When Ritual is Monotony

For whatever reason, I want to be a creature of habit.  I’ve always seemed to aspire to that ideal, trying to work some kind of task into my daily routine as a spiritual quest, or working out specific systems or routines for doing certain activities.  Perhaps it’s a psychological leftover from my childhood, from a family which seemed to glorify the steady march of regular routine.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing, as we seem to hold a great reverence for people who manage to succeed at such endeavors.  Daily meditation, regular workouts, never missing certain gatherings, a strict and unvaried diet…  There’s something appealing about these things.  Something many of us see as virtuous.

But in my own spiritual life, I often get into such systems and then find myself frustrated at my inability to execute without failure.  And eventually, much of the time, I find myself asking, “what the hell is the purpose of this, anyway?”

I find that my level of satisfaction with my life, especially in spiritual pursuits, is inversely proportional to the amount of effort I’m putting into being strictly disciplined.  As much as my subconscious thinks I would benefit from regular patterns, structured routines, checklists of purposeful actions executed with precision, it has never worked out that way.  Because to be successful at those things, I would have to be one hundred percent committed to declining opportunities which get in the way.  To be successful, you have to commit so much to that routine, that activity, that goal, that nothing else matters quite as much.

But those things I seek to ritualize are not the vital core of my spiritual practice.

I know people so devoted to a fitness goal or lifestyle that daily workouts easily routine.  The goal is so important to them that it’s easy to put the gym as their highest priority.  And we all have read of holy men and holy women who have given their lives to daily prayer or meditation or acts of consecration so demanding we can’t imagine it.  But their spiritual practice is the core and singular main focus of their lives, and as such it’s easier to place a great deal of importance on those acts of spiritual faith.

It’s not that my spiritual practice is not important to me or an important part of my life, but nothing about my spiritual practice requires such ritualized action.  Ritual for the sake of ritual is not, for me, particularly rewarding.

That’s something it’s taken me a long time to realize.

My natural state of being is not one of routine and ritual and repetition.  If I have to work so hard to inject those things in my life, it means I’m doing so because something outside myself has told me I should.

My spiritual practice is much more rewarding for me when I allow it flexibility.  When I allow questions and inspirations to lead me in different directions as they arise, and I don’t feel guilt over breaking some imposed ritual to make time for something new.  It’s when I can chase ideas and try new things that I feel most satisfied.

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Here’s Your Sign…

The seventh element of religion is material expression.  In other words, religions tend to have “stuff” which adherents use in their practice or to identify themselves with the faith.  Rituals involve certain items and specific settings, even sometimes costumes or modes of dress.

Personally, I’ve noticed that the more deeply involved and committed I get to a cause, the more my collection of tshirts and sweatshirts grows.  People knitted and crocheted thousands and thousands of pink pussy hats for the recent Women’s Marches, and are still knitting them.  We paint signs and carry bullhorns, wear stickers and buttons and bracelets and flags.

Much like many traditional religions, most would say no one needs the “stuff” to participate, but the stuff is nevertheless ubiquitous and common.

We like the stuff.  It reinforces our allegiance and message visually as a way to attract those who are with us and confront those who are not.  It amplifies our voices.  It lets us say what we wish to say even when we can’t get our voices heard.

Engage the Masses

The second element of a religion is that there is a community of adherents, a collective belief and practice.  Activism is like that, too, in that there is a coalition of people and organizations for just about any particular concern of focus a person could have.  And each time events draw people together to fight against something or fight for something, there emerges a community with its own name and agenda.

In fact, I think that’s one of the best things about times like this when we’re compelled to stand up for humanity as a matter of great urgency:  we come together.  We connect with each other over a desire to do good, to make the world better.  Unlike most religions, activism comes with the sense that solitary practice has little impact.  It’s not about the individual, it’s about the collective.  A necessary part of activism is to join your efforts with the efforts of a large number of others, because that’s the point at which things actually begin to happen.

