I spent this past weekend celebrating a friend’s wedding in Columbus, Ohio. If you’ve ever been involved with a wedding– yours or someone else’s– then you’re aware of all the fanfare and fuss that surround it. Not only are there standard elements in almost every wedding ceremony, but there are also rehearsal dinners, toasts, first looks, dancing, dining, and so much more. It is an event nearly defined by rituals. Marriage itself seems something entirely different.
In the whirlwind of preparation before the wedding, she and I sat in a moment of quiet reflection. We need rituals, she said. Perhaps they don’t change anything in our physical reality– but in our emotional-spiritual space, rituals occupy a lot of significance.
You’ve likely heard it said that humans are creatures of habit. Whether good or bad, we tend to practice and repeat the same actions. Rituals are simply habits imbued with meaning. We do them not simply to accomplish something external to ourselves, but to move the intentions that rest internally. We need rituals: they give us rhythm, meaning, and reminders of purpose.
Here are a few examples of the rituals I keep:
- I start my day with a written schedule and a homemade cappuccino. This helps me keep track of where my time is going and what I want to accomplish. The combination of the planning and the coffee has become a morning rhythm: the taste of coffee helps me reflect on my priorities of the day, and writing them down helps me be intentional throughout the day.
- I couple my trip to the grocery store with a 30-minute workout at the gym. I do this to combine two tasks that keep my body healthy. I don’t want to expect food alone to nourish my body, so I usually stop by the gym first.
- I meet with friends and spend time outdoors on the weekend. To bring balance work and rest, I’ve learned that I need to set a full day aside– not just a few hours here and there. Rest means reconnecting with people we love, laughing with them, being creative, and enjoying the sunshine. I could probably rest as easily with a long nap and good book, but I know that I need these things to truly feel that I stepped away from work entirely.
What rituals have taught me
There’s a cyclical relationship between our values and our rituals. We perform rituals because of the values we hold; but the more we perform the rituals, the greater significance those values bear.
Rituals are richer in meaning than habits. I might have the habit of cleaning the dishes right after the meal, or making sure to get gas at my preferred gas station on Tuesdays. But they don’t represent any particular value that I want to live by– not important ones, anyway.
The purpose behind the rituals I have created is that they assist me in renewing my mind on a regular basis. These are areas in which I need constant reminders of what I believe: otherwise, the entropy of my soul will take over, and I will soon be consumed by far more degenerate thoughts than the ones I want to live by.
How to build your own rituals: a step-by-step guide
1) Determine an area in which you’d like a ritual. Here’s a hint: take an area of your life where you’d like healthier, better practices and thoughts. It could be time management, health, simplifying, resting, organizing, connecting, or learning.
2) Identify practicable, repeatable actions that you could do (or already do) that relate to this area. It could mean a weekly phone call you already make, or learning to pick up gratitude journaling if you don’t already.
3) Set a rhythm in place for this action, coupling it with another action that adds value. This could mean listening to uplifting music as you get ready in the morning. It could mean applying a relaxing hand cream while you say your evening prayers.
4) Create an accountability system through a partner or incentive. Developing new rituals can be difficult, especially as they might seem a bit arbitrary at first. Have someone check in with you as you seek to put your rituals in place. Give yourself an incentive to work towards as the ritual becomes second nature.
The bottom line: ritualize the things you value.
Weddings are so much work, and from the outside looking in, they seem a bit ridiculous. An already chaotic, adrenaline-rushing event is compounded with a thousand tasks that seem impossible to complete. While some of those tasks really are quite frivolous, the majority of them have a real purpose. Rituals add meaning, and we need them to do that for us.
Likewise, your daily or weekly rituals might appear to require more effort. But there’s little else to keep us from rushing to meet the most urgent or demanding need, and from becoming completely ruled by the spontaneity of the situations we’re in. When we have rituals in place, we create structures within which we live our lives. They keep us standing, and they help us continue to move in our direction of choice.