What do you think of when you hear the word ritual? For the longest time, I heard negative connotations in this word, and especially in its adjective, ritualistic. I thought of rituals alternately as repetitive actions that lose their meaning over time or as grand gestures imposed by institutions and lacking in personal resonance.
“Ritual” called to mind the things we do just because we’ve always done them and the things we do because we feel we have to. But if there ever was a reclaimed word in my vocabulary, “ritual” is it.
During college, I was awestruck by the richness and diversity of the rituals I encountered. There were the communal and fabulously sensory rituals, like the colorful festival of Holi or the mournful sounding of the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah.
And then there were the small, personal rituals that one only encounters in the lives of others when living in such close proximity. I always wanted to be one of those people who eats the very same thing for breakfast every day, but was consistently thwarted by my curiosity about the daily special in the dining hall.
I fell in love with the rituals of others and often tried to incorporate them into my own life. Some of them stuck and were transformed over time into the familiar repetitions of my own chronology. Others fell away and remained as strange and beautiful and unfamiliar to me as they’d always seemed.
Through the process of trying on new rituals and examining old ones, I learned so many things about ritual itself. I learned that sometimes it’s possible to choose our rituals, and other times, our rituals choose us. I learned that repetition can build layer upon layer of meaning, rather than diminishing it. That each time we enact a ritual, it offers a window onto the different people and places and ways of being that enveloped us each time we enacted it before.
I wrote last week about nighttime worrying and waking up happy, and I couldn’t help but notice a thread of ritual in the comments. There were recommendations for tea drinking and shower taking, reading and writing—small rituals that are close to my heart. This left me wondering about what ritual means to you. Do you find comfort in repetition and familiarity? Or do you prefer newness, spontaneity, and change? What are the rituals—carefully chosen or accidental—that shape your life?