The Art of Ritual: Applying habits to our daily life

When it comes to habits and the way they affect our health, there are two kinds – bad habits and good ones. The bad ones can debilitate and damage us; the good ones can help make our lives better. We all know how hard it is to break a bad habit, but what most people don’t realize is that it is just as hard to break a good one. The human body tends toward stasis; it wants to hold on to whatever it has. The changeover from one set of habits to another is the tough part. This is where we can all learn a few things from the ancient art of ritual.

Rituals have been a part of human life since before we had a name for them. We tend to associate them with mysticism and religion, but ritual is prevalent in every organization, from the Girl Scouts to the US Assembly. Athletes practice rituals before games, couples perform rituals to bond them together for life and our earliest doctors — shamans — relied on ritual for healing long before the advent of modern medicine.

A ritual, by definition, is simply an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set, precise manner. It differs from a casual habit in that it is an act of intent, not something we fall into without thinking – we do it over and over again. The effect of such repetition is that the desired result becomes etched into our brains much as if we had programmed a computer. 

Chances are you already have some daily routine that helps you face the day, whether it’s a conscious thing, such as laying out your morning tea, or a routine you fall into when you are stressed. When I get tense, I find myself breathing as I walk, in a sing-song rhythmic pattern. I do it without thinking, but it helps bring me back to my center. When we don’t have a ritual or coping mechanism to help us with stress, we often turn to other means to ease the pressure of the day. Some, like video games, can be fairly harmless. Others, like drugs and alcohol, have a way of turning on us over time.

So, how can we use ritual, and the habits we form, to our advantage? Both Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are good examples, with their 12 step programs. There is a continuance and pattern to the work done here, and a ritual to the meetings that serves to re-program addicts and abusers to think in a different way. They turn to each other for help and understanding; they admit responsibility for their own actions. Those who don’t follow the steps don’t succeed. Fighting addiction takes so much more than will power. It takes a system that asks you to look at yourself honestly and face the consequences of your choices. The real power of the rituals of a system is that they are proven methods — they have worked for a large enough percentage of their particular demographic over time that we know they are not just personal opinion or pointless “magic.” Want to stop drinking, get a sex addiction under control, form healthy exercise habits or recover from an injury? There is a system nearby that can help. 

But how do we know that systems really work? For proof, use as an example Lamaze, a system of breathing for pain management in childbirth. As a pregnant mom, I took classes and learned the system’s ritualistic breathing and counting. It carried me through childbirth, and came to my rescue again a couple years later when I was injured in a riding accident in the mountains. I lay alone in a pasture for two and a half hours with a concussion, fractured collar bone and ripped rotator cuff, waiting for help to come. I did Lamaze breathing the whole time to keep it together. When the ambulance finally got a stretcher up to me and took me to an emergency room, I knew I was safe so I started to breathe normally again. The pain was so intense that my throat closed up and I collapsed on the floor. Imagine the power of a ritual that could control that kind of pain for two and a half hours.

It’s time we understood the importance of our personal choices. The habits that we have, the rituals that we perform, the answers that we seek – they all make a difference in our health.