The Power of Ritual
From our ancient ancestors to the digital denizens of today’s secular society, humans have used rituals to motivate, move and connect us. While for many, the religious aspect may have fallen away, the pandemic period has underlined how important rites and rituals continue to be for us to make meaning, create identity and express our place in the world.
Collective and individual rituals were a casualty of the first two years of the pandemic. Their absence was deeply felt, particularly during periods of more intense lock down when there was little to mark the passing of time. Days and weeks slipped into and over each other without our being able to find anchorage. Significant life thresholds were passed without marking or celebration: jobs were left and started with little more than a new email address, losses mourned without communal healing and sorrow, and schools and universities were graduated from in kitchens without peers. On an individual daily level, the transitions from home to exercise to work to play all took place in a single space, or even a single screen: cued only by the closing and opening of windows on our computers. There was a relentless monotony, absent our collective and individual markers of meaning.
Rituals are so important to humans that when they are taken away, we make new ones where we can. In the case of the pandemic, people all over the world created a peculiar communal joy in the ritual of banging together saucepans to express gratitude to healthcare workers. This was an expression of ‘collective effervescence’, a term coined by sociologist Emile Durkheim a hundred years ago, to describe the feeling people have in religious rituals when people come together to communicate the same thought and participate in the same action - the feeling of intense connection. In secular societies, we see this at sports events or gigs. During Covid, we communicated our gratitude through the medium of saucepans. And for a while, that Thursday night ritual brought us a genuine sense of connection in otherwise isolated, colourless weeks.
Defined as a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order, rituals are a way of anchoring us in a moment of meaning. They can be religious or secular, but their purpose is to provide a marker in time: a moment of reflection or connection. Rituals often mark the crossing of thresholds in our lives: they protect and encourage us as we make those crossings, and in communal rituals, they allow others to bear witness to our transitions.
Those thresholds may be highly significant - a marriage, a death - or more mundane: the transition from family life to work, and back again. Rituals help us cross those thresholds with meaning and mindfulness. From a temporal point of view, birthdays and anniversaries are simply another day in the year. It is our ritualised marking of them as something special that marks our movement from one year to the next that transcends the everyday and gives us the opportunity to meet our personal ‘new year’ with meaning.
Evidence backs up our need for collective ritual. Research by Shira Gabriel, a professor of social psychology in New York State, suggests that shared ritual (be that a big event or an everyday interaction) makes us feel more connected to others, and that our life has meaning. Her research also suggests that people who experience it are likely to be happier and less anxious and depressed.
With joy, we are seeing the big collective celebrations return. We have just been able to celebrate Easter, Passover and Ramadan together for the first time in two years or, in secular terms, indulge in the chocolate eating, bunny hunting and garden centre visiting of the early Spring Bank Holiday.
While communal rituals give us the comfort of familiarity, solidarity and shared experience, personal rituals can create a feeling of connection to ourselves and the wider world. We can also use them as private moments of reflection and mindfulness. They give our lives meaning and mark our place in the world - whether that be a formal religious service, or daily journaling practice, mindfully approached and in connection with the self. Even your daily Wordle might act as a ritual in your day. According to psychiatrist and author Abigail Brenner, “The simple act of participating actively in our own lives is a giant step toward to taking back personal responsibility for how we choose to live, with who we choose to share our experiences and for how we choose to define ourselves in our community and in our world.”
Unlike habits which are often automatic and mindless, individual rituals are mindful – a series of actions carried out in a specific way for a specific purpose. Approached like this, we can turn the most mundane everyday tasks into sacred rituals - lending a richness and depth to our lives in simple ways. Often there is an aesthetic element to these personal rites. As Japanese tea ceremonies use specific utensils whose form and beauty is highly prized as an essential part of the ritual, so using aesthetically pleasing items reserved for a specific purpose at home can help transform an everyday occurrence into something much more meaningful.
Our habitual morning coffee, for example, approached as ritual and served in a special cup, marks our movement into a new day and becomes much more than a shot of caffeine. It gives us a moment to pause at the threshold of the day: to consider what we might want from it, to be mindful of how we are entering. Similarly, we can turn the simple act of cleansing our face in the evening into a ritual: showing ourselves gratitude and appreciation in the way we care for ourselves. Both coffee and cleanse act as sacred ceremonies of care and connection with ourselves.
 The psychological importance of collective assembly: Development and validation of the Tendency for Effervescent Assembly Measure (TEAM) - Shira Gabriel 2017