Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Evolution in Combat Sports

At Wim Demeer's excellent blog, there was a recent post on the evolution of combat sports. 

An excerpt is below. The full post, with many accompanying videos, may be found here

I believe it is fair to say that Benny (Urguidez) in his prime wouldn’t stand a chance against (the late) Ramon (Dekker) in his prime. Ramon was in the same weight class as Benny, so that can’t explain the difference in power and effectiveness. Look at how Benny and Fujimoto kick: there is nowhere near the power compared to Ramon’s leg techniques. They also look like amateurs compared to Ramon: there is no integrated approach to using arms and legs.

In part, this can be explained by the stage of development the sport was in back then: Benny came from a boxing and karate background and it shows in how he fights. He didn’t practice muay Thai, few Westerners did back then. In essence, him and his contemporaries made things up as they went along, developing skills and adapting their karate techniques to what was then relatively new sport. In contrast, Ramon Dekkers trained muay Thai (Dutch version) from the beginning and you see this in the way he moves, punches and kicks.

If you compare Ramon to today’s fighters, you’ll see even more differences between them and Benny, but also Ramon. The sport has changed, evolved and grown. Not just on a technical level but also strategies, tactics and training methods.

We’ve seen the same thing in MMA when you look at the first UFC events where the Gracies demonstrated the need for effective ground grappling which many fighters lacked.

Fast forward 20 years and there are no Gracies any more in the UFC. Today, every fighter has a good ground game along with good stand up (an area in which the Gracies always were severely lacking) to be able to compete. The funny thing is that the next step in the evolution of the sport is a resurgence of techniques from traditional martial arts. Karate, Tae Kwon Do and other arts are used as a source for innovating in the cage. In a few years, it’ll be something else.

This process is natural and normal for all sports, combat sports included, which brings me to my actual point:

If you don’t follow the evolution of the sport, you become obsolete.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Position in Martial Arts as well as Some Funny Bounces

Position is a critical element in martial arts, strategy and virtually all aspects of our lives. Below is an excerpt from the excellent Karate Thoughts Blog. The full post may be read here.

Before getting to the post however, I'd like to bring up recent experience and some funny bounces.

On a Thursday, I was coming down with the symptoms of a flu. I was very cold, all the energy was just drained from me and I ended up going to be at 8 pm.

The next morning I got up, found the coffee tasted lousy (and I LOVE coffee; if it tasted bad, then I truly was sick) and went back to bed.

I had a transaction that I needed to complete with a customer though. He was a few time zones over so I had a chance to get some sleep before working on it.

So there I am working the email and text messages; up to my elbows in a data base, trying to help him get this urgent order placed and moving.

The phone rings. It's my boss. 

Ok. He usually calls me on Fridays to catch up on what I've been doing. "I'm here with Stacy from HR." I knew what was coming. Yep. There was a reduction in force and I am among the number. Welcome to Dumpsville, population me.

The thing is, it didn't effect me one bit. My mind didn't freeze. There was no "gap."

Ok. The job is over, I have to get a new one now.

I finished letting the customer know what he needed to do and whom to contact to finish his transaction with text messages (my work email was cut off right away), then I got to work on LinkedIn to start stirring things up.

I've always made a point of making sure that my customers know that I do the very best I can for them within the constraints of my organization and that has always helped me. I am in an industry (the Internet of Things) that is growing fast. 

I am in a good position for something to happen relatively quickly. I'll let you know how it goes.

And now, to the article ...

My eldest son practices Kendo, and has (on and off) since he was about 12.  He has been a member of Hawaii's team to the World Kendo Tournament three times.  I am sharing this to give you a feel that he is pretty serious about Kendo.

In fact, when he is at my house, he often goes through Kendo movements and stomps his right foot (like they do in Kendo).  I always have to tell him to stop because I am afraid that he will crack our marble floors.  I secretly think that he may have already done so.

