The Power of Ritual (to Heal and to Harm)

Rituals can play a dual role in our lives. On the one hand, they can provide the structure we rely on to move about our days doing the things we need to do, whether at work, school, or play, in our relationships, and in our thoughts. Without ritual, life can feel chaotic, making it harder to settle into a natural rhythm between activity and rest. In countless ways, some we don’t even consciously notice, ritual can thus make our lives easier to navigate.


But there is another side to rituals. For some, they can morph into rigid prisons that block growth and new experiences, in some cases actually preventing people even from meeting their basic needs.

To understand why, it’s important to remember that, of course, not all rituals are created equal. For example, Matt Bieber describes for Aeon Magazine how two disparate sets of rituals had equally disparate effects on his life. Bieber, who has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorders, relates how the rituals of Buddhism, specifically meditation, allowed him to let go of the OCD rituals that were running his life:

On a two-week solitary meditation retreat last month, I found out what happens when the two types of ritual collide: my OCD, crafted to hold tight to a false self, and my Buddhist practice, designed to take it apart.

In Bieber’s case, the positive rituals of Buddhist meditation were the key to his freedom from harmful obsessive-compulsive rituals.

Rituals Around Food

Rituals can affect any part of our lives. A research study published in July 2013 suggests that there is a connection between ritual and how we experience food. In that study, researchers had participants perform short rituals before eating, and this behavior was shown to increase their enjoyment of each food they ate — regardless of whether it was chocolate or carrots. Studies like this one draw attention to how our life experiences could be more enjoyable if we take the time to slow down and organize them in meaningful ways.

Rituals Around Sleeping

Another area that can be greatly affected by ritual is something that we all spend a third of our lives doing: sleeping. “Sleep hygiene” is the term used by specialists to describe the quality of our sleep. Actions — that is to say, rituals — that we perform throughout the day or right before bed can encourage good sleep hygiene or be detrimental to it. And most are now well aware from either personal experience or by keeping up with the latest scientific developments, sleep is incredibly important to our overall well-being. Poor sleep hygiene can greatly diminish our ability to tolerate stress, anxiety, and depression. If you’re interested in improving your own sleep hygiene, the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School offers 12 tips.

Sleep might seem a rather mundane activity, but rituals can also show up in extraordinary places. Artists, philosophers, and other creative intellectuals have been known to work at their crafts under very particular constraints and contexts. Masson Currey catalog some of these habits in his book How Artists Work: Daily Rituals. In reading the 161 entries, it becomes easier to appreciate just how idiosyncratic the creative process can be. In one colorful example from the book, Currey describes how for many years filmmaker David Lynch would visit a retro Los Angeles diner called Bob’s Big Boy, always waiting till 2:30 in the afternoon, after the lunch rush, and order a chocolate milkshake. He’d drink that down (along with numerous cups of coffee) and then transcribe his ideas on napkins.

Building Ritual into your Life

Part of the reason why I love the work that I do with people in counseling is that I get to help them recreate new rituals or to get back in touch with rituals that they used to do, but let go of for one reason or another.

How about you? What rituals do you notice doing every week? Every day? Are you creating the flexible structure that you need to be creative, to heal from past wounds, to manage daily stress? Spending some time thinking about these questions can also be considered a ritual.

Originally posted April 4th, 2014.