on rituals

When I get hooked on a particular idea or concept, my favorite thing to do is just see how it’s defined in dictionaries.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about rituals. (Pull up a chair and prepare for a ramble, folks…)

The most immediate explanation of a ritual almost always has to do with religion or sacred ceremonies. Outside of religion, rituals are uniformly defined as actions performed in the same way, in the same situation, every single time. Actions are just actions, until they’re repeated within similar circumstances time and again – then, apparently, they become rituals.

So what, I wonder, separates habits from rituals? I think it’s ceremony; but that sounds so formal. Really, I think it’s intention. Habits can be mindless or accidental, but rituals rarely are.

We can elevate habits to rituals – with intention.

I once heard someone emphasize the importance of rituals as the foundation of our daily lives. Within the foundation there is space to move around, breathe, and grow. That resonated with me, some two years ago. It occurred to me then that I spend a lot of thought energy questioning my decisions. Very normal example: after rolling out of bed at 6 a.m. for a jog, I’ll still consider crawling back under the sheets and pressing snooze, quickly thinking ahead to the latest possible time I could theoretically re-set my alarm for, alternating the morning routine I borderline obsessively thought through in my final waking moments just nine (!) hours earlier. If, instead, I treat the alarm as law and the jog as non-negotiable, I could channel that burst of morning mental energy toward … well, anything! Toward prayer, toward gratitude, toward brainstorming; hell, even just toward singing along to the usual playlist. I’d absolutely be more present, and I’d also be a lot more productive.

Although it resonated with me a few years ago, I can’t honestly tell you much has changed. I’m much more aware now, and probably more intentional. But I’m still determining what my habits are versus what my rituals are. What’s more, I’m in search of what should be prioritized and ritualized.

As a writer (ahem, “writer”), I don’t have a daily writing ritual. I definitely have a habit, in the form of to-do lists and iPhone notes and journals and jotted down thoughts on any other surface. Not a day goes by that I don’t put pencil to paper in some way, shape, or form. And I’m not saying it needs to be organized or even totally coherent every day, but it could probably use some intention. Some ceremony.

As inspiration, I’ve ordered this book. In the meantime, I’d love to know your rituals. My only true, honest-to-goodness ritual is my morning routine. No matter what, I sit down to a proper breakfast. Seriously. 90% of the time it’s coffee and some sort of food in a bowl. But it’s not at all about breakfast and all about the 20ish minutes of sitting and watching morning shows or fiddling on my phone. Sounds simple, but it makes me happy and the day always feels endless and optimistic and ready to be seized. If I’m off my game, the mug may be filled with tea or hot lemon water and the bowl may be a snack stand-in for a real meal, but l still sit down and go through the breakfast motions. I can count on one hand the number of mornings in a year that, for whatever reason, I’m on the go – without fail, those days pass by in a blur, as if they never started.

There is not, however, a nonnegotiable evening routine for me. Nor any other ritual that I can think of. I certainly have habits and a few inclinations on the brink of becoming rituals, but they’re not there yet.

Of course, we run the risk of over-ritualizing our lives and squelching any room for spontaneity, flexibility, life in general. But I do think creativity stems, perhaps ironically, from intentional routines.

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