Creating and Altering Rituals
Rather than start with great philosophical questions, Confucius start with the fundamental question of “How are you living your life on a daily basis?” Book 10 of the Analects is filled with Confucius’s everyday habits. He understood that minor actions such as arranging the place where people would sit with him would create a different environment that could affect them profoundly. Dinner table ritual could also create a break that allows everyone to enter a different mode. Dinner time routines when we set the table, perhaps laying out placemats, napkins, lighting candles, we step out of our regular lives and create an alternate reality for ourselves and those with us. Even if it has been a stressful day or if there’s been conflict, nobody needs to declare “Okay, it’s time to stop fighting and relax now.” The dinner table ritual simply creates that break. But we seldom allow ourselves to engage in rituals in a Confucian way, to act “as-if”. We follow so many social norms and conventions and when we are blind to the value of the possible rituals that pervade our lives, we end up performing them by rote. This may be a surprising way to think about ritual or change in general.
Let’s look at playing a simple game of hide-and-seek with a child. When you hide in a place so that the child can easily find you, she laughs with glee upon finding you and you enthusiastically repeat the game again and again. You are no just engaging in playing a lighthearted game. The game is an “as-if” ritual. The two of you are participating in a ritual by taking on a shift in roles that diverge from the usual ones. The child normally vulnerable, gets to play a powerful person who outwitted an adult by finding him. The adult gets to play at being a bumbling person so inept that he can’t even find a good hiding place. Of course, the child knows that the adult knows that the child can see him, but the ritual is that they are playing “as-if” the child was able to outsmart him. A ritual that allows you to construct a new reality.
The role reversal breaks their pattern. The child gets to experience and remember a feeling of competence. The adult has now played at being fallible and vulnerable. The role helps to develop the more complex and the nuanced sides of himself that he can take with him to other situations. The key is to be conscious that they are pretending and together they have entered an alternate reality. If they can do this the game can cultivate a mutually joyful and respectful relationship. These repeated rituals will develop aspects of each of them that eventually enhance other relationships in both their lives.
The ordinary “as-if” rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds.