Interrupting Autopilot: Noticing Habits, Rhythms, and Rituals

Photo credit: Sandy Reich

By Rebecca Hall

Rituals are an intentionally recurring topic for The Abbey blog, and as I sit down to write this post, I think of myself as underqualified for the task.  I honestly don’t have that many rituals in my life.  I’m more of a habit and rhythm person. As I’ve pondered and looked in the rearview mirror of my spiritual journey, I realize that there is a connection, somehow, between habits, rhythms, and rituals and that rituals have been important to me at key junctures.  The thread that ties habits, rhythms, and rituals together is that they all do something. They have separate but interconnected roles in our transformation over time.

As a spiritual director, habits and rhythms are my bread and butter. This is often what people come to talk about. Habits and rhythms are important because together they build the framework of our lives—like the scaffolding of a house.  But without examination and reflection, it’s easy to live life on autopilot, letting our unconscious habits and rhythms drive the bus.

Rhythms are more macro, like seasons. Rhythms determine when we work, when we play, and when (or whether) we rest. Spring, summer, fall, and winter begin to build the shape of our lives. Out of necessity we adjust to these rhythmic changes.  As a culture, we layer on more rhythms.  Think of the fall in the US:  School starts as well as other activities (like programs at church).  Then the holidays begin with Halloween, followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year. We often complain about this rhythm (We’re too busy!  It’s based on consumerism!) Yet, most of us are powerless to fully step out. In an effort to help us be more self-reflective and intentional, the church offers the liturgical year with its seasons fostering a more life-giving rhythm.  It is an alternative framework to the secular structure.

For me, a combination of the liturgical year, which has deeply formed me, and the academic year, which has deeply formed our culture, are the rhythms running in the background of my life.  Working for the church for so many years has given me the former (as well as just being a Christian), while parenthood and living a life fully in the world has given me the latter.  I realized years ago that unless I lived as a monastic (tempting!), I had to accept the reality of these (sometimes competing) rhythms that undergird my life and help them work together.

Habits, by contrast, are often mundane (like drinking coffee every morning in the same way, in the same place), but are powerfully formative over time. They slowly make us into the people we are.  This is why we try to start good practices like exercise or meditation or prayer and hope they become habitual—almost unconscious. I think of habits playing out on the micro level of our lives because habits are unique to each individual.  For me, the practice of writing and living by a Rule of Life has helped me bring awareness to the things I do every day and understand why I do them.  Rather than simply giving me a list of to-dos (practices) that will hopefully evolve into good habits, my Rule helps me say an awake and conscious “Yes” to a few important practices.  For example, for many years it has been my practice to take my coffee to a particular chair and spend time “plugged in” to the Holy Spirit.  The contemplative practice that helps me “plug in” changes over time.  It’s been Morning Prayer, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, reading scripture, journaling, the Daily Examen, reading poetry, or imaginative prayer Recently, it is just sitting there in the presence of God, not doing anything at all.  Being “plugged in” is my habit. This awareness provides an automatic “No” to other things that could also turn into habits in this set-aside time, like checking emails, listening to podcasts, or reading the newspaper (all pretty neutral activities).  I also have plenty of bad habits—unconscious ones as well as those I just accept. But those are subjects for another blog post.

I’ve noticed that over time, habits and rhythms have slowly given me an alternative worldview. They have helped me see, behave, and love differently.  Habits and rhythms are transformative.

What about ritual? Rituals, whether secular (like graduations or inaugurations) or religious (like funerals or weekly worship services) connect us to something bigger and more powerful.  They connect us briefly to the divine flow.  I have never studied (or even read a book on) ritual theory, so my thoughts are purely observational.  In reflecting on my own life, I can observe several instances in which rituals have done something powerful. The power seems to be that a ritual breaks in and interrupts both the habits and the rhythms to create a pivot. Rituals can interrupt our autopilot. Several rituals I’ve done have led to dramatic change, a noticeable shift in my attitude, outlook, or wellbeing.

One example is the ritual I created for myself after I got a divorce.  I used the structure of the Episcopal funeral liturgy. I chose poems and wrote prayers that resonated with my situation.  I invited the people who had stood by me both in my marriage and through the divorce to participate.  I could tell that many of them were uncomfortable with a homemade ritual and thought it was kind of weird.  They played along, though.  I didn’t let their feelings deter me. I had a strong intuition that I needed a ritual and that it needed it to be homemade.  That ritual was a pivot point in my life.  There was a “before” and an “after.”  Before, I was trapped in the past, in my own fears and judgements.  After, I was able to move on and begin to build a new and different life.  The good work my habits and rhythms usually did for me had gotten stuck for a while in a downward spiral.  The ritual helped break the cycle and set me back on a healthier path.

We all need rituals for the big moments in life—graduations, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  But we also need rituals for smaller, everyday moments—when we need to let something go. When we need to forgive.  When we need to move on.  When we need a new perspective.

I wonder what other stories of homemade rituals are out there.  How have habits and rhythms are formed you? How have these three agents of transformation—habits, rhythms, and rituals—braided together in your life?

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