The Art of Ritual

The real Cold War is the one within us.

We live much of our internal lives in a constant state of total war between our conscious and subconscious selves.

The conscious self loves order, plans, to-do lists, objectives, and deliverables.

The subconscious self just wants to live, laugh, love.

Rituals are the way we mediate conflict between the two.

Most of our lives are spent in the subconscious.

This may startle you, but no need. Your subconscious is actually pretty smart.

You can think of it as trusting your gut, or being in flow. When you’re driving a car, you’re not hyperanalyzing every tiny decision you make. You just do it.

In this subconscious state, we passively respond to suggestions and stimuli without having to consult our higher faculties or reasoning and judgment at every turn.

To return to the driving analogy, stop signs are red because they are the perfect stimuli to instruct our subconscious to pay attention.

stop sign stimuli
Did I get your attention?

For the most part this works great.

Thinking is expensive. Too much thinking can cause paralysis by analysis. So it is great that we are able to trust our subconscious with most things.

However, every once in a while our subconscious can betray us.

This is where rituals come in.

Rituals are how our conscious self anticipates and responds to the mysteries of the subconscious mind.

You can think of rituals as policies enacted by central planners (your higher reasoning) to help guide the messy murkiness of a subconscious that they have yet to fully understand.

For example, I have a morning ritual where I go outside for a walk under the morning sun and do a few stretches. Since I started doing this, I notice I tend to have more energy throughout the day.

I don’t fully understand the benefits of why this works for me. I just know that it does. I learned it somewhere, I adopted it, and I noticed results. So I kept it.

This started off as an observation, then became a practice, and now I’ve elevated it to a ritual.

I don’t have to engage in a war every morning between my conscious self trying to motivate my lazy subconscious and the latter resisting. I just do it. Because it’s ritual.


Here are a few distinctions I’m playing around with:

  • Stale ritual This is when the ritual misses its mark. Perhaps it served a purpose in the past, but now the needs of the subconscious have changed.
  • Adopted ritual Rituals that are adopted from societal or cultural influence, rather than emerging from a first principles understanding. Sometimes it’s good to copy things that we don’t quite understand yet we have a limited capacity and if we’re too discerning we may be slow and miss opportunities. However sometimes it could not be ideal we could be wasting our time at best, or causing unintended harm at worst.
  • Invisible ritual Ritualistic behavior that has become so normalized that the conscious self is unaware of it. Are performance reviews at work a form of ritual?
  • Fruitful ritual The ideal ritual. It is receptive to the needs of the subconscious. It realizes that it’s just a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself. It allows itself to be re-evaluated and renewed periodically.