December 9, 2021

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The rituals that keep us going

Life & Arts updates

It hardly needs saying that we are going through a lot right now. Between a series of environmental crises coupled with seemingly unending virus mutations and rising human rights concerns, the world still feels upended and precarious. And with our 24-hour access to the news and images of most of it, many of us are experiencing an increase in stress or a host of other emotional and mental health issues.

All of which can make life feel both unpredictable and unmanageable. We need ways to counter those feelings, to consider habits of thought and action that can help us draw some emotional, mental and spiritual nourishment.

Some time last year, during the height of the pandemic, I picked up a little sliver of a book I’ve had for years, a version of The Rule of St Benedict, an ancient guide to monastic values written by the 6th-century abbot Benedict of Nursia. Some 1,500 years on it remains a classic text in spiritual literature.

I was drawn to the book because I remembered from my time as a theology student how Benedict encouraged a daily order of practices and rituals as part of living a balanced life attuned to the good. For Benedict, that was a life replete with daily rituals (of prayer, work and study) derived from the core virtues and spiritual values in which he believed. Practising the Rule was a way of forming oneself over time. 

Some practices are as simple as brewing my coffee in the deathly quiet early morning by the glimmer of the stove

Though I have little inclination towards the rigours of monastic life, I have long believed in the value and power of daily rituals, those intentional practices imbued with meaning that we create for ourselves and enact repeatedly. I have had different daily rituals throughout my own life that anchor me to my sense of self, to some form of community, and to a strong sense of spiritual presence.

Some practices are as simple as brewing my coffee in the deathly quiet early morning by the glimmer of the stove light while it’s still dark outside, then bringing the steaming cup back to bed to sit in silence, the window blinds up while I watch the light of a new day creep in.

That small daily ritual is a practice of listening for the whispers of whatever might still be churning in my subconsciousness or my spirit from the night I’ve just awoken from. I happen to believe that the hours of our night-time sleeping are full of their own type of wisdom, and I find that those early morning hours while I’m still inhabiting somewhat of a vulnerable space are the best times for hearing and receiving guidance about something or revelatory new thoughts. 

The routine and repetition of rituals can help provide a sense of order and agency in times of disruption from our norms or times of chaos. But I think another equally important part of the gift of rituals is that it draws our attention to the present moment. When we are in the moment, we are more likely to remember that our experiences happen on a continuum of good and bad. Life still continues to offer affirming experiences as well, no matter how minute.

The words eventually sink into me like a welcome weight and ground me in a new world of thought

I can’t help but remember the viral videos that surfaced during the first stage of the pandemic, of Italians in lockdown meeting on the balconies every day at a certain time to make music together. When we create rituals with others in times like these, it draws us into a sense of community that can help alleviate feelings of being overwhelmed. We are reminded that we are not alone in the fear or the suffering or the worry or the uncertainty.

Some of my other rituals have taken the form of small slow acts throughout the days and weeks. During this unprecedented season, I have allowed myself to learn as I go, revisiting or initiating practices until I feel out what calms and centres me.

I’ve returned to letting a small stretch of the morning billow out between the pages of a book. Sometimes it’s an essay from a collection I’m reading. Other times it’s the stanzas of poems. I have always loved poetry for its exacting way of communicating. Every word choice matters in a poem and it trains me to think about the power of words, and how I select and use my own words. The slowness required for reading well calls me to attention. And as I reread line after line, the words eventually sink into me like a welcome weight and ground me in a new world of thought. 

I pick poets to read based on a number of factors, my mood, the things occupying my mind, or what I just feel compelled towards. For this recent stretch over the past year, it is the ritual of reading the words of Irish and Anglo-Irish poets John O’Donohue and David Whyte that reawakens me to the potency our small acts of intention and attention can have on our daily lives. I’m fixated again on these poets because their work always opens space for me to think about how I process the ups and downs of life. Both write luminously of the human condition. Yet to me, they also call us to fortify our ability to stare at brokenness, our own and the world’s, head-on with courage and hope. To find a ritual that invites that into my life right now feels like a gift.

Enuma Okoro is a New York-based columnist for FT Life & Arts

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