“I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights . . . .I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.” (Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)
Are we ever truly lost? Humans may well have a natural predisposition toward emotional balance. Whether we think of it as “a string of guiding lights,” a hardwired equipoise, or the internal divine, our default setting is always engaged in one task: to return to a healthy state. We can see evidence of this natural state of self-care in our desire to sleep when we are stressed, in our good feelings after talking it out with a good friend, and in our dreaming life. But often, our conscious mind overrides this reflexive mode. It replays old tapes, increases anxiety (“do something!!”), and wears us down. We binge, we distract, we erupt, we self-destruct. We sabotage this innate ability to heal ourselves.
But always, there is “the other side of the facts.” If we remember to honor this amazing skill we all are inheritors of, we allow our hearts and minds to move toward emotional health. That inner healer innately knows who we are and who we can be, as Jeanette Winterson describes it in the excerpt above. What that means is that anytime we wish to, we can accept the call to restore our own well-being!
Ritual and ceremony offer one way to answer that call to health: they create a safe and rich environment outside of our daily lives, they honestly express our authentic emotional state, they help transform the moment into a concrete truth, setting us on a path toward authentic emotional growth. A well-focused memorial ceremony is a good example of this. Meaningful rituals within a service can move us onward in our suffering, in our relationship to the deceased, and in our own healing. We can share memories of all kinds with those in attendance, we can read a poem we’ve written for the deceased, we can listen to their favorite song or ask a family elder to recall the deceased’s birth. Through such rituals, we reconnect to our inner healer. We find, as we leave the ceremonial space, that we feel better, more integrated, less at sea. Through ritual and ceremony, we have rediscovered our natural ability to heal ourselves.
A ceremony’s power to heal derives not only from ritual, but from its very creation of community, cohering individuals witnessing the ceremony into an affiliated group, one of the healthiest biological structures there is. This community 1) reflects our own emotional state, 2) joins us in our expression of grief, joy, hope, 3) identifies more strongly with us because of the sharing that takes place in the ceremony, 4) brings its own creative energies and unique experience to bear on our own situation, and 5) begins to heal and transform along with us.
Ceremonies can also transform guests in very personal ways, as they act as witnesses to those more central to the ceremony. This may have happened to you. Watching the event unfold, you become a participant through your ability to identify with the mourners. In sharing this ceremony, you come to understand more deeply the value of love, care, truth, connection, compassion, and humor in your daily life. A focused ceremony actually invigorates a community of supporters, as all the natural energy of healing is restored to each member, who then focuses that healing energy on the central participants of the ceremony. Ceremony, then, reconnects us to our natural desire to affiliate with others through enhancing our connection to our inner healer.
I’ve seen deeply estranged families begin the process of authentic reconnection as a direct result of their participation in ceremony. This happens in weddings, funerals, divorce ceremonies, baby welcomings, and more. The energy created by ritual takes us out of the everyday thinking and responses, opening us up to possibility, healing, and our own power to transform. Ceremony reconnects us to that “string of guiding lights” that leads to our own inner healer, pointing to who we are and who we can become.
Our minds are powerfully focused on taking care of ourselves. We have only to attune our conscious self to our natural impulses. Ceremony and ritual help us unlearn our conscious responses to emotional stress and start to process our reality in a way that allows us to gather our energy and take the next step forward. Those lines within us—lifelines and anchor chains accessed through the benefits of ceremony–lead to our own inner healer. There he sits and waits, there she gathers her tools, ready to restore our own selves. Ready to restore the gift of being and becoming.