Why We Need Ritual


We are the stars which sing
We sing with our light
We are the birds of fire
We fly over the sky
Our light is a voice
We make a road for the spirit to pass over

                                                                                                    Dead Can Dance- Song of the Stars

In the modern West the split between culture, nature, and spirituality has been well documented and explored, however the pervasive lack of integral spirituality and ritualistic context continues to create a vacuum in our human experiences both individually and communally. The transitions and events of life which can be overwhelming are left unmarked and unwitnessed often creating problems ranging for mild anxiety to full psychosis. In tribal and many non-Western cultures, rites of passage and initiation provides the crucible for transformation. In our non- ritualized and spiritually bereft modern Western culture, behaviors that are not easily accommodated within socially accepted forms are feared, rejected and pathologized. Mental health diagnosis rises as does suicide rates, and yet conditions and experiences that would be recognized in many non-Western or tribal contexts as call to initiation, or an attempt to restructure the ego, are medicated and stigmatized. This leads to social and spiritual isolation- or what we have come to refer to as ‘the dark night of the soul’.


Painting by Araya-Cassildas

Initiation and ritual provide a container for transition, that is, moving from one state to another and that crossing being acknowledged and accepted within the community. A three-fold process of separation from daily life, transition and transformation experienced through a death of the old, and reintegration back into the community with a new identity is the basic format of initiation. The Latin term ‘transitio’ means the act of going across; the most common rite of passage is that of child to man or woman and is marked in puberty rites in many indigenous communities. The importance of this transition is crucial for the well-being of the community… on return from the death/rebirth journey, the young man or woman is expected to take responsibility for their role in the cohesion and harmony of the tribe. In Western society, the lack of puberty rites herald two things

1.Children will self-initiate to be accepted as an adult. They will do this by any number of damaging and dangerous behaviors which will not elicit the desired response and in fact will inspire the opposite response.

2.Individuals will continue to exist in a child state into adulthood never taking full responsibility for themselves or contributing to their society in meaningful ways.

Acting out behaviors, addictions, promiscuity, self- harm and other symptoms of destruction to self and others are labelled mental illness. In the history of psychopathology women outnumber men 3.1, while the risk of suicide is more prevalent in men by about the same odds. In tribal cultures, confrontation with death is a prerequisite of transformation and is experienced to varying degrees of symbolism or actuality.  Alternatively, Western consciousness is death denying and any attempt to approach death willingly is indicative of mental illness. Modern near-death experiences from addiction, dangerous behavior or self mutilation are viewed as a cry for help, however on another level it could be viewed as the soul’s need for wholeness through dissolution and restructuring of the ego. If handled with insight, awareness and compassion, these experiences could provide the possibility of growth and integration.

Christina and Stanislav Groff espoused the need for a transpersonal psychology that recognizes the manifestations of what they call ‘spiritual emergence’. In a culture that lacks awareness of these transpersonal states, it is more likely that what occurs is ‘spiritual emergency’ as the troubled soul attempts to make a meaningful spiritual connection that appears to be pathology.

Ritual, myth and initiation could be the missing link in providing a bridge to not only the spiritual world, but to our communities, and the earth which in the end, it may be argued, there is no real difference. The existentialist psychologist Rollo Reese May believes that suicide attempts and personality disorders are caused by the lack of meaningful and sacred myths: “Without myths he says, we are without soul.” Many people working in the field of psychotherapy have written about the effects of the lack of the sacred in our culture and yet by and large people undergoing this kind of  soul transformation are still doing so in isolation and stigma.

Western culture places little or no value on transpersonal and transformative experiences and therefore cannot hold them. Instead what is valued in Western culture is a matrix of economic wealth, civilized and non-troublesome behavior, and a general acceptance of the contemporary features such as technology, medication and consumerism, leading to a well controlled and fragmented society.


Clip from the 1971 film Walkabout

Rites of passage is not just about a transcendent experience with a spiritual intelligence, it is also about communing with others and feeling a sense of belonging in one’s community. During rites of passage, an existential state with the sacred is shared with others who also recognize this state and/ or participate in the experience. This ‘communitas’ is undefined and unstructured existing beyond all hierarchies and categories (See Turner, 1966). A common humanity exists within the group and the desire to merge is acknowledged and accepted. The group dynamic is a cohesive whole where each one is united with his or her community and is imbued with a profound sense of belonging and acceptance- very different to the sense of alienation and isolation that many people face during times of transition in the modern West.

I had a further insight about this need to merge…

If as children we are not educated in transcendental experiences or spiritual connection, and if the experience of unconditional love and acceptance was not provided by our family, community and caregivers our basic human need for connection was unmet. With the absence of spiritual experience or feelings of belonging, this need was projected onto others whom we came in contact with as we moved through life. But the split that was created in the soul is a wound that can only be healed exogenously when we receive the unconditional love and acceptance of our community. Instead we attempted to find that solace through the love of one person in romantic relationship but if we have an unstable sense of self or else have not healed those early wounds of invalidation and isolation, chances are these distortions will be reflected in our relationships.

Given that it is predominantly women who are diagnosed as suffering from a personality disorder, and that very often a signature of that disorder is co- dependency, or emotional dependency, this raises further questions about spiritual availability for young girls in our culture. The Christian-Judeo paradigm of religion in is itself invalidating of the feminine. We have the father and the son but no feminine in the holy trinity; the story the feminine is divided, and until the assumption of Mary in 1950, the feminine was not divinely assumed into heaven. When divinity is not reflected through a self-referential image, the experience is further invalidating.

I know there is so much to say about the young masculine experience in a culture that does not provide any rites of passage initiation- the consequences of this are all too clear and there is much to be done.

According to Mircea Eliade, reality and identity are established for ‘primitive peoples’ through “participation” and “repetitions” of the mythological paradigms. We know who we are and what our role is through contacting a sacred mythos that places our individual life in a collective sphere and provides a sense of belonging. There is no sacred myth in Western culture save for the crumbling skeleton of the church, no cohesive glue that binds us in a shared humanity. A corporate global consciousness married to an increasingly pixilated technological culture separates us from each other, spiritual connection, earth connection and ourselves. In this we become soulless. Malidoma Patrice Some, a West African writer and spiritual workshop leader says,

“We need ritual because it is an expression of the fact that we recognize the difficulty in creating a different and special kind of community. A community that doesn’t have a ritual cannot exist. A corporate community is not a community, it is a conglomeration of individuals in service of an insatiable soulless entity.”

Through stories, myths, ritual, and the sacred we bring meaning to our existence and to the world, we breathe life back into the world soul and allow the possibility for a broader spectrum of experience, a more integrated, creative weaving of self, earth and spirit and all the possibilities that holds. The Freudian model of ego, id, and superego, and the primacy of Western psychology that was born of that is but a pale model of the beautiful mystery.

I love this song by Dead Can Dance- Song of the Stars, it communicates so much about our sacred nature.

Dead Can Dance- Song of the Stars

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