Creating rituals can offer your family an oasis of peace and a grounding sense of being in the moment, in the midst of otherwise frenetic school and work schedules.
Here, we’re using the example of the tea ceremony to highlight all the ways ritual can benefit our modern lifestyle – especially when it comes to busy families.
Nine-year-old Yuu looks like a little butterfly in her bright yellow flowered kimono. Her face is solemn, but her eyes dance as she follows her mother into the tea dojo, or practice room for the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Together, they approach the tokonoma – a built-in niche at one end of the tea room – where the tea sensei (teacher) has placed a beautiful scroll and an arrangement of flowers.
Kneeling on the woven tatami mats, they bow and then take a few moments to examine the scroll and admire the beautiful flowers. Yuu glances sideways at her mother to be sure she is doing everything correctly as they bow once more, then take their place on the mats beside the other students.
Tea Ceremony instruction is about to begin.
While children as young as six may begin learning the ancient and intricate art of Chado, or the Way of Tea, Yuu is the youngest regular participant in this semester’s Tea Ceremony class at the University of Illinois’ Japan House in Urbana, IL.
My daughter, Aster, is one of two young teens in the class. We decided to participate as a family in support of her deep interest in all things Japanese. The rest of the class consists of university students, professors and staff, and community members.
I have never been particularly drawn to ritual or ceremony of any type. I had no idea when we first signed up for tea class what a commitment it was. I was surprised to learn that the tea ceremony is a discipline far more comparable to the martial arts than it is to a British tea party.
To a Westerner, many aspects of it can seem downright OCD. At times I found myself marveling that I, with so much on my plate as a working mother, was voluntarily spending precious time learning to pick up a tea scoop in the exact proper manner.
However, as the semester wears on, I have begun to realize the value in this ritual – and indeed, the value that ritual in general imparts to us, and our children, as human beings.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RITUALS
Ritual – whether the practice of serving and drinking tea, or another ritual or tradition – can offer an oasis of peace and a grounding sense of being “in the moment,” in the midst of otherwise frenetic school and work schedules.
Many adults find themselves gravitating towards ritual traditions; however they can be wonderful, too, for children, who naturally crave structure. Incorporating ritual into the day, week, month or season can offer a comforting sense of familiarity, a framework around which to structure the sometimes confusing and contradictory events of our lives, and a sense of belonging to a community greater than ourselves.
At its best, ritual can become a connecting link between the physical and the spiritual. Rituals have been used for millennia as an important and effective vehicle for teaching both great spiritual truths, and the practical skills needed to live a life in harmony with others. “The function of ritual,” as the late great mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out, “. . . is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth.”
Because rituals rely heavily on physical events and sensations, they have the power to impart knowledge and wisdom on an intuitive, almost dream-like level that may be easier for a child to absorb than verbal instruction. Even if the child doesn’t grasp the deeper meaning right away, the seeds are being sown. In the meantime the ritual offers elements that appeal to the child’s senses and his or her sense of belonging.
Another thing many rituals tend to do is to place emphasis on the relationships in a group or society rather than focusing on the individual. In doing so, they show a child her place in society, and reassure her that there is a network of support available to her there.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM RITUAL
The Tea Ceremony is a fantastic example of spiritual lessons embodied in ritual. In fact, its roots are spiritual rather than social; it was developed by 14th century Zen Buddhists in order to impart the principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. As an observer, here are just a few of the lessons I believe are embedded in the ceremony (many of which are sorely lacking in modern society):
RESPECT FOR ALL OTHERS
At every turn, tea ceremony participants are required to display respect for others, including those of lower rank. For example, refreshments are served to guests one at a time. Before eating a tea sweet or drinking a bowl of tea, each guest will turn to the one below and ask pardon for going first. Respect is also shown in myriad more subtle ways throughout the ceremony, both between participants and directed towards the objects used.
A HOLISTIC OUTLOOK
To study tea is to study relationships, and the interdependence of all elements in a system. Everything is important; every gesture and minute detail carries meaning. One learns, too, to be aware of and to respond appropriately to subtle signals from the host or guests.
APPRECIATION FOR BEAUTY
Embedded in the ritual is the practice of taking time to notice beautiful things. In addition to observing the art and flowers in the tokonoma, guests are expected to examine and discuss the tea bowl and other utensils after partaking in tea. These are selected carefully by the host for their aesthetics and appropriateness for the occasion.
