Ritualistic, Yet Mindful

At the service for Grammie last week, I was really taken by the concept of the prayer book. Not just what the rector was reading, but the call and response portions of the program — or the “audience participation,” if you prefer, a la Rocky Horror. It was almost unnerving to hear the muttered and mumbled responses coming from the back of the church, where the normal parishioners were sitting during the service. I wondered if they really paid attention to what they were saying, or if they were just mumbling, “And also with you” because that’s just what you say when someone says, “The Lord be with you.”

When I gave it some thought, though, I realized that was a little hypocritical of me. After all, I go to Zen every week and chant sutras and gathas and whatnot, and any casual observer or listener (like, say, my husband) might not even realize we were speaking English, much less saying something like, “The Dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle, is rarely encountered, even in millions of ages.” And we bow to the Buddha on the altar (graven images! false idols! o noes!), and we sit on little cushions and make little shapes out of our hands. That’s no weirder than having little padded flip-down contraptions attached to your pews for kneeling, or reading responses out of a red prayer book.

It brought me back to something Sensei had said a few months ago about being mindful:

“One of the things that people run smack into when they come to a place like this for the first time is, there’s a bunch of ritual happening. What’s that all about? What’s the deal with all the bowing and the incense and all that kind of thing? These are moments of re-awakening, if they’re used well. They’re supposed to be moments of re-checking-in to the moment, to the now.”

We as a society, and as human beings in general, tend to cling to ritual. It’s something comforting, a thing that we always do and always know and always expect the same returns from. The danger is forgetting why we do these things, or what they mean.

I remember growing up Mormon — it seemed to me that people made a big deal out of our not having predetermined prayers (except for “important” things, like sacrament and baptisms and temple work and whatnot). Still, though, people (and children especially) would get into a groove and say the same prayer for, say, blessing the food or going to bed. This was quite embarrassing when someone would be saying the opening prayer in Sunday School, and accidentally slip into “we thank Thee for this food that Thou hast set before us…” (which I don’t remember doing myself, but was done more than once by others).

There’s nothing wrong with having rituals, spiritual or otherwise. The challenge is to keep your rituals meaningful. They’re important — they’re touchstones for what’s important to us, either literally or symbolically — but we can’t let ourselves get hooked by the comfort of the ritualistic repetition itself, or it becomes meaningless.