By Nadine Epstein
At age six, my son Noah was having recurrent nightmares. As a toddler he had witnessed several violent incidents that continued to haunt him in his dreams. We tried everything. I helped him keep a journal called GO AWAY NIGHTMARES! His grandparents bought him a dreamcatcher which we hung in his room. He met regularly with a play therapist. All of these things helped, but Noah still dreaded going to sleep at night.
My friend Rosita and I were writing a book on Maya healing practices, and had become enchanted with the Maya penchant for spiritual bathing. One day, when Noah seemed particularly burdened, we had an idea. Why not give Noah a spiritual bath? We had tried them ourselves and found them deeply healing. The Maya regularly give them to children, even infants.
The Maya believe that nightmares and night terrors are common symptoms of children who have experienced shock or grief, which they consider spiritual illnesses. They say that children, because of their tender years and lack of emotional barriers, are especially vulnerable to these illnesses which along with fear, envy, and depression can cause the loss of chuílel – the Mayan word for soul force or life energy. Maya shamans believe that a gentle sacred bath refreshes the electro-magnetic energy field surrounding our bodies, restoring the harmony of body, mind, emotion, and spirit.
So late that afternoon, when the light was beginning to turn to lovely slanting gold, Rosita and I took Noah out on a ritual plant-gathering foray into our urban neighborhood. Baskets in hand, we wandered along sidewalks and alleys searching for healing plants that could be used for spiritual bathing.
City or not, there were plenty of plants to choose from – some arching up to the sun from between cracks in sidewalks. When we came upon a plant, we carefully plucked it, saying the Maya prayer to thank the plant and asking the plant spirit to help heal the heart and soul of Noah. We all enjoyed thanking the plants, especially Noah.
After an hour or so of leisurely sauntering in the warm sun, our baskets were laden with nine different types of flowers and leaves — among them hollyhock, marigold, basil, roses, and rosemary. We walked back to our backyard where we said more prayers as we broke apart and crushed the leaves and petals into a washtub in the bright sunlight. Noah helped too.
We then filled a bathtub with water, and let the infusion of aromatic plants loose. They floated over the surface of the water, creating an intricate, colorful pattern that was so gorgeous we couldn’t help but stare. Rose petals danced in swirling spirals with hollyhock, rosemary and marigold delighted us with their heady and mysterious perfumes. Each of us uttered “oohs, mms, and ahhhs,” as we prepared the water. Finally, the bath was ready.
At first, Noah was unsure about climbing in. “The water looks dirty, Mommy” he said, staring at the flowers and leaves floating atop a now slightly greenish surface. But once in, he immediately became absorbed in propelling the leaves and petals in spiral patterns around the tub. The hollyhocks felt cool and soft, and he rubbed them against the skin of his knees. As he played, we said more prayers and burned copal incense. Suddenly, our Italian-tiled bathroom in Washington DC was filled with the exotic bouquet of copal incense and the whispered chanting of prayers, reminiscent of ancient ceremonies carried out under the auspices of high priests and priestesses.
By then, Noah didn’t want to get out of the tub. He was entranced in a new game, shaping plants into patterns on the surface of the water. He picked them up in his hands and sniffed deeply of their fragrances, hardly noticing us at all in spite of the smoke and the ritual prayers. It was a mesmerizing and lovely moment.
When Noah finally did emerge from the tub, the difference was amazing. He had lost that feeling of heaviness that he often carried around with him. I had not seen such a deep transformation and unloading as I did that afternoon after the spiritual bath.
He seemed lighter, happier and more carefree, as if his troubles had been washed away down the drain I remember having that mental image come to mind as I pulled the plug. Noah laughed and danced his way down the sidewalk when we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner shortly afterward.
Noah didn’t have a nightmare that night or any night in the next few weeks, and it became easier to help him make the transition to sleep. For long lasting effects, the baths need to be repeated every few weeks: It was comforting for us to know we could always make him another spiritual bath.
Nadine Epstein is a writer, author, artist and founder of the Center for Creative Change in Washington DC. Her most recent book is Spiritual Bathing: Healing Rituals and Traditions from Around the World, Celestial Arts/Ten Speed Press, 2003