The medicine man enters the outer vestibule of the sacred healing chamber. He dons the ceremonial vestments and performs the ritual ablutions, purifying himself for the healing ritual that is about to commence. Putting on identical masks, he and his acolytes enter the chamber, to which all others are forbidden entrance. The man they are healing is ready, having been ushered into a deep trance by another shaman using a magical elixir. Within the chamber are the ritual implements, which have themselves been purified, and which none but the initiated are allowed to touch. The medicine man calls for each implement in turn, handed to him by an acolyte. He uses these in a ritual scarification procedure that removes a small part of the ill man's body. When he awakens from the trance, the man is magically healed, though some further ceremonies are required before he is able to leave the grounds of the temple of healing.
To even be allowed to perform this complex healing ritual, the medicine man must go through many years of training that include numerous tests, initiation ordeals, and the mastery of a special esoteric language. Upon completing his training, he is welcomed into the brotherhood of adepts, and his name is altered with a symbolic suffix. He swears a sacred oath and is given a piece of paper inscribed with mystical symbols in an archaic script. Thenceforth, he is treated with honor by his people and accorded all the perquisites of status.
I have just described surgery, as performed by licensed physicians in a modern hospital. All of the elements of ritual are present, yet we do not typically see what goes on as a ritual. "That's not a ritual," we say, "because each of those actions — the hand washing, the surgical masks, the professional training — all have a very good, rational reason." Rituals, we think, must tap into something irrational, something magical; if they have any real effects, they are purely psychological in origin. We see rituals as a separate category of action that has been largely eliminated in today's rational, science-based society. Asked for an example of a ritual, we might point to Communion in a Catholic church, or to a sweat lodge ceremony, or to something indigenous people do on the Discovery Channel.
I would like to offer a different conception of ritual that illuminates its continuing ubiquity in today's world, and that suggests a means to deploy ritual as an agent of transformation. Let's play with this definition: a ritual is a prescribed sequence of symbolic actions that draws meaning and power from a "story of the world". In turn, it reinforces and affirms that story.
What, then, is a "story of the world"? By a story I mean a system of meanings and explanations that focuses human intention, assigns roles, coordinates activity, and says what is real. One example is the Story of Money, which assigns meaning to the slips of paper and information bits that comprise our money system. When that story falls apart, such as in Weimar Germany or 1993 Yugoslavia, money becomes nothing more than its physical substrate.
If you can enroll people in a story, then you can create something much bigger than you could build with your own hands. Even something so mundane as building a house requires telling a story that people believe in. The story, "A house will be built here," includes such elements as workers' paychecks, agreements to deliver materials, disbursement schedules, and so on. All of these are symbols. On the physical level, the workers' paychecks are but slips of paper with blobs of ink on them. They have power only because of the story that embeds them, a story that all participants believe in. An alien anthropologist, though, might laugh patronizingly at our concern over these magical talismans with their sacred inscriptions. The same goes for the construction contract, inscribed with the mysterious personal mark of each signatory, and the delivery contract, which we inscribe with row after row of symbols in the superstitious belief that the desired materials they symbolize will actually show up in a truck on the appointed day.
Our lives today are rife with little rituals that sustain the Story of the World in which we have been living. There is nothing unusual about this; it is as it has always been. However, we are entering one of those special moments in history when an old story is coming to an end, to be replaced by a new one. We are emerging from two stories, in fact, two stories that are deeply interlocked. The first is the story of Self and World: we are discrete beings, fundamental separate from each other and from the objective universe that contains us. The second is the Story of the People: it is the Ascent of Humanity, in which science and technology lift us from a state of dependency on nature to become nature's master, separate and superior. The consummation of this story would be a destiny of space colonization and immortality, in which computers, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering complete our domination of nature and free us from natural limitations. These stories embed other, smaller stories, stories within stories within stories, that include everything in our world that depends on agreements, meanings, and symbols. So money, as I've said, is a story. The government is a story. The American Medical Association is a story. The law is a story. Dates and times are a story. An educational degree is a story. Professional licensure, your credit rating, ownership of any property, the air traffic control system, all are stories.
