A couple years back, my dear friend Maggie suggested we celebrate my birthday by gathering a few friends for a Traditional Fire Ceremony. “A what?” I asked. “A traditional fire ceremony”, she continued, “It’s a ceremony in which participants open themselves up to power and wisdom offered from fires that have been burning for over 5,000 years”.
Maggie learned the fire ceremony from two spiritual men: A Monk in Thailand, and a Shaman Elder in Peru… Did I mention Maggie herself spent three years living in a monastery in the Chang Mai jungles as a practicing monk; or that she’s studied beside some of the most notable spiritual practitioners of our times? Knowing this, I quickly agreed to her generous offer.
More so, I was confident that Maggie’s ceremony would be more enlightening and authentic than the one I participated in during a men’s retreat in Guatemala. That time, our group felt more like pre-teen voyeurs at a drunken party than participants at a spiritual cleansing. But to be honest, after meeting our “co-shaman” (?)/guide, we shouldn’t have been surprised.
The noon sun was unbearably hot that day, and her first task seemed simple enough: Get us to the shamans home which was a half hour away, tops. As we snaked through the sketchy back alleys and side streets in the sweltering heat, our guided stopped and chatted to locals, and picked up every stray animal we encountered, talking to them in baby talk. Heck, she even scooped one dog up, decided it needed a new home, and brought it along with us. I didn’t remember this in the brochure.
After an hour of this sweaty “stop and start” drudgery, we arrived at a common courtyard located behind the shaman’s home. Fortunately, there were a couple enormous trees that provided shade, so we squashed ourselves together to try and make the most of it. Our guide (with stray still in tow) instructed we form a circle, keep quiet and wait for the shaman who’d be out soon. We obediently fell in line as quickly as soldiers at a pre-dawn drill.
Soon after, a small wizen (not a typo) man in his mid-forties appeared wearing what I assumed was the traditional ceremonial dress: A sarong, a red polyester Adidas jacket and black patent shoes with no socks. Without acknowledgement of any kind, he shuffled to the centre of our circle and then began drizzling white sand from a plastic bag on and around the dirt floor, drawing a circle with a few curly bits at one end.
He filled each section with different coloured sand, being very careful not to breach the lines he’d deftly created and added a border complete with four corners. His movements were slow and deliberate; perhaps a bit too slow and deliberate for our short, over-heated western attention spans. By now another hour had passed and some of us needed to use the little boys’ room. (Upon asking, someone quietly directed us to use the toilet inside his home)
The shaman made odd little sounds as he worked; it wasn’t chanting per se, but rather more grunting, mumbling and/or moaning which he did to himself. I’m not sure if it was part of the ceremony, or…? Either way, I still wasn’t sure if it was for our benefit, or for that matter, if he even knew we were there. But still we watched with curiosity in our eyes.
On top of the sand, our shaman began building an artful, yet symmetrical pile on top consisting of grainy cookies, candle sticks, bananas, more candle sticks, few bread rolls, even more candle sticks, some chocolates, and–you guessed it–more candles on top! After adding a sprinkling of green sand, there was just one final touch to go…
To finish this masterpiece, a bottle of white liquor (huh?) was placed at each corner; and with that, some three hours after it began, we were ready to begin the ceremony; the problem was that none of us was feeling it anymore. I saw far more,“What the fuck are we still doing here?” faces than“I’m enlightened!” faces squatting around the shaman’s art project. But then, something happened. The shaman indicated that he finally wanted to include us. Yay!
In Spanish, (which our guide interpreted) he asked us to write our hopes and fears on paper which the guide (still canoodling the stray) collected. Then suddenly, and without warning, the shaman began wailing loudly, and WHOOSH! The whole art project torched up like Mount Vesuvius!
As the flames licked the evening sky, both the shaman and co-shaman grabbed each bottle of hooch, incanted something, and took a shot from them (HUH?!) before pouring booze on the fire which caused it to burn even higher. Our written words were quickly tossed into the fiery abyss; and as we watched them burn in its crescendo, the shaman chanted, had another sip of hooch, and walked into his house. Was that it?
