The Distinction Between Routine And Ritual

I love words. I often find myself exploring my choice of words to convey a nuanced meaning. Different words can communicate subtle distinctions and sometimes not so subtle distinctions. The terms routine and ritual recently captured my attention while reading My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem. While he described “growth routines” for developing your ability to settle your body, I found myself wondering what a routine means to me versus a ritual.

Growing up I liked neither the word routine nor the word ritual for different reasons. Routine to me was just plain boring. I could feel a sense of monotony of daily, routine activities and a sense of purposelessness of life when it was routine. Partly I felt this way as I watched adults including my parents engaged in routines that seemed necessary but not always by choice. And I always craved choice and variation. For instance, when I was old enough to drive I always liked to take different routes to places. I also enjoyed variation in food, even though I had favorite dishes that I didn’t find routine or boring.

Shabat with homemade challah

Ritual was completely inaccessible to me growing up. I associated ritual exclusively with religion and there was no way that had any meaning to me having grown up in an atheist environment. The thought of ritual was almost scary to me. I remember a few times I went to church or synagogue for holiday events invited by a friend or because I was in a choir doing a performance there. Most of those experiences were fairly secular and party-like. However one time I was in a church with a catholic friend and I watched with an uneasy and confused feeling as people took communion. The foreignness of that ritual didn’t make me curious just left me weary of ritual. Curiosity about ritual was buried until much later in my life.

In my 20s and 30s I liked the concept of routine to make sure that I got things done. By creating a routine I was more assured of completing all the tasks I needed to complete in my busy work days. Routines were also a way to create helpful habits. That perspective led me to consider the word routine more favorably though it was a fairly rigid definition. The sense was more like a regiment than anything else. I didn’t think much about the word ritual through these years.

Wedding show

Ritual took on a different meaning when I became a life coach in my late 30s and even further when I became a wedding celebrant in my late 40s. As I received my training in both of these disciplines I was exposed to rituals, both religious and non-religious. Through this education I began my journey into understanding and exploring how to be more present in each moment and how ritual is helpful in that path. I created rituals for myself and also for others for their wedding ceremonies that I officiated.

Working as a coach and celebrant also opened up my ability to see the word spirituality in a different light. As a kid, spirituality meant religion and therefore something I shouldn’t touch. I will never forget when the word spiritual first took on some personal meaning. I was on a call with one of my life coaches when he reflected on what I had just told him. He took a deep breath and stated, “You are very spiritual.” I was stopped in my tracks and became silent. I had never thought of myself as spiritual before. That single moment of someone seeing me as spiritual had a profound impact on me and prompted my further explore of spirituality. Ritual was part of the route in

Nature in winter

Through my coaching and celebrant work I experienced how ritual helps to grow and sustain self-awareness and presence. And my view of both ritual and spirituality deepened. Ritual became one avenue from which to celebrate and understand the beauty and wonder of life. And I began to recognize that my exploration of the inner landscape of human experience and inexplicable connection to all the world is spiritual. Life coaching and celebrant work gave me a way to connect with the meaning of ritual and spiritual that makes more sense to me. I believe I have always been very spiritual though I would never have used that term. The deep connection with and awe I feel for animals and nature is so profound and was present even as a child.

Buddha in Sarasota Florida

I no longer see the word routine as boring. I have found how to make routines more meaningful. Unlike ritual which conveys to me that I am present, conscious and with great purpose, routine feels unconscious and less embodied—though it gets the job done. But I’d rather not just get the job done. I could be doing the routine activity mindlessly and disconnected from my body. Or I could bring greater awareness to the routine activity as I do with ritual so that I feel more grounded. Through my meditation work in recent years I am practicing doing routine activities like washing the dishes being more present to the task. It’s still a routine and not a ritual to me, but being aware of my body and mind shifts the experience and makes it more connected to life. And I feel more freedom of choice. I like flexibility in my routines. I meditate daily but not at the same time each day. I move my body most mornings but don’t have a specified activity that I must do at a certain time. I have created routines that jibe with my need for variety.

The more I ponder these two words the more the distinction between ritual and routine becomes less meaningful and very nuanced. And I realize that this distinction isn’t true for everyone. Perhaps you experience routine just as alive and awake as you experience ritual. Maybe you use the words interchangeably. Food for thought—hopefully with plenty of variety.

xoxo Rachel


Creating an altar for sustenance

I do not have any spaces in my house that I consider to be altars, so last year while training for my celebrant work and altars very much on my mind, I contemplated creating a space where my Kuan Yin would sit peacefully.  Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva associated with compassion, is an antique brass piece that my mom bought for my dad when I was very little.  At the time, she had little money and she paid the antique dealer in Princeton a little at a time to be able to get this beautiful object that spoke to her as a gift for my dad.  About ten years ago when I got interested in Buddhism and meditation and spirituality, I expressed my love of their art object, so my parents gave her to me.

