DRMacIver's Notebook

Ritual and Freedom

Ritual and Freedom


I drew the nine of pentacles first and my reaction was an instant dislike, so I drew another two cards to see if they could help me make sense of this a bit better.

The Nine of Pentacles and the Empress are in natural opposition to each other. The nine represents discipline and refinement, in opposition to the Empress’s focus on luxury and the senses.

Part of why I dislike the Nine of Pentacles so much is how relatable she is. Not necessarily as an internal experience, but as a role in which I am cast. I am not a disciplined person, but I often come across that way as part of my attempts to claw back some structure out of a disordered internal world.

One part where the Nine of Pentacles is internally relatable is that I’m definitely a controlled person, in the sense that I have a lot of my emotions far too tightly held. This is very much in opposition to the Empress, whose role is more about getting in touch with abundance and our feelings. This is something I am actively working on, as I wrote before:

One of the ways I have been deploying both sides of this recently - Focusing and Alexander Technique - is to try to have more fun doing exercise. Doing exercise not because I think I should exercise, but because my body invites me to do so and to enjoy it. Using exercise as a way to engage with my embodied self, and to drop into a flow state. So far it hasn’t resulted in a massive amount of exercise, but I’ve done some most days, and the amount I am doing seems to be going up over time rather than down, and at no point have I done any exercise and resented it. This is pretty amazing, and makes me think there might be something to this human notion of “fun” you people are always going on about.

The Sun can be taken to represent enlightenment, insight, and understanding. Finding the sense behind the chaos, attaining a new level of insight.

Unlearning Meditation, p 95 (The Sun):

Many impasses are made up of concepts and the mental constructs built up around them, and those are harder to become aware of than the ones that just pertain to meditation practice. The constructs may have to do with beliefs about reality, about the nature of existence, the truth of things, and so forth. They may also be personal narratives about your life or the people in it. They may also be reasons, justifications, and explanations for various behaviours and attitudes that have been running your life from behind the scenes.

Defined earlier (p 73):

An impasse is “a predicament affording no obvious escape” according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Using that definition, one would find oneself at an impasse in meditation when there is no “obvious” way of going through something. All of the usual methods, the bright ideas and good advice, the right-sounding strategies and correc tbeliefs, don’t help one go through with something that one is stuck in, one’s “predicament.” There is a caged feeling around such impasses. You have come face-to-face with your limitations, your ignorance, your lack of creativity, inventiveness, or insight.

“Unlearning meditation” is a very “fixing things” approach to meditation. You reach an impasse, and you fix it through cleverness.

Ritual and its Consequences, p 25-26 (The Nine of Pentacles), quoting Johnathan Z. Smith:

There is, I believe, an essential truth to the old interpretation of “sympathetic magic” as an “offensive against the objective world” but that the wrong consequences were deduced. It is not that “magical” rituals compel the world through representation and manipulation; rather they express a realistic assessment of the fact that the world cannot be compelled”


I would suggest that, among other things, ritual represents the creation of a controlled environment where the variables (i.e. the accidents) of ordinary life may be displaced precisely because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful. Ritual is a means of performing the way things out to be in conscious tension to the way things are in such a way that this ritualized perfection is recollected in the ordinary, uncontrolled course of things. Ritual relies for its power on the fact that it is concerned with quite ordinary activities, that what it describes and displays is, in principle, possible for every occurrence of these acts. But it relies, as well, for its power on the perceived fact that, in actuality, such possibilities cannot be realised.

This is not the argument of the book itself, as they clarify shortly:

a friendly amendment to Smith’s argument may also be called for. Smith’s attempt to save ritual practitioners from being read as prerational actors may have led him to go too far in emphasizing the cognitive aspects of incongruity - that ritual works because it allows the practitioners to think about the disjunction between ritualperformance and the real world. But it is important to note that ritual is not necessarily - or even primarily - something one thinks about. Indeed, if we take Smith’s emphasis on incongruity seriously, it may actually help point us away from such a cognitive reading of ritual and toward one focusing more on the active, and endless, work on ritual.

