how ritual and sacred objects help us travel from head to heart

Image from Ally at Aquarian Soul

Some of the most significant or meaningful moments in life are the ones that occur when we are purely in the experience, receiving it directly rather than through the filters of ego and thoughts. These moments are rare, but we’ve all experienced them: the pure awe of a perfect sunset or rushing waterfall, the bliss of witnessing or engaging with a joyful animal or baby. I believe one of the core purposes of being alive is to treasure these moments for the precious jewels that they are.

Most often, however, we experience life through several layers: of how something fits into the context of my day, my self-esteem, my safety, my reputation, my pleasure. Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson writes that the human mind is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. One major reason for this is evolutionary survival — our brain needed to be much more attuned to the possibility of a nearby tiger than a beautiful sunset! Have you ever had one of those days where maybe one or two “negative” or stressful things happened in an otherwise neutral day (probably with some positive moments in there, too) and caught yourself saying “I’m having a crappy day”? I know I have, though I’m much more aware now of that filter of the negativity bias than I was earlier in my life.

So we experience life through a filter of “me, me, me,"latch onto even the smallest negative experiences, don’t hold on well to the positive ones, and often bury the traumatic ones, making it difficult to fully heal.**  Oh, brain, what are we gonna do with you? 

The good news is that we can help our brains do better. While I could probably write a whole book on this topic,  I’ll focus specifically on one underlying theme for right now:

By taking conscious action to help our experiences make the journey from head to heart, we can better cherish the joy in life, and more quickly and fully heal from the inevitable pain.

This core truth is why ritual and sacred objects are such powerful tools for healing and feeling fully alive.

Ritual

The word “ritual” can be defined and interpreted in many ways, but here I will define it as “a ceremony or series of actions typically performed in a set sequence.” Rituals are a significant part of most religious traditions, and of course they also exist outside the world of religion, too. Whether you find comfort in religious rituals or not, developing your own unique rituals and adding ritual and ceremony to your life is one way of intentionally honoring both joy and pain.

Just look at one of the most common rituals, the funeral or wake. This act of celebrating and mourning the deceased can be a powerful and memorable event if it’s crafted with care— and consider how different it would be if we just took care of the logistics of the person’s death and went back to work! Why only reserve ritual for the biggest events like death? There is much to be honored and acknowledged during life, and adding ritual can definitely help us make that head-to-heart leap. A major distinction is that often, we only think or talk about things, which often only accesses the cognitive level of the experience. When we add ritual to the equation, there is more feeling to it — more of a sense of actually being with the experience in the body and emotionally connected with whatever is happening.

Your rituals could be small or big, daily or annual. They could done in private, shared with your family, or a room full of strangers at a yoga retreat. Maybe you develop a ritual with your partner of embracing in a 30-second hug before leaving for work in the morning. (It’s 30 seconds of your day, but can you imagine how different it would feel from a regular rushed goodbye?)  It should also be noted that if rituals become a chore or you lack flexibility with them (i.e. if your whole day is thrown off if your blender broke and you can’t have your green smoothie!), you need to recalibrate. Rigidity is not your friend.

One mini-ritual that Rick Hanson recommends for helping our brains actually start to notice and hold onto more positive experiences is what he calls “Taking In the Good.” Hanson defines this as "the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory,” using the 4 steps, HEAL:

(1) Have a positive experience. This is simply activating a positive experience — creating one, or consciously noticing that you’re having a positive experience.

(2) Enrich it. Intentionally stay with the experience for 10-20 seconds. It might not sound like much, but we rarely do for that long! Take a few moments to really savor it.

(3) Absorb it. Imagine being like a sponge and soaking the experience in — really internalizing it. Picture it like a jewel entering the treasure chest of your heart.

(4)Link positive and negative material. This step is optional, but can deepen the healing impact of the positive experience by linking it to relevant pain from your past. Are you experiencing a moment of feeling particularly loved and included? Think of a time earlier in your life when you felt alone or excluded, and imagine delivering this current feeling to your past self in that painful moment.

Hanson recommends using this process or ritual 2-3 times a day to start to really make a difference in the wiring of your brain. To me, this is a simple way of installing these everyday positive experiences (and the more important ones that you really want to keep with you) in the heart or spirit, not just in the mind. You can read more in-depth about the science behind this practice in Hanson’s newest book, Hardwiring Happiness, and download a free 10-minute guided practice that takes you through the HEAL steps.

