Ritual practice in end times

This post is the second in a series exploring apocalyptic narratives in our society. The first post is from 2015, titled “Why Practice? Yoga, the Apocalypse, and Dynamic Love.” The featured image on this blog is art by Yuumei and available on their website.

How can we move with grace through apocalypse?

There are days it seems like the whole world is on fire.

California certainly was. In 2020, over four million acres burned in my home state in over 9,000 fires, killing 31 people, destroying around 10,000 structures, and displacing more than 50,000 people (LA Times 2020). Five of the top six largest fires ever to burn in California burned in 2020 (ABC7 News 2020). Colonial land practices focusing on suppressing fires (Norgaard and Worl 2019) have collided with climate change (ScienceDaily 2020), contributing to growing fire seasons. Nearby states like Oregon and Colorado, were also hit hard with historic blazes, at times leaving the entire west coast shrouded in smoke stretching hundreds of miles. There were days of orange haze that made it feel like we were no longer on Planet Earth, but Mars. Maybe Mars once looked like our planet does now… Maybe someday our children’s children’s children will not even remember blue skies.

California experienced some of the world’s worst air quality last summer (Ho 2020), and Stanford researchers have estimated between 1,000 – 3,000 more Californians died that otherwise would not have due to the prolonged smoke exposure exacerbating preexisting conditions (Rogers 2020). All of these extreme weather conditions are of course more risky given we remain in the middle of a pandemic (Montrose 2020) that has already killed over 550,000 people in the USA as of this writing (CDC).

It’s hard to keep track of when the sensation of burning began, but one thing is certain, 2020 was a lot to manage and process. As I write this, the United States is still navigating the aftermath of a historic election to oppose rising fascism, experiencing a global pandemic, an economic depression that has increased existing poverty, hunger, and income inequality, as well as the ongoing and growing impacts of climate change. In many ways, the world and it’s workings have never felt more uncertain or more precarious. So many folks are hanging on by a thread. Perhaps Joseph Heller was right, and “insanity is contagious” (Catch-22). I remain convinced that anyone less than a little mad in these times is the insane one.

Yet, these moments of turmoil open us up to the potential transmutation of our society and ways of life. This pandemic has highlighted that our old way of living was not and is not sustainable for the planet or for ourselves. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. What is our obligation to create alternative futures? In what follows, I discuss how 2020 was a year characterized by cultural trauma and how ritual practices can help us better navigate collapse, crisis, and connection.

Cultural Trauma Amid 2020

For many, this year has been characterized by trauma, deeply distressing and disturbing experiences. Most people think of trauma as being caused by one-time, contained, violent, and potentially life-threatening incidents–war, sexual violence, physical assault, a car crash. These things are indeed traumatic, though trauma can be caused by a variety of experiences, including systemic forms of oppression like poverty (e.g., Mani et al. 2013), dangerous living conditions (e.g., Gapen et al. 2011), and racial discrimination (e.g., Dr. Joy DeGruy‘s work on post traumatic slave disorder).

Everyone experiences trauma at some point in our lives, because life is not endless and our awareness and ability to navigate intense events fluctuates and shifts across our lives. One thing is always certain–at some point this mortal coil shifts, death comes for us or others or our non-human kin, the cycle spirals onward. The question is not if we will experience trauma, it’s how we process and hold the trauma we go through.

This pandemic, while impacting different demographic groups unequally, has transformed entire industries and social structures overnight, including education, food systems, arts, and entertainment, often in ways that heighten risk and precarity. As we have tried to make sense of the magnitude and nature of the virus, many social interactions and family dynamics have changed. Prior routines have been disrupted. Food scarcity is growing. Employment experiences for many have been transformed as undervalued workers have suddenly become “essential” yet remain under-compensated and under-protected, as yet others have found jobs of many years disappearing, and those of us lucky enough to be able to move our work online are navigating a new, even more technologically dependent lifestyle. We continue to grapple with rising political tension in our nation (and globally) and growing far-right, fascist violence. If anything, political polarization is a sign that we are deeply struggling over the interpretation and meaning of the events of 2020. Our collective memory of what the United States of America was, what it is, of what it could be has been rattled by the hundreds of thousands of ghosts of those we have lost.

