, I drew in a smell so foreign and delicious it made my cells stretch tall and wide.
I would like to say it was toasted almonds and wet wood. Or roasting acorns and cinnamon. Even pine tar and cardamom. But none of these combinations even begin to touch what that sublime olfactory communiqué encompassed. It acted like an exotic essential blend concocted only for me, wrapping itself in satin ribbons around my doubting horsemen and dissolving them where they stood.
The scent lasted a few intense seconds then was gone. Nevertheless, having taken in that sublime perfume, my body rested and, more importantly, my heart opened. Several other sensory adventures followed, each of which my logic continually aches to chew up and spit out, but no amount of lucid rationalism can stand against what my nose knows.
Something extraordinary happened in the space where my brain holds hands with my heart. From that strangely perfumed moment forward, I ceased hurling belittling thoughts on myself and turned my love like a flood onto everyone in my life. I pictured all of those I love, those I struggle to love, and those I have yet to love. I pictured them dancing, pounding, celebrating to the faithful dense beat of the drum, becoming more whole with each stomp. And most importantly of all, I included myself in that rapturous circle.
After all, it was a healing ceremony.
Author: Melanie Maure
Image: Flickr/Mike Lay
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron