I have a persistent interest in the potential for myth and ritual for learning. In the past I sought a synthesis of what’s known as good practice (as always ;) in an area I don’t have good resources in. When I looked over 10 years ago, there wasn’t much. That’s no longer the case. There is now quite a bit available about signifying change with ritual.
Myth, here, is not about mistaken beliefs, but instead are stories that tie us to our place in the universe. Every culture has had its origin story, and typically stories that explain the earth, the sky, and more. Ritual is a series of repeated behaviors that signify your belief in those stories. And when you look at prayer, and transition ceremonies, you see how powerful these behaviors are in shaping behavior. Can we leverage this power for learning?
Barbara Myerhoff opined that ritual worked because your body bought into it before your mind did. Thus, the repeated behaviors build a ‘muscle memory’ that supports your purpose. And agreeing to perform the ritual at all is an implicit complicity in the story behind the ritual. Finally, having others also performing or having performed the ritual builds a social commitment.
There’s clear power, but can we do it systematically? The sources at the bottom suggest we can. My synthesis says the answer is yes. There are two important distinctions. One is whether it’s individual or collective. Are we having a single person commit, or having a group commit? In the former, they may be becoming a member of the community, but it’s about changing personal behavior regardless. In the latter, it’s about someone becoming a member of a group of practitioners. (And, to be clear, here I’m talking secular change.)
The other distinction is the scope of the change. Is this a small personal change, or is this a switch to an entire system of belief? Are we helping someone be more productive, or asking them to buy into our organizational culture? If we want to transform people, signifying the change seems important.
Wwhat makes effective ritual is having a behavior that indicates allegiance to a system of belief. It’s essential that the behavior signifies the change in some way. It might be a part of the actions that the new desired change incorporate. So you mimic rolling out dough to cement your understanding of baking. Or it might be an iconic representation of some aspect of the belief, so drinking something specific as preparation.
The actual structure is suggested to be some initiating occurrence, like another instance (new client), or a particular time of day. Then there’s a process to be followed, typically with a preparation, a behavior, and a closing.
As usual, the process includes identifying the necessary elements, prototyping, testing, and iterating. Does it work with the audience, does it feel authentic, is it easy to do, are some of the questions to ask.
The materials I’ve found suggest ritual can be helpful. Two obvious roles are to successfully acknowledge their new status and/or sustain necessary mindsets and practices. When people have transformed, we want to acknowledge the change. And we want to help them continue to maintain and develop the new ability. Signifying change is an important component. We should be intentional about making that happen.