Rituals have a powerful effect on our everyday lives. Some of them – for example having a peculiar way to prepare your coffee in the morning – give us a means to start the day, without having to think too much about a certain structure that provides a sense of security and stability. Others, like locking the front door, make us feel safe and give us a sense of control.
Integrating small rituals into our daily food consumption can even help us eat our vegetables. For example, if we wrap the bottom of a carrot in a piece of aluminium foil and eat it this way, it makes us feel that we paid special attention to eat this carrot and that we did something good for our body.
Something similar happens when we bury a loved one during a funeral: The physical act of spreading soil on the coffin or putting flowers on the grave adds an additional component to the prayers or expressions of grief that are purely mental.
A small physical gesture helps us integrate feelings and thoughts that might otherwise go unnoticed of even be repressed.
There is a psychological meaning to rituals, in that they can draw our attention to dynamics we may not be fully aware of. Robert A. Johnson, psychologist and Jungian analyst, sees rituals as “small, symbolic acts to set up a connection between the conscious mind and the unconscious.”
In his book “Inner Work” he uses dreams as a portal into the unconscious, and after talking about what meaning a dream might have had, he encourages us to perform a small ritual to add another layer of consciousness to the dream.
He describes the dream of a young man, who felt that his way of socializing with his friends by going out to bars, eating fast food and drinking was shallow and empty. His whole way of relating to people was represented by the metaphor of “junk food” in his dream: a way of taking in food without nourishment.
After understanding that the symbol of junk food related to the way he lived out his relationships, he created a meaningful ritual in order to end his way of having only superficial contact to others: he bought a large meal of cheeseburgers and fries and buried it in his backyard.
It was a way of honoring the language of his unconscious mind by way of dreaming. “We need to express our awe and elation and gratitude – and sometimes our terror” writes Johnson. Rituals, according to him, are a gesture of awe, of acknowledging phenomena that are beyond our control.
“If a person has no sense of reverence, no feeling that there is anyone or anything that inspires awe, it generally indicates an ego inflation that cuts the conscious personality off completely from the nourishing springs of the unconscious… This is why modern people who are deprived of meaningful ritual feel a chronic sense of emptiness.”
Rituals as a way to give our life more meaning sound like an easy way to fill the void many of us experience. Paying attention to even small but important routines is a good start.
Gerti Schoen is a writer and psychotherapist. In her spare time she enjoys learning, being in nature and around animals.