When entering the gate of the duke’s palace, he bowed his head respectfully as if it were not high enough. He never paused in the middle of the gateway, nor did he step on the threshold. When he passed in front of the duke’s throne, he adopted a serious expression on his face, quickened his step, and showed great reluctance to speak. When he lifted up the hem of his gown in preparation for walking up the steps of the audience hall, he inhaled deeply as if he didn’t dare to breathe. On leaving, after descending the first step, an expression of ease enveloped his face. When he reached the bottom step, he walked swiftly, as if on wings. On returning to his original position, he assumed a respectful and cautious demeanor once again.
How do you feel when you sit down at your desk after arriving for work? Is your mood the same every day or does it vary depending on the vagaries of the weather, traffic, or your personal life?
The greatest benefit of ritual is that it can put you into the right mindset for whatever lies ahead. Repeating even such a simple act as making a cup of coffee before turning your computer on every day can trigger you to forget your concerns and get down to business. In the same way, putting on your exercise clothes and shoes in a regular order can signal that you are ready for a serious session in the gym no matter how unwilling you are to face the strain and pain.
Rituals don’t have to be as complex as some of the ones followed by Confucius. But they do take time and commitment to establish. Indeed, it is the self-discipline that you need to build up in order to master them that gives them their true power. Once you have got into the right mindset, you’re ready for anything.
This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.
(1) Again, the key point of this passage is that Confucius immerses himself completely in the process when he attends court. He is so far in the zone that he doesn’t neglect a single detail of the ritual and is ready to serve his ruler however may be required.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.