Tesshin returned this week after traveling to his home town to deal with a death in his family. He used this week’s talk to discuss the power which rituals have in our day to day life. What is a ritual and what is its purpose? A ritual is defined in the dictionary as “A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” However, as Tesshin explained, this definition just scratches the surface and he then proceeded to break down what a ritual is and why it is so precious.
First, a ritual is different than normal activity. It is held separate from our day to day activities. The message is clear – be awake – something important is happening here. Next, there is a well-known series of steps. Generally, each step in a ritual is loaded with messages and symbolism. The ritual is telling us a story which connects us to a tradition and to a group of people. It binds us and reminds us that we are not alone, but part of something much larger than we are. Also, the order and execution of the steps are important. Lastly, the ritual must be done right and not done while thinking of other things! Tesshin remarked that ritual is so effective that every civilization throughout history has used them to teach, explain, and to guide people through all the stages of life.
Tesshin next compared his own experience this past week grieving according to Jewish tradition to a close friend who considered themselves too “modern” to do any ceremony to mark a death in the family. The observant Jewish rituals for grieving are quite elaborate and last for over a week. First, the grieving family rips their garments. This is done to signify loss and to “make it real” for the mourners. It also reminds everyone that the body is nothing more than a garment which the soul wears – the garments may be ripped and ruined but the essential soul never dies. (Sound familiar? Relative vs absolute? Who are you? What are you?)
The ritual does not stop there. For the next seven days the family sits “Shiva.” Tesshin remarked that during this time people take care of the grievers by feeding them and taking care of their needs. This community ritual is critical. The community is present for the family and reminds them that although they have lost, they are not alone. During this seven day period, the griever’s only “job” is to grieve! This ritual acts as the beginning of the process of healing – for the family and for the community. This may involve telling stories about the deceased such as recounting funny or touching events in their life. It could also be nothing more than a kind act given to a family member who is from out of town and is alone.
Even when the body is buried, ritual guides the practice and serves as a teachable moment. Instead of “outsourcing” the burial to cemetery workers, the family literally buries the body. Yes, that means shoveling lots of dirt into a deep hole. However, it is critical to pay attention while doing this solemn work. (sound familiar??) The family will commonly shovel the dirt with the shovel turned face down. This makes the work even harder – which focuses the mind on the task. No daydreaming or multitasking here!
Now, let’s compare this community ritual to the experience of a “modern” who eschews all rituals when a close family member dies. Tesshin was clear here – after a year his friend has never really recovered. What he has really done is suppress his feelings. There is no closure and thus no real healing. Tesshin next mused that much of our modern life is like his friend. In our attempt to be rational and modern we have turned our backs on the wisdom bequeathed over thousands of years of experience. These rituals – whichever tradition they originate from – are gifts. They allow us to mark the main stages of life, deal with trauma, and reconnect with others. It is not surprising that alienation is such a big problem in today’s society. We have disconnected ourselves from the wisdom of our past.
Tesshin wrapped up by reiterating the power of ritual in our lives. He then reminded us that the rituals of death remind us that life is finite and that one should not waste our time. This is the core of a spiritual practice. Time is short, be awake!!