What are Rituals?


Early recordings of humankind denote an endless array of rituals: rituals are sequences of repeatable acts, called “rites”, performed by way of specific methodology adhering to certain occasions. From self-care routines to marriage ceremonies to political traditions, rituals hallmarked by specific cultures vary widely, yet relate in the sheer nature of their existence. With the passing of generations, rituals have become sidelined in many cultures, and as such, misunderstood.

By demystifying the concept of rituals and employing the power of purposeful ceremony, we are able to unlock the door of opportunity for renewal, consistency, and mindfulness within our own lives.

What Are Rituals?

Often mistaken for habits, rituals involve the execution of conscious and deliberate actions. Habitually, I roll out of bed and brush my teeth. There is very little thought involved in this routine; on more than one morning, I have performed this act and later in the day had no memory of partaking in the experience (that said, this has become ingrained into my everyday life, and therefore I trust with every cell in my being it was checked off the list). According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, once our brains are conditioned to incorporate a habit, we use little to no brainpower on that particular aspect of our day; it is almost as if we are sleeping during our waking hours.

Habitual Hardwiring

Habits and routines are hardwired into our minds at a young age. I can remember being sent home each day in third grade with two math worksheets, one division and the other multiplication. To my distaste, this dose of algebraic prescription was swallowed and completed before playtime ensued. Then followed dinner, then bath time, then 30 minutes of reading before bed. The daily incorporation of math problems and a set dinnertime, while seemingly mundane, provided structure and a sense of safety, which has served me far into adulthood.

Our habits, while capable of being orchestrated without much thought, serve us greatly as a source of stabilization in an often-unpredictable world.

Like habits, rituals offer a sense of grounded-ness and familiarity. Rituals, unlike habits, require us to become aware and attuned to specific moments in time, whether it be preparing the physical body for the day ahead or welcoming the dawn of a new season. For thousands of years, cultures around the world have preserved and continue to create such rituals.

Beyond Fear-Based Rituals

The evolution of society has immensely impacted rituals today. Understandably and thankfully, views on many subjects such as mortality have shifted, stamping out rituals such as human sacrifice, once common in Aztec and Viking cultures. Over the course of history, such intense and dramatic acts have created fear around the concept of rituals. The actual ritual itself becomes obsolete, as it no longer serves a purpose within the architecture of newly structured norms.

Rituals are Inherently Mindful

The pace of our existence has dramatically picked up speed and as such, our energy and attention are more expended upon habit. For instance, it is not uncommon to make a habit of hitting the steam room after a tough workout at the gym. What today likely takes the average health club goer 5-15 minutes shares commonality with once-lengthy and honored rituals around the globe. According to Dr. Joanne Berry, researcher and Roman historian, visits to public baths such as the Forum Baths in Pompeii served as time for people to mindfully cleanse, and also served as social and political meeting grounds; said ritual laid the foundation for many historical implications still being studied and unearthed today. In ancient Mesoamerican culture, a steaming ritual called “temazcal” served many purposes. A combination of heated rocks, meditation and chanting inside of a mortar structure originally served as a ritual during important events, such as childbirth, to call in a sense of rejuvenation.

Due to the formation of habits, there is a basic “to-do” framework we adhere to on a daily basis. Many of us know exactly how long a routine chock full of automated acts such as above takes us in order to seamlessly arrive at the office, an appointment, or wherever the wind blows in a timely manner. Efficiency can lead to the extraction of the presence of consciousness in our day-to-day acts. According to Richard J. Reidly, author of Eternal Egypt: Ancient Rituals for the Modern World, priests and priestesses in modern Egypt adhered to a daily morning ritual consisting of 32 ceremonious acts. In this day and age, carving out a window of precious time to execute such seems daunting, and frankly impossible.

Why are Rituals Important?

“A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.” –Joseph Campbell

Rituals are often markers or catalysts for energetic shifts. Rituals also assist in renewal of self, support connection within community and keep tradition alive in a conscious way. On may levels, rituals help us become more in tune with what is truly meaningful; that which is of so much importance it stands the test of time.

