I’m just reading Casper ter Kuile’s The Power of Every Day Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices and it got me thinking: what would it mean if we made our academic writing sacred?
And you might be thinking: hang on, I already feel so much pressure when I face my writing, I feel imposter syndrome and like nothing I can do will ever be perfect enough! and now you want me to add in a comparison to the actual divine? And I hear you, that is a lot!
But I’ve noticed that those who incorporate the sacred into everyday life have a really different attitude to it than people who only engage with it in a ‘special occasions’ kind of way. (I’m mostly going to talk about this from my personal experience from inside the Christian faith-community, but this tracks more broadly). If you only connect to sacred rituals for celebrations of weddings and funerals and naming days, if you only connect at high feasts… then of course the sacred is stressful. You have to get dressed up, there’s feasting and decorations and big social events and community expectations and extended family feelings. It’s a lot.
Because we live in multi-cultural societies, you have probably engaged with other people’s sacred rituals as well, as an outsider, whether that’s visiting their grandest religious buildings as a tourist, going to a friend’s wedding, eating traditional celebration foods, or visiting someone’s home during a festival season. Their sacredness is likely to seem different from what you are used to, and clearly they know lots of things that you don’t know! Things have different names, and there are right ways and wrong ways to eat the foods, and things you are supposed to say or wear or sit or do. And if you are a good guest, you don’t want to offend your hosts or their beliefs. It’s a lot.
But you can also incorporate the sacred in really small, boring, every-day ways. For example, in my childhood home, we said grace before dinner every single night. It didn’t matter if it was a roast dinner or slightly-burned cheese sandwiches (called ‘cheese frowns’ and I still have a soft spot for them); it didn’t matter if we had all just rushed in the door in our sports kits and gardening clothes; there weren’t any special people, it was just the same siblings who had been squabbling over the remote control and the parents who wouldn’t let me get another ear piercing. We didn’t have to be ‘good enough’ for grace (in fact, the name for this prayer said before a meal comes from the Christian belief that grace is something that you cannot earn—you can’t ever be good enough for grace but you can be grateful for it). But also, we didn’t have to do anything differently than we ‘normally’ would because that was just our everyday life.
What would it mean if writing wasn’t something that you did only on special occasions, like writing retreats and research leave… but just a thing that happened every day or any day?
What would it mean if writing wasn’t something other people did and understood… but something that was part of your life and community?
What would it mean if writing was as ordinary as Tuesday night toast for dinner, or the people we lived with, or the need to do the washing up?
On the other hand, of course, making something sacred has significant implications.
The OED defines ‘sacred’ as:
Of things, places, of persons and their offices, etc.: Set apart for or dedicated to some religious purpose, and hence entitled to veneration or religious respect; made holy by association with a god or other object of worship; consecrated, hallowed.Oxford English Dictionary, Sacred 3.a
Making something sacred ‘sets it apart’ [usually through a ritual of some kind], and it does so by associating it with something greater than the thing [usually something supernatural], which therefore makes the sacred thing more valuable and meaningful than it would have been [and therefore should be treated with more care than un-sacred stuff].
Sometimes this ‘setting apart’ marks a radical shift in identity and purpose. For example, a glass of wine and a bread-roll is a glass of wine and a bread-roll… until it is consecrated and becomes a eucharistic meal. And there are parts of doctoral writing where this radical shift is absolutely what is happening. In preparing your thesis for examination, for example, you ‘submit’ your writing and in return are granted a whole new identity, marked with medieval robes and a new title, Doctor. Different academic cultures around the world have different rituals for marking this transformation, including viva voce, public defences, swords, graduations. We suggest some rituals in Your PhD Survival Guide for submitting your thesis: like gifts for your supervisors plus a celebration meal with friends and colleagues (pp. 193–194); some Australian universities used to give you a balloon or a lollipop when you submitted in person, which was a lovely local ritual! In these cases though, there is a limit to what you can do to make your own writing sacred, due to your power-relations within the academic (writing) system: only an examiner can judge your work passable and only a Chancellor (or their deputy) can pronounce you graduated.
But your every-day, any-day writing might also benefit from being seen as, in some way, sacred. By setting aside writing as something that is associated with a greater good, and is therefore now valuable and meaningful, we can work to counteract some of the common issues we experience as writers.
- If you have already learned to carve out and set boundaries around your 15 minutes a day or ‘golden hours‘ or whatever regular writing pattern that works for you, then you are already getting the benefit of valuing and setting apart your writing.
- If you are regularly connecting your writing tasks to the bigger-picture ‘why’ of your PhD, then you are already getting the benefit of motivation and purpose for your writing.
- If you are already seeing your doctoral writing as valuable and meaningful to your community and discipline, if it is treated as valuable by your supervisors, then it has been rightfully made sacred in the everyday.
You can decide what kinds of rituals you will use to make your writing sacred, drawing on your cultures and/or your preferences. Does it feel good to light a candle or prepare a particular kind of meal or set out the space in a particular way? Does it feel good to have a community-writing gathering that you commit to attending regularly? Does it feel good to say a little encouragement or invoke a little gratitude over your writing? Does it help to have an image or symbol of the thing you are writing about on your desk to connect you to your bigger purpose?
These rituals can be as ornate or as mundane as you like. I have been at meals where the grace meant a procession and academic gowns and a gong and a choir singing Latin in four-part harmony; and meals where grace was a one-line acknowledgement. Your rituals can be formal or informal. You can add bells, incense, songs, dances, seasonal hangings—or just make a quick gesture, take a short pause, or take a deep breath. You can get the rest of your family involved, whether the magic words are ‘I’m going to the office now, see you later’ or a full ceremony of love and encouragement. You can dress up or dress down. What matters is what matters to you.
And I’ve been talking about celebration/gratitude/intention/preparation rituals so far, but of course rituals can be made for every kind of situation, including negative and hard ones. We have rituals for how to address grief and loss (also something we cover briefly in Your PhD Survival Guide), rituals to address dark and scary times, rituals to mark the changing of the seasons. I know people who ‘clean out’ their PhD draft print-outs by burning the pages after submission (fire is often a key component of rituals). I know people who have a theme song that they belt out when they feel scared like the not-quite-nun Maria von Trapp (who would have known quite a bit about rituals). This blog post from the RED Alert at La Trobe University sets out the affective and intentional actions a senior researcher takes to help her feel ready to tackle reviewer comments on a submitted article. Professor Teresa Iacono doesn’t frame her actions as a ‘ritual’, but you easily could.
I don’t know that I think you should make your writing sacred. But I do think that you could and you might like to. In any case, this thought-experiment about ‘what would it mean to make your writing sacred’ may help you to think through what you do think about your writing, how you define its meaning and place in your life, and what habits and environments you put around it to help you get that thesis written.
I’d love to hear about your writing rituals, sacred, secular or just habitual! What makes this work for you? Join the conversation over on Twitter @researchinsiders.
- Casper ter Kuile, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practice (Harper Collins 2020)
- Hobson, N. M., Bonk, D., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). Rituals decrease the neural response to performance failure. PeerJ, 5, e3363. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3363 This study that used made-up rituals in an academic setting to show that ‘ritual buffers against uncertainty and anxiety. Our results indicate that ritual guides goal-directed performance by regulating the brain’s response to personal failure.”
- Sarah J. Charles , Valerie van Mulukom, Jennifer E. Brown, Fraser Watts, Robin I. M. Dunbar, Miguel Farias, ‘United on Sunday: The effects of secular rituals on social bonding and affect’, PLOS One. January 27, 2021 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242546. Regular social rituals lead to an “increase in social bonding” so that “secular rituals might play a similar role to religious ones in fostering feelings of social connection and boosting positive affect.”