A synchronicitous chain has been forming for me around the concept of ‘ritual’. ‘Ritual’ (beyond its more simplistic use as a substitute for ‘routine’), for me and many other people, is a loaded word; it is loaded with attachments, typically to negatively inclined ideas like ‘meaningless’ and ‘useless’ and ‘primitive’ in the Westernized mind. The concept has become tarnished, largely foreign and alienating, inciting anything from suspicion to outright fear. This is a disastrously sad thing.
Rituals are actions performed according to specific criteria dictated by cultural custom and having symbolic value, consciously or unconsciously so. These physical actions represent part of a greater narrative, a narrative derived from the mythologization (try pronouncing it again, I managed it on the third try) of experience. Whether the experience is personal or not, the development and enactment of the story, or ‘myth’, is a process crucial to the homeodynamic (dynamically self-organizing) health of the whole person, not just the body or the mind, and the continued growth toward individuation (please watch this short, very informative video on Carl Jung‘s idea about individuation for a better grasp of the topic).
Here was my experience growing up with ritual. Like many in the United States, I was raised in a home that follows a contemporary religion. We prayed before meals and at bedtime, went to church on Sunday mornings, and my sister and I were sent to religious institutions from pre-school through high school. All of this ritual did not truly mean anything to me. The assumption, the hope, was that some day I will indeed have reasons to do as they do. And if I have a carbon-copy set of reasons to theirs, matching their ‘original’ document through the force of their pen leaving blackened impressions on the ‘copy’ beneath them, all the better. From my current point of view, this is a wish for self-affirmation through the enforcement of contemporary religiosity on the future generations, a lingering symptom of a colonizing system that began its relentless conquest hundreds of years ago. Like a chain of abuse from parent to child, this cycle of enforced colonization has spread and has yet to be broken.
With a “do as I do” style of teaching, a child does not understand why a person performs rituals such as taking communion, lighting incense at a shrine, or bowing in the direction of a ‘holy’ place. A child’s mind might be able to understand that other people have reasons, but the child does not develop reasons of their own via mimicry. It is a copy-cat, monkey-see monkey-do affair. This might be a startling news flash for some: even if a child shares half of your very DNA, a child is never a “Mini-Me”; a child is not a Sims character for which circumstances can be orchestrated to generate a desired result. For the child it eventually becomes a crisis of self-sufficiency engendered by the institutionalized dependence on Authority, the root of the Millenial dilemma. In other words, growth is stunted and maturation of the individual is crippled (see individuation above).
The dilution (via enforced mimicry) or outright lack of meaningful symbolic ritual embodying the necessary transition into a fully-functional and widely-recognized adulthood is staggering in its impact. Infinite, fragmented subcultures and denominations vying for an accepted place in the supposedly-singular, nebulous, unattainable melting pot that is the “American Dream“; adolescent behavior is commonplace in forums of public policy; and the aforementioned plight of the Millenials are all just symptoms revolving around a central illness of the individual and collective psyche. There has been a perturbation, an adulteration of the symbolic nature of ritual by forgetting that the symbol is, in fact, a symbol. We wander about like children in dress-up adult clothes wondering why these things, this “stuff” does not make us grown-ups. The absence of a supportive structure for engagement with the multiple layers of a symbol and active participation in a symbol’s narrative through ritual leaves a gaping, vacuum-like hole in the psyche.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
It was this vacuum in the soul, this ‘divine discontent‘ that drove me to strike out on The Hero’s Journey, to venture into unfamiliar territory in search of a practice that resonates with my authentic self. When I began, I was trying to fill the hole with more of the same practices, which for me were familiar yet still hollow, that I had been raised with: reading the Bible, attending church, or trying to pray. Quickly it was apparent that this was doomed to fail, as the quote from Albert Einstein above eloquently states; I only became more depressed and more desperate.
At what I felt was a spiritual rock-bottom, I reached out for and mindlessly consumed anything and everything I could find. Buddhist meditation, Tarot cards, environmental activism, Wicca, tribal animism, auric fields, crystal healing, astrology of many traditions, a renewed vigor for learning ancient mythologies.. it went on and on. Things only really began to take on a recognizable shape when I attended a special topics course on Jung and Shamanism in the Fall semester of 2011 centered around the work of C. Michael Smith, Eileen Nauman/Ai Gvhdi Waya, Don Miguel Ruiz, Don Alberto Taxo, Joseph Campbell, and more. In the two years since, it has felt like the stones of this road I am on are moving into place and that I am moving forward.
For right now, the best, ritual-based containers for my experiences are a combination of shamanic practice, depth psychology, and druidry, all very much inter-related for me. Creative pursuits (such as the making of my elk drum, offering bowl, stone stacking, altars, photography, poetry, and so on) combined with academic study in philosophy, environmental issues, and human health in these containers feels like the beginnings of connection with my authentic, individuated self. It has led to reconnecting with the local ecosystems, taking a personal interest in environmental causes (especially right here in Michigan), and consideration of enrollment in the Bardic grade of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids. It is not easy to balance earning money, attending school to finish a bachelors degree in biomedical sciences, family issues, and all this other stuff besides, but anything easily gotten tends not to seem really worth getting in the end.
I encourage you to check out these additionally related articles!
- The Rites of Manhood: Man’s Need for Ritual (artofmanliness.com)
- Happy authentic self (bostaj.wordpress.com)
- Christmas Eve 2013 (maggiemcneill.wordpress.com)