I was in the kitchen making breakfast the other day when my husband, Russell, glanced over at me and with a wry smile commented that the complicated ritual I have for making my toast should be called “The Way of Toast”, like how the tea ceremony is the Way of Tea, or calligraphy is the Way of the Brush, or any other kind of ritual art. We had a bit of a laugh about that because it is true that over the years I have created a certain ritualistic way of preparing my toast “just so”. But later I thought about what is meant by “The Way of …” and it seems to me that just about anything that you engage in in your daily life could be made into a ritual art that expresses your spiritual practice.
Although we might see tea ceremony as a beautiful but complicated ritual art shrouded in mystery and largely unintelligible to the non-initiated, it is basically simply about making a cup of tea and sharing it. Shunryu Suzuki, a much-loved and respected Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for bringing Zen in the United States, would make tea ceremony using a polystyrene foam cup and instant coffee to show that you didn’t need fancy implements or some special occasion to share the essence of tea ceremony with another person. The purpose of the ritual is in fact to practice a way of emptying your mind to such a degree that all that remains is that single, precious, present moment of connection, of communion with another person – or even if you are alone, communion with the cosmos. The ritual helps you to be fully present and engaged without the background chatter of mind interfering. The longer the process, the more you have to really concentrate and the longer time it takes to master. This long-time investment of your energy and practice is a reflection of your own commitment to perfecting a ritual art and, despite our insta-everything world, reveals slowly the peeling away of the layers of mind chatter as you continue to practice. My dear friend in Japan, a tea ceremony master who had learned the art from her parents since childhood, once told me that she looked forward to her 60s because then she thought she might have reached a stage of being able to perform the tea ceremony with a “true heart”.
But you don’t have to aspire to become a master at a particular ritual art – what about becoming a master of the art of your own life by just fully engaging in the small rituals of everyday life? A spiritual practice can be developed by making your whole life into a ritual art: a work of art that is ever-evolving. This ritual practice can be fully realised even when you engage in the most seemingly trivial of acts such the act of peeling a humble potato and experiencing a moment of joyful awe at how it is that you and this here spud have arrived at this very moment in time together, a moment of being fully present. Now that might sound a bit OTT but in fact it is possible to live a life deeply imbued with a sense of wonder and joy whilst engaging with any moment of your life. It begins with bringing into your consciousness the awareness of every little action of your body when it moves through the routines of everyday life – cleaning your teeth, drinking a glass of water, putting on your clothes, making a cup of tea or preparing toast! When your mind is fully occupied with being aware of what your body is doing, that is a great spiritual practice because by emptying your mind of its usual white-noise chatter, you are creating an open space – this space is the place where spiritual transformation is possible, a space within which the pure joy of being is able to flow freely.
So next time you make a cup of tea, take a moment to feel the way your body moves step by step through the actions of creating a cuppa – feel your footsteps, hear the sound of the water boiling, feel the heat of the cup in your hand, feel the weight of the cup, feel the steam rising into your face as you raise the cup, feel texture of the cup as it meets your lips… and really feel the tastes and textures in your mouth as you drink, feel your breath coming in and out in rhythm with your drinking. It might sound a bit crazy, but the moment of enlightenment might be right there in your next sip! Enjoy!