Find yourself a 21st century ritual

Perhaps you have fond memories of the various rituals of childhood, for example, leaving your tooth under your pillow for the Tooth Fairy, or blowing out the candles on your birthday cake. Such rituals bring joy, magic and excitement into children’s lives. Sadly, the rituals that celebrate change and mark the passing of time begin to lose their meaning as we move into adolescence and adulthood. Its not that there aren’t any significant life events, its just that we don’t have many meaningful ways to mark their significance.

Many people today don’t have a wedding ceremony to mark the commitment of a relationship. As Robyn, a woman in her late 20s who had been in a stable relationship for some years, says: “I would love to have some sort of ritual to celebrate our relationship … but as for walking down the aisle in a white dress … well, the whole thing is pretty irrelevant. I’m not a fluffy white dress sort of girl. And as for being in a church and the whole religious side of it … why would I go to a church when I haven’t been inside one for 20 years? It’s a pity there doesn’t seem to be a meaningful alternative, because I would love to do something.”

Robyn’s sentiments echo an important theme in today’s culture: people need ritual. Ritual allows the opportunity to stop and appreciate the different passages of life. It creates an atmosphere where meaning can be generated and acknowledged. It creates a space where the rest of the community can join in the celebration and support the process taking place. Without such moments, important events, challenges and transitions in life go unnoticed or are trivialised. Our lives are impoverished because of this.

The difficulty is that many of the rituals of the past do not fit the sensibilities of people today. They seem irrelevant or inappropriate. We are experiencing an in-between time in our culture: the old rituals are dying and at present there are only whispers of new rituals to take their place. These whispers, however, give cause for hope. New ceremonies are gradually arising to fill the vacuum.

Birth: Welcoming A New Soul

Birth is actually one of the areas where our culture is already starting to develop new rituals. In the past there would be a baptism ceremony for a new baby, but since many people are no longer religious a different ritual has had to be created. While other stages in the life cycle are yet to be marked by new rituals, it’s as if the pure joy and awe of the birth of a child has pushed for the creation of more appropriate rituals to celebrate this moment. Parents now have welcoming rituals or naming ceremonies for the baby. They might plant a tree to commemorate the birth, or hold a gathering of close people to share the moment and request support for the new little person. Even people who haven’t come from cultures where godparents are chosen are now taking up this tradition.

Some people even begin a ritual before the child is born. It’s called singing in the soul and is derived from tribal culture whereby the mother-to-be would go off into the bush for a day and meditate on the birth of the new baby. She would then allow a melody or sound to come to her, which was taken to be the song of the new soul growing in her belly. The mother would memorise the tune and sing it frequently, both while the child was in the womb and after it had been born. This called the soul to earth and welcomed it to its new home as it heard its signature song.

Entry into the physical world is a huge transition, so hearing a familiar sound eases the unfamiliarity and trauma of coming into the world. Even if you don’t go out into the bush when pregnant to find your baby’s song, you can use your intuition to discover it. Take notice if you absent-mindedly find yourself humming a tune or if you keep repeating a melody to yourself. Keep singing the tune after the baby is born. It’s a sweet and gentle way to form a bond with your child.

Initiation: Coming of Age

Many tribal cultures understand the importance of honouring transitions in life. Some of the best known are the initiation rituals. During such events the significance of stepping from youth into adulthood is acknowledged. These cultures support young people during this transition. They might take the boy or girl off to share in secret womens or mens business, or they might provide a mentor from outside the family to guide the youth through the transition. The youth might leave the family home and go to live in a bachelor tribe to acknowledge that they are no longer children but adults in their own right. The rituals might involve having to endure hardships or challenges or take on new responsibilities. Markings might be made on the body to commemorate this significant time.

In contrast, we don’t formally acknowledge the shift from youth to adulthood in our culture. Young people take it upon themselves, in a way, via sex, alcohol, drugs and cars. Adults have access to all these things, so adolescents partake of them eagerly, believing they are therefore ushered into adulthood. It’s a trivialising of initiation. Often there are no elders available to pass on wisdom about the responsibilities of the youth’s new place in society. Without this support, children can lose their footing, with car accidents, addictions and even suicide as tragic side-effects.

