Discover more from Symbols & Rituals
Finding clarity, order, and change through writing and ritual
Just before my birthday last month, I felt a cold coming on. I hadn't been sleeping well for at least a week, in part because I was working on an essay that followed me into bed each night, where it made little edits and suggestions and overruled the part of my brain that on better nights invokes sleep.
The day before my birthday, my wife suggested going to dinner at an Italian restaurant that we like. It was a Friday night with an obligation-less Saturday waiting on the other side of it, so adding Italian food and wine to my exhaustion and cold seemed like a promising path to sleep.
We shared a Margherita pizza, pappardelle pasta with wild boar ragu, a bottle of pinot noir, and a basic conversation about the things we were trying to sort out in our lives. Basic because English is my wife's second language and I've somehow managed to live in Thailand for six years without learning Thai. We've adjusted to this by speaking what amounts to a third language. One that is rooted in English and borrows from Thai but isn't quite either of them. One where ruthless concision is a prerequisite to being understood.
(I don’t mean to idealize our situation, though. Sometimes it's just hard. Sometimes it's just an exercise in patience and acceptance and letting things go. Sometimes language is the wrong tool. Other times, its limits form a kind of scalpel for cutting straight to the chase.)
After dinner, we got on my motorbike and followed the river and train tracks home. Along the way, my throat swelled up and I lost my voice.
Unable to speak back at our house, I gave the essay I'd been working on one last read. Then I clicked send and tried to sleep but couldn’t. By the morning, I felt awful. But I also felt joy. In part because every step in the writing process makes me feel it—the thinking, the starting, the doing, the learning, the getting stuck, the trusting in myself to figure it out, the problem solving, the figuring it out, the finishing, the clicking send—all of it. But also because I saw what was upon me. Namely, forced convalescence, an opportunity to rest and recover and reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going, a chance to grow and shed some skin.
Rituals of Life, Death, and Transition
“All major life transitions are marked by ritual,” writes anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas in his book Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. Births, graduations, weddings, birthdays—these are all examples of transitions that cultures around the word have ritualized. Another, which Xygalatas calls “the ultimate one,” is death. He goes on to write about the tradition of the Toraja people of Indonesia, which “involves keeping the bodies of their dead relatives in their homes for months or even years until they prepare an elaborate funeral for them."
During that time the corpses dry and become mummified but the relatives treat them as if they were still living. They keep them on a bed, change their clothes, offer them food and drinks and have daily conversations with them. When all the preparations have been completed, a large public gathering is attended by the entire community and the corpse is finally laid to rest. But the interactions with the deceased do not end with the funeral. Each year the mummified body is exhumed, dressed up and paraded around town.
In a 2018 episode of Parts Unknown from Indonesia, Anthony Bourdain attends a funeral in the Hindu-majority province of Bali. This is my favorite episode of the series for a number of reasons, but one of them is that the details and images of the Balinese funeral closely match the ones I have in my head of the first Buddhist funeral I attended in Thailand, for my wife’s grandfather.
While funerals in both cultures reserve a time for mourning the death of the human, they are primarily a time for family and community to gather and celebrate the passage of the spirit to the next life. As one of the episode’s guests puts it, “It’s a joyous occasion. Especially the cremation. It’s a big send-off. It’s a big party to send the spirit to the afterlife.”
The footage shown of the funeral and cremation is deeply moving and makes me feel great gratitude to live in a place with a similar tradition.
Earlier in the episode, psycho-anthropologist Sir Lawrence Blair describes the ceremony this way:
The Balinese funeral is a very sobering phenomenon, especially for us Westerners, who distance ourselves from death. They spend quite a long time doing these beautiful offerings—all of it to go up in flames. So it's ephemeral art. And the idea is that we, too, are ephemeral. And this is why it's quite an extraordinary thing, that you actually light the match that consumes your loved one. It's in your face that we are not our bodies. Because they really believe in an afterlife. They really believe that you will be coming back and you will be joining your ancestors in the meantime. They may be wrong, but it's wonderful to be able to believe that, and to derive all the warmth and strength and benefit of it.
Is this all human poetry? Or is there something in it?
At the cremation of my wife’s grandpa, monks and family members circled the funeral pyre holding a sacred white string called sai sin. Men carrying the body in a casket circled the pyre three times as well before placing the casket on top of it. Then the lid was removed and a coconut was cut open and its juices poured over the body. During the ceremony that followed, a tower-like structure erected for the cremation was placed over the casket and pyre. Family members then lit the fire that shot firecrackers popping and set the tower, casket, and its contents ablaze.
Is there such a thing as a spirit? If so, where does it go when the body gives out? Do we go there, too? Or are we just our spirits like songs are but one piece of music among infinite others—still all music, still all made of the same constituent parts, but also still singular, also still compelled to forever inhabit a unique but memoryless time and space and structure?
I don’t know. And I’m suspicious of anyone who claims that they do. But I do think that death, as Xygalatas writes, is the ultimate transition. If it has any rival at all, then it can only be birth. I don’t actually believe that the two are rivals, though. I believe that they’re two sides of the same coin. I might be wrong, of course, but as Sir Lawrence Blair said, "it's wonderful to be able to believe that, and to derive all the warmth and strength and benefit of it."
Shortly before the Indonesia episode ends, we are left with this last bit of (non-Bourdain) narration: “Time is circular, as is life. Death is but the beginning of another journey.”
There are more than 80,000 seconds in each day, and there’s no shortage of ways to die and begin again in each of them.
The New Oxford American Dictionary offers the following three definitions of the noun ritual:
a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order: the role of ritual in religion | the ancient rituals of Christian worship.
the prescribed order of performing a ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or church: she likes the High Church ritual.
a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone: her visits to Joy became a ritual.
Of those, it’s the third one I had in mind when I changed the name of this Substack to Symbols & Rituals in the first week of January, a time, not unlike birthdays, that marks the turning of death into life. As I wrote then:
I think Symbols & Rituals more accurately, interestingly, and fundamentally captures my relationship with writing and what I think I’m doing here: returning over and over again to the thoughts and questions I can’t shake, and sorting things out in circles via the best instruments I have available to me—words and my writing practice, or symbols and rituals.
My description of writing then was purely one of a practice, a behavior more parts routine than proper ritual. And for the most part, that’s still how I think of it. But it’s not January anymore, and thoughts and feelings—as well as words and names—have a way of evolving when given enough time and room to roam.
Early on in Ritual, Xygalatas writes the following to distinguish rituals from habits and routines:
Although both can be stereotypical behaviors, in that they involve fixed and repetitive patterns, in the case of habits these actions have a direct effect on the world, while in ritual they have symbolic meaning and are often performed for their own sake. When we develop the habit of brushing our teeth before going to bed, the goal of this act lies in its immediate function—it is causally transparent. Waving a symbolic brush in the air would not help keep our teeth clean. By turning this process into a routine, our habit allows us to perform it regularly and unreflectively.
Rituals, on the other hand, are causally opaque. They command focus and attention because they involve symbolic actions that must be remembered, for they must be executed precisely.
While writing is clearly not a religious ritual, I can’t help but think that it’s better described by the second paragraph above than the first. I would even go so far as to say that writing is a closer match to waving a symbolic toothbrush in the air for reasons unrelated to oral hygiene than it is to actually touching a brush to our teeth to clean them.
Writing, to me, is much more causally opaque than causally transparent. And when you consider things like the many characters in the many alphabets of the many cultures, the various cryptic and contradictory grammatical rules, the endless and mysterious array of subtle things that it takes to get the words right, even just once, I honestly don’t know how to not view writing as, quite literally, a symbolic act that commands focus and attention and must be executed precisely.
Continuing his thought, Xygalatas writes:
While habits help us organize important tasks by routinizing them and making them mundane, rituals imbue our lives with meaning by making certain things special.
