Life under lockdown may have felt soulless, monotonous and devoid of meaning. The solution, according to a new book, may lie in imbuing mundane activities – from cycling to diary-writing – with a deeper, spiritual significance.
Casper ter Kuile, author of The Power of Ritual, even goes as far as arguing that turning everyday practices into sacred moments “can heal our crisis of social isolation and longing for connection”.
For cynics, this might initially sound like pyscho-babble. But there is a large gap to be filled. The proportion of Britons who say they have no religious affiliation has risen from under a third in 1983 to more than half in 2018, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.
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Ter Kuile grew up in Sussex without a faith. He is still “unaffiliated” but finds inspiration in various religions and now lives in New York, working as a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School.
Ritual, he explains, can deepen connection across four levels: with yourself, with others, with the natural world and with “the transcendent”. To nourish your soul, he explains, any activity needs intention, attention and repetition.
Community and accountability
In ter Kuile’s world, even workout classes can be sacred: “What they’re really good at doing is breaking through the aversion we have to vulnerability. By exhausting our bodies, they often open our hearts and minds.”
And he believes that group workout regimes such as CrossFit and SoulCycle can offer the sense of community and accountability for your actions that used to be provided for many by a church congregation.
Of SoulCycle, he says: “The class looks like a liturgy – you’ve got loud music, people doing physical actions together at the same time. And then there’s the power ballad towards the end, in which there’s a phenomenon that everyone starts crying. It echoes a congregation’s behaviour in that it offers chances for reflection and for emotional connection to what’s more important.”
Ter Kuile, 33, says we could also boost our mental health by taking inspiration from the centrality of thanksgiving in Christian prayer, “whether it’s by sharing with a partner before bed, journalling on your own, or just noticing the things for which we’re grateful”. He adds: “It’s easy to feel paralysed by things that are going wrong in life and so this helps us kind of reset how we think about our experience. That is often what prayer does – it contextualises our own experience within something bigger.”
The benefits of a tech sabbath
For ter Kuile, the most meaningful rituals take place at the end of a busy week. He observes a “tech sabbath” from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, on which all screens are switched off.
“I find it so helpful even just as a way of giving me one day of a break from the news. But also just to have something to look forward to, to know that every week I’ll have a nice lie-in and read a book without interruption and enjoy a pastry and a cup of tea in bed.”
Ter Kuile has also turned novel-reading into a spiritual practice, as co-host of the cult podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. He encourages others to return to any beloved text, “wrestling with it by investing their questions, struggles, and joys”.
He has established the Corona Community Chorus, uniting voices across the world in singing prayers, songs and nursery rhymes on Zoom. But he struggles to feel spiritually lifted using technology designed for the boardroom. “We’re going to see a real explosion in the coming six to 12 months of new digital products that are designed for community connection, which will look very different from just a grid of faces on the screen.” Until then, we need to find other sources of “spiritual confidence and social permission”.
The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices by Casper ter Kuile is out now (£16.99, HarperCollins)