Sunday, January 2, 2011

RItual in Daily Life

In a dharma talk recently, Susan Spencer spoke about ritual in daily life.

She said the ritual we use in the zendo, from the roles of doan and kokyo, chanting and incense burning, stepping on our left foot as we enter the zendo, or bowing in front of the altar, are not mere rules. They create a container, a space within the community, so something else can happen. She emphasized it is not about being perfect, but about intention.

Outside of the zendo, ritual can be just as important. It is created, once again, by intention and consciousness. It can be formed by something as simple as pouring a cup of tea. If you pour the cup of tea with your full awareness, picking up each object with both hands in its turn, giving each step your complete attention, being absolutely in the moment - you will create a ritual. The person you pour tea for will feel the difference. It will become a spiritual act, a transformative moment.

Susan asked us to reflect on the rituals in our own lives in an exercise after the talk.

Frederika Haskell recalled watching a ritual her parents performed every day which informed her deepest beliefs about love and marriage. Each night, when her father returned home from work, he sought out her mother, wherever she was in the home. He went to her, took her in an embrace, said she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and kissed her. The routine of it, the trust and stability, gave a foundation to the marriage, and gave Frederika expectations about what a true relationship should look like.

Phil McDonel spoke about his morning ritual with his wife Barbara around coffee, an elaborate, two-pot, caffeineted and decaffeinated preparation, exacting in its execution, but more importantly, a time each day they spent together, before heading off in separate directions.

Each of us had our own ideas of how to respond to the query. I love ritual, myself. I adore the aspects of Zen that build familiarity with their routine. Chanting is my favorite, so any services are high on my list. I like memorizing the chants, so I can intone them without a chantbook in hand. My week at Tassajara summer before last was truly wonderful because of the extensive ritual at the large zendo - there were more bells, clappers, incense, chants, services, and a greater number of people participating, so it all felt marvelously other-worldly.

But even in my daily life, I adore creating ritual. I have rituals with my dog - rituals are great with dogs, because they love them, too. They crave routines, and look forward to repeated behaviors. I do many things a certain way - I turn my Coke tab a quarter turn. I line up the seam of my to-go coffee cup with the lid. I fold laundry precisely. My desk and work space are always neat and tidy, with everything just so. This may sound silly - my friends sometimes joke about my OCD tendencies (obsessive/compulsive disorder, for those of you not in the psych-term world) - but it is more than that. Each time I do one of these things, I am being present and aware. I am coming out of the ether into the moment, to touch the object at hand.

What I would like is to make into ritual some of my other activities. Someone asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote regularly or only when inspired. "I write only when inspiration strikes," he said. "Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp."

Something to keep in mind for 2011.


  1. hey michelle - I love your blogs - I love seeing my name in print also. doesn't everyone? susan

  2. I line the seam of my coffee cup to the lid too! I also line up the seam on the paper collar thingy... This was a great explanation of the richness ritual brings...

  3. KT -- Ha! I line up the paper collar thing too! We'd be quite entertaining to watch together at a coffee shop.... Do you put the seam in the front of the cup or in the back? (My preference is in the back, directly opposite of the sipping hole - that way I can feel with my fingers when I grab the cup blindly, and know right where the coffee will pour out, avoiding spilling it down my chest...)