Never in my life did I really fit in. Among others I was a professional soldier and a coordinator in logistic operations. People always wondered why I had chosen this kind of professions. This stopped after I gave up my career and went back to university in order to study interreligious spirituality. Somehow this seemed to fit with my personality. People stopped wondering and asking questions. This continued after I had finished my studies and started to work as a spiritual coach specialized in rituals. Slowly the puzzle of my life fell at its place.
Since I have started a new career in the area of spirituality I have written two books. The first is named ‘Spirituality and meaning. A search for the reason of human suffering.’ the second one is named ‘Deep under our skin. How rituals can transform our lives.’ Both books are a reflection on the study of interreligious spirituality and a personal and solid prove of my growing consciousness. This essay summarizes few of my findings:
Humans want to give meaning to their lives
Psychology teaches us that the human brain wants to experience live as orderly, integrated, meaningful and whole. Suffering does not fit with these purposes. That is why suffering activates a process in which people search for possibilities to situate the painful reality they are confronted with and which was not foreseen and not wanted. When they do not succeed in this they can end up in an existential vacuum, the feeling that life is senseless.
Anthropology joins up with these findings by telling us that humans are creatures that naturally want to give meaning and purpose to the chaotic world that surrounds them. In order to accomplish this they use symbols. A concept that relates to this idea is the term symbolic classification, which was first introduced by the anthropologist Fiona Bowie. With it she explains the human tendency to classify people on the basis of certain, opposite, characteristics. Each classification, humans make, can eventually be traced back on their views about purity and impurity. 1
Humanity influences the way society and myths are being shaped
Because each culture has its own ideas about purity and impurity this leads to the originating of very different symbolic systems, as for example different societies and belief systems or, if you like, different myths. A clear example of this is the caste system in India. 2
People try to avoid notions that are contradictory with their convictions
The example of the caste system also indicates the consequences which this process of symbolic classification can have for people who live in it. Especially when we consider the fact that, once a specific social structure or belief system is established, people tend to consider this as just and truthful. Afterward they find it very hard to accept ideas and visions that do not correspond with those within their existing symbolic systems, they even tend to ignore and reject these ideas and visions.
When something, a person, or group, is classified as impure there are taboos which prevent to intercourse with them. In the West we can sea this in the way we handle sick, elder and handicapped people, or people who suffer of cancer and aids. Amongst others we tend to avoid contact, by putting them away in institutions. By the way, the same behavior can be noticed in our intercourse with strangers, foreigners, refugees, allochtones and unemployed. In all of these cases a deed of classification, which always originates from a specific worldview and ideas about purity and impurity, has extensive consequences for the lives of those involved. The six million Jewish sacrifices in the Second World War show that the act of classification can have far reaching consequences. Culture discriminates and can, because of that, lead to inconceivable suffering.
Rituals sustain beliefs
With rituals, or ritual like routines, we socialize our children. By repeating certain behavior we learn them discipline and self-control. However not only that. In this way the norms and values of our culture are also being internalized. Effective socialization tries to transform our prescribed rules of conduct to the way we wish to behave. In that way rituals sustain our beliefs.
However, Ronald Grimes, the distinguished interpreter of rituals, claims that North America is ritually impoverished. A small proportion of its economic, intellectual, and imaginative resources are committed to ritual. The time and money devoted to rites of passage are paltry. 3 It will not be exaggerated to assert that the same counts for Europe and other western countries. The lack of rites de passage had its effect on our youths and as we will see, here we encounter a very dangerous aspect of rituals.
Ritual and mythical impoverishment
Because of the absent of rites the passage, especially initiating rituals, adolescents do not learn how to become responsible adults and how to participate in social life. Parents loose their role as tutors and educators. These roles are taken over by so called peers. This can be random persons but also youths from the same group of age. The outcome of this is the replacing of conscious and controlled rituals by unconscious and uncontrolled rituals which are often very violent.
When youths are starting to ritualize by themselves, without guidance of responsible and competent adults, rituals emerge that have no connection whatsoever with myths that give meaning to live and existence. Joseph Campbell speaks of a de-mythologized world. The results of this developments can be found in the newspapers. We find articles about vandalism and violence of young people who can not handle living in a ‘civilized’ (my quotations) society. Cause of this is the absence of rituals with which these adolescents become responsible members of the tribe or society. 4 In the Netherlands at this time we get aware about a new and apparently popular ritual amongst youths that is called ‘comazuipen’, youths drink alcohol to a point they fall into a coma!
Detail of these findings is, that it is an explanation for the contemporary economic crisis as well. We can read and hear everywhere that this crisis is caused by managers who only thought about themselves and the companies they were working for. They did not feel any responsibility for the society and environment they were part of.
The transforming power of rituals
There is one other reason why rituals are so important. They not only sustain our beliefs, they also have the potential to transform people. This transforming potential is a result of the specific construction of rituals and especially of rites de passage. According to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, a complete scheme of rites de passage includes pre-liminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition) and post-liminal rites (rites of incorporation). 5 Another anthropologist, Victor Turner, at his turn writes how these rites of passage can be divided in three phases: separation, margin and aggregation. 6
The first phase of separation comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions or from both. During the second phase, the intervening liminal period, the characteristics of the ritual subject are ambiguous. He or she passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase of aggregation, the passage is consummated. The ritual subject, individual or corporate, is reincorporated in a relatively stable state once more and, by the virtue of this, has rights and obligations vis-à-vis others of a clearly defined and structural type. He or she is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions. 7
Turner especially pays a great deal of attention at the second phase in the ritual process, the so called liminal phase. It is especially this phase that can cause a transformation within people and even within society. According to Turner the functioning of society can be compared with a ritual process and he argues that the liminal phase is the most important ingredient of a process that makes transformation of society possible.
The premise of Turner is to explain how society can only function adequately by means of a dialectic process. This causes the originating of more or less unstructured systems within stable and structured social systems. This process enables society to transform itself. These unstructured systems are liminal structures and the people within it, the liminal entities, are identified as marginal, open minded, ambiguous, dangerous and as outlaws possessing magic-religious abilities. Turner refers to these people as being able to set into motion a process of transformation.
According to Turner this dialectic process is indispensable for any society because no society can function adequately without it. He considers liminality, marginality and structural inferiority as conditions in which myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems and works of art are frequently generated. These cultural forms provide people with a set of templates or models which are, at one level, periodical re-classifications of reality and people’s relationship to society, nature and culture. But they are more then classifications, since they incite men to action as well as thought. Each of these productions has a multi-focal character and each is capable of moving people at many psycho-biological levels simultaneously. This is why I agree with the scholar in religious- and ritual-studies Ronald Grimes, who argues that for Turner it is specifically the liminal phase that enables ritual to do the work of transformation. 8
The symbolic gap
The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and his fellow worker Eric Olson write that due to developments like the atomic bomb, both World Wars and the concentration camps that came with them, evil has grown above our heads. The possibility of mass destruction and the absurd death of millions in the past century have made, that death can no longer be handled by our culture and the individuals that live in it. 9 Environmental pollution, illnesses like cancer and aids and the contemporary economic crisis have all contributed to this situation. Our ability to interpret symbolic experiences did not keep pace with historical changes. This is called the symbolic gap.
Towards new myths and rituals
Nowadays personal suffering can not be untightened from the great happenings in the world around us. Already mentioned are economic crises, environmental pollution, terrorism, war, and illnesses like aids, cancer and many other things that get into the news on a daily base. They all have a great impact on our lives. In order to give all of these happenings a place in our minds, or even find solutions for it, great changes are necessary.
It does not really matter if people are the creators of their own world or if they are dependent of a transcendent absolute force. People always play a central role in shaping their world and environment. Because of that I feel we, as human beings, first have to change the way we are thinking. We have to start with a shift in the minds, especially within the minds of western people. We have to get conscious again of our relation with the world around us and our depending on it. We do not exist besides or above nature, we are part of it. Because of that we have to stop acting against nature by destroying it, and start to cooperate with it.
Spirituality can help making that shift. The question however is, if there already exists a form of spirituality that can accomplish this, or that a new form of spirituality has to be developed. What it is all about, I think, is finding an authentic form of spirituality that also adds up to the demands of contemporary times and which answers questions that are important at this moment. As important parts of that spirituality I see a mentality of compassion, possibilities for a critical attitude towards all human thinking and acting, inter-religious and intercultural cooperation, striving for long term developments and striving for balance with nature.