In other words, specifically those of sociologist George C. Homans, “ritual actions do not produce a practical result on the external world—that is one of the reasons why we call them ritual.” In fact, among many religious communities, rituals that are practiced with an explicit goal in mind are often regarded as sorcery. “But to make this statement is not to say that ritual has no function […] it gives members of the society confidence, it dispels their anxieties, it disciplines their social organizations.”
Anthropologists have explored these functions of ritual for over a century, meticulously gathering scores of fascinating observations. These scholars recognized the tremendous potential of ritual as a vehicle for personal fulfillment, empowerment, and transformation, and also as a mechanism for cooperation and the maintenance of social order.
To that, I offer this: I have willingly and compulsively been writing as often as possible for years, and with approximately 99.9 percent of the things that I’ve written, I’ve had exactly zero clarity as to what “practical result on the external world” those writings might have.
As it relates to practical results on my internal world, though, writing does a number of things for me, including, among others, several of the things described as ritual above. Namely, writing: (a) imbues my life with meaning by making certain things special; (b) gives me confidence and dispels my anxieties; and (c) serves as a vehicle for personal fulfillment, empowerment, and transformation.
It’s doing all of those things for me now, and if it weren’t, I’m not sure I’d have enough of the drive needed to continue.
I do also believe that writing is capable of disciplining social organizations and functioning as a mechanism for cooperation and the maintenance of social order. I’m just not under any illusion that my writing does that. Unless, of course, you count the points I listed above as necessary individual pieces in that larger collective process. In any case, here is what I can say with reasonable confidence today: Writing is not mundane. It is not unreflective. It is not causally transparent. It is part ritual, part routine, and wholly beautiful, a tool for finding order and alignment amid the mess and chaos and derailment that is baked into life. It is causally opaque. It is not brushing teeth.
My wife, Natty, and I were married in March of 2020, a wildly uncertain time that will forever be remembered as the 47th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, as well as the start of that other huge global thing that made all other things worse.
At the end of May 2021, Natty and I moved into the house we’d had built. Almost two years later, in March of this year, we finally got around to having a Thai housewarming. The date was chosen for us based on the advice of the monks and other people in our village. Their advice was based on choosing an auspicious day for the time of the year. And that choice was based on things beyond me.
With the date chosen, my parents and stepparents flew out to the house and a bamboo structure was erected in the center of it and sai sin (the same sacred white string from the funeral) was wrapped around the structure and we kneeled beneath it all and draped the sai sin across our heads and there were an odd number of monks (because only an odd number is considered lucky) who sat in a row in front of us and chanted for 30 minutes (the short version) and we crawled on our knees to them and gave them offerings and they tied sai sin around our wrists and sprinkled us with holy water to bless Natty and me and the house and wish us all good fortune.
That night, with my mom and stepdad sleeping in our master bedroom, Natty and I retired to a floor mattress in my office. Natty was already lying down when I kneeled next to her and picked up a pillow and spotted an inauspicious black scorpion half hidden beneath the floor mattress. I’ve seen plenty of them before, but our house is raised nearly five feet off the ground, so there’s no way this one found its way in on its own. We figure it must have gotten in through one of the hollow trunks of bamboo that had been brought in for the ceremony.
I swept it into a dustpan and brought it outside and pointed it toward its freedom. A week later, we learned that the monk who’d led the ceremony had died of cancer.
I’m neither religious nor superstitious. But none of this seemed to spell good fortune (except, perhaps, for the monk, depending on your view of death).
Recently, I did some reading on what scorpions symbolize in Buddhism. I didn’t see much about Theravada Buddhism, which is the main branch of Buddhism in Thailand, but I did find this quote from Ngak’chang Rinpoche, a teacher and practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism and a Vajrayana calligrapher. According to him:
The scorpion is symbolic of the power of transformation as the scorpion is known as the most dangerous and destructive creature. Because every aspect of duality—no matter how viciously deranged—remains undivided from the non-dual state, even the most horrific states of mind can be transformed.
