Art, Ritual, and Shamanism by Shauna Aura Knight

by | January 22, 2015 | Articles


Water Bearer (c) Shauna Aura Knight

I often wonder if I’m painting or if I’m going on a shamanic journey. Am I facilitating a ritual or creating installation/performance art? Am I singing a song, or am I engaging people in a trance state to open to sacred work? Is it the creative fire in the head or mystic communion with the divine? Every time I mull on this question, I ultimately come to the same answer—to me, it doesn’t matter. What matters is transformation. What matters for me is that I am giving people a chance to experience the hero’s journey. This could be at an event, a ritual, a performance, an installation, a workshop, or this could simply be experiencing a song or a piece of two dimensional art.

For me, being an artist and being a shaman are both professions, and I see the job of the artist and the job of the shaman to have a tremendous amount of crossover. In my own artwork, I’m very often journeying into the Otherworld to gain inspiration. Even when I write a description for a ritual I will be facilitating, I will energetically walk through that ritual that hasn’t happened yet, and I’ll bring that experience back with me in order to write about it. When I facilitate that ritual, I work to help take the participants along on the journey so that they can do the spiritual work that is relevant to them in that moment.

You may not be familiar with modern urban shamanism or the Pagan/Wiccan/Druidic community. I essentially function as a type of clergy in that I host rituals and teach classes for the Pagan and broader alternative spirituality community. The job of clergy and the job of a shaman are similar in many ways. Along with that, I’m also an artist and a writer. And I believe that my success at what I do comes from hitting the sweet spot between an overlap of many disciplines.

Professional Overlap
How does being an artist make me a better ritualist, a better spiritual seeker? How does shamanic work make me a better artist?

I’ve been painting since I could hold a brush, I’m a graphic designer, and I’ve run large-scale events. I have a background in tech theater and theatrical design. For a long while I focused less on graphic design and more on user research and user-centered design for web sites and applications; essentially, observing people using applications and products to help design better and easier-to-use functionality. For me it’s not enough to make a web site or application pretty, it has to be usable.

These skills all came in handy when I began organizing more events and planning rituals because I not only understood visual design aesthetics, I also understood what frustrated people about processes. And ritual is a process.

When I began to learn how to facilitate workshops and rituals, I had the tremendous advantage of being taught by people with backgrounds in psychology, educational theory, and the expressive arts. So for me, facilitating a ritual is not some mysterious thing inspired by the gods that I can’t talk about or explain. It’s very much about psychology, about human experience, about event planning. It’s about helping people to work through a process.

In fact, when I teach people how to facilitate rituals, they are usually surprised that I don’t talk theology at all. I don’t tell them what they need to believe about gods, goddesses, and the way the universe works. I don’t tell them that they must burn this incense, must use these colored candles, must use a white table cloth, must use these particular words.

Instead, I talk psychology and educational theory, architecture and event planning. For me, it’s less important that we do things like smudging, casting a circle, calling the directions, even though that’s what the most common in Pagan rituals. For me—it’s about process. I know that humans need process, we need unpeeling layers.

Architect Christopher Alexander says it better than I can:
“[Space] will only be felt as holy, if it is hard to reach, if it requires layers of access waiting, levels of approach, a gradual unpeeling, gradual revelation, passage through a series of gates….This layering or nesting of precincts, seems to correspond to a fundamental aspect of human psychology.”
–Christopher Alexander
Through my own observation, I have found this to be true. Alexander is an expert in architecture, and in specific, he has written rather a lot on how certain spaces evoke certain behaviors, certain moods. Why one room’s size and shape works for intimate conversation, and another room’s shape works to throw a more formal event. This is where art and architecture and psychology and science all blend together, and it has an impact on the spiritual, to our experience of the sacred.

When I am facilitating rituals, my particular specialty is transformative, ecstatic rituals. I get people moving, dancing, singing, crying. People sometimes tell me after a ritual that it’s the first time the ever actually felt the divine during a ritual. People tell me, “I wasn’t going to sing, I was just going to watch.”

I get people to feel, to experience. And it’s not because I’m somehow holier than them, because I’m not. It’s because I understand the math, the process. I understand what goes into a successful event, a successful ritual. I understand what people need to experience in order to feel those deeper emotions. I understand both the science and the spirit, the art and the design and the process as well as the sacred, the mystic.

Art Evokes Emotion
And there we come back to ritual and art. Often artwork evokes these same experiences and emotions, though people frame that as something secular. A painting, a performance, a song…all of these can evoke that transformative emotional intensity that cracks open people’s hearts.

Perhaps with ritual one difference is that I’m engaging each attendee to become a participant, to speak, to sing, to dance, to lend their energy in co-creating the ritual. But then I look at how performance and installation art begin to cross into audience participation as well, and once again the lines aren’t clear cut.

How do I Engage Participation?
Most of the process is about building safety. A bunch of strangers come into a room to do a ritual together. Most of them don’t know each other, but they want to celebrate the seasonal holiday. So I tell them who I am. I help them get to know me so that they feel safe doing that work with me. I go around and have everyone introduce themselves, even if it’s just speaking their name.

I start out slow. I invite participation, but safe participation.