Spirituality has thought me that the Absolute respects our free will, whatever choice we make. When we choose to destroy ourselves, the Absolute will respect that wish and even support us in that. The other way around, when we choose for a different world, that perhaps is a better one as the old, the Absolute will support us in that as well. Scientific developments support these ideas. Especially quantum physics show a connection between human thinking and the way our environment gets being shaped. It would be a good thing when we did not only use these findings for our own personal well being but also for the well being of others and the world in itself, for that matter. Personally I feel the world shapes itself accordingly to the way we are collectively thinking about it.
It all opens new possibilities. Under the given circumstances, in which the continued existence of man and the world we are living on is threatened, it is worthwhile to make a drastic shift in our thinking. One that no longer puts ourselves in front, but one that puts the continued existence of the earth as a whole at the first place. Human belief has an enormous potential and force. Truth becomes what we belief is truth, especially when a majority of people share the same vision about a certain subject.
It does not really matter how a certain religion, myth or belief system origins, if God or something transcendent is involved or not. Personally I am convinced God, or rather the Absolute, is somehow involved in this world. It only is not possible for me to explain how the Absolute works. Of course I have ideas about this, that however falls outside the goal of this essay. What is important, is the role humans play in shaping this world. By understanding and getting conscious of the basic principles that lay beneath human thinking and acting we are better capable of making the changes that are really necessary at this moment.
When we want to reshape this world and find new meaning for ourselves we have to find an authentic form of spirituality. When an authentic and honest form of spirituality is being communicated, people will feel that and listen to the message that is being spread. Together with that spirituality new myths, rituals and symbols have to be cultivated. Combined they have the potential of transforming society as a whole. The lack of rituals and myths and the symbolic gap show how urgent it is to pay new attention to these subjects. I hope this essay helps in raising new interest and that it contributes into the creating of new myths that are sustained by new rituals and fitting symbols. And not only that, we also have to find responsible people who can realize all of that. However, considering this, the world is on the move. The website of openmythsource is only one proof of this. In the end I hope it will all be in time to change the goals of our world from ever more growth and profits to one that strives for balance. Nature can be our great example in that. Nature has to be the initial concept of the new spirituality arising.
1 Fiona Bowie, The anthropology of religion. (Blackwell publishing ltd., 2006) p. 34
2 Bowie, The anthropology of religion. p. 41 – 42
3 Ronald Grimes, Marrying and Burying. Rites of passage in a man’s life. (Waterloo, Canada, 2007) p.1
4 Joseph Campbell en Bill Moyers, Mythen & bewustzijn. De kracht van de mythologische verbeelding. (Houten,
1990) p. 22 – 23
5 Arnold van Gennep, The rites of passage. (University of Chicago press, 1960) p. 11
6 Victor W. Turner, The ritual process. Structure and anti-structure. (Aldine publishing company USA, 1969)
7 Turner, The Ritual Process. p. 94 – 95
8 Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply into the bone. Re-inventing rites of passage. (University of California Press, 2000)
9 Robert Jay Lifton en Eric Olson, Leven en sterven. (Bilthoven, 1974) p. 13
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Herman de Roos Bio –
De tijd dat ik als logistiek coördinator en planner werkte heb ik als leerzaam, dynamisch en opwindend ervaren. Toch had ik niet het gevoel dat hierin mijn eindbestemming lag. Om die reden heb ik op latere leeftijd de uitdaging aangenomen om helemaal mijn hart te volgen. Daaraan heb ik allereerst gestalte gegeven door het volgen van de studie interreligieuze spiritualiteit. Centraal in deze studie stond de vraag naar zingeving en hoe daar vanuit verschillende religieuze stromingen en levensbeschouwingen een antwoord op werd gegeven. Tijdens een stage op de afdeling kinderoncologie in het Radboud Ziekenhuis in Nijmegen heb ik gezien hoe indringend die vraag soms kan zijn. Ook maakte ik tijdens deze studie kennis met vakken als rituologie, religieuze counseling en religieuze caoching. Allemaal boeiende vakken en ik dacht dat ik al die kennis kon combineren in de keuze voor het vak van ritueel begeleider. Een bijkomend aspect was dat ik hierin ook weer creatieve aspecten terugvond waardoor ook mijn opleiding aan de Hoge School voor de Kunsten een plek kreeg.
Herman de Roos
herman.deroos at planet.nl
Illustration by OMS Co-founder David Metcalfe