A tradition or custom is a cultural snapshot, a time capsule. They have several important functions in our lives. See how you can use them to make life more meaningful.
Purpose of Tradition
Traditions or customs are practices that communicate a message. These are markers and time capsules of information. Many of the best-known customs started as a story or an oral tradition. It wasn’t until forms of written language became a part of a culture that it documented them. Many ancient stories, customs and rituals existed for eons in the oral tradition long before being documented.
Many of these customs contain both obvious or surface meaning and intrinsic or hidden knowledge. The intent, content, and context are all important elements. There are several kinds of tradition including personal, family, community, society, cultural, spiritual and religious.
The purpose of tradition is to provide several important functions in our lives;
- Safeguard and preserve
- Create connection and continuity
- Important reminders
Sometimes we create customs out of routine. Routines are habitual behaviors, and so customs can become invisible. Customs or routines have a range of importance. When we are mindful of our thoughts and behaviors, then we are more likely to recognize them.
Exploratory Exercise Part One
Sit down for a minute and write a list of important routines and customs. Once you start, you’ll find you have more than you realize. For instance, taking part in a religious service on Saturday or Sunday is a custom. It is a pattern of behavior that the dominant culture supports.
Keep this list in your spiritual journal. If you don’t have one, then use this list to get you started. If you don’t know what a spiritual journal is, then follow the link and get started. This is an inexpensive and valuable tool for any level of spiritual explorer.
For example, let’s say it is a personal and family tradition to meet every week for breakfast after you go to a religious service. See that’s easy.
Safeguard and Preserve
The first purpose of tradition or custom is to safeguard the message. The word tradition comes from the Latin tradere that means to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping. Customs are a way to protect the integrity of knowledge. It’s a way of ensuring the original intent and meaning. To do this you incorporate symbols, stories, and rituals.
Many systems encode their most important knowledge into rituals, stories, and symbols. Customs can also be a way of coding several levels of understanding in one vehicle. Almost every religious symbol in use today has several layers of meaning. This is because all the major religions borrow their traditions, customs, stories, rituals, and symbols from earlier systems. The earlier systems are the ones who originated the intrinsic meaning.
The older the tradition of the symbolism, the more historical authority and ritualistic power the symbol has. Then, the new religion adds layers of understanding up to the public version. Only those in the most trusted levels learn about the hidden meaning. There are those who believe that the knowledge of Hermetics is hiding in this way.
All the forms of seated and moving meditation are processes that come to us because of being safeguarded for centuries. All mantras and sutras in Indian systems of meditation began as oral traditions. The Vedas date from 1000 to 1500 BCE. So, the formulas of the mantras and sutras are among the oldest historical records of this kind.
Create Connection and Continuity
Another main purpose of tradition is to create social connection and continuity. The way a family celebrates a holiday is a good example. If you celebrate Christmas in a certain way, then you pass this custom along to your children. This is a ritual that creates family continuity and identity.
We see this in many cultures. In some parts of Europe, Krampus is as much a part of the Christmas celebration as Santa Claus. Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as half-goat, half-demon. During the Christmas season, he punishes children who have misbehaved. This contrasts with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts.
When the whole community uses Krampus as a focal point it brings people together, it creates social continuity.
Simple functions also create continuity. Gathering on a specific day or time for a family meal is a way of creating a community. People also create community when they have the same traumatic experience. Survivors of plane crashes, wars or even abuse bond because of the event.
The last of the main purpose of tradition is as a reminder. Today we have smartphones and automatic calendars. In times past tradition served as calendar reminders. Many cultures use the cycles of the moon as a source of reminders that help them get ready for planting, harvesting, hunting, and fishing.
The cycles of the Sun and planets became another way to keep track of the major events like the solstices and equinox. Our birthday is one of the important reminders that many cultures celebrate. The dominant religious cultural narratives use this strategy to remind their acolytes when it is time to perform rituals in service to the religion.
For example, The Adhan is the call to prayer, which they play on a loudspeaker in Islamic communities. They say or play this five times a day from a minaret or tall tower, summoning Muslims for obligatory prayer. It’s a reminder that you need to pray. They regard those who pray publically as more devout and thus increase their social standing.
Cultural Snapshot or Time Capsule
A historical custom is a picture taken in the past. It captures the intent of the custom. What one needs to do is to determine the elements of the custom. You break down the custom into the elements of a story, a ritual, and its symbols. Then, we can derive the purpose and intent of custom. We can do this with the two examples above, the call to prayer in Islam and the story of Krampus.
Learning how to take a cultural snapshot is a matter of focusing on one aspect of the custom. Break it down by parts. Then research each of the parts. If you are researching a story, break down the parts of the story into its significant parts. Then search for those same elements in other stories. You’ll be surprised by what you find. The same with symbols or rituals. You will find tradition acts as a time capsule. All you need to do is open it up.
Exploratory Exercise Part Two
We hope you created a list of your own traditions and customs. If not, please take the time to do so. Then, in this second part, break down your customs into the main parts. If you are like most people, you will begin to see a pattern forming.
Many people find that they have the same type of elements showing up in personal, family, cultural and societal customs. Hold onto your list for a while. We’ll take another look at it in a moment.
