camping stove
Military Life,  Miscellany

The power of ritual

Battlefield tea and rollies 

A couple of years ago Mr Collier was preparing for a particularly difficult assault on an enemy position. His team had positioned themselves out of range and with good cover, and they waited for right time to begin. This was always a fraught moment. Eager to get the job done, everything planned and contingencies in place. Everyone knew their role. But there was always an element of the unknown, of possible chaos that one cannot plan for. And so, the men lingered in a state of limbo and waited for the signal to move out. 

At this point Mr Collier could be found off on his own with his hexi stove and folding pan, boiling water to brew himself a cup of tea. He always carried a very particular ceramic mug in his pack — this too was part of the ritual. It should be noted that there have been several of these special mugs over the years; they have been hit with bullets or stopped shrapnel from penetrating further into his pack and been reduced to a handful of shards and dust to extract from the woolly socks that had been stuffed inside. The mug and the tea-making ritual was a connection to home with sentiment attached, an element of comfort in an extremely inhospitable environment, and a reminder of why he needed to make it through. His men knew not to interrupt him during these moments because he was thinking something through, figuring out a way forward, cementing plans in his mind; and where he went, they followed. This was his go-to ritual in the field through the years, especially when they ran into unexpected situations and new plans needed to be made. 

Almost time to move now. 

The tea-making gear was packed away, and the men each rolled one last cigarette as they always did, usually in silence, preparing themselves for what lay ahead. Then they moved out and faced what they must. 

A ritual followed by action.  

As I get older, I have noticed that increasingly I have developed and cemented my own rituals for various parts of life. More so now, in these unusual times. They are a phenomenon that has developed without thought it is a natural, intuitive pattern that I fall into, and one that, now that I am aware of them, I can leverage at will when I need to soothe myself or to spark action or make a change. Rituals can be effective and potent tools in any of the situations life throws at us, whether they be our daily lives or unexpected events.  

What can rituals do for us? 

Rituals can help us in many ways: 

  • They can be calming or soothing, like a bath with a drink of your choice and a book or music. The physical effects flow on to the mind and emotions. 
  • They can set the scene and grease the wheel for action. For example: weightlifters who vocalise or slap their bodies and position themselves or approach the bar in a particular way each time they go for a big lift. 
  • They can serve as a distraction — the body is occupied and frees the monkey-mind to allow it to settle and think. Like chewing gum for the motor cortex to keep it occupied while the unconscious mind gets to work on connecting the dots on that problem you were working on earlier but could not quite crack. 
  • They can be hypnotic. Think knitting, walking, or running. The rhythmic click clacks or step, step, step lulls the mind and frees the subconscious. 
  • They can be comforting — doing something familiar or eating a favourite food to evoke memories that bring joy or a loved one. 
  • They can be a palate cleanser — that is to say, rituals can serve as a signal that the workday is over and it is time to switch gears and be with family. Get in your car and take a few deep breaths, or remove your tie, or get home take off your bra or boots! 

What can rituals look like? 

Military men and women have been using rituals for as long as there have been wars and soldiers, everything from carrying a lock of their lover’s hair, or a photo, or a favourite pair of socks to wearing a silk scarf into battle. Some kiss the photo before they go over the parapet, some wrote letters home every day.  

Another of Mr Collier’s rituals was to carry a salami, cheese and sweet chilli sauce sandwich wrapped in aluminium foil in his trouser pocket on an op. The sandwich was always the same and always wrapped in foil. If the sandwich was not present the kit was not complete! This in turn became a ritual for his men who would ask amongst themselves: “Are we there yet?” “Has he had his sandwich yet?” “No” “Ways to go yet then”. And then a little later: “Are we winning yet?” “No, he hasn’t eaten the second half of his sandwich yet.” Which was reference to the fact that Mr Collier never ate the second half of his sandwich until he knew they were in a solid position. Many times, this was a psychological signal to both himself and his younger, less experienced men that he was not perturbed and to impart calm. 

A ritual we shared while separated by several thousand kilometres, was looking up at the full moon each month and asking the goddess Luna to take our love around the globe to the other. The constellations in the northern and southern skies don’t align terribly often, but Luna is always there each month. Even if she is dressed in a gown of clouds, we both saw the same moon, and it was a wonderful thing to know when so far apart. It made us feel closer together somehow. 

Other rituals that are used more often these days are playing particular music for particular tasks, especially writing. I know of writers who play the same song over and over for hours on end. (One example here.) Or putting headphones on in the office (with or without music), as a signal that it was time to concentrate. For me, I put on a classical music playlist when I write or edit — I cannot listen to anything that has words, or I will sing along and get thoroughly distracted. I have not tried playing the same thing over and over. Yet. 

Going for a walk or run is another popular ritual that occupies the body and allows the brain to do its thing. Memoirist Mary Karr talks of running a path near her home and coming to clarity at the top of the hill. She runs regularly, but also when she needs to work through blockers that arise when she writes. Soren Kierkegaard said: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” 

20210302 - calm ease

For me, art can sometimes offer the same hypnotic rhythm, and more specifically if I am drawing patterns like this one. It is repetitive physical work, but does not need too much brain power, so I can drift off and let my brain pick a thread of order out of the shambles that I find myself trying to sort out. If you look through my recent sketchbooks you can see quite clearly when I need to give my brain some space. 

Ritual can be as simple as having your coffee in the same comfy chair each morning as you wake up or grabbing one as you dash for the office. Even closing our eyes and taking five deep breaths when you feel your internal temperature rise to diffuse the situation can be a ritual you call upon regularly. 

Perhaps it’s a series of things you do to get ready for bed to tell your brain that it is time to stop whizzing and whirring and settle down for sleep. 

Writer, editor, and literary agent Shawn Coyne tells the story of working with Bill Murray to edit his book Cinderella Story, and approaching a deadline with the project in disarray. They were getting nowhere fast, chaos reigned. Coyne asked what they should do to resolve the issues they were facing with the project. Murray’s response? He went golfing and took Coyne with him, but Coyne was not allowed to talk to him for the entirety of the trip. This of course sent the editor into a spin, but by the end of the game Murray had let his subconscious mind get to work putting the pieces of the story together while he preoccupied his motor cortex and body with the mechanics of his golf game. 

Rituals let us get to the bottom of the chaos, just as it did for Bill Murray on the golf course and for Mr Collier as he sat preparing himself for the task ahead in the middle of a desert with a cup of tea. Soothing physical actions to occupy the body and let the brain get on with what it needed to do. 

So how do we do it? How do we develop our rituals? 

I have noticed since the early days of becoming a military spouse and learning how to cope with my husband being half a world away doing dangerous work, and especially since the beginning of the pandemic, that I have been drawn to knit. It was not a conscious choice; it was a compulsion. At times I have been a machine, churning out scarves, shawls, and socks. Easy, straightforward patterns that did not require concentration that put me into a meditative state. It took me a long while to realise that I had unconsciously developed this ritual to soothe my frazzled nerves! 

The best thing about rituals is that, while there are some old favourites like music, meditation, or walking, they can be completely our own. Serious or seemingly silly. We are naturally drawn to the things that work for us, that make us feel better or make life smoother, and when we recognise them, we can exploit them to our advantage when we need to. And they are quixotic and capricious as any lover! They change and grow as we do. They can he simple or complex. Private or shared.  

But a word of warning. Do not be so wedded to a ritual that you become a slave to it and cannot function if you cannot find a teapot or a golf club or set of knitting needles. Develop an arsenal of them that will serve you in any given moment and include some that don’t require external props or conditions. Be flexible with your rituals or you may find that you find yourself tangled up in knots of your own making. 

All it takes is a little mindfulness to observe what our minds and bodies respond to, and what makes us able to breathe just that little bit deeper. Then to leverage those things, those instinctive rituals, to help us make sense from the chaos of both ordinary life stuff and any unexpected things that come at us and tip us off kilter. 

PS … British service members making tea in the field is not unusual … they even have tea making facilities built into tanks

Do you have rituals? How do they serve you? 

Top Photo by Lum3n from Pexels 


  • Jude

    Loved it Michelle.
    I remember writing an essay at uni, aged 18, about rituals in ancient Chinese cultures and our modern day parallels; I failed, scoring 7 out of 20. Lol. When it was all explained I got a much better result, and your essay reinforces what I learned way back then. Thanks.

    • Michelle

      Hi Jude! Thanks for reading 🙂 So many of us have rituals that we don’t recognise, and some that are so rigid and formalised that they are immediately recognisable. It would have been very interesting learning about Chinese cultural rituals…so pleased you had a chance to get an explanation 😀

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