Hybrid Rituals, Part 1

Letting Go in Virtual and Physical Worlds

Tom Nickel
7 min readJun 15, 2023
Hybrid Ritual: Image by Dezgo

I see rituals as behavioral medicine. Rituals are active. They involve doing something, not just thinking about it or wishing for something to be different than the way it is.

Humans have used ritual to help with life’s challenges for hundreds of thousands of years, even before what we now call Homo Sapiens emerged. Recent findings indicate that Homo Nalendi, a much smaller-brained precursor to our species not only buried their dead in special pits within caves — but they marked those cave walls with symbols and geometric patterns that show clear recorded meaning by whoever produced them.

Efforts to respect death and manage our response to it may be the origin of ritual, but it is far from the end. Rituals have been developed over countless generations to help cope with all natural forces.

Taking Care of Ourselves

I am especially interested in the use of ritual to help support the most intimate natural force of all — ourselves.

How can we handle the overwhelming grief we can feel inside ourselves at the death of someone we love? How can we process the trauma that can be inflicted on us by others, enabling us to move beyond the experience?

When we feel stuck, how can we get un-stuck?

Psychiatry, the modern science of the human mind, is full of diagnostic indicators linked to prescriptive actions that purport to help people gain relief from mental states like anxiety, sadness, or depression. Sometimes they are effective, depending on the criteria used for measuring outcomes.

Sometimes psychiatric remedies are not effective. Sometimes they do nothing and sometimes they serve to mask symptoms without addressing deeper causes.

In the case of depression, it had been assumed in psychiatry that a chemical imbalance involving a deficit in the neurotransmitter Serotonin caused the problem. However recent, more carefully controlled research shows that most of the benefit of drugs to rebalance Serotonin (SSRIs) is largely due to the placebo effect.

This finding is disappointing to psychiatrists and others looking for an ‘objective,’ scientific treatment for depression.

Others, including me, look at the new-found power of placebo as liberating. It shows that we are largely responsible for curing ourselves.

Ritual and Placebo

When we use ritual to help us, what is actually helping us? The ritual, or the power we project onto the ritual? This is obviously a trick question, because the ritual is inseparable from the power we give it.

How do we come to invest power outside ourselves onto some ritualistic set of behaviors? Does it emerge out of noticing patterns, or out of doing what worked for someone else, or from religious beliefs? It can emerge from all these sources and from many others.

Some people do not want to believe that their mental involvement is part of the remedy. They want all the power to be in the ritual, or the SSRI antidepressant, or the declarations of a spiritual guide. Maybe this is because if we are seen as able to cure ourselves, then we might be responsible for making the whole problem up in the first place.

How mental states we see as negative take root is complicated. We probably do have some role, but there are other forces involved as well. We may be central or peripheral, but knowing that doesn’t diminish the suffering.

What led to a particular mental state is not necessarily what can lead us through and beyond that state. It may be useful to analyze the situation so that greater understanding can leverage a change of state — this was and still is the hope and promise of psychoanalysis.

In the post-Freudian, post-modern view of mental states, focusing on the problems of the past might simply keep us stuck in those problems.

The Appreciative Approach

Appreciation doesn’t mean liking something. It means recognizing it’s true value, (from late Latin appretiatio, which refers to appraising and setting the correct price).

To appreciate the placebo effect and its power to free us from all kinds of suffering is to assign significant value to our own innate capabilities.

But still, there is something that feels mysterious about healing ourselves. If we want to be relieved of depression or grief or anxiety, why can’t we just say, “Go Away!” and be done with it?

I don’t know.

I’ve certainly tried that simple exhortation more than once to solve my own internal problems and it almost never works. On the other hand, I was able to quit smoking cigarettes, after failing to do so through my will power alone. I enlisted the help of a form of ritual. several forms, actually. I still regard it as one of the most difficult and also one of the most liberating things I have ever done. but I didn’t do it alone. It took a group and then a set of behaviors I continued for months until I was sure I would never smoke a cigarette again, (I haven’t).

Looking back, I appreciated my own strengths but I also was forced to appreciate how others could help me and how specific behaviors that I adhered to helped me as well.

Personal Rituals

There are off-the-shelf rituals for helping us with almost anything. These may be effective for many people, but other people may find difficulty letting their own power flow into those ready-to-use routines, which often have a one-size-fits-all aspect to them.

It may help us to supercharge a ritual if we ourselves are involved in creating it. But this does not mean it’s all up to us. Just as a group helped me quit cigarettes, a group can help anyone devise a set of ritual behaviors for personal use. In addition, since relatively few people are trained in ritual here in the 2020s, those who are, or those who have educated themselves on the topic, may also be able to help create individualized rituals for someone else.

If we ourselves are part of creating rituals to help us, doesn’t that take the magic out of it? Doesn’t it make the whole thing about us, from start to finish? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think it matters.

The most astonishing finding about placebo is that they work even when we know they are a placebo. This does not mean the process is all DIY, though, because it is still, for example, a doctor wearing doctor’s clothes and sounding like a medical professional who says, ‘this pill is a placebo, a sugar pill.’ It is the situation as a whole that helps create the power, not just the sugar pill.

Appreciating our own role as well as the role of every aspect of the creation and use of ritual opens the door for a new era in self-care. We don’t have to rely on a shaman or a doctor or a priest to bestow a ritual on us. We can do it socially.

Virtual Rituals

The term ‘virtual,’ has come to mean anything that is not physically present. Zoom meetings are often referred to as ‘virtual.’

When rituals first began to be practiced over the Internet, they were de-valued because the online space was not seen as sufficiently sacred or real or authentic.

Now, several decades into the Internet era, this opinion is changing. Instead of seeing online life as unreal or inauthentic, some scholars and many practitioners are questioning the rigid distinction between online and physical worlds. Relationships formed on the Internet, for instance, can become deep and meaningful. There is no reason to see them as ‘unreal.’

In no realm is this more true than in what is called, ‘Virtual Reality,’ a term which can refer to anything from 3D games on a tablet to immersive environments experienced in a headset.

What is common to all Virtual Reality is the spatial dimension. Most media, like books and pictures and videos are two-dimensional. All VR is 3D. Children and adults play 3D games on their tablets or mobile devices in a space. They move around in that space, usually represented by an avatar, a version of themselves existing in the space.

Inside a VR headset, our senses are convinced that we are in the space the headset suggests we are in. Some VR applications enable multiple people to feel like they are in the same space at the same time, no matter where their physical bodies may be. These ‘social VR’ environments are quite new and not well-researched. But that has not stopped early adopters and practitioners from exploring 3D virtual worlds as a place for healing.

I am one of those early adopting practitioners. I am not a medical professional or a clinician. I am a Host. I have become skilled in the art of using my language abilities and my personality to create a safe atmosphere for others to express and reveal themselves.

Since early 2020, I have hosted regular weekly sessions in VR focused on helping people speak about the losses they have experienced or their anxieties about death. These sessions are mostly about talking.

Ritual is next layer I intend to add to the sessions I host or co-host. While the rituals that we construct socially in VR will then be acted out in VR, they will not be limited to VR.

What I mean by, ‘hybrid rituals,’ is that they are meant to be used in any of the realms we inhabit.

I see the distinction between virtual and physical worlds as real and meaningful, but not absolute. They both affect us and we carry the ever changing self back and forth between them. Our lives can cross the artificial barrier seamlessly. One is no more real than the other.

[Cont’d in Part Two]

Image by David Denton

Tom writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about. He maintains a daily practice of meditation and serves as a Session Leader for Tripp.

He holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos