Ritual and Activism - The Alchemy of Social Transformation by Lenore Norrgard
Early last year I attended a Portland area gathering of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, which was initiated nationally by Rabbi Michael Lerner. As we, mostly Christian, Jewish, and spiritual-but-not-religious, introduced ourselves, I took the opportunity to say that I thought it was important, as spiritual activists, that we utilize ritual in our work for social transformation.
After the meeting, John, a physicist who in had impressed me with his clear thinking and his ardent passion for peacemaking, approached me. “I’m baffled as to why you think we should promote the use of rituals! Where I grew up, rituals are rote and empty practices, based in superstition. Why would political progressives promote such mindless activity?”
His candor, coupled with his passion and willingness to work for profound social transformation, moved me. “Where did you grow up? What were the rituals?” I asked. He looked South Asian, and I imagined a Hindu environment.
“I was raised Catholic in Bombay, India. People there are terribly superstitious – whether Catholic or Hindu – and I’ve turned my back on those unthinking practices. I am a scientist – we need to promote rational thought and action.”
A scientist – but a physicist. We should be able to bridge.
“I understand, I think – I grew up with rote rituals, too,” I told him. “In fact, my father was a minister. However, today I was talking about something quite different, that I think as a physicist you will find compelling. I’m talking about the use of intention to create an energetic field that influences the physical world. This actually is not removed from contemporary physics, at all.” I gave him a copy of a proposal for a peacemaking ritual across from the White House my shamanic colleague, Myron Eshowsky, and I had designed for the national Spiritual Activism Conference in Washington, D.C., in several weeks. “I’d be very interested to know what you think of this. In our practice we design rituals according to the specific need at hand.”
The next month, Rabbi Lerner adopted our peacemaking ritual to open a pray-in for peace, and we carried it out on May 18 in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. We began by telling the crowd of two to three hundred that the intention for this ritual was the healing of the history of violence in the name of religion, and people nodded, knowingly. We asked them to form concentric circles, and then to close their eyes and connect with their personal source of spiritual power, whatever it may be. The Jews, Christians, Buddhists, spiritual-but-not-religious, and other folks put their hearts into it, and with song we created a field of resonance, sending it out with a prayer for peace around the world. The higher vibration was palpable. In the center of the circles Myron and I engaged the spirit world, releasing historical trauma. Several people later told us it was the strongest spiritual experience they had had in the four-day conference. Others observed, in the week following the ritual, that for the first time Bush and Blair admitted they ‘may have made some mistakes’ in the Middle East, and, after weeks of threatening to nuke Iran, that week Rice offered talks.
When I got back home, the Northeast Portland Interfaith Peace Group asked if I would lead a ritual for a peace gathering they were holding in Alberta Park, in conflicted inner Northeast Portland. The bombing of Beirut had begun the night before the event, and as Saffire Bouchelion and Toby Christensen commenced the drumming, a crowd of 170 people from around the city gathered, feeling helpless before the violence, and wanting to do something positive.
Among the faces I saw in the gathering crowd was John, the physicist, and I approached him. “I’m surprised to see you here!”
He smiled. “My thinking has changed in the last few months.” The mark of a true scientist: intellectually open. “I read your proposal, and I’ve got involved in a New Thought church. I’m very curious to experience what happens today with this ritual.” The scientific method: test and see.
Shortly we formed a large circle, and Sister Phyllis welcomed the crowd. A prayer of invocation, and Pastor Moe invited people to pair off to talk about how we experience peace, or don’t, in our inner Northeast neighborhoods. Then we came back into circle, and I introduced the ritual. “Close your eyes and connect with your personal source of spiritual power, whatever that may be. As we sing, hold an intention of creating a field of peace and harmony within this circle. Then, with our intention, we’ll expand the field out to embrace the neighborhood, and the world.”
