Meeting Felicitas Goodman, the founder of Ancient Ritual Postures, in the winter of 1984 changed my life.
My friend Anita had called one afternoon in January 1984 to tell me she had just had lunch with one of her former yoga students. “She’s Hungarian, an anthropologist, and she plays the violin,” was how Anita described her. Felicitas had just returned from Europe where she had taught her first workshop on Ritual Postures. She wanted to teach the same workshop here in Ohio, and Anita invited me to come.
My car was being repaired the day the workshop was due to begin, so I rode a bus and walked up the street to the address I had been given. As I approached Dr. Goodman’s house, I saw it was a white frame duplex with a white picket fence. Opening the gate, I walked up the steps and Dr. Goodman met me at the door. She was short with gray hair pulled back into a long braid. Her sharp gray-brown eyes held mine for a moment and then she invited me inside.
The living room was spare and lined with books on simple wooden shelves. The uncomfortable sofa was softened by brightly embroidered pillows and huge Hmong embroidered panels covered the two windows.
Felicitas Goodman and Ritual Postures
My companions and I listened quietly as Dr. Goodman took her time telling us about her discovery of what she called “ecstatic body postures.” At the suggestion of her graduate advisor and friend, Erika Bourguignon, then chair of the Anthropology Department at The Ohio State University, she had investigated speaking in tongues as a linguistic phenomenon.
Practitioners of glossolalia, the formal term for speaking in tongues, claim that it is a language. But did it fit the linguistic characteristics of a language? In her research, Dr. Goodman learned that when people go into a religious trance state their bodies change. If they are chanting or singing, their voices will change too, sometimes going into glossolalia. It was not so much a language as a vocalization.
She had been curious whether she could teach her anthropology students in Ohio how to go into the religious trance. Eventually she discovered that holding special postures from indigenous artifacts during a fifteen minute rattling session helped produce the ecstatic state. This was the beginning of Ancient Ritual Postures.
So we were there to experience ecstasy! Following Dr. Goodman’s guidance during that week, I easily went into the trance state, and those expansions of consciousness changed my understanding of reality. Taking psychedelics could produce experiences like these, but we were moving in and out of the ecstatic state during simple fifteen minute sessions without side effects. It was great.
The Portentous Dream
Several years later I was preparing a conference presentation on this methodology using ritual postures to evoke ecstatic trance. As I recalled my first meeting with Felicitas, I recognized elements of a dream from years before. Tracking down old journals, I found that in the fall of 1976 I had dreamed of riding my bicycle to the house of a woman who was going to “teach me about the mysteries.”
In the dream I arrived, full of anticipation, at a white frame house with a white picket fence. It was disappointingly small, and not in very good repair. Nevertheless, I entered the gate and approached the front door, and a short gray-haired woman with piercing eyes opened the door and invited me in. She was welcoming and kind but refused to be the teacher I had expected. Instead, as I wrote in my journal, “she adopted me into a way of life.”
Eight years later I was greeted at her door by a gray-haired woman who lived in the white frame house and it was Felicitas Goodman. She introduced me to the world of spirits known by indigenous people around the planet. In this world, spirits are not worshipped. Instead we can learn to live in harmonious relationship with them, making gifts and receiving gifts in return. It is a world in which everyone can use the human body’s natural ability to experience what is unseen but very real. We are guided by animal spirits and ancestor spirits. As a very ordinary person, I was adopted by Grandfather Bear, the old healer, and helped through a difficult time. The spirits became part of my life.
Finding the Cuyamungue Institute
Felicitas also became an integral part of my life. She started calling before 7:30 in the morning to be sure she would find me at home. My husband John would groan as I turned over in bed to pick up the phone. We knew that Felicitas had been awake for a few hours and had her list of questions and tasks she wanted me to do for her.
Since Felicitas had never learned to drive, I was her courier as well as her advisor about how to manage the peculiarities of American ways of doing things. Often when I would go to her house, she would have prepared a pot of tea for us and perhaps have a plate of German cookies or kuchen. She talked about her friends in Mexico and in Europe, about the article she was writing, and about the Institute she had set up in New Mexico where she would go every summer to teach workshops and soak up Pueblo culture.
My first visit to the Cuyamungue Institute was the first summer after I had met her, in 1984. I traveled alone from Ohio to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and as instructed I called the Institute for information about how to get transportation to Santa Fe where someone would pick me up and take me to the Institute. The person who answered the phone didn’t speak much English. All I understood was to take the Road Runner to Santa Fe.
Riding that old diesel bus, I found the passing landscape mesmerizing with miles of cactus and sage with mountains in the background and a cerulean sky. However, when the bus unloaded in Santa Fe, no one was there to meet me. I looked around, bewildered, and waited for a while. Digging around in my bag for that phone number, I hoped to reach someone who could help me get to the Cuyamungue Institute, but no one I asked had heard of it.
Finally I heard my name being called and saw Felicitas approaching with an interesting woman at her side. Nidia, from Amsterdam, had grandparents from eight countries and she spoke English very well. She would become my good friend in the weeks ahead. The rest of our small group was German-speaking and much of the time I could not understand what was being said.