I said I’m not superstitious, and I’m not. I don’t think I am, at least. But I do look over my shoulder sometimes and see ghostlike threads stretching back from me to various points and events in the past. And while those points and events often seem disparate or meaningless or chaotic as they’re happening, they almost always fall into strange order upon later reflection.
That’s how I view the scorpion in the house now. I can’t help but see it as the first sign of a transformation happening in me. And I started seeing it that way while lying—on the same floor mattress where I’d seen the scorpion—sick on my birthday, resting and recovering and reflecting, growing and shedding skin.
On that day and across the week that followed, it became increasingly clear to me that it was time to both change course and cut some of the more malignant growths from my mind and life. My scalpel—writing and its transformative powers and order-inducing limits—was sitting on my desk just a few feet away from me, waiting.
Routines & Order
Athletes, Xygalatas writes, “often develop elaborate routines that they enact before and during games.”
Take, for example, Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players of all time. He has an elaborate repertoire of rituals that is reminiscent of that of OCD patients. Before each match he always takes a freezing-cold shower. When he arrives at the stadium, he enters the court holding a racket in his hand, taking great care never to step on the lines and always crossing each line right-foot first. He then places his bag on the bench and turns his tournament ID face up. His chair must be perfectly perpendicular to the sideline. As he prepares for his warm-up, he always makes the game officials wait for him. During the warm-up routine, which must be performed facing the crowd, he removes his jacket while jumping up and down. He takes an energy gel, opens it and consumes it, always in the exact same way: folding it once and squeezing it four times. He checks his socks to make sure they are perfectly even on his calves. During the coin toss he faces the net and starts jumping until the coin falls down, then immediately runs to the baseline, where he drags his foot across the entire line in a single sweeping motion before hitting each shoe with his racket. When the game begins, he starts performing repetitive hand gestures that resemble those of Catholics crossing themselves. With his right hand he touches the back and front of his shorts, then his left shoulder, then the right, then his nose, left ear, nose again, right ear and finally his right thigh. This sequence is repeated before every serve. After each point he goes to the towel. At each changeover he picks up two towels. He waits for the other player to cross the line, and then he crosses right-foot first to take his seat. He carefully folds one towel and puts it behind him without using it. Then he folds the second towel and places it on his lap. He takes one sip from a bottle of water, then another sip from a second bottle. Very carefully, he returns the two bottles to the exact same position, the labels facing the same way. When the game resumes, he gives one towel to a ball boy and then crosses over to the other side to give the second towel to another ball boy. This sequence is repeated throughout the match.
Following this setup and build, Xygalatas delivers the crucial punchline:
In his autobiography, Nadal wrote: "Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head."
If I could eat this thought right now, I would. I love its guts and can’t imagine writing anything ever again without it crossing my mind at least once.
Early this month, as I was arriving at the realization that it was time to make some changes in my mind, writing, and life, I kept returning to something I’d heard Louis C.K. say on a podcast once. At least I think he said it. I went looking through old podcasts and couldn’t find him actually saying it anywhere. But it doesn’t matter at this point. All we ever have to work from anyway are the stories that we tell ourselves.
In this particular story, I remember C.K. explaining to someone how he would strengthen his stand-up sets by regularly taking his strongest closing bits and moving them to the front of his act, deliberately putting himself in harm’s way and forcing himself to strengthen the rest of his bits. Whether he actually said or did this or not, I’ve long regarded it as admirable and brave.
Another thing I heard C.K. say about his writing and set-building process on a podcast once—this one verified—also resonated with me. He explained how he had only two months to prepare his latest one-hour set, which was a far tighter timeline than he’d ever had to build an hour before. He drew inspiration from the Beatles and Peter Jackson’s excellent Get Back documentary about the making of Let It Be. As C.K. explains it:
You watch them arrive in this studio that didn't really work. And you watch them and, John's a little fucked up, and he's with Yoko. And they're not really getting along. But they keep sitting down and strapping on the guitars and playing. And they have a few ideas for songs, and in like two weeks they're gonna shoot Let It Be. And they just play, and then George quits, just leaves the Beatles. So they play without him for a while, and then he comes back.
