Living and traveling abroad has opened my eyes to the many different ways people celebrate life and honour their culture through tradition and ritual. Here in Mexico, there is an understanding that the strength of the mind and the body are directly related to the spiritual wellbeing of an individual, and the ways in which this is represented are heavily connected to faith and the belief in spirit of some kind.
One of the best examples of this is Dia de los Muertos. The tradition, which has origins dating back to the Aztecs, is a three-day event at the beginning of November. Though there are various religious principles intertwined, the primary focus of the holiday is a sort of celebration of your deceased loved ones, not only to honour them and encourage their return but in hopes that they will bless you and your family over the coming year.
When I think about this unique celebration and the way it brings joy and happiness to a subject matter that is more commonly seen as dark and depressing, it makes me wonder about the different ways ritual can transform an experience and create an alternate purpose when processing unfortunate events.
In Sayulita, preparations for Dia de los Muertos begin several days in advance. Walking through the plaza you can see marigolds, sand, and multicolored beans placed off to the side, ready to be turned into pieces of artwork on nearby ofrendas. The flags that are regularly strung across the streets are replaced and create an even denser canopy of colors. Many of the storefronts display their own personal altars, and Halloween costumes are seen beside painted faces made to look like the skeletons that have become the poster child of this party.
Being a beach town, it is common to find families swimming under the orange skies of the setting sun before making their way to the cemetery to participate in the annual ritual and preparations. Even there, a place that would commonly be seen as somber and macabre, people take the time to clean and decorate their relative’s graves, leaving candles, flowers and other symbols of respect alongside items that were loved by those who have passed.
This ritual, displayed in a grand fashion on November first and second, is often played out regularly in the private homes of Mexican families. On any given day, you might find a small altar with the photo of a parent, grandparent, or child who has passed. There are usually candles, some depicting certain saints, and often some kind of food, drink or toy, along with herbs and a prayer.
In many cases, the connection to spirit is often intertwined with a connection to self. Practicing daily rituals that remind you of this might be calming and produce effects similar to meditation, which has been shown to improve our stress levels, our energy, and our creative thinking. There is even a level of physical renewal that can take place at a cellular level. A ritual can really be anything that helps you reach a certain mindset, and is often done in a routine like manner, sometimes in preparation for something.
When it comes to other rituals associated with loss or death, they can range from something very common like playing a song to the Hindu ritual which involves removal of hair during mourning. In an experiment done by Scientific American, they asked people to write about the death of a loved one or the end of an important relationship. The study found that those who reported engaging in some sort of ritual also reported feeling less loss in comparison to the participants who solely wrote about the loss.
Whether your ritual is a morning cup of coffee in silence, midday meditation, or writing about what you are grateful for each evening, these practices can have a positive benefit on your health and help heal both mental and physical wounds.