Repetition as Ritual

Nov 9, 2023

Last week, I wrote about my experience at a meditation retreat, in which a man fainted and reminded me of the preciousness of life.

Another lesson I learned that day came from observing the leader of the retreat, Marc Lesser. He was sharing wisdom from the classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. As he spoke, I was reminded of a retreat of his I had attended more than four years ago, in which he was quoting from the very same book.

I sat there, amazed that after so many years, he is still talking about the same passages, the same lessons. He was able to quote lines by heart, and find passages with a few flips of the page. It was inspiring to see how deeply connected he was to the text.

What does it mean to pursue a single work so deeply, with such passion and love?

Most of us, I suspect, would scoff at the idea of repeating ourselves that much. Reposting the same content more than once is considered a societal sin.

We are trained to keep moving to the next thing, to constantly be finding and sharing new ideas. Next, next, next!

Marc reminded me of the power of slowing down to savor the gems of wisdom I’ve already found. The goal is not to collect them all, but to cherish the ones that touch our soul.

As someone who pursues many interests, revisiting books feels like a luxury. Within a given week, I’ll switch between writing and drawing, programming and public speaking, and more. Each practice has its own track of books I want to explore. So many books, so little time!

But there is much to learn from what we think we already know. Each time we revisit material, we discover new meaning in it. We are not the same person who first encountered it, so we see it from a new lens.

By repeating the same actions, we switch into autopilot mode. The experience becomes less about the specific movements or words, and more about the sensory and spiritual experience.

Through repetition, we unlock new dimensions of experience. This is the power of ritual.

Ritual holds great power and potential. Community rituals like song and dance once held a crucial place in everyone’s life, but have taken a backseat in modern society. Perhaps the reduced emphasis on societal rituals has led to a reduced reverence even for solitary rituals. The philosopher Joseph Campbell greatly emphasized the importance of ritual in society:

“A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.”

One obstacle that held me back from re-reading old books is that I usually wanted to revisit a single chapter, or even a small section. That seemed like a lazy desire (“I should read the book in full!”), so I would avoid picking up the book entirely. I’ve realized that is a pretty silly mindset.

Lately, I’ve been giving myself permission to “partially revisit” things. As an example, I have begun to reread my favorite story in the fable collection Zen Inklings by Donald Richie. The story is called Holy Demon. I love that story to death. I often recite my own version of it to friends on the phone, or to people I just met at parties.

Since telling myself I don’t have to re-read the whole book, I have already re-read the story three times this week. I see new aspects of the telling, little bits and pieces I never noticed before. I’m learning a lot, but most importantly, I’m having a ton of fun.

Next, I want to revisit some short classics I love, like Animal Farm by George Orwell and Candide by Voltaire. I’ve also been revisiting my favorite films—I’ve been rewatching Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli animated films, as well as my diehard favorites like The Little Prince and Whiplash.

Dear reader: If you’ve been wanting to revisit a chapter, a story, a snippet from something and avoided it because of the burden of the whole thing, then consider this post your permission!

Dust it off and give it another go.

We deserve to enjoy the things we love, again and again.

In tough times, it may be the only thing that gives us joy.