Anyway, we often speak about Kendo and he always tells me about a new technique or strategy he is working on or just thought of.  I am always amazed because he has been practicing Kendo for a while.  Nevertheless, he always seems to have come up with something new.

Recently, he told me (I am paraphrasing) that he realized that Kendo is not as much about hitting as it is about getting into the best position to hit.

Now I have heard so many of these thoughts -- maybe hundreds over the years -- but this one made me think... Kendo is not as much about hitting as it is about getting into the best position to hit.

We talked about it.  It certainly takes skill to hit right in Kendo.  But most people who do hit are not in the best position when they do so.  As a result, their hit may be effective, or they may be hit themselves or countered.  There are a lot of considerations.  But when you are in the best position, your hit will probably be better and you will be in a stronger position.

I started to think about how this applies to Karate.  If Karate is about punching, blocking, kicking, etc., then it is certainly true that getting into the best position before we do these things is extremely important.  In some cases, getting into the best position could even make certain things unnecessary.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Paying Attention to Detail in Martial Arts

Over at the Black Arrow blog, Zacky Chan has a very good post on paying attention to detail in his martial art: kyudo, which applies equally well to every other martial art and to everything else to which we turn our attention. It's still early in the year and this is a nice way to start things off.

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

The Importance of Taihai Part I: What is Taihai?

In this series of posts I want to talk about why taihai is so important to kyudo. On the one hand it’s one of the most basic aspects of kyudo, and yet on the other it’s one aspect that is mostly ignored. Great taihai is what separates good from great archers, and it’s also what perplexes most when they first look at kyudo. I firmly believe that the better we can understand and perform taihai, the better we can hit the target, better express ourselves in our shooting, and better learn from the practice of kyudo.

This series of posts was sparked when someone asked me something that went like this:

When researching about kyudo, there is a lot of information about the shooting and everything you do once you’re at the shooting mark, but what about all the stuff getting up to that point?

That is taihai, all the stuff you do before and after you’re at the mark. In that sense, we can divide kyudo into the things we do at the mark (shooting), and all the stuff we do before and after we shoot (taihai). But really, most all the things we do in taihai we should be doing while we shoot, and most all the things we do while we shoot we should also use in our taihai. In that sense, we should look to taihai not as something separate from shooting, but rather as a very important part of the process of shooting.

You could say it’s “shooting without shooting.” I like that, but for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of taihai, we’re going to have to get a lot more specific.

Like, what does the Japanese word “taihai” mean in English?

From all the English writings I’ve read, I don’t believe I’ve ever found a single translation of the word “taihai”. What you usually find is a description of the process:  “Entering the dojo, performing the right steps in the right order and timing, and leaving the dojo.” or “The formalized movements based on etiquette.” or “Taihai involves five archers entering the dojo, approaching the target and preparing for shooting in harmony, with precise timing and rhythm.”

Even in the Japanese version of “the Kyudo Manual” (Kyuhon), I don’t think there is the use of the word, “taihai”. There are lots of description of different types of ceremonial shootings using terms like, “The movements of three person shooting” or “the movements of removing the kimono sleeve” or “ceremonial shooting for the makiwara”. Taihai is involved in all of these, and yet the term itself isn’t mentioned.

That point aside, the two words that seem to come up the most are “ceremonial” and

How about we call taihai, “ceremonial movements”?

Well, I don’t like this because the term “ceremonial” makes it sound like it’s something special we do only on certain occasions, when really it’s something we should be doing all the time when we’re shooting. The term “movements” is certainly accurate, but it’s not just any movements, but very specific predetermined ones.

I’d also like to mention that taihai is a word that relates specifically to kyudo. When I ask a Japanese person who doesn’t practice kyudo what taihai is, they don’t know. Even if they look at the written characters, the meaning of taihai doesn’t translate. You can explain the motions of taihai in Japanese, or show someone the movements and say, “this is taihai”, but there is no single term to explain to people who aren’t already familiar with the word.
That aside, let’s take a look at the Japanese characters for taihai ourselves and see if we can find anything.

