The Importance of ​Ritual

Updated: Feb 10, 2019

Ritual has always been an important part of my life whether I knew it or not. As someone who grew up in a highly religious home, I was involved in community and personal rituals from a young age, but my experience with ritual did not stop there. There were rituals around waking up {exercise (my dad was a coach what can I say?), body care (showering, brushing teeth, etc), eating (we had meals together as often as possible, and always prayed before them, it really was a ritual), and more}. I also came up with my own rituals around reading, imagination, sports, and basically anything else I did. I love patterns and consistency (thank you Mars in Virgo) so I would do all I could to repeat the same actions over and over again. All of this has led me to become someone who takes spiritual and personal ritual very seriously. While I don't necessarily value all of the rituals that I was taught as a child, I do appreciate the exposure to the importance of ritual that I was given. Re-reading Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell (you can find my review here), I came across this quote that summed up why I feel ritual, and especially sacred rituals, are so important.

"[Sacred space] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen."

Having a space and time to do intentional work of any kind, sacred work, allows us to connect to our inner being and slow down from the constant movement of modern existence. Rituals both sacred and simple help us create time and space to have the experiences Campbell was talking about above.

Now at this point you might be asking yourself, What even is ritual? I found a great definition in a Scientific American article from a few years ago: "Rituals take an extraordinary array of shapes and forms. At times performed in communal or religious settings, at times performed in solitude; at times involving fixed, repeated sequences of actions, at other times not. People engage in rituals with the intention of achieving a wide set of desired outcomes, from reducing their anxiety to boosting their confidence, alleviating their grief to performing well in a competition – or even making it rain." Ritual really can be anything you want it to be, as long as you are doing it with intention and it is separate from the typical actions that you take. I have rituals for all sorts of different circumstances. Each of them allows my mind to focus, to slow down, and to partake in something intentional and sacred.

Of course, the value of ritual is not just that it unites the sacred with the everyday. There is significant evidence that rituals help us exist more effectively in the world. Maria Popova tells us that "ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical...the specialness of ritual vitalizes us." Through engaging in rituals, we elevate the importance that we place on what would normally be mundane activities. They go from being habitual and thoughtless to practices with value attached to them. Your rituals can be anything you'd like them to be. You only have to look to our celebrities to see some of the strange actions that have been ritualized (here are some good examples, scroll about halfway down). If these people who have had tremendous success in their fields believed in the power of rituals, why shouldn't you?

I encourage you to examine your life to see what rituals already exist and where you might benefit from creating new ones.

While some rituals seem strange and utterly unrelated to the outcome of a project (and they very well might be), there is scientific evidence that just performing ritual gives us a better chance at success. A recent experiment explored the effects of superstitious or ritualized practices on the outcome of certain tasks. What the study found was that performing these rituals or even hearing superstitious encouragements (like "break a leg") improved results in many different tasks. Participants believed that they were more capable of achieving their goals when they had taken part in ritualized activity. Rituals may not offer any tangible assistance to our creative ability or skillsets, but they do allow our mind to feel more confident, to believe in its ability to succeed. There have been numerous other studies and articles on the effect of ritual on success and achievement, all coming to similar conclusions: for a reason that can't quite be defined, ritual brings results.

My belief is that ritual gives our conscious mind something outside of itself to grasp onto, to hold sacred above any fear or resistance. Rituals allows us to believe in the success of our actions no matter what, to have confidence that the results we are hoping for will come. Much of my personal ritual is related to my spirituality but I have been seeking to expand it into more fields of my existence. I ritually drop in and connect with my guides before pulling tarot cards. I ritually keep up with the movements of the moon and other planets through phases and signs, observing their impact on my emotional state and other parts of life. I love to listen to music while I work (and not work) so I have recently begun to ritually change artists or albums when switching tasks to inform to my brain that it is time to change attention. In your personal life, anything you do can become ritual if you do it consistently with an intention behind it. I encourage you to examine your life and see what rituals already exist and where you might benefit from new creating ones.

Personal rituals, like the ones spoken about above, are only half of the interaction that we have with ritual in our lives. As citizens of cities, states, and countries, we partake in ritual frequently. Perhaps you ritually take out the trash or recycling the night before it is due to picked up (my dad does this). If you vote, you are taking part in a group ritual of selecting elected officials. Once those officials are elected they take part in ritual to be sworn in. The Presidential Inauguration is a ritual we have been repeating every four years for centuries now. These group rituals unite us together, giving us a sense of community, and hopefully helping us to feel that there is sacredness to these processes.

Author, Physician, and Professor Abraham Verghese is quoted saying "Rituals, anthropologists will tell us, are about transformation. The rituals we use for marriage, baptism or inaugurating a president are as elaborate as they are because we associate the ritual with a major life passage, the crossing of a critical threshold, or in other words, with transformation. " These group rituals allow us to experience transformation as something outside of ourselves, something spiritual or sacred, something abstract as well as real. Marriage rituals remind us that while something very tangible is happening, there is much more to it than the signing of a certificate stating that two people are part of a union. This is the creating of a bond, the stepping out of living as individuals and the true, socially acknowledged beginning of a partnership, of two individuals becoming one unit. Ritual adds depth and meaning to what would otherwise be quite simple and uninspiring.

Of course, group ritual has many forms and not all of them seem beneficial when observed from outside of the group performing the ritual. Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has theorized that there are two major types of group ritual, the "doctrinal mode" and the "imagistic mode." He believes that all group rituals were/are intended to build community and may have been central to the beginning of civilization as we understand it today. The rituals that fit the "doctrinal mode" include prayer, ceremony, and the recitation of codes (like the Apostle's Creed, the Rosary, or the Pledge of Allegiance). We are often taught these rituals as children and they form the core of rituals within organized religion, government, and other large communities. The rituals in the imagistic mode involve much more emotionally stirring and even traumatic practices that closely link a limited number of people who have experienced the ritual together. Whitehouse cites cults, military platoons, terrorist cells, and even fraternities and sororities with intense 'hazing' rituals that are part of joining the group as participants in imagistic ritual. . The development of larger civilizations and now a globalized world has limited the existence of "imagistic" ritual in recent years. They were incredibly valuable early in the development of civilization when they "bound us together and pitted us against our enemies,” says Whitehouse. “It was only when nomadic foragers began to settle down did we discover the possibilities for establishing much larger societies based on frequently repeated creeds and rituals.”

Whitehorse is seeking ways to take ritual into a global humanistic scale. He wants to use ritual as an aid in peace talks and conflict resolution between opposing groups and countries. His hope is that finding rituals for all of humanity will bring in new levels of cooperation between countries and people groups. This sounds like the perfect development for the Age of Aquarius which we are only at the beginning of. Aquarius is the sign of both community and revolution, perhaps through the work of Whitehouse and others like him, we will be able to use ritual to unite humanity as a whole. But whether that happens in this lifetime or not, we certainly can use ritual to improve our own lives and bring more peace and sacredness into existence.

Joseph Campbell spoke about the value of having a sacred space in your life. Even if you are unable to have a physical space that you set aside, ritual allows us to spend time being sacred. When we perform ritual, I believe that wherever we are and whatever we are doing becomes sacred for a time. In that sacred time and space, "eventually something will happen." If we are lucky, it will be the thing we are hoping to occur out of our ritual. If not, then we will have cultivated a time of peace, quiet, and intention. We will have spent a moment or two with our inner being, our deities and guides, with ourselves just as we are. That is what ritual provides us: a chance to pause and be purposeful with ourselves and the actions we take. I would love to hear some of your favorite rituals so feel free to leave comments or share them with me on Instagram @earthandfiretarot!

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