Casper ter Kuile is the author of The Power of Ritual, co-host of the award-winning podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, and co-founder of startup Sacred Design Lab. He seeks to share and foster belonging, which is a core tenant to our pathfinding ambitions.
Belonging, by definition, is associated with having an affinity for a place or situation, or to be in a close relationship with a person or group. At the end of the day, belonging is ultimately a connection to something or someone; a connection that
During the current pandemic with COVID-19, belonging is something that we all thirst for, but not a lot of us can quench. With work that has been featured in the New York Times, Vice, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, Casper continuously seeks ways to bring others to the crux of connection, meaning, and purpose through“the power of ritual.” By cultivating new everyday practices, and correcting old ones, such as eating with roommates or family members, working out, or reading a chapter a day, communities can mend their longing for connection during social isolation.
In the midst of societal and personal turbulence that the journey and experience of community and spirituality bring, Casper ter Kuile’s mission to build a world of belonging is brought to fruition through the projects he designs which help individuals live lives of greater connection, meaning, and depth.
Casper ter Kuile’s One Away Moment: The Harvard Divinity School, Gay and Without Religion
Growing up, the extent to Casper’s environmental activism equated to raking up leaves and collecting trash from the streets with kitchen garbage bags. The more he learned about the effects of environmental injustices though, the more he recognized the ways in which climate change accelerated inequalities; centralized power among larger economies radiating entropy of inequality in the poorer countries.
Casper’s One Away Moment dates back to when he was just 22. He had been a climate activist for several years, mobilizing and engaging the knowledge and importance of environmental justices to young people who would take action. The climate talks surrounding 2009 were groundbreaking, but Casper and his colleagues never got to the place they wanted to go, as if their efforts were in vain.
“I remember coming home and staying on the couch for two weeks over the Christmas holidays. It forced me to reconsider how I understood how change was made and what I wanted to do with my life. Rather than focusing on politics and policy, I realized I had to think a different way in which change was made.”
After diving into that level of thinking, Casper sought to understand the paradigms of politics, justice, and community members that enact movements bigger than themselves.
“How do we understand who we are and what the world is? Is the world around us a resource to be used and then kind of spewed out? Or are we actually the same thing as nature?”
These questions were an invitation to think critically and completely for Casper — to think differently about what his work was as well. “I wasn’t just an activist but I wanted to help tell a different story about who we are as human beings. That led ultimately to Divinity School which was very unexpected for me as a gay guy and having grown up with no religion at all at home.”
The Casper ter Kuile Thinks the Common Denominator to all Powers, Movements, and Ideologies is Story
“Although it sounds like something completely different – going from being a climate activist to thinking about religion and culture — to me, they’re very related. We live in a story of growth that you can always grow; you can always be better and faster; that growth is limitless, and yet, we live on a limited planet.”
After this newfound, personal revelation, Casper began to ask the very rudimentary questions of story, thus his inquisitive journey to discover story and the interconnectedness of human beings as characters, shoulder to shoulder, in the narrative we call life.
This is where religion gets thrown into the mix.
“Many religious traditions have been trying to give us a different story since the beginning of time, but not everything is a competition. We can live in a story of collaboration, of collective care.”
Again, Casper found himself seeking to understand the viability of different epistemologies and ontologies co-existing and co-shaping one another.
And that’s how he ended up in Divinity School.
Whether you’re a recent grad or a professional looking to make a pivot at any stage of your career, here are 5 valuable nuggets of wisdom to come away with from Casper’s One Away Experience:
1. The sum is always greater than its parts: ‘Story’ will forever be a part of our existence. In trying to understand it, it is essential that our framework is collective, utilitarian in seeking remedy. I think all of us are drawn to solving the world’s problems in some way or another.
We throw ourselves into finding the solution for our local communities and the communities around the world saying, “I can make a difference. I can help other people through this.” It’s important to keep at the forefront of our minds that while there are big questions and big problems to solve, the answer is in the small, individual steps and corrections that make the whole. The sum is always greater than its parts
2. Look beyond that “one piece” of tradition: Story as a general theme, is told by all but heard by few. The traditions we practice– whether religious, spiritual, educational, personal– are in some form or another defined as right or wrong. I challenge you to look beyond the tradition, the routine, and seek where tangible and intangible borders exist. Many of the borders I’ve come to run into were traditional, so I sought a path that wasn’t.
