Redefining Ritual

Dictionary.com defines “ritual” as “a prescribed or established rite, ceremony, proceeding, or service”.  Other sources further clarify ritual as “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly” or “a ceremony in which the actions and wording follow a prescribed form and order”.  Most definitions refer to ritual as part of religious observance, but I would suggest that the meaning is broader than that.  To me the term refers to any sequence of activities that is performed repeatedly at certain times in an established manner.

Rituals can be a source of comfort for people, especially at times when the way forward is not immediately clear.  For example, funerals are a ritual that people turn to when a death occurs.  It gives the survivors a path to follow which can help them acknowledge and begin to deal with the loss.  Having experienced death in my own family I understand the value of having a set procedure that dictates the expected order of events.  Sometimes this can become a way to postpone the actual process of grieving, but still it helps pave the way through the transition from the known to the unknown.  So ritual can be a good thing.

As with anything, though, when taken to extremes rituals can be harmful. Following rituals can become a ritual in itself.  Some people become so fixated on the process that they forget the meaning.  The need to adhere to the order of activities becomes so rigid that eliminating  or changing any piece of the ritual for whatever reason can be a cause for distress.  So as with anything, applying moderation is usually recommended.

We have just emerged from a season that is rife with rituals of all kinds.  Whether traditional or recent, there are rituals at every turn.  There are songs, movies and plays that are only performed at this time of year.   There is Black Friday and, more recently, Cyber Monday.  Add to that parades, decorating trees and houses, photos with Santa, Salvation Army bell-ringers, office parties, and distributing gifts to those less fortunate than ourselves.  All of these activities are every bit as ritualistic as the religious rites that also play a role in this multi-week celebration. Some of you reading this may scoff at the inclusion of these activities as ritual.  But they are all a part of our communal culture.  When participating in these rituals we are often able to set aside our differences and share an experience that is familiar to all.

Many of us have daily routines that border on ritual.  This is certainly true for me.  I rarely have to look at the clock after getting out of bed since most days I perform the same tasks in the same order every morning.  There are slight variations depending on my schedule, and, of course, circumstances can arise that require alterations, but usually I follow a specific set of practices.  From time to time my usual routine is disrupted for one reason or another.  Sometimes the disruption is temporary, but a true life change can require crafting a new routine that fits the new set of circumstances.

If you examine your own life I suspect you will find activities that you try to maintain consistently at reasonably regular intervals.  When these are thrown off for whatever reason, it can leave you feeling a bit out of sorts or disoriented.  Think about all of the rituals in your life that you have adhered to for long periods of time.  If you’ve maintained them, they must be important to you for one reason or another.  But you weren’t born with the need for them.  It’s a process you’ve learned.  This means you can continue to learn new ones.

At this moment we are in the middle of another annual ritual:  the making of New Year’s resolutions.  Despite the fact that every day is a new day and a new opportunity, we are all urged to latch on to this particular date to make changes in our lives.  New Year’s resolutions often revolve around forming a new habit or routine.  Yup – a ritual.  Due to our modern lifestyle, it seems that the most common call is to exercise more and/or lose weight, but there are others.  Maybe you want to listen more attentively or meditate regularly or read more.  There are any number of ways in which we feel we need to improve ourselves and numerous articles on how to make resolutions that work. Making resolutions is easy.  Sticking to them is much more difficult.  So rather than talk about how to make the change, I’d rather focus on what to do when you realize that the best laid plans have somehow disintegrated.

When you recognize that a new ritual is not working and changes need to be made, it is important to think not only about the logistics (e.g., time of day, type of action, obstacles presented) and the various (valid, no doubt) excuses that can be made.  But it is equally or even more important to examine your reasons for wanting to incorporate this new routine into your life in the first place.  How much do you really want to make this change?  Why do you want to make this change?  Are you willing to rearrange something else in your life to accommodate the change? Or is the new demand not calling to you sufficiently to overcome the excuses?  There is no right or wrong here.  These should be decisions you are making for yourself.  The author Gretchen Rubin wrote a book called The Four Tendencieswhich theorizes that most people fit into certain personality categories.  Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive, but often we find our tendencies toward one category or another.  If you’re interested, you can take the quiz on her website and see where you fit.  Are you  willing to adhere to your ritual whether or not anyone knows about it?  Or perhaps you are looking for approval from someone else.  Maybe you start to make the changes, but then begin to wonder if they really have any value.  Or suddenly you start to think “I don’t have to do this just because it’s expected of me.”  It’s all about being honest with yourself and deciding what is really important to you right now.

When you decide that you really do want to make the change you’ve laid out, but stuff keeps getting in the way, then it’s time to formulate a new plan.  This may mean pulling yourself out of your comfort zone.  Incorporating ritual into your life is similar to forming a habit.  There are varying theories on what it takes to establish a new habit, but most of them involve maintaining a practice for a period of at least 6 weeks.  From that point on, the theory goes,  you’ve established the routine, overcome some of the obstacles and begun to make the ritual a part of your life.  Those around you recognize that it has become a priority for you and, hopefully, will help you stick with it, or at least stop objecting.  An occasional variation from the routine due to circumstances will no longer stop you.  You’ll be able to get right back into your practice as soon as your able.  In fact, you may find that, as described above, you begin to miss the ritual when you aren’t able to complete it.  In my opinion, the key is wanting the ritual in your life enough to help you overcome obstacles.  Then if something arises that threatens to get in your way, you can always remind yourself that your ritual is important enough to you to find a way around the obstacle.  If the obstacle persists, change the ritual. This doesn’t mean to scrap it entirely.  Just find a way to make it work.  Remember, too, that small changes can be a good first step.

If nothing seems to work no matter how hard you try to find a way, then maybe the time just isn’t right for you to start this practice right now.  That’s OK, too.  But if you really want to do it, keep looking for that opening.  It may turn up in a way that you didn’t anticipate.  An open mind might be the most important requirement for finding your way to your best self.

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