Why We Need Ritual


We are the stars which sing
We sing with our light
We are the birds of fire
We fly over the sky
Our light is a voice
We make a road for the spirit to pass over

                                                                                                    Dead Can Dance- Song of the Stars

In the modern West the split between culture, nature, and spirituality is a worthy topic in addressing the issues we are currently facing. The pervasive lack of integral spirituality and ritualistic context continues to create a vacuum in our human experiences both individually and communally.

Transitions events of life, and rites of passage are left unmarked and unwitnessed often creating problems ranging for mild anxiety to psychosis. In tribal and many non-Western cultures, rites of passage and initiation provides the crucible for transformation. In our non- ritualized and spiritually void modern culture, behaviors that are not easily accommodated within the socially acceptable are feared, rejected or pathologized.

Mental health diagnosis rises as does suicide rates, and yet conditions and experiences that would be recognized in many non-Western or tribal contexts as call to initiation, or an attempt to restructure the ego, are medicated and stigmatized. This leads to social and spiritual isolation- or what we have come to refer to as ‘the dark night of the soul’.

Painting by Araya-Cassildas

Initiation and ritual provide a container for transition, that is, moving from one state to another and that crossing being acknowledged and accepted within the community. A three-fold process of separation from daily life, transition and transformation experienced through a death of the old, and reintegration back into the community with a new identity is the basic format of initiation.

The Latin term ‘transitio’ means the act of going across; the most common rite of passage is that of child to man or woman and is marked in puberty rites in many indigenous communities. The importance of this transition is crucial for the well-being of the community… on return from the death/rebirth journey, the young man or woman is expected to take responsibility for their role in the cohesion and harmony of the tribe. In Western society, the lack of puberty rites herald two things

1.Children will self-initiate to be accepted as an adult. They will do this by any number of damaging and dangerous behaviors which will not elicit the desired response and in fact will inspire the opposite response.

2.Individuals will continue to exist in a child state into adulthood never taking full responsibility for themselves or contributing to their society in meaningful ways.

Acting out behaviors, addictions, promiscuity, self- harm and other symptoms of destruction to self and others are labelled mental illness. In the history of psychopathology women outnumber men 3.1, while the risk of suicide is more prevalent in men by about the same odds.

In many tribal cultures, confrontation with death, either real or symbolic, is a prerequisite of transformation. Alternatively, Western consciousness is death denying and any attempt to approach death willingly is indicative of mental illness. Modern near-death experiences from addiction, dangerous behavior or self mutilation are viewed as a cry for help, however on another level it could be viewed as the soul’s need for wholeness through dissolution and restructuring of the ego. If handled with insight, awareness and compassion, these experiences could provide the possibility of growth and integration. These insights have been well explored in the work of Stanislav and Christina Groff who espoused the need for a transpersonal psychology that recognizes the manifestations of what they call ‘spiritual emergence’.

In a culture that lacks awareness of these transpersonal states, it is more likely that what occurs is ‘spiritual emergency’ as the troubled soul attempts to make a meaningful spiritual connection that appears to be pathology.

Ritual, myth and initiation could be the missing link in providing a bridge to not only the spiritual world, but to our communities, and the earth which in the end, it may be argued, there is no real difference. The existentialist psychologist Rollo Reese May believes that suicide attempts and personality disorders are caused by the lack of meaningful and sacred myths: “Without myths he says, we are without soul.”

Western culture places little or no value on transpersonal and transformative experiences and therefore cannot hold them. Instead what is valued in Western culture is a matrix of economic wealth, civilized and non-troublesome behavior, and a general acceptance of the contemporary features such as technology, medication and consumerism, leading to a well controlled but fragmented society.

Clip from the 1971 film Walkabout

Rites of passage is not just about a transcendent experience with a spiritual intelligence, it is also about communing with others and feeling a sense of belonging in one’s community. During rites of passage, an existential state with the sacred is shared with others who also recognize this state and/ or participate in the experience. This ‘communitas’ is undefined and unstructured existing beyond all hierarchies and categories (See Turner, 1966). A common humanity exists within the group and the desire to merge is acknowledged and accepted. The group dynamic is a cohesive whole where each one is united with his or her community and is imbued with a profound sense of belonging and acceptance- very different to the sense of alienation and isolation that many people face during times of transition in the modern West.

