On Personal Rituals

A week and a half ago, I broke my Matcha bowl. For those of you asking “your what-now?”, a Matcha bowl is a small bowl or cup used to make matcha, which is a powdered Japanese green tea. It’s got a gentle form of caffeine that makes you alert without giving you the jitters, and like most green teas, it’s got all sorts of good-for-you compounds in it.

Matcha is what I start my weekdays with, without fail. And while you can certainly make it in a regular mug, it’s never going to come out as well as preparing it more traditionally in a bowl with a bamboo whisk, IMO (and yes, I have tried).

So, when I dropped my first and only matcha bowl after my shower that Thursday morning, I was pretty horrified. Matcha bowls – good ones, aren’t sold just anywhere, and normally I’d have to order one online. Luckily, I’d seen several at the local bookstore just down the block from where I work the week before, and I had enough money to splurge on a locally made one instead of going with something cheap and mass-produced. Whew!

That afternoon, I walked to the bookstore on my break, got a cup of tea and spent a good 10 minutes choosing which matcha bowl I wanted, and headed back to the office with a sense of relief that my morning matcha ritual would still happen the next day.

I’ve run out of matcha before, and it’s not pretty. So it goes for a few other “rituals” in my life – not normal routines, though messing with one of those throws me off pretty heavily too, but there are certain things I do either daily or weekly or whatever, that when I don’t get to do them, my whole world feels so off-kilter that I have trouble functioning until I can “reset” and partake in whatever ritual it is again.

The difference between routines and rituals for me is…a routine is something I can do without much thought. It needs to be done, and I do it at a set time on a set schedule so I know that it gets done, and I don’t give it much thought aside from “it’s time to do [whatever]”. The only tools that really matter for a routine are whichever tools will allow me to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible so I can move on to the next thing.

A ritual is something I pay attention to. Something that gets my full attention and focus, even if just for a few moments. Something comforting and restful that centers my mind. And something where the tools are just as important as the motions.

Making the tea that my husband and I each take to work every morning and afternoon is a routine. I use travel bottles with tea strainer inserts and a loud timer because I’m always multi-tasking while it’s steeping. I fill the baskets with our favorite daily black teas, do other things while waiting for the water to get hot, fill his first because he likes more bitter brews than I do, do one more thing, go back and fill mine, and when the timer goes off, take the baskets out and let them sit to cool for just a minute while I do one more thing and then come back screw the bottle bottoms back on and put them in my work bag to keep warm while we’re getting ready for work. Pure routine, I could do it in my sleep.

With my matcha though, I put the water on to heat, get my bowl and set it on the counter. I notice the texture on the outside, the smooth glaze on the interior. I get the matcha power from the fridge and sift through it with my little bamboo scoop, noting the texture of that and breaking up any lumps in the tea powder before putting two small scoops of tea in the bowl and tapping the scoop on the side. I put the powder back in the fridge and get my bamboo whisk, feeling how light and small it is in my hand, and then I pour a little warm water in to make a smooth paste with the powder before pouring enough water to make the brew (maybe 1/4 of the bowl full…depends on the bowl and how thick/thin I want it).

I whisk it briskly, watching the water take on that beautiful emerald green hue and those creamy bubbles form on the top, feeling the texture and how much resisting energy there is. I tap my whisk on the bowl a couple times, rinse it under water and put it back on its ceramic stand to dry.

Then I hold the bowl up to my nose and breathe in deep, letting the fresh, grassy scent start to wake me up. I take a small sip to test, close my eyes and enjoy the flavor and the texture on my tongue, and set the bowl on the counter to wait, carrying it with me to sip on as I go through the rest of my morning routine.

The ritual part of that routine takes an incredibly small amount of time – only a couple of minutes before I’m forced to refocus on the routines that get me out the door (mostly) on time. But that few minutes makes all the difference in the world as to how my day starts and continues. It’s a quick but satisfying reset in the middle of my normal morning bustle. I perform this particular ritual every single weekday without fail – even Tuesdays when I’m in a bigger hurry than normal.

And that’s why breaking my one matcha bowl was such a huge deal to me – the incredibly rare times when I’ve run out of matcha powder have consisted of poor substitutes and serious angst on my part simply because I can’t recreate the actual “ritual” with anything else. Can I survive without it? Sure – absolutely. In time, I’d learn to live without it if I had to. Do I want to? Not if there’s any way on earth I can hang onto it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have lots of routines (I am 100 percent routine-driven), but very few actual rituals, and that’s because it’s very difficult for me to make time for such things. I have that little bit of time in the morning, and a tiny slice of time late at night…and sometimes, I don’t even get that depending on what the other “lifeforms” in my house are doing/needing/whatever. If I can’t keep a very rigid schedule, then I generally give up on elevating something from routine to ritual, because it’s frustrating and generally futile. In order to “care” and focus, I need the time and mental space to do so. Mental space and quiet are often harder to come by than time, just due to interruptions, unfortunately.

I think we as constantly busy people don’t make enough time for personal rituals. We’re forced by tradition or family or social mores to make time for social ritual, but taking/making time for personal ritual is too often seen as “selfish” or “introverted” (like that’s a bad thing…which it’s not), or a snub to others around us. Or it’s just not taken seriously, and we’re interrupted constantly, which keeps us from that deep focus and tactile/sensual attention (“mindfulness”, if you want to use a buzzword) that a ritual really requires.

Do you practice a particular ritual regularly? Something where the tools and environment matter, and it’s not just a rote routine? Do you find it difficult to maintain, or are you better at protecting yours than I am at protecting mine?


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