Rituals have always been an essential aspect of my daily life. In and outside of submission, ritual is how I interact with my reality. Practicing ritual is how I organize my time and make sense of complex abstract ideas (like love, devotion, and purpose).
Yet, ritual itself is a complex abstract idea. Many people struggle to define it, and few can fully make sense of it. What makes ritual different from habit? What is a ritual at its core? And how can we conceptualize it? Such questions can fuel hours of discussion, reflection, and of course, cogitation.
I hope to offer answers to some of these questions from one point of view in the spirit of sparking thought. I want to create somewhat of a "jumping off point" so that other submissives curious about ritual can be inspired to start brainstorming and establishing their views on the topic. After all, life is about finding answers to your questions.
Ritual vs. Habit
A few weeks ago, a family member asked me what I thought the difference between a ritual and habit was. The simplest answer I could give to this question was "intention and intentionality." It might seem strange because these words sound similar, but they express different ideas.
To commit to activity with "intention" implies you are doing it with (or for) a more profound meaning or higher purpose. For instance, before yoga classes, some instructors will ask students to set or share an intention. Intentions might be personal goals like "Remember to breathe," hope or desire like "Let me be calm enough to listen to my body." Or they could be "Let me feel grounded and centered." But, regardless of what intention is set, the simple act of intention deepens your awareness by letting the activity be about something more meaningful than the physical act of stretching and working out. Intention assigns a more profound purpose to the activity.
"Intentionality," however, calls to mind not the goal or elevated reason for doing the activity, but rather how it is done. Intentionality implies a defined mental state. To be intentional is to assume a state of mental and emotional "presence" and "deliberateness" throughout the action.
The intentionality with which you commit an action might drop hints about your intention. That is to say, and your specific intention could be evident from your intentionality. Despite this, intention and intentionality are distinct aspects and ought not to be confused or equated.
So, how do we use intentionality to distinguish between ritual and habitual acts? Well, consider, for a moment, the state of mind you find yourself in at the time of your action. Are you living in the present moment when you're doing the action? Or, activity mind wandering to other, more concerning parts of your day? Is your body doing the action, but your mind sitting it out? Are you… on autopilot?
Therein lies your answer. Rituals lose their importance when done on autopilot, making them feel hollow and lacking. Without that distinct awareness, rituals are reduced to "going through the motions." Habits, however, function the same whether your mind comes online or not.
When I think of habits, I think: making the bed, taking my street shoes off at the door, crossing my ankles when I sit. Habits are unintentional, nearly involuntary patterns of behavior. They are often performed long enough to be (or become) somewhat ingrained—maybe starting from childhood, or, as a result, consistent reinforcement. In other words, they happen whether or not you are actively thinking about them.
When I wake up in the morning, I go to the bathroom and reach for my toothbrush regardless of how sleepy I am, or whether I'm awake. The same can be said for when my Master reaches for his shaving razor. He's actually shaved in his sleep before! Shaving to him is such a thoroughly reinforced habit; it's something he "just does" regardless of how he feels or what he's thinking.
Sure, some people enjoy the precision and care of shaving rituals, but clearly, this isn't that. This is him waking up (or not) and doing the same thing he has done for decades, with no motivation other than hair removal. The point is, two people can conceivably execute the same activity, and it might be a ritual to one and a habit to another.
How can that be? The motivation and mindset are the special characteristics that set a ritual apart from a habit.
Take, for example, something as ordinary as a cup of tea. Many people enjoy tea early in the morning, out of habit. But to most, the pouring of that tea would be a means to an end: you want tea, you make tea, you pour tea, now you have the tea you want.
However, this is not everyone's subjective experience of tea. During the ritual of a formal tea ceremony, for instance, the poise and singular attention of the person performing the ceremony inspires silence and reverence. The sharp focus and intentionality of that person, combined with the precise order of movements (committed to memory throughout their training), creates the ritual aspect of tea making. Different still, when I pour my Master's tea, I pour out my love and devotion to my Master. It's an expression of a greater idea—the living out of an ideal—in our relationship. That intent is why it's a ritual and not a habit.
Habits are mindless, thoughtless tasks that we plow through. Rituals are moments we commit to. Rituals uphold meanings we believe in that we consider worthy of the complete presence of mind and attention.
What Is Ritual?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual as "an established form of ceremony," "an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner," in "observance." The definition lends a feeling of weight to the word "ritual," which gives the impression that it's not to be taken lightly.
Still, the explanation leaves something to be desired in the realm of specificity and relatability. It is a cold, faintly robotic description, devoid of feeling and humanity. For this reason, I sought the help of a slightly more human dictionary.
My Master is (thankfully) a good communicator, and his vocation is to advise on and facilitate ritual. So, I felt that when writing about the topic, he might be consulted for better insight. After all, it is a subject around which he has centered his life—I'd be remiss were I not to refer to him as a resource!
The moment I asked him to define what ritual meant to him, he got a glint in his eye and excitedly whispered, "Ritual is everything." He began to describe how rituals can bond groups and how they can establish individuals. He went on to remark about how rituals can highlight the abilities and development of those individuals involved. Furthermore, he explained that rituals could open or close certain chapters in life.
As he spoke, what resonated most was his emphasis on rituals as being meaningful, thoroughly lived-in moments, saturated with intent. This reinforced to me that intent is a facet of ritual. Lastly, and with reverence, he noted the extensive (and sometimes lifelong) implications of rituals—their permanence and ability to effect change.
When he finished, I stayed silent for a moment, in awe of his summation. I understood that ritual meant a great deal to him and that he was devoted to studying it profoundly. Despite this, I struggled to verbalize the depth and mystery with which he regarded the central inspiration of his life.
Momentarily, I resigned to simply define ritual as best I could in the wake of his contributions. Ritual seemed to be a precise way of committing oneself to action, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, perhaps even spiritually, to honor meaning, change, being, or an elevated purpose.
How Can We Conceptualize Ritual?
Listening to my Master speak on his experience with ritual was like hearing a beautiful, vaguely familiar language and not fully grasping it. I knew I had to process my Master's ideas in a context I could more closely relate to. (Likewise, you will have to conceptualize the ideas here by a system relevant and relatable to you.)
As a writer, part of what I got from his response is that rituals are like punctuation marks in our lives. Some rituals serve as closed systems, like parentheses, that unite everyone or everything present within them. Some rituals put an end to a way of thinking or way of being, like a full stop or period. Even more frequent rituals serve as a pause, a moment to take a breath and reflect, like a comma. Rituals can be a distinct high-point and draw attention, like an exclamation point mark. They can be an opening, a beginning, a sign of more incredible things to come, like a colon. They can even connect two complete ideas (or parts of life) like a semicolon. Rituals help us understand and give context to our lives.
Without rituals, life can be like a run-on sentence that we can't make heads or tails. But with them, the relationships, people, and places in our lives make sense because they are marked with purpose and direction. In that way, I suppose rituals are everything.
Rituals alter the way we interact with our world and our relationships. Delving into the meaning and make-up of ritual can support us in our submission by challenging us to assess our feelings and the relevance ritual has in our lives. Striving to understand rituals can also nurture our inherent curiosity and augment our experience of the rituals we choose to engage.