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.
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.
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
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.
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.