In a class I am teaching called “Approaching the Sacred”, we are focusing each month on one way of connecting with the divine. I am basing this process on Jonathan Ellerby’s book, Return to the Sacred, in which he describes twelve ancient paths to the divine. The month of August is our first month, and in this month we are focusing on ceremony and ritual. Through our discussion we uncovered the fact that there is a distinct difference between ritual and routine, and it is one worth discerning.
We are all prone to certain routines, and these routines make us more efficient and productive in our lives. However, a routine does not necessarily help you bypass your ego to a place of more timeless connection. A routine may help you get stronger, more relaxed, smarter, cleaner – there are all sorts of advantages to a routine! But if a routine does not help you connect with something sacred, something timeless and powerful, then it is not a ritual, it is more along the lines of a habit. Routines and rituals may overlap in many ways, but the ritual is distinct in that it produces a calmness, it helps you feel grounded, and it helps you connect with the powerful life force, the sacred, the divine energy that is all around us all the time. A ritual is consciously taking the time out of your usual routine to formally invite the divine presence to be with you.
Ellerby describes ritual as a “sacred technology” – our way to interact with what his Native American mentor called “The Spirit That Watches Over All” (77). This Native American explains a simple ritual to Ellerby, one where he interacts with sacred plants, using them to cleanse and purify. The description is powerful as he mentions that during a ritual we must always act with “gratitude and intention” (79). This “helps you pray for pure heart, body, mind, and spirit”, says his mentor (78).
In sum, each day this Native American goes through a ritual that helps him feel cleansed, whole, and pure, then he gives something to the earth out of gratitude for the sustenance of life. In deciding on a ritual for yourself, remember these two parts: cleansing and then giving. His ritual is smudging with sage or cedar smoke, then offering tobacco to the earth. Your ritual may be a brisk walk that helps you feel cleansed, then an offering of birdseed to the birds. It may be you live by a lake and you swim every morning (that always seemed to wonderful to me, but alas…). It may be that you light a candle every evening, then you whisper a prayer of gratitude to the stars and all that is. Something that calls on the power of one of the elements – earth, air, water, fire – is often significant.
In thinking about ceremony and ritual, I remembered this little story from my life:
In a tough point in my life I moved from California to New York while at the same time going through a divorce. It was challenging, but I knew it was the right path. When I got to the boarding school in NY where I would be teaching, my dog, Sasha, my best friend really, got lost. Just before she got lost her identification tag had fallen off. Each minute of waiting was terrible for me as I just didn’t know if I could go through so much loss and change and also lose Sasha. As I was walking the grounds of the campus, a woman on the faculty whom I had not met yet came up to me and said: every night I do a ritual. I light a candle and I connect with something greater than myself/a deeper part of myself. Last night I lit a candle for you and your lost dog, and I wanted you to know that.”
Sasha was found miles away bedraggled and wet that night around midnight, searching for home, and that woman became my best friend at the school. We still keep in touch. In thinking about ceremony and ritual, I remembered my friend and that she incorporates this ritual into her day. I believe she is one of the most grounded and kind people that I have ever met. Knowing that we had been the focus of her ritual was comforting for me at the time – moreso than if someone had said, “I’m so sorry you have lost your dog.” Something about ritual is transcendent, especially a long-term ritual, as the repetition throughout the days, weeks, and years makes the individual more empowered each time she undergoes the ritual.
As I was thinking about that time – when her ritual comforted me – I had the good fortune to speak to this friend again, just last weekend. I asked her to describe her ritual in more detail.
I still do this ritual, she said. Because I am very even-keeled and unemotional, at the end of each day I think about something or someone that moved me emotionally. I then feel those emotions again as I say to that person, ‘Thank you for who you are and who you are not. Thank you for what you have and what you don’t have.’ I then stomp on the ground three times, and I say to the earth, ‘thank you earth for supporting me, you are more important to me than my own eyes.’ The last part is a Hindu expression I learned in a class long ago, and I have used it ever since.”
A ritual becomes more powerful through repetition over time. Her ritual helps her stay connected to a voice that is stronger than her ego. It helps her stay in a place of awareness and gratitude. And, I must say, it works for I think she is one of the most grounded people I know with a steady sense of kindness.
Creating a daily ritual is no small cookie! Ask for guidance and pay attention to the things that move you. It may be that you create an altar, and your ritual is adjusting the items on the altar in a certain way. Ancient Egyptian temples, for example, were dedicated to a certain deity. “A deity’s presence within a temple was personified by a statue, and the ritual care of that statue required it to be fed, dressed, and anointed with a perfumed oil every day” (carnegie). Muslims have a beautiful ritual of praying in certain postures five times a day.
The Dalai Lama, one of the most inspiring and holy people on the planet, shows a nice use of modern technology combined with ancient practice to aid him in a morning ritual of praying while on the treadmill in this short video. Before his time on the treadmill, he prostrates himself in morning prayer and confession. All of this starts at 3:30 AM! It is worth watching just for a reminder of the importance of ritual and devotion, and I have no doubt that he, too, would resonate with the prayer for “pure heart, pure body, pure mind, and pure spirit.” His smile and demeanor always remind me that spiritual awareness and a conscious connection to the divine seem to result in joy.
It is worth developing a daily ritual, and it is a process that may take some time. Additionally, your ritual may change over the years. Whatever you do, find something and stick with it. If the ritual can be something that helps you feel like you are connecting – something that helps you feel you are in a timeless place, a place with no boundaries – then the ritual is likely one that will help you feel grounded and also likely one that will last. I hope it helps you feel cleansed, I hope it helps you feel connected, and I hope it helps you feel grateful.