rituals of preparation
I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.
Some people might say that simply stumbling out of bed and getting into a taxicab hardly rates the honorific “ritual.” It glorifies a mundane act that anyone can perform.
I disagree. First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.
It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
A ritual, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me, is “a prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service.” All that applies to my morning ritual. Thinking of it as a ritual has a transforming effect on the activity.
Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.
The ritual erases the question of whether of not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)
We all have rituals in our day, whether we’re aware of them or not.
A friend, a hard-boiled pragmatist with not a spiritual bone in his body, practices yoga in the morning in his home to overcome back pain. He starts each session by lighting a candle. he doesn’t need the candle to do his poses (although the mild glow and the faint scent have a tonic effect, he says), but the ceremonial act of lighting this votive candle transforms yoga into a sanctifying ritual. It means he’s taking the session seriously, and that for the next ninety minutes he is committed to practicing yoga. Candle. Click. Yoga. An automatic three step call-and-response mechanism that anchors his morning. When he’s done, he blows out the candle and goes on with the rest of his day.
An executive I know begins each day with a twenty-minute meeting with her assistant. It’s a simple organizational tool, but turning it into a daily ceremony for two people intensifies the bond between them and gives their day a predictable, repeatable kick-start. They don’t have to think about what to do when they arrive at the office. They already know it’s their twenty-minute ritual.
Dancers are totally governed by ritual. It begins with class from 10:00 A.M. to noon every day, where they stretch and warm up their muscles and put their bodies through the classic positions. They do this daily, without fail, because all dancers working in class know that their efforts at strengthening the muscles will armor them against injury in rehearsal or performance. What makes it a ritual is that they do it without questioning the need.
Of such beliefs and traditions are rituals made. It’s like going to church. We rarely question why we go to church, and we don’t expect concrete answers when we do. We just know it feeds our spirit somehow, and so we do it.
A lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they begin their creative day.
The composer Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. Perhaps he needed the ritual to feel like a musician, or the playing somehow connected him to musical notes, his vocabulary. Perhaps he was honoring his hero, Bach, and seeking his blessing for the day. Perhaps it was nothing more than a simple method to get his fingers moving, his motor running, his mind thinking music. But repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.
I know a chef who begins each day in the meticulously tended urban garden that dominates the tiny terrace of his Brooklyn home. He is obsessed with fresh ingredients, particularly herbs, spices, and flowers. Spending the first minutes of the day among his plants is his ideal creative environment for thinking about new flavor combinations and dishes. He putters about, feeling connected to nature, and this gets him going. Once he picks a vegetable or herb, he can’t let it sit there. He has to head off to the restaurant and start cooking.
A painter I know can’t do anything in her studio without propulsive music pounding out of the speakers. Turning it on turns on a switch inside her. The beat gets her into a groove. It’s the metronome for her creative life.
In the end, there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming.
All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they impel you to get started.
It’s Pavlovian: follow the routine, get a creative payoff.
It worked for Beethoven, too as these sketches, rendered between 1820 and 1825 by J.D. Bohm, show. Although he was not physically fit, Beethoven would start each day with the same ritual: a morning walk during which he would scribble into a pocket sketchbook the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head. Having done that, having limbered up his mind and transported himself into his version of a trance zone during the walk, he would return to his room and get to work.
My morning workout ritual is the most basic form of self-reliance; it reminds me that, when all else fails, I can at least depend on myself. It’s my algebra of self-reliance: I depend on my body in order to work, and I am more productive if my body is strong. My daily workout is a part of my preparation for work.
This, more than anything else, is what rituals of preparation give us: They arm us with confidence and self-reliance.
The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
CARD OF THE DAY
You dedicate yourself to your beliefs wholeheartedly, knowing that love is the essence of your very being
By trusting, respecting, and loving all that you are, you broadcast your clear readiness to do the work necessary to manifest your intentions. When you can come from a place of strong commitment, and combine that with a strong sense of self, it sends a precise message to the Universe that you are engaged and ready for lessons. In this way, you are also developing faith in yourself as you move closer to manifestation. There will always be others questioning your priorities. Bless them, with the understanding that your commitment is to you only. No one else is meant to understand it, for it is truly your personal journey of self-discovery and healing. Never concern yourself with what others might think of you… for your light is different, and perhaps you will now ignite someone else’s devotion to follow their soul’s calling. You stand out from a crowd with your ability to clearly commit to what you want, enabling your wishes and desires to manifest quickly.
My morning ritual starts with burning Sage and Palo Santo. I sit in the smoke and start thinking about all the blessings in my life, which leads to a short meditation. And I come out to the living room, put Breath or Eucalyptus oil in the diffuser and light the candles on my Buddha statue. I practice Yoga for an hour. Then I go down to the sauna and steam room. While I’m there for 20 minutes, I listen to Headspace meditation. It’s 7 am when I’m done. I come upstairs and start reading, journaling, and writing before I have to get ready for work.
The hardest part is getting back on track after a week of laziness without following my morning rituals. Friend visiting, deadlines at work, for whatever reasons, I skip my rituals for a few days and end up feeling terrible. It’s what gives me calmness and a sense of purpose: that I’m doing my best to be better.
This week has been amazing, with no snoozes, feeling accomplished and complete even before 8 am each day. But to be able to follow my rituals every day, I had to make some sacrifices. I fall asleep around 10 pm; hence my evenings got a lot more simplified. Dinner, recreational activities like watching tv and playing piano, and shortly after I fall asleep.
I need to find a healthy balance between having consistent rituals and still having fun and empty space and time for the sake of that purpose.