The Ritual of Everyday Life

​Like most people, I tend to dislike cleaning. I do it because it needs to get done, but it’s not really fun. It is literally a chore, something people compare dull, repetitive, and annoying tasks to. However, I have recently discovered a surprising element to chores that made the process become fascinating for me. I will share this below, but first, I want to share a memory that sprung to mind when I made this discovery.

Washing dishes - Pixabay

When I was 9 or 10 years old, my family and I were expecting company — a family friend and his son were visiting us​, which was a rather rare occurrence. The son (I’ll call him Sam) and I were good friends, and I was thrilled to see him because he lived on the other side of town and we went to different schools, so I got to see him very, very rarely. In preparation for their visit, we all got busy cleaning the house top to bottom. And part of the reason this memory stands out for me as much as it does is that I noticed that I felt quite differently toward these same chores that I normally hated doing. I found myself thrilled to clean my room and wash the kitchen counters. Suddenly, dusting the bookshelves was kind of exciting. This was such a powerful experience, that decades later I remember it more vividly than I remember seeing Sam and spending time together during that particular visit.

What was it that shifted my perspective so powerfully? One could say that the excitement of the goal ahead (the special occasion of seeing my friend) is what motivated me to be more engaged with the tasks at hand. This is how I saw it too, until very recently, when I was reflecting on the topic of ritual. When most people think of rituals, they usually think about daily routines, religious practices, or perhaps the obsessive-compulsive rituals that someone can’t seem to stop repeating. But there’s an entire world to ritual that happens literally every day, something we are not often taught to look for. Once I began noticing this, the idea of ritual has created immense meaning in my life.

What happened for me in preparing for Sam’s visit was that I was so thrilled to see him, that to savor the anticipation, cleaning the house became part of the ritual of preparing to see him. This is why it stands out in my memory this much – not because I did a particularly stellar job or because I overcame laziness to do the tasks I normally avoided at all costs (what 9-year-old wouldn’t?). It stands out because this time, the cleaning had a different feeling to it, almost something sacred. It bonded us as a family, as we all worked to create the space in which to welcome cherished guests. We weren’t merely doing chores – we were creating something special.

The more I reflect on the idea of ritual, the more I see it at play on a daily basis. For example, when I put my makeup on in the morning, it’s not just a routine, although that’s a part of it. There is a ritual quality to it because putting on my makeup means I am going to the office to see clients – and during those 10 minutes or so, I start to enter into a different self-state in order to prepare for the day. Similarly, so many other routines in our daily life can be seen as rituals that create a shift in our self-states, a different kind of energy. Washing dishes, rather than a chore that eats up 20 minutes of the evening, can be experienced as a ritual that creates clean dishes and a clean kitchen – with the many deeper implications for an uncluttered mind. Other household or work tasks can gain a similarly rich meaning as well.

The many teachings on mindfulness talk about something very similar, but I see an added element to it – that what I am talking about is not just about being in the moment without trying to escape “boring” or painful reality, but about the conscious creation of something new within one’s life, a shift in awareness and in internal experience. Finding the ritual in everything – taking a shower, getting dressed, cooking, eating, and so on – is what shifts one’s life from a series of routines and chores to a deeper, possibly even spiritual, experience.

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6 thoughts on “The Ritual of Everyday Life

  1. Yes. I have enjoyed reading this post very much in part because I have sensed you wrote it in a particular state of mind which reminds me of my own current experiences of being a patient on the couch in psychoanalysis. You seem open to your own mind, which I learn every day and in every session is what experience itself is all about.

    • Thank you for your comment, and also for bringing up the very important connection of ritual in psychoanalytic work! Many aspects of each session are ritualized — greetings, sitting down, payment, goodbyes, etc — and all have very deep meanings indeed. Thank you for that added layer of reflection.

  2. Reading your post put me in a frame of my to be present with both my thoughts, and yours, on the page. The words that (I think) Reb Zalman Shalomi said some years ago came to me: “The Holy dwells wherever we let it in.” There is something, in this work, both the work we do with patients and this sudden luminosity that opened up in your “housework” — Something there, a stilling and a deepening in us that lets in life and Life, to dwell. Lovely. Thank you.

    • This is truly beautiful, thank you so much for responding and sharing the quote. The word “luminosity” rang very true, and made me recall a similarly-themed word, “numinous” — related to the quote about the Holiness that dwells wherever we let it in. Thank you again.

  3. Thanks Vanessa, for this insightful realization about the mundane, making chores more of a ritual reminds me of more ancient cultures- that did have specific blessings and offerings for every tiny aspect of life. So glad you brought this lost aspect of life to my attention. Now, about walking those dogs…

    • Thank you for your comments, Katherine! You are right, those cultures — and many current ones as well — created many rituals for the purpose of what we would now call mindfulness. Saying grace before a meal, for example, causes us to stop and be mindful of what we are eating, where, and when. It helps connect us to the food and to each other. Walking the dogs could be a ritual as well — taking care of other beings’ needs, connecting with yourself and with them, connecting with your own inner dog who might enjoy the smell of trees and the fresh breeze outside. Seen as a chore, you might miss all that!

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