Arvind Venkataramani on Rituals

"[Sometimes] the lived world that you're in may not just be enough in and of itself to help you create meanings."

My guest today is Arvind Venkataramani. Alongside Adam Menter, Arvind has been working on an open source toolkit to help people design secular rituals. In this conversation, we explore what rituals are and how being more intentional in their structure and use can improve our lives.

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Jorge: So, Arvind, welcome to the show.

Arvind: Thank you. It’s pleasure to be here.

Jorge: It’s a pleasure to have you here. For folks who might not be familiar with you, how do you introduce yourself?

About Arvind

Arvind: Well, professionally, I’m a director of research at SonicRim. We are a consultancy focused on supporting innovation through co-creation and we focus on emerging markets and emerging technologies. So, I spend a lot of time studying and trying to understand human experiences foundationally in the context of some technology or some problem.

Jorge: How did you get here? Is your background in design?

Arvind: Yeah. So, I grew up in India and I got into computing. And then when I was in computing, I realized that the way in which software and technology was being talked about and worked on and created in India, didn’t seem to be totally aligned to human needs. And so, that brought me into a trajectory of going to grad school and studying HCI and interaction design and ethnography. And then eventually that’s how I found myself into a career in like sort of these innovation practice of some kind.

And so, my goals are to… foundationally, they are to create a world that is a place of flourishing for all life. And technology is sort of like the one angle that brought me to studying this and being really interested in how people grapple with existence and how they make their way through life and how we can bring creativity and design to that. So that’s how all of these threads are intersecting.

Jorge: Makes sense. And I wanted to have you on the show because I know that you are doing work in an area that I know little about, and I’m going to describe it as ritual design. Is that a good label for it?

Arvind: Yeah, that’s a good lens. Yeah.

Ritual design

Jorge: What is ritual design?

Arvind: The idea that rituals are a kind of human activity that can be designed intentionally and democratically instead of just being received as part of traditions. And so, we want to broaden the choices people have with how they navigate lives and how they use rituals to make their way through life.

Jorge: I feel like I want to unpack that. There’s a lot there. So, how do you define a ritual?

Arvind: So, for us, it’s basically a very simple definition. For us, a ritual is a nameable container for managing transformation and making meaning. And by container, we mean like a defined and bounded process, right? So that’s the key characteristic. It’s a thing you do that sort of changes you in some way, and it is meaningful in some way; you use it to either acquire meaning or apply meaning to some situation or you use it to uncover the meaning that exists in that situation, for you.

And so, we think of rituals, like we identified… most people have, you know, when they think of ritual, we think of… we’ve talked about like four different kinds of rituals, right? We have short term and long-term access, then we have like a cyclical and and occasional access. And so, there’s a visual on our website that you can look at that sort of describes this. But when most people think of rituals, they often think of something that’s like a seasonal thing, like, you know, Christmas or Thanksgiving or New Year’s or something of that sort or… which is basically like the received traditions, right? Or they think of something that they do habitually. So, they think of like, “Oh, in order to be able to go to bed at night, I must brush my teeth. That’s how, like, I make that transition between one time to like another kind of time.”

These are only two kinds of rituals, but then you have other things that anthropologists have identified. Some things are called rites of passage, they are transitional. They help you manage or mark significant moments in your life. You know, like getting married for instance, is the classic one, or a bar mitzvah or something, or a bat mitzvah, is the classic one.

And then there are things that people do that they don’t necessarily think of very often as rituals, but these are like reactive. So, for instance, you might be somebody who has like PTSD, right? Or you might be somebody on the spectrum and then you encounter a challenging situation and then you might have developed a script, right? A series of things you do at that point to help you navigate that challenging situation. Or perhaps you are a person who, you know, has a growth sort of area around a specific behavior. And then when you’re like, “Oh shit, I’m doing this behavior that I don’t want to do.” You might then have a recipe for what you want to do in that moment.

So those are reactive rituals. They’re like quick responses to a situation. And so, when we’re talking about rituals, we’re talking, about this entire landscape, and people face all four of these kinds of challenges at different points in life. So that’s the entire headspace we’re playing in.

Rituals vs. habits

Jorge: One of the terms that I found myself confusing with ritual, you brought up, which is habit, right?

