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Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Karma of Rituals

Rituals are a human universal. I have my own rituals. I'm sure we all do.

I'm not the superstitious type, however. I'm not talking about rituals where you knock on wood. Or about rituals that could feed conflict by turning opinions into inviolable belief.

I'm talking about a pursuit of ambience that transforms everyday routines into more meaningful moments. They make the ordinary special. Show us that happiness can be found in the smallest of things.

Even simple rituals can be effective. A ceremony for tea, perhaps. A certain time of day (or night) to write poetry. An private ambience created by two people in love wishing to spice up their intimacy.

My father taught me what he believed were manly rituals, taught to him by his father, who was taught by his father before that. Simple things. Like how to wet shave, and to shave with the grain on the first go-around. To always look a person in the eye when you talk to them. To always stand to shake someone's hand. And to give a firm handshake.

We call these tips for men nowadays, but they are ritualistic of what we perceive it means to be a man. Every man should have a well-tailored suit, and every hat he owns should have a purpose, so it's said. A man should never wear a clip-on tie, and he should always brush his teeth before he puts one on - and my father always prefered the Windsor Knot, the don of all neck ties and a knot fit for a king.

Of course I kept some of these rituals, discarded others, added a few myself. I guess that's what being a man human is all about.

Rituals are important to human beings. So, too, is the feeling that we belong to some tribe, whether that be a tribe of one, or one billion. As I don't mind rituals as long as they are solely to create atmosphere, I don't mind the instinct to go tribal - as long as we realise there is only one race in our species, the human one.

I try not to be blinded by stereotypes of any sort. When someone tells me women belong in the kitchen, I agree. Women do belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. Everyone belongs in the kitchen. There is food there.

And when I read messages from a Palestinian steadfastly seeking a peaceful resolution with Israel, it doesn't surprise me. Or vice versa. When I read about a black police officer helping an elderly KKK supporter to seek some shade, I'm not surprised, if a little tickled by what Americans would call irony.

And just because I read about a white supremacist gunning down black people, or a disgruntled black employee murdering his former white colleagues on live TV, I don't immediately assume every white/black person is going to shoot someone. However, it is because of such assumptions that murders like these take place.

It's also because of such assumptions that Europe is facing a migrant crisis. I'm not going to beat about the bush, it's about racism. We try to cover it up with semantics and cleverly worded arguments, but it stems from a fear and hatred of the "other".

Xenophobia is a dark mirror to ourselves. A ritualistic fear that feeds conflict. It is when we allow our cultural rituals to form our identity, we begin to divide our human race into categories. But it's a misinterpretation: rituals are there to enhance life, not to dominate it. Especially not those rituals that dehumanise difference.

And when we are faced with the troubles these ritualistic assumptions bring, I call it the karma of rituals.

Before some budding Buddhist emails in to tell me I am using the term karma incorrectly by suggesting that our good or bad luck is viewed as resulting from our actions - I know. Sticking to its original definition, the concepts of good and bad don't exist, but it is the law of cause and effect, nonetheless.

Although there are no concepts of reward and punishment as karma is the actual action itself, the informal usage of karma in the West has come to mean the result of our actions. In the West we say, I hope karma slaps you in the face before I do. But in the East, karma is my action, not the poetic justice of that slap.

But as actions form the present, our deeds have helped create the world we now live in. If I am not careful, my manly rituals will fool me into thinking that is what being a man is all about, but it isn't. Being a man is, at its emotional core, the same as being a woman; the rest is just window dressing we use to attract (or repel) each other.

It's the same as the stereotypes we have stuck on people of colour, or people of a certain creed. Like karma has been misinterpreted, or changed in interpretation, so, too, has religion. For life is like religion, it requires our participation. And we will add rituals where there were none, and in time those rituals will come to define what it had first come to enhance.

Women were covering their heads in Christianity long before Islam came along: when the book talks of women's modesty it doesn't even expressly mention head coverings, although today that is one of its main symbols to us in the West.

Likewise with the image of Jesus Christ being a man of peace, when he actually affirms the Old Testament, slavery and the subjugation of women: it's a misinterpretation or a change of meaning that has been adopted by so many that it has now stuck. Christian revisionism or no, it's what the Nazarene Joshua has come to mean, even though there is no original Biblical justification.

However, that doesn't mean it is a bad thing; it doesn't mean its right, either. It's just its karma. Islam, too, is now where Christianity was 500 years ago, and its followers with their karma are forming the present that unfolds before us, just as much as Christians and Jews and all people - of all beliefs and none - are.

So how can we make sure our karma doesn't become locked in rituals, or that our present isn't formed by the karma of rituals? It's easy: Our karma will stop being ritualistic when we act outside of our rituals.

Men need to defend issues about women, white people need to support black issues, straight people need to fight for gay rights, because they are all human issues and we should care about them. The migrancy issue isn't a political one, either. The migrants dying are human. They are living breathing human beings, no matter what else our rituals tell us they are.

And if rituals are a human universal, then we need to make rituals for being human our main ones. Maybe then it won't take the death of so many to shock us into opening our hearts and borders.

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