People put their souls into it. With the drums lifting us, some people danced as they sang. Lead singers Ali Ipolito and Sharon Martini articulated a vision of peace, justice and harmony among humans and with the earth, first in our inner Northeast neighborhoods, expanding out into the city, across the nation, and around the world, while the circle chanted the refrain, Peace, Salaam, Shalom. Some people sang with their eyes closed, some sang holding hands. After 30 minutes our voices were tired, our spirits uplifted. One man approached me later and said, “I saw a golden spiral of energy rising from the circle, into the heavens. That was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.” Others approached the organizers, asking, “Are you going to do more of this? Where do I sign up?”
John emailed me that evening. He wanted to meet. Over dinner he told me the power he’d felt in the ritual, the positive orientation in the midst of war, and we discussed how to make such rituals energetically stronger, and other ways to create true peace on the planet.
I became politically active 35 years ago, in my mid teens. I’ve participated in, and helped organize, countless protests, rallies, and marches. I’ve delivered speeches, led crowds in chanting slogans, confronted officials. I’ve felt the intense power in political gatherings of people with a common grievance, a common demand.
I also have felt this power wane over the last few decades.
With the waning of the power, I’ve felt progressive movements grow in on themselves, and I’ve tasted the sourness of dogmatism. While, looking back, I can see that the dogmatism is not new – in fact, I helped perpetuate it back in the day – I also see how bored and restless people have become in these gatherings: everyone feels the waning of power. And I think it’s this frustrating powerlessness that fuels fruitless confrontations with the powers that be: that leads to ugly taunting, and leaves people vulnerable to agents provocateurs who would have well-intentioned people carry out destructive acts that discredit the movement and leave it toothless.
In fact, our public demonstrations, rallies and protests now largely resemble the empty, powerless rituals of John’s childhood in Bombay; the kind of rote, passive rituals of my father’s Protestant church. At marches, we all know the steps, the proper protocol: Gather at the appointed hour with banners, buttons, placards and leaflets to voice our support and promote our particular position, our ideology. Listen passively to speakers and musicians for an hour, clapping and cheering when we like what they say, shouting out if we don’t. Line up our groups as directed by the event organizers and walk down the permitted march route. People hardly can even can get a good chant going while ‘marching,’ any more. Arrive at the destination, listen to some more speakers and musicians. Give donations to cover the cost of the event. Gather our picket signs and go home.
Or, at least, not really empowered. Again.
In churches and in rallies, far too often the ‘masses’ are slated to be passive participants, not to feel or exercise our inherent power, whether as individuals or collectives. In both venues, we appeal to greater powers – God, or the State, respectively – and our appeals are mediated by experts: clergy, or political organizers. Meanwhile, internally, we hunger to access and to exercise the power we know is there, somewhere: the power of Spirit, the power of the people.
We hunger to access power – but we have been taught to fear it. This fear of power has created within us a willing passivity, and allows a laziness that results in giving our power away to external authorities – hence disempowering ourselves.
Some of us refuse to fear our inherent power, but don’t really know what to do with it, how to channel it in pro-active, constructive ways: Sometimes this leads to adolescent, rebellious acts that ultimately may be destructive. But some feel that destruction is better than not claiming our power at all.
As humans, we share a cellular memory of a time when the power of the collective was joined with the power of Spirit, on behalf of the greater good of all, the greater good of humans and All Our Relations. A time when we knew our power, and when trusted elders taught us to claim and use it in a good way, for ourselves and all of Creation. A tribal time of relative harmony, long ago for those of European or Asian descent, more recent for those of African, Native American or Polynesian descent. A time, a way, that is the birthright, and the responsibility, of us all: the practice of accessing and wielding personal and collective spiritual power.
As we come back to our spiritual selves in this age, we need to regain the ability to access spiritual power for the collective good. These ways are innate to the human spirit, and often break out when we join in spontaneous song and dance. But spontaneous song and dance alone cannot channel the power available to us for the social transformation we crave.
