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Addiction, Habit, & Ritual

Structure & Spontaneity In The Tao


One of my favorite ways to begin the day is to make myself a cup of tea or herba mate (Darjeeling with milk and honey is my favorite) and then – taking the tea with me – go walking outside. I love the peaceful, clear feeling of early morning: how the energy seems both settled and fresh.

Sometimes these walks are quite short – five or ten minutes – and sometimes they become longer excursions – an hour, ninety minutes or more. Though I have favorite places, mostly I let myself just wander, guided by intuition, by what I feel drawn to explore.

Often there will be something that I see or hear (how cottonwood seeds are carried by the currents of Wonderland Creek, how the song of the tiniest bird can fill the entire morning) that pulses or shines in a way I’ve come to understand means: “I am the starting-point, the first image, of a poem …” Sometimes my thoughts drift into prayer, chanted then or sung, out loud or internally.

When it seems a good time to do so, I return home – to boil water, perhaps, for a second infusion, or to settle immediately into the next phase of this morning ritual: poetry-writing. Like the walking, the poetry writing sometimes completes itself within five or ten minutes, sometimes lingers on quite a bit longer – depending on what is needed for the image received on my walk, to express itself fully. After poetry, I often – though not always - flow into a qigong or asana practice.

This is my morning ritual. It’s something I do pretty much every day, and have for the past two decades, at least. I enjoy it greatly, as a familiar structure that’s never quite the same. If for some reason I’m not able to begin my day in this way, I feel a bit disappointed - like I've missed something important.

Sometimes I wonder: am I addicted? Is this ritual something that is useful to me – that wakes me up, supports me in being more alive – or has it become just another layer of conditioning – something that I’ve come to depend upon in a way that isn’t so healthy?

Flowing with (the Patterns of) the Tao

A hallmark of Taoist practice is its emphasis on and celebration of naturalness and spontaneity. The way of cultivating a truly authentic naturalness, however, seems often to involve structured forms: rituals and disciplines of various sorts. I remember a teacher once saying: "Rituals may look like children’s games, but they contain unimaginable power."

Consciously-enacted rituals can support us in unwinding various levels of our conditioning: those habitually patterned behaviors which are the unconscious “rituals” that so often define our daily existence. This is, of course, paradoxical. It’s the proverbial “using a thorn to remove a thorn.”

Once the “thorn” of unconscious habitual patterns is removed – freeing us to flow with the more enlightened patterns of the Tao - we need to be able and willing to let go of the “helpful thorn,” i.e. the particular discipline or ritual that has supported us in doing this. “Once the house is built, do you keep building it?” was a question once posed to me, by a yoga asana teacher.

Small Waterfall

I was in a bit of a funk yesterday, so treated myself to an afternoon outing to Boulder Creek. Sitting near a small waterfall, with the late afternoon sun streaming through the willow trees, was excellent medicine. Here’s a small poem – in haiku form – a gift from the river, hastily transcribed onto the back of a Whole Foods receipt:

the froth at the base
of the waterfall catches
late afternoon sun

Because of the (relatively-fixed) structure of the riverbed, the patterns of the flowing water repeat themselves – though the water itself is always fresh and new. In a similar way, our rituals can be containers within which (the sun of) ever-new awareness can flow and be shaped - in useful or just beautiful ways.

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