There’s a reason that religious and spiritual practices have been part of human civilization since the very beginning: we’re wired to love rituals and routines. A ritual is a repeatable sequence of behaviors intended to have the same meaning or purpose every time. We usually call something a “ritual” if not every single element of it has practical function. The steps in changing the oil in your car isn’t a ritual; calling “I’m home” to your housemate each time you get in from work and immediately moving to the fridge for a soda is a ritual, if you do it almost every time you come in.
One of the things that makes the human brain so amazing, even more than the minds of other animals, is that we’re undoubtedly the planet’s champions at pattern recognition. Whether we’re correct or not, we’re always looking for order in nature, and we’re wired to feel pleased, comfortable, and secure when we find it. When we can’t find it, we tend to impose order on the world around us- naming streets and putting them on a grid, categorizing people by nationality, religion, or race, deciding how many minutes are in an hour, and so on.
We create ritual to bring that element of order and patterns to our own lives; to create order. And we know it works: reading your kid a bedtime story makes them feel way better about settling down to sleep. Celebrating birthday parties with cake and a song makes us feel loved and valued. Enjoying your favorite meal or drink at the end of the week, or just Taco Tuesday, feels familiar and satisfying. But there are fringe benefits too: rituals help us remember things by putting them into patterns, and shared rituals are the foundation of culture- societies are, at least in part, collections of rituals most of us agree are good and worth sustaining.
There’s also catharsis, roughly “cleanse” in Ancient Greek. Catharsis is an act of releasing powerful, contained emotions with the goal of experiencing relief. Babies and little kids understand catharsis instinctively; when they’re tired, frustrated, confused, hurt, or angry, what do they do? Scream their heads off, usually. They scream until they’re exhausted, and when they’re done, they either go to sleep, or they’re calm again. Even after we’ve learned not to cry at the top of our lungs in public whenever we’re upset, adult humans usually can’t help doing this when we’re in intense pain- physical or emotional. Why? Because even if we’ve been trained to control ourselves, our bodies and natures know this is the fastest, most effective way to relieve our distress; when our pain becomes more powerful than our self control, our bodies reassert the cleansing power of catharsis.
Cathartic practices are part of many cultural rituals, therapeutic treatments, and psychological theory; the ability of catharsis to ultimately soothe and purge is well-known. There’s been some pushback in recent years that catharsis isn’t truly therapeutic or healing if it’s done without clear structure and intent- you can’t just scream out loud and expect to feel better without knowing clearly why you’re screaming and what, exactly, you’re screaming about. Fair enough.
This is why catharsis and ritual are natural companions, and why cathartic rituals can be an excellent joyful exercise. In many ways, a cathartic ritual is the very definition of JOMO: letting go is a vital, healing element of the essential “letting go” in JOMO. It gives us space to fill with joy. But we have to make room for it first.