The Cambridge dictionary defines ritual as: a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony. A routine is defined as a usual or fixed way of doing things.
There is not a lot of difference between a ritual and a routine. I will refer to both during this article, as some routines are rituals and can even have elements of superstition.
Rituals are practices by different cultures, religions, professional practices, therapeutic practices, families, societies, countries, and the list continues. Let’s take a look at each of these.
Various cultures will have rituals and routines and some of these will be represented and performed during annual holidays such as Thanksgiving in the US, and Guy Fawkes day in the UK. Some rituals will be in the form of gestures such as bowing in Japan, kissing booth cheeks in most of Europe, and walking on the left in London. Various religions will have sacred days such as Easter in the Catholic church with the ritual practice of Lent preceding it involving attendance at the Stations of the Cross on Friday’s; and Puja (Pooja) which is a Hindu morning practice that is performed every morning, but only after bathing and dressing and before eating or drinking. Professional practices may use certain colours throughout their establishment, for instance in China, red is a symbol of prosperity. And therapeutic practices may use a consultation as a routine and ritual for preparation to treat a client. Families may have a weekly gathering for Sunday lunch. Societies such as fraternities and sororities will have an induction process often referred to as pledging or rushing. Before a football match, the crowd sings the home countries national anthem. In many cultures, the groom is not allowed to see the bride before the wedding on the wedding day.
There are many examples of the routines and rituals that we perform that have become an accepted part of our lives, no matter where we live. It has often been pondered, debated and researched as to why we have developed rituals and how their uses impact our lives.
I don’t believe that rituals are fully mindless. In fact, I think they are a form of mindfulness. I believe that we think about them, from the time that it is time to perform them until we end them. Think about when you are on the settee, and you know it’s time to ‘get ready’ for bed. The ‘getting ready’ is the ritual. Before giving a talk, you may rehearse your speech. Every Saturday you may go to an outdoor market and perhaps your routine is to look at all the fresh flowers. Before bedtime you may write in your journal to reflect on your day.
There has been some research done on how rituals influence our thoughts and behaviours and ultimately how we feel. Professor Harvey Whitehouse, Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, heads up the ‘Ritual, Community and Conflict’ project funded body of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, archaeologists and evolutionary theorists. Professor Whitehouse says ‘We wanted to test our theory that there were 2 basic clusters of activity in ritual: frequently practised ritual with a low emotional intensity and less frequently practised, more emotionally intense ritual. We surveyed 645 rituals from 74 cultures, selected randomly from the eHRAF (electronic Human Relations Area Files), and constructed a database recording frequency, arousal and contextual information for each of the 645 selected rituals.’
The research covers evolutionary anthropology and social cohesion, but the research suggests that rituals precipitate our way of thinking, how we behave and how we feel.
There is a difference between a ritual and a superstition. As an avid tennis fan, I have watched in awe as over the years my favourite players have performed rituals that appear to be superstitions rather than rituals, and have often been labelled as such. I can agree with this label for Rafa Nadal, Andre Agassi and perhaps others, as often their rituals were performed for fear of not achieving a desired result if not performed. However, from my observations and my own research in private practice, I cannot conclude that all rituals are performed superstitiously.
To make the difference more defined, I would see that someone making the sign of the cross as a religious ritual with the intention of a blessing for either themselves, or to begin to offer prayers for someone or something else. It can, however be done superstitiously, for instance, after praying, you may feel that if you do not end the prayer with the sign of the cross, that the prayer is incomplete somehow, or your ritual is incomplete and therefore superstitiously you perform the sign of the cross because you fear that if you do not, the prayer will not be heard. In this instance, this ritual is performed superstitiously, but also as a ‘rite’, a solemn ceremony or act.
When Rafa Nadal lines up his water bottles by his chair and adjusts his shorts before serving, he may be performing this ritual superstitiously, and I suspect this is the case. It will however, provide him with a sense of comfort and most importantly, a stimulus of control over a situation that even he, one of the most talented players we have ever seen, knows that he cannot fully control. The person on the other end of the court across that net has a 50/50 stake on the control lever. For a real competitor, that has to cause some anxiety. He can however, control how he lines up the bottles, adjusts his shorts, and shuffle his feet on his way back to his chair, before and after each game. When another factor is introduced, for instance, the change of ends on the court, this can bring an entire new set of anxieties, and so we begin to see the rituals either increase or change somehow, as a new challenge is presented.
I could use the tennis analogy for this entire piece, but don’t worry, I won’t as I am fully aware I will lose a lot of you if I do so. However, it is such a great game where ritual, psychology, metaphors and superstition are on full display anyone who is interested, and provides us with an insight into how our lives can be affected by performing rituals. Although I may use a few more examples below.
Rituals can often bring comfort, stability, uniformity, community, peace, calmness and control to our lives. We learn to seek pleasure and stability from within the womb. And stability is present until we are thrust out into the world and we must breathe on our own and feel the heat and cold of the world outside of the womb. We even have to cry for food. That’s anything but soothing. As we grow beyond infancy into childhood, we may still require extra soothing, so sucking your thumb, twiddling with your hair, or biting your nails may bring a soothing, calming effect. In adulthood we may continue some of those soothing rituals or create new ones. For instance, you may start smoking, drinking or over-eating. You may even continue to bite your nails or go from twiddling with your hair to pulling your hair (trichotillomania), or grinding teeth (bruxism). These are soothing rituals that can cause harm and can become difficult to treat in adulthood. As adults, we can choose more wisely.
Rituals that are found to be soothing:
• Yoga in the morning or evening as you begin and end your day
• Changing your sports shirt in front of a huge crowd on the tennis court to garner applause and whistles to boost your confidence (men, that it)
• Having a weekly message
• Walking first thing in the morning
• Making a toast as you raise your glasses on someone’s birthday
• Attending church on Sunday’s
• Phoning a parent every day
• Saying a prayer over every meal
• Driving the same way to and from work, even though other routes may be shorter
• Attending the gym daily
• Washing your car weekly
• Playtime with your pet
• A skin care regime
• Reading the Sunday papers
• Afternoon nap or siesta
• Lighting a candle before praying
• Having coffee/tea at the same café at the same time
• Ordering the same meal
• Asking ‘How are you’
• Saying ‘Sorry’
• Saying ‘I’m fine’
• The same meal for Christmas dinner or lunch
When we are faced with uncertainty, challenges, or new situations and conditions, rituals can help to ground us in the here and now, as they are done in the present. The ritual can often disrupt the possibility of negative thinking or awfulising the outcome of an event, your day or a performance.
Besides athletes, rituals and routines can be seen practiced in other performance-related careers. Actors often tell each other to ‘break a leg’ before a performance. Athletes often eat the same meal before a match or game, and some will use visualisation to focus on winning. Some performers wear the same under garments they wore when they created a particularly successful piece of work. Some musicians chose to work in the same studio in which their most critically acclaimed work was created. Some painters will not use the same paint brush for a different piece, and will discard them afterwards. Some orators refuse to practice their speeches beforehand, as they think this will ruin the spontaneity of their talk. Some tennis players rush forward to shake the referee’s hand first. Various writers use the same manual typewriter with which they wrote the book that won them a Nobel Prize or Oscar for screenwriting.
Human beings enjoy routine. It provides a sense of stability. I believe that this is why the rituals of practicing meditation and yoga are often so helpful, so popular and so highly recommended, because they have proven to provide comfort and a sense of participatory fulfillment.
Francesa Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, accompanied by Kathleen Vohs and Yajin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, carried out a series of studies which investigated how ritual changed the experience of consuming different foods. In a study, chocolate was used, and participants were asked to ritualistically taste the chocolate, which for some was the process of unwrapping half, or breaking the bar in half. They reported finding the chocolate more flavourful and savoured it more. A similar test was used for eating carrots, which when eaten ritualistically, was enjoyed more.
This evidence suggests that when personal involvement is involved, it becomes the real driver of these effects. ‘Rituals help people to feel more deeply involved in their consumption experience, which in turn heightens its perceived value’. Harvard Business Review 
The benefits of rituals:
- Reduces anxiety
- Calms worry by acting as a distraction
- A mindfulness technique that supports focus
- When practiced with others it can create a sense of community and support
We can create our own rituals to help us to maintain equilibrium, calmness and focus.
Here is a Daily Ritual for Mind Body Spirit that you can print out and try out. Make adjustments to meet your needs and schedule.
But first, make a list of what are already practiced rituals in your life, be they daily, weekly, monthly or annually. Don’t leave anything out. Make sure that weekly Bingo game is in there, and the 3-Rhythms dance class that you attend once a week. If you’ve been at least 3 times in the past 2 months, it’s a ritual, not just a night out.
Look at your list. Are there any rituals that cause you some anxiety if you do not perform them? If so, contemplate whether they are rituals or superstitions. Do any of your rituals make you so elated that you perform them more often depending on the structure of your day? Are there any rituals which you perform infrequently? If so, why might this be the case?
Rituals are meant to benefit our lives. It may be time to adjust your routine.
Try this on for size. As as always, please let me know your thoughts and ideas on rituals.
Picture credits where not labelled:
Woman Stretching in Bed with a Man Sleeping Beside Her — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Reading in bed – Getty Images
All other images are Stock images.