Rituals: sets of actions or words performed in a regular way, often as part of a religious ceremony; rituals are also any acts done regularly, usually without thinking about it. – Cambridge English Dictionary
As I’ve learned more and more about my religion in particular and spirituality in general, I have discovered both the beauty and the “slippery slope” of rituals. I was not raised in a church with obvious ritual. When I married my husband and began to go to weddings and funerals with his family, the prescribed movements, sacred objects and symbols of his church that were clearly familiar to everyone around me left me feeling confused, uncomfortable and more than a little lost.
Therefore, when we decided to join a church, no one was more surprised than I that the church that felt most like home to both of us included many of the same ritual movements, gestures and symbols that had once left me feeling lost. As I explored and practiced with the ritual of our new church, I discovered that it was designed to invite me deeper into the service by asking me to engage with the liturgy and to play an active role in worship. In other words, my intention when I rousted my family from bed early on a weekend morning was to celebrate and worship God. The ritual involved in the worship service acted as a beautiful invitation for us all to draw even closer to that intention.
As my family and I went through the motions of the service – kneeling in prayer or at the communion rail, standing to sing or to pray together with the rest of the congregation, sitting to hear the readings and the sermon – it felt like we were worshipping. The ritual movements and activities helped us to stay engaged in the celebration. As the ritual became more familiar to us, it actually served to automatically shift us into a spiritual state of mind. Ritual, then, supported our intention to spend an hour thinking about and praising God.
The “slippery slope” of ritual is when it slips in to take the place of its original intention.
This idea is perhaps easier to grapple with in a somewhat earthier context – yoga. Yoga, you see, is also a ritual. Especially the kind of yoga I practice and teach (ashtanga) in which you move through a set series of postures. These postures are very good for the body. They promote strength, flexibility and health. They are also good for the “you” inside your body. Moving through them is a powerful way to reduce stress and anxiety. They also increase mental aptitude by developing higher levels of focus and concentration. Yet moving through these postures and receiving their gifts is not the intention of yoga. The intention is to help us become still. In this stillness we will get to know ourselves better, we will deepen our understanding that we are part of the whole of creation around us, and we will draw closer to the Divine, however we understand it.
Getting caught up in the postures – becoming fixated on some finish line such as learning a new posture or mastering an old one or finally being able to do them all – is a slope on which most yogis will eventually slip. When this happens, we (and I include myself in this “we”) drift away from the real reason for our practice. We allow the ritual itself to become our intention.
The good news is that yoga has included a “safety belt” or two. First, and most obviously, is the breath. Many of the most elusive or challenging postures are simply not possible to pull off without a keen focus on breathing. Yoga utilizes the breath to open tight muscles and to inspire smooth, strong efficient movements that could be dangerous or even impossible if done while holding the breath. (Think about lifting into headstand or standing on one foot for extended periods of time.)
But this same breath that allows us to become more physically adept is also the gateway to the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the practice. When we focus on our breath, our state of mind automatically settles. (You can actually witness this happening in your opening breaths before you even begin to move.) Our emotions smooth and still. Our hearts open. We can better sense our deepest self – our conscience, our instincts, our spirit. The breath is relentless in its pull beyond the physical, which is the true goal of yoga.
Second, the joy and fulfillment we receive from the practice of yoga postures will eventually fade when we allow the postures themselves to become the reason we’re practicing. After all, we are going to have sore days. We’re going to be stiff. We’re going to be tired. We may even get injured or sick. Our practices on those days are not going to feel good. On a day like that, we’re certainly not going to master a new feat of flexibility or strength. And if we’re on our mat only for our body, that will be a disappointing day. If that day becomes a week, we may just choose to skip our practice entirely. Yoga loses its staying power as a regular gift that we give ourselves when it is all about the postures.
The same is true for worship. When the kneeling and standing and singing become the point, I suspect it won’t be long before Sunday mornings begin to feel flat and stale and you stop setting your alarm clock to go to church. This truth extends to all rituals in your life – your morning reflection time, your weekly long run or bike ride or Sunday family dinners. Having the right journal is way less important than your willingness to stay open and focused as you meditate. Lucky socks or shorts do much less than your drive and determination to help you go the distance. And, clearly, the people around the table, not freshly ironed napkins or gourmet food, make the meal memorable.
Yes, rituals can help. When they serve as an invitation to draw closer to your true intention they are powerful indeed. So embrace them! But do so mindfully as they can be a little slippery. When your ritual becomes your goal, it won’t be long before the gifts of whatever you’re doing fade away.