Most of us experience traumatic events in relative solitude and isolation, as part of our lives and those few who are witness to or embroiled in the event(s) with us. But when trauma is shared en masse, it changes. Shared trauma can heighten the impacts, deepening the emotional intensity and affecting multiple layers of society from more individual level family functioning to community and national infrastructures. Because stressors in these circumstances are compounded, often trauma is as well. This can contribute to loss spirals, when people in already impoverished environments face resource losses that spawn even more losses.

The ongoing crises and emotional turmoil we have been experiencing this year are a form of cultural trauma. According to Onwuachi-Willig (2016), “Cultural traumas are socially mediated processes that occur when groups endure horrific events that forever change their consciousness and identity…. These traumas arise out of shocks to the routine or the taken for granted” (see also Alexander et al. 2004). Woods (2019:2) argues that cultural trauma consists of a series of events that contribute to the breakdown of a group’s meaning-system, including patterns of norms, beliefs, ideologies, and knowledge. In this sense, cultural traumas don’t just disrupt social structures for the larger group (in the vein of collective trauma), but also tend to undermine and/or overwhelm essential ingredients of our culture, our shared values, our shared understandings of the world and our place(s) in it.

Many have been surprised to find that life continues to just go on despite the pandemic. Yet according to Indi Samarajiva (2020), this is the essence of the experience of collapse, which they argue is already here:

“The real question is, who are you? I mean, you’re reading this. You have the leisure to ponder American collapse like it’s even a question. The people really experiencing it already know. So I’m telling you, as someone who’s been there, in similar shoes to yours; this is it. America has already collapsed. What you’re feeling is exactly how it feels. It’s Saturday and you’re thinking about food while the world is on fire. This is normal. This is life during collapse… Collapse does not mean you’re personally dying right now. It means y’all are dying right now. Death is sometimes close, sometimes far away, but always there. Usually for someone else, but someday, randomly, for you… Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is…. The pain doesn’t go away, it just becomes a furniture of bones, in a thousand thousand homes.”

Circumstances are sometimes beyond our control. We might not be able to avoid all trauma, yet we can control our reactions to traumatic events. We can lessen the impacts. It is possible to turn the tide and create moments of potential and transformation amid the turmoil. In fact, it is essential to recognize that even in the most difficult of times, life continues. How do we find ways to cultivate joy amid the struggle?

Sometimes we rely on what is called surge capacity, or “a collection of adaptive systems—mental and physical—that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters” (Haelle 2020). However, when dire circumstances drag on it can be necessary to adopt different styles of coping to promote more long term resilience. According to Kai Cheng, a Canadian social worker and activist, when society itself is the source of trauma, complete healing is impossible because the violence of everyday life is ongoing. Rather than simply relearning how to perceive safety by regulating the mind, the triggers, raw emotions, and unease felt by those experiencing oppression “are in fact skills that have kept us alive.” The goal of healing is not to prepare the body and our minds to return to some general safety of society (that is in actuality unsafe). Rather, we must prepare for struggle together, “training for better survival and the ability to experience joy in the midst of great danger” (Cheng 2020).

Research on resiliency in families who have experienced collective violence gives us a starting point for a path forward. Given the disruption to routines caused by traumatic circumstances, Shelley Wadsworth (2010) argues that it is especially important to maintain organizational patterns and family rituals even if these are delayed or altered to fit new circumstances. As many of us have witnessed this year amid social isolation, it’s also key to maintain caring relationships with others. Find ways to create and sustain shared beliefs and values rooted in hope for a more positive future.

It is also essential that we work not just at the individual level, but at the community level to provide mutual aid and social supports for each other to heal together. For example, in Ostertag and Ortiz’s (2013) study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, individuals engaged in cultural repair by producing culturally affirming counter-narratives through social media and organizing physically collective actions to rebuild as a community. As the union saying goes, it’s all of us or none of us.