The rituals that sustain these stories include such things as writing a check, signing a contract, affixing a stamp, waiting in line, voting, filling out a form, writing a report, issuing a grade, affixing a label, signing off on a proposal, asking permission, showing a passport at immigration, friending someone on Facebook, registering a vehicle, making a schedule, using a theater ticket, filing a lawsuit, or issuing a receipt. I think it is quite easy to see how these actions maintain the web of stories that underlies our society. It is perhaps more difficult to see the ritual nature of such activities as using hand disinfectant, getting a vaccination, dialing a telephone, taking a pill, using a condom, studying for an exam, performing a safety check on an airplane, performing surgery, or planting a garden. These tap into a much deeper level of story, that which underlies what we call physical reality. I won't discuss this level much right now: the metaphysics of symbols, the ontological status of the storyteller, and so on. The laws of physics, that we think are so objective, reflect on a deep level our sense-of-self and the story of What Is that defines self and world. But my purpose right now is not to undo these deep metaphysical stories. For now I will speak mostly of the stories and rituals that create social reality. They will be enough to create a world far more beautiful than we dare imagine today.
As the overarching stories of our civilization draw to their conclusion, the rituals that draw from them and sustain them begin to grow stale. They lose their seamless integration into the logic of our lives, and begin to look, well, like "rituals." Their meaning drains away from them. In previous essays I described how this is happening to our language, provoking a crisis of meaning where words are losing their magic. This is obvious to me every time I download some software or make a purchase on line, and have to click an "I agree" button located underneath a voluminous scrolling window filled with legal text entitled "Terms and Conditions." When I do this, I am supposedly entering into a contract, a concept that draws on ancient sacred ceremonies that involved the swearing of oaths, the letting of blood, and so on. In political and legal philosophy, one often comes across the term "the sanctity of contract." But today we recognize the numerous on-line contracts that we enter into as meaningless formalities, and we do not really feel like we are lying when we affirm, "I have read and agree to all these terms and conditions."
In a similar vein, many of the more important ritual underpinnings of our society are dissolving as well. The ritual incantations of our financial officials, for example, are no longer having the intended effect on the economy. Our medical rituals are becoming less effective as well, a fact we, in a desperate effort to preserve the familiar story, attribute to "superbugs" or "patient noncompliance" or mysterious "genetic factors," when in fact, it is the deep story of the War on Germs and the Conquest of Nature that underlies our medicine that is coming to an end. Something similar is happening in the educational system, where the multitudinous rituals based on the factory paradigm of standardization, "class"-ification, "grading" (as of industrial materials), and the subsumption of the individual to authority, are becoming increasingly ineffectual. Finally, the rituals of politics have become a transparent charade, where elected officials cynically invoke once-sacred principles neither they nor their listeners actually believe in. When they fail to keep their promises, when they enact policies that few of their supporters agree with, we increasingly don't even bother to be disappointed, because the ritual of the campaign promise has become, transparently, nothing but that, a "ritual."
Rituals are seamlessly woven into a story of the world and are, therefore, not even recognized as rituals (e.g., writing a check). When they start turning into "rituals," we know that that story of the world is falling apart. What is happening to the rituals that sustain our civilization today has happened before, leaving impotent relics that we call rituals, but that are actually "rituals" in quotation marks. We might perform them out of nostalgia, a reverence for tradition, or in an attempt to restore the lost sacredness of modern life by borrowing it from another culture, but they will have little effect if we do not believe in a story that embeds them.
Let me offer a few examples of fake rituals, these "rituals in quotation marks." Nearly all of the sweat lodge ceremonies I have been to were replete with fake rituals. Even if they scrupulously followed the prescribed procedures of the native tradition from which they originated, what was once authentic had become fake. That is because we did not truly believe the Story of the World in which the rituals were once embedded. In former times, when a Native American firekeeper invoked the ancestors, he was speaking from a world view in which the ancestors were a present, perhaps a palpable, reality. When he invoked the Four Directions, again he was speaking from a system in which the Four Directions, interconnected with many other stories, were an unquestioned, basic pillar of his understanding of the world, as undoubtedly real and objective to him as protons, neutrons, and electrons are to us. But today we are steeped in a different story, a story in which the ancestors do not participate in the events of our lives, and in which the four directions are merely points on a map. Science defines our basic understanding of what is real, and this reality picture has no room for ancestors, spirits, or Grandmother Spider creating the world. Even if we strive to believe in them, we cannot. A feeling lurks in the background, "This isn't real." Wanting to believe something based on sentiments about respecting traditions or restoring connection to earth or spirit is not the same as actually believing something. Beliefs are not mere vapors in the head, but reveal themselves as actions.
Some months ago, I attended a sweat lodge conducted by a full-blooded Native American. The ceremony was held at the top of a hill, with a station to be purified with sage smoke, another station to hear of the rules for the lodge, and so on. Each ritual was contained inside a larger ritual. But guess what the largest ritual was, the one that contained the whole experience? At the very bottom of the hill, before we could participate, we had to sign a waiver. The entire experience took place within a legal container, and that initial ritual gave primacy to the Story of the Law. I don't think anyone experienced the sweat lodge as transformational; certainly I did not. The only real ritual was the signing of the waiver. Everything else was a "ritual."
To be sure, it is possible for a very very powerful person to hold a group of people in his or her own Story of the World; in other words, to believe it so completely that he can hold that belief on behalf of those who do not believe. I have experienced rituals of that sort as well, but in my life they have been very rare indeed. In the case I just described, I could sense an inauthenticity, a breach in the integrity of the ceremony caused by surrendering its primacy to a story that was alien and hostile to it.
I hope that the reader someday has an opportunity to be in the presence of someone who can invoke the ancestors for real. Such a person will never say, "I would like to invoke the ancestors…," which is two steps removed from a true invocation, or even "I invoke the ancestors, " which is one step removed. He will address them directly, and in his invocation you will hear truth. You will feel the ancestors' presence, and while your mind may doubt your heart will not. That feeling is unmistakable. Today it is only available to us in special moments, but as the old stories collapse and we reenter a world story that has room once again for the ancestors, we will have this experience more and more often. Life is so much richer for it!
Humanity today is transitioning into a new Story of the People, a new Story of Self, and a new Story of the World. I sometimes articulate it as "The connected self living in joyous cocreative partnership with Lover Earth." I explained the paradigm of Lover Earth a little bit in "Money and the Turning of the Age"; no longer do we treat earth as a mother from whom we are entitled to take and take without thought for how much she is capable of giving. Such a relationship is proper for a child. I want my own children to feel free to receive — it is up to me to determine how much I am able to give. But the relationship to a lover is different: to a lover we desire to give as well as to receive, and we desire to create together, each offering our gifts toward a purpose transcending each of us, so that our union becomes greater than the sum of our individuality. And so, humanity-plus-earth is becoming a new thing; out of our sacred union, a third thing will be born. At the peak of our separation from nature, we fell in love with the earth, a moment marked perhaps by the first satellite photographs of our gorgeous planet.
As for the connected self, this is the self of inter-beingness, the self that realizes, not only as an intellectual concept but as a felt experience, that its very being includes the being of all other creatures. Contrary to the self of Descartes, of Adam Smith, of Darwinian biology, it is untrue that more for me is less for you. It is the self of the Gift, the self that knows that as we do unto others, so we do unto ourselves. And, that as we do unto ourselves, so we are in fact doing unto others. Such as self no longer lives in an objective universe of impersonal forces and generic masses. Its every choice shifts the cosmos, and everything that happens in the cosmos in some way happens within the self too.
Just as the rituals of the old world create and sustain it, so also can we use rituals to create and sustain the new world-generating stories. Rituals occupy a special status among all the actions and beliefs that form a story-matrix. Rituals connect us to what is real within that story. They are among our most powerful tools of reality creation. Therefore, if you would like to participate in the creation of the world of the connected self living in cocreative partnership with Lover Earth, I suggest you enact rituals that empower and create this new story. You can easily recognize them, because from within the new story they are natural and true. They are not "rituals," but an integral part of the new reality. From within it, they make sense. From the perspective of separation they are irrational, but from the perspective of reunion they are not irrational or magical at all. They will, however, feel sacred.
Let's consider a small example: sorting out your garbage for recycling, composting, etc. In the old story, unless you are doing it to avoid a fine, this is quite irrational. What benefit is there to you if the landfill is a few inches lower? In the objective world of force and mass, it simply does not matter if you, one person, recycle or not. It doesn't matter either if you buy lots of plastic packaging, or eat beef from a deforested Brazilian jungle, or save a few gallons of water every day by conserving toilet flushes. In any event, the juggernaut of destruction rolls on. These actions only matter if everyone else does them too, and if they do, then it doesn't even matter if you do them or not. Therefore, it is irrational to do them if they involve any expense or inconvenience, as often they do.
Because they do not make sense from within the old story, we find all kinds of ways to make ourselves do these things anyway. The favorite means is to connect them to our self-image, so that we get to think of ourselves as worthy and good because we recycle, care about the environment, and so on. We can understand them as rituals — which is what comes to mind naturally as I watch people sort different kinds of cans into different bins — whose symbolic meaning is "I am doing my part," "I am good," "I am right," or "I am worthy of love." Unfortunately, they actually feed a deeper story, which is something like, "I am not really good, so I must recycle, I must try hard, I must be a good boy or girl." In the case of many environmental activists, these efforts usually accompany a sanctimonious attitude: a conditional approval of the self and a resentment toward those who are less enlightened, less ethical, less conscious. There is little joy to be found in sanctimony.
These same rituals become much more powerful within the new story. Instead of thinking about them in terms of ethics, doing your part, or being good, think of all the irrational things you do as gifts to Lover Earth. When you pay triple for a fair-trade shirt, or do without one; when you plant a tree or help stop a new road; when you make any contribution, no matter how small, to the well-being of the planet and its animals, plants, waters, air, soil, and people, source that act in the spirit of gratitude and offer it in the spirit of a gift. Even if your offering is like the shy, small gift of a teenage boy to his sweetheart, the earth will be touched and grateful. This gratitude is something we can feel. In the old story, the story of impersonal laws and generic masses, the only explanation for this feeling is that we are imagining it, projecting it, anthropomorphizing the earth. From the story of the separate self, how could you feel what another is feeling, and why would you even care? It is irrational. But in the world of the connected self, it is quite to be expected that we can feel what others are feeling, for they are us. Each of us is the sum total of our relationships, and not separate beings having relationships, discrete subjects possessing something separate from our core being called a "relationship."
What is irrational and difficult in the old story becomes easy and natural in the new. The struggle to be good is over. That struggle, that war against the self, is based on a conception of a self that is bad: the Economic Man seeking to maximize rational self-interest, the selfish gene seeking to maximize reproductive self-interest. Our civilization is built upon that self; hence a penal system, a religious system, an educational system designed to overcome our natural selfishness through fear, guilt, and shame. Do you, my friend, feel guilty for not living more sustainably? For your complicity in a culture that is destroying the earth? Do you wield that guilt over yourself and others in order to compel better behavior? If you do, then the rituals of recycling and reducing will actually strengthen the old story of which that guilt is part.
