Back in February I did a piece about the immediate productivity boost I got just by yanking the cable that connects my desktop computer to my Wi-Fi router.
It worked for a painfully obvious reason: the elimination of a major distraction: das Internetten. But, in my carryover-from-childhood inclination to tear things apart and see how they work, I’m often not satisfied with surface explanations.
And I came to the conclusion that there was another reason why that tactic was effective, a reason that may ultimately be more powerful, running much deeper, than the obvious one.
However unwittingly, I’d established a distinct new ritual for the sole purpose of readying myself to perpetrate creative productivity.
The Function Of Ritual
Life is full of rituals great and small, simple and elaborate, formal and informal, but there’s a common denominator between most of them: Their core purpose is to usher us from one state of being into another.
The wedding ritual exists to mark the union of two into one.
The funeral ritual, to formalize the transition of life into death.
The awarding of a martial arts belt, to signify the satisfactory completion of a block of training.
Pass through this type of ritual and you become something new, something different from what you were before.
But the transitions don’t have to be permanent. Their effects, the states of mind they conjure, can be temporary, too. Intentionally so.
Think of a liturgical ritual like the Mass. Its underlying goal is to usher the believer from a state of mundane, earthly consciousness into a state focused on the spiritual. Medieval theologians likened this process to the tuning of a bell … but instead of metal, tuning a person so that he would resonate at a higher frequency than he did before.
In this context, ritual is a shortcut. A bridge. A wormhole in space between two distant galaxies that can get you from one to the other much quicker than if you were to traverse the full gulf between.
When compared to the mundane places we often occupy, what is writing, then, if not a higher, more resonant state of mind?
Why Ritual Works
The mind adores patterns. It hunts for them everywhere. It loves to link things together and it thrives on making order out of chaos. And it’s a whiz at bundling specific states of mind with associated physical cues.
As a kid, I would sometimes see baseball players — pitchers, usually — go through the most peculiar sequences of activity before ever throwing the ball. It looked to me then like blatant superstition. And maybe, even to the players, that’s all it was. But they did it anyway.
However, specialists in Neurolinguistic Programming would see something quite different here: that what the players were doing was repeatedly taking the heightened state of focus necessary to throw the pitch how and where they wanted it, and anchoring it to a unique sequence of behavioral events.
Repeat the events — tweak nose, swipe thumb along bill of cap, rub opposite elbow — and, ideally, this silly little sequence will usher you into the desired state of focus.
Every pitch, then, becomes its own ritual.
Revisit the liturgy for a moment. Think of the incense, the candles, the Latin chanting, the presence of the altar and the the stole around the priest’s neck. Think of how quickly these cues work together to induce a change in state of mind. You don’t even have to be a believer to feel some kind of tug. Because their symbolic power runs centuries deep.
Now … imagine the potential waiting to be tapped by pairing a few unique cues with the belief in yourself, and in the tale you’re telling.
Establishing A Ritual Of Your Own
Long before there were ever such things as priests, there were shamans. The shaman’s job is simple in description, complex in performance: to journey between the worlds of matter and spirit, and bring back something of value for the tribe.
Not everybody approaches writing that way.
Just the ones that resonate. Even if they don’t know it, or think of creating in those terms.
With the shaman, it’s ritual, usually involving a drumbeat, that serves as the vehicle for the journey.
For the writer, looking for an expedient route from the mundane world of bill-paying and car-pooling to the enveloping realm of story, ritual can take a hundred thousand forms. It’s whatever works. It’s the cues that mean infinitely more to you than what they appear to be on the surface. Whatever actions reach inside and flip your switches.
You might have a ritual already without even realizing it. That singular coffee mug you only ever fill before you sit down to write. That CD or iTunes playlist you only cue up when it’s go-time.
Whatever the ritual is, though, there are a few qualities that should shape it. It is:
Unique. Whether a solitary act or some nose-cap-elbow combination, it should belong exclusively to your writing preamble. Nothing else. Even the act of disconnecting from my router, as simple as that was, wasn’t something I did for any other reason.
Performed mindfully. You know how you absently swat your hand at the light switch when you enter a room? Don’t do it like that. Whatever action you’re taking should command not just your full attention, but your full intention. When unplugging that cable, I pause and remind myself that what comes next is sacred time.
Repeatable. When it’s simple enough to do without worrying whether you’re doing it right, that leaves you free to focus on intent. And it’s probably best if you can do it anywhere. Sure, you swear by tucking one foot to your belly and hopping one-legged across the room … but do you really want to do that in Starbucks?
Self-reinforcing. Some things we do over and over again to the point of rote meaninglessness. An effective ritual takes the opposite trajectory. Its power should grow in the doing. It should accrue the weight of legitimacy. Because it works. For you, it works.
So journey well, and happy trails.
Now come back with something wonderful.
***** It’s 2-for-1 day! You are most cordially invited over to my blog, Warrior Poet, where the latest, “Agree To Disagree: The Key To Constant Conflict,” will be going up shortly. Ish. Shortlyish.
[Photo by Paul Stevenson]