Episode #145 Re-Enchantment: Creating rituals to re-discover our embodied sovereignty with Isla McLeod
What do we do when we feel disempowered, disconnected, alone and afraid? We can throw ourselves more deeply into social media, drink, drugs and deeper disconnection…or we can build rituals with intention, creativity, gratitude and kindness that re-connect us with the web of life.
Isla McLeod is a creator of ceremonies, ritual designer, transformational healer and companion at the thresholds. She has dedicated her life to bridging the gap between humanity and the soul of the earth. In her new book, Rituals for Life: A guide to creating meaningful rituals inspired by nature, she brings decades of experience in creating ritual and ceremony to the exploration of what ritual is and how it can enhance our lives, returning our sense of engagement, of being part of something greater, of ‘turning up the dial on the beautiful’.
In this, our second conversation on the podcast, we explore the origins of the book in Isla’s own childhood in Nigeria and Japan, and the sense she had of being surrounded by rituals that held real power to connect. From there, we explore her sense of devotion to the Earth as a living being as she encountered it in Dartmoor and the sense of ritual as a doorway to the sacred. We delve deeply into what ritual is and how we can each create our own rituals for the thresholds that matter: what the key ingredients are and what we can play with and make our own. And finally, we explore a ritual for each season, that touch on different aspects of our lives, different thresholds and doorways.
Manda: My guest this week is a friend of the podcast. Isla MacLeod Was with us first back in episode 101, and I will put a link in the show notes to that episode. This week she’s back because she’s written a new book. It’s called Rituals for Life: A Guide to Creating Meaningful Rituals Inspired by Nature. And as you’ll hear, I really love this book. It’s beautiful to hold. It’s beautiful to read. And the rituals inside it are magnificent and empowering and give us back that sense of reconnecting with the web of life that I genuinely believe is our route forward to creating the conscious evolution, the willing evolution of our own consciousness, that we need and that arises when we bring all of our intention to bear on that reconnection. For people who don’t know her, Isla is a creator of ceremonies, a ritual designer, a transformational healer, and describes herself as a companion at the threshold. Her book is beautiful. So people of the podcast, please do welcome for the second time, Isla MacLeod.
Manda: So Isla, friend of the podcast, welcome back for a second time. How are you this beautiful Sunday morning?
Isla: Thank you, Manda so much for having me back. Actually, it’s not very sunny here. We’ve got lovely rain at last.
Manda: Oh, I have rain envy. We got enough to half fill an 80 litre rain butt off the side of the polytunnel last night. Oh, well, maybe we should be doing rituals to bring the rain back. I think that would be a really good thing. So today we’re going to be talking about your book, Rituals for Life: A Guide to Creating Meaningful Rituals Inspired by Nature. And this is kind of where I wish that we did this podcast as a video as well, because I am holding the book up and nobody can see it. Sorry, guys, you need to go and look for it because it’s a genuinely beautiful thing. The writing is gorgeous and poetic and lovely and meaningful, but the book itself is, I think, physically lovely, and the imagery within it is beautiful. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came about as a physical thing? Did you help to design it or is it just that you happened to land with very good publishers?
Isla: A combination of both. The publishers were the perfect fit, I feel, for what I envisaged the book to be. Which I think way back in my proposal for the book, I had this image of it being a green hardback book with gold embossed, and actually it’s come out not far from that. They really took a lot of attention with the detail of the fonts and the page thickness and the colour. So it has become something which does feel really beautiful to hold.
Manda: Yeah. Because the pages are..I Noticed that when I was reading it first time through, it’s a definite different quality to just the structure of the pages than your average book. And what’s amazing as someone who’s kind of skirted on the edges of UK publishing for quite a while, is that it’s an imprint of Orion, and I had never contemplated Orion as being particularly spiritually aligned, but it’s great. And I remember when I was involved in trying to design covers, I wanted a green cover for one of the Boudica books, and they went, No, absolutely not. Green’s unlucky green doesn’t sell. What, really? No. And then you looked around and and I realised they were right. There were no green covered books at that time, which was the early 2000’s. There was, I don’t know, a myth, some kind of sympathetic magic happening inside publishing that Green wasn’t going to work. And then you’ve got a green cover from one of the biggest publishing houses in the country. So they didn’t complain. Did they offer the green or did you ask for it?
Isla: The original cover came back as a sort of dark maroon, sort of red, and I didn’t like it. So they listened. No, they were very responsive to any comments that I had. And yeah, we changed some of the other, the imagery on the spine. And then it all just came together beautifully, I thought with the green.
Manda: There we go. I could talk publishing details for the entire podcast, but let’s not because nobody else except me is interested in those. Let’s go back and look at how you came to write this, because you and I have talked before and I know little bits about your life and I will put a link in the show notes for people who want to go back and listen to that podcast. So we don’t have to rehash most of it. But I didn’t know about your early life. That you were brought up in Nigeria and Japan and then sent to boarding school. And you describe creating for yourself rituals at boarding school, which just struck me as beautiful. And also I didn’t go to boarding school, but my sense of it is that anybody who does something slightly unusual is going to get their head kicked in and the unusual thing is going to be stopped. And yet it feels like you managed to maintain this throughout your school time. So can you tell us a bit about your early history and your exposure to and experience of ritual as you were growing up.
