When the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski visited the Trobriand Islands off the eastern coast of New Guinea in the 20th century, he noticed that fishermen performed a series of complex rituals before venturing out to sea. However, they did not perform these rites to go out to the calm waters of the lagoon. Malinowski concluded that those rituals made fishermen feel more secure in dealing with the unpredictable power of the Pacific Ocean.
Today many rituals seem superstitious or a simple waste of time, but the philosopher Byung-Chul Han revalues the importance of rituals and thinks that denying them contributes to generating a feeling of rootlessness and orphanhood that pushes us to continually seek new experiences without never feel satisfied.
“The rites are symbolic actions. They transmit and represent those values and orders that keep a community together. They create a community without communication, while what predominates today is communication without a community”, he affirms.
What is a ritual exactly?
In psychology, rituals are defined as a predefined sequence of symbolic actions characterized by formality and repetition that lacks a direct instrumental purpose. Therefore, a rite is composed of a series of pre-established behaviors that have a symbolic meaning and follow a precise sequence, repeating themselves over time.
However, for Byung-Chul Han the concept of ritual goes further. “Rituals can be defined as symbolic techniques of installation in a home. They transform ‘being in the world’ into ‘being at home’. They make the world a trustworthy place. They make time habitable. Therefore, rites are in time what dwelling in space is,” he explained.
Rites as stabilizers of life
We live in a society that puts us under enormous pressure to produce and consume. That pressure speeds up the times and banishes the forms to focus on a supposed essence. However, following that rhythm implies plunging into a hectic alternation of events that prevents us from lingering on them and enjoying them.
That creates permanent unease. It pushes us to go from one stimulus to another, losing the references that give stability to our life. We do not live the experiences, we consume them. As a result, the things we use end up wearing us out. The experiences we live end up consuming us.
When “Time lacks a firm framework, it is not a house but an inconsistent flow. It disintegrates in the mere succession of a punctual present. It rushes in without interruption. Nothing offers it a foothold. Time that rushes in without interruption is not habitable,” Byung-Chul Han warned. So we can feel more anxious or lose the meaning of life altogether.
On the other hand, for Byung-Chul Han “Rituals give stability to life. They stabilize life thanks to their sameness, to their repetition”. They are patterns that, when repeated over time, become anchors that make us feel more comfortable and at ease. They allow us to linger on something beyond its practical purpose. In the framework of the ritual, things are not consumed or spent, they are only used.
Science agrees with him. Rituals bring order and structure to an inherently chaotic world. They become an effective shield that protects us from the avalanche of uncertain events.
What are rituals for on a psychological level?
Psychology has delved into the functions of rituals and their importance for our emotional stability. A study carried out at the University of Toronto revealed that rituals “trick” our brain into believing that it is immersed in a state of stability and predictability to help it move forward and prevent us from becoming paralyzed.
The key lies precisely in the forms, those of which we have discarded so easily. Repetitive motions help dampen uncertainty by evoking a sense of personal order and control. The sequence of ritualistic movements that follows a fixed script creates stability. Thus, rituals satisfy a fundamental psychological need: they give us a sense of structure and order when the world around us seems to be falling apart.
In this sense, psychologists from Harvard University found that rituals prior to a task that generates anxiety, not only reduce stress and the physiological parameters associated with it, but also improve performance. Therefore, rituals are not a waste of time but help us to calm down and focus better on the task ahead, improving our performance.
In fact, another study developed by neuroscientists at the University of Toronto revealed that rituals allow the emotional experience to be “turned off” at the brain level in the event of failures. That is, they minimize the external sources of anxiety and protect ourselves from uncertainty while increasing motivation and avoiding the negative emotions that are often generated by the prospect of failure. These rites, therefore, recharge us with a more positive and confident attitude that helps us face the challenge.
Another function of rituals is that they help us mitigate pain. A research carried out at Harvard University found that rites allow us to mitigate suffering in the face of loss, both material losses and the death of a loved one.
These researchers appreciated that despite the diversity of rituals that people put into practice to cope with the loss, what was important was the reestablishment of perceived control, which helps them to mitigate their negative mood by restoring a certain sense of self-efficacy.
Interestingly, these researchers also found that belief in the efficacy of rituals did not influence their power to mitigate pain. Therefore, we do not even need to believe that the rites will do us good to reap its benefits. The key lies, according to this study, in conscientiously carrying out the steps that we know and give life to the ritual.
Given the importance of rituals for our lives, it might be convenient to revalue ancient wisdom and include some rituals that make us feel good. It does not have to be religious rituals but small rites that help us to recover our forms, allow us to stop in a fast-paced world and make us feel comfortable and safe in the world. Whether it is the tea ceremony or a personal care rite, the important thing is to take the time to enjoy the ritual without haste, connecting with that moment to build the pillars of security that we need to face our day to day.
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Norton, M. I. & Gino, F. (2014) Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General; 143(1): 266 –272.
Malinowski, B. (1986) Los argonautas del Pacífico Occidental. Barcelona: Planeta Agostini.