From baptisms to Mayan baths to waterfalls, tubs, and saunas, spiritual bathing is a deeply healing, connecting, and soul-fulfilling practice.
This article appeared in our August 2003 issue.
We know that it feels wonderful to soak in warm bath or swim in the sea; that it is blissful to meditate upon the sound of the river water rushing over rocks; or that the light of sunlit drops bursting from a waterfall is magnificent. But how often do we think of these experiences as spiritual? Yet in the ancient times, the spiritual essence of water evoked a sense of wonder, reminding people that they were threads in the divine web of life. Foremost in the great creation myths and tradition of nearly every culture is the recognition that water gave birth to humankind. It was seen as divine, life- giving, healing, cleansing, renewing force. “Water symbolizes the whole of potentiality; it is fons et origo, the source of all possible existence,” wrote Mircea Eliade, the late historian of comparative religion.
Water was the primordial element from which most of the ancients believed that the earth was created: The Egyptian god Nun was the god of chaos and waters who created the earth. The Yoruba goddess Obatala created the world from a floating ball of water and Vishnu formed the earth while floating on a serpent in the cosmic seas. In Native American myths, Old Man, drifting on a raft, willed the earth into existence out of water.
The human affinity for water was expressed through spiritual bathing, which drew men, women, children, and whole communities closer to the divine. Immersion symbolized rebirth, and monetary death. Sprinkling, splashing, pouring, sweating, and even drinking were also important parts of such bathing.
Water rituals may be even more meaningful now as people struggle to find their own paths to, and relationship with, God. Our overscheduled life requires as many ways as possible to regain a sense of interconnectedness and harmony, within and without. Spiritual bathing strengthens our tenuous connection with the natural world and its reflection of the divine. Baths not only ease our passage through the stresses of daily life, they also separate the extraordinary from the mundane, transport us to a holier place, and mark rites of passage. Spiritual bathing can open the door to one’s own inner guidance, uplifting the soul to foster a more reverent, peaceful state of mind.
Although many rituals have religious roots, contemporary spiritual bathing transcends the particularity of a religious community, institution, or spiritual tradition by incorporating diverse ideals and practices. At the same time, it helps us to deepen our understanding of traditions in order to reshape rituals for modern times and create new ones. These rituals can be used as a private journey, or celebrated communally with friends and family at home, in the backyard, or by a sea, lake, river, spring, or pond.
Spiritual bathing is intertwined with healing practices throughout the world and can benefit even those who do not hold any particular religious or spiritual beliefs. A spiritual bath combines water — whether in liquid or vapor form — with prayer, and sometimes plants, stones, gems, honey, milk, or wine to wash away the negative effects of anger, fear, anxiety, grief, trauma, exhaustion, world-weariness, stress, and confusion. Whether you are broken- hearted or in transition, bathing can heal you if it incorporates two essential components: water and prayer.
Water is revered by Hindus, the Shinto, and the Inca, among others, for carrying the memory of sunlight, the phases of the moon, fresh air, mountains, and rocky beds within it, wherever it goes. Its spiritual energy can be transformative. This belief is central to the understanding of the effect of spiritual bathing on the human body.
In sacred traditions, water must be infused with prayer, chants, or medicine songs to achieve its full potential for transforming human energy. These elements may wash away the negative thoughts and emotions that may be at the root of human physical and emotional ailments, blocking spiritual clarity and connection. Water infused with prayer is believed to alleviate negative feelings. It refreshes, calms, and balances our energy, allowing it to arrive and leave at a constant rate.
Many cultures believe that water absorbs and accumulate the vibratory patterns of our words, healing thoughts, and intentions, like a sort of spiritual energy-storage battery. And so, Native American spiritual healers chant rhythmically and shake rattles over water to enhance its healing properties. Mayan shamans place their hands above water and repeat their traditional prayers nine times to enrich and consecrate the water in which their patients bathe; they also instruct their emotionally ill patients to pray fervently over a glass of water before drinking it. Roman Catholic priests make water holy by ritual blessings prayed over it, and making the sign of the cross above the vessel containing the water. Incan priests and priestesses prayed as they immersed their hands in water which flowed through channels and into their temples to build up spiritual energy for ceremonial and domestic purposes.
Petals of roses, hollyhock, marigold, and hibiscus flowers swirl with basil, rue, and sage, creating patterns in the water that are achingly lovely. Caroline climbs into the tub as copal smoke billows from the incense holder. She feels disconnected from herself, from her husband, and from the divine. As she immerses herself, she prays for connection and clarity. Repeating her prayers and focusing her intentions, she soaks for 30 minutes while absorbing the changing patterns of petals and leaves into her soul, and gathering the rue buds up in her hands and breathing in their pungent fragrance. When she arises from the bath, she feels renewed and reconnected to the divinity within herself, and the divinity within the world.
Spiritual bathing strengthens our tenuous connection with the natural world and its reflection of the divine.
In sacred tradition, water must be infused with prayer, chants, or medicine songs to achieve its full potential for transforming human energy.
Every Spiritual bathing tradition has its own philosophy, prayers, mythology, and rituals, as well as something unique to teach us about how humanity has lived and survived on our planet. With in this diversity, we have found much commonality, making spiritual bathing a fascinating prism through which to view the world's religion. Here are a few rituals — both new and old — to try at home or at a nearby body of water.
Maya Spiritual Bath
One of the world's most ancient cultures, remnants of which still exist in Mexico and Central America, the Maya had many spiritual baths which they used to treat physical and spiritual ailments. Spiritual ailments might include susto (fear and anxiety), tristeza (sadness), pesar (grief), or invidia (envy.) This is a good bath to help relieve general anxiety, fear, troubling dreams, or sadness.