Isla: Mmm happily to. Well, Nigeria came at age six. We moved to Nigeria and just instantly being met with a completely different way of being, day to day. For my young curious mind, I was just wanting to know more and understand. From going to the local markets and seeing the medicine men there with all their different herbs and smells, looking very wild eyed. Or just to the altars on the side of the road to honour their ancestors. And then going to Japan, similarly experiencing where the sacred was woven into the everyday. So that there would be people coming from work and their lunch break in their suits, going to a temple in one of the parks to make an offering to their ancestors. And that really spoke to me and then returning to England to be a part of a boarding school experience, where there wasn’t that and it wasn’t a religious school, so there was no church or chapel or anything. And I think having been exposed to those different cultures, I felt that there was a real lack in my life, where I was looking for meaning. And through acquiring little bits and pieces from markets and places where I travelled, you have a portion of about maybe three foot of a shelf that was yours to decorate however you wish. And mine had these two Nigerian wooden figurines, a sort of medicine pouch, and a few other items I’d collected. And I just would sit and look at them for a time, often feeling very lonely or homesick. And I found some comfort in them. And over time it became a bit more of a ritual. I Had a bell that I would ring when I would sit down, and when I finished and I would leave little bits of my sweets, at the feet of these characters.
Isla: And I would really just express myself to them and really just ask, usually just for help or just that I could go home. Really feeling incredibly far from my parents living where they did. But I found some sense of connection in doing that. There was something that eased that feeling of abandonment in me. Sadly, it didn’t last that long, and it wasn’t necessarily that I was bullied, or that people I remember making fun of me, but I just realised nobody else was doing it and this maybe was a bit odd. So I started hiding when people came in the dorm, you know, making sure they didn’t see me doing those kinds of things. And I realised it wasn’t acceptable to be, or at least I thought it wasn’t acceptable. So through from sort of ten to my early twenties really there was a real absence of that in my life. And that was also the time that I became very lost in myself and turned to drink and drugs and other things. So I can see where there is that parallel, that for me, without a ritual life, I feel I’m not able to connect with those forces beyond me or even make sense of my own experience. That I have to sort of numb myself or yeah, almost feel like I don’t know how to live in this world. It was something of having to just kind of completely separate myself through my teens. But thankfully it kind of came back around again, which we talked about in the last podcast.
Manda: Yes, but let’s talk a little bit about it for people who haven’t listened, because in this book, again, you said that you had a figure of a Buddha who was smiling back at you, and that was one of the things that you’d engaged with. And then you did go on a Buddhist retreat, which then brought you back into the circle of spiritual engagement, I guess we could call it. So just tell us a little bit about that, because not everybody is up to speed.
Isla: Yes. I think, you know, within our psyche, there are certain symbols that really resonate. And I always felt that with the Buddha and I found this Buddha in the back of a shop and he had a scar in the wood all the way down his heart. And he was reduced because of this scar. And it makes him even more precious to me. And I would for years after that, that was the one thread of some kind of spiritual connection I kept, which was just to sit and I suppose meditate with the Buddha, light some incense. And living in Japan, I got to visit lots of temples where the Buddha was very present. So that image of what I didn’t know how to express, but that image of somebody who had embodied awakening, who had found peace, really resonated for me on a deep level. And through the times I felt very lost and slightly away from myself, there was something that was still calling to me. That there is another way. There is something of freedom that awaits you and that you can really access that peace, that smiling Buddha, that I could just feel the contentment still. He’s just sitting over here! Exuding that way of being that I suppose for me just inspired that potential within me. And then visiting this retreat in Devon, learning more about the Buddhist teachings, finding ways of beginning to work with my mind, my emotions. And also creating this sense of devotion, which, for me, I really longed for and couldn’t find in the Christian church or any other forms of religion. But for me, there was something of wanting to bow down to the earth, and through that time on retreat, I found my own way of expressing that devotion, that didn’t feel like it was confined to any particular form or religion, but it just felt in response to my heart’s longing.
Manda: Beautiful. And then at some point within that time period, again, you describe in the book you were on Dartmoor and you made a commitment to give voice for the Earth as I understood it. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Because that sounds to me like one of the stepping off points for you in your connecting your sense of the sacred and the need for ritual, with with exactly what you just said, the devotion to the earth.
Isla: Yes. I’d had an experience listening to a teaching by this beautiful monk, Shenyen, that awoke something in me. And I left that teaching and just went to sit on this bench that was overlooking this beautiful valley with the river dart. And there was a huge outpouring of emotion, of grief and joy and so much of the feelings that I’d been looking for in some way to sort of make sense of my life. And it all just became clear in that moment, that my way was to be a service to spirit. And how that looked, I didn’t know. I considered becoming a Buddhist nun briefly. I didn’t think it was really what was calling for me, but I wanted to, through my service, be able to be a vessel for the earth in some way. Be a vessel for life, to just get out the way, really, and allow life to move through me. And I think I also describe in the book this feeling of wanting to provide a bridge or even become the bridge, so that where there had been all this sense of separation for myself with the natural world, but with the spiritual life within myself, I was looking for ways to heal that sense of separation. And a big part of this book really comes from that prayer of how can we create those bridges and become the bridge so that we don’t feel that sense of separation anymore.
