My childhood and adolescent Sundays were spent in various Christian churches. From this you’d think I would have developed a healthy regard and understanding of ritual, but that wasn’t the case. Growing up, I never understood what rituals were meant to accomplish. They seemed at turns mysterious, routine, and rather vacant exercises. For all the pageantry involved, the rituals felt hollow to me, like we were all simply going through the motions. I remember taking Communion every Sunday, the highlight of the ceremony being the Welch’s grape juice.
Later on, I came to view ritual in three distinct ways. The first was as an act, or series of acts mediated by those in positions of religious authority. The second was in terms of academia, where religious ceremonies from other cultures are studied, documented, and analysed by anthropologists, historians, and sociologists. The third was in the way it is currently used in psychology, to define obsessive and repetitive behaviour that is used to stave off anxiety and gain control. All of these depictions of ritual are valid, but there are other aspects to ritual I was overlooking at the time.
For example, I never gave much thought to the idea of creating or using ritual in a highly personalised way to influence healing, growth, and transition.
I have psychotherapy to thank for opening up my mind in this direction. Through being a therapist, I’ve seen how people want to heal, gain closure and move forward from various crises and life events. They may be struggling with bereavement, divorce, job redundancy, trauma, illness, abuse, and anything else to do with loss, wounding, and abandonment. And often during the course of therapy, a person will want to do something extra, outside the therapy room, to further the process that therapy has begun. It’s then I’ve found that ritual can be an appropriate and powerful accompaniment to mark and deepen the changes people seek.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ritual as ‘a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.’ Another way of understanding ritual is as ‘a determined mode of action,’ an idea formulated by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his 1915 work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
Both of these definitions help clarify the meaning of ritual. Solemnity implies a sincerity, formality, and seriousness of purpose. Determination implies intent, willpower and a focus of direction in order to accomplish a specific goal. So, in order for an action to be a ritual, it must be sincere, intentioned, and focused in manner. In part, this helps explain the problem I had with Communion in my childhood; for my own reasons I couldn’t offer the full force of my sincerity or intention to the act.
But what is the overall purpose behind ritual? Durkheim proposed that rituals occupy the space between the sacred (spiritual life) and the profane (everyday life), acting as a sort of conduit between the two. The thought is that ritual links the two worlds together, promoting increased harmony and balance. In this context rituals exist to provide fuller, more energised lives through connecting the spiritual with the everyday. They are like bridges, allowing access and entry between worlds.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell observed in The Power of Myth that ‘the main theme of ritual is the linking of the individual to a larger morphological structure than that of his own physical body.’ This is played out in rituals that act as rites of passage and initiations, where the aim is to help people progress into new phases of life within a particular culture or society. These life phases involve birth and death, the advancement from childhood to adulthood, unattached to married, coupledom to parenthood, etc. In rituals related to these phases the individual deepens bonds not only with the community he/she inhabits, but with the spiritual beliefs maintained by that community. The rituals are either performed or sanctioned publicly, with the community observing and/or participating.
However, as I’ve seen in therapy, not all rituals need be done in a large public setting for effectiveness. They may also be done in solitude, or in a small group. These rituals are no less important in marking the borders of transition from one life phase to another, the main difference being that they aren’t prescribed by a society or group, but by the individual himself.
Creating, and then enacting a ritual is empowering. It is a way of consolidating power, and may be the only means of power available to someone in a seemingly powerless situation. One client of mine, a woman, had gone through a painful divorce. After grieving for a time, she expressed a desire to leave the relationship behind her and move on. She wanted to embrace being single, celebrate her freedom, and generate a new identity for herself. Eventually, she created a series of rituals to help her accomplish these goals. One of these involved cleansing her house with burnt sage. Another was writing a letter to her ex that was read aloud and then burned. A third was writing a letter to herself that would only be opened one year later. She later reported that these actions were cathartic, and increased her motivation to live a new life.
One of the most incredible types of ritual involve bringing back the parts of self that have gotten lost, gone missing, or become stuck somewhere along the way (this is also known as soul loss). Through a retrieval ritual, it is possible to search for these parts of self, travel to find them, and negotiate for their release. Very often these missing parts can be linked to a memory, or a series of memories. This ritual is concerned with bringing back the missing vitality and energy of the self, not the trauma. I’ve found this kind of work can be done safely in the therapy room.
As I see it, it’s highly beneficial to create and enact our own rituals. When we create them for ourselves, we take responsibility for our intentions, and begin to make our inner desires manifest in the world. Ritual focuses the mind, hones awareness, and strengthens the determination to reach goals. It evokes contact and reinforces our personal bonds with the sacred.
However, change and transition never comes without its price. Something must always be given up in order for something else to take its place. This is reflected in ritual, because at its heart, a ritual is a sacrifice. We offer up the old state of being in the hopes that it will be replaced by something better. We offer up the old self in the hopes that the new self will take root.
Image: Virgil Nez artwork