On Ritual: The Power of Intentionality in Routine
This past week, I took a vacation to the Sierras to camp and hike with a friend (yes, I spend my free time outside, too!). My hope was to get some time to unwind and unplug, and I was particularly excited to get some good, quality sleep. I spent five years as a Field Instructor at Entrada, and most nights in the field with the groups, I fell asleep promptly, slept deeply, and woke rested. I always attributed this to simply sleeping outside, away from phones and screens and all the typical nightly distractions.
However, while laying under the stars this week, snuggled in my sleeping bag, listening to the soft sounds of the stream near the campsite, my mind raced in a million directions. Will work feel stressful next week after I return from vacation - did I get everything done before I left - when was the last time I called my mom - I should really call my mom – my foot kind of hurts - do I have bunions - wait, what are bunions - do they hurt - do they get worse over time - will I need surgery someday - what if my insurance doesn’t cover it - should I get different coverage? This cascade of questions bounced around inside my head as if someone had thrown a bunch of bouncy balls down an empty hallway. It was pure chaos, and I was far from asleep despite being outside, in a peaceful, quiet place, with no phone or screen around to blame for my scattered mind. I began to wonder: why is this so different from how it felt falling asleep in the field as a staff?
I began thinking of those nights in the field. Not all of them were peaceful. In fact, I would say many felt as chaotic as my thoughts did this past week while camping. So why did I sleep so well and so consistently in the field? The answer came quickly, and it is surprisingly simple: ritual.
In the field, the nightly routine has a cadence of familiarity and sameness. Of course, the routine varies depending on group dynamics, student needs, and logistics, but it consistently looks like this: the group finishes dinner, cleans their cups, and puts away the dinner supplies. Teeth get brushed and camp gets “bombered” (which means organized, in Evoke-speak), and there may be an after-dinner group run by a student or staff. Once all this is complete, students and staff grab their backpacks, circle up, and do a “gratefuls circle” in which everyone shares something they feel grateful for. Sometimes they also share self-affirmations, things they hope to dream about, or favorite moments of the day. After each person shares, the group walks to their shelter spots, sets up their sleeping bags, and says goodnight.
What is the difference between routine and ritual? Both are actions or behaviors followed in a certain order, but the key difference seems to be intention. Rituals require intention, while routines can simply be repetitive habits. In the field, going to bed always requires intention. Nighttime can bring up a lot of emotions for students, for a variety of reasons, and the way staff puts the group to bed requires intentional tone-setting to help manage a potentially chaotic transition from being with others to being alone with one’s self.
Laying awake in my sleeping bag this week, I realized that even as a self-sufficient, 31-year-old adult, I can still struggle to sit quietly in my own thoughts. I can still struggle, as the adolescents in our program do, to transition intentionally from doing to being--from being with others to being alone. I still need intentional routines, or rituals, to help me transition into something as simple and regular as sleep. Thinking on all this renewed my appreciation for the intentionality of life in the field, as well as the tremendous difficulty we all face on a daily basis to remain intentional. Sometimes our intentionality slips away; sometimes we act on impulse, our minds race uncontrollably, we can’t sleep, we cope poorly or not at all. This is normal, I tell myself. The important piece isn’t that we fail to live intentionally, but that we can notice when we aren’t. Laying in my sleeping bag somewhere in the Sierras, my mind began to race a little slower, my thoughts began to quiet, and I had a “gratefuls circle” with myself. I meditated on the gratitude I have for the time I got to spend in the field and the things it taught me--things I sometimes forget, and things I’m so thankful to remember. As my mind balanced on this point of gratitude, I fell asleep promptly. I slept deeply. I woke rested.