Every morning I wake up at 6:15 and go downstairs to meditate. On my way, I open the kitchen blinds to let in some light and get a glass of water, then I go into the room off the kitchen, log into Zoom, and put on robes. It’s been like this, like clockwork, for about three months now.
The other day, as I was putting on robes, I realized I hadn’t opened the blinds in the kitchen and started to go back to open them—even though I was no longer in the kitchen, and neither was anyone else. I stopped on the way and laughed. And sighed. My little ritual had revealed itself as a compulsion.
I’ve asked around—a lot of us who are staying at home more, using the house as home and office and gym and retreat center, are falling into little rituals like mine. In these ways, we give structure to the day. There’s a lamp I turn on next to the computer that means (for me, and only me) that now I’m at work; when I turn it off, my workday is done, even though I’m probably still in the same room. Some people choose these things, but a lot of it just happens organically—we look up and realize, This is how I do this. And though it might seem practical or efficient, if we’re honest, we see that doing it in this way, in this one consistent way, helps us to feel sane. It feels safe.
I’m using the word ritual to describe all this, but in the context of practice, ritual is something different. The little rituals I perform in the morning before meditation—those rituals chose me. But the meditation—that’s a ritual I choose. That difference matters.
In a Zen monastery, every action is prescribed, from how you stand or bow to how you hold a teacup or open a door. None of it has to be exactly that way—none of those postures or gestures is magical—but in entering that space we agree to all of it, and the result is a lifestyle of constant self-monitoring. Many people have an idea that Zen practice points to some kind of wonderful spontaneity, and there’s a truth in that, but it starts somewhere else, in the awkward self-consciousness of always checking: Am I standing right?
This exertion, in my understanding, is at the heart of ritual. And now, in a way that is perhaps unusual, we have an opportunity to explore it.
A simple example: like many Zen people, I have an affectation of signing off with “Gassho” (the gesture of placing hands palm to palm) where someone else might write something like “Sincerely.” It’s nice, but I’ve had periods when it’s felt a bit hollow to just write it, so I’ve determined to actually put my hands in gassho just before hitting “Send.” It feels honest—and it forces me to bring some of the feeling of that gesture to the actual message. It isn’t just lip service. But when I’m around other people, I get self-conscious about it, so I start kind of half-sneaking it in, then it completely falls away. Right now, no one is watching me; right now is my chance.
Does it feel strange to try to stand up straight all the time, to sit up straight all the time, to pick up your coffee cup with two hands all the time? It does. But those little things—almost invisible, but not quite—are what make this practice tick. Every time you straighten your back, you choose to arrive more fully in this moment. You choose to give a little more of yourself. You choose to investigate a different way of being. And you’ll get distracted, or tired, or busy, and you’ll forget. Then you remember, and you come back, straight as before. That’s what this is, what this practice has always been—coming back and coming back and coming back to what you’re doing now, to the choice to be right here.
If always opening the curtains before you turn on the coffee maker feels stable, that’s okay. Do that. But take this opportunity—and it’s always this opportunity—to ask yourself what’s holding you, and what you’re holding. Some rituals create a world that holds us up, keeps us safe. But some—the ones we choose, the ones that demand something of us—are how we hold up the world.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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