Burning Man: Ritual

Ritual is an often-misunderstood term these days.  To too many people it means “an empty gesture,” or “sequence of actions meant to effect a quasi-magical (or even magical) result.”

But to those of us who study such things, ritual is very much a living process.  Ritual offers Order, Community, and Transformation to its participants; those who are already familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey will be familiar with the pattern.

Any ritual worth the time will provide the same Separation/Revelation/Return that Campbell’s monomyth does.  Indeed, all the literature that uses the pattern provides the reader with ritual-by-proxy.

I am often asked how/why my labyrinth is used/useful, and here is the correct answer, although I know it does not clear up any confusion for most questioners: labyrinths provide a first-hand Hero’s Journey to those who walk them.  You enter, follow the path.  You bring your concerns and questions, and the curves and turns and compass point sculptures all offer you ways to filter your thoughts.  You listen for answers, you formulate metaphors.  You reach the center, where an omphalos provides a focus and/or a platform for viewing the compass points.  Finally, you turn and make your exit, retracing your steps and revisiting your metaphors. Around my firepit, we say

Take the Pathway
to explore
uncover
confront.

Return to the Fire
to confirm
affirm
retreat.

Order. Community. Transformation.

Very mystical, but when it works, it works.  (Sometimes a walk in the labyrinth is just a walk.)

The purpose of all ritual is liminality: a border which you must cross that separates you from your normal frame of reference, either physically, mentally, or spiritually.  It is designed to offer you new perspectives on your reality, to transform you either in small or large ways.  Ritual is everywhere.

Burning Man itself is a ritual: after a great deal of preparation, you trek into the desert under extremely harsh conditions, where you live for a week.  You encounter amazing/bizarre/beautiful objects and experiences.  At the end, the dominant figure is communally but completely destroyed. The community is dissolved, and you return to the “default world,” as the Burners call it, changed in some way.

The Governor’s Honors Program is a ritual: take 700 gifted high school kids and separate them from their homes and social structures.  Open with highly structured, highly formal meetings, then create new challenges and experiences for them, not the least of which is each other.  After a period of time, bring them together for one last Convocation, now raucous and emotional—itself a ritual event—and then  dissolve their community. Send them home, changed.  (N.B.: anyone who does not understand this and attempts to operate this experience as merely a summer learning opportunity for smart kids is doomed to failure.)

You see the pattern.

Tomorrow: Order. Community. Transformation.

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