For a week or more in the summer of 2001, fires burn through northern New Mexico, decimating forests in the Pecos Wilderness and Los Alamos and creating thick gray smoke that threatens the people in Santa Fe. People have to evacuate their homes due to fire damage or smoke and firefighters are battling the flames day and night. No one knows when the monsoon season will begin. My friends from Santa Fe come to stay in Albuquerque to escape the smoke. We gather in the backyard of my friend’s house and drum and sing songs about rain, dance for rain, express our longing for rain in every language we know. We know that we don’t have any idea how to call the clouds or if it is even possible to conjure rain, but we ask the skies for help as plainly as we can for all the beings in danger from the encroaching fires. At the end of the ritual, we acknowledge to each other that we feel more hopeful if nothing else, less desperate. A few days later, I stand in the checkout line at the La Montanita Co-op and someone bursts into the store and announces, “It’s raining!” Everyone leaves their position in line, even the cashiers, and we all pour out of the doors and turn our faces up to the falling rain.
When we do ritual, we enter the timeless realms, the world where mythology, creativity, poetry, divine beings and archetypes live and breathe and we can join them. Our connection to land has traditionally inspired humans to create ritual to celebrate cycles of seasons and the flora and fauna with whom we are interdependent. For many cultures, this has been the foundation of their spirituality and often, their collective health. The archetype of ritual answers the question of how we draw together bodies and land and time. Ritual has been used to heal, to mark the passing of cycles, to celebrate, to change something, or to pray for an outcome. This practice has the ability to connect people over great distances and centuries.
Ritual is marked by a relaxation of the logistical left brain way of thinking and an entry into the right brain imagination and sensuality. It takes place outside of clock time; this is one of the few places where we unfetter the artistic brain and allow it to come out and play. In ritual, the impossible becomes possible. We are not held back by the same rules of order that exist in our linear and formed ways of life. Ritual can be simple or elaborate, reminding us that the world is more mysterious and unpredictable than we believe.
Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” The truth is that ineffable experiences help us to remain psychologically sound, trusting that there is a vast pattern in which we are held. Ritual can remind us of the unity that exists beneath the surface of the illusion that everything is divided into compartmentalized objects. Many religious traditions and spiritual paths base themselves in a belief that we are threads of an immense tapestry that is reality. Science, especially quantum physics, continues to discover that many of the spiritual beliefs around unanimity are correct on a subatomic level.
A ritual is usually marked by our entering into a state of being that is qualitatively different than our everyday way of being or thinking. We might call this sacred space because it asks us to change our consciousness and attention in order to be present. Some cultures have made it an art form in and of itself; the creation of ritual that speaks to us is the talent of the ritual artist. Other times, the repetition of the ritual is what holds the sacred. The very fact that something has been performed so many times causes us to give it more relevance or reverence.
Ritual is meant to touch us at a deep level, though our logical minds may not understand what is happening. The body and our primal selves respond to symbol, rhythm, song, movement, play. Children build rituals instinctively without knowing exactly what they are doing. We construct ritual in our daily lives around transitions, making our first cup of tea in the morning, what we do when we arrive home for the day. We can view these rituals as meaningless routines, but the truth is often that they hold great import for parts of us and are difficult to change. Sometimes a change can evoke intense emotions because we are so invested in them. A familiar form of ritual in the Western world is the bedtime routine, often including some kind of prayer. When we prepare the conscious mind to turn inward, stating intentions, asking for help or trying to connect with the divine can be a powerful act.
Many of our modern holidays have become commercialized and nonrepresentational so they do not have the function to remind us of what is happening right now in our ecosystems. Not only does enacting ritual have the potential to connect us to the land on which we live, but it can also connect us to our own bodies and to each other, if we allow that. When ritual is taken out of the context of living on land in present time in human bodies, it can become abstract. We can forget why the practice ever had power or vitality.
The collective movement away from ritual in our modern culture seems to be based on the accusation that practicing rituals was silly, dangerous or primitive. Primitive is exactly what it may be, in terms of accessing our subconscious. We can’t measure exactly how much impact our subconscious mind has on our behavior, but we know it is a factor. It is often a surprise to examine what we hold to be true at a deeper level that does not register in our conscious experience. It may be only in the more subterranean parts of ourselves that we can release the rigid hold we have on our false beliefs, habits, and addictions.
Have you ever done a ritual that worked? Did it thrill or scare you?
We are often searching for transformation; there are so many times that we desperately hope to change ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes we can hold very strong opinions about what we “should” be doing instead and still do not change our behavior. We cannot change our patterns through logic alone. Because it works on more than one level, ritual can potentially help us make this complete shift in consciousness.Often, we are seeking to change behavior we may have outgrown or patterns that do not serve us any longer, on a personal or communal level. These are not intellectual problems and we may notice that no matter how much we attempt to reason with ourselves, we don’t usually shift our actions as a result of giving ourselves a good talking-to. It is ritual that can open a window into the parts of our body, mind and spirit that are more ancient, anchored in the deepest reserves of the brain and heart.
This is more than just thinking positively. In ritual, our reality expands to include symbolism, art, and imagery as valuable communication. Our right brain hemisphere comes into play, the part of us that responds to mythology and imagination, which can see beyond current circumstances. We can draw images of what we want to bring into our world and tape them on our bathroom mirrors, write down what we want to release and burn it, create a prayer on Instagram, drum or dance our dreams as if we believed we were divine. We can open to solutions and ideas that are beyond list-making, will power and details.
Ritual is essential to the world right now and we have the ability to invite it back into our lives. It gives us the audacity to believe that we can change events in our lives and our communities. The practice of ritual endows us with more opportunities to get out of our heads, into our bodies, and connected to the earth. Sensory input from living in cities can stress our nervous systems even without our awareness. We can create time to set all the excess stimulation in our lives aside. Ritual allows for the expression of gratitude, to recognize what is sacred around us. A student of mine once pointed out that most indigenous practice is a continued expression of gratitude. In modern civilization, we sometimes believe that we can have what we want without giving thanks or offering reciprocity. Neurochemistry tells us that gratitude interrupts negative thought patterns in the brain and changes emotional states, which is all the more reason to reinvigorate gratitude rituals.
It is radical to give sacred space a central role, to say that this is the essence of what is most important. It is revolutionary to express ourselves, to be creative and explore our own spiritual values through the design of ritual. It can feel risky to defy the fears that we will be dismissed or denigrated as healers or humans if we craft rituals. It is challenging to move past the part of ourselves that tells us that ritual is ridiculous, or that it doesn’t work, or that we will be harmed in some way if we venture outside of the box that has been made for us.
We are beginning to realize the need for ritual is contemporary and relevant to our health. Humans need to touch infinite spaces, to designate time for the sacred. Right now, we are in a time of transition from what has been to what could be and ritual helps us connect to past, present, and future. We need this powerful visioning tool that could assist in imparting insight about what we want to come of this changing time, whether it is about our individual journeys or our collective future. The design and practice of ritual can be a dramatic entry into the kind of shift our world is asking us to make.
I dare you to step between the world that does not believe in magic and mystery and the world that does. I dare you to pay homage to what is sacred about your life in an extraordinary space in some creative way. I dare you to perform rituals that rebuild your personal and our collective health care and ask other people to help you and help themselves. I dare you to ask for the changes you want to see on this planet that we share and use ritual as another way to bring them into being.