The Importance of Ritual
By Ashton Szabo
I often marvel at how little conscious ritual we have here in our western Americanized lives. I grew up in Los Angeles, attended Catholic grade school and have been taking martial arts since I was five. Naturally, I rebelled against it all. I felt like the rituals of the church will hollow and the various forms of martial arts pointless. I grew up with Bruce Lee as one of my idols, and he was all about doing away with forms and tradition. When I left the United States to go live abroad, I was reading tons of Osho, who is all about breaking down any ideas of society, organized religion, etc. It wasn’t until I spent more than six years living in countries like Thailand, India and Peru that I began to have a whole new respect for ritual and the place it held in my life. After years of teaching yoga and shamanism, I feel ritual can truly enriched all of our lives.
Now let me clarify, I still feel the same way about empty, hollow ritual. It’s useless. It’s a waste of time. That’s why I caution everyone to be very careful about picking up other people’s or culture’s rituals without truly understanding them. Because if you don’t understand them, then the ritual is all on the surface, there is no substance. It’s in understanding the meaning behind the ritual where the ritual actually gains its power and relevance. Without it, you are wasting your time.
There is something truly empowering that comes with this realization though. Meaning is what reveals the power of ritual. If you understand WHY you do something, you open up its gifts. Think of it this way: let’s say I travelled all around the world with a handkerchief. It’s been to the Himalayas and the Andes, the Ganges and the Amazon. When I hold that handkerchief, I am flooded with the memories of all of those adventures. After all of those adventures… the handkerchief has also taking a beating. It’s worn, has holes in it and it’s kinda nasty… To anyone else, it’s an old gross handkerchief that they would probably throw away if they came across… But to me… it holds the magic of my adventures. To someone who doesn’t understand the story, the meaning behind the handkerchief, it’s just another handkerchief. Because I understand the story, because I know the energy that lies behind the handkerchief, it holds the power to completely immerse me in memories of those times and bring me back to those places.
We all have things like this. Things that mean something to us and no one else. Why do they mean something to us? Because we understand what lies beneath the surface. This is the same as ritual. If you understand what lies beneath the external appearance of the ritual, then you are tapped into its power. If not, then it’s empty, hollow and probably a waste of your time.
So how does this all relate to us in our lives? Well, first off. We all already have rituals. We might not put any actual meaning behind them, so they are empty, but we have them. Most of us wake up and follow a certain ritual: go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, shower, eat breakfast, etc. The question is, do you put meaning behind these acts? Is brushing your teeth just brushing your teeth, or is it an opportunity to appreciate everything that moves through your mouth. The food you consume, the air your breathe, the words that come out of your mouth. When you shower, are you busy thinking about everything you have to do that day, with very little thought into the process of washing your body; or is the act of washing a celebration and exploration? Do you massage your muscles when you lather with soap? Do you spend equal time with all parts of your body or do you rush the parts that require more effort to get to (bending down to was your ankles and feet, get behind your ears, or find ways to wash your back)? Do you inhale your food the moment it is put in front of you or do you take the time to acknowledge all the energy that went into growing and preparing the food? All of these acts can take on a different quality if you fill them with substance.
It’s important to note that your body is already sacred. It doesn’t require you creating a ritual to make it sacred. The same goes with everything in life. It’s all already sacred. Creating ritual doesn’t make something sacred. What it does is reveals to you how sacred it already is. Bringing this level of purpose and meaning into every act of your day, encourages the sacred to be revealed in everything you do. Every step, every breath, every motion takes on new life.
This level of attentiveness takes practice for most of us. Our minds are scattered and have the tendency to wander. So to move one way as opposed to another, as a conscious act, for you to be present enough, move slowly enough to wash every inch of your body as if it was the body of your lover, takes practice! This is where practices like yoga are so amazing. Whether you know it or not, you are starting to create rituals. If you go to one teacher often who has a particular style of teaching, you’re likely to begin to adapt some of their rituals. Given the skill of the teacher and their ability to convey meaning in a moment, you will catch on to the depths of their particular rituals in class. Every teacher starts off class a little different, transitions through it differently, and ends differently. Regardless of the teacher, you may already have your own rituals for your practice. I know a lot of students who always come to their same spot in the studio. The lay down their mat, do their “pre-practice” routine before class, and end a routine way as well. Some of it may be blatantly habitual and empty, some of it may be filled with meaning and purpose… But the opportunity is there regardless.
So ok… everything in life can be ritual. So then what? That’s easy to say, but hard to bring in to every moment. So what do we do? Start small. Start to create rituals of your own and stick with them. There is nothing wrong with adapting other people’s rituals as well, but be sure you are understanding their meanings. When I meditate, I like the light the same incense (Nag Champa), play the same background music (Shankara), I turn off my computer, my cell phone and sit in front of my altar. I perform certain breathing exercises to help calm my mind, and sometimes I might even employ one of my malas and a mantra. All of these things help attune my mind to recognize that it’s time for meditation. The incense is incense that has inspired me from the very first time I smelt it. The music comes from a CD I got my first time in Rishikesh, India from a nice Indian man near the Laxsman Jula Bridge. I’ve spent countless hours in meditation with this music playing in the background. Both the incense and the music hold years of moments and meaning behind them. It all takes on a Pavlovian effect. My mind is being conditioned through these acts to recognize what it is time for: meditation. If every time I sat down I did something different (played different music, light different incense, etc), I’d have a harder time dropping into the act of meditation. But by creating a ritual around it, I am further empowered to consciously direct my life. I’m consciously tapping into the subconscious for power.
When I create a ritual around bathing, it is no longer a habitual act that leads to just another thing in my day that takes up my time and tires me. Instead, it becomes part of the celebration of my day. It invigorates me to leap into the rest of my day renewed and recharged.
When I give thanks before a meal and acknowledge the energy it took to come to me, my food takes on a different quality. I notice it anytime I don’t stop to give thanks and Hoover my food down. It usually results in a rapidly empty plate and an upset tummy. But the times I slow down and give thanks, I savor the food more, appreciate it more, enjoy it more.
Ultimately, that’s the gift of ritual. It allows you to slow down, to appreciate things more, to enjoy them more. In a world that keeps speeding up, keeps us distracted and our minds everywhere but here, ritual can be the perfect solution to living a more present, engaged and fulfilled life.