Here’s a question: if I asked you to draw the causal relationship between belief and action, what would it look like? Take a minute to think.

The simplest answer — the one we’re usually taught in school, whether implicitly or explicitly — would be something like this:

The assumption here is that we come to our beliefs by some process of reasoning or experience, and when our beliefs are established, act in accordance with them.

But I’d like to argue that the relationship is frequently this:

Where an action, once taken, strengthens the belief that caused it. And sometimes, it’s just this:

In a nutshell, instead of acting because of our beliefs, we often believe because of our actions. And fundamentally, that’s what ritual — and magic — is all about.

I started to make the connection between ritual and belief in the early months of this year, when I had a chance to escape the Canadian winter to train in the Indian martial art of kalaripayattu.

Originating in Kerala, a coastal state in the south of the subcontinent, kalaripayattu is one of the oldest surviving martial arts in the world. It emphasizes fluidity and flexibility as a combat style, combined with athletic leaps and the mastery of a range of weapons. According to some theories, it’s what formed the basis of kung fu after being introduced to China by an Indian Buddhist monk at around 500CE.

Students of kalaripayattu in a sword and shield demonstration. Credit: Leelavathy B.M./Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Kalaripayattu is traditionally taught in a gym called a kalari, a long, narrow hall aligned east to west, sunk ten feet below ground level to remain cool even in the fierce heat. But compared to, say, a boxing gym, there are many layers of protocol that must be followed by student and teacher alike, which are an inseparable part of the training as a whole.

First, a new student cannot simply walk in and start to practice. No one is allowed to step onto the packed earth of the floor until they have been initiated: a process that involves paying formal respects to the senior guru in charge of the kalari, and making an offering to the numerous stone statues or delicately painted pictures — depictions of gods from the Hindu pantheon — which sit in alcoves set into the walls.

From then on, each time a student enters a gym they must make a circuit, clockwise, from the northeastern corner, pausing at each statue in turn to give a small moment of prayer. There’s no question of whether the student is Hindu (I’m not), whether they know the names of the gods (I knew a few), or understand what they represent (I was vaguely aware). What’s required is a performance of the ritual as a symbol of respect — for the guru, the gym, the long history of the art — and as a sign of mental and spiritual readiness to learn.

Over the course of a few weeks, each day began with the same ritual. And what I found was this: that each time I prayed, I believed more strongly.

The moment that I spent in front of each statue grew more poignant, more emotionally affecting. I looked forward to making the circuit each morning; bowed my head, touched a hand to the cold stone and then brought it on my ajna, or third-eye chakra. Each day, after completing the circuit, I felt more grounded and prepared, filled with a positive energy. Philosophically, my feelings about Hinduism were unchanged, yet physically my body was responding. I stood in the cool air of the kalari, feeling the presence of gods that I did not believe existed.

Though it breaks with the European tradition of thought, in many cultures the idea that inner belief follows ritual and not vice versa is common. For example: in England, my home country, one may cry at a funeral if moved to tears, but it isn’t an obligation; we might instead present a more stoic front, through a desire to seem composed, an inability to come to terms with the loss, or simply because the death doesn’t cause a great sadness — for example, feeling that an old relative has led a full life and is now at peace.

There are other cultures in which this response would be unthinkable. In many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, mourning a loved one through crying and wailing is an integral part of the funeral ceremony. Mourners are not expected to process their feelings introspectively and react in response; instead, the performance of grief is the catalyst which provokes emotion in oneself and conveys it to others. (In fact, the symbolic performance is of such importance that professional mourners are sometimes hired to give an appropriately intense display.)

Blaise Pascal. Wikimedia/CC BY 3.0

Although he was firmly rooted in the European Renaissance, the same causal link between ritual and feeling was observed by Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist and theologian, in his famous Pensées, a collection of fragments from his philosophical thought that were published in 1670, eight years after his death.

In section IV, Of The Means Of Belief, Pascal expounds on the theory that there are three core components of religious belief: reason, inspiration, and custom. The first two are fairly uncontroversial, then as now, but Pascal took a bold stance in his argument that it is habit, not logic, that builds the strongest faith.

In pensée 252, he writes:

For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc.

Proofs only convince the mind — but custom, or habit, or ritual persuades a deeper part of us. But if, unlike Blaise Pascal, we don’t have the customs of Christianity to draw on, what sources of ritual can we find outside of religious faith?

I’ve written before about my interest in magic and magical thinking, which I try to understand as a spiritual technology: a tool that can be used to intentionally change our experience of reality. The practice of magic depends heavily on ritual, and harnessing the power of ritual to change our feelings and thought processes means becoming comfortable with this bidirectional relationship between action and belief — which for many people, myself included, doesn’t come naturally.

I should bracket this by saying that different modes of thought are appropriate for different contexts, and logical inquiry based on measurements and proofs is essential for progress in the physical and social sciences. Yet for fields beyond the purview of science, there is something liberating in the idea that we don’t need to have an a priori argument for performing actions that will influence our emotional, and our metaphysical condition.

An example: if I feel restless and unhappy in my living environment (as often happens if I’ve been working from home too much), I perform a simple incense ritual to cleanse the energy of the house. What do I mean by “cleanse the energy”? I have no real explanation, and it doesn’t matter: what I do know is that the ritual gives me the feeling that the energy has been cleansed. I don’t have any grand theory about the energy field of a house or how incense interacts with it — I just go with it, and it works.

As magical acts go it’s trivial, but the point runs deeper. The major religions all make heavy use of ritual to inspire feelings of awe and devotion, but for those of us who grew up in secular backgrounds its power is mostly untapped. What I’ve come to realize is that for atheists and agnostics, ritual doesn’t have to be synonymous with a church or mosque: it can be a conscious, creative, purposeful practice that can be woven into our lives in other ways, and makes our experience all the richer for it.

Indirectly, that’s what the Hindu gods taught me about belief. And I’m sure they have many other lessons to share, whether I think they exist or not.