When I woke up last Monday, I was not in the mood to meditate. Sometimes, I’m excited for my sitting practice, and some mornings–like this one–enthusiasm for practice stands at odds with the desire for a different kind of practice: snuggling with my sweetheart in bed. These mornings are a reminder that my practice really begins way before I sit down on my cushion. Often, the biggest hurdle to clear is that first step–in this case, just getting out of bed. The vast majority of effort we put forth in any practice is the effort needed simply to begin. And to repeat. This is where the power of ritual comes into play.
Ritual is a part of all spiritual paths, all religions, and every culture from around the world. Ritual is something I’ve been drawn to my entire life, and yet I didn’t grow up in a family who had rituals, nor was I handed down ritual traditions or customs. Still, there was something so deep, so primal that arose in the midst of this ritual desert, that, as a child, I started to seek guidance from others to create my own rituals. The first place I looked to was witchcraft. Celebration of the natural world, the seasons, the sun and the moon seemed quite natural to me. Harnessing the power of the elements and paying respect to that which is bigger than the individual was soothing to my existentially troubled self. So at 11 years old, I got a few books, set up camp in my closet, and started studying.
My folks soon found the books and, in a flash, they were taken away. It wasn’t because my family is religious and thought it was ungodly to worship anything other than the big G. Instead, they took the books away because they knew how powerful witchcraft could be, and they were worried for my safety. But they didn’t recognize the reason I’d reached for that practice in the first place, and they didn’t offer me another way to feed this hunger. So I was back at square one, making it up myself.
The power of ritual is its ability to create a mental state that is fertile for practice, and a heart open to our innate wholeness.
Over years of searching, I’ve learned that ritual doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be as simple as praying before a meal, lighting incense, or practicing japa (the repetition of mantra). Ritual functions as a form to rest into. It’s a structure that prepares one’s mind and one’s heart to wake up. When done absent-mindedly, ritual is simply an action. But when performed with intention, ritual holds incredible power. The power doesn’t lie within the ritual tools, gods or goddesses. The power of ritual is its ability to create a mental state that is fertile for practice, and a heart open to our innate wholeness.
These days, I sit six days a week, taking one day off as Swamiji taught me. When I was living at his ashram in the mountains of Kodaikanal (Kodai), we would practice and study six days a week. On the seventh day–Friday–all of the ashram students (anywhere from two to ten of us) would take a frightening taxi ride down to the quaint city of lower Kodai to stock up on supplies (like toilet paper and notebooks) and luxuriate in coffee and chocolate. (I should note that, while Swamiji instructed us to take a day off from formal practice, he didn’t encourage jumping head-first into indulgence. This was a habit we developed all on our own.) After the day in town, we would endure another taxi ride up the mountain to the ashram, our senses overstimulated from the bustling shops, sweet treats, and talkative city folks.
When I was at the ashram, my practice was very rigid, and I didn’t yet understand the significance of Swamiji’s six-day practice rhythm. So on Friday mornings before the taxi arrived, I would sneak up to the roof of the ashram and practice asana and pranayama. To my type-A personality, a day of rest from formal practice seemed like a waste of time. I wanted a calm mind and a peaceful heart, and I wanted it now! As the years went on, I shed layers of perfectionist striving and angst, and in alignment with a sweeter relationship with myself, my practice evolved to be gentler and more spacious. It was six years after the ashram that I finally had the courage to take my teacher’s advice and started taking a day of rest from practice. On my days of rest, I feel steeped in gentleness and flexibility, and know that these attitudes are as important to my practice as the six days of consistent sits.
However, last Monday was not my scheduled day off. So, I did what I always do and dove into my sitting ritual:
I went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth and washed my hands. I walked into my studio (a beautiful room in my home dedicated to practice), and quietly closed the door. I grabbed a striped blanket and a purple bolster. I opened the blanket, placed it on the wooden floor in front of the altar, and laid the bolster on top. Then I walked towards the back of the studio where I keep my practice shawl. Swamiji gave me a lime green shawl for Christmas when I was at the ashram, which we celebrated with a group sing-along of American pop songs. He told me that every time I practice with this shawl, it gets juiced up and infused with practice goodness – I’m paraphrasing here. When I didn’t feel well, he told me to wear the practice shawl, and it would help.
I draped the airy shawl around my shoulders and walked back to stand between the altar and my cushion. I leaned down and quietly flipped the hourglass (which is really a half-hour glass, as it takes just over 30 minutes for the last grain of sand to descend to the bottom), picked up the candle in its ceramic dish, lit the wick, and gently set it back down. I lifted my mala up off of the altar and hung it around my neck. I stood upright and drew my palms together in anjali mudra (prayer), and pressed my thumbs into my heart center. I took a deep inhale and as my body began to exhale, I hinged at my hips, and lowered my head in a deep bow to the altar. I stood upright once again, turned a half circle to my right, looked at my cushion and bowed again. I stood up, completed the circle, released my hands and took my seat. I wiggled in my seat for a few moments to settle, placed my left hand in my right palm, and quieted my eyes. After all of that, I felt a little better.
The form keeps us on our toes and shows us instantly when we’re not present.
A couple days ago, while I was bowing to my cushion, my mind wandered right in the middle of my bow. Instead of carrying on and plopping down on my cushion, I stood up and turned back to my altar. In small moments like these lie the teaching and support of ritual. The practice of bowing had offered me a form that highlighted my distraction immediately, instead of my distraction turning into a rampant snowball of mental fabrications. This is actually the reason another teacher of mine, Michael Stone, explains why Zazen practice incorporates so many bows. Okay, well one of the reasons, anyway! The form keeps us on our toes and shows us instantly when we’re not present. So, turning back to my altar, I stilled my gaze, now a tad crisper in support of my concentration. I exhaled and bowed deeply, lingering at the bottom of my bow in reverence to the part of me that is peaceful and awake, and to all of the others who have also bowed as practice. Then I stood tall, turned to my right and bowed again to my cushion, my concentration steady.
When I’m engaging in ritual, whether it’s in my studio, or at the dinner table, I feel all of the people before me who have also put flame to a wick as prayer, and all of those seen and unseen who have joined their palms together in gratitude. With this attitude of interconnectedness, I feel the support of our larger community of practitioners. When I don’t really feel like practicing one day, I garner the strength and steadiness I need to sit or get on my mat from our collective sangha (community). And on the days I feel focus and ease in my practice, I know that spills over to others, too. For me, ritual weaves us together and is a blessed companion on my journey of waking up over and over again.