I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog talking about rituals–those humble, self-created ceremonies I intentionally build into my daily routine for the purpose of enhancing my life. For making me feel more alive, more deeply connected to the world around me, and more firmly rooted in myself. These rituals, which are little more than everyday activities done creatively and with an attitude of reverence, have taken years–nay, well over a decade–to cultivate, to suit my innermost needs, to celebrate that which I value most, and to honor, quite simply, life. I have described the attributes of these little ceremonies here before: they are, by nature, almost always sensual; they are creative; they are a tremendous source of vitality; and, they represent, for me, the profoundest expressions of gratitude, of love, and of authenticity of which I am capable. Indeed, if I like you, I’ll buy you a gift for your birthday. If I love you, I will make you something. More than that, I will craft you an experience. An afternoon. An evening. A special, commemorative ceremony–usually one that centers on an elaborate meal, complete with ambient music, just the right lighting, and a carefully-crafted tablescape. But that’s just me. It’s what I do.
In all these years, it never occurred to me–not once, not for a second–to think of these rituals, these life-giving ceremonies and tiny displays of gratitude–as religious. In any way. That’s probably because my relationship to formal religion, which was tumultuous when I was younger (I rebelled against what I saw as an excess of Catholic schooling.), is now nonexistent. It took me a long time to stop having “beef” with conventional religion. To get the proverbial chip off my shoulder. But, I did. A few years back, I even tested the waters again and went to confession for the first time in over twenty years (In retrospect, I probably should’ve bought the priest a stiff drink.) and subsequently attended mass. To find–though, not to my surprise–that it didn’t particularly do anything for me. I tried again a few more times before calling it quits. I’m good, I thought. I already feel full. What’s more, although I am currently on a quest for a meaningful career–to use my skills and abilities to do work that helps other people, perhaps in a nontraditional sort of way–I don’t believe for a moment that my entire life is without meaning. My life is not an unhappy place to be. And, one of the reasons it’s not, even when I’m suffering, when I’m anxious or in pain, or facing obstacles that are, by all appearances, insurmountable, is the presence of ritual. It is ritual that allows me to see the miraculous within and around me.
It wasn’t until reading Abraham Maslow’s discussion of this phenomenon in Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences that I gained some radical insight. Insight into the reasons these intimate, individual ceremonies of daily living take the place of formal religion for some people. (Our rituals, by his definition, actually constitute a kind of religion.) And why, for others, the two may coexist, to a degree. That is, formal religion and informal ritual need not be mutually exclusive. For Maslow, those who have frequent peak experiences are apt to be the former. That’s the difference. He says (pardon the somewhat lengthy quotation):
All the paraphernalia of organized religion–buildings and specialized personnel, rituals, dogmas, ceremonials, and the like are to the ‘peaker’ secondary, peripheral, and of doubtful value in relation to the intrinsic and essential transcendent experience. Perhaps they may even be very harmful in various ways. From the point of view of the peak-experiencer, each person has his own private religion, which he develops out of his own private revelations in which are revealed to him his own private myths and symbols, rituals and ceremonials, which may be of the profoundest meaning to him personally and yet completely idiosyncratic, i.e., of no meaning to anyone else. But to say it more simply, each ‘peaker’ discovers, develops, and retains his own religion. – A.H. Maslow
Yes. He understood. Maslow understood. With that paragraph, he captured my heart. And he made my eyes well up with tears. He got it. There are only two other people who I know, and who I’ve been fortunate to form deep, lasting friendships with, who get it. Because they live a ritualized existence, too. One of them I fully expect to comment below. For us “peakers,” personal ceremonies hinge on creativity. All creative activity is an homage to life. The “rituals” of which I speak are those that infuse imagination into our daily lives. For me, they’re the little things: the way I move my body, the way I eat and drink, the way I speak and write, the way I indulge softer, more decidedly feminine urges, like the occasional need to pamper myself. These are all experiences I am thankful for. Impulses I honor through ritual. Because they remind me that I am alive.
My intuition tells me, especially after reading Maslow in conjunction with Paul Tillich’s essay, “The Lost Dimension in Religion,” that the ability to derive a sense of wonder from one’s own ritual is, foremost, a matter of vision. It’s how we see. (Didn’t I say the same thing about openness?) The kind of “vision” poet, Octavio Paz, describes as a totalizing and often intensely erotic encounter with reality. What Anaïs Nin knew as the ability to see a person or an object from the inside out, which for her, also meant to see lovingly, to see the good first. This kind of penetrative vision, to my mind, gives us access to the sacred in the lowliest places. And, it is intensely creative. Creative vision is a soulful kind of vision. It is from what we see–both within and without–that we design rituals in order to celebrate the miraculous in our daily lives. There is, in fact, no doubt in my mind that creativity gives us–all of us (“peakers” and “non-peakers” alike)–access to some dimensions of the sacred. That’s the encounter. The great ecstasy. The creative vision. For some of us, core values spring from that vision. The feeling that, in the act of writing, in the act of painting, in the act of composing, you are channeling something greater than yourself. Creativity is the channel. Or, perhaps vision is. Or, perhaps, these two are tied together in ways that I do not understand (the likeliest answer, to be sure). I rather enjoy the speculation. Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be is next on my reading list.
In closing, I’d be remiss not to mention that it is on this particular subject–and a deeply personal one for me–that I was left with a lingering question after reading Jordan Peterson’s book (highly recommended, by the way. I’m not sure I’ve said that previously. Witty, wise, and an excellent resource for general life advice.). What about the “peakers?” What about those of us who have an innate preference for making our own stories, who use ritual in our own, deeply personal way to encounter what Tillich refers to as the “depth dimension,” the thing and its essence, the symbol and its meaning, the miraculous embedded in the everyday? The lowliest and the most creaturely aspects of our existence can also be the most awe-inspiring and the most magical. What about those of use who have the eyes to see it–the eyes to see their depth? Those of us who, in the act creating, also encounter the sacred?