Using Ritual to Get Through

Stressful Times

Following is the transcript of Guest Speaker Suli's talk given on Sunday, September 26.

In 1959 a comedian named Eddie Lawrence put out a comedy recording called "The old philosopher" that went to the top of the charts. Very unusual for comedy in any time. The routine reads like it was taken from Vaudeville. Exactly why it is funny is hard to say.  It's several verses that each recounts a litany bad things that happens to someone followed by something like "is that what's bothering you buddy?". 

I will do a verse to give you the idea. Please forgive me that my delivery does not begin to match the amazing Eddie Lawrence. But I will do my best.              

Hey there, cousin.
Ya say ya can't pull your car out of the mud 
and you're in the middle of nowhere 
and its pouring rain
 and ya can't get the top back up 
and your paycheck's all blurred 
and your foot went right through the gas
 and your girl's screaming bloody murder; 
shes scared of the dark 
and a stroke of lightning splits your motor in half 
and your suits shrinking up fast 
and ya start up the windy road on foot 
and sixty yards barbed wire hits ya right smack in the puss 
and ya both fall down in the mud 
and then a wild animal comes over 
and runs away with your shoes 
and your car blows up suddenly 
and your windshield-wiper ends up in your mouth 
and ya can't move
and the mud's rising up to your nostrils 
and you're sinking fast and ya don't hear your girl screaming anymore?

Is that what's on your mind, cousin?

I have had some days lately when I felt like I was living a verse from The Old Philosopher. Maybe you have too.  So this summer I wrote up my own verse. Perhaps you can relate.

Hey there bunky
You say you can't see the end of your driveway through the smoke
and the falling ash got past the air filter in your car and now it wont run

and the thermometer just hit 115
and there doesn't seem to be much water coming out of the tap
and PG&E shut down your power a day and a half ago
and the inside of the house is now up to 125
and every thing in your freezer thawed
and a bear broke into your house to get at the water running out of it

now antifa and the proud boys are in a running gun battle in front of your house
and the Sheriff can't get there because the fire has the road blocked
and you lost your job 6 months Ago
and the mortgage is 5 months over due
and the dentist just called to tell you had a COVID exposure
and the wind just started blowing from the east
and car still wont start
and the flames are coming over the ridge
is that what's bothering you bunky?




They say that people are kinda stressed out there these days. Yeah, ya think? The political climate is, ah well, interesting. The economy is, ah, in upheaval. If you don't have fires and drought you have hurricanes and floods. If COVID wasn't enough of a stress, we are all fighting about what to do about it. In fact, we are pretty much fighting about what to do about everything. 

With all that in the background most of us no longer have a lot of space to deal with the day to day problems. Things that we normally can cope with now seem overwhelming. You know when  change in the weather report or a dime rise in the price of gas brings you to tears.  And suddenly just getting through the day feels a little like trying to empty a swimming pool with a tea cup.

What do we do but endeavor to persevere. But how do we do that? Its easy to say, "just let go and let God." But, as Don pointed out to us a few weeks ago, "God" is an abstract concept not always useful for deciding on pragmatic action and "Just let go" doesn't actually tell you how to do that.

Did you know the American Traffic Commission has advice for you in the event that you are heading into a car accident you can't avoid. Really, they do. Once you have done everything you can to avoid the situation, and you see the wall coming and you can't stop it, they have advice for what to do.


You may laugh, but It is actually very good advice. It might save your life. There is a reason why when a drunk driver causes a wreck the drunk is the most likely person to survive.

Although, unless you are a race car driver, you probably haven't learned that trick. How do you relax when you find your life careening toward the wall and the steering wheel already flew off in your hand?


Aum Mani Padme haum

Several years ago I was working for a company that made winery equipment. A combination of the fact I made less per hour then the welders, and being able to, meant that I was the primary person to drive the delivery truck. The best job in the shop by the way. I was making a run from the shop, in Healdsburg, on 101 north of Santa Rosa, to the Gilroy area. A run I made fairly often. Normally I filled the truck on the way out of town, but it was 1/2 full that day and there was a line at the station we had an account at, and so I decided to fill on the way. Some of you probably know where this is going to go. 

There I was, south of San Jose, bouncing along 101 listening to the radio, and the truck goes - ka chunk ka chunk. I look down and the gauge is on the big E. I'm driving a flat bed truck with a 4 ton piece of equipment on the back of it and I am towing a trailer with 2 more tons. I am on a tight time line with a customer who has stopped processing until that thing on the back of my flat bed arrives. I have never not made a delivery on time. Not only that, but since it is harvest and the shop is running fast and furious and if there is anything in the world I do NOT want to do its call my boss and tell him I am stuck on the road and out of gas. 

So I drop the truck in neutral before the engine actually quit, and I look ahead and there is an off ramp right ahead of me. I get to the ramp and start down and there is a light at the bottom, which of course is red, and a little car there. I know if I come to a stop, I wont be able to move and I will block the entire exit. But before I have to actually break, the light turned green, the car got right down the road, and across the intersection there is a gas station. I roll across, into the station, up to a pump, and come to a stop. And there I am — (genuflect) 
Aum Mani Padme haum. (repeat twice)
See, I have this friend who is a Catholic Buddhist. I know, doesn't seem like they go together, but Ella is not your normal kind of person anyway, and in actuality there is nothing about either spiritual belief that excludes the other. I also have a lot of friends who are Buddhist-ish, or follow some vaguely eastern spiritual practices. As a result, "
Aum Mani Padme haum" is a chant commonly said at dinner, before meditations and, in general, something I have heard and said a lot, always with a connection to prayer and calming thankfulness. And the (genuflect) move, is something that I have seen many times, catholic family members and it is just a quick and easy way for movie makers to tell the audience someone is praying. The sense that that move creates a calming feeling of connection to God is something at least some part of my brain saw.

So, when I stopped at that gas pump with a feeling like God had just snatched me up from in front of an on coming train moments before impact, there I found myself, sitting at the wheel of that truck — Aum Mani Padme haum.  

Ella still laughs when she hears the story.




Of course, most of us are not Buddhist Catholics and are not likely to find Aum Mani Padme haum as calming I suddenly found it. 

But, even when we do not realize it, repetition and spiritual ritual calms us. We may not know how to connect with some concept of "God" in our moment of stress. But (genuflect) or 
Aum Mani Padme haum, or "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name" or "the light of God surrounds us" is something we can connect with.

People who know me know that I am spent most of my life pretty down on ritualized religious practices. They seemed dogmatic and disconnected with the realities of life. It has been a long and winding road to my change of heart. One of the important way stations on that road for me is my Stepmother, Carmen. She is a devout Catholic born into a devout Catholic culture.  Carmen gave me a whole different view of defined and ritualized religion. Not a view from the hierarchy of church doctrine, but a view from a pragmatic woman for whom religion was an every day tool used to navigate life.

While I had seen her weave religious practice and life together for many years, I really came to understand the usefulness of ritualized practice when my father died. 

Carmen and my father had a love that we all hope to have in our life. Their relationship was close and emotional and true. My father's death was a long slow grueling process. And anyone who has walked that path with a loved one knows that contrary to expectation, seeing the end come from so far away does not make it easier. In fact, when you've spent the last months, or even years, of your life caring for that person, it becomes all of your life. And when the end finally came, not only was Carmen grieving for the loss of the love of her life, but most everything that had consumed her life for the previous three years also disappeared, leaving a great sense of emptiness and nothing to fill it but grief.



There is a Catholic tradition of the Novena. Novena is 9, and it can be 9 days of several things, mass, or prayer or fasting, for different reasons. But in this case, for the first 9 days after my father passed, at the same time each evening, the priest, and people from the church, and Carmen's close friends, and even totally not a catholic me, gathered in the house for a particular mass. I can't tell you what was said. The mass was in Spanish and my Spanish is embarrassing for all the Spanish speaking relatives I have and the time I have spent in Mexico. 

But it didn't matter. For the first 9 days of loss and confusion and emotional turning in circles trying to figure out what she was doing minute to minute, Carmen knew each day, at at that time, people would be there, and a ritual would be followed, and for a little while, she would know what she was doing, where she was, who she was and how the world worked. 


The Rosary

Another Catholic tradition that I used to scoff at is the Rosary. Since my scoffing childhood I have learned that the concept is not limited to Catholicism. I had a long time good friend who followed the practices of a Guru, Bhagwan Shee Rajneesh. She had a Mala, which is a string of 109 spaced beads, and a prayer ritual that went with it. She said that ritual every night before she went to bed. Some days, a hurried mumbling before jumping into warm covers. But, when things were tough, it became a heartfelt chant. A reconnection with a teacher she loved and believed in and a power to pull her through those tough times. 

My friend Ella, likewise, says her rosary regularly. She had a little sanctuary set up in her house, or weather allowing, would take a walk in the evening with the dog and work through the beads while she walked. The walk and the repetition of the words were connected in her mind. The brain likes repetition. When she couldn't take the walk, and her life was not running easily, the feel of the beads in her hand and the repetition of the familiar phrases took her back to the feeling of walking in her neighborhood. And it calmed her.



If one looks across religious practices, you will commonly find repetitive rituals that connect the senses. Phrases, chants and songs repeated with the same rhythm and the same words. Often accompanied by the ringing of bells, the burning of incense, kneeling, eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, being in a certain place, doing certain things. 

And, with these actions, there usually is feeling attached. A connection to God and other people. A calmness, a feeling of safety, of belonging, of understanding your place in the world. It can seriously seem like a waste of time to go to that place and burn that incense and say those words week after week. Especially when you life is going well. 

Like my friend mumbling through her mala some nights. I used to wonder Why bother? But after enough repetition, the brain connects the different inputs and, when lacking one, the practice of the others helps the brain connect to what is missing. The feel of the beads and the smell of the incense can bring the peace of the Church even when a fire is keeping you away from the Church. 




