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Ceremony & Ritual

An Overview of
Ceremony and Ritual

Article 1: By Zan Benham
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The feeling of awe and sense of wonder arises from the recognition of the deep mystery that surrounds us everywhere, and this feeling deepens as our knowledge grows

—Anagarika Govinda

On Ceremony and Ritual

I love ceremony and ritual. I have since early childhood, when I dressed up in my grandmother's old frocks, and knelt, bowed, danced and prayed before altars of pine forests outside our Frankfurt, Germany home.

Ceremony and ritual, for me, become the good life. They weave their way effortlessly through the habits, actions and communications of our daily lives. Sometimes what we do is so common that we don't recognize it as a ritual or ceremony at all.

The way we live our lives, our daily routines can also be called ceremony. What is ceremony but the ritual by which we rise in the morning to greet the day? Ritual can be found in the constancy and repeated actions by which we approach everyday events in our lives, such as brushing our teeth, eating breakfast, dressing, shopping, cooking, house cleaning or washing the car. The way we celebrate birthdays with cake and candles, or Thanksgiving with turkey, or Easter with its Easter egg hunts are all forms of ritual. People from the many cultures all over the world have a multiple of ways for expressing ritual and ceremony through their customs, costumes, dance, food or drink, musical instruments, festivals and so on.

A few definitions of ritual and ceremony from the dictionaries will give readers an opening into my article:

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:


From Latin caerimonia Date: 14th century 1 : a formal act or series of acts prescribed by ritual, protocol, or convention - the marriage ceremony 2 a : a conventional act of politeness or etiquette - the ceremony of introduction b : an action performed only formally with no deep significance c : a routine action performed with elaborate pomp.

Offering someone a box of chocolates for Valentines Day?


1 :the established form for a ceremony; specifically : the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony 2 a : ritual observance; specifically : a system of rites b : a ceremonial act or action c : a customarily repeated often formal act or series of acts.

Like a football game?


Random House Unabridged Electronic Dictionary:


n., pl. -nies 1. the formal activities conducted on some solemn or important public or state occasion: the coronation ceremony. 2. a formal religious or sacred observance; a solemn rite: a marriage ceremony. 3. formal observances or gestures collectively; ceremonial observances.


1. an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite. 2. a system or collection of religious or other rites. 3. observance of set forms in public worship.


Wherever there is religion or spirituality there is ceremony or ritual, as varied as the many expressions they encompass. In this fashion, ritual and ceremony are used to serve, worship, honor or impress the God, Goddess, Supreme Being, Guru, Saint, Guide or Master to which it praises and supplicates. It is the expression by which humans extol the attention of the deity that s/he calls upon.

Ceremony and ritual are present in the earliest records in art, artifacts, and garments worn by those keepers of holy places. Bowing, genuflecting, hand motions, postures, vocal sounds, chants, beads, body movements, incense burning, flutes, bells, chimes, symbols, altars, drums are all used in calling up to the God(s) on high for assistance in answering prayers and supplications.

Even in the simplest forms of meditation and prayer there is ritual in how to sit or hold the hands, to place the tongue, direct the eyes and breathe. All is ritual. All is part of the ceremony.

So what does all this ritual or ceremony do for us?

Certainly it is not the Divine Spirit who needs us on our knees in supplication for our prayers to be heard, or needs incense to draw him/her nigh. In my understanding, we humans co-create our lives by setting up our intentions and moving towards them. Suppose simply that this is true.

We can read that all things first begin in the etheric, as in an idea or a thought. Once the thought is born, it then moves out into the matter world in the form of an action. We speak our intention, and as we do, we take on certain actions towards it. These actions are in themselves forms of ritual by definition, be it writing down a priority, or setting up plans, meetings, research, marketing, etc. The intention begins to manifest itself outward into the world the more we work it; it begins to realize itself. Is this not what, in a sense, we ask for in prayer?

The action allows us to begin to bring our desired goal into matter and materialize it. The art of manifestation emerges first in thought and them moves outward into the world of physical action into verbiage or language. And so it is with art, music, poetry, dance, jobs, housing, clothes, food, disease, etc.—all things. How we choose our lives to be, where we go, what we desire, what we fear, and so on is all part of this creation. It first conceptualizes itself in our imagination, then moves outward in the matter world.

What happens with religious ceremony and its ritual is the same. Often times, in practice, we forget the original intent and purpose behind the ritual.

Many years ago in Hawaii I studied Huna, the ancient holistic system of self-realization. I came across something which struck me as very important and profound. These findings have since repeated themselves in countless ways throughout many new and old thought studies.

Huna speaks of the three selves: the "higher," "middle," and "lower" selves—not too different from our "super-ego," "ego," and "id," or "super-conscious," "conscious," and "unconscious" selves. What Huna says is that the pathway to "higher self" is through "lower self." If lower self is blocked or has belief limitations and restrictions, then the object of our desire will manifest itself in a limited or distorted fashion. In other words, I become limited in my power or abilities to reach deity or the sacred, according to my subconscious belief system. We can visualize and affirm over and over and over again our desired outcome, but unless we have opened up to the blocks (clogs) in our subconscious and over come our resistances, we go nowhere but in a circle. We continue to manifest the lack of our inner belief system.

Clearing the path in the subconscious or lower self is helped by ceremony and ritual. They give us pathways, modalities through which we can reach into the subconscious (id) in order to better communicate with the super-conscious (godhead). They help us to work through our limitations, distortions, and blocks by helping us feel in tune and regenerated in a state of "divine grace" where our vision is clear, and our potential able to at last manifest.

Through ceremony and ritual, we can let go of harboring the many egocentric, judging voices within us, opening us up to surrender and forgiveness. We ceremonially and ritually light candles, burn incense, bow, sing, read scripture, repeat prayers, chants, mantras, affirmations, over and over again to help us overcome our blocks (clogs) of subconscious residue. All religion, in some form or another, asks us to "let go and let God"; to let go of "ego knowing" and make way for a higher source or wisdom to help us overcome our human, "ego mind" limitations. Thus we are anointed with sacred water, drink of wine, break bread, fast, receive piercings, flagellate, isolate, retreat and renounce, humbling ourselves into becoming deserving of receiving the goodness, and attention of our Deity.

Some peoples render themselves into states of total ecstasy through long periods of dancing and chanting or the use of hallucinogens to help them travel through time/space to the realms of the underworld and over-world. Some Buddhist ceremonies are known to create raptures, much like the Christian evangelical churches.

In Shinto, a Japanese religion, the hands are clapped once or twice when entering temple to let their God know they are coming. The Sufis whirl (formally), as do their dervishes, to achieve higher states of consciousness. In many religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Zorastianism, Catholicism, etc., a chant, a name, a prayer, a dialogue or a mantra are repeated over and over again to permeate and re-orient the unconscious mind. There are rituals to mourn the dead, to celebrate rights of passage, to anoint the newborn, to celebrate the coming of age, to marry, to heal, to exorcise, even to war and to kill. What is a military parade other than "pomp and circumstance"? It is a wondrous demonstration of ceremony and ritual at its attuned perfection.

We bow in reverence to an altar representing the God, Master, Saint or Guru of our passion. This helps the "ego" to at last acknowledge something greater than itself and helps to open up our imagination to the possibility of receiving guidance from Divine Source.

It is said that Confucius believed his country was in moral decay because of the lack of religious and personal ritual. Ritual was thought to "preserve the harmony " between heaven and earth. Ceremony and ritual help us to organize and crystallize our thoughts, intentions, and focus to better draw them into the matter world and to give them outward expression.

When we unite with one another in ceremony and ritual, the life force becomes greater than the individual, and this reassures us by helping us feel that we are not alone, but rather that we are an integral part of the fabric in the great tapestry of life.

Life is ceremony . . . life is ritual . . . life is a dance between the two.

1 The Secret Language of the Soul: A Visual Guide To The Spiritual World by Jane; The Path of Ritual, page 150. Pub.Chronicle Books, 1997

For more on Huna read "Huna Tradition" by Max Freedom Lon.

Zan Benham

© Zan Benham 2001

Zan Benham is a highly respected teacher and counselor whose Act Your Way Into Being workshops have been a catalyst to many students who are opening into their creative process. Zan is also the clan mother of the Mockingbird Clan, an intuitive Counselor and Reiki Master. For information on her classes and workshops contact Zan at:

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Editors note:

The Cerritomni segment promises to be exciting and informative as you are introduced to the Rituals and Ceremonies of many cultures as well as contemporary Rituals as designed, created and scored by those on a quest for an expression of spirit that is personally fulfilling, meaningful and enlightening.

This quest is often a long and multifaceted journey. We will endeavor to bring you articles that are of the highest quality and credibility and look forward to your suggestions and encouragement.
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