Sense Rituals: Neuroscience & the Imagination in the Mess of Love & Loss
What does the word ritual mean to you? Do you imagine incense lighting and bell ringing? The scent of espresso and the sound of milk steaming? Rush hour traffic when listening to Bach? Counting cards or counting blessings?
Are rituals gateways to connection, transformation and insight or routes to automatism?
Whether followed by skeptics or seekers, whether pointing to the sacred or the profane, it's good to remember that rituals arise from the imagination. From breaking bread to Breaking Bad, all of us have used rituals bring us back to our senses or to make sense of a messed up world. Even nature has its rituals: the equinoxes and the solstices, for example.
What separates religious rites from the secular ones? Maybe it's the simple quality of the attention we give to them, or the purpose we place in participating in them.
As I write this, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” plays in the café I'm sitting in. But Michael Stipe doesn't sing about letting go of the teachings of a religious lineage. He's not losing faith in the church, the mosque or the synagogue. He is losing faith in communication. "Consider this," he sings, "A certain slip / that brought me / to my knees failed." If he shares his fantasies with his crush, he fears they'll "come flailing around." He loses faith that there are any rules he can follow. "A hurt lost and blinded fool," he's lost in not knowing, half-way between confessions and withdrawals. He sings: "I don't know if I can do it. / I've said too much / I haven't said enough." He's clearly in love.
Haven’t we all been there?
Similar confusing and conflicted feelings arises in grief. What's worse, when someone dies, there's no hope the person can answer us. All the gods seem crazy. Nothing feels ordered—neither the cosmos nor the mind.
Maybe that's the reason we invented rituals--to make us feel less crazy. Sharon Olds writes in her poem “Easter 1960,” that when the speaker's young love dies, she does “not know how to get / out of the world, or how to stay—." Whether we feel crazy in mourning or crazy in love, how do we know how to regain control and stay in the world?
We might be pious practitioners, devout agnostics or fervent atheists, but we are all human. When a lover enters or leaves our lives, when a friend takes his own life, or when a father’s life ends out of the blue, we risk losing ourselves, our faith in any rules given to us or we've invented. But somehow, we learn to return to basic things of life: the routines, the patterns, the ordering and sequencing of actions and words. Rituals. We use them to find peace amidst the chaos. We might walk mindfully every evening, or run passionately at dusk, or visit the same tree to observe its changes. Each culture treats the specific rituals around love and death differently. Words often accompany wakes. Ancient texts uphold ancient structures whether in unions or upheavals.
An ancient structure, the flower. Photo by the artist.
In his 2017 release with Wave Books While Standing in Lind for Death, CAConrad performs what he calls “(soma)tic rituals” to regain a sense of control. Twenty years after his lover, tortured and murdered, left his body, the poet begins ritualistically swallowing crystals and writing poems about the process.
Lucky enough to hear CAConrad read at Perdu in Amsterdam last October, I resonated with his approach to writing and grieving. At the time, I was responding ritualistically in dance and poetry to Robert Smithson’s Broken Circle, constructed in 1971. It was dénoument to a three-year project where I engaged in similar similar somatic rituals to process a significant loss.
Page 11 from CAConrad's When Waiting in Line for Death (2017)
Smithson’s Broken Circle has always reminded me of the Japanese enso. With a single breath and a single brush stroke, the calligrapher shapes a circle in ink. The form expresses the spirit of whomever takes up the brush. Like so many circles, ensos, always imperfect, often appear broken. Did Smithson somehow know that his life would be interrupted by death? Two years later after erecting Broken Circle, the artist, at the tender age of 35, went down in a plane crash. His twin pieces--Spiral Hill and Broken Circle--act as totems of two concepts close to death and dying: ascension and completion.
Broken Circle (1971) by Robert Smithson, taken October 18th, 2017
After getting lost half-the-day in Emmen on October 18th, I finally arrived at Broken Circle. Like CAConrad, I was feeling low-down. All those endings—the closing of a chapter in my work, the moving away from a country, the unexpected death of a teacher—led me there to a broken circle, in ruptured uncertainty. What came next? Dancing at Broken Circle gave me a chance to feel connected, somatically, with the earth. In that, the broken circle intimated a new start. I took off my shoes, felt the sand, and pedalled my hands through the crystals of it. The sunlight, the birds and the sweat from the sun and my movement allowed me sense how the earth had been there all along, supporting me. My body--a strong, constant companion. My thighs felt their inner strength. The endings of one set of movements initiated the initiation of new ones. For a few brief moments, I felt content, alive, and optimistic.
A brief video on crafting an altar using your senses and your imagination.
The latest research in neuroscience suggests an innovative spirit gives us enlivened senses of meaning in our rituals. Rather than subscribe to the death and mating rituals of others, it might serve us to invent our own. In “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers and Lotteries” published in the 2013 American Psychological Association, Michael I. Norton and Franceso Gino suggest the power of ritual lies not in the belief systems behind them, but in the sense of control they offer mourners over their chaotic inner worlds. Each culture has its own set of rules: Jews grow their beards; Buddhists shave their heads. Catholic Latinos encourage wailing; Tibetan Buddhist say no tears. Norton and Gino argue that if we feel self-agency in making our own rituals, rather than submit only to those of others, we not only become artists, we self-nurture.
In their 2016 How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation, Andy Newburg and Mark Waldman assert that when performing a ritual, maintaining mindfulness enhances the possibility of surrender. That assists in neurological possibility of transformation. The word "mindfulness" itself may have originated from the Sanskrit word smrti, which means to remember, to recollect, to return. “Develop a program,” Waldman and Newburg advise, one that allows you “to enter a deeply calm and restful state.” Return to it. Remember it. Recollect the broken body of love in it.
Immerse in rituals. “Let yourself go,” they write, “consciously interrupt the mind’s propensity to analyze and interpret.” Allow the experience to unfold, and move away from everyday consciousness that preoccupies our brains most of the time. That is where transformation happens.
A statue of the Catholic mother of God, Mary, and my mother, Jean Marie, sailing
When my mother died in 1988, a Catholic church conducted her wake. In the ritual offered to me at the age of 12 digest the profound loss, the priest put the bread of the eucharist onto my overlapped my palms. He whispered to me to switch my hands, ordered in the wrong way. Heat rose to my face. I felt ashamed about not knowing the right gesture. I wanted the whole thing to end. The bread tasted like soap. An outsider to the church, how could I feel the bread representing the body of love? Was my imagination allowed to play a part in the transubstantiation? No one had introduced it to me that way. I chewed, swallowed and waited for something to happen. Nothing. Maybe my ability to see the transmigration of love unfolded over time, as my imagination set itself free. I found myself dancing in our basement with girlfriends, eating devilled eggs between Madonna songs.
As I write this, I mark the one-year anniversary of my yoga teacher Michael Stone's death. The Earth has completed one cycle around the Sun. On the same day, I mark what would have been the 77th birthday of Jean Marie, my mother. The Earth has orbited 30 times around our star since I last saw her. Those twin anniversaries—one a beginning of a body, the other an ending—are represented in symbolic objects that stand on an altar, designed for my own rituals of celebration and mourning.
Two towers of coins from around the world, arranged as totems by my niece Mary Jean, age 5; a Toronto Transit Commission transfer ticket, folded into a sailboat, artist unknown.
What needs transubstantiating in your life? The love of a great aunt taken by a stroke? The lost affection of a cat? The body of girl who left you? If you think in circles and not in lines, endings mark beginnings. Like Smithson’s Broken Circle, or like the Japanese enso, a rupture occurs where the end and the new beginning meet imperfectly. Like Michael Stipe sings, you might be losing your religion. Make something of that rupture—your confusion, your losing. See the horizon against your cracked windshield. Invent a way to bring that rupture into your heart. Feel the feels to a song by Madonna. If something bores you in the rituals dicated for you by others—change them. No one is asking you to reinvent the wheel. Use ancient texts if you like. Do cartwheels in the park. See your limbs as spokes. They radiate from your always present centre. Sense the ground beneath you. Lace the many circles that make up life—always broken and always whole—around each other, like a flower of life. Make a crown out of the mess of nature.
And as my five-year old niece said the other night, perfecting her cartwheel: "It works if I put my spirit into it." Take her advice: Put your spirit into it. How else are you going to surrender to feel any control?