Casper ter Kuile: An Invitation to Rebuild Your Ritual Muscle
What comes to mind when you read or hear the word “ritual”? It has a lot of weight, right? Despite its religious connotation, a ritual can be any solemn or purposeful act in daily life in which you find deep meaning. Casper ter Kuile, the author of The Power of Ritual, explains why he observes a digital sabbath and how you can discover answers to life’s major questions in the pages of Harry Potter. Yes, really.
“Spirituality is about belonging, becoming, and beyond. Belonging is the relationships we have with one another. Becoming is the process of becoming the kind of people we want to be. Beyond is being part of something bigger than ourselves.”
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Casper ter Kuile: When I was 22, I ended up having this pretty serious accident where I fell off a pier in St. Andrews in Scotland. And everyone assumes that I was drinking, but I don’t drink. And it was genuinely because I was dancing along to the Grease musical, We Go Together. And I was looking at my friend as I was doing that, and by mistake stepped off the side of this pier. Anyway, it ended up in a helicopter rescue and three months of relearning how to walk, both legs were broken, all of that kind of stuff. And the thing that came out of that experience for me was just the low level dissatisfaction that I’d had with my work just became very clear that, oh, this could all be over any time. Let me choose the thing that I’m really interested in. And so I started to freelance and try to learn more. And as I said, ended up in graduate school in the Divinity School at Harvard and really diving into these questions of belonging and how do we change our culture to ultimately then change the impact on questions like climate.
Stan Hall: Hello, and welcome to the true WELLth podcast. The show where we explore the four areas of wellbeing, emotional, social, physical, and financial. We do this by bringing on experts in the areas and gleaning from them, the knowledge on how to live a more contented and happier life. Today, I am very excited to bring on Casper ter Kuile. You may know Casper from the popular and award-winning podcast, “Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts,” which don’t worry, we will cover later of how that show came about. However, Casper is also the author of The Power of Ritual, a truly innovative work that refocuses our connection and approach to ritual and finding meaning. Casper is also the co-founder of How We Gather, a proto-laboratory for spiritual innovation. His goal with all of these projects is to better understand how people experience community and spirituality, and also connect people of all walks to offer greater connection, meaning, and depth to their life. Let’s dive in.
Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, it’s unusual for a gay atheist to end up in divinity school. I grew up in a very non-religious household, and as a young person, I was really passionate about climate change. And I had always been very passionate about community and bringing people together. And it was something that I noticed more and more in my social justice work was that the leaders who I most respected, who were able to bring people together in a way that was really long term, in a way that was effective over many, many years and decades, they always seem to have something religious or spiritual going on. And so, I started to explore how religion has helped people come together, and what are the ways in which you can design for community efficacy.
Stan Hall: Before we get too in in-depth into our conversation, I would be incredibly curious to hear you qualify and perhaps set the table of defining the words, spirituality and religion. Oftentimes I think I make the error of assuming they are synonymous, when in reality, I know they’re different. In perhaps the simplest terms possible, could you explain the difference you see in religion and spirituality?
Casper ter Kuile: Well, this is a highly contested topic. So let me explain it in the way that people usually talk about it, but the casual way that people usually differentiate religion from spirituality is that spirituality is an individual experience. It’s a sense of connection with something bigger than ourselves, with the people that we love, the values that are important to us, and perhaps some of the practices that help us remember that. And religion is the corporate or the communal, and sometimes institutional ways in which those practices and beliefs and experiences are codified. So in this moment where we’ve got a massive growing difference between people who are leaving religious institutions, but still describing themselves as spiritual, often it’s about rejecting an institutional or a dogmatic approach to meaning making and spirituality and embracing an individualized one. Which allows for all sorts of personalization and especially for people, queer people, women, people who’ve been excluded from institutions, it’s a way in which people can take authorship and agency back into parts of their lives that are very intimate and beautiful and sometimes traumatic, but that they can take that back in some way.
Casper ter Kuile: But I think we’re experiencing the other end of that shift, as it were, where so many of us are more and more individual around our spirituality, that we’re losing touch a little bit with how to even talk about it, because we don’t necessarily have words to describe the things that are most meaningful to us. So I think there’s a hunger for community around those questions of spirituality, even if it’s going to look different from the way most religious institutions are set up.
Stan Hall: A quick interjection. I thought it prudent to perhaps frame this conversation of spirituality versus religion by drawing on the wisdom of Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon’s most notable accomplishment was his development of the scientific method. And when he was trying to devise the method, he stumbled upon an innate challenge with humans. Our senses and instincts can be incredibly unreliable and differ wildly from person to person. I think the best, most recent example of this is the blue, black, white, gold dress debate of 2016. Whether you viewed the dress as blue or white, you couldn’t fathom how the opposite was true, because how could your eyes deceive you so blatantly?
Stan Hall: Now, Bacon went on to dissect all the ways in which our instincts could be distorted by categorizing them into four sections called the Idols of the Mind. The category that pertains most to our conversation with Casper today is the Idol of the Theater. In short, Bacon made the claim that we derive our understanding of words through contextual reinforcement of stories. And our social existence, family gatherings, work emails, podcasts, heck everything is entirely comprised of stories, or as Bacon called it, theater. And each one of us bring a unique meaning and bias to each and every word we use.
Stan Hall: Take for example, when you hear the words, a delicious meal. Perhaps we can agree on the simple definition of a good tasting bit of food, but when we conceptualize, which is how we understand language, what a delicious meal is, we come up with a cornucopia of examples based on our own preferences and experiences. Likewise, when you hear the word religion or spirituality, you are conjuring up that definition of it based on every experience you have had in your life to this point.
Casper ter Kuile: That’s right. Yeah. And so, for example, in my work, I never used the G-O-D word because it is so laden with 100,000 different meanings. And so, it’s not as if we’re starting on equal footing, absolutely. The way in my work at Sacred Design Lab, which is the organization I co-founded with my two colleagues, the way we talk about what spirituality looks like, which I just find a helpful, different way in, is to think about belonging, becoming, and beyond. So belonging is the experience of relationship with one another, but also relationship to place, relationship to history. Becoming is about the process of becoming the kind of people that we want to be, that sense of growth or deepening or growing towards humility, even. So a sense of becoming, and then finally that sense of connecting with the beyond, being part of something bigger than ourselves. And so each of those three Bs, as it were, belonging, becoming, beyond, point us to questions of ultimate concern, and it’s a different way into those kind of questions, which I kind of like.
Stan Hall: Yeah, and that reminds you, you bring up that great point in your book of how we have all heard our coworkers or neighbors or friends mentioned the phrase, CrossFit is my religion, or yoga is my religion.
Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the joke I always make is how do you know if someone is a vegan, went to Harvard, or does CrossFit? They’ll tell you, right? There’s a very evangelical culture built in to CrossFit as an organization. And for us, CrossFit, SoulCycle, various other fitness communities are examples of secular organizations, obviously they’re secular groups, but nonetheless, the kind of things that people are bringing to those communities is quite spiritual. So immediately recognizable things are, people wanting to get married in their CrossFit box. People approaching the fitness trainer to counsel them through a divorce or a diagnosis or the death of a loved one. The way in which these communities gather folks around big moments like Thanksgiving or in the wake of a national tragedy. The way in which these communities gather to raise money to support someone who’s going through a cancer or to support a cause that they believe in, or even to get involved with local politics sometimes.
Casper ter Kuile: So, although we’ve seen the decline of religious institutions, I think at the same time in America right now, we’re seeing the rise of a new set of organizations that again is secular, but nonetheless is doing religious things. And so that’s why you have co-founder of CrossFit saying, “Yeah, people call us a cult and I love that,” right? They really lean into it. And again, with SoulCycle, the clue’s in the name, right? SoulCycle. So folks are aware of how to work with and if not actually encourage these kinds of trends.
Casper ter Kuile: And I think honestly, one of the hopes I have for the book is that folks can recognize, they’ll be like, “Oh, wait, what are the foundations in my life that are oriented around community and connection? What are the things oriented around the values that I really believe in and the person that I want to be in the world?” And not just to see that as a hobby or something fun that I do, but to say, “Wow, I should give this the kind of dedication and time and care and intentionality that it deserves because it’s actually really important to me.”
Casper ter Kuile: So I’m not saying, make working out your religion, but to say, okay, if we’re going to take this seriously, what would it look like to think about it ritualistically? How could I honor the actually really meaningful thing that this is in my life? And so, the book is oriented around helping people affirm the things that they’re already doing, and then to invite you to think more deeply about it, drawing on some ancient wisdom from different religious traditions.
Stan Hall: One thing that stuck out to me in your book is you pointed out that we are basically hardwired if you will, as humans for ritual, and we’re searching for it, though we may not realize it, but that ritual and meaning is so pivotal to the human experience, and always has been.