The gerontology expert Rhonda P. Curtis wrote, “ritual expands our horizons to aspects of life beyond daily requirements.”” Rituals give the events we experience in our lives meaning, and our lives themselves a sense of purpose. Because a ritual requires preparation and thoughtfulness, they help us shift from “to-do” mode to “into doing” whatever may be required for the completion of your chosen ritual experience.

The Lasting Impact of Rituals

Take the full moon, for example. A quick glance in the sky can leave us breathless for a moment, and if we are lucky, we could yield a somewhat blurry photo to publish on Instagram. When observed through a ritual experience, the energy of the full moon can be harnessed for your benefit to release what is no longer serving you, as well help you become a magnet for that which will spur your evolution, both of which can make a lasting impression on the way your next day, week, month unfolds.

How to Create Your Own Rituals

Start Small

Identify areas in your life in which you are either experiencing or hope to encourage shift, personally and/or within your community, and do a bit of research around existing rituals with similar focus for inspiration. Perhaps you are experiencing a shift and moving into a new apartment soon. Promotion of energetic clearing through a smudging ceremony can assist you in becoming more grounded in your home.

Maybe you are hoping to create a consistent ritual around your bedtime. Becoming more aware of how and when you unwind can enhance the potency of your sleep without being overly complicated; try adding a quick yin yoga or nidra practice before you hit the pillow.

Plan it Out

Given that rituals bring significance to daily, monthly, annual and occasional events, they can be easier to carve out time for than you may think. Setting a daily alarm or calendar reminder can be helpful, especially when first incorporating your rituals into your rhythm of life.

Daily rituals are capable of being nestled into any block of the day. For example, you may try carving out a bit of time each morning to lay the foundation for your day with a guided meditation or a ten-minute walk outside without your phone in the afternoon to reboot and reinvigorate the remainder of the workday. Make your rituals easy to begin: set up your cushion in your favorite meditation spot the night before for a morning meditation or set your alarm for 2:10pm when you typically experience a lull in your workday for your walk.

Be Patient

A study conducted at University College London proves that it takes an average of 66 days to form new behavioral patterns. It may take a bit of time to incorporate a new ritual, whether it is a daily, weekly, or yearly ritual. With some time, it will feels natural, necessary and effortless.

Stay flexible

Did you oversleep or snooze your alarm yesterday, when you had set the intention of waking up early to embrace your day with a Sunrise Yoga session? Perhaps you are traveling for work and unable to find the resources necessary for your new Wednesday evening Ayurvedic dinner ritual. Instead of becoming frustrated, give yourself credit for the awareness you possess around your ritual, and the honored space you hold for it. Celebrate this as a sign of your dedication to your newly instilled commitment.

Rituals Allow the Savoring of Shifts

Experiencing an event through the lenses of habit or circumstance (looking up at the moon) versus that of ritual (gathering a small group of friends to welcome a celestial shift) is similar to that of swallowing a cup of coffee in three gulps rather than taking mindful sips, exploring the flavor notes, layers of acidity and cradling a warm mug in receptive hands. Rituals allow for us to savor the textures of our human experience as well as the unexplainable, and remind us that we have a choice with how, when, where and why we expend and dedicate our precious energy.

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Knowing Gnosis: Occupying Resurrection

The Gnosis of “The Gnostics” (And Everyone Else…)

In a previous article, I told a version of the wonderful Gnostic myth of Sophia, the princess of Wisdom itself, and her descent to earth to elevate humanity through the example of her struggle back up to the light, and her gift of consciousness to mankind through the power of feminine energy. Hers is the classic myth of metaphor, describing the Gnosis of the Gnostics in a way that resonates in the heart and mind. Summing up the essential myth of the Gnostic inner journey goes something like this:

Humanity is an expression of a Divine Light imprisoned in a clunky, imperfect plane of existence, surrounded by the beauty of human life and the earthly realm, but victimized by the suffering that is such a big part of it all.

Each human contains a spark of the Divine Light within, and enduring Life’s painful challenges inspires the desire to reunite that inner spark with the great field of Divine Light, our Source, called the pleroma.