No, it wasn’t. Our host announced, “We’ll finish the ceremony after the fire has burned out – Let’s eat.” And with this she grabbed a cold beer from the cooler inside, and pointed us to a spread of tacos, beans and rice that was laid out waiting for us. Oh, and if we wanted them beers are $5 each, and available in the cooler under the dead rabbit. Yep, you read that right.
The house was creepy. Lit only by candle, the ceiling was adorned with coloured streamers, several stuffed crows and a couple of dead rabbits which hung above our heads. I’m not kidding. You can’t make this stuff up. We drank our beer(s) and ate our food and tried our best to kill time until the finale of “enlightenment ceremony” began. This experience seemed more about getting tourist dollars (and saving stray dogs) and less about spiritual enlightenment. Truthfully, we all just wanted to get the “enlightened” hell out of there.
An hour later, once the evening sky turned dark we were summoned back to the ashes (and lumps of banana; apparently bananas don’t burn well). At least one (probably two) of the shamans was a little wobbly from all the alcohol, and I wondered if getting pissed is part of the traditional Guatemalan enlightenment ceremony? It sure was today!
After milling around the ashes, the shaman was ready to reveal the messages they had for each of us. He whispered (slurred?) into the ear of his co-shaman, who then whispered said wisdom into each of our ears. I can’t speak for the others, but mine was standard fortune cookie wisdom, except fortune cookie wisdom takes a few seconds to read, not six hours, melted candles and shots of hooch. “But” I reasoned to myself, “When in Rome/ Guatemala…” So I went with it.
With the ceremony completed, the shaman retreated to his home as silently as he’d arrived. Our guide was running around looking for the dog which was now missing, after bolting the second after she’d put it down.
And us? After yelling our thanks, we ran as fast as we could to the bus which it turns out had been waiting for us for three hours. The driver was understandably upset, but after being slipped some extra cash, happily returned us to our lodge, seven hours after we left it for what was billed as a “three hour experience”.
We spent the rest of the night by the lake, in front of roaring fire (Note: no bananas), wondering how on earth we’d lost the entire day to this silly performance? Once the beers settled in and we talked it through, we decided we’d shared an entertaining –if not enlightening- experience together, which was awesome. Best of all, we now had a funny story to tell the grandkids (or write about).
In contrast, Maggie’s spiritual enlightening event was well-paced, organized and truly divine. After lighting the fire in ten minutes, Maggie gathered us around, and:
- Acknowledged the South–Wind/Earth, West–Protection/Higher Wisdom, North-Ancestors/Honor Self, East–Great Eagle/Great Spirit Truth, Mother Earth–Stone/Plant People, Father Sun–Grandmother Moon/Star Nations
- Added a 5,000-year-old ember seed to the fire that held the information of fire ceremonies from the beginning of time
- Had us write one thing to release or transform, then burn it in the fire
- Had us write one thing to expand, then also burn it in the fire
- Using Tibetan sound bowls, shared a prayer with us
- Passed a talking stick for us to offer insights, truth, and wisdom
- Closed with everyone’s hands over the fire, and everyone received an ember that contains the 5,000-year wisdom of fire keepers around the world
- Everyone got a bracelet to remind them they were part of this ancient ritual
There were no strays, no hooch, no dead rabbits or crows, and certainly no half-drunk co-shaman involved in Maggies ceremony; best of all, the whole thing took less than an hour. Once the ceremony was over we broke bread, celebrated our friendships, shared stories and enjoyed each other’s company for the rest of the afternoon. It was wonderful way to spend a birthday, and for that I was truly grateful.
And on a side note: OUR shaman didn’t a hangover the next day. Now that’s what I call enlightenment.
Author Bio: David Knapp-Fisher
As founder of The Inspired Humans Project, David loves sharing inspirational stories. His TEDx talk, “Discipline or Regret, a Father’s Decision” been viewed over 100,000 times, and his first book, “Punch Failure in The Face, Then Buy It a Beer” has 36 five star reviews on amazon.ca.
David lives in Victoria B.C. where he spends most of his time trying (& usually failing) to stump his son with movie trivia, or planning his next big adventure; both while drinking great coffee, of course.