The Power of Ritual

The holiday season for many people, my family included, has a simple pattern about it. We’re relatively understated about the whole affair, but there are certain things we do because, well, we do them every year. December, for example, wouldn’t be the same without the small, casual solstice gathering we host. In the midst of the greater hoopla (and maybe as an antidote to it), I always look forward to that evening. Fill in your own holiday and routines, but the principle applies for most people. Let’s consider the “royal we” here. We put up certain decorations and bring out certain dishes. We cook a specific slate of recipes. We gather at these houses for these particular parties. We might take the kids to this museum or go to this play. We attend the same services and concerts. We volunteer time or resources to these charities. We read a particular set of books and listen to the same music. Maybe we watch a certain movie every year. We send holiday cards. It’s an elaborate dance that both inspires and exhausts. We can’t imagine celebrating the holidays without this standard lineup, but most of us are somehow glad when it’s all done and taken down. (I know it’s kind of sacrilege to mention that part this early in the month.) Whatever the efforts required, we tend to organize our lives and society around ritual. And there’s a reason we gravitate toward these common, recurring practices.

For our ancient ancestors of course, ritual was key to social cohesion. The tighter knit the group, after all, the better chance they had at surviving. Ritual helped define kinship for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It imposed an agreed upon order to life. It established common ground and constructed a group identity for our ancestors. It kindled a sense of meaningful participation and collective investment.

Not surprisingly, evidence suggests that the first rituals centered on meat sharing. Archeologists have compared knife marks in recovered bones of animals at different ancient sites and observed that the number of marks decreased over time and became more standard. The shift, researchers explain, suggests that meat sharing moved from a kind of collective free for all in which many people took what they could to a formal activity performed by one person who then distributed meat according to a preset arrangement.

As our species continued to evolve, ritual became more elaborate and moved beyond meat sharing to other functions that enhanced social ties like initiation rites and spiritual ceremony. During the Upper Paleolithic age as easily habitable land shrunk with the ice age just as human population grew, groups likely had more contact with one another. To keep a relative peace, ritual further evolved in terms of scope and detail. Experts have even found evidence of what appeared to be a massive burial feast for an ancient shaman. Never underestimate the power of a good party, I guess.

When we talk about ritual today, we refer to both collective traditions like holiday customs or religious conventions as well as individual practices like prayer or meditation. It speaks to the power of ritual for the human mind, I think, that we’ve internalized the social bonding element within these kinds of individual practices. Although we might think of them as personal activities, they also reinforce an investment in something beyond ourselves – whether it be family tradition, spiritual community, or a generalized but still shared ethos like that guiding a meditation practice. Our society has become so complex that ritual has become even more symbolic and in some cases subtle. In short, we’re performing a personal ritual but still participating in something that extends beyond our own experience.

In some regard, of course, a ritual can be any repeated activity to which we bring a positive and intentional mindfulness. (Humor me here as I clearly push the original context of the term.) Some people have self-care rituals they do at home for the purpose of relaxation. Others create a particular rhythm to meaningful hobbies like the careful laying out of tools in preparation for wood carving or the set up of paints and canvas for painting.

Although we may not be thinking of it at the time, even ritual in this alternative sense may connect us to some bigger association or emotional story. Maybe we’re laying out the tools like our father did. Maybe setting up the painting supplies this way is a kind of homage to the well of creativity we hope to tap. Our efforts don’t have to be big or bold to contain an element of ceremony.

Beyond any sense of reverence, the simple repetition of an activity can somehow invoke positive feelings. Researchers have shown that simple routine enhances “feelings of safety, confidence, and well-being.” Go ahead and do ten sun salutations (yes, right now) and see how you feel. More relaxed? Of course you are. That’s a little more complex than rote routine, but you get the point. The simple repetition of movements or words has figured into spiritual and meditative arts for millennia as a centering practice to focus the mind and let go of peripheral distractions. It’s a soothing, physical dimension that’s always played a role in ritual.

As full to the brim as the holidays are, it’s a fitting time of year to think about ritual. Even if you don’t celebrate any particular occasion this month, maybe the slower, more inward mood of winter is enough to elicit the question. What rituals populate your life right now? Put them under the light of assessment if that makes sense. Which enhance your sense of community and connection? Which are comforting, life-giving, or otherwise positive influences? Which, if any, have lost their core of meaning and now just take up mental and logistical space in hollow forms? Is it time for redefining old rituals or creating new ones?

This kind of theme is less traveled territory for MDA, but I’ve had these ideas on the brain since Thanksgiving. (Maybe it’s the work I’ve been doing on my next book.) Chalk it up to this. Each of us in our own way uses the Primal Blueprint to consider how our ancestral roots create the obvious (and less obvious) needs and desires we have today. For some of us, we’re happy applying it to the primary physical areas of diet and exercise, maybe with sleep and sun thrown in for good measure.

For others, the journey goes further. We use the Primal context to examine subtler, less acknowledged dimensions of our ancestral design. Understanding these primal inclinations, we can prioritize sources of nourishment often lacking in our modern society like nature, play, for meaningful ritual – for example.

Some years ago researchers from the University of Syracuse published study results illustrating a relationship between couples’ participation in spiritual holiday rituals and their marital satisfaction. Subjects of varying religious backgrounds who shared holiday customs like lighting the menorah or decorating for Christmas reported better overall relationship happiness. Significantly, the connection didn’t depend on degree of spiritual devoutness but on the active experience of sharing in the ritual itself. In the words of the researchers, “couples embrace the symbolic aspects of celebrations and value the opportunity to reaffirm their beliefs and relationship.”

No matter what your religious stripes (or lack thereof) themselves, I think the findings underscore the original impact of meaningful ritual: to bond us together in common story and experience. It’s a harder thing to come by these days. However, I think of our ancestors and their pivotal reverence for a ceremony that fed a community or a ritual that honored the timeless transitions that define our individual humanity or those that movingly recreated their extraordinary cosmological narratives. There’s something about digging down to the elemental – the raw and vital center of our inclinations. In a bigger, faster, virtual society, doing so brings me back to what originally mattered.

What role does ritual have in a post-modern world? It depends on whether you consider yourself post-modern, I guess, or how you even interpret what that begins to mean. Beyond the scope of the present holidays (and certainly beyond their rampant commercialization), there are legitimate, primitive forces at work. I’ll enjoy observing the holidays in the most Primal way possible.

Thanks for reading today, everybody. Let me know your take on ritual in a Primal lifestyle.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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