The Absence of Meaningful Ritual
Ritual has held a long-term fascination for me. Like many people I have become aware of the absence of meaningful ritual in our culture and the few that we have left being somehow emotionally unsatisfying.
As a child I desperately wanted to become a Roman Catholic, much to my mother’s horror, because I was attracted to the ritual. It felt significant to me to go into a church and cross myself with holy water and then cross myself again before sitting down. I felt changed in some way by this symbolic action and prepared for a mystery to be revealed. The Anglican way of walking into a church and sitting down in a pew felt dismally disappointing by comparison.
Over the past few years I have participated in many shamanic rituals because I wanted to have a more personal experience of ritual from other cultures.
The most amazing of these was a grief ritual with Malidoma Some in which I expressed more grief than I ever have in my life. I was fascinated to hear Malidoma describe how in the Dagara tribe they have no need for therapy because they have ritual. They do rituals for everything : for the important stepping stones of life, problems with neighbours, emotional difficulties as well as fairly insignificant irritations. If there is a problem they do a ritual. Their lives are steeped in ritual; it is as natural to them as breathing and sleeping.
Creating our OWN Rituals
Valuable as I have found rituals from other cultures, I have felt that is was important that we also create our own rituals which have personal significance for us. I am going to quote from a man, I shall call him Paul, who is currently participating in a group I am running and who describes a personal ritual that he performed a few weeks ago.
“For the ritual I was asked to devise something to symbolise a part of me I felt needed to die. I painted a chessboard on a large piece of card to symbolise my driven pursuit in the past of setting up projects and organisations. Then I fashioned it into a tower, and filled it with pages from an old telephone directory – to symbolise the way in which I had often seen people as “units.
But then I realised that, though this part of me needed to die, it had nonetheless been an important, living, part of my life. I could not just dump it. I decided to light a candle in front of it. I sat and contemplated on what it had been, what it had achieved, as well as what havoc it had wrought in me. I was, I realised, preparing myself for a bereavement.
What happened next was totally unexpected. I suddenly found myself moving towards my “tower” and wrapping my arms around it in a long, final, loving embrace.
Then came the end, I carried my symbol out into the yard. I watched as it was consumed by fire.
But profound as this experience was, I was quite unprepared for what happened next day. Actually, there had been something else in my life which needed to die: a fantasy about a relationship which had for a long time prevented me from getting on with my life. I had known it had to go, intellectually.
But getting it to go was another matter. It was certainly too precious a delusion to bring into a workshop. The next day I met up with the person in question: but on the way home, as I walked along the road, I began to realise that something very strange was happening. The fantasy had started to move. I was starting to feel quite different about this person. The fantasy was dying.
It took a conversation with a friend the next day to make me see that, actually, two parts of my life had been lain to rest during that workshop. Unknown to me, the funeral pyre had burned two “bodies”.
It is not a surprise to me that this ritual had a greater impact on Paul than he had expected. He was so instinctive in his enactment of the different phases that it was clear that he was being driven by something more powerful than he would call his “habitual driven-ness”. Something inside Paul was clearly ready to get free and it found its way out in the loose structure that the ritual provided.
A personal ritual is a symbolic action that marks a transition from one state to the other. The ritual may be enacted by the individual but more often than not, it involves other group members who will represent things or people that the person wants to let go of, or goals and dreams that they want to attract into their life.
It might involve creating an art work, as happened in Paul’s ritual, which later gets burnt in a fire ceremony. Personally I find these rituals very satisfying as the group gathers in silence watching the flames eat up representations of the darker aspects of their psyche as they are reduced to ash and cinder.
A dramatherapy ritual is unique from any other in that it includes also all the paraphernalia of the theatre – lighting, costume, movement, music, play and creativity. Constructing the ritual is a group effort which is discussed and created by the group, with people throwing in ideas or perhaps suggesting a piece of music to create a specific emotional atmosphere. The other very important thing about it is that it is witnessed by other group members. It is a kind of sacred performance in which the individual is able to release to the audience anything he or she wishes to let go of or to express.
I have watched countless rituals. I will never get tired of watching them because each one is unique, meaningful and often very beautiful and moving to watch.
When it comes to the ritual stage of a workshop, I can feel the whole group shifts into another gear. There is a sense of concentration, anxiety about creating the right ritual, but also a knowledge that the process is transformational. For a time it feels as if time doesn’t exist.
Shifting into another Gear
Then comes the time of the ritual performance, and the group again shifts into another gear.
Although there are planned elements to the ritual, often the most powerful moments are the spontaneous things that happen in the spirit of best improvisation. Sometimes the participants don’t know what they’re going to do until the moment that they do it.
I remember a woman in a recent workshop who did a very simple thing. She grabbed the arm of another woman and walked towards us in the audience. As she looked at each one of us, her eyes full of tears, everyone in the room found themselves choked with emotion. Somehow this woman had been able to drop her guard and had allowed herself to be seen. It was an intensely moving and unforgettable experience.
One of the reasons that ritual theatre is so powerful that it speaks through the language of the unconscious, using the language of story which we normally have access to through our dreams. A ritual, like a story, has a beginning, middle and end, which concludes with a cathartic or transformational moment.
In a sense a ritual is the enactment of an awake dream that the dreamer has control of. And unlike your dreams you can change the end. I have seen rituals about painful childhood traumas through which the person has been able to express long buried feelings and put themselves back in the driver’s seat. If someone has had very critical parents, they may want to create a ritual about having very accepting parents which will help them to heal their relationship with their own inner critic.
Rituals can be excruciatingly funny, joyful as well as cathartic. I warn people that it is a powerful process so they should be careful what they ask for. Often people symbolically enact something they would like to bring into their lives. This could be a job, a relationship, a marriage or expressing their creativity in the world in some way. It does not surprise me when they tell me that these things have come into their lives.
The Greek word for drama means action. Drama is about movement, about expressing our life energy, our passions and emotions. The reason that a dramatherapy ritual can be so powerful is that by expressing through the body and through the person’s life force, it can reach to parts of the self that may have been hidden for a long time.
As Paul mentioned, he had no intention of revealing to the rest of the group the fantasy that he felt some shame about, and yet this did not stop the process from working. The ritual does not need to be talked about, dismantled or explained unless the person chooses to. The fact that it has been expressed is often enough. The rest can be left to time and the individual’s own unconscious to sort out.
The power of a ritual that includes theatre is that it serves as a rehearsal for life or an instruction manual for the unconscious to follow.
And it works.
(Connections Magazine Aug 2001)
See the Ritual Theatre Book in which I go into the psychology behind the approach and includes also chapters by leading dramatherapists and how they have worked with ritual theatre to transform people’s lives – or the blog post that I wrote around the publication of the book.
I have also created the Ritual Theatre Blog to support the book and as an educational platform for ritual theatre.