The Teachings of A Feather

Wow what a women’s retreat we had together at Under The Banyan Tree, Sama Yoga centre in Penestanan, Ubud, hosted by the Be Woman Project. Nine days of ceremonies/ pujas for the rites of passage in a woman’s life has been immensely powerful to say the least. In fact its been utterly awe-inspiring. Five ceremonies from birth, initiation into education, first blood, marriage/committed relationship to death. It’s been like growing up again and more. The problem is we have lost some of these rites of passage in our modern world, or at least they have become fragmented. As modern life drives us on and we have less and less time and energy to pause and mark occasions. This has been my experience anyway so it was a great opportunity to go back over it and make some of these missed occasions for myself, and also learn and be inspired to create ceremonies like this in my own community.

The format has been yoga or dance, sharing circle (listening to each Devi and then sharing yourself on a particular subject), then the ceremony work. On a few of the days we’ve visited AmrtaSiddhi Ayurvedic clinic in Ubud and a received a presentation  from Dr. Sujatha Kekada on women’s health. The yoga centre Under The Banyan Tree, is an idyllic community with lovely eco-build houses where people live or stay and a big yoga shala/workshop space. 

The days have taken on a beautiful flow and routine, as we have settled in and gotten to know each other and hear all our stories. There have been so many common themes that have come out, and opportunities to learn from a sister down the road from oneself or share your experience with a sister who is setting out on something you know well. Each person has been carrying wounding at a different place in their life journey. Hearing the stories of pain and offering good listening space can change so much, but so too can hearing the stories of joy and fulfillment. I have particularly enjoyed the morning ‘womb’ yoga with Jannaki, as its just been so great to learn the right asanas and approach for each part of the moon cycle. Deep, slow, yin style yoga, i just love it!

Feather-lite Lessons

When I arrived at Under The Banyan Tree, one of the sister’s had these beautiful feathers for sale, eagle feathers for cleansing the aura with sage. I felt a bit bereft that all my ceremony kit was at home so I decided to buy both sage and feathers. I tied the feathers (that were mounted on a carved wood handle) to my belt and set out for a little nature walk in our first break. Chatting to people on the path I didn’t noticed when the feathers disappears, but by the time I had descended the steps, crossed the bridge under the Banyan Tree and ascended the steps by the temple in Penestanan I noticed they were gone. Ok I thought, message from The Great Spirit to slow down and get grounded as I slowly retraced my steps in a walking meditation scanning the abundance of nature each side of the path to retrieve the feathers. But nothing, over the lunch break I walked back and forth, consulted my crystal pendulum (please show me where the feathers are) sat and meditated, but still nothing. Ok I thought, what is this about? Does this mean the week will be about letting go of even the things I treasure? Letting go is an interesting process because we want to let go of the things that we don’t like, such as illness, lack, misery and a bad experience. But to really let go we have to surrender and that means that we will probably also need to let go of the things we are really attached to as well, in order to move forward and grow. So anyway I didn’t stop thinking about my feather all week every time I walked that path, and on day five, the day of our death puja, right there on the path in front of me was the tiniest little feather. Let me tell you the original one was a couple of big eagle feathers and this was just a tiny little baby feather. I laughed at this story and of course collected the baby to add to my altar. It’s pretty clear what happened here this week for me eh?

Mahudra – Sweetest love

I also decided to hire a scooter for the duration of the course, as my new home in penestanan was 20 minutes walk from Under The Banyan Tree. I’d already had a proper lesson in Ubud, so I encouraged myself to step into this challenge and face my fear. I was very excited and proud of my scooter and felt like I’d just learnt to ride my bicycle for the first time, and happily scootered about the place. However the Ayurvedic clinic is situated down a bumpy track and after one long day, feeling a bit light headed, i misjudged the track and lost control and fell straight off landing to the side on my knees and elbow. Just scratches and shock but i immediately brushed myself off and prepared to be a warrior and jump straight back on incase i would get the fear. But then suddenly all around me were nine of my lovely devi sisters who were on scooters or on foot making their way back up the track. Suddenly I was being taken care of, wet wipes, plasters, hugs, rice cakes, mantras. It was such a sweet thing to be so taken care of, and a great opportunity to take off the warrier woman armour and receive.

