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The Transformative Power of Engaging in Ritual

In an era of social isolation, how can daily rituals keep us connected?

Ritual is often thought of solely in the context of a religious ceremony. However, rituals span far beyond religion, cult, or spiritual practices. A ritual is a specific act or series of acts that are performed in a precise manner and repeated often. It can be as simple as your daily practice of “saluting the sun” in yoga or as complicated as playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 on the violin for the New York Philharmonic on Friday evenings. Ritualized actions are typically exaggerations of otherwise normal behaviors. While each action within the ritual in and of itself isn’t always meaningful, the total result is.

In order to understand the importance of ritual, we need to understand that each action is typically more impactful and multilayered than it seems. Performing all the steps within a ritual in a specific sequence often requires complete focus to be achieved successfully. The science behind these acts shows how engaging in ritual can relieve stress, make us more present, and even improve our cognition.

When we exaggerate a familiar behavior in a ritual practice, it alerts our minds to an unusual stimulus that requires focus, activating areas of the brain like the amygdala—which is responsible for processing our emotions and responses. In addition to helping us tap into our emotions, repeating a sequence of ritualized steps can be critical for learning and long-term memory, allowing us to improve our concentration, problem-solve faster, and think on a deeper level.

Anthropologists believe that rituals originating in early human societies often included an additional element that addressed the “hazard-precaution system.” Behaviors such as washing and cleaning, or creating an orderly environment, were incorporated into rituals to address concerns of food, perimeter security, or healing in some way.

Rituals that combine positive prescriptive elements with negative ones force the mind to engage memory and motor control in a way that wouldn’t occur with a regular routine.

Research shows engaging in ritual is temporarily appeasing and mitigates anxieties. For instance, even the simple act of marking the boundaries of a campsite, or drawing a circle in the sand around ourselves, can be relaxing. It marks our perimeter and gives us a sense of security.

During the performance of a group ritual, personal fears or doubts are shared as a group, which has a calming effect. Engaging in ritual also has a profound impact on the hormone expression of all participants, which results in physiological, immunological, and behavioral changes. Ultimately, this helps to create cooperative relationships within complex societies.

Whether simple or elaborate, rituals can be transformative, both mentally and physically, and they connect us, strengthen bonds, create order, and ground us within a community. They are the glue that binds communities together into healthy societies for all social animals. Since social isolation is a major risk factor for mortality, in both humans and nonhuman animals, ritual plays an important role in bringing us together and keeping us healthy.

There’s a reason why solitary confinement is the worst kind of deprivation we can inflict on a social animal. Social animals evolved in the context of others. Visual and vocal communication, along with touch and proximity, are necessary for overall physical and mental health. Without socialization, a social animal withers and dies—humans included.

Social media and technology are a double-edged sword. While they offer opportunity, discovery, and the chance to forge new relationships, they also cause isolation, self-criticism, and alienation. All of these things can lead to potential mental-health crises. The magnitude of this situation was highlighted and made worse during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, when vast numbers of people around the world had no choice but to isolate themselves and turn toward online social interaction.

After months of being quarantined in our homes, we were forced to recognize the impact of losing in-person social connections.

Psychologists predict that the trauma people experienced through physical isolation will be transgenerational. The coronavirus quarantine revealed our strong need for real human contact.

At the same time, it revealed the vital role our daily rituals play in our everyday lives. They became the anchors that grounded us during tragedy and that connected us to one another even across oceans. Our frenzied, fast-moving world of places to go and people to see shrank to a short list. Without constant distraction and endless plans, we sang from our balconies together, had socially distanced conversations with neighbors over the fence, gardened, joined online baking groups and made sourdough bread, even saluting healthcare professionals with a chorus of sound every evening—all to participate in rituals of perseverance and hope.

Rituals are a lifeline during a crisis, but at all times we need fulfilling rituals to avoid feeling disconnected and alone. Even in this high-technology era, we remain inherently social animals, and what we seek is true connection in whatever form—with a stranger, with a neighbor, with colleagues, loved ones, and family. Returning to our roots, reconnecting with our wild side and the rituals of the wild can lead us down a path toward fulfillment, compassion, and well-being.

This passage is an excerpt from my new book, Wild Rituals.

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Wild Rituals, Caitlin O'Connell, Chronicle PRISM, January 12, 2021: