On being ritual-ready

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a ritual feel “real.” In a revelation that won’t surprise anyone, I’ve participated in a fair number of rituals in my time (please ignore how down-homey that turn of phrase makes me sound, if you will – it’s been a while since my last turn on the blog, and I’m way out of practice), and I’ve never been one of those people who shifts easily into the mindset of Doing Important Work Now. I usually need…something. Some meditation prior to getting started, or intentionally putting on a meaningful piece of jewelry or clothing…the form of that preparation isn’t really the important part. The important part is that if I ignore that part of the process, I’m just not going to be connected to or present for the ritual work in the way I want to be.

So given this awareness, it’s interesting to note that one of the most impactful ritual experiences of my recent memory came while I was wearing a nerdy t-shirt and some cargo shorts, and that I didn’t know it was happening at all until, oh, about 30 seconds beforehand.

This happened during a recent long weekend in Michigan, and my partner and I had just finished a tour of a pretty amazing museum of Ojibwe culture. As we left the museum and started a search for dinner, we heard some drumming happening a couple of parking lots over and (being who we are) we decided to investigate. We found a group of a couple hundred people, who were participating in part of a day-long health event with cancer screening, a community-sponsored run, and some other activities. We also found several people from the Ojibwe tribe drumming and a large circle of cedar branches with a small fire in the center, and a number of interested locals gathering closer. I wasn’t sure, at first, if we were supposed to be there or not, and I had the sense that some other folks were wondering the same thing.

We arrived just in time to hear one of the members of the tribe conducting (in my internal terminology) a really lovely and efficient ritual conspiracy session. He began by explaining that they were offering an opportunity to participate in a ceremony to honor our ancestors who had passed before us. The first thing he said, essentially, was “You are welcome, and it’s not disrespectful of our traditions for you to participate.”

He went on to explain the purpose of the ritual (to honor our dead, particularly those who were lost to cancer), the logistics of how to participate (enter the circle from the east, make offerings from the bowls of tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass to the fire at each of the cardinal directions, say a prayer if you like, and then exit when you’re ready) and what to expect next (take a small handful of tobacco from a young woman by the circle’s entrance, then wait for the next part to be explained). All of the parts of the ritual itself were truly lovely – quite impactful for a lot of people, including me, and it was pretty amazing to have such an unexpected experience as well.

The bigger takeaway for me is something else, though. It’s the awareness that inside of maybe 10 minutes, I had gone from “Huh. Is that drumming over there?” to fully participating in a ritual facilitated by welcoming strangers from a tradition that I know very little about. It helps that there were so many familiar pieces (you know…a circle, a fire, drumming, a clear intention for the work…these are more than a few of my favorite things), but it still has me thinking, and wondering: What, exactly, do I need to be present for a ritual experience? It apparently doesn’t require what I thought it did.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time overthinking mulling this over, these past couple of weeks. What I’ve come down to is this: For ritual to work for me (and for me to work, in ritual), I need to be as fully present as I am capable of being. I’ve invested some time and energy in the past thinking about the process of that preparation – the “What do I need to do, every time, to be ready and open?” but I’m realizing that it’s more a matter of asking myself in the moment, “Am I ready and open – and if not, what can I do to become so?” Sometimes the answer is that I need to do some intentional work to shift my focus from the mundane to the spiritual. Sometimes it means that I need to switch out of my nerdy black shirt and into something else.

And sometimes, apparently, it just means that I need to say, “Hey, that sounds like a drum. Let’s go check it out.”

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