This week has been so much about just melting melting and more melting. I think that there is no better place for this than in a sister circle doing sacred work. Just to strip back the layers and become in Sharada, our teachers words “cooked like fluffy rice”. It’s really obvious why we armour ourselves up because we think this is a good way to meet with the bumps and challenges of our lives, and it’s true we do need our inner strength and warrior self to face our own lives and quit being a victim. This power is very much Goddess Durga on her tiger and Goddess Kali with her knife and necklace of severed heads for all those parts of ego that don’t serve us. But in a sacred dance with this warrior we need Mahudra (honey) sweetness, softness, love, safety, and the holding of the mother. I guess what i’m remembering this week is that it can be the Great Big Cosmic Mother by any of her names that we can go to and we don’t need to hold this expectation from our own mother, partner, daughter or friend. It’s a big expectation, a big need in each and everyone of us to be truly held and safe in the process of life from birth through to death, too big really for any other human to fulfill entirely.

Calling To Laksmi

The birthing day was so sweet, having recently welcomed my beloved granddaughter into this world just one year ago, i am wrapped up in the beginnings of life. This ceremony/puja is performed by mama and papa, and in the Vedic tradition, the Goddess Laksmi for abundance is invoked. Papa gives Sandalwood to mark spiritual awareness, then honey and ghee for sweetness, then a gold coin behind the ears for hearing the truth, then he breaths in the baby smell and gives the name. The Mama washes her right breast and gives the baby first milk for a brilliant mind. Then it’s flowers and food offered to Laksmi and prayers of protection. Then rice for a long life, and more ending with a sacred thread tied to the baby’s wrist. And of course a flower shower, then songs from the family and food for everyone to finish. In our sharing of our own births so many of us really wished that our mother had had more support. A reoccurring common theme for modern woman. The loss of sisterhood and holding around the time of birth can lead to not only loneliness but also ill health of mama and baby. So Laksmi is about abundance and we prayed that every woman could receive this support, love and care in becoming a mother, and in turn all the babies could thrive in this abundance. Mantra to Laksmi:
Om hrim shrim santanalaksmyai namah

Calling To Sarasvati

Our day of initiation into education was wonderful. Recounting our first time at school and then our journey of learning, it turned out that so many of us didn’t find our passion for learning until after school when we were free to explore our own way. Together we honoured the great journey of gaining self knowledge and that the quest for new knowledge is for life. The ceremony/puja begins with an invocation to Sarasvati, Goddess of knowledge, and in this puja we wrote our first words in rice and sand and walked with books on our heads, offering again incense, rice, flowers, candals and more to Sarasvati to brighten our minds and direct our learning. Mantra to Sarasvati:
Aim hrim on sarasvatyai namah

The Devi Circle

Calling To Durga

Then our day of honouring first blood, the menarch ceremony. So many different stories from cultures around the world, with many of us gaining the reflection that this was a ‘curse’. Interesting that a big box office movie just came out in India called Padman, about a guy who makes sanitary pads available to all women and is a total hero. We know how much work there is still to do in this area to bring back the honouring and education rites to this important stage. So in the Vedic ceremony/puja we invoke Durga, Mother Goddess and there is a wonderful series of actions that honour and beautify the young woman. First offering a seat, then washing feet and hands, then beautiful red Rosella tea for the womb, then chocolate and strawberries, then flower blessings, adornments, red dot to the third eye, education into womb massage, oil, incense and roses, sacred medicine of Shatavari given (Ayurvedic herb that is master healer for woman), then gifting of the yoni egg stone, oh my goddess the list goes on! Such beauty and ending in an outrageous flower shower. Mantra to Durga:
Om dum durgayai namah