Casper ter Kuile: When you look at the way in which we, and by we, I mean younger people today navigate weddings, the insane amount of money that is spent on a wedding compared to two generations ago. I think has something to do with the fact that it’s the one time in our life when we get to really creatively choose how we want to create a ritual, and everyone is going to be there. So we’ve lost maybe the more regular rhythm, whether it’s harvest time or the spring time or Christmas, or Passover or Eid or whatever. The plethora of ritual life, May Day, Michaelmas, all of these things that perhaps we used to have. When that’s gone, there’s so much pressure on the moments that are ritualized, that we lose it. And so, I think it’s an invitation for us to rebuild our ritual muscle, really. So in the moments when we really need it, it’s not like we’re grasping for straws and we don’t know what to do, but we have that practice.
Stan Hall: Casper, you make a very compelling appeal to the importance of ritual. However, ritual isn’t just something you can order on Amazon, right? It has to be cultivated. But in your book, you talk about adopting rituals and you talk a bit about your take on the Jewish ritual of Sabbath.
Casper ter Kuile: Absolutely. So in my first year of divinity school, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I was like, oh my gosh, this is so exciting. I’m learning so much. And in the nerdier moments, I would walk around the library and just pick up books that looked interesting. And one of them that I picked up was by Abraham Joshua Heschel, great Jewish theologian and rabbi of the 20th century. And he has this wonderful, thin little volume called The Sabbath. Now I had always looked at Sabbath keeping as kind of anachronistic. Why are you not turning on lights? I don’t understand what this is about. And so I read it with a little skepticism, but it ended up resonating very, very deeply, because I think just like nearly everyone else, I’m completely addicted to my phone. It was the first thing I looked at, the last thing I looked at when I went to bed.
Casper ter Kuile: And I just knew that on the days, maybe I went hiking with a friend or something. When I turned it off or I left it behind, I felt better. But at the same time, I’m not going to live in a world where I’m just relying on a landline, right? I need Google Maps if I’m lost in new cities. So this isn’t a question of rejecting technology, but it was about finding a different kind of relationship with my technology. And so reading Heschel was so helpful because one of the things that he invites into of course, invites us into, is to practice Sabbath. And very often in the wellbeing world you’ll hear about, oh, take a rest, take a break, so you can come back revitalized. This is a moment of downtime, so you can be up again the next day.
Casper ter Kuile: And what I love in Heschel is that he describes Sabbath, not as a break to prepare for work, but as the point for which we work. We work so that we can have, as he says, a taste of heaven. Or he calls it, when you enter Sabbath time, you’re entering a palace in time.
Casper ter Kuile: So all of this was massively evocative, but I’m not Jewish. So what did I do with that? So I thought, okay, well, let me be inspired by this tradition, and I had lots of Jewish friends and mentors who encouraged this. So now on a Friday night, I will turn off my phone and I turn off my laptop and I physically hide them, because if I see them, all they want to do is go on email and make myself feel better about my workaholism. And so I hide them, I light a candle and then I sing a little song standing there in the middle of the living room, holding the candle, sing a song that I grew up singing in summer camp.
Casper ter Kuile: And it feels like going on vacation. This is the thing that still hasn’t changed seven years later, is it feels like I’ve entered a different time zone or way of being, because suddenly all of these expectations or stresses, to some extent, it’s not that they disappear, but I just step out of them for a day. And in Jewish tradition, you hold onto the Sabbath for 25 hours because it’s so delicious and wonderful. You need one extra hour on top of a full day. So I try and keep it for that full time, into Saturday evening.
Casper ter Kuile: And the lovely thing for me is, although this is not the point, it ends up being a time of real reflection and creativity. And I might write a very bad poem or I’ll read a novel in a way that I just usually wouldn’t have the attention span for. So for me, it really does feel like this time out of time. And I think, for so many of us, the relationships we have with technology are not only destructive personally, but also our growing awareness around the real questions around ethics. And so this is, I think, is a healthy practice to build our capacity to be choiceful about what we engage with and what we don’t.
Stan Hall: Yeah, I can only imagine how refreshing that practice has been, considering COVID has really thrown a wrench into our standard working and tech hours.
Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, absolutely. The natural bookends of our work days have disappeared. And in fact, there’s already data showing that we are working more than we were working pre-COVID, which is absolutely absurd. So I think finding that rhythm, whether it’s on a weekly schedule, like the Sabbath or more of a daily rhythm of when do I start, when do I stop? It’s becoming more and more important. And it’s actually funny to see how people are creating rituals. Obviously that walk around the neighborhood in the first few months was huge. I know people have weekend shorts and weekday clothes to try and differentiate between the two. But we are ritual making creatures, as I said. And so we’re always finding ways to make one time separate from the other, or one place separate or sacred from the other.
Stan Hall: I love that, the idea of the little mini rituals, which don’t really have to be grand gestures, perhaps. But I’m curious, how would you suggest someone should go about cultivating daily rituals?
Casper ter Kuile: Hmm. I really struggle with this. This is why I focused on Sabbath because it’s a weekly practice. Some people are amazing at their daily disciplines. I have a friend who will do 100 push-ups, then five minutes of quiet, then 10 minutes of a text reflection. I’m like, wow, who is this person, because it is not me. So to some extent, I don’t want to create this image of you have to do it this way. If there are patterns or rhythms or rituals that give you real structure in the morning or in the evening, wonderful. And they don’t all have to be solo, right? It might be a conversation with your partner at the end of the day, to share three things that you enjoyed or where you remembered joy, whatever it is, right? Wonderful.
Casper ter Kuile: The other place that I like to think about, we’ve gone from the micro of the day to the week. I like to think about rituals in an annual calendar. I think, especially for us in this moment of COVID having things to look forward to, even if they’re going to be celebrated slightly differently from how we usually do it, is so healthy and so important. So thinking about an annual calendar of favorite festivals or celebrations, or family traditions or sporting events. And to put that together into a ritual calendar is a really, really lovely activity, just because it gives you a sense of rhythm on that macro scale of the year. So I’ve recently put together a little ritual life calendar planner with some friends, and it’s really lovely to see how people are creating their own ritual year planners already.
Stan Hall: If you’re interested in more ways to build daily rituals, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of Casper’s book and really do consider sitting down and creating your annual ritual calendar. Now, before we go, I would be remiss if I didn’t make good on my promise at the top of the show and have Casper talk to us about his perhaps most popular project, “Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts.” Casper explains to us how to approach basically any texts as a sacred text and what a sacred text is. And what’s more, is Casper explains what the benefit of our own wellbeing gets from this mindfulness practice.
Casper ter Kuile: Yeah, so this is a practice that’s been really important to me over the last six years, as I’ve co-hosted with Vanessa Zoltan the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts.” Where we take the Potter books, not just as books to read for enjoyment, although that’s wonderful, right? Not to think of them as fans would look at a text, but to treat them as if it was sacred, right? To treat it as if you’re reading the Bible or the Koran or the Torah. By which we mean, not that the text is perfect, but by which we mean that you can ask questions of the text that apply to actual life. That you really look for meaning and wisdom and insight about questions or challenges that we’re navigating in our own lives.
Casper ter Kuile: So the way we do that on the show is, every chapter we read through a theme like love or revenge or joy, or next one is dreams. And then the best bit for me is that we don’t just read it as if you’re reading a novel, but to take one sentence and then to practice a sacred reading practice, by which I mean a specific way that you engage with a piece of text. So one example of that is Lectio Divina, that I describe in the book. And this is a Latin word for sacred reading. It’s the literal translation. And what it means is to come to a specific line in the text and to look at it on four levels.
Casper ter Kuile: First of all, just to ask, what’s happening in the text? So reading it narratively, reading it as you usually would, just to understand the plot and who’s there and what are they doing? But then you reread the same sentence and this time you’re not looking for the literal answer of what’s happening. You ask, “What allegories does this remind me of? What other stories or poems or songs or movies or objects in culture does this sentence remind me of?” So in the first line of Harry Potter books, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal.”.
Casper ter Kuile: So for example, if we’re reading it allegorically, you might think of that number four, right? It’s the house number, ostensibly. But if we think about, okay, what does the number four remind me of? Well, I’m thinking about the four members of the Beatles, or I’m thinking about how the four looks like a letter A in text messages, or the way in which that there are, gosh, what else is there? What are there four of, let’s think creatively. Lord of the Rings, there’s three books, plus The Hobbit, whatever it is. You’re just allow knowing our imagination to go haywire. And the way in which traditionally this is practiced is it’s about changing the state of our readings. It’s changing the state of our mind as we engage with this text.
Stan Hall: And it’s okay for your interpretation to not really make sense, right?
