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Rituals in 21st Century Family Life by Claire Miran-Khan

Taken from Barefoot Magazine Spring 2009 issue

Effective rituals have the potential to link us spiritually and provide food for the soul. They are essential to our wellbeing; maintaining identity and connectedness. Without ritual there is no belonging. Traditionally rituals were linked to religion or some formal social transition or rite of passage. The Macquarie Dictionary[i] has as its first definition for rituals, ‘an established or prescribed procedure, code, etc for a religious or other rite.’ Many of these established or prescribed rituals are no longer satisfying. For many people rituals linked to religion aren’t able to capture the essence of what the current day ritual needs to provide. It’s time to be more mindful about what we want our rituals to convey and then work towards developing practices that capture the relevant intention and meaning.

The absence of rituals leaves a profound yearning for connection to self and others. Because many of the formalised rituals have lost their meaning and don’t accurately capture the spirit of what is relevant, they have become boring routines that actually contribute to feelings of isolation and disconnection.

It is easy for rituals to become tangled with the rejection of religious and traditional social or family practices. Consequently, a common error that many people make when moving away from traditional ways of doing things is to see the rituals as the problem. With that frame of thinking it makes sense to discontinue a ritual. The error in this way of thinking is the failure to recognise that it is not the participation in the ritual that is the problem but what the ritual represents. As simple as it sounds, this distinction is essential and one that is consistently overlooked and confused. Clarifying this distinction makes up much of my clinical work as a family therapist.

Part of this clarification process requires making a distinction between a ritual and a routine. A ritual is something that is profoundly missed if it’s discontinued. A routine is often driven by ‘shoulds’ and duty: the kind of event that is attended only because the consequences of non-attendance are emotionally too great. The action of making a point by non-attendance is unacceptable and often hurtful to someone we have no wish to harm. While participating in these must attend events is something we all do, they do not fall into the category of ritual. It’s important to note that each person’s experience is different: what might be a profound ritual for one member of a family or friendship group may not be experienced in the same way by other members of the family or friendship group. This is the situation where the idea of ritual gets confused with the need to please others. This leads to mis-labelling. A person believes that the experience they are participating in is a ritual, when it’s actually an exercise in doing the right thing!

A tragic outcome of this mistake is the discontinuation of socially prescribed practices that have become tedious. This is done without any thought about what might replace them.

I personally believe that this ‘solution’ (discarding and not replacing) significantly contributes to our current psychological distress. Depression and addictions are two that immediately come to mind. When people are depressed there is often a profound yearning for relevant rituals. In depression people have often ‘lost their way’ and in the process the ability to appropriately articulate what they need. Depression could be reframed as ‘a voice coming from the soul’.[ii]

Addictions are often misguided rituals. People turn to a substance to soothe something within themselves, often with unfortunate consequences for themselves and those around them. The addiction can link them with a sense of self and connects them to a community. Many ex-smokers will talk about not missing the smoking but missing the practices attached to smoking. For example, the opportunity to go outside could be a ritual in its own right, even without the added pleasure of satisfying one’s addiction. Added to this is the bonus of personal space or the connection to a community of other smokers.

When thinking about rituals a good place to start is to think about what it is that you want the ritual to capture. What is it that you want to celebrate, acknowledge or highlight? Also it is useful to think in terms of a hierarchy of rituals. To maintain our wellbeing we need personal rituals, relationship and friendship rituals, nuclear and extended family rituals, community and cultural rituals. This is nothing new; all cultures have rituals that maintain individual identities, relationships and cultural health.[iii]

Personal rituals can be as simple as having a cup of coffee in a favourite chair with a book or as tortuous as running a marathon. Whatever rituals a person is drawn to are a reflection of who that person is. It defines the essence of what is of value to that person and provides comfort. Once recognised as an important ritual, the practice can be a valuable resource in times of stress.

