Have you ever wondered how much of what happens in the world is the result of habit? We think a lot about our personal habits and how they may affect our lives for better or worse. But consider for a moment the impact of millions of habits adding up every day to shape the world and the society in which we live. It is not a stretch to consider that climate change has come about quite simply because human beings across the world have adopted habits that hurt the environment. We depend on fossil fuels and single-use plastics, we are determined to satisfy our desire for non-seasonal foods, and we’ve created economic systems in which it is often cheaper to buy products that have been shipped halfway across the world than those produced on our doorstep.
It may be strange to think about these things as habits, but that’s essentially what they are. Part of our struggle with addressing global problems like climate change, poverty, and refugee crises is that our habits are hard to change—not on a global scale so much as on a daily, personal level.
THE POWER OF HABITS
In our personal lives and relationships, habits form a significant part of what drives our behaviours and interactions. Developed over years, they operate on a subconscious level and lead us to do things as ‘second nature’ without thinking or considering the consequences.
You will have experienced driving your car to a destination and realising when you arrive that you have no memory of the journey because your mind was elsewhere. That’s the power of habit. I’m sure you will have experienced doing something you love and are really good at and finding yourself so immersed that everything flows effortlessly and your skill is at its absolute peak. Such ‘flow states,’ as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called them, are the result of years of habit development which enables our conscious minds to let go and allow our subconscious minds or ‘precognitive tendencies’ (as James Smith calls them) to take over control of our actions.
I remember watching Andy Murray win his first Wimbledon title in 2013. In the post-match interview, he was asked about his thoughts and feelings in the last game. He replied that he couldn’t remember the last game at all. That would have been because he wasn’t functioning consciously. He was in a flow state where years of practice had created ‘second nature’ habits that took over and enabled him to act automatically.
The opposite of the flow state is when we ‘get in our heads’ and ‘overthink’ things, which inevitably leads us to try and control what we do, make mistakes, and operate at a suboptimal level—another experience with which I’m sure you’re familiar.
There is no shortage of information about how to form and change habits. Charles Duhigg, in his brilliant book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change—one of the best explorations of this subject—explains that changing a habit is essentially about changing our routines. And to change our routines we can employ something that religious organisations have been using for centuries: rituals.
When we hear the word ‘ritual’ many of us tend to think of a dry, monotonous, and repetitive activity that is supposed to have some religious purpose but has lost its meaning over the years. In the quest for a more life-giving and creative spirituality, rituals are often the first things we discard. And among those for whom spirituality has lost meaning, rituals are often avoided at all costs because of their association with religion. But the truth is that we are all inescapably ritualistic beings.
Rituals do not have to be religious. Andy Murray could get into a flow state to win Wimbledon because for years he had observed the ritual of the practice court, playing the same shots over and over until they became automatic. World-class musicians of every musical style reach their peak as a result of observing the daily ritual of playing scales and arpeggios over and over. The same is true of writers, orators, artists, doctors, teachers, and millions of others who have reached excellence. Rituals are essentially nothing more than the routine, repeated work we do to develop mastery.
RITUALS FOR OUR BEST LIVES
I believe that spirituality is, at its core, about learning to live our best lives. For me, that means showing up fully, authentically, and courageously in our lives and relationships. It means being deeply connected with ourselves, others, the world, and God (or the Universe, the Divine Consciousness, or however we perceive what is bigger than ourselves). It means being more compassionate and empathic toward ourselves and others. And it means making our best, unique contribution to the greater good.
But to live fully does not come easily to us—as is clear from the huge numbers of people who know the truth of Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote: “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation.” If we want to show up fully, authentically and courageously in our lives, we need to practice doing so. Like the musician who practices scales, or the sportsperson who practices drills, those who seek to be deeply connected, compassionate, and contributing human beings, need to practice living well. And to do that we need rituals.
And so, as we speak about setting intentions for 2022, we cannot hope for success in achieving our goals and dreams without creating the necessary rituals. Since spirituality embraces and informs every aspect of our lives, these rituals are not just about our spirituality. They can, and should, be created and practised in every area of the wellness wheel. And as we shape our habits, our automatic ways of being, through regular and consistent ritualising, we will discover a deeper, more ‘spiritual’ quality to everything we do—because we will find that we do everything with a greater sense of intention.
WHAT ARE YOUR RITUALS?
So think about the intentions you are setting for this year. What habits would you need to make those intentions a reality? What systems—tools, reminders, resources, etc.—do you need to support those habits? And what rituals would you need to create to ensure that those habits become an automatic way of being and behaving for you?
When have you successfully created a life-giving habit in your life? How did you do that? What impact did that habit have on the rest of your life? When have you changed a habit that wasn’t helping you and how did you do that? Please share your stories and let’s inspire one another to be intentional about using rituals to change our lives for the better!
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I think for me the biggest life changing habit that I’ve begun is to eat less and walk more. I feel so much better for both habits and really miss the walking if I can’t get out—as today when gale force winds batter the UK. An added bonus is that I’ve lost a lot of weight so I feel healthier.