Manda: Beautiful. Yes, thank you. Because that’s what really comes through in the book. And I’m interested that you didn’t want to become a Buddhist nun, because there is a huge amount of ritual and structure and in a way, other people defining how you be a nun, right? And what I get a sense of with this book and with speaking to you before, is that you want to take that sense of structure and holding from the earth and to be free, then, to be the bridge that you just described and to create something that feels much to me, much older. I think that it feels and this may well be my projection, that we all have an ancestral lineage that goes back to people who were forager hunters. That’s inevitable. And somewhere along the line, we lost that. And as we move into the 21st century and are endeavouring to head towards emergence and you talk at one point in the book about ritual enabling you to be part of the conscious evolution of the earth. Then we need somehow to reconnect with what we already knew and then build it into something that works with who we are now and how we live now. And and what I found reading this book is that you are living that, and able to communicate it in a way that people can hear. And before we started, you were talking about having been at a festival recently and there being a ceremony or a ritual that you were then helping with. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Isla: So I was at Into the Wild festival, a really beautiful festival. And for the first time, really presenting my book to an audience. And for me, with any ritual or ceremony, I want people to feel involved and giving of their energy and participating. So I realised that any time I speak about my book, it can’t just be sort of me sitting there reading. It needed to involve some element of ritual. So with some lovely hazel sticks that I’d spent the night before whittling into arrows, I invited them all to use wool and wrap that around the hazel in three different prayers. So they had a prayer which was for themselves, for their own life. A prayer for their community, and then a prayer for the wider earth and life. And in doing that, I would be singing and drumming and just supporting and holding the space, so that they can really access what for them is their deeper wish and prayer. And they put feathers on the top. So they all had these prayer arrows, which I then invited them to take home and plant. Either in their garden or in a houseplant, to enable those prayers to ripple out into the earth and also with the feathers up into the skies. And something so simple, that only takes sort of 10 minutes to do; I could see people walking away, standing a little taller, holding this prayer arrow with a real sense of sovereignty. And something so simple, which also connects people with the natural being. So we connected with the spirit of hazel and obviously the wool from the sheep. And that creativity that maybe not enough of us get the opportunity to really express in our day to day life; to see something they’d made that’s really beautiful. For a lot of people, I think was quite something quite special.
Manda: And I think… When you described your point on Dartmoor and and I’ve participated in rituals like the one that you just described. And one of the things that always seems to be at this edge where we touch our ordinary lives, the sacred, is that mix of grief and joy together. That it almost seems impossible to have the one without the other; that they are two sides of the same coin as such. So naff, but they are they are conjoined. And that if we can learn to flow through both of them equally, then the liberation that you describe out of connection with the Earth seems to arise out of that. So I’m aware that you did your own ritual to set the intent for the book, and I’m wondering whether, first of all, could you describe that and then in the doing of it, did the flow of the book arise from that? Or did the flow of the book come to you in another way?
Isla: So I felt before starting the book, once I’d received the publication deal, that I had done various other rituals with the proposal, but this was the feeling before starting of wanting to really gather all the support that I could muster; in helping me create this book in a way that also enabled me to overcome my shortcomings and my doubts and fears. I hadn’t written anything of this length before, and there were I could see a lot of old habits, thoughts that were arising and making it very difficult to start. So I made an intention bundle and I described that at the beginning of the book. Which is a way of gathering all these beings that represent different things or qualities and placing them in a beautiful way on some fabric, and wrapping that up, folding it. And I took that to this beautiful chestnut tree in my garden, which has become a temple, and I buried that under the roots of this tree. And I knew the tree was going to be the elder who I would go to during the writing. That I needed an anchor point for me to connect with the Earth wisdom and that the tree would be that for me. So I wanted to feed the roots, and after planting that bundle, I had the inspiration that whenever I would be writing, I wanted to feed the roots that are feeding me and giving me that inspiration. So I would journey down to the river in Bruton where I live and gather some water and carry that back, a kind of five minute walk. And I would just charge up the waters with my gratitude, really just giving thanks for all the ways I was being supported and then offer that water all blessed up and charged to the roots of this tree.
Isla: So it felt like I was offering something back to everything that was that was enabling me to write this book. And I think, although I had quite a clear outline of how I thought it would go, inevitably, I’m sure you know, the creative process is not linear. And I learned many things about my own way of creativity that I hadn’t seen before in this way. And it was very enlightening. Just about the way my mind works. And I couldn’t do things chapter for chapter. And there were things that came in as well along the way that needed changing, so it was quite fluid in that respect. And I think that the tending through the rituals throughout the whole writing process; so there were phases, whether that was seasonally or with the moon, that I would also just do other ceremonies just to kind of really keep myself on track. And I think it all infused the book with this, this energy actually. So when I received the first physical copy and since then I have really been charging it up in various ways. It comes around with me like a baby and taking it to visit all my beloveds, all the elder trees that have been a part of my journey. And I’ve taken it to rivers and oceans and it feels like it’s imbued with all of that intention. It’s not just an inanimate object, it really has got that spirit moving through it. At least that’s how I feel with it.
Manda: Yeah. And holding it, it feels like that. And I wonder, would you like to read us just the first paragraph of the invitation? Because I’m guessing you probably went home after that first creation of intent and the ritual, and this feels to me like it flowed as a setting of intent. Am I right?
Isla: Yes, it did. Yes. The first paragraph: Welcome, friend. I invite you to join me beside an ancient hearth, in this wild place where oaks grow and moss sleeps. And the dancing flames of the fire warm your weary bones. From this place, our journey begins. A journey to explore your relationship with life; revealing what is sacred to you and enriches your life with meaning and connection.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. Yes. So, as you said, nothing is linear when we’re writing. I love that. Because certainly with novels, you can read the books where someone has created a linear plot in their head. They’ve written it down on cards and they lift the next card off the pile and they write what happens and then they do that again. And it’s completely dead and horrible to read. And this is a very alive book. So it doesn’t surprise me that it was it was utterly non-linear in its creation. But as it’s come out, it’s got three distinct parts. It’s got the first part exploring what is ritual about, what’s it for. And the second part is looking at how we can create our own rituals. And then the third part is offering some rituals linked to the seasons, which makes a lot of sense in just about every context of everything you’ve talked about. So let’s head into part one. And what is the purpose of ritual? Because listening to you, I hear no distinction really between connecting with the sacred and ritual. That these two, that for you ritual is your way into the sacred. I’m sure you meditate as well, and that you go and stand in the water and the things that the rest of us do. But you’re also very, very good at creating rituals appropriate for the moment and that are heart open and have integrity. So what for you is the purpose and the essence of ritual? And if you want to read out a little bit from there, that would be fine too.
