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The Power of Ritual

The Power of Ritual

The following is a modified excerpt of the Preface to The Power of Ritual, by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Charles Laughlin. The Power of Ritual is available now from both Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Preface to The Power of Ritual

by Robbie Davis-Floyd

The Power of Ritual has grown out of my thirty years of research on ritual and technology in American childbirth, and in particular, out of a workshop I have often presented on “The Power of Ritual” to diverse groups around the country. Audiences for this workshop have included priests, psychotherapists, physicists, female professionals, social scientists, health care practitioners (nurses, midwives, physicians, childbirth educators), men’s movement participants and workshop leaders, business managers, New Agers, university students, drug and alcohol addicts, members (or former members) of cults, and aerospace engineers. During the course of these workshops, I have often noted a high level of confusion among people who are designing and performing rituals on a regular basis as a part of, for example, religious or spiritual retreats, psychotherapy intensives, men’s movement weekends-in-the-woods (popular in recent past decades), and self-help seminars. They tell me that they “intuit” what ritual is all about, but their sense of it is vague, unformed. They come to my workshops to find out what they themselves are actually up to! I am always delighted when such people show up in my audiences, as one of the major reasons why I started teaching these workshops was my concern about the uncritical use of ritual that has characterized the explosion of interest in the new spirituality, alternative healing, and self-help movements, to name only a few. Ritual is an extraordinarily powerful socializing tool that can be just as easily manipulated for ill as used for good. The naiveté of many contemporary ritual practitioners has worried me for a long time, and these workshops—and now this book—serve as my way of combating that naiveté. I often receive letters of thanks from such practitioners for “raising their consciousness” about precisely how ritual works, about its very real benefits, and about its equally real dangers. This information enables them to be more conscious and more responsible about the way they use the rituals they create.

My interest in ritual developed both from personal experience and from my anthropological studies of American childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics. My childhood in Casper, Wyoming was punctuated with ritual events, many of which focused around the local rodeos that happened during the summers, and the seasonal celebrations of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But my deepest ritual imprinting came from growing up in the Presbyterian Church. Although I moved away from that religion in later years, the hymns we sang in church every Sunday, the vivid memory of the light streaming through the stained glass window showing Jesus’ ascension, the feeling of peace and completion that would descend over me as the minister raised his arms to give the final blessing—all these still resonate in my being and provide me with a sense of stability. In particular the words of the Doxology, which I must have sung at least 500 times during my childhood churchgoing years, still give me the goose bumps I used to get as I rose as one with the whole congregation, to sing joyously:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be
World without end, Amen, Amen

As I typed those words just now, singing as my fingers moved over the computer keys, that same uplifting feeling surged inside of me, goose bumps popped out on my arms once again, and I was right back in memory inside that beautiful church staring at the light shining through that stained glass window. Such is the power of ritual to affect our emotions, even decades after the fact.

But now as I reread the words of the Doxology, my critical faculties come into play: that song, which purports to be so timeless and so universal, does not encompass certain facts that I accept as reality. Things are not as they were in the beginning—in fact, change is the one constant of both human and universal experience. Our world is not “without end” —one day, billions of years from now, the Earth will be swallowed up in flames when its sun turns into a red giant. And there are no females and no “female principle” in that song, only a father, a son, and an androgynous spirit which is the closest the Presbyterianism of my youth could get to acknowledging that males are not the only gender. So I can’t even find myself in its words—they do not charter my existence, like a good myth should. As an experiment, I sing the song once more and note that in spite of my intellectual objections, the goosebumps and uplifting sensation return. As we shall see throughout this book, rituals primarily affect our emotions—through triggering a powerful emotional response, ritual can get people to believe or at least resonate deeply with ideologies that they might intellectually reject.

In my early years as an anthropology student during the 1970s, I studied shamanism and ritual healing in Mexico, and worked for a time with two Mexican shamans, one traditional and one thoroughly cosmopolitan. Those experiences, which involved both anthropological observation and personal participation in rituals of various sorts, taught me a great deal about ritual’s flexibility as I saw it stretch to encompass the contrasting realities of the pre- and postmodern worlds. I watched with amazement as the people participating in the rituals that the traditional shaman had been performing for decades suddenly began to include American New Agers seeking connection with the earth and with traditional cultures—in Don Lucio, the traditional shaman I worked with, I guess these seekers found at least a facsimile of Castaneda’s Don Juan. And I was equally fascinated by the postmodern shaman, Edgardo Vasquez Gomez. A wealthy upper class Mexican gentleman, he had studied traditional shamanic techniques all over Mexico, and was eclectically combining them with a European esoteric spiritual system based on the works of Gurdjieff, which invited individuals to “wake up” to a greater awareness of everyday life. His use of ritual to stimulate this kind of awareness in his followers was masterful; watching him manipulate people’s states of consciousness was a lesson to me in the intentional use of ritual to achieve instrumental (practical) ends. (Both Don Lucio and Edgardo are now deceased.)

Perhaps my deepest engagements with ritual came during my participation, in later years, with a New Age healing group that evolved, over time, into a cult. I got involved in part because I wanted to do an anthropological study of that group. I watched and participated and took notes as their at-first tenuous belief system crystallized into an intensely tight and cohesive worldview. For the first two years, I didn’t believe a word of it—it was just a story, albeit a fascinating one, and my anthropological detachment remained intact. But the ritual process, as we will demonstrate in this book, can be overwhelming. Embarrassing as it is to admit, against my will I eventually got fully converted to that worldview. The moment of conversion was a devastating experience (described in The Power of Ritual). I knew it had happened and I was furious about it, but I could not change the fact that in an instant I had gone from not believing to fully believing their story about the nature of the world and the purpose of life. It took me six months to unconvert myself. Succeeding in that endeavor was a matter of personal self-esteem—I could not respect myself as long as I remained a true believer in a fantastical system that promised the power of Jesus-like ascension to anyone willing to work hard enough to “clear their issues” completely so that they could expand, in the flesh, into “full oneness with the universe”—and save humanity in the process!

Although I suffered greatly during that time, I also learned a tremendous amount, firsthand, about the power of ritual to engender belief and influence experience, and about the human capacity for free will and individual choice. We can be heavily influenced by ritual, but we can also make individual decisions about how we will respond to that influence. Since that time, my participation in religious ritual has been limited to expansive, humanistic rituals that enact belief systems I consciously choose to hold. Yet I still feel the seductive pull of that other path, one in which the meaning of every event could be forced to fit into a cohesive and intelligible cosmology, and my place and importance in the cosmological scheme were assured. Life seemed so much easier when all my questions got answered by Father André, a spiritual entity (channeled by the group leader Karen), who for a time served as my guide through life’s bewildering maze. Father André’s counsel seemed to remove the bewilderment and offer in its place the comfort of understanding—an understanding confirmed daily by the ritual experiences his followers constructed.

My personal experience of ritual took a new turn following the sudden death of my 20-year-old daughter Peyton in a car accident on September 12, 2000. The Memorial Service her father, her brother, and I designed for her in Austin, our home town, which was followed one week later by a second service designed by her many friends in New York, where she had been living, carried us through the initial, near-immobilizing shock, and allowed us to share with others the unspeakable grief we felt and will always feel. Those profoundly individualized services, which were not directed by ministers but were collectively performed by family and friends, enacted our understandings of who Peyton was and what her beliefs and values were, and concretized the multiple legacies she has left to the world (see Chapter 11 of The Power of Ritual, on “Designing Rituals,” for a full description of Peyton’s Memorial Service). Over time we have designed and performed many other rituals to help us grieve her death and celebrate her life. None of those many rituals we performed in her honor healed the pain that I thought would never end. Yet each one deepened my experience and understanding of the power of ritual to channel chaos and suffering into paths that lead to meaning and coherence, and thus to increase one’s chances of surviving—and perhaps even integrating—the most devastating kinds of loss. Then finally, miracle of miracles, the last one we performed did just that!