One example is asking people to take a breath together. This one’s easy, everyone has to breathe. I might ask people to sing a tone together, and then to sing a simple chant together. I layer things building upon each success, and by the middle of the ritual the group is ready to sing something more complicated like a two-part chant.

And within all of that, I’m asking questions to help people crack open their hearts. I’m asking them, “What are the shadows you have faced? What has broken your heart? What challengers stand before you?” And I’m asking, “What would it be like to be the hero? What do you search for, reach for? What do you want energy for? What would bring you limitless joy?”

I ask these questions in ritual, but I ask them also whenever I paint. I want to give people the chance to ask those hard questions, to go through the dark night and the road of trials and to find their way to drinking the elixir of life at the center of the labyrinth, to drink from the Grail. To make the transformation, to become the person, the hero, that can bring life force back into the world.

The Power of Music
When I’m painting, I can offer visuals and symbols, but in rituals, chanting is one of the most powerful tools I have. When I say chanting, I’m referring to simple, repetitive songs. They typically are easy to sing but still musically interesting. They might be just a couple of lines of text. Once the group has learned the chant, I’ll often layer in another chant or harmonies. The more complex rhythm and harmony that the group can sustain, the more likely the chant is going to engage a deeper trance state, which makes space for more intensive ritual work.

Chanting is one of the most effective ways to engage a group in a trance state. It’s also one of the hardest things to get a group to do. We are told over and over that only the best people should sing. So people have to feel safe in order to be willing to sing.

Once again I look at that bridge between shamanism and art. Shamanic singing is a potent form of magic. In many cultures bards, poets, and singers were given special status. In Celtic countries, the druids and bards shared similar training in poetry, storytelling, and probably music as well. In other cultures, the shaman sings themselves or others into a trance state, or sings people into healing. In many cultures, music and writing are a form of power.

Those trained in writing, storytelling, and singing have power and control via the utterances of speech. Through words, bards, poets, and shamans are able to change the world. What gets written down or memorized via song is remembered.

Learning to sing in ritual has been one of the areas where I’ve gained the most charisma, power, and ability to focus a group’s energy when I’m leading a ritual. It’s a blend of art, and of science. I’ve recently read articles that a group of people singing together begin to share a heartbeat as well as synch up in their brainwaves. Regular singing also has health benefits. Science and art and spirit go very well together it seems.

Ritual and art both draw people into a state of trance. If I’m looking to engage a deeper state, there’s one “installation” that never fails—fire. It’s actually twice as hard to get a group singing, dancing, and feeling without a fire in the center, even if it’s just candles. In a trance state, a group is willing to go on the hero’s journey. They are willing to become the hero, the seeker of the grail. They are willing to suspend disbelief for a moment.

Visuals and Mood-Setting
What helps as well—and why I sometimes wonder if what I’m doing is an art installation—is setting the mood. I find that the more work I do ahead of time to dress a space with elaborate altars, statues, decorations, and lighting, the easier it is to get the group into an altered state, and into a headspace where they are willing to explore the depths. Many of my paintings have that quality as well, and people have told me that they use them as a meditation aid, or have the paintings at their altars or shrines.

Acting or Invoking?
I once attended a presentation by several performers who were part of a theater troupe. This troupe was largely comprised of individuals who weren’t Pagan, however, the group worked with myths, with the stories of ancient deities. They re-enacted these old stories and frequently found that there wasn’t much of a difference between performing the role of a god or goddess as an actor, and invoking or drawing the deity into themselves as they would in a ritual.

The emotional weight of those deities and heroes filled them. One actress said that it was hard not to weep when she intoned a particular poem. One member of the troupe spoke of a fellow actor. The actor’s life became completely transformed by the role they were playing, by how it seemed to change their perspective. This person wasn’t Pagan, but playing the role of a god changed him. What these actors came to realize is that when you go through that god’s journey in your heart, it changes you.

Is it method acting or is it aspecting and trance possession? Is it art? Is it theater? Is it ritual?

It’s all power. It’s all transformation. Sometimes what we do is mysterious and goes beyond words. And so much of what we do as artists and musicians, as shamans and ritualists…it’s science and it’s art and it’s math and it’s our hearts. It’s all of that.
Shauna Aura Knight is an artist, designer, author, and ecstatic spiritual seeker who is passionate about creating artwork, rituals, experiences and spaces to ignite transformation, inspire creativity, and to awaken mythic imagination. Her artwork explores the themes and imagery of myth, mysticism, deities, ritual, sacred sites, personal transformation, and heroes, and includes watercolor, acrylic, mixed media, and digital art, along with events, installations, and shrines. Shauna’s art and design work have been used for illustrations and covers for several books and magazines.

She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for CIRCLE Magazine, and her writing also appears in the anthologies Stepping in to Ourselves: An Anthology of Writings on Priestessing, A Mantle of Stars, and Calling to our Ancestors. She’s also the author urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels including Werewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, A Fading Amaranth, and The White Dress, the Autumn Leaves. Shauna’s artwork has been featured in several Life Force Arts Center exhibits, including “The Spiritual Power of Art: The Human spirit” which runs 1/24 – 5/12/15


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