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Rituals for Birth:
The Blessingway Ceremony

The Blessingway Ceremony From the heart of Earth, by means of yellow pollen
Blessing is extended.
Blessing is extended.
On top of a pollen floor may I there in blessing give birth!
With long life-happiness surrounding me
May I in blessing give birth!
May I quickly give birth!
In blessing may I arise again, in blessing may I recover,
As one who is long life-happiness may I live on!

-Navajo chant from the Blessingway Ceremony

The Blessingway Ceremony held before childbirth is as old as the Navajo people. In its myths and chants it chronicles the birth and puberty of Changing Woman and the birth of her twin sons. As a ritual centered on the feminine rites-of-passage, this ceremony has been a major source of inspiration to midwives and birthing mothers in creating new birthing rituals. Giving credit to their inspired source, these contemporary rituals have come to be called Blessingway by the women creating them.

I first became acquainted in the 1970's with Blessingway while practicing midwifery in Santa Cruz, California, through Raven Lang (1). Immediately I began to hold these ceremonies in my own practice and found it to be a remarkable "prenatal ritual". The Blessingway Ceremony radically changed my way of assisting the full empowerment of the woman-with-child and how I helped parents give spontaneous birth. It provided me with the first public demonstration of shamanic midwifery. It clarified my role in birth as ally, rather than savior, priestess, or doctor. Through birth rituals, I became more aware of how to empower a woman to birth her own baby. Ritual has the ability to tap into the roots of ones' soul and access the multiple levels of reality involved in pregnancy and birth. The Blessingway Ceremony has stood the test of time in helping actualize the visions and dreams of the family and community for the upcoming birth.

The Blessingway is a very positive ritual, affirming that the woman will have a natural and beautiful birth experience. The experience and anticipation of childbirth often constellates very primal fears. In my years as a midwife, I have found it important to address these fears - the shadow side with its frightening monsters. With my background in archetypal psychology, I've found dreamwork to be one of the best prenatal rituals possible. I assist mothers-to-be through prenatal dream council to deal with the road for birth by acknowledging the monsters within and without who might impede a spontaneous birth. Similar to Tibetan Buddhism, where the hungry ghosts are embraced, rather than ignored or forced away, the dream council incorporates the negative psychological forces and spirits into the process of birth preparation. I encourage acceptance of the dark side in dream council rather than repression, which doesn't work in birth. With the earth being round, whatever we try to push away comes back around (through the back door) in the process of giving birth. It is optimal to look at our fears, accept and transform then into power (the shamanic way). It is so very easy to observe in birth that what one resists, one co-creates. Dream council can help change resistance, even of one's most catastrophic fantasy, into acceptance.

Death is perhaps the greatest fear. Any childbirth education that avoids the possibility of death is incomplete and impedes the full shamanic power inherent in giving birth. Birth and death are the flip sides of the same coin. Both rites of passage - birth and death - are affected by culture and its mythology. When we accept the possibility of death-in-birth, we may open up to the mythic dimension of our culture, which gives us the bigger picture. This mythic perspective allows for self-transcendence and a spiritual experience in childbirth. Listening to the dreamworld puts us in touch with more subtle experiences, imaginal realms, and the soul-making power of birth. If we are only focused on birth being an athletic event, a mere (though all consuming) physical process, we miss the opportunity to unify our mind/body/spirit and therefore we unconsciously scatter our energies. The dream council gives us practice in focusing our feelings, images, and responses to intensity in a unified consciousness. Within the dream, fears may surface about giving birth and if we become attuned to this, much healing is possible. Once the road has been cleared of the inner monsters, as dreams drew out a natural knowing of birth, I've found pregnant women experience tremendous trust - a prerequisite for surrender.

Having met the demons, a woman is ready to affirm her inherent ability to birth her child. The Blessingway Ceremony initiates one into the Feminine Mysteries, through which we begin our identification with the Goddesses. We are touched by Changing Woman, who midwifes our passage from maiden to mother. In Blessingway, we learn to give birth to ourselves. We deliver ourselves from the patriarchal notion of women being helpless victims of our biology by fully expressing our unique sexuality (as in giving spontaneous birth). Childbirth can become an act of worship, of sacred sexual expression, given not only to the family and community but to our Goddesses as well.

The Blessingway ritualizes the community's support of the pregnant family. It gives the mother practice in accepting the focus of the tribe and the intensity of that vulnerability. The mother learns to graciously accept gifts for her baby, as she will accept the birthforce, commonly termed labor pains. Each gift (contraction) brings her baby earthside. She is honored for being the one to bring forth new life to the tribe. By being in the sacred circle of Blessingway, the mother realizes she is one with the great round of being. According to where one sits on the medicine wheel (the circle of life) a specific role is to be played. For the mother, her role is that of co-creatrix. The dream council has prepared her with the imaginal tools, the inward skills, to play this role magnificently. The Blessingway Ceremony seals upon her the supportive trust of her people in the task ahead. She is empowered to do what is best-for-life for all our relations.

To perform a Blessingway Ceremony

First, decide if it is to be with women (and girls - infants of either gender are fine) only or for families, including the fathers, brothers, etc. We hold Blessingways of both kinds and find a special healing in each.

For families, we deepen the bonding of the men to babies, and to their lovers as mothers, thereby securing more equal parenting of the baby. To bring about a healing on this earth, the feminine energies must be made stronger and the masculine energies must be gentled. Birth does that to men. Therefore preparing the father to receive his child makes him a more conscious birth partner, more likely to be softened, and more in awe of life. So Blessingway helps to bring about a more balanced world and a true partnership society, by bringing men into the ecstasies of birth and fulfillment of infant and child care.

This description of Blessingway Ceremony will be for women only. If you are planning a Blessingway for families, just include the father alongside the mother with his father (or the husband of the midwife or other male relation) grooming and washing the father to be. Mother and father, side by side, in the north,

To Begin Call a meeting and instruct your guests to prepare themselves ceremoniously. As in preparing for sexual encounters, the more foreplay, the better! (Thanks to Nan Koehler (2) for this simile.) Ask your guests to bathe and wear ceremonial clothing and also to bring a gift for the mother/baby. This gift can be a song, a dance, a poem - as well as the more standard baby shower items. If desired, ask for a potluck dish for the feast following the Blessingway. The ceremonial site can be wherever the mother feels the fullness of joy and deeply empowered. Often it is held on the site where the birth is planned to occur. Equally as often, the ceremony is conducted in a favorite wilderness place (or at least outside). Wherever, great care is shown when preparing the site. Define a circle (with cornmeal, or stones, etc.). Create an altar with the special articles of the mother's medicine bottle. The mother ideally sets up her own altar (mesa, shrine, puja table), though sometimes the midwife and other friends will do this for her. Place statues or drawings of the Goddesses who claim her on the mesa. In the four directions, place a symbol for each element with the fifth direction signifying ether in the middle. Some possibilities: for the earth element, use a crystal; for water, a bowl of water or a seashell; for fire, a candle; for air, incense or a feather; and for ether, a conch shell or mandala. The freedom of this millennium is that we can invent our new ceremonies, based on the ancient ones and make them significant for each of us. I hope that you individualize the ceremony for your heritage and aesthetic so that what has heart and meaning for you is enhanced. As I am part Native American, and also a yogini, I have largely drawn upon these two traditions. The altar can be open for others to place their power objects -- medicine bags, rings, eyeglasses, watches, etc., (everyone has something). In my own practice, all ages (especially toddlers!) participate, and so the altar needs to be sturdy or elevated for safekeeping. Speaking of children at ceremonies, the circle becomes the universal parent and if little ones move around, whoever is closest has the responsibility of helping the nearest child. When all attendants are responsible, the parent needn't run about during the ceremony guarding their child. "It takes a circle (sic) to raise a child".

One gift I always bring and place on the altar is my birthing beads. The idea came from an African tribe. The midwife would carry the birthing beads to each delivery for the mother to hold. After the mother gave birth, she would add another bead to it. I began this ritual in 1978 and the beads tell the story of many women I've attended bedside as a midwife. I give the beads to the mother-to-be at the Blessingway and she holds them during childbirth, adds a bead, and eventually returns it to my medicine basket. It is one of my most powerful allies in midwifery as it carries the courage and testimony of women who have beautifully made the passage. In a long labor, I tell some birth stories as the mother fingers the beads, like a rosemary or mala, with sacred respect. Six of the beads represent my own birthings. In other words, I walk my talk and have naturally birthed six babies, the last three with my husband and I being midwife, and two of those underwater. The beads are from the ecstatic births of Loi Caitlin, Oceana Violet, Cheyenne Coral, Gannon Hamilton, Quinn Ambriel, and Halley Sophia Baker.

Within reach of where the mother sits, place a ball of natural fiber yarn, a special comb or brush, a towel, a bowl of very warm water (covered) and cornmeal. Herbs and flowers that have fallen to the ground naturally can be placed in the bowl of water. Ideally do not pluck the plants, as the energy in the Blessingway must be consistent with the image of future spontaneous birth (e.g. without forceps or being "plucked"). With the same attention to symbolic detail, soil from a riverbed where the stream runs smooth and not crooked, is raked in the direction of the waterflow and brought to the Blessingway to be placed next to the cornmeal. The cornmeal may be ground ceremonially beforehand (or sometimes during the singing).

Each guest is smudged (i.e. incense burning in an abalone shell is brushed around the body with a feather - cedar branches and/or lavender make ideal incense) before sitting around the medicine wheel. The mother is also smudged entering the circle and sitting upon the honored "throne" of pillows (usually in the direction of the north). The place where the mother sits traditionally is a pile of corn seeds so that she is slightly higher than the rest of the circle - exalted. Her midwife sits next to her, or in the direction of the west.

