Morning and Mourning: The Science of Rituals

Morning and Mourning: The Science of Rituals

Like many clergy people and theologians, I am drawn to the study of psychology, and especially the psychology of religion. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychology of religion is defined as “the empirical or academic study of spiritual experience or organized religion from a psychological perspective.”  That is, the psychology of religion aims to understand how religious faith affects our minds and bodies.  

I was so energized this past month after I had the chance to be in conversation with Dr. David DeSteno as part of our Scientists in Synagogues program at Temple Isaiah. Dr. David DeSteno discussed with our community of around 100 Zoom screens (accounting for more than 150 people) how the structures and traditions of religion contribute to our overall sense of well-being and happiness. He shared his learnings using a variety of religious and experimental examples, many coming from the Jewish tradition. Perhaps one of the most compelling of his teachings for me, as a rabbi, was about the impact of the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva. Shiva in Hebrew means “seven,” and refers to the first seven days after the death of a close loved; in these most intense days of grief, mourners observe certain rituals while being supported in ritualized ways by the larger community.

In a recent podcast with the APA, Dr. DeSteno shared the following about shiva:

One of my favorite [death rituals] is the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva. So if you haven’t been to shiva, many things happen, but it’s a seven-day period of mourning. The first thing that is true is it is called a mitzvah, which is a sacred obligation. When someone passes, you must go to their house, you must bring them food, you must visit them, you must help them out. That’s providing what’s called in psychology instrumental support, which is one of the leading predictors of helping people through grief. It’s not giving them a like or a message on Facebook. It’s showing up when you’re needed. It makes sure that the community does this and repeatedly for a period of days.

Mirrors are covered in a household during shiva. It might seem kind of strange, and there’s a theological reason for it. But there’s also psychological research that shows when you look into a mirror, whatever emotion you are feeling becomes amplified. So if you’re feeling happy, you get happier. If you’re feeling sad, you become sadder. At a time of grief, that would mean more grief. So by covering the mirrors, what you’re doing is reducing grief a bit.

You sit low to the ground or on low chairs or on the ground. There’s new neuroscience research that shows—if you sit low to the ground, ergonomically that’s going to start to cause discomfort in your lower back and knees, and then when you get up to welcome people, it goes away. There’s new neuroscience research that shows when you have mild onsets and offsets of discomfort like that, it reduces rumination and grief.

People come together in groups of 10 called a minyan, 10 or more, to say prayers together and chant them, recite them together. Again, there you see that synchrony happening, synchrony that we know we have experimental evidence that increases feelings of compassion and willingness to help each other.

This is just one example, but what you can see is these aren’t random elements. They through the ages have figured out certain nudges to the mind and the body that help us deal with whatever challenge we’re facing.

I love this idea of the “nudges to the mind and body” that help us deal with life, especially given the challenging world in which we are living today. For me, these last two years dealing with Covid, and the regular day-to-day hurdles of simply being a human being, have reminded me that I need these small nudges to continue to make positive choices in my life. 

It is easy to retreat into the sadness, frustration and overwhelm of our modern lives, but if we take Dr. DeSteno’s scientific learning about religious ritual and give ourselves a gentle psychological nudge, I believe we will all benefit.  

For me, I am going to spend the next month practicing gratitude using a suggestion from Dr. DeSteno. In Judaism, we have a corpus of morning blessings called Nisim B’chol Yom.  These blessings are designed to create a daily sense of wonder and hope in the world.  I know I could use a little boost in this realm.  So, I am committing to reading these blessings every morning when I get up for the next 30 days.  

I will let you know how the practice goes. I am feeling excited about adding this tool to my toolbox for coping in the 21st century. I am particularly excited to remind myself of all the tools within my own faith tradition that exist, which I can use within this new frame and understanding of making life more meaningful and whole.  

What tools are you going to try in the coming weeks and months?  Even if we might be a bit skeptical from a faith perspective, follow the science and check out Dr. DeSteno’s research and book. It turns out there is real benefit of religious practice and rituals to “those who follow them and to anyone, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof).”

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. DeSteno, who spoke at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA on January 29, 2022, is a is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the recent book How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion). 

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