Monday, November 22, 2004

This Side of Rite

At the beginning of this holiday season so full of ritual, I do love to remind you to pause, take a breath, and notice those holiday rituals that have long fallen into routine. Perhaps it's time to shake things up a little bit.

I live in the chilly north, so it's about the end of soft-water fishing for me. I've got some routines ahead like cleaning out the tackle boxes and boat, oiling my reels and repairing my net. These tasks are usually done without much thought. However, this year I'm going to address them with ritual. I'm going to pause to enjoy each lure and remember the times it brought in a fish. When I take the old line off my reels I will remember the times that same line went screaming out with the tug of a big fish. I'm betting the Universe will notice my little ritual and I’ll be catching bigger and more fish next year.

This Side of Rite

“To live content with small means, to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich, to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never, in a word to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common, this is to be my symphony.” ~William Henry Channing

Routines are the customary and commonplace tasks, chores, or duties that we do regularly. They are pretty habitual and unimaginative.

However, when we question a routine, when we pause ever so briefly to reflect, we can actually ritualize the routine and bring it to a higher level of productivity and meaning for ourselves and others. This pause is what many are no longer capable of as we hone our skills of multi-tasking. Ritual brings stillness to our actions.

A route or routine is firmly bound to the ground. If you drive the same road every day, eventually you stop noticing the same landmarks. In ritual, you are moving outside of yourself and calling in the divine. The ritual is the rest stop that allows you to appreciate the routine.

In Ethology, the study of animal behavior in natural environments, ritualization means the alteration of a behavior pattern, as by a change in intensity in a way that increases its effectiveness as a signal to other members of the species. Imagine ritualizing your actions and therefore, increasing the effectiveness of the way you communicate your intentions to others.

Just this week I watched a colleague who wanted his team to find meaning behind the actions he was asking of them. He wanted them to consciously receive his request and consciously act. But he was a busy person and so his request was terse as he tried to mandate ritual. But ritual comes from within and no matter how much you ask someone to do their tasks with reverence, you'll fail unless you are willing to pause and demonstrate.

My friend David sails a lot. Now I know little about sailing but I know that there are many things he has to do to prepare his boat before he sets sail. There are things to do with the rigging, the sails, the ropes, etc. David says that he has done this preparation so many times he could do it blindfolded, in routine. But each time he prepares to sail, he brings ritual to his preparations. He takes time to be conscious about each task. He takes the time to remember some of his great sailing experiences. He takes time to communicate his passion for the art of sailing. Why does David do this? I imagine it helps him feel connected with everything related to sailing. I can certainly imagine that those who sail with him notice. And David's ritual is a way to effectively communicate not only his love of sailing but the reverence he requires of those who crew his boat.

As young children we absolutely understood the value of a ritual. When playing with a friend, we asked that he or she sit down and be with us. We described what it was we wanted to play and how we wanted to do that. Sometimes we even assigned roles to our play. Childhood friends take notice, they hear the signals. Kids are innately in touch with the divine. They realize they are little priests and priestesses, as we all are. So be a grownup if you must. But be a grownup who knows the secrets children know.

“If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." ~Antoine De Saint-Exupery