Lately, I’m increasingly aware that many of my daily routines have taken on added significance and meaning beyond the need to get them done. They have become rituals. Perhaps it’s the reduction of distractions during this time of sheltering in place that has allowed me to be more mindful. Or, it could be that without regular stimulation of ideas and interests I seek them from within the confines of my home. For example, rather than allowing my mind to wander while rushing through the task of raising my window shades, I now often think about, well, just raising each shade and welcoming first light into my home as I begin my day. As I slowly pull the cord of my kitchen window, I watch the shade fold into itself as it reveals the unique perspective it affords of my backyard. Then I move on to the next window that will allow additional light and a slightly different view. It sets in motion an action that often impacts how I feel about my day. This routine and others, now receive more of my intention and deliberation. They have taken on a level of significance that positively influences my initial disposition. They are new rituals. They are no longer chores to be completed, but actions that add significance to my life.
In an article written by author, writer, and coach Steven Handel, he describes routines as things we need to get done on a regular basis but that are not necessarily meaningful. Rituals tend to have a sense of purpose and their meaning is often symbolic. He further illustrates the difference in this table:
|Minimal engagement||Full engagement|
|Tedious and meaningless||Symbolic and meaningful|
|Externally motivated||Internally motivated|
|Life as a duty||Life as a celebration|
|Dull awareness||Bright awareness|
|Disconnected series of events||Tells a story|
|Little sense of belonging||Sense of belonging|
|Focus only on completion of tasks||Focus on performance of tasks|
As I thought about the things in my life that are chores and that are now taking more of my attention and thought, I remembered the notion of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony in Japanese culture represents purity, tranquility, respect, and harmony. It is a great illustration of the singular focus given to the performance of serving a simple cup of tea. It is a grand collaboration of art, discipline, attention, and care. Philip Stanhope 4th Earl of Chesterfield said, “In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention.”
I also thought about the commitment of the Samurai in their attention to detail and purpose in everything they did. There was an unrelenting focus on mindfulness in even the most basic actions and routines.
Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. Literally translated, zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand. In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way. It was as if everything in their lives was a ritual.
Now, as I spend more time in silence and thought, I’m able to better recognize the significance of preparing food, letting light into my home, and attending to things that require my attention. Of course, my mind still wanders…often. But I’d like to think that this time has afforded me a way to elevate at least some routines from tasks that must be done so I can get on with my life, to appreciating the things I do in my life because they matter.
Have you noticed any shifting of routines or rituals in your life?
Traditions, Rituals, and Routines
Hard to know where one ends and another begins! Perhaps the definitions intermingle and have very subtle differences. Perhaps it has to do with what Henry said, that rituals have an importance that routines don’t. Traditions may then define the need for rituals. For example, my family had a tradition at Christmastime of setting up the Christmas village which necessitated the ritual of laying track and checking out the engines and cars of the train and organizing the town. The routine then became sitting down in the evenings and my brother and I running the trains around the village, while the engine smoked and the whistle blew. We had other rituals associated with the Christmas tradition- like hanging stockings on the fireplace, and decorating the tree. Routinely we hung the tinsel one strand at a time or my mom would yell at us.
When I taught school for years I had a tradition of wanting the kids to know the day and date. Every morning ritually, I wrote the day and date in the upper right corner of the blackboard and the kids routinely wrote it on their daily assignments. I also had a tradition as an educator of wanting the kids to expand their vocabulary so each day I would write a new word and its definition on the board. It was a ritual that helped me as much as the class. The routine came when the kids used the word either in their writing or in discussions each day.
Right now, when I’m not sure what my purpose is anymore in the time of COVID-19, tradition and ritual have pretty much been pre-empted solely by routine. Wake up, shower, take pills, which helps me remember what day of the week it is, let out the dog, eat, wash yesterday’s dishes, eat, nap, eat, nap, eat, nap! Tradition now is out the window. Without some direction old traditions don’t necessarily apply and new traditions can’t start because they may not have the time to develop. Without the traditions rituals devoted to the traditions can’t find air. Routines are all that is left and in my case they tend to be diminishing! I may be going crazy but this makes perfect sense to me! And I didn’t have any author to quote so this unfortunately was entirely concocted by me during the routine boredom I face daily during this crisis!
I am seventy-two years old and a dishwasher in a restaurant. I am looking at the pile of skillets in the deep sinks and preparing to start the process of transformation. Today, I have driven for four hours to return to my post and I’m an hour later than expected – I like to keep ahead of the curve, but the chef has already started to prepare sauces. So it’s catch-up time.
Surveying, the scene, there are remnants of carbonara sauce, Thai chili sauce, a large pasta colander, and several pans with a series of brown sauces for schnitzel, and a garlic laden food processor. Okay: Carpe Scrubber! Wait — a drop of water bounces off my bald spot – and then another – What the… It has been raining heavily for a good part of the day; looks like a leak in the roof over the kitchen. All right – note for tomorrow, get on the roof. I reach for the faucet and — no water. This is irony for sure: unwanted water dripping on my head, no water from plumbing. What’s the old saw: the opposite of irony is ‘wrinkly’. This is wrinkly. Life is wrinkly. The topography of our lives is full of wrinkles. That’s why we have rituals: to smooth out those crenellations.
A ritual is structured behavior in support of a magical or symbolic result. ‘Magical’ being a placeholder for all those things we don’t quite understand… like the Pacific Islander cargo cult. My ritual actually begins much earlier than reporting to the job. First, I must shower. This is less about cleaning than it is about cleansing – starting the day like a fresh page in an old book. Consecrated.
Then, as head (and only) dishwasher, I assemble the mise en place at my work station: wet and dry towels (from Morgan Linen – remember them from college?), gloves, washing tub, spray station, stainless steel scrubby, long brush, and putty knife; prep the dishwasher and lay out the drying station. Our dishwasher has sliding doors and trays that carry objects through infeed and outfeed. The pots, pans, containers, spatulas, stirring spoons, tableware, and dishes all go through the washer for the extra cleaning and sanitizing cycles, but first anything that experiences direct flame is separated: cleaning the carbon on the bottoms is a parallel process and uses different cleaning aides. When this is complete they join their comrades through the main process.
So, the main process involves soaking the pots, pressure spraying, brushing, and then scrubbing. All the detritus goes into the 1000 gallon grease trap. The restaurant ware is sanitized in the dishwasher, air-dried and returned to its station. Routine or ritual? It is necessary – and it is done mindfully. I fantasize that I am the director of a halfway house for skillet rehabilitation. I am a social worker for the stockpot family. My goal is to return each cooking implement in better condition than I received it. Some of these old boys have dents or loose handles – or are a little crowned due to direct heating over an open flame for years. I clean them up so that thirty or so skillets and a dozen assorted stockpots greet the next meal with a fresh face and new sauce. That’s what it’s all about! I say it is Ritual – with magical results!
Now to prepare for the next day’s ritual: water pump repair and preventive maintenance.