The Neuroscience of Ritual

Feb 14, 2017

The Neuroscience of Ritual |

Every morning when wake, before the rest of the family does, to write, I make a cup of tea.  I turn on just enough lighting in my kitchen to see as I measure out the bergamot-scented leaves, and I listen to the rumble of the kettle heating water.  Tea in hand, I sit at my little desk space and light the same scented candle every morning.  I place the tea directly between my forearms, so I can almost feel the heat of the mug and the scent and steam wafts toward my nose.  And I write.

At the beginning and end of every coaching call, every client meeting, every birth I attend, every workshop I do, I give the air around me a quick spritz with a beautiful cedar and sage smudge spray.  The scent reminds me to shift into another way of thinking, to let go of what’s just happened.

Every new moon finds me writing in my journal, taking stock of what has happened since the last new moon, and setting intentions for the coming monthly cycle.

Every full moon pulls my attention and awareness, wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, and I create some intention around releasing something that doesn’t serve me anymore, and cleansing the spaces around me.

Despite the presumption that ritual is just something that those of us with somewhat more woo inclinations take part in, every single one of us has rituals that we engage with every single day.

Take note:  what rituals make up your life?  What purpose do they serve for you?


Ritual is simply a series of actions or behaviours that surround another action or behaviour, or that are triggered by a certain transition, like a change in setting, activity, time of day, week or year, or event.

And in fact, far from your assumptions about hippies and their sage-burning, ritual is deeply rooted in the neuroscience behind conditioning and habit-forming.  Put simply, using external cues like the lighting of a candle, the scent of tea or smudge, or the waxing and waning of the moon, can create shortcuts in the brain that remind us of the state of mind or state of being that we want to be in when those external cues are used.  When my brain detects the smell of my candle, my tea and my smudge spray, after some time using it, it triggers a Pavlovian response and says hey, we’re writing now.  Chances are, as a result, my brain will be more ready to focus, to dive into the creative process, because I’ve set up some ritual around it.

I like to think of it like wearing ruts into your neural pathways.  The more often my candle-smelling, tea-drinking, blog-writing neurons all fire at the same time, the stronger the neural pathway that associates those experiences with writing grows (yes, in case you haven’t heard the news, your brain actually does change, on the regular, in fact, most often in the form of creating new networks of neurons that all fire at the same time).  After a while, like an old dirt road, I’ve got powerful neural pathways established around my writing ritual.

What good is that?


In my particular case, it’s about getting into a frame of mind that facilitates a quick and easy plunge into the creative process.  It means I’m not in Facebook-checking mode when I sit down to write – which can be tempting, to be sure.

My writing ritual also helps me to create pleasurable feelings around my writing time.  Waking up shortly before 5a.m. and expecting a blog post to happen can feel like a lot to ask on some mornings, and I need to do everything I can to make this time of day feel incredibly sacred, special, and, quite frankly, undeniable, when my alarm goes off at 4:50a.m.  And it works:  I kid you not, even after nursing the better part of the night, I practically leap out of bed at the promise of a quiet hour to feel in flow, and completely in alignment with my values, desires and potential.

And here’s the thing:  our society has participated in ritual – ritual has literally been one of the guideposts of our lives since…forever.  There is even a school of thought that individuals in modern-day Western society struggle with life transitions (hello Third-Life Alignment!) so much because, unlike in tribal cultures and in days past, we no longer have rituals that mark those transitions.  A young woman’s first period, for example, in many cultures, is a time when the elders of her community would take the opportunity to use ritual to welcome her into womanhood.  Ritual had a very important purpose in these times of major transition as well:  they were used as a time to teach the initiate some of the new skills and wisdoms she would have to use in her new life phase.  Sometimes these teachings would be dramatized for effect, or the initiate would go on some kind of quest, or in the case of the young woman with her first period, she would sequester herself with the women of her community as a way of ritualizing her transition.  These rituals formed the rails upon which people going through life changes would learn how to manage all that came with those changes.

Now wouldn’t that be nice?

That is certainly one of my purposes here:  to create a community of supporters and “elders,” and to help women explore what the path of transition looks like, reminding them that it is much the same for the women who came before them, and those who will come after, and to ritualize, through gatherings, workshops, and online forums, the transition into authenticity and alignment.

The Becoming Podcast has been on a short hiatus while I focus on writing my book, but oh what a comeback episode I have for you!

This month, I spoke to Toko-pa Turner, who many of you may know as the unofficial patron saint of many of my circles and gatherings because of the sheer number of times I’ve quoted from the wisdom of her book, Belonging.

Toko-pa is a Canadian author, teacher, and dreamworker. Blending the mystical teachings of Sufism in which she was raised with a Jungian approach to dreams, she founded The Dream School in 2001, from which thousands of students have graduated. She is the author of the award-winning book, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, which explores the themes of exile and belonging through the lens of dreams, mythology, and nature. This book has resonated for readers worldwide, and has been translated into 10 different languages so far. Her work focuses on the relationship between psyche and nature, and how to follow our inner wisdom to meet with the social, psychological, and ecological challenges of our time.

Here’s some of what Toko-pa and I talk about in this episode:

> The dream that changed Toko-pa’s life, causing her to question her career and, ultimately, her identity

> How we can court our dreams to support us during times of radical transformation – and the reasons so many of us have a hard time remembering and working with what shows up in our dreamscape

> Toko-pa’s perspective on the message of Belonging after the divisiveness our society has experienced in the years since it was published

> What happened for both Toko-pa and I when we fell out of belonging from the ideologies of the “wellness world”

> How to build community when you’re under-resourced

> “The Big Lie” when it comes to belonging, and how we can reclaim a sense of belonging to the greater family of things, as Mary Oliver so famously wrote

Listen to the episode on iTunes


Show Notes

Toko-pa’s Website

Belonging:  Remembering Ourselves Home, Toko-pa’s book

The David Abram video about animism mentioned in the interview

Toko-pa’s self-guided program, Dream Drops

Companion, the program that accompanies Belonging


Also, while you’re at it, if you enjoy The Becoming Podcast, I would be so grateful if you would rate and review, and even subscribe to it on iTunes.  That goes a long way to helping more and more people find and benefit from hearing these interviews!  Thank you so much!