A conscious and living alliance with the compassionate spirits, with the ancestors who bequeathed us the precious gift of life, and with the spirits of the earth and the stars who share life with us every day, is necessary, essential, to accessing and using power in a wise, intentional way that will benefit the Seventh Generation and all species. Without the perspective gained from such a living collaboration, without humility before the Great Mystery, our outlook and judgements are constrained by our mortal, human points of view, our personal desires, and our current times. Our ideologies.
Through an ongoing dialogue with the compassionate spirits, the ancestors, and the spirits of the earth and stars, we remember our place in the great web of Creation. We learn the right use of our power, what is required of us, and what truly is desirable in these times. We give up our attachment to knowing always what is right, or what needs to happen. We come to know that our culture’s penchant to define some people as enemies – whether people on the other side of the world, or people in the White House – is a misconception we can overcome. We experience the truth: that every single human, every being, is a precious part of Creation: We remember that achieving harmony through love, tough though it may sometimes be, is the only way to reweave our connections and heal our world.
Ultimately, we learn how to wield our collective spiritual power for the highest good of all. As an activist for 35 years, who has been on the shamanic path for 20 years, and designing and leading rituals for 15, I see that joining the political with the spiritual is critical at this juncture: a spiritually informed politics, and a socially engaged spiritual practice, are essential.
Rallies, protests and marches once were effective forms through which masses of people experienced and channelled our collective power to confront the powers of the State and corporations. But the power of these forms has waned, and now they tend to waste valuable energy, leaving those who participate frustrated, and many more stay at home, not wanting to waste our time in a way that feeds into the fragmented Us versus Them paradigm that poisons our very efforts to heal social ills.
Our times call for the transformation of rallies, protests and marches into massive, intentional, sacred healing rituals, in which we ally ourselves with all humans, the compassionate spirits, the ancestors, and the spirits of the earth and the stars. Guided by the intention to reweave the web of Creation we humans tore with our industrial-age divorce from the Sacred, our public rituals can make globalization a spiritual one that brings forth an honoring of all forms of life and human culture.
Come downtown with me: Picture five thousand people along the river, sharing a common intention of bringing healing to ourselves and the earth; raising our vibration and acknowledging the living water of the Willamette as our divine relative, and the river mirroring back our clarity and harmony – rather than the toxicity is mirrors most days. With repeated rituals building power over time, we clean the river and raise the vibration of our city and everything else that river touches.
Imagine ten thousand people surrounding the Federal Building, or the Daily Oregonian, with our divine embrace. We shift our us versus them mentality to a we and our unity, thereby reminding those within of their own divinity, of our connection with and responsibility to Creation – here and around the world.
I see fifty thousand people ringing the blocks around the Pentagon regularly, with a common intention of being and bringing peace; raising our vibration and embracing those within as a part of the Whole, and bringing them into alignment with the Sacred. With this kind of massive ritual on a regular basis, we end the will to war.
A hundred thousand people ring the blocks around the White House monthly, embracing Bush, Cheney, Rice and others as our brothers and sisters, and reminding them of our common humanity with people the world over: They, or enough of their underlings, remember, and the course of history is changed.
Through repeated, focused rituals, we once again can access the spiritual power that is our birthright, and channel it to bring forth profound peace through defending and establishing just, loving and sustainable ways of life the world over.
We stop appealing to external powers, and step into our spiritual and political adulthood. Our focus becomes reweaving a world in balance, in harmony, and love.
Lenore Norrgard, MA, Harner Method Shamanic Counselor, is founder of Circle of the Living Earth and has provided shamanic healing, counseling and instruction since 1992. She trains healers through her Shamanic Healing Apprenticeship Program, and is a national leader in applying shamanic approaches to social healing. Join her for A Manifestation Ritual—For Your Best Dreams! at New Renaissance Books on Saturday, September 29, and for the Dreaming the Dark annual Winter Solstice healing ritual at Menucha Retreat Center in December. Call 503.450.9991 or visit www.CircleLivingEarth.org for details.