The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile [Book Summary – Review]

Religion used to be the center of society. Sundays, for example, were set aside solely for attending church in Christian communities. People are increasingly turning away from organized religion all across the world. On a Sunday, simply go outside your door and have a look around. People may be seen buying newspapers, walking their dogs, queuing for breakfast, or returning home from a nightclub. Perhaps, a few folks will be finding their way to church.

A much more secular world, on the other hand, does not have to be a less religious one. Churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques aren’t the only places where the sacred and transcendental can be found. They are accessible to anybody and can be found anywhere. All we have to do now is learn to bring transcendental experiences into our lives and to develop the holy rituals we already do.

From CrossFit classes to digital detoxes, these chapters highlight the numerous creative and collaborative ways secular spiritual practices are practiced in modern culture. They’ll also show you how to find and develop your own personal rituals.

You’ll learn these in the following chapters

  • ways to incorporate religious activities such as the Sabbath, iftar, and prayer with secular life;
  • why any journey can be a spiritual pilgrimage; and
  • What you may learn about spiritual discipline from the Dalai Lama.

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Chapter 1 – The secularization of society is accelerating.

Filling out a census form is very simple for most individuals. After all, it’s not difficult to recall one’s own birthday. Alternatively, put down your address or your job. 

However, there is one part that might be a little more difficult: religion.

If one of your parents is Jewish and the other is Hindu, which option do you check? Should you still select the box labeled Catholic if you grew up attending Sunday School but haven’t been to a church in over a decade? What about those who have been rejected by their faith because of their gender expression or sexual orientation?

According to census statistics from 2019, 26% of Americans identify as either agnostic or atheist. The trend away from organized religion is much more apparent among youngsters. In the United States, 40% of millennials say they don’t follow any religion.

We simply appear to be less engaged in religion as a culture than we have ever been. While churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious institutions provide religious education, that is not all they have to offer. Religious institutions have always created communities based on common ideals. Their ceremonies commemorate major life events like births, weddings, and funerals. They also provide refuge, counseling, and assistance to those in need.

Although many of us have concluded that we do not require religion, we do require community, ritual, and purpose. In fact, we may require these resources today more than ever.

Social isolation has reached pandemic proportions in the Western world. Rather than living in a multi-generational home, we are more likely to live alone. We’re more likely to live far away from family than down the street from our childhood home. We’re more inclined to relocate on a frequent basis than to stay in one place for a long time.

And this is concerning since loneliness is harmful to one’s health. Addiction, aggression, sadness, anxiety, and suicide have all been linked to it in studies. Social isolation is more hazardous than obesity or a 15-cigarette-a-day habit, according to a review of over 80 research by American Psychologists.

Earlier generations resorted to religious organizations when they felt alone or adrift.

So we now have the task — and the opportunity – of inventing new ways of forming communities, nurturing spirituality, and performing rituals.

Chapter 2 – Spirituality may appear in the most unexpected places.

Religious participation is declining in Europe and the United States. Each year, around 3,500 churches in the United States close their doors. Intensive group exercise classes conducted by charismatic presenters spewing inspiring words, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly popular. SoulCycle, a spin class, and the Tough Mudder fitness challenge are only two examples.

Is this just a fluke?

Possibly not. Let’s take a look at the CrossFit high-intensity interval training program. It’s been described as a cult by the uninitiated. Regular CrossFitters attend training sessions that resemble religious services, and they frequently establish deep connections with other members. Deceased members are memorialized at large-scale CrossFit events with training routines devoted to their remembrance. CrossFitters place such a high priority on health and clean living that they engage in community action against the junk-food lobby.

In a secular world, CrossFit and related workout programs give community and connection, potentially filling the vacuum left by religious organizations.

Then, why are so many people enthusiastic about CrossFit? They enroll in a fitness class and often discover much more: a group they didn’t realize they needed. They were losing out on a spiritual, if hot, an experience they didn’t realize they were missing out on.

Wearing lycra and performing burpees may not be your cup of tea. Maybe transcendence isn’t found at the gym. But chances are you’ll come across it at some point throughout your life, possibly when strolling, swimming, or reading. The key is to figure out how and when you come into spirituality on your own, and then go out of your way to seek it out.