Remember our example in part one? We meet weekly as a personal and family tradition to eat breakfast after you go to a religious service. So, break it down to personal and family tradition. Weekly meeting. After a religious service.
When I think about it, I realize not everyone goes to the religious service, but everyone comes for breakfast. So, the breakfast meeting is more important to most of the family.
Intent and Purpose
We can determine the intent and purpose with the two examples above, the call to pray five times a day and the story of Krampus.
The story of Krampus and Santa Claus is the contrast between the good children getting rewards and the disobedient getting punishment. It’s a clear message that those who disobey will receive punishment. In the custom, it beats bad children with reeds and carries them away in a basket.
The call to prayer in Islam is a way of demanding obedience. It tells people when and how to pray. If you can control when and how someone does something, then you can also program thinking and values. So, both the call to prayer and Krampus are similar. They are ways to make people obey.
The cultural snapshot of these two different customs shows how religion and superstition are interwoven. It is impossible to separate the call to prayer from the belief system. The same with Krampus. Once you can spot the intent and purpose of in these two, it is easier to spot it in other systems. This is a principle of analytical comparison, which is a scientifically based system of comparative religious study.
Context and Consistency
The context of tradition is also important. Almost all the processes surrounding what we call spiritual exploration come from some tradition. The investigation of perception, consciousness, and awareness is at the heart of many cultures. This investigation produced insight and tools that help us alter and change consciousness.
Above all, many of these tools stand up to the test of science. They are repeatable experiential phenomena. And, higher states of awareness also have unique measurable physiological signatures. They differ from the basic states of consciousness waking, sleeping, and dreaming.
These processes do not require belief in a religion. All you need to do is follow the process. For the most part, these tools come from Eastern traditions. This is probably because their focus is on developing human potential. If the tool is both constant in its form across different cultures and its intent is to develop potential, then these would be worthy of study. An example of this type of process would be the Shamanic Journey. It is a similar process that we find around the globe.
It is obvious that religions have adopted or appropriated these ancient processes. However, if the religion keeps the processes intact, then it serves to preserve and safeguard the tradition.
Good and Bad Traditions
The Bad and the Ugly
Any tradition or custom which promotes the harm of others or the planet is a bad tradition. We are creatures of habit. We love patterns. But, because we are habitual by nature it is easy to fall prey to those things which are habit-forming and unhealthy. Many things that are addictive cause harm.
The problem is, religion is by definition a belief system that is a closed set of boundaries. They design spiritual tools to go beyond the boundaries of thinking and belief. Religious belief systems are analogous constructs of mythology the purpose of presenting arguments supporting boundaries of thought, belief, and values. Religions do this for a few good reasons. First, to legitimize the religion. Second, to safeguard and propagate its own interests as a tradition. Religion does not care about consciousness development, it cares about cash flow.
Worst of all, some religions are not transmitters of any type of process for developing human potential. They are counterfeits, substituting mythology for a process in order to create customers. Inconsistency is another major problem with the most popular organized religions. In one place it talks about love and in another justification discrimination of all kinds and violence including genocide, and the persecution of people who do not believe in their God.
The Good Traditions
Good customs are easy to spot. They promote the health and welfare of everyone and the planet. These need not be elaborate.
Processes Promoting Consciousness Development
For instance, set a reminder to study a foreign language for 30 minutes every day. This becomes a learning tradition with benefits. Learning a new language is good for the health of your mind, and it opens the door for you to communicate with someone from a different point of view.
Processes for Spiritual Exploration
Any process that promotes the expansion of awareness or opens the door to higher states of consciousness. We call spiritual technologies. Spiritual technologies are tools for exploring consciousness. They result from generations of research by cultures around the world.
These processes stand up to the test of science. They are repeatable and measurable. We call the practice of these processes spiritual exploration. These are processes that are repeatable and exhibit common experiential phenomena. And, they also have unique physiological signatures different from the basic states of consciousness waking, sleeping, and dreaming.
We also include any mental tool that enhances your critical thinking skills. This includes analytical skills of reason, logic. These are also part of your spiritual exploration toolbox. The correct use of reason, inductive and deductive logic are paramount in determining the exact nature of the tradition. The use of analytical comparison is a prime example. This is a scientifically based process for comparative religious study.
Understanding how the purveyors of the religious tradition use argument to explain their particular paradigm can help you determine when the premises of the underlying argument are false. The correct use of modern science and the scientific process is also integral in rooting out facts from fiction.
Exploratory Exercise Part Three
By this point, we hope you have a list of your own personal, family, cultural and societal traditions. And you have also broken these down into single elements. Now we break open the time capsule to see what this custom is all about.
Now we look at the intent, purpose, context, and consistency of our weekly meeting for breakfast after the religious service. I notice that we do not talk about the content of the religious service at all.
The best part of this tradition is the conversation after breakfast. We mostly talk about what we did as a family what we want to do. This is the most important part. This is the good part.
The only time religion comes up it seems to be a dividing issue. So, I decide to make the breakfast meeting the priority rather than be pressured by the culture to take part in a religious service that is more entertainment-oriented than anything else.
Interested in spiritual exploration? Check out the blended learning process at the core of our teaching process. It reflects what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. Our learning options include both face-to-face and virtual learning sessions. Please consider donating and supporting our mission. This helps others learn the knowledge for developing their own path.
Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia