For those of you who are reading my blog for the first time I want to assure you that there are very good reasons that I say the things that I do here, so if at first you are offended…read on, and you might find that I make good points. For those of you who are long time readers and fans of my blog, this one is going be fun.
As you all know, I am not a traditionalist in the modern sense of the word. Now, that is not to say that I do not value certain traditions. There are age-old ways of doing certain things, especially during rituals and ceremonies, that definitely have good reason, purpose and value. When it comes to other, less important things, such as having lasagna for Christmas dinner instead of turkey…I really don’t care because, let’s face it, food is food and we need not stress over what kind of food it is as long as we have it in our bellies.
So this brings us to…is it a truth…or a habit? Certainly with things like Christmas dinner, there are many things that are just habitual that then become thought of as “tradition.” When you get to know a wider range of families you will discover that some “traditions” vary from family to family. Some families serve stuffing with the turkey, others not, some serve gravy, others not, some serve cranberry sauce and others not, some serve baked turnip and others (thankfully) not. But for each of the families in question many will swear that this is the tradition….meaning actually that it is how it has been done for however many generations…not because it has importance in terms of a spiritual meaning, but because it has simply “always been done that way.” That does not a tradition make, I am sorry to say. That is what is called habit…on a grand multi-generational level. I remember my (then) mother-in-law stressing over Christmas dinner year after year and wanting it all to be absolutely perfect, to the point where she became quite miserable to be around on the day. When my wife (then) and I suggested that we switch things up to make it easier on her, she almost lost her mind. She was unwilling to let go of the control that she felt she had. She was not willing to allow us to host Christmas dinner, and she was not willing to entertain a different kind of Christmas dinner. We finally got her to agree to allow different family members to prepare different parts of the meal and bring it to the table. So an aunt would do something that I had not, until meeting this family, ever heard of called Tomato Aspic. For those of you who do not know…this is yet another white person’s version of a Jello salad. Another aunt would bring the buns…fresh baked or bought did not matter. We would bring the mashed potatoes and sometimes the baked carrots as well. This left just the turkey, stuffing, whatever other vegetable was desired, and a desert for the mother-in-law to do. The first Christmas that this was done, she was noticeably more relaxed. The more she relinquished responsibility for certain things, the more relaxed she became. Eventually the desert became just a plate of dainties that folks could pick and choose from. Things kept getting easier and easier. I know she was running herself ragged initially on some deep seated program about Christmas dinner…one that most people were unable to put a finger on. But once options were laid out she could then choose from a menu of possibilities and things got smoother. Eventually she did allow my wife and I to host Christmas dinner and it was her turn to bring just one or possibly two dishes. It became much more enjoyable. The fact that something has just always been done a certain way does not make it a tradition.
So what is a tradition anyway? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, A tradition is 1. the passing on of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. 2. a long-established custom or belief passed on in this way 3. a method or style established by an artist, writer, or movement, and followed by others. According to this same dictionary, a custom is a traditional way of behaving or doing something. It sounds like the writer or writers of this particular dictionary are just substituting one word (tradition) for another word (custom) in order to describe both of them. This creates a circular philosophy, and those are only meant to keep people in the same old rut for as long as possible…in this case for generations.
I would like to provide a bit of a deeper definition…from life experience. So here we go. For me, a tradition holds within it a deep connection to a spiritual idea/meaning. A custom has to do with how a culture or a society develops in terms of interactions with one another. So, for example, greeting someone in a friendly, open hearted way can be considered a tradition because it provides a deeper spiritual meaning to the encounter. Shaking that person’s hand is a custom that is acceptable in our society upon greeting someone, for the first time or habitually upon every encounter (at least it was before a pandemic blew up our world).
When we look at the deeper meanings of actual traditions, we will find that the ones that are not just customs (which change a lot over time) have purpose in terms of connecting us to our deep, innermost spiritual connectedness…to the earth, to ourselves, and to one another. An actual tradition is something that is not for show (such as many of the “traditions” that are simply customs at, say, a wedding ceremony). It is something that is meant to acknowledge and support meaningful transitions through birth, life and death. Those never change. Customs, however, change all the time.
When I say that I am not a traditionalist, I am referring to what many think of as tradition which is actually only custom. When it comes to the actual traditions, I hold those near and dear to my heart. But even so, I am well aware that how those traditions are enacted can and do change over time, and so they should because if they don’t they get lost.
For example, I have been lectured to by folks that are, frankly, infantile in their spirituality, about how one should always use a feather to smudge with sage, sweet grass, incense and so on, because, “to do otherwise is an insult to Spirit.” Sorry, I call bullshit on that. The tradition is that we do need to smudge. How we do it can indeed shift and change without losing the meaning behind the tradition. We can use a feather, we can use a hand held fan, we can even blow gently upon the herb to make it smoke, using our own breath itself as the fan. None of that has anything to do with Spirit accepting or taking offence at how something was done. Spirit is not as fickle as that. Humans are. And if we have no feather, then what? We just don’t smudge? Total silliness.
Did you know that when we make a toast and clink our glasses, the sound of the clinking is supposed to signal to Spirit our intent? But…what if we don’t clink them? What if we are using plastic party glasses like you see at most modern weddings? Does this mean that Spirit did not hear our call and therefore does not bless the intent? NO. Again, humans like to project their ridiculous limitations onto spirit on a daily basis. This is just one of many ways in which that is done.
So wherein lies the truth? Well, if we allow ourselves to just THINK about something, we may be able to come to some reasonable conclusions. Traditions are to bring us closer to ourselves. So that means that anything that we do that is intended for that purpose will do that, and that each person may have different things that do that for them, regardless of customs and culture. A tradition is not something that needs to be wrapped up in sentiment or nostalgia. Neither of those serve us well because they only trap us into what always was instead of enhancing what is. Sentiment and nostalgia have us do the same old things over and over for the sake of doing the same old things over and over, regardless of meaning or depth.
Traditions are also meant to bring us closer to Spirit, so we can have a vast array of activities that can serve that purpose for us. It does not always have to look like sitting in a lotus position while chanting “Om,” or kneeling in a church and praying. Those are fine for some, but not for others. The trick is to find what truly works for YOU and let others do the same, without judgement. Don’t be aghast at the fact that someone blows across the smudge smoke to keep it burning because there is no feather in sight, or at the fact that some find sacred sex to be more fulfilling than sitting in a church pew on a Sunday morning. It can all work. Our habits need not dictate what our truths are. Indeed, it works best the other way around. Our truths inspire and infuse our habits when we are truly on a traditional path that is meaningful for us. Each individual gets to choose what those traditions are, based upon how it feeds our soul and not upon demand of others upon us. That is when tradition will best serve our needs; when it feeds our soul. That will be our truth.