What is the role of ritual in building resilient communities?

What is the role of ritual in building resilient communities?

Insights from our fifth instalment of Collective Conversations, where we explored the role of ritual in community building.

Ritual is as old as the human concept of community. In recent times, ritual has come to be defined as “a way of doing something in which the same actions are done in the same way every time.” Intentionally or unintentionally, we create and use ritual every day in work and in our lives as individuals - whether that's taking a daily mindful moment over our first cup of coffee, sharing celebrations as families, and communities celebrating key moments such as independence day, or with strangers, such as the clap for carers weekly moment in the UK during the covid pandemic.

Here at Brink we are particularly interested in how ritual can form the small foundational steps that ladder up to collective action: what is the role of ritual for us today and going forward in tackling social issues, as collectives? What makes ritual potent and a powerful force? How can and should we be using ritual to better equip our communities to act together in powerful positive ways?

In October, almost 50 practitioners gathered for our latest Collectives Conversation at Brink to look head-on at rising trends of digital connectedness, human isolation, and how rituals rooted in history and spirituality can help us build more resilient individuals and communities today. With participants from Mauritius to Manchester and our explorers on this topic Grace Graham and Jamie Pett, it proved to be a rich topic for us all, regardless of our work context.

Here’s what came up. Our hope is that by sharing this summary, you can join in the conversation too.

Two vantage points to guide us

Each episode of Collective Conversations we curate explorers to join us and help steward the conversation. We were honoured to be joined by Grace who runs her own anti-racism training and facilitation business. She is Vice Chair at New Unity; a radically inclusive community dedicated to love and justice, a practising Nichiren Buddhist and a member of the Unitarian church - you can see why we thought she’d have a unique vantage for talking through the role of ritual. Our other explorer Jamie works across UK civil society and international development as a facilitator, coach and consultant. He is Co-Chair of the Board Trustees at RESULTS UK, a facilitator with Healing Solidarity and a host with Huddlecraft, which is in the business of bringing people together to accelerate their learning and is founded on the belief that by seeding 1 million co-learning relationships by 2030 they can improve resilience (yes please!) and unearth our human potential to learn together.

To begin, two of our guests Ajoy and Hannah questioned the difference between habit, or routine, and ritual. Ajoy concluded that ritual is a behaviour which acknowledges something greater than us as human beings; something which we can be in communion with. This set us off beautifully to explore the role of ritual in building resilient communities.

Ritual is not religion

Both Jamie and Grace highlighted the power of ritual, both within and outwith religion. "In the UK context," Jamie reflected, "the things that used to bind us together are no longer fit for purpose. We have lower levels of church and union membership now and a choice about how we spend our time. Now identity is something defined by you, not for you."

Whilst these are generally seen as positive, they also showcase the need for something new in the place of these traditional social structures. Jamie highlighted how ritual has been associated with patriarchy and other oppressive structures. If rituals are a code of safety and belonging, then it feels high time that many of the rituals that uphold arcane power structures are ready for a redesign, rather than a repetition of what’s gone before.

Grace spoke about her experience in the Unitarian community, and how one of the ministers, who was in post for 16 years, was an atheist. The rituals there didn't hang to the structure of religion, but rather the community made their own structure from which to layer rituals which served the congregants, with the overarching ethos being: "Believe in Good".

Connect to self, connect to community

Grace outlined the role of ritual in enabling connection to oneself, which then ladders upwards to connect individuals to community. Grace herself accesses self-connection through two different types of ritual:

In one, daily chanting ("Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo") practised through her participation in Nichiren Buddhism works on an inner transformation, which then affects the outer life. This practice is undertaken concurrently with Nichiren Buddhists across the world, connecting those chanting to a wider, global community.  In this way we see the role of individual ritual helping connect to the greater force of other people. Grace demonstrated this by starting our session with a grounding meditation.

In another, the Unitarian Church offers a space to attend a weekly service, and focus on spiritual growth. Through rituals, such as openly sharing joys and sorrows between the congregants, fellowship is created, which over time, develops into social action. The Unitarian Church which Grace attends has successfully confronted rogue landlords in Hackney, and welcomed the first Afghan refugees in the borough. There’s a strong sense that it’s the connecting ritual which makes such action possible.

Jamie spoke about how new rituals can enable a pathway to be the change you want to see in the world: "you can create rituals yourself, and together … a ritual can create a microclimate for how you want the world to be … for example more just and generative".

Small is beautiful - using moments wisely

Jamie touched on some of the moments that rituals serve brilliantly, including celebrating beginnings and endings, marking moments of joy or loss, success or noble failure. Through the discussion we noted that some of the characteristics of ritual are counter cultural in innovation - the power of repetition when there’s such a bias to the new, and designing beautiful endings as well as beginnings.

We heard about some fun examples of ritual at a mass wedding where song and music was a significant part of the day - a reminder to enrol all the senses and the visceral, even when we’re convening people all online. Jaime’s own wedding provided a framework for friends and family to participate in their celebration unscripted.

Creating inclusive ritual

Through the group discussion we explored what are the key ingredients that make a shared ritual effective and impactful and positive. Some of the experiences, observations ideas and further explorations the group shared include:

  • How can participating in a ritual raise everyone up, not just some of us? We explored how rituals can exclude people using uniformity, and strictness. For this reason often a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. We need to allow everyone to participate in their own way rather than holding one way of participating as absolute.
  • How can we create meaningful community rituals in an age of individualism and dislocation? Jamie's advice was to be bold as a host - create a kingdom for the day and rule it with generosity (inspired by Priya Parker).
  • What do we need to unlearn from religion and what can we learn from it? On its most traditional level, religion brings in all the senses: scent, touch, taste, sound… Even for digital gatherings and rituals, how might we enrol all the senses?
  • How can we build new rituals that reflect our values and that adapt to meet our connections in an increasingly digital world? We need to adapt these for our current globally connected world by remembering that just because (some of us) are digitally connected it doesn’t necessarily mean that people feel so.  Matt advised us to create rituals that help people pause for reflection.
  • How do you create rituals that work better for neurodivergent people? One of the group, Sasha, has learnt this through her work creating mental health programmes for neurodivergent people and is testing how to recreate this through co-creation.  She notices that rituals need to allow for people to engage with them in different ways.
  • How can you create ritual that builds safety? It is important to do this through first spotting the common sensations, needs and feelings of a group - if you go into that you can create ritual in the way that creates safety to go there, if it's safe too.
  • How might you use ritual to acknowledge and connect to nature? Ajoy came across a vigil at Embercombe which asked you to fast in nature to help to connect to nature and counteract the extraction from the land.
  • What does a spectrum of rituals look like? More structured imposed ritual can provide safety and trust but some rituals that are really successful are quite emergent eg. working in Lagos a ritual emerged of leaving a zoom room open with music and dancing at the end of a meeting! It depends what you want from it.

When we were discussing how to design an effective ritual and how to sustain one, there was a strong theme of likening it to habit formation. At Brink we talk about starting new positive habits by tagging a new behaviour onto an existing one. Imagine you need to start taking a new medication. The most effective way for that habit to stick is by tagging it onto an existing daily habit like brushing your teeth in the morning, rather than trying to remember to take your medication every day. By stacking the new habit onto the existing one it removes a lot of the heavy lifting of having to remember to do it.  This makes us think about how we can support inclusive ritual building in a way that doesn't feel heavy, hard or overwhelming.

So, what is the role of ritual in building resilient communities? It seems there are many answers to this question, from using ritual to connect to ourselves, which can impact on how we show up in communities, to adapting existing ritual and starting from scratch with new rituals which exist outside of existing societal structures! At the end of the Conversation, the group agreed that we could keep going with this discussion forever, and had more questions than answers!

And that's all for this time folks. If you read this as a newbie to Collective Conversations, you can read more and sign-up to get updates and invites to future conversations.

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!