Beyond Ordinary Time

Ceremony taps our deepest strengths as we create lives with meaning

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 48
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

Creating a life in congruence with your deepest values is not easy and cannot be done with the head alone. Ceremonies can help, especially as you enter a period of transition, by drawing on your intuition, heart, and soul, and by tapping the support of friends and family. IC assistant editor Gay-wynn Cooper found self-designed ceremonies an important part of the transitions she’s made over the last 10 years.

"When a question is posed ceremonially,
the universe responds."

– Old Chinese proverb

Ceremonies and celebrations have been with us throughout time, in all cultures. They mark transitions – coming into the world, being given a name, getting married, and dying, just to name a few. They also honor the changing of the seasons in the Earth’s life cycle. By taking time out of our ordinary lives to participate in ceremonies, we open pathways to the collective unconscious of humanity, the archetypes, the myths and the process of discovering our unique selves.

Self-designed ceremonies can help us focus our lives, become more intentional about choices, and mark life transitions in a way that gives greater meaning and richness to life. While many people find meaning in the rituals of their religious or ethnic traditions, others are left unfulfilled by those experiences. For such people, creating their own ceremonies may be more meaningful.

Ceremonies don’t have to be elaborate. For some, it’s as simple as holding hands for a moment before dinner or planting bulbs in the fall. The process of ascribing intention to an action, paying deep attention, and at times sharing the experience with others transforms a seemingly ordinary action into the realm of the extra-ordinary, even the sacred.


I can no longer remember the first ritual that moved me, but a turning point came when a friend invited my husband and me to participate in a different kind of New Year’s Eve celebration. Instead of the usual midnight alcoholic toast, we would create a ceremony to welcome the new year. Our instructions were to prepare by considering what had been meaningful for us in the present year, what we wanted to let go of, and what we would desire for the new year.

On the 31st we gathered. Our only commonality was that we each knew the hostess. We talked about why we had been drawn to the idea of celebrating intentionally and how we were unsure about what a ceremony meant and what we would be asked to do. As we talked and shared together we co-created a ceremony that we enacted at midnight.

Never had I experienced such a deeply moving sense of my connection to all of humanity or felt such energy for bringing about the changes I wanted for my life in the new year. I also felt a deep support for letting go of an old belief that had dogged my steps for years.

It was interesting to notice what happened for me in the new year. I had a heightened awareness about the behaviors and attitudes associated with my new year’s "resolutions." The ceremony had been a time out from ordinary activities. It became a potent memory, a reminder that connected me with the new action I had chosen and also with my deeper purpose for selecting the action in the first place.

I was no longer confined in the cage of "Oh, I should …" Rather the experience provoked a new response: "Oh yes, this is what I choose; I want to do this!"

During one part of the ceremony we each created on paper an expression of the image of our new choice. I taped my image of change to my mirror; my friends who had witnessed the choice became my supporters. Instead of a feeling akin to dread, I felt empowered. Each time I chose the new action I was connected to the deeper meaning of my life. I felt more whole.

To our group’s surprise, we began to see a number of events in our lives as opportunities to go deeper and to connect with our greater intention. We used ceremony to create this space. We did a ceremony of healing, forgiveness, and courage for a woman facing the trial of a sexual abuse case in which she was the victim.

In the sacredness of the ceremonial circle she was able to tell her story and be fully heard. Then we built a protective circle with our bodies to symbolize the safety she now had, and we held her with love. It was an incredibly painful journey for her. Being still new to this kind of intimate ceremony, I was unprepared for the power of the experience.

Several things about that experience stand out. One was how deeply I was drawn into the shadow side of my own psyche, into the fear, the anger, and the pain. I knew without a doubt how easily that could have been me as the victim and, in a strange way, also as the abuser.

I also remember feeling anxious at several points about whether the ceremony was really such a good idea – whether it might make her feel more vulnerable and separate.

After we concluded the formal part of the ceremony and began sharing our experiences, she reported that the concern and anxiety she had regarding the trial had been replaced with strength and peacefulness. These weren’t just words; her peace could be seen in her body. Even more amazing was the compassion in her heart where only anger had existed before. A transformation had occurred far deeper than anything I could have imagined.

This transformation touched me in a way I can only describe as spiritual. I knew some power greater than all of us had been present, as we had requested at the beginning of the ceremony.

In the end there was no trial; the case was dismissed on a technicality. For Carol it no longer mattered. She had clearly stated during the ceremony that the purpose of the trial was to complete her own healing, and this was indeed accomplished within the ceremony.


Other ceremonies followed. New circles involving varying combinations of old and new people came together. I found myself exploring other cultures’ ceremonial ways, being particularly drawn to Native American culture and my own Celtic roots. I began finding more of my own Self; my creativity flowed, and life took on a new richness.

Nevertheless, it seemed like a risky step when my husband and I began to plan our own lives with self-designed ceremonies as an elemental part. Several puzzle pieces began to coalesce – the attention to ceremony being one – leading us into deeper introspection concerning what we wanted for our lives.

We worked together in a very people-centered dental practice. To the best of our abilities, we were creating a holistic, supportive environment for both the clients and our co-workers. By society’s standards we were successful at several levels.

Despite our "success," this was a time of intense change and great soul searching for us. Ultimately we made a choice to more clearly live our values by simplifying our lives. Our house, with pool and guest quarters, seemed to symbolize our attachment to the material things of life. The ongoing mortgage and maintenance was acting as a ball and chain, limiting our thoughts of what could be possible for the future.

So we decided to sell the house. The rightness of that decision was confirmed as the house sold the first day it was on the market. This feeling of rightness, however, did not fill the empty hole of sadness about leaving a beautiful place. Taking matters in hand, we arranged a "moving" ceremony.

When ceremony is to be used as a tool for creating intentional change in your life, the planning process is often as important as the ceremony itself. In preparation for the ceremony, my husband and I talked together about what the house had meant to us. We discussed what we wanted for the future and what values were motivating our change. We shared our fears, knowing this was just a first step, and not knowing what would come next. It was a wonderful, scary time, and we discovered much about ourselves and each other through these talks.

The key to the intention of the ceremony became clear. We wanted leaving the house to symbolize our willingness to rethink our yardstick of success and the movement into the unknown of a new lifestyle. At the same time we wanted to honor the spirit of the house for all the joy we had known there.

Friends who had shared special times with us at this house joined us for our ceremony. We shared memories of times that had been important to us; we thanked the spirit of the house. We told the group about our reasons for the move and about the changes we were making in our lives. We asked for their support in our process of change and emphasized that the one thing we did not want to change was our friendships.

As we moved out of the house in darkness – to symbolize going into the darkness of "not knowing" – we asked each of our friends to take a rock from the yard and bring it with them to our new rental home. We created a joyous musical procession through our new house, bringing light and blessings with us. Everyone found a secret place to put a rock. We completed the evening with a potluck dinner amid the unpacked boxes.

At the end of the evening I felt complete. I had been able to shed the tears that were inside me; I had felt supported in the change we were making; I could see new possibilities as more real. Each day as I put things into place I would find a rock sequestered away here and there and know my friends would still be there for me. The whole time we were in the house the rocks stayed in their chosen places. They reminded me continually of the change I was making.


Creating and taking part in your own ceremonies and rituals heightens the experience. The authors of Rituals for Our Times agree:

Our participation in this rich range of rituals enables us to make meaning of our ever-changing lives. … You will see how rituals help us to recognize who we are and what we value and to come together in community to share and acknowledge both the joy and pain of our existence.1

With repeated ceremonies the framework becomes familiar. Even though each ceremony is uniquely designed according to the intention to be expressed, there is a pattern that can be followed and certain preparations are needed:

  • Planning: The most important aspect of ceremony is to be clear about your purpose. Try to state your intention simply and clearly. Even spontaneous ceremonies require gathering your thoughts and possibly a ceremonial item or two.