Up until last year, Kuan Yin had moved around in my house and I had not created any ritual that involved her, though I know that I bowed to her from time to time and I certainly gazed at her for long stretches as well.  For altar inspiration, I looked at the beautiful book Sacred Rituals by London and Recio.  I had been thinking how much I loved my Bodhisattva sitting on my desk where I placed it just a week earlier when I had a class about symbols.  So, I chuckled when I opened the book and the first sentence I read was that one of the authors treats her desk as her altar.  I immediately closed the book, recognizing that I needed no more input and decided that I would create an altar on my desk.

The desk is a beauty.  When my husband’s firm moved from one of its earliest locations in Manhattan after thirty years to an office that had modular spaces, everyone was allowed to take any furniture they wanted.  Andy had been working at a large wood desk with flower-engraved brass pulls for years and we had an inexpensive desk that needed replacing.  He and I drove to the city in our RAV4 with the back seats removed to pick up the piece and anything else interesting.  Getting the desk to Cold Spring was no small feat.  We had to disassemble much of it and Andy carefully labeled sections so that we could reconstruct it when we got home.  And it was very heavy.  (We also picked up a wonderful bookshelf with sliding glass doors.  Andy subdivided each shelf so that he doubled the number of shelves and reduced their height to fit CD’s perfectly.)  Andy, of course, reassembled the desk with ease.

So once I had an altar location identified, what was my plan?  I began by clearing off the desk to mark the beginning of my new phase of work.  To signify readying to launch my own business, I also did a cleansing ceremony.  Andy had grown lovely sage in his garden that he kept in the freezer – perfect for a smudge stick.  The act of creating the smudge stick was a ritual in its own right (rite?).  Then I designated the desk as an altar and thoughtfully placed objects on the desk and spoke to what each provided me.  I inventoried each item that already sat on my desk and determined whether it served me moving forward.  Some items did not make the cut but I figured that the desk would become an evolving altar so some items might return.  My laptop computer has a practical role yet it is really quite beautiful with its sleek Apple design.  It provides me access to the world and to my writer muse.  But what about the pencil holder; should I replace it with a pot that I made (I did) and where should the Bodhisattva be located?  As the creation ceremony unfolded, I lit a candle and read poetry and designed a workspace where Kuan Yin reins over me with compassion, sitting on the windowsill.  I am so fortunate to sit and look out into the woods from my beautiful desk altar.

The ritual of fall sports

Although it is only just on the precipice of fall, I was reminded of the ritual experience of fall sports this week.  On a lark Andy asked me if that evening I wanted to go see the Hudson Valley Renegades, our local Class “A” baseball team.  It turned out that they were battling for the Penn League Title in the second of three-series against the Tri-City ValleyCats.  In keeping with our pledge to “play” (see The world needs play), how could I say no?  He added that they would be displaying fireworks afterwards, so that made the decision easy.

I had not thought of many of my experiences as rituals but in deed they are.  I love the fall sporting events as both participant and spectator because they are imbued with ritual. In high school so many years ago, I played field hockey and the crisp air and communal experience of being with a group of other girls on the team has such rich memory for me.  We would sing songs and get “psyched” about the game.  Sometimes we would have this experience in the confines of a yellow school bus on the way to our rival’s school.  Other days, we would just head out to our field for a home game with all the excitement to unfold.  The best days were when there was a bit of a chill and we would have our high school-issued navy blue sweat pants on under our pretty blue kilts.  It was at once both snugly and cozy and inward of an experience as it was also very much outward and about the team experience.

My spectator memories move to college when I lived in a cooperative household at Berkeley and we would rent out our parking area for all the people who came to see the Big Game (Stanford vs. Cal).  After all the cars were carefully parked, our house of about 18 people would go together to Memorial Stadium.  I was lucky to have been present at one of the most famous games of all time in college football: I saw “The Play” on Saturday November 20, 1982.  Stanford was ahead 20-19 when in the last four seconds of a kickoff return, Cal ran with the ball and did five lateral passes all while the Stanford marching band, who thought they had won and the game was over, was already on the field.  Still controversial to this day, Cal won 25-20.  Just a few years ago, Cal played Rutgers in New Jersey so my parents and my husband went to the game.  (I met my husband at our cooperative household so we were at The Play together before we became college sweethearts.)  As we ate leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches, we enjoyed the ritual of watching our alma mater play football (they beat Rutgers too, go Bears!).  The communal experience of food, fun and loved ones in the beautiful fall outside is beyond compare.

So as we watched the Hudson Valley beat Tri-City, even though we barely knew the teams, we felt connected to our local team and to the loyal fans around us.  We cheered, ate stadium food, and then feasted on the lights and sounds of fireworks.  The ritual of fall sports was alive and well on this beautiful evening.  PS – The Renegades won last night and took the title!