Adding more elements of ritual to daily life is an excellent way to live with greater intention.

>>Do you have any favorite soul-nourishing rituals? What other ways could you build more ceremony into your life?

Sacred Objects

I’ve just recently begun exploring the realm of sacred objects, which I define as any material object that enhances the emotional or spiritual journey in some way. This can certainly be a controversial topic, since some would argue that the most spiritual among us — monks, nuns, and others who devote their lives to spirituality — don’t need “things” to be spiritual, and in fact, prefer to own few things at all. To all the minimalists out there: more power to you. I see a lot of value in that lifestyle, but personally, I am a bit of a nester. I am getting more particular about the kinds of “things” I keep around, because a junky environment full of unnecessary mass-manufactured crap makes me feel junky inside, too. (Note to Husband: I’m planning to do a Throw Out 100 Things Challenge soon, so hide your good stuff in the basement.) ;)

Lately, the only “stuff” I’ve really wanted to acquire falls into this “sacred objects” category. The most significant, which are almost strange to think of as material objects, are books. Specifically, books that help me learn more about myself at a deeper level and develop a better understanding of humanity, the world, and my place in in it as a woman, healer, and teacher. (And I have to say, I stressed a little over those words because it might sound like I think I have this all figured out. But really, I am just a fellow traveler who happens to be called to walk with others and help guide their travels using the shared experiences of many others that I now carry with me.)  I won’t rattle off the whole list of recent and soon-to-be-acquired books here, but I’ve been digging into Caroline Myss’s books, just ordered Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith, and I’m loving the Spirited e-book by Rachel MacDonald and Tara Bliss, two of my biggest role models.

I’ve also been learning about crystals (Hibiscus Moon is a kick-ass crystal expert) and how they can be used to enhance energy and healing. I have a small collection so far, and am enjoying learning which crystals are best to enhance certain qualities or feelings. I hold a crystal during meditation, carry one in my purse (rotating crystals based on which one feels right at the time), and have been adding rose quartz to my water occasionally. I love that crystals align so well with chakra balancing, since each chakra’s corresponding color can be matched with numerous crystals of that color.  I’m excited to continue my education about crystals so I can begin integrating them into my work with clients.

During all this recent exploration, I’ve been experimenting with several new rituals in my morning routine (now that I actually have time in the mornings) that incorporate sacred objects, and one of my favorites is lighting a candle and taking a few drops of my Lotus Wei Inspired Action flower elixir before I start my reading or writing for the day. These simple acts (that take less than a minute) help put me in a more connected, ready-to-go mindset than just sitting down, opening up my laptop, and typing away. Integrating meaningful objects like these into my day helps me feel more emotionally and spiritually connected, and less swept-up in the momentum of the daily grind.

Your sacred objects might include candles, a journal, mala beadsoracle cardsessential oils, crystals, jewelry, plants, incense, a vision board, or they might be something totally different and you. When I’m struggling to be accepting or loving toward myself or someone else (or maybe before a challenging group at work), I’ll spritz my face with Infinite Love energy mist. If you want to get scientific about it, can I know for sure that the particular blend of flowers in the spray is actually helping me be more loving, or is it more of a placebo effect? While I personally believe in the power of natural aromatherapy, if there is a placebo effect, I honestly don’t care, because it’s working better for me than not using anything! What I have found so far is that incorporating sacred objects into various places in my life is a powerful, tangible touchstone to reconnect me with what matters the most: tending daily to my mind + body + spirit integration, in alignment with my core values, and always striving to be more present and loving to the people around me. I don’t need objects in order to do that, but as I'm living in this physical world and culture that has the power to splinter my attention in 100 different directions, I’ll take all the help I can get to stay grounded in the real truth.

>>What are the sacred objects in your life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Even writing this has helped me better solidify the importance of ritual and sacred objects, and I’m excited and energized to continue my exploration of these topics. Until next time… Namaste, y’all.

**In a follow-up post next week, I’ll discuss why experiential therapy is key for healing from trauma by helping us make the leap from head to heart. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.