Calling To Shiva & Paravati

Our day of sacred marriage ceremony began with the principles of a true divine union within the Vedic teachings. I made the intention for a marriage with my own inner masculine self as this time in my life is all about being whole and sovereign in myself. In this puja we invoke the great partnerships of Shiva and Paravati, and Vishnu and Laksmi. Mantras for sacred relating and friendship are offered along with the obligatory oils, incense, candals, flowers, and more flowers, sweets, fruits, ornaments (perhaps a ring) and two flower garlands to hang around the neck of the partners. Mantra to Laksmi:
Om sri rudro visnurama laksmistasmai tasyai namo namah

Calling To Kali

The day of death ceremony was a big one for me. My moon time had arrived and I was feeling painful, emotional and heavy and like I just needed to lie flat on the earth in a little nest all day. Death entered my life when I was 25, when my mum departed this world. This has had such a big effect on my life, and being a mum without a my own mother as mentor was so hard as I longed for her so much on so many occasions. So on this day i knew I would remember her fully and still after twenty years there is a waterfall of tears. I think this waterfall is never ending and it’s just the presence of grief in our lives. If we love we feel loss, there is no way around it. It’s just part of being a human, and having the capacity to love. My mum’s death has brought so much spiritual knowledge to me, as this was a great motivator to explore what was beyond life as we know it and communicate with our spirit family and make an on going meaningful relationship with those that have departed. Our sharing were so diverse with some people completely accepting death and living in the moment knowing that it is always right timing when we are called back home. We wrote a letter to our ancestors or to a specific person and in ceremony we offered these letters into the fire with prayers and mantra. For this ceremony we invoked the Goddess Kali, and chanted
Jaya mata jaya kali durga devi namo namah

This is my ancestor prayer:
Dear Ancestors,
You are with me, I see your faces, hear your voices and you invite me to sit with you in your house. You are forever present. I belong to you, I am made from your fabric and I am in service to you, this we know now. Every prayer I make I make for you. Know that all mis-giving are forgiving and forgotten. Your love, care, patience, understanding all of this I receive and pass on to my children and grandchildren. We receive your love and return it thousand fold. Thankyou thankyou thankyou for weaving the web of our lives. We keep the candals lit for you and there is always a warm seat in my home for you and food at the table. And so it is and so it might always be.

Despatcho

On day seven we had the lovely Valerie, from the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition of cross cultural shamanic arts for personal and planetary renewal, come and guide us into making a Despacho Ceremony. This ceremony is the creation of a prayer bundle, with each person in the circle making prayers and offerings to the four directions, then all of the accumulated prayers and offerings are bundled up and given to the fire or offered to the river to be taken downstream. A large piece of fabric is laid out on the ground and a circle of flowers is added, the bundle in dedicated to Pachamama – mother earth. Prayers to the guardians of the land are offered to the south, these prayers are about physical health, manifesting new projects and matters of the material realms and these can be offered as animal fat, bone, feathers, hair, (obviously not harming an animal in the process). Prayers to the nature spirits are offered to the west, these prayers are about emotional well being and can be offered as herbs, food, tobacco. This seems to include chocolates and sweets, and the idea is that the more bounty you offer the more your prayers are heard. Prayers to the tree spirits are offered to the north, concerning spiritual health and offered as crystals, minerals, good and silver. Prayers to the benevolent ancient ones are offered to the east, concerning mental health and offered as candals or spoken prayers or songs and then prayers to the mountain lords are offered by way of incense and biscuits (!) to the centre.

By this stage i must admit i was ceremonied out and couldn’t really focus as well as i would have liked to, but Valerie promised us she would keep our bundle of prayers on her altar and offer it to the next sacred fire she was to make. Needing some time to integrate and digest all of the goings on of the retreat, i took some time out back at my hotel.

