Ritual Therapy

I.

A few weeks ago I picked up Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Psychomagic, an exposition of his theories of ritual therapy. I’ve been a fan of Jodorowsky for a while, and it’s been great to get a closer look at his thinking.

The essential thesis: while our conscious minds speak in words, our unconscious minds speak in symbols. By performing symbolic ritual (or “poetic”) acts, patients can communicate with their unconscious and heal themselves of psychological trauma and the associated psychosomatic symptoms.

Jodorowsky is first to admit that his method is more art than science, with only anecdotal evidence for the method’s efficacy. In one example, a woman feeling adrift and grappling with feelings of absence and abandonment following her father’s suicide is told to buy thirteen oranges, giving twelve to patients at a hospice and eating the thirteenth… in exactly twelve minutes. She reports experiencing connection with the hospice patients that she had longed to have with her father, and while eating the final orange, experiences a new gratitude for her own life.

Some of the prescriptions seem a bit fantastic (one man, struggling in business, is told to tape gold coins to the soles of his shoes, so that all day he will be walking on gold), but there is a certain logic to this theater. Someone lacking courage cannot gain it by speaking affirmations in a mirror — rather, courage (lit. “having heart”) is developed piece by piece by doing things that scare you. Similarly, someone struggling with past traumas or failures may need to take actions to overcome them. The key is that words alone are not enough; it is meaningful action that matters: hence ritual therapy. Knowing exactly which actions to prescribe for a given ailment is, of course, the trick, and why Psychomagic remains a fringe practice, and Jodorowsky the most prominent practitioner.

II.

I recently had experience which could be called “ritual therapy”: a four-day solo backpacking trip I took in the north of Israel.

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If the trip was therapy, what was the trauma? It was twofold, although admittedly describing these experiences as “traumatic” is a bit of a stretch.

The first incident occurred during the summer of 2010, my junior year of college, when I went on a camping trip with four friends. At one point during the trip, we decide to go exploring the hills around our campsite. The terrain was sparse woodland: hills, cliffs, the occasional pond. We take substances. Eventually we arrive at the base of a rocky cliff and decide, in a fit of youthful vigor, to summit the face. We begin to ascend, with me at the rear. About halfway up, I start getting nervous: we are climbing ad-hoc, with handholds and footholds being whatever makes sense. We have no guarantee of finding a path, and at this point we’ve set ourselves up for quite a drop. We are on substances. I’m feeling shaky, and I eventually tell the group that I’m turning back. They encourage me to continue, but I am resolved. I descend while they continue to climb.

A short while after I reach the bottom, I see them reach the top. I am exploring the wooded area adjacent to the hill and telling myself I’m having a good time, but I’m increasingly feeling a sense of distress. Eventually we are reunited; but there’s a disconnect, which feels to me like a gaping chasm. I realize: our shared story has permanently diverged. They went forward, while I turned back. They were courageous; I was not. Everyone is nice about it (the girl in the group would later emphasize all the things we “did together”), but what was done was done.

A number of years later, I was talking to one of the friends, Ivan, about it, and he brought up that moment when I turned back. He asked if I ever thought about it. I told him I did. He posed the question of what might have been different had I stayed with the group. I’ll never know. I might have died; turning back might have saved my life. But I do know that that moment of retreat has stayed with me ever since, bright (or dark?) in my memory.

The second incident occurred some two-odd years later, in the fall of 2012. I was living on a kibbutz in Israel, and had heard of the “Sea to Sea” hike, a four-day trip through northern Israel, starting at the Sea of Galilee and ending at the Mediterranean (or vice versa). I wanted to give it a try, and recruited three of my classmates to come with (one boy, two girls). We gathered supplies and we set out. In my mind trip is going well, but halfway through the other three tell me that they want to abandon the hike. I’d like to keep going, but I’m not ready to go alone. We go back. While not as difficult a memory as before (largely because we abandoned the trail together), it was yet another memory of turning back instead of going forward.

These incidents has left a mark on me; creating a narrative of someone who “turned back”, who didn’t have the skill/strength/fortitude/courage to press forward. And while I’ve enjoyed much professional success in the years since, I failed to push myself in the outdoors, and so nothing I did quite took away these feelings.

Which brings us back to the recent hike — the same Sea to Sea route that I had abandoned six years prior. I went solo, not having found anyone with an aligned interest and schedule. The route involved hiking 20km per day, through open country and rocky riverbeds, crossing rivers and going long stretches away from water and civilization. While not the most dangerous of all possible routes, there were risks involved with being alone; now, though, the risks were the point. I had to put myself in danger — to perform a poetic act. I needed to communicate to myself, not with words but with actions, that I could survive in the world — that with a map and my senses and my strength, I could traverse the earth.

The trip was challenging, but not overwhelmingly so — there was heat and cold, disorientation and getting lost, encounters with wildlife and the law, and one memorable incident of touching an electric fence. I didn’t die, and I returned with a certain feeling of lightness. I had done the thing, I had not turned back, I had been brave. I had, years later and miles away, met my friends at the top of the hill. In a small way, I felt that new worlds could now open in me. It was ritual therapy, poetry, Psychomagic.

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One response to “Ritual Therapy

  1. Pingback: Music Monday Blog Party (June 18th to 20th, 2018): Symbolic Actions and Self-esteem – The Bee Writes…·

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