Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ritual Resources: Holding Ritual Space and Time

If we want to use ritual to focus and redirect and transform parts of our lives, it needs a strong container, a force-field of intentional energy, that frees us to step outside our expectations of how to act and what to expect in ordinary life. Ritual has to take place in a space where simple actions can have weight and carry symbolic meaning. Receiving or giving a blessing of water or colored powder on the forehead; pouring water over a stone; tying a thread around your own wrist, or someone else's wrist; lighting a candle, breaking bread together, giving someone a flower--if you do any of these things in ordinary time and space, it  won't carry much weight. Such actions seem small, ordinary, undramatic in daily life. Or just weird and out of place.

You have to mark out a boundary between life-as-usual and ritual space and time. There are ways of marking out and entering ritual space that you can borrow and adapt from many different traditions. Christians invoke the Trinity. Hindus remove their shoes at the entrance to a temple and ring a bell to announce their presence to its resident god. Jews put on a prayer shawl and recite a blessing specific to doing that. Wiccans cast a circle to begin a rite.
Just as importantly, ritual space and time have to be closed. Mass ends with the words, "Go in peace." Wiccans close their circle.
One of the biggest pitfalls in crafting ritual from the grassroots up as a shared practice is uneasiness with what feels like the artificiality of ritual time and space. If you're not used to crossing over into it, what happens there feels awkward and contrived, maybe even a little pompous and self-serious. So we try to reassure ourselves by making small talk while we wait for something to happen, or joking about the practice we're engaged in.
It's important to notice these impulses and be mindful of them, and to resist them when they compromise the integrity of ritual space. And it's advisable, if not essential, that a specific person take on the role of holding the ritual space. This might fly in the face of our democratic principles. It might make us a little uneasy on a more personal level. But it's not about setting someone up as leader because of who they are. It's about someone taking on a role, and then putting it off again when the ritual is over. You can make a distinction between being an officiant in ritual space and "becoming a priest."
Ritual space and time have to be held lightly. It's important to invite the unexpected in. People will come late. Somebody will feel confused about what they're being invited to do and say, if they're new to a practice. Unexpected noise will intrude from the street. A cat will jump onto the altar. The goats will start yelling from their pen when a chant begins. A holder of ritual space needs to take all this in stride, as best he can. Welcoming the unpredictable into the container only makes the container stronger, more resilient, capable of holding more. There's room for play and laughter within the container, and that's different from using wisecracks that rupture the container.
It's important not to talk ritual to death. Actions have to speak for themselves. A good leader uses words to invite participants into a practice, not to explain exhaustively what an action is supposed to mean to them. A good leader leaves space for every participant to have his own experience, which is no one else's.
And finally, a good holder of ritual space invites the whole community into a sense that they're also holding the space--giving them meaningful roles, encouraging them to take ownership of what happens, perhaps even making himself increasingly dispensable, the more a community comes to feel that an emerging practice belongs to them all.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ritual Resources: Binding Intentions

How mindful are you, when you begin something, of why you're doing it--what your aspirations are, what you're focused on, whom you're holding in your heart?

It's easier to do that in relation to something big, like following a pilgrimage route. Or something dramatically set apart from the practice of ordinary life, like reading a spread of Tarot cards, or walking a labyrinth, or meditating or praying with a set of beads. It's less intuitive with something like meal preparation, or simply beginning a new day, or making love.
Giving deliberate voice to an intention reminds you that what you're doing has weight, that it's worth noticing, worth pursuing mindfully. What would it be like to speak an intention before you stepped into a shower? Before you went out for your morning run? Before you shucked your pants down to enjoy a few minutes of self-pleasure after work? Before you opened the door of your apartment when your online hookup knocks? Before you started slicing the vegetables for the meal you're preparing for a table full of friends?
An intention doesn't have to be elaborate, or intensely goal-oriented. You might intend to appreciate the cleansing power of water as it courses over your skin. You might intend to connect with your breath and calm your mind on your run, and to notice the colors along your path. You might intend to slow down and pay attention to the sensations of your whole body, and not just your cock, as you masturbate. You might intend to treat your trick as a brother you're privileged to meet and spend an hour or two with, even if you expect not to see each other again. You might intend to notice the texture of the vegetables as you cut them and to think with gratitude about the labor that went into their growth and harvest. You might as you begin your day intend to be open to new experiences, or to take risks that you'd normally avoid.
Your intention is more real if you speak it aloud, or write it down. More real if you speak it to someone else as witness. More real if there's a durable and visible reminder. (This is, on a grand scale, after all--duh--the point of marital vows and wedding rings.)
So here's a simple building-block of ritual that you could incorporate into any number of daily practices. It's borrowed from the Hindu tradition of tying a red thread, called a mauli or kalava, around your wrist at the beginning of a puja, as a way of absorbing the power of the observance. Keep some colored thread on hand. When something feels like it has enough weight (or you want it to have enough weight) to warrant your ongoing focus, speak your intention aloud to yourself, and then tie a length of thread around your wrist or ankle to keep it real when the words have died away. Better yet, speak your intention to someone else. Ask him to do you the service of binding your intention to you by repeating your words as he ties the thread. ("David, I bind to you today your intention to…)
If you develop group rituals from the grass roots up among a circle of brothers, this is also an element you can include in larger ritual structures--like the lingam puja I described in an earlier Ritual Resources post. The practice of listening carefully to one another's intentions, and of mirroring them back to the speaker as best you can, is itself a cultivation of mindfulness and respect; forgiving your witness for not getting it perfectly and helping him recover your words as he repeats them is itself a cultivation of lovingkindness and release of ego.
You only have so many wrists and ankles, so this isn't something I recommend you do twice a day. If you ask your trick to do it with you, he's likely to head straight for the door. But a longer-term boyfriend or life partner might be more tolerant, and more on board with sharing the practice; as might a table of friends at a major holiday. And you'll have the experience of the everyday becoming something a little closer to the remarkable.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ritual Resources: In Praise of the Same Old Thing


The dominant culture encourages us to place a premium on new experiences. We want surprise, fresh excitement, even unforseen revelations.We toss out the phrase "been there, done that" as an easy dismissal of anything we reject as old, outmoded, worn, unremarkable.
It's not surprising in the world of "been there, done that" that ritual often gets a bad name. "Empty ritual"; "ritualistic": the repetition of the same action, the same words, time after time, raises suspicion. We assume that sincerity and deep engagement don't mix with what we do out of long, often habitual practice.
If you have a daily personal practice, even of the simplest and briefest sort (and simple and brief are sometimes best) you already know it's more complicated than that. It's true that repetition at its worst can be meaningless and mind-numbing. But  at its best it can  build a strong, resilient container where new experience and insight have secure space to grow and flourish. The same gesture you've made a dozen times before means something different today because of what's happening in your life. The words you know by heart feel like you're hearing them, or speaking them, for the first time.
The positive side of repetition is if anything even more powerful in shared practice. If you consistently perform ritual with a group, you'll see the nuances that build up, not only for yourself, but in the outward signs of how it's speaking to those around you. A turn of phrase that's a little different from the last time these words were spoken; the quality of someone's touch, or your touch, as you pass a ceremonial object between you; the hand one man raises spontaneously in the middle of a chant or a procession--these start to form a feedback loop into your own experience and understanding of what's going on, and a whole group can find itself swept up into a kind of spiritual jazz. Or less dramatically, subtle variations may speak in a still, small voice. Familiarity becomes a platform from which you can dive deeper. The ritual becomes a solid vessel that holds you all together, and yet gives you each the space to be more completely yourself.