Habits Will Build Your Destiny, but Rituals Will Build You a Life
Is there anyone who hasn't read James Clear's Atomic Habits, or at least got it on their physical or digital book shelf? It's a good book, I recommend it.
Habits are shortcuts. They're subconscious. They're the hidden part of the iceberg.
Rituals are the point. They're conscious. They're the visible part of the iceberg.
To build a habit requires, at least initially, conscious intent. It can be clumsy, or it can come naturally, but it requires conscious intent at first.
How you place your left hand fingers on a fretboard is initially trained and through repetition, becomes unconscious, a habit.
How you walk, whether you stoop, whether your hips are rolled forward through years of sitting, it's unconscious, it's a habit.
Changing a habit you don't want anymore is like breaking a bone that wasn't set properly, re-setting it, then building up strength again. Nobody likes breaking a bone that looks healed.
Nobody likes to undo years of guitar practice by completely re-learning left hand technique, but it can be life-changing. So can quitting smoking.
Many habits began as rituals that ended up as habits, and then the joy associated with the ritual has gone and we didn't even realise.
I have a good friend who I meet occasionally, and we have several elements to our meetings. Coffee, cigarettes, chess, and of course, fantastic, conscious conversation.
Our meetings are rituals. They are conscious. We don't reach for our phones unless a close friend or family member calls. We enjoy one another's company immensely, they are rituals. You could remove or change any of the components of the ritual, like the chess, and have a walk instead, and it would still be a ritual.
Rituals are conscious, and have components. Not all components are necessary, but some nearly always underpin the ritual. In our case, it's coffee and cigarettes. That might change too, we have met without having coffee for example, but we did something else instead, like go for a long walk.
We consciously enjoy the components.
For example, I stopped smoking cigarettes many years ago. I don't crave them. I decided that I'd only ever smoke when I travel, or as part of a ritual. I've broken this code only once in a decade. What this means is that I now smoke fewer than ten cigarettes a year, sometimes none at all, and I enjoy each and every one.
Rituals are conscious, have components, often produce flow and are deeply rewarding. I'd argue that if you get them right, they're the whole point of life.
I've had rituals with all my kids and of course with my wife. They are what makes life worth living. Lose them, and what's the bloody point?
Observant Muslims pray five times a day. There is almost no point in praying if it's performed as a perfunctory habit, an act of going through the motions. If prayer is unconscious, it's a waste of life. Better an abbreviated, conscious prayer, than a long, unconscious prayer.
Can you think of a ritual that became just a habit for you? What could you do to become conscious of it again?
Now, returning to my friend. He's often complimentary about my ideas. I remind him every time that the ideas only ever arise as a result of our interaction. The kind of ideas I have with this one particular friend do not materialise through any other interaction.
I always wondered why this might be, and I think I might have an answer.
Carlo Rovelli in his quite stunning Helgoland explains it well.
"Every interaction is an event, and it is these light and ephemeral events that weave reality..."
"What quantum theory describes, then, is the way in which one part of nature manifests itself to any other single part of nature."
"...we cannot separate the properties of the objects from the objects interacting with them in order for these properties to be manifested in the first place."
He's talking about the quantum nature of reality, but I propose that this applies to any human interaction and it's what makes each of us, our uniqueness, so precious.
It's not me thinking and writing about this stuff. It's me interacting with my readers. You shape my thinking. The entire context of you and me shapes this.
None of this is noticed through habit.
It's always noticed through ritual.
When we become aware of this dense web of interactions in the moment, we are truly conscious. If we can have a defined start and stop point, and some components, we've made a ritual. If we have more rituals, we have more life.
We are only alive when we're conscious.