Today’s column is a guest submission by Tahni Nikitins, a long-time Pagan and writer in multiple genres. Tahni’s work has appeared at Gods & Radicals, Eternal Haunted Summer, and Nomad.
Our weekend section is always open for submissions. Please send queries to email@example.com.
Author’s note: Spiritual and magical practices should not be used as a substitute for seeking professional mental health support, but rather should be used as a supplement to professional support to create holistic psychological and spiritual healing process.
Perspectives on Trauma, part two: Pagan Practices for Healing from Trauma
In my previous article, I discussed what trauma looks like through a Pagan lens. Today I want to explore some options for practice which Paganism can offer survivors on their healing paths. Please note that this is far from an exhaustive list of practices —think of it rather as a starter pack of practices that can be adapted to fit whatever path a person may find themselves on, adaptable to whatever needs they may have. Every individual is fully within their rights to create their own healing practices to add to this list.
Most importantly, remember that none of the following practices are substitutes for seeing a qualified mental health professional and they should not be treated as such. Some people shy away from doing the heavy lifting of psychological work, but healing is not easy and without doing that part of the work it will be incomplete. Besides, when healing from trauma, we need all the tools we can fit into our toolbox. Ideally, spiritual practice will help to supplement the healing work done in therapy and thereby offer a holistic healing experience, but spiritual work should by no means supplant therapy.
With that said, let’s get into it!
Ritual baths are a wonderful starting place for creating an on-going but simple healing practice. Think of it as self-care, but with a little dose of magic thrown in. Ritual baths historically are used for cleansing, especially prior to or after a greater ritual working. In my own practice, however, I have found that they can be just as effective for cleansing the self of persistent negative energies. I find ritual baths to be most effective in healing as an ongoing practice — the bath is not a one-and-done event, and it is most effective when used with other practices. If, like me, a person suffers from depression, this practice can doubly serve in caring for hygiene that might sometimes fall to the wayside.
My ritual baths utilize locally-sourced quartz crystals as well as lavender oil and sea salt. The hot water and soothing scents help to relax the muscles, loosen stiff joints, and can help to ease anxiety. Salt has long been considered to have purifying and protective qualities, and the heat opens the pores and causes sweating, clearing out the skin a bit. The crystals are believed to absorb the negative energy that is drawn out through all of these processes, and I like to either boil them in salt water or place them in direct sunlight to “clean” them afterwards.
Burning things is also a favorite among many Pagans. Whereas ritual baths tap primarily into the cleansing properties of water, this one taps into the cleansing properties of fire. Fire has long been viewed as both a cleansing element (blades and needles historically have been passed through flame to sterilize them) and as a way to commune with the divine (offerings and sacrifices the world over have often been burnt). Most often I have observed, and personally utilized, fire for both cleansing and catharsis. Items that are associated in some way with trauma can be ritually burned, as a symbolic burning away of that energy. Alternatively, one can endow a neutral object such as a poppet or a bone with one’s negative feelings and associations and then toss this item into the fire. (Please be sure that whatever is burnt doesn’t contain rubber, plastic, or other things that can release poison into the air!) It can also provide a great feeling of catharsis to watch the flames consume that item and its associated negative energies, rendering the item to ash and neutralizing the energies within. A more earth-based version of this is burying items that carry associations of the trauma or negative energies, giving those negative things over to the earth in a symbolic funeral. One could additionally do a water-based version, involving expelling the negative energy into an object such as a stone and casting it into a natural body of water (again, just make sure the item is not damaging to the environment).
Visualization is something that comes in handy in a wide variety of Pagan practices, and can be used as a tool for coping with trauma effects, depression, and anxiety. Many survivors may struggle with intrusive thoughts, negative self-talk or beliefs, and even flashbacks. Once the practitioner is able to identify these things happening, visualization could act as one tool to disrupt these thoughts and feelings. It can be difficult to get to the point where one is able to identify these negative intrusions, let alone name them (there really is something to the power of being able to call something by its true name.) With therapy, one can develop the tools to identify and name these things as they arise, and perhaps also the things which trigger them. Once that is done, it is much easier to implement a relatively quick and easy visualization to calm, soothe, ground, and bring peace.
Many Pagan practitioners have reported a simple visualization of white light illuminating or engulfing them being quite powerful. Often the white light visualized is understood to carry peace, love, and healing. Some report visualizing the white light scrubbing away the “black spots” left by traumatic events, which represent intrusive thoughts and negative self-talk/beliefs.
A practice which may be complementary, which I learned from a previous therapist of mine (also a Pagan), was called “the five by five by five.” This is a grounding meditation which roots the practitioner back into the present moment and back into their body. The idea is to work through all five senses, naming quietly five things that those senses are picking up, and to repeat that process five times, trying to name new things each time. It can be hard, but it very effectively disrupts negative thought forms, and I enjoy it as it becomes something of a game! This can be done anywhere, and I have had success with breaking out of some seriously bad thought spirals with it. One could feasibly utilize this strategy to disrupt the negative thoughts and follow it up with a visualization to replace those negative feelings with more positive ones.
Being in nature can be an especially powerful healing practice for Pagans, as many Pagan paths are nature religions in one way or another. This can be a wonderful way to tap into the healing powers of the earth element, perhaps by hiking and meditating on the rhythmic pounding of one’s feet on the earth, or getting out in the garden and putting one’s hands in the soil. Many Pagans speak of the calming, soothing practice of getting away from the bustle and noise of urban areas and hiking, or simply sitting in the forest to ground to the earth and listen to the sounds of the woods — wind moving through the boughs, bird calls, animals rooting through the undergrowth. Gardening can be a wonderful way to refocus one’s energy toward something positive and productive, and can be incredibly grounding, given the physical interaction with the earth and the plants growing from it. It brings us back to our bodies, and can help us “get out” of our heads.
Any of these activities provide an outlet for some of the physical manifestations of trauma as well, whether it’s hiking to work out the tension and soreness built up in muscles from anxiety or depression, or working off that built-up energy through a gardening session. (Don’t underestimate what a workout gardening can be!) Others have mentioned visiting the ocean and finding an isolated place to reconnect with that primal life source, sticking hands or feet into the waves and visualizing the water washing away negative energies.
One follower of Cernnunos, Taran Destingr, described the effectiveness of this strategy for her, and said it better than I could: “Letting go of the trauma, even for a moment, is good for you. It’s like a massage. It helps you to relax so the work can begin. It doesn’t mean the work to heal completely will be painless, but it will be possible, where it might not be if you were still tense from dwelling on it non-stop.”
Body modification is a surprisingly effective way to work out trauma built up in the body. This could be as simple as cutting one’s hair, a symbolic shedding of the old to make room for new growth, or it could be as intense as tattooing or body piercing. I enjoy blending ritual hair-cutting with ritual burning or burying — cutting the hair symbolically sheds the old, while burning or burying it symbolically puts it to rest.
I have also used tattoos as a way of of marking a difficult time in my life and serving as a symbol of my survival. The first such tattoo was an ouroboros, which I associate with Jörmungandr, a reminder to myself that I survived, that I was not destroyed, but that I walked out of my trauma alive and strong. In this way, tattooing may be used to symbolically mark the end of a difficult journey. Piercings may be used in the same way. All of these forms of body modification serve to re-empower the survivor with control of their own body and control over how they project themselves to the world. In a way, that is its own form of magic.
An additional bonus I have found with body modification is that it enables me to literally wear symbols of my story on my skin without giving into the urge to self-harm. Self-harm is something I struggle with a lot, and using controlled, sanitary forms of body modification has been an aid in that struggle. The release of endorphins caused by the pain of a tattoo or a piercing is an extra, if short lived, perk.
Shadow work or shadow journeying and soul retrieval are the heaviest of Pagan healing practices. They’re both shamanic practices which entail directly facing trauma and its effects to metaphorically “overcome” the darkness of what has been done to the spirit. Shadow work often involves a lot of difficult reflection on what happened, how it came to be, and how to move forward. In polling the Pagan communities I frequent, I found that many, many Pagans identify therapy as a form of shadow work, and I have similarly heard Pagans speak about therapists as modern shamans specializing in the workings of the inner world.
Because shadow work can be so psychologically trying, I do not recommend doing it on one’s own, and I don’t recommend undertaking it without also undertaking therapy. Shadow work may entail meditative practices, shamanic journeying, consulting with spirits/archetypes/gods (depending on one’s practice and beliefs) and it may even involve withdrawing from a normal sphere of existence for a while and going somewhere neutral and quiet. This may mean a camping trip or a visit to a loved one’s home.
In the process of a shadow journey, the practitioner will likely need support in going into that darkness and seeking to understand it, and they will likely need someone to help them process it. This person can be another Pagan practitioner who can act as a guide, or simply an understanding loved one. Therapy is still highly recommended, as one can best process the darkness with the help of a trained professional.
Soul retrieval similarly shouldn’t be undertaken alone. It may be helpful to have a shamanic guide to lead the process or a loved one nearby to help ground and process the experience once it’s done. Typically this involves a shamanic journey, so one should have some experience with journeying before attempting to undertake a soul retrieval. Many Pagans speak about needing to continue the work to reintegrate the retrieved soul fragment, and — I think you know where I’m going with this by now — one of the best ways of doing this is through a sustained therapeutic practice with a trained professional. Engaging in routine self-care is also incredibly important for following up a soul retrieval, to help with the on-going healing practice. Many of the items on this list would serve well for that purpose.This is just a short list of options at a survivor’s disposal in the context of Paganism. Many other tools for healing exist, in the form of ritualized chanting, a wide variety of meditative practices, dance, and many, many others. As I’m sure you gathered, I am a huge proponent of therapy. It feels worth acknowledging here that for some people therapy can be difficult to access, either due to financial barriers such as bad insurance, or due to societal pressures and stigmas (though I believe we Pagans have all of the strength in the world to overcome such stigmas.) Even just finding a good and accessible therapist can be a trial – some shopping around may be required.
Another thing I truly believe can’t be stressed enough: every individual’s path to healing will look different. Not only will all paths look different, but all individuals have the power within them to create their own healing rituals and practices, or to adapt existing ones as needed. Perhaps the best thing Paganism has to offer survivors is the empowerment to take control of their own healing.
Best of luck to everyone undergoing the hard process of healing in the wake of trauma, whatever that trauma may be. Your experiences and feelings surrounding them are valid, and though it may not always feel like it, you absolutely have the potential to heal from this. Be kind to yourself.
Editor’s note: As Tahni mentions throughout this series, spiritual practice can provide great tools for healing from trauma, but it’s important, especially in urgent situations, to make use of other practices as well. There are many hotlines and services set up to help survivors of trauma, and we encourage any reader dealing with these issues to make use of those resources. In an emergency situation, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-800-273-8255 (US-English)/1-888-628-9454 (US-Spanish); 1-833-456-4566 (Canada); +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK).