A Few Words on the Word Ritual

by | Jul 21, 2010 | Rituals and Symbols | 7 comments

In response to my recent post on moving, I received several emails and comments about my suggestion to implement a ritual as a way to concretize the feelings activated by a move. While the person writing was open to the idea of a ritual, they all said that they had a hard time imagining suggesting the idea to others because it sounded to “hooey-wooey”. This is fascinating to me because the word connotes the antithesis of hooey-wooey in my mind; for me, it evokes grounding and connecting in a way that people have grounded and connected for thousands of years.

A ritual is, quite simply, any act that is done with intention. A ritual can also be an automatic act that is empty, like shaking hands when you first meet someone. You may not want to shake hands and there may not be any conscious intention behind the act, but you do it because it’s a ritual in our culture. But when I talk about rituals in connection to transitions, I’m talking about anything that will help you drop down into your body, to slow down into the present moment and access the answer to the central question of a transition: What is it that I need to let go of?

Does a ritual have to involve candles? No, but before you brush off the idea of candles, consider for  a moment how you feel when one is lit. Does a ritual have to involve prayer? No, but again, consider how you feel when you’re in the presence of true prayer. Lighting a candle and saying a prayer are ritual actions that people have enacted for centuries, not just something hippies started doing forty years ago. Instead of dismissing the word immediately because it sounds too much like something out of Woodstock, perhaps it’s time to restore the word to its original meaning, with roots in the word rite, as in rite of passage, which is really another word for transition.

Just for fun, I consulted Wikepedia on the matter. Here’s an excerpt:

Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, atonement and purification rites, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, coronations and presidential inaugurations, marriages and funerals, school “rush” traditions and graduations, club meetings, sports events, Halloween parties, veteran parades, Christmas shopping and more. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as jury trials, execution of criminals, and scientific symposia, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by regulations or tradition, and thus partly ritualistic in nature. Even common actions like hand-shaking and saying hello are rituals.

What determines the efficacy of a ritual is the intention behind it. If you’re using a ritual to protect against your feelings – as is often the case in the new age movement – nothing positive will be achieved. On the other hand, if you’re utilizing the ritual as an aid toward dropping down into your emotional body and accessing the wisdom of your Higher Self, rituals can be extremely effective in helping you move toward the questions that need to be answered in the midst of a transition.



  1. I think the connotation of the word “ritual” trips people up. It certainly did when I was engaged and freaking out… what was meant by “ritual?” Did I have to burn all of my photos of my ex boyfriends? Take a trip with single girlfriends? Go home? I didn’t really know…

    *Now* I know that it’s different for everyone; for me, when I go through a transition, I know that my ritual is taking time to grieve and allowing myself to address feelings of sadness and loss. Whether that’s having a good cry fest, or journaling, or having a really good in-depth conversation about it with my husband, I’ve come to see it’s certainly is an integral part of moving through the transition. When I don’t take the time to do these things, I am way anxious and resist the transition.

  2. That’s very interesting, Anna. To me, it only connotes something ancient and archetypal, perhaps a word that Jung might use when referring to transitions. But yes, it is different for everyone, and certainly doesn’t mean you have to do something you’re uncomfortable with. I think where it really comes up around transitions like getting married and having a baby is around the showers, where someone might say, “Hmmm, pin the tail on the ex-boyfriend…? Not really meaningful to me. Hmmm.. strippers in Las Vegas? Not exactly how I want to ritualize my transition from bachelor to husband.” So I’m offering alternatives here, and also saying that rituals of every sort can and should be utilized for other transitions if it helps the person grieve, talk, address the difficult feelings that arise.

    • I completely agree Sheryl (that’s pretty much what I was trying to get across, only you said it much better! 🙂 When we consider what common rituals are, like playing baby shower games or that whole bachelorette party thing, oftentimes those rituals aren’t exactly the ones that allow us to let go and move forward from whatever it is that’s holding us back. I know for me, the bachelorette party was an uneasy and anxiety-provoking experience because it indeed was this ritual that every bride goes through and you are expected to feel a certain way as you say goodbye to singlehood… and yet I remember thinking it would be more meaningful if I could have just done anything that allowed me to bond with my girlfriends.

  3. I love the idea of ritual and have practiced rituals on my own for years. Because I have moved so many times, and was not raised in a religious community, I have celebrated holidays from my Jewish heritage on my own, and because I was alone, I had the freedom to make these rituals personal and incorporate my own prayers and mediation. When I got engaged a few years ago to my (now) husband, I was nervous about continuing my spiritual practice with him and my new step-daughter. I was afraid they would think my rituals too ‘hooey-wooey’, or that I was ‘too religious’ in our seemingly highly secular world. But, as my sister told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to be head rabbi [in your own home]!’ So I took a deep breath (and still do each time) and dove in. From our home seder to to weekly Shabbat to our originally-written wedding ceremony, I’ve found that our ‘own’ rituals (giving our own creative flair to them) have been a grounding and bonding exercise for our blended family. And, from what I’ve seen, kids love ritual! Our daughter seems to really enjoy helping to set the stage, having her own candle, and having a moment to reflect with family and add words and prayers of her own in a non-judgemental space. It is also something we do together that is a much-needed break from a technological, commerce-saturated world. To sum, I was nervous to try it, but I think it’s well-worth the effort.

    • That’s beautiful, Marni. Thanks for sharing. I, too, believe that kids not only respond positively to rituals but actually crave and need them in their lives.

  4. Sheryl,

    Could you comment more on wedding rituals? For example, I would love to take part in a pre-wedding ritual with all of the important women in my life, but am not sure how to go about doing this or what should be included (obviously that varies from person to person)? What are some examples that you know of?

    Also, in terms of rituals, if anyone is looking for a WONDERFUL and easy read book that highlights the amazing and healing rituals of the past, I greatly recommend “The Red Tent”. It is a wonderful book that always makes me feel honored to be a woman.


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