The Power of Sacred Pilgrimage and Water Ceremony from the Ganges River
Pilgrimage: A long and arduous journey to a holy place for the purpose of renewing a sense of purpose, or to pray for a miracle.
In the early years of working with my helping spirits, our kids were pretty young (4 to twelve years old) and my favorite safe place to take a shamanic journey was in my walk-in closet. I’d make sure the kids knew where I was (and instructed the older ones to keep the younger ones away for 20 minutes or so). I’d lie down in the dark, door closed, beneath the hanging clothes. It usually worked.
I’d taken an extended sabbatical from my medical practice and was lost at sea. I was absolutely head-over-heels fascinated with the shamanic path, but I worried that pursuing this sort of work might be foolish. A critical voice inside me kept saying, “Just go back to work!”, but each time I did I felt like a fraud. I no longer belonged at the hospital.
During the early shamanic journeys, my spirit animal Alice, an elephant, would frequently take me to a special spot in the spirit worlds. It was a sandy spit of land positioned just above the confluence of two powerful rivers. She indicated that she wanted me to sit quietly there and meditate. During one such journey, she explained that the river on my right represented spirit and the river on my left was the matter (or material stuff) and that I could create what I longed for (in my life) if I could become still.
About this time, an invitation to a pilgrimage to India arrived from a local yoga studio. I’d been obsessed with India since I first saw the film “Gandhi” in high school. My friends and I had informally dubbed ourselves the “Gandettes”…we all admired his courage and kindness. I felt guilty to even consider such an adventure, especially given the fact that I wasn’t currently generating any income.
At an information session, they explained more about the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, the largest gathering of humans on the planet, to pray for peace and removal of suffering in the world. They explained (this part is what got me…) that we would be visiting a very powerful place, a “sangham” : a sacred spit of land that straddles two great rivers as they merge to become the Ganges. When she described the place which sounded exactly like Alice’s special spot, I was flabbergasted. I was still anxious about logistics, but I knew for sure that I was supposed to go.
The critical step in this pilgrimage, I learned, was to dunk yourself three times in the Ganges. When we first arrived at the river, it seemed my pilgrimage was doomed. The Indian government (and our tour organizers) announced that nobody should be bathing in the Ganges at all. It was too contaminated with E. Coli bacteria. I was so disappointed, and a little desperate. I hadn’t come all this way to not get baptised.
Finally, I found an Indian woman who had been quietly disregarding the edict and bathing in the river every day since we arrived. Auntie, as I called her, invited me to join her. The morning sun shone brilliantly on the river. Several hundred local people were there in various states of bathing—some were in the water, others were already out and getting dressed. The place was alive and beautiful, vibrant with the flow of the river.
Now that I was closer to the water, I could see hundreds of flowers, mostly gold-orange and mustard-yellow marigolds, floating and bobbing at the water’s edge. Dozens of sticks of incense burned happily, having been poked into the river’s soft bank.
I slipped off my wool socks and stepped onto the cold, slippery bank. Auntie removed her sandals and socks and, with the aid of her helper, stepped gingerly into the water. I joined her. She motioned to me and to her niece to come closer and to cup our hands.
Standing thigh-deep in the flowing river in her sari, Auntie poured a few tiny, black mustard seeds into our outstretched hands and demonstrated how to moisten them slightly in the river and spread them on our faces. Her beautiful, warm, brown face, weathered by the sun, was now covered with the small black seeds. The niece and I both immediately did the same. I closed my eyes and felt the sun warming us.
The river was brisk and refreshing, like the spring-fed Minnesota lakes where I’m used to swimming. After we’d anointed ourselves with the seeds, Auntie began to make her way into deeper water supported by her helper. My feet slipped on the slick, silt-carpeted river bottom. It felt as if I was trying to balance on the curved surface of a wet clay pot that’d just been formed.
There were pilgrims all around us, but I felt a quietness within and without, as if the ordinary world has been temporarily snuffed out to lay bare this extraordinary one. I was mid-hip-deep in the water now and I gathered my intention: Please—I want to be of service in the world, to help others heal, to relieve suffering, or to do whatever it is I’m best suited to do. I want to become the best possible mother, daughter, wife, and friend. This is my prayer.
I plugged my nose and made a series of three dips, being sure I completely submerged the top of my head each time. I was relieved and so happy to have made it to this place, and so grateful that a way was opened for me to do this. My baptism felt complete.
Or maybe not. Auntie motioned to me. She pantomimed with her hands for me to go out into slightly deeper water. I was confused. Did I require extra purification? She indicated that additional dunking was required, so I obediently moved deeper until the water was just above my waist. I repeat my dipping procedure, submerging my whole body and head three times. When I rose out of the water after the third dip, Auntie nodded and her beautiful brown face broke into a broad smile. She was pleased.
Auntie invited me to come closer again. She motioned for us to reach into a plastic bag her helper had handed us that was filled with dozens of freshly picked flowers. I reached in and grasped a handful of soft, feathery, blossoms—deep-pink bougainvillea and mustard-colored marigolds. Auntie partially submerged the flowers cupped in her hand, then turned to the sun and held the flowers up high, repeating the motions three times. Then she finally released the flowers to bob downstream with the flow of the Ganges.
The morning sun was still fairly low in the sky above the trees flanking the river. As we made our silent offerings together, it seemed as if we’ve dropped into slow motion. The sun seemed to shine temporarily brighter and the river sparkled more vibrantly. We were all being held in the beating heart of this place—temporarily knit together by the sun, the silt, and the powerful moving water. Standing together, we were blessed—one body and one heart.
That morning when I returned from the river, a fellow pilgrim asked me if I would be willing to do a shamanic healing ceremony for him. It wasn’t even noon yet and my prayer to be useful was already being answered. After unpacking my luggage at home, I received a very important phone call that would begin a powerful initiation into my shamanic healing practice and I experienced deep clarity about leaving my medical practice behind for good.
Sacred Water Ceremony
Things you’ll need: Flowers blossoms or petals (collected with permission from a garden, wild areas or purchased from a flower farmer), incense or other offering such as tobacco for the land
Find a lake, an ocean, a stream or a river and as you arrive, make an offering (for ex: some sweet candies, tobacco, or burn a stick of incense) and greet the spirit of this place asking for permission to do this ceremony.
Enter the water up to your waist. Make your prayer (for example: Please help me let go of all this grief so that I can experience peace again..) and then dunk yourself completely 3 times.
Take the flower petals into your hands and lift them up towards the sun (no matter if it is cloudy- the sun is still there!) and say thank you silently to the sun for all it offers you. Then hold the blossoms and petals near the water and say thank you to the water silently for all it offers you and then release the blossoms.
Before you leave the place, be sure to say thank you to the spirit of the place for allowing you to be there and supporting you in your ceremony.
Afterwards, notice how you feel and check-in in a few days in your journal to see if your prayers are being answered somehow.
To read more about my journey in India get a copy of Swimming with Elephants, my memoir about leaving medicine to follow the path of spirit.