Take Comfort in Ritual.
It was written in block font on the Starbucks window, and I did a double-take. Embrace ritual? It was not the message I expected from our “open,” “progressive,” “free-thinking” society. I thought ritual would be bad, stuffy, limiting, ancient, ignorant, backwards, boring…
Not, apparently, if it means your ritual includes going to Starbucks and paying four dollars for a cup of coffee. Then it’s good.
The word ritual can evoke many different ideas and feelings. Some people thrive on them; others find them boring and limiting. Over the next few weeks, I want to look at the importance of ritual and how they, if properly used, can help us live better, work better, and pray better.
First, what exactly is a ritual? It’s simply a sequence of actions performed in the same way or same order habitually. It may be a daily ritual, like your morning startup routine (we’ll talk about that next week), or it may be a yearly ritual, like watching It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve.
As a Catholic, you may tend to think of the liturgy. Living in the Bible Belt, I occasionally hear criticism of the Catholic liturgy being too ritualistic. People perhaps feel stunted by the routine. They feel their prayer is limited by the repetition, the memorized prayers, and the predetermined actions and words.
I’ll be discussing that in a few weeks. First, what do rituals do for us?
Why did the marketing team of Starbucks decide to sell you a cup of coffee (repeatedly) by appealing to the comfort of rituals? Even if you do not consider yourself a routine person, even if you prefer spontaneity and surprise, there can be comfort in the good memory a ritual brings back. There can be comfort in the easiness of the expected and predictable.
Even more, rituals have been proven to alleviate stress.
Researchers examining the connection between stress and rituals have found that engaging in rituals can lower both psychological and physiological stress. While stress can at times be good (prompting us to complete a task, avoid danger, achieve a goal), high levels of stress or never-ending stress is dangerous. Researchers have found that rituals, because of their predictability and structure, allow the brain to have a sense of control. When provided with a known structure, the brain–which is always processing information–can, in sense, rest.
From the beginning of time, cultures have embraced various rituals to mark occasions and express feelings. Rituals at births and weddings, celebrating life; rituals surrounding deaths and sickness, processing loss. There have been rituals surrounding human activities like the harvest or the hunt; rituals surrounding needs and supplications from whatever higher power the culture believes in.
Rituals allow us to process and express feelings and emotions. They are wordless ways we can tell someone we love them. They are ways we can add meaning to even our everyday work and relationships.
Researchers have examined the role of rituals in grief, finding that those who participated in some ritual–not necessarily religious– after a time of a loss were able to process the grief better than those who did not. Rituals can be ways for our mind and body to engage in the feelings of our heart.
If I asked you to name various rituals you have right now, you might be able to make a list of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rituals. But some of you might have rituals you aren’t even aware of. Both in the home and the workplace, implementing rituals can set you up for a more productive, happier day.
Over the next few weeks, I want to look at various ways we can implement rituals in our everyday life. Rituals not only help us alleviate stress or process our emotions, but also set us up for success in our jobs, at home, and in our spiritual lives. We’ll begin looking at that next week.