Ritual Practice in End Times

So what is the routine, the organizational pattern we are creating? How are we adapting to our unprecedented circumstances? Every day, we engage in and create ritual practices, performances of actions with a set sequence that reflect a specific intention. Sometimes these are the mundane, earthly rituals. As the poet Joy Harjo has said, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. / The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.” Sometimes our rituals take on deep spiritual meaning, perhaps including our yogic practice.

I know I am not the only one who has found it hard to create consistency in these times. Trauma disrupts routines, making it more challenging to develop and maintain new rhythms, to maintain our ritual practices.

Yet, ritual practices are essential amid this pandemic as a means of building resilience and connecting us to divine wisdom. Performing a set or sequence of actions with intention allows us to symbolically focus and process the emotional experiences we are grappling with. Whatever the form, rituals help us make sense of our social world, alleviate anxiety, even communicate and bond with others. This is the essence and purpose of rituals: to activate our emotions, to reaffirm and redefine what values and identities are most important to us as individuals and as a social group. Rituals sacralize certain people, spaces, or activities and have profound potential to promote healing, protection, and restoration. Yet, they can also reify habitual patterns that can do ourselves great harm, or that can harm others.

What are the ritual practices we are cultivating, especially in these difficult times?

Our daily lives are full of rituals, including personal ones as well as other traditions we carry with us from our ancestors and our backgrounds. While times of crisis impact all ritual practice, these moments also create possibilities for us to reconnect to forgotten routines and patterns, to forge new connections.

I have always found it interesting to look to our apocalyptic imaginings–what stories of apocalypse do we create, and what type of narratives do they present us with on how to survive in end times? Yet, many popular apocalypse shows and narratives feature lead characters who are white and the stories mainstream capitalism offers us often replicate individualist and heteronormative narratives and values. Representations of apocalypse are often deeply gendered and show the salvation of humans as being tied to toxic masculinity, violence, or raw physical strength.

Yet if anything, this year has illustrated the central importance of carework and ritual practices that have historically been labeled feminine and/or associated with people of color. Many indigenous responses to crisis have illustrated that it’s only through building diverse coalitions and mutual aid networks in our communities that we can create resilient communities, resilient families, and resilient ecosystems. It’s only through cooperation that we will be able to access survival.

It is vital that we honor and acknowledge indigenous forms of wisdom as we consider how we can heal from this year, how we can create new and better futures. Although many people have noted that the struggles of 2020 are unprecedented, apocalyptic conditions are something oppressed people have navigated for centuries. According to Kelly Rose Pflug-Back (2020):

“Targeted violence, political suppression, and attacks upon culture and identity figure prominently in the fears of mainstream survivalists. But those fears are, essentially, a fear that white people will someday have to live in the same conditions they’ve subjected colonized peoples to for centuries. Likewise, survivalists talk about the moment that SHTF (shit hits the fan, in prepper lingo) being marked by ‘a breakdown in law and order.’ In this scenario, police and government operations grind to a halt. However, in Canada those entities have never protected queer, Black, and Indigenous people, and they actually work to dispossess and surveil marginalized people. It all begs the question: the end of whose world? And what new worlds might be possible after the breakdown of this one?”

It’s not a coincidence so many people, including myself, have found solace in food rituals as healing practice during this pandemic. For many, revitalizing these forms of everyday ritual practice have been a profound source of healing not just for our individual selves, but has also potentially become a means of supporting those in our families and communities.

For example, Danielle Prohom Olson (2017), a witch and feminist, has observed that “once upon a time all food was wild” and that “no aspect of food production was left untouched by magical ritual.” According to Olson, “seeking balance with nature means more than just reviving practical skills and living sustainably, it means ritually acknowledging and thanking the earth for her life-giving gifts.” In other words, it is a practice of ritualistic devotion to the relations of life (and death) that we are embedded within. Food practices are an important avenue into rewilding, reconnecting the nature, and a site of decolonizing action (for more academic work in this vein, see Pena et al. 2017, Salmon 2012).