It sounds quite a bit like Buddhism doesn’t it? That’s because it is, in a way – there are ways, in ritual, action, and practice, that the suffering can be avoided.

The self-realization of the light within requires some help from The Divine, and that’s where Sophia and her male counterpart (and husband-to-be), The Christ enter into the process, as specific objects of divine devotion. An approach, or set of principles designed to merge the earthly ego with the eternal self; and a community of shared consciousness – individuals who are seeking the same state of happiness, wholeness, and purpose – are necessary parts of the process, too.

In a way, Buddhists call this “The Buddha, The Dharma, and The Sangha”, Catholics, “The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit”.

Across the spiritual board, these constituent parts are very nearly identical in every process of Gnosis, from humankind’s earliest indigenous nature religions, to contemporary Twelve Step Programs, where this triangular incubator of Gnosis is called “a higher power, the steps, and the fellowship.”

Gnostic Spiritual Mythology Was The First Depth Psychology

For the Gnostics, all of these iconic, archetypal metaphors were very elemental, indeed, proceeding from the concept of a watery submersion of the eternal self in the depths of the psyche (the path of water to find its greatest power by seeking its lowest point); to the transformational fire of human suffering – alive in that desperate need to reunite with The Divine; to the emergence of the light within, and its re-merging into “the sun of God”.

The water holds the painful obstacles, the earth is the plane of their realization and exposure, the fire burns away those onerous human handicaps, the inner spark breaks free and expands back into transcendent light – a “marriage” of opposite aspects: yin and yang, male and female, darkness and light, etc., that takes place in the effulgence of “Heaven”.

Yeshua said: ‘When you bring forth that within you, then that will save you. If you do not, then that will kill you.”

The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 70

This is what attracted people like Joseph Campbell (The Hero’s Journey) and Carl Jung (individuation) to Gnosis and Gnosticism, the fact that it pre-dated every form of modern depth psychology with its remarkable synthesis of human experience into an archetypal framework, and mystical, ritual process of rebirth, recovery, and “resurrection”. The story of an authentic spirit’s journey from a fragmented, semi-conscious “death”, to the wholeness of a compassionately conscious “re-birth” mirrors every individual’s shared journey to wholeness and happiness.

[Mythology inspires] the natural metaphysical impulse to transcend the illusion of separation.

Joseph Campbell

Rebellion and Resurrection

The Gnostics’ understanding of our psychological sub-strata was really quite simple, and sort of profoundly perpendicular, in a way, as symbolized, finally, not as the iconic early Christian fish, submerged in the depths of Life, but as The Cross that supports the ego-death that’s necessary if we want to get back to “The Kingdom”. The horizontal experience of Life on earth, in a human body, intersecting the vertical inner knowledge and understanding of our true ascendant nature and potential.

Gnosis begins with an uncomfortability about Life, a rebellious dis-ease that moves us to reunite our selves with a comfort and ease of being that we’re all entitled to. In this way, Gnosis is a subtractive process – intentionally recognizing and eliminating the attitudes and constraints that human life presents us with; and it’s an expansive process – bringing us into the consciousness of our limitless potential by merging our damaged, earthly egos with a pure, eternal Love, accessible through our hearts. But unfortunately, you may have to get a little mad first…

When you make the two into one, when you make the inner like the outer, and the high like the low; when you make the male and the female into a single One…when you have eyes in your eyes, a hand in your hand…and an icon in your icon, then you will enter into the Kingdom.

The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 22

The discovery of the goals and methods of early Christian Gnosticism – what Christianity truly was originally – came to light with the discovery of ancient hidden codices in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. There, gospels and other scriptures, unmanipulated or annodated for nearly two thousand years, led to a resurrection, so to speak, of this system of inner exploration.

Discover the true Gnosis of the Gnostics, with all its ancient metaphoric mythology, and applications to contemporary spiritual psychology in Gnostic scriptures such as: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Phillip, The Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Mary, and in many fine resources, like: Stefan Hoeller’s The Gnostic Jung, and Jung and the Lost Gospels, or in Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead, and Answer to Job.

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