My local Starbucks posted a sticker on the front door the other day that reads: “TAKE COMFORT IN RITUALS.” The slogan got me thinking about the things in my life that border on ritualistic – my Matins and Vigils, Christmas decorations, tying yellow ribbons around old oak trees, and so on. What purpose do they really serve?
Rituals provide a predictability in life. Life is so full of unknowns and the occasional ritual serves to give the appearance at least of order and control. While rituals can be a healthy part of any day, an overly ritualized life quickly suffocates creativity, spontaneity and organic development.
Rituals, especially in religious circles, are typically a set of actions performed for their symbolic value. They remind us of something. At Starbucks it might be memories of a calmer, easier time. In church it might be to reconnect with the spirit or actions of a former spiritual leader. No matter what its purpose, when a ritual outlives the original spirit that gave rise to it, that is, when it is performed habitually and without any sense of purpose, it is time to let it go to make space for something new.
A life full of empty rituals is a life devoid of living. True living in my book is a dynamic, vibrant, evolving experience. All of creation is in a constant state of flux and a life crystallized by rituals is akin to a pebble sitting motionless in a stream. The flow of life is disrupted and it is no wonder why those who perch upon a web of inflexible rituals feel like everything else in life is working against their vision for how life should be. When your life is overly ritualized, life begins to flow around you, rather than through you.
As with all things, there must be balance. Take a good hard look at the rituals you perform and ask yourself: “Am I in control of these rituals or are they in control of me?” Moreover, “Is the ritual I am about to perform consistent with the original spirit that it was designed to clothe?”
Be willing to cut your losses and move on if you find your life smothered by a wet rag drenched with dead rituals. Failing to recognize that things have changed, the times are different, that something new is required in the form of your rituals and daily function was well described in the ancient texts as putting “new wine in old bottles.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, wine bottles used to be made of leather skins. Putting new wine (life as it is in this moment) in an old, already stretched and inflexible bottle (a.k.a. dead rituals), the bottle will burst as the young wine ferments. New bottles are required whenever new wine is in the offing, as they are pliable and capable of conforming to the requirements of the new wine.
So it is in life. If you surround yourself with old bottles, deliberately or through ignorance, the newness of life will begin to elude you. After a few failed attempts to accommodate new wine you will likely, as so many have before you, become frail, rigid in body and mind and leery of change.
Conversely, if you come to terms with this concept and let the bottles change as circumstances dictate, you will live life as it was meant to be lived – vibrantly, joyously and free of the useless burdens of dead rituals.
What will it be?