Iconoclastic Ritual

On the Design of Idiosyncratic Ceremonies

The word "ritual" (as used hereafter) refers to any activity amplifying the simultaneous awareness of oneself and the environment. To vivify one’s place in the cosmos and thus, to engage in deeper levels of participation remains a chief ritual function after aeons past. Differing from ritual, the term "rout-ine" refers to any activity having the distinct effect of diminishing awareness of oneself and the environment.

An understanding and practice of both—of ritual and routine—reveals their underlying marriage as a working polarity: an effective ritual gets you as high as a good routine restabilizes you. Get stuck in either, and the whole engine grinds to a dull roar—from too many routines—or leaves you feeling like a live wire desperately searching for ground. Like an ON-OFF switch on the inside wall of our hindbrains, routines shut down the "portal to infinity" opened up by an activating ritual. Conversely, when we are stuffed to the gills with personal growth and change (our own and others’), doing the laundry or cleaning the house can feel awfully good.

Cursory observation informs us that we humans are a highly ritualistic species: we thrive on them. Rituals, like the spiritualities they sustain, are a highly personal endeavour. Almost anything can be spiritual and almost anybody can make a religion of almost anything: from professional football to the Catholic High Mass. There are also as many different ways to approach ritual knowledge and execution as there are spiritual orientations necessitating them.

My bias around ritual-making is decidedly iconoclastic: concept-free ceremony is as good as it gets. Concept-free ritual is just that. I don’t want to conform to any dogma or doctrine to do a ritual; I want the ritual itself to show me what I believe in and what I’m living for (see my second book, All Rites Reversed, Falcon Press). Iconoclastic ritual is expositional. It works to the extent you are willing and able to expose yourself to yourself. It’s obviously not for everybody; just imagine a temple of iconoclasts.

To instill life into a dead routine or to create ritual anew, there must be some way to experience the effects of living forces. This is almost impossible to any mind self-preoccupied with ideas, concepts, and icons about the living forces themselves. The author of this article supposes that forces, that is to say life itself, exist beyond the creation of mental constructs. In addition, without a profound initial receptivity to living forces, no real ritual is possible.

To bypass concepts and other self-created ideations, we look to the instinctive functions and conditions inherent to the brain itself. Brain research (MacLean and associates) informs us how we’ve inherited the central core ganglia of our brain from our reptilian ancestors and that instincts such as aggression, territoriality, and homesite selection are now innate to human behaviour. In other words, these attributes are imbedded so deeply in our nature they will not go away.

The Space Itself

Once made conscious, certain instincts can be refined and put to work as vitalistic ritual skills capable of enhancing any ceremony, regardless of philosophical orientation. The homesite instinct, for example, is part of a larger geomantic sensibility rooted in our innate indivisibility with the earth below—it works because we are one with the planet. We sense this whenever there’s enough resonance with and/or against a particular locale to change our feelings about that place.

Whether camping in a wilderness region or walking along an urban sprawl or waiting inside a suburban tract house, this instinct tells us the degree we feel "at home" wherever we are and if we feel comfortable enough to settle there and even take root. If we’re listening, it also tells us when to exit a certain place due to feelings of unrest, disquiet, or general "bad" vibes. When developed, the homesite selection instinct fine tunes our bodies into the instinctive talent of a human dowsing rod, interacting with the living earth wherever we go.

As a ritual skill, the homesite selection instinct may favor one place over another depending on the type of ceremony to be executed: certain rites for certain sites, in other words. Every region, indoors and out, is carried by its own unique energy: its flows, contours, and qualitative characteristics. Some places are just more conducive for certain ritual intents than others, e.g. the Australian aborigines go to the mountain (Ayers Rock) to engage their dreamtime ceremonies. When recognized and worked with, this instinct can reinforce ritual integrity by connecting it to the tellurian, or wilderness current of the planet itself.

Once a suitable place has been chosen, the territorial instinct can be worked to assist the process of owning the space for the ensuing ceremony. By marking the area—designating its center and its peripheral boundaries—one begins the necessary process of taking temporary dominion over the ritual setting. We control the setting to minimize interruptions and those influences unnecessary to realizing the ritual intent, whatever that may be. As an instinct, all animals stalk, claim, and mark turf in a certain way; human animals do it more idiosyncratically. Given the task, every individual has their own unique way of taking charge of and claiming their own space. Watch the way any child cleans up their room or the behavioral adjustments any adult makes to secure a place in a crowded subway car.

It is often the spirit of a place itself that first moves us, whether we are cognizant of it or not. Certain spaces and bioregions inspire the desire to commemorate the occasion of simply being there, i.e. building a bonfire on an abandoned beach after sunset. In group ritual process, participants can own the setting without getting in each other’s way if the space itself is related to as a value. A group ritual intent of paying homage to the space itself, before commencing anything else, often has the effect of unifying that group within the spirit of that given place—an effective beginning for any ritual process.

Preparing the Setting

Closely related to the territorial instinct are the more concentrated sensations of aggression, an instinctive response to overcrowding, invasion, and inflicted violation. Aggression, as used here, refers to the "fight-or-flight" adrenaline reaction to protect oneself under real conditions of imposed threat. Even though aggression is more repressed in some people and more obviously out of control in others, it can be called upon to banish unwanted forces and entities from any space we have valued enough to call our own. Without this instilled value, however, there’s less incentive to protect the territory. Without some aggression, we’re as helpless as victims can be.

As a ceremonial skill, aggression can be converted through the directed force of banishment. Banishment assists the process of setting up conditions for the ritual aspirants to command their space from the center out to the periphery, i.e. complete dominion over the space. Banishment is the territorial boundary-creating instinct amplified to its highest expression of directed force. From the ancient shaman’s task of banishing "evil" spirits away from the sick to heal them, to the more contemporary hermetic banishing rituals summoning the archetypal forces of the archangels addressing the four directions, banishment serves to control the setting of a designated area to assure sound accomplishment of ritual intent.

Iconoclastic rituals tend to banish icons and concepts associated with the four direct-ions (or anything whatsoever) in lieu of direct firsthand knowledge of the nameless forces that be. How this be done will be referred to later as the state of No-Form. Iconoclastic intention prefers open-ended contact with energies, or spirits, over the symbolic buffers of second-hand names and labels. Direct-knowledge inspires the possibility for naming the forces yourself, according to your own symbolic responses to their effects. By naming the forces, the iconoclast develops his/her own language to communicate the evolution of his/her own idiosyncratic culture.

Once a place has been chosen and owned sufficiently for ritual commencement, a more subtle instinct can be accessed to instill the space with individual and collective blessings. The ritual function of sanctification (or benediction) is probably the refinement of a mammalian instinct localized in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic, or emotional, brain (intermediating the central reptilian brain with the peripheral neo-cortex) evolved throughout our instinctual history as warm-blooded mammals nursed and cared for their young. Here, the nesting instinct provides the emotional rooting structure for human domestication and the talent for transforming an empty house into a home. When transposed and elevated to a ceremonial enhancer, the nesting instinct can change an empty space into a holy sanctuary. Once sophisticated, it gathers and organizes such ritual paraphernalia as candles, incense, garb, pillars, and other traditional tools and weapons—all towards creating "home environment" for the rite at hand.

On Charging a Ritual

Once again, we look to our daily affairs to notice remnants of our personal domestic style—those ways we maintain the power of dwelling. It shouldn’t take long to see how every person domesticates in their own way and at their own pace. Those individuals with compatible domestic styles are blessed with the support of belonging to a clan; they are family, together.

Dissident domestic styles eventually disperse, unable to form sufficient bonds. If you are a dissident minority in a larger compatible clan structure, most likely you will be scapegoated or somehow banished and uprooted; you find another home (sometimes, a scapegoat can be integral to a clan structure stability). In a similar fashion, the sanctification of a ritual space relies on the unity of those working that space. One weak link drains the power.

