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Psychological Aspects of Ritual

Existing psychological literature.
It amazes me how little has been written about the psychology of ritual. A little bit by Freud about obsessive-compulsive disorder being ritualistic, and a little bit by Jung about his patients creating their own sense of the sacred through dreams, and a chapter in a book by Erik Erikson about the development of ritualisation from child to adult.
Some contemporary psychotherapists have written on the subject of how the process of psychotherapy resembles a ritual, then they have leapt to the conclusion that psychotherapy must be a sacred process, apparently oblivious to the last century of anthropological writing about non-sacred ritual.
My own concern is how to improve my ritual designs, and to do this I am moved to try and answer the question “How does Ritual Work?”.
A certain amount of research has been done on this from the perspective of linguistics, especially by the anthropologists Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz and Edmund Leach, looking at ritual as a form of communication. However, what these researchers are documenting and trying to explain is a general theory of how symbols are structured in relation to each other by ritualists, rather than what psychological effects such symbols have on the participants.

Tree and Egg

The Dance

Unconscious Communication.
The key to exploring this question further is noticing that theory of mind has already explored how individuals negotiate social roles with each other (Click here to read about social roles and Rites of Passage). The observation of psychotherapists from Sigmund Freud onwards is that people negotiate roles through unconscious communication, and that this communication is mediated through symbols.
All theories of mind from Sigmund Freud onwards have included the psychological mechanisms of “Projection”, “Introjection”, “Identification” as phenomena that hinder psychological healing, and “Transformation” as one successful outcome.
The first three are concerned with how individuals unconsciously negotiate social roles, and the fourth is concerned with how an individual can free themselves from the expectations of others, and determine their own role.
Catherine Bell’s characteristics of ritual (click here to read about characteristics of ritual) all affect how people see their own roles. The characteristics of tradition, formality, rule-governance and invariance all affect (unconsciously) peoples’ relationship to authority, generally encouraging people to give up their sense of personal authority. This tends to leave people open to suggestion.
The remaining two characteristics, performance and sacral symbolism, are classic methods used by psychotherapists to help their clients explore their social roles, and redefine them if wanted.

How Ritual works.
Following from this, the quick answer to “How does ritual work?” (psychologically) is this(Click Here for the long answer): through the unconscious mechanisms of projection, identification and introjection, participants are led to give up their personal sense of authority, softening their ego-boundaries and becoming emotionally open to others. They are then led through a series of symbolic acts that manipulate their expectations about what will happen in the future. At the end of a ritual, participants are reunited with their sense of personal authority, and their critical faculties, but because of the nature of suggestion they don’t critically appraise their new expectations.
Thus, a “good” ritual will be one which most effectively lowers participants' boundaries, and whose symbolic acts most clearly communicate expectations about the future.
There is much to say about this model of ritual which there isn’t space for here:- How to avoid psychological abuse of participants while their boundaries are lowered; where the spiritual dimension comes in; what practical techniques can be used to achieve these ends; how ritual engenders a sense of community cohesion; the ethics of using ritual in psychotherapy; the possibility of defining ritual in psychological terms; and more.
If this has whetted your appetite and you'd like to know more, then I teach all this material in my dreamcraft groups and workshops.

Contact Dreamcraft Click Here to email me for assistance designing a sacred ceremony or ritual.

Second Dream


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