By Laura Newsome
At last summer’s Olympic games in London, millions of viewers got an inside look at the strange and sacred world of sports rituals. Michael Phelps flapped his gangly arms like a California condor at the edge of the pool, while sprinter Usain Bolt hopped around the starting blocks, flashing his signature arrow-like “Bolt” stance to audience acclaim. American miler Leo Manzano’s silver medal was far outshined by his pre-race routine of blessing his heart and limbs with saliva before performing the sign of the cross.
Phelps, Bolt and Manzano are hardly alone when it comes to the long list of celebrities and historic figures who relied on the power of rituals to give them the confidence to reach new levels of success. Steve Jobs unveiled each new groundbreaking Apple device in his signature black turtleneck and stonewashed jeans, while Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina college shorts beneath his Chicago Bulls uniform. Red Sox baseman Wade Boggs wrote the word “chai” in the dirt every time he went up to bat, while children’s host Fred Rogers kept his weight at exactly 143 pounds his entire life because it aligned with the number of letters that spell out “I Love You.” From famous kings and politicians to rock stars and business tycoons, the world is full of stories about successful people who have used rituals, visualizations and meditation to reach mental states that help them maximize their individual potential and reach new levels of success that might otherwise be impossible.
One of the earliest and most powerful forces of mindfulness, meditation is a practice of mental self-regulation that alters one’s consciousness for the purpose of relaxation, wisdom, spiritual connection or visualizing future success. While meditation is most commonly associated with Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, sects of Judaism, Islam and Christianity also practice the ancient art. “Meditation involves taking the time to go into yourself, have quiet time and center yourself to alter your consciousness,” says Arcella Trimble, Ph.D., a psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Life University. “Meditation typically has some kind of spiritual affiliation where you are connecting with something greater outside of yourself.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, Western meditation took on a more popular and secular bent, with a focus on stress reduction and self-improvement. In the decades since, significant scientific data has supported what practitioners have known for centuries. Meditation has concrete neurological and medical benefits that include reductions in pain, stress, anxiety, depression and blood pressure, as well as improvements in IQ, sensory perception, attention span, focus, memory and mental longevity. The studies, which show that meditation can enable brain growth as well as reduce heart rate, respiration and metabolism, prove that our mental processes—what and how we think—have long-lasting physical manifestations in our own lives and the way we interact with the world beyond ourselves.
Meditation is not the only way in which humans can unlock the untapped power of the subconscious mind. Rituals, defined as any action or set of actions performed for symbolic value, have permeated human culture since the beginning of time. While rituals from long forgotten cultures may seem strange or grotesque to modern sensibilities, human cultures around the world performed them for the very same reasons we do today—religious ceremonies, displays of patriotism and marriage and funerary rites. Many researchers believe rituals evolved in prehistoric times as a way to alter consciousness to meld a group of individuals into a single entity with one purpose.
Ancient cultures also developed rituals as a way to socialize and enhance group bonds by celebrating life milestones and seasonal changes. Today, cultures throughout the world celebrate graduations, bonding ceremonies, parades and seasonal feast days. Americans are well known for such seasonal fare as tailgating parties, Halloween trick-or-treating, pardoning the presidential turkey, Black Friday shopping, Groundhog Day prognosticating and saying the Pledge of Allegiance before events. On a smaller scale, families strengthen their bonds through pre-dinner prayers, bedtime routines, religious holiday customs and cultural food and entertainment.
While national, community and familial rituals have shaped much of history, they can also be employed in our individual lives as a way to facilitate paths that lead to future success. “A ritual is a set of procedures or behavior that lifts someone out of their individual ego and takes them to a higher place,” says Richard Shook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology in Life University’s College of Undergraduate Studies. “Rituals inspire you to serve something greater.”
For people who practice mindfulness, even mundane daily routines like breakfast, making the bed and getting ready in the morning can become forms of meditation that aid in the transition to wakefulness and help jumpstart the day. “A ritual is something you do routinely,” says Trimble, “and any time you’re doing things like cooking and cleaning with intent, those tasks develop a sense of purposefulness instead of just a sense of obligation. As humans, we adapt to change but we don’t like it, so we try to maintain some stability in our minds by enacting and reenacting rituals.”
For Linda Mullin, D.C., every workday and each chiropractic adjustment is steeped in rituals that help focus her mind and enable her to perform at her absolute best. “Before each chiropractic adjustment, I take great pains to maintain a routine and ensure proper positioning before I deliver an adjustment,” says Mullin, a professor in Life University’s College of Chiropractic. “It’s something I do 60 times a day, but I make sure I pay attention to my purpose every time. I straighten the legs and align the pelvis—I pay attention to absolutely every piece of the puzzle.”