Numerous ritual traditions involve a form of prayer, or group prayer circle, to bond each aspirant with the collective field. Singing, drumming and chanting are also traditional expressions for the blessing of a space. Concept-free, or iconoclastic, prayer encourages direct intuitive merging with one’s own contact with the source of life—wherever and whatever that may be. From here, an idiosyncratic approach to "source relations" emboldens an indigenous spirituality, one that is innate to oneself. The process of sanctifying a surrounding ritual space through the direct emanation and transmission of spiritual power is initially absorbed in one’s source relations.

In traditional religious rituals, the priest sanctifies the congregational space by his communion with the deity. In iconoclastic ritual, everyone is their own priest and priestess; there are no middlemen between person and divinity. By establishing a strong devotional connection with one’s inner vertical source, one can then begin radiating this force externally—horizontally—throughout the space itself by chanting singing, moving, and/or dancing (as long as these activities remain motivated by the previous source relations). Any space is blessed by the spiritual presence instilled therein.

By now, the space has been prepared for ritual. The imminent task of charging a ritual—of activating the forces to be worked—depends entirely on one’s initial receptivity to them. Without the ability to empty one’s mind and temporarily bypass identification with thoughts, there can be no effective ritual. Without establishing some personal discipline engaging No-Mind, aspirants risk the delusion of thinking a living force is contacted when, in fact, only a concept or icon of that force is met. The result is often a contrived and rote rite—a routine—accompanied by an inflated ego’s attachment to the map instead of the territory. How self-aggrandizing can the prospect of becoming one of the gods get? Does calling the name of Jupiter or Shiva instantly qualify its embodiment? Ego-inflamation can be remedied soon enough just by conscious choice to enter a state of intimacy with void, or nothingness. Shunryu Suzuki’s masterful book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill) remains an excellent reference to the practice of No-Mind for novices and adepts alike.

Intimacy with Void

Physicists inform us that only miniscule portion of the known universe is made up of "matter"; most of it is boundless space. Quantum mechanics reveals how subatomic matter is no more solid than a quivering dance of particles. Buddhism suggests that our true nature is formless, colorless . . . without name, shape or description. As the earth spins along its trajectory through deep space, so do our lives. We can choose to grow aware of the infinite void around and within us, or continue buffering ourselves from the inevitable; that is a choice everyone invariably makes. Embracing solitude and relating directly with nothingness takes an act of extraordinary will, an intention set apart from mere habit and instinct. This attribute stems from the cognitive neo-cortex frontal lobes of the brain; it is why a human being can no longer be just an animal anymore. Avoidance of solitude is the last impediment to direct intimacy with the fertile void.

Solitude begins meditation. Mystical systems worldwide refer to this void state with a plethora of exotic names: kether, samadhi, ain sof, the fool, cloud of unknowing, potentia, great spirit, the illuminated gate, and so forth. All are symbols referring to a reality beyond the symbolic realm for the sole purpose of informing the symbol-eating intellect of conditions existing beyond its comprehension, beyond its control . . . beyond itself, period. Intellects that can handle the void tend to illuminate the mystical, i.e. they still serve those who witness and register forces beyond the grasp of immediate analysis.

I’ve selected the iconoclastic term of No-Form for referring to the concept-free process of intimacy with formless void. The meditation of No-Form tends to function most effectively before and after each and every ritual. By entering a No-Form meditation before summoning and engaging the forces intended, a state of profound recept-ivity can occur—serving to accumulate the necessary charge for animating any ritual. This also minimizes the tendency to contrive a routine. By emptying out after each ritual, participants don’t have to walk away from the ritual site all "charged up," i.e. inflated, overheated, and otherwise full of themselves.

No-Form functions as if it were a kind of gateway to and from the realm of the archetypes, the dynamic elements responsible for animating and transforming consciousness. The term "archetype" refers to those autonomous forces residing within our psyche and also sharing outer correspond-ences in the world around us; they are universal symbols capable of eliciting personal response. Examples include: Dream, Death, Creation, Destruction, Order, Chaos, The Four Elements, Growth, Decay, Shadow, Angels, Demons, and all other terms symbolic of transformative process. One odd and wonderful thing about No-Form is that, generally speaking, it cannot be taught. All words fall short to describe it, and all descriptions are subjective responses at best. There are, however, certain preliminary conditions conducive to its expression; No-Form can be invited.

The No-Form Stance

No-Form begins wherever one is already aware of the surrounding void, within and without. In context to ritual process we can bypass the traditional Buddhist sitting post-ures, and instead, locate the personal No-Form stance—thus setting the stage for No-Form as a catalyst to physical motion, rather than a passive end unto itself. This can be accomplished by any standing position supporting physical balance—a stance of readiness. While watching the breath, gradually emphasize the exhale to encourage a sense of emptying; let the inhale become an involuntary reflex. Internally, relax your desire to control. If this previous suggestion elicits a sense of nausea (in the solar plexus area), it may indicate your resistance to relaxing control. This natural enough, control is necessary to survival. To break through the resistance, breathe through the nausea while relaxing your desire to control. Continue incorporating whatever you already know about bypassing thought processes. No-Form meditation practice is a mandatory ritual discipline for anyone concerned with establishing authentic source relations and its expression externally in the world; the No-Form stance prepares us for action.

Sample Ritual Session

Stage I: Select an appropriate setting, one where you feel safe enough to act uninterrupted for the better part of an hour or more; this can be indoors or outside. Physically demarcate and define the outside periphery and the center of the setting; set this space apart. Within the boundaries of the setting, select a smaller area to begin claiming as your personal space; demarcate its boundaries and center in addition to banishing from it any energies that are not your own. From inside your personal space enter a meditation or a prayer to establish source relations. From the devotional connection with your source of life, sanctify your personal space.

Stage II: Step outside your personal circle and, while facing it, enter a stance conducive to No-Form. Stay in No-Form until you’ve stopped trying and thinking and doing and being anything. BE NOTHING. Send into your personal space that unnameable quality that represents "what is most true to you here and now." Feel and sense the life of this quality before you as you drop down into deeper levels of No-Form. When your No-Form is true, enter the circle.

Stage III: Absorb the quality into yourself. Breathe it in. Instead of trying to direct yourself or control the direction of the energy, create enough space inside you for the direct expression of the quality itself. Let the quality move you; begin following the movement of the quality. The energy has its own intent; it does not need any help. Give your whole body to the expression of this quality and stay with the force until you feel done. When you feel done, exit the circle and return to No-Form; stay there until the charge has dissipated. The ritual experiment is over.

Accelerating the Work

If deeper engagement with archetypal forces is desired, own your space more vigorously; apply more focused force to the banishing ritual. This will have the effect of encouraging your presence. After banishing, create a physical warm-up period lasting 30-60 minutes. Include activities for stretching muscles, flexing the spinal column, and breaking a sweat. The more the body is felt deeply, the more willing the animal becomes to engage higher energy levels, i.e. the archetypes. When it’s time for No-Form, stay there longer. The deeper the impression from whatever archetype is invoked or evoked. Make note: the more profound the archetypal impression, the greater the charge accompanying it. The greater the charge, the greater the No-Form needed afterwards to dissipate the excess force.

This reminds us how scrupulous ritual is carried by other intentions than the inflationary goal of getting "shot up with oneself." The question everyone should ask of themselves before undertaking ritual process always concerns itself with intent: "Why am I (are we) doing this?" What is the ritual intent? With a group, this question helps focus the collective purpose as well as assuring the continuity of ongoing work, without which there would be no evidence for the value of doing it in the first place.