Every morning I, or occasionally my wife, start off the day by making tea. Specifically chai tea. As an aside the word chai means “tea” in Hindi. In my dad’s language of Punjabi it would be cha. So in a way saying chai tea is like saying “tea tea” which makes no sense, but I am starting with the familiar, but I usually just say chai. I am half Punjabi and should say “cha” but communicating my caffeinated beverage of choice gets more difficult if I am used to saying cha.
So first thing in the morning I wash the pot, if it is not washed already, and measure out the amount of tea I want to make. Usually about 4 mug fulls of water. I put the water on the stove and turn the burner on. As the water heats up I add an equal number of heaping teaspoons of loose Yellow Label Lipton tea. Then I take some green cardamom pods, whole cloves, fennel seeds, black pepper corns, and piece of cinnamon stick and put it all in a big stone mortar, and then take the heavy stone pestle and grind the spices and add it to the pot of water with tea in it. Once the water boils for a few minutes I add the milk. Whole milk, because chai without enough milk fat in it is wasted chai. 🙂 I add enough milk until the color looks right, and then I add a little bit of honey to sweeten it slightly. After the tea comes to a boil, I turn the burner off and pour the tea through a sieve leaving the spices and loose tea behind. Drinking that first sip of hot tea in the morning is a glorious feeling. Not only does it wake me up, but the taste which mixes the slight bitterness of black tea, the rich silkiness of milk, a blend of distinct spices, and a hint of sweetness from the honey has a solidness, a wholeness to it that I can’t quite describe. It feels like home to me as invokes many memories of growing up drinking tea with my family. At that time in my life I usually didn’t have morning tea, but late afternoon tea with my parents when they come from work. I introduced it to my wife when we met and she fell in love with it, and it is now as important to her as it is to me, and so it is now a shared pleasure. And on mornings when I haven’t had a lot of sleep, I may find making the tea to be a bit of a chore but that first sip in the morning makes me feel like I have the strength to face the day. The making and drinking of chai is a ritual for me. I think my only one. If I’m away from home I miss it and genuinely get excited for that first cup of chai when I get back.
We all have our rituals. In many ways I feel like rituals are like beliefs, they are like habits, they are repeated actions and thus forge neural pathways in our brain which when activated release dopamine. I think we need ritual in our lives to a certain extent. A repeated activity that simply brings emotional comfort should never be seen as a bad thing. Of course the way ritual can feel so solid and tangible can also be dangerous. As I wrote out my ritual for making chai and how it makes me feel I think to myself how I could never be vegan. But perhaps I should be vegan. There are many positive scientific and ethical arguments for being vegan. This clash is at the heart of how are beliefs or our rituals impact how we rationalize away good arguments in favor of those practices and beliefs we hold dear.
I think it’s also important to recognize that the tangible feelings those rituals give us are therefore an illusion. I remember when I was about 16 a friend of my mother’s, who was Greek Orthodox and cut hair in her home was giving me a haircut and talking about an upcoming Easter celebration. They were big meat eaters, especially lamb, but she announced to me that on Good Friday they don’t eat meat. She said “I don’t know, but not eating meat, makes me feel closer to God.” I found this to be such a strange statement, because I really felt like buddying up to God should really be more about helping people than whether or not you eat meat on Good Friday. It struck me at that moment how ritual influences our emotional state. And while I think we can afford some fantasy in our lives, when we get mired in ritual it is very much like an addiction. Ritual is like a drug for which we trade a certain euphoria we get by performing the ritual instead of actions that might be more productive to the lives of ourselves and others. The oft used example is quite true, that going to church every Sunday does not make you a good Christian. Many religious movements begin as an offshoot of other religions that seem to dogmatically get lost in ritual over more pragmatic practices that actually produce. Sikhism is a good example of this. This religion developed out of need to rise up from the oppression of the Mogul Empire in India at a time when the Hindus simply bore the oppression and turned to ritual and prayer for help instead of doing something themselves. Of course as the religion aged it too has become more mired in ritual as well, even though it began as a rebellion against it.
To see how easy we can get caught up in ritual the following text appears below the picture above at the website for this image. While I’d say that there is some hint that you should be doing good things in your life, I think words like these make it too easy for people to think they can bypass practical applications of a positive spirituality over performing rituals:
“A ritual is a formula which is meant to dovetail our consciousness to the supreme consciousness of God. The whole purpose of a spiritual ritual is transformation of the heart – from selfish passions to a spirit of selfless service to others, from arrogance to humility and from envy to having the power to appreciate others. If this transformation doesn’t take place in our heart, to create good character, personal integrity and ultimately love for God, then these rituals are all a waste of time.
The value of a ritual is to the extent we please God. Its not the ritual but the content of what our consciousness puts into that ritual. The real essence of all spiritual practices is to purify our heart and awaken the innate love of God. If our rituals are performed with that aim in mind, that ritual, like a vehicle, will help to transport our consciousness to the supreme destination. There is the analogy of a package. If you give a gift which has beautiful decorations outside but a horrible gift inside, the one who receives it will not be happy. The content of the package is all important. So our motivation for doing the ritual is all important, otherwise its just a ritual. So if we have the proper motivation to perform the ritual then it will have a tremendous substance. What is that substance? We access the empowerment and the mercy of the Lord. Thus by giving our heart to the Lord through that ritual, then that becomes the true content of the ritual.
In the beginning of our spiritual life we follow rituals for our purification. When there is proper philosophy and service behind it, it can awaken love of God. It is a way to express our intent to love God, to serve and please Him. So when we have the right enthusiasm and intent, then the ritual becomes something very deeply spiritual. If it is done under the proper guidance and with the right purpose, it purifies our heart and motivations and gradually real genuine spiritual experience awakens from within.” – Radhanath Swami
It seems that it is human nature to gravitate towards ritual. They make us feel good. They are comforting and safe. But like all things moderation is important. Introspection and reflection on these rituals is important. And some rituals are wholly harmful in practice and simply are inexcusable to allow them to continue. Maybe we simply need to make doing good in the world a ritual instead. 🙂
Feel free to share some of your rituals and how likely you are willing to give them up! 🙂