Given that it is predominantly women who are diagnosed as suffering from personality disorders, and that very often a signature of that disorder is co- dependency, or emotional dependency, this raises further questions about spiritual availability for young girls in our culture. The Christian-Judeo paradigm of religion in is itself invalidating of the feminine. We have the father and the son but no feminine in the holy trinity; the story the feminine is divided, and until the assumption of Mary in 1950, the feminine was not divinely assumed into heaven. When divinity is not reflected through a self-referential image, the experience is further invalidating.

I know there is also much to say about the young masculine experience in a culture that does not provide any rites of passage initiation- the consequences of this are all too clear and there is much to be done.

According to Mircea Eliade, reality and identity are established for ‘primitive peoples’ through “participation” and “repetitions” of the mythological paradigms. We know who we are and what our role is through contacting a sacred mythos that places our individual life in a collective sphere and provides a sense of belonging. There is no sacred myth in Western culture save for the crumbling skeleton of the church, no cohesive glue that binds us in a shared humanity. A corporate global consciousness married to an increasingly pixilated technological culture separates us from each other, spiritual connection, earth connection and ourselves. In this we become soulless. Malidoma Patrice Some, a West African writer and spiritual workshop leader says,

“We need ritual because it is an expression of the fact that we recognize the difficulty in creating a different and special kind of community. A community that doesn’t have a ritual cannot exist. A corporate community is not a community, it is a conglomeration of individuals in service of an insatiable soulless entity.”

Through stories, myths, ritual, and the sacred we bring meaning to our existence and to the world, we breathe life back into the world soul and allow the possibility for a broader spectrum of experience, a more integrated, creative weaving of self, earth and spirit and all the possibilities that holds. The Freudian model of ego, id, and superego, and the primacy of Western psychology that was born of that is but a pale imitation of the beautiful mystery of the soul.

I love this song by Dead Can Dance- Song of The Stars, it communicates so much about our sacred nature.

Dead Can Dance- Song of the Stars


The ritual landscape, the faery realm, and the Grail

The Mists of Avalon
Glastonbury Tor, Saint Michael’s Tower.  Author’s own photograph ©

The mystic and theosophist, Rudolf Steiner says, “We can see the Grail as the knowledge awaiting us if we can raise ourselves to it by working upon ourselves”. This is no light feat; the journey itself reflects the pleasures and the pain of the soul coming home to itself. The Grail in this context is not a material object, neither is it the same objective experience for everybody, it is the gift we receive when we walk our own unique soul path facing all the inherent dangers and perils along the way.  As Jung states, “Individuation comes one person at a time, not to the collective, for only in the individual are opposites reconciled and united.”

What is this journey to Self becoming and who or what are our allies along the way? Well, I may as well be up front here… I don’t think many answers are to be found within traditional psychotherapeutic models, or in psychopharmacology, as neither acknowledge the inherent spiritual possibilities contained within psychic disruption. Exceptions to this are Stanislav Groff, the Czech psychiatrist whose pioneering work in transpersonal psychology re-framed psychological disturbance as spiritual emergence. An alternative and far more holistic view can also be seen in the work of R.D. Laing, and the anti-psychiatry movement.

When it comes to questing for one’s personal Grail, what is required is a deep spiritual therapy, or even a radical spiritual therapy to mend our damaged bodies and souls. Inner journeys of this kind do not follow a rational linear structure, they spiral on a loop, sometimes the same experience is revisited many times in different ways, and sometimes the gap between the insights are wide and lonely. It is like joining dots in some great stellar configuration, time and space collapse blurring the boundary between past and present, inner and outer.

The Grail as a symbol of individuation is a subject that is explored in Steiner’s The Mysteries of the Holy Grail. It is also to be found in Marie Louise von Franz and Emma Jung’s, The Grail Legend (yes, Jung had a very wise wife!)

