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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Routines, Habits and Rituals

Differences and relationalities.

“In our society many of the old rituals have lost much of their power. New ones have not arisen.”—R. D. Laing

“They live only in a world of icons and there they participate in rituals which transmute life itself to a series of grand gestures, as moving as they are absurd.”–Angela Carter

A routine is a sequence of regularly followed actions, a habit is a repeated behavioral tendency. I am fascinated by habits and routines, and how they relate. A lot of my life revolves around mapping out new routines for myself, experimenting with new forms of prosthetic memory (trackers of various types from apps to click boards, from printed to written lists, on paper and white boards). All of these are deployed to aid the sustenance of routines that themselves aim at ingraining habits. A routine is something that fundamentally depends on executive function, in consciously planning and, with effort, following through, whereas a habit moves into the domain of the instinctual.

We perform habits on autopilot. And a good routine removes more and more daily, necessary actions from the labour of conscious cognition by making them into habits. A routine could even be defined as the conscious art of habit production. As someone who subscribes strongly to the ideas of virtue ethics (that ethics is fundamentally about how practices shape character to best achieve interpersonal human flourishing) the cultivation of habits strikes me as a serious business. One I would not claim to have in any sense perfected.

But lately, I have been more and more interested in another dimension of human behaviour, one related to routines and habits, but also importantly distinct: that is to say, rituals. Like routines, rituals create habits, but unlike routines, rituals imply a broad framework of psychosocial meanings that necessarily enrich them and are self-justifying. To put that differently, the only point of a routine is to develop good habits, but the point of a ritual is generally the ritual itself, and the habits it creates are usually beneficial only because they further cement the end of the practice of the ritual. I.e. they are ritual habits.

Rituals are more directly about human flourishing. Human beings are ritual creatures. We socially signify our life’s meanings through these behaviours, understanding our place in the world abstractly, which for us is always interpersonal since we are socially constituted. We can no more flourish in lieu of rituals than we can in lieu of sociality itself, because rituals are a core constituent of sociality, of what it means to place ourselves in a symbolic relationship to others.

None of that is to say that the meanings of rituals fail to point beyond themselves. Indeed, rituals mark, commemorate or mourn life events or the recurrences of cyclical time, of days, weeks, months, years. This is as true of, for example, morning prayers as it is of birthdays. However, even in pointing at something, the end is contained in the ritual. What is being pointed to is given meaning by the ritual, which therefore must contain that meaning.

To use a powerful example of rituals that almost anyone can relate to: a funeral does not merely instrumentally point to the fact of the deceased person’s passing as a clock points to the time being, say, 1.53pm. Rather, the funeral is how that event is given its shared meaning, and giving that event meaning is the end of the ritual of a funeral. In this sense a funeral is not a means to anything else, it is the point; it is not a sign for mourning, it is mourning socially expressed.

The sociologist Durkheim understood rituals as “rules of conduct that prescribe how man must conduct himself with sacred things.” I do not like this definition, since it is static and ignores the ways in which many ritual behaviours are open, often playful and dynamic processes. That is, I agree with the anthropologist Chris Knight in his book Blood Relations that such a view of ritual does a disservice to how it takes place in many non-European (and, arguably, many pre-modern and some modern European) contexts.

For Knight (whose concern in that book is with the origin of human culture, and therefore all ritual), a good definition of ritual should conceive of it as “the collective dimension of intimate, emotionally significant life. It is collective action at those points where this reaches deep into personal, sexual and intimate emotional experience.” Because it does away with exacting prescriptions of behaviours, this definition has more breadth than Durkheim’s, even though Durkheim’s understanding, reflecting alienated societies deficit of meaningful ritual, is perhaps closer to the common one in places such as the contemporary UK.

The historical phenomenon of that alienation is also why I have been thinking a lot about ritual and its relationship to routine and habit. Even Durkheim had space for the sacred in his understanding, but I worry that folk comprehension of ritual as a concept is in fact so impoverished that there is a general confusion between it and routines and habits per se. The sacred as something that functions as its own means and ends, is lost. All three (rituals, habits, routines) tend to be mushed together in popular (estranged) thought.

While in no sense a particularly scientific approach to my hunch, if I type “ritual” into Amazon’s search bar the first suggested purchase is not a book about rituals or anything that could be associated with a ritual in Knight’s sense, but “ANTIPODES Glow Ritual Vitamin C Serum 30ml”. If I type the word into Google, I quickly find more beauty products and a multivitamin company. These two examples are relatively benign, but I believe there are more sinister instances of the confusion.

A popular writer who takes routines, habits, and, superficially at least, rituals, seriously is the self-help clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. Although I cannot find an instance of him giving a precise definition of what makes a ritual, in his book Maps of Meaning, he supplies a quite clear example of how he tends to blur routine, which he considers essential to individual human wellbeing, with ritual, in the context of cultivating discipline.

Peterson writes: “Discipline should therefore be regarded as a skill that may be developed through adherence to strict ritual, or by immersion within a strict belief system or hierarchy of values.” Here we see ritual as nothing but a means by which to achieve discipline, which is to say a set of successful habits produced by a routine. Peterson regards himself as a traditionalist, but his understanding of tradition as a set of carefully guarded static categories that maintain order are utterly at odds with the types of traditions cited in Knight’s anthropology.

Peterson’s concept of ritual appears to be merely routines that are embodied in a culture for which we no longer know the exact reasons, but whose reasons we must trust. As he puts it, “The ritual lasts long after the reasons have been forgotten.” But it is still merely just habit production, the kind of habits that are not merely there to feedback into ritual practices. In itself, the idea that rituals outlive their original contexts is uncontroversial, but this claim is then being put to some more spurious uses and to a general disenchanted and, I would argue, debased, conception of ritual itself. Rituals are no longer taking place, here, in what Kant dubbed the Kingdom of Ends. Gone is any reason to differentiate them from routines. It is a synonym.

Whether we imagine a ritual as the application of Vitamin C Serum or, with Peterson, having an exact time at which to wake each day, make one’s bed, eating a nutritionally balanced breakfast, we have lost something from what a ritual ought to be. Vitamins and a good morning routine might be useful, but these types of behaviours are not rituals. And without rituals and the human meanings they contain for their own sake, these other types of behaviours become means without ends. They become means, to actions that are means, to actions that are means, and so on ad infimum.

Opposing this suggests the proper relationship, in my view, between routines and habits, on the one side, and rituals on the other. A good system of routines, and well cultivated habits, facilitate rituals. Rituals are the point of habits, which are (when habits are beneficial) what enable life to persist and to be ritualized. This precisely inverts what Peterson says of discipline, which for him is the end point of ritual. We seek to fulfil our own humanity, and doing so means ritual. As we have been alienated from our humanity, we have been alienated from ritual for its own sake. We do not ritualize to cultivate disincline; we are disciplined insofar as it helps us to ritualize.

To go back to Knight’s definition of rituals, they are a shared expression of that which is significant in life. What is significant, from communing to something considered beyond the self, be that a divinity of some type or not, or the challenging fact of human death, or the processes of maturation, is precisely the point of life when it is ritualized and shared, made meaningful. There is no further end, here. Rituals are who we are. And a loss or diminishment of them, is a loss and diminishment of ourselves.


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