Our society has a relentless appetite for self-optimisation that is explained by psychologist Svend Brinkmann as ‘in an accelerating culture, we are supposed to do more, do it better and do it longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing’.
It is this preoccupation with productivity which has given rise to certain trends, like the idea of routine.
A search of ‘morning routine’ yields 448,000,000 Google search results alone, and the benefits and components of a model morning routine are well documented (perhaps cold bathing and bulletproof coffee sound familiar?). I myself have vowed to rise at sunrise, followed by a sequence of meditation and exercise and a nourishing breakfast... but in reality most days it’s difficult to wake before seven.
Just like we explored in our article How to Make Meditation a Habitual Part of Daily Life, no matter how much we understand the benefits of such a routine, why is it so difficult to commit?
a usual or fixed way of doing things
When travelling through India some years ago I noticed offerings left outside of homes as part of Hindu ceremonial worship. Fruits, flowers, incense. Everyday I witnessed men and women visiting temples or leaving these offerings.
Having grown up in a secular community, such tender observance was beautiful to watch. It was the antithesis of the optimisation culture in which we live — the culture which Brinkmann describes as lacking content or meaning. Instead, what I saw was unwavering commitment and devotion.
It was not routine, it was ritual.
And unlike routine, ritual is imbued with sanctity, purpose and meaning.
a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony
The allure of autopilot
Routine is heralded by productivity and self-optimisation gurus like Ferriss for its ability to alleviate cognitive burden in order to conserve capacity for more important things.
In his podcast episode Morning Routines and Strategies, Tim Ferriss describes his morning routine as a ‘predictive, scripted boot up sequence’, an ‘algorithm’ or ‘set of steps that produce an optimal day for you’.
This concept is explored in the work of New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg. He writes, when behaviour becomes automatic and habitual, “the brain can almost completely shut down... And this is a real advantage because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”
Of course routine has its virtues, especially if productivity is the objective... but should we really activate autopilot to bypass mundane activities for the sake of conserving ‘cognitive calories’?
Rather than burdening the rest of our day, perhaps elevating experiences from routine to ritual may set an entirely different tone.
Incorporating ritual in our daily lives
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes,
"In this world where technology and consumerism have become our religion, we’ve largely lost something magical: the ability to elevate something into the realm of the sacred."
How can we learn from (not appropriate) the ancient and modern cultures who practice ritual in order to welcome a sense of devotion and meaning into our daily lives?
Here are a few ways we can elevate ordinary activities into ritual, both for the self and for connection with others...
Rituals for the self
- Rise earlier than the others in your household. Make tea using leaves and sip from your favourite mug. Sit in solitude as you soak up the stillness and brisk morning air.
- Put aside time each day to connect with nature without interruption or other stimulation. Feel the sunlight on your skin and grass or soil beneath your fit. Swim in the ocean or creek.
- Light a candle or incense every evening to signify a slow-down or to accompany a regular meditation, yoga or gratitude practice.
Rituals for connection
- Sit with your partner, family, friends or housemates for a meal each week without the distraction of phones or television. Light a candle, play music. Enjoy each other’s company.
- Instead of checking and responding to messages everyday, delegate days where you will respond to messages with time and consideration. Be intentional with your language and check in with those important to you.
- Attend a women’s circle. Allow yourself to listen, support other women, share your own story and be vulnerable.
I’d like to share a final excerpt from Leo Babauta…
‘What is important to you? If it’s in your life, you must care enough about it that you’ve included it. Our hours are precious and limited, and we can take care to only place the things that matter most into that limited space. So what you’ve included in your life must matter tremendously. Why not craft a ritual for this thing that matters so much?’
It’s time we forgo auto-pilot for the sake of productivity. Instead let’s learn from the many cultures who practice ritual in order to cultivate a richer, more intentional and meaningful existence.
Only when a routine activity is done with meaning, not obligation, will it become a harmonious part of daily life. With intention and care it may even become a ritual.