Indigenous Religious Traditions, Bruce Coriell, Block 3, 2012
Truth in Ritual: Imagining Reality
I wonder what changed in conscious thought from right before humans invented the wheel to right after. On one level, a revolution in imagined reality manifested into an engineering transformative potential in physical reality. Pyramids were erected to gods. Different cultures with varying customs and traditions imagined different possibilities and thrived: alive and reaffirming existence by building upward, man made mountains. As Rousseau famously suggested, as humans lived without civil society for the better majority of our existence, the pre-political state is a stable enduring distinct condition of mankind. The concept of “the noble savage” pervades and influences philosophical thought from Rousseau on to modern anthropological and religious studies scholars. To examine the revolution the advancement of the wheel from a more religious perspective, the sacred, restorative, healing (or any term one wishes to apply to the energetic properties of the hoop) acts as a catalyst for an enlightenment taking place. Ritual then, empowers “each and every one of us” as Mike so affectionately repeated, to feel fundamental states of unity and connection to a source, a non-duality in a bright white light: singularity. There in the poorest part of america, the so called most free nation in the world, I was to learn a sacred lesson.
A poster on Mike’s wall boldly states, “The Real Founding Fathers,” and goes from our founding fathers, to the real founding fathers, namely Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and Red Cloud. Today, if we want to test first hand the theories of scholars, theologians, and philosophers like Rousseau we must look to our indigenous neighbors. We were fortunate enough to meet Mike the medicine man of the Lakota up in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Who is this Mike? I had the honor of spending a spiritually transformative week with Mike Little Boy Junior. One day Mike took a large group of us up Bear Butte, a beautiful stand alone sacred peak on the edge of an immense Dakota plain. In this sacred space, several of my peers, my brothers and sisters, found themselves overcoming fear and having transcendental revelations due to the transformative power of the mountain. “The temple serves as a focusing lens, marking and revealing significance.”(54, Smith) By changing “temple” to “mountain” our theoretical argument can be backed by my empirical evidence, for my peers also felt compelled to create meaning from simple coincidences. To understand how we create meaning itself relies on personal understanding from controlled processes. For ritual when inspected from an epistemological lens appears to be human attempts to create or allow for the presence of divinity in a defined and sacred order.
With a similar epistemological lens, the ritual of western science empirically stating and exposing the truth reveals and transports to others the same transcendent and linguistically unfathomable wisdom. Turner proposed “to use ritual in the first sense, for all human societies have codes for transmitting messages to one another about matters of ultimate concern…”(Turner, 504). Ritual becomes greater than the individuals alone could possibly imagine. An essential human synergy comes from the harmonious fusion of consciousness. Referring back to the conscious awakening in the imagined realm with the invention of the wheel, without the ritual of perfecting the circular hoop shape knowledge and wisdom would be lost. The rituals are sacred and must be remembered for the sake of the children.
We climbed Bear Butte. I became unknowingly involved in a sacred action when, after eagerly following Jay and Mike for a while, they let me pass as long as I would hold the staff. I gratefully obeyed, for I am a passionate ascender, an incline enthusiast. Then I felt the staff in my hand and my body was steadily transported up. One with my breath and a beating drum of a heart I found myself balanced face to the wind on the edge of the observation deck railing alone at the top, elated. Steadily, the others joined me, also exhausted and triumphant. We walked out to the point. The wind stopped. The pipes were packed while we sung some songs. Mike then spoke, “You all didn’t know it but you should be thankful, your prayers were carried up here in that staff.” I felt calm. Everything was right. We were united by our suffering and overcoming.
A bee landed on my neck. The potential for harm frightened a friend. I turned to her to assure her, the right words would have been “let it be,” but I said, “It’s alright.” Calmly, and for a profound amount of time, the bee and I were still, praying to thrive and be alive. Maybe at another time the bee would have been an insignificant pest, unwelcome at our picnic. But there, at the top of Bear Butte, in our ceremony, a ritual unknown to me, in which a vital role I had played, I felt something real. Whether reality will actually change is a question of no concern to me. For if at all, in the slightest, my modality, my lens through which I see the world can somehow take in more energy, more light, I will be able to move forward on the road to enlightenment for the betterment of all of my relations. Mitakuye Oyasin, as the Lakota say, for all my relations.
In my experience, as well as the experience shared with me from the perspective of my fellow classmates, a shared theme of walking in a sacred way to transcend and overcome fear cast reflections in our accounts. The ritual of walking a path, a sacred path, not only exists in many traditions’ ideological ethos, but also in a tessellating worldview reflected by physical reality: We’ve created trade routes to railroads to highways to superhighways to information-superhighways to the internet not only exchange goods and services but also to exchanged ideas of how we imagine reality to be. Ritual can therefore be not only a method for setting the wheels in motion for a certain chain of events, as Turner would suggest, but can also serve to reinforce itself in an act of reciprocating justification. When one feels the emotional response to a certain experience, moods and motivations become influenced.
Take then the peace pipe, or the feather on the prayer staff, their meaning inevitably becomes tied with the experience of the mountaintop prairie expansiveness, unending to the visible horizon line. The symbols become sacred not only due to their practical usage but also for their metaphorical value. I become aware of the significance of one Chanupa with the way in which it helps people let go of things and overcome fear. Of course, how fitting.
Ritual, as Geertz and Smith argue, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a collective attempt to create order and divinity in present practice. Not only can ritual serve as a catalyst for oncoming events and good fortune in the physical realm, but also ritual can reinforce symbolic significance through both shared miraculous experience, ethos, and through perspective lens, a worldview shift. From the wheel, to next level global spherical consciousness, humans have been imagining reality since the dawn of consciousness, and ritual has become the catalyst for advancement in physical and imagined forms.
I love the concept of letting oneself be like a hollow bone or a hollow straw to let the great spirit fill oneself. When we smoke the pipe, we set the intention of empty peace and space for the great spirit to fill. The Lakota may not know it, but how very Socratic of them! For Socrates states he is the wisest man in the court of Athens because he knows he knows the least. The Lakota, like Socrates, may have been beaten up on by society, but know the greatest humble truth of all that the rest of us seem to have forgotten. Let us surrender to the higher power for good. I pray for the future for all children to be better off. The life there with Mike on Pine Ridge with his Lakota Family is prayer and ceremony. The ritual cyclical nature of existence exists in both the ethos and worldview of this Lakota family. From birth to death, death to birth, singing some songs with sacrament and prayer, Mike and the ritual he exposed us to has become a catalyzing force in our conscious awakening.
- VICTOR TURNER’S THEORY OF RITUAL by Robert A. Segal
- The Bear Facts of Ritual Smith
- Religion as a Cultural System Geertz
- Rousseau The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings