by S. Alexander Alich

When I was young, I participated in community rituals that, through the eyes of a child, seemed magical and mysterious. We gathered in a place separate from the activities of the regular day and spoke in a language that acknowledged a world much larger than the one we normally think of. As I grew up, I slowly began to understand that special symbolic language and learned the importance of not only speaking it but also discovering where we humans fit into that seemingly larger world.

The worst thing a native person can say about someone is that he or she “acts as if they have no relatives.” When we walk through our lives with an attitude of having no relatives, we shut ourselves into a small world where our actions seem to have no effect on anyone or anything around us. It can be easy to overlook the damage we do to the earth, plants, animals, and other people when we don’t see ourselves as part of something bigger. As western culture slowly eliminates and loses the meaning of its rituals and ceremonies, we may be doing more damage then we can currently see. One thing I have observed over the years is how lack of ceremony and ritual is negatively affecting our physical, mental, and spiritual health.

When I was first teaching, I took my students through several ceremonies and rituals. This was a challenge for many of them, especially if they had spent years in the university system where you learn mostly by thinking and reading about the world. Although ceremonies broadened their perspective and challenged the limitations of their minds, they still had two questions: “Why work in ceremony or ritual?” and “Can’t we just learn by talking about the information?” The answers here are mixed. We can and do learn through our minds, by taking in and sharing information, but there is a point at which our minds are no longer the best way to learn. Simply put, there are places our minds cannot go and things we cannot talk about or even think about, but, fortunately, we can experience them. This is where the special symbolic language of ritual can help us participate in a larger world and heal beyond what we currently understand. Ritual also slows us down and can hel p us work through things that we cannot address only with our minds.

Before we continue, let’s define the difference between ritual and ceremony. Ceremony might be something that you create for a special one-time purpose. It must follow certain elements, and we will look at those elements in a moment. Ritual might look similar to ceremony, but the action is repeated over and over, sometimes performed identically for hundreds or even thousands of years. On the surface, ritual looks like the same action, but the contents change each time you perform it. There are basically three kinds of ceremony or ritual: individual, family (clan), and community, and there are a few elements that they share.

First, they take us out of our ordinary day by creating what we call sacred space, a place away from our daily lives and activities. Ceremony and ritual allow us to walk through a myth and symbolically enact our problems and pain as well as our gratitude and joy. If we can first find the symbolic dimension to our situation, then through simple action, we can put our thoughts, ideas, and intent into motion. In the end, ritual enacts a symbolic resolution to our life situations and problems.

Second, learning the language of ritual and healing requires a different view of ourselves and the world we live in. It requires us to think symbolically and consider what our actions say as we walk through the day. Our body speaks to us in symbols, and pain is a good example of this. Pain usually has a message behind it and may be the only way for that part of us to communicate. If we can learn to think symbolically, we can communicate with that part of ourselves and create a simple ceremony or action that can get us moving in the direction of healing again. We must remember though that we cannot isolate healing to the physical body. Ceremony speaks to our spirit and soul and lets us express ourselves in a way that we might not normally be able to access. It helps us to realign with nature and the cosmos and find our place in the world again.

I would like to share three simple rituals that can help you begin to think and work symbolically.

1) Greeting the sun and offering gratitude: This morning ritual comes from the Navajo, and I have added the part at the end especially for westerners. Each morning when you first wake up, face east (being outside is nice but not necessary) and offer a pinch of corn meal or corn pollen toward the sun. Here you can offer your prayers for the day and ask for the help you may need, especially if you have challenges ahead of you. You may also want to take a few moments to offer your prayers of gratitude for what you do have and what is going well in your life. This ritual not only reminds us that we are part of a bigger world but also helps us begin our day by remembering what we have instead of greeting each day with what is missing and what we have to get.

2) Creating sacred space in your home: The best way to understand the importance of sacred space is to actually create it and work in it. If you can, create an area that is separate from your daily activities, an area where you can meditate, journal, dream, or work with your tools. This does not have to be a large area or a whole room. You can place a small rug in your bedroom and have that be where you work. For people who have only a small place to live, you can still create sacred space by building a “mesa,” a place where you keep your tools, journals, and things that have a special meaning for your life and healing.

3) Making a tobacco bundle and offering it to the fire: One thing that can help us greatly is to symbolically enact and acknowledge closures and transitions in our lives. A simple way to begin this is to take a pinch of tobacco and wrap it in a little bit of red fabric. Into that bundle you can speak your prayers and what you would like to let go of, release from your life, or acknowledge the end of. You can then give that bundle to the elements. We like to offer it to the fire and ask that the smoke from the tobacco carry our prayers to spirit.