Taihai looks like this: 体配.

体 (tai) most simply means “body”. I don’t think it means much more in the full word of taihai, but if you look up 体 in a kanji dictionary it will also show it as, “style; form; substance; center appearance”.

配 (hai) is a little trickier because it doesn’t have much of a defined meaning if the character is all by itself. Only when linked with other characters does it gain meaning, but then it has a slightly different meaning with each different character it’s linked with to make a new word. Anyway, in a kanji dictionary 配 means “distribute”. With other characters it often conveys the meaning of “distributing”, “alloting” or “arranging”.

So … taihai could be translated as “distributing the body”?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What is a Traditional Martial Art?

Below is an excerpt from the NYSanda blog. It explores the question of "what is tradition and why should we care. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

People in the so called “traditional” martial arts community react to my particular approach to Chan Tai-San’s teachings in a wide variety of ways. Some clearly understand my approach, but I would say for every one of those people there are at least three who are at least puzzled. Some ask me if I still teach the empty hand forms that Chan Tai-San taught? I do NOT, and so many of them then ask why I am not keeping his “tradition” alive? Of course, on the most negative end of the spectrum, some have accused me of abandoning Chan Tai-San altogether.

What exactly is “tradition”? In the case of Chan Tai-San, clearly this is a question worth pondering? I was formally adopted by Sifu Chan as a disciple of his Lama Pai lineage. Yet, that lineage was anything but a straight line. In addition to his primary teacher Jyu Chyuhn, Chan Tai-San studied several other versions of Lama Pai, including a Manchurian version from Ma Yi-Po. Chan Tai-San’s “Lama Pai” included influences from other “Lion’s Roar” teachers he studied with, those affiliated with Pak Hok Pai (Tibetan White Crane) and Hop Ga (Knight / Hero Family). I would suggest that Chan Tai-San’s “Lama Pai” was what he considered to be the best available material, rather than a concern for a particular “tradition”.

If you ever had a chance to see Chan Tai-San perform, or have seen any of the sets he taught, you might have also noticed that at times his various methods bled together. That is, you’ll see in his Lama Pai some of his Choy Lay Fut. And in his Choy Lay Fut, you saw some of his Lama Pai. And you’d also see bits of his Bahk Mei (Pak Mei / White Eyebrow), Hung Kyuhn and Mok Ga. Some might consider this some sort of “blasphemy” but, again, in Chan Tai-San’s school this was the norm. Sifu Chan taught what he felt was the best methods, he had virtually no interest in things like “purity”.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Who Needs Fiction: Robot Mimics Expert Swordsman

Yaskawa Electric Corporation made a promotional video recently, training a robot to mimic expert swordsman Isao Machii.

While don't expect sword wielding warrior robots to be available very soon, it's an interesting demonstration of technology. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Running Update

Yesterday, my daughter and I completed our first full marathon at the Disney World 2016 Marathon.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

5 Points to Improve Your Martial Arts Practice

At Kenshi 24/7, there was an article which was a translation from a chapter of a book written by one of the highest ranked Kendo masters of his time. 

This was written for kendo students, but I think it applies to everyone trying to improve.

An excerpt is below. The whole article may be read here. Enjoy.

Takano Hiromasa (1900-1987), kendo hanshi and headmaster of Itto-ryu*, was the the second son of kendo legend Takano Sasaburo.

A brief bio:

Hiromasa began studying the sword when he was 6 years old in his fathers dojo, Meishinkan. He graduated from Tokyo Shihan Gakko in 1923 and, in 1927, took over the day-to-day running of Meishinkan. At the same time he started teaching kendo at various universities (Waseda, Tokyo Institute of Technology, etc). Between 1936-41 he lived in America and taught kendo at California State University. After returning to Japan he started becoming involved in kendo publications, first by producing a magazine called “Shin-budo” before authoring his own titles. After the war he continued writing kendo books, eventually writing a kenshi-inspired novel. This led to him becoming a budo (swordsmanship) advisor for various plays and movies.

