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Rituals for Hopeless Cases: Moving beyond the privilege of healing


She’s looking at herself in the bathroom mirror of a motel on Van Buren and 24th. Her friend is staying next door. It’s early and the sun creeps between the ripped curtains and missing blinds. A man is in the bed, another on the sofa. She hid a bottle last night and pulls it out from the pack she carried through various parts of town. Her hands are dry. Her mouth cracks. There is no water and the fan makes annoying sounds. Her head has hurt for two weeks. A few pills line her jean pocket. Lovers speak in muffled sighs and sentences she cannot fully make out. She can no longer look into her eyes, only at her hair, an eyebrow, the curve of her shoulder. The wrinkles are showing up in every inch of skin, a world map of miles she never intended to travel. There’s never enough time, yet all she has is time. Limitless time. Time like a knife killing minutes. She’s stopped wondering what happened. Now all she must do is move. There’s a word from the bed. She knows it’s time to go again.


As a former social worker and addictive type, I struggle to find meaning in certain aspects of modern recovery, psychology and spiritual movements that center around making the “derelict” a “normal person”. There exist two creatures of spiritual and psychological wellness: one roams the land of modernity – gracing those who have enough with more, or comforting small annoyances in a culture of anxiety and complexity, while attempting to normalize the “ill”. The other paints its face the color of trees and canyons and listens closely to the dying breath of a beggar. It doesn’t ask for formality or intellectual discourse on rites and passages; it lives in the breath of the world. It is the accepting, dreaming and innate aspect of being alive – the intrinsic will to live and belong.

I do not intend to malign the mental health system or the pursuit of knowledge relating to modern medicine, psychiatric care or spirituality. I believe meaning is a necessary component of a healthy life. Private ritual gives us pause and unites us with our deeper selves, our intentions and fantasies that ultimately form our actions. Social cues also serve as a foundation of community, sometimes strengthening the bond between the unique talent and offerings of the individual in relation to the function of communal life. By ritual, I use the definition of “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time…”. We are creatures of habit and our small habits create a sense of well being and stasis, control over an otherwise uncontrollable world. Ritual assumes a sense of place, if not a home. Ritual assumes an identity in culture, in family and in the landscape.

This construct of ritual therefore seems to be unachievable in the lives of the homeless and mentally ill. What ritual can take root when you are hungry, cold and without shelter? How do you find the time for a grander scheme of meaning and contemplative reverence when survival is your sole pursuit?

Unlike organized religion, which has historically abused its privilege to catechize the desperate, downtrodden and oppressed, personal spiritual expression and ritual have remained relatively absent when treating the individual in times of trauma and crisis.
Matters of belief in one’s meaning and whether or not there is an elemental wisdom that guides us to our cosmic purpose have reverted to mere luxury among the comfortable. Buddhism, Taoism and Goddess cultures have become trends of the anxious mainstream seeking ways to redeem themselves of a life devoid of cultural identity. Clearly, and especially within the past few decades, there has been a consistent dialog on matters of spirit and science and how to reconcile logic and reason with wonder and hope. Hope remains elusive these days despite most people in the United States agreeing with some kind of God concept or Christian identity, with hundreds of thousands spent on retreats, books, private sessions and workshops. It’s as though we are walking the line between what faith would have us do versus what modern seductions drive us to achieve – and ignoring the clash of these two identities: a moral person vs. a successful person. I believe this quandary has produced a hybridization of religions and spiritual paths, a sort of a la carte spirituality where we can carry on with our drive for consumption, possession and self-interests while assuming a spirituality not our own (Native American, indigenous, Eastern, old European, etc.) in order to feel redeemed of our otherwise comfortable lives. I believe the same disparity exists in modern psychology and social work and why classism continues to guide spirituality, choice and self-expression.

Among those churches and denominations that have been most successful in addressing social issues relating to homelessness and poverty, the United Church of Christ has been instrumental in viewing the homeless or underserved individual in a holistic light, encouraging not only access to food and shelter but also deepening the discussion of self-understanding, a meaningful life, a purpose and dignity. Certain branches of Catholicism – such as the Dominican Order – are deeply rooted in the social justice movement of the 1960’s and onward, and have been active in feeding the body and spirit, while taking an iconoclastic frontline approach to global human rights efforts. Still, the basis of the outreach remains illuminating the teachings of their Christ.