Isla: Well, I suppose for me the potential of ritual is still flowering. The more that I walk this path, I feel like the seeds I’ve sown over time just keep bearing fruit. And I’m feeling more and more the benefits that it could offer us at this time. I think partly the sense of personal empowerment for me feels really important. That in so many ways we’re being told how to live our lives and we can keep this part of ourselves, this relationship with the invisible or with the sacred, as something which is within us and that we have sovereignty over. How we wish to devote ourselves to whoever we wish to devote ourselves to. And to give people that sense of inner authority; that I can create a spiritual life that is unique and resonant for myself and I don’t need to worry about how anyone else chooses to do that. I don’t need to criticise anyone else for their choices, but this is how I wish to show up and honour life. And I think also the sense of it opening up what has become increasingly limited in our understanding of reality and the sense of perception and that ability to be more attuned to the subtle energies of life, the invisible. And also cultivating those invisible realms of the imagination and intention and intuition. So starting to give value again to those things, which through the more rational, scientific kind of ways of thinking, have become less valid in our society. And I think in doing so, for me, life just turns itself on.
Isla: You then have this whole understanding of the miracles of the everyday and the wonder of life and that sense of re enchantment, I think is so necessary when life has become, for many of us, not just grey, but dark and blackened. And so turning up the dial on the beautiful and experiencing all the different feelings fully and intentionally; So, I’m not by any means saying it needs to all be joy and blissful, but having a container of ritual to explore your grief, or to be present with real losses in your life. That there can be this full palette of human experience that we can really show up for fully, without numbing ourselves out. And I think giving some acceptance, too, of that. That there is all this realm of experience, none is better than the other. There might be more pleasant to experience, but actually we’re here for it all. And so finding a way that you can really also acknowledge those transitions of life, the different phases we go through, those beginnings and those endings. Not just the simple kind of physical birth of a baby, but any time that, for instance, the first day of school for a child or moving into a new home or a new job. As well as those endings which come along with this need to let go. And usually I think some expression of grief really helps to heal that sense of separation and create more of a understanding, as you said, of that relationship between joy and grief and praise and grief; that they’re really inextricably linked.
Isla: And so it feels like it kind of fills out the whole spectrum of what it means to be human for me, that otherwise I know in my day to day life, I don’t always have the sort of the time to really attend to. So Ritual gives me the permission to say, okay, this hour is for me to really sit with myself and see what’s present and what wants to emerge. So with that, I think also just the very simple act of healing that can come. I’ll explicitly say, because it was really through beginning a life of ritual, that I felt myself re-woven into the fabric of nature. That I realised I wasn’t a part. And so not only healing within myself, my emotional experiences and my life journey, but also it helps us integrate and understand our natural cycles; the cycles of life and birth, death and rebirth. But that we’re also then understanding that we are part of the fabric of the cosmos and we’re inextricably linked with all these cycles. Which for me gives me a whole sense of like, Wow, I am supported here. Like I’ve got all of this energy from the stars and the sun and the moon, that have got my back if I just align with them at the right time and give myself in a good way to them. Then I don’t feel so lonely and I don’t feel so disempowered.
Manda: Well, that’s… I mean, if everybody could access this, the not feeling alone, the not feeling disempowered; feeling empowered. Feeling exactly as you said, that we are part of that greater web of life, that all we have to do then is be authentic within that and connect to it openhearted, strong hearted, clear hearted, full hearted. And it takes a lot of the striving against a flow out of life, I think, which is broadly what you just described. You said whoever we wish to devote ourselves to, and you have very clearly devoted yourself to the earth, to the web of life, to being a bridge from that. And I wonder over the years since you made that commitment, whether your sense of what it is you’re devoting yourself to has evolved and grown, or has it remained as it was when you first made that commitment?
Isla: In essence, the Earth is who I bow down to. But within that, there have been many wonderful and unexpected expressions of how, or who, might come forth for me to work with at different times in my life. So I talk about in the book that I’ve worked with these five branches of inspiration for ritual, and they’re all connected with the natural world. But one of them (symbols, myth and archetypes) is the one that I was least able to explore in the book. Because the nature of it is that we all have these unique, we all have a soul that is uniquely resonant with specific images and will change over time. So I work very deeply, particularly with certain tree spirits; the yew in particular I spent a long time undergoing an initiation with and has and will always be my primary elder and teacher. But then I’ve had journeys with Cernunnos, the horned god. I’ve worked with different stone beings over time, those that I’ve really connected with. And images of the Cailleach, the elder crone woman. Spent a long time working with that archetype. So different beings have come in, who at times I have felt in devotion to and learning from. But I think at the root of it all, it remains that all of that comes from this devotion with the earth.
Manda: And have you ever had a sense of an entity that embodies that, the earth. I’m asking this very specifically because I had some dreams recently that that seemed to me to be doing that and I’m curious to know whether that’s a unique experience. In the way that you would connect to, say, the horned god or the Cailleach or the spirit of the yew. Has there ever been anything that has arisen that felt like this is the spirit of the earth?
