Power of Ritual

Ritual is an expression, a healing modality,
  a tool for transformation, 
and an art form.

 Ritual, for me, is a way of life, 
a way of living a conscious life.
 Ritual is alchemy in its highest form. 
Ritual is Magic.

The art of alchemy, combining two or more elements into something better is the technique used in Feminine Alchemy. The intent is to provide pathways for introspection, self-help and healing. When used with care and consciousness, ritual becomes the formula, the recipe, for personal, cellular alchemy. Ritual has been part of the human experience since the beginning of time. Our lives are filled with unconscious rituals that mark our days and add warmth, texture and meaning to our existence. Reading the morning paper over coffee, walking the dog in the evening and saying good night to our children with a song or bedtime story – all become important, ritualized moments in the course of our everyday lives. Rituals are an integral part of the psyche; they connect us to others, to our own inner processes and to that something which is greater than ourselves. Yet somehow, somewhere, we lost our conscious connection to the healing power of ritual. Undoubtedly, we have become a society that is ritually impoverished.

Ritual Food Cauldron with Masks, Late Shang dynasty
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Smithsonian Institute

Ritual is a way of creating conscious change. When something, expected or unexpected, comes along, whether positive or negative, a change happens in our lives. We are altered in some way. A transmutation has taken place whether we planned it or not. To transmute or alter in form, appearance, or nature and especially to a higher form is a “powerful” act. But are we necessarily creating a conscious change?  Change, as seen in all of nature, is not only inevitable, but necessary for continued growth and evolution. Whether it’s moving from childhood to becoming an adult; going from school to the workforce; leaving the single life behind to join in marriage with a partner, humans pass through milestones that mark these important passages. These changes are part of what society expects of us. We celebrate these transits in the human experience and mark them with public rites, such as birthdays, graduation, and weddings. A rite is defined as a ceremonial or formal, solemn act, observance, or procedure in accordance with prescribed rules or customs, as in religious use. Ritual too, is seen as a set form or system of rites, religious or otherwise, having the nature of or done as a rite or rites.

But is there more? Something deeper? Can rites and rituals extend beyond formal acts, observances and procedures to be brought into the everyday of our lives; enabling us to live truly sacred lives?

Ritual is a vital part of human health but we have reduced this aspect of our vitality to those few, scattered traditional, often deemed common-place ceremonies mentioned above, the annual birthdays, commencement and of course marriage – all ceremonies that are great fun but have sometimes lost much of their deeper meaning as an important life rite. It is no wonder the human condition is as it is today. We are bereft of the healing power of ritual and myth. As a result, we seek to fill our inner emptiness with distractions of all kinds and none of which endows us with the important, meaningful support needed to enhance our lives and support our personal evolution.

If we are to reclaim this vital aspect of human health, what does it involve? I discovered that it requires me to bring the unconscious into the light, so that I can then create my life consciously.

Though we are dealing with the conscious and unconscious workings of the mind, many psychologists, including the renowned Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud, see the amazing dynamics of the human mind functioning on three levels: the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. Though difficult to prove scientifically and empirically, these three levels of the human mind are quite sensible and logical, both in their individual functions and how they work together.

The mind, differentiated from the brain, can be malleable and often vague in its inner workings. However, if we embrace the esoteric aspects of ourselves inclusive of the soul, spirit AND mind as the entirety of the human psyche, there is a diverse tapestry with which to understand the human experience. Furthermore, it is the vast array of past experiences which ultimately create who we are today. The human psyche (mind, soul, and spirit) is so powerful that it imprints those human experiences onto our bodies, into the very cells that make up the physical vessel where the psyche resides. This imprint becomes cellular memory where the unconscious (or the shadow) lives, breathes and often controls our conscious selves. It marks us, brands us, solemnizing those experiences in such a way that we often define ourselves by them.

How do the conscious and unconscious mind work and how does the subconscious mind facilitate the power and expertise of the psyche to bring what is hidden out of the shadow of the unconscious into the light so that we can then create our lives consciously?

Psychologists illustrate Freud’s design of the working relationship of these three aspects of the mind, using a triangle where the very tip of the triangle is your conscious mind. It occupies a small portion representing only 10% of the brain’s capacity. The role of the conscious mind is the primary communicator, transferring information to both the outside world as well as the inner self through speech, images, writing, physical movement and thought. The second level of the mind pyramid, the subconscious mind, is larger and makes up 50-60% of the brain’s functions. It performs as both storage and mediator of recent memories and thoughts; as well as current behavior patterns, habits, and feelings. More importantly, this stratum is in continuous communication with the resources of the unconscious mind. The subconscious gives us the ability for quick recall. It is a conductor of sorts, a vital link between the unconscious and the conscious self.

