5 Simple Rituals to get you Back in the Present
Finding a Balance
Let’s face it: the last 10 months have been hard for almost everyone. The last few weeks have felt particularly challenging here in the UK. We are aware that, at present, we have both been very fortunate: our immediate family have been able to remain safe, our jobs haven’t been in immediate danger, and we have quiet hobbies with space to enjoy them. But even so, I was still reduced to tears last week by a shortage of vegetables at the supermarket, and I know I’m not the only one feeling emotionally sensitive at the moment.
It’s becoming more and more comforting to spend our time wistfully remembering the past, or dreaming about the future. Both seem perfectly reasonable escapes, considering the circumstances.
But, with the little prospect of speedy improvements in the near future, do we risk spending too much time living inside our own heads, outside of our own time? Is there a danger in seeing our body go through the motions of living – a little aimless, without focus – while our minds are preoccupied elsewhere?
Is it possible to find a balance between dwelling on the challenges of the present, and escaping to the protection of past memories or future plans?
Since the beginning of 2021, I’ve been trying to spend more time focused on the present moment. Not on current affairs, but on the way I use each of the hours, minutes and seconds that constitute each day, week and month. This way of appreciating time has the added benefit of creating the illusion that you have more of it to appreciate.
There are whole hours of our lives that disappear without us being aware of their passing. As Arnold Bennett memorably describes it in his How to Live on 24 Hours a Day:
“you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll… By Jove!... Six hours, probably more, have gone since you left the office – gone like a dream, gone like magic, unaccountably gone!”
Our days are filled with routines, from our first coffee of the morning to brushing our teeth before bed, with countless other activities in between: walking the dog, shopping for groceries, washing dishes. We often belittle these activities as ‘tasks’ or ‘chores’: things that just have to be done, but which have little inherent value in themselves. Obligations rather than opportunities. Added-up, these small routines may account for more of our time than we would care to imagine.
Yet for many of us, these activities are performed on autopilot, with little awareness of where we are and what we are doing. While brushing your teeth you might be thinking more about that film you saw at the weekend, or waiting for the train you might be rehearsing that day’s team workshop you are leading. Sometimes these activities leave such a small impression on us that it is easy to forget that we’ve even done them. (Did I feed the cats before I left the house this morning?)
To combat this, I have started imbuing the everyday activities I usually take for granted with an almost ceremonial attention. Creating rituals out of daily tasks. Hoovering the floors, taking an afternoon walk, folding and hanging clothes. There is value and enjoyment to be found in these. If most of my day is going to be spent doing tasks, I want these tasks to be done in a way that brings me satisfaction: the joy of giving something my undivided attention.
Focus on the sensations of your activity, not just on the activity. Ask your senses questions: What does it sound like? How does it feel? Can you pinpoint which muscles you are using? What can you smell? Really look at what is in front of you. Make these minutes really count for something. Think about ensuring you can look back on this activity with a feeling of contentment.
3 tips for creating effective rituals
Start small: Most routine activities can be turned into rituals. But if you’re used to a constant interior monologue of thinking, worrying, planning and reminiscing, you may find this surprisingly hard. By starting small, you have a better chance of success on which you can then build.
Don’t multitask: It is important that your chosen ritual is the only thing you are doing at that time. Ideally, it will be a task that means it’s not easy to multitask: gardening, taking a bath. If you would normally have music or the television on in the background, try switching it off and focus on the sounds of your activity instead.
Stay still: Concentrated attention can be remarkably difficult. The brain is conditioned to jump around and make connections. This problem is even harder if you are moving, since you will be distracted by walking, and by the different objects that come into view. Staying still allows you to clear your mind and focus on your chosen ritual. (Of course, if your ritual is walking, then ignore this, but try hard to keep focused!)
Five rituals to try
Making a cup of coffee or tea: For many of us, this is the first bleary-eyed task we attempt in the morning. The temptation may be to engage as little as possible – so not to shock the system – but the quiet of early morning is a perfect opportunity to listen. Before the neighbours have woken and too many cars are on the road, really focus on the sounds: a kettle rumbling and spluttering, a coffee machine quietly hissing, a spoon tinkling against the sides of a cup, followed by those two ringing taps.
Taking a bath, even a shower: For me, this is the ultimate ritual, and I know it holds the same importance for many people. A bath is an indulgent, selfish treat, and none the worse because of it. This is time to do nothing. Don’t listen to music, don’t read a book, and don’t even think about bringing your phone. There is nothing you have to do, so make the most of this moment: pay attention to the sensation of water on your skin, the temperature differences, and the warm, wet air you are breathing. Listen to your bath: I find the sound of dripping water one of the most peaceful. Even a shower can be an opportunity for rituals: in fact, showers are often the ultimate ‘autopilot’ activity, so break the habit and make the most of the experience.
Quality time with your pet (ideally on your lap): If you a pet, this can be the perfect opportunity to practice a little compulsory ritual. We have two cats who are both quick to occupy any vacant lap. With nowhere to go, and nothing within reach to distract me, it is a lesson in patience and appreciation. Focus on this shared moment between different species: think about what your pet gets out of this arrangement. How does your pet feel? One of our cats has deep, thick velvety fur that holds the impression of your fingers, while the other is sleek and silky. Don’t rush this ritual: it is a gift.
Taking a break during a walk: Since we started working from home, we have been taking daily lunchtime walks to get away from our laptop screens. After a while, however, we noticed that we were actually walking on autopilot: technically we were outdoors and moving, but our minds were still thinking about the email we had to send when we got back home, or that report that had to be finished by the end of the week. This ritual should be sacred, so give it headspace as well as time: find somewhere with a nice view to sit or stand, and give it your undivided attention for just 10 minutes. What is the furthest thing you can see? What is at your feet? What can you hear? If you are in the countryside, this might be birdsong, the rusting of grass or snuffling in the undergrowth. If you are in an urban area, try to listen without getting distracted. This is harder if you can hear voices, but try to focus on the melodies of conversations instead of the words.
Weeding the garden: For many, weeding can seem like the ultimate thankless chore. Even in a tiny garden like ours, it is backbreaking work: I don’t know how people with larger gardens manage! But if you want healthy plants and a productive garden, it’s a necessary task. So, instead of fighting it, give it the time and attention it needs, and you may find it remarkably therapeutic. We usually observe our gardens from a distance – standing at the back door, or sitting at a table – but weeding allows you to get much closer to your garden than you would normally. Spend time seeing your garden from the vantage point that most animals do. What can you smell? Newly turned earth has a rich, often sweet, smell. Don’t use gloves. How does the soil feel in your fingers?
Creating the headspace for these everyday rituals can give you a sense of rootedness, something definite to focus on instead of drifting inside your own head. I like the word rootedness: it suggests a type of stability that promotes growth. So, find a ritual that brings you back into the present for a little while, because 2021 it going to need a little bit of both stability and growth.