Isla: Yes, actually, this Beltane, I was on Dartmoor undergoing a wilderness vigil. And my relationship with Dartmoor has really taken me into what I think of the landscape of my soul. And within that is this ancient feminine energy. And where I held my vigil was with a very gnarled old Hawthorn, and she became to me an expression of bone woman. And during that vigil, for me, she was the embodiment of that. And times I spent, it was all kind of, you know, days were sunny but there was also the morning mists and the night times when I felt she was sort of shapeshifting forms and revealing herself in different ways. But there was something of the, as we described, that really ancient primal earth energy; untampered with, untainted by anything that was… It really sings for me on that land. And I’m sure I know there’s other places that do, but for me, that’s where I can tune in and really receive that frequency.
Manda: Beautiful. Interesting, also, thank you. So before we head off into the second part, you talk about the tree of life and then the five branches. And you’ve mentioned symbols, myth and archetypes, which I’m guessing might be another book at some point. Shall we just, for people, fill in the other four of the five branches and then we’ll move on.
Isla: Yeah. So the other branches include life cycles. So that’s the honouring of these rites of passages, of these different phases in our life, which I think for most people are the most familiar rituals that we already have, like a christening or a wedding, funerals. So those transitions that we make in life that we can sort of step out of time, to honour that which is being let go of, and intentionally direct ourselves as to where we want to step forward after that transformation has occurred. And that kind of links in with the second branch, which is the Wheel of the year, which is this map of the seasons in the Celtic tradition. Which I work with as a sort of blueprint of the way that I understand my own cycles and also how I can have these sort of gateways of ceremony that really enable me to connect with the spirit of nature at that time. So we have these four fire festivals of Imbolc and Beltane, Lammas and Samhain, and then we have the two equinoxes and the two solstices. So those eight doorways are opportunities for yourself to have some kind of ceremony, or often it’s something when you come together with your community. Actually I haven’t shared really many community ones around that. That was pigeoned for another book. And then the third one was the elements. The elements, of course. So the elements are really the crux of the whole book. It’s quite multifaceted and hard to sort of narrow down into one explanation of why that is.
Isla: But I think you would understand how they are layered within this map of the wheel of the year that we have in each direction. So, for instance, in the East we have the spring equinox and that time of new beginnings, the sun rising. So it’s the place of the air element, which is the element that we can associate with our breath, with our intention, with giving voice to that which we wish to create. And then we move through into the South, which is the element of fire. So this is about our creativity and also our spiritual connection. It’s the place of the summer solstice when obviously nature is in full abundance and there’s so much life and energy. And then in the West we have the water element, which is where we’re moving into now in autumn. And that’s the time of letting go and shedding. And you can see the leaves turning and gracefully just letting go of the leaves and following suit in some way, allowing… For myself it’s a time of of grieving, of really recognising the cycle that we’ve been through of growth and evolution and creativity. But now it’s a time to go back inwards and draw in for the winter, which is the element of Earth in the north. So we move through to that place of where we need to be connecting with our roots and that inner potential and finding our resource in our body, really listening in to the physical of what we need to take care of ourselves.
Isla: So the elements for me need to be present in every ritual, for it to be balanced, for there to be that flow of energy, so that your intention can manifest fully. So I like to keep just a few simple objects that I have, to represent those elements for any ritual that I create. Also just calling them into the space and honouring them and giving thanks for them. But even just having a ritual where you might be feeling particularly scattered in your mind and really not able to make a decision, or just noticing that you’re spinning on certain thoughts. So for me, I would create some kind of earthing ritual so I could balance out the air element with the earth; walking barefoot or sitting with a tree or something which I can feel really just brings me back to the ground. So the elements are present in every ritual, but they can also inspire you to create a particular ritual, to call forth those particular qualities. And then, yeah, myths and archetypes which are really juicy and exciting. I think part of the ritual life of this kind of soul making, of ritual, which it can be really playful and fun and exploratory, just to see what images either are showing up for you in your life that keep repeating themselves. Or maybe you see something that really takes your breath away, or you just feel that heart stopping moment and there’s something there for you that I like to explore.
Isla: Like what is this image representing for me that my soul is wanting to express? So those kind of rituals can look any which way, and I’ll leave it to the audience to enjoy that for themselves. And then the final branch is the ancestors. So particularly for me, working with the Yew Tree began a journey of opening up to the ancestral realms and me beginning to make a more intentional path of how to communicate with and honour my blood ancestors, but also those I consider to be more of my sort of spirit ancestors. And I know we talked before, but there is a sort of disclaimer in that; that these realms do need to be navigated with real care and discernment. So not something necessarily to be exploring on your own, if you want to be communicating with specific ancestors. But the ritual I offer in the book is a way of you connecting with the spirit of ancestral energies, that can become like a council of support for you. And I work with my ancient grandmother, who’s this archetype of the seed carrier of my lineage. So going way, way, way, way back and being able to call upon them for guidance and support. And also give and feed them in a good way. So they’re the five the five branches that I work with to inspire rituals, which I’m sure there are more. I look forward to to learning more.
Manda: It’s a pretty exhaustive list. Time’s moving on. I am aware. Let’s move now to the second part, which is Opening the Way: A Practical Guide to Creating and Performing Rituals. So we’ve looked at why we might do it and the purpose behind and the intention that we set. And then your second part really just in a very practical way, moves through the actual elements, as in parts, not as in physical elements that we might need and the mindset that we bring when we’re creating a ritual. So can you talk us a little bit through that?