Mullin credits this connection with ritual and living deliberately to a lecture she heard Guy Riekeman, D.C., deliver about being inspired even if circumstances seem less than ideal. In the lecture, Riekeman talked about reformulating his annoyance with frequent flying to thinking about how amazing it is to be strapped in a jet whizzing through the air at 500 miles an hour. “Instead of thinking ‘I have to go to work today,’ I always think, ‘I get to go to work today,’ and that kind of thinking literally connects you to your actions and keeps you from being uninspired,” says Mullin. “A ritual is like a routine or a habit, but instead of always being functional, there are emotions behind it. Sometimes life feels like it’s going by at 5,000 miles an hour and it’s nice to stop and feel connected to my actions and be grounded with my patients and to what I’m physically doing.”
While rituals and mediation help individuals achieve serenity and a centered life, both can also serve as sounding boards for visualizing buildings that have yet to be built, works that have yet to be composed and ideas that have yet to materialize. “Often people may not believe they can change in the place they are at, so they have to change their rituals to alter their thought patterns,” says Trimble, who counsels patients on how to achieve breakthroughs in their lives. “Visualizations involve the belief that something different could occur even if you have no clue how it can happen. Whether you want a million dollars or $100, you have to start visualizing the things you need to do to get to your goal.”
The key to visualization is the vividness of the colors, sounds, sights and feelings—the imagery—it evokes. “What we imagine can be just as real as life itself,” says Shook, whose clinical work involves athletic performance, pain management and hypnotherapy. The same scientific method that has shown the health benefits of meditation has also proved that when people visualize a certain act, the same parts of their brains light up as if they were performing the action in real life. As far as the brain is concerned, there may be very little difference between the mental and physical realms.
“Positive imagery and visualizing what you want to happen is very important, but so is visualizing what might go wrong as a means of systematic desensitization to negative occurrences,” says Shook, who helps patients activate healthy aspects of the unconscious—an essential part of the body’s self-regulating, self-healing work in the mind. “A linebacker might visualize how he’ll move and break through a tough line, or a golfer might imagine controlling his emotions and positioning his swing in such a way that the ball goes directly into the hole.”
By regulating our thoughts, overcoming imagined conflicts and embellishing the mental pictures we wish to mirror in the real world, many experts contend that such visual thinking increases the likelihood of creating those changes in the physical world—provided you are willing to do the hard work necessary to make it happen. “A lot of executives first imagine themselves in a corner office, and there’s evidence that doing imagery can convince the body that something has already happened, so you’ll carry yourself in such a way that it does happen,” says Shook. “A huge majority of successful people see themselves as successful before it happens.” While not all people with a vision of success will achieve their desired outcome, people like Oprah and Bill Gates report believing wholeheartedly that the visions in their heads would become their reality, no matter the challenges they faced along the way.
Visualization techniques are constantly used in music composition and technological discoveries, as well as in architecture, which requires a designer to visualize a completed masterpiece before even mapping out the foundation. Similarly, Shook often asks patients who are experiencing great pain to visualize a certain miraculous plant in the rainforest that could take the pain away. Surprisingly, after such visualizations many patients report that their pain has almost completely dissipated, backing decades of evidence showing that the placebo effect is one of the mind’s most powerful stratagems. “In terms of vitalism, it can be quite remarkable what the brain can do if we listen to our intuition,” Shook says. “Through the practice of imagery, you develop a systematic way of finding the eye of the hurricane in whatever you’re going through.”
While Trimble acknowledges that many forms of rituals and meditation can be powerful motivators for making the most of life, any time a person derives a sense of power or calm from something that is harmful—such as drugs, alcohol or smoking—a life change is in order. “Drinking a glass of wine every morning is probably not a great way to start the day,” she says. “Rituals become bad when they don’t serve you but you can no longer stop or change them.”
Business tycoon, aviator and inventor Howard Hughes is a great example of someone whose rituals and laser-focused visualizations likely led to both his historic successes and his bouts with isolation and extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Meditation is not all good, rituals are not all bad and not being flexible and beating yourself up about something you failed to do is still not living well,” says Trimble. “Vitalism says that we are self-regulating, self-maintaing organisms, so going to extremes betrays that philosophy. Anytime you feel stress, stop what you’re doing and figure out why you feel anxiety and what you need to change. It’s okay to change things if they’re not working.” In her chiropractic practice, Mullin is quick to highlight the difference between being present and being compulsive. “If you feel too serious about having to be right in your ritual you can get very critical during each step,” she says. “On the other hand, if you stay connected to your actions through rituals and mindfulness, you can develop and maintain a serene sense of consciousness.”
Just as a lucky jersey, a runner’s stretching routine or a swimmer’s mantra can help athletes blaze past mental roadblocks to achieve maximum performance, meditation and rituals can also help chiropractors connect with patients and lead to behavior modifications for delayed gratification, which can help you save money, earn another degree, achieve a promotion or lose 20 pounds. It has been said that every Olympic athlete has the ability to win gold, but the edge always goes to the runner, jumper, swimmer, skater or skier who has the vision, the mental fitness and the positive ground game to make it happen. “Mindfulness, rituals and visualization occur everywhere in life,” says Shook. “The important thing is to suspend the more logical side of the mind and become more open to creative imagery that can lead to greater success.”