By Judith Toy
Langston Hughes said, “When starting out to build a world, one starts first with oneself.” I can remember, as a child, my first awareness, in bed at night, of the beating of my heart against the pillow in my pink, three-quarters princess bed. Or was I in the crib? Breath is our first essential ritual, the one that keeps us alive. In trance, a shaman’s breath changes may become protracted or come in short puffs, as if she is hyperventilating. Deep in meditation, I sometimes need only enough breath for a mouse. Initially, through our heartbeat and breath, we become accustomed to repetition, the drum beat of our lives. And we want to replicate the repetition: thus, ritual is born. Is ritual a portal to nothing more than our own breath? Or is ritual the door to the mystery of the unseen world? Why are we drawn to rituals as mundane as repeating our particular way of washing dishes?
My late friend science writer John Pfeiffer in his study of the astonishing cave paintings of Lascaux, France, — those great horned red bison, thick-bodied horses and wheat sheaves worthy of Picasso — concluded that, because of the low light in the caves, and because cave painters must have worked with small fires to illumine their work, hunting and sexual initiation rites were performed in the caves as a kind of magic, wrapping the paintings and the initiates in fear and wonder. What’s more, through years of research and his own explorations at Lascaux, Pfeiffer hypothesized that cave art was intended to be paired with rituals for reducing conflict among Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers, who . . . mobilized art and the arts in the service of ceremony.
I think of the newly-discovered dark matter and black holes that most certainly must be portals. I’ve heard that if we could hold all the actual matter of our bodies in the palm of our hand, the amount would be too minute to see with the naked eye. The fact is that the relative space between the nucleus of one atom in, say, our hand, to the nucleus of the adjacent atom, is equidistant to the space between earth and our nearest star, the sun. Since we are mostly space, what if that miniscule bit of matter that constitutes our bodies survived being sucked into a black hole, along with countless other bits? What if a black hole were a nursery for new universes – a cosmic seed bed?
Suddenly, I am seeing ritual this way: a way out of and right back into itself – a way of moving well beyond whatever door presents itself – whether the door of a cave, the door of a black hole, or the door of a meditation hall -and returning to ourselves. Ritual may well be a way that allows life to repeat, to eventually spring from the scraps of matter that fall into the womb of the black hole like seeds, star stuff. And from those seeds spring us again.
Because of John Pfeiffer’s insights, I now think of the door to Lascaux as a portal to initiation. From daylight, one enters the sudden darkness where light plays tricks. Do we breathe differently in the dark? Can we see through our breath? Perhaps we’re drawn to ritual because it is encoded in our DNA from those long gone Cro-Magnons. I wonder if everything is a portal to itself, not its ordinary self, but to a self-renewed and intertwined with what is?
If ritual begins and ends with the essential circle of our breath, is ritual a portal, a niorika as the South American curandaros claim?. Once, writing almost in my sleep, I named this ritual door a mouse hole. This is the poet’s opening, the doorway to the terrors and awes of our dreams on that other plane.
Fifteen years ago last month, my teacher bestowed upon me a new name, Chan An Mon, True Door of Peace. For 15 years, I have pondered this name and struggled to live up to the expectations, alternately branding myself a failure or feeling that I am made of peace. I love that I am a door; folks look not at me, but at what lies beyond.
The door to our meditation hall at Cloud Cottage, where we practice mindfulness, is old wood with an old-fashioned oval window, surrounded by a stylized vine and carved wooden leaves. Beyond the door, the meditation hall is, indeed, a place of leafing, longing, ritual, and peace.
If I had to name myself, I would choose a flower, perhaps the flower of the Elephant Ear which opens white and pristine as the peace flower blooms like folded palms, but then unpeels like a banana, to the bright surprise of a blood-red berry blossom. When the time to drop arrives, the stem of the flower bends like bamboo in an ice storm and points crimson seeds toward the ground where they fall directly to the waiting soil. Thus the Elephant Ear, in a timeless ritual, repeats itself.
Another door from my past served as an initiation rite. For a couple of years, I had been attending a Monday afternoon ritual for women in the creaky, dusty old-wood upper room of a 200-year-old Friends Meetinghouse in Solebury, Pennsylvania. The aged Quaker women called the ritual Sewing, but Sewing was more than sewing. I discovered, soon after joining the group, that much of the Meeting’s important business was conducted in sewing. There was no gossip – except, perhaps, the occasional expression of what Quakers call concerns for others of the meeting. Ostensibly, the business at hand was repairing used clothing to distribute among the needy. The room smelled sweetly of dusty woolens and dried cloves; some of the women even smelled like dust to me. I was younger than they by some 30 years at least — in some cases, 40 years. Some of us –usually a half-dozen at most – worked on sewing machines. I cut and stitched by hand, each stitch a breath in a two-centuries-old ritual. I felt honored to sit among these white-haloed elders of the tribe. Murmurs and throat-clearing punctuated the silence, and in the background, the small gravelly sound of the ticking machines – an island in time. I listened and sewed and gazed out the windows at bright farm fields. The room was a secret chamber, revealed to me, I suppose, only when the elders felt I was ready to sew. We climbed a small set of steps at the rear of the spare meetinghouse room with rows of wooden benches, and opened, via a wooden latch fastened by a piece of cotton rope, the unseen door in the ceiling. As we opened the trap door, another set of stairs revealed themselves, and soon we found ourselves up in the heaven of Friends.
But that was not the only door.
Eleanor, as I recall the eldest elder – the one appointed to say “Good Morning” on First Days, her voice a bell of mindfulness that signaled the end of silent worship – initiated me. Eleanor led me by the hand to the second secret door in the wall of the sewing room. This door was so secret that no knob or handle existed. I wondered, momentarily, if this had been part of the underground railway for slaves that I was reading about to the elementary kids in First Day School. That was only a fleeting thought because the hidden portal, with no latch, opened into the sun-infused secret second half of the Meetinghouse attic. I was amazed at this new room. How did I know that this was my initiation? Eleanor addressed me, in the old manner of Friends, that day when I cracked a joke: “Oh, Judith, thee is a rascal!” In my bones, I feel that life is eternal and circular, that there really is no birth and no death, only star stuff. Through the rituals that terrify and delight us and comfort us the most, we find a way out of ourselves. But that exit is always through, to a secret chamber, the seed-bed, that small nest in the core of the apple that gives birth to ever-renewable and recyclable life.
Judith Toy is the author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness. She and her husband, Philip Toy, lead mindfulness practice at Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living in Black Mountain, in the Plum Villagetradition. At 2 PM on December 16 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ashevile, Toy will offer a free forgiveness workshop in the main hall. Her books will be on sale. She can be contacted through www.cloudcottage.org.