first teacher of shamanism in the physical world taught me how to journey
on the sound of the drum. My second shamanic teacher told me: "The
first time I went to the World of the Spirits I was standing with three
other people in a small circle. We were all rattling. Suddenly the Earth
opened up in front of me and I fell into the Lower World." When
I heard this I thought, "Iíd better get me a rattle." The
rattle I got then has been with me since, and since then I have been
given, have made, and have given away more rattles than I can count.
Rattles are something special.
The rattle is one of the things I ask people to bring with them on the
courses I teach. One of the first things I teach about is the rattle,
one of the most important helpers in the shamanís kit. Most of us had
rattles as young children, and a nicely surprising number of people
have them as adults. Sometimes people tell me, "Iíve had this rattle
for years. I donít know why I bought it. It just seemed to speak to
me. Now I know why!"
The shamanís work is to go to, or call to, the world of the Spirits
to ask for help, be it as power, healing, knowledge, or wisdom. I use
the rattle to send my voice to the Spirits. The rattle is one of the
easiest, quickest, and most powerful helpers we have for doing this.
Calling the Spirits
The shaman works by asking for help from the Spirits: no Spirits, no
shaman. Calling the Spirits is the most basic of the shamanís work.
I have a what I call "a basic rattling ritual" for calling
to the Spirits which I teach on the introductory workshop. Quite simply,
it involves facing in one of the four (cardinal) directions and shaking
the rattle four times, calling to the Spirits of that direction, asking
them to come and help me. After calling out to the first direction with
my rattle, I turn 90 degrees and rattle to the Spirits of the second
direction, again asking them to please come. I continue around the circle,
until I have called out to all the Spirits of the Four Directions, asking
for help. Then I go to the Earth. I rattle four times to the Earth,
asking the Spirits of the Earth to help. I call to the Heavens, asking
the Spirits there, also, to come and help me. Finally, remembering the
Thirteenth Fairy in the story of the Sleeping Beauty, I rattle all around
the Circle, asking any Spirits whom I might have forgotten to invite,
and who want to help me, to please come. I do this at the beginning
of all my shamanic work.
This is the basic rattling recipe I started with to call to the Spirits
to ask for help. My rattling ritual has changed now, but if you listen
carefully you can hear this recipe in its roots. Over the years, what
has happened for me, and for many of the people Iíve re-introduced the
rattle to, is that as I was rattling the different directions the Spirits
came and taught me how to call them. When I call to my Teachers from
the upper and lower worlds I use my voice, as well as the rattle. When
I call to the spirits of the between-directions I whistle. Some of the
Spirits like to dance, and so I dance. And all the time, the rattle
brings me closer to the Spirits, and brings the Spirits closer to me.
The directions one uses are different from culture to culture, and from
one person to another. I start in the East, and then go Sun-wise around
the circle, first to the South, then West, North and back to East, closing
the circle. My first teacher of shamanism also started in the East,
but then he went to the North and around that way. He had learned from
the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. Trying to be a good student,
I followed his lead. But one day, one of my Spirit-helpers asked me,
"Why do you go around in that direction?" I told why. The
Spirit then said, "That is not your way. Go with the Sun."
I was concerned that my teacher would be angry. "But this is perfect,"
he said. "The Spirits are teaching you. Listen to them.
Do what they say." This was one of the most important teachings
I ever got from him.
Power of the Rattle
I often call the rattle a power
antenna. Sometimes when Iím standing and calling the Spirits, I
feel like a man holding onto a lightening rod as I feel the power flowing
through me. Many people have this experience. On one group I was teaching
there was a woman who hadnít brought a rattle with her. "I felt
foolish going to buy a rattle," she said. So I loaned her a rattle
I had made. I noticed as we were all standing in a circle, rattling
and singing, that she was very active, in fact her rattle-arm was flying
all around her head and body, down to her feet and up again. Afterwards
she said. "I have a complaint. The rattle wouldnít do what I wanted
it to do! It was like it had a mind of its own!"
There was a good teaching for her in that experience: intention.
The reason we were standing in the circle singing was to call our Spirit-helpers
to ask for help with the weekend. The Spirits had obviously responded,
so much so that she had lost track of her intention. Her new intention
became to control the rattle, rather than receive the power (help)
the rattle was trying to give her. It turned into a wrestling match,
and the Spirits "won"! I got a note from her a month later,
"Iíve made four rattles since the course, and they all work!"
There was a second important teaching for her in that experience: All
that exists is alive. The true power of the rattle is in its Spirit.
Learning to work with the rattle is learning to listen to its Spirit.
For me, the rattle is not a tool Ė it is an ally.
to the Spirit of the Rattle
In the beginning, working with the rattle can be an exercise in
exceeding your boundaries, or as don Juan used to say, in losing self
importance. The first time you stand alone in you home or in the forest
with a rattle and think "Now Iím supposed to call the Spirits?!?"
it can be that you feel a little foolish, embarrassed maybe. This feeling
generally disappears after the second or third shake of the rattle.
