Ritual, Diversity, Ecology: An Invitation

Water Ritual, 2021

by Jeff Grygny

When we look at the many crises that face us today, it can feel like we’re trapped in a tug of war over a very scary chasm. We must change as a culture, and yet we can’t even agree on the direction. To solve this dilemma, ritual is not generally the first thing we turn to. And yet it might be just what we need in this historical moment. I suspect that many people might react to this suggestion as if I had recommended treating cancer by donning a mask and shaking a rattle. But the ritual dimension is a central part of the human social experience, and we neglect it at our peril. The modern world has neglected it for more than three centuries—and look where we are.

Scholars have described rituals as social technologies, developed over literally tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution. Anthropologist Roy Rappaport calls ritual “the social act.” Rituals not only play out a culture’s deepest values and meanings: in a sense, they actually create them. When you perform a ritual, you are acting out the world as it should be. You don’t have to “believe” in it (belief is a relatively recent development in the human adventure). Ritual speaks in the language of gesture and feeling—the language of the body—and is performed as part of group solidarity. Its mere performance creates a social reality.

Rituals embody and facilitate relationships of all kinds. They can be as casual as a fist bump, or as elaborate as the ancient Hindu sacrifices which were thought to preserve the cosmic order. Australian Aborigines and Native Americans insist that their ceremonies are essential for maintaining their relationship with the land. Rituals can revolve around anything that carries meaning, from elemental substances to everyday objects. Some useful rituals are: showing respect, giving gifts (and receiving them), telling stories, singing and dancing, displaying meaningful symbols, and sharing food.

Our modern science-driven world reveres detatched, rational thinking to the point that we have forgotten the power of profound performances. If you doubt that performance can be powerful, just consider the placebo effect: many ailments seem to heal spontaneously, just because the proper symbols and rites were displayed, be they drums and spirit rattles or a clinician’s office and prescription bottles. Ritual is literally a confidence game: it gives us confidence that our values are real and work. Think of all the  made-up things that became real, like money or clock time. They’re real because everyone performs them—no belief necessary.

When we seek to end racial injustice, gender injustice, and ecological collapse, we usually turn to institutions: analysing data, formulating policies, passing laws. And if this has not worked, we blame our political enemies. But psychology has revealed that our decision-making processes are as influenced by feeling as much (or more) than by cold calculation. We humans are not disembodied intellects; our actions are based on sympathies and aversions that are powerfully imprinted on our bodies and minds by history and culture.

How could we expect American blacks and whites, queer and straight people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to understand each other, much less empathize with each other, when they don’t share the same cultural touchstones? How could we expect people to really make sacrifices for the sake of the planet when our everyday way of life continuously asserts that everything in the world is human property? We human beings don’t actually live our lives based on theories or policies: we live based on what we feel is right, normal, and desirable. Rituals create the feeling of what’s socially right, so that people intuitively act in that way. In the language of pop psychology, ritualizing a difficult “cold cognition” task—say,  recognizing a stereotype, or thinking about the planet—inscribes that work into easier, spontaneous “hot cognition,” so that it feels normal and becomes “second nature.” So, if we want a different world, why not explore how to enact the meanings and values we want to see?

I’m not suggesting that we can solve racism and climate change by singing the right songs. But if we want the kind of culture that is capable of solving these problems—including adopting the right policies, passing the right laws, and using the right technologies—we might (this is my best suggestion) start to look for the right songs to sing—and how and when and with whom to sing them—to create the meanings and values of the culture we want to live in.

Gentlefolks, I propose that our world needs rituals of encounter that respectfully and gracefully acknowledge both our differences and our shared humanity; as well as ceremonies that play out our deep relationship with the hawks, coyotes, oak trees, bees, and all the rest, as co-creators of this wonderful world. And we can’t just take up the rituals of our ancestors. They are of different times and lifeways, they would not make sense to us. We must discover our own.

The best people for this work are probably performing artists, whose art is inherently social. They have the instinctive feel for what works and doesn’t for an audience; fluent in the aesthetic languages of tone, color, and rhythm, they understand how meanings and feelings are meshed in action. It will require a special kind of artist to create authentic rituals: bold explorers and bricoleurs with great empathy and openness, who can apply emotional intelligence across cultures and identities; people with good will, good humor, and a certain humility that might challenge our assumptions about professional expertise and artistic freedom.

To stake our future on something as intangible as ceremony is absurdly hopeful—but then, the fool always did ride shotgun in the ritual universe. To develop practices that diverse people can accept will take much experimentation, much trial and error, and a good bit of time. But I seriously don’t see a good future without some effort of this kind.

Our new ceremonies might look like art or religion or activism. They might look like games, therapy, internet memes, or magic, or all of the above, or something different altogether. But they will be participatory, immersive, meaningful, courageous, and beautiful, because they will spring from our longing for a better way of life. Let’s explore how to perform a new world into reality.

Consider yourself invited to play.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore, 1880