The experience of your life is shaped by the daily practices and the attention you bring to them.
We think our ultimate happiness lies in big decisions and bold moves, but the truth is that we thrive in a supportive structure that contains rituals that are meaningful to us and cultivate a sense of command over our lives.
When I use the word “ritual,” I am not talking about a religious ceremony or esoteric chanting the forest. I am referring to sincere acts that bring mindfulness, attention and meaning towards a situation. The practice of ritual marks time with moments of significance.
Rituals can be daily practices done with intention, like a morning cup of tea, or they can mark important life transitions, like a graduation ceremony or a funeral following a death. Often people practice rituals before stressful or unique events; imagine an athlete completing their pre-game rituals before competing.
The significance of a ritual is that it is done with intention and attention.
Time spent during a ritual is notably different from “regular time”. When engaged in a ritual, no matter its depth or significance, you bring a specific intention, emotion and symbolism to it. Your thoughtfulness is what creates its power.
In fact, studies show that it doesn’t matter so much what the mechanics of a ritual are. It is the emotion and intention behind the ritual that serves you. You can perform somewhat unrelated acts as a part of a ritual, but if it is in response to an event with the intention of transmuting your experience, then it will buffer you from the anxiety or difficult emotions of that experience.
A study manufactured a scenario in which participants lost a lottery of $200. Some of those losers were asked to perform a ritual in which they drew on a piece of paper, sprinkled it with salt, tore it up and counted to ten in their heads five times. The participants that performed the ritual reported feeling less grief about losing the money. Although the ritual design appeared unrelated to the lottery, the impact laid in the fact that it was performed with intention. The enactment of a ritual following a disappointing experience mitigated the negative effects of that experience (Why Rituals Work, Gino & Norton, 2013).
A ritual transitions you from the state of being before the ritual occurs, moves you through the ritual and transmutes you into a different state after the ritual concludes. In this way, rituals mark time, create time and celebrate time.
During the amorphous and unpredictable days of the pandemic, many of us are starved for intentional ritual. We are desperately missing the daily rituals that mark time (like stopping by your favorite coffee shop on the way to work) and the consequential ceremonies and practices that demarcate a lifespan (weddings, funerals, graduations and birthday parties).
Without rituals, we find ourselves sliding into the next activity or subsequent phase of life without marking it with meaning and intention. This shapeless and unstructured sense of time is disorienting. We feel untethered without our collective and individual time markers.
Rituals create a sense of command, certainty and predictability.
They empower us to know what is to come and how the transitions of time will go, helping us feel a sense of control over the trajectory of our experiences and buffering against the anxiety of the unknown. This anxiety-mitigating effect of ritual is important because anxiety inhibits performance.
Brooks et al. (Don’t Stop Believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety, 2016), found that participants of their study who performed a ritual prior to a math test outperformed those who were in the control group. Notably, participants who performed behaviors described as “ritual” reported less anxiety than the participants who performed the exact same behaviors, but described them as “random behaviors.” Intention matters.
Rituals are an integral part of launching a project by mitigating procrastination and anxiety about the project itself.
Meaningful and intentional practices move you from worrying about an event to doing it, transitioning you from thinking about something in the future to actually being in the process of it.
An athlete’’s pre-workout rituals transition her from worrying or thinking about the workout to the mindset and practice of actually moving her body.
The challenge of this specific moment in history is that we are tasked with creating rituals that support our wellbeing, while the structure that formerly did some of that work for us has morphed. Since the structure of our lives looks so different, it requires additional intentionality and focus to create new rituals; we have to generate the momentum to form new practices. We aren’t relying on history to hold up the ritual design for us in the same way that we used to.
In the absence of busyness and life peddling on as it was predictably supposed to, a void opened for people to more deliberately consider how to spend their time, what is important to them and how they want the future to look beyond the pandemic. We are in the process of redefining and understanding our values based on now, not what the world was before COVID-19 took over.
Now is the time to get clear on what is important to you and to create the foundation that will support you as the world reopens and we collectively redefine what “normalcy” looks and feels like.
Rituals are the foundation. It is the rituals, the intentional practices, that will serve as the bedrock of your wellbeing.
Take the time to wonder whether your daily rituals are more like mindless habits or whether they are truly in service of the life you envision for yourself. Get curious about whether the rituals you implemented during unprecedented world changes are the ones that you want to continue as we transition beyond the pandemic.
Honor the rituals that stop gapped suffering or supported you during incredible stress, while also being willing to consider which rituals will not just keep you afloat, but support you thriving. What daily practices, done with intention, create your dream life?
Rituals build confidence and encourage forward momentum, because they transition you from considering your values as abstract concepts to being in action around them.
You drop the mental mind games of being disappointed you aren’t doing whatever it is that you are missing in your life, worrying about whether you should do that thing, wondering what the best way to do that thing is (and on and on) and instead, implement a ritual that transitions you to doing it.
Through ritual, you put yourself in the game. Without the ritual, you get stuck in the mental chatter and don’t make progress on your dreams.
When you complete rituals, whether daily, weekly, monthly or yearly, you are following through on the activities that are supportive to your soul’s greatest expression, thus building trust with yourself that translates to self esteem, confidence, and inner strength.
True inner strength requires consistency. You must build a structural foundation from which momentum swells. Just like getting physically strong, you start with foundational practices and build strength incrementally through consistently showing up. You wouldn’t start your fitness program with lifting one hundred pounds and you shouldn’t expect your dream life to fall into your lap. You begin with showing up to the gym regularly, learning new exercises, starting with light weights and then growing from there by adding new levels and challenges as your strength builds.
So how do you implement rituals that support your vision?
Start by recognizing that you probably already have rituals or at least the ingredients of rituals in your life. Are there practices or acts that you do daily or weekly? Are there important time markers in your days, weeks, months and years? Can you bring more intention to them?
Then remember your values. Tune into the vision you have for your life and create intentional practices that support that vision.
For example, create a morning ritual that fosters the energy you need/want or design a pre-workout ritual that helps you feel strong and focused. Make coffee as a ritual, rather than a mindless habit. Journal for 10 minutes. Remember that it can be anything, it is about the mindset and attention to that activity.
A ritual is not a habit, which is done with little effort or thought.
What energy are you channeling through the ritual act? What do you desire and how does the pause from “regular time” support that vision?
Use ritual to support big moments in your life. When the stress of a meaningful event, conversation or occurrence, is building, intentionally offer yourself support through ritual.
The possibilities are endless. Consider the vision of your most expressed life, cultivate the energy you want the ritual to support, and recognize the power your mindset has. Most importantly, follow through. Doing the ritual transitions you from thinking about the thing to doing the thing.
Don’t forget to practice self-compassion and kindness. It is not comfortable to do the things that make your life better. It is a myth that what is meant for you will be flawlessly easy. It is not. You will face challenges and you will meet your mental limitations and ego stories that attempt to keep you stuck when you embark on a path of creative abundance and authenticity.
The antidote is self-compassion.
You have to practice kindness, curiosity and willingness to adjust your course. You cannot make progress by beating yourself into submission; there must be incredible compassion for your path and for the stops and starts along the way.
Trust that you are already in the process of building your most fully expressed life. Your unique rituals are a non-negotiable aspect of continuing to grow that vision. If you want it to materialize, you have to do the practices that are in support of that picture of authenticity, not just dream it in your head.
Stop breaking your momentum before you even start by listening to the voice that fears failure and tells you your dream isn't important or isn’t accessible. It is important and you can do it. Engage with the easiest ritual that supports your vision to transition into manifesting it.
Your dream is available to you and its expression lies in building the foundational practices that allow it to bloom, one step at a time.