Redefining Ritual as Transformative Event
"The Tzutujil had no training for rituals—They were like thunderstorms that started either with you or without you."
Mayan Shaman Martín Prechtel
Ritual is much misunderstood in the modern world. The word came into use through anthropologists who originally had a superficial understanding of what they were observing, and this influence does continue up to the present day. But more and more information is emerging, both from new approaches in academic anthropology, and from indigenous peoples, that shows a rich sophistication, complexity and adaptability within the ritual aspects of the indigenous spiritual life.
In fact, all human beings and cultures engage in ritual. What we are talking about here is a new understanding of ritual as a transformative event, directed toward initiatory graduation, based on the principles of life giving and healing. Ritual serves as a psychological event that empowers the person to be fully expressive of their own unique nature, their wild genius, while also being recognized and supported by their community. As West African Elder and shaman Malidoma Somé has said, “the modern world supports individualism, but the indigenous world supports individuality.”
A ritual is not a scripted stage play; a ritual is not a mindless repetition of actions. All “living” ritual is responsive to the real needs in indigenous cultures. The indigenous ritual specialists know how to the use the timeless motifs of cosmology and mythology. They adapt and arrange these motifs to meet the needs of the current situation. Every ritual was changed to be responsive to both the people involved and the messages from the natural and spirit worlds.
Some terminology of ritual will be helpful to explore. Sacred space, is created by beautifying the chosen location. An Invocation describes the intention for healing that all present will work toward. The Invitation is a prayerful part of the opening choreography of the ritual which acknowledges that the sense of community extends toward the Earth, the elements of nature, plants and animals, ancestors and spirits, including the “spirits of the wild genius.” The Conversation of ritual includes the idea of participatory experience, not “observation,” the idea of improvisation, and the idea to include passion, inspiration, and intuition—which are, of course, aspects of any conversation. The special circumstances of ritual created “restorative states of consciousness.” Most indigenous cultures actually used rhythm and dance rather than psychoactive plants for this purpose. Ritual depends on the indigenous principle of “village intelligence”—the view that it takes a whole community working together for all members to be supported as individuals. Every ritual ends with some expression of closing gratitude.
Ritual is the activity which maintains the relationship between people and nature and between a person and their wild genius. Ritual connects a person intimately with nature and with their own inner nature. Looked at in this way, it includes art, spiritual practice and cultural activities, as well as the special or radical ritual which involves more deeply altered states of consciousness. Ritual is the human verbal and non-verbal conversation with the natural world and the world of mythology for the purpose of healing all three. Ritual speaks to the soul in its own language of non-verbal imagery and physicality. Though great skill is involved in the art of ritual, it is a natural thing for people to be involved in. Malidoma Somé says, “In the indigenous setting, people are usually doing a ritual, talking about the last one, or planning the next one!”