All about Rituals

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or may be followed as the tradition of a community. The term ritual usually excludes all actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.

The rites and rituals of both the past and the present societies have made use of a variety of symbols and modes of practices. Some involved special gestures and words, some used recitation of fixed texts and many others had special music, songs or dances as a central theme. Some rituals had processions, most went for special attire, and many gave importance to consumption of special food, drinks and much more. Religious rituals also used their own specific set of artefacts.

Practice of rituals is a common thread that has linked humanity through the ages, regardless of ethnicity, culture or religion. These rituals have enabled us to build well-bonded families and cohesive communities. They have supported us to express ourselves in times of both joy and sorrow. Most critically, they have helped us to create and sustain our own specific identities. 

Rituals unlike individual habits are conventional behaviours that are socially stipulated. It should therefore come as no surprise that rituals follow predefined set of sequential actions that are characterized by rigidity, formality and repetition. Such rituals are embedded in systems that have a certain meaning and symbolism. 

Research identifies three elements that constitute a ritual. The first element is the formality and repetitive nature of  the behaviour, occurring in fixed succession. Second element is the requirement for ritualistic behaviour to have a symbolic meaning. Lastly, the ritualised behaviours are mainly symbolic in nature and not expected to have any meaning without the symbolism. The 21-gun salute during a military funeral service is very symbolic across the world in bestowing the highest honour to a fallen comrade. Without the symbolism, this ritual would be nothing more than a group of soldiers firing into the air. 

Rituals play a very important role in human communities for a number of reasons.

First, rituals have the power to reduce individual and collective anxieties, especially when facing uncertainties or crisis situations. Research has established that by praying or singing together, we feel emotionally connected and supported by each other. This reduces the anxiety levels of all the participants.

Second, rituals act as support structure for people to get together and celebrate important milestones of either the individual, the community or the nation. Births, graduations, marriages, deaths, independence days, festivals – are all marked by rituals and traditions across the globe. These events provide a time and place for people to gather and renew their bonds with friends, family members, fellow members of the community or the country. Rituals serve as powerful signals that promote trust within the social group in which they are practised. 

Religious rituals are in one sense the behavioural underpinnings of a religion. We can see many rituals that are performed across all religions on certain occasions even though they may use different sets of artefacts and gestures. 

Rituals around grief and death are ubiquitous. Historical records show that communities have been effectively using rituals while dealing with grief and loss. End-of-life (EOL) rituals serve an important purpose as they enable people to express and share their ongoing grief and also maintain connections between the dying persons and their friends and family. 

We may not realize, but one of the most enduring and significant family ritual is the family meal. When individuals sit down with family members and share a meal together, they engage in an experience that reaches out to all the human senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and the sounds of familiar voices. Family meals furnish a meaningful, regular opportunity to be involved in an experience that is shared among family members and also serves as an occasion for sharing important information and thoughts. 

An article in Journal of Family Psychology’  claims that family routines and rituals play an important role in the health and well-being of today’s families.  They act as a relief mechanism to reduce the stresses and strains of today’s busy life. Longitudinal research done over 50 years finds that family routines and rituals are powerful tools for de-stressing and bringing some modicum of stability.

Family rituals also help to bring families closer, teach kids important life skills and help them feel safe and secure. Rituals enable elders to pass on cultural traditions and important values to the others in the family. Many rituals involve lot of fun creating happy memories of  shared moments for the family members to look back upon.

Couples also engage in many happy rituals during their life together. Such rituals have been shown to improve the quality of the relationship. For example, partners who engage in simple positive rituals such as sharing mealtimes or celebrating milestones, tend to have greater intimacy, improved relationship satisfaction and stronger commitment to each other. 

On the surface, there are astonishing differences between rituals associated with different populations over human history. The rituals make use of different substances, different practices and different artefacts. Yet, there are striking similarities in all these rituals. All of them include procedural repetition, multiple procedural steps, time specificity and high levels of procedural detail. Typically, religious rituals incorporate presence of supernatural agents. Given the ubiquitous nature of these rituals, we must accord them the right importance while describing human socialisation. 

According to Andrew Newberg,  associate director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, rituals lower cortisol, which in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure and increases the immune system function.

Even though rituals have no direct influence over the physical world, they provide a sense of control by imposing order in the chaotic everyday life. It is of little importance whether this sense of control is illusory. What matters is that it is an efficient way of relieving anxiety.

