Reinventing the Wheel

How do we respond to the call to spirit when we’ve inherited a spiritually impoverished society?

I teach yoga, participate in various ceremonial work and generally run in a “spiritual circle”, so I end up meeting a lot of young people who are participating in what we might call the “nouveau-new-age”. What I hear from many of them is a steadfast rejection of tradition, a lack of deference to teachers and the strong conviction that they can and should create their own form of ritual and ceremony—that it’s their universe/creator/goddess-given right to develop their own unique ways of connecting to spirit.

This seems to be a completely natural response to being born into a society that is bereft of any meaningful rituals and communal ceremonies. The unfulfilled longing to connect to spirit that arises from this situation is something that, as a 3rd generation Canadian who was raised without religion or ceremony of any kind (sorry, but I don’t count Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas), I can completely relate to. It’s the rejection of tradition and elders-as-teachers I find more curious and troublesome, and is something that I’ve been trying to better understand, mainly so that I can respond to it in a way that honours the core issue.

When I question the intelligence and safety of forging a new path when there are so many that have been laid out before us, what I often hear is, “well, our ancestors had to make it up at some point too”.

Of course all traditions started somewhere, and we can only imagine how clumsy and primitive those early rituals and ceremonies must have been as our early ancestors responded to their own call to understand the cosmos and their place in it. Over time though, just like any technology, they were adjusted and refined to make them more effective and safe, which is especially important when the ceremony is amplified by the use of entheogenic sacraments or techniques like fasting or piercing.

When we choose to make up our own way, we’re denying ourselves the benefit of all the well-tested knowledge that was gained by people developing ritual and ceremony over tens of thousands of years. Likewise, when we restrict ourselves to the traditions of our own genetic line, we’re also denying ourselves the knowledge of the rest of humanity.

Many of us in America whose relatives came from Europe have as little connection to their ancient ways as we do the traditions of people as obviously different from us as the Pygmies of New Guinea. For many of us, the ties to our geographic homeland and genetic cultural heritage have been so completely severed that if we were to return to the “homeland” we would be as foreign to them as we would be to the Pygmies.

The desire to connect to spirit is an inherently human trait, not a cultural trait. The work of Joseph Campbell shows us this unequivocally. So, what can we do when a tried and tested method of connecting to spirit hasn’t been passed down to us? What’s the right way for the neophyte to approach ceremony?

"You cannot hope to reclaim for your soul in a single year what two thousand years of spiritual oppression has banished into the furthest reaches of your inner bigness." — Martin Prechtel

I think we need to first study the rituals and ceremonies of the past, to understand what it is about them that is essential to their safety and effectiveness, and only then—very slowly and carefully—expand and modify them so that they are relevant to our modern lives and inclusive where they may not have been inclusive, especially in respect to gender and sexual orientation.

I think we need to develop a modern approach to ceremony in the same way we develop any technology—and what is ceremony other than spiritual technology? Let’s look at the analogy of the wheel. The first wheel was a circular slab chiseled out of stone and mounted on a wooden axle. This proved to be a very heavy and cumbersome design that was eventually modified so that the wheel was made out of wood, which was easier to fabricate and much lighter. In doing so, the strength of the stone was lost, so our ancestors that if they rimmed the edge of the wooden wheel with steel, it would have both lightness and strength. As time passed and transportation was further developed, we started to make cobblestone and paved roadways, and soon found that a metal-rimmed wheel not only made for a very rough ride, but also destroyed the developed roads. We then discovered that if we made the wheel with steel and soft rubber, the quality of the ride would be improved, the strength of the wheel maintained and the roadways preserved.

This technological development goes on and on but one thing that is never lost is the basic structure of the wheel: it’s a round form that spins on an axle of some kind. There’s a reason why the base design of the bicycle hasn’t changed in over 200 years, even as our technological advancement has grown exponentially—it simple works very well.

In the development of our spiritual technology, I feel that the guidance of elders is essential, as well as the involvement of the larger community, because we need to make sure that the ritual isn’t just bolstering the individual ego and that it remains effective in the fundamental purpose of connecting us to the greater Nature. Matthew Fox writes,

“A rite of passage derives from Nature’s accomplishments. That is why is requires authentic ritual that marries macrocosm (cosmos and Father Sky) with microcosm (human). That is why it requires ceremony that is both beautiful and effective in connecting the human and the rest of nature. It may require, especially for the males, some severity. That is why it makes a difference in the self-awareness and other-awareness of the youth. It opens them from “me” to “we”. If not, it fails us. And youth who are not undergoing authentic rites of passage will indulge in silly efforts of their own, usually destructive ones, to make up for this lack. Lurking behind this failure there will be an intense anger, hostility, and even grief on the part of the budding adult. For the true entrance into the community has never been accomplished. This failure to offer meaningful rites of passage falls on the shoulders of the adults. It is the adult’s responsibility; it is the elder’s responsibility, to offer meaningful rites of passage to the youth.”1

Martin Prechtel has for us these cautionary words,

“A great deal has been said about the possibility of making intiations and rites of passage for non-Native, noncommunity, nonvillage, modern people. Tribal-type initiations have been touted as a remedy for the frustration that modern people feel concerning the desperate lives of their young people. In a nihilistic age filled with weapons, drugs, insolence, and depression, the parents of such children may be powerfully drawn to the wild, elegant lack of complication that can be seen in the eyes of a truly indigenous person. Perhaps they think that by simply obtaining a tribal initiation, the same way one buys a medicine, they will achieve that look of wholeness and belonging in their eyes, thereby avoiding the whole frightening landscape of the alienated synthetic existence of modern life.

That initial impulse that some modern people confuse with indigenous instinct, the one that desires to once again have the nature of a wild wolf, usually comes out looking more like an overdomesticated beagle when that wildness tries to surface. We can all remember a little of our ancestral indigenousity but very few people remember anything of how to be truly natural. That beautiful wild look does belong to all of us but it has been energetically and purposefully whipped out of the most people’s ancestors. You cannot hope to reclaim for your soul in a single year what two thousand years of spiritual oppression has banished into the furthest reaches of your inner bigness.

To have initiations again we’d have to find a way to bring this banished indigenous soul back home to us and we would have to have communities worth coming home to. To do so we have to go very, very, slowly. A great deal of study, struggle, sacrifice, and love would have to be expended to make a real initiation for modern folk, one that wouldn’t ring hollow.This cannot be accomplished by simply superimposing other cultures’ rituals upon a modern people. Initiation has to come from the place where a people lives.”2

For me personally, the most authentic and safest way to connect to spirit has been through the simple practice of connecting with my breath in the deepest, most intimate way that I’m able. To attune my awareness to the life force that is moving through me, and to allow my body to be moved by it. In this way, connecting my self with Nature, and in the process, learning how to be more natural. This is the fundamental technology of yoga practice that the great Sri T Krishnamacharya taught. The wheel on the axle, as it were.

Krishnamacharya himself was a great innovator of the great Indian traditions, first understanding it in great depth over many years through his advanced scholarship and personal practice, and only then modifying it so that it might be relevant to modern people with jobs and families—retaining what makes it effective and safe.

I’m forever grateful to my own teachers who have spent countless hours required to learn the time-tested techniques with enough depth so that they can then translate them in a way that I’ve been able to connect to, and in doing so, transform my own life by connecting to spirit in my own personal way—to form my own wheel that may revolve on the axle of tradition.

1. Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men
2. Martin Prechtel, Long Life Honey in the Heart