As wilderness guides who do not promote either belief or non-belief in divine beings, it might be difficult to understand why we include self-initiated ceremony and ritual as an optional therapeutic modality in our work—particularly on our river-based wilderness fasts. What follows is a tiny sliver of why I think ceremonial consciousness matters, even in a secular context.
A ritual is defined here as a series of intentional acts (usually physical acts, but they could be mental also) that a person engages in in a specific way. In this definition a ritual has an intended purpose or outcome (though this doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome is totally predictable or known). Rituals are different from habits because they tend to have a sort of a transpersonal or symbolic meaning to the person performing the ritual. Rituals can have the effect of marking something, like an emotion, a certain time of day, or a certain food or drink about to be consumed; they can serve to help someone feel safe and grounded in a time of uncertainty; they can also be connected to interacting with elements of one’s religion, like making the sign of the cross (for Catholic and Orthodox Christians) or performing the Salah (the traditional Mulsim prayer).
The words “ceremony” and “ritual” are somewhat interchangeable. Generally though a ceremony is typically a special type of ritual, often one that marks important religious, social, or political events within a community. “Ceremony” generally has more of a social connotation.
Ceremony and ritual aren’t just for people who are religious in the traditional sense though. They are for anyone who thrives from creating order, beauty, or symbolic meaning in (and with) their environment. These universal human impulses are a deep part of spirituality to begin with.
Some examples of rituals and ceremonies that are found across many cultures include making altars, putting on special clothes that symbolize a sacred identity or role, cutting one’s hair to mark change or signify grieving, performing a dance of celebration, getting in a particular posture to signify prayer or surrender, receiving a tattoo or other type of mark, wearing masks or painting one’s face, fasting, being silent for a set period of time, bathing or cleansing parts of the body with water, burying objects, anointing and rubbing the body with oil, and eating special foods.
Even without a particular religious framework in mind, as I read each item in the list above, I get a powerful image and feel a connected emotion. Do you? For example, I cannot help but feel a tinge of coyness and trickery when I consider a mask-wearing or face-painting ritual, and I cannot help but sense deep devotion when I picture someone with their head touched to the earth in surrender—no matter who or what they might be praying to. When I imagine ritual bathing, I can’t help but think of new, fresh beginnings, and when I think of ritualistically anointing the body with oil, I can’t help but be moved by the power of reverence for human life. Though this list of rituals might seem generic, when we relate to many of them our emotional responses are anything but generic!
Perhaps an act in this list stood out to you—something you’ve done or something you’ve longed to do. Or maybe, something that triggers and repulses you because of an experience you’ve had with it in a certain cultural context. All that is valid and speaks to the somatic and emotional potency of performing symbolic acts, and thus it points the way to how we might re-claim this ancient psycho-spiritual technology.
Whether we believe that our reactions and associations to these ritual acts are cultural programming, mirror neurons, or both, either way it is clear that these acts have huge capacity for symbolism, for signification. They can hold meaning in a distinct way that perhaps can’t be achieved otherwise. And religious or not, humans are narrative beings—we are storytellers and story-seekers by nature. We are also puzzle-solvers and game-makers who like to encode, encrypt, and decrypt things— We like to uncover secrets and bury others, making new secrets. Ceremonies and rituals are ways of speaking, ways of telling a story, but they are also distinct from the sort of speech we are used to because they are about embodiment—they are about not just telling a story or passively receiving one, they are truly about being a story.
Why do we tell stories, see stories, guard secrets, and glimpse our fate? It is perhaps because meaning, even fiction, in the proper doses, helps us thrive. Just as with epic myths that have fed the hearts and dreams of cultures since prehistory, rituals and ceremonies both thrive off and feed the life-giving gift of human imagination. Thus, what I see in ceremony and ritual is a huge store of potential that exists at the heart of the human story. To access this potential, it is imperative that the technologies of ceremony and ritual not be used to squash life and creativity, and instead be mobilized for dreaming into being the future that most needs to be born.
The most comprehensive—and ecumenical—way I’ve found to describe ceremony/ritual is that it is a kind of speech without words. It is a speech perhaps ‘greater-than-words,’ that you make with your whole being. You may be speaking to yourself, your soul, nature, God, your ancestors, a dearly beloved one, or something else entirely. And whoever—or whatever—you’re talking to might not talk back, at least not in a language that can be immediately and readily understood. Thus practicing this grander, more epic way of “speaking” can re-calibrate your awareness, specifically the ways in which you “hear an answer” to whatever you have “said” in ceremony with the earth. You might become open to symbols, signals, and signs that would otherwise go unnoticed. Some might worry that this approach encourages people to read too much into things. Indeed, balance and discernment is called for in the art of ceremony. But the best possible outcome is that by practicing more-than-human ways of speaking, we might more fully inhabit some of the great human gifts, like the ability to see and tell profoundly meaningful stories, and the ability to feel and demonstrate devotion to the world around us.
One of my favorite metaphors for intuitive ceremony in the context of transformational work is this. Picture a young person, maybe 20 or 21 years old, who has never met one of their grandfathers because he lives in a different country. There was a rupture in the family and the young person’s parents stopped speaking to the grandfather when the child was young. When the young person is confident enough to travel by themselves, they travel to this faraway country to finally meet their grandfather. The young person has an old picture of the grandfather, and the grandfather doesn’t even know what the young person looks like now, as a young adult. When the young person gets off the plane and arrives at the airport, they scan a sea of faces at the meeting area. The grandfather also waits, watching eagerly as passengers exit the gate. When the two finally spot each other, there is instant recognition. But they do not speak the same language—how will they communicate? They communicate in smiles, in bright eyes, in gestures. They pull out old pictures and point at them, and then at each other. Smiling ear to ear, they nod, and then embrace. They might speak to each other, but since neither knows the other’s language, this speech is merely a way of sharing presence, of connecting with the heart, and not with the specifics of the mind.
This is what I have found nature-based ceremony and ritual to be like. It’s a way of conversing with beloved relatives—the earth, the ancestors, spirits, or God if you are religious. Our human spoken language is naturally limited, and there is so very much we might want to communicate to these various beings! So how do we hope to communicate what is in our hearts? I think that as with the story of the youth and their grandfather who didn’t speak the same language but yet felt so drawn to meeting each other, we do know intuitively how to express things that we need to express—deep-seated things like grief, praise, regret, hope, and love. These emotions are the currency of the soul. Finding creative ways to express them when we are alone with the natural world (without fear of being seen and judged by other people) is a worthy pursuit, and the reward can be a deeper relationship with yourself, nature, and whatever other realities might be important to you.
In wilderness settings, many feel they have more direct, unmediated access to elemental forces and transpersonal dimensions of existence. This makes emotional and psychological sense because of the sheer complexity, depth, and power of wild landscapes, and the many contrasts we “modern” people often feel when immersed in these landscapes. For these reasons, engaging in self-initiated ceremony can be especially potent in wilderness settings within groups that are holding a strong and safe psychological container. Today, many of us are searching for a more visceral and authentic spirituality that we might not have grown up with. Or, some of us are searching for ways to re-invent things that we did grow up with, to make them feel more right for us and to re-claim them in a sense. We strongly encourage participants on our river-based visionary trips to go into their solos with their heart and mind open to the possibility of a ritual or ceremony they might create for themselves out on the Land. What they do out on the land might be (will probably be) deeply personal and we do not expect that all, or even most of it, will be shared. But the beauty of ceremony is that it does not necessarily have to be shared or spoken about to be powerful and significant. It just has to be witnessed by you and whatever else is out there with you on the Land…
Wild (and civilized!) Blessings,