We Wish You a Merry… Ritual

This December, I find myself reflecting upon a holiday many years ago when I played the role of an angel at my church’s Christmas pageant. I remember receiving instructions to gently cradle my offering of plastic grapes for baby Jesus and to approach the nativity scene slowly, deliberately, and in step by my fellow blue-robed angel. I was not to look at or wave to my family members as I passed them.

This was the first time I was charged with the solemn execution of ritual duties, and I followed through with a level of commitment absurd for a six-year old in a tinsel halo. I was stone-faced and serious, committed to the importance of the ceremony and my role.

Over time, my interest in ritual only grew. As a child and teenager, I served as an acolyte, carrying the cross in processionals, lighting and extinguishing candles, and helping prepare the Eucharist. Later, in college, I was the sacristan at my college chapel, a role which had me arriving early to arrange chairs and candlesticks, staying late to disassemble the ritual space, and learning how to get wax stains out of altar linens in my dorm room (Hint: an iron and newspaper do the trick).You know, typical college kid activities.

Though the church was an obvious focus of ritual life, my ritual devotion extended elsewhere, particularly to the intersection of ritual and food. Family dinners were sacred to me, and I would insist we turn off the television every night. I threw my first formal dinner party before the age of ten, immersing myself in cookbooks, napkin folding manuals, and etiquette books to get all the details right. I started the first of many dinner party clubs in high school and wrote my college thesis on parallels between the Eucharist and other ritual meals. Today, we ritualize our family meals by sharing gratitudes before eating.

And this Christmas, we celebrate it with all sorts of rituals – those from my family, those from Liz’s, and those we have created together. We open the advent calendar with our chocolate-ravenous child each night. We think about loved ones around the world and send Christmas cards with well-wishes. We, like Liz’s grandmother, burn bayberry candles. And we make ‘miracle loaf’ – a truly miraculous combination of refrigerated crescent rolls, bacon, eggs, and other artery-clogging items that Liz innovated. Each ritual sanctifies the season and makes our wintry days feel special.

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What is it, exactly, about ritual?  To me, there’s something incredible about how you can intentionally invest meaning in some of the most mundane, tangible aspects of life – movements, words, objects, food, and space – and thereby create something transcendental. It is a way of bringing the holy (however you may define it) into the everyday. I see it as the alchemy of meaning: by enacting ritual, you take everyday life and make it special.

And so, this past fall, I started classes to become a celebrant. A celebrant is someone who creates and performs rituals for others. This can include anything from the weddings and funerals you might expect to baby blessings, divorce ceremonies, business openings, and seasonal rituals. Celebrants do not bring any particular religious bent to their work, but instead focus on crafting meaningful experiences to fit the needs, values, and beliefs of the ceremony participants. Come spring, I’ll be certified and look forward to bringing more ritual into my life and being of service to others.

Whatever you believe and however you ritualize it, I wish this holiday season is transformed into something special and meaningful to you.
Meredith

To learn more about celebrancy, check out the Celebrant Institute and Foundation here.

 

What’s Behind Your Beliefs?

I recently re-read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.  She argues that one orientation – an individual’s relationship to growth – underlies nearly all aspects of life.  If someone adopts a growth mindset, he believes his abilities (and those of others) can develop through dedication and hard work.  If someone adopts a fixed mindset, he believes his abilities are unchangeable; one is born with abilities, and those determine his success.  Dweck’s argument states that nearly all metrics for success – everything from productivity to quality of relationships – are positively correlated with a growth mindset.

Happily, this work brought mindsets into the public consciousness in a bigger way.  However, Dweck’s focus on the growth/fixed mindset alone limits what mindsets can help us see.  Ultimately, there are a handful of foundational mindsets that drive our orientation to the world.  It may be surprising, but all our many differences in religion, politics, and philosophy are built upon only a handful of foundational beliefs.

What are mindsets?
You can think of mindsets as the mega-beliefs underlying human existence.  People have many small beliefs that like “putting the forks handle-side-up in the dishwasher is good” or “Boy Scouts have a strong moral compass.”  But the mindsets I’m talking about are bigger than those.  They are fundamental orientations to the world upon which many of our functional, everyday beliefs are built.  These mindsets are the topics of heated philosophical debates, the common understandings of political parties, and the cornerstones of many of the world’s religions.

What are the foundational mindsets?
I see thirteen foundational mindsets, split into two categories:  mindsets about ‘how the world works’ and mindsets about ‘how you engage’ with that world.  This list is not exhaustive, but they tend to be the most salient mindsets in our experience.  For each of the thirteen dimensions there are two opposing beliefs that sit on either end of a spectrum.

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As these dimensions are fundamental, all sorts of beliefs build off them.  For example, your mindset around availability (e.g., your sense of whether the world is lacking or abundant) can inform your sense of self-worth (e.g., feeling like you are enough or not), your financial decisions (e.g., saving more or spending more), and your opinions on tax policy (e.g., redistributing income versus not).  Each mindset impacts your relationship with self, your relationship with others, and your relationship with the world.

How do I understand (and maybe even shift) my own mindsets?
Read through the foundational mindsets above a second time and assess yourself. Ask:

  • For each pair, under which mindset do I most commonly operate?
  • Was this a conscious choice, or did I adopt it without consideration?
  • Where did this mindset come from?  Are there patterns of mindsets that come from my family, my religion, my culture, or my country?  What in my experience leads me to operate under this mindset?
  • What actions do I take based on these foundational mindsets?

[Note:  Our mindsets are often so ingrained that we see them as universals.  For the purposes of this exercise, it may be useful to adopt a relative orientation around the dimensions, allowing yourself to at least consider the possibility of the opposite mindset.]

After assessing the way that foundational beliefs show up in your life, it’s most interesting to ask the question: What is the most productive mindset for me to hold?  Dweck argues throughout her book that we can choose our mindset, suggesting that people can develop the capacity to choose a growth mindset, even if their habits and conditioning.incline them to hear the “fixed mindset voice.”  You are similarly able to choose your mindset along any of these dimensions.  In short, you can intentionally build the set of foundational mindsets that best enable you to live the life to which you aspire.  

Please post your thoughts and comments – as well as other mindsets you see.  I’d love to hear what you learned in going through this exercise yourself.

Best,
Meredith
(Primarily operating in a world where truth is relative, people are good, life is magical, things happen for a reason and usually work out, some people are better than others, and there is plenty to go around.  In this world, I know that I can grow and change, choose my path, generally be in control, and let things come easily.  I seek the best, even if I suspect that some things won’t work.)