The Art of Living 2: The Power of Ritual

“The power of ritual is profound and under-appreciated. Mostly, I think, it’s because we live in a time-starved culture, and ritual is time-indulgent. Who can afford the luxury of doing one thing at a time? Who has the patience to pause and honor an activity before and after we do it?  We all should.”

-Peter Bregman, “The Value of Ritual in Your Workday” in the Harvard Business Review

I am not a superstitious person.  And yet.  For some reason lately the concept of ritual has been swirling around in my brain- beautiful and shrouded in mystery, they seem a powerful component of life and humanity.

Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review states, Rituals are about paying attention. They’re about stopping for a moment and noticing what you’re about to do, what you’ve just done, or both. They’re about making the most of a particular moment.”  This makes sense to me.  What ways do I find to celebrate the joys in life- small and large?  In what ways do I honor the difficulties?  Maybe ritual is a way to honor a moment.  To see that I am perceptive and open to noticing the stages and transitions of my life and the lives of others.  

Really, anything can become a ritual with intention and attention.  This is my moment to honor __________________ by slowing down and paying attention while I ___________________.


“Sky staring” as my family calls it, is when we put a blanket on the grass and look at the stars or the clouds. This can become a ritual by adding intention. “This is my time to honor the connections I have had with nature. To ponder those moments and appreciate them.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about ritual and loss especially.  In my last “Art of Living” post, I talked about the death of my grandmother, a pivotal moment in my own journey.  She and I discussed death as a right of passage many times in the months before she died.  It is something we will all do and know at some point in our lives, and yet we have so few rituals as a society to honor such a stage until after the death of a person.  Before my grandma died, she was fortunate enough to know what was happening to her and was open enough to talk about the journey and experience it as a stage of life, not just the end.  Part of how she did that was through the creation of her own rituals.  

For example, she wrote letters to those whom she loved, sealed them in an envelope and set them aside for after her passing.  After her funeral, I gave a letter to each of her children, grandchildren and her husband.  For her last Christmas (in October), she chose to give as gifts objects that were part of each person’s inheritance.  I received her long strand of signature pearls.  My mother got a ring from Harry, one of my grandma’s partners whom my mother had loved.

Her death itself became a ritual.  As the end grew closer, she called all of the people she loved close to her- with her words and her soul. The women in my family bathed my grandma’s body, changed her clothes, brushed her wispy hair from her forehead with a wet cloth.  My brother and Grandpa Chuck stayed with her through the night, turning her body, giving her medication and holding vigil so all of us could rest. Someone sat with her at all hours, whispering words of encouragement and love.  We played music for her and sang along to the lyrics.  One of the favorites was “Mushroom Love” as I called it (actually Muskrat Love by Captain and Tennile), an old classic from the jukebox my grandma had had for years (obviously MANY years).

In the moment of her passing, the room was full of people awaiting her transition.  People filled out the house, friends and family from near and far.  People poured in until literally moments before she died: friends traveling through on their way to Florida, nieces and nephews, people from all places in her life.  She took her final breath in a room full of love, and it felt as much like a birth experience as a death to me- one last way to honor the gift that is existence on this planet.

Few have such a death experience, but I feel more should.  According to the Scientific American article “Why Rituals Work” by Gino and Norton, research has shown that those who reported using ritual in their mourning process- which begins long before actual death- were able to heal more afterward.

In fact, ritual seems to have a power over the human psyche in both the exceptional and the most mundane of life experiences.  They have been shown to lessen grief, but also to improve performance.  For example, “pre-performance” rituals, such as physical movement or a moment of silence, have been show to be linked to better outcomes. Gino and Norton state, “Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true.”

I guess what I am saying is that I am ready to come out of the closet; rituals are not only beautiful and human, but I also believe ritual has effects on our thinking and our actions.

I am planning more to come on rituals, and particularly rituals intended for transitions.  The question I have been asking myself is this: how can we honor the death of one thing in order to welcome the birth of another?  What might this look like in action?  More to come.


What rituals do you have in your own life?  Can we create ritual by bringing attention to the moments already present in our lives on a daily basis?  

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section of the post or send them to me via the “Contact” tab.

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