Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.
When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.
Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.
When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture.
He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”
I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.
When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.
Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.
Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.
But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.
Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:
How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)
Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.
If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!
And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.
Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.
Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.