Ritual As A Container For Experience


by Kevin Smith

The power of a cup of coffee in the morning (specifically, the caffeine it contains) doesn’t work quite the way many of us assume it does.

In a non-habitual drinker, the caffeine in a cup of coffee certainly has a powerful physiological effect, raising blood pressure, pulse rate, and providing a heightened sense of energy through its actions as a central nervous system stimulant. However, in a habitual drinker of coffee, the physiological effect of that first cup in the morning is almost nothing. The body develops tolerance to caffeine, so in a habitual coffee drinker, there’s relatively little physiological impact from the caffeine.

Why are coffee drinkers so devoted to that morning cup if, in fact, for habitual coffee drinkers, that morning cup doesn’t really do anything, doesn’t really contribute to waking up? Well, partly, it’s to avoid that dull headache a few hours later which marks the first signs of withdrawal in a caffeine-addicted body. But I think there’s another reason, and that has to do with the power of ritual as a container for experience.

Many coffee drinkers (or tea drinkers) have arrived at a certain ritual around that morning beverage. They have favorite beans or leaves or blends; favorite methods of preparation, optimal levels of roast–dark, light, medium; perhaps even a favorite grind (fine, coarse) that they have arrived at over hundreds and hundreds of passes through the ritual.

There may be a specific mug involved, and special ingredients. In tea, perhaps honey, never sugar, or vice-versa; for coffee drinkers, perhaps half-and-half makes for a perfect day whereas milk means the day is already compromised. (And some of you are thinking, “half-and-half? Are you crazy? What ever happened to light cream?”) The beverage might be consumed while sitting in a particular chair, for example, or there may be a ritual component where coffee is consumed with conversation and companionship of another, or is strictly a solo venture (“don’t you dare speak to me until I’ve had my coffee.”) Know anyone like that?

Morning beverage drinkers may become attached to ritualistic objects (grinders, presses, strainers, teapots, spoons, mugs) the way junkies become attached to their “works,” the particular kit they use to tie off and inject into a vein. And coffee can get quite serious. If you’ve ever seen one of these incredibly ornate, shiny copper multiple-orifice grand baroque espresso command centers, they look remarkably like an altar, don’t they? Put a gold screen filled with icons in front of the thing and set three old men attending to it, and it could be something you spot at the back of an orthodox church.

If you use a beverage as a morning ritual, you will notice a certain comfort in structure after many passes through the ritual. Whether it’s the morning after your Mom dies, the day after your son is born, the day you wake up to the happiest news you can imagine or lose the thing you most love, there you are, with your familiar mug, your sacred items and your ritual, making yet another pass through something you’ve done hundreds of times.

Ritual creates a predictable, manageable way to encounter the unpredictable. It creates a safe space into which we can invite the unknown. How many of us holding our morning mugs think, at one time or another: “I have no idea what this day will bring….but I’ll get to it in a minute, after I finish this cup of coffee.” I talk about facets of ritual practice more extensively in “Devotion.”

I use all kinds of ritual in Touch Practice. The thing we call Touch Practice is, in and of itself, a 60-90 minute ritual, but I notice more and more ritual elements in the way I enter into it, especially now after several hundred passes. There are certain rituals I perform before I meet with whomever it is that I am holding.

For example, I always wash my hands before I begin with someone. Maybe that’s just a good common-sense hygiene thing, but it didn’t evolve from that intention for me. It evolved from a desire to set a mindful intention, “May I be clean in my approach to this person.” I also light a specific candle, a candle I only light during Touch Practice. Fire is a way of ritualizing, “This is sacred practice for me. May this practice bring light and warmth and illumination.” In the moment of lighting the candle, I check and set my intention towards the other person. I pray for the person I am going to hold, and for myself. I generally wear specific clothing when I do Touch Practice; it’s become almost a uniform, blue running pants and a white t-shirt. I like to do Touch Practice on an empty stomach.

Even if I know the person well, I always ask, “is there any place on your body where you don’t want to be touched?” I always begin using the same grounding ritual, standing, feeling my feet in the floor, noticing the breath. Even practicing with a partner that I’m meeting for the 18th time (the record is 20, in case you’re curious). I follow the same grounding warm up, every time, just like coffee drinkers prepare that beverage over and over again. The warm up in Touch Practice is highly ritualized, perhaps the least malleable portion of the entire practice. While there are a few different ways to ground and warm up together, they each have a certain structure and a certain attention to detail.

Some of you may have a gym routine or a yoga flow, a sequence of asanas or postures that you take in the same order every time. I would suggest that part of why you do this has a physiological basis–in working out, the muscle groups are targeted in a particular order; in yoga, there might be a similarly logical basis for the sequence. But, like coffee, I would bet that the primary benefit to you is NOT physiological, after all these years. The reason you’ve gotten attached to that particular sequence of gym machines or yoga asanas or “on Tuesdays I run, on Thursdays I jump rope” is because ritual forms a strong, stable structure for repeated engagement with the unknown. Every yoga or gym workout is different; you know there are days when you feel like you’re the strongest person on earth, and days when you feel, “oh, my poor body. How did I get to this place.” The sequence holds us.

There’s a similar sequence in Touch Practice, almost like a set of asanas, where we go from a standing posture to a connected standing posture, into sitting, down into progressive relaxation including a shavasana period, and then back up into standing and closing. However, Touch Practice is malleable; if I’m working with someone who has a physical injury, or someone who cannot tolerate front-to-front hugging contact, we might sit back-to-back, for example. Just like in yoga, we make modifications to the postures to accommodate limitations in flexibility or to keep the posture from doing damage, either physically or psychologically. One of the characteristics of ritual is that while it is detailed and specific, it is also adapted and modified by each culture, generation or population to serve the specific needs of that group.

Notice the ways in which you use ritual to hold space for what is unpredictable. Maybe there’s a friend you meet for dinner once a month, and you always go to the same place; perhaps you wash your car or grocery shop or garden on a particular day of each week. Perhaps there’s a particular way you greet the morning, or something you always do, without fail, before falling into bed at night.

From our workouts to our spiritual practices, our family traditions to our work habits, ritual helps us create containers that we know well, so that we can hold the things that we can’t possibly know at all. A ritual is a predictable means of engaging an unpredictable experience.