Category Archives: marriage

What role does ritual play in your life?


Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.

When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.

Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.

When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture. 

He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”

I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.

When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.

Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.

Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.

But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.

Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:

How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)

Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.

If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!

And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.

Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.

Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Freedom is the American Way

I have never felt prouder to be an American than I do today. Most Independence Days I enjoy the parades and fireworks but am conflicted about this beloved country, how it has come to be the bully on the world’s playground. I have sometimes chosen to call this day ‘Interdependence Day’ instead, rooting for us to play well with other countries and also treat our own citizens with fairness and respect.

But this past week I have felt such joy at the progress we have made as a nation, thanks to several Supreme Court decisions that assure patients the right to  medical treatment and same-sex couples the right to marry in all states and have that marriage recognized by the Federal government.

For those for whom this is not great news, please spend some time with your fears. Inquire within instead of just falling back on unexamined opinions. For example, some say that gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriages. In what way could this be true? When I saw all those couples lined up around the San Francisco Civic Center waiting all day to be wed in that first brief window of opportunity, I was reminded that marriage is indeed valued, a privilege, something worth cherishing. Those couples willingness to wait all day to be married (because they had been waiting for years for the right to be married!) naturally increased my appreciation for my own marriage, reminding me how fortunate I am.

What threatens marriage in our culture is not those couples who want it for themselves, who have committed relationships, who have created families, who contribute to the community with their dedication to make this a better world for their children. No, what threatens marriage is those who devalue it, like the heterosexual couple who gets drunk in Las Vegas and wakes up the next morning with more than a hangover, and then needs an annulment. What threatens marriage is people of any sexual orientation who take their vows casually, without consideration of the seriousness of this commitment.

I remember in the 1970’s it was very hard to be married because for a marriage to thrive it needs to be supported by the community, by parents and friends, but also by the culture. My husband and I were fortunate to have the support of both sets of parents. But when I met new people, coworkers or friends of friends, and they took note of my wedding ring, it wasn’t unusual to hear the question ‘Why are you married?’ So many people were getting divorced. The single life was supreme. Our local Fourth of July parade which today is full of family-oriented floats, was back then a long series of bands playing on flatbed trucks, each one sponsored by a singles bar wanting to promote its venue. Standing curbside for that parade with our children could be at times a little iffy, as the floats were floating on more than gas and goodwill, and the writhing dancers on them sometimes lacked good judgment. All in fun, but a very adult brand of fun.

Heterosexuals are sometimes squeamish imagining gay sex. The ew factor. I suppose that goes both ways. So don’t imagine it! It’s private! Not our business! But it IS our business as fellow human beings when others are being shamed and funneled into a world of casual encounters for their basic human needs. And that’s what the denial of the right to marry really has meant historically. The back alley bar and bathhouse activities that may have been viewed as ‘gay’ were really the result of the cultural and legal denial of normal channels of meeting, dating and marrying. Imagine if you and your mate had such restrictions? It wasn’t that long ago that just being gay could get you arrested and imprisoned. What if you and your true love had no rights and no future, and you had to keep that most treasured part of your life an absolute secret and live a lie. In my parents’ youth they only realized a friend was homosexual after he committed suicide. No one was out of the closet. And that was bad for everyone! It was bad for me back when I was a single woman dating. On occasion I dated men who confused me by claiming to want me but seemed conflicted. My ‘gaydar’ was not very sensitive, but my feelings were, and I had them hurt when a man played the part but could not honestly reciprocate because, though he so wanted it to be otherwise, he was only attracted to men. Society told him to keep trying to be straight and that was very trying for me and other single women. I imagine there were also men who were baffled by the inability of their girl friends to work up any enthusiasm for romance. I remember a guy I knew in college who I dated only briefly because he was so scarred by his last girlfriend who finally confessed she was a lesbian. With me he had to keep doublechecking, ‘Could you imagine me being a girl?’ and other weird questions. Poor guy. How much better it is today when we can love who we love and not mislead anyone else out of a desperate desire to conform. And a desperate desire to not be arrested, fired from our job and ostracized by our community.

This supreme court decision is a victory for all of us, not just gays. We aspire to be the land of liberty. We pride ourselves on the freedoms our country provides. Sometimes it takes us a while to see that the traditions of the past have not always been clear-seeing in this regard. It took a while for many to see that slavery was wrong, and a hard fought war created an untenable rift in our American family that is still being felt today as some cling to the flag of rebellion. It took a while for many to see that women are people and should have equal rights. It took a while to see that this land was made for you and me, not just white men. And it will still take a while for some to see that gay people have been denied a most basic freedom, the freedom to marry. Now a gay person is assured the right to marry the person they want to make a life with, the person who will be there through sickness and health, the person who will be a helpmate and equally responsible for raising their children, the person who will raise them up when they are feeling down, the person who will be by their side when they are dying. They will have the property rights that hetero couples take for granted. And their children will have the security and respect they deserve. How can anyone who has taken the marriage vow, who has enjoyed the many benefits of marriage feel justified in denying it to anyone else?

A great injustice has been righted this week. And my appreciation of my marriage and my country has deepened because of it. Happy Fourth of July! We have a lot to celebrate.

Letting Go: Beyond the Labels in Relationship

After reading through the Dance of the Seven Veils in the previous post, it may seem as if we are being asked to give up possessions, relationships, our very skins! But of course that is not the case. Instead we are looking at what it might be like to let go of our habit of defining ourselves by what we own, how we look, what we do for a living, or who we know. We are exposing the lie that all these things are the sum total of who we are. Abandoning the things themselves would serve little purpose, but abandoning our misperceptions about them as our identity could serve us very well.

Let’s look more closely at the third veil: ‘the you that is defined by your relationships with others…. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you. Let them go.’ We are not giving up our relationships. To the contrary. We are finding a more spacious way to be in them so that the relationships are enhanced and vibrant. By releasing labels of ‘sister’ ‘father’ ‘wife’ or ‘friend’ to the degree that these terms confine us in these relationships.

The first clue to a problem with these labels is that we always use them with that dangerous word ‘my’ in front. My sister, my husband, my child. The word ‘my’ confers a clear sense of ownership. If something is mine, I have a say about it. If something is mine, I think of it as an extension of me, that it represents me in some way.

That sense of entitlement to have a say creates toxicity in relationships. We feel not only entitled but somehow obligated to remake those we own in order that they can live up to our expectations.

We have all felt the pain of being ‘owned’ by some well-intentioned but delusional person who was unable to see us as ourselves. And as painful as it is, we often turn around and hurt others close to us in the same exact way.

So how do we expunge the idea of ownership from a relationship? It would be an interesting challenge to spend a week without using the word ‘my’ or ‘our.’ Would we find a new way to talk about our relatives? Or would we stop talking about them? That would be a very positive outcome indeed!

But even if we don’t speak in the possessive, we still have our lifelong habit of thinking that way. How do we rephrase it to ourselves? Awkwardly, no doubt, but that’s alright. When something is awkward it brings our attention to it, and that breaks us out of habitual patterns and lets us see things anew with fresh eyes.

How would it be to see the person you married with fresh eyes? What if the veils dropped away and you saw the wondrous luminous being with whom you chose to spend your life. (I assure you there is a wondrous luminous being in there! Keep looking!)

If you are not an only child, imagine a person you have known your whole life, who is close to your age and was raised in the same household, who shares a rich wealth of memories from a different vantage point, who in personal traits is unique and yet incredibly perhaps endearingly familiar. Might there be some fresh and wondrous delight in seeing them without the veils of expectation, duty or obligation?

The labels we put on ourselves burden our relationships. The roles we play become who we perceive ourselves to be, and all our accumulated ideas about what it is to be a good wife, mother, sister, husband, father, brother, etc. come into play. We struggle and suffer in the vast field between our imagined ideals and our uneven ability to fulfill them.

For example, I lived with Will for the year before we married. After the wedding I found myself suddenly saddled with a lifetime of images and expectations of what it is to be a wife or a husband, culled from observing my parents’ marriage, from reading novels and watching movies. Of course, Will too had his ideas and expectations, and suddenly a simple loving relationship was floundering in a sea of misunderstandings. It took nearly a decade for us to find a way to be together that didn’t rely so heavily on fulfilling these mostly misguided expectations.

Friendships too can get complicated by our ideas of what it is to be a friend. Our expectations set us up for disappointment. We may say, “A real friend wouldn’t” say or do this or that. What would it be like to let these concepts go? To simply be with someone with whom we share so much and have no expectations and no sense of obligation. How much deeper could the true connection be?

Certain relationships come with contracts. Marriage and parenthood, for example. These contracts are taken on joyfully, and are best kept if that joyfulness is renewed in each moment from our most authentic selves.

Letting go of our identity around these relationships is not necessarily easy because these are ingrained habits of being and perception. But doing so, to the degree we are able, frees us to be fully ourselves, just as we are, with every person we are with. We can allow them to be fully themselves as well, without the drag of our expectations around the role they play in our lives.

Letting go is a gentle process. It is the result of continued compassionate attention. Force has no role here. Judgment is counter productive. Coming into awareness of our thoughts, emotions and sensations is sufficient for the task. The trees let go their leaves when the time is right, and so will we.