The Damsel of the Holy Grai bly Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
“The Damsel of the Holy Grail” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,

In this blog I want to talk about how the land itself has a pivotal role in our journey to wholeness. Part of the reason why traditional psychotherapy is not entirely effective is precisely down to its lack of contact with the physical world and even, in may cases the physical body- although the lineage of body psychotherapy from Wilhelm Reich through to Alexander Lowen, and Gerda Boyesen seeks to address this imbalance. In the absence of initiatic knowledge, mystery schools, and proper use of ritual so valued and respected in the ancient world, the modern world is painfully bereft of suitable containers for the processes of inner alchemy. Journeying to the inner planes through the head alone is likely to lead to splits and possible psychosis if we are not rooted in the body, the base chakra and present to the material world. Disembodied, we also deny ourselves the possibility of receiving guidance from the genuis loci, or spirit of the land.

Genius of Place (genius loci) and Lares. Fresco in the lararium of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. 60—79 CE. Pompeii, House of the Vettii.
Genius of Place (genius loci) and Lares. Fresco in the lararium of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. 60—79 CE. Pompeii, House of the Vettii.

In psychological terms, it is often the case that people become over identified with the archetypal realms, fixating their identity around a particular story, symbol or archetype. In Shamanic speak this may be described as soul loss.

Changeling by Arthur Rackham
Changeling by Arthur Rackham

There is a chance of being drawn into the Other World and getting stuck there. For the Celts, such a state may be understood as having being taken by the faery queen into her magical Queendom where one is held captive for a period of time- usually 7 years. In his poem, The Lost Child, W.B. Yeats illustrates this journey and alludes to the reasons why a person may become vulnerable to such a capturing-

Come away, O human child!To the waters and the wildWith a faery, hand in hand.For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B. Yeats

A danger is to become susceptible to soul-loss, or being held captive by ego-structures or complexes created by suffering or trauma. An inability to deal with over-whelming eruptions from the psyche often perpetuated by the demands and pain of the world, or else experiences perceived to be caused by external phenomenon, can cause a ‘checking-out’ into the labyrinths of the mind. Going into hiding, taking refuge in the hidden caverns of the unconscious may provide some escapism from the ‘real world’ but there is a price to pay. If presence and consciousness are absent, the person can become a vacuum in which archetypal and daimonic forces use for purposes that care little for the small individual trapped within a mire of chaotic forces. See my blog on ‘the daimon’-

The Daimon

In her adaptation of The Stolen Child, Joan Stockford, shows a way to rescue ‘the stolen child from the realms of faery, it is a journey of reclamation, a brave and courageous feat that involves descending into the dark realms (the unconscious) with presence (consciousness) and determination to take back what was has been lost. It is in a sense a return to innocence as the soul essence is restored and the person is able to receive divine or spiritual intervention.

Adaptation of ‘The Stolen Child’

Glastonbury is considered a place of spiritual pilgrimage where many seekers on the path to healing and wholeness find themselves. Theories abound as to why this little market town in the West country should possess the power to draw and transform people. It is said that Glastonbury, or Avalon is the gateway to the underworld, where Gwyn ap Nudd rules over his dark kingdom. Many writers including R.J. Stewart have written about the initiatic potential of such encounters. This understanding of initiation through the Western Mystery Tradition finds it parallels with Greek and Egyptian knowledge of the conditions necessary for the transforming soul.

Geomancer and local Glastonbury Writer, Nicholas Mann, says,

“Research into the Celtic tradition allowed me to understand the full significance of Avalon as the location in time and space of the portal for soul journeying between the worlds. I understood how this significance accounted for the myths and qualities attributed to the Glastonbury Avalon, and how the awareness of the portal for the soul on its journey between the worlds resonated on long after the Celtic period.”

In Glastonbury as in other ‘vortex’ places, there is a presence, a spiritual quality, or sentience within the land which can be interacted with forming a resonance – a kind of ‘mutual reception’ or ‘participation mystique‘. It can affect healing both for the land and for the participating individual, and for the ancestors.  It is not rational, it is a purely right brain and intuitive experience, or as Steiner describes it-

“The human spirit elevates itself to the tremendous impressions of its outer world and first divines and afterwards recognizes spiritual beings behind these impressions; the human heart develops a sense of the boundless sublimity of the spiritual realm.”

