What kinds of rituals can support communities in processing the Pandemic Time of Sickness towards greater degrees of reintegration? Summer Solstice 2021 offers one of what will be many opportunities for rituals, including circular time rituals, integrating ecological, social and personal dynamics.
Celebrations of re-opening are upon us, and rightly so.
In addition to dancing in the streets, gleefully attending sporting events and buying extra BBQ fixings for friends and family who are finally finally gathering together again, those of us who aim to serve and strengthen people’s emotional, spiritual and healing capabilities recognize that this is a precious and somewhat precarious moment deserving of rituals.
Precious — for obvious reasons. Precarious — because this particular social re-integration is a re-integration of mind and body at a scale and type perhaps never seen before. Millions of people around the world’s primary work and social functioning has been interacting via zoom and other online communication tools. Which is to say, interacting via small two dimensional rectangular windows. Our heads have quite literally been visually separated from our bodies. Consistently when I meet new friends and colleagues whom I met online during the past year in person — which has been such a delight during these past few weeks — I am surprised by some part of their physicality, something I had not picked up on zoom. It explains something about who the person is. About who I thought they were, and why. It invites me to consider something different about who I am.
As spiritual beings on an embodied journey, our embodiment (our bodies) really matter.
Individual, social and societal transitions are aided by ritual. That’s just the way humans are. Rituals help us navigate the liminal spaces of betwixt and between, of times and entering and leaving worlds. This obviously includes entering our world (a baptism); a life-long relationship that shapes us and can support future generations (a marriage); of leaving our world (a funeral). And, if done well, it can support not only personal life transitions but social ones (the swearing in of a new president, for example, is one of America’s most codified rituals).
As anthropologist Mary Douglas famously said, “there are some things we cannot experience without ritual.”
Re-entering social life, this great re-opening of society, is simultaneously an individual, social and societal transition. It could become a transformation, though given how little national reflection there has been on “who do we want to be and what kind of future do we want to create together” — we seem, if anything, more divided as a country than we were pre-pandemic, or at least it is perhaps simply more obvious, I am not holding my breath for the kind of significant social transformation that seemed possible in the early days in the Pandemic, when the thing that so many of us took as a given — the movement and social engagement of society as we knew it — abruptly halted.
Indeed, there have been precious few rituals. Of any kind, except, perhaps, the daily ritual of wearing a mask in public spaces.
Certainly getting vaccinated — one of the single biggest shared experiences our world has had, even with the millions of Americans who are still unvaccinated — has had little ritual. My experience, at least, was more akin to being a cow going through a corral than a transition from a significant period of our shared life (the Great Shut Down) to the next significant period of our shared life (which is stretching out before us even now, however unevenly.)
Celebrations — themselves forms of rituals — are happening all over; different shapes for different folks. Thank goodness. Yes, more dancing.
But — what just happened???? How are we going to reintegrate our collective mind and body? How are we going to grieve together? To narrate our experiences? To let our mind-body heal whatever needs to heal? Individuals will need different things: some people really need a 2-week vacation because the last 15 months were utterly exhausting; others need a LOT of social time. Many have experienced the past year as traumatic, and uncurling from the relative freeze of social isolation should not — really should not — be rushed. More harm than good can come from rushing social-ness.
For everyone paying attention to communities, not just individuals or families, below are some things to attend to when considering what kinds of reintegration rituals might be needed.
These observations arise from our recent practices. Since Spring Equinox, my partner and I have been working with different groups of people to activate and engage people in embodied circular calendar rituals.
What’s that, I can hear you ask. Briefly: For the past few years, I’ve been developing a body of work around circular calendars, offering ancient temporal technologies reworked for our times. This critical aspect of decolonizing the ridiculous and inaccurate notion of linear time is, for the many people whom I have worked with in practicing using a circular calendar to reflect, learn, and set intentions, deeply powerful. We currently offer them every Solstice and Equinox, as those are powerful moments for community reflection.
While I absolutely hope that more people can use this ritual as part of their own processes, what is below are some larger lessons based on our experience that can be applied to different types of reintegration rituals as people reintegrate into a different form of shared social life.
Here are some offerings.
- Working with nature
Connecting with nature has been a source of deep connection for so many people since the Pandemic began; building and strengthening that connection in community is a powerful and for many precious form of integration. Any moment on the cycle of Earth around Sun can serve as a moment of connection: solstices and equinoxes have served as powerful ways to connect people to their place in the larger universe as well as their particular community and eco-system for countless generations.
This Summer Solstice is a particularly apt time for engaging with some kind of reintegration ritual: its a perfect moment to connect with both the human and the more-than-human community.
Such human-planetary-ecosystem-community connections (aka biocultural celebrations) are part of what we can think of as rituals within the framework of a circular calendar.
2.Working with the circular, fluid and multi-dimensional nature of time
One of the most common experiences of the Pandemic has been the way that time has shifted. While there are many reasons for this, the shift in social life is absolutely one of them. What’s the difference between a weekend and a weekday if you are working from home with kids at home? Without the daily routines, often built over years, that defined daily life, from sending the kids to school to Thursday night dinner at the local restaurant to certain street noises, time has felt very fluid for most people. Some of us developed new ways of marking time, but most experiences of time have been and remain fluid. Did that happen in May 2020 or January 2021?
Reflections in this kind of fluid space can feel overwhelming and difficult. But we don’t know what will be certain yet. What can we hold onto to mark time — that is not yet fully certain. So don’t run to certitude.
Instead, develop rituals that acknowledge the fluid and multi-dimensional nature of time.
For pastors and others in the religious traditions, liturgical rituals are particularly valuable and important. Returning to time-honored and community-treasured rituals will be for many highly potent. Note that people will experience the last 15 months when those rituals were not part of their life differently. Some will return immediately to what it ‘used to feel like,’ possibly wondering if those 15 months even happened. Others will be so out of practice it will feel disconnecting. Strong emotions are probable, regardless.
3. Embodied, communal rituals
Let me emphasize this: people need embodied, communal rituals that are clearly defined as rituals. We need to watch and be watched as embodied, physical, spiritual beings. We need to see other people’s bodies move in a ritualistic way. We need to be able to release at least some of what has been stored in our bodies even as other people are doing the same.
While people want and need ‘open social time’ — parties, dance gatherings, music festivals — we very much need ritual time, wherein our actions are shaped not just by our individual desires or (especially confusing right now) social norms, but by intentional actions.
There are some classic aspects of transition rituals that apply here, including:
- Land acknowledgements; grounding and protecting spaces and having very clear intentions — this is particularly important if you are working with land or waterways to hold or release human experiences of trauma/pain. Get permission from Spirit first. Take care of your sacred space — whether the sanctuary of a temple or a grove of trees or a city park.
- Clear openings and endings
- Building up to silence using music and/or movement
- Allowing space for individual self expression that is connected to group self expression (movement, singing)
- Clear designation and creation of sacred space
- Experiencing crossing thresholds of time and space; crossing over and into and through various clearly designated portals
- Taking on specific and designated roles with seriousness and respect
- Silences are powerful. People benefit from being silent together in person. Different communities have different relationships to silence, but if your community can be at ease with it, lean into the silence. It can be a powerful way for bodies to reconnect with other bodies.
- Children can do adult rituals too. In our experience, children pay a lot of attention to our rituals and enjoy participating in them.
- Can I offer you permission to offer people permission? :-). Different bodies can and will do different things. This includes breathing. Many people working through serious trauma, including historical trauma, do not find it easy to breath on-cue. “Everyone breath now” can be experienced as stressful. An alternative might be, “if you feel ready to exhale collectively, let us do so.” We don’t always know where the trauma lies, even within our own selves.
4. Engage with Joy and Suffering
Your communities — perhaps yourself — may well need space to grieve, to mourn, to wail. To let the body release a wide arrange of emotions that have become built up, nearly calcified.
We need rituals that permit and support both the joy and the suffering. Our circular time ritual gives a lot of space for a wide variety of emotions — it is one of the things that our participants keep affirming that they need.
5. Encourage new/different narrations
Ritual often engages with deep narrative, the kind of narrative that shapes our sub-conscious minds.
There have been a lot of unhelpful narratives that people have constructed for themselves during the Pandemic. Some are utterly realistic (when this is over, everything will be better/different). Some are immensely helpful (life does not have to stay the way it has always been). Many have been crafted in social media, echo chambers or quiet rooms, answering questions sometimes formed in the midst of despair.
To answer the question, what narratives does your community need to focus on, start with, what are the questions that will help something new emerge? This might not be a simple, ‘what were the hardest moments and how did you over come them’ — so much as, ‘where/when did you unexpectedly receive? Where did you give in unexpected ways?”
Closing rituals is closing a container. The closing of a ritual is also precious and precarious. Precious, because it is closing a moment. Precarious, because things may be left unsaid, uncomfortable, and unknown. It is in this liminal space that the pieces and parts of ourselves can fall into place. We at Sequoia Samanvaya use rituals for ReMembering and ReEnchanting and we are now using them for reintegration.
Whatever form of ritual you choose to do, whether you are able to incorporate our circular time rituals into your communities processes or not, I hope you do something — and keep doing whatever is working.
Feel free to share with me what is working for you. Many new and old rituals are needed, and sharing what is working is going to help all of us go closer towards it.