Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Ceremonial Letting-Go

Though the idea of endings already suggests a preoccupation with time, the appeal of leaving something in the past behind, of not being haunted by certain memories or behaviors is undeniable. The traditions associated with New Year’s Eve invite us to do this, celebrating the opportunity to release the hold of the past.
It may seem arbitrary to single out a numbered unit of time like this, but a tradition can be useful, giving people a chance to impose their own meanings on a pre-existing cultural pattern. Patterns are essential to learning, repetition reinforcing the new behavior until it functions automatically. Here lies an opportunity to sort through cultural values and make choices about where the cultural idea doesn’t lead to growth. For example, the culture emphasizes easiness and avoidance of difficulty, when it’s challenge that helps us unfold our powers creating greater involvement and concentration. Finding challenges and embracing difficulty would be a much more stimulating style of life. The man that coined the term, “lifestyle”, Alfred Adler, saw the importance of behavioral patterns as expressing the inner atmosphere of the person. Finding problems in our habitual way of living, and creating more fulfilling patterns, is a big part of the cognitive therapy that grew from his work. Pattern making is our nature and we can use it to our benefit.
Often what we want to leave behind is an old pattern, a habit that’s interfering with us. Many of my students compared a habit to gravity exerting a pull in the direction of what’s gone before like a groove in a hillside collects the water flowing down. Rupert Sheldrake called the many expressions of this phenomenon, ”morphological fields”. Energy will flow in the way it’s flowed before in the absence of any conscious effort to change it. When observed in the physics of chaos theory the persistence of a dynamic pattern is called a strange attractor. In the human brain, as actions become automated they shift to the cerebellum, freeing up the circuits necessary for learning in the cerebral cortex. Attacking a habit at the surface can be frustrating since it doesn’t get to the root of long established conditioning. This may be why therapies like the Feldenkrais Method and Bioenergetics, which work with body position, have more success than others. Our habits and memories have attendant body positions. Changing the body position could be a way to invite different mental states. This is very old knowledge. Yoga has always maintained that the way to master the mind is through the body, and the I Ching states, “With the back straight, the ego fades.” Ceremonial dances are also a way of doing bodywork.
How behavioral ritual sets up chemical readiness was demonstrated by a sleep study showing that people who had longer going to bed preparations went to sleep faster than people that got in bed more quickly. Every step of getting ready led to the next automatically with sleep as the final step. I’ve made use of this benefit from creating personal rituals by taking my time setting up what I need for my work each time I go into the studio, sending active messages to prepare my mind for what’s coming.
The creation of a personal symbolic ritual is an act of commitment to an intention. The more thoughtful the personal expression, the better able is the intention to take root by making it concrete in experience. Making use of the symbolic year’s end takes advantage of an existing cultural pattern geared to releasing aspects of the past. Building one’s own content into it uses the power of a long-standing custom to build a dynamic image for a new stage of being.

1 comment:

B. Recacho said...

Susan, this is beautifully worded. Thank you. You brought up the fact that society teaches us to take the easy path, when it's the difficult, challenging path that makes us grow. This reminded me of something I read in Jonah Lehrer's PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST. Lehrer is discussing Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring": "While the crowd at the premiere assumed that beauty was immutable–some chords were just more pleasing than others–Stravinsky knew better. An instinctive modernist, he realized than our sense of prettiness is malleable, and that the harmonies we worship and the tonic chords we trust are not sacred. Nothing is sacred. Nature is noise. Music is nothing but a sliver of sound that we have learned how to hear. With "The Rite", Stravinsky announced that it was time to learn something new....He knew the brain would eventually right his wrongness. The audience would adapt to his difficult notes and discover the beauty locked inside his art. As neuroscience now knows, our sense of sound is a work in progress. Neurons in the auditory cortex are constantly being altered by the songs and symphonies we listen to. Nothing is difficult forever....Without artists like Stravinsky who compulsively make everything new, our sense of sound would become increasingly narrow. Music would lose it's essential uncertainty. Dopamine would cease to flow. As a result, the feeling would be slowly drained out of the notes, and all we would be left with would be a shell of easy consonance, the polite drivel of perfectly predictable music. Works like "The Rite" jolt us out of this complacency. They keep us literally open-minded. If not for the difficulty of the avant-garde, we would worship nothing but which we already know."