Arvind: Some habits can be done ritually, right? Like you could have habits like drinking coffee in the morning, but that may just be like so automatic that you’re not like… it’s not actually creating a transformation for you. It’s not a meaningful moment. But then you might actually say, “Oh no, no, my morning coffee is my special time. It is a time when I transitioned from having woken up and like being sort of all not fully centered in my body to where I center into my body, and I like centered into my day.” Right? So, the same activity… the nature of the activity becomes ritualistic depending upon what your relationship to that activity is.

Jorge: Can I give you an example, now that you mentioned coffee. So, I start every day with a cup of coffee, as many people do. And I drink my coffee while writing in my journal. And I have a particular structure that I use for my journal. And the structure involves reflecting on what happened the day before and then planning for the day ahead. And I find that if I skip that, especially the journaling part… like I can skip the coffee, but if I skip the journaling part, I feel unmoored the rest of the day. Would that be an example of a ritualistic activity?

Arvind: Yeah, exactly. That’s the kind of stuff we’re talking about. In our work though, we’re less focused on that because a lot of people are focused on helping people do that kind of thing, right? There are so many habit formation, productivity, like whatever… like approaches that are focused on habits and I think that’s a sort of part of what is motivating us is to step above the individual behavior sort of framing of how to make your way through life and step onto saying like… looking at situations that are better understood and better solved at a social level.

So, that’s one of the important principles we have is to say one of the things that modernity has done and our discourses we have in modernity, particularly in the West, is that we’re individuals, we are responsible for our own agency and wellbeing and care, we are the primary drivers, and therefore every problem that every individual needs needs to be solved at the level of the individual. They have to do it by themselves. And that’s a shame because there are ways of making sense of your experience and of like making your way through challenges that are so much more powerful when you do it with other people. But that’s a thing that we’ve gotten kind of bad at. Like we’ve gotten bad at it that people have so much difficulty asking for help because there’s, again, this belief that you shouldn’t need to ask for help, if you’re a better human being to solve things by yourself, right? And there’s all these like complexes against it.

So, we think rituals are a really powerful way of changing that conversation, of making it easier for groups of people to come together in support of an individual, of taking problems that are like described at the individual level and then translating them into a description at the social level, at the community level, or the group level. And then being much more effective about how we make our way through those.

Jorge: I was going to ask you about a characteristic of your definition. You used the phrase – I think a “named container” or a “nameable container”? And I was going to ask you about the importance of giving it a name, but now that you’re talking about the social aspect, I think I understand why giving it a name is important.

Arvind: Exactly. It’s because you can then invoke a thing that you’re wanting a group of people to do, and you don’t have to describe it in all its gory detail. You can say, we’re going to do a ritual to do a thing and suddenly, the purpose and the intention of why you are invoking help, why you are bringing people into this moment starts to become clear.

Examples of rituals

Jorge: Can you give us examples of such rituals?

Arvind: Yeah. So, for instance, part of why we started doing this work was because we were seeing so few examples of these rituals that map to the lives of people in modern life. So, for instance, if you take the Amish, have a barn raising ritual, right? Like there’s a task that needs to be completed. It’s not possible for the individual farm holding household to complete it by themselves. So, the entire community comes together and then like produces this structure. But it’s not just a project. It’s actually like a ritual thing. There are celebrations involved, there are emotions involved in this. The coming together itself is part of the narrative of how the community understands itself and its values, right?

Compare that with, say, when people move houses. We have so much social mobility, you know, in modern Western countries, right? People move jobs and in order to move jobs might like move across the country. But think of how they’re experiencing that. They either do it by themselves, or they hire somebody to pack and move their stuff. And that’s a logistical experience. It’s a physical experience. But the emotional experience of moving from one job to another, the emotional experience of moving from one part of the country to another, from one city to another, is not something that has a defined ritual around it. You don’t know how to bring in people around you. You might be like, “Hey, can you help me pack?” But like when you bring a friend to help you pack, they might actually be talking with you and they might help you process emotionally what’s going on, but it isn’t named and therefore, you don’t have a guarantee that you will actually get that emotional support and that processing.