3. Engage with the story: Throughout relationships, you encounter new perspectives, new reasonings, and new ways of being. The best part? When you are in a place to receive those newnesses. For Casper, this was what he experienced throughout his entire time at Divinity School.
“I had some wonderful professors and mentors who taught me. One practice that became really important was the art of sacred reading. The practice of not just reading a book like this is an interesting story and what happens in the plot but a way of engaging with it.”
For example, “taking one sentence and reading it with a question to yourself, asking “what can I learn from this sentence about mental health?” Traditions have structured norms, different sets of questions to ask yourself over time can lead to life changing events. For Casper, one friend who’s perspective and questioning of Harry Potter as a traditional sacred text, grew within a year to become an award winning podcast
BRYAN WISH: What’s your One Away moment you’d like to share with us?
CASPER TER KUILE: I want to share a story from when I was about 22. At that point, I had been a climate activist for several years. I’d been highly involved in mobilizing young people around the climate crisis to engage with politics and lobby their local politicians.
When I was around 23, I was in Denmark in Copenhagen at the UN climate talks in 2009. This was a big global moment that we’d been building up to in the climate sector for years. The leaders of the world would be making all these major decisions around climate, and we’d been advocating for all sorts of changes.
Unexpectedly, the talks collapsed. We didn’t get to the place that we needed to. I had thrown my heart and soul into this effort, and I felt totally let down and broken. I remember coming home and staying on the couch for two weeks over the Christmas holidays.
This entire experience forced me to reconsider how change is made. On a personal level, it also made me completely rethink what I wanted to do with my life. Rather than focusing on politics and policy, I realized I needed new perspective on how to enact change. I went to that level of thinking about paradigms:
- How do we understand who we are and what thew world is?
- Is the world around us a resource to be used and then spewed out?
- Or, are we actually the same thing as nature?
I came to the conclusion that human beings are not separate from nature. We are nature. This process encouraged me to think completely differently about what my work signified, as well. I wasn’t just an activist. I wanted to help tell a different story about who we are as human beings.
Ultimately, this series of realizations prompted me to enroll in a Divinity School. As a gay man, this was a very unexpected for me, especially having grown up without a specific religious upbringing at home. That was a really significant moment for me.
BRYAN WISH: What led you into the climate crisis, and what was your initial interest there? From your story, it sounds like that experience really catalyzed you to go take on something completely different and unheard of.
CASPER TER KUILE: I grew up in England and was a very “indoorsy” child. I was not a great lover of the natural world, by any means. My dad would take my three sisters and I out on Sundays sometimes with large trash bags, and we would have competitions to see who could collect the most trash. The point of this activity was to clean up the local neighborhood. As a kid, that family tradition was probably the extent of my environmental activism.
As I grew up, I developed a strong interest in how global power was centralized among larger economies, and the ways in which poorer countries felt the impacts of inequality. I’m not sure what sparked this passion for me; it might have been about lower living standards, or perhaps unjust trade deals between countries.
The more I learned about climate change, the more clearly I understood that the issue of climate change would accelerate these inequalities. The richest countries create most of the carbon pollution, while the poorest countries suffer the negative impacts.
In 2009, I got very lucky. I had the opportunity to go on a wildly absurd experience: a 10-day boat journey through the Arctic with the World Wildlife Fund. They chose 20 young people from around the world to learn about the impacts of climate change on the Arctic.
We had Arctic scientists, campaign strategists, and communications experts on board. It was like Hogwarts for climate activists. This trip was an all intense learning experience. I came out of it having learned from 20 other young people from around the world. I heard about the amazing things they were doing, and the ways in which young people were leading the charge on climate change.
When I came home, I was fired up. The other participant from the UK on the boat, my friend Emma, and I set up a small campaigning organization called The Youth Climate Coalition. We got really into that project. It was an amazing experience. We learned how to create and run an organization, which included everything from choosing strategies to managing budgets and volunteers.
For the next two years leading up to the 2009 talks in Copenhagen, we spent all of our time building up to the hopes of influencing policy change around climate. That’s why it felt so painful; the summit had been this major moment we’d been working towards.
I’m sure these two topics sound completely unrelated. How do you go from being a climate activist to thinking about religion and culture? To me, though, they’re closely intertwined. I realized that every society has this same story. We all live in a story of growth. As people, we can always grow; you can always be better and faster. That growth is limitless, yet we live on a limited planet.