Living in an Alternate Reality
Six of us climbed into an old van and drove north, toward Pojoaque Pueblo, then onto gravel and dirt roads until we were climbing a rutted road to a ridge that seemed the edge of nowhere. As we crested a hill, I saw a few adobe buildings below. This was the Cuyamungue Institute.
We slept on cots in sleeping bags, ate at the picnic table in the little pine building where Felicitas cooked at a tiny stove. She was proud of having electricity and running water. Three times a day we gathered in the round kiva-like room built into the side of the hill, and three times a day experienced ecstatic trances using ritual postures. In the mountain desert, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, practicing Ancient Ritual Postures, I was indeed living in an alternate reality.
I had profound visions and found a special place on the Institute property where the ground seemed to shake beneath my feet. The Old Ones were talking to me. I was being adopted into the way of life promised by my dream years earlier.
Ritual Postures and the Ceremonial Life
For decades I returned to the Cuyamungue Institute land at least once a year for Ancient Ritual Posture workshops, Masked Trance Dances, Pueblo Indian markets, and to help in building and shaping this sacred space. For a few weeks each year I lived a ceremonial life, walking up to the ridge in the mornings to greet the sun and returning at sunset to say good night to the day.
Felicitas loved being at her Institute but her stays were limited to the summer months since the buildings were not heated and the nights in the mountains grew too cold by mid-fall. She would go to Europe to teach, then to Mexico in January to visit the village where she did her fieldwork in graduate school.
Mostly by the end of January, though, Felicitas was back in Ohio and ready for our birthday celebration. She was born January 30 and my birthday is the 31st. It was our tradition to have a potluck dinner with local ecstatic trance practitioners. There are endless photographs of us blowing out the annual birthday cakes. One year Felicitas made the two of us a bib and hat for the Lady of Cholula posture. I still use mine and always appreciate her inventive pattern for these ritual garments.
Wisdom at the End of Life
As the years passed, Felicitas was losing her vision and it was a bitter loss when she could not longer write at her computer. She persevered with her black marker on white paper, lines sagging down the page in nearly illegible script. But she still loved a visit, a cup of tea together or a trip to Mozart’s, an Austrian bakery nearby.
In 2004 the movie rights to her book The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel were bought and made into the film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” starring Laura Linney. But Felicitas had a series of strokes that year and had to leave her home to live her last nine months in a nursing facility. She never saw the film. And not only was she unable to see clearly, she lost much of her ability to talk.
When I visited in those last weeks, I read to her from My Last Forty Days: A Visionary Journey Among the Pueblo Spirits. She had told me several years before that she was working on a new book but could not share what it was about because it was a secret. Her eyes sparkled as she told me the book was a special gift to her from the spirits. The story is a tale about her own death, a visionary story about the forty days in Pueblo tradition between the time of death and when someone becomes a spirit. Written with her characteristic humor and wonderful storytelling style, the story outlined the process Felicitas expected to undergo when it was her time to die.
Everything is the Alternate Reality
As I sat on her bed reading to her, I would pause. “This is a good story, isn’t it?” She would smile and nod. “Do you remember that you are the one who wrote this story?” I asked. No, she did not remember, but it pleased her that she was the author of the book she was enjoying so much. Sometimes we had talked about how she would make the transition into a spirit. Maybe I was overdoing it, talking so much about dying, but I wanted to be sure she remembered how to make the final journey to the Alternate Reality. Then one day, after some confused efforts to speak, Felicitas looked directly at me and said, quite clearly, “You know, Belinda, everything is the Alternate Reality.”
Yes, of course. She was well aware that everything is really spirit and in fact there is no journey. It’s all right here. We undertake spiritual practices to discover that reality is not fragmented or divided into different parts. It is a whole cloth, all around us. There are many paths, many practices for learning to live in the fullness of reality all the time. Ecstatic trance through Ancient Ritual Postures, the practice I learned with her over so many years, had given me direct knowledge of the world of spirit. It was her gift to all of us to show us the way.
Ritual Postures: The Journey Continues
After Felicitas’ death, while I continued to teach Ancient Ritual Postures internationally, I wanted a way to make the postures more accessible. Working with illustrations from my two earlier books on Ancient Ritual Postures, I created a series of 52 collages as the artwork for an Oracle Deck. This deck provides a hands-on way to get to know the postures, and the accompanying book outlines several ways to use them. This includes Ritual, Initiation, Healing, Divination, Metamorphosis and Spirit Journeys. The Oracle suggestions and poetic writing about each card guide the reader into a deeper understanding of the Spirits and the way of life they offer to us all. Holding them in your hand helps make the presence of spirit more real. The words can evoke your own connection with the Old Ones who still speak to us when we call upon them.
To support you in integrating Ancient Ritual Postures and the Oracle cards into your spiritual practice, beginning in October I will be offering monthly online classes – and the first session is FREE. Let me know if you want to be included by sending an email to me, firstname.lastname@example.org and putting YES in the subject line. I’m looking forward to deepening our relationship with the Spirits and their wisdom.