In some parts of the world, people rise before the sun to greet the day. They light a fire and burn special herbs, or play instruments to serenade the growing light, or sit in meaningful silence watching the symphony of the dawn. Some people pray as they are cooking, or reverently sweep their front porches every morning to welcome positive energy into their homes. While it can look different in each culture and with each person, meeting the cycles of life with ceremony is an essential aspect of being human.
In most indigenous cultures, ceremony is woven into the fabric of daily life. The ritual fire lit at dawn to greet the day is often also the fire that cooks breakfast. The field prayed over and sung to as a living reminder of humans’ interconnectedness with nature and celebration of fertility is also the field that grows the crops that will feed the tribe through winter. Cleansing oneself in the sacred river is also simply a bath. What makes a ceremony is not what we are doing, but the intention underneath what we do.
Historians would say that this intrinsic draw towards ritual was a product of the danger and uncertainty inherent in primitive life. They would claim that before modern science, people felt the need to pray for the spring to return when winter seemed interminable, for the rains to come when another dry month would mean famine, for the sun to rise when the night was dark and long.
When we are no longer constantly reminded of our place within the web of life,
we must constantly reweave ourselves into it.
While there may be some accuracy to the idea that indigenous people had ignorance of the inevitability of such cycles, I think the truth about ceremony is deeper than merely a response to uncertainty. Some people may have believed their prayers brought the sun up, but I think more often they were striving to rise to meet that Sun. Ceremony was not to make wild nature bend to our needs, but to remember that which is wild within us, to bring it alive and liberate it through actions that awaken the subconscious, alchemize the elements, invite embodied ecstasy through rhythm and trance, and help us remember our place within the family of life. It was also a way to appreciate the potentially monotonous work required to keep a community going, the food growing and clothing sewing and tool making and food preserving and child rearing and house repairing and every other endless task of being a human in pre-industrial societies. Honoring these tasks as ritual integrated them into the culture of the tribe in a way that brought more meaning to each simple act of creation, as they became a form of life-sustaining art and praise. And honoring the passages of the day, year, and lifetime with ritual invited the numinous into the ordinary, regularly reminding people of the sacred gift it is to live each day.
In our busy urban lives, it can be easy to get so caught in the web of production and consumption that we lose our curiosity about the suchness of the world around us. In some ways, this world is more dangerous than the one our ancestors faced. One season can blend into the next without us noticing in our climate-controlled bubbles, our food comes in packages, and most of our physical needs are met by machines or outsourced labor. But in such a world, where we do not have the morning sacred fire and there may be buildings obstructing our view of the sunrise, ritual is, I would argue, even more essential to our wild souls. When we are no longer constantly reminded of our place within the web of life, we must constantly reweave ourselves into it. Again, what matters is not what we do so much as how we do it. What intention can you bring to the simple acts of your life? Can your work become a form of praise? Can you notice and give thanks for another day lived when the sun sets, or another year lived when a solstice or birthday comes around?
Part of the magic of ceremony is repetition, speaking a phrase, singing a song, or making an action that is done in the same way each time you celebrate that particular passage. There is also a unique magic in coming together to pray and celebrate, a cohesion of energy that is only found in community. So amidst all the busyness and forgetting may we come together still, now as we did then, again and again, to remember and celebrate the simple yet profound experience of being human. Find the ways of ritual that are true to you, perhaps learned from another person but that reverberate with the spark of your own soul and encourage you to feel more alive when you practice them. Find the people who through their celebration and their living encourage you to feel the vitality of your being, and hold them close. Sing, or speak, or dance, or sweep, with clear intention and awe, and remember who you really are. And, in the words of Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”