By Nicola Underwood-Quinn
“We pull you away from the world with quiet, incessant whispers, urging you forward, deeper, higher, fuller. You become aware of the need to retreat from the noise of the world, the influence of others’ truth surrounds you. Finally, the pull must be allowed, and releasing for a time, the comfort securities of your known world, you, yourself open to the elements, to yourself, to spirit”. (Anon)
My family moved around the world a great deal when I was a child. As a result I experienced a dramatic variety of cultures. We lived in Europe, the Middle-East, India, the Far-East and Africa. I developed an awareness of and interest in different philosophical, political, historical, religious and spiritual traditions and practices. I became familiar with most of the major world religions. I noted belief structures that viewed matter and spirit as unified and others that held them as separate elements. I noticed the impact on the individual’s energy influenced by his/her culture. This wide range of experience provided me with maps that enable me to hold my own personal history and areas of interest in some larger context.
In addition this has led me to train in and practice different forms of psychotherapy and to recognise that although people have a variety of experiences there are human similarities within cultural diversities. I have also returned to train with the Shamans I encountered during my early life. Though they perform many functions, Shamans themselves regard their healing powers as primarily spiritual together with mastery of knowledge through the personification of Body, Mind and Spirit. The form of training differs with each teacher but invariably the process emphasises self-esteem, inner authority and power to direct energy to evoke the imagination or to provide chant formulas that we would recognise as affirmations to release blocks or patterns of physical, emotional or mental stress, or to change limiting beliefs.
Through the reconstruction of myth and legend, they remind people of their common purpose using song, dance and poetry. They suggest varieties of rituals that can elicit a powerful effect. Some of these practices involve what could be considered skillful psychotherapeutic techniques. For this reason and more, Shamans have often been called humankind’s first psychotherapists.
Transpersonal work is the aspect of psychotherapy most closely related to my background. This reflects my own personal experience of the Sacred and with ritual as well as a need and a desire to find a formal expression of it. I see transpersonal work as much a philosophy as it is a psychology. It is this synthesis of elements that has led me to the use of ritual in my work.
In my own attempts to find a balance between my inner life and my outer reality I have had to look beyond the obviously limiting categories we typically assign to things in order to make sense of our lives.
I strongly believe in the spiritual dimension of the individual, not as a separate piece of the puzzle but as an integral part of the whole. Assagioli asserts that the spiritual dimension is the source of states of contemplation, illumination and ecstacy or joy; the source of those drives that shape the evolution of the individual, and of humanity as a whole.1 It is also a way of naming the source of ritual.
“Ritual” is an ancient word coming from Sanskrit, it means both Art and Order. Its purpose is to connect the art of our living with the order of our consciousness. When these two become one – even for a short time – we can experience Bliss and Joy. The moment passes and the experience, having been made sacred in some form of appropriate ritual remains as a deep truth that can connect us back to our continued unfolding. However, ritual is actually very difficult to explain because of the limitations imposed by language on experience.
The stuff of the world is here to be made into images that become reflections of spirituality and containers of mystery. Ritual teaches us that every day we can transform ordinary experience into the material of the soul through a variety of forms; diaries, poetry, drawing, music and painting. Such rituals can arrest the flow of life momentarily so that events can be submitted to the alchemy of reflection. As we perform rituals, we re-connect with the experiences and we deepen our own re-awakening.
Ritual is essentially an organic process and cannot be imposed. I have found as a therapist that I can only suggest concepts or rhythms. In the spontaneous moment of insight, a ritual seems to present itself, and we work together to find an expression of the experience. I have found that when working with my clients, the most effective healing occurs when the client takes the germ of an idea in a session and weaves it into the fabric of his or her daily life. The client is then in the practice of healing and therefore in command of the process.
The Shamanic practices I encountered as a child have had a profound effect on me. When someone was ill, it was the shaman who was consulted first to begin the healing process on an energetic level. The Medicine Man was then brought in to ground those energies so that the healing process could evolve organically. In some cultures, the Shaman and the Medicine Man can be the same person. Ritual works in this same way: It grounds the inner work in the outer world.
Ritual need not be complicated. For instance, a client dealing with self-esteem issues spontaneously conceived this ritual: She decided to consciously go and buy flowers for herself. She took them home and arranged them where she could see them frequently. This ritual symbolically represented her taking time for herself to reinforce the work we had done in session around the issue of self-love.
