The Power of RitualsThe more I broaden my interpretation of what can be called a ritual, the more I find them, and find myself creating them in my life. ~Lisa Weiner
I was sitting with my therapist in the midst of college finals. It was one of our last sessions together before I would return home for the long summer vacation. It stunned me that my sophomore year at college was coming to an end. Where had the time gone?
“I feel like it’s too soon,” I told her, “Like I’ve worked through all these changes, and now it has to come to an end. It’s strange, but I almost don’t want to leave anymore.”
She looked me in the eye. We both knew I had gone through a hard semester, both academically and socially. That year, I met my biological parents for the first time, reconnected with family in a country 14 hours away, and lost myself in working too much and sleeping too little. I had contemplated not returning to school or taking off time the next year. It was surprising to both of us that I might actually be enjoying my time there—right when it was about to end.
That morning, we talked about the accomplishments I had made over the semester: I had found friends to stave off loneliness and rigorous scheduling allowed me to carve out precious hours for myself. I had improved, even when I wasn’t paying attention.
My therapist left me with a great kernel of wisdom that day. She said, “We often need to mark transitions with rituals of closure in our lives. People often sense important moments unconsciously and perform ritualistic actions to close that part of their lives and celebrate the new.”
I still felt like the light was fading too fast for me. I began to count the number of concerts and gatherings I would be missing once I left. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything much,” I told my therapist.
With a knowing smile, she replied, “You’ve done all you need to.”
How to Identify Rituals from Key Moments
Beginnings and endings are some of the most obvious times when one needs closure, but life does not often fall into easily divided intervals like my academic semester.
Without my therapist’s guiding words, I would not have recognized my energetic attendance of NYC events as a ritual. Rituals need not be grandiose or spectacular—what matter is that they are meaningful to you. A simple conversation can often be the most gratifying ritual.
Here are the six ways I identified and integrated meaningful rituals into my life:
1. Feel Mindfully
Staying connected to your emotional ebbs and flows is the only way to be in tune with your needs at the moment. While paying attention may seem simple, many people ignore even great emotional changes because of one big limitation: fear.
Our emotions are not always comfortable or pleasant. Fear is a very simple defense mechanism that allows us to skirt around them rather than sit with them. I encourage you to sit with your emotions in the way you find most appealing: talking with a close friend, keeping a diary, writing or meditation.
2. Cater to Emotions
Fear rationalizes itself. If you fear the feelings that you are having in the moment and stifle them, your thoughts will come right up to support that decision. I am not upset. I am not lonely. I am not overwhelmed. I have not changed. These are thoughts that deny the emotions lying just beneath.
Pay attention to your emotions as they are. Take a step away from fear and the denial that your mind uses to protect it. While it may be challenging at first, sitting with your emotions can begin the process of healing. And it can help you identify the transition you need to mark.
3. Plan your Ideal Life Ritual
Planning engages your creativity. It may even start before you’ve felt that you need a ritual – in the form of a bucket list or a worst case scenario plan. Regardless of whether the transition conjures up positive or negative emotions, it is helpful to have an idea of how you want it to progress.
Whether you are working on sitting with your emotions or have identified your needs, keep envisioning different experiences that have meaning to you. Rituals are meant to give closure, but they need not be reflective, so feel free to explore the possibilities.
4. Be Flexible
If you plan, know that your plans may change. If the situation is unexpected, focus on your emotions and let your thoughts quiet before you begin. There is value in starting small, such as having several tiny rituals that can help you through the moment.
Remember: you are not expected to control everything before you seek closure or mark a transition. You are changed by your emotions and situation as much as you can change them.
5. Experience Deeply
This is another exercise in bringing silence to your thoughts. A lesson from yogic meditation tells us that we may acknowledge our thoughts, but must always refocus ourselves on the body and its feelings. When you are performing your ritual, big or small, take this advice to heart and allow yourself to connect with the moment.
6. Willing to Let Go or Embrace Change
Rituals only mark the changes that you have encountered: they do not create them. Know that the transitions you experience throughout life have been a culmination of all that you have been in the past and lead into all that you will be in the future.
If you feel unsure or have anxiety about the change, sit with that emotion as you have done before. Take the discomfort and remember that all of your past experiences have prepared you in some way for this moment, and that you are capable of moving on into the future with these lessons.
Parting Words on Rituals
I don’t claim to be an expert on rituals, but when my therapist sat me down and talked me through all the changes that I was unknowingly celebrating this year, I started to feel that it was something I desperately needed.
Rituals facilitate our understanding of ourselves; we use them to create a sense of safety in our daily lives and to make peace with difficult emotions.
Yet the most important thing to remember about rituals is that they can be fun. They can bring in new experiences that we were frightened of before and allow us to connect deeply with them.
Make a ritual of the positive transitions just as much as you would the negative ones—public or private, they can help us move into a new form of ourselves.