As I sit here at one of my favorite spots in my home, I am contemplating on this topic of "ritual" and the daily routine. A few hours earlier, we had a nice Masterclass where quite a few of you showed up from around the world and tuned into this topic with me. A few hours before THAT, I was awakened around 3:45 AM with a buzzing feeling in my body and when I leaned just a foot to the right on my bed, I looked out the window and saw the remaining sliver of the Moon as it was swallowed up by the Earth's shadow.
Last night we (my partner Aliza and I) sat, as we often do during sunset, around our sacred fire. The time of transition from day into night is an important moment in our household and we are quite regular in our practice of performing a dhuni at this time. A dhuni (also known as homa or yagna) is a fire sacrifice, or a fire ritual. As the sun goes down and the daylight hours turn themselves into the twinkling of starlight, we are frequently found underneath the deck in my house in what is becoming one of my favorite "ritual zones" or locations which carry the vibration of pure sadhana. These "ritual zones" are places that we go to turn our attention away from the mundane and, for a moment or several, upon the Sacred. One can feel the vibrations of places that have been used repeatedly for ritual purposes as the locations themselves become sort of "aligned" with the behavior patterns associated with that geographical space. Why? Maybe it is the law of resonance in effect, maybe it is quantum mechanics, maybe it is just physics. All I can say is that in my case, I start to feel the transportation of my awareness from the mundane duties of daily life and towards my object of worship as I step into my "ritual zone". Perhaps this is the importance of having these places in our life, and this is why, for millennia, humans have built temples to go and perform their daily oblations to the Great Mystery.
It is, after all, a Great Mystery how we ended up here, where we are going, why we are doing what we are doing, and WHAT we are supposed to do WITH this mystery. What I'd like to present to you today in this blog post are some simple ideas that I have found useful in my own process of performing rituals, in "ritualizing" my life, in creating systems that are helpful and productive for me, and in establishing daily routines which serve my life, functionally, from start to finish to help me not only accomplish my tasks but be happy and healthy while doing it. Much of what I will share with you is from the perspectives of Yoga, Tantra and (when it comes to the daily routines) Ayurveda ... but much of it (all of it?) is also psychologically intuitive. I suggest that as you read and absorb what I am sharing here, to simply consider how this applies in your own life and to extrapolate from this as you wish.
Firstly I'd like to point out to us that ritual is very much a part of our life process and has been since.... well, who really knows. We have birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, funerals, weddings, and celebrations of all types which represent or signify a particular transition moment. What are celebrating, or "ritualizing" in these moments? I would argue that we are honoring what has passed, and transitioning into a new state. The ritual process of the birthday, for example, is a collective witnessing event where the person being celebrated is seen by their friends and family for having passed through another year of life. It is a group ritual, for sure, but a ritual none-the-less, and my argument is that the "ritual" part of it is what makes the process effective for the individual. What I mean by "effective", more specifically, is this: did the birthday celebration assist the individual in establishing new ways of being and behaviors that are more mature, as they come into a new year of life? If the answer is NO, then the "ritual" aspect of the birthday failed to deliver and the technology of ritual was not leveraged to its maximum potential.
My suggestion here is to consider that ritual and the ritual process may or may not be utilized effectively.... and to consider that by understanding what is meant by ritual and ritual process, we can or perhaps we might desire to create a more intention effect when it comes to "ritualizing" something, such as a birthday party. I mean, certainly we might want to understand the mechanics of ritual so that when we engage in more "serious" ritual processes, we can come out of them feeling like we got the job done well, no? I think so...
Maybe we can start at the beginning.
The word ritual comes from the Sanskrit root word rta which means "cosmic order". The English words righteousness and rhythm also find their establishment in this Proto-European root.
The concept of ritual was completely taken over by religion and thus nowadays is very often conflated with religiosity. This is a shame. If we look at the actual definition of the word, we see that it simply has to do with "order" as in, setting things in order. When we perform a ritual, effectively, we are "setting things in order". Like it says in the Tao de Ching: "set things in order before they exist." A profound teaching if you really investigate its deeper meaning and implications.
Aaaanyways back to our word: ritual. What is it? How does it work?
I think that humans are ritualizing nearly everything they do. The question is: how much of this is conscious? We are creatures of habit. This can be good or bad. We all certainly can think of habits we would rather not have, and yet there they are -- attached to our psyche and leeching our life-energies away. We probably, hopefully, can also think of positive habits we have -- things we do that help us with our lives and help us move in the direction of our goals. The question is -- how do we get more of the positive habits, and how do we eliminate the negative ones?
To examine this question we have to understand the biological process of creating a habit. It has to do with the nervous system. We learn by repetition. Once we learn something (like driving a car) we can forget all the little pieces we needed to remember initially and we can drive the car while also doing something else. However, at first, the establishment of that habit required all of our attention and all of the faculties of our awareness. This is the first key in the ritual process. In order for the ritual process to be effective, we need to have our entire energy focused on the task at hand. If we are thinking about things other than what we are doing in the ritual and what we are doing it for, the process is not nearly as effective. Imagine if every time you drove your car, instead of processing things with your mind, texting, listening to music, or whatever other stuff you happen to do while driving... you focused entirely on the task of driving safely and effectively to your desired destination. Imagine how few accidents you'd get into, how safe you'd be, how effective. Your process of driving has become ritualized to the extent that you take it seriously and when you are doing it, you are doing it with you entire being. You are not skipping steps. You are placing things in order.