In the Celtic tradition Sovereignty is the archetypal Goddess of the land, she is “not simply the right to rule over a clan or country; sovereignty is a divine power that was granted by the goddess of the land.”  In a hieros gamos between the king and the land, sovereignty ensures that only an eligible king can come to rule.  The scholar R.S. Loomis says the Grail legend has its origins in Celtic mythology where the Goddess of the land, Sovereignty, asks the question, “To whom shall this cup be given?”  This question is the all-important question of the Grail, it alludes to the fact that to be wedded to the land in a sacred marriage, we must know ourselves- our essence. To know ourselves is to have fully accepted and received ourselves. To have made our bodies a suitable home for our spirit facilitated by our unique soul journey.

If as Steiner says, “We can see the Grail as the knowledge awaiting us if we can raise ourselves to it by working on ourselves”, it is not too much of a leap to suggest that the Grail as a quest for individuation is to finally ‘know thyself’. Furthermore, the possibility of fully knowing oneself as a realized individual is a process that not only takes place within the individual psyche but includes the living earth… it is a synthesis that harmonizes the three powers of thinking, feeling and will- closely which are connected with the trinity of spirit, soul, body. For Steiner it is the holy spirit, Sophia, who may guide us on this journey.

Only an eligible king, one who knows the answer to the question, “To whom shall this cup be given?” is worthy of the title of King.  Here, ‘King’ may be read as the individuated, sovereign human who reigns over his or her kingdom (mind), established through a sacred union with the land, the physical body and the world of matter.  It is the seal of a person who has opened an energetic flow between the three realms – body, soul, and spirit.

William Blake The Reunion of the Soul and the Body at the resurrection (1808)
William Blake, “The Reunion of the Soul and the Body at the resurrection” (1808)


Psychedelics for healing trauma


Recently there has been a lot of discussion on trauma and healing trauma.  Psychiatry, psychology and consciousness studies is expanding its understanding of the psyche as an anomalous structure in which states of awareness in the non-ordinary realms can be made sense of in new ways.  The potential of our human experience has exploded beyond our self-imposed boundaries.   One such area in this field is the use of psychedelics; studies initiated in the modern West since the 1950’s began to explore the expanding perameters of human consciousness to include non-ordinary states of reality as valuable insightful, and healing.

Studies of the brain, particularly the limbic system, show how trauma is not only a mental experience but is also a somatic one and that unhealed trauma continues to have serious effects in the lives and experiences of human beings, potentially lasting the whole life-cycle and causing premature death.   Trauma is not a singular experience, it seems to encompass many states of awareness through different realms previously misunderstood or known only in special contexts such as religious or shamanic, pre-rational awareness.  The worlds are merging and to an extent this is an uncomfortable interface for traditional science which separates spirit and matter, mind and body.

In the 1960’s the anti-psychiatry movement challenged the assumption that mental illness was caused by a blip in the brain of the individual.  Many barbarous procedures were carried out to ‘fix’ the problem: over medication with complex pharmaceutical drugs continues to be the method of choice for consciousness suppression. Continuing to the present day, the solution peddled by allopathic medicine is to first classify and then medicate the faulty brain to bring the individual to ‘normality’, or at least under control and limit disruption to the social order.

Psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing began to explore the deeper meaning behind an individual’s ‘abnormal’ behaviour, suggesting that perhaps it was not so abnormal after all and in fact made perfect sense within the environmental context of the suffering individual.  Naturally this exploration began to look at structures such as the social collective to which the individual belonged, beginning with the family.  Families however belong to cultures and cultures belong to human systems.  This line of enquiry therefore was in danger of questioning the fabric of our social order, or system, and although the movement was limited in scientific acceptance, its essence continued through the work of pioneers in consciousness such as Stanislav Groff.

