Habit to Ritual: Circle to Spiral
I have been thinking about cycles.
The universe seems to speak in circles/cycles: galaxies revolving around each other, planets revolving around the sun, days to nights, season to season, the circulation of your blood, the circadian rhythms of your body…
Every day we perform cyclical routines,
Our habits by definition are repeated patterns of behavior.
Even though we believe we are having a linear experience – having new thoughts and perceptions all the time- those who study these things say that most of our thoughts are even circular. We think the same things cyclically every day!
So what does this mean? Are we stuck in our circle- destined to repeat our behaviors whether we like it or not?
I think this is where awareness comes in…
Habits allow for behavior to become unconscious. Once we’ve developed a habit, we can repeat the behavior without thinking about it. This is neither good nor bad… It can be quite helpful to do things habitually so we can free up our attention and awareness for other things- like the ability to have a conversation and engage in something, say like walking, at the same time. But on the flip side, there’s addiction which could be seen as a habit of self-destructive behavior. In terms of circles, habits are meant to keep you within it. The habit reinforces and repeats itself indefinitely. There is no trajectory or end goal.
But with awareness, we can make little shifts. And I think this is the point of ritual. A ritual is a habit – a cyclical pattern of behavior – but with a great difference. Ritual is performed with awareness. A ritual has an intention other than maintaining the cycle. It is intended to connect us with something higher: consciousness, an ideal, or spirituality. So, the circle then shifts, transforms, and becomes a spiral. Each time the ritual is repeated, it aims to spiral you upward a little bit more.
In this way, if we have habits we wish we could break, or if we want to elevate ourselves from our present state of feeling in a rut, maybe what we need to do is to transform the habit into a ritual. Bring some awareness to it, intended to elevate.
I’ve noticed at work lately with some of my own habits.
Two examples would be napping or drinking beer… There is nothing necessarily wrong with either, and good cases can be made for the benefits of both. But what are the feelings around them? I began to notice with both napping and drinking that they were accompanied by a vague feeling that I was somewhat disappointed – that maybe I should be doing something else. Also present was a persistent feeling that I needed to do them – a compulsion. I began to ask questions and to observe:
Why do I need this? Do I need a nap or beer for self-care? Did I not get enough sleep? Have I been stressed? Will this nap or beer solve that issue? Am I avoiding something by participating in this habit? Is there something else I am meant to be doing? Is there a feeling I am avoiding?
By this inquiry, I brought more awareness to these habits. I began realizing that my intentions behind them boiled down to direction: going up or going down – I was either trying to elevate my consciousness or lower it. If I was intending for self-care, relaxation, or joy – it is usually elevating. However, sometimes (especially if the habit was accompanied by a feeling of compulsion), if I was intending to “numb-out”, avoid a task, or avoid a feeling – I was trying to drop below a level of consciousness so as to be less aware of what was happening in the present moment. Bit by bit, the simple awareness of “why” and whether I was trying to elevate or suppress my consciousness affected my habit. I naturally started going towards that which brought me higher and avoiding that which dropped me lower. Eventually, new rituals that made me feel better – more energized, confident, happy – began taking precedence.
There are many practices in Yoga that can be approached as rituals. Sadhana, for example, is one’s personal spiritual practice that one engages in daily. One’s sadhana often includes circular elements, like mandalas, japa mala, repeated mantras, mudras, or a certain sequence of poses. All are reminders to aim for something higher.
What are the cycles you repeat? In what rituals do you participate? Are they performed as rituals with awareness intending to elevate? Or are they habits performed unconsciously? Can you transform your habits into self-elevating rituals?