Isla: Yeah, because I felt that the book, I would hope, is something of a companion for people that want to cultivate a ritual life. So although there are these extended outlines, in the third part, I wanted it to be that you could then go off and create your own ritual, based on some of these ideas. And I’ve found that because we don’t have much practice with sort of entering into sacred space, we don’t always know how to show up well in that way. And just through working with people 1 to 1 basis or from holding ceremonies, I’ve found there are certain things that really help people get partly sort of out of their heads, more into their bodies, more perceptive, more heart centred. And that can involve anything, from really thinking about what food you’re eating on the day of the ritual, you might want to fast. Also preparing your body, which could involve some breathing, that’s kind of deeper belly breathing if you really want to calm or if you want to activate yourself, some faster sort of fire breathing. Also ways of really quieting the mind or getting out of the mind. So I like to dance or drum, particularly before starting a ritual. But practices that you cultivate over time, such as meditation and deep listening practices, can be really supportive.
Isla: And then there’s the cleansing of the space and yourself, so you could work with the elements for that, whether that’s smudging with herbs, using sound, just through simple kind of clapping three times. Something which tells your spirit, your body, that you’re entering into a different mode of being. And then I go through a ways to cast a circle. So how to create a sacred space in a safe container, and then how to sort of close a ritual. Giving thanks and how to help ground and integrate. And also, yes, the invocation. So once you’ve opened the sacred space, you then call forth all those energies or beings that you wish to be present and support you, which is something I know how… For me, it’s taken time and still I’m finding my language and my voice around how to communicate with spirit. And I think it can feel a little bit uncomfortable at first. How do we refer to these beings? And I don’t believe in a god, so it can be a little bit clunky at first. But really just heart centred and being humble I think works well and they will listen and respond. So yes, it’s really just creating the foundations of how to prepare for, and open, and close down a ritual space effectively.
Manda: In my own experience of ritual, I’ve noticed that there is quite a lot of difference between when I do something on my own and then it’s much easier to just speak out and not think about what I’m saying. And it took a long, long time of doing ritual in company to get that sense of freedom. And partly this was some of the people that I was learning with, where there definitely was a right way and a wrong way. And if you got the wrong way, you were going to be in serious trouble. But I’m wondering whether that’s evolved. It’s a long time now I realise since I did Ritual that I wasn’t leading. In the world out there and the rituals that you lead. Are you finding that people are able simply to speak from the heart without fear of peer pressure or peer disapproval? Does that make sense?
Isla: Yeah, it does very much depend on the setting, I would say. So there are places where, you know, I’ve got sort of a Journey of women that come to do things regularly and now they’ve really deepened that sense of trust. Without doubt, they’re able to drop into that very quickly, really honouring the words of each other and with love. And that’s really clear. They all have different ways of praying, as it were, but it all fits in that space. It’s all welcome and accepted. But for instance, being at a festival where there’s lots of people maybe trying this kind of thing out for the first time, there’s definitely a sort of hesitancy and a shyness. But there’s usually a couple of people that just lead the way, and once they’ve spoken, it definitely encourages others. And I think the more people are given that opportunity, you know, they will find that voice. But I’ve come away from holding group ceremonies where either it’s me thinking it, or it’s spirits telling me, that I didn’t pray very well. It didn’t feel like it really came from that place that I know it can do. So it’s yeah, it’s a constant learning of how to really refine that sense of eloquence of how do I really feed the spirit realm with my words? Like a feast of words. I find Martin Prechtel, I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of his books? He’s got a way with words in that respect that really inspires me of that sense of really providing good food for the gods with our words.
Manda: Okay, if you send me some links, we’ll put them in the show notes after. That would be really good. In the meantime, just purely logistically, I love that you included herbs that are plant helpers, that are UK based, so people would have to change this based on where they live. But I’ve noticed over the years that there’s a huge resistance now in the UK to using Native American herbs just because we know that they are not collected well. I have been given enough that I probably have enough to last several lifetimes and I’m not going to throw them away, but for people who are starting from scratch, you say, for instance, you make smudge from cedar and Rosemary. And I wonder, can you speak a little bit about the different herbs and and just the practicalities? Do you harvest them at a particular cycle of the moon or a particular time of year and just speak a little bit about the plants that you use.
Isla: Yes. When I was made aware of the ethics around particularly white Sage and Palo Santo; thankfully my mother is a gardener and so I sort of took it to her. And she also, I think, comes from a lineage of wise herbal women, of what plants are available to us that can offer us different properties for ceremonial use. Rosemary was an obvious one that grows in such abundance and is always seen as a protector. So for me, if I want to have that sense of a strength of container and also mental alertness that Rosemary can really bring, if you just nibble on a few leaves of Rosemary, you’ll just feel that sort of pep up. So I like to do that before a ritual. And harvesting rosemary, you can also do it any time of year, so it’s very practical in terms of seasons. Whereas there are other ones which I have come to deepen my relationship with, through the harvesting process. Because I now have sort of sought out places that I know where I can go to harvest their growing abundance. One site is very near Stonehenge and I try to go there on the full moon nearest the summer solstice. So some plants do work well and have a history of being harvested at certain times and that is one of them for Artemisia. It’s a very magical process, too, the gathering in under the full moon of these very silvery little leaves and plants. That then you can wrap very simply with some string into a bundle, let that dry and then you have a smudge stick. And other plants that I’ve worked with are partly through either hearing, for instance, there’s a burial cairn up in where is it? Somewhere in Scotland, where I went a few years ago and I heard that there was a woman that was buried alongside Artemisia and Meadow Sweet and Yarrow.
Isla: So those three have become a trinity of very sacred herbs that I use for particular ceremonies. But there are others like Cedar, which gives this beautiful pine like resin, which is a very supportive plant, I feel when you’re working more with the emotional realm. So if you’ve got something like a grief ritual or an end of life ceremony, Cedar has this like a balm to the spirit. So it’s a really restorative and heart centred plant. And also rose you can add into it also; a beautiful one for keeping connected with your heart. And that’s usually harvested around June and July. But what I hope is part of the invitation too, is thinking of how you can find those places near you and what grows there, and really coming into relationship with the land that you live with. So that you have that intention from start to finish of gathering, of making these bundles, of using them in your ritual. It just enhances that relationship you have with the plant spirit and the ways that they can support you.
And I’ve now started growing white sage because it has got such potent qualities, which I didn’t find the culinary sort of sage had quite that oomph. So yeah, a second, third year now and I’ve managed to get some quite good harvests from it. So that’s the other thing of growing your own.
Manda: Well done! Because I tried white sage and it failed completely, but I’ll give it another go. Maybe it was at the old house, I have to say. Yes, because modern or at least British sage, I find it just smells too much like Sunday roast, somehow. It just doesn’t work. But the other ones. Yeah. Mugwort and Meadowsweet. I’m drinking, as we record, meadow sweet and rose tea. And it just does, completely; the morning is more alive and awake and connected and I remember the places I gathered it, and it has that sense of creating the connection. Even while we’re sitting at the computer. So thank you for that. I think logistics and practicality are always incredibly useful. So let’s move on now, because the third part of the book is the big part, which is rituals that you’ve offered people, linked to the seasons, for all kinds of different parts of life. So we’re recording this the first Monday in September, and it’ll be going out in the middle of the month, near to the equinox. So I thought we could start… Can you give us one of the ceremonies or the rituals that you recommend, or you have linked to the autumn?
Isla: Yeah. I thought I would share with you the clearing the way ritual. Because at this time, as we’re transitioning from summer to autumn, it can be helpful to intentionally mark that, to acknowledge that we’re going through a shift energetically and that we’re beginning to turn inwards. The days are shortening again, and we want to also keep with us, as we’re harvesting everything at this time, we want to gather in all of that: all of the lessons we’ve learnt, all of the things that we’ve created, to really celebrate our harvest. So this ritual is based around the idea of creating a medicine pouch or a crane bag, which is how it was coined in the Celtic tradition. The idea is that you will initially start with a letting go, which is a shedding and a ritual bath, essentially. Which you really call forth the spirit of water to help you wash away and let go and prepare to come fully into yourself without any encampments or anything that you’ve picked up along the way. Water, even just staying in a bath once you’ve pulled the plughole out and allowing yourself to feel the draining of the water is a really powerful experience. To have a sense of that in a physical way, of that release. So inviting you to stay until the end of your bath in that one. And then going through to a place of calling back your power.
Isla: So as we’re going through into the darkness, the darker phase of the year, we want to feel resourced. As though we have that flame, that candle within us that we can really keep shining brightly. So calling back your power is, for me, a way of… It’s a bit like when you’re doing a sort of soul retrieval. That we have these parts that splinter off, through traumatic experiences or through relationships or just experiences where we don’t express our truth or we’re not in alignment. That we have all these parts that are sort of scattered. And by bringing them all back, through this idea of just really intention, working with the flame and your body and you’re actually invited to be naked, I think for this part of the ritual. You’re going to call all those parts back and then craft this pouch. Really simply with a few pieces of fabric, anyone can make one and you can adorn that if you wish. And then you place items, little beings that you might have found from your forays into nature or things that you might have already, that represent for you those parts of yourself, of your power, and then filling up your pouch with them.
Isla: And then there’s this idea of having sort of a coronation of your power. So you place your pouch over yourself and make an intention of how you wish to go forward, so that you have this really physical, embodied sense of what it is to stand in your power. And I mean, I have mine. I wear mine. I’ve had many over the years, and they get very worn and weathered. And then it’s time for another one. And people often ask me what’s in them? And I will never tell them. But it’s something which, even going into a situation where I just feel a bit nervous, or I want to feel really in my centre, just holding it for a minute and having a sense of what’s inside and remembering that’s all within me, gives that encouragement and that feeling of embodied sovereignty. And so that’s the idea with this ritual. Is to really enter into this phase of autumn, knowing that you’ve got all of this bounty that you’re harvesting, that you can really draw upon as a sense of resource. And also making sure that you’re letting go and like the trees again, just shedding anything that you don’t need anymore.
Manda: Brilliant. Fantastic. Thank you. Embodied sovereignty. I love it. I have about eight titles for this podcast, but that’s currently running top. All righty. So we haven’t got very long left. Very briefly, could you talk us through winter, spring and summer? A ritual for each?
Isla: Yes. Okay. In brief. All right. So winter coming home to the earth is a ritual which is probably one of the more slightly far out ones in the book. Just in that I don’t imagine many people have done anything like this, but I really encourage it, because it’s something that created a very powerful sense of belonging in my life. Based on an Aboriginal ritual where… So the placenta traditionally in many cultures would have been buried after birth of a child. And in Aboriginal culture it was believed that that enabled the earth to recognise you as being part of it. Like it was almost like you needed, they needed to receive the placenta to know you’re here and then your soul purpose is sort of activated. For many of us, we didn’t have that. So this ritual by a woman called Mimia is a way of doing that retrospectively. And you use a bit of your hair and your saliva and a stone to represent your placenta. So the invitation is to go to a place either near where you were born or somewhere that’s very resonant for you. For me, it was a yew tree in the forest of Dean, and I went and carried out this ritual, which was a way of me really acknowledging, I suppose, my belonging to the Earth as Mother. And just through this simple act of placing these items in a hole in the earth. And there’s also a part of bringing some sticks, so you’re calling forth the sort of spirit of your community to support you in your journey. It can be a way of completely transforming your understanding of who you are and where you come from. So I won’t go into too many more details about that one, but I hope that it’s one that the listeners will feel to explore.
