Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ritual in Practice: Let's Do It!

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here. Today's post is Part Two of a two-part post about the psychology and practical purpose of ritual. Last Wednesday's post (Part One) is here.

What Are You Going to Do?
First you need to determine which type of ritual you want to perform.  Rituals worldwide can be categorized into four basic types.  Which category fits your need?  Remember that most rituals include a blessing and/or cleansing, but that either one can be the purpose of a ritual all by itself. Consider also that, although celebration is a component of many of the ritual types listed below, it is not the true focus of the ritual. It is the beginning, ending, transition or connection that the ritual celebrates.

The important thing here is that your ritual have a purpose. A purposeless ritual is a dangerous thing - lots of stray energy swirling around with no place to go. Don't let that happen to you. The ritual's purpose tells the energy where to go so you don't end up with problems afterward.

The four main types of ritual are:

baby shower
ship launching
grand opening
ribbon cutting/dedication

funeral or memorial rite
bachelor or hen party
happy hour

bar or bat mitzvah
debutante ball

worship service/circle
going on a date
summer camp

Effective Ritual
An effective ritual is one that leaves a lasting impression and influences the participants to reinforce or change their assumptions, attitudes or expectations.  An effective ritual satisfies both the intellect (conscious) and emotion (subconscious).  An effective ritual has the following qualities:

  • Beginning and ending: It must be distinct and set apart from ordinary life.
  • Strong sensory input: Music, dance, food and drink, flowers, incense and participatory singing all add to the sensory input.  Sensory perceptions are intensified with group participation.
  • Familiar, predictable form: You should know what to expect.  If the ritual is unpredictable, you will spend your time worrying about what you need to do next and will be distracted from the real emotional impact of the event.  If the ritual form is unfamiliar, how can you still grasp that expected sameness?  By noting familiar sensory elements and patterns - most religious rituals worldwide include chanting or singing, special scents, sacred gestures and special clothing.
  • Meaning: All the participants must understand the meaning or the ritual will not be effective.  Ritual is not performed for deity (which understands everything regardless) but for human beings, who must understand the ritual in order for it to have an emotional and psychological impact.
  • Specialness: A ritual is separate from ordinary experience.  Allowing a ritual to disappear into the constant flow of everyday events takes away its specialness.  Perhaps this is why the modern holidays often feel hollow; they are no longer treated as special, set apart from everyday life.  An effective ritual will have several, if not all, of the following attributes:
  • Special area: An area that is consecrated (graveyard, church, temple) or set apart physically (fenced park, Statue of Liberty on an island) or reserved for specific use (school, ballroom).  You can separate an area and make it sacred with a visualized circle or a circle of people as well as with ribbons or other boundary markers.
  • Special objects: Clothing (traditional dress, your 'Sunday best,' evening wear), jewelry/decoration (lei, pentagram, wedding rings), decor (banner, altar), special food (Christmas cookies, challah, turkey).
  • Special movements: Sacred gestures (blessing, pentagram signing, handing out diplomas, putting on rings), special postures (god/dess stance, meditation asanas, kneeling), sacred dances.
  • Special sounds: Distinct intonation (the 'preacher voice'), instruments, special music (hymns, Pomp and Circumstance, chants), special language (prayers and blessings in formal or antequated speech or another language - Latin, Cherokee).
  • Special time: Ritual held at the same time every time, set apart from daily life (Sunday morning, full or new moon, seasonal holy days, dawn, sunset, beginning or end of school year).

Basic Ritual Format
Effective rituals follow a set structure, though their contents and flavor may vary from event to event or culture to culture.  Effective rituals follow this format:

  1. Preparation: This includes planning and writing the ritual as well as gathering props and setting up the ritual area.  Preparation also includes personal cleansing, prayer or grounding and centering to separate your mindset from daily life, putting on the special clothing you will wear for the ritual, and traveling to the ritual area.
  2. Opening: The successful ritual has an obvious, clear-cut beginning - blowing a horn, ringing a bell, casting a circle.  Many religious rituals begin with invocations of deities.
  3. Content: This is the activity which embodies the purpose of the ritual, whether it be connection, beginning, ending, or transition.
  4. Closing: An effective ritual must have a definite ending, a transition from the ritual back to daily life.  A strong closing strengthens the memory of the ritual.
Now that you are aware of the elements of ritual, you may find yourself noticing rituals throughout your life. Sure, the wedding or the worship service you attend is a ritual, but so is the weekly office meeting; so is your workday morning routine; so is the first day of school each year. Even having a yearly family photo taken, or attending a family reunion or the first school football game of the season, is a ritual. Pay attention to the rituals in your life and notice the effect they have on your emotions and mindset. You may be surprised how much of your life you spend in 'ritual mode.'