Embracing Ritual as a Way of Living


When I reflect upon the power of ritual to transform our lives, I remember a story told about Carl Jung and how he approached his creative process. Whenever he was at the retreat home he built on the shore of Lake Bollingen, Switzerland and feeling blocked with his writing, he had a ritual of going out and clearing the brush that was blocking all the streams that fed into the lake. By the time he was finished, he would often be reconnected to his creative flow and re-commence with his writing.

I am continually amazed to discover that whenever I embrace a ritual orientation to life it deepens my relationship with myself and the world around me. In my counseling practice, I often recommend employing the power of ritual to assist individuals to strengthen their loving relationships with themselves (i.e. starting a morning meditation practice, journaling, creating a sacred altar of precious items, lighting a candle and writing down self-appreciations at the end of the day, etc.), and assisting couples to open to new levels of intimacy in their relationship (scheduling weekly sacred time together, regularly having sacred heart talks with each other, preparing special meals for each other, etc.).

“This is an absolute necessity for anybody today: you must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually wonderful will happen.”

~ Joseph Campbell

In this fast-paced world, ritual is a simple and practical avenue for opening to the experience of the sacred in every dimension of life. For example, I grew up not having a reverence for the process of preparing and eating food. My mom did not like to cook, and my dad viewed food as simply a fuel — and canned food was often the simplest way to throw some fuel down the hatch. They were wonderful people, but they were simply not raised with any appreciation for the culinary arts.

A few years ago we redecorated our kitchen in a kind of forest-colored theme with beautiful granite counters, travartine tiles, richly colored cabinets and new appliances that we really enjoy. I have recently moved into a diet that includes more and more live food, and lo and behold I am finding the process of shopping for and preparing and sharing a meal of natural foods to be a deeply nourishing part of my life — including the heartfelt ritual of sharing a prayer together while holding hands around the table.

Whether we are with others or alone, ritual is a means to evoke the presence of sacred community, the experience of being connected to something larger than ourselves. I’m curious: what are some of your treasured rituals in life, and how might you invite new forms of ritual to further bless your life journey?

Speaking of preparing food and intimacy with friends — and opening to the mysterious orchestration of life — here’s one of my favorite poems that is laced with the healing and visceral presence of ritual:


by David Whyte

I lay a handful of walnuts

to dry by the fire,

pile six new apples in a bowl

and wiping the cutting boards

to a woody gleam, clear off

the pine needles

and nubby stalks

that fell from the mushrooms

I found in the morning,

walking the woods.

I drop potatoes into

soft, simmering water then

lower the oven

to a ticking heat

and turning to the

beautiful stark

inviting coldness of the hearth,

set down in the fireplace torn paper

and pine cones,

kindling and logs

and kneeling,

coax small flames to life,

sweeping the hearth

of dust, and ash,

and still kneeling

next to the fire

just beginning to snap,

I listen behind me

to the slow tick

of the oven expanding,

to a different time,

another measure,

its black heated interior

braising lamb I saw raised

in the fields that spread below

my upstairs window.

Beneath that window, resting

on paper in the shadows of my desk,

in the laptop’s subdued pulsing glow,

half-finished poems

wait at the frontier between

being written and being done.

Beside them

a gleaming violin

sits cradled in its stand,

the music book

opened to an ancient,

rhythmic, hard to get tune.

All this continual practice,

this sharpening

and attentive presence,

all this daily fetching and gathering

this constant maturing

and getting ready,

all this slowly

being heated through,

brought to a simmer,

being educated, knowledgeable,

learning through experience,

all this work to have

one complete day

lived just as it should be,

and all this constant testing

by the world

to see if we are done,

ready, cooked through,

ripe enough to fall,

to be lifted, bitten right into

and consumer ourselves

and then, for everyone,

all the hours of daily

practice just learning to hit

the note, the conversational note,

the musical note,

just right, wanting it to live

with all the other notes.

It must be we are waiting

for the perfect moment.

It must be under all the struggle

we want to go on.

It must be, deep down,

we are creatures

getting ready

for when we are needed.

It must be that waiting

for the listening ear

or the appreciative word,

for the right

woman or the right man

or the right moment

just to ourselves,

we are getting ready

just to be ready

and nothing else.

Like this moment

just before the guests arrive

working alone in the kitchen

sensing a deep

down symmetry

in every blessed thing.

The way

that everything

unbeknownst to us

is preparing to meet us too.

Just on the other

side of the door

someone is about to

knock and our life

is just

about to change

and finally

after all these

years rehearsing, behind the curtain,

we might

just be


to go on.

The sacred circle of carefully piled stones at the mountaintop in the photograph above is an ancient and beautiful symbol for ritual, as well as a reminder of how the process of creating and participating in an inspired ceremony opens us to the presence of sacred space. As I look at this photograph, ancient energies stir within and I find myself desiring to be involved in the ceremonies that must have been held in this profound location in nature.

Remembering just now how much I treasure the process of both greeting and parting from friends whenever we gather, I bow down and say to you, Namaste. (“The Soul in me honors the Soul in you.”)


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Your Comments

  1. I’m so glad I googled “Jung” and “ritual” today. You never know what kind of treasures will arrive at the top :).

  2. I came across your website while searching for “poetry honoring ancestors”.
    My brother passed recently, and Thanksgiving is the anniversary of my father’s death, so I was planning a small memorial service, a ritual, if you will, in honor of those who came before us.

    What an honor to enter your pages. Thank you, Gavin, for answering me.
    I couldn’t have asked for more- beauty, wisdom, and, back to my quest, poetry.

  3. Thanks for publishing and reflecting on “Waiting to go on.” I read during the worship of http://www.tobaccotrailchurch.com from the book, River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007, but wanted an electronic copy.


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