1. Concentrate on developing willpower

The spiritual power of humans:

Horie Kenichi, a young 23 year old yachtsman, crossed the pacific on his own, from Nishinomiya to San Francisco, in 1963. It took him 94 days. Since his success there have been many other people attempting to copy him, however, it’s like tapping a stone bridge before crossing it (i.e. looking before leaping) their caution makes what they are doing valueless. Horie, on the other hand, dared to do what nobody had ever attempted before, and thus can be said to have great spiritual strength.

2. Keiko, keiko, keiko

Shut up and train:

If the first most important thing for improving your kendo is development of the spirit, then the second is to continually endure the hardships of repeated keiko sessions day-in-and-day-out in the dojo. This of course not limited to kendo, but various things in life: without practise you cannot improve.

3. Don’t put too much importance on winning or losing

The main point of beginners shugyo (pursuit of kendo):

It’s important that beginners throw out any thoughts about winning and losing. They should simply aim to execute the basic shape of kendo as they have been taught it.

4. Study under a teacher

Practise with your teacher and seniors:

It’s important that you learn under a good teacher(s) and good sempai. By practising hard with them and listening to their advice and direction, you cannot fail to improve. If you cannot patiently listen to their advice or endure hard keiko with them, then you will simply stop progressing.

5. Research (Kenkyu and kufu)

There are different opinions as to how to study kendo in the beginning. Some people believe it’s important to learn the theory first, whilst other believe physical practise is more important. Either way, both have the aim of Jiri-itchi (the unison of physical practise and theory, a term popularised by the famous kenshi Yamaoka Tesshu).

Monday, January 04, 2016

Training in More Than One Koryu

Learning one martial art is tough enough. Training in more than one simultaneously can be particularly challenging. 

Ellis Amdur is a well known expert practitioner of classical Japanese Martial arts. At his website, KogenBudo, Mr. Amdur had an article on studying multiple classical JMA (Koryu) at the same time.

Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here. Enjoy.

Why study a koryu? Many, if not most, view it as a mukei-bunkazai (‘intangible cultural treasure’). It is envisioned like a mammoth, frozen under tundra ice, that somehow is revived and exists like it did millennia in the past. As soon as this concept is voiced, the endeavor fails. Mammoths, like ryu in the past, continued to evolve. The ryu, throughout their history, continued to innovate, and strong members, for better or worse, questioned the kata in various ways. We even have proof of this when we view films of various ryu one or two generations ago. We can see changes, for better or worse, in the way that modern exponents do the same techniques as their predecessors. In my view, the idea of the ryu being primarily an intangible cultural treasure is a kiss of death. In fact, this is an award that comes from outside the ryu: it is validated by politicians or other bureaucrats who have no way of truly evaluating the ryu except that it a) has a long professed history b) appears to be really impressive.

Others view the ryu as a vehicle towards study of a ‘way,’ that idea that practice of the ryu leads one closer to some ineffable state, be it enlightenment or self-perfection. I would not argue with that possibility entirely. However, this is usually regarded as a solo pursuit, and the essence of any ryu is that one trains for the ryu, a still-feudal entity that strives to survive together. This is admittedly somewhat abstract, so here is an example. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century is Peter Matthiessen, and one of his greatest books is The Snow Leopard. The blurb on Amazon states: In 1973, Peter Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller traveled high into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, was also on a spiritual quest to find the Lama of Shey at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. As the climb proceeds, Matthiessen charts his inner path as well as his outer one, with a deepening Buddhist understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence, and beauty. It is a stunningly beautiful book. Matthiessen went on this journey shortly after the tragic death of his wife, and devastated, it was an attempt, in part, to recover himself. I passed the book to my mother, who read it, admired much about it, but handed it back to me with contempt, saying, “He left his child behind.” He had a young son who had lost his mother, something even more devastating than losing a mate, and he left him in the boarding school he was enrolled in to go on his spiritual quest, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, this sums up the flaw in the idea of self-perfection as an ideal.

The samurai trained to be worthy of serving something greater than himself, and the ryu is this, just as one’s family is. The degree to which one commits to this (and the unavoidable tensions that are thus engendered), tempers a man or woman far more than the solitary pursuit of enlightenment, no matter how beautiful the scenery.

Another viewpoint is that one is studying a combative art, and the ryu has either impeccably preserved a methodology for the use of certain weapon(s) for close combat, or continues to hone and polish those techniques so that they are even better each generation. If, however, one truly wants to train for combat, should one not be involved in modern military training?

Or, if one is concerned on a personal level about home invasion, should one not spend more training on use of a firearm than a sword? There is no doubt that information is preserved within some ryu that is eminently useful today, were it adapted to modern times and modern equipment. But to the degree that this is so, why not do just that rather than practicing with archaic weaponry in scenarios that will likely never occur?

No simple answer then is satisfactory. Here’s mine. I train for the ryu. In doing so, the ryu becomes me. I am required to maintain a body of traditional knowledge, and struggle that nothing handed down is lost. At the same time, as I become more knowledgeable, I must ruthlessly attack contaminants that have infected the ryu by superficial creativity or mistakes of understanding on the part of my predecessors. (If they damaged this entity which we all love, I am responsible, at my level, to fix it). To the degree that enrollment within the ryu affects me in ways I don’t like (and it certainly has), this creates a fundamental internal tension that I must deal with: in doing so, this tempers me, and I, the product of this struggle, contribute ‘me’ further to the ryu. Since the ryu are combative arts (at least the one’s I have studied), then I am required to become stronger and stronger, but because they are historical entities, confined by culture and by the weaponry they used, there is a ‘frame’ within which I – and the ryu – must function. There is no hard rule here, but the deeper one is within the ryu, the clearer this becomes. Or as Nitta sensei of Toda-ha Buko-ryu said to me on several occasions, “それはちょっと武甲流らしゅくありません。As best as I can translate this, she was not criticizing the efficacy of what I was doing; rather, she was saying, “That doesn’t have the ‘air’ of Toda-ha Buko-ryu.”

