Do we still have need of ritual? Or has that gone the way of superstition, folk medicine, and other traditional ways in most modern societies? Even more: does it have a potentially sinister aspect? Or does it belong within the religious context? And: what purpose does–or did–ritual serve?

In the course of my career I have worked a great deal with those who are afflicted by addictions. In a distorted and unhealthy way, our addictions can become highly ritualized and seem to fulfill a certain subconscious need. (They also temporarily ameliorate pain and bring some measure of peace and/or euphoria, and of course, after a point their primary function is to keep withdrawal symptoms–physical or psychological–from taking hold.) I have counseled people time and again, over the past 15 years, that they cannot merely remove the addiction itself and expect favorable results; they must also replace the aspect of ritual with a healthy one. We undertake a shared process of discovery in order to determine just such ritual of personal meaning.

Ritual, according to Malidoma Patrice Somé, fulfills a certain basic need in our lives to imbue acts or behaviors with significance. Akin to Jerome Bruner’s “meaning-making” of both the individual and the culture, ritual provides grounding for spiritual experiences. While ritualized behavior — repetitive and rigid, but without substance — can be a sign of pathology, rituals of personal and/or cultural significance connect to the archetypal imagery of the unconsciousness, according to Jungian psychology and explored in detail by Joseph Campbell.

We naturally have small rituals every day: ways in which we do things to give more meaning to the event. This is different from habit or routine in the significance attributed to it. For instance, while we may have a particular routine of personal hygiene, this is not ritual; however, the Hasidic Jews, for example, use ritual bathing for a number of religious purposes.

Many of the remaining traditions of each culture, as we rush to modernize by eliminating them, are still highly ritualized–that is, they are done in the same way every time for a meaningful purpose–but they have lost their original meaning and are now performed largely out of habit and to maintain cultural bonding. When asked about their significance, participants often shrug and say, “it’s just how we do things”–and much of the value of the ritual has disappeared.

Do we need ritual in this modern age? Is there any advantage to it for those who are not religious?

A common human condition is the need for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Religion gives this to many; for others, it is found in raising a family, working for social justice, contributing to a body of knowledge and educating the next generation, making a contribution to the business world or another aspect of society. One of the ways to acknowledge these sources of meaning can be found in ritual, whether that of a culture or religion, or of individual making with unique significance.

Here in largely Taoist Hong Kong, the personal shrine to one’s ancestors and to various deities is ubiquitous. In a majority of households and businesses, it provides a physical place where the simple lighting of incense, making offerings such as fruit, and saying prayers or honoring one’s ancestors can not only be a routine act but be fully integrated into daily life. Indeed, Hong Kong — Heung Gong — translates as “Fragrant Harbor”, and is attributed to the incense in the air. Whether to deity or to the acknowledgement of one’s ancestors and thus heritage–rootedness, a sense of continuity and place, and honoring of the wisdom that has gone before–it serves to deepen the experience of living.

Each morning I go to the beach at dawn for meditation. I allow the walk there to shift my consciousness, and once I arrive, I first face and greet each of the four cardinal directions, the rising sun and (when visible) setting moon that represent the yinyang of Taoism, the Eternal Blue Sky that is deity to Mongolians and Tibetans,  and the air, fire, water and earth of the cardinal elements. In so doing, my consciousness is further shifted into the light trance state conducive to meditation — and I have once again acknowledged and renewed my commitment to the natural world of which I am a part. This for me is personal ritual which enhances the meaning I ascribe to my life. And it enriches me.

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