The Ritualistic Human

Every morning I, or occasionally my wife, start off the day by making tea.  Specifically chai tea.  As an aside the word chai means “tea” in Hindi.  In my dad’s language of Punjabi it would be cha.  So in a way saying chai tea is like saying “tea tea” which makes no sense, but I am starting with the familiar, but I usually just say chai.  I am half Punjabi and should say “cha” but communicating my caffeinated beverage of choice gets more difficult if I am used to saying cha.

chaiSo first thing in the morning I wash the pot, if it is not washed already, and measure out the amount of tea I want to make.  Usually about 4 mug fulls of water.  I put the water on the stove and turn the burner on.  As the water heats up I add an equal number of heaping teaspoons of loose Yellow Label Lipton tea.  Then I take some green cardamom pods, whole cloves, fennel seeds, black pepper corns, and piece of cinnamon stick and put it all in a big stone mortar, and then take the heavy stone pestle and grind the spices and add it to the pot of water with tea in it.  Once the water boils for a few minutes I add the milk.  Whole milk, because chai without enough milk fat in it is wasted chai. 🙂  I add enough milk until the color looks right, and then I add a little bit of honey to sweeten it slightly.  After the tea comes to a boil, I turn the burner off and pour the tea through a sieve leaving the spices and loose tea behind.  Drinking that first sip of hot tea in the morning is a glorious feeling.  Not only does it wake me up, but the taste which mixes the slight bitterness of black tea, the rich silkiness of milk, a blend of distinct spices, and a hint of sweetness from the honey has a solidness, a wholeness to it that I can’t quite describe.  It feels like home to me as invokes many memories of growing up drinking tea with my family.  At that time in my life I usually didn’t have morning tea, but late afternoon tea with my parents when they come from work.  I introduced it to my wife when we met and she fell in love with it, and it is now as important to her as it is to me, and so it is now a shared pleasure.  And on mornings when I haven’t had a lot of sleep, I may find making the tea to be a bit of a chore but that first sip in the morning makes me feel like I have the strength to face the day.  The making and drinking of chai is a ritual for me.  I think my only one.  If I’m away from home I miss it and genuinely get excited for that first cup of chai when I get back.

We all have our rituals.  In many ways I feel like rituals are like beliefs, they are like habits, they are repeated actions and thus forge neural pathways in our brain which when activated release dopamine.  I think we need ritual in our lives to a certain extent.  A repeated activity that simply brings emotional comfort should never be seen as a bad thing.  Of course the way ritual can feel so solid and tangible can also be dangerous.  As I wrote out my ritual for making chai and how it makes me feel I think to myself how I could never be vegan.  But perhaps I should be vegan.  There are many positive scientific and ethical arguments for being vegan.  This clash is at the heart of how are beliefs or our rituals impact how we rationalize away good arguments in favor of those practices and beliefs we hold dear.

I think it’s also important to recognize that the tangible feelings those rituals give us are therefore an illusion.  I remember when I was about 16 a friend of my mother’s, who was Greek Orthodox and cut hair in her home was giving me a haircut and talking about an upcoming Easter celebration.  They were big meat eaters, especially lamb, but she announced to me that on Good Friday they don’t eat meat.  She said “I don’t know, but not eating meat, makes me feel closer to God.”  I found this to be such a strange statement, because I really felt like buddying up to God should really be more about helping people than whether or not you eat meat on Good Friday.  It struck me at that moment how ritual influences our emotional state.  And while I think we can afford some fantasy in our lives, when we get mired in ritual it is very much like an addiction. Ritual is like a drug for which we trade a certain euphoria we get by performing the ritual instead of actions that might be more productive to the lives of ourselves and others.  The oft used example is quite true, that going to church every Sunday does not make you a good Christian.  Many religious movements begin as an offshoot of other religions that seem to dogmatically get lost in ritual over more pragmatic practices that actually produce.  Sikhism is a good example of this.  This religion developed out of need to rise up from the oppression of the Mogul Empire in India at a time when the Hindus simply bore the oppression and turned to ritual and prayer for help instead of doing something themselves.  Of course as the religion aged it too has become more mired in ritual as well, even though it began as a rebellion against it.

ritual

To see how easy we can get caught up in ritual the following text appears below the picture above at the website for this image.  While I’d say that there is some hint that you should be doing good things in your life, I think words like these make it too easy for people to think they can bypass practical applications of a positive spirituality over performing rituals:

“A ritual is a formula which is meant to dovetail our consciousness to the supreme consciousness of God. The whole purpose of a spiritual ritual is transformation of the heart – from selfish passions to a spirit of selfless service to others, from arrogance to humility and from envy to having the power to appreciate others. If this transformation doesn’t take place in our heart, to create good character, personal integrity and ultimately love for God, then these rituals are all a waste of time.

The value of a ritual is to the extent we please God. Its not the ritual but the content of what our consciousness puts into that ritual. The real essence of all spiritual practices is to purify our heart and awaken the innate love of God. If our rituals are performed with that aim in mind, that ritual, like a vehicle, will help to transport our consciousness to the supreme destination. There is the analogy of a package. If you give a gift which has beautiful decorations outside but a horrible gift inside, the one who receives it will not be happy. The content of the package is all important. So our motivation for doing the ritual is all important, otherwise its just a ritual. So if we have the proper motivation to perform the ritual then it will have a tremendous substance. What is that substance? We access the empowerment and the mercy of the Lord. Thus by giving our heart to the Lord through that ritual, then that becomes the true content of the ritual.

In the beginning of our spiritual life we follow rituals for our purification. When there is proper philosophy and service behind it, it can awaken love of God. It is a way to express our intent to love God, to serve and please Him. So when we have the right enthusiasm and intent, then the ritual becomes something very deeply spiritual. If it is done under the proper guidance and with the right purpose, it purifies our heart and motivations and gradually real genuine spiritual experience awakens from within.” – Radhanath Swami

It seems that it is human nature to gravitate towards ritual.  They make us feel good.  They are comforting and safe.  But like all things moderation is important.  Introspection and reflection on these rituals is important.  And some rituals are wholly harmful in practice and simply are inexcusable to allow them to continue.  Maybe we simply need to make doing good in the world a ritual instead. 🙂

Feel free to share some of your rituals and how likely you are willing to give them up! 🙂

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13 thoughts on “The Ritualistic Human

  1. Makes me think of how superstitious athletes are. It’s ridiculous that they think that somehow wearing or doing certain things will enhance their game or ensure a victory, when really it’s all of their practice and natural talent that wins the games.

    But by and large, the distinction between ritual and superstition is probably an important one.

    Ritual seems to me to be clearly favored by evolution. If things are unpredictable day to day for you, surviving is probably a lot harder. But there’s also that strong psychological component. A lot of wilderness survival experts recommend setting up rituals if you get lost and have to eek out surinal while await rescue because it gives you a feeling of normalcy and accomplishment.

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    1. Hi Ryan! Thanks for your comment!

      Actually I was writing this I was thinking about athlete superstitions and thinking that it’s not too far from being different from rituals. I mean some athletes might just have a lucky pair of socks, and that, just like beliefs and rituals forms a belief, a set of neural pathways in the brain, and reinforcing that releases the dopamine just the same. Now some athletes may have more than just a lucky pair of socks, it may involve putting the left one on first, and then the right. All of a sudden you’ve got a ritual. I know some athletes have even more complicated processes they feel they must go through for each game. And, like you, I also thought how silly it is given the long hours of training and practice they do which is ultimately is why they are where they are in their sport. We probably don’t hear the ritual or superstition stories of the players that never made it to the professional level. lol

      The point you make out about survival is an excellent one. It makes sense. I imagine having a ritual will 1) Keep you busy and thus perhaps reduce your stress in thinking about your situation all the time. 2) It also gives you purpose. In desperate situations I imagine apathy, panic, fear are all killers. Literally. Having purpose gives you that reason to go on. I think ritual provides that. I imagine for some old people who are alone, their ritual of let’s say going to church every Sunday is actually a positive thing. Something to look forward to. Or even if they feel like it’s a bit of a chore, they still will do it because they feel like they have to and it likely does extend their life (although I sense if you feel like it’s a bit of a chore you should probably find something else to do or say goodbye to the world lol) Overall I am not opposed to ritual. I think it is a part of who we are, but I think that we still owe it to ourselves to question, not let ritual over take our lives, and develop rituals that don’t cause harm.

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  2. I like how you dovetail making chai into an indictment of religious rituals. Jesus said much the same, chastising those who strictly adhere to their traditions but ignore justice and mercy, which is why there are only two prescribed rituals for Christians: baptism (which is only performed once) and communion (also called the Eucharist).

    The only ritual we have in our home currently is pancakes on the weekend, which I highly recommend. I used to make chai in the morning but stopped during the time when Christine was pregnant or nursing, so we’ve had to give up this ritual not once, but twice! Evelyn used to help me make chai on weekends, and because we did it regularly, she soon learned the names to the different spices. Some of her first words were chai ingredients.

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    1. I used other religions as examples too. I actually chastise my tea making ritual as well when it comes to veganism which may be a more ethical practice. My goal was to simply show how hard it is to break away from rituals and why that might not always be good. I actually like the fact that Christianity has few rituals, although that has certainly varied historically, and certainly varies even now among different communities and denominations. Part of my point for starting with making tea is to demonstrate why rituals are important to us, and that anybody is capable of them regardless of religion. The example of Sikhism is a good one as well, because it demonstrates how very little ritual is often emphasized by the religious text itself, but that rituals often get added into a religion by the people practicing it, over it being something really dictated by the religion itself. I also wanted to show, that while we often think of ritual in a religious context, any habit we do with some regular periodicity and brings us pleasure might be considered a ritual. Overall I simply wanted to point out that rituals, for as tangible as enjoyable they may feel, that there are extremes and we perhaps should be willing to question those rituals.

      We never stopped drinking tea during pregnancy or nursing. Never really found any convincing evidence that one should cut out caffeine completely. Although that might explain why he has loved the taste of tea since he was 6 months old. We don’t give him more than a sip occasionally, but he does like it. lol Dhyan also helped me make tea for a time, but it was a passing fad. lol

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  3. Before I leap into my comment Swarn, I want to just say how VERY COOL it is that you are from Punjab! That is such a gorgeous region up there! It has SO MUCH intriguing history, especially ancient history! I realize Kashmir is further north, but not too far. I have always been quite keen to some day go there to Kashmir (Srinagar and St. Issa) and Punjab to soak-up the magnificent culture and history and visit some key sites. Want to take me Swarn!? 😉

    Ritual is like a drug for which we trade a certain euphoria we get by performing the ritual instead of actions that might be more productive to the lives of ourselves and others.

    Truly a fantastic thought and encouragement for self re-examination and perhaps/probably improved time and priority management. Having been around, responding, and treating addiction most of my life, I can deeply appreciate what you mean Swarn. Powerful (overpowering?) neurons and hormones it is and can lead or usually leads to implosion with enormous ripple-effects upon loved ones around you.

    Maybe we simply need to make doing good in the world a ritual instead. 🙂

    As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there are 18 out of 19 species on Earth that have been doing exactly that — Superorganism behavior or Eusociality — for millions of years and doing it EXTREMELY well! It is why they’ve survived all Earth’s catastrophic extinctions. Care to guess which species on Earth has been doing it, albeit sporadically, for only about 30-40,000 years and NOT so well? 😉

    Do we have way too many rituals in order to become truly Eusocial?

    Feel free to share some of your rituals and how likely you are willing to give them up!

    Ritual #1 that will NEVER EVER be given up: Futebol/Soccer; playing and/or watching. NEVER!!! 😀

    Ritual #2: reading quality written blog-posts such as this one. If this author here continues uncovering ritual euphoric highs I enjoy, telling me to give them up… then I think I could give up Ritual #2! 😉

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  4. My morning tea is embarrassing by contrast; more routine that ritual. And routines; do they not steal (mind)time? Putting one on auto-pilot because a well-practiced assignment requires little attention.

    Gaps of time created by such inattention.

    A flick on of a half-full kettle, a teabag in a cup with a sweetener and a teaspoon of sugar for company. A 50 second stare into a blurred distance (a watched kettle never boils). Behind the eyes the cogs’ inertia is substantial and the rousing mind is but deep space awaiting a visitor called Consciousness.
    The switch plips, hot water poured by robot. A 90 second brew time, teabag’s discarded with one hand while the other’s teaspoon stirs in some autonomously added milk.

    The cup to lips, hot tea sipped, sugar-ffeine in, deep space invaded by light.

    I’ve done this thousands of times, thousands, thousands, thousands, thousands. < My penance in part to write and rewrite that word.

    Now. If I were to prepare one day for ritual, rather than routine—much like you've made of making your brew. I'm convinced it'd be way more memorable and much more savoured. Familiarity and contempt and all that—be gone. Yes, I'll prepare me a more thought through brew more often.

    Thanks.

