Our first "morning meetings" as a new middle school were a disaster of comic proportions. I remember uselessly dinging a meditation bell in a crowded classroom as half of the students shifted their attention and the other half continued eagerly talking to one another. Our attempt to have a simple, peaceful meeting to set the tone for the day instead was chaotic and felt like a constant battle for attention.
Mulling this over, we decided that we were lacking a ritual, a set of psychological "cues" that would help kids shift into a different mindset. Putting them all in a room with peers and then asking them to change their mindset on a dime was a tall order, especially for adolescents whose social motivation usually trumps all else. So we came up with a new ritual: the hang-out time while students arrived would take place in an atrium outside the doors of the gym, and students could talk as much as they wanted. While they were socializing, a teacher went into the gym, turned the big overhead lights off so that only natural light from the windows came in, and then sat down near the center and began to play music on a harmonium or guitar. When this was in place, we asked the students to enter the gym one at a time, in silence, and take a seat in a circle around the center of the gym. Once everyone was seated, the music wrapped up, we did a minute of meditation together, and then a student moderator led the rest of the meeting.
From the first time we did this little ritual, it completely changed our morning gathering and even the tone of the school day. Students and adults alike began the day feeling more centered, peaceful and connected. Student moderators began leading not only the meeting but also the meditation, with great success. The shift from the purposefully loud, social environment outside the gym to the calm, peaceful one inside was so obvious and visceral that nearly all students understood that a different way of being was called for. As adults, we received a powerful reminder of what we theoretically knew but had forgotten in this case: that simple, consistent rituals have a profound effect on behavior and culture.
Humans love creating rituals. I think of the elaborate bedtime routines that my daughter relishes, a comforting sequence of activities that emerged gradually over time but became positively written in stone in her mind. I think of working with adolescents who become accustomed to a schedule and are prone to be shocked and scandalized when the schedule changes. And certainly I think of adults and our love of comforting rituals, coffee in the morning, the way we make dinner, the peculiar order of things we follow in washing the dishes or washing our bodies in the shower.
We all create and follow rituals, but we don't all see ourselves as conscious ritual creators. I believe this is one of the hallmarks of great teachers and great parents, perhaps of successful leaders in general. They know how to consciously craft a ritual. There is certainly an art to it. Rituals that are too complex or contrived will be rejected. Rituals have to be given time to grow. You might start off making coffee in one simple way, and two years later be surprised to realize there are twelve steps you follow precisely every morning; had you started with the twelve-step process as the only way to make coffee, you would have rejected it right away! Rituals are like plants, growing gradually, needing regular water, branching sometimes quite unexpectedly. They have a mysterious life cycle and at some point they will die and make way for something else, like a bedtime routine no longer needed as a child gets older.
Rituals are rooted in the physical. Part of their comfort comes because they spare us from using our complicated brains. They go straight to the body and its senses. I think of my five year old's elaborate bedtime ritual which operates on a gradient of light - from the bright living room where we've eaten dinner and played, to the slightly darker bedroom where she chooses her books to read, to the small bed lamp which is the only light on while we're reading the books, and finally to the darkness in the room as we sing a lullabye before the adults leave the room. Each step a little darker, quieter, cueing the body to the changes taking place.
Rituals, like habits, can be good or bad. Unfortunate rituals can spring up and become hardened into habit. Our opportunity here is to bring our rituals into awareness, considering if they serve us and others. And then, to consider where we might craft a new one. To smooth some recurring rough patch in life. Perhaps it's getting your kids to help set the table for dinner, or getting yourself off in the morning in better spirits. Remember how deeply we follow rituals as humans, remember to keep them simple and base them in the senses. Then, may your career as a ritual maker take off!