“To be able to face our fears, we must remember how to perform ritual. To remember how to perform ritual, we must slow down.” – Malidoma Patrice Somé
Despite having participated in many ceremonies that have been deeply meaningful to me, trying to describe them leaves me wanting for words. Perhaps this is because in many ways, ceremonial experiences are ineffable. Alchemical in nature, the power of ceremony can reach beyond the specifics of what we can plan and predict. Structurally, ceremonies are containers made up of rituals, or sets of rituals, with clear beginnings, middles and ends. Functionally, ceremonies are spaces to mark transitions or passages, ranging from big to small, private to collective, joyous to somber. Mysteriously, they can open doors to the unseen and the unconscious. When attended to mindfully, ceremonies can help us access experiences of deep presence.
Ceremonies have the potential to transport us away from the routine of everyday life into “sacred” time and space. I use quotations here because in some sense all of life is sacred. And yet the ins and outs of our everyday lives can become banal, or even profane. We become entrenched in routines and forgetful of the many miracles that make up our existence here on earth. Ceremonies help (re)create sacred spaces.
In the Jewish tradition of my heritage, Shabbat (the Sabbath) is marked by a set of rituals performed on Friday night at sundown. We say prayers as we light candles, bless wine, break bread. These ceremonial rituals usher in Shabbat as a day that breaks the routine of the week and marks the seventh day as a sacred day of rest. In the same tradition, B’nai Mitzvahs initiate a child into adulthood. Wedding ceremonies of various traditions transform relationships through a set of rituals that mark a union between two previously independent individuals. Ceremonies offer spaces to witness ourselves and others as we move through the cycles of life. Over the past few years, some friends and I have started co-creating our own ceremonies to mark important times of transition – solstices and equinoxes, lunar cycles, deaths, griefs, births.
In the midst of a very painful breakup, a friend suggested we hold a grief ceremony to help mark the transition in my life. Just the suggestion of a grief ceremony brought up a well of tears. I anticipated that it would be like a portal, taking me into another phase of the breakup, initiating another layer of acceptance and transition. Only two months out, I was still holding onto echoes and remnants of the relationship. I hoped the ceremony would give me a chance to lay some of my pain down, to let go of some of what I’d been holding.
When I felt ready, I invited some friends to gather on a piece of land that is close to my heart. We spent the morning hiking to a river, swimming and laughing. I had flutters of nerves, not knowing what the ceremony might bring up. I knew that a ceremony could open me up to the unknown and my unconscious. One of my favorite aspects of ceremonies is how they can create spaces for mystery and cracks for spirit to pour forth.
After eating lunch, we gathered up our things and set off into the woods. We walked slowly and mindfully, eventually settling underneath some cedars. We began co-creating an altar, each bringing pieces of nature – branches, moss, cedar boughs, leaves, stones – and arranging them silently in the center of our circle. We interspersed some sacred objects we had each brought – shells, beads, a candle, jewelry. One friend shared an opening prayer, inviting in spirit and mystery, the elements, ancestors, guides and supports. Another lit the candle in the centre of the altar, bringing in the element of fire as I filled a cup with water. We settled in a circle quietly together, listening to nature and our impulses. I sat expectantly, wondering whether tears would come. One friend had brought embroidery thread which I started to cut and lay across a branch on the altar. With each piece I said a silent prayer – one for healing, one for growth, one for forgiveness, one for acceptance.One friend was drawing as another was writing as another was singing. Towards the end I asked everyone to share some words of wisdom or experiences they had around grief. When the time felt right we closed the ceremony by spilling the water out onto the earth, extinguishing the flame and leaving the altar as an offering to the land (pictured above).
In the end, I didn’t cry. I did settle into a safe container to further process my feelings and to connect to my prayers and hopes, surrounded and witnessed by friends, supported by the elements and the unseen. I don’t know what it was or when it happened but something moved in me. I felt a heaviness, a feeling which continued into the night. But I woke in the morning feeling refreshed. I knew the ceremony wasn’t a magic wand that could take away all my pain, but it was a way to intentionally mark a transition in the presence of dear friends. Consciously enacting a grief ritual was a way for me to honour the relationship that was, to be held and witnessed, and to reconnect to my sense of agency and spirituality. Ultimately and unexpectedly, a vision for what might come next in my life emerged through my prayers.
Ceremonies and rituals can be as unique as those who practice them, deriving their meanings from the intentions behind them and the presence within them. Mindfulness and presence breathe life into ceremonies, they help us attune and attend to the subtle yet powerful energies that we invoke when we open ceremonial spaces.
In the closing of a long ceremony some years ago, a teacher remarked that we would soon be returning to the ceremony of life. A beautiful thought, that each ceremony is nested within the larger ceremony of everyday life. If we show up to life the way we show up to ceremony – with intention, reverence, presence and openness – we are bound to access more everyday magic.
Moving mindfully through the day can help us reconnect to a slower pace and a sense of wonder at the world around and within us, reclaiming the sacred nature of time and space. Many meditators integrate ceremonial elements or rituals into their practices. They may sit at an altar, light a candle or incense, ring a bell, meditate with a mala, say a prayer or recite a mantra. These rituals are ways to create a container for practice, to mark the moment as unique. To be sure, to sit with oneself is a sacred act.