For the Week of October 25, 2015: The Comfort in Personal Rituals

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt)

I awakened this morning to an aching body, one that I can only blame on myself.  After a month and a half of disruption, our home visited each day by a variety of contractors:  arborists, painters, plumbers, electricians, landscapers and roofers, this weekend was a chance to reorder the house and patio.

And re-order I did.  Against the advice of my husband (who was busy cleaning the garage) and my better judgment,  I set to work:  moving potted plants, chairs, creating a fountain from an old Chinese porcelain bowl, on and on.  I bent, pushed, and lifted—for hours.  As the afternoon sun began to set, I sat alone on the deck in quiet satisfaction,  feeling as if I’d reclaimed the necessary quiet and calm that I hunger for in my daily life.  It was worth the aches and pains, I told myself, the ones already beginning to throb in my knees and back.  I confess  I am a person of habit.   I needed to reclaim the space for my daily ritual, beginning each day outdoors, sitting in silence, drinking in the morning sunrise, birdsong and canyon view.  In the midst of our go-go world, I need the solace and comfort of this small ritual to begin each day with a sense of calm and gratitude.

Rituals not only calm, but they help us heal, and have been recognized as part of the healing process since ancient times.  They help us cope with life difficulties, but, As Jeanne Achtenberg and her colleagues tell us, rituals also provide significance to the normal passages of our lives.  They are our outer expressions of inner experiences, important in helping us relax, re-connect with ourselves and re-discover simple joys of everyday life (Rituals of Healing, 1994).

According to a 2013 article in Scientific American, even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing lossesdo alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.  The article cited recent investigations by psychologists which demonstrated that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Some of their examples, taken from the world of sports revealed rituals were common among sports figures, for example:

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game; Curtis Martin of the New York Jets reads Psalm 91 before every game. And Wade Boggs, former third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, woke up at the same time each day, ate chicken before each game, took exactly 117 ground balls in practice, took batting practice at 5:17, and ran sprints at 7:17. (

Our personal rituals even function as talismans against fear in times of illness, offering a kind of assurance we will be all right.   Alice Trillin, describing her experience as a lung cancer patient in “Of Dragons and Garden Peas:  A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors,” discussed how her reliance on ritual, talismans and personal will provided a constant source of renewal and a reminder of the constancy of everyday life throughout her illness(New England Journal of Medicine, 1981).

In “Girding for Battle, “cancer patient Amy Haddad described the talismans and rituals she used to go her doctor’s appointment during her treatment:

The tiny, silver Celtic goddess
placidly hangs from a burgundy cord
around my neck…

My husband’s shirt fastens the wrong way…
My last name stamped in black ink
inside his collar…
His idea to wear the shirt…

So I wear these talismans
to protect me in the doctor’s office.

(From:   The Poetry of Nursing, Judy Schaefer, Ed., 2006)

Rituals, whether to reduce anxiety, alleviate grief, bring “luck” to an athlete, or help us abate fear in the face of illness, and be active participants in our healing process.  Our rituals, as Trillin, Haddad, and others affirm, offer time for quiet and a time to focus ourselves.  They can help us feel connected—to the world, each other and ourselves.

Healing rituals can take many forms.  They may be ones of release, for example, drumming; of nurturance and self-care, like having a massage; or of healing, such as journaling, meditation or prayer.  What they have in common is that they help us find solace, feel grounded and replenished in the midst of life’s upheavals or  day-to-day living.  They don’t require a lot of preparation.  They can be as simple as a warm bath with candlelight, time for prayer or meditation, a solitary walk along in the woods, an afternoon run, listening to music, gardening or sitting quietly at a window with a cup of freshly brewed tea or coffee.  What matters most is that your healing ritual gives you the space or quiet to replenish your spirit and listen to what is in your heart and mind.  In the noisy and rush-rush world we live in today, our  daily habits, these healing rituals, help ground us, clear our minds and rediscover ourselves.

Writing Suggestion: 

This week, reflect on the habits or rituals that are most comforting or calming in your daily life.  Which have helped you in times of pain or illness?   What helped you find solace in the midst of doctors’ appointments and treatments or a period of time that threatened to consume you with its demands?,  Think about your habits, the small comforting rituals of your daily life.  Why do they matter to you?  Write about their importance in your daily life.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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