While meditation has brought great solace to my life, sometimes despair and cynicism still manage to sneak in through the cracks of my practice. To help guard against this, I have recently found myself turning to ritual. More and more, I find myself drawn to ritual events—happy and sad ones, new and used. Finding some way to honor life helps me to fend off the nagging nihilism. So I light some incense, call out the gods, try to usher the seasons in and out. Through ritual, I bow down to this manifest world, in spite of its inherent emptiness.
One ritual that really grabbed me took place at a week-long men’s retreat in a redwood forest camp in Mendocino, California. In 1988, Jack Kornfield convinced me to attend this gathering, which he was helping to lead along with psychologist James Hillman, mythologist Michael Meade, and African medicine man and ritualist Malidoma Somé. I was nervous as I entered the camp, unsure whether I wanted to spend a week with a bunch of men talking about male issues. I noticed myself suspicious and somewhat critical of the other men, immediately taking the stance of the outsider.
After registration, I was asked to choose a clan that I would belong to for the week, either the clan of the Red Deer, Raven or Trout. My cynicism flag went up. This sounded too much like boy scout camp. I finally decided to become a Raven, because they are trickster figures in many mythical traditions, and I figured I could play that familiar role. However, the Ravens at this men’s retreat were given a somewhat different agenda, written out for us on our clan assignment sheet:
The ravens catch the shadows of men and walk among the bones of the battlefields. They never neglect the darkness. Bearing hard, truthful messages from the invisible, they nourish the lonely soul with gifts of intuition, for their intense sharpness sees the jewels others miss.
It was difficult for me to find the raven within. When I asked myself why it was so hard, all I could answer was, “beCAWs, beCAWs.” As the week progressed, however, my cynicism began to wane, and by the time we performed the grieving ritual, I was prepared to let go.
Malidoma Somé conducted the ritual, based on the funeral ceremonies of his West African tribe, the Dagara. Malidoma is a fully initiated Dagara medic,ine man whose elders sent him to be educated in Europe and the United States. After meeting him, Bly and Meade recruited Malidome to help teach the men’s gatherings.
During a discussion one day, Malidoma told us that he had been trained by his tribal elders to see directly into people’s spirits. When he first arrived in the United States, he said, he was frightened by the sight of so many people “who had a big hole where their necks should be.” Walking around New York City, he also saw many “ghosts of the ungrieved dead,” as he called them. Before his second trip to the West, Malidoma asked his elders to remove this power to see spirits. I don’t think that Malidoma was speaking in metaphor.
As we prepared for the ritual, James Hillman explained, “Grief in our culture takes the posture of solemnity. People just stand around in the church or at the cemetery, and it’s all bowed heads and muffled sobs. Visually, it resembles shame as much as grief.” According to Hillman, the grief gets stuck inside. It doesn’t move, and it poisons the soul.
The ritual took place on a field between two stands of redwoods. At one end of the field was “the village,” the gathering spot, where men played drums and sang a sorrowful chant. On the other end of the field was a sanctified area bordered off by stones, which represented “the other world.” In the West African ceremony, this was where the dead were laid out, but for our purposes this became an area that contained all our losses—not only the imaginary bodies of those close to us who had died, but also the lovers who had left us, the America that had disappointed us, the Vietnam war dead, our dying cities, the sorrow of all our enormous twentieth century confusion. We symbolically placed these losses in the sanctified area, and then gathered in the “village” to join the drumming and chanting.
The ritual turned out to be African gestalt therapy, transplanted in North America. Its intended purpose was to break open our hearts, and for most of us it did. In the West African villages the mourners attempt to throw themselves over into the sanctified area, to follow their loved ones into the other world. At the men’s gathering we were told that when we felt grief arise, to walk or dance or even run across the field over to the shrine area. Once there, we were to “hurl our grief into the other world.”
It is difficult to create a new ritual. It requires agreement by a particular community that certain acts and words have a shared sacred meaning. Without time and tradition to give significance to a ceremony, whether it be celebration or mourning, the effect can feel contrived. So much depends on the participants’ ability to release themselves into the mystery, and that requires a kind of foolish bravery. Sometimes I can let go, and sometimes I can’t.
I resisted the grieving successfully for an hour or so, but as I watched other men begin to weep, I started to feel the sadness inside myself. At first I felt a little embarrassed to sob in front of other men, but as I let it happen, my sadness soon changed from something personal into sadness for everybody’s sadness. I felt the inevitable pain of our bodies, subject to sickness and certain death; the ongoing sorrow of losing our loved ones; the awareness of a troubled world with its vanishing species and burgeoning human population; that, and all the ordinary suffering that humans go through in any era.
Aside from the emotional catharsis it provided, the grieving ritual made me aware of the fact that I usually keep a certain distance from my emotions. That stance has cut me off, not only from suffering, for which I am always thankful, but also from a degree of intimacy with the world. When I close my heart to protect myself from sorrow, no matter how slightly, it also gets closed to the emotions of love and joy. As always, for any taste to exist at all, you must have both the bitter and the sweet.
I realized as well, that I sometimes hide inside my meditation practice, using it to maintain my distance, to stay an outsider. The equanimity developed in meditation can sometimes turn into sterile detachment; instead of feeling more human after cracking open the shell of ego, it is also possible to feel ex-human. Like the Buddhist heart-chakra practices of lovingkindness and compassion, the grieving ritual seemed to work as a corrective to meditative detachment.
Working with ritual and myth can have its downside, however. For instance, over the years my archetypal house seems to have become a bit crowded. I have Greek gods and Celtic knights and deities from Tibetan Buddhist mandalas and old rabbis with torahs all dancing around together in my head. Of course, I contain multitudes, just as Whitman and all of us do, and I have enjoyed getting acquainted with some of these characters. Still, it can be confusing. When I go over to my little private altar in the morning, I find a stately Buddha, a laughing Buddha, a picture of the monkey god Hanuman, a couple of Zuni fetishes, a string of Tibetan prayer beads made of human bone, each bead carved into the shape of a skull, a little photograph of Mahatma Gandhi with Charlie Chaplin, various feathers, rocks, bells and other ritual objects. Sometimes I ask myself, “Which of the ten thousand names of god should I invoke today?” Should I rub the laughing Buddha’s stomach or say a prayer to Mother Kali, and if I do both will they cancel each other out?
Still, when all is said and done, I think I’d rather have too many gods and amulets in my life than too few. More and more, I am finding that my desire to merge with the One has been answered, in some way, by the many. According to the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” so as long I keep the emptiness over my left shoulder, I might as well join fully in the dance. As Edward Abbey says, “The world may be an illusion, but it’s the only illusion we’ve got.” Having a metaphysics that makes sense is important, but poetry and imagery are what give it life. Not only do I want a spiritual practice, I want a mythology, too. Even if it is secondhand; even if it is a polyglot. Mythology keeps me in the world, and teaches me how to love it better.