But the thing is, in the movie, they keep x'ing out the days, and just showing that they showed up for work every fucking day, took songs that were just ideas, and turned them into some of the greatest fucking Beatles songs. Then they went up on the roof and just played it, and it was fucking great. So that inspired me.
I thought, if I approach it that way, like I just must have an hour in two months … And I was going to the [Comedy] Cellar every night, and I was working more on paper, and analyzing the sets, and taking notes after a set, saying here's what worked and here’s [what didn’t] ... And I gave myself these disciplines. Like, once I had twenty really strong minutes, I said, you can't touch it now. You can't do that material anymore.
So I'd take bits that were dying, or bits that I didn't want to do, and I'd say, that's tonight. ... It was horrible. ... You have to be willing to bomb to really write. And then those bits got stronger and stronger, and that turned into a new twenty of all shit bits that turned into a strong twenty. Then I'd put that aside. And then I had two twenties. And I kept doing that until I had a loose hour, and then ...
He doesn’t finish the last sentence, but he holds both hands out and moves them from right to left as if to illustrate the shifting, set-strengthening process that I wrote about earlier.
All of this was rolling around in my head—along with the other things I’ve written about here, along with much more—when I woke up one day last week, took a hard look at the writing on my Substack, and one by one deleted all but six posts from the past three years of writing it.
It was highly cathartic. And I now consider it a symbol of my long-overdue retirement from thinking and writing about the topics that don’t serve me, and the beginning of thinking and writing only about the ones that do. I also see it as my version of doing what C.K. did. Meaning, moving my strongest stuff to the front in an effort to improve all that follows it.
It’s the death of an old journey and the start of new one.
Moving forward, readers can expect to read Symbols & Rituals essays that are longer and more spread out and rooted in a healthy exploration of my interests in human nature and the workings of the mind. Put more plainly, here you will find personal essays that explore human behavior and the relationship between the individual and the group.
If that’s not of interest to you, you’re of course welcome to unsubscribe at any time. No hard feelings will be incurred.
To fully close the last chapter and open this new one, I will leave you with this partial transcript of a three-minute talk from Sam Harris' Waking Up app. It, too, was instrumental in reminding me that the option to hit the reset button is literally always there.
I'm recording this in late December. This is a time of year when many of us think about beginning again. Of course, there's often an unreality to these resolutions. Most commitments to making sweeping changes in our lives begin to erode the moment we articulate them. And the truth is, we never actually arrive in life, and we must always begin again. Because however good or bad things seem, nothing lasts.
Everything you've done or not done is now just a memory. And everything you're telling yourself about the future is a half-truth at best. This present moment is your opportunity—your only opportunity—to connect with your life. And that will always be the case. So beginning again is the essence of the path of practice. It's the step by which we surmount every embarrassment and indignity and disappointment in life. Rather than dragging around the corpse of the past, we are free to live this next moment as though it were new. Because it is.
Whatever has happened, however you failed or succeeded or lost the plot; if your relationships have suffered, if you've mistaken a friend for an enemy, or an enemy for a friend; if you haven't been the spouse, or the parent, or the sibling, or the son or the daughter that you've wanted to be—just begin again.
If you've been selfish, or simply oblivious to the suffering of others, or pointlessly spinning your wheels; if you've been paying attention to the wrong things—there is no reason to hesitate, and there's very likely nothing to think through. Just begin again.
If you've been living with the illusion that other people are responsible for the way that you feel, rather than recognizing that your negative emotions are a pattern of your own making—you can take responsibility for this whole cataclysm now, and begin your life again.
Godspeed, friends. Godspeed.
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