Collect the following plants while reciting a prayer of thanks to each of them:
9 sprigs rue, about 6 inches long 9 12-inch marigold stems with flowers 4 branches basil, about 12 inches long Or: 4 stalks motherwort, about 12 inches long 9 branches sage,about 12 inches long 9 branches Saint-John's-wort, about 12 inches long
Fill your largest pot with water. Place the plants in the water and squeeze them between your hands for 10 minutes. Pray and breathe deeply during this time for the full healing benefit. When the water has taken on color and aroma, set it aside for up to eight hours.
Draw water into your tub until it is half full, at a temperature of your liking. Drink a half-cup of the herbal water, and pour the remainder into the tub.
You can strain the water if you wish, but it is lovely to bathe surrounded by floating flowers and leaves.
Soak for 30 minutes, relaxing and meditating on the purpose of the bath. Burn copal incense during this time. This is also a good time to pray.
If you have no bathtub, carry the pot of herbs into the shower. Sit on a stool or chair in the shower, and slowly pour the herbal water from a bowl over your body. You can add hot tap water to the pot of herbs for a warmer bath.
Summer Solstice Group Baptism
Most North and South American slaves were taken from West Africa, where river cults required ceremonies involving total immersion of the body. Even when Christianized, slaves held onto some of their African traditions, incorporating elements of the old ways into the new faith. The belief in ritual immersion for spiritual purification and renewal of purpose was one Africans shared with Christians.
On the night of the solstice, the group stays up all night praying, giving thanks, meditating, singing, and drumming. At 5 a.m., they meet at the seashore or riverbank. Each person kneels, then immerses him- or herself in the water, accompanied by further prayer, drumming, dancing, and general celebration.
The ceremony closes with a prayer circle at the water's edge, after which everyone returns to a home, church, or communal hall to share a feast.
Inspiring waterfalls hidden in remote mountain areas have been places of adoration and pilgrimage since earliest history in Asia. The water and mountain have a yin-yang relationship. To the Shinto, the waterfall is a deity, a go-shintai, or physical embodiment of a kami, or god. Monks, priests, shamans, and ascetics have long bathed at waterfalls for spiritual purification before entering mountain shrines or undertaking arduous tasks, and to replenish their healing and divining powers in the presence of the water god.
Choose a small, safe waterfall. Stand beneath the waterfall (be careful). Let the water spray over you. Pray or meditate.
Yom Kippur Bath
A reflective ritual bath that can be taken at the new year as well. Prepare the ingredients for the bath in the afternoon.
Collect herbs with kindness: rue, lemon balm, rosemary, or other combinations of herbs work wonderfully.
Simmer the herbs in a big pot of water, making the house fragrant.
Pour off a cup for after dinner; drink as tea before sundown.
After dinner and services, fill a tub with water.
Put on sacred music — Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino or other.
Light incense and place lighted candles around the bath.
Carry the warm (no longer hot) herb water to the tub.
Climb into tub, and using a wooden or clay bowl, pour bowlfuls of herb water over yourself (or have someone else do the pouring), while saying your favorite prayers.
Soak in tub for at least 20 minutes.
Think about the year: what you would like to be forgiven for, how you can make amends.
Celtic Water Divination
Sing and chant. It's amazing how lovely our voices sound when we chant near and above water in an enclosed space like a bathroom.
Springs and wells where water rises up from the earth were revered by the Celts as portals to the Otherworld, the womb of the earth. Celebrated by the people and their priests, the Druids, and later by Christians as well as modern-day followers of the Druid way, holy wells are still popular pilgrimage destinations. But you don't need to travel to practice this ritual.
At dusk or night, find any still, dark water — a pond, tidal pool, or even water in a dark bowl or cauldron — and settle into a comfortable position.
Gaze into the water's depths for five to 15 minutes, or longer if possible. Unfocus your eyes, relax your mind, and allow thoughts to drift in and out of your awareness, without concentrating on any particular image or ideas. Be open to any message arising from your meditation.
Sumerian New Moon Bath
Sumerians knew that the phases of the moon can affect all natural bodies, including water, plants, and human emotions. Moon cycle changes are a good time for a ritual of renewal or initiation. The new moon phase is a time of symbolic rebirth. So, when you need to start a new project, welcome a new phase of life, or celebrate a major change for the better, try a new moon bath.
As the full moon begins to wane, it is time to meditate on the purpose of your new moon bath. Ask yourself what you would like to accomplish, or wish to manifest, in this coming transition. When you have your answer, write it down in a clear, concise sentence, and place the piece of paper on your altar or under your pillow.
When the night sky is completely dark, with no moon, or only a slight crescent, it is time to prepare your bath. Remember to prepare during the day by picking plants that grow near you, while reciting prayers of thanks. Plantain, hyssop, Saint-John's wort, marigold, and basil are good choices. Squeeze them into a tub of warm water.
Sometime that evening or late afternoon, step into the bath, or if you decide to dip and pour, repeat your intention of renewal nine times, just as you wrote it down. Meditate and try to keep your mind focused on this outcome during the bath. Give thanks for its fruition as if it were already a reality.
Life Change Ritual at the Sea
Adapted from rituals common to many cultures, this is a good one for difficult times of change or transition, or trouble letting go of someone or something from the past.
Wear old clothes over a bathing suit, including at least one item that symbolizes your "old" life, and go to the sea. Dip your body into the sea seven times (wearing the old clothes), while saying with each dip,
"I now break all links with (appropriate phrase).''
Remove the old clothes, and throw them away into a bin at the beach. Walk away, and don't look back.