Last week I posted a quote that described traditional Zen monastic training as teaching "mystical insight by means of ritual formalism." This is described a bit by Koun Franz at Nyoho Zen:
"In a monastery, there are almost endlessly specific physical instructions, for how to stand from a seated position (using your index and middle fingers as support, if there is a table in front of you), how to brush one's teeth (with the right hand, left hand covering the mouth), how to enter certain spaces (from the left side of the entrance, left foot first), and on and on -- and those are just a few that don't require synchronizing with the movements of those around you (there are many, and they get complicated).† All of these can be considered expressions of this etiquette, and they can take years to learn, and even more years to really integrate in a natural way."
I don't know if any American monasteries insist on moment-to-moment ritual formalism as much as one finds in Japan, although my experience in monasteries has been as a visiting layperson.
This formalism is the sort of thing that the secularists and modernizers of Buddhism pooh-pooh as being silly. But one of the things to be appreciated through practice is the way how we use our body affects our minds. Practice is a whole mind-body discipline, not an intellectual pursuit.
Koun recommends a simple practice that we all can do at home -- use both hands. Whatever you normally do with one hand -- drinking coffee, opening the door, petting the dog -- use two hands. In this way, you are making a total commitment to what you are doing.
Sometime -- maybe the remainder of today -- remember to always use both hands, and see what happens.
"When we drink with one hand -- the normal way -- we do nothing with the other hand, or we use it to gesture, or perhaps we even use it to prepare our next bite of something.† That is to say, we multitask, and in doing so, we do not commit to any one thing.† Every action is partial.† Zen practice, as I understand it, is total commitment -- to this action, to this moment, to this encounter.† Drinking coffee with one hand is not total commitment to that action. There is something we are holding back, something we are keeping for ourselves."