I just returned from my first trip to Japan. Like others, I was struck by the extent of ritual that permeates the culture. There is the removal of shoes as one enters a home, for example. And the bowing to each other. As a visitor, I experienced these rituals from the outside, but, as I participated, I began to feel their meaning. Perhaps in part because it was new to me, the experiences of removing shoes and bowing made me mindful of respecting the spaces and people involved.
I found myself reflecting about rituals in my own life. There was a time when the whole idea of ritual seemed foolish to me. My adolescent saw ritual as meaningless repetition, a kind of obsession with the past. I am more tolerant of the past these days, having more of it. My notion is that we often see rituals from the outside. They may look impressive, like the Japanese rituals we observed, or many religious rituals, or political rituals. Even from the outside, they may evoke an admiration, a sense of appreciation for the form. From the outside, however, rituals are also likely to seem empty, pomp and costumes and images engaged in for their own sake, without further real meaning, simply as a matter of tradition.
From the inside, on the other hand, ritual may create an experience of meaning. The familiar form fades into the background and an opening emerges for a sense of connectedness to something larger and deeper. I remember hearing about an experiment in which people were given some chocolate. One group was given no instruction and just ate it; the other was asked to follow a ritual for eating it. The latter group reported significantly more enjoyment of the chocolate. I imagine them setting the chocolate out, perhaps dividing it into smaller pieces, smelling it, and then placing it gently on the tongue to melt. No wonder they enjoyed it more. Ritual supports mindfulness.
Ritual also binds communities. We know ourselves as the people who do this ritual, whether it is Catholic Mass, or pledge of allegiance, or removing shoes. We recognize others through the ritual as one of our tribe, the place where we belong. This tribal dimension helps account for reactions against ritual. Not only does it include; it excludes as well. From the outside, we may be inclined to judge or be threatened rather than curious and open.
I often think of the EE workshop in terms of ritual. We conduct the exercises in a particular form, and the sequence of exercises creates a ritual space. For team members who have served many times, the exercises are rituals that support mindfulness and comparisons with experiences other times they have done the workshop. For participants, the rituals can support this mindfulness, but, since it may be their first time in the ritual, it can also occasion resistance and a sense of being outside it and bewildered about its meaning. Of course there is much learning in that experience as well. I know that I learned a lot from grappling with my resistance to rituals, finding at length that the costs of my reactivity were high and that curiosity and a willingness to participate served me better.
It helps me to recall my recent experience with Japanese rituals to appreciate how rituals familiar to me, like those in the workshop, might be experienced by others.