Unfortunately, spirituality as expressed in nature or self hasn’t found its way to our urban streets with quite the same vigor. Its “live and let live” approach and lack of evangelical dominion has resulted in Christianity dominating social work in the streets, in homeless shelters, in food banks and across the map of recovery services. Ironically, paganism, earth worship and “witch”craft were once the very domain of the commoner, those who lived among the branches and streams, where intuition, magic and kitchen table healing were pinnacle to the health of the community. Almost every culture – at some point throughout history – relied upon its local healers who used plant medicine, rudimentary psychology, symbolism and guidance to alleviate the despair felt in times of migration, extreme inequity, warfare and disease. And, the practice of symbolic spirituality continues among more remote communities and indigenous cultures. (Symbolic being my own definition – reality is the perception of the perceiver.)


“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. ― May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

Perhaps spirituality and belief come to us when we are either anxious in our comforts or lost in our perils? Questions arise when we are on that tipping point where the wolf hours stalk us and ravage our existence. Spirituality wants us in our complete wake – when we know no other place to turn, when logic has failed us and there is no apology or explanation that appeases the people who love or once loved us. Yet, it comes when there is still a flicker of hope left.

Rituals for the mentally ill, for the lost, require reaching into the most profound of places, the layers that have less to do with social acceptance and more to do with the hymns of transcendence. Working with ritual and those on the verge of external and internal atrophy start with the simple spells of food and shelter. This work requires an almost existential approach – a bird will come to anyone’s fountain and not ask questions. In other words, a spirituality of hopelessness must be borne of non-judgment or constraints of normality. It must arise from seeing only the struggle of another life and honoring that which is holy in everything.

This is no work for the weak or opinionated. This is no work for those with an agenda from state, church or otherwise. I believe this healing work often comes from those who have seen sorrow yet have no desire to change the course of anyone’s path. It is not only acceptance but also empowerment. It allows the individual to shape his or her thoughts, dreams and interpretations.

When working with those who are facing crises related to basic needs, there are ways we can encourage a meaningful life by honoring the experiences of the survivor. Here are some examples of experience-honoring approaches to working with survivors of classism, racism and other forms of oppression, as well as those who have experienced the disease of addiction, homelessness and trauma.

1.    Place is a significant factor to developing identity

Rather than trying to move the individual away from his or her background, this is an opportunity to affirm tradition and roots. Individuals who have lived in traumatic situations or who perhaps had to participate in illegal activities in order to survive often have their shame or self-aversion reinforced by social workers, healers and institutions. Ritual can be any form of art or personal expression that affirms the strength that was relied upon – finding the “good” or positive memories amongst the realness and truth. An example of forming ritual encouraging place includes a small altar devoted to origin, landscape, family and one’s past that can be created in place that is seen every day. This should include those experiences that are often viewed as “dark” or taboo, with the eventual goal being the removal of shame and secrets, while reinforcing pathways to identity and worth.

2.    Self-expression and body safety are paramount to healing

Healing and recovery models rely upon language and definitions that often ostracize those who come from cultures, families of origin and classes that are not represented in modern medicine and mental health. Trying to adapt to foreign concepts of wellness, language and the body can further entrench distrust, shame and fear. Rituals for expression can be used, in this sense, to provide room for the individual to communicate his or her needs and beliefs around self-care, boundaries and communication preferences. Rituals that are helpful include morning or evening yoga nidra (a form of meditative yoga often used to treat PTSD), nature exploration or empowering forms of martial arts or meditation.

3.    Placing focus on gifts rather than on barriers

Much of the language used to describe those who seek social services is rife with negative language and descriptors, focusing on the problems to overcome rather than on the unique talents and history of each person being served. Because, as behavioral health and medical practitioners, we rely heavily upon diagnosis and treatment, we look for qualifying sets of characteristics that apply and broadly lump people into assigned illnesses and their corresponding treatments. In the quest to stabilize, the needs of the person are often negated in favor of a streamlined system of care. Rituals that can be used are daily affirmations based on skills, wisdom and gifts. Unfortunately, most vocational training assumes a classist approach to limited job opportunities – favoring the most rudimentary of jobs in backrooms, kitchens and warehouses. A ritual of empowerment could include practice as ritual – in other words, encouraging the individual to explore their potential through daily practice or research in areas of interest but perhaps not skill.

4.    Encouraging social justice and peer communities

Peer to peer recovery models are gaining in popularity, recognizing that the person who has been in similar situations oftentimes has more insight and empathy and can provide a living example of transcendence or transformation of experience. However, most peer to peer or navigator roles follow traditional recovery and mental health models that encourage social order and limited aspirations. Ritual, in this sense, can be found in healing circles and fellowships rather than in group therapy or traditional 12 step groups. Through weekly sharing, peers can recognize their role in what they’ve survived as well as ways to organize around social, environmental, mental health and other forms of activism.

5.    Offering real choice in therapies and treatments

Lastly, many institutions and nonprofits rely upon federal and state funding which dictates the type, duration and method of treatment. Rarely, are there opportunities for alternative or traditional forms of healing. Examples of this include herbalism, sessions with traditional healers, wilderness therapy, body or energy work, storytelling, naturopathy and so forth. Through the use of ritualized self-care and a control over treatment options, the individual can be allowed to explore tradition and belief systems that resonate most with him or her, and therefore use the tools most influential to the person’s concepts of healing and wellness.

We all live with everyday rituals that support our sense of self, our identity, our feelings of safety and belonging. Rituals can be high art or mundane. Sacred or profane. The experience and value of ritual need to be as important to those who have faced extreme poverty, violence or homelessness. While not everyone faces dirty motel rooms, urban streets or places society shuns, they are valid experiences, mirroring a place of confusion that is shared – at one time or another – by all.  If we are to move beyond despotic, prescribed social work, recovery and belief, the inherent truth of the individual needs to be the guide not the follower.

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Aleah Sato is a woodswoman, a poet and a desert wanderer who practices Gaia love every day. An eclectic pagan of no particular path, she seeks to find meaning in the sacred earth and its wild creatures. A lover of symbolism, oracles and omens, she aspires to find answers in the small and deep meaning in the ordinary. Her totem is the elusive yet ever-curious fox.


  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Hi, I like your piece a lot. There are many commonalities I share with it, but here are two.

    1) My work as a shamanic guide helps people come home to their spiritual center. Having experienced homelessness (thirty years ago, when blindsided by a tragedy), I remain aware that my ritual work is a joke if I'm not willing to always consider the more concrete realities regarding homes.

    2) I often comment on spiritual premises, including some in the pagan community, that serve as justification for selfishness.

    (It is notable that such excuses are often built into oversimplified belief systems.)

    A bit of history re twelve step programs: Some twelve groups still offer help that is peer oriented, compassionate, and realistic in their understanding of marginalized individuals. Those are premises on which the movement was founded. Nowadays that happens less, because the twelve step movement as a whole is decades away from its initial essence.

    I do not give a one-size-fits-all advice to every addicted client I work with. I channel my sessions. But, occasionally, the channeled material suggests a client go to a twelve step program, so that they can find a group that offer the old style help. The 12 step paradigm can be effective when all else fails. I hope this information is useful to you.

    Thanks again for your astute words.

  • Aleah Sato
    Aleah Sato Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Thank you for your comment and for the work you do. It seems we are coming from similar perspectives and approaches, although perhaps using different skills and talents.

    My comment about 12 step groups was less of a criticism of what they offer, but more of a commentary on the limited choices given to those seeking social services. I know AA/NA is oftentimes the only suggestion made to recovering addicts, even if the approach and philosophy doesn't appeal to the individual (and this could be for numerous reasons, including culture, tradition, gender, etc..).

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Ah, I see, thank you for correcting my intial impression. Yes, giving addicts only one option is stupid if not abusive.

    As to your comment that we perhaps use different tool and skills to addres the issues that concern us in community, I am sure you are right, though I do not know the particulars of your work, so I do not know how we differ. But I do know it is vital that everyone find their own unique approach to problem solving and, since your blog supports that, I assume you have yr own wonderful approach.

    The necessity of individualized approaches is why part of my approach has been decades developing ritual curriculums that, LOL, help folks find their own approach. For many of my students that entails their creating their own ritual style, but equally important to me is how the curriculums impact their unique *mundane* approach. Example: one of my initiates developed paradigms for after-school programs; her innovations are now a national model; I consider it my privilege to know her.

    Bless you for your work. Onward in the good fit, eh?

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Lol, that was supposed to read onward in the good fight, not good fit! :-)

  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Ms. Sato,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I've not seen the things you've seen, nor is my life probably very much like yours.

    But I admire you for using your talents to help those who need it.

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