Post on 25-Dec-2015
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Canceled flights, school closings, and interrupted schedules are all solid reminders: our lives run on routine. An ice day that affords us some sleep-in time or maybe even an extension on a difficult test is cold comfort to the fact that we have things to do and agendas to keep. Its just about mid-point in this spring semester and as inconvenient as the ice and cold might be, an unplanned moment of pause and reflection is a good opportunity to take account of the manner in which we live our lives and, perhaps more importantly, to inventory that for which we truly live. We dont, however, rely solely on acts of nature to keep us in touch with a sense of meaning and purpose. Embedded within the matrix of our daily routines are multiple, intentional behaviors that connect us to what we believe is transcendent. Often referred to as rituals or ritual behavior, these acts are not simple nor are they casual, but the recognition of their presence and practice in our waking moments is profound.Some rituals are blatant, formal, and often religious, others are subtle, personal, and without connection to faith or creed, but ritual behavior maintains its power in connecting individuals to larger ideals and concepts. High schools and universities, for example, conclude their years with graduation ceremonies. Students parade in a prescribed manner through auditoriums and coliseums to the familiar tune of Pomp and Circumstance. Onlookers cheer, wave, and cry as they mark a significant moment in the life of a loved one. Certain rites of passage (weddings, funerals, coming of age ceremonies, etc.) are religious in construct and operate with the same level of veneration. Spiritual leaders and those participating acknowledge the protocol and decorum that is often complex and mandatory. At most sporting events, fans participate in the nationalized ritual of singing the Star-Bangled Banner. Individuals rise, remove their hats, and place hands over hearts; such formal behavior is designed to remind attendees of the beauty, the joy, the sorrows, and the privileges of living in the United States.Even with these common examples, it is the personal employment of ritual behavior that sustains us no matter the weather of our every-day experience. In other words, these ritual actions are not unconscious, habitual behaviors, but in great contrast are willful and intentional. Rituals connect us with what we believe about life, so that when we enact a ritual, we are outwardly expressing what we claim to believe within ourselves. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, finds a very eloquent way of connecting ritual behavior to personal belief. The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life, not in the way of mere surface arrangement, but in depth. Its function then becomes one of reaching beyond the faade of innocuous daily routine, and instead, potentially transforms the mindless into the mindful.Thich Nhat Hanh in his, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, speaks of the simple act of washing the dishes as an opportunity to be grounded in the moment. While not recognized as any kind of formal behavior, the act of consciously engaging in an activity, like washing dishes, while remaining present in the moment, allows individuals to stay connected to what Eckhart Tolle would refer to as the most important moment of our lives: now.Caroline Myss, in Invisible Acts of Power, assumes a stronger connection of ritual to a spiritual element and explains that, We dont enact them [rites/sacraments] simply because they are social customs. They convey important, universal human values and divine values. They create a divine connection between our consciousness and our souls, between us and other people, and between us and God.
Myss notes that rituals are based in action and that these actions connect us to essential understandings that link our hearts and souls to divinity. Catherine Bell offers a contrasting perspective with her Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. She addresses the contemporary shift of ritual away from religious association, but continues to speak to its function and power in every day pursuits. If most people in industrial societies no longer go to church regularly or practice elaborate rituals of initiation, this does not mean that ritual has declined Instead, new types of ritual political, sporting, musical, medical, academic, and so on have taken the place of the traditional ones.
Bells thoughts are visible in popular culture and quite often reflected in the stories produced in film. In a humorous example from Back to the Future (1985), the eccentric genius Doc Brown speaks of a rhythmic, ceremonial ritual as he refers to the high school dance where Martys parents will solidify their relationship. I have no doubt that anthropologists would attest to the potent rituals involved in human courtship behavior, all of which are observable at any high school gathering. Cooley High (1975) offers a more somber example as the film outlines the lives of African American teens from the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago. In one memorable scene, a tight-knit group of friends gathers at night in a dark alleyway and shares memories and feelings. While imbibing with some wine, they pour a small amount onto the street before drinking and declare, this is for the brothers who aint here. A similar scene takes place at the funeral of the groups close friend, as the main character, Preach, stands alone at the grave site and pours out some liquor for the dudes who aint here. Such scenes render a simple but powerful way of consciously recognizing the transient quality of life. One of the most meaningful examples of ritual behavior that I have experienced occurred on the SMU campus several years ago. A group of Tibetan monks spent a full week within the common space of the Hughes Trigg student center and constructed a sand mandala. The inside area in which the monks designed and assembled their work was closed off to the public, although people could assemble closely around the area or watch from upstairs balcony. The entire process took about a week and the monks worked, napped, and ate within the closed off rectangle which became their sacred space. Many in the SMU community were aware of the nature of the mandala, its elements of Buddhism, and the direction that the closing ceremony would eventually take. To others, the finale would be a true surprise. After the mandala was complete, the monks held a ceremony and invited the entire campus to participate. They said prayers, played some very unique music, and as a crowd of more than two hundred people watched, the lead monk, using a large brush, swept the beautiful, intricately designed mandala into one simple pile of sand. People of many faiths as well as those of no faith at all were present on that day, but the power of the ceremonial destruction of the mandala had its most notable effect heard in the collective gasp from those in attendance.
Those who participated and witnessed the act got it: even the most beautiful elements of life are transient; as humans, we are impermanent. Ritual behavior takes many forms. Sometimes we find it rooted in complex religious ceremony, other times it takes shape in the simple behavior repeated between friends. Whatever its configuration, it is simply the recognition of those behaviors, those willfully executed touchstones of thought, that keep us connected to what it transcendent to us, to what gives us meaning and purpose. Once again, Campbell finds a compelling manner in which to express the idea behind meaning and purpose.People say that what were all seeking is a meaning for life. I dont think thats what were really seeking. I think that what were seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Rituals give us those resonances. Whether they are situated in formal belief or fastened to communal behavior between intimate friends, recognizing their presence and deliberately participating in ritual behavior can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, so that we do truly experience the rapture of being alive.