This gives activists the reassurance that the small amount of change or effort we can produce on our own is backed by the larger collective, that our struggle is not solitary and that we are not alone.  In addition, there’s the added element of knowing that one’s efforts are needed by other activists, that what we are able to do is valued by those who are striving towards the same goals.  Unlike many traditional religions, activism tends to draw people into group participation and collective bonding rather than pushing them into increasingly solitary prayer and devotion.  There is no benefit to keeping ideas and knowledge to oneself in activism.  Any effort is amplified by participation, and there are no rewards for attempting to solve problems alone.

An Atheist’s Faith

I wrote a while back on how social activism could, really, be a spiritual path of its own.  Admittedly, I’ve been consumed with these thoughts in tandem with being consumed with social activism.  Learning about various upheavals and movements in school did not adequately prepare me for the reality of times like these, where I can see all the horrible decisions being made and I am filled with the drive to do something to resist and fight back, and yet so many people around me seem to be unconcerned.  But the deep knowledge that this fight is important, that it is vital, is all-consuming.

Anyway, as I’ve been thinking about how this new reality feels a lot like religion did as a kid growing up in the church, I decided to look up the generally accepted list of characteristics of a religion to see how closely this fits.  I may not believe in a deity, but I do strongly believe that what is going on in the world is destructive and hateful and wrong.  In fact, my belief in that fact is much stronger than my faith in a god ever was.  My participation in this feels exceedingly more fulfilling and powerful than participation in religion ever did.  If I am to have a religion, I feel comfortable in stating that my religion is the resistance.

So, the first of the 8 elements of religion is that a religion has a belief system or worldview.  Many place the whole of creation under a deity or group of deities, or at least place humanity there.  Some have a hierarchy for humanity itself.  There is usually some goal or intent placed upon humans or living beings, some reason we exist at all.

Frankly, as an atheist, none of these make any sense to me.  But the ideal which has pushed to the forefront of my life over the last few months – that of equality and basic human rights for all people – is clear and logical.

This may just be me, but I’ve always thought of the kind of activism we’re seeing now as reactionary more than anything.  People protest things or demand specific rights and concessions in response to specific events and changes in the world around them.  What has, I think, generally kept me from considering activism as a form of spiritual practice or path is the difference between fighting for or against a specific thing and working towards a larger worldview.  Now, as I think about it, I realize that activism would be better served by focusing more on the latter than the former.  Certainly the work towards justice and equality won’t end if one group of protesters get their specific demands satisfied.  There will still be more work to do, more hurdles to clear.  There will ALWAYS be more.

In fact, we will not see the absolute attainment of our goals in our lifetimes.  We know this.  The work must be ongoing, and therefore this movement almost naturally becomes something akin to a religion.  It can invade every aspect of life, this drive to fight wrongs and make the world better, in a manner otherwise only duplicated by religion.  And there is no shortage of ways to integrate the struggle into one’s life.

For atheists, the idea that humanity is responsible for its own survival and evolution can, I think, quite comfortably take the place of religious dogmas in a meaningful practice.  It requires no faith other than that which keeps you fighting and working.  And, perhaps, that’s the hardest part of this.  If our worldview is that all humans are meant to be treated justly and as equals, it suggests that we have to believe the goal is, at some level, attainable.  That our work actually gets us somewhere.  And that’s where things get difficult.  When it seems the world is hurtling towards hate and injustice and tyranny despite all we can manage to do, it’s easy to lose hope.

It is, perhaps, the one type of faith we atheists can comfortably hold onto.

Yule Brinner and Other Punny Holidays

On the topic of everyday or non-traditional rituals, my favorite celebration of the year happens at the Winter Solstice or Yule.  On that day, I gather my framily for a special feast of foods that, though we eat in the evening, are traditional breakfast foods.  If you’re a fan of the show Scrubs, you might remember that Turk and JD referred to breakfast food eaten at dinner as Brinner.  

Yes, we have Yule Brinner.

(If you’re not at least chuckling right now, do a quick Google search for Yul Brynner and then come back.  It’s a pun.)

