The herbal apprenticeship programs that I teach each include an important ritual halfway through the course. As a group, we revisit the intentions we set for ourselves on the first day of class and reflect on what we’ve learned so far. It’s a practice that offers valuable perspective, and a grounding opportunity for people to connect with their personal processes, as well as the experience of the larger group. These are some of the gifts of ritual — a tool or practice that can offer perspective, help support reflection and intention in our lives, and foster connection.
Experiences such as this one, as well as years of working with clients, have shown me how the addition of self-care rituals in daily life can facilitate deep healing and lasting change. Thus, I created a new apprenticeship program, such as those in 21 Ayurvedic Practices for Transitioning into Autumn where we further explore these ideas.
Creating ritual is one of the most powerful ways to craft a new way of life, and it can be done on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis. Once you understand what makes a ritual, explore how it can be personalized and incorporated into your life to meet your individual needs.
A ritual is any act performed with intention. The word traditionally implies that the act is performed in a specific, prescribed way, outlined by custom or religious practice. Therefore, if you’re taking part in a traditional ritual, it’s important to respect the practices of that tradition. Otherwise, we can be more fluid than this definition and see a ritual as anything done with intention, performed the same or similarly over time. At their core, rituals help us feel that our lives are meaningful and that we’re connected to ourselves, to others, to the larger processes that feed and nourish us, and to the ecosystems (both natural and mechanized) that make up our world.
Some rituals may feel like routine — which doesn’t make them any less important or healing — while others may feel like exciting special occasions. Rituals can range from daily acts of self-care, such as bathing or mindful mealtimes, to family traditions, including seasonal holiday celebrations. Rituals around exercise, meals, and other forms of self-care ground us and create a stabilizing influence in daily life. Other rituals that mark coming-of-age, menopause, or childbirth help us feel supported, held by family and community, and more powerful within ourselves. Any ritual practice can be life-changing, because ritual helps us direct our intention, and our intentions can have a powerful impact.
Rituals can creatively evolve to meet our changing needs and those of the world around us, and this flexibility is one of the traits that makes the practice meaningful. For example, you may choose to mark each new season with a gathering of family or friends. Celebrating the seasonal shift becomes a ritual, yet the celebration for each season may be very different: a bonfire on the winter solstice, or a hike on the spring equinox, for example.
Relationship to ritual is also personally healing and transformative. By bringing our intention to the processes that care for and nurture us, and by fostering a connection to something larger than ourselves, we can experience a sense of wholeness. In a culture where there’s so much disconnection between people, within communities, and between humans and the natural world, this act of reconnection is a force for positive change.
The inclusion of ritual in your life doesn’t have to be intimidating or complicated. In fact, I think the most empowering way to begin integrating ritual into life is to develop intentional routines around self-care and other daily activities. Once ritual is established in daily life and it begins to feel familiar, the addition of rituals and ceremonial celebrations into other parts of life tends to happen naturally.
Most people have routines around self-care. When you infuse these routines with intention, they can become powerful healing rituals, providing both physical and psycho-spiritual nourishment and stability.
You can set your intentions the same way or differently every time you practice self-care. Sometimes, I’ll briefly think about an intention, express gratitude, or reflect in my head, accompanied by a deep breath. Other times, I choose to be a little more formal, perhaps lighting a candle and actually speaking gratitude and intention aloud. Both, as well as anything in between, are wonderful and powerful.
Morning and bedtime: Morning and bedtime are great times to put self-care rituals in place. Perhaps you already have some routines, such as brushing your teeth or washing your face. Do these activities with the intention of preparing for the day ahead if it’s in the morning, or nourishing yourself and unwinding if it’s before bed.
In the morning, I often set an intention for my day. If I’m working with a particular goal or process long-term, I’ll also acknowledge that theme in the morning. Your morning intentions may range from informal and very casual to more involved. They may also naturally follow other morning practices you have, such as exercise, bathing, or meditation.
In the evening, I like to have a few simple practices that help me unwind. I don’t complete the same practice every night, that just isn’t my personality, but I usually do something that helps me relax. Rituals I enjoy include massaging my feet with oil, laying on the floor with my legs up the wall, or sipping tea and reading a non-stimulating book. Screen time should be avoided before bed, even if it’s something you consider relaxing, such as watching TV — the tone of the screen stimulates the nervous system. (Learn more about this issue in “How Blue Light Affects Our Health.”)
Mealtime: Before meals is an important time to practice ritual. The body digests best when we’re in a parasympathetic state (a state of relaxation known as the “rest and digest” state). Mealtime rituals may allow the body to settle in before a meal, helping to activate the parasympathetic state and support digestion. Examples of mealtime rituals include a moment of silence, praying privately to yourself or in a group, sharing meals with others, singing a song, or lighting a candle. Feelings of gratitude may also initiate the parasympathetic nervous system response. Thus, not only is taking a moment of gratitude before a meal an important way to acknowledge abundance and the gifts of the earth, it’s also physically important to the body’s processes of digestion and assimilation.
