Finding a Balance

Social scientists have different ways of viewing ritual: some explain it as the creation of feeling, some as the release of feelings, others as an application of beliefs, and still others as an expression of beliefs. This last way of explaining ritual is the more non-traditional, non-reductionist view offered by Geertz, Douglas, and Turner as explained by Robert Segal. Only in this last mode of understanding ritual is ritual seen as an ends in itself rather than the means to another end. The rituals of Lakota Ceremony can be understood and analyzed through the lens of each of these frameworks.

Using the example of the sweat lodge, which is the ceremony I have gained most familiarity with, each way of understanding ritual can be demonstrated. The sweat lodge has several dimensions. It is a place of purification, a place of death and rebirth, and a place of unity. According the first traditional model of explaining ritual, the point of the sweat lodge ceremony is to create these feelings; feelings of being cleansed, feelings of newness, feelings of connectedness. As it does quite literally cause participants to sweat out toxins and be cleansed, and it is reminiscent of a dark womb, and it causes some degree of hardship or suffering which leads to bonding among participants, one could say the sweat lodge was designed with the purpose in mind to impart these certain feelings. A second traditional way to understand ritual is that it is a place to release feelings. As a place of purification and rebirth, it may be viewed as intended to help participants in the ceremony rid themselves of thought patterns considered bad or harmful. As a place of unity, the sweat lodge could be seen as having the purpose of helping participants to shed perceived boundaries or selfishness.

Another traditional way of viewing ritual is not feeling based but practice based: the sweat lodge as a place to apply or put into practice held beliefs. This model of understanding ritual often stems from the idea that religion is a kind of prescience that explains and attempts to gives power over the world to religious believers. Through this lens, the sweat lodge holds a kind of magical power to purify and unite ceremony participants. Because they are pure and clean and connected to the web of life, they may now be assured that the prayers for which they have gone through all this trouble will be granted and impact the outside world.

Although all of these explanations may sound perfectly reasonable to the armchair scholar, lived experience tells me they all fall short. It is hard to put into words, but each of these ways understanding ritual feel shallow compared to the actual experience. Geertz, Douglas, and Turner offer a less traditional view of ritual based on and understanding of religion that sees it not as primitive science or a means to an end, but as an end in itself: “Rather than either explaining or controlling the world, ritual, for all three, serves to give human beings a place in it. Ritual does so by conveying information: by describing that place” (Segal 330). This understanding that ritual does not do something but simply says something, though more subtle, seems closer to satisfying real life experience. What is said by the ritual is the collective expression of belief of the ritual participants. The sweat lodge says “You are one with all of your relations. You are a new person in each moment if you are present to it. You have a pure and clean heart at your core.”

Returning from an immersion experience like that of Pine Ridge, it can prove difficult to try to understand ceremonial experiences in any systematic or academic way. Lived experience is a powerful thing and often prefers that one doesn’t try to box it in or explain it away. Academic models of understanding ritual thus provide a helpful framework to begin thinking about experience analytically. They also help integrate individual experience into a larger context by comparing and contrasting it to a wealth of other experiences. The trouble is that in this process some things will be lost; by comparing and analyzing a lived experience it is necessarily going to be reduced from its pure form. No longer living and breathing, the experience becomes a mere string of words and theories.

It is understandable that some scholars prefer words and theories and distrust field experience. I will assert again: lived experience is powerful. It is possible to get lost in it, to be overwhelmed by it, or to be unable to see outside of it. Undeniably, one will walk away from full participation in ritual with a bias. This, at least, is a poor excuse for not participating. It is human nature to be biased and I would assert that it is impossible for anyone studying religion to claim they are objective and unbiased, even if they have had no personal interaction with the religious practice themself. In fact, the kind of biased that comes from lack of interaction with a culture or tradition could arguably be more limiting because it allows for misconceptions and shallowness of understanding, whereas bias caused by interaction more likely has to do with the truth of the experience, which shouldn’t be considered in an academic study anyway. I would also argue that any appreciation or favorable view of the religious tradition gained during interaction with it is at least preferable to a negative view coming from outside, and possibly an asset in itself: an appreciation of practices and traditions not only allows for deeper understanding of them, but can also cause criticism of them to be more carefully thought out.

With no real life experience of a religious tradition, it is easy to fall prey to not only stereotypes and widespread misconceptions, but also to academic models that sound good from the vantage point of an armchair but just don’t measure up to the entirety of the real thing. Without having experienced the ritual of the sweat lodge, I would be in no position to discuss the validity of the various ways understanding ritual from an academic perspective. With no framework, each explanation may be seen as equally valuable. After participating in the sweat lodge ritual myself, I am able to refer back to my experience as the touchstone in my evaluation of different academic models and thus know when one explanation contains a grain of truth but lacks a complete understanding.

One lived experience certainly can’t stand in for the collective experiences of an entire religious tradition. But I would argue it helps a person to enter into that collective experience far more than no experience does. If nothing else, a lived experience helps one to understand the diversity of experience within a single tradition. With no personal, unique participation in religious tradition, one is necessarily working with generalizations and a glossed over view of religious experience. The beauty is in finding a balance between a single, lived experience and analytic, academic understandings. Both sides have limitations and both sides have something to add to the discussion. In examining and acknowledging both, we can begin to integrate them in a meaningful way in order transcend the limitations and enter into deep and holistic understanding of religious practice.


Emily Powers-Beck

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