Some creative parents do strive to find some way to usher in the new stage. They might take their son on a father-and-son weekend or camping trip, or their daughter to a womans group or on a special holiday. Some hold a special dinner commemorating the life of the youth so far and pass on some new privilege. Such parents are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of this transition time. Young people need to be blessed, honoured and welcomed across the threshold into the adult world. To do so signifies that their lives are significant and meaningful and their contribution to the adult world will be welcomed. Not doing so leaves an adolescent at risk of feeling adrift in life.

Initiation: Finding Your Calling

Some tribal cultures also take a young person on what is called a vision quest. During this quest the youth might be left alone in a cave or in the bush for some days. It might involve fasting or the use of hallucinogens. The idea is the youth calls to the cosmos for guidance, for a message or vision that will signify their purpose or role in the world. They might hear an inner voice, come across some outward sign or see a vision that informs them of their souls purpose. They can then return to the tribe with a new understanding and vision for their future life.

Such a quest acknowledges that each person has a unique soul and will therefore have their own unique purpose in life. Human beings naturally want to make a contribution to the world, and without a purpose, life can be meaningless and empty.

Many young people between the ages of 25 and 29 actually come to therapy as a way of being initiated into their true selves. At this age they have tasted some of the worlds delights and have found them lacking to some degree. The parties and friendships and new careers are fun but the desire for something deeper begins to arise. They realise they have a deeper identity, a soul identity, and want to begin to contact and express this soul self. This will involve questioning such things as meaning and purpose in life, uncovering wounds, facing up to inconsistencies in their character and developing the capacity for relationships. It’s often a journey of discovery and is akin to a vision quest.

The essence of the process is to ask, “Who am I and what am I here for?” Those going through such a process intuitively seem to develop some ritual to honour its significance. This might involve going alone into the bush for some time, travelling solo overseas, getting a tattoo, shifting house or taking on some new challenge. In this way they celebrate and honour the new depth of identity they have uncovered and the new foundation they have created for their lives.

Transition: Moving House

My grandfather lived in the same house all his life. For later generations this is rarely the case, since people shift houses as relationships, careers and life circumstances change. Shifting house is high on the scale of life stressors, in no small part because it signifies some change going on in your broader life. The transition can be eased if you take the time to appreciate what is going on.

Before leaving your old house its good to have a remember when ceremony: set aside an evening, cook a commemorative meal and then share your memories with your family or housemates. You can talk about what the house was like when you first moved in: “Remember how that roof leaked every time it rained heavily … remember how there was all that concrete out the back and not a plant in sight?” Then talk about the changes you made while you were there: “Remember how you found that lounge chair in an op shop and brought it home?” Talk about the things that went on between the people in the house: “Remember how angry you were when I snuck the chair onto the footpath on the next council pick-up day?” Finally, and most importantly, consider who you were when you moved in and how you’ve changed since then. In what ways are you older and wiser? What is different in your life now?

The other side of the moving ritual is the arrival at the new house. Again, it’s good to set aside an evening. Prepare another special meal (so many good rituals involve food!) and share it with some close friends. Then you can have a cleansing and dreaming ritual. Here are some ideas for the process. One of you carries a burning smudge stick. This is made of sage and is used to clear out old or negative energies from an area. Another person carries a candle to symbolise the new energy you’ll be bringing to the house. Walk around to each room in turn. As you do so, stop in each room and talk about your hopes and dreams for that space. What would you love to have happen here? What do you want to create? For example, in the lounge you might want to have warmth and companionship, an open space for friends and family to share good times with each other. In your study you might want to create an incubating space where great ideas can be dreamt up, a space for your imagination to soar and new plans to unfold. The bedroom might be a place for serenity and rest or for wild, passionate sex! Let each person living in the house have a chance to express their dreams for each of the rooms. In this way you set up a creative and positive intention for the house and for your lives. If you never formulate such dreams, how can they come true?

Retirement: Eldership

Another major transition in life that goes largely unacknowledged in our culture is retirement. Many people find this a difficult time as they move from having an identity based on their participation in the outside world to something far more indeterminate. Again, in a tribal culture such a transition is honoured and old people have an important place in the community. These cultures value the accumulated wisdom that comes from having been alive for many decades. Therefore, older people become elders in the tribe. Elders are valued for their insight and wisdom. They will be consulted on both community and personal matters and are responsible for keeping the integrity of the community intact.

