Reclaiming Ritual: Confessions of a Skeptic

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While I heard about ritual in my master’s program and even participated in a few healing rituals myself, I never really felt like I connected to the simulated ceremonies. I always thought they were a little goofy, and I never felt the liberating power people talked about, in my heart. I would come home with a cool new rock, and my husband would ask me about it, and I would stare blankly at him and recognize that I didn’t even remember why I had a rock in the first place. Well if you know anything about rituals, the one thing you might know is the importance of symbolism. So, me forgetting what the rock was for at the time, was very symbolic of my disconnect to ceremony.

The rock now sits on the window sill, and I still don’t know what it is supposed to represent, but I do know that when I see it, it must be fulfilling some part of its purpose, because it is a visual reminder that brings me back to ritual and makes me reflect on my relationship to ritual. When I look at it today, I am thankful for it, because I recognize how it has helped me reclaim ritual in my life.

What was once a minor curiosity of mine has ballooned into a great interest. Now, I cannot seem to avoid the concept of ritual. It keeps surfacing in the oddest places. I notice it while observing patterns in my dog’s behavior (don’t ask me which ones), while engaging in various readings, and while meeting new people and old friends. Because I started to notice it, I now recognize that despite my original unenthusiasm for it, I am actually starving for more ritual in my life.

But how do you recreate something that you aren’t even sure you understand? Also, a big part of ritual happens in a community-based setting, so how can you have ritual if you do not have a community eager to share this experience with you?  These are the questions I sit with and investigate.

What I have discovered in a few, short months of inquiry has been life-changing, and I imagine it will continue to be enlightening. As I understand ritual more, and incorporate it into my life in a way that feels genuine to me, I find that I am healing, I am connecting to my community, and I am enabling myself to follow my dreams.

As a result of my personal research, below is some food for thought about the power of ritual and how it relates to our personal and collective stories of healing, community, and personal development, three favorite topics of mine.

Definitions of ritual 

From the Korean perspective, a ritual or a kut, is a “controlled artistic activity springing from a human urge to transform time, space, and a community’s life together into a realm of contact with the gods and ancestral spirits.” As ritual relates to healing, the ritual is more dependent on whether the ritual expresses the sympathy of the healer AND “the prayerful concern of the ill person’s family and the concern of the praying community.” This reflection on ritual, healing, and community makes me think about the isolation people experience today. When we are trying to heal, it doesn’t matter if you receive state-of-the-art health care and have the best healer in the world. In my opinion, if you do not have a family or supportive community that is concerned about you, your healing journey will be longer and more difficult. This notion also reminds me of how people have become so disillusioned with religion, that they have given up all aspects of spirituality in their lives. What suffering has the human spirit endured because we have forgotten that we actually are spiritual beings and need to address ourselves that way?

My women’s spirituality group which is rooted in European traditions, also shares similar thoughts on ritual. “Ritual serves to focus our attention and intention so that we have the opportunity to honor, heal, and work with personal and collective energy. It is how we manage energy and/or matter in a sacred way. Ritual provides a container that allows energy to transmute consciously. It is an invitation to the mystery and to the soul to listen, guide, and help move life force energy…We recognize that ritual is an intentional weaving of spirit into form.”

Malidoma Somé writes in The Healing Wisdom of Africa, about ritual, healing, and community. He explains that ritual helps us “connect with unseen realities” and that “the realities made visible in our symbols, is crucial to the well-being of our psyches.” He says, “a person who walks through a ritual…ends up feeling charged and invigorated” and “is a blessed recipient of healing waves of energy that no one can see but everyone can benefit from.”

Somé continues to explain that ritual “is central to village life, for it provides the focus and energy that holds the community together, and it provides the kind of healing that the community most needs to survive.”

Why we are skeptical of ritual in the “West” and the consequences of our skepticism

Somé speaks to the misunderstandings surrounding the idea of ritual. He says, “The West is also struggling with a confusing notion of ritual, for the word usually refers to some sort of dark, pagan, and archaic practice that has no place in modern society. The only accepted rituals are ceremonial practices with clearly predictable content and outcome, such as what can be seen in the Sunday church service of one of the organized religions. When we talk of ritual here we are talking about something much deeper. We are talking about the weaving of individual persons and gifts into a community that interacts with the forces of the natural world. We are talking about a gathering of people with a clear healing vision and a trusting intent toward the forces of the invisible world.”

With his words, Somé suggests that the loss of ritual and the loss of community in the West are linked. He explains that this absence is also connected to the decline of health and well-being in “modern society.” He explains how important it is for us to reconnect with each other, and to acknowledge and interact with our surrounding environment and the subtle energies in a way that is healthy. Ritual is a way to do all of those things.  

What happens when we practice ritual?

We increase our awareness, and we transform. We come to know ourselves. European, African, and Korean traditions more or less agree that “ritual is aimed at increasing our awareness, for awareness of the existence of the reality beyond the palpable world that we live in is one of the keys to transforming individuals. Ritual can shake a person free from the rigidity of that part of the ego that wants to limit growth and experience.”

For those of you who have trouble envisioning the reality beyond the palpable world think about it in terms of yourself. “Eventually such awareness becomes an honoring of the shadowy and hidden parts of ourselves, those parts of ourselves that are invisible. There is such a thing as a spirit person and a physical person, and more often than not the physical being is so detached from the spirit that one feels split inside. Awareness should ultimately lead to an attempt to bring these two parts of the person together to become one.”

How do you practice ritual?

The answer to that question, is up to you. How will you answer it?

Still hungry? Reflect on the questions that appeal to you.

1) What is your relationship to ritual? Are you a skeptic? Why or why not.

2) What rituals do you have in your life? How do they contribute to or suppress your health and well-being?

3) Where do you have community or a sense of belonging in your life? How does community impact your health, and how can you build community?

Overachiever? Or just plain lost? (Or both?)

Call or meet with an elder in your family or a person you know who is connected to themselves and to those around them. Interview them about how they create ritual and ceremony in their life.

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