Anyway, the special part of the celebration isn’t that it’s particularly meaningful.  It doesn’t have anything to do with anything.  It’s an excuse to get together and exchange holiday gifts with friends.  We’ve literally taken a pun and turned it into an annual tradition.  And that’s the part that matters.  It’s ours, and we consider it special.

It’s like Festivus.  Or Star Wars Day (May the 4th…).  There’s nothing that says we can’t make up celebrations and rituals for personal reasons, to celebrate how we see fit.  And, in fact, by doing so we often create more meaningful rituals than the ones observed as part of larger cultural traditions.  Traditions and rituals should mean something to us, even if just as a pun or an excuse to gather with people who mean something to us.  Shaping that cycle of observances shouldn’t be left to the forces of society, it should be something we create on an individual level.  It should fit our own spiritual intentions and needs, our own particular concept of what’s worth celebrating.  

But yes, you can all steal the Yule Brinner idea if you want it.  

This is My Body

I’ve long aligned myself with the pagan community more than anything else, and despite the whole lack of believing in gods or deities or supernatural beings I find a lot of useful thought and practice in neopagan paths.  The Wheel of the Year, in particular, is something I apply to my own practice in various ways, though my way of celebrating the sabbats is a bit unorthodox.

On the solstices and equinoxes (or as close as we can reasonably get), my wife and sister and I go to a local spa and get massages.

Four times a year, we take a morning for ourselves.  We come away with relaxed muscles and refreshed minds.  It’s like a reset button we hit every three months so we can continue to function.

Of course, a lot of people kind of laugh at that, as if our spa days aren’t really rituals.  As if that’s not an appropriately spiritual way to observe the turning of the wheel of time, the changing of the seasons.  But why isn’t it?

Self care in all its forms is not only a largely neglected activity in most people’s lives, it’s one which recognizes that we are not indestructible.  We are fragile beings in need of care, and we should not leave that care to the whims of the universe.  We should not run ourselves to ruin before we seek comfort and healing.  

Now, for some, self care may not mean having a stranger knead the living daylights out of your muscles until you feel like you’ve been beaten up, then give you a glass of wine.  That’s just happens to be my thing.  It could be any activity by which you indulge in your own needs above others, where you assess what would help you feel healthy, happy, and whole.  It could be a long hike.  It could be a trip to the doctor.  It could be time when you get away from your social obligations, or time when you enjoy your social life without worrying about your other responsibilities.  It could be an extra yoga class.  It could be a trip to your favorite ice cream shop.  It be purchasing all new socks and underwear.

The point is that some of the most impactful rituals when it comes to elevating yourself and your life are rituals designed for one purpose:  to take care of your needs, especially if you’re prone to neglecting them.

I Think

My spiritual practice is simple.  I study.  I think.  I write.  Those things enrich my spirit.  I observe a personal habit of focusing each week on one of the four alchemical elements and try to accomplish things during that week which relate to that element.  That keeps me balanced.  On every solstice and equinox, I get a massage.  That’s really just to benefit the body, but it also marks the turn of the seasons.  I gather to discuss things with like minded people and I celebrate various smaller holidays here and there with decorations and gatherings of friends.  That supports the social aspect of my practice.

And that is it.  It’s nebulous and flexible because that’s what works for me.  The whole point of it all, for me, is the development of my spirit.  It’s about elevating that part of me that questions and ponders and searches for answers.  

I could do just fine without the gatherings and celebrations if I had to.  The social connection helps feed my practice, but it would live on without it.

I could do without the spa days.  The solstices and equinoxes are not sacred, and the massages are a luxury.

I could get along perfectly well without a routine to observe.  I like patterns and order, but I can live with a fair bit of chaos, too.

But I cannot do without the thinking.  That is what drives me and inspires me.  That is the only way there is to really truly elevate your spirit, to connect with your soul, to do something truly significant with your life.  

Spirituality without thinking means nothing at all.