Jorge: U-Haul doesn’t help you deal with the loss that comes from abandoning a place where you’ve created important memories, for example.

Arvind: Yeah, yeah. And then how do you be grateful for what you’re received in that place? How do you acknowledge the loss that you are going through? How do you prepare yourself for creating the new things that you are going to need in the new place that you’re going to? And all of that is emotional labor, right? And even if you are not able to make a plan, even if you are able to recognize that that is the nature of the challenge you’re going to be experiencing, that’s going to make it easier for you.

It’s like what’s happening in the pandemic, right? People have lost social contact and then they wonder why they feel tired and depressed and isolated. And like, you know, they’re feeling this loss of energy. But it’s so hard to name the source of it. And once you know the source of it, then you have power. You have agency, you can do something about it.

Moving rituals online

Jorge: You’re talking about the pandemic and we’ve seen all sorts of things moving online. And I know people who have gotten married and they have streamed the ceremony. And then I saw yesterday, just yesterday, a post about someone who had the celebrant officiate the rite of marriage over – I think it was Zoom? – or one of these teleconferencing apps. And hearing you talk about this and the importance of connection, I’m wondering if the effectiveness of rituals is somehow diminished by moving them online? Is there a qualitative difference there at that emotional level?

Arvind: I would say yes and no. So, in order to give you… Like how I understand this going on, I have to do a little bit of backstory. So, this work started when my colleague on this, Adam Menter and I started talking about, the ritual as an untapped mechanism for navigating human and social challenges. And one of the places where we wanted to apply it and learn from is from the context of a conference that he is one of the founders of, and, you know, it’s a retreat in the woods that happens every year. And so, we learned a lot about how rituals work from studying all these various kinds of gatherings that we had experienced doing. And then we looked at the literature, the anthropological literature that had been done and what other people were doing about this. And when we decided to create a toolkit to help people design rituals, part of the intention was to allow people to adapt these ritualing behaviors to a variety of circumstances.

And one of the things that we did earlier this year, when the pandemic started was to help create a guide for virtual memorials. It’s online. You can find it at virtualmemorialguide.org. And the goal was specifically to say, people are going to have deaths and they’re going to have to have memorials and they’re going to have to do it over Zoom and they’re not going to be able to do that. Let’s help them do this well, based on research that we do and trying to understand what makes for good online experiences. And also, let’s talk about the ways in which these kinds of Zoom funerals and memorials can be in some ways… bring in and accomplish elements that you could not do with like in person experiences, right? There are limitations in in personal experiences that you can transcend with online experiences. And that’s a good thing because what it means is, we’re not framing the conversation in terms of what is lesser. Like is the online experience is lesser in some way, we’re framing it in terms of what is gained and what is lost.

And so, there are some things that are easier. So, we have, we have four dynamics that we have identified that are part of rituals. So, they are visualization. Right? Taking a thing that is symbolic and verbal in some way and turning it into something that you can see and feel and touch. The second is like spatialization, which is, what architecture, what space are you a part of? How does that create the world of the ritual? The third is visceralization. How do you take the ideas and bring them into your body and like feel it? And the fourth is like, I think we would call it dramatization or storytelling. Which is how do you take a thing that is an idea and turn it into a story that you can live, right? A narrative that you can inhabit.

And if you think about online experiences, the things that you lose right away are the spatializations. It’s hard to be in a common shared ritual world and a common shared ritual environment. You can’t be in the church. You can’t be in the majesty of the cathedral. Those things can’t influence your experience. And in some ways, visualizations become harder, but you are still… you can still do storytelling. You can still do visceralization. You can still feel your body. You can still be with others. You can still find maybe alternative ways of visualizing that are better suited to the screen. So, it’s not a question of a tradeoff. And if you understand how rituals work and you have like a toolkit that helps you make sense of these components; I think it’s completely possible to adapt the rituals that you traditionally consider in-person rituals to these online spheres. And there just do it differently.

The Ritual Design Toolkit

Jorge: You mentioned the toolkit, and I think you talk about it as an open source toolkit in the site, which to me implies this kind of do-it-yourself nature to the work and I’m hoping that you will describe it for us. What does it consist of and how would someone use it?

Arvind: So, currently it consists of four parts and, you know, and our ritual design practice is evolving. So, you know, these things are in flux. But we take a very designerly approach to doing this. We want this to be playful. We want this to be accessible. We’re designing this for people who may not have had a lot of experience designing experiences, right? But we also wanted to help people who are skilled designers of gatherings and hosts to be able to clarify and make their intuitions more explicit.

So, there are four parts. There’s a context canvas. It’s the start of the toolkit. It’s where you enter the process. And what you’re doing is you’re trying to sort of create a… almost a design brief. You want to articulate, what is it that you are wanting to feel? What are the goals of the ritual? Who are the people involved, what are the resources you have access to? So, it’s like taking stock of your situation before you start designing.

Then, there’s a set of cards that we call the intent cards. These are ways for you to explore the meaning and the intentions and the outcomes that you have wanting your rituals to have. So, it allows you to sort of get into that. And there’s a variety of different categories. So, there are cards around emotional processing and emotional movement that are cards around, like, relationships. There are cards around identity. There are cards around metaphor and so on. So, they help you make sense of this space.

Then, we have a series of maps that allow you to sequence and flow the activities in your ritual and that tell you how to structure the arc of a ritual and the arcs are based on understanding how rituals work, which is based on understanding, you know, an anthropological studies of ritual.

And then, the final piece is what we call method cards and they help you get inspired. So, for instance, you might be thinking about it, like, “okay, I want to accomplish this particular effect,” or, “I want to do something that embodies this intention. I want people to feel grateful. Okay. How can I help people feel grateful? What are some actual activities I can do?” So, the method cards help you flip through a variety of activities and say, ah, that sounds like a good match. We could do like a circle and then tell each other what we’re grateful for. Or, you know, we could sit in a fire or we could sing a song and then, you know, it’s just ways of supporting the creative act and help you spark and think of things to do.

And so, hopefully all of these four pieces, depending upon where you are in your process, are giving you some kind of support to think through the act of designing an experience.

New rituals vs. established frameworks

Jorge: When I think of the power of ritual, especially social ritual of the type that you’re talking about specifically, I think a lot of the power of ritual comes from participation in a set of activities, language, processes that have been around for a while. The Amish barn raise, right? That’s not just a way of putting up a building, it’s a way of participating in Amish culture. And you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that traditional rituals, I don’t remember the exact words, but the gist of it was — at least as I understood it — that traditional rituals don’t have as much power in today’s world. And I’m wondering why that would be. Like, why would someone design a ritual as opposed to turn to one of the established religious frameworks, for example?

Arvind: Well, there are several things going on. So, one of my favorite ways of thinking about modernity is the sociologist called Anthony Giddens and he writes about modernity. And one of the ways in which he describes modern day is the condition of having to create yourself. In that, in prior, older ages, you sort of had clearly defined narratives and what kind of a person you could be, and that narrative was given to you, and you just sort of inhabited one of those narratives, because you were already part of an entire social world and that social world was like a total social world, right? Between your community and your religious institutions and your political organizations that governed you… So many aspects of your life, we’re just sort of there for you to inhabit.

But we don’t have that in modernity. We have alienation from institutions. We have social mobility that disconnects us from our support structures and our communities and our families and our biological networks. We have labor that’s organized in such a way that the thing we do for work and for survival and for getting money may not be connected to our sense of self. And we have to find ways of making all of these connections.

So, people are already disconnected. And for a lot of people, even religious people, who have access to these institutions and are a part of them and they formed community support, the narrative of ritual has sort of retreated very often into religion. It’s retreated into belief. And it’s become almost synonymous with belief. Like if you do a ritual it’s because you have a certain kind of belief. And I think a lot of people who, if they have trouble with a belief, they end up therefore also having trouble with rituals. Right? Because they don’t know how to engage with rituals outside of the context of belief. So, what we want to do is to allow people, therefore, to be able to say, in secular context — and we’re increasingly in the U.S., specifically, so many more people are increasingly identifying, like in terms of their religious affiliation, they identify as “none’s” right? Not any. And for these people, they are therefore don’t have institutions that they can turn to. And so, part of what we want to do is to help people develop rituals, to develop communities, to develop institutions, and find ways of like going up this ladder of social organization. And it’s super hard to start that if you don’t have some technology of gathering, because gatherings are where communities come from in some way. So that’s our goal is to say, we already live in this fractured world. How can we help people synthesize again on their own terms?

