Written for Operation Werewolf by Operative 413
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Ritual is universal.
A materialist would say this is because of the human desire for control over an uncontrollable reality. Men turn to rituals when confronted with illness, danger, and above all, death.
Soldiers, sailors, and those in other dangerous professions have intricate rituals and codes of behavior that novices defy at their peril. Yet people also use ritual in less existential situations, especially in athletics.
Anyone who has played any sport knows some of these petty rituals. If you were in Little League, you remember turning your hat inside out to form “rally caps.” If you played basketball, you had a set routine before you shot a free throw, usually a certain number of dribbles before you lined up your shot. If you played football, you doubtless knew someone on the team who had a shirt or some token he would only wear on game day.
The great American distance runner Steve Prefontaine famously said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” It’s something custom made for T-shirts or posters in college dorm rooms. Yet in the eponymous 1997 film about “Pre,” I thought a quote from discus thrower Mac Wilkins, 1976 Olympic gold medalist, was more inspirational.
“I live and breathe the discus, Pre,” he says. “I mean, I hate Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter and anything that disrupts my routine.” Anyone training for a fight or trying to hit a PR feels the same way.
Diet, training regimens, sleep schedules–all of that can be destroyed by a holiday, a child’s sickness, an “emergency” at work, some trip you just can’t get out of. And you find yourself resenting the people around you who are taking you out of the reality you’ve constructed and forcing you back into theirs.
Worse, when one routine is upset, others follow. When you miss workouts, you tend to stray from your diet plan. On the road, you suddenly start eating junk food from convenience stores or whatever artificial crap you wouldn’t touch while at home.
“Routine” is a word that makes us think of the banal and boring. But routine becomes ritual when it serves a higher end–when it is the tool you use to craft your reality.
Going to work at a job you hate is routine. Using powerful concepts, symbols, and exercises to walk a path of ascent is ritual.
Every athlete uses some sort of ritual. Powerlifter Kirk Karwoski says that before he “goes to work,” everything is “exactly the same, every time,” including which hand he places on the bar first. The purpose is to ensure that both mechanics and mindset are correct during the lift. Once this is done, all you must do is “not fuck up for 20 seconds,” as he puts it.
Sometimes athletes use a different kind of ritual, to break out of a failing routine. In life, these are the rituals of “rebirth” or “cleansing” you see in various faith traditions. In sports, this is when you see people engaging in bizarre behavior to break a slump or a losing streak. You’re readjusting your mindset, shocking your consciousness out of destructive practices.
Both have the same end, to unite mindset with action. Yet at the same time, you are also trying to separate consciousness from the action. In work and in athletic performance, you are at your best when you are “in the zone,” the state described by psychologists as “flow.”
When you begin rationalizing, questioning, or doubting what you are doing, you fail.
Think of a compound lift like a squat clean. Often, beginners fail because they pull the bar too early, trying to muscle up the weight with their arms instead of using proper technique to use momentum and the strength of their body. Even experienced lifters may “fuck up within 20 seconds” if they are attempting a new weight.
At lower weights, the athlete will use proper technique because he knows there’s almost no possibility of failure. At higher weights, he begins to think about all the things he needs to do to execute the lift correctly; popping the hip, not pulling too early, getting under the bar…
By trying to deconstruct the lift, he ends up performing it all wrong and it all falls apart. “Stop thinking about it,” a coach will often tell you.
In a jiu-jitsu match, at the gym, or even in a street fight, self-awareness, rationalization and doubt are the enemies of success.
To put it another way, you are at your best self when you are not aware of yourself.
This even applies in longer activities where you can’t help thinking to yourself, like running a marathon or using a rowing machine. A new study, the first of its kind, found that “self-distancing” increases performance in endurance events. Telling yourself “you will win” is more effective than saying “I will win.”
Even more striking, other research shows that this “distancing” language helps in other stressful activities, like public speaking or meeting a new group of people. “You’ve got this” is better than “I’ve got this.”
Of course, when people use this kind of talk, who is doing the talking? That higher consciousness, that best self, is the expression of your True Will. And you know what it means when that Highest Self takes over.
Think of any accomplishment in your life–winning a boxing match, getting a PR, hitting a home run or draining a critical three-pointer. Or think of a moment of danger–whether you saw combat overseas or were attacked at a bar and fought back.
You weren’t aware of yourself while it was happening. Training took over. It was just happening, and somehow, you were looking at yourself from the outside. And yet, at that moment, you probably felt more alive than you ever had before. You were able to respond effectively, even to something unexpected.
Ritual can serve as a mental short cut to that state. It lets you travel between the worlds, so to speak, between your banal existence and your highest self.
A small ritual, like gripping the bar in a certain way or a mantra before you attempt a lift, prepares you for success. Something greater can allow you to break through barriers, to transcend what you think is possible.
For example, in “On Magic,” Paul Waggener writes of how he prepares a special chalk in a bag painted with blood, liquid testosterone, plant elements, and other ingredients. He only uses this when he attempts a deadlift record.
“This is a physical object that is capable of changing my mindset,” he writes. “It alters reality for me in a very real way. When I use that chalk, I fuck shit up. I lose my mind in the act of savagely using heavy shit. It moves me from a normal mind into an animal… it really, really works. Go try it.”
The greatest rite is to make of your entire life a grand ritual. Each act becomes sacred and each object used infused with meaning and purpose. Sigils, a personal mantra, even the clothes you wear and the food you eat are all ways of keeping your mind in the proper place.
Ritual is a tool that allows us to “return home” when we are displaced mentally or physically. It prevents us from losing our way when we are on the road. It paves the way for continuous Victorious Action.
By losing ourselves in ritual, we gain self-mastery. We can unite everyday action with our True Will. Ultimately, the operative can’t live a life of mere routine.
He should make of his life a Grand Ritual, a Great Work that will outlast his time on Earth.