Ritual: A Standby of Human History


The Dark Night at the Train Station


Hm… Let’s tackle this one. We all have them. Like little puppies or monstrous fat mean cats.

Definition: (because I have that bachelor degree for a reason and it wasn’t to party 🙂




an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite


a system or collection of religious or other rites.


observance of set forms in public worship.


a book of rites or ceremonies.


a book containing the offices to be used by priests in administering the sacraments and for visitation of the sick, burial of the dead, etc.

(Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ritual *downloaded 5/9/2014)

Xi'an Mosque

I’m going to have to argue with this definition a little bit. English, as a language, morphs over time.  The less strongly religious we are as a body of speakers, the more we borrow or mix up words of previously religious connotation. I’m sure you’ve all heard someone refer to their ‘morning ritual’ or their ‘ritual visit’ to a grave or some place of special memory. I’m using that expanded and updated understanding of ritual.

Not all rituals are religious.

Not all rituals are religious.

Rituals have a been around in human history as long as it has been recorded. We all have them. We relate to them. We take comfort in them. We love some of our favorite characters for them. Think Monk, in the TV series Monk. He has so many rituals: hand washing, cleaning, clothes, hand wipes, checking and double checking things. These rituals keep him sane, allow him to cope with his world. He has too many rituals, as you know if you’ve seen the show, especially the ones around cleanliness. He has a nurse travel with him because his phobia and rituals are a handicap, but they are also the crutch that allows him to get up each morning and walk out of the house.

Like Monk, each of us have rituals. Some destructive, some positive. Last week I wrote about writing, word count and working towards some major goals. In the comments (name) mentioned rituals again and needing to get some. She got me thinking.

We do not need to create rituals from scratch. We already have them, whether or not they are acknowledged. I will use myself as an example, since I don’t have to get any permission slips for making fun of myself.

If an anthropologist were to watch me without speaking to me, they would probably decide that my laptop is my god figure and coffee was some sort of religious sacrament.

Coffee as Ritual

Photo credit: wikipedia.com

I fall asleep with my laptop next to me each night, after one last check of email and other things. I wake up and reach for my computer as soon as I wake up to check news. And then, preferably everyday, I will ritualistically either visit a shop and buy coffee, or brew it myself, sup with extreme pleasure and proceed to spend even more dedicated time staring fixedly into the face of my MacBook, preferably while my fingers stroke at the keys.

Ritual Recipe 

Ciara Writing 101:

Coffee; check. Headphones; check. Laptop; check. iTunes; check. Scrivener; check. 

Writing may now commence

Welcome to my ritual. 

It’s a flexible one. I can and have done this ritual in Japan, China, Washington, South Korea, Ohio, and California. I can do it sitting on a floor, waiting in an airport. And it’s not the only ritual that I take to write. I can and have just popped open the lid and started typing. But the above process it absolutely my best bet for high word count and a quality product.

Takasaki Station Starbucks - the place where most of Skere was written.

Takasaki Station Starbucks – the place where most of Skere was written.

Years ago my ritual included a certain desk, at a certain time of day, with a certain amount of quiet and a certain mood. Unfortunately for my writing, I was a teenager. Getting all those variables worked out frequently simply did not happen. Biologically or spatially. I would not consider those old rituals to be entirely healthy, either.

It’s important to know the difference between a healthy ritual that enables you and an unhealthy one that controls you, even if it is getting you in the direction you want to go. My definition of a healthy ritual is one you understand, control and choose to use. Think informed consent. Unhealthy rituals are ones you believe you have to do or something bad will happen or rituals that you are so tied to that you can’t function on a necessary task when the option to carry out the rituals isn’t an offer. Unhealthy rituals I’ve subjected myself to have included toxic friends who needed me everyday, eating food I didn’t know I was allergic to, and obsessive mirror checking, especially the obsessive mirror checking. Those are not good rituals and there have been ones I felt I didn’t have control over.

Detoxing your life of unhealthy rituals can and should be an entire post in and of itself. I’ll move past it for now but please feel free to share how you conquered your naughty dragons in the comments!

Creating healthy rituals I find to be much easier than getting rid of unhealthy ones. They’re rewards in and of themselves. Like the feeling of being alive after a good workout. You want to feel it again and you go back.

Rituals in broader social contexts have powerful connotations. Years ago, I wrote a research paper on the opening ceremonies to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. That was a ritual of immense and staggering power and deeply considered communication. Each Olympic Game begins with one of these kind of rituals and most of us have seen the shows of massive national pride, the national story and the shows of sportsmanship and world friendliness. Universally, the Games are a ritual. Each opening ceremony in one of these massive games is designed to provoke a certain reaction and convey a certain message on the part of the performing country.

Our personal rituals also comment ideas and beliefs to those around us and most deeply, to ourselves. Unlike the Olympic games, our daily rituals are performed frequently repeatedly. Thus they have maximum chance to impact us.

Lewis Howes, over at the School of Greatness podcast, talked neared the end of this episode, about a ritual of gratefulness that helped him improve his happiness. He was using an app, but it’s not necessary. Every morning he had to iterate something he was grateful for. Sometimes that was warm water and how wonderful it felt to shower or how much he loved breakfast.

I’ve been grateful for both of those things and believe me, when you don’t have them, they don’t seem very simple and basic!

Ritual in Sand Art

Ritualized gratefulness is part of many religions, national rites and cultural heritages, like the Marines in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, hymns of rejoicing found in various religions or moments of gratitude and respect given by some cultures to the earth.

Rituals don’t have to be so profound either. Brushing your teeth, eating with your family or eating alone, making your dog shake before a treat are all rituals.

So here’s my question and challenge to you. First the question? What rituals do you have, previously acknowledged or unacknowledged? And then here’s the challenge: what rituals do you need to work out of your life and what rituals would you like to choose to strengthen?

Please share in the comments! You guys and gals inspire me!



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10 Responses to Ritual: A Standby of Human History

  1. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after looking at some of the articles I realized it’s new to me.

    Regardless, I’m certainly happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back

  2. What rituals do I have? A better question is what rituals do I not have? I’m not on the same level as Monk, at least not with respect to OCD cleanliness, but I consider my life fairly routinized and structured. And I like it that way, for I want the little things to become so habitual, they essentially take care of themselves, thereby freeing up my thoughts for more important, higher-level considerations. Upon rising from bed every morning, I always (1) plug my modem back in (because I always unplug it a night) and (2) brush my teeth (because what better way to tackle a new day, no matter how crummy I may already know it will be, than with fresh breath?)

    Unplugging my modem at night is pre-writing ritual I started last year that’s been working out really well. It’s my way of not only preventing myself from falling down the Twitter rabbit hole, but also a psychological “leaving of this world” to enable me to fully immerse myself in the world of my story. I guess I’m also trying to “leave the world” when I go to bed at night as well, although leaving it unplugged all night is really more of an energy-saving, practical sort of thing: I’m not going to be web-surfing while sleeping, so why not save a bit on my power bill. I leave it unplugged during the day while I’m at work as well.

    One ritual I need to work on more is “coming back to the world” after my writing session each night. I try to leave myself half and hour for this, but sometimes, I just keep writing and push it too close to my bedtime, and the transition ends up being really abrupt and jarring. I usually don’t sleep well those nights, instead waking up every 5 minutes with more story ideas I have to jot down on my bedside notepad lest I forget them.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Unplugging the modem, yes! That’s a good ritual. I listen to music online a lot, but I like to shut down my social media apps when writing, which helps significantly. I have to brush my teeth every morning to! I just can’t stand not brushing them right off.

  3. “If an anthropologist were to watch me without speaking to me, they would probably decide that my laptop is my god figure and coffee was some sort of religious sacrament.”

    Too funny 🙂

    It’s strange me and my husband were just talking about traditions yesterday (apparently we disagree on the word itself lol).

    Sadly, I don’t have many rituals (maybe I do but don’t recognize them). I have habits (good and bad) but not much I do in a ritual sense. I’m online a lot (but not everyday), and I do enjoy coffee (but don’t have it most days)…umm, geeze pretty boring in that respect lol. I guess I relate with Hannah, I don’t have anything (you know besides sleeping, waking up, etc.) that I do daily. I want more structure but realize I’m not a consistent person (hence that “many heads” title coming to me quickly).

    This is an interesting topic though. But if I had rituals, I’d like to: wake up, have some water (oh I drink water every morning!), meditate, go for a walk, and write. I do some variation of this most mornings/early afternoons but not quite a ritual yet. Thanks for the food for thought Ciara…great post, as always.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Glad to make you laugh! I’m kinda curious about your and your husband’s differences over the word tradition. Loved your post recently about natural! If you don’t have outward rituals, do you have mental ones? They don’t have to be elaborate. I know when I sit down to write, I consciously let go of watching myself. Well, it’s less conscious now than it used to be. I suppose it’s moving towards ingrained habit now.

      Drinking water is a very good ritual!

  4. hannahgivens says:

    Good post on all the aspects of rituals!

    I’ve been brooding about what rituals I might have, and I still can’t come up with many, writing-related or otherwise. I was just commenting somewhere else that I’m always trying to structure my days better, but it’s never worked because I never do things the same way consistently. I can create an amazing schedule that transitions me perfectly from one mental state to the next and achieve many wonderful things, but the same rituals and techniques won’t work a week later.

    I always feed the cats first thing in the morning. I always feed them again before I go to bed. Beyond that… No morning ritual. I don’t do the same shower things every day, or in the same order, or take the shower at the same time. I don’t have a bedtime ritual, I just type until I fall asleep. There are various things I like to do, like I like to watch ASMR videos on Youtube before bed, and I like to go for a drive if I need to come up with an idea, but those are occasional things.

    The one thing I did think of is that I really need to eat or drink while I’m thinking, for optimum output — when writing anything, sitting in class, or reading. If I don’t have at least a bottle of water, I’ll keep reaching for it anyway and look like I’m doing some strange one-armed version of the hokey pokey.

    • Same here Hannah. I was thinking the other day that maybe I’m like this because my parents didn’t have much structure with me growing up. I mean I had discipline and all and they did their best but there was nothing (outside of eating and sleeping of course) that we did consistently (not bedtime, not church, etc.). My husband does some of the same things each day, but he grew up in a different culture for one and had a more regimented upbringing.

      Then again of course if someone grew up with a lot of structure then maybe they’d rebel as adults anyway.

      • hannahgivens says:

        That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before. My parents were the same. I was homeschooled, and their philosophy was as long as everything on the checklist got done during the week, it didn’t matter what happened on what day. I’ve always had a thing for checklists, so it worked fine for me. There were occasional attempts to structure days, or to create Family Dinnertime on a set schedule, but those things never went anywhere. (Partly because all the kids hated the structure, so maybe it was coming from both ends).

        I don’t really think of it as a problem, I like not being tied to the same rituals all the time, but it does make it tricky to create habits that I do want to cultivate. Maybe that’s just not realistic for me. I just posted this morning about my writing calendar/checklist method, but I hadn’t made the checklist connection until this comment. Maybe that’s the sort of thing I should just focus on, when it can get done whenever as long as it gets done. (I really would like to have some kind of trigger that signals my brain it’s time to write, though.)

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Hannah, I’ve never really been any good with elaborate schedules either. My best work is done when I take a project and work section by seciont on a project for a concentrated period of time, or put aside little tasks that I can “chew up” here and there. Personally, I find it helpful to separate schedules and rituals. Life these days can throw us so many curve balls that being tied to the ‘one truly productive schedule’ is probably a liability!

      Checklists are awesome!

      • hannahgivens says:

        Yeah, that is a useful distinction! I tend to just do whatever whenever with both, although I’m still trying to detect ritualsnas I go about my day because now I’m curious.

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