Instead, I invite you to embed these rituals in the new story, and in turn to draw upon the new story in creating new rituals. From the old story, it is stupid for me to wash used pieces of plastic wrap and stick them to the refrigerator to reuse. How much oil or landfill space am I going to save that way? Not very much! But I don't think of it that way at all. I am not doing this to be good or to do my part. I am having a personal relationship with that piece of plastic wrap, and with all the beings that created it, and with all of its relations. When I bury my compost instead of putting it in the trash can, I feel the happiness of those apple cores at returning to the ground, and the happiness of the earthworms who will turn them into soil, and of the soil that will receive the worm castings. Entering the new world means shedding any pretense that you or I are better, more ethical, more moral, or more spiritual than anyone else, and allowing our true selfishness — the selfishness of the connected self — to blossom. It is an opening to more pleasure, a bigger trusting of desire, not a conquest of pleasure and desire. And if the joy I share with the apple core is my projection, if the story of the connected self is my own comforting illusion to assuage the loneliness of living in a cold hard universe of force and mass, then so be it!
Many of the rituals of the old world can be embedded in the new. In addition to the above, such things as writing a check can be done in a new spirit of gratitude and gifting rather than payment. Other of the old world rituals are fast becoming obsolete, however, and we want no part of them. I, for example, cannot bear to write a resume when one is requested for a conference I've been invited to speak at. Nor do I participate in many of the rituals of the medical system or school system. Other rituals that feel wrong to me I still participate in, because I am afraid or not ready to exit that part of the old world. I still file an income tax return, for instance. Each of us, as we pioneer in our own way our unique part in the story of the connected self on Lover Earth, is moved to leave behind different of the old rituals.
Rituals bridge the distinction between symbol and reality: they don't just mean something, they are something. They are actions in themselves. When tribal peoples conducted a ritual reenactment of the creation of the universe, they weren't just narrating or representing that creation, they were actually participating in it. For them, cosmogenesis wasn't a discrete event at the beginning of linear time, but an ongoing event taking place outside of time and diffracted onto it. The ritual didn't represent the creation of the world; it was the creation of the world. So also, the world-creating rituals we enact today must be real to us. Do not invoke the Four Directions or the ancestors unless they are a living reality to you. Otherwise you will just be "playing Injun'" and reinforcing the story behind the phenomenon of cultural appropriation. Rituals must not be less real than any other action; they must be more real. Rituals are actions that are infused with sacredness, connecting us to what is real, true, and important. Perhaps one day, a fully healed humanity will no longer distinguish something called a ritual, because all actions will be sacred. Until then, rituals serve to remind us of the sacred world-creating power of all we do, just as prayers can remind us of the sacredness of all speech, and holy sites can remind us of the sacredness of all the earth.
Make your rituals real. Your gifts to Lover Earth and to other parts of your connected self are not just symbols of love, they are love. I am not saying to be content with reusing your plastic wrap. Momentous and heroic actions, that save a forest or free a nation, come from our enactment of the roles of a new story too. They are always irrational from within the story of separation. No one ever did anything great by fighting herself and trying hard to be good. No will is strong enough. But when we give ourselves to a great story, it carries us towards acts which, from outside it, look brave and magnanimous. As we release ourselves into the story of the connected self and Lover Earth, as that story becomes real to us and we believe it in every cell, we become capable of miracles: things which were impossible from the old story, but possible from the new.
The institutions built upon the stories of the Ascent of Humanity and the separate self are falling apart around us. I believe that everyone knows in his or her heart that we are indeed connected, interdependent for our very being, and that we are coming into cocreative partnership with a planet we are falling madly in love with. You may know it and not quite believe it yet. My job is to help you believe what you already know. But even if you don't fully believe it now, no matter. The old stories cannot hold much longer. Like it or not, we are being thrust into the new. But why wait? The rituals that connect us to the reality of Reunion are already coalescing, forming new systems of meaning, institutions, forms of social interaction, conceptual vocabularies, exchange infrastructure, and the myriad human roles of the new stories. Paradigms as diverse as permaculture, energy healing, nonviolent communication, P2P economics, alternative currency, and thousands more all draw from and contribute to the new Story of the People, Story of the World, and Story of Self. As we work, each according to our gifts, to create them, we make it all the easier for the heart's knowing of a more beautiful world to blossom into belief and then into reality for all of us. That new world is a place we can only enter together. The reality of the connected self requires it.
Image courtesy of NASA, via Creative Commons license.