I spent a lot of time alone as a child. There are various reasons why I don’t retain many memories from childhood, but the ones that I do occasionally become interesting for one reason or another. The one I’m thinking of at this moment is interesting because it has some relevance to the topic I want to discuss – ritual.
My grandmother’s house had a side yard, joined to the front with an archway between a rose garden and a massive pine tree. You could not get to the side yard without passing through that archway unless you really wanted to wrestle with the bristling pine. The side yard had a few trees, a bird bath, and the bird feeders that my grandma put up so that she could watch the birds through her living room window. There seemed to be something special about passing under the archway. The idea of this “something special” captured my imagination and so I invented a ritual (albeit a child’s ritual) for crossing into the side yard. The thought was that if I said the right thing, and I crossed back and forth under the archway three times, I’d be in “another world”. The first time I performed this was amazing to me, though I can’t tell you exactly what happened. I know I spent the day in that side yard, and that I constructed a handful of little houses out of leaves and sticks. When I tried to recreate this experience with a friend, I just couldn’t do it.
Partially, because I felt silly. I remember being a little embarrassed as I told her what we had to say and showed her how you had to go through the archway three times. I was embarrassed, too, because she asked questions. Why can’t you say it like this? Why do we have to do it three times? Why can’t we just go into the yard? She wasn’t terribly impressed by my little houses, either, save for the one that had a ladybug inside.
As I got older, it became harder to create moments like what I experienced as a child. The self-consciousness I experienced trying to explain what I was doing and why to my friend seemed to stick, to the point that I found myself feeling embarrassed even when no one else was around to watch me. This sense of embarrassment has knocked me out of moments that could have been very important to me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. There is a certain level of self-consciousness we experience when we’re engaging in something that we’re uncertain about. And it is very, very easy to be uncertain about things within religion, and magical practices. After all, we’re working with things that aren’t precisely concrete and cannot be measured in a specific way. We’re working in the realm of belief, faith, poetry, and metaphor.
Sometimes, you just have to buckle down and let go of that feeling of self-consciousness. If possible, and you’re inclined, embrace the silliness. Laughter can help relieve stress and reduce tension. Learning to laugh at myself has absolutely helped me to get back in the moment, and get back to what I was attempting to accomplish. Being able to have a sense of humor about myself and what I’m doing has also helped me work with others more effectively so that I don’t have a repeat of the side yard incident I mentioned above. The reason the self-consciousness is an issue is the fact that it disrupts our ability to engage in magical thinking or to see a correlation between our symbolic acts or thoughts and the world around us. If we get too caught up in the rational, logical side of things, it is easy to dismiss everything as being too silly and never quite stepping over into the area of belief and correlation.
The concept of magical thinking is easy to balk at, especially when it is attributed solely to the experiences of children or certain heavily stigmatized mental illnesses. The truth is that magical thinking is everywhere around us, and we all hold “irrational” beliefs to some extent. Magical thinking extends beyond religious experience to the secular world, with a vast majority of people not even realizing that they’re engaging in it much less that they hold beliefs that could be seen as irrational if we attempted to explain them. Investing personal meaning in occurrences, objects, and places is natural to our humanity and just another aspect of how our minds work. Magical thinking is part and parcel of our everyday lived experience and plays a part in our secular rituals (wearing a particular pair of underwear for luck, anyone?), our perceptions of others and our relationships with them, and the belief that things happen for a reason (Psychology Today, Matthew Hudson, ‘Magical Thinking’).
Magical thinking is a cornerstone of our performance of rituals, be they secular, religious or (as a given) magical in nature. It is what allows us to shift from one phase of a ritual to the next, and to come out on the other side with a feeling of accomplishment – that our symbolic act within the moment of ritual has, in fact, affected a change in ourselves or the world around us. Like magical thinking, nearly everyone engages in the performance of rituals. Because they’re so ingrained, rituals can have a measurable impact on individuals. They can increase our confidence, enhance our abilities, ease the sense of loss or facilitate grieving (Why Rituals Work, Scientific America). One study even showed that the performance of completely arbitrary rituals within a group can foster trust and a sense of community, causing individuals to automatically trust people they performed a ritual with more than those they hadn’t (Social Science Research Explores Psychological Effects of Rituals, NPR). You can imagine the importance, then, that religious rituals could have for a community. It isn’t a stretch to see that the performance of blót or sumbel within a kindred or another community group only serves to strengthen bonds and increase trust between fellows.
Some examples of magical thinking within a historical context were laid out well in Xander’s recent article, “Real Rune Magic: What it is and how to do it”. I say these are good examples because they demonstrate a desire and initiative to affect the world through symbolic action and ritual. There can be no doubt that the creation of charms and amulets was intended to have a magical impact on the world around the creator. Modern Heathens have the same desire when they attempt to recreate the workings of the past or to event their own methods of practice.
It is an important foundation of my personal religious and magical practices to have an understanding of how and why things work beyond “it’s magic!” Looking at ritual and magic through the lens of psychology and anthropology actually work in my favor to get me past the self-conscious giggles. It provides an assurance that I am not the only one doing such things, and that my experiences are valid in that they are impactful for me. And there is the purpose behind much of my work – to have an impact on myself, or others participating.
Impact is so important. Impact provides the personal connection with an experience. If something has no impact on us, then it is impossible for it to affect any change. If we are unable to immerse ourselves in a ritual or unable to engage in magical thinking for whatever reason, then it is impossible for us to affect change in the world around us. And that change is affected because rituals have a real-world impact on how we think and behave – otherwise, carrying that lucky coin in your pocket wouldn’t help you feel more confident walking into a job interview. Praying for the protection of Thor wouldn’t help you feel safer and ease the anxiety of walking alone in the dark. Without personal impact, we would be far less likely to engage in any kind of ritual or magical practice because we wouldn’t see the results we believe exist.
In part 2, I will be discussing the role of religious ritual specifically as well as the creation of sacred space.