Ritual and the Mundane

Resilience and Survival in the time of Pandemic

Ritual; a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”

Mundane 1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the world. 2 : characterized by the practical, transitory, and ordinary : commonplace the mundane concerns of day-to-day life.”

As we enter a new lockdown at the worst stage of this frightening pandemic and in spite of the light at the end of the tunnel, our resilience is starting to crack and all our good intentions from a year ago are beginning to look worn and frazzled.

I’m certainly no exception to this and, like most other people struggling to make sense of the situation, I have my bad days in between. We feel helpless and have no control over the situation. This has led me to thinking on how we best can survive the bad times and the resources that we might need to reach the other side. Perhaps also a a recipe for our future behaviour.

I then started contemplating the things that we are already doing, perhaps subconsciously, that contribute to our mental wellbeing and survival; the two words that came to mind were Ritual and Mundane. Everyday we carry out tasks to a set pattern, be that drinking a cup of coffee, preparing food, brushing leaves in the yard or even filling the dishwasher.

These actions are also mundane i.e. commonplace, practical, ordinary; there is another definition of mundane in the Oxford Dictionary which is “Lacking interest or excitement; dull”. These are not words that I would use to characterise mundane – just because something is commonplace and ordinary does not make it boring and dull.

One great artist and writer who knew this to be true was D.H.Lawrence. Aldous Huxley said of him that “He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.”

Everything that Lawrence did, be it writing or any other tasks that he performed, were carried out with a deep sense of reverence and total commitment. His work ethic was phenomenal and was perhaps a result of his working class background, his mother was very house proud, despite the relative poverty of the family.

Lawrence had an almost religious attitude to physical work and was convinced that it was necessary to carry out your own tasks in order to counteract what he regarded as the softness and blandness of modern society. How he would have hated our Netflix generation. Physical work was probably a necessity for him on a more personal level, as a antidote to his life as a writer, which appeared to cause him severe mental distress.

He also wanted total control over every situation which was probably verging on pathological. I am not suggesting that we should all be like Lawrence, but perhaps we could all learn something in today’s society from something of that quality of his, which was both earthy and mystical.

Much of what I have learned about Lawrence’s phenomenal capacity for work was gleaned from a fantastic online site called ‘D.H.Lawrence Memory Theatre’ a digital resource that explores the literary and cultural heritage of Nottingham. For more fascinating information concerning Lawrence please follow the link at D.H.Lawrence Memory Theatre

I should also give a thanks to my daughter Camilla, whose PhD in 2018 on Lawrence, rekindled my interest in his life and work “Between Letters: D.H. Lawrence, the Nonhuman and the “Life of Writing”

It has long been known how rituals within different cultures reduce anxiety by giving people a set of strict rules to live by in order to counteract the uncertainty and confusion of life. This is, after all, the basis of most of the world’s major religious movements, where historically people have performed ritual actions in order to bring certainty to their existence. As well as formal religious services which are widespread amongst the major religions, there are numerous ritual practices throughout every culture in the world, too many to mention, but including such notable examples such as the Japanese tea ceremony, the Sufi whirling dervishes and even the humble family dinner to name but a few.

Below are images showing Whirling Dervishes, Catholic Tridentine Mass and a French Masonic ceremony from 1745:

More recently, a definitive link between the performing of rituals and mental health is being established on a scientific basis and it is the neuroscientists that are providing the answer. There is a fascinating article in Psychology Today from 2017 entitled ‘The Anxiety-Busting Properties of Ritual’ by Nick Hobson PhD a research psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto. The subtitle is ‘How ritualized actions act as a natural anxiolytic’. An anxiolytic is a medication or other intervention that is prescribed to reduce anxiety, so it can be seen that if an anxiolytic is natural, it has enormous repercussions for medicine and science.

The crux of the article is that the brain’s main function is to make predictions about the future and then adjust behaviour based on those predictions.

“A brain that can predict (one that is certain) makes a human feel safe and happy. A brain that cannot predict (one that is uncertain) makes a human feel threatened and anxious.”

Unfortunately, despite the brain’s wonderful capabilities, even it cannot process the infinite amount of data involved and therefore the result is confusion and anxiety. From man’s earliest days he has adapted his behaviour to deal with this anxiety, developing complex rituals in order to make sense of the world. In everyday modern life , we have also developed many rituals which we perform every day to lessen anxiety and which have been shown, in experiments, to reduce activity in the parts of the brain that cause anxiety.

The article concludes by making suggestions on how we can reduce anxiety in our day to day lives by firstly formalising and committing ourselves more to the rituals that we already are aware of. The other thing is to create further rituals of our own, which if carried out on a daily basis, will over time create resilience. If you like, a compound interest for the soul.

A link to the article in Psychology Today can be found here and is well worth the read The Anxiety-Busting Properties of Ritual

Many of these rituals are what are termed mundane and one of the best descriptions that I have read is in an article by a Zen Buddhist monk on his early days as a novice in a temple in Vietnam, and it is all about that most mundane of activities washing up. He writes eloquently how an activity like washing up carries the same weight and importance as every other activity and if carried out with reverence becomes a sacrament.

“I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” ……..

“Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.”

Memories from the Root Temple: Washing Dishes

In a similar vein, one of my favourite poems, which I discovered a few years ago in an anthology, is by the Californian poet, Al Zolynas. Many of Al’s poems deal with the everyday and the mundane in the best possible meaning of the word. Al is a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism and in this poem he seems to capture the essence of both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of everyday life, they are of course one and the same thing.

Al Zolynas – The Zen of Housework

"I look over my own shoulder
down my arms
to where they disappear under water
into hands inside pink rubber gloves
moiling among dinner dishes.
My hands lift a wine glass,
holding it by the stem and under the bowl.
It breaks the surface
like a chalice
rising from a medieval lake.
Full of the grey wine
of domesticity, the glass floats
to the level of my eyes.
Behind it, through the window
above the sink, the sun, among
a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches,
is setting in Western America.
I can see thousands of droplets
of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising
from my goblet of grey wine.
They sway, changing directions
constantly—like a school of playful fish,
or like the sheer curtain
on the window to another world.
Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane!"

Printed with Kind Permission of the Author.

First Published in:- The New Physics
Wesleyan University Press,
Middletown, Connecticut 1979

I think I should make a confession here, in that most of the dishwashing in our house is carried out by a machine, but I do have a number of precious pieces of pottery and glass, which I meticulously clean with great love and attention. Also stacking the dishwasher in a particular and most efficient way has become a daily ritual.

During the first lockdown, back in the Spring of 2020, which now feels like a lifetime ago, my wife and I established a routine of aiming to carry out a few tasks every day, mainly outside jobs in the garden when the weather was good, plus also having a cup of coffee at fixed times, a walk into nature, the planting of vegetables and the preparation of food together.

Later in the year, as the weather deteriorated, indoor activities took over, and, as well as the general maintenance, other activities started to surface. As my good friends know, I am an avid collector of studio pottery and have a largish collection, which moves around the house. In this lockdown I have become prone to rearranging my collection, as well as handling many pots on a daily basis, the feel of a piece of pottery in the hand is very important.

Paintings that had hung on the wall for 20 years or more, assumed a greater importance. I spent more time looking and discovering small details never before noticed. It was as though they were telling me that they had been ignored for far too long.

We also noticed that life slowed down, so that even though we were working, we had more time to take in our surroundings and really take in the nature around us. The birds feeding outside our kitchen window, the antics of the squirrel, the shape of a vegetable, a spider making its web, the larvae of a butterfly.

Of course this will not last, eventually life will slowly get back to normal, and within a couple of years people will forget and move on back to the old way of life. But maybe, just maybe, there will be a small voice within us saying that things can never be quite the same again. Things will need to change both inside ourselves and in the outside world, if we are to save both mankind and the planet.

In writing this article I am not in any way wishing to diminish the terrible devastation this pandemic has wrought worldwide with several million deaths and further untold millions suffering bereavement, sorrow, financial hardship and poverty. For those who survive there is very little comfort, and this article is, in my small way, a dedication to them.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

One thought on “Ritual and the Mundane

  1. Thank you John, a very thoughtful and thought provoking article. To find pattern and create structure to each day does seem the way to endure and even (dare I say) enjoy our confinement

    Liked by 1 person

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