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    1. This was a wonderful first comment on one of my posts MM. Your magical writing skills have somehow taken your tea making which you have admitted to being inferior to mine, and yet I very much to put the electric kettle on write now and say sorry to my other tea and spices for not appreciating it as much as I should of. lol

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  5. Tea-making can be a quite beautiful experience I find, when the time is taken and something beyondthe ‘dip and dunk’ of a tea bag is employed. I love to have white tea in a pot, out in the garden on a sunny morning, waiting for the infusion to be ‘just-so’ in strength, pouring delicately into a tiny wee cup. Nothing like as impressive a brew as yours, and I love the sound of cardamom in tea, it’s one of my favourite flavours. A friend made me some vegan chai with almond milk and it was too milk based for me as a drink to be honest, but quite feasible to make vegan. Oat milk is lovely, soya, there’s many alternatives out there these days. But I’m chattering on about tea here rather than rituals.

    There’s such comfort in them. Animals especially I note, specifically dogs, love the repetitiveness of a ritual, watch from afar or close up intently. It soothes them, and I think rituals soothe us also, as you say, comfort lies within such practices, and superstitions too for some.

    I recall as a Catholic we were instructed to only eat fish, not red meat or fowl on a Friday, and so I went to the chip shop every Friday for twenty two years on the run. I’ll admit I moved nto meat and potato pies after a while, and stopped being a Catholic at all not much afterwards aged 13. – “I don’t know, but not eating meat, makes me feel closer to God.” – perhaps because no death is involved? I’d have thought that makes sense, not that I think of any Gods as caring about life particularly, for if they do exist they’re exceedingly unpleasant characters I’d say.

    Another important element to rituals are how beneficial they are to those who have memory loss/alzheimer’s/demetia and the like, because they find great stability in that which occurs automatically. Anything new thrown into the mix can cause extreme anxiety and even fear. The other side to that coin is realiing that never stepping out of daily rituals when in this position can keep one from socially enjoying life to the full and sometimes lead to condition like agoraphobia occurring.

    Fascinating post Swarn, you write real purdy. *smiles*. Pardon any spellink misfakes, my keyboard and I are not seeing key to eye these days *laughs*

    – esme drinking tea with Swarn upon the Cloud

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    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment Esme and your kind words. I do like my tea milky I guess, for me that’s really the first way I knew tea. But it does taste good with soy in it. My sister-in-law was recently visiting and she is vegan and so I would make it with almond milk for her. To me it look decidedly un-milky compared to when I’ve made it with soy, but maybe taste-wise it’s different, it just looks darker. lol For steeped tea, I do like it with less milky for sure…but chai…well it just has to be chai. lol And cardamon is my favorite flavor in the tea, so we share a love for that spice.

      I guess what I didn’t relate in my story about the Greek woman, is that like any Greek person they ate a lot of meat, so I am not sure any feelings about not killing anything is what made her feel closer to God, but I could be wrong. Maybe somewhere inside that was the case, but I suspect it was about the tradition about the religious theme to the day, perhaps associated with a mother or grandmother who was very pious. I don’t know. You make an excellent point though about animals. Particular dogs, who, like us, are a social species. So maybe there is some connection there. Many creatures are of course creatures of habit. Maybe ritual is just a fancier, dressier word for habit. I think these things ultimately act to make us feel safe. It’s a part of our life that’s predictable, and when we apply meaning to those habits they increase our sense of well-being. Dogs and humans alike (as well as everything else) evolve in the wild, where certainty isn’t abundant, and so in some way it makes sense that we would be drawn to certainty and to safety. Maybe that’s the only difference between a habit and a ritual, is that a ritual is a habit we’ve given meaning to.

      As you excellently point out, habits and rituals can be very helpful as therapy for people with various conditions. I’ve noticed that it times in my life when going through depression, having those reliable things that you just always do is a helpful way to get through the day. Rituals can also bring about a sense of purpose, and purpose has been shown to have all sorts of therapeutic benefits to living longer and healthier. I guess in the end I see rituals as very much like beliefs. I have no problem with belief, but ultimately they represent personal truths. Your rituals may mean a lot to you, but they don’t need to mean a lot to other people. I’m perfectly okay with other people not enjoying making chai as much as I do, but for some people I think the things that bring meaning to them, they want to have meaning to others. But I do think there is something about how these repeated actions impact our brains that like beliefs we sometimes can’t understand why other people wouldn’t see those things the same way we do. It’s interesting to think about. Thank you for adding some more meat to my thoughts (the only meat I would ask for from a Vegan. 🙂 ).

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