Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ritual in Theory

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 One of a two-part post about the psychology and practical purpose of ritual. Next Wednesday's post will be Part Two.

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ritual 1. an established form of conducting a religious or other rite  2. any practice or behavior repeated in a prescribed manner
habit 1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary  2. customary practice or use
mystery any truth unknowable except by divine revelation.
- The Random House Dictionary, Concise Edition

Ritual on the Brain
Why do we perform rituals?  This question refers not only to the ceremonies and circles of neo-pagan practice, but also to ritual acts in daily life.  Do you carry out the same actions in the same order every morning when you're getting ready for school or work?  That’s a ritual.  Do you always sit in a certain place to read the newspaper, or do you put on your makeup, perfume and jewelry in a certain way when you will be going out?  Those are rituals.

Rituals in daily life are those habits which have taken on meaning and thus put us in a certain mind-state when we perform them.  Your morning preparations ready your mental state as well as your body for the tasks of school or work.  “Personal indulgence rituals” such as reading the newspaper in your comfy chair on a Sunday morning, or taking a bubble bath with the door shut and the lights dimmed, shift your mind-state to a more relaxed, calm condition.  Rituals are actions we have performed repeatedly under similar circumstances so they have taken on the meaning of the circumstances.  The power of a ritual to change your mind-state lies not in the action itself but in its meaning to you.  Herein lies the key to the force and significance of religious ritual.

The secret to discovering the power of ritual in a religious context also lies in the meaning rather than the actions alone.  If you attend a religious ceremony in a religion you are unfamiliar with (a friend’s Bar Mitzvah or a Shinto wedding, for example) you might find yourself feeling a bit empty.  You can look around and see that the ceremony has meaning for the other participants and that they are affected, even moved to tears, by the ceremony.  But since you are unaware of the underlying meaning and symbolism of the actions in the ceremony, its power to change your mind-state and affect your emotions is limited.  But that is exactly what ritual, in a religious context, is supposed to do: change your mind-state and affect your emotions.  That is why we perform ritual in the first place.

Poruwa ceremony: A traditional Sinhalese wedding
Symbol Sets
There are many ways to do reverence to the deities and powers in whom you see the Divine.  You can write poetry and sing songs.  You can draw or sculpt.  You can meditate.  Or you can perform ritual.  While all of these activities can serve as worship in our lives, ritual has a special place because of what it can do for us on an emotional and psychological level.  Just as a symbol has a meaning beyond its immediate physical form, so too does ritual have meaning beyond the simple actions which comprise it.

Symbols speak to the unconscious mind by bypassing conscious speech and definition.  In this context we can view a religious ritual as a complex set of symbols strung together for greater depth of meaning and significance.  It is just this meaning, indefinable in common words but still comprehensible to the subconscious and the psyche, that makes a Mystery.  And to many people, especially in the Pagan community, the Mystery is the purpose of performing a ritual.  Let us first explore how a ritual can have meaning for a group of people and emotional impact on them.

Any group of people who undertake a ritual together must begin with the same set of symbol meanings or their reactions to the ritual will fail to have the effect the officiants desire.  To take a mundane example, consider the ritual of returning to outdoor activities in the spring after the long winter indoors.  This ritual takes many forms across the country but it generally elicits two basic responses: for some people it evokes joy and a sense of freedom now that they are able to enjoy the outdoors again in fine weather.  But for others it evokes a sense of responsibility and perhaps dread as they recognize once again the need to mow the lawn, weed the flowerbeds, prune the shrubs and so forth.  The basic meaning of this activity is different for different people since they have different symbol sets.

So when a group of people come together for ritual, they need to have enough information about the symbol set being used that they respond to the actions of the ritual in a predictable manner.  At least, in as predictable a manner as human beings ever respond to anything.  If the color gold predominates in the surroundings and decorations, it should mean the same thing to all the participants, whether that be sun energy, harvest, wealth, or some other meaning.  If a prosperity ritual involves the color gold and all one participant can think of is sheaves of wheat, that interferes with the energy and hence the effectiveness of the magickal working.  Some officiants go so far as to “brief” the participants before a ritual so they will all have the same understanding of the actions and symbols as used in that particular ceremony.

But a symbol set or set of actions alone, even though they may have meaning, do not constitute a ritual.  A ritual builds out of a symbol set to become much, much more.

Ganges Ceremony: The Ganges River is sacred to Hindus

Religious Habits
The term habit generally means an action or set of actions that has been repeated so often that it becomes involuntary, almost unconscious.  You may think of a ritual as a symbol set that has grown into a habit.  This is why, though the deities and accessories may change, the basic outline of ritual remains the same in each tradition throughout the year.  The repetition of the same forms - casting the circle, cleansing, invoking deities and/or elements, sharing food and drink - lends these actions power and meaning beyond even the obvious symbology.

I noted above the example of a morning ritual to get ready for work or school.  This set of actions puts the person in the appropriate mind-frame for the task at hand.  This is why we prepare in a certain way for religious ritual as well.  We wear special clothes that remind us of our purpose, whether it be our Sunday best, a ritual robe, or a yarmulke and prayer shawl.  Just as we wear certain clothes for work and certain clothes for going out on Saturday night, we wear special clothing for ritual.  There is a reason that some sets of clothing are called habits.  Putting on special clothing puts you in the mindset for the activity the clothing belongs to, but wearing the clothing is a continual subliminal reminder to stay in that mindset.  Have you ever needed to get out of your work clothes before you could relax in the evening?  The power of your garb may be greater than you realize.

The actions we perform during a ritual have the same sort of power and they grow in power the more often we perform them.  When you first begin participating in ritual you may feel awkward and the actions you perform may feel like “going through the motions” - they have little meaning to you.  But as you repeat these actions in one ritual after another, they develop meaning.  You may not be able to express in words the feelings you experience each time you face a particular direction or share cakes and wine, but your subconscious mind understands the power of these actions.  Consider the power of some mundane actions that begin awkwardly but develop meaning the more often you repeat them - writing a check, learning dance moves or a sport, even having sex.  The power of repeated actions becomes your power and you embody their energy every time you perform them.

We have seen the effect that ritualized actions can have on our emotions and mind-state.  Whether in a religious setting or in other arenas of life, ritual draws on a deeper level of understanding than we can express in words.  Like a symbol, ritual taps a portion of the subconscious from which we draw power and through which we can understand and know Mysteries.

Holy Week processional in Salamanca, Spain

This Ain’t No Whodunit
Like its very definition, the term Mystery is difficult to express in words.  The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had to invent his own word - “grok” - in order to express how  we internalize the information in a Mystery.  While a Mystery is certainly not the same as a mystery (the writings of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, or Dorothy Sayers, for instance) we can glean some insights into the capital-letter version from the lower-case sort.

A mystery story, or “whodunit,” involves hidden information which, when exposed and correctly interpreted, leads to a revelation.  This is, perhaps, the converse of a Mystery.  To turn the definition upside-down: A Mystery involves already exposed (common, readily available) information which, when correctly interpreted and internalized (hidden), leads to a revelation.  The Mystery is not the act or the symbols.  The Mystery is what happens inside you when the act or symbols take on significant meaning.

For Catholics, the Eucharist is a Mystery.  The priest offers them a piece of bread and a drink of wine, saying that these common items are transformed through faith into the body and blood of the Christ.  The priest is speaking both metaphorically and literally.  The bread and wine are, first and foremost, simple symbols of the body and blood.  But someone who truly believes that the foodstuffs contain the Divine within them has a different experience of Eucharist than does someone who sees the bread and wine simply as intellectual symbols.  The difference, that emotional response and psychological state within the person who takes the meaning literally, that is the Mystery.

The same is true of the invocation of deities into a pagan circle.  On one level the deities are symbolically present in that their names are spoken as part of the verbal ritual.  On another level - the Mystery - the deities are actually present and their presence encompasses all they stand for, including their attributes, personality traits and mythos.  But simply to describe this situation in words does not impart understanding of the Mystery.  A Mystery is beyond words; it must be experienced in order to be internalized and thus understood. This is the process of moving from thinking about something to knowing it in your gut.

Yezetcha Ceremony: Burmese Buddhist water libation ceremony, circa 1900
Wrapping It Up
Ritual has many levels of meaning, interpretation and power.  The purpose of ritual is manifold: the gathering together of like-minded people; the reverence and worship of deities and divine powers; the evocation within the participants of various emotional and psychological states; the revelation of Mysteries.

The way ritual provides the more esoteric results of certain mind-states and the understanding of Mysteries is almost a Mystery in itself.  The symbols and actions to which we accustom ourselves in ritual take on greater power and deeper meaning as we continue to use them.  They appeal to a part of the human psyche which is beyond the conscious mind, which feels rather than thinks, which speaks in concepts rather than words.  This is the part of each of us from which we draw power and in which we can find the ever-present spark of the Divine.

Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life.  Rick Fields et al.

Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit.  Tom Cowan.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  Douglas R. Hofstadter.

A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches' Handbook.  Janet and Stewart Farrar.