Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ritual, health, and changing self-stories

(Image: "Self-no Self" by Sandra Sunnyo Lee)

Fiacharrey at the Cypress Nemeton noted my recent post on the uses of life-narrative in changing the self, and my comment that ritual could be a powerful tool for retelling our life stories and reworking our sense of self. Fiacharrey discusses the idea of using ritual in these ways; s/he focuses on the role that externalizing a difficult problem can play in psychological health. According to the original NYT article, those who score highly on assessments of well-being describe their problems as something outside themselves, "villains to be defeated," rather than as persistent character traits. So, for example, someone who describes a period of depression as coming out of nowhere and external to the herself (e.g., referring to it as "the black dog"), scores higher on a well-being assessment that someone who describes herself as a "depressive." The study discussed in the article seems to suggest that it's healthier to externalize one's problems in this way. The way to externalize the problem is to tell a story about it, and presumably an individual has some measure of control over the kind of story she tells. So perhaps we can retell our way to a measure of psychological health.

Fiacharrey gives some practical tips on designing rituals that can help us retell our stories:
  1. “Externalize” the problem you are dealing with. Make it real and separate. Represent it with some tangible object that you can work with.
  2. Word spells in terms of overcoming obstacles. Word them with the problem first, then the resolution. Negative, then positive ending.
  3. Use third person instead of first person as much as possible.
And while Fiacharrey says s/he is "leery of reducing magic to simply a mind-trick we play on ourselves," I don't think that's what rituals of this sort actually do. If we accept Dion Fortune's oft-quoted definition of magic as "the art of bringing about change in consciousness in conformity with will," then taking intentional action to change the contents of our awareness and our underlying beliefs is magic.

But as Witches and other practitioners of magic (ought to) know, we can't think of the will in a common way. The idea of "willpower" - that I can make something happen by trying hard enough - is misleading. The will isn't about wishing something were so, or trying really, really hard; and it's not about forcing something to change. Indeed, it's an open question whether the will is terribly responsive to conscious, rational argument at all.

I'm not convinced that change happens best when we try to make it happen. While there can be a conscious decision to start telling one's life stories differently, after that decision is made, one may need to employ other means in the retelling. And that's where ritual can come in. Ritual is a form of communication with the unconscious, with the child-self, with Younger Self. The Feri tradition teaches that the only way to reach the Higher Self is by going through the Younger Self; that's why Wiccan rituals are often designed with Younger Self in mind - the pretty colors, the yummy smells, candles, nighttime, poetry, drumming, chant! We alter our everyday consciousness in order to reach something deeper. Ritual isn't about convincing the rational, everyday mind - the Talking Self - that something is so. Rather, ritual courts the child in us, and thereby connects us to the Divine.

To take it back to storytelling and psychological health: it's not enough to tell yourself a different story. You have to convince yourself of the new story. You have to learn to embody the new story. You take it into your cells, your bones. The new myth becomes alive for you. It's not a dramatic epiphany - at least, not usually. It's piecemeal. It's process. And it has to happen throughout your being, at every level, not just in the conscious mind. As is said: the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.


marcus said...

Working with oneself in this manner can be a life long process - and indeed in many ways it should be.

So you are saying that - eventually - you have to become the change you want?

deborah oak said...

Great post, Inanna! As a therapist, I'm always working with people on changing their stories...and one thing I like to ask people is if their life/story was a movie, who would they choose to direct it? Would it be Bergman film or a Fellini film? A major epic or small indie film? Comedy or tragedy? The same story can be told in so many different lights.

Sia Vogel said...

Wonderful post - thank you.

Much of what you describe is what we do in the Spiral Steps Support Groups :-)

Sitting in a Circle and telling these stories, and - as we put it- reframing them - if a powerful act.



TurtleHeart said...

Beautiful post. It reminds me of my favorite Ghandi quote, "You must be the change you want to see in the world." We must also be the change we want to see in ourselves, although that is not so easy, at times. But it is possible. I am currently working on my own change...

PS- to answer your question re: nose piercing-- I won't kid you, it HURT-- HOWEVER, it was also over in about 2 seconds and I've since forgotten the pain; AND I'm oh-so-happy I went through with it. I'm lovin' the nosering.