Wednesday, February 3, 2010

#63. Ritual's Psychological Roots

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This is the fifth in a series of posts that I began with #59, dealing with an understanding religious ritual in an evolutionary context. It's the first of several concerned with the roots of ritual-- physical, biological and psychological.


In the big picture of the world which is ours thanks to the evolutionary perspectives of modern science, the cosmic process is defined in terms of the on-going emergence of new and more complex realities. Whatever now is has its roots in what was in the past.

So it's not surprising that even religious ritual should have roots in the past.

It clearly makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective that ritual has roots in the human psyche which has been developing over the last few million years.

But it's less obvious that religious ritual might also have roots in the life of the Earth even before humans appeared. And it's far less obvious still that ritual may be rooted in the very matter of the physical universe.

I plan to share my thoughts about the biological and cosmic roots of ritual in the next post. Ritual's roots in the human psyche is the topic of this one.

I feel the need to add that I'm more than aware of the immensity of this project.


In post #62 I noted that religious ritual is far older than the western world's Judeo-Christian tradition, so that even if we don't accept the dualistic understanding of that tradition, we are still in need of rites.

I also noted there that even for many who accept the New Cosmology, ritual presents a major problem because of the influence of the reductionist perspectives of 18th and 19th century science which remain strong in the minds of many.

So once again, as I've said frequently in the past, we need a bigger picture. In this case, the bigger picture we need is of how we understand our own consciousness.


Even though we can't put it into words, each of us knows by experience what we mean when we say "mind" or "awareness" or "psyche." But due to Western culture's dualistic and patriarchal alienation from body, matter, and the feminine, we remain unaware for the most part that our conscious mind can work in four distinct ways.

I've made use of this "quaternary" understanding of the psyche in many previous posts. I'll review the main ideas below, but if these ideas are new to you, you might like to check out some of those previous posts, such as #29, #31, #33, #35 and #44.


With regard to religious ritual, the importance of the quaternary perspective is that it helps us to see that-- although we have a four-fold mind-- western culture consciously acknowledges and values only one of those four functions. And it's not the one in which religious ritual is rooted.

Our need for ritual is so great, however, that it persists both within and outside religious traditions. But in our day, ritual has come to be feared by some, considered nothing more than superstition by many, and felt to be unsatisfactory by almost all.

As I see it, without some sense of the different ways our conscious minds function, we simply can't be aware of how ritual works. Or of how to do it well.


The main idea-- that we can be consciously aware of ourselves and of the world around us in four different ways-- is simple enough.

It was explicitly spelled out a hundred years ago by Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, and has come into popular awareness by way of personality evaluators like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. 

But this four-fold perspective has been known for thousands of 
years. I find the version of it expressed in the Native American Medicine Wheel especially helpful and have made use of it in many previous posts.

Over my years as a teacher I've collected ways of describing the four-fold activities of the psyche. I've come up with more than a dozen of them and have shared some of them in different contexts over the three years of this blog.

To me, these are essential tools both for our own self-understanding and for an understanding of the psychological roots of ritual.

In the quick review which follows, I'll use Jung's terms for the four functions. And among the many aspects of each function which might be mentioned, I'll emphasize the orientation to time of the four functions. I've found that emphasis to be especially helpful in understanding the psychological roots of ritual.


Jung says our conscious awareness can take two major forms: we observe things, and we also evaluate those observations. He calls our observations "perceptions" and the evaluations "judgments."

The fact that there are two types of perceptions and two types of judgments is what accounts for the mind's four-fold nature.


Jung calls the two judgment functions "Feeling" and "Thinking."

Feeling is an evaluation of whether what we perceive is beneficial or harmful, while Thinking has to do with evaluating the correctness of those perceptions. It sounds complicated, but these processes make good sense in terms of natural selection.

With regard to their orientation to time, the Feeling function-- the one by which we value and hold on to good things, especially to our relationships-- favors the past.

Thinking, in contrast, is a form of cause-and-effect reasoning, so its focus is on how one thing follows from another; its orientation is to the sequential flow of time.


To the other pair of functions-- our two perception functions-- Jung gives the names "Sensing" and "Intuition."

Sensing looks at details in the here and now; its focus is neither the past (like Feeling) nor the flow of time (like Thinking), but the immediate present.

In contrast, Intuition looks at the big picture and is oriented to the future-- not to what is, but to what can be-- to the realization of our creative potentials.

Of the four ways our minds can work, Intuition-- with its orientation to creativity and the promise of the future-- is the least understood, least valued, and least appreciated in contemporary patriarchal culture.

And-- surprise?-- it's the function by which ritual works.


Because Intuition sees the big picture -- the forest rather than the trees-- it has to do with inner wholeness. Its orientation to the future comes from its concern for moving forward-- with moving beyond our present limitations and toward the realization of our creative potentials.

So Intuition is concerned with inwardness, with our personal sense of identity, meaning and purpose. But because of its broad, "integral" perspective, it sees our inwardness precisely in terms of our connectedness with everything else.

It sees a very big picture, and it wants to leave nothing out. It's an understanding of individuality in the context of absolutely everything that exists-- what the Asian traditions call advaita, the unity (non-duality) of all things.

And it's precisely this double orientation of the Intuition function-- to both self and all else simultaneously-- that constitutes the psychological roots of ritual.


Jung gave Intuition a special name, the "transcendent" function, because it "carries us over," linking consciousness and the unconscious psyche. It's the bridge between our personal awareness and all else.

This makes especially good sense when we keep in mind that, although each of us is the universe become conscious of itself, there is also much about which we remain unconscious. The unconscious psyche is the entire universe within us which has yet to become conscious as us.

It's these unconscious patterns of the world's workings which, as I noted in post #60, seep out into ours dreams and myths. As expressions of our self-understanding, they help move us forward, toward the realization of our potentials.

For this reason, we need to keep in mind what may seem obvious at this point: that when we say "we are the universe become conscious of itself," that that universe is not static but dynamic. We are the evolving cosmos become conscious of itself.

And the nature of that dynamism is precisely its creative orientation toward healing and wholeness. In the same way we talk about the "wisdom of the body," we can understand that creative dynamism as the "wisdom of the cosmos" operating within us.

For a good understanding of the psychological roots of ritual, it helps to think of this cosmic wisdom as a "wisdom of the psyche" and to keep in mind that the orientation of the evolutionary process to healing and transformation is expressed communally in our cultural development as well as in our personal psychological growth.


The point of all this is that the creative cosmic process is operative both within us and outside us and that it's the Intuition function which we use to "plug into" the dynamic and transformative energies of the universe.

Ritual works not by some magical process-- although it looks that way to persons trapped in the rationalism of earlier centuries. In fact, all we're doing in ritual is giving the Intuitive function some space to operate. We're giving it room.

This is why ritual makes use of "droning, drumming, chanting and dancing."


It's often said that such things are techniques for "quieting the mind," but it's important to realize that it's not the whole mind that's being quieted. Essentially, what we're doing in ritual is turning down the intensity of our hyper-active Thinking function.

We need to do this because the Thinking function tends to usurp the role of the mind's other three functions. Just as the psychological roots of ritual are found in the Intuition function, so the psychological roots of patriarchy and religious dualism are found in this tendency of the Thinking function to take over the activities of the whole conscious psyche.

It's this tendency of the Thinking function that results in the alienation from Earth and self which characterizes patriarchal dualism, and which continues to be the dominant mode of awareness in western culture-- both secular and religious.

Activities like drumming and chanting allow us to shift our minds to a way of being conscious that's different from that dominant mode of self-alienated consciousness.

While techniques for turning down the intensity of the Thinking function are many, and have been used for many thousands of years, it's an indication of how impoverished our culture is that activities like drumming and chanting have no regular place in our society.

In a culture such as ours, where we are immersed in distractions at every moment, ritual helps us to keep from getting lost in details and in the cause-and-effect reasoning of the isolated Thinking function. It lets us see the big picture.


Another indication of our impoverishment is that any form of awareness which is different from Thinking is described as "an altered state of consciousness." Even in discussions of moving beyond it, the Thinking function is assumed to be the norm!

But it's not the norm, of course. To be fully human we need to drum and drone, chant and dance. We need to give our attention to things like fire and water, air and food that allow us to enter into the meaning of our lives.

And in a sense, that's all ritual is-- being quiet and giving our awareness, via the Intuition function, to the kind of things that grab our attention and so help to put us back together in terms of how we understand ourselves.


As I said above, it's the double orientation of the Intuition function-- to both self and all else simultaneously-- that constitutes the psychological roots of ritual, so it's worth reviewing here just what Intuition is all about.

Intuition is concerned with meaning, with our self-understanding, with taking our place in the vast scheme of things, with being in harmony with the wisdom of the universe, with being attuned to the patterns by which our bodies and minds and indeed all things work, with being creative, with being one with the newness which is the essence of the Divine Wisdom which orders the universe.

That's all ritual is?

All that is what ritual is!

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PS (added 12 Feb 10): If you missed it, do see the recent New York Times article, Findings, about the content of frequently e-mailed articles. It's probably the most relevant data dealing with the convergence of science and religion to be published in a long, long time. It says to me that the New Cosmology is very much at work in people's hearts.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.