Paganism and Our Need for Rituals

We humans have minds that are different from all other being that we know of in the universe. We feel several types of pain. There is burning, stinging, stabbing, crushing, pulling and throbbing pain. I’m sure that you could come up with a few more. Lately scientists have named two more kinds of pain. They are emotional pains. The pain of presence which is pain caused by something that is present in your life; and the pain of absence, which is the pain caused by something absent from your life.

Before you start thinking that emotional pain is different, be aware that with new scientific techniques, we can measure the brain and the nervous system and see what it is doing and how. We discovered that physical pain is the same process as emotional pain.

I have traumatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and four bulging disks – two in my neck and two in my lower back. As soon as the doctors discovered the fibromyalgia, they explained that my pain was all in my head.

I’m sure that there are many of you out there who have experienced the same thing. Once a doctor finds a mental cause for some of your pain, that’s it. “It’s all in your head”.

Well, the joke is on them. Areas of the brain that process physical pain share the areas with our emotional centers, making a multipronged approach to the treatment of pain necessary.

The reality is that all pain, whether caused by a migraine or fibromyalgia comes from the brain and it all originates in the same general area.

Another peculiar thing about our brains, is that we don’t separate symbols from the thing that they symbolize. Any American who has stood by a parade and seen a uniformed veteran walking down the street carrying an American Flag, knows what I mean.

Tacoma Screw FlagNalley Valley Flag  

As a matter of fact, where I live there is a large valley called the Nalley Valley right where I get on the freeway. (It’s the very valley where Nalley’s pickles were made) On the North side of the valley there is a giant (like 40 by 80 feet) American Flag that blows in the breeze that the valley creates.

I have a boring 30 mile freeway drive to and from work and on my way home, about the time I’m going to exit the freeway and enter my neighborhood, I see that flag.

I’m getting teary just thinking about it. By that time, I’m tired. I hurt because my medications have worn off and then that Flag appears and I know I’m home. I’m not only at home in my own country, I’m in my own community, and I have less than five minutes before I walk into my front door.

(Click for a SouthSoundTalk article on this landmark erected by Tacoma Screw Products)

The GrottoThe Grotto
The National Sanctuary of
Our Sorrowful Mother

The same thing happens to devout, and some not so devout, Christians when they see The Grotto – National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland. I have often seen people drop to the kneels and weep as they feel they are in the presence of the Queen of Heaven. I must admit that I am in awe when I see it and I don’t even believe there is a heaven.

(Link to their official website)

The point is, symbols are reality to our brain. If it is a symbol of someone we have lost, we weep. If it is the symbol of a source of pride, we swell with it. If it is a symbol of rejoicing, we cheer.

Rather than make up a group of symbols to draw those feelings out of us, I have turned to paganism. It is full of symbolism. I would bet that even a devout pagan could not name all of the symbols and the emotions they draw from us, just as most devout Catholics could not name all of the saints. Yet when they see the symbol they are moved to some action – some behavior – whether that behavior is simple admiration, shame, charity or service.

Oh yes, symbols can evoke pain and fear, also. How many horror movies have used statues of the pagan gods to send us to bed after checking the closets? Our idea of Satan comes from the image of the Great Horned God – a benevolent God of the woods.

World famous author, Pearl S. Buck said,

“My special Goddess, She of mercy, the [Kwanyin], always so beautiful and graceful, such a lady in her looks as well as in her kindness, and tender-hearted toward all female creatures. The Goddess of Mercy was really immaculate and there was never any talk there about a god-father or a god-son. She was pure goodness.”

When I see a statue of Kwan Yin or hear her mantra, I can’t help but feel loved and have a desire to show mercy and compassion to even those I don’t especially care for.

Click the play button to listen to this YouTube recording of her mantra. Listen and see if you agree with me.

I don’t believe that Kwan Yin actually exists and I don’t even know if she ever did. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if she did?

That is why I will use the Gods and Goddesses of Pagan religions, because of what they mean – what they stand for and how our brain is affected by those kinds of symbols. It will get you into your rituals much faster and with more depth.

On top of my chronic pain disorder, my husband and I both have a problem throwing things away. Not to mention that we both have ADHD. (The H is for hypo- not hyper-, we both have to take a stimulant to get moving in the morning.) My house is horribly messy – even dirty. I am always reading books on getting organize and declutter.

The most effective way I have found to make any progress has been to develop a ritual that gets me through a morning somewhat productively.

