Early in 1999, I was arguably at the peak of my conversion energy, a few months into my formal involvement in New Thought churches. I was so enamored of the mind-power philosophies — all I had to do is focus my mind, and I could manifest changes to improve my life. Medicine, ritual, prayer, and such were outer rituals, and while they were practiced by some of the people in my spiritual circles they were frequently presented (derided?) as crutches that you could use while you honed your mental powers. They were sort of the processed food of energy work — good enough if that’s what it took to keep you and your family from starving, but not as ideal as farm-to-table goodness.
During that time period, I lived next door to a wonderful New Age woman and her teenage Pagan daughter. They were great neighbors and good friends, and I enjoyed having people close by with whom I could talk alternative spirituality. One day, I was on the front porch chatting with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend — a teenage boy solidly glowing with the enthusiasm of his own Pagan conversion energy. We noticed a big, beautiful spider web splashed across the walkway and stopped talking to admire it. The boyfriend spoke up.
“Hey, did you know I know a spell to make a dreamcatcher out of a spiderweb?”
Gently teasing, I replied. “Oh yeah? Well, I could make a dreamcatcher out of my underwear.”
At the time, I was focused almost entirely on the power of the mind and the lack of need for established forms in spiritual and religious expression. And in many ways, I was right. We don’t need to use an established form or ritual to focus the power of our minds. We don’t need a specific material object to invoke its energy, any more than we need the physical presence of a loving grandma to feel the warmth we hold in our hearts for her. We don’t need the established forms to practice a meaningful spirituality any more than we need electricity, cars, or indoor plumbing. That doesn’t make them any less nice to have when you want them, though, and nobody should ever apologize or feel badly about their mental practice if it incorporates physical forms, established and spontaneous, as focal points.
Following are five ways that using established forms can sometimes be beneficial. As always, take what works, and leave the rest.
1) Established forms build on collective energy. One of the things I love about attending services at an Episcopal church is how little the liturgy has changed over many hundreds of years. There have been tweaks to the service and wording to reflect a modern understanding of Church, and for these I am thankful. But overall, there is a direct connection between what I do in service and what millions of people have been doing since the earliest days of the church. In my nature-based practice, when I perform a simple ritual to honor the turning of the seasons, a small bluestone from a site near an ancient cairn (dated somewhere between the 17th and 14th centuries BCE) sits on my altar, calling up in me a connection to my distant ancestors who celebrated the seasonal transitions with song, dance, and offerings. When I draw upon the imagery of spiderwebs and spiders I do so with the certainty that I’m working with imagery that has been used in spiritual and storytelling imagery for a good, long time, whether it’s the imagery of a dreamcatcher, or simply a reminder to be “Some Pig.”
2) Established forms frequently transcend religious divisions. Speaking of religious experiences, Carl Jung said, “The fact is that certain ideas exist almost everywhere and at all times and they can even spontaneously create themselves quite apart from migration and tradition. They are not made by the individual, but they rather happen — they even force themselves upon the individual’s consciousness.” (Psychology and Religion) When I light a candle to acknowledge that I’m entering into sacred space, the fire that burns before me triggers an ancestral connection with the power of fire. Long-standing traditions from the monotheistic religions, Eastern religions, and ancient Pagan practices use fire as a marker of sacred space, as do several modern, even secular, practices. While some established forms are clearly the work of one specific tradition, as someone whose path is interfaith my practice is enhanced when I draw upon those that span traditions.
3) Established forms can help you venture into new territory. Sometimes, I read up on an archetype, philosophy, or tradition that I’d like to explore in more detail. As I’m unfamiliar with the new element, it can be helpful for me to have an established form to facilitate the introduction. For example, if I’m wanting to learn to use guided imagery to heal past trauma, I might benefit from using pre-written (and possibly pre-recorded) visualizations designed for that purpose. While I might eventually be comfortable with a go-with-the-flow approach, allowing spontaneous imagery to flow with and through me, prepared visualizations could provide a safe place to begin and test out the experience.
4) Established forms (at the elemental level) can provide ingredients you can mix to customize your practice. With as much diversity as there is in the expression of humanity (personality, background, race, nationality, gender, age, etc.), it is only natural that different people will experience similar rituals and traditions differently. What is meaningful to one may be less so to another; what is perfect as is for one might create a stronger impact on another with a few slight variations. In exploring established forms, I can learn how I react to different stimuli, approaches, and types of connection. As I learn more about myself and what works best for me, I can begin to craft a custom practice that is meaningful and beneficial for me, that inspires my greatest connection to The Divine, and that allows me the greatest number of opportunities to grow, learn, and manifest my potential. While my practice is always evolving and uniquely my own, it incorporates elements I’ve learned and modified to make my own as I’ve experimented with established forms.
5) Sometimes established forms are simply a more efficient way of going about your spiritual work. Let’s be honest here. Sometimes there is great value and personal fulfillment in the DIY approach. Sometimes it is simply more fun to wear the scarf you knitted yourself, or to eat the veggies you grew yourself in your own garden. Other times you want a scarf that looks or feels different, or you want pizza, or you have other things going on in your life that make it hard to maintain as full of a garden. There are times when I’m serious about an intention, so much so that I spend weeks (or more) planning out the words of the ritual, focusing on a goal, or exploring the concept. There are other times when life gets the better of me and I find myself searching the web the night before a full moon to find a prayer for a certain kind of celebration. Sometimes my long-planned rituals turn out to be far less fulfilling than I had hoped, and other times my copied and adapted prayers turn out to be powerful and insightful in a way I never expected. The universe works that way sometimes. Things happen, and as they do, they teach us and we grow. If using the established form feels right, or gets you to honor a transition that you might not have the time or motivation to honor otherwise, go ahead and use it, and without shame.
There will be times when the work takes on no elaborate form at all — you sit, you focus or open your mind. There will be times when the work takes on a form you have designed and created for yourself. And there will be times when you use an established form that has been developed and honed by others. I choose not to put any one above the other, but to keep an open mind to the possibilities along my path.