Casper ter Kuile: Absolutely. Oh my God. No, it shouldn’t. It’s really about expanding our imaginations, opening up our brain. And so then you go through step-by-step. Step three is about integrating it to a personal experience or a memory that relates to the passage. And then finally, you’re invited to think about an action that you might want to take because of this reflection process that you’ve been through. So you can start reading about Harry Potter and Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, and actually ultimately decide who you’re going to vote for, or that you want to write a song and dedicate it to a former girlfriend, I don’t know. Or that you want to pick up the phone and call your sister, because you haven’t spoken to her in a long time.
Casper ter Kuile: So the point of the reading is not to follow the plot, but the point of sacred reading is to help us become the person that we want to be and to live our lives in the way that we feel called to, right? So it’s a deeper intentionality, it’s a deeper engagement with the text. And so it’s enormously fun to do it with an ostensibly secular text because there’s a whole community of people listen to our podcasts who would never go seeking out some sort of religious texts podcast. But because they know and love and trust the Harry Potter books, even despite the recent horrific actions of JK Rowling, because our conversation is never about her, it’s about us in the text. I mean again, if you think about an actual sacred text, if you think about the Christian Bible, it’s a collection of letters and poems and records, and no one remembers the many different authors of those particular texts and the way that they’ve been bunched together. They’re often seen as a single text.
Casper ter Kuile: Now I don’t want to make invisible the many problematic elements of the Harry Potter books and JK Rowling’s transphobia is just one of them. So again, I really stress it’s not about a text being perfect. And in fact, I think it’s helpful to recognize the imperfection of any text because life isn’t perfect and it offers us a way to grapple with questions. Now, is Harry Potter the perfect book for everyone to do this kind of practice with? No, and it doesn’t need to be.
Casper ter Kuile: But I think what’s most exciting is the way in which to engage texts, right? You can do this with your favorite poet. You can do this with your favorite sci-fi series. Honestly, part of me thinks you could do it with a milk carton. Because it’s not so much about what’s the text, it’s about how your state of mind, your capacity to reflect and imagine, and to arrive at meaning. And as I said, we’re inherently meaning making creatures. So we could probably do, as I said, a sacred text reading with a cereal box or an Ikea catalog. It gives us a way in to thinking about life’s big questions and how we want to live.
Stan Hall: My takeaways for this episode are, one, self-introspection on what spirituality means to you is imperative to living a good life. We have talked before about aligning your time and money with your passions and purpose, and an intentional genuflection on your purpose will by nature become a spiritual exercise. And again, remember what we said about Sir Francis Bacon, reclaiming the word spiritual from the Idol of the Theater and connecting it with the essence of the definition.
Stan Hall: Two, refilling ritual in our lives is a must. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans everywhere have consolidated and lost rituals. And with the advent of the internet and homogenization, more cultural rituals of all scale fall by the wayside. One way to reclaim a ritualistic life is to be intentional about creating ritual. Start by creating an annual ritual calendar about what days are important to you and your family, and then fill in the gaps with created or adopted rituals as needed. I particularly like Casper’s adaptation of the digital Sabbath, creating even the simplest of mini rituals to intentionally separate your time and provide yourself space to be present and in the moment.
Stan Hall: Three, reading any text in a sacred manner is an effective mindfulness and meditative practice that really has no other analogous. Personally, I suffer from trying to speed read every book and article I encountered. And though I may absorb a lot of information, I’m not really being present with the text and not enjoying it. Casper’s tips of slowing down with text is a wonderful reminder of how a mindfulness practice can pop up in all aspects of life. And for tips on how to read something as a sacred text, I really do recommend checking out an episode or five of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts.”
Stan Hall: To learn more about Casper and grab a copy of his book The Power of Ritual, head on down to our show notes page at truewellthpodcast.com. There, we will have a transcript of our show, plus links to everywhere to find Casper.
Stan Hall: We really appreciate your listening. And if you liked today’s show, if you could recommend it to a friend, we would be much obliged. The best way for us to expand this conversation around wellbeing is through word of mouth. To get in touch with the team, and we always love to hear from our listeners, you can drop us a line at truewellthpodcast.com. Until next time.
Stan Hall: The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Whether you want to save for the future or celebrate today, give back to the community, or explore the globe, Brighton Jones believes your values are every bit as unique as your fingerprints. Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values so you can go after the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life at brightonjones.com.
Stan Hall: Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall alongside the rest of our true WELLth team. Michael Stubel, Mark Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com.