Joy & Ritual – Pathways to Expression

By Barbara Fitzgerald

“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that move the Human spirit forward”. (Joseph Campbell)

All life seeks to make order. The rules and rhythms of Nature have always organised Human affairs.

Much of the time we live life in the Western world slavishly addicted to busyness, over extending ourselves and being exhausted or addicted to excitement, seeking quick cures or panaceas. We seldom allow ourselves evolve a practice and a way of being that can give time to the sacred, or time to rest, in a middle ground where new insights and ways of knowing can be expressed, especially at times of transition.

In the past, ritual provided a sacred passage encapsulating the moments between beginnings and endings. The function of ritual gave form to human life, not just to surface arrangements but in depth.

In this article I would like to suggest that how we relate to Ritual can evoke a quality of awareness in us that is life-giving. This process is the deepest expression of our poetic knowing. It is always embodied. It is the lived experience of the act of making something sacred.

In our culture it is most deeply felt by its absence. This can be experienced in individuals as a sense of absence of meaning, a feeling of being isolated, trapped in the sameness of life. With the growth of mass media, com­munication and many accessible forms of self-knowledge, we are saturated with images of heroes and heroines, both real and imaginary, through literature, television and the Arts. These images and myths can appear suddenly and fade rapidly. (Note the recent demythologising of Albert Reynolds and Gerry Adams.) Paradoxically, with the growth of choice, the deadening of response in peoples’ experience has simultaneously occurred.

If we become over excited, we exhaust ourselves. (“The centre cannot hold”, W.B. Yeats) How can we find a way back to that middle ground, a way to inhabit inner experience where we can relate joyously to ritualistic forms, so that they reveal the whispers of the ancients and amplify our current lives?

From time immemorial, Dance, its ritual gestures and rhythmic structures, provided a way to engage with inner experience. In the movement courses that I teach, I encourage participants to engage in movement dialogue through the traditions of story-telling, poetry, classical and modern music. As we look anew at it, new possibilities can emerge that can lead to greater freedom of personal expression.

People come to the courses with a desire to dance. In our lives we can sometimes embody feeling states that are outmoded for us and lead to tightening avenues of expression. These tense states of being can be loosened by encouraging people to move with a heightened awareness of their sensory knowing. As they listen, feel, taste and see, they allow their tightened musculature to relax, stretch and soften. Their sensuality can become available to them.

We can embody feeling states of excitement that continually divert us from being able to articulate a stance in life that is strong, with firm boundaries.

These over excited states of being can be encouraged to rest within a person through the practice of standing on the ground, feeling oneself rooted and having a sense that when one moves to a different space one’s whole self moves – we walk our walk, stand our stance, a whole range of movement possibilities can emerge for us.

To dance, to begin freeing ourselves from limited and tightened states of being involves a willingness to engage in the deeper mysteries of how we form life. To encourage a felt sense of the difference between inner and outer expression of the body embedded into the structure of the class, is a practice that facilitates the process.

This can include elements from Tai Chi and other martial arts, to enable us to slow ourselves down, breathe deeper and facilitate presence to ourselves. During this “silencing time”, we meditate on the structure of the class, then we engage in a movement ritual to loosen up, to inhabit ourselves, to enjoy the space inside and outside ourselves. Then we stop. Lie down and become aware of the deep pulsations inside, as we shift from movement to stillness.

As we continue to develop the themes further, we move into a deeper subjective knowing, i.e. being inside how we move. This is the difference between an objective knowing of the body and a subjective expression of it. Within this felt sense of awareness, we work with study, states of expression and themes like gesture study, our relationship to space and to sensory knowing, to rhythm and to vitality. The practice of being open to all these moments in an expressive medium such as dance, is about being deeply responsive to how we live.

What is it about the nature of this responsiveness that has survived in ritualistic practices over centuries and in different cultures? What is it that survives in different traditions that we imaginatively recognise? Maybe the answer lies in the mystery of how the human spirit always finds a way to express the deepest longings to which it aspires?

What are the moments that punctuate our experiences and reveal to us the deeper meaning of our lives? These moments can sometimes occur spontan­eously. It is as if they erupt into a culture when people are ready. I am recall­ing the experience of “Riverdance” being performed at the Eurovision Song Contest. I wonder was this a moment when there was a change in Irish con­sciousness. Do you recall the moment, when to the sound of drums and after the lithe, graceful movement of Jean Butler, Michael Flateley abandoned himself to space, leaped into the air and as he landed on the stage, the habitual, old form of Irish dance, as we had always known it, was born anew. The new form contained the old form yet was revealed with a freshness of perspective that caught the imagination of a nation.

Ritual can provide a service for a culture. It can amplify life and become a bridge to deeper meaning and greater inspiration. This is needed at this time. We live in an era where the organised forms of tradition have evoked a deadened response in people. David Feinstein & Stanley Krippner, in their book, Personal Mythology, describe that ancient mythologies were bound together by tradition. They go on to assert that: “No single unifying force in today’s complex civilisation is powerful enough to preserve cohesion amid the multitude of contrasting mythologies people are exposed to now.”

We are at the mercy of storms of images pervading our senses at a dizzying pace. “Never have so many visions been available to choose from,” (Feinstein & Krippner). We do not necessarily have to live that way if we can find a gathering place within ourselves, a centre from which to act, a Still Point. A way of being present, so that in gathering our energies, we can move outward with a strong vision.

If we lived in unison with the clues inside as to when we need to work, rest and play – and did so, these ordinary acts of living could become moments in daily life that are rinsed through by a deeper, rhythmic code of being. They could give birth to ordinary acts becoming Sacramental rites.


Dexter Blackmer J. “Acrobats of the Gods’ – Dance and Transformation”. Inner city Books, Canada 1989.

Graf von Durkheim K. “Our Twofold Origin”, Allen & Unwin, 1983

Feinstein D & Krippner S. “Personal Mythology”, Mandala, 1988

Kegan R. “The Evolving Self – Problems and Processes in Human Development”, Harvard U.P. 1982

Kellerman S. “Your Body Speaks Its Mind”, Centre Press, Berkeley CA. 1981

Barbara Fitzgerald works at the Institute of Psychosynthesis, Eckhart House, Clyde Road, Dublin 4, and in private practice. She is a member of The Family Therapy Network of Ireland and The Irish Association for Humanistic & Integrative Psychotherapy.