Southern California has its share of peculiar rituals. At the Park Newport apartments in Newport Beach last Saturday, people celebrated the coming of the weekend with a ceremonial washing of cars. They performed the rites of mixed doubles on the tennis courts and headed off in search of the sacred champagne brunch.
Anyone who happened to poke his head into the Lido Room at that complex, however, witnessed a ritual that fits less neatly into the scheme of contemporary Orange County life.
In the center of the room, carefully positioned on woven "medicine blankets," were the wings of hawks, the feathers of ravens, gourd rattles, miniature totem poles, deerskin drums, shells, masks, flowers, crystals, stones and candles.
Surrounding this "altar," 20 women sat cross-legged on folded aerobics mats. As rhythmic American Indian chants issued from a large cassette player, the initiates awaited the start of the "Medicine Wheel," an ancient Indian ceremony which would culminate in a vision quest and the smoking of a sacred medicine pipe.
"I'm expecting something, I don't know what, but I really am," one woman said, as the group members introduced themselves.
The teacher of this daylong Coastline Community College class--officially titled "The Path of the Heart: The Native American Indian Medicine Wheel"--seated herself on the north side of the circle: the side of wisdom, she would later explain. But Jane Goldberg--also known as Raven Fire Woman--was straightforward about her credentials as a guide into the realm of Indian spirituality: "I'm not an Indian. I'm not a shaman. I'm a Jewish mother," she said.
Goldberg added that she is also a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, with a master's degree in psychological counseling from Cal State Fullerton and a Ph.D. in "transformational psychology" from International College, an "alternative university" in Los Angeles. It's in her role as a therapist that she uses and teaches "expressive arts therapy," a technique which, she explains, blends ancient traditions and modern counseling techniques to help people achieve balance in their lives and realize their "own personal visions."
Goldberg acknowledged that the mainstream therapeutic community tends to circle the wagons whenever ideas that might be seen as flaky come along, and she conceded that transformational psychology is, to say the least, controversial.
"It's the newest form of psychology, it's in its infancy, and it's real hard to define it yet," she said, adding that the technique is being taught at "at least 15 schools"--some alternative and some mainstream.
Goldberg also pointed out that tradition-minded therapists are not the only people who resist what she and others across the country are doing. "Some traditional Indians feel that I'm betraying or exploiting their culture," she said. "But my goal is to develop compassion and respect for all people."
By the time she was introduced to Native American culture, Goldberg already knew from her conventional training about the psychological and anthropological importance of ritual and ceremony. She knew, for instance, that psychologist Carl Jung had said that "neurosis can be caused by a lack of ceremony in one's life."
Rite of Passage
Then, while working on her doctoral dissertation, Goldberg said, she discovered that an actual "moment of completion"--a rite of passage of sorts, was important for the therapeutic or creative process to be successful.
Around that same time, an Algonquin Indian medicine woman conducted a medicine wheel ceremony at International College, and Goldberg began to think that this ritual was the sort of "moment of completion" she was looking for.
One of the first things she learned from this woman and her teachers, she said, is that "to Indians, Mother Earth is the most sacred thing."
The Indian woman impressed upon her that most Americans not only fail to look spiritually at the earth, they "don't even see it."
"Before I met this Indian woman, I didn't know there were birds in Newport Beach," Goldberg told the group.
The medicine wheel, Goldberg said, changed her view of nature. In that ancient ceremony, she said, Indians would sit around a "sacred circle, symbolic of all life" in which they had placed various sacred objects. The Indians would then head into the wilds on a vision quest to search for their own sacred objects, which, depending on the manner in which they were found, would offer certain "signs," Goldberg said.
The Indians "empowered" these objects by placing them on the medicine wheel (which could be any place they declared a sacred altar) and then incorporated them into shields. These shields symbolized their life at that moment, and also "protected them, gave them power" and gave them the ability to "transform" themselves, Goldberg said.