Sacred Coffee: Elevating the Habitual to the Mindful

By , November 22, 2009

Lately I’ve been considering the problem of habit. For me, habit becomes problematic when the things I like to do become so ingrained that I do them without thought, thus diminishing my enjoyment, the very reason for doing it in the first place.

Specifically, I’m talking about coffee. I love coffee. I generally have just one cup a day, because I don’t need the caffeine, and because it’s expensive. I consider it a luxury in our mostly subsistence lifestyle, far from coffee growing latitudes. I’m the only one who drinks it, so it’s a particularly selfish indulgence. I had assumed that I would need to give it up as soon as we moved here, but—thankfully—I haven’t had to . . . yet.

Despite its special status in my life, I often find myself draining a cup with a certain amount of surprise. All of a sudden, the coffee’s gone, and I wonder where it went. Immediately, I want more. I feel like I’ve been cheated of the pleasure of the first cup.

I’d been thinking of other things while drinking coffee. My mind wandered elsewhere as I automatically drank. Only when I discovered that I’d finished it did my attention return to it. The coffee wasn’t totally wasted, but almost.

Ironically, my coffee making is almost ritualistic. I take joy in selecting beans, particularly on those rare occasions when I splurge, buying from my favorite Alaskan roasters instead of Costco bulk beans. I love to grind beans by hand in my antique coffee mill, to carefully load the grounds into my Italian espresso maker, and to judiciously adjust the stove flame. I adore the smell of the roasting coffee filling the cabin like morning sunlight, and the burble of the coffee maker. After a ceremony like this, drinking the coffee without being fully aware of it approaches sacrilege.

For these reasons, I’ve concentrated lately on paying more attention to each cup of coffee. In fact, I’ve decided to consider coffee a sacrament.

Don’t get uptight—I’m not proposing blasphemy. I’m thinking of sacrament in terms of an act set aside from the ordinary, to be performed or observed carefully, focusing on the act itself with appreciation and reverence. In other words, to act mindfully.

I see this as slightly similar to Native American tobacco use. I understand that many Native cultures elevate tobacco from the everyday to ceremonial status. What is for the vast majority of smokers a habit, often done with little or no awareness, is for these Native Americans a sacrament. That’s similar to what I want my coffee to be.

I still want coffee to accompany other pleasurable activities—reading, writing letters, listening to music, visiting—because coffee enhances them and vice versa. I just want to be more aware of the coffee, to be mindful of each sip, to taste and savor it. I want to know how much I’ve had, and how much I have left.

In my experience, considering coffee a sacrament wouldn’t be so far fetched. I’ve sleepwalked through my share of church services. And I must confess, I’ve never felt the desire to go back and recapture the experience like I do a cup of coffee. For me, the latter is often far more satisfying than the former. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch to consider it personal sacrilege to drink coffee without proper attentiveness.

Starting at coffee and extrapolating, I see many other activities in my day that require the same mindfulness. Large or small, they deserve to be sacralized. The joys and pleasures of life can be celebrated as they come, or they can slip unnoticed into the background—performed, consumed, and attended to with little notice of what’s happening, of how it affects us, or how it changes us.

As these joys and pleasures pass unnoticed, so pass our lives.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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