Create A Living Ritual
How to connect through our bodies with the transcendent dimension of our lives.
Offering 6 - Selina Jorgenson
No matter your spirituality or background, it's possible to turn every day into a living, breathing ritual. Explore how one author transformed her life by doing so.
Just before I turned 30 I awakened from a dream in which I was directed to go into a forest and create a big blue circle on the dark, pine-needle-strewn floor. The images were simple and profound, color saturated and richly textured. When dawn arrived, I settled into the living room sofa with a cup of steaming tea, a sketchpad and oil pastels, and the notebook I used each morning for journaling my dreams. After a few silent moments of receiving the dream into my waking awareness, I began to sketch.
After ten years of pondering this dream, the directive was crystal clear! I would walk around the big blue circle of Lake Tahoe, moving toward healing and greater wholeness.
The image of the dream stayed with me for years, calling me to embody it, so I made several attempts to create blue circles on the floor of the ponderosa pine forest in my mountain town—hoping the ritual would tell me something. But it didn’t. Finally, on the threshold of turning 40, a longtime backpacking aspiration and this enigmatic sleeping dream converged in a sudden moment of unexpected insight. Since my late 20s I had been planning to hike, someday, the 165-mile wilderness trail that encircles the cyan-blue waters of Lake Tahoe. After ten years of pondering this dream, the directive was crystal clear! I would walk around the big blue circle of Lake Tahoe, moving toward healing and greater wholeness. It would be the ritual entry into liminal space between the first and second halves of my life. It would be a rite of passage.
I got on the phone to invite three adventurous women to join me on this journey. I shared the story of the dream and my aha! While the image was personal to me, each woman resonated deeply with it in some way and said yes. We each felt this foursome was being brought together for something mysteriously significant. For four months we engaged in preparation for what would become a 15-day communal ritual: mapping the trail and daily mileage, compiling menus and the contents of meals, selecting individual and group gear, and planning for a midway day of rest.
Offering 16 - Selina Jorgenson
It was late July when we embarked on our circumambulation. We began our ritual walk on the east side of the lake by Heavenly ski resort and trekked toward the west by way of the south shore, taking a day of rest in Tahoe City. Then we resumed our journey, trekking back to the east where we had begun by way of the north shore.
On our first night together, camped at the edge of a small alpine lake, we sat in a circle and shared our personal intentions for being there. We named our fears and anticipations in facing the reality that we would not be the same when we completed our pilgrimage. We entrusted our lives to one another for our time in the wilderness.
Reduced to the essentials for survival, we walked through intense high-altitude sun, thunderstorms, exhaustion, beauty, and conflicts. We walked through joy, sorrow, self-consciousness, and uncertainties about the future. We cooked and shared meals, studied maps, slept with darkness, and rose with the light. Some days we walked extra miles to find water. On others we gorged on scavenged packets of instant oatmeal left in bear boxes by prior pilgrims. The outworn self of my first adulthood was vulnerably exposed, challenged, and painfully stripped away. Things got real.
This is an example of “living” ritual, which moves us out of ordinary consciousness and connects us through our bodies with the transcendent dimension of our lives. Through conscious enactment and repetition of purposeful behavior, living ritual can lead to the transformation of self and community. It may be personal and private, communal and intimate, ancient and rooted in religious tradition, contemporary and emergent from inner sources, daily and simple, or multi-day and complex. Whatever the form, it is experienced as relevant, affirming, and necessary. It may or may not require extraordinary effort, but the effort feels as if it had to happen.
What began with my personal morning ritual of dream-tending evolved over many years into a 15-day communal ritual. By cocreating a strong, but spacious, ritual container through our circling of Lake Tahoe, we enlivened images that needed to be expressed personally and collectively. The images that bubbled up from a deep, dreaming wellspring within me became nourishing for the other women as they interpreted and enacted them in their own uniquely meaningful ways. They became shared symbols reflective of living ritual.
CONNECT YOUR INNER AND OUTER LANDSCAPES
At the Ranch we do this daily ritual in the Meditation Garden because there is such a rich assortment of plants and objects to capture attention, but it can be done anywhere outdoors.
Stand comfortably upright with your shoulders relaxed.
Bring your awareness to your breath and allow your breath to flow gently in and out of your body through your nose. Take a moment to remember with gratitude that your breath is always breathing you—without thought.
Begin to walk slowly, synchronizing your breath and movement. Enter into a gentle rhythm.
Allow your awareness to expand and notice what aspect of nature you are drawn toward—perhaps a plant or tree, feature of the landscape, animal, sound, or smell.
Allow yourself to move toward what is drawing you, and then stop there.
Engage your senses fully in being with this aspect of nature.
Ask yourself: What is this aspect of nature revealing of itself to me? Listen deeply until you receive a response.
Sit quietly with a journal or sketchbook and write about, draw, or paint your listening experience. Reflect on how you will incorporate what you experienced into your life.
A Life Living in Ritual
I was raised in the sacramental tradition of Roman Catholicism, educated for ministry in a traditionally Protestant divinity school, provided faith development leadership in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and then trained as a transpersonal psychologist with a research emphasis on embodied and nature-based spirituality. Now I work at an integrative wellness resort called Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, guiding people in the creation of ritual and other spiritual practices as a part of their wellness journey. People may come to “The Ranch” for relaxation and renewal, to reset their fitness or nutrition habits, to celebrate a special occasion, or to receive highly attentive medical care. Many also come to get unstuck in their lives, to grieve, or to pause and reflect upon what gives their lives a sense of purpose and meaning. Those individuals find their way to our Spiritual Wellness Center.