For most of us it doesnít take long before we find itís not only empowering,
but also exhilarating. But the work of the shaman is not just to experience
the ecstasy of contacting the Spirits. The work of the shaman is to
step through the door of that ecstasy into the world of the Spirits
to find the wisdom, the power, the help she needs to do her job in the
physical world. This means that one must learn to listen to the voice
of the rattle. The rattle, like everything else, is alive, and
it is trying to tell you something. Listen! But donít only listen with
your ears. Listen with your entire being.
In our attempts to understand, we, in the western world, have broken
everything down into classification systems. We label everything. Admittedly,
this can be very helpful, but the side effect is that what is too sensitive
to be measured and classified is reduced in importance until it seems
to disappear. The soul has been reduced to five (or six) separate senses.
Hearing is just one of them. But when you listen to the rattle you must
recombine all of your senses. Ask your rattle to help you, and then
open your self to the help that comes. Opening yourself to that help
is perhaps the most difficult task of all.
Most of us want to control our lives. We think that as long as we are
in control everything will be all right. We have invented the myth of
security to make ourselves feel better, as if feeling better is an end
unto itself. However, the way the shaman works is to surrender to the
Spirits. When you surrender to the Spirits, you fill yourself with their
power. You may or may not be able to control the situation, but you
will be able to face it in a power-filled way.
Rattle as Healer
After becoming friends with your rattle, you will find that it has many
aspects. The healing power of the rattle is one of them. This was shown
to me in an experience many years ago. A woman contacted me because
she was "blocked." Could I help her to open these "blockages"?
"Blockages" was not a term in my shamanic diagnostic vocabulary
at the time. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I trusted
that my Spirits would know what was going on. So I replied that I didnít
know if I could help her, but why not come over and weíd see what we
could do. When I asked my Spirits, they said, "Use your rattle."
So after calling to the Spirits I began to rattle over her body. She
began to shake, more and more violently, and then to convulse. The part
of me that was in ordinary reality began to be quite alarmed. I asked
my Spirits what was going on, and was told to shut up, pay attention,
and keep rattling. Finally with a roaring-barking sound, she heaved
one final huge convulsion and something left her body, flying out of
her mouth, and out the opened window. She sighed a sigh of relief and
asked me what Iíd done. I quite honestly replied that I just shook the
rattle and it took care of the rest.
As the years have gone by, I have relied more and more heavily on the
rattle. I have learned from the rattle that it is excellent for doing
diagnostic work, for opening up areas where energy is blocked, for re-establishing
energy flow, and for helping to remove inappropriate energy.
One idea I often hear from people goes
like this: "A big drum (rattle, crystal, etc.) is a powerful one,
and more powerful than a little one." I have also seen people become
dependant on their power objects, for example, "I canít do a soul-retrieval
without my eagle-feather." To my understanding, shamanism is a
spiritual practice which enables one to directly contact - and work
together with - the Spirit Power of the Universe. The point of the shaman's
work is to bring the power of the Spirit World to the material world,
and to let that power flow through him. The more the power of the Spirits
flows through the shaman, the more powerful she becomes, as long as
the power is handled in a proper way.
The Spirit Power of a rattle, drum, or any other power object, has nothing
to do with itís physical size, it has to do with the power of its Spirit.
The real power objects in shamanic practice do not exist in the physical
world. The most important part of the rattle is its Spirit. You can
call it to you, even if youíve left the rattle at home.
A very powerful experience is to make your own rattle. When you do it
correctly you can feel its power from the start. Both Nicholas ("Nick")
Wood in his beautiful and inspiring book Voices from the Earth,
and Bernard S. Mason in his classic How to make Drums, Tom-Toms,
and Rattles, give excellent instructions. I strongly suggest that
you read these before you start. But there are a few points I would
like to emphasise here. All Creation is sacred. The rattle is no exception.
If you wish to make a rattle, it could be a very good idea to ask your
Spirit-helpers for help. Tell them that you want to make a rattle to
help you to, for example, honour them, or to do healing work, or to
communicate with the Spirits of Nature, or to mark a special Passage
in your life, or as a gift to someone else. Listen to what they say.
Perhaps they will tell you what materials to use, what stones or objects
to put inside, designs to put one the outside, what wood or other material
to use for the handle. The possibilities are endless. Let the Spirits
decide and do what they say. Maybe theyíll want you to go out and get
the small white stones brought up from the Lower World by ants, as the
Lakota do. Or maybe theyíll tell you to use the small pieces of crystal
from that necklace that broke last week. Whatever it is, remember that
each part of the rattle has its own Spirit, so thank it!
Donít be disappointed if the finished product doesnít look exactly the
same as it did when you saw it on the journey. How it looks in your
hand is only its ordinary reality appearance. What does it look
like when you take it on a journey to your Spirits to present it to
them? How do they receive it? How does it "work"? These are
the things which are important. If it is a gift to someone else, your
Spirits may even tell you what words to say as you present it.
By making your own rattle you will find that you quickly come into contact
with its Spirit, and you will be able to start learning from it right
away. The "initiation" (i.e., starting) of the of the rattle
happens when you first use it to call to the Spirits and then journey
with it to your Spirit helpers and teachers to show it to them. Then
you yourself will become initiated to its being and use. In all probability,
at this time you will meet the Spirit of the Rattle you are holding
in your hand.
article first appeared in Sacred Hoop Magazine, Issue 36, spring 2002,
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