Of Suffering And Sovereignty

celtic spirituality shamanism story
    A few months ago I played the Beheading Game. Don’t worry, my head was returned to me – though I’m sure its not exactly the same head I had before. The game was presented by Tom Cowan at a workshop on Celtic Shamanism. He does not suggest that the game we played was performed by the ancient Celts, but rather that it is a reflection of an important theme in their stories.

    He told a series of tales in which principal characters, some magical and some ordinary, have their heads chopped off or almost chopped off. Those of you familiar with the early Arthurian legends will likely know such tales. A beheading, especially one that does not kill but in fact results in a healing of some kind, is an extraordinary magical event. Our game tapped into that transformative healing power.

Setting our beheadings aside (pun intended), this work was fascinating to me not just because of our resulting headlessness, but because of the unique theme of healing Tom was able to tease out in presenting this ritual. He interpreted the mythic healings in these stories as resulting in and from a return of sovereignty.

Thats an interesting word to use in connection with healing: “sovereignty”. These stories imply that having a true experience of sovereignty restores health to the individual and to the community. I became aware that sovereignty was more than just having the authority to determine your own destiny, it was also having a sense of what that destiny was.
The kings of the pre-Christian world were sovereign over their people not only because they’d been endowed with the right to rule, but because they were spiritually connected to the land and thus knew how to rule. It was this deep spiritual connection that gave them their ability to govern. It was the wisdom of the land that restored balance, a king was simply the spokesperson for that spiritual force. This same connection to the land and its cyclical regenerative power allows one to be beheaded and then restored. This is the ancient theme of the year king who at the end of his rule will die only to be reborn.

When sovereignty is lost the people have lost their connection to the land and suffering ensues. That same concept of kingly sovereignty is conveyed to the individual. When we are connected to our own sovereignty, when we know our destiny because we feel it in our bones, there really is nothing that can stop us. These early Pagan stories imply that nature in its most spiritual expression, conveys sovereignty to each one of us. As with the soul retrievals we shamanic practitioners perform, the energy of sovereignty can be restored to an individual as a means of dispelling suffering. The Beheading Game is one way to restore sovereignty and dispel suffering.

What excites me about this theme of healing is how basically true it is. When I am in touch with who I am and what I need to pursue in life I am full of vitality. Specifically I am full of hope for the future and a deep sense of connection to life. In these times I am much healthier  – I feel as if nothing can stand in my way. Even if I experience loss or hardship it does not translate into suffering.Much of the shamanic healing I’ve participated in resulted in an experience of sovereignty for the client. When we restore their energy to them we open them to the possibilities of their own lives. When their suffering is removed they’re able to remember who they are and what their path is.

As preparation for playing the Beheading Game we discussed suffering. It quickly became clear that suffering is not necessarily connected to any physical circumstance. It is possible to face pain and even death without suffering. I remember reading a statement by a Jungian psychologist: “humans can endure endless suffering, what they can’t endure is meaningless suffering.” I would add meaning can dispell suffering. We suffer only because we have lost our sovereignty – that sense of rightness, that sense of having ones feet firmly upon the path of ones destiny. That is a very real presence in ones life. It is from the experience of sovereignty that our sense of wellness flows, and from that our actual health can flow.

We could replace the word “sovereignty” with “empowerment”. In many ways they are the same thing. When you are empowered in every sense of the word you are beyond the suffering of the world. The word sovereignty resonates particularly with me because it conveys the sense of the kings connection to the land. Sovereignty is our birthright but its source is the earth.

Its interesting to note that in many of these tales sovereignty was restored to a woman. The health of the community flowed from fully empowered women. We are all born of woman, she embodies our connection to the earth and the forces of physical and spiritual renewal. When we surrender to the Beheading Game we offer up to those forces that which is out of balance, that which has lost its connection to the sacred powers of the earth. When our heads are removed our suffering, or the suffering of others can be transformed into sovereignty and balance will return.

Through these headless musings it has become clear to me that suffering is caused by a loss of relationship to the sacred powers of life. When this happens lifes regenerative qualities must be called upon. The beheading game resonates with the menstrual cycles of renewal and the agrarian cycles of seasonal renewal. When we have drifted from those cycles as an individual or a community, something as powerful as a beheading is required to restore that vital connection.

Some of you may be wondering – why is the head the part that needs to get cut off? One can only speculate, but drawing on the wisdom of this workshop we could turn to the concept of the three cauldrons. These are the three spiritual centers: the cauldron of warming (in the belly), the cauldron of  yearning (in the heart), and the cauldron of knowledge (in the head). In order for the cauldron of knowledge to be filled with wisdom the first two cauldrons must be upright, able to be filled. Perhaps we need to be beheaded when the cauldron of knowledge has somehow gotten filled with lies. In such a state it only makes sense that someone else would have to put us right by cleaning it out!

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