The word “ritual” has gotten a bum rap. Because it appears so often in print and speech preceded by the adjectives “meaningless” or “mere,” we’ve come to have a kneejerk, vaguely negative reaction to the word. More often than not, it’s come to describe the leftover, mindless activity of a religion that no longer has any real meaning for its constituents (for example, genuflecting in front of the altar in a church long after one has jettisoned any Roman Catholic doctrine).
In fact, ritual is indispensable to human beings, and they need not be religious in nature. Our earliest ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer societies that used ritual to promote social cohesion. Since their very survival depended on the success of the hunt, early Homo sapiens developed elaborate rituals for both before and after the hunters left the cave. They conducted terrifying rites of passage to initiate boys into manhood. (An argument could be made that something similar is accomplished in the modern world through military basic training, although of course it is not universal.)
Today, we still employ ritual to enhance our lives. Politics, personal relationships and “passages” (adolescence, graduation, marriage, and so on) remain highly ritualized spheres of human life.
In her book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong notes that in the premodern world, religious belief was inseparable from the rituals of the cult to which it belonged. The mystery cults did not expect acolytes to “believe” anything in the modern sense; their initiation into the cult was designed to give them an undeniable experience of the divine.
I can say with confidence that the yoga/meditation rituals I myself employ are pregnant with meaning and relevance. I offer the following meditation ritual as a template of sorts which someone new to the practice might find helpful.
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Meditation Ritual – an Amalgam of Zen Buddhist, Hindu, and Neo Pagan Influences
1) The Sounding of the Bell
Before and after meditating, invite the bell of mindfulness to sound. While this can be any sort of bell-like instrument a Tibetan bell is ideal. The point of it is to bring you back to yourself in full consciousness. As the bell rings, say to yourself, “Listen! That wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”
2) The Lighting of the Candles
Recite the following while lighting each of three candles:
“I have confidence in the energy of awakening.” (Adapted from: “I take refuge in the Buddha”)
“I have confidence in the power of truth.” (Adapted from “I take refuge in the Dharma”)
“I have confidence in the refuge of community.” (Adapted from “I take refuge in the Sangha”)
3) Mantras and Gathas (Chosen according to the need of the present moment)
Om Namah Shivaya (The most universal of Hindu mantras, translated from the Sanskrit as “I bow to the Divine within.”)
Breathing in deeply, I center myself,
Breathing out calmly, I smile.
Solid and lucid and utterly free,
I open my heart to the world.
Sabbe satta sukhi hontu (Sanskrit, “May all beings be happy.”)
Om, shanti, shanti, shanti (The Sanskrit word for the unifying sound of the Universe, followed by the word for peace.)
4) The Bodhisattva* Vow (to be said after meditating)
Innumerable sentient beings, I vow to liberate.
Inexhaustible blind passions, I vow to extinguish.
Immeasurable truth, I vow to comprehend.
Elusive enlightenment, I vow to attain.
As long as I live, may I bring joy to sentient beings everywhere.
While there is breath in my body, may I dispel the miseries of the world.
5) Extinguishing the candles
Inwardly say these words as you breathe in, then blow out a candle until all three are extinguished. **
I extinguish the fire of hatred.
I extinguish the fire of greed.
I extinguish the fire of delusion.
6) The Closing Intention
So may it be; so may it ever be.
Listen! That wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.
All the best,
William K Ferro
* In traditional Buddhist teaching hatred, greed and delusion are viewed as “The Three Poisons” that cause most—if not all—human suffering.
** A Bodhisattva (literally, “Awakened Being”) is a being whose core nature is awakening or enlightenment. In the premodern, magical understanding of Buddhist teaching, it referred to a being whose compassion was so great that, with Nirvana in sight, she chooses to remain in samsara (the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth) until every sentient being with whom she might come into contact has awakened to its true nature. In its less mythological, modern sense, a Bodhisattva is simply an enlightened individual who lives to bring joy to others and relieve their suffering.