Before every match he plays, tennis superstar Rafael Nadal, recently crowned the 2022 Australian Open male champion, follows a specific sequence of steps that include taking a freezing cold shower, listening to his pre-game music playlist, putting the grips on his racquet according to a precise order, running water through his hair, drinking from two different bottles of water, and several other actions. Like him, many other elite athletes across all sports rely on more or less complex rituals to reach flow state before an event.
The power of rituals has been known and harnessed since the beginning of civilization. For a long time, social scientists have explored the role of rites in creating connection and trust among groups and societies, whereas only recently scientific research has shown that rituals can regulate emotions, improve performance, and even boost health. In addition, rituals may help us to be more aware, live in the present moment, and be more appreciative of our life.
What makes rituals special? Like routines, rituals are actions, or sequences of actions, that we perform repeatedly. The main difference between the two is that rituals present a symbolic purpose or meaning. The association of action and meaning creates powerful effects in our conscious and unconscious mind, which go beyond the simple, practical effects of the performed actions.
Potentially, every action that is repeated and has an associated meaning can become a ritual. Every day we engage in numerous routines, such as waking up at the same time, having breakfast, doing exercise, cleaning the house... Even if these activities can constitute an important aspect of our daily life, they do not normally have a specific meaning. However, if these actions are performed with a symbolic purpose, they can become powerful tools for transformation. For instance, you might decide that, when you drink coffee in a special cup and a specific place, you want to become fully focused on the task ahead. Clearly stating this goal, you are telling your mind and body that this specific action is like a switch button to activate the physiological processes to optimise your productivity. If you repeat this ritual several times, always at the same moment of the day, with this meaning in mind, you will soon experience remarkable changes in how you feel. In fact, your ritual might become so effective that you could get similar results even substituting your regular coffee with a decaf!
How to create your own ritual
Either if you are familiar with some sort of rite or if you are just curious to try whether rituals can be an effective tool for you, creating a personal ritual is a simple process. Independently from your purpose, the most important aspect of any ritualistic procedure is that it must be a repeated sequence of actions that feels meaningful to you.
These are some simple steps that can help you create an effective, personal ritual.
Define a goal you intend to achieve:
the actions that form your ritual need to be associated with a meaning. Try to be clear with what your purpose is. For instance, you can create a ritual to focus before starting to work or study, or to deal with anxiety.
Link the ritual to a specific moment of your day:
When performing a ritual, timing matters. You can either choose a specific time, a specific date, or a specific moment of the day, such as before brushing your teeth in the evening, or the day before an exam.
Find an appropriate place, or adapt the ritual to the context:
Research on rituals suggests that where you perform the ritual is less crucial that when you perform it. Nevertheless, it is important to make sure that the place you choose provides all that you need. If your ritual involves eating or drinking something, make sure to have access to water. If you want to involve other people, think about a place that has enough space. If you want to improve your performance for a specific sport or activity, consider the characteristics of the environment in which you will find yourself before your performance. Usually, you may want to find a place that is quiet and private.
Consider using symbols and symbolic objects:
Your goal will determine the features of your ritual. For instance, to honour a person or an event, you might want to find symbolic objects that connect you with them. If you want to deal with grief or another negative emotion, you may want to draw your feelings on a piece of paper and burn it.
Choose actions that ‘feel right’:
The ritual you are creating must be meaningful to you. It can be a specific action, like preparing and drinking a specific tea in a specific way, or even something more abstract, like doing a specific sequence of movements with your hands. Try to connect with what you like and what feels ‘special’ and appropriate for the goal you want to achieve. For instance, if you want to find focus, some slow, contemplative movement might be more effective.
You can also think about actions that you used to perform when you were a child, perhaps with religious or cultural meaning: what we have learnt to do during our childhood is usually deeply rooted inside of us and, for this reason, it can be extremely powerful. For instance, lighting up a candle can bring up some relevant memories that can strengthen the meaning of your ritual. Whatever you decide to do, listen to your instinct and rely on trial and error: experience is key.
Involve other people (if you feel to do so):
In some cases, your ritual can be more meaningful if some other people in your life take part in it. For instance, you can invite some close friends to share with you a personal end of the year ritual, to let go of the past and clear your mind for what is coming. Doing the ritual together would strengthen your bond, trust, and reciprocal support.
Define a clear end:
Rituals work better if they have clear boundaries that separate them from the rest of your routine. Decide how you want to terminate your ritual and go back to your life.
To create a strong link between the actions you perform and the meaning you want to achieve, repetition is fundamental. Trust your instinct and, if something does not feel right, tweak it. However, once you feel confident enough with your procedure, try to be as consistent as possible with the details you have chosen, such as timing, the material used, the movements involved, and so on. Remember: when performing rituals, the “journey” is indeed the “destination”!
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