    Who or what will you ask for help, guidance, teaching, empowerment? What quality or whose presence do you want to bring into your hearts? Many traditions have formal invocations. These may be appropriate for you or give you guidance in creating your own style.

  • People: People are usually at the heart of any ceremony: those whose transitions are being marked and others witnessing these changes. Ask yourself, who is it important to invite and why. Consider ways of inviting people so they will feel genuinely welcomed and comfortable.

  • Place: Consider having the ceremony at a place that has special significance to you. Whether the site is outdoors, in a public building, or at your or a friend’s home, make sure you can create the level of privacy you need to avoid interruption.

  • Attire: Celebrations and ceremony can be enhanced by attention to what the participants wear. Elaborate costumes are not necessary; however, wearing a special shawl, hat, or jewelry can heighten the awareness of the special nature of the occasion.

  • Food: Eating is one of the most common denominators of ceremonies, although it is not essential. If a meal is the central activity of the celebration, you could have a potluck at the beginning or end, or simply share a loaf of bread.

  • Symbols: Symbols may be either objects or actions. Some symbols – like fire, water, and light – are universal; others may be associated with a particular family or ethnic heritage; and still others are symbolic because we choose to allow them to represent something important to us. These can be objects like a rock collected from a favorite place, an animal carving, or a drawing.

    Similarly, symbolic actions – burning objects, lighting candles, sharing food – can have universal or ceremony-specific meaning. In either case, sharing the meaning of symbols to be used in a ceremony helps everyone to feel included.

  • The Ceremony: As people arrive they need to feel welcome and comfortable. Set the stage in order to mark the ceremony as a special time outside of regular time. Be certain everyone understands what is to happen, what symbols will be used, and what participation is expected. Address any concerns before you begin.

    Start by performing some rite of purification or giving an opening invocation. In your own way, you are calling in the sacred. Creating a circle, lighting incense or a candle, building an altar, having a moment of silence, prayers or group meditations, and processions are often used for this purpose.

    At the heart of the ceremony are the actions you choose to transform the desired changes from your inner world to the outer world. These actions seem to work best when different levels of participation are possible. For instance, if there is to be a toast or blessing, someone may specially prepare a presentation or poem, someone else might speak spontaneously, and yet another might present a gift not requiring words.

Some suggested actions:

  • plant a seed, a tree

  • burn a photo, old shoes

  • cut a lock of hair

  • weave a web interconnecting the group with a ball of yarn

  • create a drawing, a clay sculpture, a collage of pictures from the group

  • dance

  • share poems, tell or enact a story

  • have a heart talk or a council circle

  • make a mask

  • pray, meditate

  • have a procession

  • play musical instruments, drums, rattle, marimbas, flutes

  • give gifts.

Combine elements to fit the occasion. Make up other ideas. Draw on meaningful ceremonies or objects from your own tradition if they work for you. The possibilities are endless.

At the end of the ceremony, an act of completion will give powerful thoughts, feelings, and insights a form of closure. Often a song, a group hug, or a few moments of silence is enough. Sometimes people leave directly following this closure, but generally it is more meaningful to have a time of integration – sitting in silence, writing in a journal, or sharing images or feelings.

In beginning to add self-designed ceremonies to your life start with something small. Keep it simple and plan ahead. Start in a safe place, possibly with family, a couple of close friends, or by participating in a group that does on-going ceremonies.

Go for it, take a risk, have fun! Soon you’ll find yourself noticing opportunities for being more intentional about changes in your life. If you’re like me, you’ll come into greater wholeness as a human being by giving voice to your emotions, paying attention to your own changing nature, giving permission to your body to enjoy greater freedom, and increasing the connection to your spiritual nature.


1. Rituals for our Times, Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts, Harper Perennial, New York: 1992

Note: The "how to" information on ceremony is drawn from my own experience with ceremony over the years as well as from Rituals for Our Times and The Box listed in the Resource Guide on page 59.

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