Jorge: So, if I might summarize that, it sounds to me like part of it is, so many people have lost the level of belief in religious frameworks that would lead to the effectiveness of rituals within that framework. And I know that you and Adam… I don’t know if you prototyped or if you’d been doing it prior to that, but I know that you did a — I don’t know if to call it a ritual studio — at Burning Man.

Arvind: Yeah.

Jorge: Burning Man strikes me as being kind of an emergent culture, right? The point in me saying that is that you’re prototyping the ritual studio in a context that is friendly to that sort of experimentation, right?

Arvind: Yes.

Jorge: What that made me think of is, maybe there is a way for us to build new rituals on top of our existing constructs somehow. Because it sounds like… and I haven’t tried it, but just from looking at it, it sounds like a really useful framework; this kit that you and Adam have put together sounds like a really useful framework for doing this. But if I were doing this, I don’t think that I would be doing it from scratch; I would be leveraging things that I already participate in. If no other thing, it’s like, well, I’m a middle-aged man who is fairly conventional in the way that I live and I have accepted certain cultural constructs that are going to put kind of rails around the experience. You know what I mean?

Arvind: Absolutely. So, I think that the Burning Man experience was more of a way for us to understand and how to help others engage with this material, because again, we are ourselves learning how to be better ritual designers as we do this work, right? As we learn how to facilitate design for other people, which is part of, one of our foundational values, is that we don’t ever want to say that we are the experts who can like tell other people what the best rituals will be for them. We don’t think that’s possible. We think it has to come from people’s own experience. And then it has to be, as you say, guided by their own rails and constraints, otherwise it doesn’t work. Because ultimately this is about meaning and meaning isn’t something that’s imposed from the outside; meaning is something that comes from a person’s experiences and their world.

One of the things we did for ourselves was to host a gratitude ritual for a community that, you know, we’re both a part of. And, one of the things we learned was that there are some things that you have to ground the ritual experiences in… as in, its useful to call to a nod towards things that are already conversant in the community, right? That community doesn’t necessarily have to be thinking about rituals, but they just have to be comfortable with being a community that does have its own sort of like ways of doing and conventions. And we’re able to tap into some of those conventions to then put together an experience that everybody was able to participate in.

So, it’s really like a bit of a balancing act. You want to build on the lived world that you’re in, but the lived world that you’re in may not just be enough in and of itself to help you create meanings, sometimes. And that’s the idea of why the ritual toolkit helps you structure an experience to create that special-ness; the ability to step out of mundane-ness and into ritual time. And some people might know how to do that. And so, what we’re doing is, for the people who don’t know how to do that, provide scaffolding for them to be able to go into ritual time and bring the people into ritual time. But then the things you put into ritual time can come from all of these different sources. And one really important thing is a lot of the meaning that emerges in a ritual is not just from the fact that something is deeply meaningful. A huge portion of the meaning comes from the separation of ritual time from world time. Things become meaningful in the context of ritual, because you have wrapped it in this container. You have separated it, you put it in here. Its significance, its salience, its power, its focus becomes amplified by putting it into a ritual. Whereas if you were to just encounter it in an everyday context, that same thing in your own world would just not have that much power.

Closing

Jorge: That strikes me as a fantastic summary of what this work is about and a good place to wrap the conversation. So where can folks go to find out more about your work and the toolkit?

Arvind: Everything’s online at ritualdesign.net. And it’s got links to all of the toolkit components. And if this work inspires you, you want to participate with us, you can get in touch. And we also are sort of trying to do as you said earlier, and its open source, we are inviting contributors to help us with this. And there’s a section on the website where you can find out how to contribute.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to include that in the show notes. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Arvind.

Arvind: You’re welcome. And it’s a pleasure. It’s such a meaningful experience for us. We get a lot of joy and satisfaction from just even being able to have these conversations and look at these experiences with people. And you know, whenever we try to engage with people on this, we are humbled by the richness and brilliance and insight that just come from just about anywhere.

Jorge: Well, hear, hear. Thank you so much.