The emphasis on “the endless work of ritual” makes me think that in contrast to Unlearning Meditation’s “fixing things” attitude, ritual is care work. In this view the antidote to an impasse is not to be clever and overcome some obstacle, but to repeatedly and insistently do the work. Many meditation practices are indeed like that (it’s part of why I don’t get on with them).

The core feature of ritual, the book argues, is that it is a collective creation of “a subjunctive world” - an illusion in which we behave as if some thing is true. Courtesy behaviours (please and thank you) are, for example, are rituals acting in a subjunctive world of equality and free choice, in which everyone behaves as equals freely choosing to help each other. Religious rituals exist in the subjunctive world where the religious cosmology is true.

In Smith’s vision of this, it is the fact that the subjunctive world is false that is key to the ritual, but in the vision of “Ritual and its Consequences” the factuality of the subjunctive world is, if not irrelevant, not the primary point. The purpose of the ritual is the ritual itself, and the world it allows us to operate in.

By learning to operate in this subjective world, we create an extension of ritual outside of its more specific forms (p 34):

From the point of view of what we have been calling a Protestant framework, ritual behaviour often appears as a submission of humans to external norms - as a rejection of autonomy. Ritual, from such a point of view, consists of discipline and constraint, whereas sincerity is a turn inward toward the true self. From the point of view of a ritual order, whowever, this is not the case at all: a ritual order does not assume that all action is or even necessarily should be a repetition of rituals from the past. By definition, most action is not. The point is that, ideally, such actions should, in a sense, be ritual without ritual precedent.

Holy Foucault, Batman.

I am put in mind of the following passage from Nora Bateson’s “Small Arcs of Larger Circles” (p73-74). Her son has been having nightmares about zombies, and has been acting up in school. These are related.

What’s a zombie? Well, in his words:

“zombies are people who cannot think for themselves, they want you to be like them. …And, if you do what they say, your dignity flies out the window.”

So Bateson makes the following suggestion:

Trevor is an actor, and he was already studying performance at the time. So I offered him his first paid acting job. I promised him 100 dollars to play the part of the Straight-A student until the end of the school year, (it was already February). If he could play that part the zombies would be fooled into thinking that they could stop trying to control him. Hopefully he would have some peace. But, I had one caveat: that he never, ever, ever believe that he actually was that Straight-A student the world wanted him to be. I said “Play the part, but I want my Trevor for a son, not a zombie.”

Bateson seems very proud of her cunning plan, to such a degree that she appears to have missed that she has conned her son into becoming a zombie.

The problem is that you cannot norm to a group without a certain amount of internalising its ideals. If you put on the mask, the mask will eventually become your face, because you will have learned the skill set of performing in that group, and your skills performing outside of that role will atrophy. More, you will internalise the idea that stepping out of that role will get you punished, leaving you with a comfort zone that is sharply defined by the role you have learned to play.

Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, p 285 (The Empress):

In therapy the interaction should not too often duplicate the common childhood type in which someone defines reality for the client, and the client is supposed to listen. Everyone has had that kind of interaction with parents, teachers, experts, overweening friends, perhaps also with unskilled therapists.

In such an interaction the other person is active, animated, perceiving clearly, explaining clearly, taking up space, defining the world, moving ahead - just the interactional modes that the client needs to discover. Meanwhile the client is passive, is impinged upon, is expected to listen and put away thoughts and feelings that are already there, pushing them back, crowding everything in further so as to make room for what is being expressed, then to wait till the other comes to the point, follow the other’s reasoning, and see the other’s good sense.

This defining of reality for you is in many ways the point of pervasive ritual. We are very much creatures who share our cognition, outsourcing as much of our thinking and behaviour to the people and world around us as we can get away with.

A lot of what I’m trying to navigate is figuring out the synthesis between different sides of our self. Generally speaking, whenever you orient human experience between two extremes, you find that both of the extremes are a bit pathological, and healthy behaviour looks like not being stuck.

But there’s a problem with this when it comes to discipline vs free expression of emotions: Once you have the possibility of discipline, you have the obligation to be disciplined, in a way that makes it almost impossible to freely switch between the two.

