I arrive at the large white house in Southsea 10 minutes early. A long grey haired couple are unpacking their kit. Others start to arrive and we chat in the kitchen. The organizer, big Russell, arrives wearing an Eastern garment that hangs limply, his belly blows it outwards. A nervous man talks to me about his back problems. The long grey haired man asks if any of us have done any of this before. I say no, only meditation. Which is a lie because I haven’t even done this properly.
We are led down into the basement four at a time to be ‘smudged’. I get excited about the prospect of painted faces, but smudging seems to be a process of riddance of negative aura before we can enter the main room of the session. I walk in, aura clean but my shoes still on. We sit on cushions in a circle and I realize everyone else left their shoes at the door, so I take mine off and put them behind me.
There’s a brief introduction and explanation of the paper squares which have been laid out, with numbers on and North South East West marked, along with the spirits of certain animals and major human emotions. Russell hands us all three stones, going round the circle one stone at a time, clockwise. We all have three stones except Russell and his assistant, Sarah, who have four. We then take it in turns to dedicate our stones to the various animal spirits. ‘I dedicate this stone to the spirit of the Brown Bear.’ Each dedication is followed by a group ‘Ah-ho,’ like an Amen. The air is smelly from the smudging process. The afternoon sun shines into the spacious room.
There is one entrance to our circle, at the East side. To dedicate a stone, you walk from your cushion clockwise to the East entrance then within the circle until you reach the position for the stone. Then clockwise to the exit and clockwise to the cushion. Why did clock-makers chose clockwise to be that way round? Each stone is a blessing for people we know, dead or alive. Mine are for my father. Once the stones are all in place, we say a bit about ourselves and why we are there. ‘My name is Duncan and I am new to all this. I am here to explore,’ I say vaguely. The group seem pleasant enough although some are quite severe, some very quiet.
Then the songs begin. In one of them, we each think of a spirit and sing our own beginning bit: ‘Spirit of the sea, carry me home,’ then the group join in. We chant along to various songs and the time passes in a blur of learning chants and chanting chants.
To leave the circle for a break, we circle three times on the spot and then round the circle clockwise to the door. During the break, I ask Brown Bear (the grey haired guy) about dream catchers and peace pipes. What do they smoke? ‘Usually tobacco but sometimes peyote.’
Back downstairs, we all write on pieces of paper for the burning ceremony. Each paper is lit in a bowl. There was something in the way it burned to guide you on the issue you had written. A lady said mine were burning quite red. ‘What does that signify?’ ‘I don’t know.’ The whole process needs patience but is fascinating in its simplicity. The session ends with a song sung together, at first with great energy then slowly softening and slowing until nothing. Each of us were asked to bring along something to shake. I could only find a pot of pills, but I don’t like its plastic rattle, so I just clap along.
The session over, as we leave, Russell allows us all to pick a paper from his bowl. Mine says: Remember, be prepared. Shed what you don’t need, including thoughts. Our donations went towards an Native American studying to be a doctor to help his tribe. A Western doctor. Back out on the Southsea streets, all is serene.