Walks are my main grounding ritual. I used to prefer easy nature hikes, but these days, I prefer semi-urban walks through landscapes that are a blend of the natural and artificial. The Seattle shoreline is a perfect example. Five minutes from my home, there is a waterfront park from where I can watch trains, ships, airplanes, cars and of course, lots of containers. On a recent walk, I took this picture of four ships waiting to dock. A rare sight, since the port of Seattle does not seem to experience many traffic jams.
The interesting thing about walking the same route over and over is that you notice little changes and seasonal patterns. For example, variations in shipping activity. The variations are what create a sense of direct, living connection to the human drama playing out on Planet Earth.
It is one of the verbs we use to describe behaviors that restore balance in our lives. These are the sacred rituals of your life, in a behavioral rather than spiritual sense of the word.
Rituals are behaviors pregnant with illegible experiential meaning that can take a lifetime of repetition to unpack. For many, a walk is just exercise or fresh air. So many calories burned in so many minutes. For me, walks mean more, and do more. I get better at taking walks with practice. I’ve probably done over a hundred Seattle shoreline walks in the last year.
I’ve written a bit about notions of sacredness and profanity recently, and just did a talk on the subject for a corporate client. The client challenged me to address the notion of quality in software deployment processes (a central concern in the emerging software engineering discipline known as DevOps), in the sense of Pirsig, and tie in my ideas about narratives and fox/hedgehog archetypes from Tempo.
An ideal case for the Ribbonfarm Holistic Detective Agency. I wish I got more stand-up philosophy gigs like this. They are by far the most fun someone like me can have while actually making money.
In the talk, I defined quality as repeatedly rediscovering the sacred amidst seemingly profane change. This post is an attempt to unpack that thought further.
It seems to me that I have no true sense of the sacred in my life, comparable to what my religious or spiritual friends claim to feel. To me, the term is merely convenient shorthand for certain behaviors that anchor my lifestyle, rather than a reference to something ineffable and mystical.
I like to occasionally troll religious people by claiming I am ritualistic rather than religious. It is a particularly good line for annoying those who claim to be spiritual rather than religious. I keep exactly what they discard from religion, and discard exactly what they keep.
Sacred rituals are behaviors that are not interchangeable with other nominally equivalent ones within some legible, utilitarian scheme of reckoning. If a walk were just exercise, I would be willing to replace my walks with treadmill sessions. Sacred rituals are also priceless. Behaviors that you will not change merely for money. Coffee is not a true ritual for me. Merely an addiction and a chemically weaponized defense mechanism against the onslaught of mornings. If you paid me enough, I’d be willing to quit coffee for tea permanently. But I don’t think I’d willing to stop taking waterfront walks for any amount of money. You’d have to offer me an equivalent sacred ritual.
Again the reason is mundane rather than mystical. The reason sacred rituals are priceless is that they are your personal measure of value in other things. Without the sacred rituals of our life, we’d have no idea what anything else was worth. Including all of life itself.
So in one sense, our sacred rituals are the most practical things in our lives. They are what we live for: inexhaustible fountainheads of experienced meaning that we unpack through repetition and return. They are related to habits, addictions, aversions, disciplines and behavioral tics, but they are also something more.
So arbitrary though it might seem, you could say I measure the quality of my life by the number of good walks I can take. If you don’t instinctively get what this claim means, you might be a life-optimizing utilitarian.
I wondered recently why grounding is my preferred verb for describing sacred rituals. There are three other words I can think of: centering, connecting and collecting.
I have a theory about such words. The words you instinctively reach for, to describe your rituals, capture the essence of what you consider sacred. Sacredness itself is not a feeling. Sacred rituals can induce certain feelings, but sacredness is a property we project onto the realities we inhabit and relate to through skilled behaviors. So our preferred words reveal something about our home realities.
For a while now, I’ve used a four-way categorization of reality to think about any complex issue: material, intrapersonal, interpersonal and conceptual.
- If your sense of the sacred is dominantly material, your sacred rituals involve grounding, like taking walks.
- If your sense of the sacred is dominantly intrapersonal, your sacred rituals involve centering, like meditating.
- If your sense of the sacred is dominantly interpersonal, your sacred rituals involve connecting, like family dinners.
- If your sense of the sacred is dominantly conceptual, your sacred rituals will involve collecting, as in stamps or books.
Of course, there are no pure behaviors. Notions of the sacred, and modes of relating to them, are richer than the language we use to describe them. But the words help fingerprint our particular proclivities.
Every reality has all four aspects of course.
For example, an office building is steel-and-concrete as a material reality. As an intrapersonal reality, it embodies your subjective experience of work. As an interpersonal reality, it is the locus of a set of relationships that help define you. At a conceptual level, it is the embodiment of an abstract corporation.
