A ritual is defined as a set of actions or steps, typically performed in a repetitive fashion, that are executed in a meaningful or ceremonial way.
Rituals have been observed and documented across cultures and over the centuries, comprising fundamental pieces of a group’s identity.
We all have engaged in ritual behavior, ranging from the mundane to the profound.
Let’s consider several ways that rituals function in our lives.
Ritual can be a powerful tool in our day-to-day lives. For example, many people begin each day with a brief ritual including a moment of gratitude, a pause to set a daily intention or simple physical movement to underscore connection of body and mind.
Beginning one’s day with such a meaningful and purposeful act sets the tone for all the hours to follow. I believe this to be the message of the Marcus Aurelius quote above.
Other rituals focus primarily on actions intended to bring luck. Think about athletes’ pre-game routines involving special meals, specific clothing or perfectly sequenced warm-up drills. Again, these rituals give both a sense of control that reduces anxiety and set the stage for engaging in a meaningful performance.
Rituals are frequently associated with grieving and loss. Most cultures engage in rituals related to death and-or an afterlife. Rituals such as a funeral service, scattering of ashes or planting a tree for a loved one can provide not only a sense of closure, but also a sense of personal efficacy for the bereaved.
Indeed, a primary function of ritual appears to be in creating a small sense of personal control in the face of uncontrollable events. Research has found that bereaved persons who participate in meaningful rituals report an increased sense of comfort and attenuated feelings of grief following the ritual action.
Rituals can function to mark a transition, whether a daily transition from workplace to home time (think Mr. Rogers changing into his cardigan and sneakers), or a major life transition involving saying good-bye to a loved one or a relationship.
The human impulse to engage in ritual behavior has been with us since the earliest civilizations. It speaks to our basic drive for meaning, connection and personal efficacy.
Maria Malcolm, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and associate with Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton.