The Importance Of Ritual

Do you have a morning ritual? If you always, or mostly, get up at the same time and then do things in a certain order – coffee, check social media, breakfast, shower, get dressed, for example – you might call this a ritual but really, what you’re describing is more of a routine than a ritual.

Ritual is certainly a synonym for routine in that both refer to doing certain actions in a particular order and repeating that pattern at regular (or irregular) intervals. But a ritual is also a lot more than a routine and it is certainly different from doing things habitually.

A routine is a good way of holding some order in your life, either consciously or unconsciously, and some forms of routine are certainly good for us. Habits are slightly different; they can be either good or bad and they are mostly unconscious. What I mean by this is that we often don’t even notice when we’re doing things out of habit. Habits make us feel comfortable, even a ‘bad’ habit like smoking or overindulging with food or alcohol gives us pleasure while we’re doing it.

But a ritual is different. A ritual should always be conscious and done with purpose. It should have personal meaning and make us feel good, or at least better, about ourselves. Despite the benefits that rituals can bestow they often have a bad reputation because we associate them with religions, or cults or even worse. However, using ritual as a synonym for ceremony brings us closer to the meaning I want to discuss in this post.

Ritual as ceremony and celebration

Some people find the idea of ritual disturbing because in the popular imagination it sounds a bit cultish or even redolent of witchcraft and voodoo. However, when we reframe ritual as a ceremony of celebration it takes on a whole new positive meaning for us.

A wedding ceremony, a baptism, a coming of age party or a coming out party are all forms of celebratory rituals that hold significance and deep meaning for us, but that are also occasions of joy and celebration. We use these rituals to mark significant moments in our lives and they can be a secular, or as spiritual as we like. But I also think it is important that we embrace this positive form of ritual into our daily lives.

Rituals are sites of symbolic action that mark out a significant event but on a smaller and more personal scale they can also be a source of energy and focus. In this context, rituals are related to mindfulness and can themselves be a form of mindful activity. Mindfulness is a state of being present and fully engaged in what you are doing at that particular point in time. Meditation is a form of mindfulness that has its own rituals – some prescribed, such as yoga, and some more free-flowing or devised by you to suit your own needs.

If you can build some small but significant – to you – rituals into your daily life in such a way that they become part of your routine or form a new good (healthy) habit you will be taking a significant step towards being more mindful. The benefits of mindfulness and daily rituals are well known and supported by psychology and brain science. Being mindful helps to calm our anxieties, it helps to reset our breathing to direct more oxygen to the brain and it also helps train our bodies to release more of the soothing hormones, such as serotonin and endorphins that keep us relaxed and alert.

For centuries, athletes have used rituals to help improve their performance and they also exist in the theatre – ‘break a leg” – and in many other areas of life. You might scoff at this and say “It’s just superstition,” but there is a point to rituals: their calming and grounding effect seems to enhance perception and build confidence, as well as instilling a sense of being “in the moment” which helps with concentration and focus.

Many rituals also involve repetitive action and can include objects. Voodoo has its ‘fetish’ objects and all significant religions also have sacred objects – everything from candelabra, to drinking vessels to incense or ‘holy’ texts. I know, you’re thinking that this all sounds a bit weird, but you know, it doesn’t have to. In many cultures, the ritual and ceremonial lighting of candles, burning leaves or creating smoke with scented incense is used to usher in good spirits, to cleanse spaces of bad spirits and to signify something significant is happening. In Buddhism, the burning of incense is an offering to the spirit world, but it is also about healing energy and eradicating negative emotion. White sage is used this way in many American Native communities and in Australia a ‘smoking ceremony’ is used to sanctify and purify any large gathering in Aboriginal communities and is now widely accepted and encouraged in very different contexts. In fact, both white sage and ceremonial smoking are now commonplace and recognised as important markers throughout the world.

Ceremonies involving small amounts of scented smoke are known as ‘smudging’ rituals and this is one of the ways that any of us can incorporate pleasant and meaningful ritual into our daily lives. But, you don’t have to use smoke if you don’t want to. you can make up your own spray using scented oils and water.

I have a friend who has a spray ritual that she completes each night before going to bed. She sprays a small amount of scented water – usually a mix of lavender and white sage oils – into the corners off the bedroom and onto the pillows on her bed. The lavender oil is known to be a relaxant that can help us to sleep and she sprays the white sage as a protective barrier. Even her sceptical husband now accepts the benefits of this nightly ritual and sometimes even asks for an extra spray of the oil mix when he’s lying in bed. My friend says she doesn’t do this ritual because of any belief in the magical properties of the oils, or of the ritual itself, but it has become important to her and her husband as a way of marking the end of the day and acknowledging their transition to the restful sleep ahead.

Rituals as grounding and centering

My friend’s nightly ritual is an example of a small daily ceremony as part of a mindfulness approach to living that is grounding and centering for our mind and emotions. A brief period of meditation, regular exercise, or even a simple breath-focussed and quiet period of sitting still, can be the basis of a healthy daily ritual that brings positive energy into your life and helps to establish a good routine.

These daily rituals do not have to be complicated or based in any particular form of philosophy, religion or ideology and they can involve anything you like in terms of objects or actions. A good example is the action of holding or even ‘playing’ with a string of polished stones or large seeds, which are known as either ‘prayer beads’, or ‘worry beads’. Moving the stones or seeds between the fingers and rubbing them has a soothing effect and this is just one way that a ritual can be beneficial.

Various types of smudge sticks made of white sage or other aromatic herbs are also available in many locations or are easily made at home from available plant materials – everything from rosemary, to pine needles and rose petals. You don’t need any complex formula or a particular set of words in a ritual; all you need to do is decide on the purpose and context for it and maybe write down a short script. Because it is totally personal it should be meaningful to you and perhaps even focus on a particularly pleasant thought. Alternatively, you can use a ritual to help you cope with something difficult by reframing it in your script.

To really feel the benefit of a ritual you have to do it more than once. Yes, that’s right, turn your ritual into a routine and even make it habitual. The important thing is to do it regularly and perform it consciously.

If you’d like some help designing your own ritual, download the FEEL Collaborative guide to inventing your own healing rituals.

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