What are the rituals of your life?

"The interview conversations also reminded me of the power of rituals. As I listened to these wise people, I realized that many of them had used such rituals to help them live the secrets more deeply. We tend to associate ritual with formal religion, but a ritual can be any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner. For some people, a visit to a particular coffee shop can serve as an important morning ritual. Some rituals are mere routine, but others have the power, over time, to shape our experience of living.

"Sixty-two-year-old Joel told me about two rituals that have shaped his life. When he wakes up in the morning, the first thing he does is have a time of meditation. 'I thank God for another day and take a few minutes to remind myself what a gift it is to be alive, to be a conscious being in the middle of the Milky Way. In that time of meditation I ask that I might act today like this is a great gift and that I would not waste the day ahead.' He went on to tell me that he ends each day with a similar meditation. 'At the end of the day, I take a few minutes of meditation and review the day, taking note of all the things which I am grateful for from that day, however small they may be. And before I go to sleep, I pray that I might have one more day to enjoy being alive.'

"Lea is 58 and an incredibly busy person. Each morning before she leaves her home she, too, makes time for meditation. 'Each morning I take time for being quiet. Often I read something that will get me in the right frame of mind for the day. And each day I say a prayer asking that I will notice those in my path for whom a kind word, a smile, a thank you might be life changing, and I pray that I will not be so busy during my day to miss that.'

"Then there was Jim, who said that for many years he took walks that were 'ranting' walks. He would walk and contemplate all the things that angered him about the world. One day he decided to begin taking 'gratitude' walks. 'Now while I walk I recount all the things I am grateful for in my life and don't allow myself to think of negative things at all. I have found this simple practice to be a great gift.'

"Many years ago, I met a middle-aged nurse who worked in a hospital cancer unit. Each day she spent hours in the presence of suffering. She told me that she had a theme song she played on her way to work. It was a particular song that reminded her each day of what a gift it was to be alive, a song that lifted her spirit. She told me, 'by the time I am at work, I am ready for the day!'

"As I listened to these and many other stories like them, I began to realize the power that rituals have to change us. It was not hard to imagine the effect that years of starting and ending each day with a time of meditation, thanking the universe for another day and ending the day in gratitude, might have on how a person experiences life. I could imagine how that morning ritual reminded Lea every day that what mattered was to give and that she had the power to give from the moment she left the house until her return. I could see that nurse singing her heart away every morning because that one song somehow put her in just the right place to start her day. Rituals are so important that we must be very careful what rituals we allow or choose to become routine. Jim took those 'rant' walks for many years before he turned them into 'gratitude' walks.

"A good first step to determining your rituals is to become aware of the rituals that already exist in your life. How do you begin your day? What is the mood you set? How do you end your day? What are the last thoughts that you take with you into your dreams? What rituals lift your spirit, and what ones may be diminishing it? Over time, as we become more conscious of the rituals that shape us, we become more able to shape them. I begin my day by reading my personal vision statement, which begins with these three words: I am content. By reading this statement each morning I send a prayer to my self-conscious about my life intention before the day takes on a life of its own.

"Thoughts and words are the powerful beginning of a chain that defines how we live. Years ago I read a saying that I thought of many times as I listened to people tell me about their lives: 'Be careful of your thoughts, because your thoughts become your words. Be careful with your words, because your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, because your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, because your habits become your character. And your character becomes your destiny.' "