Ritual is Easy; Routine is Hard

In Search of the Mundane

Today while listening to The Simple Life Together podcast, I heard an interesting definition of routine vs. ritual. The idea was that routines are made up of habits, and habits, as we know, require no thought – they are the reason I still tend to get off on the John Nolan Drive exit even though I no longer live anywhere near there. I did it so many years that it now takes conscious thought not to do it.

Habits are great if they’re good for you. Exercise. Brushing your teeth. Saving money. If you can get to the point where you’re doing these things automatically, you end up with a routine that, common wisdom dictates, will keep your quality of life pretty high.

Once you’ve gotten to the point of a good routine, the hosts of the podcast posited, you can pick and choose what parts to turn into a ritual – that is, the things you do with a more mindful presence, turning it into a tool for a deeper experience of life.

Yeah, that’s right: you work to do it without thought, so that you don’t even notice it, in order to reach the point where it can completely occupy your thoughts and have it totally occupy your senses.

Might be a little circuitous, but basically that’s the idea behind “enlightenment” in many cultures. There’s a zen proverb that goes something like “before awareness, mountains are mountains and streams are streams. Upon reaching satori, mountains are no longer mountains and streams are no longer streams. Afterwards, mountains are once again mountains and streams are once again streams.”

Whew! Things go back to being the same. Except, like a lot of situations in your life, everything is different, as well.

My question is: what happens when your life has lots of ritual and not enough routine?

I’m about to go off on another extended trip – conventions in Baltimore and Provo, plus some side trips to visit friends. It’s not likely I’ll spend more than a week in the same bed, much less have the same schedule. There will be late nights, there will be lots of driving, there will be haphazard meals from the vastly overprepared to scrounging out of vending machines.

How does one come up with a routine in that environment?

The two strategies I have are based around the idea of “self-contained” and “small.” So, for example, I have a drip coffee filter and my own ground coffee. Making my own coffee gives me a slight control over my environment. Also, I have a small photo frame with collages of my grandsons in it. Again, it’s a connection to what is permanent in my life.

Both of those, though, are more rituals than habits. I’m working on coming up with a way to have morning rituals that will work in multiple areas of the world, in different environments.

A seven minute workout. Meditation. Mindfully drinking a glass of water. A yoga asana (blech!). These come to mind. What works for you? What kinds of routines have you managed to keep in your life? What makes you feel at home?


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