Manda: I think that one, they’re all meaningful, but that one for so many of us, that sense of belonging. What if the Aboriginal Australians were right and we did need our placenta to be buried, in order to have a sense of what our souls purpose is. And we just didn’t, it was medicalised and gone. And so yeah, that struck me as an extremely powerful way of taking our agency back from a system that has systematically disempowered us, from the moment that we were born. So thank you. That’s beautiful. And then spring and summer, bringing us back to autumn.
Isla: Well, I’ll expand the spring ritual from the intention bundle that I made for the book, which is something you can do at the beginning of anything that’s starting in your life. I had somebody message me asking for something to do because they’re moving house, and for me it was something that I always wanted to do, is bring a few seeds from the place I lived with before and maybe a few other…a Stone being, a bit of bark. But you can create an intention bundle for a new project a new job, of what it is that you really wish to feel and cultivate in this next chapter. And I suggest this ritual carried out around the new moon, because you’ve got the support of that activating energy. And it’s a lovely one to do with kids. It’s something that’s really fun, because you can go and gather different items to represent things. So if you want to involve more abundance in your life, you can put in some lentils or some seeds or nuts. Or if you want to bring in the softness, some cotton wool. Or just things which your imagination can run away with. So you create this feast, laid out either on some newspaper or fabric, and you work out from the centre outwards a bit like a mandala and just expressing what each item represents. So you’re creating this sort of visual prayer, of what you wish to be creating as you go forward. And much like I did, the invitation is to bury it and you can also burn it. But burial for me feels like a sort of slower gestation. If it’s something that you really want to activate quickly, then fire can be really supportive for that. But I think otherwise the earth is a more natural time to work with.
Manda: I had always thought of fire as a letting go, if I want to let go of something, I can imbue it into it and put it on the fire. And it goes. But you’re right, putting something into the earth feels like rooting it, grounding it, anchoring it. And then for summer.
Isla: And then for summer, ah yes, the one I thought we’d talk about is the Earth vessel, which is an alternative to a birthday party celebration. For a long time, I didn’t really get the birthday party thing, because my birthday is straight after Christmas, so no one was ever around. And so it became quite a solitary day anyway. So with this one, it’s actually about creating a rhythm with this ritual, that you could carry out every year on the eve of your birthday. And it’s about creating a little clay vessel, which you can just use air dry clay, which you can get from all good crafty shops, or you can forage some from a nearby lake. Go and get some clay. And you’re making this vessel as a representation of all the potential within you. And in making it, you’re asked to reflect on the year thus far and all those achievements, all those changes in your life. What’s come to fruition. So celebrating your achievements and also just thinking about where you were a year ago and what’s changed in that time. And then you’re again really wanting to activate what it is you wish for this next cycle of growth, so you can scratch in onto the base of your vessel a word or phrase of what you feel this year is about for you.
Isla: And then on the morning of your birthday, there’s this invitation to go out and make offerings to each of the directions, just to place yourself in the context of the web of life that you’re a part of, so that you start that day in a way of really appreciating all that you are. And then the Earth vessel, the way I do it, is that I then each birthday will go and offer that to a tree. And I just use air dry clay so I know that it will eventually just disintegrate and go back into the earth. And you can also offer it to the ocean or take it to any special place you wish to leave it. And it’s sort of a way of giving back for everything over that year that has supported you. Acknowledging that there is a transformation each cycle of growth that we go through. And another great opportunity to be crafty and use your hands.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. Because clay is just so tangible and lovely to work with and you can make anything. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly round ball, does it? It could be any shape that you wanted it to be. If I’d come across that in time for my birthday, I would have done it. I will definitely do it next year and I might do it as a pretend birthday on the next full moon or something. But we are now, thank you, heading towards the end of our time. So I thought just in closing, could you read us a little bit from the afterword, as sending us all out into the world to go off and start our ritual life?
Isla: The ritual life is a way of remembering, relating and storytelling, inviting you to be a conscious participant in creating the world you long for. Through nurturing the four seeds of intention, creativity, gratitude and kindness and planting them in your life. You can cultivate a meaningful existence aligned with your values and build pathways of reciprocity and regeneration.
Manda: Perfect. Thank you. That’s wonderful. Intention, creativity, gratitude and kindness. It seems to me that if everybody brought those into their lives, with or without ritual, the world would be a different place. So, Isla MacLeod, it’s a beautiful and wonderful book. And thank you for bringing it out into the world, and thank you for coming to talk to us about it today.
Isla: Thank you so much, Manda. It was a real joy to be able to share this journey from when it was beginning I think, to now, with you. Thank you.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Rediscovering the Re-enchantment of Our Lives. Enormous thanks to Isla for writing the book. For doing all of the rituals that brought it to life and the work of writing it and finding the right publisher so that it is genuinely beautiful. It is genuinely beautiful. So I thoroughly recommend, if you’re looking for something for people who get this work and want to take it deeper, then this would be a perfect gift for the next solstice. And given that this is coming out on the equinox, that feels like quite a good shift of time. For those of you who work with Accidental Gods or the dreaming, you will have gathered I’m pretty sure, that our sense of the elements and their position on the wheel is 90 degrees out of phase with Isla’s. I don’t think there is any particular right and wrong of this. We put fire in the east, water in the south, earth in the west and air in the north, and therefore fire relates to our spring. We can create sets of logics that make any of these work for us. And what matters only is that we do connect to the earth, the air, the fire, the water, not necessarily exactly where we place them on the wheels, do whatever works for you. But I just didn’t want those of you who work with us in the other formats to be confused. So that’s it for now.
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