How Ritual Works

Not everyone has an intuitive inclination to ritual action. Many people who've had mostly negative experiences of ritual don't see the point of it in their lives. I respect such viewpoints: they're important, because they're often grounded in how badly burned people have been by bad, inauthentic, and/or toxic ritual. Such folks can offer important perspectives on what can go wrong, or fail to go right. Here are some of the things I say to explain why I think ritual is a positive tool for personal growth and a potentially helpful component for a richer spritual path.

Good ritual “puts it out there.” Our inner lives take on a more concrete reality when we make them visible through word, movement, and symbol. Through ritual, we “come out” in ways visible to ourselves and others.

Good ritual is deep play. Sometimes we need to get lost in an experience and forget the narrow definitions that everyday pressures put on us to “get it together.” Good ritual is a chance to “waste time” creatively, the way a safely held child has the security to ‘waste time” creatively. It’s a way of “going to pieces without falling apart” (to borrow the title of a book by the Buddhist/Jewish psychotherapist Mark Epstein). Good ritual gives us safe space to let go for a little while and give up unhelpfully narrow preconceptions about who we are and where we’re headed. It helps us find our deeper, more expansive, and more playful selves.

Good ritual celebrates the complexity of our lives. A good ritual doesn’t have one simple, restrictive meaning. It involves objects, words, and actions that can mean different things depending on how we look at them. Good ritual doesn’t present us with an “either/or” choice. Instead it invites us to think “both/and.”

Good ritual honors what’s tough. Good ritual helps us hold the paradoxes of our lives together in one piece. It’s a safe space where we don’t have to choose between one layer of our experience and another. We can feel joy together with sorrow, love along with anger, hurt along with healing, fulfillment together with longing, detachment together with passion, instead of blocking out what’s difficult in ways that aren’t true to our experience.

Good ritual helps us focus and moves us forward. When we let ourselves go, affirm who we are, and lay claim to our hopes and aspirations, we’re ready to meet our lives with greater clarity and energy. Good ritual sends us back out into the world ready for our life.

Good ritual is fabulous. How can queer men say no to a chance to dress up and act out?