How Rituals Help Us Navigate the World — and Our Psyches

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

Ritual, Dr. Tanya Luhrmann says, is the way we connect the world as it ought to be with the world as it is – and orient ourselves to it.

Her anthropological work has taken Luhrmann into communities ranging from contemporary witches in England to Zorostrians in India; instructors and students studying psychiatry in America; and evangelical Christian prayer groups in the American heartland. She’s now a professor of Anthropology at Stanford, and the recipient of a Guggenheim award and the American Anthropological Association’s President’s award, among others.

In her work, she’s found that there’s very little difference between sacred and secular rituals (however different they may be in theory they’re actually very similar in practice) but that ritual, whatever your beliefs, is a vital component of mental health.

If we lose sight of the world as we believe it ought to be, or how we can connect with it, then we tend to find ourselves psychologically adrift – and belief alone isn’t enough to get us back on track.

In our conversation, which you can hear below, Luhrmann said that when a ritual becomes a practice it also becomes a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy – not only does help us internalize our highest values, but it impacts what we pay attention to, both in the objective world and in our subjective experience of it. Ritual teaches us to notice the ways in which we can connect with the sacred (whatever that means for us) in our lives … and in many ways we become what we pay attention to.

Effective rituals not only unify communities, they give individuals a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves, and makes them equal within it. That leads to a sense of hope and possibility, and that experience can be transformative in ways that knowledge alone cannot.

Hear the whole conversation in this podcast interview from Burning Man’s Philosophical Center.


Top Photo:  “Ouroboros” by the Flipside CORE project

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of the Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education department on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *