Monday evening, returning from one of my partner’s performances and setting my alarm for shortly after 5am the next morning, I sighed heavily at the prospect of so few hours of sleep only to have to fight traffic to get downtown for a University of Arizona public lecture on Healing Ceremonies. In business for myself, I do my best to avoid traffic as well as appointments before 9:30 am. Had I not just seen a FB post touting “Most people miss out on opportunity because it shows up wearing overalls and looks like work”, I may have just skipped over the invitation that landed in my inbox. The loss of sleep would be worth my while in this instance, though, I was sure. An MD giving a talk about the healing power of ceremony and the blend of science and mysticism it would likely cover is my favorite place.
It was well worth the short night and the long drive.
There are many things that Howard Silverman, MD covered in the lecture that were affirmations of the experiences I’d had with the power of ceremony and ritual. One of the comments that he made that was particularly insightful was in his discussion of the material component of a ceremony– specifically the sacraments. He defined sacraments as those things that affect the senses: incense, candles, scents would all be examples. Due to the heightened awareness and imbued meaning created within the context of the ceremony, he explained, very little is needed to achieve the desired effect. Ceremonial tobacco or even peyote used in a ceremony is minimal. “When we lose touch with meaning, we need more and more of the material to achieve the same effect.” he explained, and went on to reflect on the impact this has on social issues and addiction rates.
Imbuing meaning is one of the primary functions of healers, he shared. I couldn’t help but reflect on how many of our ills–emotional, physical, and societal–can be traced to a lack of meaning in our lives, or even worse- a connection to a meaning that is degrading and demeaning and erodes our dignity and honor as human beings.
Stories are the oldest tool I know of to imbue meaning- which is why they are the center point of both religion and (popular) culture. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t know how stories work anymore. We teach them to our children when they’re in concrete operations- the stage where they are interested in learning character names and plot lines. Yet when they reach the age where their thinking begins to develop, when they have the capacity to truly start working with stories and turning around the characters, asking questions, delving deeper into emotional drives and the symbolism of the story’s elements, we call them “fairy tales” and shelve them. Instead of teaching our children how to use the stories to help them navigate the difficult places in their lives–as they were intended–we call them fantasies (or buy into Disney-ized or overly simplistic versions/interpretations) and refuse to engage with them on any real level.
Problem? The meaning we took at the time isn’t erased from us. Stories are powerful and are the key programming agents of our subconscious. They’re baked in to us on a very deep level and that meaning continues to drive the patterns we repeatedly find ourselves in. Ever moved/divorced/changed jobs just to find yourself in the precise situation you worked so hard to leave behind? That’s those unconscious patterns at work.
I’ve seen that if the stories we tell ourselves increase our shame, reduce our sense of self-worth, disconnect us from the world and those around us, they feed addiction. Shame is the fuel of addiction’s engine.
How does that fit in with Dr. Silverman’s insight about how little of a substance is needed within ceremony, and how we want more and more outside of that space? How does our sense of meaning in our lives interact with our levels of shame? How does connection with our community affect meaning in our lives? What in our lives, in our society erode that connection?
One of the first things that comes to mind for me is how we as a culture eat: alone. Disconnected from the preparation of our food. Eating while watching TV (both mindlessly). How much farther away can we get from the elements of healing ceremony where there is a shared/meaningful purpose, shared/meaningful preparation, and community? Is there any wonder that our portions are getting bigger and bigger? Our sense of satisfaction less and less?