According to author Casper ter Kuile, our world has become a place where “people have a more transient commitment to their jobs, locales, friendships, and marriages.” The author cites, for example, that studies find that the average citizen of the US, and likely the world, is lonelier than ever before. Kuile also adds that “people have fewer friends.”
When one conjures the word “ritual,” it is often in a religious context. But in Kuile’s book, “The Power of Ritual,” the author makes the case that in a world where traditional religious practices are in decline (at least in the West), we should create contemporary rituals that help give our lives meaning.
“Why are rituals needed?” one may ask.
“Deep connections and the sense of community reduce levels of stressful cortisol,” the author writes. “[T]hey active reward and safety circuits in the brain; they activate a region of the nervous system called the vagus nerve, which slows down our cardiovascular system and opens us up to others; and they lead to the release of oxytocin, a neurochemical that promotes cooperation, trust, and generosity.”
OK, so that may answer the question of why rituals are might be important, but what is a ritual, anyway?
“Rituals, in my view,” the author writes, “are patterned, repeated ways in which we enact the moral emotions – of compassion, gratitude, awe, bliss, empathy, ecstasy – that have been shaped by our hominid evolution and built into the fabric of our culture through cultural evolution.”
So, if you thought that rituals were just about religion, you might be wrong.
“We have a biological need to belong, scientists have shown,” Kuile explains. “Without community, as in solitary confinement, we lose our minds.”
In order to avoid extreme prolonged loneliness, the author offers us some advice: “Create sabbaths in your life, from work, technology, social life, and our frenetic, often over-scheduled hours of the day. Find opportunities for what one might call prayer – mindful quiet forms of reflecting on love, gratitude, and contrition.”
Some examples of a modern-day ritual might be taking a yoga class, exercise, taking an evening walk, cleaning, reading, or – again – any “patterned, repeated ways” that could tap into something deeper in our lives. Finally, consider creating rituals out of something benign that just happens to be part of our daily routine. According to Kuile, this could turn the prosaic into something more meaningful.
Kuile, C. T. (2020). The power of ritual. Harper One. New York, NY.