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, recently wrote an article about harvesting serviceberries and the ethic of reciprocity that allows us to create alternative, gift economies (Kimmerer 2021). It’s worth a deep read. In the piece she discusses how acknowledging that plants are gifts changes our relationship to the natural world from one of commodification/consumption to an understanding of reciprocity and gift exchange. Our response to the gift of serviceberries is one of gratitude,

“the thread that connects us in a deep relationship, simultaneously physical and spiritual, as our bodies are fed and spirits nourished by the sense of belonging, which is the most vital of foods. Gratitude creates a sense of abundance, the knowing that you have what you need. In that climate of sufficiency, our hunger for more abates and we take only what we need, in respect for the generosity of the giver. If our first response is gratitude, then our second is reciprocity: to give a gift in return…. Gratitude and reciprocity are the currency of a gift economy, and they have the remarkable property of multiplying with every exchange, their energy concentrating as they pass from hand to hand, a truly renewable resource… To name the world as gift is to feel one’s membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy—and it makes you accountable. Conceiving of something as a gift changes your relationship to it in a profound way… you are responsible for it, and your gratitude has motive force in the world. You’re likely to take much better care of the gift… Mistreating a gift has emotional and ethical gravity as well as ecological resonance… A gift economy nurtures the community bonds which enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is “we” rather than “I,” as all flourishing is mutual.”

During this pandemic I began baking sourdough bread. I have gardened, and have continued to brew kombucha. Living foods like these take consistent care, symbiotic relationship, and tap us into larger cycles of life, to more nonhuman understandings of time, to the biologic rhythms of our bodies on this earth. It is a gift of gratitude. By tapping into these ritual practices we are able to heal our hearts and create more sustainable relationships in our lives and our society.

Especially in crisis, it is easy to simply react and replicate forms of harm, to replicate cycles of violence or trauma. Cultivating healing ritual practices in our lives can help us be better prepared to manage emotional and visceral turmoil, to be resilient amid chaos, to navigate new and unexpected challenges. Preparing for apocalypse, ending violence, starts with the internal work that enables us to avoid perpetuating injustice or harm in our personal lives and in our communities. By doing so, we can be a force in the world, creating and participating in better systems.

Perhaps the World Ends Here
By Joy Harjo from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994)

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Toward Intentional Endings

Memes have become something of a ritual practice in 2020, a way to connect and cope with the times. Shortly after the shut-downs began for COVID-19, a musician friend of mine shared a meme of a band playing on a sinking ship. The image haunts me now and again, a year later.

When the Titanic sunk in 1912, there were eight musicians on board. All of them died–they were not rich and traveled as second class passengers during the voyage. The nature of the job meant they were young and as far as I know only one had a fiance (and unborn child) he left behind. There was no room in the precious lifeboats for these men. Yet as the ship sank around them, they did not panic. They might not have had a choice in dying, but they chose how they died. They played music until they could play no longer.

Titanic GIF | Gfycat
Scene from the movie Titanic (1997), depicting the eight musicians of the ship who played as the ship sank.

What can their lives and deaths reveal to us about ritual practice amid chaos? Amid crisis? Amid apocalypse? Scholar-activist Sean Parsons argues that “we need to look to horror—the most nihilistic and pessimistic genre—to imagine what survivalism will look like in the Cthulhuscene… The world might be doomed, but that does not mean that there is no joy and meaning to be found as the world burns.” When we begin from a place of acknowledgement of our cultural trauma, it changes how we organize to heal. It changes how we live amid crisis. Or at least it has the potential to.

What are the ritual practices we are cultivating, and can we think critically and deeply about what we are devoting ourselves to?

How do we want to go out? (Because someday, inevitably, death will come for all of us.)

How can we navigate these storms with grace, with love, honoring life, seeking justice?

What will we make amid crisis?

At the turn of the new year, the rains finally came. That first evening I awoke to the sound of it, the smell of it, and going outside I was reminded again of the magic of this world. By now, in Spring, the ash from the fires has washed clean from the forest leaves. I imagine the nutrients returning to the soil, to the tree roots deep, deep in the ground.

We may be dealing with profound loss, but these times allow us to reflect on the way our systems of living, our lifestyles, our governments, were already unsustainable. What we had before was already broken. We cannot recreate what we were, or how we were. We must find a path to an alternative future. We must grow something new.

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