Cain killed Abel. The story is well known: Both brothers offered sacrifices to their god. Abel saw this as an opportunity for worship and gave his prized lamb. Cain saw only a waste of his hard work, giving rotten eggs and tomatoes. The meaningful offering was accepted, the hollow one rejected, and the rest of the story is legendary.
“Death: HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE FALLING ANGELS MEET RISING APES.” All interspersed quotations are from Terry Pratchett’s novel, Hogfather
This tale sheds light on many things, but I would like to turn that light towards the nature of rituals: their impact is contingent upon attitude and belief. When a ritual is accepted and experienced as meaningful it produces joy and fulfillment, but when it is viewed as hollow or burdensome it breeds contempt.
George Vaillant briefly discusses ritual in Spiritual Evolution. He suggests that religions have value because they promote rituals that reliably create positive emotions through spirituality and mystical experience. Jonathan Haidt also addresses rituals in his writings. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt asserts that these acts require symbolism and tradition to be meaningful, and they can serve to bond people together within communities. Both Vaillant and Haidt acknowledge an ancient truth: meaningful rituals reliably produce positive emotions.
While this statement is true in both the empirical and historical sense, it is a dangerous one linguistically. Ritual is a loaded and layered word. Eating dinner with family; kissing at a New Year’s party; holding hands to pray; burning the dead on a pyre; sacrificing to a god… all can be ritualistic. The benefit lies less in the act itself than in context and intention.
Death: STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A BED IS A NORMAL THING.
I want to consider the context of rituals for a moment. Imagine you are jogging. You have decided to take all the research with rats seriously: enriched environments build better brains, with the room to run and exercise being of vital importance. So you have donned your cross-trainers and sweatbands, and headed out to your favorite running route in hopes of turning this exercise program into a lasting ritual. Imagine that route more fully… I have a hunch that most people imagine themselves jogging in a place filled with natural beauty. It may be down a trail through a park, along a sandy beach, or through a nicely landscaped neighborhood, but it probably is not the back allies or busy streets that most would choose for their favorite running routes.
This idea is encapsulated in the biophilia hypothesis: humans are hardwired to connect with nature and other living systems. Ecopsychology has arisen recently to study and propagate the implications of this idea. Proponents of this and related fields of study have criticized the positive psychology movement for the lack of a framework to consider the contextual factors of well-being. A variety of research has shown that situations and environments matter a great deal in the development of emotions. Research by Richard Ryan and others has indicated that natural surroundings are effective at producing positive emotions, restoring health, and building character. Richard Louv discusses these findings fully in The Nature Principle, encouraging people in our technologically obsessed society to connect purposefully with nature on a spiritual and physical level in order to lead to more fulfilling lives and create a more desirable world.
Death: IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT… A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THAT THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.
Celebrating Seasonal ChangesConsider this ritual: In the olden days, huge bonfires lit up the hilltops during the seasonal festivals. The entire tribe would gather to appreciate the rhythms of nature, and to ensure another year of prosperity. These events were intended to be celebrations of life, community, and the cosmos. But even in then, every person had a choice: hollow party or meaningful ritual. I am sure that many Cains stood around the fire with their drinking horns in hand, completely failing to understand the meaning behind the tradition, while the Abels in attendance stared into the flames, believing their participation necessary to keep the sun rising.
Times have changed. We are not even allowed to light those fires without permits, and would probably not even know the date to celebrate anyhow. So the solstices and equinoxes go by largely unnoticed in modern society. Robert Heinberg wrote, in Celebrate the Solstice, “The recovery of the ancient seasonal festivals is more than a symbolic gesture. It can be a meaningful way of reminding ourselves of the natural order of things.” Consider that you are standing on a madly spinning ball orbiting a fiery sphere circling a giant hole; the rhythms of nature and cycles of life are still there, waiting for the believers to fill them with meaning again.
So, make meaning. Take context and nature seriously. Take tradition, symbolism, spirituality and mystical experience seriously. Develop a ritual, connect with nature, raise the sun, and flourish.
“Death: NO… THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN… A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.”
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Heinberg, R. (1993). Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Quest Books.
Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books.
Pratchett, T. (1999). Hogfather. Harper.
Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K. W., Mistretta, L. & Gagne, M. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 159-168.
Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press. The chapter called Embrace Mother Nature discusses ways to build mood by experiencing fresh air and nature, building on the observations of Ryan et al.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.
Procession at Uyeasound courtesy of Mike Pennington [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Jogging in the park courtesy of Kasia
Bonfire courtesy of Iyad Tibi