Upon realizing this common theme, I became extremely interested in where this story came from. Is it possible for us to live in a different story? That’s what many religious traditions have been trying to do: give us a different story. It doesn’t have to be a dog-eat-dog world. Not everything is a competition. We can also live in a story of collaboration.
Our world is not simply comprised individual needs. Our story is one of collective care. I became more and more interested in thinking about those different paradigms for how we understand the world. That’s how I ended up in Divinity School.
BRYAN WISH: You were drawn to solving world problems and climate change is a world problem you put yourself into. All the work you’ve done is around community, belonging, and solving big problems. You’ve always been drawn to these bigger things that you could maybe put your stake in and stay, “I can make a difference. I can help other people through this.” Maybe that was a path you continued down without knowing it.
CASPER TER KUILE: Both my parents were entrepreneurs in the UK. That creative spirit was very strong in me. My family didn’t go to church, nor did we have any official religious identity. None of my grandparents did, either.
Religion was just absent in my life. Honestly, it felt very irrelevant to me, as a young person. Definitely as a gay man, religion seemed cruel – and it was. There are so many ways in which religion has been incredibly harmful to people. So, it really wasn’t on my radar.
Once I had experiences that made me start thinking differently about how to change culture, I ended up in graduate school studying public policy at Harvard. I kept meeting really interesting people from across the campus at this Divinity School.
At the time, I assumed this was just where people went to become a Catholic priest. I didn’t know a single thing about it. I didn’t even know what the word “divinity’ meant. Divinity school ended up being a broader exploration of culture, meaning, community, ritual, and the practices of how people feel connected to each other; a study of these texts.
Harvard is an unusual divinity school because it’s not affiliated with any one religious tradition. My classmates came from every sort of background. They included Christians of all denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Jewish people, and Muslims. I also met people who were herbalist pagans and others who said they were both Presbyterian and Catholic. In my very first seminar, there was even someone who said, “I’m a Satanist.” I was like, “Wow, okay, literally everyone is here.”
At that point, I would record myself as definitely an atheist. I was like, “I’m not religious but I’m interested in religion.” What I loved about my time in Divinity School is that it really stretched my understanding of what religion could be.
So often, at least here in the U.S., we think about religion as about what you believe. “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” is the classic question. Religion, in our cultural view, was strongly shaped by Christianity. Specifically, by Protestantism, which has a very strong emphasis on belief.
When you look at the majority of the world beyond just that one piece of tradition, religion is often much more about what you do:
- What rituals do you practice?
- How do you venerate ancestors?
- How do you mark time?
- What do you eat and not eat?
All these different practices often define what makes someone religious or not. If you’re Jewish or you have Jewish friends, there will be lots of people who say, “I’m not religious, but I am Jewish.” This already immediately suggests religion is more about them believing in this specific type of god.
For me, that was really exciting. I realized, when I look back on my own life, even though I wasn’t officially religious, there were a lot of things we did as a family. My family traditions, the rituals I had in the school I went to, and in the village where I lived, were really important to me. Each one shaped me in some way. I realized that these rituals had been a marker of me being more religious than I thought.
BRYAN WISH: I grew up in a Christian household but I’ve also, for the last few years, have been very drawn to the Jewish culture and the people within the Jewish culture. I started to question why. You can’t generalize the culture but there’s this intellectual curiosity, this questioning of things. It’s an interpretation that I’m very drawn to, being a curious person myself. I’ve attracted some of those people into my life where, in my opinion, not to generalize, Christianity can be somewhat black and white.
When you went to Divinity School and you had no context of religion beyond realizing that it’s more than saying, “I’m Jewish. I’m Catholic. I’m Protestant.” It’s saying, “How do I practice these rituals in my every day life?” What were you drawn to? What religious practices were you drawn to that you felt an identity or sense of belonging and community within that you weren’t expecting?
CASPER TER KUILE: These things always happen through relationships. You meet someone and you’re like, “Wow, they seem to have something figured out or I want to be a little bit like them.”
That was definitely my experience at Divinity School. I had some wonderful professors and mentors who taught me. One practice that became really important was the art of sacred reading. This is the practice of not just reading a book like it’s an interesting story based on what happens in the plot, but rather a way of engaging with text.
For example, taking one sentence and reading it with a question to yourself. Like, “What can I learn from this sentence about mental health?” Religious traditions have wonderful ways in which they’ve structured different sets of questions to ask yourself or different activities to do when you’re engaging a piece of text.
One of my professors, Stephanie Paulsell, who is a professor of Literature and Religion, taught me and some other classmates all about this concept. We became so inspired by it that we ended up trying to say, “Well, even if the Bible doesn’t feel like it’s my text, I wonder if we could try these same practices with a book that does feel like ours.”
My dear friend Vanessa Zoltan, who is now my podcast co-host, wrote her thesis on reading Jayne Eyre, a great classic by Charlotte Bronte, as a sacred text. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing. This is so cool. You’re asking these real-life questions about this wonderful old book.” I was like, “Let’s try doing it with a book a few more people have read and which I also love.”
We started to run an in-person class on Harry Potter as a sacred text. That grew within a year to become a podcast and it’s been an incredible experience now to share that practice of sacred reading with tens of thousands of people who listen to the podcast and who now do it at home. We have local groups of people getting together to do sacred reading. It’s become a way of thinking about stories totally differently for me.
To take another Jewish example, during the Passover Seder, the festival in which you celebrate the escape from Egypt, the Exodus story, the same story is told every year. It’s about Pharaoh and the 10 plagues and escaping. Every year, we ask ourselves, “What do we need to be liberated from this year?”
Though the story stays the same, the meaning of the story changes. That’s what these reading practices do. They help us interpret a story into our own life. It becomes a mirror in which we can see ourselves more clearly because we get to use these archetypes of the story.
Of course, the Harry Potter books are an amazing set of characters to do that with. They’ve infiltrated our culture so deeply. If I ask, “What house are you in?” – you know how to answer that question.
BRYAN WISH: Sacred reading, is that something you learned in Divinity School of how to look at text? Or is that something you embraced or invented?
CASPER TER KUILE: I definitely did not invent it, but we did adapt it. To give you one concrete example, to draw from the Christian tradition, in the 13th century, there was a monk called Guigo II. He would see people and guide them spiritually. For one of the people he was guiding, he wrote a little pamphlet. It’s very short. You can find it online even now. It’s very readable. It’s called The Ladder of Monks.
In this little booklet, he says, “I want to teach you how to become closer to God and I’m going to teach you through this reading practice called lectio divina, which literally means sacred reading in Latin. He says the first step of reading, and this is our translation of how he talks about it, is to just focus on the meaning of the text:
- What’s happening in the story?
- What’s going on?
- Of course, for his readers, they were reading the bible, but we do it with Harry Potter. We ask ourselves:
- What’s that first level of reading? What’s just going on? and What’s the narrative?
You can take the first line of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were glad to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” When you think about it, as a sentence, we meet two characters. They live on Privet Drive. They’re telling us that they’re very normal. That’s the first layer.
Then we ask another question. So, re-read the same text but this time, think about what allegorical images, what are we reminded of when we read this piece of text? Again, this is our translation of his instruction.
We ask ourselves:
- What does this remind us of?
- Is there a song lyric, maybe?
- Is there another story?
- Is there a TV show?
- What are you reminded of?
I think about the number four and I think of four calling birds from the Christmas song. I think about the Beatles. I think about how a square has four corners. You allow your mind to go in every which way. It does not need to be rational.
The second time that you read the same sentence, your brain is going completely off the story. Then, the third step is to ask ourselves, “What does this sentence remind me of in my own life?”
If the second step has widened our imagination, now we’re personalizing it. We’re bringing it into our own life intentionally. I might think about walking along a road through suburbia; maybe where I grew up. There were lots of houses, where I lived, that had hedges. You could see the house, but you couldn’t at the same time. People lived their own quiet lives in suburbia. Or, you might be reminded of a married couple that you know. There are all sorts of ways in which it can become real to your own life.
The final step, as we do it in the podcast, is to say, “What has this reflection, what has this sacred reading asked of me?”
Guigo would have asked that question differently way back when. He would have said, “What is God telling you to do through this piece of text?”
We say, “What are you being invited to do by the text?”
I might come away with an action of saying, “I really want to pay attention to my neighbors.” Walking around the neighborhood and thinking, “I don’t really know my neighbors. I’m going to knock on the door and introduce myself.”
You can see how that practice of sacred reading takes you from 20-25 words on the page to something very practical, very real, in my own life. That’s what these traditions get to give us. It’s a way of engaging the world that helps us life with intention and to live out the values that are important to us.
BRYAN WISH: That’s really interesting for our generation who are in our 20s right now. Most of us wander aimlessly during this generation. There’s a book by Meg Jay called The Defining Decade. Most people don’t really take the intentionality that you have, your work represents in looking at text, rereading things, asking yourself questions about the bigger picture and how it relates to me.
I don’t think that’s something where this idea of intentionality in our own lives becomes really important into our 30s or 40s. Something that I think is a theme in your life is you seem to find the meaning in ordinary things. You’re always looking for the deeper picture, the deeper connection, why this matters. That takes a very special and thoughtful person. Have you always been somebody to ask why something is important and look for the purpose? If so, where do you think it developed? How is being an intentional, meaningful person helped you in your own life in how you navigated the world?
CASPER TER KUILE: If I was as good at asking questions and creative things, as you are in your 20s, in my 20s, I’d be in a better place now. You’re on a great path. In some ways, the experience we’re all having now with COVID-19, I think it’s forcing us to ask questions. It’s a big time of reckoning.
More and more people are confronting the big questions:
- What’s really important in my life?
- What do I stand for?
- What do I care about?
It turns out, you can’t just trust the systems we had grown used to because things can change very quickly. In the midst of great difficulty, that does give me hope. Have I always been intentional? No. One of the reasons why I’m so interested in these things is because I’m so bad at them.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned that often we give the world the very thing that we most need ourselves. A reasons I care so much about practices that help me think of other people is because I’m a very selfish person. I think about myself all the time. I need these practices to extend my imagination beyond my own little life. That has not yet ended and I still need them.
It’s definitely become really important to me to have teachers who would share practices, who can pass on these traditions, and other people to practice with so that you’re not on your own. That’s the biggest joy for me over the last few years and something that has really changed.
I think in my 20s, I didn’t even really know how to talk about this stuff. There’s so little language that we can use to describe the things that are most important to us – especially when it’s countercultural and maybe a little bit weird. If you don’t grow up with it, what does spirituality mean?
It was very important to me to have mentors. Literally, one of my most important mentors said to me when I was maybe 26, “I’m going to help you because you’re never going to ask for help.” She had to insert herself into my life, which I’m so grateful for. That’s one of the great joys is finding people who can be mentors.
As you grow older, and not even that old, you can turn around and become a mentor for someone else. That’s something that has become really important to me.
BRYAN WISH: How has making this part of your everyday life made you a better person in your pursuits or every day way of being?
CASPER TER KUILE: In some ways, the everyday moments are all we have. It’s so easy to say, “Next year I’m going to start this amazing journey or I’m going to travel to this place or I’m going to be this person” and then when you arrive there.
To paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn, a wonderful mindfulness teacher, he says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s still me. Really the every day moments and these every day rituals are all we have. If we wait for this mystical moment when suddenly we’re like the Dalai Lama or incredibly wise, we’re going to be waiting a long time.
What’s so joyful about recognizing that is that then every moment becomes an invitation to create a ritual, to be more intentional. I don’t think every moment should be like that. We have to live both in the world that we’re in and there’s moments when we can live in the world as it should be. You have to be able to cross between those two things. Often, that’s what rituals help us do. Just starting off with one practice that you can be really intentional about.
One of the first things that became important for me was taking a break from my tech stuff. Turning off my phone, turning off my laptop on a Friday night was a really great way of starting a personal practice that felt helpful. Mindfulness is everywhere now, which is wonderful. Meditation has really grown.
I found it really hard. Finding other practices were really helpful for me. Singing is one. For me, my brain jus disappears; all my thoughts and anxieties and plans disappear when I’m singing, especially with other people. I really make sure, wherever I live, to be part of a choir or a singing group and have some way of singing with other people because it’s so helpful for me.
All of these practices, they don’t have to be exotic and huge. They can be small, daily actions. My approach I really like is to start with things that we’re already doing. It doesn’t have to be something new and complicated.
Here’s an example. I have to stretch my ankles because I broke both my ankles 10 years ago. So, every day, I stretch them in the shower. Rotate them right. Rotate them left. All of that stuff. I was like, “Oh wait, I can make this into a little moment.” I often sing a song from summer camp and I say to myself, “I might die today.”
It sounds dark but honestly, it’s very helpful to focus the mind because suddenly that day that might have three meetings that I’m like “ugh” about, the rest of the day I’m like, “But there’s so much else from those meetings.” Let me be grateful for the day that I do have. Often, those meetings aren’t so bad anyway.
Ultimately, this is a way of refocusing and resetting. I just overlay it onto this thing that I have to do with stretching my ankles. That’s the way I think about ritual making. We can build on the things we’re already doing and draw in tradition to find a way to make life more meaningful.
BRYAN WISH: Your book The Power of Ritual it comes out in June?
CASPER TER KUILE: Yes, June 23rd. As they say, it’s available for preorder now.
BRYAN WISH: If you never went to Divinity School, do you think you would have developed these philosophies, rituals, practices into your everyday life?
CASPER TER KUILE: I don’t know. The thing that feels very true is that you can only change the rules once you learn what the rules are. One of the reasons I feel such creativity and such permission to be creative is because I had some formal training.
I learned about the tradition. I learned the classes you have to go to to become a minister or a rabbi or a priest. I did some of those things. I know enough to be dangerous. I know what I can play with. I have relationships with teachers who have said, “That idea is really interesting, Casper. Go and play with that Harry Potter sacred text idea. I’ll help you, advise you, and teach you.”
That means you a sense of being within a boundary where it’s safe. I haven’t gone completely off the rails. I’m not doing something that’s totally wild. There’s some value in what I’m doing, and there’s respect in it, and there’s enormous amounts of creativity. I think if I hadn’t gone, I’d still be very interested in these questions and I’d be reading books and meeting people and hopefully trying out some things. I don’t think I would have felt the same commission to be creative. That’s a great gift for me to feel that.
BRYAN WISH: A company approaches you with a problem around a product and you’re bringing in the theology, the divinity lessons with creative solutions to drive community within the organization which I think is beautiful. How does that work though?
CASPER TER KUILE: One of the greatest gifts of Divinity School was meeting Angie Thurston, who is my co-author of a number of reports and my co-founder at Sacred Design Lab together with our third partner, Sue Phillips, who was a mentor of mine also from Div School. The three of us have become really interested in thinking about using design methodologies for these questions that are most important to us as human beings:
- How do we connect?
- What matters most?
- How do we feel and experience the becoming the person we want to be?
- How do we feel connected to something beyond ourselves and some bigger purpose?
What’s been really interesting is that more and more in the business world, people are asking those kinds of questions too; often silently. When they find us, they’re like, “Oh my god, I want to talk to you.” Some of the projects we’ve worked on, just to give a sense of the difference, we’re working with the architects of Pinterest’s new headquarters to think about the future of work and what physical spaces the workplace of the future is going to need.
One of the things that we know, especially younger people, is showing up to large employers, larger corporations with the expectation that work is going to be purposeful, meaningful, and that they’re going to feel connected to the other people around them. They’re going to have a sense of community. Most workplaces aren’t designed for that.
We spent two days at Pinterest’s headquarters walking around looking at what people were doing, where they were going, how they were behaving, what rituals already existed there, and then have started to dream up some ways in which the future physical spaces can become more meaningful and oriented around relationships. That’s one example.
We worked with the Obama Foundation to rethink how they might create a training program for young activists that would build in some more concrete reflection experiences to deepen the lessons in their learning.
We’ve done all sorts of different projects show up which is really exciting. We’re part grant-funded and part income-based from clients. We’re lucky enough to have that mixture so we can choose who we want to work with. For us, it’s all about impacting culture change. We want to change the culture that we’re living in.
Through each of these projects, we hope to influence that shift in culture. We look for either organizations that have large brand awareness; people pay attention when Pinterest builds a new headquarters in an interesting way. That’s an interesting story. We influence people through that.
Conversely, we also look for organizations that have large distribution networks. They touch a lot of people through maybe an education system or a healthcare system. It’s all about bringing these principles that we’ve talked about into an operational scale. That’s the goal of Sacred Design Lab: to infuse people with a bolder imagination of how we might live together.
BRYAN WISH: What you guys did with the chapels, for COVID, to bring people together, there’s a lot of community and connection built in. In a sense, you were building a ritual for people. You’re productizing. You’re building these products in different ways whether they’re digital experience or in-person experiences but you’re fostering the great human connection around building rituals.
