Our Philosophy

Ritual and The Return to Mystery

Ritual stands out as an element of religion, and became a symbol of superstition or arbitrary authority in the age of skepticism — but now, our culture seems to be getting skeptical towards skepticism. Will this movement usher ritual back into the mainstream along with yoga and meditation?

The form of Catholic sacraments largely determined what would be associated with the word ritual in the Western mind. They were built by a tradition that reached, for over 1000 years for the visceral feelings of mystery and meaning, and the elaborate sacraments reinforced the church’s authority in matters of the mystical, making it THE CHURCH for centuries. Rational questioning of tradition-derived authority drove much of the “enlightenment”, and remade our culture. Now, ritual is often cast as a prop that allows tragically misguided or even sinister institutions to acquire burdensome power over the closest thing to a soul that humans have. Our Christian past may have contributed to the belief in human dignity and universal brotherhood that powered many of the enlightenment’s successes, but ritual and ceremony have often been seen, especially in intellectual circles, as unfortunate sticky residue to be peeled off from any valuable material contained inside Christianity.

The ancient book of Tao foreshadows these concerns:

…Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue. Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity. Failing humanity, man resorts to morality. Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony. Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty; It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder… ( Chapter 38)

The trajectory of descent from engaged and subtle understanding to rigid rules, the slide from reckoning of unfathomable substance, to blind grasping at form is as old as humanity. But this passage raises an interesting question — where did the whole that gave rise to the husk come from? Is all ritual the same as the ceremony above — a “mere husk of faith and loyalty”? .. or did the outward form of ceremony at some point contain something more deserving of the reputation that this husk evokes?

Across the art world, many artists have by, engaging in ritual, discovered directedness, meaning, and concentration — and also, because they themselves create these rituals, an intense and even transgressive freedom. Josef Buys was one pioneer, and Marina Abromovic another, their work has shown possibilities that has caused many imaginations to run wild. In upcoming post, I will interview Artists who work in this space, because I suspect that the drive of these artists reflects our cultural alienation from important aspects of human existence.

Performance I Like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys 1974

In this post, I have to ask for patience while I connect ritual to another recent trend. One element that helps to distinguish ritual from mindless social routine is mindfulness. I imagine some eyes rolling as I write that, but reflect for a moment on the idea that mindfulness is not fundamentally a marketing buzz word or the name of a meditation method, not even a behaviour, but a quality that the mind sometimes has. We are culturally averse to relying on subjective experiences, so this element of the ancient Buddhist tradition is not discussed prominently, but really we know when we are being mindful because there is a way that our mind feels when it is totally absorbed with what is going on right now. And this quality of experience arises very naturally within a ritual.

Performance Balkan-Baroque by Marina Abramović 1997

The transition of mindfulness into a buzzword also has a lot to do with the old Taoist verse above. “Mindfulness” like others words comes to mean whatever it is associated with, and it has for the last decade especially quickly acquired mechanical, commercialised, and dogmatic associations. As this happens we lose the original spirit of the word, the spirit that got people excited in the first place. Conversely, we have gone through enough cultural forgetting of the emptiness that ritual sometimes embodied over the centuries, that we are now in a good position to rediscover the original energy of “ritual itself.” We are beginning anew.

A daily ritual might be the easiest way for most people nowadays to access the mindful “quality of experience”— or “qualia”, if you want to be scientific about it, (or “energy” if you want to be all new-agey about it). As mindfulness has acquired unfortunate associations, ritual might be more useful for explaining mindfulness than mindfulness is for explaining ritual.

A ritual is not a ritual because we are doing something funny, or because there is a big story attached to the act. Many people like to call their morning or afternoon cup of coffee a ritual. Why? Drinking coffee is often a short time where people succeed in focusing on nothing at all but picking up the coffee, tipping it into their mouth, and tasting it. The drinking of coffee is all that there is for a few short moments, in the mind of a ritualistic coffee drinker. We are absorbed in drinking coffee. It is not ritual because it is repetitive, but because it never becomes simply routine.

Ritual often comes with a story, which, when held with true conviction, gives great meaning to the moment, when a moment means something to us, we pay attention. Both the action and its significance are experienced intensely. Often ritual is done together with a community — this increases significance of the moment and like nearly everything else we do socially, paying attention is contagious. Repetitiousness is another aspect of ritual, which could be puzzling because, we often get less present when we are used to something. However, repetitive acts create and evoke an inner space so that they have a life of their own, a ritual then conjures and echoes this past. The more present we were in the past repetitions of a ritual the more present we tend to be now, in a current repetition. Another characteristic that helps to make a ritual is uniqueness. What is different from other parts of life, more easily grabs our attention, and creates a unique psychological space. Rituals combine some or all of these facets, creating deep and vigilent alertness.

Meditation practice can be seen as a ritual, itself. Traditionally, mindfulness meditation was not done for mindfulness itself, or to relieve stress, but was a way to cultivating self understanding and ceasing our suffering. That is a story that can hold the mind in place on the moment itself. Our feeling of groundedness about the story behind meditation changes, over time, it becomes less of an abstract tale that we take seriously because of vaguely felt ring of truth or because of our positive impression of a particular meditator. The more chance we give ourselves to see the value of absorption in what is going on now, the more this state is its own justification. The mindfulness ritual itself is one of observation, of simply emptying the mind and looking at something, usually our own breath like we would look at anything else beautiful but with total absorption. By releasing all thought, we end up in a place outside of intellectual knowledge. This is the place of mystery, which is the place where we look at things like they are new, without knowledge. Anytime we are in a moment and outside of thoughts about it, our knowledge, it seems to me that we are touching the mysterious.

The point of course, it to carry this state beyond our time on the meditation cushion, beyond this ritual, if I might call it that. But means of absorption do not go away. Even for monks there is a story, teachers have always encouraged their students to see themselves as parts of an ancient tradition, reliving the ancient sufferings and struggles of man, and to notice how what they do can affect so many others. They have also encouraged their students to create an island of stillness that they can reach through a repetitive act and to practice as community, and to notice how every moment is unique. To reach that island of stillness, the intellectual generalities about the island of stillness, such as I have just been making, must be left behind.

So mindfulness meditation can be approached as a ritual, but it is not the only one. We can use it to rediscover the means to live in the mysterious moment, as a gateway experience to ritual. There are many rituals that could be made to help our awareness of many different things. In upcoming posts I will talk with Marisa Garefa, who uses ritual as part of an art practice that helps her to recover from personal trauma. I will also talk with Jamilah Sabur creates rituals that help to explore her relationship with geography and history, that of Florida and of her own family. More widely, practices of ritual include the mourning of a loved one and the celebration of a marriage or graduation. The art of using ritual to create moments of unusual depth is not one that we should ever scoff at, or let it lose its mystery.