Other rituals might involve connection with aspects of oneself neglected in childhood. Clients might use journal writing to track certain themes as points of reference. They might involve movement, poetry, art or music as a means of looking at working with those energies. Whatever the form or format, ritual is a way to work with insight and to move beyond it. It assists an expansion into one’s true identity. While these small rituals can seem to be about doing external things, the reality is that they become part of the internal dialogue of the person and help in a gentle way to advance the process of integration.
Oftentimes it is through stillness, silence or rest that the next phase comes to light. It is then not a matter of doing but of being that is important. In music, it is through the silence that the notes emerge. A dancer’s movement bursts through the expanse of stillness. Both are examples of the way we use energy in the containment, holding and expression of the self.
Assagioli notes that “symbols, properly recognised and understood possess great value; they are evocative and induce direct intuitive understanding. The fact that words indicating higher realities have their roots in sensuous experience serves to emphasise the essential analogical correspondences between the external and inner worlds.”2
Ritual as a process of therapy and the experience of joy, make the steps in life’s journey more safe and sure for the individual. “Essentially we are human beings with our own soul and our own personality, we are at the same time connected with other human beings, indeed we are intimately connected with all living and non-living things throughout our Universe. One obvious manifestation of this connectedness is through the groups to which we belong.”3
Group process is a ritual in and of itself. There is a definite beginning, middle and end. People move from a sense of themselves as individuals and gradually gain a sense of group purpose. The group works out an expression of itself. While the individuals retain their own identity and energy, they also become an integral part of the group identity and energy. The group then becomes a living organism for that moment in time.
Within this process the participants are able to examine how they lose themselves and or find themselves in groups. This helps them to understand the stories they tell themselves and to come to new freedom.
Ritual is a way to ground an internal experience in time and space. “Purpose comes from the Self, through the Soul, and tries to manifest itself through the personality into the world. So long as it is not grounded, it is ineffective. There is no point in banishing thoughts, purifying feelings and consecrating the purpose if you do not ground the energy and bring about the desired change.”4
Ritual may be as simple as people watching their own breathing; noticing how and where energies are flowing or held in their own bodies. They begin to see their rhythms, discover the place from which they breathe, the length of their own pause. They expand their awareness to include noticing the rhythms of the whole group.
In group-work I often use music to free internal and external movement and to ground the process. The music emerges from silence, the movement from stillness. The beauty of dance lies not only in the external movement or gesture, it is equally contained in the internal pause between movements. Therapy can provide a place to explore the movements we have become accustomed to and to pay attention to the quality of the pauses interspersing the movements of our lives. The joy comes in the moment of authentic expansion and expression of the person. The most important factor is to aid the group and thereby the individual to ground moments of insight that can lead to joyous, authentic expression.
Outside the realm of psychotherapy, group experience and ritual can have a profound effect on personal and collective identity. Irish people have, since the “Famine”, felt largely divorced from their own language, culture, history and sense of identity. We are currently in the fifth generation since that holocaust and the healing process is only now beginning to take place. In the way of native peoples, it is believed that this number of generations must pass before healing on such a scale can begin.
An illustration of this can be recognised in the unity experienced by Irish soccer fans during the world cup. Thousands of fans proudly wore green and waved the tricolour as a proud statement of their Irish identity and they participated in the great “standing Ritual” on the terraces.
It is not surprising that an equivalent healing in this fifth generation is occurring in the Six Counties and indeed on the whole island. This has been ritualised in the “Peace Process”. Although people are still hesitant to fully express the joy of this change, there is a collective desire to expand into the new era and to express hope and enthusiasm – the hallmarks of Joy and the stuff of Ritual.
1. Assagioli R. “Psychosynthesis”, Turnstone Press 1975 p.144.
2. Assagioli R. “Symbols of Transpersonal Experience”; NY Psychosynthesis Foundation, Reprint No. 11, 1969.
3. Parfitt W. “Walking Through Walls” – Practical Esoteric Psychology, Element Books, 1990.
4. Parfitt. op. cit.
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Joachin E.B. The Tuned Ear, Element, 1988.
King S.K. The Urban Shaman, Fireside, 1990.
Moore T. The Essential James Hillman, Routledge.
McClellan R. The Healing Force of Music, Amity House.
Walsh R. Spirit of Shamanism, Harper-Collins, 1990.
Wilber K. Spectrum of Consciousness, Quest Books.
Wilber K. Eye to Eye, Shambala Books.