I came across a lovely book recently called The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything,* that helped me think about everyday routines differently. The title reminded me of the Taoist idea of The Way and it intrigued me, and it is indeed about Eastern ideas – from The Tao as well as Confucius – and how their ideas are really practical and relevant are for us in the 21st century. If I had thought about Confucius much, it had been along the lines of rigid codes of conduct in an unchanging tradition – very far indeed from much of life in the West today. But as with every superficial understanding, that isn’t the whole story by any means, and this book helped me get beyond that.
According to Confucius’ idea of the world, life consists of an endless series of fragmented and emotionally-messy encounters as one person interacts with another. Our responses are often patterned habits and we find ourselves buffeted by endless disparate events. Confucius’ wisdom is in the simple idea of creating pockets of order in the midst of these endless encounters that enable us to respond better. And we do this through ritual. Not ritual in a religious sense, but actions that become ‘as-if’ moments in which we play slightly different roles to that in everyday life and through which we construct a new reality. In the short-lived reality of a ritual we move from an often troubled world of human relationships to a space in which ideal relationships can be forged – before we return to our regular world.
I loved this idea that we can create pockets of order in a chaotic world, an oasis of goodness in a careless world, by creating and enacting rituals. So I wanted to see what I could create! I thought about mealtimes, which are often snatches of moments whose sole aim is consuming food – mostly squeezed between one activity and another, or one TV programme and another. I thought I would make it into a ritual. So I laid the table with my lovely tablecloth and put out the mats and nice cutlery. The TV was turned off – and we shared time over a lovely meal. Just through those simple acts the time became an oasis of calm and attentiveness and togetherness.
Confucius’s idea was that as humans respond to each other emotionally, it can result in us being buffeted from one encounter to another. Well, one morning I woke up from some emotional and unsettling dreams – I was buffeted by my own inner emotional landscape before the day had even begun! I wondered what ritual I could create to retrieve the start of the day – to establish a sense of calm and balance from which to launch the day. Even though my washing routine is habitual, it became for me a conscious ritual of being cleansed inside and out, of starting afresh, seeped in fragrance and nature’s beauty. That ‘as-if’ moment of this routine-turned-ritual, set my day back on the right track.
The great thing about this is the ordinary-ness of it all, the right-in-the-middle-of-life-ness that it is. Simple moments transformed with a little thought. I am eagerly reading more 🙂
*By Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, 2016 (Viking/Penguin Books)