With all of that, should one study more than one ryu? I can think of a myriad of answers to that:
  1. There are often two or more ryu that became associated long in the past. An example that comes to mind is Shosho-ryu yawara and Muhen-ryu naginatajutsu. I’ve not looked at their densho in any detail, but I’m sure they have different lineage and many different features particularly at the gokui level. However, they have been together in the same locale, exchanged students and shared teachers for so long that they are one meta-ryu, ‘martial arts of Morioka.’ They are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. In a case like this, I cannot imagine there is any deficit to enrollment in both, as long as one has the time to do them justice. (The five ryu that Kuroda Tetsuzan maintains is another example; they are, in essence, all Kuroda-ryu).
  2. A similar example of the item above are the ‘fusoku-ryu‘ (subsidiary schools) that have become branches of a main school, even though they don’t share the same founder. A good example of this would be the fusoku-ryu of Shinto Muso-ryu jo: Isshin-ryu kusarigamajutsu; Ikkaku-ryu juttejutsu; “Kasumi” Shinto-ryu kenjutsu; Uchida-ryu tanjojutsu; Ittatsu-ryu hojojutsu. If three generations back, a headmaster had erased all the names of these schools, destroyed any older documentation, and made them part of Shinto Muso-ryu, no one in subsequent generations would have ever noticed; they are that closely melded together.
  3. Far too many people who enroll in multiple schools (most in my view), are ryu collectors. They have either no idea of the depth of each ryu or don’t care. I cannot conceive of joining a ryu just to acquire ‘some’ knowledge of it. Teachers who accept students without the intention of teaching everything (if they prove to be suitable), and students who do not aim to master the ryu are failures, in my view. The teachers are selling portions of the ryu for money, fame or ego gratification.
  4. Some enroll in two schools because one teacher is licensed to teach both. I must question, however, why most would do this? You have the same teacher, yet what he or she teaches is radically different. On Monday, s/he says, “Sink your hips, don’t stretch your legs,” and on Tuesday, s/he says, “stretch your legs, don’t sink your hips.” You equally commit to the teacher when you join one school, but you put him or her in a position that s/he’s erasing on one day what s/he taught on the other, and vice versa. In my view, the instructor’s time is wasted, and I will never allow any of my students to enroll in both of the ryu I teach (I will come back to this point, below).
  5. And then there are those whose ‘eyes are bigger than their stomachs’ – they join three, four, five schools, all with the best of intentions, but few, if any individual, can do justice to so many unique entities.
  • The result, at best, is someone who, physically talented, moves through the kata with grace and skill, but one ryu soon contaminates the next, and in a short time, they are moving generically. What makes each school unique is lost.
  • In addition, they cannot have loyalty to all the ryu. I had personal experience in situations where teachers of two or more schools were at odds, and the students of both squirms inelegantly to avoid offending each of their instructors. From individuals striving to become warriors, they become politicians.
  • Finally, the deepest teachings of the ryu cannot be handed out like candy. A genuine teacher who holds truly knowledge of the depths of his or her tradition will only teach someone who is willing to be pervasively influenced by the school, both in terms of loyalty to the tradition, but also because without that training-in-depth, the gokui mean nothing to them. I can pronounce a gokui of one of my ryu (it has been publicly published in several books in Japan for generations, for what its worth) right now: “Pine tree on a cliff.” You may have an idea of what that means, maybe even a good idea. But if you have not gone through the specific physical training to the bone that these words indicate, it’s just an idea.

And then there are the only individuals who are, in my view, worth discussing. The ones who enroll in two ryu with full commitment and respect. There are two ways this can occur: either sequentially or simultaneously. Sequentially would mean that after fully mastering a school, one joins another. Why? One reason would be that one crossed hands or weapons with a teacher from the other school and lost the bout. In this case, one could abandon one’s own school, and fully becomes a disciple of the new teacher. Sometime in the far future, one emerges as a full practitioner of the second school, or once graduated, one consciously or unconsciously amalgamates both schools into something new. The same thing could also occur without such drama, when one meets a teacher who is so admirable that one finds it a necessity in one’s life to become a student yet again. Withal, this is actually very unlikely in modern times, particularly among my English-speaking readers. How many genuine menkyo-kaiden in any koryu do you, the reader, know? And how many of them, a true shihan of their own ryu, then go to study as a student of someone else, letting go status and all they know, willing to start over again, perhaps closing the doors of their dojo, and cutting lose their own students, because they have, once again, ‘thrown their life away’ to commit to something they must know, and to a ryu and teacher to whom they must pledge loyalty?

Friday, January 01, 2016

Getting Your Martial Arts Training Off to a Good Start in 2016

Happy New Year!
I have always found that training during and just after the holidays to be a real challenge. With holiday gatherings, rich food, late nights and oceans of beer, I find my good habits are usually blown to the four winds and with the coming of the new year, that I have to pick up the pieces and begin all over again.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The train wreck of my practicing at the end of the year naturally gives me an opportunity to re evaluate, access and with hope, move forward.

There was a post in the excellent blog, The Art of Manliness about elevating the level of one's routine to that of a ritual and what that might signify. I think that this has everything to do with our own martial arts training.

Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here. I send my best wishes for your training this year and hope that you enjoy the article.

For Henry David Thoreau, the summer of 1854 had brought the onset of a stifling malaise — one that had left him feeling “trivial,” “cheap,” and “unprofitable.” The air was dry, the heat was unending, society was pressing in too close around him, and he missed the intensity with which he had lived during his Walden years. So it was with much relief that he greeted the cool nights that arrived with fall, and took advantage of them by taking long walks in the moonlight. Thoreau already thought of his regular, hours-long daytime walks as akin to heroic pilgrimages in which the crusader reconquered “this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels,” and he brought a similar questing spirit to his moonlit saunters through the woods.

