Rituals are also powerful because they rely heavily on establishing bonds—whether it’s between the mental and physical, the individual and community or the human and divine. Achterberg, who researches healing traditions around the world, has found the one thing that consistently predicts a positive effect on healing is people’s coming together to help each other and seeking spiritual guidance. “Human support, in whatever guise it shows up, is powerful,” she says. A special alchemy takes place when our intentions are shared, heard and acknowledged. “Speaking your intention has a different ramification physiologically if witnessed,” says Lawson. “When rituals take place in the presence of others, their power is amplified.”
Many researchers and integrative doctors believe it is our disconnection from our fellow human beings and the natural world that makes us ill in the first place. “Much illness is caused or at least exacerbated by the feeling of separation or isolation,” says Eliot Cowan, the author of Plant Spirit Medicine (Granite Publishing). If it takes a village to keep us healthy, rituals are what bring the village together.
Ultimately, the power of rituals comes from addressing what is beyond the sum of our symptoms. “All illness expresses an imbalance, and the purpose of all ritual is to re-establish balance,” says Cowen. When our energies are not in balance, symptoms—physical or emotional— emerge and can become signs of deeper, underlying issues. Rituals provide a unique opportunity to symbolically let go of past baggage— and begin healing, says Borysenko.
Although there is an element of surrender in rituals, there is also a sense of empowerment—a feeling that you are the one in charge of your own destiny. According to several studies, that sense of control can contribute to a faster recovery. Through rituals, you can reclaim your inner healer or warrior. This may be why people often describe their struggle to get well as a fight. As Joines says, “I felt that the only way I could heal was to think of it as a battle that I had to win. I had to get aggressive and act like a warrior.”
It is under this influence of ritual that people begin to think positively about their health— to visualize healing and eschew negative talk. All of these things can enhance our physical health, or at least strengthen our resilience in the face of difficulty. Joines found that sometimes the only thing she could do was quiet the troubling voices of doubt, anger and worry. “Ritual helped me streamline my mind and navigate what I could not control,” she says.