The Secret Life of Parks

Lots of interesting activities take place in Melbourne’s suburban nature reserves. Dog walking, frisbee chucking, people lying on the grass (or smoking it), picnics, roller skating, jogging, gay men hooking up with other gay men and shamanic rituals. Though the last two aren’t linked they have touched each other. But not inappropriately.

Of course you may be blissfully unaware of occasional ritual practice that takes place where your dog relieves itself. That’s because at 8am on a Sunday morning the only people around are predominantly post wasted revelers. And even if those munted ravers had stumbled upon myself and seven shamanic sisters, they’d have simply passed us off as a bad trip.

Contrary to popular belief ritual practice isn’t about virgin sacrifices, snake magic, grass skirts and warrior face paint. Which is a shame because that’s what I’d been looking forward to. After I’d gotten over my disappointment I discovered that this ritual was about personal transformation and healing. Don’t believe me? Then visit a website about shamanism.

The first thing you’ll learn is most shamanic websites haven’t been updated since the inception of the Internet. If you can get past the lilac backgrounds, antique animated gifs, logos made with Chinese takeaway fonts and multi-colored bright text you’ll acquire some interesting ideas.

For example, shamanism is linked to our ancestral heritage. Shamanism encourages us to focus on spiritual aspects of our embodied experience, as opposed to the dominant cognitive model. It helps us move in and out of our reality realm into a more subconscious and intuitive place. Now if your a bit like me you’ll think all of those statements are a little bit bollocks (but still interesting). Not necessarily because they aren’t valid, but because trying to define a ‘spiritual’ experience is like trying to understand why monkeys throw poop at each other. Plus shamanism isn’t about one doctrine. It takes many forms.

The world of ‘new age’ and ‘old age’ spiritual practice is littered with terminology that sounds impressive but conveys very little tangible info. Don’t believe me? Try the ‘New Age Bullshit Generator,’ then read a Deepak Chopra quote and see if you can tell the difference.

What I can do is tell you what I and the ‘Footscray seven’ did in the park that Sunday morning, and how I related to the experience.

First we set out a circle around a tree, with foliage we’d either taken from our own gardens, or a strangers on the way over. We then carried out a small ritual to open the circle. I was selected to ‘smudge’ (smoke) the four directions, which felt like an honor. North (the place of courage and strength), South (the place of wisdom and vision), East (the place of birth) and west (the place of healing and compassion).

After this, our facilitator explained that we’d be working in the North. Facing our fears and confronting the walls that were blocking our healing journey. Not a comfortable thing to do in a therapists office never mind a public park in Footscray.

I’d already witnessed a few of the women go through the ritual. So when they wrapped a sheet around me, bound me with ropes and blindfolded me I wasn’t surprised. Though being the only male there I did wonder if this was a ruse and I was to be sacrificed in the name of radical feminism, which would be fair enough really. Fortunately that didn’t happen.

Once my limbs and vision had been immobilized I was lowered into a sitting position and asked to speak about the things that were blocking me. I talked about the abuse from my childhood and the trauma of my ancestors. My great grandfather on my mothers side survived the first world wars trenches. My grandfather on my fathers side committed suicide in WWII.

After I’d finished speaking the facilitator began repeating my story back to me, mapping my psychological barriers onto my current physical state of being trapped and bound. Thus shifting my focus to the symbolism of the ritual.

When she’d stopped speaking the fourteen hands that had held me let go. The ladies picked up their drums and began a maddening cacophony of beats, accompanied by equally intense chanting which increased in intensity. This was both uncomfortable and emotional if I’m honest I felt more than a little conspicuous.

After three minutes or so the drumming and chanting reached a deafening crescendo, then stopped suddenly. I felt the facilitator kneel beside me. She spoke in a gentle whisper, one that conveyed a care and empathy for my emotional challenges. The ropes and sheets were slowly removed. Thus freeing me from my state of entrapment.
She then handed me a ceremonial dagger and invited me to cut two invisible ropes. A final symbolic gesture.

Whilst I sat in quiet contemplation it slowly dawned on me that I was in a park surrounded by black sheets, ropes, blindfolds, seven woman and holding a large knife. If a dog walker had passed by at that moment they’d have called the police and I’d have had some explaining to do. ‘Honestly officer it was just a ritual.’ Of course the word ‘ritual,’ even today, conjures imagery of evil and subsequent hysteria amongst God fearing village folk. Easy to imagine myself the subject of a media, or actual, witch hunt had I been discovered by Mr. Smith and his dog ‘Rover.’

Of course there is nothing to fear. This kind of practice is as old and far-reaching as the hills. And people practice symbolic ritual within the confines of church all the time. What we were doing in public is no different to preparing an alter for mass or receiving communion. But it is more relevant and less corrupt. Yet when I tell my friends what I did in the park that day they’re a little perturbed. Actually if I told them I went to church they’d be more shocked.

Another four attendees went through the process after me, which became rather tedious. My attention span is similar to that of a three-year-old on Christmas Day. Of course, I found the good grace to afford them the patience and respect they deserved. Each one of us had shared our vulnerability and trusted a process.

Whilst I don’t think the ritual permanently altered the direction of my well worn neural paths (that would be impossible), it did offer me some powerful symbolic memories that to this day help me accept/respect the pain of my own and my ancestor’s trauma.

Weeks after the ritual I found the piece of cloth that I’d been blindfolded with in my hoodie pocket. It had been gifted to me by the facilitator. It was indeed a powerful reminder of all that had occurred. I’ve learnt to better understand the usefulness of symbolism via an object. An object that had been charged with a beautifully constructed, well considered healing practice. My partner refers to ritual as emotional focused therapy on steroids, she’s right, it is.

Other rituals were available at a later date. Attending all four would complete the wheel. South, East and West. I was, unfortunately, unable to attend the other three.

I did hear as they were finishing a ritual late one afternoon that the space began to fill with men. The shaman sisters got chatting to a few fellas and discovered a gay beat was moving in. A cultural exchange of information took place, the sha-women explaining their practice to the homosexual gentlemen, the beat participants reciprocated.

Apparently one can ascertain the sexual preferences of a beat enthusiast by the bench they choose to sit on. For the purpose of the ritual, the North represented courage and strength. For the gay men, the North bench may have represented rimming or a dirty Sanchez.

Despite my flippant humour, poor taste and cynical world view, It was an honour and privilege to participate in a ritual with those wonderful women.

Most of you probably won’t get an opportunity to do this. But if you do I’d grasp it with both hands and go for it. Obviously, I’m referring to the shamanic ritual.

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