The enemy here was spirit-suffocating triviality, and Thoreau found his night walks to be potently effective in beating back the scourge. He reveled in the cool dampness and mist, thought about how the same moonlight had fallen on humans stretching back thousands of years, and contemplated the way the darkness aroused one’s primeval instincts and symbolized the human unconscious. He often walked along a river, exulting in the way “The sound of this gurgling water…fills my buckets, overflows my float boards, turns all the machinery of my nature, makes me a flume, a sluice-way to the springs of nature. Thus I am washed; thus I drink and quench my thirst.”

While Thoreau’s nocturnal, sense-heightening walks became a regular occurrence, they never became pedestrian. They were never simply a way to get from point A to point B. Rather, they had a purpose beyond their mere mechanics; they were sacred opportunities to re-create himself.

His walks were rituals, rather than routines.

If your life has been feeling trivial, cheap, and unprofitable, the cure may be taking one of your own daily routines and turning it into a spirit-renewing ritual. How exactly you do that is what we’ll be exploring today.
What’s the Difference Between a Routine and a Ritual?

Both routines and rituals consist of repetitive actions undertaken on a regular basis. But there are a couple important differences between them.

One of the defining elements of ritual is that it lacks a strictly practical relationship between its enacted means and its desired ends. For example, there is no direct, empirical causality between shaking hands and making an acquaintance, throwing one’s graduation cap in the air and closing a chapter in life, or making the sign of the cross and receiving divine grace and strength. All of these rituals have historical, cultural, and theological reasons behind them, but the actions themselves do not have efficacy in the absence of this context. There is a meaning and purpose behind a ritual that transcends its observable components.

Routines, on the other hand, employ means that are practically connected with their ends. When you brush your teeth or drive to work, you’re solely aiming at removing tartar and getting to the office, and the actions involved empirically move you towards these goals. The efficacy of routines lies in the actions themselves. There is no deeper meaning or purpose behind a routine; it’s done for its own sake.

Second, routines can be accomplished without much thought. You may arrive at work with little awareness of how you got there. In some rituals there is a different kind of submersion of self-consciousness as one loses oneself in the act, but oftentimes rituals require not a cessation of cognition, but a heightening of it. The efficacy of a ritual is often found in its exact and undeviating performance. Carrying it out thus requires careful focus and presence of mind.

Because of these differences between a routine and a ritual, each is capable of accomplishing different ends. The result of a routine is external and tangible: clean teeth or a timely arrival at work. The effect of a ritual is inward and transcendent: a centered mind, expanded spirit, or renewed dedication to a goal. A ritual cannot be merely a routine, but as we’ll see, a routine can be turned into a ritual.
What Are the Benefits of Creating Rituals in Your Life?

There’s a lot of resistance to ritual in our modern world — both on the institutional and personal level. Some see rituals as boring and pointless, empty and meaningless, or just plain too much work. Others look askance at rituals as being too superstitious and insufficiently rational.

But there are many reasons to view rituals in a new light — as highly effective ways for enhancing your life on a variety of levels. We’ve previously offered an in-depth exploration of the numerous benefits of rituals, particularly on the institutional level. Let’s today look at those benefits as they apply to creating your own:

Rituals center your mind and build your focus. Much of our life is spent going through the motions of mindless routines, tackling a swarm of endless to-dos, putting out “urgent” fires, and surfing from website to website and social media feed to social media feed in a spaced-out haze. Rituals bring you back to the present moment, renewing your awareness of that which is before you, and directing your focus to certain objects, physical sensations, and thoughts. You must concentrate on what you’re doing, and act with care and deliberation.

