– by B. T. Newberg
This is the second of a 2-part series exploring a new technique for creating special time and space. Part 1 introduced the Center. Now, this part details the technique and its basis in psychology.
How do you work ritual with the Center?
The basic technique is to choose an appropriate focal point, mark it as the Center, and mindfully circumambulate it three times. This may be supported with appropriate gestures, phrases, and/or hymns (see Samhain ritual script for an example).
While the technique is simple, a lot is built into it.
The choice of focal point should be appropriate, and this is twofold.
First, it means that it should be a real center of actual activity, which requires that participants think about the local ecosystem. In what sense is the focal point a center? Is it a tree around which diverse creatures gather, a well from which a community derives sustenance, or the pole star around which our earthbound perspective turns?
At the same time, appropriateness also means it should fit the intentions of the ritual. This requires that participants link their intentions to the center. For example, a ritual of new beginnings may circle round the starting point of a path, or a ritual of death round a field of crops recently cut-down.
When planning a ritual, you may spend hours, days, or even weeks getting to know the local area and finding the perfect spot. Thinking about the land in this way will ground you in it, get your inspiration flowing, and make the ritual more concrete and meaningful. Moreover, it will begin to shift the ordinary perspective of objects and interests toward a holistic perspective of relationships and symbols.
When the ritual is about to begin, the chosen focal point is marked as the Center. A rope may be girded round a tree, a stone set up in a field, a chalk sigil drawn upon the paved path, and so forth. This may be elaborate or spartan, but whatever the marking, it should not eclipse but rather complement the native beauty of the Center.
This serves both practical and symbolic functions. Practically, it makes it clear to all participants exactly where the Center is. Symbolically, it acknowledges your relationship with it, by contributing something of yourself to it. This meeting of self and other further establishes the bond begun by carefully considering the most appropriate location.
3. Mindful circumambulation
Circumambulation means moving round the Center. Whether this is done in a solemn procession or a musical dance is up to you. Either way it should be done mindfully, three times. At the end of the ritual, circumambulate once in the opposite direction to signal your mind to return to normal time and space.
Within the imagination, allow this center to become the Center, symbolic of every center in your life, and indeed every center in the cosmos. Allow it to become a locus of inexhaustible interpretation, a source from which inspiration flows as patterns and relationships suggest themselves to you.
Allow any errant thoughts to pass by unheeded, bringing concentration gently back to the Center.
This may be supported with the use of ritual phrases calling to mind specific relationships while you circumambulate. For example, the Samhain ritual script invokes three relationships of naturalistic transcendence. The first time round, participants raise one arm to the Center and say:
This is the Center, around which all revolves.
It does not revolve around me, I revolve around it.
As I pass round, I affirm my place within the mind.
On the second time round, the phrase is repeated, affirming “my place within the community”, and finally, the third time round, “my place within the cosmos.”
Traditionally, Neopagans walk deosil (clockwise) when creating sacred space. This mimics the motion of the sun as seen from an earthbound perspective in the Northern Hemisphere, where the sun traverses the southern sky. When dissolving the space, they walk widdershins (counter-clockwise), which might be taken to represent a new perspective gained during the ritual.
How does the Center work with psychology?
Repetitive symbolic acts such as these may appear pointless and empty at first glance to some. However, recent research is unveiling how and why ritual appeals to the brain, such that it is found universally across cultures, in both religious and secular contexts. As the following explains, working with the Center takes advantage of embodied cognition, Pavlovian association, and cognitive psychology to effect a change in consciousness.
On the most primitive level, circumambulation creates what historian William McNeill calls “muscular bonding” between the participants – moving together in time. Synchronous movement creates the sense of a group superorganism, and begins the submergence of the individual ego within a larger identity. Through such embodied cognition, the movement of the body shapes consciousness.
On a Pavlovian level, the triple repetition is significant. Three is a number denoting completeness in Western culture, as well as diversity (triplicity as opposed to unicity). These cultural associations, drilled into us since childhood, constellate a desired mindstate by Pavlovian association.
Finally, on a cognitive level, mindfulness monopolizes or “swamps” working memory, leaving no room for mundane or intrusive thoughts, resulting in a slightly altered state of concentration.
Further, the fact that the procedure appears pointless, at least to the uninformed observer, and redundant, circling three times instead of one, is also significant. Lienard and Boyer propose that observing apparently unnecessary steps signals unapparent danger to the unconscious mind, inferring perhaps that the rationale for the steps must be some potential threat known to others but not to oneself.
This activates a mental module they call the “hazard-precaution system,” which likely evolved to avoid poorly understood but lethal dangers, such as pathogens and parasites. Following a custom of ritually avoiding corpses or washing after touching blood, for example, has its evolutionary advantages, even if unaware of the real reason why these actions must be performed.
What we’re interested in here is not why the hazard-precaution system evolved, but how we can put it to work for us. Its activation arouses a special attentional state, producing a slightly altered state of consciousness. It directs attention away from goals and toward the specific steps of the ritual, which are typically actions so automatized they become dead to awareness, such as walking. The extra attention paid to walking in a circle three times revives the act, makes it fresh again, and thus encourages a sense of vividness and being “in the moment.” Ritual cues, such as apparently unnecessary steps, can unconsciously trigger activation. The resulting state of heightened awareness may significantly facilitate the emotional power and inspirational meaning of a ritual.
It is important to note that this system is unconscious and intuitive, part of what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking. There is also System 2: conscious, deliberative thought, the effect of which is often to inhibit intuitive processes. In this case, for example, a critical thought might question the rational necessity of circling three times, thereby inhibiting activation of the hazard-precaution system and forestalling the desired change in consciousness. The question has merit, but gets in the way in the moment. That’s why ritualists often recommend setting aside skepticism for the duration of the ritual. Critical questions can and should be entertained before and after, but not during. It’s not to quell criticism, but to allow intuitive systems to function effectively.
If all goes well, the technique should produce what theological language calls a sense of the “sacred.”
Toward naturalistic ritual
Working ritual with the the Center can be used as a viable, scientifically-supported method of creating special time and space. It’s home-grown from a naturalistic perspective, yet open enough to invite non-naturalist participation without making any feel excluded. It’s also untied to any specific cultural tradition, so that Spiritual Naturalists of all stripes may find it useful.
This technique is still very much in the experimental stage, so please offer your comments and constructive criticisms.