The base of the mind pyramid, the unconscious mind, constitutes about 30-40% of the totality of the functioning mind. It is massive and mysterious and largely inaccessible to conscious thought – like the dark depths of an ocean. Many compare the unconscious aspect of the mind to a computer’s hard drive, long term storage for memories and programs that have been installed since birth. In this critical area reside our older memories and experiences, both the unimportant information as well as the critical, painful, traumatic and often repressed experiences. From these memories and experiences our beliefs, habits and behaviors are created.

As the “great mediator” the subconscious connects and transmits important, key information, to our conscious selves on behalf of our unconscious mind. The wealth and treasure hidden in the unconscious (the shadow) provides meaning to all our interactions with the world. Filtered through our beliefs, behaviors and habits the subconscious communicates through feelings, emotions, imagination, sensations and dreams.

We feel the power and the sway of the unconscious when our psyches are dissonant, disturbed by fear, doubt, pain, restlessness or the uncomfortableness of growing pains. There is great power in the unconscious but to wield this power it must be brought into form or conscious thought.

  • Thought is the beginning, the alpha of creating change. The mind is constantly creating streams of thought, conscious and unconscious. Many people recognize the power of thought to create our lives with intention. But to create what we intend, we must observe all thought, both conscious and unconscious. Unconscious thought can manifest as potently as conscious thought.
  • Unconscious thought travels on paths of least action, a principle purporting that nature, thrifty in all its actions, will find the most direct route. Much of our thinking can be habitual, negative beliefs such as lack, fear and self-doubt. Because these beliefs are unconscious, they flow unobstructed on paths of least resistance. By shining the light of consciousness on habitual thoughts, we can change them, redirecting their course.
  • Observation of self and conscious thought is the first step to living a ritually rich life. But is thought alone enough? Once we fiercely observe, recognize and decide the direction we want to move in our lives, ritual can then become a potent tool for giving our choices and changes form.

“Ritual is the formula, the recipe, for cellular alchemy.  It provides a psychic pathway for transmutation to take place.  Ritual done to its fullest involves the whole person – the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies.”

It encompasses the totality of the human expression and the layers of meaningful action amplify the experience, thereby creating the potential for a deeper, cellular transformation than could ever be accomplished from, say, simply repeating an affirmation alone. Author and medical anthropologist Dr. Alberto Villoldo, in discussing this phenomenon, explains that the part of the human brain known as the limbic system, (which houses all the mechanisms that regulate physiology, self-healing and regeneration) does not have direct and conscious dialoguing capabilities and therefore, cannot be influenced by speech and language alone. (See Images: Dr. M Idris Siddiqui)

Limbic System

 The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses. The limbic brain (from Latin limbus, meaning “border”) is an incredible switchboard where signals travel back and forth on neural pathways between the “lower” parts of the brain, governing instincts, drives and automatic regulation of body processes and the cerebral cortex and the “higher” brain controlling advanced reasoning and planning. According to the ABCs of the Human Mind, “In this strategic spot, a kind of crossroads where visceral feelings, cognition and memory meet, the limbic system helps shape the basic motivations and emotions of our lives.”

The physical enactment of a ritual that has been endowed with highly charged emotions, based on intellectual, well-thought-out goals and contained within our highest spiritual aspirations has the potential to discharge old neurological circuits and then reprogram or make new neurological connections.

Ritual can be a great resource for individuals by reinforcing the personal growth accomplished through therapy and other transformative techniques, such as prayer, meditation, dance, astrology, yoga and dreaming, to name a few.  Ritual, in essence, marks the changes in our lives and supports the subtle shifts in our interior landscape, as we adjust to those changes. Ritual assists the transformative process, whether it is used to acquire guidance about a needed change, to initiate desired change or to celebrate and embrace a completed change.

Rituals can be part of a therapeutic process. They contain the framework for personal transformation, rites of passage, healing, empowerment and manifestation. Rituals can restore us to balance and wholeness and allow us to make the necessary inner changes when our outer reality has been altered whether in expected or unexpected ways. They bring clarity and resolution to personal choices and new life directions. They open us to insight, inspiration and new possibilities. Rituals help us shed what we have outgrown and release what no longer affirms our personal evolution.

Humans often use ritual to demarcate beginnings and endings. Rituals create paths to guide us from one stage of being to another; these are commonly called rites of passage. Rituals also connect us with community. Joining with others in ceremony fulfills our human need to belong. It also affirms the timeless commonalities of the human experience. And when a ritual is brought to the most personal level, it becomes a tool for spiritual, emotional and psychological development. Rituals accelerate personal growth and enable us to connect with the innermost parts of ourselves.

Ultimately, and most important, ritual brings the sacred into our lives. Rituals require thought and intent, which force us to step away from the accelerated pace that most of us live by and move into a space of timelessness. No matter what your religious beliefs, rituals can enhance the moments of your life by giving focus and attention to those things you have designated as important. They bring a sense of the divine into our lives and they affirm and enhance our connection to the sacred – however we choose to define it.

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