Have you ever run out of battery on your phone, for example? It’s not unusual to feel more connected with your surroundings and more delighted in what you’re doing when the stress of missing a text or an essential email wears off. A tech sabbath is a great way to intentionally develop this feeling. 

The Sabbath is a day of rest and contemplation in Jewish tradition. And the need for this thousand-year-old practice has never been greater.

When was the last time you took a break day? No news to read, no social media to skim through? Try taking a tech break – a sabbath – by turning off your phone and wifi for the day.

Then again, if we’re always linked to others, we’re missing out on the chance to connect with ourselves. A tech sabbath provides the opportunity to relax and contemplate, to “unplug” from the outside world and reconnect with oneself.

Secular life offers numerous opportunities for spiritual experiences, whether it’s discovering community via CrossFit or meditation and contemplation through a tech-free day. All we have to do now is pay attention to where they are.

Chapter 3 – A sacred text can be any text.

Do you know what a sacred text is? Perhaps the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Bhagavad Gita come to mind.

Let’s restate the question: Can you name a holy scripture that’s special for you? A favorite book that shapes how you live in the world and you turn to in times of suffering?

Do you still believe in the Bible? Or perhaps you’re thinking about the Harry Potter series, Pride and Prejudice, or perhaps Dr. Seuss’s work? These texts may be secular, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of their becoming sacred to you.

Yes, this is true! It’s not about the content you read, you see. It all depends on how you interpret it. This is what we’ll refer to as sacred reading.

Sacred reading occurs when academics pore over the Jewish Talmud or the Buddhist Tripitaka. They look for importance, subtlety, and meaning in the text.

Borrowing this approach and applying it to a secular book is completely doable, and in fact quite gratifying. Unbundling is the process of separating aspects of spiritual practice from their religious setting. Unbundling helps you to find spirituality wherever you are by using time-honored religious traditions.

But, how can you break free from religious sacred reading traditions and incorporate them into your own holy reading? Here are some pointers:

If at all feasible, read in a group. Sacred reading has always been a shared experience. A group of scholars reads and debates a text. A book club, an online reading group, a fanfiction community, or a Tumblr thread are all places where readers can gather to discuss work.

Study with an open mind and a critical eye. The goal is to look beyond the book’s events and analyze the book’s larger themes and messages. Don’t just ask, “Why is Anna Karenina so depressed?” Instead, consider the following question: “What does unhappiness have to teach us?” How do we deal with life’s setbacks and regrets?”

Short sections should be read carefully. It’s acceptable to get swept up in a tale when you’re reading for entertainment or leisure. When you practice spiritual reading, though, you’re looking for something more than a storyline. Contemplate the deeper meaning behind a single line of dialogue by savoring phrases, dwelling on paragraphs, and pondering the profound message behind a single line of speech.

Lastly, keep metaphor and association in mind when reading your religious book. How do the author’s symbols and pictures strike a chord with you? Which sections of the book can you use as a springboard to think more deeply about your own life and experiences?

Chapter 4 – Make meals a shared ritual.

People have always sat down to dine together. Eating together in prehistoric times, when humans were hunter-gatherers, allowed us to pool our nutritional resources. Even if we no longer have a need to share our food, we nevertheless gather together intuitively during mealtimes.


Breaking bread as a group fosters community.

A shared dinner is about much more than just food. Eating provides a space and time for all groups of people to get together, chat, exchange experiences, and attempt to comprehend one other’s differences. It’s no surprise that food is central to so many religious ceremonies, from the Christian Eucharist to the Zen Buddhist tea ceremony.

So, how do you savor a holy meal? By planning ahead of time and participating with purpose. It’s hardly a deliberate meal to eat a fast sandwich at your desk while reading through business emails. A dish of spaghetti eaten in front of a YouTube video isn’t either. These dinners aren’t always bad; in fact, they may be delightful. However, if this is the case for all of your meals, you’re missing out on the opportunity to include a profound spiritual ritual into your daily routine.

Many meals in religious families begin with a prayer of thanksgiving. This brief ceremony encourages participants to think about their food, including where it came from and who cultivated it, as well as the people around them. It urges them to make a connection with the rest of the world. A simple toast of appreciation, for example, can have the same effect as a brief secular rite.

Other rituals can be incorporated as well. Maybe everyone at the table is invited to discuss a positive and negative aspect of their day. Maybe the dinner is always followed by a board game or a dance party. Perhaps the most common dessert is cookies and ice cream.