Like the spa, gym, yoga studio, and medical center, the Spiritual Wellness Center is designed for a particular purpose—to provide tranquil, sacred space for professional spiritual wellness practitioners to attend to the spiritual dimension of our guests. The Center includes quiet, private consulting rooms adorned with items used in ritual, and a glass-walled Sanctuary nestled within a lush meditation garden. The garden is home to a meditation path, flowing fountains, sand raking, stone balancing, hummingbird nests, butterflies, and the occasional migrating turtle or desert cottontail.
My role at Canyon Ranch is to guide people in creating their own personal rituals for navigating transition, loss, and grief, and encountering life more soulfully. Through engagement with the beautiful, interactive space of our Center they begin to imagine their own version of a Lake Tahoe sojourn. I may also help those who are formerly or presently rooted in religious traditions to remember or deepen ancient ritual forms that feel alive to them. A person who is recently bereaved may be spiritually assured by starting a weekly ritual of lighting a candle and then writing and reading aloud a letter to the departed beloved while sitting in that one’s favorite chair. Another bereaved person may feel called back to Catholic Mass to receive the spiritual sustenance of communion. Each person must listen within for what wants to emerge ritualistically into the world. I listen with, and play ritual catcher when what is needed shows up.
I observe that ritual often strengthens our capacity to be more fully with what is unfolding in our lives, no matter how challenging or painful, by loosening the grip of resistance toward what is. Through the meaning-making of ritual we become more able to see and understand our ordinary, human experience in nonordinary, transpersonal, or theological ways.
If we are in the rut of getting up each day and attending to tasks, a simple morning or evening ritual can provide a reminder that there is more to life than getting things done. Ritual approaches to bathing, eating meals, sleeping, working, caring for others, and being in nature can remind us that time and space are not limited to the clock on the wall and the car or office.
A personal approach to ritual begins with creating sacred space and moving out of ordinary awareness. Engaging in meditative breathing, reciting scripture or poetry, singing, drumming, chanting, turning in a clockwise circle or toward each of the four directions, silence, candlelight, gesture, and movement are all common beginnings. Sometimes people new to ritual mistakenly assume they must have access to a sacred site or holy place to engage in ritual activity. I remind them that all inner and outer space becomes sacred when we bring awareness of the sacred into our bodies, hearts, and minds.
YOUR RITUAL OF REMEMBRANCE
The goal is to create a ritual to reflect the unique dimensions of your relationship. The first step is to write answers to the following questions in your journal—and let them guide you.
How and where did your relationship begin?
How and where did you enjoy spending time together—regularly, and on special occasions?
What type of communication between you was most meaningful?
What special events did you experience together?
What core stories about your relationship were often shared and told?
What did you intend to experience or complete together that might be done now?
What was left unsaid or unattended to that you might speak or attend to now?
What did your beloved contribute to the world that could be uplifted and honored in some way?
Some Resulting Rituals
A woman now spends time each Sunday afternoon in her kitchen cooking her mother’s favorite recipes and sharing the food with her family.
A woman whose best friend and work partner died unexpectedly began visiting his grave during their lapsed weekly cocktail hour to read a favorite excerpt from a current novel because they loved to talk about books.
The children of a father who traveled for business make an annual trip to a place he loved—at first to scatter his ashes and later to share stories about how he influenced their lives and others’.
Through the meaning-making of ritual we become more able to see and understand our ordinary, human experience in nonordinary, transpersonal, or theological ways.
The Ways of Rituals
A man I met told me that he uses the weekly weeding of his garden as a ritual for releasing his resentments. Once in the garden, he names his resentments and his desire to release them as preparation for, one by one, pulling up those inner and outer weeds. Other forms of preparation include washing or bathing, putting on special clothing, fasting, silence, prayer, and naming an intention.
Making an offering or sacrificing something within ritual is a way of dedicating yourself to the transformational process. A woman seeking to lose weight after decades of frustrated attempts wanted me to help her create a ritual of release. When asked what she needed to let go of, she said, “my lover, sugary foods—and this is going to hurt.” She knew she needed to make a painful separation from the primary impediments to honoring her body, and she courageously did so.
Living ritual may include the incorporation of a story, myth, or physical initiation, followed by expression of celebration or gratitude for arriving in a new place or entering into a new state of being. My 15-day circumambulation was certainly a test and an initiation into my fourth decade of life—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
A time of preparing for return to ordinary life while retaining consciousness of the ritual experience often concludes a ritual. This may include cleaning up after a meal or creative practice, sharing of conversation or laughter after the blessing of a baby or renewal of vows, or a slow, reflective walk from the parked car to the front door of home after the memorial service. The perfect time of a ritual is whatever it is.
A LETTER OF SELF-FORGIVENESS
Set aside an uninterrupted period of time away from all distraction in a space that feels safe and comfortable. Choose paper and a pen especially for this ritual. Begin your letter by writing about what you need self-forgiveness for: Describe in detail both the events and the strong emotions related to the situation. Then write about what you wish would have been, acknowledging the “could have, should have, would have” regrets that you need to release. Close the letter by expressing your heartfelt desire for, and worthiness of, self-forgiveness— describing what you hope it will allow you and your life to become.
Throughout the writing process, pause when strong emotions arise, allowing yourself to feel them to completion, while offering them compassion, before continuing. (This may require more than one writing session if the feelings become overwhelming.) Upon completion of the letter, identify someone trustworthy and nonjudging with whom you can share the letter. Invite this person to listen to you read the letter aloud without response (unless you request one from them). Conclude the ritual by burning the letter in a fireproof bowl and then releasing the ashes into flowing water or wind, or burying them.