Without Ritual (and the Failure to Seek Out the Sacred)
Ben Tanzer ponders rituals and routines during these times and how they can help promote positive thinking and also encourage more productivity.
One foot hits the driveway, then the other.
There’s an immediate cold slap to my forehead.
Sharp, crisp, the skin uncovered, exposed to the world.
The wind little knives coming in from all angles.
The streets are empty, patches of snow and grit, amoebas oozing across the ground, salt already accumulating in patchy lesions. Stretches of gray punctuated by the occasional bright sign or awning, a moving car.
It’s winter now.
It’s also Christmas Day and most people are off in their homes, pajamas and hot drinks, gifts and wrapping paper strewn about the floor around them.
This isn’t my holiday.
It is a day of peace, however, a celebration of rest, a refresh, but without the concomitant rituals.
Though, even that isn’t entirely accurate.
Since I awoke, I weighed myself, which I do daily, every morning, post-pee, like Hemingway, 195.5 pounds, good for the week, high compared to this time last year, opened the blinds to the outside world, fetched the morning paper, read the morning paper, drank a full cup of water, ate one protein bar, a conscious effort to jolt my blood sugar first thing, poured my coffee one-hour after I got out of bed to ensure I was awake, added cinnamon to boost my metabolism, drank my coffee, journaled, wrote and made the bed, a small success to start the day.
Then I laced up my running shoes, winter garb in place, including gloves for the first time since last winter.
I’ve spent much of the last year thinking about ritual, versus merely going about my day as purposeful as that may be.
In a blog post at Lifehack titled “How Are Daily Rituals Different from Daily Routines?” the author writes (October 2020), “The difference between a daily ritual and a routine is how you think about it. It’s how you perceive your actions. Are they mundane chores that just need to be completed, or are they actions that bring meaning, learning or joy into your life? It’s all about your mindset.”
I’m interested in joy and meaning, though my focus on ritual has been driven by something different, a desire to experience my day and life as a performance where I produce on some level more enlightened than I have been.
According to the article “How Rituals Alter the Brain to Help Us Perform Better” in Psychology Today (September 2017), “There’s now mounting evidence to show that despite their surface level irrationality, rituals play a crucial role in regulating our performance behaviors.” In particular, “rituals desensitize the brain’s anxiety-related reaction to error, mitigating the negative experience of personal failure.”
Failure is inevitable and I’ve been focused on embracing it. It’s how we respond to failure that’s crucial, and rituals help us to keep moving forward.
How can this work?
- Start the Day with a Ritual – Rituals serve as a fresh start and successfully implementing them carries over into the tasks to come.
- End the Day with a Ritual – This can involve reflective-type exercise, looking back on the day and evaluating how things went.
- Be Sure the Ritual Is Your Own – Make it personal.
I can do that, right? I think so. I’m finding out now.
I leave the house.
The first steps are slow, always, though I’m slow regardless, by age and choice, seeking to protect my knees and protect the process and necessity of the run, going on forty years this spring.
I turn onto State Street, the skies above me gray, street grimy, the cold slap happens.
It’s winter now.
It’s upon us.
In The New York Times article titled “How We Survive Winter,” the writer Elizabeth Dias writes about winter solstice and what is to come (December 2020):
“In wintertime, all life is on that knife edge between life and death. … Winter is a teacher of vulnerability.”
No more so than this year.
Also: “For millenniums, during these months of darkness, humans have turned to rituals and stories to remind one another of hope and deeper truths.”
This is new to me.
Why is this new to me?
“The winter solstice marks the point in time where the generative and creative powers of our universe start to return and grow again. It is the other end of the dyadic power of yin and yang that balance and rebalance each other every cycle through the seasons.”
This is the first time I’ve ever thought about the Winter Solstice as something other than a guidepost on the calendar, bothered to read about it, or ascribed any meaning to it. And selfishly so. I had this idea that my family could recognize it in some fashion, especially with everyone together, something no longer a given with a child off at college, and especially because of this year and what’s to come.
Maybe we could eat pomegranates and nuts? Recite poetry? This is what is done in the Iranian tradition of Yaldā, a custom that dates back 2500 years.
Or maybe we could play music? Something we all love.
Create our own ritual.
A reminder that we’ve “lived through long nights before.”
I failed to do any of that.
Like so many things, it’s another possibility waiting to happen for next year.
Though, what is this past year anyway?
For many, it is a lost piece of their life.
But is it for us, my family?
Not really, we lost work and social interaction. We also stayed healthy and my children started at their new schools, not in the way they would have, and not without challenges, but they were still able to move forward despite it all.
We did fine.
We’re lucky and privileged.
Early on during the pandemic, I decided that the run, always a must, would be grown, expanded, no less than one hour per journey, an escape and a release from the protective shell we were living in, an embrace of the outside world in whatever capacity was safest and most controlled.
And so, it has mostly been.
The clouds part.
The sun comes out, piercing, laser-like, blinding me and splintering across the fog that already coats my glasses, a perpetual thing in a masked world, all things before me hazy, unclear, filmy.
I’m grateful for the sun on my face though.
Gratitude is something else I’ve been practicing lately.
I journal about it, something, anything I feel grateful for.
I also bring it to the dinner table conversation, much to the derision of the people I live with.
I know it can feel new age-y, cheeseball, an effort to wish something into existence that is both fantasy and distraction, a desire to make something happen that does not feel natural.
But is that bad?
Habit, repetition, ritual.
In an article from Psychology Today (July 2018) titled “Science Proves That Gratitude Is Key to Well-Being,” the author shares, “a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”
How does this work? Gratitude stimulates two key regions in the brain: the hypothalamus, which regulates stress, and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a role in pleasure. What can one do? One can practice:
- Interior Gratitude – Keep a daily or weekly list of things you’re grateful for.
- Exterior Gratitude – Write thank-you notes and put that gratitude on paper.
- Being Grateful for Useless Things – Everyday stuff.
I can be grateful. I am grateful. Even today despite how bleak it all feels.
In The New York Times, Dias also writes, “The undeniable hardship of this winter is a reminder that for much of human history, particularly in colder climates, winter was a season simply to be survived. Winter is a primal time for grief. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human.”
I can embrace this sentiment, and I can embrace the cold, survive it, thrive in it. I’m even grateful for it. I enjoy the experience of running in the freezing air, snow and wind about me, pushing through, the emergence of spring and life.
I need light and sun though.
I don’t know when this started or how I failed to acknowledge it sooner. It may be as simple as believing I was above such things: needs, moods, disorders, being human, normal. A mode I operated in from my teen years until when … well, not so long ago.
I’m not above it.
To feel productive, engaged, and joyful, I sometimes need a boost, and that boost may require more than the sun, but sun helps.
I cross under Lake Shore Drive and emerge on the lakefront trail, the weather harsher here, the conditions bleaker, sand strewn across the path from the beach, the waves angry and slapping the shore.
They grow calmer as I head south and wrap around the bend at Oak Street, though they never go away, lake water levels have grown in recent years and now wash over the path with regularity.
This ought not be heard as a complaint though.
I love waves.
As a child, it was their violence that captivated me, the force and the ease with which they cut through any sense of balance I thought I possessed. Now, though, it’s about sound, repetition, sitting and listening to them, the waves at my feet, the calm overwhelming me.
The lakefront is fine, but it’s not what I imagine I need. I need salt air, blue water, ocean. Fortunately, science is on my side. In an article in Inc. titled “How the Beach Benefits Your Brain, According to Science,” the author writes about the endless benefits of going to the beach (November 2017):
- Listening to Crashing Waves – The noise of the non-threat, calming, saying, “don’t worry,” leaving one in a meditative state.
- Remove the Blues – Colors produce different effects, blue reduces stress, and staring at the ocean changes brain wave frequency and also puts one in a meditative state.
- Smell the Ocean Mist – The negative ions in the ocean air help calm your brain and a gulp of fresh air can alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
- Grounding – Walking barefoot has a number of stimulating benefits for body and mind.
The waves turn calmer as I continue, and the feeling remains the same, more of this, somehow.
The water on the path freezes at this point of the run. There are shards of ice everywhere and between and among them is black ice that traces a path along the sea wall.
When winter hits, I no longer run here at night. It’s too slippery and I’m too old, unsure of myself with my rickety knees and questionable balance.
I once slipped running here in the dark and for a moment, as I slid down the slight decline and towards the dark maw of the lake, I wondered if I would get sucked in. I was able to crawl back to the wall, find dry ground, and I subsequently ran on different paths until spring.
Today is bright, clear, daytime, and I slip anyway on what seems like a wet, though safe stretch. I fall face first, hands down, sliding into a puddle, my gloves soaking wet with miles yet to go.
I try to pop back up, I can’t, it’s too slippery.
I crab walk a few feet, find ground, lumber to standing, and proceed again, slowly, carefully, wondering if this means the path is now off limits during the daytime as well.
I head onto the new Navy Pier Flyover, a wavy elevated path that briefly winds along the lakefront, between Lake Point Towers, and just east of the new Vista Tower, which like so much of Chicago has emerged from a space long empty and neglected.
I soon turn off of the Flyover and onto the sidewalk adjacent to the Outer Drive Bridge. This part of the path lies under Lake Shore Drive. The construction is endless here, with fencing everywhere, the work wrapped in a green protective mesh covered in graffiti, garbage, and leaves strewn about, crusty and frozen, the constant grind of cars passing by and above.
I exit from the semi-darkness into the light and cross by the entrance to the River Walk. I am alone, the skies and path clear, the lake in front of me, safe and calm, the ice, garbage, and noise, and even the need to wear my mask, lost to the path behind me.
I pass by the water, a slight breeze brushing my face like an icy feather, my gloves hardening on my hands, the sweat collecting on my lower back and saturating my Dri-FIT shirt.
I’ve consciously introduced ritual into my life after a lifetime of eschewing it.
Religion, certainly, something I continue to eschew.
I didn’t grow up with any true religious practice and never valued it for myself.
Have I missed something though?
Is it a failure to have not embraced a form of religion that worked for me? Might I have lived better, calmer and more focused with that kind of structure and belief system in place?
Could I have been, not just more productive, but more perfected?
When my father was dying, I had nowhere to focus all the fucked-up energy that came with it. Instead, I mostly put my head down and did the work of supporting him and my mother.
I also ran.
Otherwise, I went to the office.
During that time, people asked me if they could pray for my father knowing that religion meant little to me or him and my mother.
“Of course,” I said, and I meant it, whatever might help was fine.
My father still died, but I wondered then as I do now, whether my rejection of religion left me without a means for finding solace, if not answers, not that there are answers, and more attuned to accepting something that fundamentally, and selfishly, felt unfair.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with a writer and the author spoke about her religious upbringing, sharing that even as she’s far less religious as an adult than she was as a child, the experience of growing up with religion still provides her with a daily sense of ritual, access to a rhythm and a sacred space that allows her to make sense of the day.
A sacred space.
Do I have that?
Have I ever had that?
This is on my mind as I roll past Buckingham Fountain and towards the Field Museum, both dormant, a city shut down because of weather, holidays, and the ongoing pandemic.
I turn around at this point to start the trip home.
I feel good.
Not spry or sleek, but grateful I can still get out here and run as I do.
I’m keenly aware that I’m no longer what I once was, feral, beautiful, a mash-up of form and function, speed, anger, at times in touch with greatness, yet despite this, running has at times, more recent times certainly, bordered on the religious for me.
There was a morning some years ago where I was headed south by North Beach near my home, up early to write and run while the children slept and work loomed, the sun rising, a swirling mélange of orange and pink, and “Dear Lord” by Joseph Arthur came on my headphones.
“I can’t take what’s going on
With my friends and family
I can’t take what’s going on
Baby, with you and me
“I’m sorry for the things I’ve done
I’m sorry for wanting to run
But Dear Lord when you did not come
My faith was gone”
For a brief moment, the words and the moment merged into something bigger than myself and something glorious washed over me, a warmth and a glow, a feeling I had rarely, if ever, experienced before or since.
I was uplifted.
I am not today.
I’m good though.
Aches and pains at a minimum.
Step after step.
Picking my way home.
Alone in the growing dusk and mask-free.
The cold neutered, warm enough.
The path wide open.
I skim along the edge of the lake, lost in my thoughts and strides, step after step, a group of geese leap from the ice next to me and scurry across the path just steps away.
I pause, back to reality.
I pass under the Outer Drive Bridge and onto the River Walk, rolling along the river. It’s quiet here and I bask in the intense silence as I approach the stairs leading up to the Wabash Avenue Bridge, then start to climb them, slowly, gingerly, concerned with my knees and their fragility.
Slow and the steady is the way now.
That and flat.
Step after step.
I’m soon on Michigan Avenue, heading north for the final stretch, the streets less deserted here, people everywhere, my mask back on, my glasses fogged again. Uneven curbs and cracked sidewalks abound, things I’ve also grown to fear, lost in the flow and not able to quickly or adequately lift my feet before tripping, falling, scraped hands and head, bruised hips, the risk of a real injury.
And so it is that I catch the tip of my shoe on a curb, hyperextend my right knee, fall fast and hard, the jolt of pain and the impact of the sidewalk leaving everything black for a moment.
I am lost.
Running is the great ritual of my life even if I somehow only see that today forty years on.
I was drawn to it.
I ran in citywide track meets in elementary school and won an 800-meter race by a large margin in sixth grade, the feeling too joyful for me not to decide that I’d run track in middle school.
I arrived for my first track practice in the spring of 1981 and was sent off with the star middle-distance runners for a run into the hills above my neighborhood.
Even in canvas Nike tennis shoes, I kept up with ease.
Is that a brag?
So is this: I won every 800-meter race I ran in seventh and eighth grade, leading from start to finish, breaking records, experiencing nothing short of flight and glory.
It wasn’t the competition though where I found my center.
Or at least not where I would over time.
One night in tenth grade, well after dark, I felt the need to leave the house, escape. I’m unclear now what was happening—girls, grades, friends, my parents, everything. I know though that I had to get out and run, and so I ran down the hill to the elementary school track, my track. I ran 40 laps, ten miles, rhythmically, safe, in control, undisturbed and unfettered, step after step, then back home, never breaking stride, all within an hour’s time.
That night, I was transported onto a path of endless late night (and early morning) runs, and even if I didn’t know it then, I had transitioned into what would become a lifelong practice, a release and a space, where I was unrestrained, triumphant, and in control even when nothing else felt that way.
For some it is the rituals that allow them to perform, and I’m no different these days, but for so long, running itself was the ritual.
A sacred space.
A place where I found rhythm.
And I can still feel like this, because it’s not about speed or feeling spry, it’s about doing.
Running is not the only ritual anymore though.
In the same way I had to run, I had to create.
This is no doubt inspired by the strong reaction to the work I produced in a creative writing class I took my senior year in high school.
Unlike running, however, it took me years to start writing with any kind of purpose. Not unlike that night in tenth grade though, when I began to write, something was released.
Approaching thirty, I had spent a decade jotting down ideas for stories on everything I could—cocktail napkins, pages from the New Yorker or New York Times Magazine, hand-crafted journals my father made, Mead Composition notebooks. The stories begin to pile up, and then back up like planes waiting to land at an airport during a storm, circling and awaiting the okay that they were welcome to land. There were a lot of stories, but one I always came back to was about a man who wants to leave his wife, will leave his wife, he’s just waiting for a sign, and as he waits, he thinks about all of those who left him before this and in doing so creates a rhythm for how it’s done. One late night, an acquaintance called to tell my wife she wanted to leave her husband and that she was sitting in a car, bags packed. She didn’t leave and my wife went to sleep. But I could not. I was awake, thoughts racing and pinging, fired up and in need of an outlet, running, reading, something. My story surfaced. I could picture the feeling, the desire to leave, how it happens. I’d already imagined it. I wrote the story in a rush and flurry of words.
I didn’t stop after that night.
I still haven’t.
I never thought of the act of writing as in need of ritual though.
Early on, I said to myself that there would be no time to be precious.
No steps or preparation.
No time slots or special desks.
No correct music, coffee, or music.
Just write, that’s all.
But is that true?
I seek to write every day in the same way I once tried to run every day. I do not write for less than thirty uninterrupted minutes (though, as needed, I will refill my coffee cup). I do not count words. There are no goals. I will write anywhere I am, if the time is available to me. I will write at whatever time I am free to do so. Sometimes I will plan these slots out days in advance, or weeks even, if I know I will be traveling or my family will be out of town, constantly assessing when it will happen. I do not wait for inspiration. I don’t believe in magic. I decide what I’m going to write, I sit down, I write it. I do not edit my work until I reach the last word of the first draft, regardless of whether I’m writing essays, stories, or novels. Things must be finished to be finished.
It is rhythmic, daily, undisturbed.
It is ritual.
In “Dear Lord,” Joseph Arthur ends the song with:
“I’m sorry for the things I’ve done
I’m sorry for wanting to run
But Dear Lord when you did not come
My faith was born.”
We are all in a constant state of failure, living in a world that has failed us as we have failed it.
We are vulnerable to the feeling of loss and sadness, frustrations and confusion, even as we seek ways to live lives that are vulnerable and authentic.
We seek out the sacred.
We hope to be creative.
We want to be our best selves, while also part of something bigger than ourselves.
After my fall, I clamber back up to my feet, the pain in my knee blinding.
I walk for a block.
Hoping something will change.
That the moment will pass.
My head clears.
The pain subsides.
I shake out my leg.
I take tentative steps.
I begin to run again.
Step after step.
I make it home.
And eventually I pick up my notebook and pen and I start to write this piece.
Ben Tanzer is the author of several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans, the essay collection Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again, Be Cool—a memoir (sort of), and Upstate.