Now, today I am speaking to you in Church, so the focus on spiritual rituals is to be expected. But I am going to take a few minutes to talk about non-spiritual rituals. Because not all of us have spiritual rituals. But chances are, there are things in your life that are repetitive and that connect you to a space of safety, and/or peace and/or a simple feeling of life being "ok" right now. Things that you can use to calm yourself and connect with that "ok-ness" when you find yourself asking yourself where you are and what are you doing in this hand basket.



I once had a roommate who washed dishes when ever she was stressed. It is actually not uncommon for people to clean when they are stressed. It isn't that most people actually LIKE cleaning, but there is a connection with cleaning and with life functioning. Myself, I positive don't like cleaning. But when my father was in the last days of hospice, I found myself going through the cupboards and washing every crystal wine glass that hadn't been used in years, every big pot, fancy plate and dusty Thanksgiving platter. 


Household Chores

Or, maybe it isn't cleaning, but some other task that you connect with life moving in a normal pattern. Mowing the lawn, changing the oil in the car, grocery shopping. There can be tendency to react to the desire to do these common things, when life is suddenly highly stressful with, I don't know, scorn. "What are you doing mowing the lawn when your son's house might be burning down?" And of course, if there is some action you could be taking at the moment to help the situation, you should be taking that instead. But usually if there is something useful to do, we are doing it. The worst time is when the situation is difficult, and there IS nothing useful to do. 

A friend of mine who was a paramedic once told me that when he arrived at an accident scene, and someone had broken bones, that by the time he got there they had figured out what position to be in where that injury hurt the least, and they were in it. They were still hurting, but the brain figured out what hurt least. Trust your brain a little when you are stressed to do the same thing. I was washing wine glasses because doing that was a little less scary then not washing them.



Another readily available and useful tool is singing. Most of us have some "favorite song" that connects us to some time and place where life was ok. If we think about it, we probably have some song we sang as a child. Something simple, repetitive, something we know every word and every note. Singing, (and chanting), by the way, has another attribute that helps when you are stressed. It forces you to regulate your breathing. 

At one point in my life I suffered from panic attacks. They tended to hit in the car and a counselor advised me to sing when they did. Loud. I found out that singing some particular songs from my childhood that carried good memories as well as carrying long notes worked particularly well. One of the problems with panic attacks and high stress in general is hyperventilating. If you were in a panic before, when you suddenly feel like you can't breath, things get a whole lot worse. It is very difficult to hyperventilate when you are singing.

Singing also fast tracks your memory. When Glen Campbell was at the end of his career and suffering from Alzheimer's, he couldn't remember his name, but if he started a song, he could sing and play it. If you pick a song (or chant) that connects with some place/time in your past where things are "ok", the tune will help you get back there. Even in moments when getting there is really hard.



Scents are another tool that you can use to help transport your brain to a calmer place. It is no accident that spiritual sanctuaries not only often burn incense, but the always the same incense. Almost every Catholic church burns frankincense or myrrh. Smells, like music, runs shortcuts in your brain. 

I knew a guys who would take a walk from his house on most days, and when he went a particular route, no matter what his mood was, at one point he would suddenly find himself happy. After a while he figured out that it was when he passed a particular house that has a particular plant with a distinctive and noticeable scent. It was the same flowering plant that grew at his aunt's house. And visits to his aunt when he was a child were always fun and happy events. Without even noticing it, the smell took him back. 

Finding those good scents can take a little work, but it's worth it. And you need to be careful because the same mechanism that brings back those good feelings, can bring back bad ones too. The smell of wood smoke used to be such a great scent for me. Now, not so much. 

A soothing scent, by the way, is something you can actually create. Pick an activity/time/event that is consistently good for you. And link a scent to it. For me, its the shower. Its private and safe and its cool or warm, depending on what I need in the moment. Really, the shower is something God gave us on a day we were particularly good. You ever been here, hand against the wall, head under the water, *big sigh*.  I use a particular scented soap that I only use in the shower. And when I am feeling stressed, sometimes I go wash my hands with that soap. And I often find I feel better.




Like a lot of things we actively try to learn in our life, the first step to finding the tools floating around in your life that can help you "relax" when you see some wall in your life coming at you is to notice. Pay attention to the things that help you get to your 'its ok" space. Both what you are drawn to when you are stressed, and what you do in your normal life when you are not stressed. 

Cultivate those calming activities in "good" times. It is easy to decide to skip your meditation, yoga, dance, church, walk with your dog, or what ever you do, because you are doing ok today, and you're busy, and feel like you don't "need" it today. But if you do it today, when you are ok, then when you are not ok, the tool is there and primed and ready for you.

And lean into what your brain finds to calm you when you are stressed.  Of course, you probably should skip screaming at your kids or downing a bottle of wine which is momentarily satisfying, but is bound to get you talked about. But if something seems odd, but not actually damaging, consider it. Building a Lego train may seem strange when you are 55 years old, but what harm does it do?

Ok, so I know I given you a lot here. So let me do a quick recap before I wrap this up.

A lot of us feel like our life has us duck taped to the hood of a driver-less car careening toward a cliff and the best advise we have is to relax.

So how do we do that?

Hold on, grab your rosary, apply some aroma therapy, close your eyes, and start singing.


Thank you.