Sanctuary In Ritual

Something which has both grounded me and brought me joy through this extremely difficult time are my rituals. They are a practice I was already developing before the pandemic hit, but since the beginning of quarantine they have been there for me in very unexpected and wonderful ways. Recently I spoke about them to AWFC members as part of the AWFC Inside Sessions (every Wednesday for AWFC members) and I wanted to write up my thoughts here to share with the rest of you, just in case you’re curious and, like me, love to nerd out on this kind of thing. I have a lot to say – it was an hour long presentation! – but read what you want and hopefully something here will be a helpful tidbit.

My thoughts here are from my personal experience which was heavily influenced by a few books:

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work & Daily Rituals: Women At Work by Mason Currey

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Rituals are often called habits. But I prefer rituals because the word “habit” is often associated with the term ‘bad habit.’ Ritual makes the whole thing seem more than just a chore, a task with the goal to somehow fix a broken part of me. That’s not particularly alluring.

There is a key component in order for rituals to be successful: it has to be rooted in something much more meaningful than simply a goal like “I need to lose weight” or “I really should be creating more consistently”. That is not enough.

Two people who used to smoke are offered a cigarette. One says “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” The others says “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” Who do you think has the better odds for keeping off the cigs? Your rituals have to be tied in to your identity, your beliefs, your world view. Every ritual I now is practice symbolizes who I want to be. Clear says in Atomic Habits that once something becomes part of your identity, you are much more likely to behave in a way that aligns with that belief.

At the end of the day you are the sum of your actions.

The most recent ritual I added to my day was playing piano, every day. It has been the hardest one for me to stick with, historically, and one I wanted oh so badly. Playing piano the way I want to play – being able to sightread and do more than just plonk out chords or play down a right hand melody line – has eluded me my whole life. It has been so elusive due to the fact that I NEVER PRACTICED. After two months of quarantine as I was journaling I was thinking once again about the woman I want to be. What does she look like? What does she do? Again this issue arose: she could comfortably play piano. Have a healthy relationship with the instrument. Not be overcome with guilt when glancing the way of the keyboard. So on that day I once again embarked on developing the daily ritual of playing piano. And since that day I have played I think every day. I may have missed one or two but I am solidly on track. We will talk about the specifics of HOW the heck I did that in a second……

First, let’s talk really briefly about the difference between Rituals and Goals (a lot more details on this in Clear’s book). What’s wrong with having goals? Nothing, necessarily. But Clear points out: winners and losers have the same goals. So what makes up the difference? A goal represents a single achievement, but a ritual is a system. A process. A famous coach I cannot remember the name of said “Let the score take care of itself”. He wasn’t focused on the goal of winning the game, he was all about putting systems in place that enabled the team to achieve the high scores. It is all about the process. There’s no way you can fix the output unless you focus on improving the inputs.

Exploring this a little bit more: goals can restrict happiness: I will be happy when x is achieved. Having a system can provide immediate, daily happiness: each day I will do x. It is surprising how often the following happens: a person has a goal of running a marathon and once that marathon is achieved, they stop running. A person has a goal of a weight number and once that’s achieved they slip back into bad eating habits. They did the thing, so The End. But if you fall in love with the process – I will eat healthfully, I will compose for 2 hours daily, I will run for 20 minutes 5 days a week – there’s no stopping you. You can achieve something Every Single Day. These processes are sustainable. They become part of who you are.

I am a big gold star person. With the rituals I have in place now I can easily get gold stars every day instead of waiting months or years to achieve the thing and finally get the glittery sticker. Moreover, if I complete my rituals every day I am automatically moving myself forward to where I want to be, because that is the purpose of my Rituals. They are in place to mold me into the person I want to become. Amazingly, when broken into daily bites, it all seems a lot more achievable.

My daily rituals are:

Journaling in the morning (accompanied by coffee) to start my day.

Reading – beginning or end of day or both.

Walking – my daily constitutional, a couple of miles, usually at twilight.

Yoga – I do this at home online using Yoga with Adriene.

Practicing Piano – currently I sightread a Bach chorale, then play some other pieces or often read down jazz charts and work on my improv and chord voicings.

Composing – this is an easier ritual as it is my job! But I have rituals associated with my process

One thing that Clear suggests with developing habits is linking it with something else – a positive trigger. That has been a really helpful approach for me. Also developing them one at a time, adding them in gradually like links on a chain.

Journaling is almost always accompanied by coffee (unless my stomach is not cooperating for some reason). The addition of coffee makes it more….magical? It just helps! I either journal in bed with my coffee on a cut little tray, or on my couch by the cats (who then promptly move somewhere else, giving me my first dose of humility for the day.) The journaling also helps me plan the day ahead, another ritual within a ritual. This is when I can unload the debris that’s floating around in my head post-sleep and come up with the game plan for the next few hours. Something I try and do when I compose is create a situation for deep work – a scenario where I could achieve a state of Flow. (All of this is discussed in Newport’s Deep Work, fantastic book). Planning my day in my journal will set me up for success in this area.

The daily planning is necessary because, while I do have rituals, I do not have a daily routine. Most of my rituals float. Apart from the journaling, my rituals are not locked to the clock. They often occur at a certain time, but my days (especially when a pandemic isn’t happening) change dramatically depending on the projects in play. So each day needs its own plan.

The two rituals I have linked, interestingly enough, are yoga and piano practicing. Whenever they happen in the day, they will usually happen together. I decided to link them when facing the task of once again trying to incorporate the piano ritual. In a previous attempt I had linked piano practice with starting composing for the day. But that didn’t work because when I am ready to compose, I don’t want to do something else. That irritated me, especially when facing down a deadline (which is all the time) so the ritual didn’t survive. Yoga (and now piano) happen when I need to take a break from the work. This has been a successful linkage! We are months in and going strong.

My composing ritual is this: I approach my workstation with a clear idea in my head of what I want to compose. I can hear what I am going to try. I know what patches I am going to use. Before I open that DAW session I have decided on a plan. Going in with an idea – even if it eventually proves to be awful and unusable – makes sitting down to work so much easier. The night before when I am wrapping up work, I try to finish with an idea in progress. I leave with something in the tank to get me started the next day.

This ritual has been my way to conquer Resistance – that force field Pressfield identifies in the brilliant short book The War of Art (MUST READ). This prevents us from doing or finishing the creative thing. Resistance used to be a massive issue for me. But this ritual more often than not disengages the forcefield and allows me to compose the thing.

I compose in sprints. The goal is to sit down and compose for x hours. Maybe it is a two hour sprint. Often I will try and have someone else join me. I ping Robin on slack and say “I’m sitting down for a composing sprint – care to join me?” I have a writer friend Jo who posts on FB when she is starting a sprint. Creating can be isolating, but with the Internet it doesn’t have to be! Get yourself a sprint buddy!

I usually do two sprints a day. One during the regular “working day” and one after dinner. This is when I usually compose the best, when the sun is gone and everything seems muted. Sometimes I will be dragging a bit as I face that second sprint so I tell myself it can be super short. Just an hour! Maybe just 30 minutes. Two hours later this cue is actually working, I’m in the zone. Giving myself permission to do just 30 minutes was all I needed to get my foot in the creative zone doorway.

My walking usually happens in between the two sprints. It is a great way to leave work, open my mind, think through any challenges which have appeared. Kierkegaard said of walking: “do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Well said. This is definitely my daily experience.

Those are my daily rituals. I have other ones I would like to incorporate but I am taking it slow, really thinking through their implementation before I try, and making sure the current ones are in a good place. I want to ritualize keeping up with professional contacts. Play guitar and singing. Writing more like this blog. I feel like I am just on the beginning of this journey of exploring rituals. And not every ritual needs to be a daily practice. Which leads me to the next point.

My recording ritual has come very much in handy. The deadline for deliverables is two days before recording. That is when all the Pro Tools sessions must be done, the music PDFed and printed. Then the day before the session I sit down with the deliverables, and go through each one, as the musicians will see them, reading them as I listen down to the PT sessions. It is my last chance to spend time with the music, catch errors, and get in the zone to take the project across the finish line. This approach has saved my arse many a time.

It is so important that your physical space compliments the rituals you want to maintain. For me, everything on the keyboard is ready for practice. My yoga mat has its home in the hallway closet so I always know where to find it and I just have to shift the positioning of my piano stool and studio chair to create the space to spread it out. My journal is right there, ready for the morning and I always have my coffee stocked and ready to go. I make sure my home is laid out in a way which allows every ritual to be easily and comfortably be performed without any inhibitions.

So, there you have it. These are my rituals. They fit me, my unique cycle and approach to life. The great thing about reading Mason Currey’s biographical books, which map the daily rituals of SO many amazing creative people, is you see how very different everyone’s rituals are. We all need to know ourselves and the rituals that will work best for us. The many lists out there of “Habits of Successful People!” are interesting, but they may not work for you AT ALL. Because you are unique. What rituals will mold you into who you want to be?

This time has seemed to reduce coping bandwidth and increase anxiety. When I wake up feeling overwhelmed by all the craziness that currently is filling our lives, I tell myself that all I have to do is (eventually) get out of bed and complete my rituals. That is all. It seems achievable. Safe. Enjoyable, even. My rituals provide me with daily sanctuary. They are my ally, now more than ever.

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