Many Muslims fast during daytime hours throughout the month of Ramadan. After dusk, they break their fast with iftar, a joyous communal evening meal. Iftar isn’t a one-time event. During Ramadan, it happens every night. The problem with rituals is that they can’t be done just once. The more you do something, the more significant it becomes.

Chapter 5 – Pilgrimage can help you reclaim your spiritual relationship with nature.

Over 70,000 city trees in Melbourne, Australia, were given email addresses in 2013. Residents were supposed to write to these addresses if they saw overgrown or dead branches.

Something unexpected happened.

People started leaving messages for their favorite trees. They talked to the trees about their days, asked them questions, or just complimented them on their beauty.

Humans are spiritually bonded to nature, as seen by the outpouring of affection for Melbourne’s trees. After all, it was around it that our oldest faiths arose. Our forefathers worshiped deities associated with natural phenomena such as the weather.

While religion and nature have always been linked, our human connection to the natural world precedes organized religion.

We go outside to stay in shape, soak up the sun, or simply enjoy the beauty of nature. However, spending time outside may provide great spiritual fulfillment. Adopt a practice that is popular across many religious traditions to renew your spiritual relationship with nature: the journey.

A pilgrimage is a spiritual trip to a holy site. Muslims visit the holy city of Mecca, while Hindus visit the sacred river Ganges. A pilgrim might be a traveler traveling to a dream location or a driver heading to the ocean to disperse their loved one’s ashes.

So, what distinguishes a pilgrimage from a journey? There is a reason for a pilgrimage. Before you go on your trip, consider what you want to achieve. Do you want to get better? Do you want to beg forgiveness? Or do you just let yourself be open to the world?

The travel should be as leisurely and contemplative as possible. Consider taking the scenic route! If possible, walk instead of driving; instead of flying, take the train. Spend this time observing your surroundings as they change. Examine the associations that they elicit in you. Consider this voyage as a moving meditation, especially if you’re walking.

Practice circumambulation when you get to your location. Simply put, walk-in slow circles around it. Do you recall how ritual is formed via repetition? You may perform the circumambulation as many times as you like. Take a look at your location from every angle. Also, don’t depart right soon. Allow yourself to be surprised by how the room changes as people arrive and leave as the light brightens and fades.

Every travel may be a pilgrimage if it is undertaken with intention and carried out with care.

Chapter 6 – Recognize and expand on your seasonal routines.

For many of us, life has never been more comfortable thanks to contemporary technology. We turn on the air conditioner rather than endure the summer heat. We heat our houses, businesses, vehicle seats, and even our towel rails instead of suffering during the winter cold snaps! Avocados and tomatoes are constantly available in supermarkets thanks to globalization.

Our affluent lives, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly disconnected from the seasons.

There’s a reason why so many religious ceremonies, from Easter to the Day of the Dead, are seasonal in nature. These customs assist us in marking the passage of time and connecting us to the natural cycle.

One approach to stay connected to your spirituality is to spend time in nature. Observing the seasons via spiritual practice brings your life into sync with nature’s natural cycle. However, there’s no need to create a whole slew of seasonal customs. You’ve probably already included potential routines into your daily routine.

What is your favorite time of year? It might be spring, summer, or monsoon season, depending on where you reside. You’ve undoubtedly already planned a spectacular event for this season. Maybe you have a picnic with pals every summer. What steps can you take to turn this practice into a ritual? Serving seasonal cuisine or making seasonal decorations are two options. You might also connect with nature by hiking after the picnic, or with the community by donating any leftover food to a local shelter.

After all, not everyone enjoys each season in the same way. Some seasons may be more challenging than others. Perhaps you despise winter’s chilly, gloomy days. Perhaps you lost someone you cared about in the spring. Forming rituals is very essential to help you get through challenging seasons. In the winter, a weekly game night might bring your neighborhood together. Alternatively, set aside time each week to just light a candle, sip a hot beverage, and reflect.

The Christian faith is arranged around a liturgical calendar, which lists all of the major and minor feast days. Make your own liturgical calendar if you want to be more creative. Even if it’s only a walk in the park, assign exact dates to all of your seasonal routines. As a result, your routine will become non-negotiable. It’s a decision you make to take a break from your daily routine and tune in to the world around you.

