Ritual As Shadow, Part Four: Ritual Is Hardly Transformation … In Actuality, We “Die” to Our Real Self and Are Remade Into Something Society Can Use
When people go through weddings and other kinds of rituals it’s like they are trying to fool their psyche into thinking they are dealing with their real experience and their underlying transformative needs, but they in actuality are not . . . because in fact ritual is nothing more than elaborate act-out…. And acting out of a feeling and not feeling the feeling is substituting a ritual for real experience.
Why societies have these reenactments is for the person to bring forward and bring to bear those memories of an important and traumatic time and associate it with coming more into alignment with society and its needs … that is, as if to die a little more to one’s real self and to create or birth a fake self in line with and to the liking of one’s culture. The most obvious example of that is the way men and women are turned into killers and pawns of society through the elaborate rituals of becoming soldiers, as in boot camp.
This is exactly the opposite of real inner transformation which happens, in a non-ritual-like manner, and in which one “dies” to some elaborate act outs in society and culture—as they say, the giving up of “desires” or the relinquishing of “cherished illusions and false hopes”—and is reborn into one’s real self, rediscovering one’s real potentials and connection with Nature and the Divine.
The patriarchal person is fearful of the spiritual forces within him- or herself. Hence she or he disidentifies with them and projects them outside of him- or herself where they must be related to symbolically. The matriarchal person mistrusts the Natural world and disidentifies with It, and with the physical body which is a part of It, in an attempt to control It. In doing so, these natural forces are projected outside of oneself where they can then only be related to symbolically.
In either case, it is this attempt to control something symbolically, indirectly that is the basis of ritual. In both cases ritual is a poor substitute for the real potential of identifying with and acting in accord with that reality. And in each instance, the tragedy is that the indirect attempt pre-empts and thus makes impossible the true relationship and true accord, the at-one-ment, that could otherwise be.
Ritual As Addiction to “Pretend Experience”
Dream of 14 November 1991:
In this dream I was with a large group of people. There were all kinds of complicated goings on and much vivid detail in the dream prior to the most important part of the dream, which had to do with a ritual. At a certain point I was required to go to this church, and I had to stand in a particular place. It was like standing at the entrance to the church but just inside. There were quite a few of us, and we were all in lines, like two lines; and we had to go down the aisle toward the front of the church.
Many things happened then. There was superb richness of detail, a baroque-like texture to everything—scenes, sets, items, and events. I don’t remember all that transpired. It was very interesting, fascinating. There was color, art, multiple goings on, lots of special effects.
One part of it stood out, however. I was alternately involved in the events as well as watching it all, as I had been at the beginning when I was watching from the back of the church. In this part I was involved and was going back down the aisle from the altar at the front of the church, where a lot of the events had happened. There were a few of us, and we had flowing robes on. I could almost sense artificial wings on me, attached to my back. The powers-that-be were also suspending each of us in mid-air so that we were almost floating down the aisle! We were held up by wires, which were also attached to us—much like a Peter-Pan in a stage production — and we were floating, slowly, down the aisle.
And I was thinking: “I get it. This is supposed to be a wedding. But since becoming married is a transition in one’s life, one needs to die to one state and be reborn in another. So, what was being enacted here was something approaching BPM IV, like where Michael C. Irving talks about the symbolism of angels coming in — because BPM IV represents feeling free again, being released. So you have the halo because of the birth experience and all those feelings.”
By that I mean that in Stanislav Grof’s matrices of the birth experience, which we re-create throughout our lives, Basic Perinatal Matrix IV (BPM IV) has to do with actually being born, coming out of the womb. And since it involves becoming free, moving freely like as in flying, and happens miraculously and as a blessing, it is the basis for our ideas of coming out into the light and of angels—the wings representing being able to move freely. Halos are symbols of the pressure on our head as it moves through the birth canal and is the first sensation we have of becoming free … being “blessed.”
So what they were doing in this wedding was re-creating, symbolically, all the aspects of birth from BPM I through IV. BPM I is that state of oceanic ecstasy and bliss in the early months of being in the womb when one can move freely and senses a loving connection (ideally) with one’s mother. This feeling is akin to that of romance and the feelings of lovers, which in the dream would be the ones about to be married. And this feeling of bliss is continued in the acts of coming into the church—a womb symbol—and going down the aisle, basking in the approving smiles of loved ones.
BPM II is the time in the womb when things have become cramped, and one cannot move freely, so one has feelings of compression and depression—a kind of stuffiness as well due to getting less oxygen because the arteries are constricted and so bringing less blood, hence oxygen, to you. In the dream this would be the part of the wedding where the couple to be wedded is at the front of church, now, and they are constricted in their every act and movement. They must behave—another BPM II feeling, for to move too much in the womb only further disturbs the blood-oxygen flow. It is stuffy in the church—isn’t that one of the main complaints people have of churches and of having to sit through ceremonies there? This feeling is shared by everyone in the church, including the bride and groom. So this indicates how all the participants in the church are to some extent being put through an enactment of the birth ritual, too. Other BPM II elements for the ones to be wedded include waiting in discomfort and anticipation… nervousness…for release.
BPM III in our birth process is the time of actual struggle to be born, when there is, symbolically, a “light at the end of the tunnel.” In this wedding ritual, that would be the actual becoming wedded, the saying of the vows. For release is near, and there is now active participation. And when the ring is put on the finger, it is akin to the baby coming through the ring of the birth canal. The ritual kiss immediately after becoming wedded is even a symbolic re-creation of the way, in an ideal birth, there is a bonding between baby and mother immediately after birth, involving, no less! a baby’s first attempts at suckling … the kissing, you see?
So, by the time of walking back down the aisle to go out into the world the bride and groom are re-creating BPM IV—that is, actually being out of the womb and having those feelings of elation that come with being released and having survived what seemed to be a threat of death. I remembered us floating down the aisle between those two lines of people and saw it as a re-creation of a baby coming out between two legs of the mother.
So, the entire wedding experience is a symbolic re-creation of the birth experience. And we know we re-create these same death-rebirth patterns in all kinds of rituals involving transitions in one’s life. We do this because we are driven to re-create that which we could not complete at the time. So wedding rituals like this evolve out of those drives and feelings in people, and all the detail and ritual is an unconscious attempt to give people a feeling of going through a death-rebirth experience. The actual yearning in people is to go deep inside and have this intense experience and reliving of the trauma of birth and then to come out again and have the feeling of being freed; and societies manifest cultural forms that either do that—as in the case of the shamanic and other practices of many indigenous cultures—or they fashion symbolic affairs that fake it by putting on a show of doing it … for reasons we get to in a minute.
Anyway, when it was all over and I arrived back at the entrance to the church, having floated down the aisle, there were so many people there—family, friends, and such. But there wasn’t one person there I could share it with; and that was really depressing. It was distressing not to have anyone to share it with because I had had this incredible insight about it all, and I was so excited because I really understood now. I realize, now, this was a memory of my own birth experience, in which I was not allowed to connect with my mother after birth but was taken away and left to be alone for a long time.
And what I understood was what I had said at the beginning of this: That rituals are substitute experiences. By that I meant that I realized that: “When people were trying to enact a ritual, did this mean that those people are getting in touch with those feelings and that that’s helping them in any way?” And then it immediately came to my mind: “No, this does not mean that people get in touch with those feelings. Rather, it means that people are led to believe they are having those feelings, when in actuality they are not.”
And we know that people are not really feeling the feelings symbolized because that is the major thing of all act-outs of those early experiences: One can repeat the act out forever and it does not change the feeling or stop one from having it. Whereas if one relives the feeling in a conscious way in a therapeutic setting, which can occur in any of the modalities or by any of the means I have been mentioning (for example, primal therapy, holotropic breathwork, psychedelics), those feelings do change, go away completely at times, and the person is transformed, becoming a different person…as a death-rebirth experience should bring about.
But when people go through weddings and other kinds of rituals it’s like they are trying to fool their psyche into thinking that they are dealing with their real experience and their underlying transformative needs, but they in actuality are not . . . because in fact ritual is nothing more than elaborate act-out, that’s all it is. And acting out of a feeling and not feeling the feeling is substituting a ritual for real experience.
And why societies have these reenactments is for the person to bring forward and bring to bear those memories of an important and traumatic time and associate it with coming more into alignment with society and its needs … that is, as if to die a little more to one’s real self and to create or birth a fake self in line with and to the liking of one’s culture. The most obvious example of that is the way men and women are turned into killers and pawns of society through the elaborate rituals of becoming soldiers, as in boot camp. This is exactly the opposite of real inner transformation which happens, in a non-ritual-like manner, and in which one “dies” to some elaborate act outs in society and culture—as they say, the giving up of “desires” or the relinquishing of false hopes and cherished dreams—and is reborn into one’s real self, rediscovering one’s real potentials and connection with Nature and the Divine. I will have a lot more to say about this further on.
At any rate, in rituals we pretend we are dealing with our feelings and our real experience; but rituals are no more spiritual experiences or dealing with feelings than alcoholism is a spiritual quest or getting drunk is dealing with feelings. Ritual is a substitute for “spiritual” (or real) experience just as addiction is a substitute for spiritual experience.
Continue with Ritual As Shadow Experience, Part Five: What Real and Unritualized Spiritual Experience Looks Like — An Example of Primal Spirituality
Return to The Second Retreat from the Natural Self — Patriarchal Culture: One Gains the World in Exact Proportion to Which a Man Has Relinquished his Soul
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