One of the most powerful actions that we can take for improving our mental health is to start each morning with a mood-boosting ritual. Such a ritual may involve exercise, meditation or positive affirmations. It is also a great idea to step outdoors into the sunlight which can put our minds at ease and increasing the production of serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone which regulates mood, sleep, memory, and other thinking functions. 

Research reveals that rituals which involve coordinated movements make the participants trust each other lot more. This is attributed to the increased release of neurotransmitters that are  associated with bonding. By aligning behaviour and creating shared experiences, rituals forge a sense of belonging and common identity which transforms individuals into cohesive communities. 

When measurements were taken during fire walking ritual, it revealed an astonishing level of synchrony in the heart-rate activity of the fire-walkers on one side and their families, their friends and other spectators of the event on the other side. When researchers mapped the social network of the firewalkers, they saw that the degree of synchronicity was directly related to the level of their social proximity. Thus a fire-walker’s heart-rate patterns resembled those of his wife much more closely than those of his friends. Similarly, those of his friends were more in sync than those of other spectators.

The meaning of ritual cannot often be fully captured through words which are inadequate to describe the totality of the experience. Through wordless sharing, the participants can discharge difficult emotions and heal and restore themselves. The fundamental power and promise of ritual lies in this particular aspect.

Rhythm and music do play a somewhat similar and important role in many rituals. Whether we are chanting in Sanskrit or singing the national anthem together, our brains tend to resonate with the brains of those around us. So, if everyone is performing the same dance or singing the same hymn or prayer, all of the participating brains are working in sync. Andrew Newberg, a researcher in neurotheology, observes that this synchroneity can engender powerful feeling of connectedness. The resulting reduction of stress levels in the participants, is due to the activation of their autonomic nervous system connected to their emotional areas of the brain. According to one study, chanting the Sanskrit syllable “om” deactivates the limbic system, softening the edge of fear, anxiety, and depression.

Extreme ritual practices involving pain and suffering pose significant risks such as injury, trauma or even infection. Nonetheless, they are performed by millions of people around the world. More interestingly, quite often, they happen to be the culturally prescribed remedies for a variety of maladies, especially related to mental health.

Combining ethnographic observations and psycho-physiological monitoring, researchers investigated the outcomes of participation in one of the world’s most extreme rituals, involving bodily mutilation and prolonged suffering. They found that performance of this physically demanding ordeal had no detrimental effects on physiological health. On the other hand, participants exhibited discernable health improvements. They also found out that the improvements were far greater in those who engaged in more intense forms of participation.

Extreme rituals such as fire-walking, push the limits of human endurance by imposing extraordinary pain, stress and risks. A small Spanish village called San Pedro Manrique is home to the largest fire-walking in Europe. Fire-walking is a demanding task considering that temperatures are extreme and the experience of walking over burning coals can be painful. The pace must be controlled with precision. Walking too slowly will prolong the contact with the fire, which is guaranteed to cause a nasty burn. Trying to run will push the feet deeper into the coal bed, where temperatures are even higher. Going toes-first could get pieces of burning matter stuck between the toes. Putting too much weight on the heels will reduce the surface area of the impact point, plunging the feet deeper into the hearth. The more experienced fire-walkers advise the youngsters ‘Stomp on the fire using your entire foot … walk steadily and confidently … walk straight and look straight … respect the fire, but do not be afraid of it.’

Neuroscience offers some clues on why such painful and dangerous rituals are performed. Extreme rituals create increasing levels of arousal in the participants, starting well before the actual act is performed during preparation time and peaking at the time of completion of the ritual. As rituals become more arousing, they trigger hormones that stimulate the reward systems of the brain. Sensations such as pain or fear, typically thought to be negative, can actually be transformed into pleasurable experiences. This is similar to the sharp thrill experienced by the bungee-jumper due to a spike in the neurotransmitter dopamine. An increase in neuropeptides called endorphins, which bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, produce soothing euphoria in the ritual participants similar to the one felt by the marathon runner, also known as ‘runner’s high’.

We can easily appreciate that it is impossible to navigate in a foreign country, without the knowledge and understanding of the local traditions and cultural rituals. For example, in Asian culture, taking off our shoes when we enter the home is an important ritual. It not only helps to keep the house clean, but it is also a way to show respect for the house and to the people in it.  We need to realize that rituals are socially stipulated conventions. Therefore we cannot ignore them. A visit to a new country will quickly reveal how rituals are so ingrained in everyday social interactions. For example, upon arrival at a ryokan, a Japanese inn, we will typically encounter a long line of shoes at the entryway. We will, by intuition, quickly slip off our shoes to add to the line, despite receiving no explicit instruction to do so. As we place our bare feet on the parlour floor, we will encounter a pair of house slippers or uwabaki. It will be apparent that wearing uwabaki inside the ryokan is expected as a glance around the room will reveal that everyone else is wearing them. When we arrive at our sleeping quarters, we will again encounter no fewer than two additional pairs of uwabaki. We can quickly figure out that one is for the bedroom and the other is for the bathroom. We will dutifully transition to our different pairs of uwabaki throughout our stay. We will follow this ritual even when wee are alone inside our bedroom, with no one to observe or correct us. The reason we quickly adopt the ritual footwear practices, is to signal to the community and to ourselves that we consider ourselves as members of this group.

Social scientists have long speculated that collective rituals generate benefits that exceed their costs by reinforcing social bonding and group solidarity. Famously, Emile Durkheim proposed the notion of collective effervescence, a feeling of ‘belonging and assimilation’ that is produced by collective ritual action. Durkheim particularly emphasizes the importance that is placed on the collective practice of the religious rituals for the unity of tribes. When the tribe gathers for a religious ritual, a force is formed, which Durkheim associates to a kind of social electricity which escalates the mood of the participants. The gathering of human bodies in the same place is a basic prerequisite for this shared experience. The several interaction rituals that follow promote ‘attunement’ and culminate in intensification of the common emotional state of the participants which Durkheim calls ‘collective effervescence’.

Collective rituals have also been seen as activities that integrate an individual with the communal social order. They also help to establish & maintain social equilibrium by bonding group members, minimizing status differences and redressing social conflicts.

It is claimed that “In a collective gathering, emotional synchrony pulls humans fully, but temporarily into the higher realm of the sacred, where the self disappears and collective interests predominate.”

Randall Collins has developed Interaction Ritual Theory (IRT) which focuses on the mechanisms by which successful social interactions transform people’s feelings into longer-term emotional energy. Collins defines emotional energy as a feeling of confidence, elation, strength, enthusiasm and zeal to take action. When this energy is circulated and regenerated through chains of further interactions, then relationships are nourished, identities are moulded and the social fabric is shaped.

Let us try to picture the last time we were engrossed in an interaction. May be, we were immersed in a conversation with a friend, or we may be experiencing the sadness at a funeral, or we may be absorbed in a concert by our favourite band. In all these cases, we were engaging in an interaction ritual (IR): a focused encounter in which we were emotionally in sync with the other participants. 

Dr James Jones, a clinical psychologist and a professor of religion at Rutgers University integrates neuropsychology with ‘philosophy of mind’ to discover scientific explanations for religion.

He delves into the idea of expanded awareness, which is a common effect of all religious rituals. Ritualistic activities can cause a trance-like state, which involves experience that goes beyond the ordinary everyday experiences which are received through our five senses. Religious rituals have the capacity to make a person experience transcendence. Dr Jones attempts to explain the neuropsychology behind these higher-level experiences.

The Human Connectome Project finds that reason, emotion and sensation all work together using the same neural networks. Working together, they generate a more transcendental way of knowing. This suggests that human understanding is never purely reason driven. The mind is also made up of two subsystems. One is to do with unconscious thought processes which are intuitive and fast-reacting. The second is to do with conscious thought processes, which are slower and more deliberate. These two sub-systems are interdependent and affect each other all the time. During the intense ritual practice, these combined systems create a larger transcendental perception of the world by joining bodily activity, intuition, thought processes and emotion.

In their research paper “Ritual Design: Crafting team rituals for meaningful organizational change”,  Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan claim that rituals have a special power to bring people together and give them a sense of purpose, values and meaning.

It is common for all organizations to conduct celebratory ritual in some form or other at the end of a project or at the end of the month or at anytime when a major milestone is completed.  Typically, gift cards are passed out, pizzas are ordered, certificates of appreciation are handed out and special t-shirts are made and distributed. Also, some or other event that is celebratory in nature is conducted.

Research shows that when rituals are integrated into the culture of an organization, they help motivate employees to achieve the goals of the organization. Rituals can also help forge connections among the various departments or among the several work teams that otherwise tend to isolate into silos. Rituals can also build bridges between different generations within the workforce, like bringing together the experienced veteran staff and the newly hired employees thus paving way for healthy and enriching relationships. Rituals also serve as events when people who otherwise do not agree with each other, are drawn to come together and stand shoulder to shoulder.