The Meditative Powers of Ritual

Ritual is necessary for us to know anything.” – Ken Kesey

I don’t have a lot of habits. As least I didn’t used to. My dad wakes up every morning and eats a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats, drinks a cup of coffee and reads the newspaper. My friend runs every morning. Other people I know have rituals of all stripes – from eating the same thing for lunch to wearing the same ‘uniform’ to work every day.

Until August, I really didn’t have any. There were certain things I liked to do, but I never did them with any regularity. I woke at different times. I read and wrote when I could. I sort of bounced through life in a constantly shifting combination of tasks.

Part of that has to do with having three young children and a wife, a demanding and irregular career and always having different jobs, tasks and projects I’m working on, but it’s also that I never understood the value of ritual. I mistook ritual with routine. It wasn’t until I got a dog this summer and began writing a morning journal that I began to understand the meditative benefits of ritual.

There are plenty of mornings that I don’t want to get out of bed before dawn to feed and walk Penny. There are plenty of days that I would rather skip the nine minutes it takes to write in my journal. But what I’ve noticed is that on the days I miss those things, I feel disjointed. It only took about a week for me to go from having morning tasks to having valuable rituals.

I walk my dog and let my mind go. I let it wander. I allow all thoughts to come in and out. We walk the same path – sometimes one way, other times the other – but always the same route. It takes an hour or so and the rhythmic patter of my feet on the sidewalk, the shuffling of her paws on the concrete and jingle of her chain – it’s like hypnosis. I stare a few yards ahead, toward the ground. I give her a slight tug when she gets too far ahead or behind. And I grant myself an hour of unrestricted, unguided, unprompted thought. Sometimes the thoughts are about what-if, other times its about why not? Sometimes I think about my day ahead, sometimes I think about the next year. On really good mornings I tell myself a story with no other outcome in mind than passing an hour with my own brain.

When I get home, I write in my journal and it is the exact opposite. I focus. I concentrate. I keep my mind firmly routed in the things that need to come next. (For more on the format of my morning journal, read this) My journal is a sprint of concentration. In the last four months, I have missed exactly three days, all of which were spent traveling. Even on mornings when I’m out time and can’t get to my journal, I get to it before the end of the day.

As a person who never had a lot of rituals, it’s strange to me how much these two things have come to mean to me. And I don’t have any real study to back it up, but I feel like they are paying off. I feel like I’m getting more done, like I’m more confident and patient. I can only believe there is a correlation, if not a direct cause. And as the year comes to close, I’ve been hoping to add a couple of more in the new year. Perhaps something to do with exercise, perhaps it will be time set aside each day to read or play the guitar. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I recognize now that rituals are beneficial to us, as people, in more arenas than just religion. Ritual – the habitual doing of something with meaning – far from limits our creativity, it enables it.

Ritual is, as Kesey said it, how we know anything.

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