So, creating a habit is a nervous system thing. Once the habit is formed, the nervous system has recorded that information, and we now have neural grooves associated with that set task. If triggered by a specific stimuli, those neural grooves will employ the necessary energy and motor tasks to do the job (i.e. sitting behind the wheel of a car). This can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. We experience the same process when it comes to bad habits. A bad habit can be anything from biting your nails or over-eating. What determines that it is "bad" is of course a subjective decision on the part of the doer of the habit, but ultimately it would be classified as bad if the habit is detracting from the life-energy of the person and preventing or obstructing their forward momentum towards their desired outcomes in life. If one is celebrating their birthdays by going to Vegas and getting drunk and wondering why each year of life looks relatively similar to the previous year, one might wonder why they are struggling to find happiness (happiness is a function of growth, successful completion of goals, and finding purpose/ meaning in life). The suggestion here is that if this theoretical person decided to do something different for their birthday one year and effectively ritualized a process that would transport their consciousness into a new way of being, they might be able to change their patterns and habits for the "better" and start moving in a "better" direction (where, of course, "better" is subjective on the part of the doer).
What we are pointing to here is that the creation of a positive habit and the generation of the momentum behind that habit is actually the product of a shift in one's consciousness. Taking this a step deeper, what I mean is this: the positive habit comes as a byproduct of a shift in one's awareness. The person already changed, and the habit follows suit. Consciousness comes first. "Put things in order before they exist" -- remember the Tao de Ching? Ritual, then, is the act of creating order before it exists. As anyone knows by now, we have to first visualize the goal in our mind before we can achieve it. If we cannot imagine it, how can we hope to experience it? Our imagination and our consciousness creates the image of the very thing, and then our actions in life walk us towards the manifestation and eventual desired outcome.
Rituals are processes which we turn away from our standard way of doing things, towards the Sacred, and in this process we undergo a sort of transformation. It is a bit like a rebirth. This takes place precisely because in the ritual process (if it is effective), one moves from mundane thinking and towards a sort of "magical mindset" by turning away from the day-to-day ordinary thought processes and into a contemplation on God, the mysteries of the Universe, on the humility of asking for help from this Great Mystery, etc. This become effective due to the fact that one is necessarily letting go of what they think they know, including the biological output of their current mind state, and allowing themselves to enter Sacred Space.
Sacred Space is the infinite, liminal space that is beyond the mind, where anything is possible. It is an environment where one can go to receive answers, guidance, support, help, peace, love, whatever is needed. It is not a place to go to receive material benefits, but rather, it is a place to receive a realignment in one's being, on the deepest of levels, to re-engage with life from a more calm, a more balanced, and a more centered place. The Sacred cares about the Sacred, which is to say that the "Sacred" cares about the harmony, beauty, and balance of the cosmos. When we turn towards this "Thing" (the thing we are calling "Sacred") we are saying "I don't know what I'm doing. This last year was hard. Its my birthday today and I feel like things keep repeating themselves. I'd love to find new or better ways to live. Is there something that can help me?" We used the birthday example here as it is getting the point across.
The main idea is that to properly enter into Sacred Space, through a ritual process, one must sufficiently humble themselves. One must leave their ego at the door. One must leave their worries, their daily thinking, their mundane mindset outside the Temple of Sacred, which is nothing more than the Sanctum of one's innermost Being. By journeying to the Center of the Universe, the Axis Mundi as it appears in mythology (symbolized mythologically by great mountains guarded by demons), one travels away from their limitations and is transported to a Sacred Space where anything is possible. If this inner pilgrimmage is undertaken seriously, sincerely, and with intention, transformative effects are not only possible, they are likely. THIS is precisely what makes the ritual process effective. Did the individual travel far enough away from their ego identity and back to the fountainhead of their being? Or did they begin traveling, and get caught in the loops of story and personal narrative? As they embarked on the inner quest to CHANGE something about themselves, did they get sidetracked by the desires of the mind, or the self-sabotaging tendencies of the ego?
What makes an effective ritual process EFFECTIVE is it ensures that we put in place systems and mechanics, techniques and methods that ensure we can cross the thresholds to a place of transformation.
There is a reason humans have seen ritual as an important part of culture for so long. It works! It helps restore the harmony of life! When things started to fall apart, ancient culture would enlist the help of ritual leaders and elders to enact elaborate rites and ceremonies to restore the peace and integrity of the communities. There may be real scientific reasons for this. We can only speculate, but perhaps you can intuitively sense what I am talking about.
The human psyche is prone to destruction. We are prone to become habitual -- sometimes the habits are "bad". If we do not have things, systems, methods, techniques.... RITUALS... in place that help us restore our condition to one of harmony and "goodness", we might fall apart too. The descent into chaos is all too easy of a slip to make. Rituals and the ritual process serve us to help us avoid this. They help organize our psyche, our minds and our spiritual energy towards the ultimate goals of life, which may not be material at all... but the material often follows suit.
If health, happiness and peace is something you can see yourself aspiring for more of, then creating positive rituals in your life and understanding what I am talking about may be important for you. Of course, this is easier said than done.
In addition to the Masterclass we hosted today, I've decided to offer up a workshop on the Ayurvedic Guidelines for Daily Routine which will be hosted via Zoom on Saturday November 26th. You can find more information here. I think this workshop will be filled with some nice, simply, and easy-to-follow recommendations to ensure that we remain organized in our awareness towards the goals we have set for ourselves.
I hope to see you there.