If asked there are many who would claim that we live in a modernised society, built on science and logic. They may be surprised to find out that actually, we are a population whose daily movements are often products of rituals. We are not just referring to those of us who follow a specific religion and will be familiar with certain rituals and practices – so where else would you find rituals in today’s Western society? Although it may not be evident to us, it is safe to assume that even the non-religious among us practise rituals every single day. And what’s more, rituals can be used to improve our meditation routines. But before we delve into this topic, let’s provide a brief overview of what we mean when we talk about ‘rituals’.
The history of rituals
Rituals have been used throughout history to mark moments of great significance, and although the actual identification of which moments are worth marking and which are not is relative to the specific temporal and geographic placement of the society in question, it is a consistent trait of all cultures and groups that they will form rituals. If the term rituals is feeling a bit alien to you, try to think in terms of traditions, or ceremonies.
Across history, rituals have often been part of religious practices, ways to bond as a social group, opportunities to fulfil a spiritual need, ways of marking momentous occasions, or all of the above. They can often be found surrounding moments of transition, or as a way of expressing a belief that something is vitally important or sacred. Some examples that might spring to the forefront of your mind upon hearing the word ‘ritual’ could be ritual sacrifices of animals in Ancient Egyptian times or even humans in Aztec societies. It’s important to acknowledge the fact that this is an extremely outdated view of what a ritual must entail. Thankfully our rituals no longer involve the same kind of gruesome features; in a more modern context, your mind may actually have been drawn to the practice of a morning or evening ritual, like a bath before bed or a morning cup of tea or coffee.
Our brains and rituals
It is clear that no matter where you look across human history, you will always be able to find a group of people conducting some form of ritualistic act. Rituals behave as a sort of social cement, binding us all together under common interpretations of the world around us.
The question still remains – why as human beings we are drawn, time and time again to the formation of rituals in our societies?
Rituals are for all intents and purposes, habits. When we repeat actions, words or thoughts they become learned behaviours and our brains begin to expect them. Consider the act of zipping up your coat. This is an action that you have repeated so many times in your life that you don’t even have to think about it. When something becomes a habit, we get a sense of satisfaction upon completing it – this is due to a release of dopamine in our brains. Therefore, our brains, which are pre-disposed to order exist in expectation of the completion of certain habitual actions, and we get a boost of dopamine when this need is fulfilled.
This fact provides us with a guide on how to create happiness using rituals. Of course, these must be rituals that serve us in a positive way. For example, we cannot form a habit of scrolling on our phones so that this becomes our evening ritual and expect to find joy in the completion of this task every night. This is why meditation is a great source of opportunities to create daily rituals that will both provide us with a release of dopamine when they are completed, but also a general increase in our well-being.
Rituals and meditation
It is really important to bring rituals into your meditation routine; not only do rituals give you the opportunity to create habits but they are also unique in their ability to ground you in a specific moment. So how can we create rituals in our meditation routines? If you already have a meditation routine then there are a few things you can add to it, or if you have the intention to start meditating then here are some tips to keep in mind while you curate your routine.
Dedicate a space to meditation
When you come to participate in your formal practice, it is always a good idea to have some consistency in where you practise. This space will then become sacred to your practice. As well as choosing a space to dedicate to meditation, you can also furnish that space in a specific way before you practise. For instance, light some candles, burn incense, or play music to make your space feel like it was made for meditation.
This one may sound a little far-fetched, but having clothes that you dedicate to meditation can be a great help in putting you in the right frame of mind to practise. If you know that a certain top is dedicated to wearing during your meditation sessions then even the act of changing out of your work clothes and into your specific meditation clothes can be considered a ritual.
Have mindful breaks
A ritual that you can practise regularly throughout the day is a mindful break. Set an alarm on your phone at regular intervals, this could be at five minutes to the hour and take some time to reflect on your breathing, how your mind feels and try to realign yourself with the current moment.
Meditate at set times
As well as meditating in set places, it is also useful to meditate at set times. Your brain will come to expect this routine and gain a sense of fulfilment when it is completed. Select a time that will always be available to you, maybe before eating breakfast, or before you go to bed.
Finally, you can reward yourself whenever you complete a meditation session. This could be with a cup of tea, an episode of your favourite TV show, or any other act of self-care. By doing this you will not only be setting up a ritual surrounding your meditation practice, but you will also be taking advantage of your brains understanding of rewards.
These are only a few general tips, there are many other things you can do to make your meditation ritual personal and unique to you. I encourage you to try to incorporate at least one ritual into your routine and notice the sense of satisfaction and clarity this brings you. Rituals play on our brains love of routine and structure, so utilise this to establish a lasting relationship with meditation and to create moments in your day when you can feel great about fulfilling a need by participating in a ritual.
Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London.
I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.