'Write about whatever's on your mind: petty worries, soaring plans, angry tirades.' Your sole objective, says writer Oliver Burkeman, is to fill three sides of paper with words, first thing every day.
'What I love doing at the end of the day is to just download the thoughts that are buzzing around', says author Alain de Botton. Before going to bed, he grabs a pen and paper and spends a few minutes ‘writing down whatever is flying through my head'.
The common ground these writers share is not so much their practise of journaling but their love of daily ritual. Burkeman calls the act of filling his morning pages 'liberating'. De Botton calls his closing sequence 'intellectual housekeeping,' one which aids sleep and an emotional processing of the day’s events.
Rituals enrich experience and create meaning. Rituals can be formal, cultural traditions passed down. Or they can be quirky and personal – say, cosying up with a hot water bottle as you settle into your Saturday night movie.
Anything can become a ritual; it’s how we relate to what we are doing that transforms a neutral routine into a meaningful ritual. Rituals can be restorative; brewing fresh coffee before the morning chores, signalling a new day.
Rituals can be solitary or shared, markers of beginnings and endings; first school photos, birthdays, weddings, retirement parties, funerals. Rituals allow us express joy and celebrate. Rituals help alleviate grief. Indeed, one of the difficult things about the pandemic is it has upended the practice of familiar rituals – sympathising at funerals, celebrating baptisms, college graduations, new year fireworks, and so on.
What all rituals have in common is the power to elevate the ordinary domestic moments of our lives. Rituals can transform the mundane into an art form – the flair of the barista’s latte art, the theatricality of a two-minute Guinness pour. Ceremony lies at the heart of great sporting events like the raising of the host flag at the Olympics. Such rituals create a communal identity while honouring the ancient games. Indeed, sport psychology emphasises the benefits of pre-performance routines, so as to enhance concentration and confidence.
Unlike habits which are often mindless, rituals are generally mindful. They allow us acknowledge intentionally the present moment. People often describe living life as if they are rushing through. This can lead to a recurring sense of unsatisfactoriness because of the mismatch between where you want to be and where you are. Rituals allow us return to the present moment.
Why not begin by practising the ritual of intentionally checking in with your breath? Before reading emails, before reacting – pause. You will be less inclined to fuel the commentary in your head and better able to perform high-pressure tasks. Ask yourself what are my thoughts, feelings, body sensations? This simple anchoring ritual is a useful way to inhibit an anxiety spin before it snowballs into panic.
The pandemic has brought home to us the fragility of life. Yet, our brains crave order and predictability. Creating structure and ritual help us feel less disconnected. ‘The certainty that rituals create through their basic structure gets compounded over time’, writes behavioural scientist and Psychology Today contributor Nick Hobson. ‘The more we do them, the more meaningful they become’. This is a ‘powerful psychological force that can respond to almost any source of uncertainty and anxiety’.
The pandemic has blurred work-home boundaries now that many people are working from home, but rituals can help us in this regard. Changing into lounge clothing after turning off the laptop, lighting a scented candle in your living room, walking the dog as you take your evening stroll – the simplest of daily rituals can help you switch off and transition into a more relaxed state.
Consider areas in your life that give you a sense of satisfaction. Can you cultivate rituals to amplify these experiences?
In the spirit of closing ritual, it seems fitting to finish as the column began – with a quote, this time from Thích Nhất Hạnh: 'Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.'