It goes like this:

  1. Take medications
  2. Play with dogs
  3. Make bed
  4. Get dressed and ready down to the shoes – hair, face, brush teeth
  5. Swish and swipe bathroom
  6. Empty dishwasher
  7. Sort a load of laundry

Total time, 1 hour 30 minutes

Then I have another little ritual that I’m trying to work in:

  • Declutter for 15 minutes
  • 15 minute walk
  • Clean this weeks “mission” area for 30 minutes.

I play with the dogs while my pain medication kicks in. Getting ready to my shoes is to help keep me from going back to bed. These peculiar and custom activities put me in a particular state of mind and makes me feel a part of the greater society that gets things done automatically- a characteristic that I don’t share with the rest of our culture. This ritual reminds me of who I am and make me feel a part of the greater society.

Rituals take an amazingly broad array of shapes and forms. They can be performed in groups or as individuals, such as my morning ritual. Sometimes they are made up of repeated actions and sometimes not.

We participate in rituals with a wide variety of expected results.

According to Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, behavioral scientists and professors at Harvard Business School, in their article, Why Rituals Work, published by Scientific American, they state that research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Even simple rituals are amazingly effective. They even appear to be effective for people who don’t even believe in the ritual in which they are participating.

“Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”

“Our research suggests they do. In one of our experiments, we asked people to recall and write about the death of a loved one or the end of a close relationship. Some also wrote about a ritual they performed after experiencing the loss:” Gino and Norton

Here is a ritual that will help you the next time you are distressed about something:

Take a piece of paper and draw how you feel about whatever has you upset. Take about three minutes. Now take that paper and tear it into the tinniest pieces that you can. Take the pieces and place them in a small fireproof container and burn it.

Research shows that those who perform such mundane rituals will cope with their distressed emotions better than those who have no ritual.

If you have some ritual that you use to calm upsetting feelings, I’d love to hear from you. To drop me a line, leave me a comment below.

One study compares two groups of golfers. One group was told that they had a lucky golf ball. The other group was just told to play golf.

The group with the lucky golf balls played better than their own averages and beat the other team.

Research on the relationship between the brain and our experiences of prayer, meditation, story and liturgy is a step forward in the study of religion. Previously, religious behavior was thought to be purely cultural. Now we know there are biological reasons for many kinds of religious activities.

According to Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene d’Aquili, both physicians at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the brain has a built in tendency to turn thoughts into actions.

It would be no surprise that the brain wills us to act out our stories. “The ideas these stories convey about fate, death, and the nature of the human life-force, would certainly get our attention.” Newberg and d’Aquili write in their 1999 book, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress Press). Combine the neurological functions and the meaningful context, and we have the source of ritual’s power.

Humans feel uncertain and anxious in a number of situations beyond laboratory experiments and sports – like charting new terrain. In the late 1940s, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lived among the inhabitants of islands in the South Pacific Ocean. When natives went fishing in the turbulent, shark-filled waters beyond the reef, they performed certain rituals to invoke magical powers for their safety and protection. When they fished in the calm waters of a lagoon, they treated the fishing trip as an ordinary event and didn’t perform any rituals. Malinowski suggested that people are more likely to turn to rituals when they face situations where the outcome is important, uncertain, and beyond their control.

In 2012, the National Institutes of Health reported, on its website, about a study conducted in Brazil where researchers studied people who perform simple ritual called simpatias that are used to treat a great variety of problems ranging from asthma to infidelity. People perceive simplicity to be more effective depending on the number of steps involved, the repetition of procedures, and whether the steps are performed at a specified time.

While more research is needed, these intriguing results suggest an explanation for the fact that hundreds of thousands of years ago Neanderthals built altars and conducted funeral ceremonies. This behavior shows that as soon as hominid brains got big and complex enough for self-awareness, we began to wonder about the mysteries and problems of existence, and found some resolution in story and ritual.

As humans, we share a deep need for ritual and connection, especially at times of major change. Ceremony helps us embrace the stages of our lives in a positive and exciting way.

You can create and experience personal rituals where you can find strength and comfort in your life, gain perspective, and move deliberately into your future. Through meaningful ceremonies, you and your cohorts can help you make meaning from your lives.

Our brains are wired for ritual!

Next is our questionnaire to measure how much Stoic Pagansim can benefit you.  Is Stoic Paganism for Me?