It seems the issue is hot once more- why is it that certain individuals display anomalous behaviour in an otherwise well adjusted society?  Could it be that what they experience is a normal process of being human and that what has been deemed abnormal or pathological is in fact symptomatic of the damaged soul getting well? And could it be that society is not that well-adjusted after-all? More, perhaps the ‘mad’ person is delivering an important message pointing towards cultural transformation and spiritual wellness? Madness may be the barometer of how out of balance we have become.  There are only so many labels, so many drugs and so much finger-pointing that we can hide behind.

In the last two decades ‘plant spirit medicine’ has exploded into our cultural experience and many individuals, including those usually thought of as belonging to main stream society, have begun to explore the unchartered aspects of their psyche by working with psychoactives.  Historically the prerogative of the pioneering psychonauts of the 60’s and 70’s, psychedelic exploration is finding its way into mass culture and psychotherapy.  Take for example the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies based in California, MAPS is a ‘non-profit research and educational organization developing medical, legal and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful use of psychedelics and marijuana’ (MAPS web-site).  Indeed, there is a new breed of therapists who are placing the psychedelic experience at the heart of the healing experience. The intention of MAPS is for the exploration of consciousness towards individual healing within a safe and controlled environment. Still, many seekers are opting for a more ‘free-range’ experience and are making pilgrimages to countries where plant spirit medicines are an acceptable and sacred part of the culture.

In such an uncontained context so much can and does appear to go wrong, although perhaps the ‘wrongness’ may be viewed as part of the healing…  out there on the fringes there are few blue-prints to work from.  That may be because each individual psyche has its own path to walk, and although the ‘medicine’ opens the individual to deeper insights and awareness concerning his or her unconscious material, ultimately redemption and ‘individuation’ as Carl Jung calls it is very much an individual experience, a path no one can walk for us.

Perhaps there could be an element of risk management and MAPS may have the right idea in trying to contain the experience within a controlled environment. It could be argued however that journeys of the soul cannot be regulated in this way and that part of the process of self-mastery is precisely through surviving the under-world.  That said, I do feel that Shamans, ‘ayahuasqueros’ and medicine men and women from the global south may not have an inherent understanding of the types of splits ingrained within the cultural psyche of the global north – a culture which may be said to be suffering from ‘institutionalised trauma’.  It may be argued that societies belonging to an advanced capitalist paradigm are in fact structured through and maintained by perpetuating trauma and fragmentation.

An important question then appears to centre around the question of integration.  Once a person has seen into and felt into the shadow of their own, and possibly collective soul, how does he or she integrate that insight within a culture which by and large continues to perpetuate the dynamics which cause the fragmentation in the first place?  Once the sickness has been seen and felt, it does not automatically heal, seeing it is only the beginning albeit a crucial stage- feeling is also crucial.  It seems that what we need are facilitator and therapists who, from personal experience and having walked the path themselves, are able to stay present with a person through the various stages of moving from unconsciousness to consciousness, integrating a new way of being.  Birthing a new consciousness does not happen in isolation but neither can it happen in a new wing of an old paradigm.  What we are being called to is a radical transformation that involves everybody.

To what extent can plant medicines initiate change on a somatic, cellular level?  Integration must surely involve the whole person, mind-body-spirit.  Sadly, there are those who fall down the rabbit hole and struggle to come back.  There is also the danger of re-traumatisation.  Cutting edge neuroscience is showing that the way to heal trauma and PTSD is to re-experience the trauma in a safe environment, this resets the wiring of the brain.  Studies show that due to brain neuroplasticity we can literally re-wire our brains and create new neural pathways but to do so we must stay present to our experience even within the overwhelm of triggering.  In this light, we need a new class of therapists, less directive authority and more shamanic guide. Ultimately, I feel it takes someone who has been ‘there’ and understands the cultural context in which the trauma was initiated, or perhaps this is not necessary for the actual healing of the spirit but is, I feel, for the re-integration of unconscious material and learning new ways of being within one’s cultural environment.

This presents the question – in a culture where the indigenous medicine people and healers were systematically persecuted, how do we re-engage with our own cultural wisdom?  It could be by awakening our indigenous heart through experiencing other cultures for whom the healing traditions and the voice of the ancestors can still be heard.