It is harder to see this for simpler realities. A stone is a lump of matter. Contemplating a stone induces certain intrapersonal realities for which I am sure there exists a Japanese word. Skipping stones on a lake with a friend creates interpersonal reality. The black stone at the eastern corner of the kaaba mediates believers’ relationships to the conceptual elements of Islam.
We tend to build our sacred rituals around simpler, purer (in the sense of being dominated by one of the four realities) and more beautiful realities. This is for precisely the same reason textbook math problems are simpler to solve, involve fewer base concepts, and have more satisfyingly elegant solutions than real-world problems. Viewed as skilled behaviors, sacred rituals must have some of the characteristics of homework problems.
I am skilled enough to take a pleasant walk in unpleasant surroundings, but I prefer pleasant ones for ritualistic grounding purposes. There is an element of addiction to this preference of course. But also an element of learning discipline. Revisiting examples used earlier in a learning curve is one way to reinforce foundations and unpack meanings missed on earlier encounters. Practice at the edge of a skill expands capabilities but makes behaviors more fragile. Practice at the foundations of a skill makes capabilities denser and behaviors more antifragile. A walk through an unpleasant slum on a blistering hot day would probably leave me frazzled and on-edge, but would expand my walk-taking skills. But those skills would only stabilize if I kept returning to the base.
Some day, I hope to earn a black belt in walk-taking. Able to take a walk under any conditions.
My maternal grandfather used to solve arbitrary long division problems late into adulthood, just for fun. I don’t remember him, since he died when I was 3, but family members tell me I am very much like him.
If you haven’t solved a long division problem since fourth grade, try it. I suspect you’ll see that old behavior in a new light.
Taking a walk along the same pleasant route is like redoing a fourth-grade homework problem for me. Yes, I used to take walks back then too. Short ones to look at a bunch of Winget cement mixers that used to be parked down the street from where I grew up. They looked something like this.
Some days I’d get lucky and also find a road roller parked next to the cement mixers as well.
Yeah, little boys are odd.
I sometimes joke that I am not an atheist but a poly-atheist. I don’t disbelieve in a god. I disbelieve in a thousand gods. Disbelieving in a single aspect-less, feature-less big-G God seems boring and not very challenging to me. It is a good deal more fun to go around disbelieving in a thousand little-g gods, by constructing a thousand little flying spaghetti monsters (I should note for those itching to go down this particular bunny trail, that there are obscure Sansrkit terms for these things and a long and complicated history behind these ideas in Indian theology. I expect similar ideas exist in other theologies).
There’s a complex conversation to be had there, involving foxes and hedgehogs and information theory, but the non-flippant term for my fundamental orientation is particularist. I may traffic in generalities, but it is particulars that really attract me. Generalities are scaffolding that help me find, appreciate or relate to fertile particulars. Depending on which of the four kinds of reality you favor in constructing your sacred rituals, you get different particularist/generalist orientations.
- This walk, not the general, abstract idea of a walk.
- This interesting prime number, not a theory of the universe involving the golden ratio.
- This particular meditative breath, not rapturous Oneness with the Universe.
- This interaction with this person, not holy awe around the idea of “community.”
The particularist-generalist divide is probably more fundamental than the atheist-theist divide.
No two pieces of reality are ever truly interchangeable to particularists. And paradoxically, this is what makes rich repetition so powerful in anchoring a sense of the sacred. To learn to appreciate difference, you must attentively contemplate apparent sameness. Somebody recently told me about the Balinese notion of time.
In the standard western perspective, time is long but thin— just past, present, future. In Bali, time is dense. The Balinese have ten kinds of weeks operating concurrently— solar, lunar, and 7-day, 6-day, on down to a one-day week (“Today is always luang.”) It’s like the difference between the shimmering density of polycyclic gamelan music versus western romantic narrative music.
This sounds about right to me. To want every walk to be an exploration of an obviously new route is to never sensitize yourself to the density of narrative time along a particular route, or develop skill at unpacking specific realities.
Let me conclude with a little prescription. Try this little exercise.
Inventory your candidate sacred rituals in a spreadsheet.
Discard the obvious addictions: behaviors you return to for re-experiencing sameness rather than appreciating variety.
For the rest, identify the aspect of reality each engages, by matching each with the most appropriate verb: grounding, centering, connecting, collecting. If in doubt, include all verbs that apply. Make a little matrix in your spreadsheet, with rituals on the rows and the four verbs on the columns, putting 1’s and o’s at the appropriate row-column intersections. Tally the rows in a fifth column. Now tally all five columns.
Rank order the four verbs by frequency. That’s your spiritual personality type. The last column sum is your particularism score.
The last row of sums is your sacred bottom-line.
There you go, a minimum-viable spreadsheet spirituality model for the quantified-self crowd. I’ll leave you to evolve the model and invent a companion tracking instrument to monitor and refine your practice of your rituals.
See, I can do nice things for utilitarians too.
Acknowledgements due to Hosh Hsiao, Kevin Simler, MFH and Jeff Hackert for helping me think through these ideas.