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Ritual and Healing

From the point at which Sigmund Freud noted the similarities between religious ritual and obsessive-compulsive disorder, ritual and religion have been firmly in the frame both as healers, and causes, of mental anguish.
Most psychologists of any note, dealing with mental health disorders, have written extensively on the psychological processes involved in ritual. Freud even went as far as to extrapolate all world religions from the Oedipus complex, and to interpret worship of the Father god (and ritual feasting on the flesh of the Son [Holy Communion]) as a continued attempt to find reconciliation with the actual father.

Although anthropologists have been moving away from psychological interpretations of ritual, towards social and evolutionary approaches, it has to be said that ritual would have no place in our world whatsoever if it had no psychological reality and imperative! Whatever effects rituals have on our communities, these effects must be achieved through the combined effects on each of the individuals involved.

Traditional ritual symbolism seems to make great use of what Jung termed “archetypes”, the fundamental forces, objects and conflicts which form our psyches. Indeed, much of Jung’s writing on the subject of archetypes was inspired by his studies of ritual and myth from around the world.

In Kleinian terms, common ritual addresses the issues of ego-splitting that affect whole communities. In terms of calendrical rites, such splits would involve themes such as Plenty/Famine, Life/Death, Renewal/Stagnation, Gratification/Abstinence … themes suggested by the changing of the seasons, but also applicable to wider life.

Rituals which focus on particular individuals, such as weddings, funerals, coronations, etc., seem to manipulate the projective identification of the onlookers, rather than the ego-state of the participants. What changes for a couple at the point of marriage is less their own perceptions of themselves and the world, but more the perceptions of their assembled friends and relatives. The couple are seen by others as “married”, and however much they may try to hang on to all the ‘good feelings’ of being young, free and single that they are about to lose, it is the relentless projection of “married” from others that forces them eventually to assimilate their new status.

Many psychologists have sought to use these processes in their clinical work:

“Little” (little in size, not in impact) rituals, involving only the patient and witnessed only by the therapist, may enable a patient to relate to different parts of their split egos, and ultimately to reconcile them and include their difficult feelings in their conscious world.

Group rituals, in which all those present take turns as participants and witnesses, can utilise projective identification in this process. Crudely, an addict who has taken a “sacred-style” vow in front of a peer group to renounce their addiction, will find it easier to abstain when his/her ritual group project “Reformed Addict” onto him/her.

Ritual seems to be a gateway into the subconscious, a tool to shift around our perceptions of ourselves, each other and our world. It can be used to release psychological energy, or contain it, to encourage projection or diminish it. As with any tool, it can be used wisely or foolishly, for good or ill, for health … or harm.

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