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.

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