Set rituals not only quiet the daily frenzy of your mind, but can also help carry you through times when greater irruptions have burst upon your life. A morning shaving ritual, for example, can become a salve — a single daily pocket of calm and centering — in an otherwise grief-stricken or stressful period.

The exercise your focus receives from engaging in ritual will extend out to other areas of your life as well, improving your attention span for other tasks that require keen concentration. In his forthcoming book, Deep Work, professor Calvin Newport notes that many famous men used rituals as preparation for immersive work sessions: “Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.”

Rituals encourage embodiment. In the digital age, we can often feel like disembodied non-beings, floating around untethered to reality. Because physicality is one of the essential components of ritual, it counteracts these feelings by encouraging greater embodiment and renewing our connection with the tangible world.

For example, primitive people had many hunting-related rituals — pre-hunt rituals to increase chances of bagging game, rituals for how to kill the animals, rituals for how to cut them up and handle the corpse, and rituals for how to eat the meat. Such rituals connected them to the rhythms of life and death. Today, we wolf down our food without even tasting it. We’re disconnected from the process of how we obtain and consume our sustenance, and this can have detrimental effects on our health. Rituals — such as saying grace before a meal or making coffee with a French press — can help us slow down and connect with what we are doing in the moment, reorienting our bodies in time and space.

The greater sense of embodiment encouraged by ritual isn’t only beneficial in and of itself, but also enhances the effectiveness of the intended act. Making certain movements and putting your body in certain physical positions can change the way you feel and alter your mindset. For example, if you wish to lose yourself in fervent prayer, kneeling will immediately make you feel more reverent and humble than lying in bed. Similarly, walking can often spur your thinking in a way that sitting at a desk does not.

Rituals invite special powers and inspiration. While we often feel that inspiration is a mysterious, spontaneous force we must wait around for, it can in fact be coaxed into paying us a visit. In fact, strict consistency has proven time and again to be a greater enticement to the muses than irregularity. Special forces of mind and spirit flow better through a controlled conduit — or in other words, a ritual.

A perfect example of this are the various rituals many writers perform before they get down to work in hopes of priming their minds for inspiration. Some brew a fresh pot of strong coffee, go for a walk, or clear their desk of everything but their laptop. In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield describes the pre-writing ritual he uses to prepare his mind to overcome what he calls “The Resistance”:

    “I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, that my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.”

Do Pressfield’s invocations and various totems actually extort a force on his writing? Far be it for me to rule it out, but much of their power lies in the way they prepare his mind for the task ahead. Going through the steps of the ritual enhances his receptivity to inspiration, and any other mysterious forces and powers that may be hanging around his office.

Rituals create sacred time and space. Religion historian Mircea Eliade made famous the idea that there are essentially “two modes of being in the world”: the sacred and the profane. The profane constitutes our natural, secular lives, while the sacred represents fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery — a “manifestation of a wholly different order.”

In a traditional society, all of man’s vital functions not only had a practical purpose but could also potentially be transfigured into something charged with sacredness. Everything from eating to sex to work could “become a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.” In the modern, thoroughly profane world, such activities have been desacralized and disenchanted.

The creation of personal rituals can help you revive some of that enchantment in your life. And it isn’t just something for the religious to seek. Even if you wouldn’t term it the “sacred,” we all crave moments of deeper significance — moments that are special and extra-ordinary and open an insight into the greater meaning of things. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, the authors of All Things Shining, call this experience in which “the most real things in the world present themselves to us” a “whooshing up.”

In creating the circumstances by which we become more receptive to extra-ordinary feelings and inspiration, rituals can help more of life whoosh up to us. As Eliade puts it, rituals allow participants to “separate themselves, partially if not totally, from the roles and statuses they have in the workaday world” and cross a “threshold in time and space or both.” In this they add not only more mystery and magic to one’s life, but also a greater feeling of texture. When the landscape of one’s existence consists of an unbroken expanse of the profane, life can feel flat and one-dimensional. Rituals allow us to move between the ordinary and the sacred, opening up richer dimensions of experience.