If the mother is to be her own midwife, she begins the ceremony by explaining the program. Otherwise, the midwife begins by speaking, "The ceremony goes as follows: first prayer, then song, next ritual grooming and washing, then gift-giving and lastly more song and prayer." An optional feast may follow. The Blessingway is set as close to the expected due date as possible. If the mother feels like labor has begun or is imminent, she may want to forgo the serious feasting aspect of the ceremony.

The prayer is offered as an expression of gratitude. The whole group merges their mindful attention on the word medicine of prayer. Special thanks are given to Changing Women (Creatrix, Heavenly Mother, or Whomever is "on call" this night, etc.) for the blessing of being a woman, a mother. The ancient ones, the Grandmothers are invited to share a moment in time with their daughters in sacred circle so that all which passes is done in love. Let the will of our Divine Mother be (wo)manifest in Blessingway.

Favorite circle songs are then shared, gently building up in strength, like early labor so often does. The entire Blessingway Ceremony is a template for childbirth. The beginning rituals are like active labor. The gift giving is just like giving birth and the closing songs/prayer, delivery of the placenta and postpartum. A shamanic midwife learns how to read a Blessingway diagnostically and mythically, later sharing what she saw with the pregnant women in order to clear the road for birth.

Possible suggestions for songs are:

We are opening up in sweet surrender
to the luminous love light of our love (repeat first two lines)
We are opening, we are opening (repeat) (3)
(Or substitute the word "love" with "Source" or "Goddess", or replace "love" with "my birth" or "childbirth".)

Sing -

I am an open bamboo
open up and let the light shine through (repeat endlessly) (4)
(Or substitute the words "babe" for light and "come" for shine).

And sing some more:

From a woman we are born into this circle
From a woman we are born into this world (repeat until you know it) (5)

Native Americans have a saying: One sings as if our very lives depended on this song. We sing to blend our voices as one and to let our prayers fall into the heart, becoming an audible wisdom. After singing, the ball of yarn is brought out. A few words about Spider Woman (or the Tantrika Spider Goddess or the Greek Fates, etc.) weaving the world can be shared as each woman present in the circle takes the ball of yarn in turn, and wraps a bit of it around her wrist. When all the women are bound together by the circle of yarn in sisterhood, a few words about being united through our One Mother, can be told. Then, each breaks off the yarn and wraps the dangling pieces around her wristband. Though it appears as if each is now separate, we still are all cut from the same, one ball of yarn. We all share the same DNA woven into every cell of our bodies and making this connection (wo)manifest honors life itself. Each woman continually wears the yarn bracelet as a reminder of the Blessingway until the mother gives birth. Then, as tradition has it, the yarn is burned or wrapped up into ones medicine bundle.

Ritual grooming precedes the washing. The hairstyle of the mother to give birth is changed. All Navajo women wear their hair in butterfly whorls. When a woman is to become a mother, she ties her hair up in a chignon. The rest of us just change our hairstyles in any which way. If the mother is wearing her hair tied up, bring it down to symbolize the change in her mind from carefree maiden to responsible mother. Traditionally, it is the mother of the pregnant woman who combs her hair but the closest sister will do. This is often the most moving part of the ceremony, to have the future grandmother brushing her daughter's hair, as she did a thousand times before. Here the transmission occurs between the generations.

Then comes Ritual Washing of the feet by the midwife. If the woman is her own midwife, the woman who will act as her doula (i.e. helper for postpartum care) does the washing. The midwife is humble and awake to her proper position at birth: at the feet of the numinous mother. Cornmeal is rubbed into the mother's feet to dry them. Then a towel is used to brush off the cake of corn (millet meal, oatmeal or whatever is your sacred grain) and shine up her feet. This is a purifying practice that through reflexology, clears the road for birth. The most precious substance of the culture is used, the body offering of the Corn Mother herself. This demonstrates what a privilege it is to give birth for the people.

After the grooming and washing, gifts are given. Like birthforce waves, they usually come slowly at first and build up momentum gradually. Then the rush of gifts at the end (when folks realize they might be the last to present their gift if they don't hurry up). How attentive and gracious a mother while receiving these gifts is indicative of how open she will be to the movements of labor and delivery. A shamanic midwife keeps breathing in an open manner and observes how the mother breathes throughout the ceremony. Adjustments/suggestions on how to greet "gifts"

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Dear Jeannine, et al.,
Finding you on the web is a joy! Then, reading though your articles, especially the 'spider & fear' one, was a blessing... or , rather, many blessings.

Many years ago , a friend and I welcomed you to give talks in Huntington Beach California, when Halley was a baby.

Later, another friend and I attended a ritual evening you gave at in Portland, Oregon. My first "meeting ", though, came many years earlier, in my teens, when my mother bought Prenatal Yoga . Your wisdom has been a boon through four births, years of nursing and more. Now, with my son and daughters in their teens and beyond, in my crone era, and newly widowed, it's a wonderful thing to find a familiar voice. Many thanks for your wisdom, courage , and creativity.

Jamie F. Brown

Babies Are Aware
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