Stories from the Land

I have just returned from the Breaking Convention Conference, a three day event in Greenwich, London- a cutting-edge symposium exploring consciousness, psychedelics & entheogens, transpersonal psychology, anthropology, law… a true interface of the topics and fields involved in the consciousness shift.  A moving experience in which people put themselves forward to share their work, personal stories and love. The science was awesome (slightly over my head), the energy was great, the mood sincere and progressive, but best of all was the humanity…the real stories and the open-heartedness.

A highlight for me was meeting  Huichol (Wixáritari) Shamans, living in central western Mexico near Ixtlan in the Sierra Madre Mountains.  Don Juan and Don Antonio were there to raise awareness of the plight to protect their sacred land, Wirikuta from silver mining.  The land in question is 140 hectors of desert in central Mexico.  Every year, the Wixáritari make a pilgrimage to Cerro Quemado the mountain, a place where they believe the Sun was born.  It is also the place where the people meet with and harvest their sacred plant Peyote (jikuri), a medicine that ‘fuels the waking dreams and holds the universe together.’

The Wixarika people are known worldwide for their unique visionary art and for proudly preserving their spiritual identity despite a destructive civilizing process of over 500 years.
The Wixarika on their annual pilgrimage, ‘the path of the ancestors’, to Wirikuta, the sacred mountain to harvest the sacred spirit cactus Peyote. Photo from Designformemos.org

In November 2009 the Canadian mining company First Majestic Silver, bought 22 mining concessions in the Real de Catorce area, in the state of San Luis Potosi. These concessions will allow First Majestic Silver to carry out what the company describes as “an aggressive drilling and exploration program” on 6,327 hectares of land.  Beginning in 2012, the famously mystical Huichol are trying to stop a $100 million, 15-year mining project from starting.  The Aztecs and other indigenous nations considered gold ‘excrement of the Sun’ and silver ‘excrement of the Moon,’ sacred substances representing day and night and life and death”. (Kurt Hollander, the Ecologist, May 2017).  The current situation bans mining however fears rise with the prospect of a new presidential election in 2018, the concern is that the current political party may race to reap as much benefit from mining as possible.  And of course there are no guarantees that the next president will be more responsible.

The situation in Mexico is not a solitary incident, all over the globe indigenous cultures and sacred sites are in danger from corporate greed, political corruption, desacralization and assimilation.  Whenever I come into contact with these ‘stories of the land’, I am reminded our own painful legacy in the British Isles, not least the on-going fracking of the land, and the recent (2008) M3 motorway development round the Hill of Tara, in County Meath, Ireland.  Tara is considered to be the ceremonial and mythical capital of Ireland, and is the centerpiece of a large archaeological landscape with hundreds of significant sites.  Nevertheless in 2008 the plans went a-head compromising the surrounding landscape including earthworks and other sacred features.  Only the hill itself is protected.

This story continue across the world -in the name of short sighted greed, irreverence for the sacred, and lack of care that comes from failing to realise the inter-connectedness of life, sacred sites are disappearing.  The writer Daniel Stone says, “Ceremonies that take place at sacred sites are not just for humans, they can be an act of healing for the whole planet like a kind of planetary earth acupuncture.”  This view is echoed in the work of writers such as John Michelle and Robert Coon talking about the planetary chakras from the 1960s onwards.  The planet as a sentient being is being confirmed by science, but it also finds its roots in ancient cultures.

The ecotheologian, Thomas Berry writes, “Awareness of an all-pervading mysterious energy articulated in the infinite variety of natural phenomenon seems to be the primordial experience of human consciousness.”

This being the case, what are the implications, not just culturally and economically of these devastations, but also spiritually and emotionally?  If these sites and geomythologies are eroded, what portals are left for future generation to connect past & present, spirit & matter, inner & outer towards expanded and embodied awareness of our part in the cosmic story?

For the full article by Kurt Hollander-

Battle in the Mexican desert: silver mining against peyote and indigenous spirituality Kurt Hollander 30th May 2017