Chapter 7 – Everyone has access to the power of prayer.

Do simple pleasures, such as eating a fresh apple or feeling the air on your skin, ever overwhelm you?

When these sensations come over us unexpectedly, it’s fantastic. You may also build access points to these emotions that you can use at any moment.

However, there is a catch. This is the road of prayer. If you’re a committed atheist, you’ve almost certainly never considered prayer. That’s a big step outside of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

You may find the concept of secular prayer odd. However, it is possible to separate the act of prayer from religious communities. Secular prayer, on the other hand, might be quite fulfilling.

Here are two secular forms of prayer that you might adopt:

The first is worshipful contemplation, often known as devotion. The object of worship was traditionally a god. However, the value of admiration comes from deliberately considering something other than oneself, not from its object. Connecting to the world and stepping outside of yourself is a road to transcendence.

Adoration does not have to be quiet or introspective. Everyday actions can take on the nature of prayer, according to philosopher Simone Weil, if they are done with complete concentration. A prayer of devotion may make you dance till you lose track of time and place. Working for a collective objective rather than an individual goal, such as creating a community garden or opposing injustice, is another example.

Contrition, or admitting and begging for forgiveness, is the second type of prayer. The fact is that this prayer isn’t quite as warm and cuddly as adoration. It entails revealing acts and ideas that you would like to keep private with others. However, acknowledging our shortcomings helps us to improve on them. A contrite prayer should not be performed alone for the greatest accountability.

Form a dedicated confession group in which everyone takes turns expressing problems, addressing mistakes, and confessing fault. Are you still not convinced? Examine the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, a long-running secular confession group. Growth in AA is based on repentance and accountability.

You are not required to pray at a place of worship. Outside of a confession booth, you can discover contrition. Another religious activity that might give spiritual sustenance on a secular level is prayer.

Chapter 8 – Maintaining spiritual practices necessitates self-control.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, claims to meditate for one hour every day.

The Dalai Lama has a full schedule right now. He’s an international leader with meetings, meetings with heads of state, and major speeches to give. You’re left wondering how he finds the time in his day to meditate for an hour.

When a reporter reportedly asked if His Highness could carve out an hour for meditation on even his busiest days, the Dalai Lama famously replied that he meditates for two hours on his busiest days. What exactly is his point? When we are too busy to attend to our spiritual activities, it is precisely when we need them the most.

Assume you’ve recently started a new spiritual practice, such as writing every morning. It feels amazing the first few times you do it! You’re making new connections with yourself and reflecting on your life. However, the novelty wears off sooner or later. You’re rushing late one morning, so you excuse yourself and say you’ll journal tomorrow. However, you continue to make mistakes. Eventually, you’re only journaling when you’re truly in the mood, and those moments are becoming fewer and further between.

What is the greatest way for you to commit to your new spiritual practices?

Setting a time restriction on a new habit is a smart idea, to begin with. Setting an initial eight-week time period for hosting a weekly communal dinner, for example, may make the practice feel more doable. Even if you’re weary or unmotivated at times, organizing eight meals over eight weeks is feasible. You can reevaluate once your eight weeks are up. Is this an activity you’d want to perform to in the future? Is it possible that a different practice or ritual might better suit your needs?

It’s also a good idea to see your spiritual activities as old pals. You are in love with each other. You all have a lot to learn from each other. Also, you spend a lot of time together that is both inspirational and rewarding. On the other hand, part of the time you spend together is perfectly acceptable. Maybe it’s even boring. An evening with your oldest buddy might sometimes consist of little more than a dumb movie and aimless chitchat. That isn’t to say the friendship doesn’t have more to give.

You may turn your spiritual activities into lifetime friends and comforts by practicing discipline and patience.

The Power of Ritual: How to Create Meaning and Connection in Everything You Do by Casper ter Kuile Book Summary – Review

It is possible to have a spiritual life without becoming religious. In reality, we often construct the holiest and important rituals for ourselves. If you practice them with intention, your daily stroll, weekly yoga session, and even WhatsApp discussions may all have a spiritual purpose.

Your rituals have the potential to break new ground.

Why can’t something as simple as playing Minecraft or FaceTiming with friends be turned into spiritual practices? You don’t have to develop outdated, stuffy routines for yourself. If you’re in question, consider Rabbi Irwin Kula’s words: “Every tradition was once an innovation.”

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