Until two weeks ago, my days were almost always starting like this: first, a short stretching session (I call it yoga, but it’s really just stretching), then 15 minutes of guitar practice, and then a short stroll to my coworking office, where I would also have my desayuno (double espresso and a custom-made tostada). After that, all work. Around 11:30 I would take a chai latte, at the same place. At noon, I would go home to cook and have lunch, and then work again, until the evening walk in the park, to the beach, or through the endless maze of Valencia’s old town. Of course, a lot more than that was happening in any given day, but that was the “backbone” of it.
Since two weeks ago, Valencia is again into a de-facto lockdown. We’re not forced inside, but coffee shops, restaurants, bars are all closed, they can only serve beverages to go. It’s like we’re free to walk around (wearing a mask and observing social distancing), but we can’t really live. I can’t go to my regular co-working office anymore, so I’m working from home.
But, despite this change, very little changed in my routine. I replaced my full desayuno with just a coffee, which means I still do the morning stroll, have my double espresso, and the come back home, where I’ll continue pretty much the same schedule (replacing the 11:30 chai latte with something slightly different, but more or less the same).
All these little things that I’m doing, the stretching, the guitar practice, my morning stroll and coffee, my long evening walks, they are all personal rituals. And I consider these personal rituals vital for good mental health.
Of course, as always, I learned this the hard way, because during the first lockdown, I kinda steered away from my usual rituals at the time, which resulted in a bit of confusion, and even a little annoyance. All good now, lesson learned.
The Need For Steady Anchors
Every time there is a change in entropy around us, we’re forced to adjust. By “change in entropy” I mean consistent increase in unpredictability. Like these lockdowns, for instance. Or the loss of a job. Or a breakup.
But a change in entropy is not necessarily “bad”, it might be something that we perceive as “good” too, but still loaded with unpredictability. Like when we fall in love, or when we move to a new, way nicer place or country. Or when we experience a sudden financial windfall.
Basically, everything that throws us away from a perceived baseline is a change in entropy.
Every time this happens, we experience some sort of stress. Our energy spending increases, because we need to adjust for unforeseen circumstances. And, most of the time, we experience this massive leak in energy as suffering.
Personal rituals can help here.
They act like anchors, like landmarks, like points of reference, like something that we can rely to, even if the entire map is changed. In the early beginning, we don’t need to know an entire new map of a new territory, we can get away relatively well with just a few strong landmarks, from which we can then infer the rest of the landscape. But in the absence of at least some level of familiarity, of predictability, we are easily at the mercy of unknown, unpredictable, strong winds, and we lose our path.
The X-Ray Of A Personal Ritual
A ritual is a small, repetitive, emotion-inclusive activity, aiming at reinforcing certain beliefs or values, or honing some skills. Let’s try to look deeper into this.
First, a ritual is a small activity. It doesn’t have to take too much time of our lives, because it then melts into something different.
Second, it’s repetitive. This is what supports the reinforcing of whatever we’re trying to reinforce.
And third, it’s emotion-inclusive. Meaning it does have, or it is supported by, a certain level of emotional involvement. It’s not an autopilot, detached activity, like brushing your teeth. Of course, if you really want, you can make even your teeth brushing an emotion-inclusive activity, but, let’s be honest, we’re not doing this.
The word “ritual” is very close to religious or spiritual practices, but I’m not using it in that sense. If you look at the examples above, none of them has any spiritual or religious connotation. Some of them are borderline spiritual, like my yoga practice, while some of them are just honing art-related skills, like playing the guitar.
But all of them are tiny, repetitive, emotion-inclusive activities.
The Difference Between Rituals, Challenges and Habits
As you probably know, I’m on a 365 days writing challenge, meaning I’m publishing an article daily on this blog. Well, I may perform this activity like some sort of a ritual, but it’s not a personal ritual. It may become one at some point, that’s true, but at the moment, it’s just a project that has a beginning and an end (that’s how I define a challenge, anyway).
Also, I have the habit of drinking coffee. Although this too is a repetitive activity, it doesn’t count as a personal ritual. Most of the time it’s on autopilot, it’s just like brushing my teeth.
So, the basic difference between personal rituals and challenges / habits, is that personal rituals act like landmarks. I perform personal rituals in order to fixate the entropy and build small auras of predictability, small bubbles in which I can take refuge if things go haywire.
How Does A Personal Ritual Help, Exactly?
Glad you asked (I know you didn’t ask, I asked, but still).
Like I said, a personal ritual creates, in time, some sort of a predictability bubble around the time and space where you perform it. That means it can play the role of an insulation layer. Whatever new, stressful things have been put in motion by the recent change in entropy, you have at least a little bit of cushioning to protect. The stress has a bit of a harder time to actually get to you.
Because you’re also building skills, these skills would, in time, help you better cope with the unknown. To continue the examples, the guitar playing skill may help me become more balanced (I already wrote somewhere else how this plays out), and the long walks may increase my physical stamina. By having coffee at the same time, at the same place, even if I can’t do it inside anymore, I hone social skills and maintain human contact. All these may come in handy at some point, outside the ritual practice.
And, finally, because a ritual is an emotion-inclusive activity, it’s helping a lot regulating your emotions. It’s a space where you can feel safe, protected and allow yourself to experience whatever you repressed during your fight or flight response to the new stimuli.
Last, but obviously not least, a personal ritual is, by definition, personal. So, if you’re going to start some personal rituals (or just acknowledge you’re already having some and commit to do them more often) go for whatever works for you. No need to have a personal ritual around coffee, if you like smoothies, and certainly no need to start learning to play the guitar, if you’re in love with painting.
Whatever works for you.