Haruki Murakami, the renowned Japanese author, follows a very specific daily ritual. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9pm. I keep to this routine everyday without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism”, writes Murakami in the Paris Review, Summer 2004. In these lines, Murakami describes to us the power of a personal ritual on one’s life and work.
Rituals are a phenomenon that have been observed to cut across time and space in cultures the world over. Their ubiquity and universality can be seen through their presence in all aspects of life: from pre-game and post-game rituals in sports to birth, marriage and rituals of death in personal life. We live in a world that is vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous in many ways. In this interconnected web of life, rituals offer a means to effect positive shifts towards a desired goal for the person or the community practising it. Many studies in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience validate this.
“A ritual is a structured event with predetermined actions. The actions are symbolic in that they relate to a reality that is unmanifested. For instance, you may have a ritual that addresses a whole universe of potential future action. This universe, being only a potential, is unmanifest at the time of performance of the ritual,” says Sushanta Banerjee, who has been at the forefront of developing the field of Applied Behavioural Sciences in India for over 50 years. Thus, a ritual holds the potential to influence a shift in the quality of the inner world of being and the outer world of behaviour for an individual or a community. Rituals can be personal, social, or communal.
Rituals and Communal Well-being
At a community level, an appropriate ritual design can enhance the bond between members and create the context for synergy and collaboration. It can also prepare members for uncertain times and lean into changes within the organisation or in the context.
Harsh Mariwala instituted the 4pm popcorn ritual in Marico, a Fortune India 500 company, as a way of creating informal networks and conversations across hierarchy and functions. The smell of popcorn would draw everyone towards the popcorn machine, bringing together people organically. The timing of the ritual was chosen to bring more energy to team members during the slowest part of their day. Mariwala himself kept the doors to his office open as a sign to encourage employees to strike him up with conversations. This ritual promoted the values of collaboration and transparency into Marico’s culture.
“Every week, we practice intention setting through drawing for the 3 Big Things studio. This ritual has supported creating a sense of accountability, sense of ownership, and helps our team through the transitions and context switching during the day,”, says Shalini Raghunathan, co-founder of 3 Big Things, a behavioural design studio in Bengaluru. “I consider rituals to be thresholds between what was and what is in the here and now,” says Sunanda Pati, a Bengaluru-based arts and nature-based facilitator and writer. “When I create a ritual at the start of a workshop, it is a way for the participants to arrive at in the space that I create. A ritual allows them to acknowledge this and leave behind things that do not belong to the present moment,” she says.
Rituals and Personal Well-being
A ritual can help you feel anchored in life and make sense of the experience of life itself. The ‘mesmerism’ that Murakami refers to is indicative of the power of ritual in personal life. “Rituals can help you slow down, pay attention to bodily sensations, and listen to your feelings in personal life,” says Pati.
“I try to anchor my day through my morning ritual which includes movement practices like yoga and running. I’ve experienced that a ritual of this kind brings about a sense of moving forward and looking forward to something no matter how difficult life gets,” she adds. Delineating professional and personal spaces is increasingly challenging in today’s context. Not carrying your office laptop home or keeping the mobile phone on silent before and after a specific time in the day are simple personal rituals many follow to create boundaries for themselves to address this challenge.
In all my group and personal coaching sessions, I follow a ritual of inviting the person(s) to go through a breathing practice that helps them centre in the present moment and share how they are feeling before initiating any conversation. I have found that this helps the person do a much-needed check-in with themselves in an otherwise busy day.
Through A Yogic Lens
Yoga and Ayurveda emphasise the importance of aligning one’s life with appropriate dina charya (daily routine) and ritu charya (seasonal routine) for optimal well-being. For every season, there is a recommended dietary and lifestyle ritual that can enable optimal health for an individual. For instance, in shishir ritu (winter), the environment is mostly cold and windy in many parts of India. This increases the kapha dosha and agni (catabolism) remains in a higher state. Hence, foods having amla (tarty) as the predominant taste are recommended, while those having katu (pungent), tikta (bitter), and kashāya (astringent) tastes are not recommended, as per Ayurveda.
The widespread practice of a dip in the holy rivers during Makar Sankranti and invoking the energies of the Sun during this celestial event is also a powerful symbolic ritual of cleansing oneself off past residues and invoking a feeling of rejuvenation, and a new beginning.
Design Your Own Rituals
The intentionality of the person doing the ritual is what makes it powerful. You can design your own rituals for your personal and professional spaces. However, it is important to note that a ritual that is relevant for one person may not work for another. “Intentionality, consistency or repetition, and the number of people practicing it are all important elements of a ritual,” says Raghunathan. “A ritual is very personal. It is self-authored. So, it is an invitation and not an enforcement. Each person in a group may have a different intentionality while performing the same ritual,” she adds.
Raghunathan and her partner, Param, recommend a simple three-step process to design your own rituals in their “Behavioural Design by Ritual” toolkit.
Contemplate: Pause to reflect upon and articulate what is the challenge in the current behaviour, emotion or belief that you’d like to address. State the desired outcome of the ritual in terms of behaviour, emotion, and belief.
Contextualise: Explore what stories, cultural elements, symbols, and metaphors represent your intended outcome. Integrate and embody these in your ritual.
Choreograph: Curate activities that create a multi-sensorial experience. In doing so, define the rules, roles, tasks and time boundaries of how you will perform the ritual.
Start designing your own rituals and, more importantly, have fun doing it.
Hariprasad Varma is an executive coach and yoga therapist. He tweets at @ZenseiHari.