The Power of Ritual, featured in MindBodyGreen
Perhaps the single most important activity that kept my mother alive for 15 years, namely the 15 years that all the doctors presumed she would not live after she was diagnosed with stage 4C ovarian cancer, was walking.
It may sound trite, but walking was her secret weapon, her daily medicine, and her own improvised religion.
With it came a temple (the small mountain she climbed each day), a set of rites (a song she sung combining positive affirmations from her favorite authors, followed by meditation and reading at the summit), and a hallowed set of clothes and talismen that accompanied her on the journey (a walking stick, a leather belt for strapping things to, a headscarf or large brim hat, a white blouse and flowing skirt to protect her sensitive skin from the sun but also conjure up her days as a farm girl, and a spiritual text to extract a message from).
The clothing in particular confounded me. As a teenager, I would get impatient with her insistence on dressing in a somewhat flamboyant, almost theatrical way for each walk, and then for every other time of the day. But over time, I came to understand that this process of beautification and adornment was not a vanity project but rather part of her creative healing process. It was a form of magic and transformation, working itself from the outside in.
Later, when I went to college and studied Tibetan Buddhism, I likened her practices to the creative visualization of the Tantric tradition—where you imagine yourself to be a deity, and in so doing pave the pathway for actual transformation. My mother was enacting and imposing an alternative vision of her health and her body, one that rejected the image of illness and death and insisted on strength and vitality. Her clothing, makeup, and props, in combination with her fierce willpower and mindset, were the tools that enacted the magic. And it worked. She defied all statistics and prognoses and lived for more than a decade longer.
My mother's approach to her healing and life in general was no doubt nurtured during her childhood growing up on a farm in South Africa. Her first language was Sotho and she spent a large part of her early years amid the mud huts of the tribe that lived on her farm, exposed to their indigenous ways of life—rich in creativity, ritual, and its accompanying objects, articles of dress, and ceremonies.
Years later, when she entered a period of remission, she began drafting an idea for a clothing company, informed by her unique childhood and cancer experience but created for our global, connected future. She called it "protective fashion" and the slogan was "protect and adorn." The key idea was that the clothing would protect the body from the challenges we face in our 21st-century global cities—germs, EMFs, weather extremes, increased mobility—but that adornment was equally crucial. Adornment was a part of the protection and healing. They went hand in hand.
My mother wasn't in a position with her health to launch and run the company, so I took it on. I called it ARJUNA.AG, the Sanskrit word, plus the chemical symbol, for the key ingredient in the clothing—silver. Silver was the starting point and cornerstone of the project because it possessed a unique combination of protective benefits as well as beauty and symbolic power.
The metal of the moon, silver represents feminine principles of listening, receiving, silence, and space—which had become increasingly compelling to me in our fast-paced, growth-obsessed society. Historically, it is a metal used for containment and protection, communication and exchange, healing and transformation. Thus, the material and the products were not only intended to provide functional support for the body but, moreover, to invoke these principles and inspire a more intentional, reverent approach to our bodies and lives.
When my mother moved to the East Coast and restarted cancer treatment, her new uniform for the New York subway and streets became the ARJUNA.AG Hoodie and Cuffs. She would slip on the clothing knowing that it protected her from the germs and e-pollution her immune system couldn't risk, but moreover because it instilled in her a sense of peaceful warriorship, imbued with courage and calm. Material objects only do so much. In the end, they are merely aids to the far more powerful tools of our thoughts and actions. And, yet, throughout the years, what we wear and carry with us has served as vehicles, reminders, and catalysts for those crucial things.