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Shadow Work as Ceremony

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By Vern Saddleback

One of the reasons that Shadow Work® is so effective is that group facilitators create what we call a "safe container." A safe container is an environment in which all energies are welcome, and a person can therefore do anything they need to do. A Shadow Work® coach also creates a safe container when working with a client one-on-one.

My wife, Myra, and I lead Shadow Work® groups in Hobbema, in Alberta, Canada. Myra and I are Plains Cree Indians.

There are different ways to set up a safe container, and my Myra and I have recently been thinking along some new lines, about Shadow Work® as ceremony.

A Shadow Work® process can be a complex, deeply emotional process. What we do as facilitators is to help the person locate the "tape" that is unconsciously playing in their life. We have them select role-players to speak the tape's message so they can hear it more objectively. We help them figure out where they first recorded the tape. Then we help them get the gold out of that message and transform it in a way that will work for them today.

(In case you've never seen Shadow Work® in person, I'll mention here that the role-players don't do any improvising. Our purpose is to capture the tape's message as accurately as we can, so we use only the person's actual words, inflection, body posture, and so on.)

I have usually thought of role-players as being placeholders only. What's been coming to Myra and me is that there is something real about the energy held by these role-players. We select role-players to hold the energies of our ancestors.

When we believe our ancestors are there in the room with us, they are there. To treat their spiritual energies with respect, we do ceremonies to invite and keep them present during our work. When we are done working with our ancestors, with the same love we invited them, we send them home.

We begin preparing for ceremonial/emotional work before we enter our container. Ahead of time, we perform ceremonies to ask permission from our ancestors to do the emotional work we want to have happen in our container. These ceremonies can range from a prayer asking permission, and inviting those spirits who need to bear witness, to a full sweat lodge ceremony.

Next, we prepare our container. We cleanse the container however we need it cleansed. Cleansing the container is about cleaning out any residual energy (good or bad) that may have been left behind in the room. I have learned to smudge the room in a clockwise direction. I smudge the windows and doors, praying to the ancestors I want in the room to stay present (past loved ones, as an example) and praying to those spirits who don't belong to stay out (there are many wandering spirits who just get curious about what we are doing and want to come watch).

We invite also those spirits who wounded the person doing the work (especially those holding predatory energy), that they might be there. And I smudge the room praying that these predatory energy/spirits do not escape or leave before the work is done.

When a person comes to Shadow Work®, I think there is a shadow coming with them that needs to be "wrestled" with. Before I began doing the ceremonies asking permission for the ancestors to be present, I had a series of dreams all focused around chasing unwanted spirits that were inhabiting people's homes. There was, finally, one dream in which I was chasing a spirit inside a house. I went from room to room, and the spirit that inhabited the walls would see me and duck out.

In the dream, I took some smudge and started to smudge all the rooms in a clockwise direction. I started upstairs, then moved downstairs. I focused especially on the windows and doors because I knew that was where the spirits would escape. When I got down to the last room with the last window, the door of the room had buckled inward. The spirit had caught on to what I was doing and was trying to escape, but now that I was smudging in a different way, it was too late for the spirit to escape.

Now, when I smudge the room, one of my prayers is that the shadow that is coming that needs to be wrestled with cannot leave or escape. As I smudge the room, I pray that the smoke seals the room, keeping out unwanted spirits and keeping in the benevolent ancestors who need to bear witness and assist, and keeping in the shadow that needs to be wrestled with. Since I started doing this ceremony, the processes we've done there have became magical in the transformations that have occurred.

When our workshop is done, we send the ancestors we invited home. I start this process at the door we will eventually exit from. After removing from the room our Shadow Work® materials, I smudge the room in a clockwise direction, praying and thanking my ancestors for coming and releasing them so they can now go home. When I am done smudging and am standing at the door I will exit from, I say out loud in my language, "Go home." Then I exit the room and leave.

There is something we do at the end of every Shadow Work® process called "de-roling," in which we have a role-player step out of the role they have been playing, and back into their regular selves. This way of smudging the room after the workshop is done is a way of de-roling the entire container.

In some cases, when there has been a strongly antagonistic tape played by a role-player, we send the energy home right away rather than wait until the workshop is done. I simply pray to the energy/spirit, thanking them for being there to bear witness. Then I send them home, out a window.

Learning how to take care of the "unseen" spiritual energies has been an enlightening and sometimes painful growth process for me. My thanks go out to my Creator who blessed me with powerful knowing dreams, to John Crier and Cecil Crier for cultural advice, and most especially to Myra LaFrance for advice and teachings on how to take care of Shadow Work® as ceremony.

Vern Saddleback is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator. He lives with his family in Hobbema, Alberta, Canada.


This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in March 2005. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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