Five of Peyton’s best friends accompanied me to my ancestral home in Northern Louisiana with the explicit purpose of burying her ashes on the 10th anniversary of her death, in Peyton’s and my ancestral cemetery—such a beautiful place, in the midst of the woods—many of our ancestors had been buried there from the early 1800s on. We spent the weekend reminiscing about her and celebrating her life. Then on September 12, 2010, precisely 10 years after she died, we collectively buried her ashes at the foot of my parents’ graves, right in front of her gravestone. That gravestone took me months to design, as I wanted it to be a true reflection of who she was and the kind of life she lived. Here are the words carved into it on the front:

SEPT. 16, 1979—SEPT. 12, 2000
Dancer, diver, dolphin lover, healer,
gourmet cook, and friend
Life is all about “livin’—L-I-V-I-N!”

And on the back, a poem that I adapted from the words to a song that her close friend Abby Jones had written about Peyton:


She swam for seven summers straight with wild dolphins
She loved the oceans and the mountains and the streams
She danced with grace and grit and utter beauty
She lived her life full-on with total passion
To all her friends she was an inspiration
She would have dropped a falling star to catch a dream!

Well, I wanted everyone who stops by that gravestone to have a sense of who she was and how she chose to live, and knowing that those words will be there for hopefully centuries to come was one of my ways of ensuring her life legacy.

Our spontaneous ritual celebration on that sunny day in the Keatchie cemetery was a ritual that worked—a perfect rite of passage and celebration. I set the lovely Japanese urn containing her ashes, some locks of her hair, and her baby teeth (all of her remaining DNA, which I knew I had to let go of so that I could stop fantasizing about cloning her) into the hole in the ground that my dear friend Travis Whitfield had dug, and let go of it all in that single act. Her cherished friend Brian Hudson perched himself on her gravestone with his guitar, and commenced our spontaneous ceremony by singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”—and indeed it was! And Brian also sang “Sweet Dreams”—a lovely lullaby he had written for Peyton before she died. Then her friend and mentor Jamison grabbed the guitar and sang (to the tune of “Me and Bobby McGee”), “Me and Peyton Floyd”—the lyrics were all about the long car trips he and Peyton had enjoyed together and their adventures along the way. Then each and every one present—Brian, Jamison, Corrie, Oliver, Adam, Travis, and Mary took turns speaking about what Peyton had meant and continues to mean in our lives. No planned order—we simply followed the flow, together creating in the moment a ritual of both celebration and completion. As a final touch, Adam laid a bouquet of flowers on her gravestone, and we walked away replete with love, awe, and a profound and lasting sense of shared caring—after which, I can say in all honesty, my pain over my daughter’s death metamorphosed into a deep sense of acceptance and closure, bringing me, finally, peace. Such is the power of the rituals that we seek to celebrate, and to intellectually and critically analyze in the pages of The Power of Ritual.

In addition to these deeply personal experiences with ritual, I have explored ritual academically in various ways. For my first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992, 2004), I interviewed 100 women about their pregnancy and birth experiences. As I listened to woman after woman recount her birth story, I was increasingly struck by the standardized way in which this highly individual process was treated in the hospital. Most American women, for example, routinely receive intravenous injection (IV) for hydration during labor, even though there is no good scientific reason why they can’t eat and drink to hydrate themselves. Many American women have their labors induced or augmented with the synthetic hormone Pitocin, even though Pitocin induction and augmentation have been shown scientifically to have negative side effects. And most American women are routinely hooked up to electronic fetal monitors for most of their labors, even though many studies have shown that walking around during labor has many benefits, including increasing blood and oxygen supply to the baby, while lying still attached to monitors reduces the baby’s blood and oxygen supply and increases the likelihood of cesarean sections.

At first I was unable to explain how a medical specialty like obstetrics, which purports to be science-based, could routinely employ so many procedures that are unsupported by science. Eventually I realized that the “routine” was the key: these procedures were in fact rituals! Every human culture employs ritual to help its members face danger and uncertainty and to make transitions from one social state to another, so every culture ritualizes major life passages like birth and death. American culture could be no exception to this universal human fact; thus it should not have been surprising to me that hospital birth is so heavily ritualized. But in most cultures, rituals are recognized as such, whereas in the hospital, rituals are disguised as “necessary medical procedures.”

What clued me in to the fact that “routine procedures” for labor and birth (such as electronic fetal monitoring and Pitocin augmentation) are rituals was the enormous discrepancy I uncovered between the findings of science, which support non-interventionist approaches to normal birth, and actual medical practice. Scientific evidence clearly shows that electronic fetal monitoring leads to many unnecessary cesareans, yet it continues to be routinely employed; scientific evidence also shows that upright positions are the most physiologically efficacious for birth, but most American women are asked to give birth flat on their backs with their feet up in stirrups, which science has shown to be the most physiologically dysfunctional birth position ever invented (it compresses the pelvis, making pushing more difficult and birth more dangerous).

Thus it became obvious to me that science is not the driver behind these routines; rather, tradition, custom, and cultural values constitute those drivers. Hooking women up to electronic fetal monitors enacts our cultural value on information and high technology and makes both women and physicians feel that they have some control over the chaotic natural process of birth. Placing women flat on their backs with their feet in stirrups makes it easier for the physician to see what is going on and to get in there to cut an episiotomy or apply the forceps or vacuum extractor. In 2015, U.S. cesarean rates stood at 33%, making the cesarean a ritualized procedure that gives the doctor a total and usually very welcome sense of control over the birth process. As I showed in that first book, through its rituals, modern obstetrics deconstructs the natural process of birth and reconstructs it as a technological process of production. In so doing, medical personnel enact the high cultural value we place on controlling and transcending nature through the use of ever-more-sophisticated high technologies.

One day early on in my research for Birth as an American Rite of Passage, I wandered through the book displays at the annual convention of the American Anthropological Association looking for books that might help me understand the rituals I was seeing everywhere in American hospitals. At the Columbia University Press booth, my eye fell on a black volume with a gold and very promising title, The Spectrum of Ritual. I picked up that book and was immediately entranced. Most anthropological works on ritual up to that point had concentrated on the effects of ritual in the social world, but I wanted to know what ritual did to the human body and the human brain. I knew that ritual’s effects on human neurophysiology must be the primary source of its extraordinary power to shift human perception—to make someone who is afraid feel safe, for example, or someone who is in doubt to feel certain. The Spectrum of Ritual contained many of the answers for which I had been searching. A few years later, at another convention, I was fortunate enough to meet one of its authors, Charles Laughlin, a world authority on ritual. Our rich conversations and mutual passion for understanding ritual eventually led to our co-authorship of The Power of Ritual.

The Power of Ritual is available now from both Amazon US and Amazon UK.

  1. How can we get this book in Canada?
    Unfortunately, I’m not able to access Amazon US and Amazon UK because I am in Canada. Is there a timeline for when this will be available on Amazon CA? Looking forward to reading the book, but need the means to buy it. Thanks!

    1. Amazon Games
      [quote=djsroffel]Unfortunately, I’m not able to access Amazon US and Amazon UK because I am in Canada. Is there a timeline for when this will be available on Amazon CA? Looking forward to reading the book, but need the means to buy it. Thanks![/quote]

      Thanks for your interest in the book!

      I think it should be available via ( The ‘temporarily out of stock’ thing listing is – I’ve come to believe – Amazon’s way of trying to convince me, the publisher, to swap from my own printer to their Createspace service, which always shows ‘in-stock’. Once an order is in, it should go straight through and be fulfilled.

      If you place an order and nothing seems to be happening, cancel it and email me (greg, at dailygrail dot com) and I’ll see if I can get one sent out direct from the printer. Cheers!

      Kind regards,

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