Life as Ritual, Ritual as Life

Photo by Robert Moses

As Thanksgiving and the holiday season roll around, our minds naturally get ready for the ritual of festivals, and the joys and stresses that come along with them. The holidays make us stop for a moment, so that we can spend time with family and friends, and they also quite often demand a lot of preparation. We decorate our homes, we prepare special foods, and we do a lot of shopping. Though sadly a lot of the seasonal rituals have been turned into commercial opportunities, the root idea behind ritual is to bring organization into our lives. We mark our lives by the passage of time, by the change of hours, weeks, months, seasons, and years, and the different celebrations mark those periods. Our lives are filled with ritual, from social customs to the way we get out of bed in the morning and prepare ourselves for work. But often the routines we follow become rote, they become habitual, and we question the meaning of our daily routines and of our lives. A habit, however done with awareness and presence of mind, can turn into a ritual and can be used to organize our time, our day, and direct our inner sense of purpose towards fulfillment and completion.

The Hindu tradition has hundreds of celebrations during the year. When Jocelyne and I were spending long periods of time in Mysore, it was a running joke about how many days were actually practice days, because every month the yoga shala would be closed for this puja or that puja, this bank holiday or that one. The markets would be filled with special flowers, or different fruits, and the streets would be decorated to celebrate Ganesh or the Goddess, or to celebrate the destruction of Ravana or some other demon. It was easy, in that environment, to feel that ritual was not separate from daily life, but a very important part of it. A basic meaning behind ritual is that it is any action or activity that brings us into closer communion with a sense of the Divine, the Sacred, or God. My favorite description of ritual was given by an orthodox Rabbi during Sukkot, a Jewish festival where you spend the whole night outside. It was late into the freezing November night when all of the Rabbis were nicely warmed by vodka, saying that they practice ritual to enter into the presence of God, or of the Sacred, and also to feel this presence in us, as the essence of our being, as close to us as our very breath.

In the book of Genesis, it says:

“God created man from dust, and blew into his nostrils, and man became a soul.”

This very act of connectivity between God and man was the first, intimate ritual that occurred in a human construct, as the presence of God entered into us through the act of God’s breath. There is almost no other act that is as intimate as breathing; when we align our awareness with our breath, or our breath aligns with another’s, we feel a profound connection of being. This first breath was, in essence, the breath of being, the breath of perfect alignment with all that is.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait said that there are, “…two purposes of ritual: to attain and expand one’s own inner potential and unite it with the cosmic force; and to pay respect and show gratitude to the cosmic forces that are constantly supplying light and life to all beings.”

These purposes can be broken up into two categories of intention that we see in yoga:

  • Effort
  • Surrender

The effort that we make is called karma, which means action. It is an expression of our own will, but a will that is infused with an intention of growth, expansion, and connectivity. It is not an effort to gain, conquer, or master, but the effort to reach, seek, and contemplate.

Surrender, which is also called bhakti, is where we understand that the effort we are making is not actually from our own, individual existence, but that we owe our existence to something greater than ourselves. If you believe in God, then you can feel that every action you perform is because God has infused you with His very own breath. It is not only with that first breath that God blew into our nostrils, but with every breath we take, God is blowing His breath into ours. Every time we sit to be mindful of our breath, if we can feel or imagine that it is God breathing us, then our minds and hearts will most certainly be infused with devotion and gratitude. Not only does it take the effort out of breathing, it takes the effort out of existing, because knowing and feeling that we are being breathed can be immensely comforting, safe, and give us a sense of being held by the Divine.

In it’s most simplistic and pared down way, performing an action with the idea that, “this action is not being done by my own volition, but everything that I do is because of the grace of the Divine, and therefore I offer this effort in gratitude to the Divine”, is called surrender, or bhakti.

If you do not believe in God, then the same ideas can be held towards nature. We do not exist independent of nature, which though exceedingly obvious, is something that we forget since many of us are so divorced from nature’s daily, monthly, and yearly cycles. Our awareness of the natural cycles of night and day, of seasonal shifts, our adherence to the arbitrary construct of the Gregorian calendar, and especially to the cycles of our own breath, have become alien to us. For those who believe in nature, or energy, but not in God, ritual is bringing oneself back in tune with the cosmic forces of nature, to feel oneness and connectivity with the earth, rain, sun, air, and the atmosphere that support, sustain, and nourish us.

These five elements of nature make up the biosphere that we live in, that we are an integral part of, and which we are an expression of. Everything in the biosphere is an expression of nature, nothing “got” here on it’s own. We came from this, and are made from it. We have at our elemental core the dust left over from the creation of stars, and have billions of years of creation pulsating through us. Ritual is meant to connect us to this aspect of the reality because there are many aspects of reality, and the human universe is just one of them.

The Hindu system of philosophy called Mimamsa says that the entire universe is an altar, and that all in life is a grand ritual being played out on the altar of the Divine. Each individual is a micro-representation of the macrocosmic altar, and all of the activities in our lives, therefore, are mini-rituals. All of our daily activities, from brushing our teeth to social constructs of how we greet each other (differently in different cultures), are actually mini-rituals.

And where is this altar? Who is the worshipper? Both are the un-seeable, unknowable Consciousness, called Brahman. Consciousness is both the ritual, the offering, and the one performing the ritual. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says:

Brahmarpanam Brahma havir Brahmagnau Brahmana hutam I
Brahmaiva tena gantavyam Brahmakarma samdhinah II

“The absolute consciousness is the process of offering and the oblation, offered into the fire of consciousness. Whoever knows the absolute as the action and doer of all action, indeed reaches pure consciousness alone.”

We don’t see the One who is carrying out the ritual, but we can see some of the players who are taking part in the ritual: people, animals, plants, mountains, all things on this planet, and the billions of galaxies and trillions of stars. By fully taking part in the ritual – immersing our minds and actions into it with effort infused with intention, and surrender based on knowledge that we are not the maker of the ritual – we come into communion with the unknowable consciousness, and feel peace, whole, and connected.

Pandit Tigunait beautifully says, “One who wants to breathe and live properly is not supposed to disturb the breath of cosmic life. Disturbing others air disturbs the rhythm of the cosmic breath”, and that by not disturbing the breath of others, by staying true to one’s inner purpose, “establishes peace and harmony in the breath of cosmic life.” So, in a practical manner, how can we perform ritual in order to bring ourselves in harmony with the cosmic rhythms?

  • We can observe our breath and either feel that we are being breathed by God, or breathed by the universe, and feel the surrender and safety that comes through our breathing.
  • We can participate in the daily rituals of life (like eating, communicating, working, sleeping, and bathing) while keeping the idea in our minds and hearts that all of our activities are part of the Cosmic ritual.
  • We can remember that ritual leads to an inward movement of awareness and attention, and use any activity that we perform during the day to have micro-moments of attention and appreciation.
  • We can remind ourselves, whenever we can remember, that we can perform any interaction we have, whether with a person, animal, nature, technology, or our own minds, with a feeling of positivity, love, compassion, and care.

Any of these, or all of these, can serve as mini-rituals that can be done throughout the day to remind us that life is sacred, and that our interactions with the people and things of this world are sacred, as well. It’s a reminder to be gentle, be kind, be true, and treat all beings and nature with respect and care. And as we move into the festival season that can more often than not be chaotic and stressful, establishing small, daily rituals for yourself can help to manage the bigger ones when they come around.