While meditation is often touted as the quintessential path to mindfulness, sitting still with eyes closed for a prolonged period of time is not necessarily a healthy option for everyone. As I experienced this week, for people suffering from anxiety or depression, meditation can actually aggravate their fear and sense of helplessness. Forsaking my meditation cushion, I rediscovered the practice of ceremony and ritual as an alternative gateway to mindfulness and inner calm. In her TED Talk, Tiu De Haan, whose job description is "celebrator," defines ceremony and ritual as "a container around a moment." She says that just like a frame around a painting designates that painting as art, a ceremony or ritual makes an artwork of a moment. Based on my research on ancient shamanic ceremonies, I would like to share the many benefits of and infitnite possibilities to individualise this practice with you.
Normally, when we think of "ceremony," what comes to mind are weddings, christenings and big birthday parties - noisy and joyful community events that often leave you with very little sleep and a throbbing head on the day after. As I learned from my research though, ceremonies need not be community excesses, nor are they tied to any particular belief system. In contrast to meditation, ceremonies and rituals allow you to leave the observer seat and interact with your environment.
A ritual is a practice you do more frequently, like a mindful morning or evening routine, a daily prayer, or a monthly cleansing ritual. A ceremony is simply a ritual on a bigger scale, it takes more prepapration and usually follows a specific structure.
What they both have in common, and what gives them their power and distinguishes rituals from mere habits, is your intention behind them. For a ceremony, this might be to welcome a new season, or to bless the move into a new home, a couple or a loved one who has passed away. For a ritual, the intention could be to greet a new day, to find gratitude, to release limiting beliefs, to honor the earth or the moon or your body.
Present Moment Awareness
I like to think of a ritual as an alarm bell for my awareness. By lighting a candle before every Yoga practice for example, I send a signal to my subconsciousness, letting it know that hey, we're about to do some Yoga. Whether you believe in the cleansing qualities of burnt sage, crystals, or any other of these tools, creating a ritual frame around a practice, a conversation, or any moment of your choosing gives it weight. This weight then works as an anchor for your mind, so the chatter of your thoughts becomes like the water flushing around, but not moving, the anchor.
The Web of Life
As Sandra Ingerman explains in The Book of Ceremony, the ancient tradition of shamanism is based on the belief that “everything that exists on the planet is connected in a web of life as one living organism.” Through ceremony and ritual, we become aware of the life that surrounds us and our connection to and dependence on it. A ritual to honor this web of life might be as simple as regularly watering your plants (something I know many of us struggle to do) and appreciating the joy and brightness their presence brings to your day. Last week, when the garden centres in my town were allowed to reopen, I bought myself a little jungle of house plants which I am determined to keep alive. I've been saying good morning and good night to them every day.
Express and Transform
This shamanic principle of oneness also means that we as individuals affect the energy of the whole web of life either positively or negatively, depending on our thoughts and actions. When we don't recognize this invisible and constant exchange of energy, we might be contaminating the collective. If that’s too abstract for you, just think of your own household! We have all experienced the contagious energy of emotions and we all know how another person’s attitude can dampen or brighten our mood.
What ceremony or ritual allows you to do is to first express your emotions, including the negative ones, and then transform the energy behind those negative emotions into energy of love and peace that you can feed into the web of life. For example, you might burn pieces of paper with your fears/limiting beliefs/negative emotions and feed the ashes to the earth as a symbolic gesture to prompt growth in nature and inside yourself.
What kind of ritual or ceremony you choose to perform is entirely up to you. There is a bottomless treasure chest of traditions and patterns you could use, but I would encourage you to create something that is entirely yours and fits your unique needs. If burning sage doesn't feel right (or smell right) to you, don't do it. Remember that at its core, every ceremony or ritual consist of intention plus action. Drinking your morning coffee can be a ritual if you do it with intention and awareness. So can a regular walk, taking a bath or a shower, or phoning a relative. Remember too that every ritual or ceremony needs a proper close. When you have fulfilled your intention - you have savoured your coffee, exchanged kindness with that relative, or cleaned your skin - it is time to gently close the frame around your moment.
If you struggle with seated meditation for any reason at all, I encourage you to find moments of ceremony and perhaps even come up with a ritual of your own as an alternative path to mindfulness.