The world around us is imbued with life force and vitality. This includes the natural world of plants, grasses, and trees, as well as the human-made world of city streets and machinery. Seasonal rituals invite us to engage with this animated world. When we live in alignment with these forces, it cultivates our connection with ourselves and to the great web of life that feeds us, clothes us, and provides shelter for us.
Building a Seasonal Table Altar: The environment around us has much to teach us. When we bring the natural gifts of the season (such as flowers, fallen leaves, seeds, or stones) into our homes and use them as decorations, they can provide inspiration and foster a greater sense of connection to the natural world.
At the change of each season, usually the week of the solstice or equinox, I decorate our dining room table with seasonal objects to symbolize and celebrate the changing season. While each table altar looks radically different (season-to-season and year-to-year), its creation marks the ritual. I always focus my altars around articles I find from the outside world. In the fall, I focus on colorful leaves and seeds, or gifts from the garden, such as corn, gourds, or hard squashes. Late summer and fall are the times to celebrate the gifts of the sun and bring the last bright, vibrant, warm tones into your home. Focus your table altar on reds, oranges, yellows, and browns, with other colors as accents.
Fall-Inspired Ritual: Fall is the transition season between the abundance of summer and the gentle quiet of winter. We can take our cues from the natural world around us; fall teaches us to let go of what we don’t need in order to make room for what we do as we move forward into the long, dark, introspective days of winter. In our homes, this might look like clearing out the closet and letting go of items we don’t need. In our minds and in our hearts, however, it can mean transitioning away from habits or thought patterns that aren’t helping us make room for more life-giving habits or ways of thinking.
Fall can also be associated with the element of water. Water is free-flowing, taking the shape of whatever perimeter it flows within. Water has the potential to hold many emotions: It can move slowly and gently, or quickly and forcefully; it can be nourishing and revitalizing, or destructive. The lessons of water teach us how to accept the diverse aspects of our own character and our lives.
A lovely fall ritual is to make plans to visit a body of water, either on your own or in a group. Moving water is best, but a lake that you feel a special connection to is an effective choice as well. Choose a place that you enjoy and that’s comfortable to set up a blanket or other space. Bring warm clothes if the weather is cool, and a snack or meal, perhaps with seasonally appropriate fall foods, such as those on Page 32. Make sure everything is special — the blanket or chairs, the food, even the clothes you wear. However, “special” doesn’t mean you have to buy anything new or different; use what you have, choose it with intention, and put thought into the little details.
When you arrive at the body of water, take time to set up your picnic spot, then find a place where the water is flowing away from you to perform your ritual. Start by giving thanks for the place and the elements, including the powers of the water and gifts of the season. Add anything about the seasons or the elements that inspires you and feels meaningful. This doesn’t have to be formal; the most authentic rituals are casual but intimate. Give thanks for any and all parts of your life. The gratitude in your ritual helps unite you with the natural world and the season — as well as with those in your group. Thoughts of gratitude may also stimulate the rest and relaxation part of your nervous system, opening the heart and mind and making the ritual feel more meaningful.
Next, take time to reflect on something that you want to transform in the months ahead. I think it’s helpful to accompany this with something you want to invite into your life, as if you’re shedding a layer to make room for something else to join you. This can make letting go of something feel easier; thoughts of abundance are always more productive than thoughts of lack or negativity.
The next part of the ritual is to ask the water to help you carry out your intentions. Water can be a symbol of compassion, and its movements and how it exists in nature mimic the capacity for deep feeling. Set your intentions clearly, and give thanks to the water for its support. This stage of the ritual can be done several ways. You can write down your intentions on a small piece of paper and literally give them to the water to carry away (this leaves behind a small human trace, which I often choose to avoid); you can speak them aloud, whether alone or in a group; or you can make it a personal, silent experience. Whichever you choose, let each person move toward the water in turn, placing their hand in the water as they approach, regardless of whether they’re placing a physical piece of paper, speaking, or just holding the intention in their own mind and heart. I often bring a simple gift to offer the water; something biodegradable or natural is best.
Afterward, enjoy your picnic celebration and time either alone or with friends. This ritual can be done any time in mid- or late fall, and it’s a wonderful way to give thanks and enjoy the abundance of the season.
Daily, weekly, and yearly rituals help us live with our eyes and hearts wide open. This active role in our lives and within our environment helps open the creative senses, and it nourishes our connections with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Return to your favorite rituals again and again, and find continued comfort in their presence, no matter what life presents.
Brittany Wood Nickerson is a professional herbalist, author, and owner of Thyme Herbal in western Massachusetts, where she offers in-person and online courses in herbal medicine and earth-based ritual.