RITUALS AND MODERN SOCIETY
by Serge Kahili King
(Copyright Serge Kahili King 1997)
A ritual is a well-defined sequence of words and actions designed to focus attention, establish
significance, and achieve a beneficial result. Although some people think we have lost our sense of ritual,
modern society makes use of many rituals to mark the beginning of significant events (baby showers, grand
openings, ship launchings); the ending of life, or ways of life (funerals, bachelor parties, happy hours);
the completion of important tasks or performances (graduation ceremonies, toasting successful negotiations,
applause); the transition of one state or time period to another (birthday parties, anniversary
celebrations, religious ceremonies like baptism/bar mitzvah/confirmation) and the making of connections
(marriage ceremonies, church services, flirting).
There exist abundant rituals for every occasion - so why are more and more people in this modern age seeking
out rituals different from what they have?
In order for a ritual to be fully effective it must fulfill four requirements:
1. It must be intellectually satisfying.
2. It must be emotionally satisfying.
3. It must have a strong beginning.
4. It must have a strong ending.
To be satisfying intellectually, every word and movement must be filled with meaning which is understood by
the participants and the observers. Otherwise the event is just confusing and uninteresting. If you have to
ask "Why are we (they) doing this?" the effect of the ritual is lost.
Emotional satisfaction comes from stimulating or pleasing the senses or the ego. Watching a well performed
ritual is interesting, but unless you have an emotional bond with a participant (like the mother or father
of a bride), just being an observer doesn't affect you much. It's like the difference between being at the
Mardi Gras in New Orleans and watching it on television.
Falling somewhere between the above two points is the kind of satisfaction that comes from an event with a
clearly defined beginning and ending. Part of the power of ritual derives from the fact that, in addition to
relating to something significant, it is significant in itself. The more clearly a ritual is set off from
all other events, the more impact it has on our psyche and our behavior.
Many of modern society's rituals have lost their satisfaction because their performance is not as effective
as it used to be, and because new issues important to people are not being addressed by those traditionally
looked to for meaningful rituals.
The purpose of a ritual is to impress and influence people, but too many of society's standard rituals are
being done for the sake of tradition or dogma or habit alone and those who are leading them are no longer
impressed or influenced by them. So people are increasingly seeking out different rituals to meet their
needs for significance and enjoyment.
This is one reason why such large numbers of people are now interested in shamanism, which includes dance,
song, touch, and connections with Nature, as well as joy, meaning and creativity in its rituals. As the
people of the world continue to grow in love and confidence they will have more freedom to adapt ancient
rituals for modern use, rejuvenate the dead ones of the present society, or create entirely new ones at
will. This is exactly what is happening now, and it's a very good sign for the future.