HUMILITY, PERSISTENCE, AND FOCUS
The practice of tea is incredibly complex and takes years to master. To do so requires that one take instruction, practice hard and endure a certain amount of failure.
Some forms of tea ceremony involve sitting for long periods with the legs folded under in seiza position – a mental and physical challenge! Also, the process of learning to do a complex procedure the right way helps to develop a disciplined attitude.
Expressions of thanks and gratitude are also an important part of the tea ritual, on the part of both guests and host.
In addition to keeping the tea utensils, kitchen and dojo spotlessly clean, the tea ceremony itself includes ritual purification. The idea is that there is a connection between how we care for our physical surroundings, and our spiritual well-being. (It may be coincidence, but I’ve noticed my daughter’s room becoming significantly neater since beginning to study tea!)
APPRECIATION & INCORPORATION OF NATURE
Sen Rikyu, the great 16th century tea master who popularized the Tea Ceremony, brought to the practice a rustic simplicity more in harmony with nature than earlier, more ostentatious variations. He insisted that flowers, in particular, should be arranged “the way they appear in the field,” thus recognizing nature as the ultimate aesthetic ideal.
BALANCE OF SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL
We are spiritual beings who live in physical bodies and sometimes there’s a tendency to focus primarily on one or the other. This can lead on the one hand to an overly materialist or carnal existence, and on the other to ungroundedness or neglect of one’s physical needs. Rituals like the Tea Ceremony help firmly ground the spirit within our physical existence for the purpose of living a balanced life – a physical life infused with the spiritual. In other words, they help teach both children and adults how to integrate spiritual values into the real, physical world.
Enhanced spirituality is not the only benefit of ritual. Research confirms that rituals have many beneficial effects on families and individuals (source). They can help reduce stress, alleviate pain and grief, and even lesson the severity of physical disease such as childhood asthma.
FINDING RITUAL IN MODERN LIFE
In North America, tea dojos are few and far between, and the study of tea may not appeal to every family. However, opportunities to involve your kids in ritual are everywhere. You can find ritual activities embedded in religious and cultural events, sports and martial arts, and the performing arts. Any of these can be used to help kids learn to become well-rounded, well-adjusted human beings.
What if you’re uncomfortable with existing rituals?
It’s true, rituals can lose their meaning, especially when conditions in society change. And few things are more alienating than taking part in a ritual that no longer speaks to your soul.
If you find yourself in that situation, you may want to consider creating your own rituals, ones that are meaningful to you. As Campbell explained, “Now, people ask me, what rituals can we have today? My answer is, what are you doing? What is important in your life? What is important, they say, is having dinner with their friends. That is a ritual.”
You can make a ritual out of anything that appeals to you – walking on the beach, playing Frisbee, reading stories to your kids. What makes your heart sing? That is an opportunity for ritual.
HOW TO INTRODUCE CHILDREN TO RITUAL
Very young children thrive on routines and ritual. It doesn’t have to be formal at all. Even mundane events can be made into little rituals – making the bed, snack time, the sequence of things done before bed. (You are probably already doing this with your kids.) These little rituals provide structure to their days, and help buffer them against life’s inevitable surprises.
But as kids grow older and are ready to start participating in more complex rituals, how can you prepare them?
Last week, we were visited by Mr. Sōkō Shimua, a high level tea instructor from Japan. I asked him his advice on introducing children to the Tea Ceremony. I think his answer applies universally to any complex ritual:
“To be able to understand, you must first experience,” he advised. “Start by exposing them to the experience. Bring them into an environment where everyone in the group is practicing. Let them observe. Let them breathe the air, and take in the total experience. They’ll get the vibration. Afterwards, talk to them about it. Ask them what they saw, what they sensed and observed.” He added that the experience may seem strange to them at first, but that they will become more comfortable with time.
As for me and my family, I have definitely noticed a subtle shift in energy since becoming involved in Tea Ceremony. We all seem just a little calmer, and more able to go with the flow of life. Enough to make me feel confident in suggesting, if you find yourself stressed as a parent…if there are aspects of your life that feel empty to you…if your kids exhibit behaviors you’re not completely happy with, look carefully – there may indeed be a ritual that can help.