The Power of Incorporating Practical Rituals in Your Daily Life
And it doesn’t have to involve sacrificing a cow.
To listen to an expansion of this article, and tips on creating your own rituals, listen to Catherine’s podcast.
I feel like the concept of rituals gets a bad rap today. When you think of the term “ritual,” it’s likely you’re imagining one of two things: something — or someone, eep — being sacrificed on an altar, or some robe-wearing hippie lighting candles under the moon and chanting.
Gross. Why do we need rituals today? We’re a modern, practical people. We don’t need to pretend there are gods out there that need us to give them a cow or a magical invocation. We are flush with logic! Instead I will spend my time staring into my magic tiny computer that ruins my brain, ha ha, take that spirituality.
For a long time, that’s the kind of stuff I thought of when I thought of rituals — if I ever thought of them at all, that is. A sense of cheesiness, disregard, and generally, not understanding why we would ever need them in today’s world.
Then I read an interview with Marie Kondo, the guru of tidiness. I was struck by this description of the first thing she does every morning:
I wake up naturally around 6 or 6:30 a.m. I rarely use an alarm clock. After waking up, I open all of the windows, let the breeze in, and then burn incense. At home we have a Japanese-style kamidana [Shinto household altar]. On the shelf there is some salt, some rice, and some evergreen fronds, and I’ll give this a once-over, freshening things up. Then I’ll pray for the health of my family and friends, and also for myself to get done as much as possible what needs to be done.
It’s such a small but beautiful concept — the routine of taking the time every morning to feel the air through the windows and reflect on the day ahead.
It reminded me a lot of the pleasure I get out of my morning pages routine — the space I’ve created, the expressions of myself that I put down on paper every day, regardless of what’s going on. Lighting my candles, setting down my coffee cup, and getting to work.
Thinking about those spaces in the morning, both in Kondo’s example, and my own morning pages, I felt how much it nourished me day-to-day, I started thinking about both of these routines more closely, and wondering why they were striking such a chord with me.
It was then I realized that neither was as simple as a basic routine. They were rituals. Not the woo-woo-hippie nor the bloody-animal-on-an-altar kind, either. Modern rituals. Practical rituals. And since that realization, incorporating a few of them into my life has made all the difference in balance, harmony, and meaning for me in my daily life.
Sounds pretty awesome, yeah? I think you can incorporate some practical rituals into your life, too — and that you should.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that people are lacking a sense of the spiritual or mystical or meaning or structure in their lives today — something that the function of organized religion used to provide in society. But organized religion isn’t really a safe space for many people to turn these days — or a space where atheists or people who don’t overall believe in the common narrative of a Big White Dude God can go.
But that doesn’t mean that even the most logical or practical of us don’t crave a sense of something bigger than the daily mundane in our lives, a sense of meaning or significance that we can participate in. I know that I — somebody who doesn’t believe in the traditional sense of god or religion as it is commonly understood today — felt I was missing something along those lines. So I started creating my own sense of the sacred in my day to day life through a series of small rituals that are now the fabric on which I build my days.
Sounds nice, but uh, what is a ritual, even? Well, according to scholarly studies (and by scholarly studies I mean I did some googling, and also looked at a dictionary), I came up with some common aspects of a ritual. I think this Merriam Webster definition can help ground the meaning of ritual in a practical and simple way: A ritual is a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way.
Googling revealed another helpful perspective and study of a ritual from an academic perspective, specifically from a man named Ronald Grimes, who wrote a book called The Craft of Ritual Studies. According to him, from an anthropological and sociological perspective, there are generally six elements to a ritual: space or setting; objects involved; time of day, year, etc; language or sounds; how the ritual transforms identity or after effects of the ritual; and finally actions or movements involved.
Hopefully thinking about those six elements can help you understand what you might think of as a routine or habit and how it is actually different from a ritual. For example, brushing your teeth isn’t necessarily a ritual; it’s a daily habit. Habits are regular actions you take that aren’t imbued with meaning or purpose or ceremony. Rituals are actions you take that are.
It’s important when thinking about practical rituals you could set up in your life that you don’t get too caught up in definitions or meanings or elements. What I really think is important about a ritual? That it’s an act that takes intention or something significant from your heart and your mind and expresses it into the world, done on a regular basis.
