Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The need for discipline, routine and ritual

I have a family member who firmly believes that the way you start your day determines its outcome and especially the mood or attitude with which you live and relate. For this reason she gets up early each morning to follow a definite routine – one in which she consciously practices a set of very specific rituals or disciplines. These rituals include a brisk walk, some breathing exercises, a time of silence and prayer and the writing of, what Julia Cameron calls, her morning papers. The latter are two pages of uninhibited long hand writing to help you access and express your feelings. According to this family member: “These exercises not only help me to remain calm, alert and positive throughout the day. As a believer it also helps me to remember that there is a God in heaven who cares”.

For some people, especially those who struggle to relax or to find time for leisure, mostly due to a hectic work schedule, these kinds of rituals or disciplines often sound eccentric and unnecessary, almost like an exclusive and excessive luxury. Others again are so caught up in the fancies and pleasures of society that they merely float along without even knowing or thinking about an alternative style of living. However the life giving, if not life changing and necessary value of the abovementioned routine with its rituals or disciplines should not be underestimated, especially in a culture like ours.

Because despite its many amazing feats and benefits, it is clear today that our modern society has a darker and disturbing downside. In its hectic drive to produce and to generate money, our current information-based economy has not only increased our pace of living dramatically – it has also altered our needs to such an extent that the human spirit has been deeply affected. According to some analysts a large part of our generation has become socially saturated, distracted and even worse, multifrenic. It has become a generation, which increasingly suffers from a fragmented and disconnected identity.

Luckily there are those who, like my family-member, has sensed this darker and more destructive side of our society, these so called unhealthy and distractive compulsions, and who tries to deal with it in a more imaginative and creative way, thereby reminding us of some irreplaceable values and rituals and offering us an alternative and more integrated and connected way of living.

In this regard there is a wonderful little anecdote about the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison during the years of the second world war, he also had to deal with the problem of ongoing distractions and disturbances, the most familiar being his constant and often overwhelming longing for family and friends, for company, for intimacy.

To counter and channel these strong and often distracting emotions in a healthy and constructive way, he deliberately chose a life of discipline and routine, starting with an early morning shower, some exercises, prayer and then his daily programme of specific and carefully planned reading and writing. These disciplines or rituals not only helped him to produce his marvellous letters from prison, but also showed through them a way of hope and peace for a next generation.

Those who have discovered the liberating effects of a well structure life of discipline, ritual and routine know that it can never be a burden. To the contrary, it is something that should be sought, celebrated and enjoyed. Especially today.

Carel Anthonissen

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