I feel like my trip to Bali has been a bit like making my own personal Despatcho bundle. I’ve offered so many lovely things and experiences to myself, to my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs. At times i’ve felt guilty about offering so many metaphorical biscuits, fruit and flowers to me, but i know that when we are truly nourished and full we can then pass that on to our loved ones, community etc. I’ve thought a lot about my family and friends, those still living and those on their next journey. I’ve made some meaningful powerful prayers for the direction of my life, to make a difference, to be of service to people on their spiritual unfolding, to be and do my very best. My quest was to find peace, well i’ve experienced moments of it and today it just occurred to me that i felt total forgiveness of myself. I just noticed it in my body, heart and mind. Forgiveness, its OK what i’ve done, its perfect, its good enough, the places where i did wrong, its OK, i let myself off the hook, the places where it did right, its OK i let myself off the hook there too. My intention is harmlessness, to just say “i could, but i won’t”. I could anger, blame, protest, feel guilt, cause pain in myself or another but today this moment i won’t.

May all the beings in all the worlds be happy.

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Under The Banyan Tree


My journey so far has been very much about exploring Mother Bali, but understanding the Hindu or Vedic ceremonies has drawn me in, i’m intrigued. I’m also ready for some ‘all woman’ time, and i want to commit myself to program rather than flit about like a butterfly.

So i begin the nine day Durga Retreat, at the Sama Yoga Ashram in Penestanan near Ubud, the ashram is hidden away with a big Banyan tree guarding the entrance, and it is fondly called Under The Banyan Tree. The retreat is facilitated by the Sharada, a teacher of Vedanta (Hindu or Vedic philosophy) meditation, Vedic ceremonies, women’s devi circles, yoga deepening courses, sacred temple dance and mantras of Mother Veda. She is a slight young woman with Swiss, Phillipine heritage and its clearly not the first life she has dedicated to Vedanta. She has such poise, presence and a deep love of Sanskrit, and her discourse is mind opening, gentle and exquisite. She founded the Be Woman Project, whose vision is to empowers women to know that they are safe, loved and connected, and the Durga Retreat is part of this project.

The second facilitator is the lovely Norwegian Jannaki who founded Nordic Light Yoga, she is a teacher of Hatha Yoga, and her style is deep and inward going, slow and meditative. During our nine days together we will receive womb yoga instruction, practicing a deeply yin style of yoga and focusing on the four stages or seasons of the monthly cycle, and exploring different yoga postures and movement for each phase of the moon cycle.

The Vedic goddess Durga is of course our host, and “she who removes pain and suffering” welcomes us into her presence. Durga represents the archetype of motherhood, strength, courage and bravery, she protects the people who follow universal values, she is a leader & mentor in community. So it is her work to hold the rites of passage in our lives, mentoring us into growing and not only knowing her but also way-showing her. I absorb her essence and I’m thinking that she is a pillar of the structure of society, who governs and leads in a female style by holding, nurturing and loving. However she rides on the back of a tiger, she is fierce and can manifest as Kali an aspect of her who can destroy in order to create new life. Sounds to me like this lady has some healthy boundaries, and does not suffer fools, she will love strongly but also hold universal values and right ethics as sacrosanct. Yep she’s my kind of woman.

During the opening circle, I look around at the other women present (there are maybe 15 of us) and I know I am home. The teachings of Vedanta are new to me, whilst I have heard the names of the Vedic goddesses and have chanted some of their mantras, I have never immersed myself in this tradition. The woman’s retreat goings on are very familiar and just like our women’s circles back home and I’m able to connect the goddesses with the ones I know and work with such as Sarasvati and her counterpart Sophia, both goddesses of wisdom.

I begin to ask myself the question, how do I define my spirituality? As I have not really dedicated myself to one way, or school of teaching. I have gathered wisdom from many sources along the way, but circa 2019 here’s where it sits – There is one true God-source (non-gender orientated) of all creation, a unity consciousness from which we all created ourselves, because we are all intrinsically God-source and fully sovereign in our connection to source. However, along the way our inner God-source will manifest as teacher, guide, mentor. God-source is both God and Goddess and can only manifest the whole of creation by this Law of Gender, both are equal and our spark of consciousness is the third point in this triad, therefore to know God we must experience in our heart and mind this sacred marriage of God and Goddess, or Mother and Father. I have been influenced by many different teachings along my way but currently I am working with the Celtic Pagan Gods and Goddesses of the land upon which I live, because this is the story of my home land, going back before Christianity. I’m also very attuned to the Christian Essene teaching that were completed suppressed by the church and are about the path of the gnostic, mystic and knower of the Kryst (changed to Christ) which is a state of purest unity consciousness of our original divine nature before many of these teachings were stolen and reversed. The God, Goddess partnership I connect with everyday is Kryst(Christ)- Sophia. Unity, truth and wisdom.

However, it is the ceremonies and rituals of a spiritual tradition that I am most interested in, because its these rites of passage or markers along the path that have given humans meaning and purpose for thousands of years. Ceremony is so meaningful because in truth when we choose to make another human life, we chose to evolve and growth into knowledge of ourselves as god-source, to do that our highest consciousness must come into our body and express our highest truth and service. Ceremony helps this process, it helps us embody and pick up the fragments of ourselves and unify them within our own being, it helps us awaken, understand and know ourselves.

So I’m ready to embrace this journey with the Vedic sisterhood of sharing ceremonies within the tradition of Vedanta to mark the passages of a woman’s life. We will hold a ceremony or puja for stages on our own timeline. We will travel back and write about actual experience from what we have been told, or can remember, we will share these stories and ask ourselves – how would I like it to have been? Then together we will perform the ceremony or puja to mark this rite of passage for our own self, so we will be both ourselves along the timeline, the ceremonialist, and maybe also play the role of our mother or father. In Vedic tradition it is thought that by receiving these blessings at a gateway point /rite of passage we can make the best life with the greatest experience of belonging, meaning, purpose and self-awareness. We can be our best self. Although there are numerous rites of passage and corresponding puja in Vedanta we will be focusing on five:
Birth,
Initiation into learning (school),
First Blood,
Marriage,
& Death.

We will also be taking Ayurveda classes with Dr. Sujatha Kekada, who is the Head Physician and Co-Founder of Amrtasiddhi. – an Ayurvedic clinic in Ubud. She is a certified Ayurvedic doctor (B.A.M.S), who worked at one of the most respected and successful clinics in Kerala, South India before opening her clinic in Bali. She will talk to us specifically about woman’s health and how the principles of Ayurveda including, lifestyle, diet and herbs can support all stages of a woman’s life.

In our opening sharing circle, we tell a bit of our story by way of introducing ourselves, who we are, where we are from, what is happening in our life. So many of these stories reflect my own experiences, we are women of all ages, maidens, mothers, grandmothers, crones. From all corners of the globe, including a woman who is born and raised in Ubud, and yet there are so many similarities and a beautiful uniqueness too. We sing the name of each ‘devi’. I begin to soften.

So to anchor our intentions and focus our hearts and minds, we must prepare our personal altars. In Vedic tradition this includes statues or images of the deity, a brass bowl for water, a candal, incense, aromatic oil such as Frankincense, a bell, a shell, and other personal sacred items. But we are really encouraged to make our altar personal and so I lay out my travel altar mat that I made for this journey. I sewed into it, crystals, charms, prayers and feathers to mark the directions and guide me on my way. I lay out my crystals, herbal pouches, candals, incense, the Frangipani oil I bought in Ubud, the ashes from the Agni Hotra fire I did with the Balinese healer Pak Ketut Jaya, stones and shells I’ve collected along the way and my spirit flute. Our altars will travel through the whole five ceremonies with us and they will be our work space so to speak for the transformational journey ahead. Perfect we are ready. Arrival and day one complete.

There is something so special about being in a women’s circle and putting our world to right. Coming together and healing it, taking care of it, making it better is so sewn into the fabric of women. I like to think my recent ancestors would have been connected to a circle of woman in their daily lives and daily activities. They say it takes a tribe to raise a child. But now society has changed so much and so often woman are shouldering it all alone, and this is a bigger burden.

To me the Vedic Goddess Durga is like a mother figure, who holds up community values and serves the people through her love, support and wisdom in the journey of their lives. In addition to learning the Vedic pujas as we will also be creating our own ceremonies in our own style in small groups, so that we start to think about how we can offer this kind of service to our own community, and go forth and Be Durga in our own world.

May all the beings in all the world’s be held in a mothers arms

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