I recently had a fascinating conversation about ritual and habit. Ritual is something that is done with purpose, the same way, over and over again. Habit is something that is acquired, initially from purposeful learning, that becomes unconscious after it is done the same way, over and over. Is there a difference? Are they interchangeable?


Photo by Ivan Samkov

Ritual is part and parcel of many activities including social and cultural observances like birth, death, marriage, graduation, sporting events, as well as spiritual activities including observance of holy days, prayer, and meditation. Ritual can be done alone or in groups. There is something intentional and sacred about a ritual that is different from a habit.

I consider meditating a ritual. When I meditate, I treat those thoughts more like the crawl under the breaking news on TV. I can pay attention to them, but I just follow them as they appear and disappear. The point of meditating is to create more space between the thoughts, slow them down, and maybe just suspend awareness altogether. When the meditation is over, I am much more intentional about merging into the stream of things and moving on with my day.


Photo by Ron Lach

Habit tends to be more of an individual thing, with individual outcomes and individual challenges. I consider brushing my teeth a habit. It is an unconscious activity. I can be thinking of lots of different things while I brush — making lists in my head about what I need to do or what I didn’t get done, deciding what to wear or reminding myself to not use so much water. The point of brushing is to complete the task. But once the brushing is done, I move on to whatever is next. It isn’t a sacred act.

Benefits of Routine

Having routines helps me lower my anxiety and saves me emotional energy. I go to bed right after the 10 o’clock news. That was the same routine my parents had. Don’t see any reason to change it!

Once in bed, I read for maybe 30 minutes or so, and then I seem to just fall asleep. This I attribute to a ritual my mother initiated when I was a toddler, where she would read me to sleep each night.

Change Your Routine; Grow Your Brain

I have many habits that make my life easier, more predictable, and more efficient. And many of them are boring. Doing the same thing the same way each time, while reassuring, just doesn’t give me a sense of satisfaction and joy, nor does it keep my brain functioning at its best.

Some changes are good for the aging brain, so I intentionally look for ways to break up routine. I take a different route to the store. I find a different genre of music to listen to. I watch different kinds of programs on TV. When I want to grow my brain, I brush my teeth with my left hand and practice juggling.

The downside to habit and routine is that I am not stimulating my brain. I am not giving it new things to understand. I am not finding that balance between what I believe and what I want to believe. Habit can actually blind me to making changes that might improve the quality of my life! 

I live in Northern California, and we are in year three of a drought that some are predicting may be the new normal. It is time to plant fields, trim vines, and get the garden in shape. What has been habit and ritual for generations, however, is now experiencing the need for drastic change to be made immediately. What will it take to change this?

Hollow Rituals and Mindless Habits

Photo by Octoptimist

Both rituals and habits have a certain trajectory. In the beginning, it takes a lot of attention to acquire them, but once the sequence is imprinted, there isn’t a lot that needs to be done. Inevitably, though, change has a way of disrupting that sequence. This can result in once powerful rituals and habits becoming hollow or mindless.

I felt this strongly while I watched the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. It was a hollow ritual, and left me feeling depleted rather than inspired. Changes were more than just venue and pandemic; there was a distinct masquerade about the whole thing.

I see it too, more and more frequently these days, in my driving and shopping habits. Setting out for a specific destination, and then mindlessly taking a turn that used to take me to my office, instead of where I planned on going. Or going to the grocery store and no longer reading labels. Instead, I just go to the spot on the shelf where the item has always been, and get mad because something new or different is there in its place.

Paying Attention

As we age, habits and rituals take on new importance. Take some time to see which are supporting you in having the quality of life you want. Doing the same thing the same way is efficient in terms of energetic use of the brain, but it can also be mind-numbingly dull. Keep what works, change what doesn’t.

Ritual may be a way to inject new energy into habitual ways of doing things. For example, you can make a ritual out of smiling at people you meet on your daily walk. Or writing down things you are grateful for in your journal. You can invite others to join you in a moment of quiet before beginning a group activity, or sharing something positive about their day on their social media. Habit is a co-conspirator for being coming calcified. Don’t let that happen to you!

Age-positive Image Library/Centre for Aging Better
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