Attending the Altar reminds me of the tea ceremony, or at least it should. It should have a zen-like quality. Mind you, I don't use the word 'Zen' casually. In fact, it makes me flinch when people use it to simply mean calmness or heaven forbid buying it in the form of sand, stones, and a tiny rake. What I mean here is a quality of action with singular purpose and intention, as embodied in the mastery of such things as archery, or calligraphy, or the tea ceremony. One may call this state of mind "mushin" (Jap. 無心) or "no-mind" in the sense of acting without conscious thought being in the way. The Chinese term associated with it is Wei Wu Wei ("action without action") or more simply Wu Wei (Ch., 無為).
A more familiar term is Kung Fu. Thanks to Bruce Lee, the West has given it a synonymity with Chinese Martial Arts. But that's not what it means. It more accurately means the quality of excellence from a long period of practice. You can have kung fu in martial arts – its most common usage – or you can have it in dancing, or driving, or accounting. Well, maybe not accounting. But the most impressive show of it for me was a young Russian skater in the Winter Olympics.
I don't remember the year or his name, but I will never forget what I saw. You could tell that the other skaters had poured their hearts and souls into their routines. You could see the strained determination on their faces. It was obvious they were reaching for their highest possible performance, a peak of a culminated lifetime of effort. And then came this teen who blew them all away and took the gold. It looked as if he wasn't even trying — because he wasn't! There was only "do" or "do not" and he clearly did it. He made it look effortless, and that's not something you can fake, even less the larder you try.
So what does this have to do with the Senior Deacon's work? This could apply to any ritual, but the work at the Altar is its own unique ceremony, done by one person in a deliberate and respectful way. Unfortunately, every movement or pause is a potential distraction from the experience, even if Past Masters aren't prompting you unnecessarily. How can we tighten this experience so we are just "doing it" so that even our own concentration isn't a distraction from the experience? Based on my experience with these concepts in and out of martial arts, here is my advice.
Clear your mind. This is the simplest, yet hardest thing to do in the world. Sometimes experience being in the "zone" when doing things like listening or playing music. We lose all track of time and the outside world. That is what we're going for here. If we simply ride along the steps of the ritual as if they are pulling us through them rather than pushing them ourselves, you'll start to experience this. Of course, that means you will have consciously practiced it, with effort, enough to where you don't need to consciously think about what you need to do. Slowly let go of the effort so that you move from trying to do it to just doing it. It's not a cliche to say you become one with the ritual at that point.
Establish a clear routine. Always do it the same, at least as is possible given room constraints, directives from the Worshipful Master, and different sizes of the altar and Volume of Sacred Law. If something is different, mentally go over how you will move your hands and place the objects beforehand so you are not figuring it out as you go. But most of the work should be familiar without thinking about it, such as where you will walk, how you will turn, and which hand will do what. This last one is more important than you may realize.
Work as if doing one continuous action. This means you are ignoring time, and letting the actions themselves determine your pace. You have to relax to do this, starting with the mind, but getting your body used to relaxing as well. Do not rush anything, but do not pause more than necessary to reorient yourself for the next motion. Pause as long as you must, and no longer. It should look like you are wasting no time, and yet are not hurried or cutting the slightest corner.
Tune out all else. This goes along with clearing your mind but is more specific and practical. Decide that you will not pay attention to things outside the action of your ritual. Mind you, this is not the same as actively ignoring everything, which is not mentally possible. The very act of ignoring gives power to distraction. The trick is to simply focus on what you are doing without interest in anything else, and all else fades away.
Set your mental alarm clock. This sort of pre-hypnotic suggestion to yourself is virtually unknown to most people but still important. What you must do is agree with your subconscious that you will respond to the words of the Worshipful Master or if there is some danger present, such as a fire alarm. This is a sort of filter whereby you can be confident to focus on your work fully while still having the ability to be aware of your extended surroundings on a subconscious level.
Release judgments. Don't keep a scorecard of how poor or well you did. Each experience of ritual is just what it is, nothing more. Afterward, you can evaluate to adjust your practice if needed. You can choose to be thankful for any otherwise "negative" occurrence as something you may learn from for future practice to prevent or deal with it better in the future. There is no point in being mad at yourself or embarrassed, even if someone else gives you flack. In the end, it is simply something you can look back upon as part of your journey to perfection. That is part of what Faith is all about — that whatever happens in life are necessary experiences.
The result of good ritual work is to eliminate distraction, within and without, for both you and your Lodge Brothers. It does not have to be memorable, only meaningful in a timeless now. And with the right mindset and practice, it can be just that.
Bro. Ken JP Stuczynski is a member of West Seneca Lodge No.1111 and recently served as Master of Ken-Ton Lodge No.1186. As webmaster for NYMasons.Org he is on the Communications and Technology Committees for the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He is also a Royal Arch Mason and 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, serving his second term as Sovereign Prince of Palmoni Council in the Valley of Buffalo, NMJ. He also coordinates a Downtown Square Club monthly lunch in Buffalo, NY. He and his wife served as Patron and Matron of Pond Chapter No.853 Order of the Eastern Star and considered himself a “Masonic Feminist”.