The Importance of Ritual

One of our strengths as a species is our ability to adapt to new circumstances. Some of our adaptations are adjustments to our tools and environment – developing clothing that will keep us warmer, changing food preferences or building materials, altering the land to increase food production.

Just as important is our ability to adapt our behavior. To make friends with and trade with people who look differently from us or who eat different things, have different habits, or who speak a different language.

And to adapt our behavior in times of crisis. To hold it together and not lose hope. Not to grow so desperate that we give into hoarding or drinking or worry or fear – and then feel horrible about ourselves because we can’t keep it together.

Ritual – the formal repetition of small behaviors – supports this adaptive behavior by giving us something solid to hold onto while everything around us is fluctuating. It’s the solid iceberg that we can crawl out onto when the rest of the river is slush.

These rituals can be spiritual – prayer or meditation. They can involve exercise. Or making your bed, or putting on makeup and getting dressed. Some rituals – actors making funny faces or saying funny rhymes before a show, athletes warming up, or musicians practicing scales before a performance – seem to have practical basis but really it’s all about getting your head in the game.

And yet, when circumstances most require us to adapt quickly, we fall off our rituals and our ability to perform becomes impaired. A project manager told me this morning that he has noticed that the other PMs in his PMO have abandoned their sprint grooming. This way lies madness, folks.

When I am at my peak, my rituals are at their strongest: rising early, meditating in the quiet when everyone else is asleep, writing, exercising, going for long walks, getting dressed, brewing a cup of tea, making breakfast, and sitting down to work. Even greeting the building’s doorman is a form of ritual for me.

Last year, I could tell I was not performing effectively because my rituals had fallen apart. My injured ankle prevented yoga and walking. I was working from home, so why bother getting dressed up, I’ll just dim my camera. I stopped writing and blogging and seeing friends. There were entire weeks when I didn’t leave the apartment.

I knew I needed to snap out of it and starting working with a coach, and one of the first things she had me do was create new rituals. One of them was a positive visualization of what I wanted a day at work to be like. My visualization was all about ritual – ritual of rising, walking, having breakfast with my husband (something we rarely do), greeting people on the way to work, asking about my colleagues’ children, planning my day, checking in with my team, celebrating successes, etc. It was overly-detailed, but the ritual of visualizing these rituals for myself every day broke the downward slump towards inactivity and helped me build new rituals for my day that helped me climb back up.

In times of crisis, it’s important to keep some semblance of rituals even if you cannot perform your usual rituals. Can’t go to the gym? Can you dedicate some time to exercising in your living room? One of my colleagues is following an online yoga class, which helps her stay focused. Can’t go to the office? Create an office in your home, a space that will be your workspace, and build some rituals around your day. My team and I are checking in twice a day for 30 minutes each – sometimes we check in on work, but often we’re just getting facetime. Even 15 minutes once a day would do – remember, it’s about ritual.

Or maybe the job you were counting on to hold things together disappeared when the store or restaurant where you worked closed for the duration? It’s even more important now to have rituals: the ritual of submitting online applications for jobs that don’t really exist, then the ritual of submitting unemployment insurance online. Pick an online class – a free class if money is tight; maybe your library has a membership you could use – and force yourself into a ritual around going back to school.

Here are a few suggestions about rituals you could build for yourself now:

  • Set the alarm and get up every morning. Make your bed, shower, get dressed, put on makeup and do your hair. Treat yourself with respect. Luxuriate in the experience of slipping your feet into socks, of painting on your eyeshadow, brushing your hair. Take the time to enjoy it.
  • Write for 20 minutes every day. It doesn’t really matter what you write, but you could try things that you’re grateful for, things you appreciate, people you love. The important thing is to build a practice of writing.
  • Meditate or Pray. Clear your mind and let worry and guilt slip away.
  • Cook or bake. Many of us these days don’t cook at all, or make special dishes only when we’re having people over for dinner — talk about pressure! Revel in the fact that, instead of commuting home, you have time to spend making your grandmother’s lemon cake or your great aunt’s Toll House cookies.
  • Videochat with your family. My husband’s ritual is taking is 92-year old mother through her 45-minute PT ritual every evening via Skype. Then he takes my 78-year old mother through a variation. The facetime is good for all of them.

The important thing is that the ritual can be repeated, that it makes you feel good, that it takes your brain away from what it wants to do — worry all the time.

What are some rituals you are relying on now? Share!

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