In Western society we have no such system of eldership. The experience of older people is often not valued because we have a youth-based culture. What is happening in the young generation defines the culture, so if something is not young, fashionable and hip it isn’t given credence. Elders don’t have the required credentials. We also have a throwaway culture: once something has passed its use-by date we throw it out and upgrade to the next model. The current fad for retro fashion could give us pause for thought, however. Perhaps there is something valuable in old wares. It just depends on perspective. So, while older people might not understand the latest technological advances, they likely understand some of the more enduring things in life, the things that remain when fashions come and go: patience, tolerance, birth, death and the passage of time.

Given that structures are not already in place for creating eldership, if you’re facing retirement you’d be wise to create such a space for yourself. This could mean offering yourself as a mentor to people, or sitting on voluntary committees and advisory boards. It could mean working with children or youth who are not too busy or self-important to appreciate your stories of life. There are probably myriad community projects you’ve thought about participating in through the course of your life but never had the time. Retirement can provide the opportunity to make such a contribution. Eldership involves contributing to the community in a different way from how you might have done in your career. Instead of building products and projects, you contribute more invisible things: generosity, serenity and compassion, which are qualities rather than commodities.

Death and Mourning

Death is generally very hidden in our society. This is markedly different from some cultures, where after someone has died their body might be kept in the house for many days, or where their body is carried out in public and then burnt on a pyre. Many people in Western culture have never seen a deceased person let alone know how to assist someone who is dying or how to prepare for their own death. Such topics are considered macabre. Our fear of mortality has left us ill-equipped to deal with this all-important transition time.

One thing you might do is begin to think about your own funeral and what you’d like to happen. This has two benefits: first, it keeps death real in your own mind, which lends an invaluable perspective to the preciousness of life; and second, it gives others something to work with when they have to organise your funeral.

If you are with someone who is dying, the greatest gift you can give them is to be present. Be with them with the awareness that they are dying, rather than pretend it’s all going to be OK. If it’s appropriate, you can tell them what their life has meant to you. You can forgive old hurts (there’s nothing like death to give perspective to these sorts of issues). You can also play music or read to them, especially from things that will be comforting to the soul. Even if a person is in a coma they can still hear you, so don’t let their lack of alertness stop you from carrying out your ritual of goodbye. If it’s fitting, you can coach them on letting go of this life and moving on to the next stage. There are books that give advice on this process.

It’s important to make the funeral ceremony a commemoration of this persons unique life rather than have an homogenous or irrelevant ceremony. Let as many people speak as would like to. Bring something symbolic of your relationship with that person to place on the coffin. Use the ceremony as an opportunity to say goodbye and send the soul on its way. Wailing and crying are fine, as is silence. We all have our own way of expressing grief.

It can also be useful to write or talk to the person even after they’ve died. Their body might have gone but your soul will still be connected with theirs and you might need to keep in contact for a while. Allow yourself to feel their presence. You’ll probably find you have less and less need to do this as you and they gradually move on. Let the process take its natural course.

Healthy Life Transition

During all life’s transitions, if you take a pause before rushing from one stage to the next, your psyche has time to integrate and prepare for the next stage. You avoid life transition lag, which is akin to the jet lag you experience when you fly across huge distances and your body has trouble adapting so quickly, thereby leaving you feeling tired and out of sorts. Similarly, when you move through life changes too quickly without appreciating what’s going on, it might leave you feeling anxious, depressed or let down. You can then spin into panic, thinking you’ve made a wrong move, when really it’s just your psyche catching up with the backlog of unprocessed feelings.

Some people move so quickly through life that it’s not until retirement that they have a chance to catch their breath. They can then be startled to find that they feel immobilised, unable to make decisions about even simple things, or else find themselves crying for months on end for no apparent reason. What’s happening is the psyche senses a break in the outer action and so rushes in to begin the process of appreciation and commemoration on an inner level. With a whole life’s backlog you might have little choice but to work through the process. It’s as if your psyche says to your active doing self, “Well fine, you’ve had more than your fair share of the airtime; now its my turn.” If you want to avoid such a huge catch-up process, it’s recommended that you attend to, and savour, the smaller moments along the way. Use ritual to celebrate and commemorate your passage through the gateways of your life. Your journey will be richer as a result.

Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. Tel: 0417 103 018, Website:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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