By Suma Varughese
We need to ongoingly come to terms with the past and bring it to closure, in order to freely move into the present. what rituals can we practise to help us in this crucial task?
Actress Sushmita Sen said in a recent interview that she takes pride in the fact that she always completes everything she starts, no matter how irksome. Well may she rejoice, because few can boast of this ability. Many of us go through lives untidily, leaving plenty of loose ends. We break promises without an apology, cut and run from relationships when things get too hot to handle, leave projects half-completed, trail off statements mid-sentence, make plans we have no intention of executing, etc. Then there are the biggies we need to come to terms with, the events that change necessarily brings into each life. These include the end of a job or a relationship, movement from one house to another, from one rite of passage to another.
Change requires us to constantly come to terms with the past so that we can move on to the newly-minted present. When we complete things properly and bring them to closure, we experience a deep wellspring of satisfaction, release held-up energy and access a profound source of healing.
One of my most cherished memories of perfect closure stems from an interview with the Dalai Lama I had done years ago while working for a mainstream magazine. His Holiness had been kind enough to grant the photographer and me a fairly large section of time and we enjoyed every moment of our interaction with this hugely joyous and compassionate personage. The time came to say goodbye, and lo, his Holiness pressed a stone (blue in my case and red in the case of the photographer), into our respective hands, held them for a while, looked deeply into our eyes and breathed, “Goodbye.” It was conscious leave-taking at its most sublime, deeply acknowledging the fact of our brief association and our value as human beings. I have never forgotten that goodbye or the way it rounded up and contained the entire encounter.
All cultures and traditions are embedded with rituals and traditions that acknowledge beginnings and endings and help us to meaningfully move on. These rituals put us in touch with the rhythms of life, its ebbs and flows, losses and gains. Conscious completion brings awareness that each ending is a new beginning, and that life ultimately is a progressive learning from each stage of our lives.
The Indian tradition is particularly rich in rituals that invest meaning in even mundane acts, while commemorating every significant milestone with ceremony. Vedanta teacher, Uday Acharya, points to the four ashramas that trace the stages of human life.
These apart, says Acharya, the Hindu’s progression through life is richly encased in rituals from the time of conception, to her birth and subsequent punctuations such as the first hair cut, partaking of the first solid meal, the first act of writing, and so on. Then comes the ceremonial bath after one’s education, called Snathika, followed by marriage, the sixtieth and eightieth birthdays and finally death.
The rituals revolving around death, easily the most wrenching and crucial of events calling for completion, are elaborate and organized around helping the survivor get in touch with his grief and complete his relationship with the departed. Says Acharya, “During the Shraddh ceremony, the survivor conceives of the soul travelling further on his life’s journey and offers all help and conveniences for his progress. He also offers to complete the responsibilities the soul left behind.”
Yet most of us will agree that rituals and rites do not play their required role in our modern urban lives. For one thing they are coated with the dust of disuse and lack of understanding, depriving them of their meaning and wisdom for us. At the same time, there are many issues like divorce, losing children to custody, and AIDS, that are relatively new occurrences and coming to terms with them may not have traditional basis. While, therefore, we are obliged to wipe the rust off rituals and imbibe their deep archetypal value, we are also required to create our own rituals that can help us reconcile with the many painful and negative situations and events we experience in the course of living our lives. After all, the seeker panting for enlightenment has no hope of getting there unless she has come to terms fully with her past. Only then can she rest easy in the present. Completing one’s past ongoingly, therefore, is a crucial prerequisite of the path.
Says Dr. Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, “Completion ceremonies are markers that help a person get over events, accept their reality and put things into perspective. Many of these ceremonies are also social in nature, so they strengthen connection to community. They create some kind of order and attune us to the rhythms of life.”
He adds, “Psychotherapy encourages the development of rituals, especially those that revolve around families, such as being together, celebrating special days, going out for a movie or a meal once a week, etc. It creates predictability and closeness which is especially important in these days of TV.”