By its nature, discipline once acquired is a hard skill to turn off. Its mere presence is an inhibiting factor - consider a man pointing a gun at you. The man does not have to ever fire the gun to use it to control your behaviour, because the threat of being shot is sufficient. Once you have internalised the skills and norms of discipline, you are ever under its control, because your free expression is limited by the fact that if it ever gets too much (and what counts as “too much” is very much defined by external norms that you have internalised), you will act and bring it into line.

“Ritual and its Consequences” defines ritual as in opposition to sincerity. From page 14:

Sincerity imagines a world “as is” instead of ritual’s multiple worlds of “as if.” It looks to discursive meanings and unique selves instead of repeated acts and fragmented realities.

Frankly, speaking as someone vaguely on the autistic spectrum, the idea that the majority of human culture views the world as it is seems very implausible to me. It’s possible the authors will get more into this later (I’m only part of the way through the book), but I think the authors are perhaps confusing a widely shared intersubjective world with objective reality. The issue is less that we are focused on a single world as it is and more that we have adopted a single ritual world to the exclusion of all others. We’ve demanded excessive coherency, not with reality, but with each other.

However, the antidote is perhaps the same, in that we can counterbalance the norming effect of rituals with more rituals that we can switch between. If ritual got us into this mess, perhaps ritual can also get us out of it.

From “Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology”, p 114, the chapter “Can You Really Hypnotise People?”:

So make-believe, the world of “as if”, affords us, in everyday life, opportunities to go beyond the confines of our immediate circumstances, to explore corners of our souls we hide from the world, to elaborate and give full weight to aspects of ourselves we often cannont safely explore in our day-to-day lives. This lack of ‘safety’ exists perhaps in the form of social constraints on some kinds of behaviour, or it may take the form of the threat and insecurity we feel when we consider the possibility of being a different kind of person. Perhaps we see ourselves as ‘submissive’ and would like to be more ‘assertive’. But the costs are dear, in real life, of gaily throwing off our familiar ways of being and stepping into … who knows what? Who has not, in imagination, ‘practised’ some confrontational encounter, playing out in their mind’s eye the possibilities of different scenarios. So the first point we are making is that the world of ‘as if’ is an important part of our normal lives, and affords us opportunities for safe exploration which are of benefit to us in tackling life’s problems, from returning faulty merchandise to becoming a more confident person.

To return to the issue of hypnosis, the link here is that research from a variety of sources has demonstrated that ‘good’ subjects, people who seem able to make best use of hypnotic suggestions and easily experience the suggested effects, are doing so by the use of the same kinds of imaginative strategies. The good subject enters into the make-believe spirit of hypnotic suggestion uncritically, and under this ‘safe umbrellla’ freely allows themselves to explore the possibilities for thought, feeling and experience that the hypontist (like the author) suggests. So we are now at a point of seeing hypnosis not as something abnormal and unusual, but as the harnessing of a mode of thought or psychological functioning which is part of our normal, everyday lives.

In this scenario, hypnosis serves as a ritual playing a very different role from becoming a zombie, in that instead of creating an all encompassing subjunctive world in which you must behave as if the rules of society were absolute, it creates a much smaller world in which you are temporarily given permission to take off those strictures imposed upon you by society and explore an aspect of yourself that you would normally keep hiding.

We in fact have many of these ritual forms in daily life. For example, social drinking of alcohol is such a ritual. Much of drunkenness is socially constructed ritual: Alcohol certainly has a physiological and psychological effect on us, but little of the actual behaviour of drunkenness is that effect. Instead it is a shared illusion, entering into a world where we behave as if we can be more free with our feelings.

Therapy is another example. In many cases the therapist is no more useful than a rubber duck (in many cases they are much more useful of course), but a significant part of the use of therapy is that it lets you enter into a space where you can talk about and attempt to solve your problems.

If the threat of our own discipline is what prevents us from embracing the freedom of our own emotions, then these sorts of ritual spaces can create the possibility of disarmament. The way to be free is not to reject discipline and ritual, but instead to use them to construct ways of being that give us the freedoms that we want.