The Necessity of Small Rituals

Habit

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2002)

In the past many weeks of the corona virus pandemic, our daily lives have changed virtually overnight.  Our usual habits and the patterns have all but disappeared or at the very least, been disrupted.  It’s unsettling, because it is in times of upheaval, we need those daily routines and habits most:  they steady us and give our days meaning.   

In times that are uncertain and stressful, as anthropologists’ studies have shown, people’s rituals become more important. In a recent article by Dimitris Xygalatas, appearing in The Washington Post, he cited the early work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied inhabitants of the South Pacific islands in the early 1900’s.  Malinowski had observed that the islanders were more likely to employ rituals when faced with situations out of their control, such as the danger of fishing in shark-infested waters.  But such ritual activity in the face of danger or stress is not uncommon to any of us.  As Xygalatas points out, our reliance on ritualistic behavior typically increases during stressful events like wars and environmental threats.  

“Rituals take an extraordinary array of shapes and forms,” authors Gino and Norton stated in a 2013 Scientific American article.  Performed alone or together, whether in religious or other settings, they help to reduce anxiety, alleviate grief, or boost confidence.  Even simple rituals—habits—such as making time for quiet, meditation, a solitary walk, or even the simple act of grinding coffee beans for the morning coffee–whatever calms or nurtures our lives–can serve as a source of spiritual re-fueling, essential to our ability to navigate life’s ups and downs.  Rituals, whether more formal or in the form of everyday habits, provide a sense of the familiar, constancy, and a connection to others.  In that sense, they are healing.

Not only do our everyday rituals calm and feed us, those more formal ones, created to mark life’s passages, like birth, puberty, marriage or death, do even more for us.  While important in honoring transitions from one life chapter to the next, in times of uncertainty and change, our rituals also help us cope. They offer a sense of control in the chaos of human life, minimizing the anxiety, helplessness or depression we may feel without them.  Rituals give us a way to express our deepest feelings, offer meaning and connection to what is sacred.  In a study also reported by Dimitris Xygalatas, a study of Hindu people in Mauritius measured their heart rates before and after performing temple rituals. The people’s anxiety was lowered after the temple rituals were performed, demonstrating the importance of the collective rituals and ceremonies.  They do even more, Xygalatas explained, providing people with a sense of connection, increased generosity and even synchronizing their heart rates.  Rituals, whether formal or in our everyday habits and routines, help us navigate difficult times by providing some sense of the familiar and constancy. 

Rituals give significance to life passages, as Jeanne Achtenberg and colleagues discussed In Rituals of Healing (1994), and they also help us relax, re-connect with ourselves and the little pleasures in everyday life.  They are calming and help us concentrate on positive thoughts, all important to healing.

Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. was diagnosed and treated for cancer in the late 1990’s, During the aftermath of diagnosis and treatment, his usual routine of writing daily had suffered.  He wrote …During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  As he began his recovery, he began a habit of early morning walks, describing its unexpected benefit:

“In the autumn of 1998, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day…

The result was a delightful book of poetry, Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, (2001).   Kooser’s daily morning walks were not only important to his recovery, but also to his life as a poet.  He re-established, once again, the ritual of writing daily, capturing this positive outcome in the final poem in the book: 

How important it must be

to someone

that I am alive, and walking,

and that I have written

these poems.

This morning the sun stood

right at the end of the road

and waited for me.

I confess the constant news of the continuing spread of the COVID 19 virus in Canada and the world has derailed me more than once—despite my best intentions.  Anxiety, worry, or frustration sometimes threatens to overtake me – especially if I spend too much time reading the government updates and accompanying articles in The Globe and Mail which all but demolish my regular morning writing practice.  I regained the desire to write with a “new habit,” giving myself the freedom to not write anything of substance but instead, writing humorous poems about my state of life in this unusual time.  I’ve shared those with my husband and some friends, resulting in a few moments of shared laughter.  I’ve written 4 or 5 “silly ditties” since— humor is a great stress reliever.

Social isolation meant that I was also denied my regular stop at our corner Starbucks, a frequent habit after my afternoon walks, so instead, I decided to bake—impromptu–using whatever ingredients I had.  Another habit formed as I decided to find a recipe for the perfect scone.   After turning out four batches in four weeks, baking has become a necessary habit, as it’s one I find surprisingly calming and more, requires quiet and focus not unlike meditation.  Besides, as psychologists tell us, the ritual of making something or doing creative work of any kind helps to reduce stress and anxiety. 

This is not a dress rehearsal…today is the only guarantee that you get…think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived. —Anna Quindlen

As my husband and I negotiate our now confined lives inside in a two-bedroom apartment, we’ve established little routines or habits that are comforting and helping us navigate through this time of crisis together.  We come together at 5 p.m. every evening to listen to music and talk over a glass of sherry before our evening meal.  It’s become a time that we are present for each other, one we find relaxing, and something we look forward to in this unusual time of social isolation.  We often reach out to friends and family during that time, whether by telephone or Face time.  Staying connected with each other is comforting and helps us overcome the ever-present sense of isolation and worry, and is an important activity in helping us all weather this time of crisis.  In the midst of it all, I sometimes wonder, will life be like when this is finally over?  What will have changed?  What will we have learned about ourselves and our lives? But those questions are for another time… For now we don’t think ahead too far; we take each day as it comes as best as we can; we keep our routines, our habits in place to help us manage our lives in this unusual time.

In the Middle

of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,

struggling for balance, jugging time…

Each day, we must learn

again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee

and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises

mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread.

For Consideration and Writing:

Whether a morning walk or run, a warm bath, meditation, a quiet time to write or simply gaze out the window, listening to music or losing one’s self in a good book, we all take comfort from our daily habits.   Whatever you find calming and comforting, your own habits and rituals can provide spiritual nourishment and healing so very necessary to our lives in this turbulent time.  How are you managing during this unusual time?  What routines or rituals are you finding most helpful? Which help to feed your inner life and navigate through this unusual and frightening time in the life of the world?     

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