On Rituals and the Rich Life

Korean-Confucian ritual (제사) Jesa

Korean-Confucian ritual (제사) Jesa

No matter how alone one might feel, a ritual reminds us that we are never really alone.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In regards to ritual: an e-mail exchange with my philosopher friend Poncho.


How’s life?


Life is well. I’m here in Portland, paying my respects to dead family members at the cemetery, here. In classic Korean tradition, we do a Confucian ritual. Now that Koreans are mostly fundamental Protestants (with misguided fear of idolatry) and globalized, the practice has mostly stopped.

I also used to think these rituals were strange and silly (since they aren’t global traditions), but I appreciate rituals and practices more, now. It used to be about fitting in, and rituals can make you stick out unless they are the obsessive kind like nail biting, which is strange, how something like nail biting is more acceptable than traditional rituals. It’s like we’ll do things based on how many other people are doing it, rather than doing things based on meaning.

While at the cemetery, I saw a Vietnamese family doing the same Confucian ritual, albeit with their own Vietnamese cultural tint. We nodded to one another and smiled. It cross-culturally bonded us. That’s the nice thing, it makes you feel connected to others, not only throughout time but also to those in other places. Before I came to Oregon for this trip, we did a Confucian ritual called ‘Jesa’ here in LA, and my siblings in Oregon, excluding my born-again Christian brother, did it simultaneously in Oregon.

Ritual connection transcends space and time. I’m sure it’s what my secular Jewish friends gain from Yom Kippur. I know many who do not believe in the religion, though still participate in every religious ritual. To them, its unity and cultural exchange. They are one of the oldest cultures and perhaps ritual is a key to their longevity.

Now this is not a blanket cherishing of all rituals. I’m not down for rituals like sacrificing or anything that affects another person. But I enjoy the rituals that enliven the seemingly routine or enrich what already is.

I know well-known Atheist leaders like Sam Harris and Alain de Botton see the need for rituals and are pushing for more secular rituals for people to follow. They serve a societal purpose. Just as secular morals and ethics are vital.

It’s a chance to step out of ourselves and our normal perspectives and have a different look at things. Just as kids grow in perspective by playing pretend. And sometimes the more elaborate it becomes, like a wedding for instance, the more we can envision a different kind of life. I think that’s why often, it even involves special clothing (since we are symbolic and narrative creatures), to force ourselves out of our rigid thinking and our rigid sense of identity. It’s a practice in fluidity. Here’s your way and here’s another way, and you must seamlessly navigate between these worlds. Animals would have no sense of these things, as they only live in the objective world (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). But that’s what being human is, to find meaning in the subjective, and to constantly adapt.

What do you think of rituals? And of course, not OCD rituals, but from tea ceremonies to flower arranging, to all kinds of rituals that have been handed down. I enjoy them, now. I find them positive to my equanimity. There’s a good book by a Harvard Eastern studies professor (The Path) on the subject of rituals and Confucianism, and I would agree with him, it’s a way to reflect in ways you normally wouldn’t, and to be mindful of typically mundane tasks. We are so hyper-focused on utility and rituals give importance to the things that we would ignore because they don’t serve any utility, other than to remind us that we are human beings. And without reminders of our humanity, we become unhappy robots.


Hey man,

That is a topic that has come up a number of times in conversations with some friends of mine from India and Sri Lanka. They have a lot of rituals that their family expects them to participate in, and they see them as basically a waste of time and an imposition.

As I came up in a family that didn’t have any real cultural or religious ties, we didn’t practice anything. There was gift giving at Christmas, and eating chocolate at Easter, but that was it. The closest thing to a real ritual would have been inviting a ton of people over for Thanksgiving and feasting all day.

So we got into these talks where they felt that they had too many rituals in their lives, and I felt like I had too few. A poverty of ritual, I got a raw deal on the cultural inheritance.

They pointed out that I can always take up some rituals, learn the tea ceremony or the dragon-dog costume dance or what have you. There is no law that says I can’t, and there are easily available groups and classes that do just that. But I feel like a fraud when I do. Maybe fraud is too serious. I feel like I am faking it, or just going through the motions. I can come and do the ritual, and I can do it every year, but I will always be a tourist. Even if I get really into it, dedicate my time to learning the history and the language, I’ll still be “That white guy who is really into the tea ceremony.” It sucks, but that’s just how it goes. There are some things in life you have to be born into, or at least raised into, and culture (and the associated rituals) is one of those things.

So my only real option, in my mind, is to start up my own rituals. That isn’t so hard to do, and I don’t feel like a fake. Like you say, a ritual is a way of bringing attention and mindful focus to an activity. That care and attention to detail create meaning, which is kinda cool. Meaning can just spring up like that, who knew?

’What gives life meaning, Poncho?’

’Brewing and pouring tea for someone, or watching birds.’

Seems like a joke answer. I know 18-year-old Poncho would have laughed, for sure.

But the real treasure is that it forces you to be present. Normally you would be totally distracted, making plans and schemes, or thinking about this, that and the other. But you can’t do that if you are doing a daily ritual, or you wreck it. I think that is what keeps it separate from a rut, performance, or routine, right? You can go through the daily routine on autopilot, but you can’t do that with a ritual. That internal component is necessary.

The robot-version makes a nice way of clarifying it. You could program a robot to pour tea, or sprinkle holy water, or light candles, etc. But who would make use of such a robot? Would anyone consider it a ritual?

’You can have a priest give the last rites, or we have an .mp3 of the words that we can play. Your choice, but the mp3 is waaay cheaper.’


It’s strange isn’t it, in theory, it can somehow sound nice to be more robotic. So we write about that, we recommend it, it’s the advice du jour. Like machine efficiency and hyper-utility, productivity, and hacking ourselves like we were made of wires and plastic. But in application, it always seems to make us sad, suicidal, and lonely.

So ritual, as opposed to mindless doing, seems a nice change of pace. It seems to make me the opposite of sad and lonely. No matter how alone one might feel, a ritual reminds us that we are never really alone. It adds richness and texture to our lives. Even when the ritual is one for the dead. Though I agree with your friends, it can be a bit much when there are too many elaborate ones. But for me, I turn my daily tasks into rituals. When I train martial arts, every time I re-tie my belt, I make it a conscious and deliberate act. How many others in different countries are doing this same act, I wonder? How many before me have tied their belts just as I have?

Same with things I would normally do automatically, like brushing my teeth, tying my shoes, or drinking my morning brew of tea. Since there is so much mindfulness built into my day, I never find the need to sit and close my eyes to find my calm. (Though I still do that from time to time, but less as a need and more as a perk, like ice cream.) I find my normal state is calm and seems to be a long-lasting state, and I attribute much of that to ritual. It adds that bit of wonder that can go missing.

Perhaps that’s how this all came to be, through trial and error, ancient cultures figured out, ‘Hey, this is nice! Let’s keep doing this.’ It’s only the youngest cultures who are abandoning rituals for nervous tics and obsessive habits.

I used to think like that, I thought they were dumb, and I was doing myself a favor by giving up on them. Just like giving up on community and being a loner. Yeah... what a favor that is.

What’s the point is all you think that matters when you’re young. It’s what we’re taught. But why can’t the point be to lead a richer life? To be at peace? To be connected? Rather than everything being incentivized. That’s what ritual teaches us. You need some practices that go against the normal grain of the mill, just to know you still can. ‘I do this for no other reason than to be human — to remind myself I am alive.’
— Sam

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):