Four Rituals for Happiness   2 comments

The prompt for this post comes from a Feb. ’16 article in The Week — nearly two years ago. The inevitable article or podcast or meme about how depressing the holidays can be merits a judicious counterbalance — it deserves an “on the other hand” in rebuttal. So here’s one contribution toward that goal. It may help to read the article in The Week first. Or not — your call.

Now the pop neuroscience that the article’s based on — “Neuroscience reveals 4 rituals that will make you happy”, the title crows — isn’t actually particularly astonishing in itself. But the “four rituals” are interesting because they’re behaviors every human already practices anyway. That means — to me anyway — I’ve already got something to start with and build on. The magical principle here: What we make conscious gains power from focus.

winter scene

Snow, then ice: 23 December 2017

At this point those who think ritual doesn’t interest or concern them may be tempted to turn away. (There is after all a whole Net out there to click through. Go ahead if you need to!) But as anthropologists and neuro-folk have discovered, to be human is to ritualize our experience. It’s as if we each need to wear t-shirts that say: “What rituals are you practicing today?” You know, just to keep the activity in mind. If we’re ritualizing, what are its effects? Is it a helpful ritual? What are we doing?

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog,

From small rituals like shaking hands vs. bowing, or saying your culture’s equivalents of “please” and “thank you,” to family traditions at the holidays, and outward to public ceremonies like reunions, annual festivals, weddings, funerals, ship-launchings, inaugurations, dedications, etc., ritual pervades all human cultures.

Some of our most potent and invisible rituals shape our daily experience in profound ways. The trick, I conclude, is to domesticate my rituals, expand on the most effective ones, and put more of them to work on my behalf. (By the law of reversed effort, they may become much wilder as a result.)

In fact, we ritualize such a large portion of our days, that when something breaks our routines (read ritual as “habit” here), it may annoy or even anger us as much as it may pleasantly surprise or intrigue us.  Let me find road work or a detour along a customary route, a power outage, a closed restaurant I was counting on (but hadn’t called ahead for, because it’s “always open”), and I’m thrown out of routine, forced to reshape something I’d previously planned and ritualized. We count on ritual to streamline and organize experience. Maybe that’s why we discount magical rituals. Ritual is so commonplace, after all, that it can feel “nothing special” by itself.

It’s what we do with it that counts.

So here’s a Druidified version of the four rituals, each now associated with an element and a direction. The ritually minded can expand on these “core four”, rearrange the associations, and so on. After all, if ritual or magic can’t deliver even a smidgen of happiness, it ain’t worth much.

Earth/North: Practice gratitude.

Give thanks for good things. Gratitude, as my longtime readers know, is one of my go-to techniques. Pairing it with appropriate action helps intensify it — write it down, etc. Earthy forms of gratitude may loom particularly prominently in your awareness right now — sweaters, wool socks, hot drinks, etc. Go for it. Earth the gratitude. Ground it in awareness and in gesture, in action, etc.

Air/East: Name the negatives.

Turns out our capacity for shame, guilt and worry can be productive, says the article. (Good thing, since so many of us specialize in one or more of these. Collect all Three!) And though labelling often comes in for a bad name in our politically distraught and extreme age, it’s one of the things that language is for, what it excels at. One key is the appropriate label: “Name it and tame it”. And “getting a handle on something” can include naming it accurately. And also knowing when to turn off language altogether for an interval — a magical technique all its own. Trance, music, daydream — we hold the reins in our hands.

Interrogating habits, whether “good” or “bad”, can reveal unsuspected wealth both for themes for meditation, and for material for ritual. What we really want can surprise us: going through the motions of a habit can block us from discovering what actually powers the habit in the first place. Studying the habit, revolving it in clear daylight, returning it to consciousness, can teach us much of value. Ritualizing it empowers us to live its full potential rather than shoving to one side, where it collects dust and rust and small rodents as it putrefies. A purified habit is a happy habit.

As J. M. Greer notes,

[t]he tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88)

Fire/South: Make a decision.

Starting with small decisions helps me access the spark that follows this act. After consciously telling myself I will do this after writing this sentence, I rise and go put in a load of laundry. I’m back, and the act of getting up literally and psychologically to carry out, to follow through on a decision, is useful to enact and then to examine critically for its effects. A magical insight here: switch hemispheres frequently!

(Perfectionists may want to aim for “good-enough” decisions. Consciously wallowing in mud, working up a sweat, or making some kind of a mess — your choice! — may help defuse some of the OCD tendencies of perfectionism — short circuit it intentionally. Hey, it’s worked for me! Making a conscious decision about something very small can open up clarity on the decision-making capacity itself, without the distraction of the incidental content of the decision.)

If “ordinary thinking and willing are not enough”, there’s plenty we can do.

Water: Touch living things.

So many … loved ones, pets, plants and trees, the green earth. Touch as the most concrete of the senses can take us out of heads and into our bodies, letting the other elements do their work more directly, without all the wards and barriers and avoidance strategies we deploy whenever we practice unconscious black magic on ourselves. Which we do constantly. Connection drags us out of the solitary hells that the West has come to specialize in helping us to manifest. “Only connect!” goes the magical refrain — “Live in fragments no longer” (E. M. Forster, Howards End).

/|\ /|\ /|\

Change up the elemental associations, and the rituals will shift subtly if not significantly. Armed with the earth of the body, the air of the breath, the fire of spirit and water of blood, we may ritualize our ways to places of surprise and delight. Happiness can’t be an endpoint anyway — it’s a practice to take up and improve.

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2 responses to “Four Rituals for Happiness

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  1. This is a great idea I think. I completely agree that the key to our happiness lies in our everyday habits and really is down to the little things. 🙂 I’d even do the four practises in a row; a bit like a druid sun salutation meditation.

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