Closure rituals in therapy can help the patient enormously in coming to terms with an event. Says Dr Mirchandani, “One patient whose husband had an affair, could forgive him only when he agreed to shave his head. This was something she herself thought of and fortunately her husband was willing to go through with it.”
He adds, “In therapy we often suggest a small ritual to bring closure, such as writing letters to those they have an issue with and burying or burning them. We only suggest possibilities and leave it to the person to decide what to do. The fact of doing something active to put an issue to rest is itself therapeutic.”
Bharati Nirmal, an engineer-entrepreneur and active seeker, recalls her completion ritual with the engineering factory that she ran with her husband, Prem, for years. Says she, “I wanted to phase out and spend more time on my spiritual interests. But I also wanted to make sure that before I left, our 12 employees were well settled with their own houses in decent localities. I felt I owed it to them. And that I must complete my relationship with them properly.
“Fortunately, we received a project order which had the potential to realise my dreams and for the next one-and-a-half years I worked very, very hard. At the end of that time, all of them had managed to purchase small houses for themselves.
“Coincidentally, the project wound up before Diwali. That Diwali, I bought the wives and mothers of our employees silk saris, took the measurement of their children, bought new clothes and sweets for them. Whatever I did for my family, I did for them too. I also scrubbed the factory floors with my own hands and decorated it from top to bottom. This was my way of expressing gratitude to the men who helped make the factory a success and to the factory itself. Then I told them that henceforth I would not be coming to the factory regularly but that they could always count on me.
“Doing this completed my relationship with the employees and my job so well that I could move on without regrets or pain.” She says, “When I left my earlier job to start the business with my husband, I kept my plans under cover and left abruptly. I felt very guilty about it and although I tried to complete it, I could not. This is why I was determined to complete my exit this time fully. I even went to a Nadi astrologer and asked if there was anything pending on my side towards anyone. The message I got was that I had totally come out and I was free to complete my spiritual progress.”
These apart, Bharati does not discount the use of rituals and rites in aiding the process of closure.
She recalls using a formal ritual like the Sri Chakra puja to free herself of certain behavioural patterns in her relationship with her husband that she felt were adversely affecting their marriage. “I used to feel a lot of compulsion in my reactions to him, which were perhaps karmic links from the past. After performing the ritual, the compulsion was gone and we can now relate as good friends.”
Closure rituals can revolve around any event that has changed or affected our lives. Moving house or locality, changing schools and colleges, moving from childhood to adolescence, retirements and retrenchments, dissolution of a group, all these call for a conscious coming to terms with, so that the experience can enrich and even transform, while earthing its damaging potential.
On the website www.proactive-coach.com someone called Bernard Weiner proffers this thoughtful comment on rituals in his article About Rituals and Divorce, “Something in us knows the deep need for ritual, which is why when we arrive at key intersections where we decide to go one way and not the other, or when reality forces us to confront some monumental truth, we call upon formal ritual ceremonies to acknowledge the importance of the event. These ritualised rites of passage subconsciously tell us that we’re no longer just a single individual confronting a major moment but part of historical, maybe even metaphysical, continuity. In this way, we confront the aweful (and sometimes awful) mysteries.”
Divorce, he adds,“is the perfect example of a key passage in a person’s life that cries out for ritual closure. Without it, divorce and the wounds received from it can fester for years, leading to all sorts of negative emotional (and even physical) consequences.”
He suggests a few options, depending on whether the parting is amicable or not. He says, “If the splitting parties are divorcing rather amicably, there can be a ceremony, perhaps even officiated by their open-minded minister or rabbi, where each of them is ritually blessed as they leave this relationship and head into their new life. Again, if things are relatively amicable, each partner might also write a blessing for their ex-spouse, wishing him or her well. I can imagine a large candle that is blown out by both together, then each lights a separate candle as the blessing is spoken.”
