Rituals … that keep us together

On the 14th of April, we celebrated Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka. It is a time when families and communities get together to celebrate the dawn of the New Year and engage in many traditional rituals and ceremonies, of observing auspicious times for lighting the fire, cooking kiri bath (milk rice, normally made for all important celebrations), eating, exchanging gifts, and visiting family and friends.

Growing up, my family did not observe all the traditional rituals as most other Sri Lankan families, though we would go and visit my grand parents, and would eat Kiri Bath (milk rice made for celebratory events) together as a family at breakfast. This continues even today, even though we don’t strictly follow the auspicious times and other rituals.

While enjoying a lovely relaxed weekend with my parents, brother and his family and his in-laws in a beautiful bungalow in Digana, Sri Lanka, I counted the blessing of other rituals that hold us together as a family despite the absence of most of the traditional rituals.

Until about two months ago, we would meet as a family almost every Sunday for lunch at my parents home. As I recall even when we were living with our parents, we probably had Sunday lunch together, but it became part of an important family ritual once I and then my brother got married and moved out of our parents home.

No one had a formal conversation about establishing this ritual. It just evolved. A practical solution to continue the close relationship the family had. Meeting every Sunday, is a ritual that has made us feel safe and loved, connected, kept us grounded as a family in an otherwise uncertain and busy life.

Of course, my nephew who is only two months old, has taken over our lives and for a few weeks completely upset our carefully established and taken for granted rituals. The fact that we were not meeting every Sunday just because of a practice or a tradition, but because deep down it meant something, was exemplified when we started meeting at my brother’s home, till the baby was a few weeks older, when he was brought to my parents home for the first time.

A ritual can be a set of actions that are performed repetitively that holds symbolic value to the person, people or community performing them. Over time there is always the danger that the original reasons for performing the rituals are forgotten, and the action merely performed for the sake of doing them. That’s where rituals get a bad name.

You will find rituals everywhere. In intimate relationships, families, societies, communities, religions and even business organisations.

Birthdays and anniversaries have become accepted forms of rituals where people celebrate each other. A special time and place is made for this, because it is a reminder in our otherwise normal busy life that we need to appreciate each other. But then again, one should not fall in to the trap of forgetting what these rituals remind us – that we do need to appreciate each other everyday and we don’t have to wait for the ritual to do it.

Couples also develop their own set of unique rituals, in how they conduct their relationship during courting times. They can be as simple as how they greet each other in the morning, even when their apart – from a good morning sms or call to how they make special times for each other, by cooking for each other, or going out for dinner.

My father and I

Families have rituals of meeting, like our family’s Sunday lunch, and ways of greeting and partings, that in some way establishes comforting gestures of love and respect. I remember as a child, that my mother and father would always come and wake me up on my birthday with a gift. Even after I moved out, one of the first calls I would get on my birthday is from my parents. It was and is something I still look forward to. It comforts me, and reminds me I am loved.

Religious holidays remind us to go to our respective temples and churches to pray and engage in spiritual practices. But we don’t have to wait for those days to be spiritual.

Company retreats and even weekly meetings are rituals performed by organisations, providing space and opportunity for people to meet and greet and share information and dialogue, and create an institutional memory. Once again, the underlying principle is not to forget why they are being done and not to wait for the ritual alone to do these things.

Even in everyday society we have rituals we have take for granted – for example, saying good morning to someone when you see them in the morning. The underlying value is to acknowledge the person as you see them. However, often we mouth the words ‘Good Morning; without taking the time to genuinely wish it.

One of the dangers of rituals is when people become dependent on them to cater to the underlying value of the ritual.  Relationships and families and communities can fall apart if the rituals in someway get disrupted or if there is an over dependence on the ritual to deliver the underlying symbolic value. It is most obviously seen first hand in intimate relationships and families. For example a newly wed couple may have a particular way of greeting and parting as they leave home for work, like a kiss or a hug, but overtime due to neglect or time pressures these may become a peck on a cheek or nothing at all. Unless there is something else that is conveying the love and caring, the absence of the ritual can cause dissonance in the relationship. The absence of the ritual is only a symptom of something else that is missing.

The only way to ensure that rituals don’t become outdated and irrelevant is to be always actively engaged in reminding ourselves of why we are doing it. If for instance the ritual is no longer serving the original purpose, then the ritual should be stopped. An unexamined and mindless performance of a ritual has a danger of being institutionalized, or legal or policy.

A ritual is only a symbolic action reflecting something that is much deeper.

What are the rituals you are practising in your relationship, family or community, that is keeping you together, making you feel safe, feel loved, and valuing each other? What are the rituals that are just repetitive actions that hold no such meaning?

Good rituals are like good habits. So don’t be afraid of rituals. They bond us. Keep us together. But don’t be a slave to rituals either. They can numb us and make us forget why we started the rituals in the first place.

Wishing you many opportunities to create and practice good habits and rituals of bonding, loving and valuing each other



Image Credit – (C) Isuru Gunasekera

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