I do find it helps to define some elements or purposes around a ritual, though. For me, they are as follows:
Time: The rituals I put into my life take place at specific times: first thing upon waking; a bedtime ritual before going to bed; reviews of goals once a month; the act of writing.
Location: I talked about this element in my writing habits post, but I think it’s really important to create a special space in which to do your rituals, or to make the space around you more beautiful or meaningful. Light some candles. Light some incense. Turn the lights down low. Play some beautiful music while you’re doing these things. Put items of significance around where you do your rituals, like Kondo did with her traditional Japanese altar. Create a space of beauty and intention. It matters.
Intention: What are you trying to achieve during this ritual? Perhaps you want to signal to your body that it’s time to go to bed. Perhaps you are making an ask of yourself and trying to actualize it and make it manifest. Maybe you are trying to do something like writing every day. This is the meat of the ritual, the meaning, the significance, and naming it is important.
Marking a transition: I find that rituals are incredibly helpful during times of transition. This can be the transition from morning into the work day; the transition from the evening into sleep; the transition from one home to another when you’re moving, etc. I have a friend in my life who will soon have to have a preventative double mastectomy and is planning to mark that transition in her life — from one form of her body to the next form of her body — with a meaningful ritual that will involve some reflection, and I think that’s a beautiful application. What are the special inflections and times of transition in your life? Pausing to mark them with something meaningful can be a wonderful way to reflect on their significance in your life and prepare yourself to move onto the next stage.
As for me, as I mentioned above, I now have several rituals I incorporate into my daily life. Number one is definitely morning pages — the basis for every one of my days. Almost every night, I carefully put away all my electronics outside of my bedroom, light incense and read in bed. Once a month, I take a page from Sabrina Hersi Issa and doing what’s essentially a personal reflection ritual (she calls them “personal inventory days”) — looking back at what I’ve accomplished over the month, and setting out goals and hopes for the month ahead. When I sit down to write, I create a ritual around it — I do it at the same place, and I try to do some meditation before it, light some candles, and consider it an overall special act.
Intrigued? There are lots of easy ways you could incorporate practical rituals into your daily life; you just have to make the time for them.
Remember how I started out this post talking about that our general stereotypical concept of a ritual is one where an animal may be sacrificed on an altar? Well, hopefully by now you can understand the concept of a modern, practical ritual and see how it plays out in your life, and that it doesn’t involve cutting off a chicken’s head.
But there still is a sacrifice involved, even in rituals in 2018 — and that sacrifice is time.
As you read this post, if you were skeptical about the concept of practical rituals, one thought that may have crossed your mind is, “I don’t have time to do ridiculous stuff like that.” Well, exactly. Time is today’s most valuable commodity. So when you make the space in your life to do a ritual of significance, you are making a sacrifice. It’s just a sacrifice of time.
That’s not a negative thing; the sacrifice of your time is what gives the ritual value and meaning and significance.
So it’s with this understanding and framework I encourage you to think about what purposeful, practical rituals you could put into your life to give it special grounding and meaning. Start simple; I find a ritual around waking up or going to bed is the easiest way to begin, especially when sleep is something so many of us struggle with today. Try this simple going to bed ritual (and feel free to adjust any elements of it to make it meaningful to you):
-Know what time you have to wake up in the morning, and using an app like sleepyti.me, understand what time you may need to fall asleep by.
-Work backwards from that time, and give yourself an hour or so before that time to do your rituals.
-Say good night to your phone. Turn it on airplane, place it in a special location (not in your bedroom), and say adios. It’s done its work for the day.
-Try lighting some candles, incense, or use some lavender essential oil. Start to signify to your body and brain that this is a transition time, marked by these actions and settings — you are moving from busy daytime into restorative sleep time.
-Do whatever grooming you need to do before bed; tooth brushing, face washing, etc.
-Sit down amongst your candles and all your woo woo beautiful stuff, and write down three things that happened during the day that are on your mind. No purpose here except reflection and brain unloading. You could also write down things you need to focus on the next day to help clear your mind.
-Get into bed, and read, meditate, pray, think, do breath work, whatever you like that eases you into a pre-sleep transition state.
And there you go; you’ve created a ritual. It’s that easy.
It’s completely possible you already have rituals in your day-to-day life and you just haven’t recognized them as such. I encourage you to think about what they might be, how they might give you meaning, and what other rituals you could be doing on a daily basis to help turn your mundane into the meaningful.