On the other hand, if the parting has been contentious, he suggests separate divorce ceremonies organized by their friends and families, “where the ritual blessing might be given and where their guests can speak to them from the heart wishing them well and perhaps offering advice as they prepare to head off into their new life. Perhaps each member of the witnessing audience can light a candle for the divorced man or woman, symbolizing the supporting network that will aid him or her in the new life.”
Death, of course, is the biggest event calling for closure in most lives. The awful finality of the parting, the words left unsaid, promises unfulfilled, relationships incompleted, the raw sense of loss and bereavement can shatter survivors. All traditions have elaborate ceremonies to help cope with death.
In www.bereavement.org, Rev Howard R. Gorle, talks about his role as a Christian minister, “My task during the actual funeral service as the officient priest/shaman/healer is to connect with their grief. I speak to the family directly. I use their names, maintain eye contact, and stand facing them. I attempt to touch them with the tone of my voice and the inflection of my words… My use of ceremony is limited and focused…on the reality of the death (closing the casket, use of earth) and demonstrating support (hugs).”
He talks of a closure ceremony he devised for a family mourning the death of a 30-year-old son and his father, months upon each other. In order to help them come to terms with this double loss, he suggested that they include an item each to symbolize the departed during their weekly Sunday dinners. He writes, “As the family gathered to the table the son’s daughter quietly placed his chisels in the centre of the table. Her aunt then set Grandpa’s pipe on the chisels. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, then the meal was set on the table. The family reported that it became easier to talk about Dad and Grandpa with something tangible present. There was laughter. Younger children picked up the pipe and did Grandpa imitations. Grandma related stories of Grandpa teaching her to cook.”
The New Year is another occasion for consciously bringing the last year with its losses and gains, griefs and joys to closure, so that the new can coast in without the impediment of stale emotions and psychic blocks. All cultures and traditions use rituals to symbolise the passage of the old and the advent of the new. A Jewish New Year ritual revolves around throwing bread in moving water as a symbol of releasing the previous year’s transgressions. And the fact that the bread feeds the fish and birds is a way of connecting with the rest of creation. During Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, one asks forgiveness of all who one may have hurt through words, deeds or actions in the last year. The tradition demands that you ask forgiveness three times, and then turn the matter to God.
In Bali, the residents have a great noisy ceremony on the previous day to appease the gods. The actual New Year day is spent in silence as one prays and meditates on the coming year.
The Chinese consider it important to pay all debts before the end of the year so that they can enter into the new with a clear conscience. Families also clean their homes thoroughly to release any traces of bad luck from the past year.
In India, there are many New Years, each celebrated in their own unique way. There is the traditional spring-cleaning ritual of Diwali, for instance, where houses are cleaned from top to bottom, old and broken things disposed of, and a general uptodating of the house is conducted. All these are ways for us to consciously clean up the clutter in our own heads and move on.
When the task of conscious completion becomes internalised, then each moment is experienced and lived in its entirety, leaving no trace of its presence in the next. Then, as the Buddha so beautifully observed, our passage through life will be like a bird’s flight, pure and essential. Then and only then will we be completely immersed in the moment.
Mithu Basu, head of PR at Mumbai’s Leela Kempinski hotel, symbolises this state of mind. Says she, “I’ve always seen myself as a collector of experiences. When the mind is made up to experience every moment of existence fully, then one is always complete, and life becomes a fluid process of evolvement. My overriding belief is that whatever happens is for the best because I am good. I have absolute faith in this and it helps me to accept whatever comes my way.” She cites the example of her divorce some years ago. She says, “From the core of my heart, I bless my husband’s family and pray for them. And I count my blessings. After my divorce, I was cushioned in the love and acceptance of my parents and the warmth of a huge family of nine siblings. I feel God’s hand in everything. There is a plan for each of us. Our job is to do it with integrity.”
Facing life courageously, looking deep into the heart of every moment and experiencing it fully, allowing it to shape our lives without let or hindrance, is the sage’s prescription for sane living. Here, beginning and end flow into each other until we understand that there is neither beginning nor end – there is only the eternal now.
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