They say if you’re living a life in alignment with all your actions in your relationships, it’s a pretty decent life. Have you followed intuition in these experiments or projects? What’s led you to being able to be consistent with your actions?
CASPER TER KUILE: I know I fall short all the time. The biggest thing I can say, and this is always my advice, is I haven’t created any of those things on my own. It has always been with someone else. Working with other people can be enormously difficult. It brings up all the shitty feelings and complex relationships, but my work has always been better for it. It’s not just your skills plus my skills equal our skills together. Something more is unlocked when you’re collaborating with someone in a really deep way that neither of you could ever have produced. Somehow, there’s this missing ingredient from somewhere that just arrives in a collaboration. For me, that’s been such an amazing experience because I look at the things I’ve made and I’m like, “How did that happen?” I know I did some of this but this is really more than that.
One of the best things about being in an educational space is you get to meet a lot of people. You get to meet your classmates. If you’re thinking about creating something yourself, that’s awesome, but the first up for me is always trying to find other people who care about the same question or who want to solve the same problem. You will just massively increase the quality of whatever you’re going to create; whether it’s a product, project, or an organization, and to lean into someone who has different skillsets.
For example, Angie and I often write things together and I have very low standards with writing. I’m very good at writing quickly. Angie is so slow because she has such higher standards. The way we do it is we’ll have lots of conversation and she’ll have the most amazing insights and then I write them down. We’ll quickly have something with a lot of her ideas and my translation of them. Then she will go in and polish and we end up with something we’re both really proud of that neither of us could have created on our own. Finding people you have that connection to and collaboration with, which comes with time and practice. You don’t start off with it. It’s been one of the biggest joys of my life. If I can claim to be living in that way, it’s because of the people around me.
BRYAN WISH: What would be the first couple steps that someone could take to go about developing ritual and implementing it into their life?
CASPER TER KUILE: First, I would first do a ritual assessment. Just look at your day and say, “What are the moments where I can see myself trying to feel more connected? It might be a moment when I’m trying to ground myself or I want to pay attention to something more carefully.”
For some people, it might be when you take a way around the block towards the end of the day. For others, it might be when I do the dishes or when I’m cooking. It might be at the dinner table when we clink our glasses at the beginning of the meal. There are all these ritual opportunities in the way I think about them.
You have to go ritual spotting in your own life. Try to find a place that’s just yearning for something to be shaped. When you find something that has raw material, it could just be the moment you sit down on your meditation cushion. First thing when you wake up in the morning and you’ve found your little ritual, think to yourself, “How can I elevate this? How can I deepen this and make it stand out from the rest of the day?”
Rituals are great ways of crossing a threshold between the normal world that we’re in and the world that we want to live in. A ritual is a visible expression of an invisible value. It might be compassion, gratitude, or mystery; the intention that sits underneath it. Once you have that, think about how you can elevate that moment using your five senses. It might be lighting a candle, smell some incense, or put my hand on my forehead and think of three things that I’m grateful for. It can be anything. Try to find a physical expression, ideally, that draws on a tradition that already exists.
If you did grow up with something, maybe there are things you grew up with that don’t quite feel right but there’s an element of it that you want to maintain or maybe you look out into the world and you think, “Wow, I’d love to bring an element of what that tradition offers into my life.” You can create your own little ritual. There are so many things we’re already doing that fit within this frame of ritual life.
Once you start seeing them, they’re everywhere. There are a lot of ideas in the book. I encourage people to read it in full, because there are four different levels of connection that I explore rituals that connect you to:
2. Other people
This is just another way you can think about what type of ritual you might want to lean into. Maybe one of those levels of connection feels especially in need of a little ritual.
BRYAN WISH: You put out a book at a time when the world needs it and when we’re actually starting to take this stuff seriously. Where can people find you? Where can they order the book? Where can they check out the website?
CASPER TER KUILE: Definitely check out the book. It’s called The Power of Ritual. You can order it anywhere online or go to powerofritual.org where there’s a link to go to a wonderful website that features local bookstores. If you can support a local bookstore right now, that’s a definite bonus. The website for Sacred Design Lab is sacred.design.
For the podcast, it’s harrypottersacredtext.com. I hope those are interesting links to explore. I’m so grateful for the conversation today and also the way in which you’re sharing ideas, insights, and conversations with everyone. Thank you for everything that you’re doing. It’s wonderful.