“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth.”
Joseph Campbell from The Myths and Masks of God
In the thick of a more immediate and shocking wave of grief, I’ve started mourning the absence of ritual in my life. Ritual, mind you, not worship. America, or rather post-industrial culture in general, lacks a strong tradition of practicing ritual without specific and distracting religious baggage. I was always an advocate for the ritualized elements of performance arts, the focusing exercises, the creation of an alternate space by virtue of belief and suggestion, the repetition of action to find its truth, all that. And it helped sensitize me to the world outside the theater, to sharpen my observation and enhance beauty. But in a sense, for all its pursuits, the practice remained anchored in that place in the efforts to tell a specific story – to some extent that limited its application and accessibility.
The same limitation exists in some religious practice – its prescriptive about the nature of the divine, the goals of the ritual, the relationship between the worshiper and object of worship. The Christian God (among many, many others) is finite. Say what you want about His infinite scope and ineffable quality, but the scriptures lay out a being with definite judgments, definite desires – a mind made up in too many ways to be universal. Even the benevolent forgiving of the New Testament reeks of stagnation. Yes, that’s a kind of condemnation. I think it is both foolish and more than a little presumptuous to consider that our conscious minds can articulate the divine. The point here is that the ritual culture with which I’m most familiar is one with which I fundamentally disagree. On too many levels.
Side note: I’m a fan of the Christ figure but only as a motivating emblem, not someone who did the work so we could reap the benefits. My boy said it best: “There was only one true Christian, and he died on the Cross.” Current practices missed the boat. But that’s really neither here nor there.
Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for the rapturous ecstasy seen in shamanic traditions as it allows for the break between conscious thought and pure experience. I’ve seen my fair share of frenzied transcendent dance and been awed by an observed passing into a magical field – but that’s not in the cards for me at this moment.
The benefits of many meditation techniques is that they seek to experience the infinite on its own terms. I explored this concept in Nepal and I don’t want to get too far off topic into my usual ramblings about transcendence. But here’s a little ditty from yesteryear about Tibetan Buddhist practice:
But a Buddhist god might be the embodiment of compassion, expressed by the codified symbology of an image wherein every object from lotus flower to wreath of skulls expresses an ideal. Or an idea. Two of the Yogic creation meditation forms are as follows: imagine the deity in front of you, or imagine yourself as the deity. The idea is that when putting oneself in the presence of Compassion, it functions as a mirror that reflects back the meditator with those ideals more pronounced. And if one meditates to actually become that deity, it’s like passing the consciousness through a filter that has the fantastic effect of expanding rather than lessening. But if the god was humanized, there wouldn’t be room for humans to universally identify with him/her.
And from Tibetan historian Khetsun Sangpo in reference to ‘becoming’ the deity:
A recent death in the family threw everything into imbalance and I’m hunting for a way to get real with what’s happening inside. The longing for a method of mourning led me back into a belief in ritual, in a way to sharpen the senses and find an action the invites the expression of grief. I want to open the channel. Any action has that potential, but the codification of some practices must be designed to do just that. Like Joseph Campbell, slayer of slayers, expressed so beautifully in the opening quotation, I want to participate in myth and get in touch with my own great depth. I need a big ol’ channel. I’m prepared to dive back into Vipassana meditation. But I’m also in a particularly volatile state and looking for guidance from the emotionally attuned wonders out there. I’m adrift these days. That’s an open invitation for suggestions on methods to deal with the light feelings that swim on the surface and with the monsters in the abyssal plain.