Ritual: Feast on your life


Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
– Zen proverb

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a ‘why’ life happens as it does, but often, we need a ‘how’.

How does life happen to us? How do we live life? And how do we mark or validate the events which change the shape of our lives?

One way to ‘how’ is through ritual.

A couple of years ago, I happened to attend a naming ceremony at my local Church of England. It was very like a traditional baptism but without the catechism. I didn’t know anyone involved, so can only surmise that the parents wanted to mark the birth of their baby but not have him baptised, as they weren’t or didn’t want to become members of the Church of England.

In years gone by, when church going was something the majority of the population did, the church handled all rituals for us. And today, as the baby’s parents demonstrated, it is still somewhere that many people, who don’t describe themselves as religious, go when they want to mark an event: birth and death; sickness and health, thanksgiving, marriage, and coming of age – to name but a few. People often go when they want some comfort.

But, it is not just the big events which we need to mark and manage. The uneventful days when we are alone can often be just as challenging and in need of a ‘how’. In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety.

Last winter, I was dreading the end of the summer and the drawing in of the dark nights. Each time I thought about it, I felt something close to despair. I soon learnt that by thinking about the upcoming rituals and religious festivals, I could make myself feel happier and more accepting of the dark days. Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas and New Year helped me through the many long nights until spring arrived and I felt better.

There are many rituals we engage in, whether we know it or not. As a child picking brambles up the hills and moors near to where I grew up, we were told to leave the last couple of brambles on each branch, for the fairies to ensure that they would allow the brambles to grow again the following year. I did not know that this is a Celtic tradition, until I read Shiva Rea’s Tending the heart fire. Leaving out some brambles is like an offering to nature, and/or our ancestors. Similarly, the Halloween tradition of ‘Trick or Treat’, when people dress up and exchange candy, is an echo of the same ritual.

Superstition or pagan offerings? Who cares?  Ritual gives us reassurance and hope that although the world is ever-changing, the sun will rise tomorrow, and there will be more brambles to eat next season.

All is well.

This same reassurance can be found in smaller daily rituals, like baking bread or making a pot of tea.  It is no surprise that the Japanese have turned tea making into an elaborate ceremony.  But less elaborate rituals work just as well. They are a moment of pause, a comforting sequence of familiar sounds and smells which can be offered up as meditation and a moment of mindfulness.  And when done with meaning, they can, as the Zen proverb above says, lead or instill a sense of purpose and enlightenment in all aspects of our lives. Other simpler actions can help too. During the winter, I found that the seemingly easy rituals of lighting a fire and some candles, or putting on a pair of fluffy socks and drinking hot milk, helped me feel better when facing a long winter’s night, just as much as looking forward to Christmas did. I felt soothed and comforted.

When I was younger, I used to always be in a hurry, needing to be somewhere else, and now I see it was because I was looking for reassurance and comfort. I believed that I could only find that elsewhere and from someone else. I didn’t know tea-making, fire-lighting, or fluffy socks could help me create a space in which to be, to look within and at my life, and feel better without any external validation.

The poet Derek Walcott puts it beautifully in Love after Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door

Life gives us many experiences good and bad which enrich us all the same. And sometimes there is no one there to comfort us. Nowhere has this been made more clear to me than when I was contemplating the gap on my CV and the well meaning people telling me not mention it for fear that I would never get another job. I didn’t want their advice or fear. I just wanted some sort of support and recognition.

I am finally learning that those experiences happened and are part of me. I don’t have to pretend otherwise. I don’t need to know why. I don’t need well-meaning people giving me advice or anxiety or even recognition. I only need a ‘how’.  How do I mark those events which changed me, if I so choose?  How do I let them go and move on with the rest of my life?  Only I have the answers .

This is a wonderful surprise, and so I am finally beginning to understand the last line of Walcott’s wonderful Love after love.

‘Sit. Feast on your life.’

The time has come, indeed.

Storytelling: The power of fiction

Storytelling clipart

A book is one-to one experience. A secret you share. And when you close the book it leaves an opening in you – Jeanette Winterson

When I was a teenager in English Class at school, I remember hearing a short story about a family at night: The kids have gone to bed, the mum is tidying round, the dad is drying the dishes. Mum then goes to check on the children. When she comes back, she says:

‘Are you sure they don’t know anything?’

Dad hangs up his tea towel, puts his arms around her and says:

‘Yes. I am sure.’

They turn off the lights and go to bed, knowing that the world will end that night.

At the end of the reading, the teacher said, ‘Now, it’s your turn, what would you do if the world was going to end tonight?’

A classroom full of teenagers’ responses, strangely enough, I don’t remember, but the story I do. So much so that 20 or so years on, often when I am in kitchen loading the dishwasher or putting dishes away, I think about that story. And I also remember that era, when the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world seemed to be a real possibility.

Recently, in a review in the TLS, Martha Naussbaum says the English novel was a social protest movement from its inception, written specifically to creating feeling amongst the wealthier classes. She cites Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis – the work of social psychologist C. Daniel Batson – which demonstrates that specific ways of storytelling can motivate people to help those in need in a way that facts and figures cannot.

There are so many examples of powerful storytelling. Sitting here, I think of Toni Morrison’s description of the tree-shaped scars on the back of Sethe, the runaway slave who murders her children rather than have them be enslaved and whipped (Beloved). I think of concentration camp inmate Victor Frankl’s non-fiction account of how he was told to rub his cheeks each morning so that he would look healthy enough to work and avoid being sent to the gas chambers that day (Man’s Search for Meaning). I read both books just once, yet the stories they contain will remain with me forever. They changed my perception of the world and my historical understanding of the times and places in which these stories were set.

Fictional journalism or creative non-fiction, is a field of writing which has developed from factual reporting to a more subjective slant precisely because it recognises the power of storytelling and the power to influence readers’ opinion. So much so, that according to Wikipedia, Joan Didion, the famous new fiction writer believes, that the media tells us how to live and that journalists must be closely observed because of the power they wield. In the same way, storytelling is often used in advertising to create an emotional reaction in potential customers, and we believe these stories: We will be sexier, happier, healthier if we buy that new car, or that big chocolate ice-cream. Stories can be incredibly influential and not always in a good way.

Fictional fact-presentation such as case studies or descriptions of individuals in medical journals can be powerful in a good way. Ones I have read about chronic renal failure, were presented alongside facts and figures, and in a sidebar described how someone born without working kidneys could grow through dialysis onto transplant and into ‘normal’ life.

The same goes for the breast cancer literature I have read. Individual stories of women and men from diagnosis through treatment were highlighted throughout the pamphlets and presented a pattern of how to manage and what to expect. They were like signposts indicating the way through a journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said in life, often we are not searching for the meaning of life necessarily, but for the experience of being alive and how to understand it. As in the medical literature, stories can be our guide. They can explain things to us, things that we might know subconsciously, but which we only really appreciate once we have read them in stories or myths. Stories highlight patterns which we can follow like landmarks on the horizon and enable us to make our way to a more satisfactory life.

Other times, stories can inspire us to be truly great. Campbell encapsulates this theory in his best known quotation Follow your bliss. He says that we are capable of knowing and experiencing rapture and bliss but sometimes we just don’t know how. Stories, again can be our guiding star and they enable us to realise our potential, gain wisdom, or live fuller and better lives.

Sometimes stories tap deep into our psyche and give us the answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking.

The key though, is to find the right story, the stories which resonate with us, the ones which change us, and the ones which make us want to change the world. Otherwise, as Campbell once joked, we might end up just following our blisters.