Ritual. The word conjures up wildly different images. It can refer to the regulated church services of liturgical churches like mine, or bloodthirsty scenes of sacrifice. Do an online search and you can find rituals to attract love, or to sell your house, or even to attract aliens. Often dismissed as superstition, ritual nevertheless keeps a hold on the human mind.
This isn’t the same as habit. Habit is an automatic series of actions that doesn’t require thought between steps. It’s value is that it enables us to do useful and necessary things quickly, without stopping. Nurses and EMTs train and re-train to use lifesaving techniques and equipment automatically so that their minds are free to analyze emergencies and think ahead. They cannot afford to pause between steps. Habit is what gets me in front of the keyboard to write.
Rituals always have a symbolic meaning, a way to remind participants and observers that of what they have in common. We tend to think of them as being public or collective events: marriage ceremonies, singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ before a baseball game, the swearing in of an official.
But ritual can also be intensely private. There, its value is in mindfulness, the quality of focusing the brain on task at hand. I read of one woman who likes to light a candle when she gets home from work. It lets her switch gears from the day she’s had, good or bad, to the evening ahead, with its duties and (hopefully) pleasures. The candle doesn’t make her day better or worse, it simply reminds her to focus on what’s next. I’d like to try that, except my version would probably involve picking the candle up off the floor before lighting it because the cat knocked it down.
One of my personal rituals is to take a few minutes after the alarm goes off and before I get out of bed to visualize my day. Not in detail, or I’d never get up! But I think about where I’m supposed to be and when, what needs to get done, what REALLY needs to get done. This will not prevent interruptions or other events from sidetracking me on occasion. But for me it is easier to face even bad days after doing this. Another is rewarding myself for meeting or exceeding word counts. I keep track of them in a desk calendar (habit) but when I meet my goal, I put a silver star by that day’s entry. Gold stars are for when I exceed my goal. It’s not a big action, but it symbolizes an accomplishment that I value.
Psychologically, rituals can provide humans with the comfort of knowing what comes next. Our ancestors developed rituals to give a sense of control in an unpredictable world, and ten thousand years later, we still use them for the same reason. Like language and personal names, ritual is what anthropologists call a ‘cultural universal’ – something every human society has.
I say ‘let the rituals begin’! We can all use comfort and more mindful moments in our lives. What do you think?