Relationship and friendship rituals clarify the quality of the relationship. These rituals will highlight a shared pleasure. Whether it’s a shared meal, a movie, a much loved T.V. program or something more intimate, like sex. The important point is the shared enjoyment. Different relationships require different rituals to maintain and develop the essential elements of the relationship. Parents often overlook the importance of this level of ritual, allocating all their energy, time and finances to their children. In my work, I find that children know intuitively that it is important for their parents to have shared rituals. They know that it is part of what maintains and builds the intimacy of their parent’s relationship. While they might complain about being left with a babysitter and being excluded, this doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the significance of their parents having time together. Sometimes when asked why they were naughty for the baby-sitter, children reply, ‘I wanted mummy and daddy to come home before they started fighting’. Children are observers of their parent’s relationship. If they feel they can trust their parents to go out without coming home divorced they will often volunteer to help finance the outing by giving up an activity; admittedly usually something they hate—common offerings are things like violin lessons!

Nuclear and extended family rituals are important in terms of identity and belonging. How and what is celebrated defines the heritage and values of the family system. If family rituals have become unsatisfying it’s important to develop new ones and overtly acknowledge what has been rejected and the reasons why. It’s here that the distinction between ritual and duty is very important. What is valued is being passed on to the next generation. Dishonesty and an inability to articulate one’s own feelings can inadvertently become heirlooms handed down to the next generation merely because duty directed unquestioning attendance at various family events. Emotional heirlooms are the indirect by-product of rituals. It’s important to be mindful about what the next generation will inherit. It is also important to recognise that rituals change over time and as the family moves through the life cycle. If the family suffers a tragic event along the way this also needs to be honoured through ritual.

Community rituals help us feel safe in our local community. Children help us link to the community often through school or sport. Even the ritual of having coffee in a local café can help us develop a sense of belonging to our local community. Familiar faces provide a sense of safety and can work as an antidote to fear.

Unfortunately, in our society, cultural rituals generally come with a lot of commercial hype. Even though one might feel put off by the consumer hijacking of cultural events like Christmas, its important not to discard them too easily. Embedded in most of our cultural rituals is an essential element of our culture: the value of giving. I feel disheartened when I hear about schools giving up the Christmas nativity play. This is a simple solution that devalues the importance of rituals. A creative school includes all the important religious rituals in order to accurately reflect the school population.

In Victoria, AFL football traverses all the levels of ritual and so, whether you like it or not, it is a significant phenomenon. When clubs are being relocated, particularly interstate, the cries of protest generally reflect rituals at all levels: at the personal level, ‘I’ve always barracked for…’; at the relationship level ‘I met my partner at…’; at the nuclear family level, ‘I want my children to support…’; and at family of origin level, ‘this club is part of the community I grew up in…’. And then there’s the cultural level; you only need to go shopping when the grand final is on to know what a significant cultural event it is.

For many people traditional rituals no longer serve their needs. The solution is to individually design our own rituals that suit us, our partners, friends and family. It requires taking time to be more mindful about what it is that is being honoured. A ritual might be about remembering the beginning or ending of something. It might be about honouring a profound loss, or one that others wouldn’t recognise. Either way, it needs ritual to provide space for the expression of distress or yearning. Likewise moments of achievement and joy—no matter how large or small—also need honouring. A ritual can be just lighting a candle at the end of a tiresome day or a huge feast to celebrate a significant family or cultural event.

Rituals thread together the self with the rest of the world. They are easy to overlook but when overlooked leave an emptiness that is often filled with mindless pursuits that can trick us into feeling like we are doing something meaningful. But mindless pursuits are not meaningful because the essence of self (soul) and any linking with the sense of a world greater than oneself (spirituality) is missing. Time with the soul and spirituality is provided through rituals. Even simple acts like the lighting of a candle or making a pot of tea and drinking it out of a much loved cup can be acts of soul feeding and in turn represent spiritual linking to past and future generations and the great world. The key is taking time to honour the act; to actually notice how the light flickers in the candle or the feel of the cup or the sense of camaraderie in the stands at the MCG.

Take the time to honour the ritual and the legacy that you are passing onto others.



[i] Macquarie Dictionary

[ii] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 1992, Harper Collins New York

[iii]Evan Imber-Black & Janine robbers, Rituals for our Times, 1992, Harper Collins, New York

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